Tag Archives: cooking

He ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends

If there’s a single decent thing about summer it is that it reminds me that life isn’t always this shitty like it is now, that no matter how much I hate sweating to death and being sapped of energy and moving, at all, things by default will be better when winter rolls around again. You ever heard of that made up mental illness called “SAD” which is short for seasonal affected disorder only I think they say it is from people who have no sunlight? Maybe I am the opposite of that. TOO MUCH SUN. Anyway, I don’t know how long it took me, in my life, to realize that I had seasonal preferences. Maybe it wasn’t until I even came to Japan that, like with my declared religious belief, favorite food, “hobbies,” and other menial answers to frequently asked questions, I firmly decided to Ultimately Choose that winter was my favorite and I hate summer. It just makes things easier, since nobody understands my ambling, self-exploratory responses that play around the edges of answers like people fingering the ridges of a quarter with the end of their thumbnail. One word answers are king here, where people would rather not have to work to understand what I’ve just said.

Maybe part of it is that there is literally nothing I would ever enjoy doing that would be much better in summer than it would be in winter, appropriately clothed at least. Beach party? Pf. WINTER beach party? Sign me up. Grilling outside in the scorching heat? Fuh. Cooking a pot of stew over a log fire while exposed to the elements? YEAH! What I mean is just that unless the occasion is “being scantily clothed outside,” and actually enjoying it, I will take winter, especially this pussy willow Kobe winter, where At Freezing makes people bitch and complain, and I am like “ah, this is great.”

On my sweaty walk home from a small office party last night, some crazy man followed me and my coworker through the ticket gate (he ducked under the barrier to avoid paying), then followed us onto our train, and for a few stops repeatedly gestured toward me while speaking to other random people sitting down, trying desperately to ignore him. He was saying stuff in Japanese like “hey, check out this foreign guy, don’t you want to take a picture of him, I bet he is American, they sure beat us in the war, they sure did their best in that war didn’t they, look at this tall gaijin, he sure ain’t Japanese.” I told me coworker that in America we have a nice phrase that goes something like “fuck off” that we would say to annoying idiots like this, but in Japan it is generally accepted that if you pick a fight, absolutely nobody else is going to help you, look at you, or say anything at all. I turned my back to him, occasionally making eye contact with other horrified passengers, a stupefied grin on my face, shrugging my shoulders like Michael Jordan hittin’ ethereal threes. “Sorry dudes, I just am so foreign.” then i killed the guy

– Didn’t have my hanky yesterday cause I washed it and it needed to dry, felt tangibly uncomfortable all day with no hanky to dab my forehead with
– I ate a cow’s tongue last night and actually thought it was delicious
– Drinking almost exclusively green tea, am beginning to be able to tell the slight differences between different types
– Fake bands made of fake high-school girls wearing real bikinis continue their relentless popularity, “obviously”
– Of course you can’t buy beans in the grocery store, why would they need strange ethnic foods like beans in the normal supermarket

I’m taking three days off next week for summer leave, during which I plan to cook awesome food and visit a local beer brewery. For some reason I am thinking that the perfect accompaniment to my vacation would be a viewing of Doctor Zhivago, I am truly becoming insufferable.


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Something in my cup

I know only that I want to buy what is left of a chicken after you take all the good stuff out–its husk, that weeping shell of a bird, made forcefully to part with sections of itself it once enjoyed so much. I Want The Carcass, though such a word makes me think only of the dried-up creatures of a desert, left to get tough and crispy under the sun, passed up by even the most starving carrion-lovers. In Japanese this construct, this thing, is called “gara,” or “kara,” depending on if you find it referred to in one alphabet or the other. I want the tori‘s gara, the tori no gara. The bird’s rent hull, beat.

I want to make chicken noodle soup for my useless, damaged woman, who is sick more often than Garbage Pail Kids and who is currently a heap of sputum wadded up on our couch, soiled with the stank crud of expired tissues and yet-virile germs. But I do not want to half-mast this shit, no. This is no time for mourning but rejoicing! I am interested not in thine bouillon, thine consomme, thine stocks and bonds, thine broths and willy waters. I am to do it up, pound the collagens and fats and marrows of the world into delicious submission, bent to my every whim–I am Man! all sternum and stockpot, boiling from within. Essentially, I want to bubble this dead bird’s old frozen skeleton in a pot of water with some vegetables until it leaves delicious liquid for me, which I will turn into soup. It is a process older than recorded history, to be replicated in my tiny kitchen.

In the grocery store, the name of which transliterates, despite their most earnest English-focused intentions, to what an average American would pronounce “Gooroomay Shitty,” I wander around what is ostensibly considered the meat counter before accosting a man unloading some fish. He ushers me to the area where, for two-and-a-half bucks, I can take home the last remaining vestige of a life.

I will not explain the process of soup-making–the arcane chants required have no place in this text. What resulted after about five hours of incantations, however, was revelatory. Rendered into being from only the mysterious processes of cell growth and the gnashing of teeth, the magmatic stew shook the foundations of taste itself, delivering unto us most divine providence. Also I made some fucking noodles from some flour and eggs word son.

– 9% Chu-hi, a flavored, lemon-lime soda which happens to contain twice the amount of alcohol as exists in my blood stream
– Rock band “Galileo Galilei,” which has nothing to do with the dead guy of the same name, and other Japanese bands with totally normal band names: RADWIMPS, Mr. Children, HALFBY, Pia-no-jaC, Bump of Chicken, FUNKY MONKEY BABYS, and Flumpool
– Today’s sushi roll, which was the size of any normal sushi roll you’d get in the states, only I got it at a convenience store for a buck twenty five, and it was filled with mayonnaise and teriyaki chicken
– The year-long Japanese language class I’ve been taking, which is over now, and which has left me with the knowledge to probably pass the lowest-level Japanese Language Proficiency Test (N5), even though I still sound like a mentally stunted piece of corn when attempting to engage in conversation
– The Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo’s newest handheld video game system, which has sold something like a million systems in its first week, and which you can still not actually find to buy anywhere, and which I still have not seen anyone using in the wild, and which I am just trusting actually exists despite the lack of visual evidence
– The bizarre subgenre of television programming that seems almost solely devoted to young, mostly attractive women stepping into various onsens in Japan and then shouting in ecstasy KIMOCHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII

Dear Nomaday reader,

If you routinely find yourself hard up for the garbage these fingers churn out, this week could likely be one most satisfying. Not only is this very Nom hittin’ the tubes, but N-Sider plays host to a multitude of new articles I’ve written. Of course, I am only capable of tricking myself into continuing to write by deluding myself into believing that angry reflections at a week in Japan are considered actual writing, and also that spewing forth pointless humor about video games targeted at a niche audience and understood by only a fraction of that audience is worthwhile. How is your family? That is nice.

The downside of writing things that I enjoy writing is that The Novel, which has barely changed in years, continues to languish un-worked-on. The very real possibility that I will never be depressed enough again to work on it is harrowing, and so I have devised a series of actions to be carried out in an attempt to depress me. In order of execution: insult all of my co-workers, verbally renounce the acknowledgment of any number of gods, beat Jessy to within an inch of her life, use my cat as a punching bag (and later, a pipe cleaner), and perhaps grind the bones of everyone I have ever loved into a fine paste which I will use as sandwich spread.

But instead of getting started on that list I am writing in a virtual journal read only by a mysterious, unknown constituent, and eating string cheese, both of which make me about as happy as I can get without purchasing rare, semi-pornographic merchandise. Worthy trade-off? I guess. For Now

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Pizza Weiner

Apartment smells like lemongrass and an Indian knick-knack store, some Japanese jazz pianist tickling recorded ivories as I struggle against a bottle of wine corked harder than Life Goes On. Kiki wanders the place unaware of his impending playdate with visiting cat Momo, who ultimately will not return anything considered affection but will happily play with his toys. On the stove simmers a curry, newest iteration of a recipe I’ve been working on the last few days, originally a variant on Palak Paneer Tikka, heavy with softened onions and some grated ginger for a base, but evolved now into something almost Cambodian, heavy with amok spices, coconut milk the primary liquid, a few tablespoons of tomato paste held over, Japanese cottage cheese giving it a little more thickness.

These are the best parts about living in a place which is mine: I can cook whatever I want, I can keep the whisky next to the potatoes, I can light cheap, dirty incense, and my Wii remotes always have charged batteries. In my closet there are unfinished plastic robot models, still waiting in the boxes, next to a dozen tiny jars of paint, used exclusively to articulate bloody armor holes and shot eyes on an Eva-01.

After we and our friends finish eating I find the night capped off with a little two-player Battletoads, endlessly retrying the third level, the speeder bike stage, you know the one. Later, there is a resounding victory for Russia against China in some NES Ice Hockey, and then a quick couple minutes each of Mega Man X2 and Star Fox, with a Twinbee 3 chaser.

Having ruminated on the topic for a few days now, I can safely compose and present to you this informative chart about coconut milk:

Things That are Really Great About Coconut Milk
1. Good in curry
2. Fun to open with the pointy part of the bottle opener like those big cans of Hi-C that we used to get where you put the vent hole on one side
3. Exotic?

The best part of the Super Bowl on Monday was that I got to watch it this year, albeit on a recorded time-delayed stream that sometimes dipped down to fifteen frames a second, making it feel a little like watching football on a slide projector that a child was advancing after eating a variety of sweets. The Pittsburghers did Not Win the game, largely by fault of their own and not necessarily due to the fortitude of the opposition. But I did my part, by consuming four cans of Asahi Super Dry and conjuring up arcane, infernal curses against the televised men, curses unlike any of those some of the surrounding Japanese surely had ever theorized were even grammatically possible. At one point The Black Eyed Peas performed some musical numbers, and then Slash rose up through a trap door in the stage, and then Usher descended from the heavens as though a spirit, and then with fully two minutes left to go in the game, the entire recording ended, having automatically stopped after pulling four hours of video. Our host graciously spoiled the game for himself by pulling up some highlights on the Internet and showing the last drive to us–another man had recorded parts of his own recording off the television, then posted this recording on YouTube. It was, I believe, the closest I got to approximating how it might have looked to witness the disappointment on shaky feet in a Pittsburgh bar, though the destructive oblivion I’d have medicated myself into some years ago was absent.

– One of today’s convenience store lunch items, purchased for 210 yen, titled merely “Rappers” and taking a form somewhat like that of a burrito, only inside is a “Pizza Weiner”

– Favorite local breadery named DONQ, which I am sure I have mentioned in here before but just felt like pointing out again because it’s called DONQ
– Lost 800 yen the other day attempting to win a cute-ified stuffed version of an Evangelion character out of a crane machine at Namco Land, firmly cementing my crane game skills as having officially atrophied forever, never to return
– Spent an hour watching the annual school Karuta card game contest, during which the students need to listen to the teachers say one of one hundred famous poems and then reach for a card that contains the final lines of the famous poem (which they have memorized), and also during which I was privy to the twistedly enjoyable screams of agony and pain emanating from my three hundred and twenty first year high schoolers beaten to the cards by fractions of a second

I took it upon myself this weekend to talk Jessy into watching our first Bollywood movie together, mainly because I had located a real whopper: the most expensive Indian movie ever made, clocking in at around $36 million, this one, titled Endhiran, features the second-most famous Asian actor (after Jackie Chan) and the almost inconcievably beautiful Aishwarya Rai, both of which change costumes at least three times in each outlandish song-and-dance sequence. The greatest parts of this movie, aside from the plot itself–which revolves around a scientist who invents a super-robot who begins to develop emotions and attempts to seduce his girlfriend–certainly arrive near the end of the film, when the robot and his dozens of clones begin to gratuitously destroy everything. Even better? Halfway through the THREE HOUR picture we get a single scene of the robot walking slow-motion toward the camera, having just decided like any man that he is going after Ms. Rai, lifting his arms up as if to say “so what” and then a huge, comically-styled INTERMISSION bumper on the side of the screen.

I have since proceeded to download three other Bollywood movies to fill this new void in my life. I trust that a silly Indian man–with a full head of hair so thick it could be sold as a two-man toupee–and a variety of attractive women warbling like injured felines will do the trick.

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Break me off a piece of that

Now I chew on a Kit Kat “BIG LITTLE,” the name of a snack which happens to be a bite-sized chocolate ball version of “Big Kat,” itself a large version of Kit Kat. I just finished a stick of spicy string cheese, and I have a chestnut-flavored cola in front of me. Life should be good, shouldn’t it? As it happens, for many of you one of these days around now is Thanksgiving Day. Unlike last year I don’t even know which one it is, and will likely not concern myself with finding out. If it’s today, that means my Thanksgiving dinner is BIG LITTLE, and if it’s tomorrow, much like in 2009, my meal will be government-subsidized rice gloop with a plate of what is probably squid rings in semi-flavorless water (I am, as always, totally serious, only no, really). I have a theory that it is indeed tomorrow, because several people will be having a delicious feast at a scrumptious multi-course Brazilian meat restaurant. I of course will not be attending because it is “at night,” and every night I have is totally destroyed by Japanese class, work, or immediately falling asleep due to exhaustion (to be fair though, at least one night a week is spent drinking myself stupid).

The advantages of celebrating Thanksgiving in the U.S. are many. Football games on television, big steaming pots of noodles, tender roasted turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin pies, some beer, the weekend and change off, time for video games. But there are some advantages of not being in the States for the second Thanksgiving in a row. Oh wait no there aren’t.

We have been getting to know our new refrigerator like any sensible people would: by spending hundreds of dollars on bulky items that wouldn’t have any chance of finding space in our old one. Just the other day I baked some gratin potatoes in a casserole dish and then, with but a couple of spoonfuls left in the bowl, put plastic wrap on it and plugged it into the fridge for later consumption. Our bottom drawer, a crisper/cooler of most gracious space, currently harbors no less than two bottles of wine and a (to us) “jumbo” sized PET bottle of Coke, clocking in at two massive liters. We have shelves of vegetables, a door packed with dairy products, and a discrete freezer devoted entirely to fruit and ice cream. Even our cat could comfortably reside in the refrigerator, for a little while at most.

The precipitous changes that have occured around the place are due in no small part to the arrival of this behemoth: to ensure the continued functionality of our microwave/oven/toaster unit, which previously resided on the fridge (now much too tall to allow the ‘wave’s cords to reach the outlet) we have needed to shuffle various shelves around from the entryway to kitchen. In our lust for continued change, Jessy even got us a small Christmas tree, which is most totally a real tree, despite the fact that both of us will be out of the country from mid-December to early January, and will have no occasion to do anything exciting with the tree except smell it (it smells good). It is also the cat’s new favorite thing to crash into, sending needles all over the floor. Despite having his own bowl of water, Kiki now drinks exclusively from the tree’s stand. The Damned Thing is decorated extravagantly, with two, yard-long strings of LED lights, each powered by its own battery pack, because we live in Japan and things like this make sense. For example, the other day we started watching a Japanese animated series called “Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt,” which is about two dysfunctional girls who have to kill ghosts so they can get back into heaven. Panty’s panties transform into a gun, and Stocking’s stockings transform into a sword. In the first episode, they destroyed a monster literally composed of feces, who was eating people through their toilets. This is why Christmas lights are expensive.

eye to eye, station to station

– Made tacos last night, they felt exotic
– North Korea’s gettin’ crazy, hope they leave me alone
– Teachin’ late tonight, comin’ in an hour later next week
– Playin’ Black Ops on PS3, knifin’ dudes thousands of miles away
– Used to bowing in public, gonna look dumb in the U.S.
– Went grillin’ on Sunday, next to “no barbecue” sign
– Read this book called The Housekeeper and the Professor, it’s about math
– Things get more normal every day

i feel Good

There are some days, when I’m busy or tired or happen to feel a particular way, that all I want to do is sit at a table with a beer and some music and a Scrabble board and play against myself for hours, seven letters at a time.

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Sake it to me

Thanks to the overnight sleeper-bus “Southern Cross,” we arrive here in Hiroshima at an unprecedented hour: 7:00 a.m. or thereabouts, standing at the base of what they call quite descriptively “the Atomic Bomb Dome.”  Not too far from the hypocenter of the blast, this place has been meticulously preserved to remain precisely as it was left on the day of the bombing, and I can’t imagine too concretely that it doesn’t.  Over there’s the target, the T-shaped bridge used as a sight-up by the pilots from the air.  There’s barely anyone around this early, not even the swarms of American cruise-line tourists have arrived yet.  We joke about how many of them will pose in front of this thing with a thumbs-up–check it out, look where I am!!

While we wait for the museum proper to open we chomp on donburi at nearby order-from-a-ticket-machine 24-hour establishment Nakae, where at 8:15, to commemorate the exact moment that the thing exploded, I eat gyudon in a modern building in an area that even an educated bystander would be unable to recognize as one where anything out of the ordinary happened. In the museum they talk about how people were instantly vaporized, run demo reels of atomic bomb tests, show scale models of the blast range before and after. You can even touch certain artifacts recovered from the debris (you can touch these, they are safe), convenient Japanese/English placards read.

But we too, are bastards, here under false pretenses: though we are intrigued by the dome, the visiting of the memorials and the museum, the park, the paper cranes–and perhaps because of them–we really want to drink.  You see, though we may have come for the depression, we stay to also blow it to oblivion with lots of sake at the annual Hiroshima Sake Matsuri, a ridiculous extravaganza of which this is the 20th, and admission to which costs about fifteen bucks and gets us each a tiny sake cup.  From here the massive hordes walk around a tremendously crowded park-turned-fair, with occasionally placed booths separated by regions of Japan (Shikoku, Kinki, Chubu, etc).  At each one you hold your cup out and have it filled by an attendee with Some Kind Of Sake.  Apparently there exists some sort of method to determine which of the literally several hundreds you have already tried.  It seems a feat so counter-intuitive in its implementation that it must simply exist as some sort of elaborate Japanese joke–after eight or twelve or fifteen gulps of sake you cannot remember (or care) which ones you’ve tried, or how many, or from where, and to attempt to chart your progress would be an endeavor most meaningless.  I imagine fair organizers laughing heartily as they black-magic-marker off certain wines from the entrance list, organized by call letters and code names most menacing:  “Yamanake-san! H-32 is all gone!  Sure it is!  AHAHAHA!!!!” while the solemnly OCD checklist makers weep silently in the corner, then stop caring cause they are all so blitzed they don’t even know what checklists are anymore.

At and around the vicinity of this fair, we eat steak on a stick, deep-fried battered chicken meat with skin still attached all hot and bubbly, a tray of yakisoba, an ice cream bar, and maybe some other stuff?  I drink lots of sake.  As I wait near the exit for Jessy, I witness one stumbly-Joe drop his tiny sake cup and immediately stagger backwards, stepping right on it, while his friends try to hold him up.  One younger woman bends over to pick up the two halves of the neatly destroyed cup and I wonder maybe if the souvenirs from past Sake Matsuris are perhaps more quaint if they are left on a shelf busted in half: here’s the one from the year I drank a lot of sake, and here’s the one from the year I drank really a lot of sake, and here is the one that etc. etc. etc.

Deftly navigating the trains half-catatonic back to the city proper among hordes of like-minded individuals is a feat justly rewarded by our viewing of music-oriented stage production Blast!, which is performed by a cadre of talent including a way-back trumpet-playing acquaintance of Jessy’s. Meeting up with him outside the venue afterwards has to rank up there with the experiences I’ve had most resembling those I would have if I were in some way notable or famous, as simply Looking American while hanging around talking to him ensures I am accosted by swarms of schoolkids, elderly music enthusiasts, and passers-by tugging on my jacket to say “burasuto!” or hold up their program and a pen for an autograph. No, no, I’m nobody, do I even resemble anyone you’ve seen before? I should have signed their programs anyway, if only for the amusement. “American guy,” the most famous and rare of the Blast! entourage!

I have considered including a feature in upcoming Nom installments in which I recap notable tweets of the last week or so. It occurs to me that I often merely throw up a quick picture or tweet of items and events that maybe are worth writing about, but are relegated to a recent-few notification list on my sidebar or a fleeting stint as a Facebook status. I have been informed that however revelatory, my grandmother is now reading my Internets by way of a family member who creates printouts of this text and delivers them in person. (Hello from Kobe, Grandma!) She probably misses a good amount of the short Twittery updates, as do more infrequent readers or fly-by-night Google searchers inexplicably pointed in my direction.

I assure the rest of my readers that this knowledge will not do a disservice to my speech or content. I think Grandma is familiar with colorful language, even in black and white!

This weekend we are taking part in some sort of community luncheon/dinner, which I believe operates thusly: all participants prepare some portion of what could be considered a meal, and leave it stable in their apartment while they meet up with everyone else. From here, the swarm moves from place to place, cutely complimenting each abode while munching on the food they prepared. I am not one to take such a challenge lightly, and will be straining my culinary skills of experimentation to the breaking point by preparing a variety of totally bizarre sushi rolls. I see this meet-and-greet as a perfect opportunity to experiment on my own secret project in the form of a long-planned and carefully guarded sushi-roll secret recipe. To execute it carefully would be to ascend to the highest echelons of supreme notoriety, while to let the information fall into the wrong hands could be disastrous. The only question is where am I going to find American-style processed cheese in Kobe? I might need to do some exploring.

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The early taste of domesticity

In my best Japanese I sound like an unintelligible toddler, at its worst I must sound reanimated with 4% brain functionality.  I gave my first “all Japanese” speech today, a cursory introduction to some new co-workers who I’ll see only once a week and decided to practice on.  A rough translation of what I hope I said:

Hello.  Nice to meet you.  My name is Brandon.  I am 25.  I am from America, in Pennsylvania, in the city Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh is famous for Pittsburgh Pirates baseball and enka singer “Jero.”  I don’t know much Japanese.  I am trying to learn.  Please be good to me.

What I probably said was that I lack abilities pertaining to spatial and linguistic functions and processes, and that I was a very poor choice for a colleague (please be good to me).  They applauded at least, either to make me feel good or because there are flies in the air and they are showing me the one thing I can do around here to be of any discernible use.

On the bright side (very bright), I purchased a can of “BOSS COFFEE RAINBOW MOUNTAIN BLEND” on the recommendation of an Internet Friend who I met in Kobe for some udon last night.  The udon was really delicious and this coffee is too.  I think I am totally gonna get used to this canned coffee thing.  Icey cold and eerily refreshing!

On the homefront, things are picking up.  We had our first domestic couple-experience of purchasing a major household appliance on Sunday, it is a washing machine, and the sales processes (and machine itself) operate entirely in Japanese.  We got it during some wild sale for around ¥26000 (down from ¥32000!) and they delivered it and installed it the next day, exactly when they said they would, for free.  We so much enjoyed our purchase from Yamada Denki that we immediately bought a wall-mounted air conditioner/heater from them during the 1-day-5-units-only blowout special for a frankly insane ¥37000 (half-price!), which is so cheap compared to all others we’ve seen that I literally defecated on the floor as we made the purchase.  They will be delivering and installing the aircon on Saturday.  Both appliances being Toshiba-made, we now routinely operate our Toshiba rice cooker, refrigerator, washing machine, my Toshiba Biblio phone, a Toshiba laptop at work, and soon our new Toshiba heating and cooling unit.  I feel an odd sense of Japanese brand loyalty and pride that stirs me deep inside.

Having recently received a massive salvo of goods left by my predecessor from the school, we now also have a small table and two chairs, a sorta-coffee table, an iron, a toaster oven, a tiny vacuum cleaner, and even my own futon with comforter.  All this really leaves on my Oh-God-I-Can’t-Be-Comfortable-Until-I-Get-This-Stuff list is a big fucking plasma television and Internet access, the acquisition of either most assuredly actions that will be not unlike those of a similar harbinger of most resplendent fortunes: descending slowly upon our living room an astral choir shall irradiate the area with blessed light, produce from within a holy instrument, and interface the communal knowledge of Gods with our spongey corporeal cortexes.  In conclusion I want a TV and some Internet.

The TV at least I know won’t come for another three months or so–I’ve been telling myself (and all who would dare to ask) that “my birthday” is the planned pick-up date, far enough ahead to allow me time to save, close enough to seem like a plausible future event.  Internet is more nebulous: I guess technically Jessy arranged service with Yahoo BB while getting her phone.  We got a paper with today’s date on it in the mail, but she knows nothing about it and neither of us are home during most of the regular weekday hours.  I can’t even call Yahoo to find out what’s going on–my language skills prevent me from saying anything other than My name is Brandon computer Internet please hamburger supermarket nice to meet you cool interesting delicious Monday, and this will get me nowhere.  My laptop thirsts for world-juice, it has been deprived since the final Tokyo morning fifteen days ago and at night I hear it sneaking to the balcony and whirring idly at the moon.  I want to tell him it will be O.K., that everything is on the way, that we’re gonna make it through this, but the strange mail makes no sense and all I can read on it is something about an octopus which I am guessing is wrong.

To keep our minds off TV and Internet we have taken to cooking.  Two nights ago we made honest to goodness gyudon, or “beef bowl,” which is thinly-sliced beef boiled in a sauce composed of dashi (a ubiquitous stock-like broth), mirin (a sake-containing sweet cooking liquid), soy sauce, sugar, and onions, then poured atop a bowl of rice.  When I told one of my fellow teachers I made gyudon, he said “oh, you went to Yoshinoya?” (A popular fast-food gyudon restaurant.)  I said no, I made gyudon, and he went “eeeeeh sugoooi!!!!” which roughly translated means “Oh!  Brandon!  You are more incredible and industrious than any man I have ever known!”  I was like yeah I know.

I wrote a guide and left it at home so Jessy can prepare some curry tonight, which Japanese-style is super-often eaten and sold in dozens of forms nearly everywhere.  I think she’s putting carrots and chicken and potato and corn in it?  I won’t get home until late tonight, but I can already smell that distinctively spicy aroma.

We’ve also made spaghetti a few times, notable most specifically because of Japanese spaghetti sauce, which mostly comes in two or three varieties, and always in feeds-two non-resealable plastic pouches: “Neapolitan,” which tastes mostly like ketchup and contains bits of green pepper and mushroom, “Meat Sauce,” which is sweeter than standard American spaghetti meat sauce but still weirdly delicious, and then an odd variation of Neapolitan, composed mostly of oil? and tasting kinda like stuffed shells or something.  They’re all edible anyway, and at ¥88 or so a pouch I can’t really complain.

Another area of existence here that is finally beginning to be less of a crapshoot is the train system.  Used to be, on a given day I’d take four trains: two to work from home and two to home from work, at an average daily cost of around ¥850, for a weekly five-day cost of about ¥4250, a whopping ¥17000 a month!  But I got wise–turns out there are these things called “Commutation Passes,” which you buy at your local station and which enable unlimited trips to and from two points on a single train line for three months.  My total cost for those passes (for the two train lines I take each day) was ¥41130, which seems like a lot up front but does not require absolute intelligence to make itself an obviously better deal when compared against the total of twenty normal day-per-month average travel costs for three months (¥17000 x 3 = ¥51000).  It’s a massive savings of ¥10000 in a three month period!  And not only that–unlimited trips means no more paying to go downtown and back at night after coming home or on weekends and holidays.  Take that, Japan!  Even as I write this my brain churns, frantically devising new and industrious ways to get better deals and monetary savings, which I can promptly annul by spending hundreds and hundreds of yen on gashapon capsule machine toys (totally worth it).

On that note, we are even getting better at the grocery store, checking the “discounted” areas of the bakery and produce sections in the evenings when the Japanese obsession with freshness goes corporate and leads to sweeping 40% discounts on many daily perishables.  Among my favorite scores: “Pizza Bread,” a wholly different entity than anything that moniker would elicit an idea of in the states–a paperback book-sized soft fresh bread, brushed with pizza sauce, garnished with tiny bits of pepperoni and thin slices of onion, then topped with cheese and individually wrapped.  At night they go all the way down to ¥60 sometimes, a sum that has never tasted so good.  Popped into the in-range grill for a few seconds in the morning the doughy delight makes a delicious breakfast.  And while I’m on the topic of bread do the Japanese ever love theirs.

In addition to the “standard” white bread (sold in weird packs of five texas-toast dwarfing enormous pillowy slices), you can get melon bread (sweet and crispy), curry bread (a deep-fried bread filled with Japanese curry), choco bread (a baguette stuffed with chocolate sauce), and even burger breads, which actually have a burger, mayo, and teriyaki sauce inside and sit there with the other bread, wrapped up in paper like a fast food burger for ¥100. You can microwave it, toast it, or just nom it as is. They are alarmingly delicious. Disarmingly delicious even.  I cannot comprehend how they do it.  Anyway it all works out for us to get an expiration discount on bread that doesn’t “expire” for another two days anyway since we’re used to the states where they’ll sell you anything as long as you forget to check the sell-by label first. 

So, we are moving right along.  We have the trains mostly figured out and walking paths to and from the stations to work and home are beginning to stabilize.  We can shop, cook, do laundry, sleep normally (finally), use our mobile phones, and even utilize Japanese bank accounts.  Most importantly, we can do it all without looking like befuddled tourists, a personal element of pride offset only by our looking genetically like Americans no matter what we do.  In this case, I think I’ll take what I can get.

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We are feeling a little culturally fatigued

6:55 AM, Our Apartment, Port Island, Kobe, Japan

It’s been one week, and in that time, despite accomplishing a relatively great deal, we have accomplished markedly little to aid us in our daily life. Part of the peculiar reason for that is that most common household tools, freely available and affordable in the U.S., are ridiculously, prohibitively expensive here, with bizarre exceptions.

Want a clothes washer? A baseline model, low-end, will run you roughly 29,000 yen here (just move the comma to the right to approximate a dollar value (in this case, about $290)). Pretty affordable! (Not that we’d know how to use it or get it to our house to begin with yet.) If you want a clothes dryer, however, an object which virtually nobody in Japan owns and which the local Wal-Mart-like store (Izumiya) carries only one model of, be prepared to pay upwards of 62,000 yen. So we’ll dry our clothes on the deck! Sounds fun and totally Japanese! I don’t need no clothes-shrinking dryer! At the “accessory shop” in Sannomiya (Tokyu Hands), you can pay 2,000-4,000 for a ready-to-blow-away plastic clothes-drying rack, or (I kid you not) 18,000 for a metal one that feels like a twelve-dollar K-mart special. On the other hand, my brand-new cell phone, the Toshiba Biblio, with e-mail capabilities, a 5 megapixel camera, an e-book reader, a TV antenna that picks up broadcast TV for free, and a host of other idiotic goodies, costs a grand total (including the price of the phone over a two-year contract, I paid nothing up front) of roughly $40 a month.

An air-conditioner (commonly called air-con)? No houses in Japan have central air or heating, so they all need to use wall-mounted AC units that sit up near the ceiling and attach onto metal bolts. The cost for the most basic air-con at Izumiya, now, in the middle of summer so hot that we were out in Kobe yesterday for three hours and felt like dying? 79,000 yen (that is seven hundred and ninety dollars). If you want one that also heats in the winter, add another 30,000-40,000 yen. Feel like going the cheap route and stocking your place with tiny electric fans? The one our apartment came with, weighing somewhere around three pounds and having a diameter of roughly 14″, retails for 3,990 yen. A miniature desk fan the size of a CD case literally costs 1,490 yen.

We paid 1,000 each for a tiny non-stick pot and pan, and had to pass on an iron and rice cooker (cheapest models 4,000 yen each). Even the new and enormous IKEA store here on Port Island has adopted the Japanese Way: identical stand-up torchierre-style floor lamp, which I purchased one of in Pittsburgh for $9.90, retails for a confusing 2,490 yen.

I can’t fully determine if these prices are just because we live in a relatively large city, or if things would be cheaper in a semi-urban setting, but all that this means is that until Friday (glorious payday) we’ve decided to reserve the meager amounts of money we have so that we can take the trains to work, and also so we can eat. In the mean time, Jessy is literally washing our essential clothing items in the rather spacious sink with dish soap, so that we can hang them up on our kitchen storage rack to dry (we’d hang them outside, but our deck is covered with months of uninhabited-apartment pigeon shit. (I got a deck brush, but owning no bucket with which to transport water to said deck, might prove limitedly useful.)

Did I mention the trash system? First of all there are basically no trash cans anywhere so prepare to hang on to your junk if you’re just out and about. At one of my schools, in order to throw away a plastic soda bottle, you must tear off the plastic label (they are perforated for this purpose) and put it in one can, remove the lid and put it in another can, then crush the bottle and put it in a third can. On our island, we are restricted less (only three separations, for recyclable containers, burnables, and non-burnables), but we own no trash cans (tiny, bathroom sized cans were 1,490), and everything must be placed in specially labelled trash bags (available in packs of five at your local Toho supermarket).

At our orientation, they called this level of cultural fatigue (often confusingly referred to as “culture shock” despite it being not at all a sudden process) “Stage 2,” wherein the new arrivals stop noticing the quaint similarities and exciting differences in culture and begin to focus only on the negative elements. I am willing to bet that a couple months down the line, when I have a TV again, when I can Wash My Clothes, when I can know that I will be able to sleep tonight without waking up sore-throated in a puddle of my own sweat, when we have more in our kitchen than two bowls, a pot and pan, and silverware (and a tiny bag of 400 yen cereal), when I have Internet access at home and can learn a damned thing about anything (I’m typing this in Notepad on a Sunday morning at home)–maybe then I’ll move on to “Stage 3” and finally begin to feel comfortable in my day-to-day life. Until then, god dammit.

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