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.

 

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.

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.

Moving to Japan #1-5, Part I

I totally forgot to add pictures into the last post meant to make the last post into a ‘teaser’ that would later devolve into a mini post series on my first impressions about Japan (from this time around and from when I studied abroad 2-3 years ago),.. ahahaha >.> Yeah, I totally forgot to add the pictures. But here we go!

This mini-series is called ‘The Thing About Moving to Japan’ and will include more explanation than the previous post about my first impressions on moving to the Land of the Rising Sun.

1. We all take language for granted. Then you have that moment when you need to do something simple, like, say: wash the laundry, cook rice, or you know set up a fish tank and this is what you get…

Seriously, taking foreign language lessons before you arrive to your host country will make your stay that much better, but if for whatever reason that isn’t possible due to time constraints/obligations the next best thing is to invest in a smart phone. Smart phones have applications such as dictionaries and kanji readers that will help out in moments like these. My first time here I had one of those granny flip phones (no offense meant!) and I struggled through the experience for the first six months. True, I learned things I will never forget and learning the hard way sometimes makes for the best experience but looking back on it, if given the chance to do things differently, I would probably opt for the smart phone choice.

Very helpful applications that can get you out of a bind and which I’ve personally used:

Imiwa? (iOS devices)

Midori (iOS devices)

JED Dictionary (Android)

Denshi Jisho (this website will save your life and homework)

2. Home ec might have taught you how to fry eggs and boil water but let me tell you: there is nothing more frightening than cooking rice in a Japanese rice cooker for the first time with all the buttons and setting in Japanese. This is where Midori-chan mentioned above came in and saved the day but that wasn’t until long after… as I’m fumbling around trying to find an option for brown rice and accidentally setting it to stew for the next six hours. The end result: porridgy… rice?! Yeah, don’t try to go all “I can do this!” mode if in reality back home you’d still need some auxiliary help.

Gaijin derps aside, I love Japanese utensils (however sci-fi-ish they may be). My only problem is cooking for one. It’s something I am still trying to accustom myself to and forgetting quite often. I’m constantly mentally checking in to ensure I use only 1/4 of the ingredients necessary. Though I haven’t posted the recipe yet, I made tempura about three nights ago. I still have enough for the week, on top of which Mina and her cousin left for a trip to Hokkaidou and left me with extra food from her fridge. What amazing sempai *sniffle*!  I’ve been getting creative with how to pair up tempura with mac and cheese, mashed potato, salsa, and whatever else happens to be in my fridge ^-^

3. Yep. Moby-chan. My fish. There’s something definitely Japanese about him, completely unlike any American goldfish I’ve ever owned… very… fishy… >.>”

mobychan

He tried eating the FAKE seaweed… twice O.O Gave me such a scare I finally had to take it out!

Home stay is a wonderful way to integrate yourself into a culture and make lasting connections with people from your host country but if that family has pets it also shows you the ways in which how people from around the world treat their pets. My host family had Pooh-chan (yes, named after Winnie the Pooh), a scruffy little poodle mix that I would torture ceaseless with affection. He was quite literally a member of the family and strictly trained, I might add! Even his meals were regimented, although I find that Japanese life is in general much more scheduled than the American one. He had a free reign of the house except for certain areas and at night Pooh-chan was expected to sleep in a kennel. From their interactions with Pooh-chan, I learned dog-speak (so to speak) in Japanese (sit became ‘osuwari!’ and such) and I noticed that the family also didn’t play tricks on their pet (I hide Kenji’s ball all the time or pretend to throw it and then hid it behind my back ahaha) which made Pooh-chan irritable when I did it. Pooh-chan, so honest and adorable!!!

4. If you are not a vegetarian, are a culinary adventurer, and open to trying the following: raw fish/salmon eggs, raw or cooked horse meat/ intestines/heart, squid, eel, raw egg yolk/whites, wasabi, all manner of seafood sauces and dishes, fermented beans, mayo on just about everything, deep-fried vegetables, etc…. Then Japan is the place for you! I personally do not eat raw egg yolk (guck!) but raw salmon eggs and raw fish are absolutely no problem for me. I will eat anything at least once, no matter how vile looking or foul-smelling because otherwise how will I ever find out what tastes good and what doesn’t, right? I mean, you could chicken out and live off of Subway and McDonald’s but you will find yourself in a foreign country only so often: might as well make the most of it while you can!

That’s exactly how I found out that wasabi, raw egg, and nattou are the three most evil things invented in the history of forever. Seriously not a fan. But I had to sacrifice the taste buds at least the once to know for sure what not to ask for at restaurants. Horse meat is surprisingly almost beef like and I would eat it again. You read that. I WOULD EAT HORSE AGAIN. Be a little bit more spontaneous with your foods, you might be pleasantly surprised!

5. Spice rack. It be intense! I don’t think I’ve ever once been able to afford saffron in my life (and probably never will) so I don’t quite know what to do with the little that has been bequeathed onto me… and I need to Google search half of what my predecessors and sempai have been giving me for free (also looking up recipes that require these specific types of spices) but I love culinary adventures almost as much as the travelling kind.

intense

“The spice must flow!!!” Although laughing matter aside, Japanese people do not like spicy food in general so this was a pleasant surprise to find!