Apple Farming

The fifth graders from the nearby village are tasked with helping a local farm raise the famous apples we are so well known for.

Uncharacteristically warm for September, our day of apple farming began with a brisk up-road walk; the knee was not amused but somehow we made it work. It’s about now that the weather will begin to cool drastically. One Californian’s winter is an Aomorian’s autumn…

Le sigh.

But it’s that same frigid temperature which make the region so rich in the agricultural production of apples so I can’t complain too much.

The lesson came complete with free apple tasting at the end of three hours of picking bugs and leaves off the baby fruits. Apple connoisseurship dictates that sweet is better than bitter, if we are to go by the farmer’s expert opinion. Although a few kids were brave enough to voice their opposing tastes, it seems as if the majority vote is that sweet is always better for business. I can see how this makes sense in Japan where the best flavor (whether savory or sweet) is that it lie somewhere in the real of harmoniously neutral. Also there are no real ovens here… Sour apples are thus under appreciated and unloved.

Does anyone else have a similar experience in their prefecture? What’s something your kids grow?


  
  
  
  
  
  

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The English Menu, or Why I Am A Horrible Human Being…

theenglishmenu

“Hello. Welcome. Table for two.” A hand shows the number two visually.

“はい、二人です。”

We are seated. We reach for menus and peruse while the waiter waits, watches us silently for a few moments. We’ve started speaking only to each other, unaware that he is still there, and are taking our time pointing out options to each other. This is mistaken as ineptitude.

“English menu?” he helpfully materializes an English version of the laminate copy. Any other time, I would be grateful. But this is the fifth time at the same restaurant with the same waiter and it’s been a long, long day. I glance across the table where stormy eyes concur with unsaid words. I turn suddenly to the waiter.

“ああ、大丈夫。読める。” I make an attempt at informal Japanese to show I actually can speak informally as well. Dark eyes blink back, slightly confused but the English menu spirited away from sight. Believing, I have established all information we needed to continue with dinner, we peruse at our leisure. We speak of silly things and serious things, we laugh at inside jokes, pointing out delicious options.

Five minutes pass in this way, until the waiter returns with a pitcher of water in one hand and…

…the English menu in another.

My mind screams in horror long before I’ve caught up with it. The pitcher of water is set down and the English menu dropped on the table where it cannot be ignored. To my very core, I am frozen, a mixture of emotions.

Shock. Laughter. Confusion. Fury. Despair. I want to cry. I want to laugh. Mostly I want to have dinner for once in my life, with the full comprehension that I know what I’m doing with a Japanese menu in my hand. Powder and sparks and consuming kisses, iambic pentameter, the sound of the atom bomb tests, Beethoven’s explosive fifth symphony… I think in sound, I think primarily in music. It’s all going through my head at the speed of light and anger wins before the rest of the emotions can catch up.

That all takes a millisecond to process. A fraction of a breath. I bend over across the table laughing into the hard wood surface, my arms encircling my head because I’m afraid of what I may do if he’s still around when I look up. I wait until I’m absolutely sure he is no longer near us. I surface for air.

“That’s it. I’m going to order in keigo.”

“What. No.”

We “argue”, my dinner partner and I, bantering about how we shall order in absolutely perfect Japanese keigo (or not order in such a way until we leave for our road trip and know for a fact that our passive aggressive actions will never negatively impact us).

“No, you’re right that’s just too rude. But still. I really want to order in keigo.” Internally, I tell myself that I might just wear my Waseda sweat shirt next time I go in. A sweat shirt made for autumn weather worn in the middle of summer is sure to illicit some response. Any response to the fact that I may not speak like a native but I can very well order at a restaurant.

Once we are quite sure that we know what we will order, we push the magic button that calls our waiter over and I speed speak through my order to show I’m not going to stumble through the conversation, I even give an explanation for why I can’t eat rice (allergy) and if it would alright to substitute it for naan. It’s not perfect, because I did slip up that last bit of grammar but I made myself more than intelligible.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time. It’s a performance piece we repeat ad nauseum, at every restaurant, and it eventually takes its toll on your self-confidence as a JSL (Japanese as a Second Language) speaker. Deep down inside you may know you’ve done it right, you’ve grammar-ed and words-ed your way through the linguistic minefield of what may be the exact opposite of how your native tongue works, and yet you will be rejected by looks alone.

He walks away even more confused than before. A different waiter comes to deliver the food. I’m unsure whether it’s worked or not, but we’re getting curry one last time before Kimmy leaves so, the fruits of our labor will be made known to us then. I feel like a horrible human being, relishing in the satisfaction of having pulled passive aggression on anyone. There are not buts to that sentence. I let it stand as is.

Hallway Inspiration 02: Live Long and Rainbow On!

Japanese hallways are the best. I feel that if I look hard enough, I could make this into a legit once a week article.

In the meantime, I bring to you the latest hallway inspiration, which I endearingly titled “Clean Water: Live Long and Rainbow On”. Japanese schools come in two neutral color schemes: beige or white. Or both. But this may just be the inaka experience (one of my schools is about to celebrate its 150th anniversary so it follows in the general tradition of We Are Rebuilding The School And This Is The Way The Walls Have Always Been Painted). For the most part, though, it doesn’t really matter what color the walls are because teachers like to plaster them with motivational posters like the one above or with announcements for upcoming museum exhibits, concerts, and other interesting educational events going around the prefecture. And then there’s this one… oh the spectra.

The colors are flawless, that is true, but the centerpiece obaachan is even more brilliantly rendered. Her pose suggests the grace of having aged marvelously well (arthritis, gout, and diabetes are clearly for the non-water drinkers of the world; sorry, Hemmingway) while still bringing forth that inner strength, that inner force of character which only the elderly can posses after two world wars and several market crashes. Above the fanfare, above the modernity, it is the final message that shines clearest and nearest to all of our hearts: drink clean water and you too can live a long, rainbow sparkly life. Otsukare~ 😉

 

Life In Japan When You Can’t Eat The Rice

So I’ve been living in Japan for almost a year and if there is one thing that I absolutely have not eaten in the past eight months it’s…

ricefail

Yep. Rice. The main product of the Land of the Rising Sun and the literal word for meal in the Japanese phrase for ‘Have you eaten, yet?’ is, to put it mildly, my mortal enemy. To make matters even more complicated, the frequency and subsequent severity of the symptoms only started four years ago. It has since become crippling in a country where rice is eaten on the regular, three times a day, every day.

This post is for the rice allergic/intolerant people of the world, we (seemingly) few who must live out our days scourging the aisles of the Lawson’s for bread that does not contain rice flour and who must inform all well-meaning hosts that we cannot in fact attend the dinner in our honor if rice is on our plate (everyone else should be fine).

“But you’re, like, (insert mixed ancestry here). Every time I go over to my Mexican friends’ houses they always seem to have Mexican rice for dinner.” -Friend A

Mexican culture has sadly been reduced to Taco Bell and whatever happens to be on the home menu depending on when guests come over (rice is cheap and filling… and deadly to my internal organs, sadly). Also, just because something happens to be ethnic food or commonly eaten in a given culture, doesn’t mean that people born and raised in said culture can’t be allergic to that food. Rice, admittedly, has a very low allergen report rate compared to peanuts and other well-documented food allergies.

“Here, just try a little bit. This onigiri was made using only the best of premium Japanese rice, the kind that only rich people can afford and that poor folk dream about; organically grown and straight from my wife’s family’s farm from the one prefecture in this entire country where it is said the rice is the most delicious. Oh and they only use fresh mountain river water to flood the fields. You can’t be allergic to this.” -Coworker B

I can and I am. Okay so maybe I took some creative liberty with the wording about the mountain river water (although according to my super, whom I asked, it was true about the rich people can only afford thing and that there is a designated prefecture that can claim to have the best rice. Congrats to Niigata).

But in all in all I only try to highlight a handful of experiences that I’ve had. But trust me it’s not going to get any easier explaining time and again that yes, your lunch sans rice is more than filling enough, and that, no, you’re really quite very much sure at this point that premium rice from Niigata will cause you the same reactions as rice from Hokkaido.

What does rice allergy/intolerance look like? Everyone, of course, is different. For example, I know of people who can eat rice just fine but as soon as summer rolls around they must resort to wearing masks for fear of rice pollen entering their nostrils and thus bringing about a very near death sentence. Or maybe eating the rice and inhaling the rice pollen are just fine but harvest season is a veritable inferno because you’re allergic to the rice stalks that are burned throughout October and November.

I’m of the ‘pollen and burning stalks are fine but I can’t eat it’ variety. If you, like me, experience stomach pains, loss of digestive capabilities, and/or throw up the contents of your stomach with each bowl of rice… then congratulations, you may have rice allergy/intolerance! Now on to the stuff that will help save your life and/or cope with not being able to eat 90% of what is produced in Japan.

THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT LIVING IN JAPAN WITH A RICE ALLERGY

1. Rice flour can be in anything. They put it in bread and other things that you wouldn’t traditionally think of as having rice. You’ll have to learn the kanji for rice and its onyomi and kunyomi derivatives just to be on the safe side: kome, ine, meshi, gohan, and mama (this last one is in Nanbu-ben).

2. Senbei is rice. It’s puffed rice that doesn’t look like rice but it’s still rice. And it shows up at drinking parties 100% of the time. Dango is rice. Mochi is also rice. Manju is rice.

3. Rice is rice. You may not need reminding but your coworkers will try to helpfully point out that maybe if only you cooked oats with your rice that your stomach will start to digest it properly or that maybe you just need to eat the higher grade stuff. Nope.

4. School lunch will always have rice. If you can get by on eating kyushoku with just the side dishes then you’re golden. I formally withdrew from the school lunch system eight months ago and it has made life easier but there are other options.

5. Restaurants price food rigidly. You will not be paying less or getting more of something else to compensate for the fact that you’ll be orderimg the tempura without the rice. Makes for interesting meal combinations, though.

6. There is no whole wheat bread. If your body can’t handle white bread either then you’re running on slim options. Bread making is quite the industry in Japan and a slew of electronic companies have impressive lines of bread making machines on the market. If you can find a reliable purveyor of whole wheat flour (expensive, but not unbudgetable) then that will create more variety in your diet.

7. Learn your symptoms, if you don’t know them already. Some allergies manifest later in life or suddenly worsen.

8. You’ll have to get used to smiling and pointing out in a soft and unobtrusive voice that you’re really, really sorry but you can’t eat what’s on your plate because you may possibly die and/or suffer physical pain.

9. Make sure your allergy is known early on. I was in denial at first. Lessons were learned the hard way.

10. Make everyone else feel comfortable eating rice and remind coworkers that you don’t really need omiyage or that you’re more than happy to hear their travel stories in lieu of a gift. More on omiyage later, but for now let’s just call them souvenirs. One colleague surprised the office with funny and interesting postcards from Niigata because apparently Niigata = Rice Eaters Only and he didn’t want me to feel left out. I’m forever grateful to him and for his thoughtfulness (cries tears of gratitude)

11. Compile a list of doctors and hospitals, their phone numbers, and have all this information stored on your phone for easy access. Keep in mind that inaka clinic hours are different than city hours and English speakers are RARE here. The hospital in my town can only afford to keep its clinic running in the morning and does not admit anyone in the afternoon unless it’s quite clear that said person is dying on them. And even then…

12. Make sure you have emergency contacts and their information on hand. Basics but worth mentioning especially if it’s your first time experiencing a late onset allergy/intolerance as an adult.

You may even find yourself loving rice but being unable to eat it. I love dango. And mochi. And senbei. I think they taste amazing and what wouldn’t I give to be able to eat them like everyone else. Best thing is not to be in denial, get the tests, make the changes, and just look back fondly on your days with rice as enka worthy bittersweet memories.

Wagashi with Hashiba Jiro

IMG_1975-0 和菓子 (wagashi) is the Japanese style of confectionary. The main ingredients used in the creation of wagashi are soy, red azuki beans, white azuki beans, sugar, sakura, and natural gelatin. For the most part, wagashi is flour free (unless you make dorayaki, pancakes with red bean filling). Wagashi are often made according to season and served with hot green tea to counterbalance their bright, sweet overtones of azuki and sugar. The best part, in my opinion, is that wagashi can be either molded by hand or placed into special pine molds which makes the activity feel more like play and less like work 😀

Hashiba Jirou, confectioner of Japanese sweets at Marumiya, spent two hours showing Japanese and foreign residents how to make a variety of bean paste based wagashi (luckily for me, no rice). The seminar reminded me of an edible version of ceramics – for anyone who knows the pain of keeping clay at just the right level of moisture (too dry and it cracks, too wet and it loses sculpting functionality) the bean paste acted in much the same manner. Our plates were plasticwrapped to prevent our colorful bean pastes from over drying and a bowl for finger/hand dipping provided all the extra moisture we would need as the molding commenced. Bean paste is decidedly softer, making it easier to retain moisture better than clay, but these traits also come with a less positive flip side: it’s easier to over moisturizer and thereby reduce it to runny, sticky mess if not careful. Also, the colors bleed into each other with more difficulty but can spread over each other more easily. Or in other words: blending for artistry = difficult, but like Playdough once the colors stick to each other they’re hard to separate, this is largely due to the moisture. Or so I suspect.

We made a koi, a pine molded fan, cherries, a rose that stumped us all on the same scale as rocket science, and kabuto (samurai hat). My favorite was, hands down, the koi because KOI. It had an adorably puckered fishy mouth, a chocolate centerpiece eye, and sweet red bean paste filling.  Being taught by a master in the field was a unique experience and absolutely better than my usual method of ‘buy the ingredients, say a little prayer, and hope for the best’. And like all new things, it opened a temporary window into a world of possibility. I would like to make my own version of wagashi in my own kitchen someday 😀 but it may not take place of my cookie making. There is something about working with flour that I love, in the way that the dough feels and the uncertainty of anything turning out right until the very end.

ALSO! I got to keep a magic fan that Hashiba-sensei hand made!!! Open out the fan on one side and it looks like any other ordinary fan. Now reverse the opening movement and the individual components of the fan lock out of place to make it look like the cloth covering it’s frame have come apart completely! Pictures to come later…

Hallway Inspiration?

“It’s when you find yourself thinking that you’re doing well that the end is near.”  

I’m trying to figure out if this means something along the lines of “It’s once you’ve reached your peak and you’re at your best the decline is near” or a little bit more of what my kendo instructor likes to call encouragement: “If you think you’re at your best and you get too cocky, you’ll lose”. 

Thoughts? Comments? Translation advice?

Rice Farming 101

 

I love science classes in Japan. They’re so much more fun in small schools, where the kids get a special yellow folder-esque backpack that they use to collect their data and samples. And because we’re out in the middle of nowhere you can be sure that the school owns a rice patch (or two) as well as a bit of extra land for vegetables and flowers.

About two weeks ago the kids planted the ricelings. By now my schools know I’m allergic to rice… But there seems to be some confusion on how the allergy side of things works.

“I just heard from Natsuhori-sensei! When do we plant the rice?” I asked excitedly. It’s been my dream, nay my sole reason for living (in the countryside), to plant rice.

“Oh.”

I await eagerly for my orders to ditch the indoor shoes and to go wade knee-deep into a field of water-logged mud.

“Well… It’s just that… The kids have already finished planting. They’re coming back soon.”

Shock. Dismay. Heartbreak. WHY?! Was I not loved? Was I too foreign to help plant rice? Did they not think I could survive a near drowning in a rice paddy?

“You’re allergic to rice so we didn’t want you to get a bad reaction. The kids were sad but they understand.”

O.O”?!

After a brief explanation that I needed to ingest the rice before feeling any of the ill effects they decided to schedule the follow up field work day on Wednesday (or as it is known at that particular school, the only day we know in English. Also known as, the day the ALT comes to the village).

The awaited day arrived and I counted down the periods to science with all the anticipation that my four-year old self counted down the days to Christmas.

A kind farmer who lived in the neighborhood brought all the necessary supplies to care for the field. After giving us a brief lesson in the ways of rice and growing the perfect batch, we set down to business.

We threw soy beans so that they could rot at the bottom of the murky waters. Then we threw left over a rice flour and mulch looking mixture to cover the top of the water with “a curtain”. This, I was assured, would prevent other plants like grass from sprouting. We were in effect feeding the rice plants and weeding out the competition in one fell swoop.

In two months  we’ll be releasing some koi and carps into the paddies. They’ll eat up whatever weeds and grass did manage to grow but leave the rice alone. Some farmers use ducks instead of fish, but I’m rather partial to the fish method because FISH.

And that was how I learned for the first time that fish get to swim in the rice. Mind blown.

Road Trip Reactions

It’s a lovely, commitment-free city hall day in June. My notebooks are out, the coffee liberally poured, and The Google is running like a champ. It’s really quite a miracle – not completely lost on me – that the world of navigation has been simplified since the advent of the interwebs. As the Queen of Getting Lost in my family, I used to have to mapquest directions for something as close as the mall two cities over in a country where the streets have names (a.k.a Anywhere But Japan). Albeit street names are practically rendered obsolete and useless in Japan, mostly because of the Things Have Always Been Done This Way tradition of We Will Only Ever Take The Same Route Taken By Our Forefathers, Naming Streets Be Damned 😀 I love Japan. It’s a quirky, beautiful country full of gumption and character, which I wish everyone could see first hand.

By now word has gone round the office that I’m planning a suicidal road trip mission impossible: from Aomori Prefecture to Fukuoka then up to Tokyo to drop off a friend at the airport and back up to Aomori with just enough time to clock in at work by 8 am. It’s a standing tradition by now that whenever anyone comes to refill their coffee (machine of which is just behind my work station), said person stops to comment on the weather and chat me up about my recent inaka experiences. Quick, painless interactions that have now since come to mean this:

“So. You’re planning on going to Fukuoka?” Long pause. Coffee sip. “What are you: a college student or a shakaijin?”

Real knee slapper. Big grin from me and a joking, “Ohohohohoho.”

“But seriously, take it easy. Take a train! Or a camper van. Anything but a kei car.”

Kei cars are karui jidousha (lighter, fuel efficient versions of the white plate car and they are a pain to rev up past 80 kmph, though not impossible).

“Just… don’t.” Coworker shakes head, walks away.

“Ehhhh… why?” I ask after them.

“Traffic,” was the grim response. Apparently despite the fact that southern Japan is at 70-90% humid, no one seems to have qualms about travelling down there by car.

Another coworker comments, “I once went from Osaka to Tottori to Izumo to Hiroshima to Yamaguchi. I gave up at Yamaguchi. At that point Fukuoka seemed too far. Also, I wasn’t an adult like you, I was still an idiot college student. But I hear there’s a shrine that’s famous for housing a god of study. Is that why you’re going?”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I like studying. I love learning new things. I’m a shameless nerd. Some might consider this statement condescending. I assure you it’s not. I just didn’t have much else to do growing up in a household where going out or visiting friends was Out Of The Question. Basically it was classical music CDs (the only thing lying around the house apart from mariachi) and unhealthy amounts of Discovery, History, and Bill Nye. I’m starting to realize that most of my social anxiety came from not being allowed to socialize normally with other kids. Bleh.

“Trust me, you won’t make it to Fukuoka. You should quit now,” lovingly said, I assure you. They’re worried I’ll get myself into an accident, or worse yet into an early grave. Suzu-chan, I believe in you! For those of you who do not know, Suzu-chan is my kei car (who’s gotten me through the thick and thin of Akita and Sendai road trips but nothing quite like a 21 hour drive down to Kyushu).

One of the special ed teachers though understands exactly where I’m coming from. He owns a camper van and frequently goes off on weekend adventures. It’s just him, his camper van, and the great outdoors. As soon as he heard that a noob like me was planning a trip of doom he had one of his kids whip out a map of Japan and turned it into a geography lesson for the kid and an Introduction to the Road Trip of Doom 101 with a 3 unit Lab lesson for me. I will have to thank him profusely again next time I see him because it’s quite the advice!

All of this led me to asking The Googles if it was feasible to travel in a camper van and sifting through several forums I’ve come to one conclusion far too late in life: there area lot of idiots online. So many of the people commenting had either never gone on a road trip or had only done a day trip out of their town and were condemning the idea of even setting off for a cross country road trip because they’d had horrible experiences getting lost in the middle of a country where there are no street names and where they clearly didn’t speak the language. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten lost plenty but at least I speak the language. I’ll have to see how much I love or hate Japan after this road trip but for the time being, despite the strange roadways and inconvenient ETC routes (Japan is mountainous, folks. We’re not in flatter-than-a-pancake Kansas anymore), I don’t think this road trip will kill it for me just yet. More word on that when I get back… >.>

And my favorite:

“Oh my God. Just train there. Trains are comfy, kei cars are like Death.”

Over and out.

When Will I Ever Use English? (Lesson Plan Included)

We’ve all been there before, from grade school to high school, and sometimes even I’m sad to admit, in college. We question the reason why anyone would want us to learn a certain subject that will most likely never be of use to us after the final exam. The fact that we spend so much time learning and so little on application is, perhaps, one of the greatest problems faced by all education systems around the world. And here in the inaka of Japan, where the majority of my kids will most likely go into their parents’ professions, it can be heartbreaking to come across gifted and talented kids who can’t be bothered to take an interest because they have little perceived use for English after graduating high school.

Though my kids have yet to blatantly ask me the “When will I ever use this?” question, it’s pretty clear from their eyes and ‘tudes that it’s a low priority subject for them. Oh, they humor me. Humor me, they do. But humoring isn’t quite the same as exploring/discovering. Recently a fellow JET colleague gave me the brilliant idea to use the website SendKidstheWorld.com to give my own kids a reason to care about using English and to see their own life in perspective.

Send Kids the World is a great website to connect terminally ill children with people from around the world via postcards. I selected Ashlynn from the many wonderful kids because she was roughly the same age as my junior high students and she had many of the same interests. Basically, when I arrived this morning my kids had no idea what I had in mind for them today. Let’s practice some grammar, she said last week. It’ll be fun, she said… last week.

*Insert victorious-you-shall-now-use-English-for-the-power-of-good-and-you-won’t-be-able-to-pretend-to-be-too-cool-for-school-after-today laugh* Teens around the world, eh?

Start with a warm up to get the brain cells going. Make the rows or columns (depending on your style and mood) play a quick round of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Shoot. The winners will answer the following questions: 1. What is your favorite (insert person/place/thing/hobby) in (insert prefecture or town)? But for the more advanced classes, I used natural speech: What is your favorite thing about your town? I also explained at the end of the warm up the reason why I asked them those particular questions. The grand reveal: dun-dun-dun!

After giving them as simple and brief of a description of Ashlynn’s life as I could, complete with a photograph that I placed on the backboard, I lectured a bit on writing letters and postcards. It helps to give the kids blank white sheets of paper where they can practice what they want to say. Though I did put up a template of what an average postcard may look like, I do advice allowing your kids to run wild. I let them tell Ashlynn whatever they wanted about Aomori and Japan, even if it meant that they just wanted to share about their life at school or home.

A couple of them were naturally skeptical, the didn’t believe that I would really send anything at all and that this was just one long exercise in grammatical theory, blah, blah, blah. And then I whipped out thirty-one post cards and spread them out on the teacher’s desk in the room. That’s when things got real. Post cards cost 150 yen a pop here. Thirty-one of them plus tax came to a round total of 5,022 yen. Or the equivalent of $50.22; trust me it’s worth it.

Suddenly, when they realized that this was happening for real, they were rushing to the blackboard, wanting to find out more about what her likes and dislikes were, about her birthday, and what she looked like. A lot of my kids took it to heart, their beautifully written postcards (which are now safely tucked away in my desk). We’re sending them out next week since only half the class was able to finish.

But for the tender-hearted teacher, beware: there’s always going to be a few who don’t really care one way or another. Best thing is to be patient with them and hope that years down the road they will remember this and look back on it as the one time they used English for a good purpose.

::BASIC POSTCARD TEMPLATE::

Hello (insert name of child), my name is (student’s name). I am from (country/prefecture). (Country) is famous for (insert famous item). (insert free style sentences on whatever kids want to write about). I believe in you!

Sincerely, (student’s name).

Depending on the level of the students’ English you can do any variation to reflect grammar being learned that day/week or to include higher level words. But more importantly, they’re doing a great thing for a kid in need. Emphasize the fact that it’s not about getting the grammar right or the words perfectly spelled. It’s about connecting with another human being, someone whom you may never have connected with before now. Because at the end of the day, that’s what English should be about: it should be about humanity, about meaningful connections, about using what is learned to do a good deed.

Cheers.