Archive for the ‘Spring term’ Category

Just when I thought I had seen it all in Japan, I realised I have only been scraping the surface of bizarrity. (That isn’t a word but it sounds right somehow. My English ability has dropped to the level of a 6 year old.) I went for a mosey around the public library at Tsurumai Park the other day, and was more than a little surprised to see that there is a Sugakiya (ramen restaurant) inside. Not attached to the outside, but actually inside the library. I was thinking how amazing it would be if SOAS had something similar – during the exam period and 24hr opening a ramen restaurant in the library would be the perfect antidote to a hard nights revision!

But it gets even weirder than that. After a hunger fuelled stroll in search of a new and exciting restaurant, we found the perfect place that the producers of Hells Kitchen would probably commit acts of indecency in public places for Gordon Ramsey to sort out. A restaurant called “Mountain”, which specialises in interesting types of rice and spaghetti. Naturally, amongst the list of about 60 types of spaghetti (which actually turned out to be more like a noodle-pasta hybrid; best not to ask) you have standard sauces such as bolognese, carbonara and Japanese style flavours such as Mentaiko (spicy roe). What is surprising however, is seeing strawberry pasta make an appearance on the menu. Or kiwi pasta. Or banana pasta. There were a lot of very strange combinations – none of which sounded very appetising! I saw someone eating said strawberry pasta, and it seemed that it was the sauce and not the actually pasta which was strawberry flavoured. I must say it looked truly horrific. However the absolute worst item on the menu had to be the “Italian Tomato Parfait”. What part of  mixing ice cream and tomatoes seems like a good idea?! And what sort of person orders such a vomit inducing concoction?! Whats more, the portion sizes were bigger than American sizes, enough for 2 very hungry people or maybe even 3! After eating about a third I had to give it up to Michael who has the appetite of an mammoth. I would love to see Gordons reaction to the menu and restaurant…

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Japan has a wonderful variety of food, some of which is strange, some of which is horrendous. Some things which I used to think were really different or interesting have become so normal (green tea ice cream, miso soup, seaweed, raw eggs, pickled cucumber and radish etc) but there are still things which I find a bit bizarre.

However strange something sounds, I will always try it once to see what its like, and so I thought I would share a few of my experiences with you.

Whale – Amazing. If whales want to stop being endangered then they should stop being so delicious! I had it served raw, very thinly sliced with garlic, soy sauce and ginger. It has the appearance of very fine quality steak, very lean and not fatty at all. It also tastes similar to steak, but even softer. It didn’t have a fishy flavour at all. I wish whales weren’t endangered, this is definitely the most un-eco-friendly food I have ever eaten, but I am glad to have had the chance to try it.

Fugu (Highly poisonous Pufferfish) – One of my students took my out for a very posh meal and this came as part of a set course feast, so I didn’t even know what it was until after I ate most of it! It looks like any other kind of white fish, has virtually no distinguishing taste, and is in fact rather bland. I am sure people only eat it for the death factor, and as I didn’t know what it was, this was non-existant! Nice to be able to say I’ve tried it, but I won’t be wasting money on it anytime soon (due to the fact that it is so poisonous, the chefs have to pass very rigurous tests before they are allowed to prepare it and so it is top-end price range). Incidently, almost all deaths caused by fugu are due to housewives trying to save a bit of money and prepare it at home, although the jury is out on whether this can be considered accidental or not!

Sea Urchin – I was expecting this to be good since it is such a prized delicacy in Japan (at up to $450/kg its up there with caviar and the like) and maybe its something you get used to, but I’m not a big fan. It has the strangest flavour. Very strong taste of the sea, very salty, and with a rather nasty after taste. I didnt like it the first time I had it at an average quality sushi shop, but I tried it again at a posh restaurant and it was slightly better, so perhaps it depends on the quality.

Octopus – fairly standard by Japanese standards but very nice all the same. Bit of a chewy/rubbery quality to it like squid, but as long as its fresh, it always has a slight tenderness too.

Sea cucumber – not bad, bit chewy. It came raw but pickled which has the effect of dehydrating it and giving it the texture of raw Octopus. Having encountered a sea cucumber or two in Australia while diving I was rather interested to see what it tasted like.

Sea Cucumber’s Bowels – Tried eating the bowels raw after seeing the head chef so boldly down a piece,  however this was  honestly the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten/seen/smelt. Bearing in mind that Sea Cucumbers are bottom feeders and scavenge whatever they can find, plus sift through sediment, you can get some idea of the flavour. Essentially it smells and tastes really strongly of the sea, whilst being incredibly salty. The sensation of eating it is comparable to drowning in the sea with the pungent sting of seawater all up in your nose followed by the abrasive scratching of crushed seashells and sand. However, instead of dying, you will have an unforgettable aftertaste that will have you retching. Avoid at all costs.

Tuna/Bonito’s Bowels – Not as bad as the above (kind of chewy like beef intestines very very salty and very very fishy) but not particularly enjoyable by any means.

Raw Jellyfish – a really tasty treat. This one has become a favourite in my bento lunchbox and I will miss it when I go home. Slightly strange chewy texture, it seems to be served in a sesame seed sauce wherever I eat it. I was half expecting to have a numb tongue after eating it but thankfully it doesn’t come with such a kick!

Abalone – Kind of chewy, pretty yummy. Its a bit like a cross between squid and moules!

Pigs trotter -not something I would probably ever order again, but not half as bad as it sounds. Essentially it was just fat, served on the bone in some kind of sweet and salty soup.  I’m not a big fan of fatty textures which was the main reason I wouldn’t order it again, but it had obviously been simmered in the soup for hours and had absorbed all the flavour which made it nice.

Face of a Pig – Again, this isn’t something I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen, but I did enjoy eating it. It was the skin of the pig’s face sliced up, and although it is cooked for a long time it remains ever so slightly chewy.

Pigs Ears with kim-chi -pretty much the same as pigs face, thinly sliced pieces served in a kimchi sauce. Delicious.

Raw Chicken- thought this would be horrendous, but I have eaten this twice now with no foul consequences. Apparently salmonella isn’t a big problem in Japan, and when you eat chicken sashimi its with meat that has been slaughtered that morning (or so I am told). It is poached for 20 seconds and then sliced thinly. Served with soy sauce, ginger paste and finely sliced spring onions. Its the same texture as raw fish but obviously the taste is different! I would recommend trying it if you are in Japan, but can’t imagine eating it anywhere else! It is surprisingly nice.

Fermented soy beans (納豆) – not pleasant. Very standard in Japan, but I have no idea why. Everyone raves about its health benefits but that’s not enough to persuade me that I should eat it it. It is brown, sticky, gooey,and  stringy like melted mozzarella cheese. It looks AWFUL, it smells AWFUL, it tastes AWFUL, but the worst part is that it leaves a disgusting aftertaste in your mouth which leaves you wondering why you let it violate your body out of choice.

Chickens heart, beef tripe, liver, and other various innards – not bad. I know you can get these at home, but they don’t really form part of my everyday diet, so it was good to try them. I like the way things are cooked here, very simply with subtle ingredients, so you really taste the meat. Japanese/korean barbecue or Yakitori is the most common and best way to eat innards. If you go to a Yakitori restaurant with a Japanese friend, get them to order a bunch of random ones and try them without knowing what they are – such a fun game!

The only random thing left I really want to try whilst in Japan is horse meat sashimi which I will get around to as soon as I have some money!

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Sorry for such a long absence!

The last month and a bit has been very busy with a fantastic 10 day visit from my parents, never ending mountains of work, and a trip up to Niigata for a weekend of snowboarding!

Seeing my parents was a really nice break and we managed to cram a lot of travel into a short period of time, visiting places like Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara, as well as Nagoya! Its interesting to see Japan through their eyes since it was their first visit. Some of the things I take for granted here or have become used to are actually really strange when you think about it – like the lack of fresh vegetables in my diet, vending machines which serve anything from a meal to beer to hot drinks in cans and cold tea in bottles, crows which are the size of a semi-detached in Harlow, and how can I forget the crunchy bean bag “rice pillows”!

I think my favourite place we went to was Kobe due to its small size and the friendliness of everybody I spoke to.

Throughout the trip we stayed in a mix of normal western hotels and Japanese style ryokan with tatami mat floors and futon. We visited a whole variety of places from the ancient mossy zen temples of 8th century Japan in Kyoto and Nara to the more modern style of Kobe and a glimpse at sprawling and gittering futuristic-tecnology-centric Tokyo (Shibuya, Akihabara, Ginza etc).

Other stuff:

Snowboarding was absolutely fantastic! I loved every minute of it. I had never done it before, but I guess all that practise at surfing on the tube back home helped because I got pretty good pretty quickly. Rumi taught us the basics and before lunchtime we were hitting up the Intermediate level slopes! Its just as well I’m fearless when it comes to stuff like that because it meant that hurtling down the slopes at what feels like 1000 mph without having fully grasped the concept of braking or mastering basic steering was a lot more fun! The snow was abundant and beautiful, and such good quality. Luckily the 9 hour bus journey was worth it – going an extra couple hours north of the highly popular Nagano resort meant that the slopes were virtually deserted and the snow hadn’t become compacted into ice. I lost my phone the first morning and I thought that it was buh-bye (either destroyed by water damage from melting snow, or buried under fresh snow that fell later that day, or stolen) but this is Japan. I found it the next day – someone had handed it in! What a miracle. All in all it was an amazing weekend. I didn’t break anything, although the proceeding few days had me in a world of pain, the likes of which I haven’t experienced for a very long time!

The workload this term is much more than I anticipated, with business Japanese taking up a lot of my time (learning how to use honorifics in the workplace is essentially learning a whole new set of verbs for all the basic actions and their respective conjugated forms… fun.) On the flip side we went to the Asahi Newspaper office in Nagoya to see “a real Japanese work place in action” and although I only got the bare minimum of what the tour guide was saying it was an interesting experience, plus  we got a bunch of cool freebies.

Taking my first ever foreign policy class this term has also been a challenge – it is absolutely fascinating and the teacher makes it interesting, but its pretty hardcore for a newbie like myself having to start from scratch! The learning curve is steep but I prefer it that way. I’m finding out all sorts of things about Japan and its politics that I should probably have known before; for example, Japan is still technically at war with Russia having never signed the peace treaty at the end of WW2! (Its all to do with the fact that the land border of the northern territories is still disputed.

Ikebana and Sumie (black ink painting) are still my”escape classes” and I love having them as a creative outlet. Last Friday in sumie we were practising all the different types of brush-stokes we have learnt so far and the main task was to create out own new brushstroke. As he was walking around and checking our work he saw the one I had designed and said that he had never seen one like it before – that it was highly original and should be called “Shepheard Stroke”! He then proceeded to show the rest of the class and use it as an example of what you can do with different types of pressure and water/ink balance. So I felt really chuffed about that!

I’m doing English Conversation with a few pupils on the side to earn a little bit of extra money which is working really well for me. The exchange rate is so bad right now that earning yen is far more lucrative than it used to be, and so a fairly standard fee of 3000 yen suddenly has  increased in value from about £15 to a mighty £25! Even though its only occasional, its actually quite fun and once you have the materials its really easy.

A final thought; My theory of Umbrella Karma. Sometimes you lose your umbrella or it gets borrowed/stolen. Other times you may have to “borrow” from other people. Its a never ending cycle trying to stay in balance. There is also a black hole where all the lost umbrellas go – umbrellas left in shops, bars clubs. It is also an indisputable fact that umbrellas are able to grow legs and walk. Possibly towards said black hole.

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Today I slept through my second earthquake. I am really annoyed because I have never consciously experienced one before, and I keep sleeping through them!

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Question: what whips Japanese girls into a fury of baking, borrowing sugar, and locked kitchen doors? Valentines day of course!

Valentines Day in Japan is the complete opposite to what you would expect. The tradition here is that on February 14th WOMEN give MEN chocolates! And as if that wasn’t unromantic enough, they are nicknamed called “obligation chocolates” for the reason that they have to be given to male work colleagues, superiors, teachers, and all men who you interact with on a frequent basis. Its not all bad for women though; exactly a month later the men who received these chocolates have to return the favour by giving presents such as handkerchiefs or hand towels on what is known as White Day.

The fun part for the men is working out whether the chocolates are “Honne” (a gift from the heart) or “giri” (given out of social obligation). Obviously the more time you take to make them or the more expensive they are, the more love they show.

Rebbekah and I spent the best part of Saturday afternoon making home-made chocolates for our friends with fairly good results:

Valentine Chocolates

Valentine Chocolates

Oh and one other thing. To add another twist into the mix, and apparently due to the “influence of western customs”, one of the major chocolate manufacturers has brought out “reverse chocolates”. These are exactly the same as the normal chocolates except for the fact that the packaging is printed in reverse, and MEN are meant to give them to WOMEN in accordance with the usual Valentines day customs. And before you ask, no I am not joking.

Essentially, noone knows who to give chocolate to anymore.

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Amongst all the flower arranging (Ikebana), Japanese Foreign Policy studying, Business Japanese skills developing, Sumie (chinese Black ink) painting, Japanese Language learning and extra-curricular-socialising, I am currently occupying my time organising the party to end all parties!

Over the last 2 months my best friend George and I have gathered 7 different sponsors (two hair salons, a restaurant, a magazine, a concert venue, , organised the music, made tickets, negotiated the socks off the owner of the venue to get a really good deal, bought the champagne, and run around inviting all our friends to come to what should be an absolute spectacular! Its going to be for about 100 of our friends, lots of yummy food, all you can drink, fabulous music, amazing prizes (like a meal for two at a rather classy restaurant, hair straighteners, concert tickets etc etc) for the best dressed girl/guy, best hairdo and best dancer, and we even got a Japanese drag queen to come and make an appearance! We also managed to get ¥5000 haircut vouchers for everyone who comes, plus, a really well known magazine for our prefecture called SpyGirl is going to come and take photographs of the event and feature us on a whole page in glorious technicolour! So I am very very excited!

This is the first time that I have ever organised such a big event, and I’m definitely learning a lot… Its even more exciting doing it in a foreign country – something I never imagined I would be able to achieve! Hopefully it’ll be alright on the night…! One week left to go and so much to organise!

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