Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

John and I will be ringing in the New Year in our new apartment!  We've been pretty absent from the blog this week because we've been unpacking and setting up our new home.  I'm excited to post pictures, but I'm waiting until we have all the boxes out and our new furniture in.

Tokyo is actually very quiet right now because most people go home to visit their families for New Years, and many people living in Tokyo didn't grow up here, so the city empties out.  Yesterday we were exploring our new neighborhood, but there were hardly any people out or any businesses open (the chilly rain certainly wasn't helping though).  But we did find a fantastic little liquor store recommended by a friend.

John has the week off, so we are looking forward to getting our home in order, doing some shopping at the New Years sales, and exploring Akasaka a little more.  I hope you all have a great celebration and a happy new year!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Japanese Christmas Cake

In Japan, there is a cake that is traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve (I don't think this is an age old tradition) made from sponge cake, strawberries, and whipped cream.  I didn't really expect there to be many baking traditions to embrace here in Japan - so I was thrilled to find one.  Here are the results of the cake I made yesterday.

I started with a prebaked cake.  (I know, it's cheating, but I'm moving tomorrow - shortcuts were needed)

And bought some whipped topping already in a decorating tube.  I whipped regular cream to use as the frosting.

I also bought Christmas decorations for the cake.  We thought the Santa was made of candy, but he was definitely wax!

Frosting the first layer of the cake.

Layering the sliced strawberries

More whipped cream, and the second layer.

The fully frosted cake

The final product!

Truthfully, it wasn't all that flavorful.  But it was festive and lovely.  Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Grocery Shopping

I had the most glorious grocery shopping trip today.  And now as I read that in my head, I realize it sounds sort of crazy. But truthfully, I love grocery shopping even in the US, and today was even better because I found all sorts of fun things that I'm really excited about!

I went to two stores in Jiyugaoka which is a really cute neighborhood a little farther out from the center of Tokyo.  The first store was Cuoca - which is a baking store!  And the second, Kaldi Coffee, is a smaller reasonably priced import grocery store.  Both were totally awesome, though Cuoca had a little less English labeling than I expected.  Most things I can identify fairly well, but bags of white powder - are they flour? corn starch? potato starch? powdered sugar? a baking mix?  I used my kindergarten level reading skills to eliminate a lot of possibilities, and then realized there was a bag of powdered sugar labeled in English, the shelf was just covering up that part.

So, what am I buying all these product for, since I don't even have an oven?  Well, Raku and I are making gingerbread men for our Christmas party - in her oven.  And, I am embracing new food traditions here by making a Japanese Christmas Cake!  (haha, can you think of a tamer food to try?)  A Christmas Cake is basically a strawberry shortcake sort of layer cake, with Christmas decorations on top.  I'm going to do a whole post on creating it.  But, now on to the pictures!  

 Look at all these baking supplies!  Beautiful!  I bought most of them at Cuoca, but the sponge cake came from Kaldi Coffee.

 Brown sugar and powdered sugar!  And these are awesome sizes for Japan too!

Speaking of awesome sizes, see this bag of penne I found at Cuoca?  It's a whole kilo!  (That's more than double a 16 oz box)  Normally I see bags a quarter of this size.  And it was only 600 yen!  (John will surely be thrilled that I bought a kilo of pasta 4 days before a move - but how could I resist?)  And that's also a box of red zinger tea for 100 yen less than anywhere else I've seen.  Thank you Kaldi Coffee!

And thank you readers for listening to rhapsodize about grocery shopping.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Childhood Memories

When I was a little kid my sister and I had a Heidi video that we used to watch all the time.  I have no idea where it came from, it was on a hand-labeled VHS, and at the time I assumed it had been recorded from PBS (like many of our childhood videos - haha).

Last summer I discovered that the movie was a Japanese anime from the 70's!  It was dubbed into English in 1985 and although it was popular internationally, it seems like it was only distributed through small Asian markets in the US.  Now I really have no idea how my parents got a hold of it!  I didn't even know what anime was until high school, and was totally surprised last year to realize the origin of my beloved childhood movie.

I just discovered that Japan Post is introducing Heidi stamps next month!  I can't wait to buy them.

Aren't they adorable?  Now I know why her little goat friend is named Yuki!  Yuki means snow in Japanese, and he's pure white.

P.S.  I did a little housekeeping on the blog today and added labels to all our posts.  But more importantly - you'll see to the right I finally added a place where you can sign up to have each new blog post emailed to you!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dollar Yen

One of the more interesting things about living in Japan so far has been the foreign exchange component. Because I am being paid in dollars and paying rent and eating in yen fluctuations in the USD/JPY can really effect our costs of living. I've thought about ways to hedge against this risk, but it seemed pretty complicated. So to make a long story short, I'm long dollars and short yen.

Back in September when we were first thinking about our upcoming move, the 1 dollar was worth about 78yen. As a frame of reference, a 16.9oz Coke is about 150 yen. With some products (like iPads) the company will just change the dollar sign to the sign for yen. This means that some things are about 20% more expensive. It's been around that level for a couple years, though when I first came to Japan in 2007 the exchange rate was 1 dollar to 120 yen. This is in large party due to recent U.S. monetary policy which sought to lessen the recession by increasing the money supply and keeping interest rates near zero.

Luckily, things have just started to change. There were just elections in Japan on Dec. 16th. Before the elections the ruling party was the Democratic Party of Japan. They had won in a landslide election after the Global Financial Crisis (called the "Lehman Shock" in Japan). In the run up to the election polls were showing that the Liberal Democratic Party (the "LDP") was likely to win the election.

Abe Shinzo, the party leader, made some comments about how he thought the Bank of Japan (the "BOJ") should set target inflation rate higher. The BOJ currently had set a target inflation rate of 1%. Unfortunately, rates were slightly deflationary meaning that the BOJ did not meet it's target. A new governor of the bank of Japan will be selected in March. At this point the USD/JPY had increased to 82.

Later, polls predicted that the LDP would win a super majority (2/3 or >320 seats) of the lower house. With the super majority they would be able to over ride the upper house's veto and have the freedom to pass laws without compromising with other parties. At this point the yen increased to above 83.

Finally, the LDP (along with it's partner the New Komeito) actually won a super majority of the lowerhouse. Abe is scheduled to take over as Prime Minister on the 26th. The yen is now at about 84.5!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Apartment Hunting in Tokyo

Several people suggested that John and I should go on International House Hunters, but sadly when we looked into it they were only recruiting home buyers, not renters, so we got to do it the normal way (and by normal I mean super crazy).  But while we were visiting some of John's family in Colorado we ended up watching an episode of  the show that happened to be in Tokyo.  It was really fun to know the areas the couple was looking in, and it gave us a little more confidence in our own budget.

In that spirit, I will try to condense our experience into a house hunters adventure for you.

Apartment #1

This apartment is 2 doors down from your closest friend!  It's a 20 minute commute to the office.  The view is lovely, the amenities are great, the building is brand new, and it has a gym!!  But, the kitchen consists of 2 burners and nothing more.  The design of the apartment is very modern, but to your southern sensibilities is feels a little cold and stark.  And unfortunately the price is pretty high, you'll need the building to negotiate a lot.

Apartment #2

This apartment is on the top floor of the building and you have access to a rooftop garden!  There is tons of storage space, and the floors are a wonderfully warm wood.  The kitchen consists of 3 burners and a fish oven.  It's a 9 minute walk to your friends' apartment and a 14 minute walk to the office.  It's smaller than the other apartments.  And, unfortunately there is a building under construction next door for the next year.

Apartment #3

This apartment is on the 27th floor!  In fact, your ears pop riding the elevator up each time.  It's in the building next door to where your friend lives.  And there are 2 bedrooms!  The kitchen has 4 burners and an oven! There's a gym! The washer and dryer are separate units!  But, the apartment is 20 years old, meaning it doesn't have the latest earthquake technology.  It also has all the "glamour" of the early 90's.  And there is monthly surcharge of $150 on your electricity bill.

You're feeling overwhelmed by a realtor who sends mixed signals, and confused by a process that involved many steps and negotiations that are unfamiliar to you.  You feel rushed to find a place before your belongings arrive.  You hope beyond hope that you can be settled in your new home before Christmas.  And the entire process reminds you just how real this huge move is.  Which apartment is the right apartment for you?

Well, the answer is Apartment #2.  We went back and forth between #2 and #3, and actually applied to all 3 building, and in the end the decision was made for us when only #2 was able to negotiate to the terms we required.  While I was briefly disappointed to lose the oven, John and I both felt a sense of comfort and belonging in the second apartment that we didn't feel in the other two.  And ultimately we're very excited to be there.  As a bonus we found out afterwards that it's very close to another couple we're friends with, and it's extremely close to our favorite restaurant in the city.

If things go according to plan, we'll be moving in on Dec. 26.  A small part of me thinks this is terribly cruel, considering that I actually packed our little Christmas tree in our container along with decorations months ago in preparation.  But as time has passed I've come to accept that we'll be making new traditions and finding meaning in other ways, rather than trying to recreate past experiences.  And most of all, I'm thankful that John and I have a safe and beautiful apartment where we will both be happy to live.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Three Quick Happy Things

1.  Today is cold and rainy and foggy, and John and I both woke up with mildly sore throats.  For lunch we decided spicy miso ramen was in order and dashed over to the ramen shop a few buildings down.  After we had been served, the man behind the counter noticed that I didn't have a hair tie and was struggling to keep my hair out of the soup, and offered me several bobby pins!  It was such a simple gesture, but almost overwhelming in its kindness.  Thank you Maruyoshi for delicious ramen, and such kind service!

2.  A couple days ago I was perusing the tea selection at Seiji Isho Supermarket and found a huge box (of excellently priced) PG Tips.  John and I drank some this morning and happily though of our trip to Colorado earlier this fall.

3.  Yesterday I had a wonderful day going to an onsen (hot spring) with 2 friends in Enoshima.  We took a train to a quaint little town and then walked across a bring to the island of Enoshima.  As we walked across the bridge we had a gorgeous view of Mt. Fuji (my first), and then we were able to relax in the hot water and look out through the steamy windows at the ocean.  Ahh!  So wonderful!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What I've Been Cooking

Unlike last summer, I've been trying to cook a lot more despite our tiny kitchen.  Not only is it more economical, but I think it's also important to make us feel more settled. That being said, once we get into our new apartment we'll definitely have to check out the neighborhood restaurants.  We've had lots of pastas and salads and chicken, but here are a few photos from this week.

Beef Stew: Perfect for a cold night and a husband who has been craving more meat.

This was especially fun.  I made cauliflower fritters, the latest recipe from Smitten Kitchen, my favorite food blogger.  And sausage with apples.  I haven't had this in forever, but I still remember helping my mom slice the apples to make this when I was a kid.

Ok, so I didn't cook these.  But I found a bakery that made them!  Chocolate drizzled donut/ Christmas wreaths and Darjeeling Tea flavored marshmallows - yum!

And I haven't made this yet, but have you ever seen a more gorgeous vegetable?  It's called Roman Cauliflower.  Once I learn more about it and how to cook it I'll do a full blog about it.

Up next - apartment hunting (House Hunters style for David and Margaret)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Christmas in Tokyo

My mom and sister have been surprised and interested to hear about our experience with Christmas here, so I thought maybe other people would be too.  My mom assumed there wouldn't be an ornament or candy cane in sight, but it's actually quite the contrary.  Seeing as Japan excels in anything cute or sparkly I was not surprised to see that Japan has embraced Christmas and is totally decorated and festive.  When we arrived in early November many of the decorations and lights were already up, but even more have gone up in December and Christmas carols can now be heard 24/7 in all the convenience stores.  (And my favorite store Don Quixote seems to always be playing Justin Bieber Christmas songs)

I've been taking pictures over the last week to give you an idea of what we're seeing.

They've got the Christmas Inflatables

Little Christmas Trees

And Big Christmas Trees

Shibuya has a Floating Christmas Tree with Light Up Reindeer

Christmas Trees for Sale

And Other Christmas Things For Sale

Children Made These Little Snowmen

Grandpa Snowman with a Hipster Mustache

Snowlady with Raku

But even though Japan gets the decorations right they certainly don't celebrate the way we do in the US.  Christmas seems to have made its way over here without the religious meaning attached (although I did see a church with a nativity up) which makes sense because very few Japanese people are Christian.  Here, Christmas is a holiday celebrated by couples - sort of like Valentine's Day.  In fact, John's office mate was surprised to learn that we were buying presents for all of our family members because you would only get one for you lover here.

KFC has gotten in on the fun, offering a Christmas special that it seems most people get - because they think that's what we do.  I've seen several Colonel statues dressed up in Santa suits for the season.

I think we'll pass

Speaking of Christmas, I think I've found the perfect gift for John.

He'll love it, right?

I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas, and I know that ours will be very different this year, but also very wonderful!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Seen Around Tokyo

There was a big earthquake this evening!  It seems that everything is fine, and although there was a 3 ft. tsunami in the north, it only did minor damage.  We were almost 300 miles away from the epicenter, but it was still the strongest earthquake that either of us has felt.  It's really amazing how the architecture here deals with it though.  Despite how much it scared me there was nothing other than gentle swaying.  The most startling part about this quake though was how long it lasted - between 60 and 90 seconds!  Definitely less fun and exciting than the tiny ones that are over in 15 seconds.

So, I know it's been a while since I've posted but I've been taking pictures and thinking about blogging for the last couple weeks.  I've just been thinking about our apartment hunt as well, and I haven't wanted to say anything because it might jinx it.  But I think it's close to being settled, and soon I can post all about it.  In the meantime I've been hanging out lots with Raku and doing all sorts of fun things.  Last week she had a friend visiting and we went out to Kamakura, one of the historic capitols of Japan.  It's only an hour away by train, but it feels so calm and peaceful compared to Tokyo.  We looked at gardens and temples and shopped in quaint little stores.  Christian - if you're reading this - it reminded me of when we went last year and you bonded with the pigeons.

The carefully swept rocks always make me feel so peaceful.

I've also been noticing trees growing citrus fruits that are ripening now.  I'm not sure if they're oranges or something else, and I didn't realize we were in the right climate, but they're beautiful.

Right now Tokyo is a candidate city for the 2020 Olympics, so they're having all sorts of events to get the public excited.

So Raku and I became Olympians:

Don't we look strong?  (There's a little seat under us)

And then after all the hard olympic training, we had to become chocolate bears.

The way the bears were positioned we couldn't both get behind it (maybe because it was for children).

And I found a vending machine selling toiletries and band-aids:

And finally, a shot that Raku took on a night out last weekend

She's a pretty great photographer (but we're a pretty gorgeous couple).

Up next, a post about Christmas in Japan!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

This is my first blog post. Wendy is responsible for the rest. I'm mostly talking about a few pictures that I took. 

First, this is raisin still on the vine! They didn't taste much better than regular raisins, but the presentation is perfect.  

Second, this is a picture of the Christmas lights at Tokyo Midtown (a mixed use development that includes a mall). You can't tell from the picture, but the lights flash to create a sort of video. This picture is from really close so you can see the individual lights, but from far away they're less noticeable.

Finally, this is a picture of the camera that I just bought. I traded in old camera and lenses and with the money that I got I bought this new camera (Fujifilm X100). It worked out that I only had to pay an additional $15 to purchase this camera. It had to do all of this in Japanese so it was my first really Japanese test since coming back to Tokyo.

I've been thinking about getting this camera for a little while and finally decided to trade in all my other camera equipment because I wasn't really using it. My old camera was really big and so it was quite a commitment to take it anywhere. Also, it was very noticeable so I couldn't really take pictures of people without them wondering why a giant camera was pointed there way.

Though this camera is small, its got the same size sensor as my old camera. The only downside is that you can't change the lens. I haven't actually gotten to take a picture yet because I'm waiting for the SD card that I bought online to arrive. I'll post some pictures of what I've taken soon.