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Cool Japan: Literally!

Summer is coming! You can feel it in the air. The cold wind is mixed with long strands of hot air dancing, stroking your face and making you feel oddly violated. Coats get put in the closet along with wool sweaters, scarves and those gloves that you can use smartphones with. It is a wonderful time of the year, until it´s not. Now, I come from a fairly cold country. Our summers consist of slightly less outpouring from the sky and maybe the wind takes a small rest. I personally never put my coat in the closet, since you never know when it is going to start raining again. (And don´t get me started on umbrellas). So it is not surprising that a person, who grew up in a country whose data centers are cooled by opening the window, is not very knowledgeable about anything above 25 degrees Celsius. And when said person moves to a country, like Japan, where (NUMBER OF PEOPLE) die every year from heatstroke, things get interesting. This may sound like common sense to most people. These are things you learn in the first grade and you do them without thinking about them. To those people I say this: Try digging your car out of the driveway through a meter of snow at 10 in the morning before the sun is up and then drive on slippery ice for two hours because the roads don’t get salted only to find out your classes were cancelled not because of the snow, but because the teacher is sick. And to those who DO know both: Well, aren’t you clever. So here are a few tips and tricks to keep yourself cool during the summer, courtesy of a few years living in Japan and mostly thanks to a very patient SO. 1. Cake blocks. You know when you buy cakes in Daimaru or whatever cake shop and they pack it with a bag of frozen gel to keep it fresh? Wrap a few of those bad boys in a towel and put it around your neck for instant cooling comfort. 2. Cooling bedding Get yourself bedding with cooling properties. Pillow covers, blankets and things made out of poly-whatever materials that are cool to the touch. I never used to use them until they were forced on me, and now I cannot live without them. 3. Water spray When you are in USJ or somewhere where there are a lot of people, sometimes you can find one of these places that spray water in a fine mist over everything. This is surprisingly cooling, especially if you are walking through crowds looking for the shortest way to the Spiderman ride. I saw one of these in my school once, and after basking in the cooling mist for a while, I realized that it was there to water the plants… 4. Avoid the top floor This one came from my realtor when we were apartment hunting. He informed me that getting an apartment on the top floor would result in hotter summers and colder winters. Something to do with the sunlight hitting the roof and the heat going directly to your apartment. I didn’t listen at the time (when do I ever) and I have no frame of reference, but he was probably right. Top floor was totally worth it though! 5. Keep hydrated. Really hydrated! This is a big one. Back in the old country, you are never more than a few meters away from a clean water source. Not that you need it that much, since the temperature doesn’t really go over the legal limit. HOWEVER, in Japan, I have been known to keep two or three water bottles with me AT ALL TIMES. I have been experiencing symptoms of mild dehydration and heatstroke without even knowing about it. Talk about dangerous! Take my advice. Drink when you can. Not when you are thirsty. If you are thirsty, it is already too late. (**I am not, nor have I ever been a doctor**) Although the sheer amount of vending macines in Japan provides a certain peace of mind that you can at least get something to drink at any given time. Provided you have 100 yen on you. 6. Fans and circulators vs air conditioners. My fan runs at a maximum 35W. My air conditioner runs max 2000W. Any questions? 7. When freezing water in a bottle ,freeze it only half full and on its side (making sure the ice does not block the mouth of the bottle). Then when it is frozen, put water in so that it fills the bottle up. The water will cool and you will be happy. 8. GAMAN The word Gaman in my language actually means “fun”. Although there is nothing fun about being a sweating mess laying on the sofa trying to muster up the energy to change the channel, but every movement provides friction in the air particles which increases the temperature by a few nano-centigrades. You know the old saying (atsui neeeeeeeeee). What people are doing there is not try to be annoying. They are sharing their suffering. Misery loves company and all that. When you hear people saying that, why not just join in? When you can’t beat them, say “atsui nee” until winter comes. So in a few months, when you’ll be able to cook an egg on the sidewalk at night, just remember these few tips. I know this information is fairly useless for many of you, but for those few who, like me, are discovering the wheel in more aspects than one in life, I hope this will help. And if it doesn’t help, try to Gaman.

Bloom-boom: The Sakura of Kansai

Let’s talk flowers. Flowers represent beauty in many if not all cultures around the world. Imagine living in the 1500s. What colors do you think would be around you? I always imagine brown, brown and even more brown with a small serving of brown. You know, wood houses, muddy roads, people wearing old linen or hemp. So where and when would people see colors? In spring when the flowers bloom of course. The harsh winters have made people so miserable that any new color is a blessing. So, suddenly, overnight, the weather starts improving. The bees are waking up and the trees lose their depressing, bare looks and then, without warning, the world explodes in yellows, reds and greens. This, I imagine, applied to Japan too, only a little bit more magical. The blooming cherry blossom`s pink color is a wonderful change from the normal background colors. Becoming popular in the Heian period, flower viewing was the inspiration for many haikus, wakas and many other forms of art, which the time period is known for. Just like most things to do with Japan, the basic principles are very simple but the depth of it is overwhelming. I mean, it is just a picnic under a tree, right? Well, yes and no. It depends on how deeply you are willing to get into the meaning of the whole thing. My favorite allegory to do with flower viewing and the sakura trees especially is that life is extremely fragile and temporary. Just like the sakura themselves, life comes and goes and we really do not have any sort of control over it. So we should just sit down and enjoy it while it lasts. Know that it will go away soon, so you appreciate it now before it goes away…… or something like that. The modern version of flower viewing are pretty similar to the old style, I guess. Go under the tree with food and alcohol and have a mini-party until it gets too cold or uncle Taku gets too drunk, whichever comes first. I love the fact that the news stations have a blooming-forecast, starting in Okinawa (where it is warm) going up to Hokkaido. It always reminds me of some sort of terrible event that is sweeping the nation. Who will be next?!? …anyway Best places to “flower view” in Kansai I have two favorite places in Osaka and one in Kyoto which I would say are the perfect places to “view” the flowers in a nice environment. First one, as always, is Osaka Castle Park. It is really big, so you do not have to worry about being crowded that much. It also has a beautiful view of the castle itself from many different angles. The park, like most places in Japan is very clean and I would say very safe considering its size. There are always some runners around, even at night, so… you know… safety in numbers and all that. The second place I would recommend is Sakuranomiya. See! It even has Sakura in the name. You can access it one station away from Kyobashi station on the JR Osaka loop line. Nothing compares to a large river with pink sakura trees going all along the riverside lit up at night. That is Sakuranomiya. The third entry on this list is the classical tourist destination. The Kamo River in Kyoto. It may not have “sakura” in its name, like Sakuranomiya, but its friendly atmosphere and the wide, shallow river makes it one of my favorite places to visit in all of Japan. I do not know what it is about Kyoto, but the atmosphere there is just so much different than any other city in Japan I have ever been in. Actually, I am pretty sure I know why. The lack of high-rise buildings and the forest-covered mountains on every side gives a certain natural aura that calms the heart in a very special way. Every time I go there, I can feel my blood pressure dropping down to pre-anxiety levels. It feels good.  If you have not been there before, do yourself a favor and make the trip. You will not be disappointed. If this year will be your first flower viewing experience, please remember to take it slow, drink responsibly, eat healthily and for Pete`s sake, enjoy the flowers!

Magnolia festival in Fujieda (Shizuoka)

It is the beginning of spring and you can find everywhere plum blossom and cherry blossom. But there is another very beautiful flower you can find around whole Japan. The very beautiful magnolia in white or pink. During my trip to Shizuoka I used the good weather to visit a magnolia festival. Southwest of Fujieda (Shizuoka) you can find the Jurinji shrine, which is a very small cute shrine. But the main attraction is the small hill next to the shrine. You can find many beautiful magnolia in white in pink there. It is like an ocean of white flowers. I´ve never seen so many white magnolia before. So I was very happy and enjoyed it very much.There is a small way around the hill where you can enjoy the flowers and also you will have a beautiful view over the city. If you are close to Shizuoka, I recommend to take a small stop there!

Tofu + Sesame Icecream (awesome!)

When you visit Arashiyama in Kyoto, I'd highly recommend you to check out this little corner shop on your way to or from the mountain to the station. The shop serves what are two of my favourite ice-cream flavours in one cone: Tofu icecream and black sesame icecream.The creaminess of vanilla blends perfectly with each flavour, and yes, the two match fantastically too. You won't be overwhelmed by the sweetness like with some other icecream choices, and this peaceful sweetness is perfect for a spiritual place like Kyoto.Kyoto is famous for its tofu, and this little dessert option is one not to miss, especially when you're visiting Kyoto in summer!

English-speaking Dental Clinic in Fukui City

Last weekend, I had a dental emergency. My level of Japanese is just enough to set an appointment, but definitely not enough to understand any medical procedure (I had to google what "gums" were in Japanese). Hayakawa Dental Clinic is a rather big clinic with 3 attending dentists and a lot of dental hygienists and assistants. Initially, I had an appointment for a week later because the clinic is a little busy. But the pain became unbearable a few days after I set the appointment. I asked a friend to call them and tell them that I had an emergency. So I came just before clinic hours started just in case they could accommodate me. The staff were patient, treated me as if I had an appointment, and one of the dentists was able to accommodate me. I had an X-ray taken, my tooth cleaned, and my situation explained to me. The dentist I saw could understand English, and could also speak basic English. The assistants spoke Japanese, but were very gentle and used signs to explain whatever I couldn't catch. I am very grateful ! 

Cold, wet, and windy Kujukuri. Feels like home!

If I can help it, I refrain from the checking the surf forecast for the weekend until some time on Friday. I do this out of fear. If it turns out that there will be no surfing over the weekend, I’d rather not know about it until later. The prospect of work without the reward of surf is more than I can be bothered to bare.    Sometimes you just have to go and give it a try though, even when wind charts are telling you to spend your Sunday morning in bed. It’s a daft form of denial I suppose, especially when it’s going to drag you out of bed at 4 am and into the cold and wet dark. Still, one of my favorite things about getting up for a surf is stealing out of the city on empty highways with a good CD playing in the car. It’s one of the few times I listen to music through speakers. There are indicators I look out for on route to the beach in Chiba which give me some idea of what the ocean will be like. The first is a river seeping into Tokyo Bay. From the bridge I check the surface of the water; if it’s glassy, that’s a good sign. Today it was a little bumpy, but not really giving too much away. Of course, it’s not until you actually lay eyes on the ocean that you know if you’re going to be surfing or not. There is, however, one more advanced indicator that is rarely off; the old geezer that attends to the car park by the beach. This morning he greeted me, “Daijoubu kai?”. A kind of eyebrow raised, Are you alright?. Not a good sign (we still can’t see the ocean at this point). Then he nailed the coffin shut, “Ki wo tsukete ne!”.  Take care, alright!.  Now, he only ever says that when the ocean is rougher than a hangover. So there and then I knew that the surf was likely a no go. (Don't know what he's looking so happy about!)This morning I probably should have turned around immediately and headed for home. I decided to hike around for a bit and get soaking wet, instead. This kind of weather reminds me of home though (even after plenty of years in Japan, it still isn’t home) and it felt nice to be out in it. The scruffy desolation of a Japanese beach outside of season and in grotty weather also has the look and feel of mid-winter seaside resorts back home. In the end, despite getting soaked to the bone, I enjoyed snapping some pics of beach (sorry, this is the Fudodo area of Kujukurihama, by the way). I took these with my pretty out-of-date iPhone (Are they ever in?) and played around with some filters when I got back. Kujukurihama, Chiba on a foul Sunday morning then: (Wind swept)(I snapped this as I was racing back to the car to save from getting any more wet)(The other side of the road that runs parallel to the beach; houses that look like they've seen better days)

The highs and lows of Omiyage

Japanese love giving omiyage when they go somewhere for a visit. In some situations you are socially obligated to bring something back with you, especially if you are “inconveniencing” someone else without your presence. One such situation is taking “nenkyuu”, or paid-leave, to go travel or vacation someplace. Often the members of the staff room will expect to also partake in your adventure by indulging in something tasty that you have graciously brought back with you. Omiyage often includes anything from chocolates or normal snacks you would get but the packaging happens to have the local characters face on it. But this isn’t the only time omiyage is appropriate. Other reasons you could receive omiyage is for celebration(less likely), or regret (most likely).  Because omiyage is so ingrained in Japanese culture, you can buy it almost anywhere, even at rural (yet large enough to have a store that sells something) out-in-nowhere train stations where you wouldn’t expect to see a box of nicely individually wrapped confectionery. I always knew where my co-workers had gone during their obon or New Year’s vacations because the packaging would conveniently have the name of the place written on it. It was especially nice when the teachers I worked with went outside of japan, because it was guaranteed the snacks would be different from the usual chocolate or “senbei” rice crackers.  I think the strangest thing brought back was some reindeer jerky from Finland. I honestly can't say what the best thing brought back was, because well, I generally like most things sweet or salty or savory or food, I like food. That being said, a few of my favorite things that I can easily recall are some wafer crackers with a sort of thin creamy filling. I've seen them different places, often reflecting the region. For example, Tochigi which is famous for strawberries has a strawberry filling. Another I remember well is from Ashikaga (ironically also in Tochigi. I’m guessing you gotta go to Tochigi for the snacks). The look of it is unimpressive. But oh the taste. It’s sweet but not too sweet with a crispy outside and soft inside. Having just one will certainly make you want another...until you realize just one little rectangular prism of goodness will set you back 120en. They aren’t even the size of a mouthful really. But they are great to get as a gift. So, you know, if you happen to come to Ashikaga for the wine festival in November, or the fireworks in August, or the flower park during spring or Christmas, check around the stations. You are bound to spot them. But nicely packaged food isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Sure you get to try lots of different things, but that also means you have to smile and thank someone politely...even if you don't like the item. Every year, the PTA would provide omiyage for the staff after the sports day or other such activity where the teacher must have been “inconvenienced” and needed to celebrate for a job well done. This is what I was told anyway the first year I got a pile of sweets on my desk. They were all the same basic omiyage, “anko” or sweet bean paste. In small amounts, or when I am really craving something super sweet, anko can be good. But four large dumplings are just too much. They are also encased in an overly sweet wafer of cakey casing that sticks to your teeth. It’s kind of like eating a heavy chalky sugar paste that sometimes also has a random chestnut stuck in it just to add to the chalky grit. Really not the best gift to get. And their expiration dates always seem too soon. I don't like wasting food, but I can say a few of these went in the trash. These must be a regional specialty because on another occasion I received a whole box of these same sweets.  This time as a “sorry I inconvenienced you by hitting you with my car” gift. Super sweet right? I think I might have eaten the whole box for dinner out of sore and because my body hurt too much to cook. But that's a story for a different blog.  You can check the first part out here.  But these weren't the worst omiyage I've ever eaten. No that title belongs to a box of delicious looking mochi balls (smooshed up gluttonous rice cakes) that I bought myself for my colleagues. To be honest I just wanted to try them myself.  Bad decision. But they looked so good. Powder covered chocolate flavored sticky rice balls on concurrent to eat sticks! How could I go wrong? Well let me give you a back story as to where I got these first. On a whim, a friend of mine invited me to climb Mount Fuji with her and her family.  Because it was on just a whim, and I didn't really do much research or think too much about the trip, I was highly unprepared to say the least. Dangerously so. And. It made for a very hungry lady when she finally made it to the bottom (5th station, so not actually the bottom) of the mountain.   But you remember that friend and her family? Well, me not being a nice friend had left her behind thinking we could just meet up the next day before our bus ride. There aren't that many places near the bus stop, so it wouldn't be hard. That was my thought anyway. So hungry tired me went in look for omiyage while I waited around for the friend to show. Let's just say I had ample time to make my decision and I finally settled on this.  Looks good right? That's why I got it. I wanted to try it before bringing it back to my office of teachers ready to share my harrowing story of climbing Fuji.  Turns out I didn't want to share this with them. It was bad. Really really bad. And I had just done enough physical exertion that should have made anything seem edible.  Not these. That white powder coating is not sugar like I had thought, but in fact cornstarch, straight unflavored cornstarch. The texture of the mochi was also off, not sticky and soft but had a gelatinous putty like feel to it.  And that chocolate taste it promised, I'm still looking for it years later. Whoever made these either never tried them, or was too cheap to care and change the recipe. They are the worst and please never submit your co-workers to these monstrosity of omiyage. unless you don't get along with them, then by all means make a trip out to Mount Fuji and stock up.

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