Saturday, August 31, 2013

Guest Blog: Julie

My sister Julie is visiting right now, which is super exciting.  We're having all sorts of fun and I plan to blog about it soon, but for today she's written a guest post!  (If you look closely she's in the photo too)

I’ve never been much of a picture taker.  While other people are framing their shot, I worry for the things you can’t capture with a click.  The density of this humid Tokyo air, the immensity and yet the painstaking order implicit to every line of this city, the swell of cicadas undergirding everything else.

What I wonder is how I will hold all of this trip in my memory, how I will make sense of it – later – at home.  To make sense of the way that this world I’ve barely grazed is so, unrelentingly foreign.

Before I came here, I had my quiet doubts about my sister’s life.  Surely I.  Surely I would work harder to ingratiate myself to the country where I laid my head.  Surely I would try harder, somehow do better in making this my home.  (I mean – what is it to be her sister and not host secret competitions in my head?)

The other day though, it hit me.  It was a casual conversation about our old habits of eating out all the time.  Here in Japan, Wendy and John eat in much more and while she’d said it before in passing, her reasoning suddenly had new weight:  “It makes it feel more like home to stay in and cook.” 

In walking these winding streets and encountering, time and again, a sense of my insurmountable foreignness, I’ve come to understand that homemaking is not a process of melding, of disappearing into a new world.  Perhaps uniquely in Japan, it must also be an act of bringing home with you.  

Preparing for this trip, I’d told my friends cavalierly that I was as excited about my sister’s cooking as I was for Japanese cuisine.  And while this remains so, so true(!), I’ve realized how incredibly happy I am to find that she has brought home with her, that after a long day of exploring this place, I can sit down to eat at home.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

How to Clean a Japanese Shower Room

I decided to write a follow-up to my humidity post after Raku and a I spent a long time searching through the cleaning section of our favorite drug store.  We've got all kinds of good stuff now, and the mildew doesn't stand a chance.

I've been here nearly a year now and I'm still discovering new products, or finally figuring out what they do, so I thought it might be useful to write about what I've found.

The most important new word I've learned is カビ, which means mildew.  So if you're looking for bathroom cleaner, カビキラー  (Kabi Killer) is the good stuff, it definitely had bleach in it.  In my experience the more red you see on the packaging the stronger it is.

Scrubbing Bubbles with カビキラー
Once you find a cleaning product you like, you can just buy refill bags rather than buying a whole new container each time.  When it is time to refill, make sure you're actually buying the same product!  Part of my problem was that I had refilled with something else, that clearly didn't have bleach in it.  When I dumped it out it was bright green and smelled like apples.  The new matching refill was a clear liquid that smelled a little minty.  Oops.

These are chlorine bleach tablets meant to go down drains.  They fizz and dissolve sort of like alka-seltzer.  I don't really know if they do all that much, but I've been using them down the shower drain about once a week.  Side note, the shower drains here are wide enough to put your hand down and filled with standing water.  They're normally covered by a plastic hair-catcher that snaps into place, and on top of that a removable metal grate.

This is a product to clean bathtubs, and even cleans out the jets, since the water doesn't just come out of a spout.  The directions say to fill your bathtub at least 5 cm above the jets with lukewarm water, dump in the powder, and set the temperature to 40° c.  Let the temperature rise for 10-15 minutes, then add 5 cm of cool water.  Set the temperature to 40° c again and allow the temperature to rise for 5 minutes, then drain.  I assume the temperature changes are to keep the water circulating in order to fully clean the jets.  It recommends submerging any bath stools, bowls, or soap dishes in the tub so that they can be disinfected at the same time.

And finally, this is a カビキラー pen to target small problem areas.  

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Rolling Foundations

In order to withstand earthquakes most buildings in Japan are built on rolling foundations.  An initial foundation is put down, then rolling balls are placed on top, and then the building is built on a second foundation above the rollers.  This allows the rollers to move in an earthquake and absorb most of the vibrations, protecting the rest of the building.

I've understood this concept, but recently I got to actually see it.  There are two buildings under construction next door to us, and one day looking out the window I saw what looked like a bunch of white bubbles.  It took a minute to figure it out, but they're the rollers in the foundation.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Summer Cocktails

I can't believe that it's almost the end of August!  Just this week I've started seeing fall beers for sale, but summer is still going strong.  I've been making a few interesting summer drinks lately.

Earlier in the summer I infused a bottle of vodka with cucumber and dill fresh from my windowsill.  It makes great vodka sodas.  The dill makes it unexpectedly savory while the cucumber keeps it light and summery.

Infusing Vodka 

Then this week I got even more ambitious and juiced a watermelon.  It was a pretty messy ordeal (pureeing watermelon in a food processor and then slowly straining it through coffee filters), but the result was good.  I got over 2 liters of juice from a medium sized melon!  You can drink it on it's own over ice, or with a shot of silver rum.  John recommends two ounces of rum to 4 ounces of juice.  I think it might be even better with tequila.

Fresh Watermelon Cocktails

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Daytime Karaoke

This past week Raku and I did a karaoke bootcamp.  If you've never done Japanese style karaoke, it's not done in public, but rather a group of friends rents a private room and take turns singing songs.  It's always a lot of fun, and the selection of English songs can be pretty entertaining, but I'm really insecure when it comes to singing so it can also be a stressful experience.

Raku and I decided that what I needed to cure myself was an extended karaoke session with just the two of us.  We went to our local Karaoke-kan, and wow is it cheap during the day!  It's 100 yen for 30 minutes, but if you do more than 3 hours they cap it at 600 yen between noon and 7:00.  You just have to order one drink (which we put off until later in the afternoon).

I thought about getting drunk first, my usual method of karaoke courage, but it seemed like doing it sober would be the real test (plus it was 1:00 pm).  Raku made up all sorts of games, like singing songs for all the letters in the alphabet, or picking songs based on our costumes.  Did I mention, we dressed up!

Partway through the afternoon we did a hilarious photo shoot to get us laughing and give us a second wind.  It was actually a blast, and I'd highly recommend it whether you're looking to practice or just want an inexpensive air-conditioned afternoon activity.  On weekends they have the same deal for 900 yen.

And now, since I know you're dying to see - our photo shoot!






Scolding Raku

Raku scolding me

Drinking Tea

Pretending to be puppies (Raku's face cracks me up!)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Homemade Ravioli

In my last post I mentioned that I made some ricotta cheese.  Once I knew how easy it was I started to wonder what other uses there might be for it.  Then I heard about a shortcut version of homemade ravioli, and knew I had to try it.  Instead of making the pasta dough you use pre-made wonton wrappers.  I was a little skeptical, but thought it was worth a try.  I mixed up some ricotta, parmesan, egg yolk, garlic, nutmeg, and fresh basil for the filling at got to work.

The first step it to outline a sheet with egg wash, and then place a spoonful of filling in the center.  I used the smallest size wrapper, so my spoonfuls were about 1 teaspoon.

Place a second sheet on top, gently squeezing out all the air, then fold the corners over.  The egg wash should make it stick but if you need to, dab a little more on to seal it tightly.

Keep the unused wrappers covered while you're working so they don't dry out.

Once you've made as many as you want, boil them for 1-2 minutes.  I did closer to three minutes, and one of mine exploded.

Drain them and top with sauce and more parmesan if you like.

We both thought they were good, though more delicate than regular ravioli.  The wonton skins are thinner so a fork will tear them pretty easily, and they have a tendency to stick together.  I was worried about that so I put a little oil in the cooking water but it wasn't enough.  You might trying spraying them lightly with cooking spray for a better result.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

More Rice Cooker Baking

I've continued my experiments with baking in a rice cooker.  So far my results have been mixed, but I wanted to share a couple of successes.  The first was a tarte tatin where the apples caramelized very lightly.  The presentation was also really beautiful, and it tasted even better the next day.

Tarte Tatin

I also baked a loaf of rosemary bread!  So exciting!  Real yeast bread with a wonderful chewy texture made right in my own kitchen.  This one had to cook on each side, but luckily there were no disasters when it came time to flip it over.

It's just begging for butter, isn't it?
And speaking of cooking, I recently made my own ricotta cheese.  Imported food can be so expensive here, a small container is about $9.  I'll even admit that I splurged for some when I figured out how to make a stovetop lasagna.  But, $9 for ricotta just isn't sustainable.  Little did I know that it's unbelievably easy to make your own!  You basically scald some milk, add a little salt, dump some lemon juice in, let it curdle, and then strain it.  Awesome!  Homemade and a quarter of the cost.

It's so easy!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Coping With Summer Heat and Humidity in Japan

It's been so hot and humid lately!  I've put my weather app in celsius to teach myself the metric system and for the most part it's working, but some days I still have to convert it before I can decide what to wear.  For the past week it's been in the 90's, but the heat index got up to 115 on Saturday and Sunday.  I miss central air constantly, but I think that's actually only a small part of why the heat bothers me more here.  Not having a car, I spend a lot more time outdoors walking (and let me tell you, dragging home heavy bags of groceries when I'm dripping sweat is my new least favorite activity).  Trains are better, but especially when they're crowded it's hard to keep them cool, and though underground platforms are cooler, the outdoor ones can be pretty bad.  Coming from the south-eastern US I think I'm also just used to a much higher level of air conditioning.

Luckily, Japan actually has a lot of useful coping mechanisms for dealing with the heat and humidity.  My favorite discovery (thank you Raku) would be powder sheets, or shower sheets.  These are essentially wet wipes with rubbing alcohol and baby powder in them, that make you instantly feel clean, cool, and dry.  They come in a million different versions with different scents and additions like deodorant, antiperspirant, or menthol for a tingly cool feeling.   There is nothing so refreshing when you've walked a long way and feel gross but want to look and feel presentable.  My favorite are the soap scented Biore powder sheets in the pink package.

Besides powder sheets a lot of people carry a small sweat towel, essentially a wash cloth, around with them to mop up all the sweat.  I'm not as big a fan of this method, though they're also useful for drying your hands in public restrooms.  It might seem strange, but there are many cute sweat towels and I frequently see women using them.

I got a free one with some cranberry juice
Lots of women here use parasols.  At first I thought they were just trying to keep their skin as pale as possible (and that's probably still a big part of their motivation), but wouldn't you rather walk around in your personal spot of shade rather than in scorching direct sunlight?  Look for the cloth umbrellas that mention UV protection (and don't make the mistake of using them in the rain - unless yours does double duty).

Even just having a fan can be a huge help.  They're so small and light it's no problem to slip one in a purse.

This was a gift from Ellie's exchange student

But if you don't carry a purse, or you happen to forget your fan, don't worry - lots of businesses hand out plastic fans as advertisements.

Humidity can also be a major problem.  Since we only run the air conditioning when we're in a specific room the humidity levels soar in the apartment when we're out.  John noticed that his shirts were starting to smell a little musty, so I started looking for a solution.  Turns out, you can buy little sheets of desiccant packets meant for closets, drawers, and even to put under futon mattresses.  I got these at a 100 yen store.

Besides fighting dampness in our drawers I've been waging a war with mildew growing around the sink and bathtub drains from the higher temperatures and humidity indoors.  Sadly the only solution for that seems to be more scrubbing. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Japanese Facebook Advertisements

One of the things about being in Japan is that the internet assumes I read/speak Japanese.  I completely understand why, and I'm not complaining.  It's just funny to watch a youtube video preceded by an advertisement that I can't understand, or to have Japanese ads show up in my facebook news feed.  With all the news about how much tracking and individualized marketing there is on the internet it makes me smile that at least some of them haven't even figured out in which language to target me.  Sometimes the ads are really weird, and I can really only guess what they're selling, so I've taken some screen shots of the funniest ones to share with you.

I'm pretty sure this is for a drink that has placenta in it.  Yuck!

I have no idea what this is about, but it sure looks creepy.

I like to imagine that 96.4% of witches endorse whatever this is selling.

No idea.  Is the cat begging for her food?  Why does she have so much green tea?  Why are a book and some unidentified object floating behind her?  And what is that disembodied face saying?

I can actually read this enough to tell you that it's advertising laser hair intimate areas.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Golden Spoon Frozen Yogurt

UPDATE: I've just discovered that Golden Spoon has closed, which is super disappointing. Frozen yogurt just can't seem to make it in Tokyo. Try Party Land Frozen Yogurt or Red Mango

Back in March I wrote about Partyland Frozen Yogurt.  When John and I were here a few summers ago we had found a frozen yogurt place called Golden Spoon near Tokyo Midtown, but alas it closed. Just last week Raku and I were in the Marunouchi area when we stumbled across another Golden Spoon!  So exciting!

Golden Spoon Frozen Yogurt
It's just a little spot in the basement of the Oazo building across from Tokyo Station.  There isn't anywhere to sit, which is sort of a drawback.  But Raku and I were perfectly happy to walk around eating our delicious frozen yogurt.

Golden Spoon is a different style than Partyland, it's not self-serve, more in the style of a Pink Berry or Red Mango.  A regular size of one or two flavors is 400 yen, and toppings are 50 yen each.  They had Tart, Vanilla, and Chocolate, plus seasonal flavors of Blueberry, Raspberry, and Pineapple.

Pineapple and Chocolate with Cookies
We were really impressed with the quality.  All of the flavors were really enjoyable, and I would say the frozen yogurt itself was much better quality than Partyland.  It was really creamy - not icy at all, and the perfect frozen texture, not too soft and melty.

Tart with Sprinkles
Be advised however, that while they offer both wafer cones and waffle cones they will only put toppings on the waffle cones.  Apparently they might be too messy on the wafer cones.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Tiny Case of Beer

Back in North Carolina it was pretty normal for us to buy a case of beer and just have it sitting around in the fridge.  Not so much in Japan.  Beer is almost exclusively sold individually, and on the rare occasions that I do see a case it's only ever a six pack (and roughly $2 per beer).  Can you imagine buying a 24-pack for $48?  Me neither.

Yesterday John and I found this hilarious little case of beer which was unusual both because it was a case and because it was Budweiser - which we don't see much of.  We bought it for novelty's sake.

It's so tiny!

What?  You were expecting 4?

The 4th was a coozie!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Happy August

It's been a great start to the month!  Yesterday my sister bought a plane ticket to come visit at the end of August.  I'm so excited to see her and show her all the fun around here.  Look forward to some guest blogs from here while she's here.

In the mean time, here are a few pictures I've taken in the last couple of weeks:

Naive Lady Brand Toilet Paper

Weird Burger King Advertisement

Just a couple of bunnies at work

Thunderstorm Rolling In