Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow is For Suckers

So, the sky decided to open up it's giant butt hole a few days ago, and it's been pooping down plops of freezing cold snow ever since. It must have eaten a bad cloud or a rotten oyster or something because there are monstrous piles of white stuff everywhere. Poor sky. Oh, and poor me.

It might look pretty idyllic if you happen to be a rosy cheeked character in a Norman Rockwell painting, perched before a roaring fire, wearing a cashmere unitard, with a hot toddy in one hand and a bottomless trust fund marinating in a downtown bank. In that case, you might feel obliged to say something like "Oh, Richard, isn't it just beautiful? Put down that Chicken Soup for the Rare Coin Collector's Soul and and come look at this! It's simply magical!"

But those of us who have to tromp to work in this blustery mess, who have to wear tights and leggings under our pants, two shirts and a jacket under our coat and manly, super-tread, not 100%, waterproof hiking boots, that look ridiculous with the business suit you are required to wear, aren't so thrilled. Let me rephrase that: I'm not so thrilled.

I know this snow business is old news for those of you who grew up in New York or Alaska or for those raised by a talking cartoon polar bear in Antarctica, but I'm from California, bitches. Not Lake Tahoe or Plumas County: the Bay Area. I can handle the rain, thank-you-very-much Seattle, and I thoroughly enjoy an afternoon of sledding...but living in the snow? Meh. It's been four days and I'm totally over it. Are we there yet?

This morning *cough* at noon *cough* as I hit the snooze on my alarm for the fourth time, I began to seriously contemplate hibernation. What a great idea! Now I see why that crazy Grizzly Man wanted to befriend all those bears in Alaska: bears know what's up. Maybe I can just lounge my way through the winter. I'll hide inside my cozy little bento box with my new fuzzy pillow, and my friends, and wait for the city to thaw out. Oh, and when I say friends, I mean instant ramen (the good kind), the Internet, Sex & the City, downloaded Mad Men episodes, Bon Appetit magazine and a stack of good books. I'll emerge in Spring, bleary eyed, bloated from MSG, warm and dry, just in time to watch the cherry blossoms pop! pop! pop! open, on the trees, like kernels of fluffy pink popcorn.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Beer, bras and donburi: they're all just a vending machine away

People often ask me if I am a good cook. To this I reply: I've got some skills, but I am definitely, 100 percent, much better at eating. I am really good at going out to eat too. You should see me! I like nearly everything about a restaurant meal...except paying the check. You've just had some wine, a good chat, and stuffed yourself silly. There has never been a worse time to do math and, if it's a fancy pants night, hand over the equivalent of a month's rent in Calcutta. I would much rather pay up front, so that by the time I've thoroughly stained my shirt with Sriracha, slurped the oysters, or dragged the last piece of naan around the empty, curry stained, bowl I can leave in a happy daze and pretend the meal was free.

It appears some people in Japan felt the same way. Introducing: the vending machine restaurant! It's the perfect solution for those who'd rather avoid the end-of-meal bill and pretty much any interaction with a server.

Here's what you do: walk into the restaurant, choose your meal by pushing a button on the vending machine, and insert cash. The vending machine spits out a little ticket that you hand to a server, who wordlessly whisks it out of your hand, only to return with your meal in minutes flat.

Now, this is far from fine dining. The donburi vending machine restaurant near my work is basically the equivalent of a greasy spoon diner, and to be perfectly honest, after 3 visits, I swore I would never go back. Yes, three. I really like pushing the button on the vending machine. The donburi in the photo might look tasty, but it might as well be a pile of salt, shaped and painted to look like food, topped with a slimy egg and fatty meat. This doesn't mean all vending machine restaurants are crap. I'm sure some are quite tasty. I hope to find the tasty ones so that I can enjoy pushing the button and partake in a delicious meal.

Japan is famous for its vending machines, and according to Wikipedia, there are over 5 million of them scattered around the country, one for every 23 people, selling everything from live lobsters to freshly popped popcorn, umbrellas, underwear and sex toys.

Here in Kanazawa, I haven't seen such an impressive variety, but we do have a particular type of vending machine that I hold close to my heart. The beer vending machine. Correction: the beer, cocktails in a can and sake vending machine. Fuck the Flowbee, this is an amazing invention! It's 3am and all the stores are closed? Beer vending machine to the rescue! It's 3am and you need a new bra? Yes, there is a vending machine for this as well. In walking distance of my apartment. My boobs have never been so lucky.

Thursday, December 3, 2009, I mean FutonSurfing!

When I was a reporter I was constantly meeting new people, and my afternoons were usually spent running around the city like a stressed out crazy lady trying to interview them all. Some people were so inspiring, so sweet, so funny, so interesting; they perked up my work day and had me skipping down the street, like a cockeyed optimist, cooing at every baby, puppy and homeless person in my path. On the other hand, some people were incessantly rude, close minded, obnoxious and idiotic. Sometimes I'd meet one of each specimen in a single day. This lead me to coin the expression: "I love people! I hate people!" Simple, yet effective; I used it often.

Despite my (maybe just temporary) retirement from broadcast journalism, I find this phrase to be quite useful in everyday life. The world is full of assholes and awesome people, and hopefully we will meet more of the latter.

I recently found myself thinking "I love people!" after my first experience with If you're not hip to the concept, it's basically a website that connects travelers from around the globe who need a free place to stay. You have a profile and photos, similar to other social networking websites, but you also include details about your spare couch, room, bed, or futon, as my case happens to be. Couchsurfers are either offering up a place to stay or looking for one. The idea is not to use a fellow couchsurfer's pad as simply a free place to crash, but to meet new people, to get to know a city through a local's eyes and to promote trust, kindness and generosity.

Most of us were raised not to talk to strangers, and here we are, millions of us in 232 countries, inviting those very people into our homes...and beds. My poor parents. They haven't quite recovered from my brush with Dumpster diving, and now this? Oy.

My first couchsurfing request came from a girl who shares my name, age, and native country. How could I turn a fellow 29 year old American Rachel down? I prayed she wasn't a sleepwalking kleptomaniac who would gobble up my sacred jar of organic peanut butter in the middle of the night, and accepted her request. After a series of emails, we figured out a plan, and I met my Oklahoma roamer in front of the McDonald's near my work. We started to gab immediately, and after a quick trip to my place to drop off her backpack, we were off for a getting-to-know-you beer.

After several failed attempts (many bars charge a hefty cover charge and my favorite local dive was closed) we were eventually introduced to a man on the street who would allegedly take us to a no-cover bar. In broken English we were asked if we like cats. Um, yes? Yes! But how is this relevant? Five minutes later we were walking up a narrow staircase and wondering where this strange man was taking us. There's a sign. The bar is called Zero Cool. I'm assuming the Japanese to English dictionary was not consulted during the naming process.

"Meow! Meow!"

The door opens and a frisky little black cat is there to greet us. Apparently this guy opened up his bar just for us! I put my bag on the bar, and the cat immediately jumped up, slid down the bar and dove head first into my purse. A wrestling match ensues between him and my scarf. The cat question has been answered.

As Rachel and I chat, the bartender flicks on the stereo and proceeds to serve us a complimentary, and very unexpected, plate of sausages with mustard and various little bowls of crunchy snacks. He also slid over a dish of tiny dried fish so we could feed the cat.

It turns out to be quite a silly night, and Rachel and I laugh and talk about traveling, relationships, jobs... It doesn't feel as if we met only an hour before. I am happy to be hosting this not-so-strange stranger, and feel completely comfortable sleeping a few feet from her in my tiny studio apartment. Her plan to stay for two nights has changed, and in the morning I actually felt sad to see her go.

My first official couchsurfing experience left me all warm and fuzzy. The Afterschool Special moral of the story is: A lot can come from being open and trusting. Always a fan of a good story, I like the idea of meeting people in unusual ways. But more importantly, as a traveler, I love the idea of showing a fellow globetrotter a good time, providing a nice place for her to stay and sharing all that I know about the city I'm living in. Anyone who has ever traveled knows that these things are golden. Maybe they're even better than a free hot dog and a frisky black kitty cat. Mmm...maybe they're about equal.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Autumn in Kanazawa

As many of you know, I have a sort of love affair with trees. I don't like to hug them, mind you, but I do like to dreamily gaze at them. Words can't describe the way their beauty affects me. Luckily, Japanese people seem to feel the same way. Embarking on a day trip, just to look at Autumn leaves, is a perfectly common weekend activity here.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm lucky to live in the same city as one of Japan's most celebrated traditional gardens. The following photos are of Kenroku-en Garden in the Fall. The leaves on the trees are actually that vibrant and colorful. Oh, and in the lake photo, those are ropes, pulled tight, around the trees to protect them from snow. It's a Kanazawa tradition and many trees around the city are decorated this way.

*Please excuse the sloppy photo layout. Blogspot makes it nearly impossible to make things look clean and neat. It's driving me mad!

Monday, November 23, 2009

27 hours and $270 in Osaka

It was in the months leading up to my departure for Japan that I found myself with a new, life changing, hobby. I slowly but surely become a bit obsessed with improv and was less than thrilled to be giving it up cold turkey. Nothing else has allowed me to feel so in-the-moment, so creative, so scared shitless, so silly - all in one go. So, after I cozied into my new apartment, the first order of business was finding some English speaking improv companies.

Our Lord and Savior, Google, led me to The Pirates of the Dotombori: an Osaka imrov group made up of improvisers from around the world. I emailed a bit with the lead pirate, and finally got up the guts to ask if I could crash on someone's futon the night of the next show. Five minutes later I had an email in my inbox. I would be staying with one Kwame Alexander. He even offered to pick me up at the train station. Michael Moore is right; Canadians are good people.

Traveling around Japan is not cheap. A one-way, 2 hour and 45 minute, train ticket cost me about $70. But, considering I'd paid $7 for a bottle of beer a few nights before, I figured this trip had to be more fun than chugging 10 Asahis.

Osaka is the comedy capitol of Japan, and the people are said to be the friendliest and most outgoing in the country. I liked it immediately. After dropping off my bag at Kwame's I was free to roam around on my own for several hours before the show.

I started my night at Shinsaibashi, a massive covered shopping arcade with eight bazillion shops and just as many people. It was a Sunday night but I couldn't walk an inch without bumping into a group of giggling high school girls or a thigh high boot clad woman dripping with shopping bags. I escaped onto a side street, passed a bakery selling cheerful slices of cake, and eventually found myself in the famous Dotombori section of south Osaka.

  1. The streets are lit by huge, pulsing, neon signs, delicious smells flood out of every restaurant, and scads of takoyaki vendors compete for business by hollering at the passing crowds. It's a food lovers paradise and I spent a glorious 45 minutes wandering the culinary maze looking for the perfect dinner. I darted back and forth between ramen shops, packed with satisfied slurpers, to okonomiyaki street vendors, sushi restaurants and curry houses. I curbed my hunger with an order of takoyaki (octopus balls), one of Osaka's famed street snacks, before deciding on a surprisingly inexpensive sushi spot.

Please forgive me, but I can't figure out what this particular style of sushi is called. It's very similar to chirashi, but doesn't exactly meet the definition. Eh, who cares. I do know that each slice of salmon and tuna melted on my tongue, there was a big heap of coveted, chopped up, toro and the rice underneath was perfectly warm and sticky.

By the time I finished dinner it was nearly show time, so I pulled out my little homemade map and prayed that my naturally poor sense of direction was taking a nap so I could find my way to the correct location. I'm a little bit shocked every time I don't get lost, and this was no exception. I internally high fived myself when I arrived at Sam & Dave's in Nagahoribashi on time.

Long story short, the show was awesome. The first half was all improv games performed in Japanese and English, which were fairly easy to understand despite the language barrier. The second half was a part scripted, part improvised, all English, musical written and scored by a company member. I spent the entire second half of the show alternatively guffawing my face off and perma-smiling like a goon.

The show lead to after-show beers which lead to drinks at a nearby bar which lead to an after-party at Jaime-the-improviser-and-best-host-ever's apartment, where he and his girlfriend proceeded to ply us with hooch, snacks and a mountain of spaghetti. If there are sweeter, funnier, more hospitable people in Osaka...I'd like to meet them. And tell them to make me spaghetti and force them to banter with me.

The next day, after a thanks-for-letting-me-stay Korean lunch, I left Kwame at the train station and spent the rest of the afternoon at the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. It is truly an impressive "fish museum," as one of my students called it, and I spent a couple peaceful hours gazing at schools of colorful fishies, whale sharks, dolphins, sea lions and pondering philosophical quandaries like "Is there such thing as a good looking penguin? Like, do penguins think 'Hey! That penguin is hot!' or 'I would never be caught dead mating with that penguin.'"

Apparently I pondered for too long, because I ended my trip to Osaka with a mad dash to the train station, and managed to hop on with literally one minute to spare. Phew. I kicked off my shoes, flipped on my iPod and let the train take me home.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Scrub a dub dub in a Japanese tub

Having reached the wise old age of 29 and 5/6ths, I'm sure no one would question the fact that I know how to take a bath. Sure, I've taken far more showers, but bathing is kinda like riding a bike, but with more bubbles. Oh, and a lot more nudity. But as I stood stark naked in a Japanese bathhouse amongst a dozen other naked ladies - it was quite clear that I am an amateur. I don't really know how to take a bath after all.

Onsen, as these hot springs/bath houses are called, seem to be about as prominent as post offices. There are literally thousands of them scattered throughout the country. A fixture in Japanese culture, it's not uncommon to take a soak in your birthday suit with a group of girls from the office (or guys, for you dudes out there) or step into the tub to discover the woman who filled your Slupee at the 7-11. A people known for their modesty, all rules (and undergarments) are thrown out the window when it comes to spending a few hours at an onsen. While some onsen are private, luxurious and spendy, set in picturesque locations, others are simple and cheap. A few are famous for the monkeys who soak in them.

Eager to experience the tradition, I hopped on a bus at Kanazawa station and 47 minutes later arrived at Yuwaku Hot Springs, located at the end of a small street, tucked into the mountainous outskirts of the city. I paid my ¥350 (about $3.88) entrance fee, left my shoes at the front door, and walked into the ladies room. As I watched the other women unload their towels and bottles of shampoo and soap from home, I immediately realized I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't bring a towel! Shampoo? I just showered at home! I just came to have a soak! I scurried out to the front desk and bought a teeny tiny ¥100 towel to dry off with.

I slowly and gingerly undressed, thinking about a story a friend told me about her onsen experience years ago. There was much pointing and laughing at the naked white girl. I was scared. Were there robes to change into? There were not. After what felt like a slow-motion strip tease, a sock here, a bra there, I was clothing free and ready for my bath. But apparently it wasn't that simple. I slid open the door and walked into the bath room.

The tiled walls of the steamy room are lined with faucets and women sit in front of them on what look like upside-down plastic trash cans. Some are dumping entire buckets of water over their heads. Others are digitally assaulting their scalps, creating white, foamy wigs of shampoo atop their heads. Tiny hunched over grannies, with sagging breasts, vigorously scrub their armpits with bars of pastel colored soap.

I saunter over to a faucet, feeling like a right pervert, accidentally feeling everyone up with my eyes as I try to figure out what the fuck I am supposed to be doing. I hunker down onto a bucket and stare at myself in the mirror, not sure what to do next. The older lady next to me smiles sweetly and motions for me to grab a bowl and fill it up with water. I do. She points to her shampoo and soap and asks me a question in Japanese that I interpret to mean: "Where's your soap, bozo? You think you're gonna put that tall, filthy, white body into our clean hot springs without a scrub? You crazy!" I explain to her that this is my first onsen experience. We both smile stupidly at each other, completely unaware of what each other is saying. Finally she nudges her bar of lavender soap in my direction and I dip my teeny tiny towel into the bowl (she made me! now what will I dry off with?!) and get scrubbing. She continues to chat me up, asking me questions in Japanese while ever-so-casually soaping up her cha-cha, then grabs the shower nozzle and sprays it into submission.

When I decide I'm suitably clean I bid her goodbye and walk into yet another room to take my bath. The tub is lined with stones and faces out to the green, wooded hillside. There are no glass windows, only large screens, which provide a much needed cool breeze. The water is startlingly hot so after boiling my body for 10 minutes, I punch modesty in the face and move up to the top step, my entire top-half exposed. I try and act natural, looking out at the hillside, pretending I do this all the time. Just sit around, silent and alone, with a bunch of naked strangers. But really I'm thinking "Am I supposed to sit up here? Should I keep my boobs under the water? I'm glad I shaved my legs! Damn, I guess no one waxes in Japan. Hey! That girl was on my bus! I wonder if someone will talk to me. What do I do now? Just sit here some more?" I try not to look down at my body, to check if I look skinny or to see how my boobs look - but I kind of can't help it. I also can't help checking everyone else out a little bit. What's the point of being naked with strangers if you don't take a little peak at what everyone else has going on.

After about half an hour I am thoroughly bathed, lobster red, and just a little bit bored. It's certainly relaxing, but how long can you sit in a hot tub without a glass of champagne and a gaggle of pals to gab with? Determined to stay at least as long as my bus ride, I put in another 15 minutes and call it good. Nobody pointed and laughed at me! Success. I buy another tiny ¥100 towel and pat my crimson body dry.

Monday, November 9, 2009

You're Invited: Dinner with Yoko, Michael and Me!

I said God Damn, I love technology. Ok, that's a lie. I don't really love all technology and I certainly don't want any of you (*ahem* Leez) to think I love technology because then you might wanna talk about it with me. I really hate talking about computers and flux capacitors and the latest cell phones that can take your basal body temperature while you talk into them. But I do love having the ability to make videos from afar and post them for you to see! I also love Skype. Now there's an invention I can support!

So, let's just say that you have really been wanting to go out for okonomiyaki with Yoko, Michael and I. Here's your chance! You can now! Just watch this video. Not only will you get to have dinner in a real live Japanese restaurant, you'll get to meet my new (read: awesome) friends!

Okonomiyaki is a popular dish made famous in Osaka, often called Japanese pizza. I happen to think it's more like an omelet meets a Korean-style scallion pancake. Egg is mixed with veggies and your choice of squid, shrimp and/or pork and sometimes a handful of skinny noodles. The finished okonomiyaki is painted with a sweet brown sauce, squirted with a zigzag of Japanese mayonnaise and sprinkled with bonito flakes. We also ordered some veg and grilled squid, sans okinomiyaki, as you will observe in the video.

Ok, dinner's ready - let's go!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Knuckle Sandwich - Hold the Bread

I've eaten duck tongues, frog legs, chicken feet, chopped livers and lacy tripe. I've nibbled on a whole guinea pig and accidentally sampled various guts and limbs, animal species unknown, in one particularly deep bowl of murky soup in Peru - which I swear were not listed on the menu. But knuckles? Knuckles I've never tried.

Correction. I had never tried. Until the other night. I might never have tried them if my lovely new friend, and coworker, Megumi hadn't translated the entire menu for me at a loud and smokey yakitori joint. Yakitori is basically chunks of meat grilled on skewers. Beer is a must, and you order skewer by skewer, nibbling on edamame or bacon wrapped asparagus while waiting for the next batch to arrive. It's like street food, without the street. The kitchen lives in the center of the small restaurant, completely surrounded by a counter where people pull up a stool and holler out their orders to the bustling cooks.

I absolutely loved this place. It was cramped, and a little grimy, with a friendly staff who was quick to slam down a fresh, cold beer after you'd drained your last. I am particularly fond of eating bit by bit, making the meal last all night if you'd like, and eating until you're just full enough.

So, back to the knuckles. They're not nearly as funky as you might suspect. If you'd please refer to the photo, they are smack dab in the middle, right there with the charred tips. I hate to say it, but they tasted like chicken! Really dry chicken and cartilage. I was not impressed. But the rest was quite tasty! From left to right we ate: octopus, chicken and scallions, knuckles and liver. I gobbled up a couple of intestines-on-a-stick, which I found to be surprisingly delicious. There was a chicken stick completely coated in salty, neon orange, fish eggs and some tender and flavorful chicken meatballs soaking up a slightly sweet sauce.

It was a blast of beast, a stark contrast to my nearly meat-free Japanese diet. All week long it's fish, noodles, vegetables, fruit, eggs, rice and tofu - but this particular Saturday night we feast on meat!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tea and Fantasy

While walking the long way home from work, I have passed a particularly adorable little cafe on a hip little side street. I found it to be so adorable that I was compelled to take it's photo, but never had the opportunity to go inside.

But today, after a late last night involving many beers and half a pack of fags, I awoke late in the afternoon to the sound of raindrops body-slamming against the pavement. I put my ear to the window and overheard a couple obese rain drops boasting: "Seattle?!? Pfffffft. Seattle thinks it knows what rain is. We'll show Seattle rain! Come on boys, let's rally!" Slam! Slam! Slam! Slam! Slam!

Seeing as I couldn't do much outside, I decided this was the perfect day to visit the adorable cafe. I pulled on my wellies, grabbed a book and ducked out into the wet dusk. But as I opened the door to Parlour Kofuku, I felt a tad nervous. I was fairly certain the shopkeeper wouldn't speak English and the handwritten menu was completely in Japanese. Actually, that's not entirely true. PK's menu adheres to the same frustrating and obnoxious format as many other menus I've seen in Japan: the words "menu" "drink" and "food" are in English, but the items following, the important part, is all in Japanese. What is the point of this? Yes! I know you serve food! Yes! I know this is a menu! It's such a tease! I'd rather the whole dang thing be unreadable to me. Sigh. Rant over.

So I walked into the empty cafe and felt immediately at home. As it often does, my mind flashed into fantasy mode. I imagined myself as a beloved regular customer, one who sometimes stays after closing to gossip with the pretty young owner at the communal Scandinavian wood table, sipping tea from handmade ceramic cups. Local artists living in the neighborhood would knock on the heavy wooden door, hands flecked with paint, and pop in to invite us up to their lofts for shabu shabu. We'd sit around the steaming communal pot, barefoot on the tatami floor, laughing and listening to French lounge pop. In the time it took to walk the four steps from door to table, I had created myself a perfect little Japanese life.

I shook myself out of the fantasy just in time for the proprietress to come over and hand me a menu. I pretended to read the foreign characters for a few seconds, and then sheepishly admitted I couldn't speak Japanese. She replied in Japanese. I said "Tea?" She gestured for me to follow her to the counter where she opened a tin of loose leaf English Breakfast laced with bits of orange peel. She held it under my nose and I performed an obligatory sniff. She looked expectant and hopeful but, frankly, I didn't move to Asia so I could have a cuppa. If I want something British I will karaoke to the Spice Girls.

"Do you have anything else?" I asked, hoping she might understand. She did.
"Japanese tea?"
"Yes! Yes! Japanese tea! Arigato gozaimasu!"

I sat back down in my vintage chair, surveyed the dainty pots of succulents and leafy plants lining the window sills, and decided this was exactly how I'd like my imaginary cafe to look. The old pink and gray tiled floor, the white Spanish-style plaster walls, the simple bouquet of tiny pink and white flowers on the table. It was Japan meets Europe. Simple, clean and warm.

Moments later my tea arrived in a small ceramic pot, atop a wooden platform. Beside it was my cup and a tiny plate stacked with four crouton-looking squares. Slightly sweet, from what tasted like a sting of molasses, they went nicely with my earthy, toasted rice tea. This happens to be my favorite kind of Japanese tea. Yay!

I sipped slowly, knowing I couldn't easily ask for more water if I wanted it, and wished I'd dragged my lazy touchus out of the apartment sooner. The cafe would close in one hour and so far not a single artist had popped in with a dinner invitation or even a freshly baked matcha pound cake to share. I flipped my trusty phrase book to "C," got the owner's attention, used my arms to gesture around the cafe, and said "Kawaii!" Japanese for "cute." She grinned and replied in Japanese. Now I may not speak Japanese but I'm pretty sure she was inviting me to stay after for a chat. I could almost smell the shabu shabu.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A River Runs Through It

Through Kanazawa, that is.

Aesthetics are very important to me. I don't wanna live in no broke down, ugly ass, Joan Rivers without her makeup on, city. No, sir. Which is why I was so relieved to discover that Kanazawa is quite a pretty place, especially during the perfectly warm days of mid Autumn.

About two blocks behind my apartment is the Saigawa River, flanked by long stretches of grass and paved walking paths. So excited! Last week I finally got to tie on my running shoes and take some long walks. (Are they still considered running shoes if you only walk in them? I am such a deep philosopher.) On today's two hour powerwalk, I saw dozens of ducks, a couple of hawks, the biggest toad I have ever seen, a freakishly massive coy, and a tall, long legged, knobby kneed bird with beautiful white wings fishing for snacks with his long, slim beak.

I walked so far, in fact, I hit civilization again. I happened upon Japan's version of Barnes and Noble - the first bookstore I've found with a sizable English-language selection!

Kanazawa is a touristy city, but most of the tourists are Japanese who flock from all edges of the island to stroll through Kenroku-en Garden - considered one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan.

Even I felt zen after walking around the massive garden for several hours. That is, until a drunk middle aged man wearing the ever popular Swine Flu face mask stumbled up to me shouting "Hello! Hello! Hello!" He stunk like a frat house, and swung his arm around my shoulder and squeezed tight while his cronies whipped out cameras and took photos of the freaky American girl with the wan smile.

Unpleasant as he was, he did remind me that I should have some photos with me in them. I have really been enjoying doing things on my own. I actually sort of crave my solo sightseeing time, but realized that it's quite hard to get a photo of myself, therefore proving I have been to the beautiful place. I stopped asking strangers to take my photo because 95 percent of them can't get the job done without cutting off half my face or committing some other Photography 101 crime. So here's what you get! Of me, by me.

Three weeks down, 49 to go!

Friday, October 23, 2009

My Bento Box

Do you like movies? I thought you might! That's why I created this video tour of my apartment, otherwise known as The Bento Box. Now you can pretend like you came over for a beer and a chat. Please drink a beer and talk to the screen while you watch it. It will be more realistic for you.

I must mention: This apartment needs a serious reality show makeover. It is about as boring-looking as an American toilet. I am a chronic over-decorator, and the blank walls and hideous duvet cover (provided by my employer) are killing me. Please mail curtains and a giant, vintage, thrift store painting - pronto! Oh, and now please watch the movie:

Monday, October 19, 2009

Heaven is Only Ten Floors Up

I have quickly discovered my favorite place in Japan. A place so magical, so exciting, so exotic - I am put in a right tizzy every time I visit. The department store. Yes, the department store. The tenth floor to be exact. But let's start at the beginning: Floor One.

When you walk into an American department store, you are confronted with a maze of glass cases filled with makeup and perfume, manned by a sweet smelling army of rosy cheeked ladies.

Walk into a Japanese department store and the same glass cases are filled with the most delicate, fancy-looking, absolutely artful sweets and savories. There are rice crackers with perfectly edible, tiny Autumn leaves pressed into their centers. There are chewy, pastel colored sweets filled with chestnut puree. There are hundreds of hand crafted delicacies, and I cannot even begin to detect what most of them contain. They are all certainly works of art, floating on colorful tissue and carefully packed in pretty gift boxes. The best part? There are samples! I stroll slowly through the aisles, toothpick in hand, brow furrowed, unable to ask the sales clerks about what I have just tasted.

When I get bored of this, I take the escalator to the tenth floor (or the basement, depending on the store) for the real culinary thrill.

I leave the prim and proper, orderly and dainty, first floor behind and step off the escalator into the loud, chaotic mishmash of what we in The States might call a food court. Luckily, there is not a Hot Dog On A Stick in sight.

As I walk through the aisles of unidentifiable foods, stall keepers holler staccato sales chants at potential customers, and thrust toothpicks and tiny spoons under my nose, urging me to try a bit of this and a bit of that. It is all delicious, these mystery snacks. Most of it is fish: chopped up, sauced, spiced and mixed with other tasty things.

I buy a scoop of cucumber kimchee, fiery red and laced with sesame seeds. I taste spoonful after spoonful of various fish eggs, popping the tiny orbs between my teeth as I marvel in my good fortune. I crunch ribbons of dried kelp and
am surprised by the crisp snap of cold, marinated sea snails.

Then there are the raw meat and fish counters, a selection of seasonal produce, the prepared foods section boasting freshly fried tempura by-the-piece and glimmering sashimi. People line up for made-to-order okonomiyaki, a savory pancake of sorts nicknamed "Japanese Pizza." Old ladies crimp the edges of tiny, pork filled dumplings while college students ladle crepe batter onto hot, black grills and wrap the elastic pancakes around whipped cream, chocolate sauce and bananas. There is an amazing bakery with golden baguettes, crusty rolls and pastries. I even spy a Japanese bagel dog!

All. On. The. Tenth. Floor.

Us Jewish folk don't believe in heaven or hell. In college, I asked my mom where we go after we die. Unable to answer the question, she promptly mailed me a copy of Where I Go After I Die: The Jewish Guide to the Afterlife. It basically likens the afterlife to a Choose Your Own Adventure. Awesome. I'll choose Floor Ten, please.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Japan's Entire Hair Spray Supply Drained by Hair Happy Couple

Seeing as they worked sooo hard to turn their boring old normal hair into giant, ferocious wild animal manes, I thought it was only fair to stop this couple for a photo. If anyone deserves paparazzi, it's them.

I'm fairly certain they are the real-life Japanese Ken and Barbie. On the right we have Tanning Salon Ken, and on his arm, as always, is Beauty Parlor Barbie-san.

I kind of love them.

Monday, October 12, 2009


I just have to preface this post by saying I swear I'm not this obsessed with toilets at home! But the toilets in The States are just so hum drum. I'm talking seriously boring toilets. They don't possess any of the glitz and glamor the Japanese loos do. Oh, and when I say glitz and glamor I mean a multitude of buttons that do a multitude of amazing things. I do not mean the toilets are bedazzled. Oooooh. Bedazzled toilets...

As many of you know, Japanese toilets and I got off on the wrong foot (*please go to the bottom of this post to be filled in, if necessary). But we have since resolved our differences, and I am able to write about their finer points without a hint of a grudge.

This afternoon I was browsing at Matsuzakaya, an upscale, ten floor, department store when nature called. I walked into the gal's room, and was shocked to see the toilet pictured above. I have used such a toilet in Turkey, but did not expect to have to build up my thigh muscles in a store that sells $900 Coach purses. Also, it was the first toilet I'd seen without a heated seat and multifunction bidet system. But, since this is Japan, it wasn't your average squatter: Once you're nice and hovered, the toilet senses your presence and automatically triggers a fake flushing sound. You know, so no one hears anything. I don't like this! It makes me feel like I'm trying to cover something up that's not even happening. I had the strong urge to scream "I'm only peeing! I'm only peeing!" But no one would have heard me anyway. That fake flush sound is pretty loud.

*My Toilet and my Eye: My hotel toilet has a bidet and I decided to give it a try this morning. Wouldn't you?? So I'm sitting there and I push the "spray" button - but then I thought maybe I did something wrong, so I started to get up. Just then the bidet sprays ... RIGHT INTO MY EYE! Straight fucking shot!! Toilet eye! Toilet eye! Ew! Let this be a public service announcement regarding the dangers of bidets. Hey friends, DON'T let this happen to you.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Week One: Nagoya!

One year in Japan. That's 365 days. By my mathematical estimations *pushing imaginary glasses up the bridge of my nose and fiddling with golden abacus* that's about 1,095 meals. 1,095 meals in Japan! That's a lotta ramen slurping, my friends.

This blog is intended to be a well-rounded, multifaceted, look at my year living, and teaching English, in Japan. But being a girl who starts to ponder "What's for lunch?" while still buttering her breakfast toast, it is likely to be fairly food focused. But don't worry, I will be sure to include photos of the much-rumored, used-panties, vending machines as soon as I track one down.

Let's get started, shall we?

It appears the Japanese like everything to be adorable. They give birth to fantastically adorable, chubby cheeked, babies, there seems to be no such thing as too much Hello Kitty and they see no harm in creating cute-as-can-be sweet treats. I squealed with delight upon seeing these cream puff fishies, complete with strawberry tongues. Who knew fish had tongues?

Holy shit! Is that a Japanese taco truck?! Well, sorta. It's more like a crab sushi truck, which is just as awesome. I spotted this sushi-mobile today, right after nibbling a street snack of takoyaki, fried octopus balls, while on my way to a lunch of tonkatsu. Could I really eat three lunches in a row? Probably. Did I need to? Sigh. Probably not. I actually thought I might drop a few pounds in Japan. Pffffft.

I probably should have spent the months leading up to my move learning Japanese. Instead I spent a lot of time mentally preparing myself for a year without cheese. Turns out, not only does Japan have cheese, they have cheese I have never seen before! See those packages? Those are filled with individually wrapped nuggets of white cheese. They are wrapped exactly like a peppermint candy, with a little cellophane twist on each end.

Juice boxes full of juice? Dumb. Juice boxes full of mystery booze? Yay! They taste like shit, but
only cost a dollar and you can drink them while walking down the street.

The Nagoya Train Station is not just a place to catch a lightening quick Shinkansen. It's a multi level shopping extravaganza packed with approximately 9 bazillion restaurants, shops and a giant white lady in a ruffly tutu.

It's also frequented by little old Japanese men who like to prance up to you chanting: "America?! Austrarria?! Engrind?!"

This particular prancer was quite chatty, and it was excruciatingly hard to walk away. Japanese people love to give gifts, and he gave me a photograph he took of the city, and made sure to write his phone number on the back. Smooth. As you can see in this photo, we are already dating.

It seems Nagoya is not actually a city, but rather a massive fashion runway filled with strutting women in thigh high boots and Louis Vuitton purses and men in dapper suits with intricately coiffed hairdos that must have taken hours to tease, feather, curl and spray into place.

It's head to toe high fashion, or at the very least intricate and bizarre, and I have yet to see a woman wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I am told shopping is an actual hobby in Japan, and most women come equipped with a glut of shopping bags dangling off each arm.

Apparently it is a big compliment to ask a fashionable gal for her photograph, so I eagerly approached these pink-happy teenagers this afternoon, waving my camera and making idiotic gestures meant to imply "Hey you! With the giant pink bow on your head! Girl, I wanna take yo pitcha!" They gestured back. There was much giggling and mouth covering involved. I took that to mean: "Ok, white lady. You can take my picture."

Seven days down, 358 to go.