Happy 2016 And The Great Disappearance Act

Spent a blissful two and a half weeks with my family in California and close friend in Texas (shout out to Kimmy dearest for taking me to NASA and feeding me brisket!) for the first time since moving to Japan. In the spirit of the holidays, my technology was turned off in order to properly revel in family and friend time. Needless to say, I ate EVERYTHING (the trespass of which I was already admonished for during Wednesday’s ballet class #YOLO #ITWASWORTHEVERYCALORIE #MYTUTUSTILLFITSIFISUCKITIN), but even better than food was the quality time I spent among the people who love and support me most in the world: my parents.

My dad took a significant amount of time off of work to take me to all manner of doctor’s and dentist’s appointments, drive me around, play games well past both our bedtimes, and watch all the movies and TV shows that we needed to catch up on. Mum’s schedule, being what it was, allowed for mostly afternoon jaunts but I’m grateful for every precious second I spent in their company. Oh, yes, and my sister ūüėČ She and I put up with each other marvelously well, all things considered.

So that brings me to the month before I was in the States, when the internet pulled a great disappearing act. What happens when you’ve been paying your bills on time, when your router set isn’t broken, and the only problem showing up is “Check with your provider”?

Something I learned about Japanese internet: you will be dealing with three separate companies (Finance, Internet Provider’s Provider, and said Internet Provider) none of which have any helpful English lines in place (NTT claims it does; does not; and only NTT Finance had anyone remotely fluent enough to provide the assistance I needed via the Finance side).

I dedicate this post to Mari from NTT Finance, who not only bullied NTT into releasing my information to me (thus saving me an extra seven business days per interaction, a total of 21 once totaled), but generally got S*** done. I have never met anyone with such a go-getter attitude this side of the Pacific. Where everyone else was like, “I’m not sure if I’m allowed to do that and I’m not going to ask my superior because this is the one way things have always been done”, Mari’s response was very Disney “Let’s see what we CAN do about this problem”. Sadly this only got me as far as: Well, it’s not NTT’s fault. It’s your provider’s.

To which my brilliant response was: I thought NTT was my provider.

And a witty repartee ensued.

NTT: No. We take care of the finance side and NTT East provides the service to a provider who then has you pay for the glory of signing a contract with them.

ME: So you haven’t choked my internet and it’s not a financial issue?

NTT: That’s about right, Ms. Customer.

ME: So who’s my provider?! I only ever received information from NTT!

NTT: Uh, we can’t disclose that information.

ME: Whaaaaa…. How am I supposed to solve anything?

NTT: …

So while I keep receiving bills for internet I’m theoretically supposed to be able to use… I don’t actually have internet and I am now currently leaching off my workplace.

I hope to update with all manner of Foreign Film Friday posts that never got published and photos from the holidays and travel information I amassed over said holidays… all of which are stuck on my American phone, but I can’t until my WIFI is back. Work doesn’t have WIFI, we just have the LAN connection chord of doom.

Hopefully this is resolved. Soon. >.>”

Resolved as of 11:40 am. Three cheers for being taught how to hack into your router and resetting the damn thing. YAY! \O/

Homemade Japanese styled Pizza

Celebrating my imminent departure from Japan with some homemade Japanese styled pizza! Yay! Because nowhere in America is corn going to be a topping option…

  
::Ingredients::

1 pre-made pizza bread

Mixed cheese, shredded

1 small green bell pepper

Corn

Fresh mozzarella

Favorite spaghetti sauce of choice, mine is a tomato and basil mix that can be found in most Kaldi Farms Stores across Japan

Optional: favorite meat, drizzle of Sriracha, etc.

::DIRECTIONS::

1. Preheat your oven to 210C and preheat for 10 minutes.

2. Meanwhile spread a layer of tomato sauce and olive oil across the pizza bread. Top with mixed cheese.

3. If your veg is not pre-sliced now is the time to do it. Scatter the green bell pepper, followed by chunks of fresh mozzarella, and finally the corn.

4. At the same temperature set your pizza to bake for the next ten minutes. 

5. Enjoy!

Foreign Film Fridays 03: The Fall (2006)

We are, all of us, the story and the storyteller. We are the villain and the hero of our own making. But what if the lines between fantasy and reality blurred until it became impossible to tell one from the other?

the-fall

Original Title: The Fall
Year: 2006
Country: India & USA
Language: English/Romanian
Subtitles: English
Length: 1hr 58min
Availability: Amazon

The Fall is a fantasy epic, filmed over the span of four years, with all the magical realism of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel and the visual beauty of a living, breathing art piece.  But more than just an artistic statement, this film grapples with emotionally charged themes that by no means make it a simple or lighthearted tale of redemption. If viewers are willing to take the plunge into the realm of moral ambiguity, this film more than delivers a masterful blend of philosophical inquiry and fantastical storytelling.

The two main protagonists are as disparate as human beings can be: the ever hopeful five-year-old Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) is no stranger to personal tragedy – already in her short life she has had to witness much pain and suffering –¬†yet she maintains her childlike innocence in the face of all adversity; by comparison,¬†her new found friend is a convalescing film star turned stuntman named Roy (Lee Pace). Roy is intent on ending his life by any means necessary… even if it means manipulating the one person who has come to care for him with all the love that a child’s¬†heart can possess. Theirs is a fateful encounter that is as intense as it is brief.¬†The Fall¬†will leave you wanting more long after the credits roll.

The story-within-a-story device takes viewers to a neutral middle-ground wrought of fantasy and child-like imagination. It is only there that the two protagonists can engage in an allegorical discourse via mutual storytelling. With each day that passes, their dramatic tale grows until it blossoms into a beautiful secret that keeps each of them alive Рbut for different reasons. Roy, desperate to end his life, lives day-to-day just to accumulate the pills that Alexandria sneaks from the dispensary, which she in turn exchanges for more stories. All the while, she is unaware that her beloved storyteller is planning the final act of of his tale to end in a real life tragedy. The ending of this film is nothing short of sublime, passionate, and intriguing.

But perhaps the greatest triumph of The Fall¬†is the palpable father-daughter chemistry between Catinca’s and Lee’s characters. More than the vivid cinematography or the intricate layering of reality upon fantasy upon reality, these two actors work surprisingly well together. They make the perfect bandit duo in their fantasy world and affectionate friends in the real world. Lee couldn’t have done better to portray himself as her fictional “long lost” bandit-masked father than if he really had been.

For those who have a hard time placing Roy’s actor, it is the one and only: the Lee Pace.¬†With¬†a face that not only blends fluidly from emotion to emotion¬†but can also shift with ease on the gender spectrum, his acting skills are on a level that I have never before encountered. I didn’t realize how many films I had seen him in until I consulted The Google Machine for proof of his existence outside of Pushing Daisies. Apparently, I’d seen him in many, many films but had never realized. He looks like someone new each time, which I attribute more to his unique ability to assume entirely¬†new sets of mannerisms for each of his characters than to a wardrobe department, although they did a stand up, ovation worthy job on The Hobbit for his character. I sincerely believe that he deserves any role he wants.

And not to be outdone by her incredibly talented cast member, Catinca is also quite the actress herself despite being so young.¬†Perhaps it’s her inexperience and vitality that help her shine in such a heavy role. There are no pretenses. Even as she sobs for Lee Pace’s character to choose life over death, I am hard pressed to find a single moment when she is not 100% convincing. She is honest and raw, realistically so. Her childlike optimism and ingenuity have lent this film the perfect amount of innocence to counterbalance the darkness. And if you’re perceptive enough, you can see her growing up with the film: her height adjusting, her English skills improving, her affectionate bond with Lee developing on level within and -out of the role – all of it that much more endearing.¬†The Fall was an excellent debut into the film industry for her, though I am rather sad to see that she has not secured many more roles since then. Maybe, that is for the better – seeing how so many child stars end up like Shia LaBeouf or Amanda Bynes.

The film is not without its gaffes but it is cleverly scripted so that viewers will gain fresh insight each time they re-watch to catch missed moments, segues, and facial expressions. In all, it is incredible in its scope and breadth of creativity. The melding of cultures, the subtle unfolding of its subplots, and the breathtaking candor with which it grasps a harsh and terrifying reality… if you have two hours to devote to this film, it will be well spent.

WARNING: Best watched not alone. This is not a film for the faint of heart as it requires significant courage to delve into the dark recesses of depression, outright manipulation, and suicide. Many reviewers who have scored this film poorly seem to be divided into two camps: the first being, the film is too dark and complex for them to follow on an emotional/intellectual level, and the second side can’t seem to understand the little girl’s broken English. In the first case, be assured that the film ends well even if it may not be the ending you had in mind;¬†however, like all good art it will take you on an emotional, sensory adventure first. It will make you think (as well as feel) long and hard about certain issues. Those are not comfortable emotions or thoughts for many people to grapple with for 2 hours. I would say that it is as dark, if not darker than, Pan’s Labyrinth. Also, many of the scenes are stories that will rewrite themselves to reflect either Roy’s or Alexandria’s interpretation of the tale. If you fall into the category of the second case: there are subtitles available for those who are not auditory or who have trouble understanding Catinca’s charmingly accented English.

I put off watching this film for almost a year, mainly because a friend warned me that although it ended very well – on a good psychological¬†point, she emphasized – this wasn’t the kind of film that anyone could watch without first being made to experience the¬†emotional equivalent of a roller coaster ride. Normally, I’m all for art that sparks an inspirational revolution within the soul, mind, and heart; but something about the way she said it gave me pause for concern. She was right to warn me. I saw it for the first time with a group of friends who had mostly already seen it before. Everyone, except for myself and one other, were in the know about the story line and exactly how it would end… and they all passed me tissue after tissue, and eventually the whole damned box, as I devolved into a sobbing mess of humanity right along with the plot. Friends are the best.

MAD WORLD

  
My kids finally submitted their suggestions for my next holiday. We put them in a bag, shook them up, and then drew one out. 

And congratulations to this year’s Destination X!

  
I’m going to the Philippines in April-May for Golden Week! Now, just gotta make all the money transfers and reservations before prices go up like crazy. 

How do I feel about letting my kids decide my holidays? Like I’m letting them experience the world with me… I’ll be sending photos and postcards while I’m there (already made them that promise) and if nothing else I hope it gets them thinking about the greater world around them.

If anyone has suggestions about what I should do or places I shouldn’t miss out on while in the Philippines please leave a comment! Food, folk crafts, music, pubs… You name it, I want to go ūüėÄ

I’ve done some research on great geological and some fun cities features but I don’t want to miss a thing, so suggest away!

Apple Pie Recipe <3

  
Japan is not known for its baking culture. Houses and apartments are not fitted with ovens. The ovens that are sold in tech stores across the country come in the following specifications: small and more for microwaving functions than anything else. You can warm up a can of beer. You can roast some veg. Frozen personal pizza sizes are okay. But you can’t make anything bigger than cookies, cupcakes, or really tiny pies.

Something else to keep in mind: the flour sold at most supermarkets will be of the cake making variety. For those who don’t have enough experience with different types of flour, most of you will have become accustomed to utilizing all-purpose. It’s like the middle ground between the moist and crumbly type used for cakes and the ‘sturdier’ kind that is the base for most breads. In Japan, all-purpose means cake flour or something akin to a midpoint between all-purpose and the cake variety.

So now that the peak of apple season is waning, sour apples go on sale – the last of the last, the unwanted of the least desirable. And they are the best for baking. This recipe calls for pate brisee (the all buttery, all fattening, all delicious French version of pie crust) and as many apples as you can lay your hands on.

For about 800 yen, you can tabehoudai (all you can eat) and take as many apples as you can carry. But that’s in Hirosaki. In Aomori City, where we conducted our yearly apple picking ritual (or, as ritualistic as the second year running can be), the nearest apple farm we could find charged 300 yen for taking home 3 apples of your choice (a bargain considering they sell one for almost that same amount at the supermarkets) and 500 yen for on-site tabehoudai. There would be no omochikaerihoudai this year. We coughed up the equivalent of $15-20 for apples that they sold on-site.

  

::For the buttery PATE BRISEE::

Ingredients

Also known as, le pie crust. Makes one crust. Double the ingredients for the pie covering, or leave as is to make apple crumble.

~1 cup of flour (and some extra for rolling out)

1 tsp of salt

1.5 to 2 tsp of sugar

1 stick of unsalted butter, diced (butter should be as cold as possible)

2-4 tsp of ice cold water (add on tsp at a time and use your common sense to gauge if it needs more)

 Directions

1. Cut your stick of butter into cubes, then stick in fridge or freezer. The colder the butter, the better the outcome. Although it’s quite difficult to blend completely frozen through butter, so make sure to take it out before it grows icicles.

2. Mix flour, salt, and sugar together. Spatula or hands, either is fine! Personally, if I can feel the flour, I am better able to tell if the ingredients are mixed in. I am not a visual person.

3. Take butter cubes out. Toss in about half. Work the dough as lightly as you can with your fingers. You want the butter and the flour mixture to crumble together. Once all the butter has been incorporated (don’t forget the other half), add a tablespoon of cold as the Arctic Sea water at a time. Continue mixing with your fingers until the crumble turns into something resembling dough.

4. Lightly dust your work space with flour. Don’t over knead the dough but, you know, give it a good old shaping until it looks like a circular blob. Pat said blob down. Roll out from the middle outwards in equidistant directions around the starting point. If you work with clay, basically what you do to clay to flatten it out.

5. Should be about a quarter inch thick or so. Or maybe about the width of a quarter. I forget but in any case once it’s as flat as either one of those measurements, lay it out over the pie or quiche pan that you will use, pat it down a bit, and cut off the overhanging parts.

6. On to the apple mixture!!!

::For the APPLE FILLING::

Get ready to have your apartment smell like a spice merchant’s ship on its way to Europe.

Tart baking apples (if like me, you have no idea what this means when you read these words in fancy food blogging recipes… it means use your favorite apples if you don’t like Fuji or the sour variety)

Apples, as many as you like, sliced

2-3 tbs of flour (ours was a small pie so two sufficed)

1/2 cup of sugar

1/4 tsp of the following ground spices: nutmeg and allspice

1/2 to 1 tbs of cinnamon

About 1 tsp of vanilla extract

1. Toss all ingredients by hand. Make sure to evenly coat all the apples.

2. Pour mixture into your waiting pie crust, also make sure the liquid at the bottom makes it into the pie dish.

3. Cover mixture with the second rolled out pie crust. Cut out four to five fancy leaf looking openings on the top. Or stab with fork, which is also the height of class and style.

4. Pinch the edges and cut the excess.

5. Bake on 350F for the next 55 minutes as you enjoy the scent of the holidays flooding your living space. Chill before serving.

Serves about 3 people if it is a small pie baked in a small Japanese oven. About 5-8 people if baked in an American-sized oven.

Bon appetit!

DIY 03: Do you want to make a snow globe?

 
::MATERIALS::

1 jar

Christmas decoration that can be submerged in water

Glitter

Glycerine

Distilled water

Hot glue gun

Miscellaneous outer decorative stickers/fabric/ribbons/etc (optional)

::DIRECTIONS::

1. Center your Christmas decoration on the inner side of the lid and mark the spot with a marker. You want to make sure that the jar will be able to go around it without problems.

2. Take your hot glue gun and coat the bottom of your decorative piece of choice. Set aside.

3. Pour distilled water into the jar, leaving a bit empty at the top.

4. Add a couple drops of glycerine. Keep in mind that more glycerine creates viscosity (resistance to flow); the glitter will swirl and fall slower with more glycerine. Too much glycerine and the glitter will clump.

5. Sprinkle some glitter. Seal the lid to the jar and voila! You now have a snow globe!

Great craft for kids and holiday lessons.

Destination X

Wednesday’s are always a fun day. Everything from three-second rule gaffes during home economics to messy self portraits in art and, of course, English lessons. If there’s an opportunity for me to attend a workshop with the kids, I know within five minutes of entering the office. As far as JET experiences go, I wish more schools were like this. Especially since all the down time with the kids makes¬†for greater trust once they graduate to the middle school, where I teach all levels.

So it was with a mixture of anticipation and amusement that I stood before my favorite sixth years. I’ve come to trust them in many ways: asking them to help me research local dialects spoken by their grandparents, taste testing¬†food they’ve prepared solo, water balloon fights, recommendations for places to visit within the prefecture. Now, I was about to integrate a lesson with real world application…

“So we’ve learned a lot about other countries in this unit.”

A couple of shy yeses pop up like groundhogs in the spring. Mostly it’s quiet. I take a deep breath.

“Where should I go on my next vacation?”

“Eh?”

“Nani?”

Their teacher translates. They look back at me, half-amused and half shocked.

“I’ll go anywhere – except war zones – I’ll take pictures to show you and I’ll bring something back for everyone to see.”

Everyone reacts. “MAJI DE!”

This is the equivalent of NO WAY. Also sometimes translated as YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME and YOU’RE CRAZY.

“No, I’m 100% majiME (serious).” Luckily my lousy attempt at a pun goes unnoticed…

“France!”

“Egypt!”

“Brazil!”

“ISLAM!”

We do a 7 minute review on why Islam is not a country. And yet they’re still too enthusiastic, excited even, to pay attention.

“Okay, okay! How about next week we write down suggestions on a slip of paper and I’ll draw one from a box.”

“Maji.”

That seems to be the theme of this semester: crazy English, crazy adventures ;D

We’ll see how it goes but at the moment all we’ve decided is that this trip must take place by Silver Week 2016 and I must take many pictures with myself in front of famous places and bring something back.

An Abundance of Apples… And Then Some

The final chapter in the sixth years’ quest to grow the perfect apples and the fifth years’ rice farming experience. No matter how many times I participate, it’s always invigorating to see my kids learning something for the first time: the fumbled guesses, the hair raising stumbles, and the beautiful ‘A-HA!’ light bulb moments. It just never ever gets old.

Children are incredulously and incredibly, well, incredible. I know this explains nothing, but there are no better words for all the funny, candid moments I get with them. The things they say, the ways in which they problem solve. Every precious victory is cause for day long celebration, every failure a drama worthy of a season on HBO. Kids are so full of life, everything is so new to them. And it’s been a real privilege and an honor to be taken along for the ride.

I almost want to pitch a documentary series to NatGeo about kids and how they grow up around the world.