Thursday, October 30, 2008

From Japan, With Mochi Love...

Aren't these exquisitely beautiful? They're mochi cakes--a sticky, rice flour exterior with a sweet azuki bean filling. My student Onosan brought them to me as a gift because I told him that I loved them. I'm starting an Onosan Fan Club soonly (my new favorite Engrish word). Once I convince him to pose for a picture, I'll have posters and mugs available for sale.

He was very surprised that I fancied this Japanese treat since most Americans avoid them at all costs. I think this is mainly due to the fact that every single one of us, the first week in Japan, thought the brown "cream filling" in the middle was chocolate. Oh, yeah. That is sooooo not chocolate.

Nevertheless, once I got over the initial shock, I became very fond of this cultural oddity. I have never had anything like it in all my travels. Shaped into leaves, flowers, and other seasonal themes, they taste exceptionally fine paired with a cup of green tea. The bitterness of the tea provides an exact balance to the sweet beans. Yummy.

Right now you might be thinking something along the lines of, Ain't no way, no how I'm eating beans with sugar, stuffed in a glutinous rice dough ball. I understand. Really, I do. Your brain just won't let you wander too far down that path...Japanese people think the same thing about pumpkin pie. When you explain the concept, they kind of tilt their heads as if to say, You smash up a stringy squash with sugar and cinnamon and put it in a crust made with animal fat and flour? What is wrong with you people?

Nothing, nothing, nothing is wrong with either folk, of course. We humans love what we love. We just don't realize how strange our own preferences are until we view them through a different lens. Based on my past few years' experience in this foreign and wonderful land, I highly recommend borrowing somebody else's binoculars and looking at the small things in your own world...really closely. It's amazing what jumps out at you.

Or, if you aren't feeling particularly introspective, another fun pastime is to blindly jump on the "other guy's bandwagon". I must say, it's a total blast getting in line with a hundred Japanese people, even if I have no idea what we are queueing for. Sure, sometimes I get to the end of the line and have to buy some weird looking seaweed or bizarre vegetable/shellfish...but other times I am rewarded with a delicious Japanese cream puff or fabulous seasonal chestnut cake.

Life can be so sweet.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Little Naked Guppy on the Prairie

I must admit it. I miss my Prairie Joy...otherwise known as "Frank". Last night, I was reminded of this driving home from teaching Engrish when I pulled up behind a small yellow Latte. (Mmmm. A Latte.) Which was behind a smaller blue Naked. Which was beside an even eensier car called the Guppy.

Since this country likes to recycle all its available resources, I'm pretty sure that lunatics are not sent to asylums in Japan. Their talents are put to work naming Japanese vehicles.

I always thought that it would be a great job to just name things like cars and lipstick and nail polish. Maybe I could start a dream career working for a Japanese cosmetics company. My very first nail polish color could be "Hi, Acetone!" or perhaps "Led Hot Rovers" (Red Hot Lovers to you and me). If you have any brilliant ideas, please send them along. I'll start putting together a portfolio.

But back to Frank, the Joy of the Tokyo Prairie...Our new car is so much more wonderful on so many levels (odor, usable windows, cleanliness), that I am left wondering why my thoughts keep turning to the ol' wreck. I think it's because our new ride embodies its name--The Mark IV.

Yawn. Sure, it's not embarrassing and all, but where's the romance, the intrigue, the sheer prairie joy? (Reality check: It has probably been chopped up into bits and cannibalized by some other car.)

Now, life has just become mundane, sweet-smelling boredom. I am starting to feel like I have sold out. I have never been a fan of cosmetic surgery because more often than not, it robs the recipient of her character. We have become a nation of Mark IVs with our perfect breasts, flawless skin and impossibly straight, white teeth.

Come on people...embrace your Frankness! Cellulite on your tailgate? Wrinkles on your windshield? Duct tape holding up your boobs? IT'S OKAY! Do the best you can with what you have, because that's what makes you, well, YOU. Revel in the knowledge that your flawed bodywork still allows you to get from point A to point B. So your vehicle is not as shiny as the one parked next to what? You've got character, baby.

So the moral to this little story is that even though Frankenstein is physically gone, he will always be ALIVE in my mental universe...he'll always be my lovable, memorable little freak.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On Bananas and Toilet Seats

I have been perplexed for weeks. Every time I go to the Japanese supermarkets, they are cleaned out of bananas. There are miles of other staples, like pickled seaweed, miso, sake and bonito (dried fish flakes), but no beautifully ordinary, run-of-the-mill bananas. Oh stop your whining, you might say. Just buy them at the commissary!

You should know that military bananas, once they have been toted across the Pacific, look like they have been used to pry open the box they were sent in. Or, if they are still intact, they are dark green. You take them home and two days later...Voila! They are brown and mushy. Defying all logical banana methodology, they just skip the yellow stage.

Woefully, bananas are only the beginning of my story. Don't even get me started on the garlic!

Okay, I'm here it goes. For 2 months running, it has been wet and rotten, yet is selling for $6.59 a pound. (You don't need to adjust your bifocals, you read that correctly the first time.) Shocking, non? Mais si! I know you have to be insanely curious: Can one actually sell rotten garlic for $6.59 a pound?

Why, yes. Anything is possible in the same magical contracting world that billed the government (and received) $1000 for one toilet seat. Someone, somewhere, somehow thinks it's completely okay to contract for inferior produce, transport it, unpack it, smell its rankness and then display it under an obscene dollar amount. I am assuming, though, that in regard to the toilet seat fiasco, the product didn't stink and had no price tag hanging from it when unpacked. Given the choice, I would definitely waste my money on the toilet seat every time. It just seems like the better deal.

But I digress. After pondering the whereabouts of all the Japanese (delightfully tasty and yellow) bananas for several weeks, I finally unlocked the mystery and apprehended the cultural culprit...

It's the Banana and Warm Water Diet!

A Japanese actress lost 20 pounds on said "diet" and now the NBC (National Banana Consumption) has risen by 40 percent. All you have to do is eat a banana for breakfast and in the evening, accompanied by a glass of warm water. The weight just falls off, apparently.

The medical community is torn about the science involved in such a miraculous claim. Is there really something in bananas and warm water that breaks down fat and facilitates weight loss? It happened for one actress, who I am positive is not concerned with self promotion, therefore it must be true! And Lord knows that this size 2 nation needs to drop a few pounds...they used to be a size 0, so, whatever it takes.

I can't help thinking, though, that the real tragedy in all this is twofold. Not only do I not have bananas for my cereal, but the Japanese public has also been distracted from discovering the only medically proven, appetite suppressant/weight loss program in the world: Shopping at your local military grocery store.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Oh, Happy Day

Today was My Birthday Observed. Tim prepared an amazingly delicious champagne brunch--two kinds of quiche, a lovely salad and homemade sour cream coffee cake. We polished off a whole bottle of champagne between the two of us. The talented chef is now snoozing soundly in front of the History Channel.

Since he is having a good little nap, I think I have time to poke a little fun at him. I feel a bit guilty considering he went out of his way to make such a delicious feast. But guilt takes all the fun out of life...

My wonderful family got me some nice gifts: a super-kawaii Snoopy mug, Halloween socks, etc. But the best was the perfume Tim got me. He said he really liked it in the store. I sprayed it on and it was indeed...different. I liked it but couldn't quite put my finger on the predominent scent. It was subtly masculine.

Well, that's because it was. In small words at the bottom, it said Pour Homme (For Man). Ah, that fine print will get you everytime. I absolutely love these kind of gifts because they just keep on giving for years to come.

The perfume was almost as good as a Christmas present I received from him years ago. I asked for a small locket to put a picture in. But as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. I should have known that something was amiss because the box was not exactly delicate. I opened it up and lifted out a heavy faux-gold ghetto chain (the width of my little finger) with a "locket" the size of a saucer. Think Run DMC. Wow.

"Gee, Honey. Thaaaaanks." We were still engaged so I couldn't laugh. But after 15 years of marriage, this is no longer a limitation.

All joking aside, I have had a wonderful day. I think my thoughts can be best relayed by quoting a very wise saying I saw recently on a backpack in a Japanese store:

"The day passed by happily. full of happiness."

P.S. Tim approved of this post but wanted me to add that the print was really fine.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friendly Snacks

Milk: Well, hello I know you?

Japanese snacks are so welcoming. Though, I can't help but wonder if the other ingredients, like the cocoa solids and lecitin, feel a bit slighted.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Late Summer Chicken, Pondering

So my dear husband got me a birthday card with four sections on the front--one with a chicken in cold weather garb in the snow, one with a vista of just grass and flowers, another with a chicken in sunglasses in the sun and the last one with a chicken and falling leaves. The inside said: "No spring chicken? You noticed, too?"

Cruel and uncalled for, yes, but it got me to pondering: If I am no longer a spring chicken, what kind of chicken am I? (I realize that it's highly unusual to be philosophizing about poultry themed greeting cards, but just stay with the very least, it could get weirder.)

So after much thought, I have determined that I am a In-the-Last-Few-Weeks of August Chicken. Next year, I most definitely enter Early Autumn Chickendom--still hot from time to time, maybe, but also looking forward to things finally cooling off. It's that time in life where you can start to wear comfortable clothes to cover up fatal flaws without having to make excuses. By the time I'm a Mid Winter Chicken, I plan on wearing a cashmere muumuu and ballet slippers 24/7. Age does impart some privilege.

To celebrate the passage of time, I went karaoking on Saturday night with 20 or so lovely lady friends to the mysteriously titled karaoke bar, "El Notes". Is it Spanish? Is it English? Is it singular? Is it plural? Sometimes a Masters Degree in French Literature makes you worry about things like that. Let's just call it a gift.

I had never been karaoking at a bar before and didn't know what to expect. (That's not true, exactly. In my mind's eye, I did visualize myself singing out of tune with a bunch of rowdy stay-at-home moms with PhDs. But I just didn't realize how out of tune it would be.) The tambourines were a surprise. As was the all-you-can-eat ice cream/tea bar. And the equally random scenes of the New York Subway System being played on the big screen behind the lyrics of Sweet Home Alabama.

Maybe the plum flavored Chu Hai (Japanese Everclear) I was swilling made objects seem more surreal than they appear in real life. In any case, I woke up the next morning with a killer headache that lasted all day.

I have definitely noticed that no spring chicken resides in this picture.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Aren't They Just the Cutest Little Things?

The above pic is of Lily and two little Japanese girls that I teach, Aimi and Shuri. They spent Saturday with us--making blueberry pancakes and bacon, playing in the girls' rooms and the park, bowling, shopping at the PX , fixing chocolate chip cookies and decorating the house for Halloween. We taught them American hand games and how to eat pizza without a fork and knife. (This country can be too civilized.) I dropped them off at the gate at 4PM. They looked like we feel after touring temples all day.

As much as I would have loved to have had the experience of raising a little boy, girls are just too adorable for words. (When they aren't being sneery or bossy, that is). For some reason they are even cuter when they are Japanese. Either it's the foreign factor or they are empirically sweeter.

I don't know how to adequately determine this, short of kidnapping one. I am ashamed to say that, on numerous occasions, I have seriously thought out several scenarios. Sadly, all imaginary plans terminate with me being arrested and thrown in a Japanese jail. Breakfast, lunch and dinner consists of stale rice and fish heads. They are not kind to their prisoners.

So like a crack addict hanging out on a street corner, I head to Costco and IKEA--Cute Kid Capitals of Japan--to get my fix. Just like in the states, these stores attract young couples with two adorable children under 8 years old, looking for a bargain. While Tim is pondering shelving units or exotic French wines, I am making the couple next to us nervous.

I stare at their little bundles of perfection with a goofy (the parents probably read it as maniacal) grin. "Oh, isn't she kawaii (cute)!", I proclaim too loudly and brightly. They most oftentimes nod at me politely with a steady, fixed smile suggesting, "I will be nice to the strange white lady because I and my ancestors have been taught to be nice to strange white ladies. Yet, I want to bolt."

In my defense, though, the same scenario plays out with old Japanese grandmas and young American couples with fat, blond babies. Complete strangers over the age of 65 will insist on holding american prodigeny. They will wait patiently for you to unstrap them from their strollers. If you balk, you elicit a hurt, then disdainful look which seems to say, "Your country bombed the hell out of us and all I want in return is to hold your chunky, blond baby." Grannies have the right-of-way here in ALL matters and you mess with them at your own risk.
Unfortunately, I haven't reached the magical age where I can do whatever I please and get away with it. I plan on returning here in my seventies. Those young Japanese couples better hand over their cuties so I can pinch their widdle cheeks and smooch their button noses. Or else.