可愛い食べ物: All the Cute Foods!

Japan’s deep love affair with food presentation existed supposedly even before the Heian period (10th/11th Century ), making it one of the oldest art forms in Japan. Most people touring Japan will want to try out the common foods such as sushi and sashimi, but while those seafood cuisines are indeed as delicious as they are pretty, I actually prefer the presentation (and sometimes even performance) of the desserts.

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The caramel paw prints are just the best!

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Totoro and Pooh-san drawn by waiters at a Korean restaurant in Shin-Okubo.

At many restaurants in Japan, the desserts are given special treatment with toppings or syrups to create fantastically elaborate portraits or characters on the dessert or on the plate. They tend to fall away from the traditionally minimalist nature of Japanese cuisine, allowing for more explorations for how to use ingredients to create a more complex feast for the eyes.

Japanese cuisine in general uses seven methods of food arrangement, and how to use each method varies depends on the ingredients and chinaware.

  • Sugimori is a standing or slanting arrangement
  • Hiramori is a flat design with slices of sashimi placed vertically
  • Yamamori is mound-like
  • Tawaramori are blocks of food placed in a pyramid
  • Yosemori is gathered
  • Chirashimori is gathered but with space between the ingredients
  • Ayamori is woven (which is considered one of them more difficult forms to master)

Using these arrangements as a basis, chefs can develop their own styles of presentation. Red, yellow and green are integral colors for Japanese cooking, so balancing all three in a presentation makes the food look appealing and bright in Japanese culture. Lastly, a triangular (three-sided) shape on the plate looks quite pretty.

As you can tell in the picture below, the basics of Japanese cuisine are all there: Colors red, yellow, and green are laid out in a chirashimori style, but there’s also a space dedicated to an artistic rendering of a certain famous comic feline. What’s amazing to me is that this treatment is considered standard for most restaurants. Rarely, I find, does the presentation cost the customer extra money.

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Garfield approves my choice in waffles.

The exception to that rule is when the waiter/waitress is a part of a themed cafe such as the Pirate Cafe I went to with my friends Emily and Megan. There the girls let you watch them draw the designs and characters on your food. They also sing or do some kind of pirate shows if you pay more.

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We got to choose what kind of design we wanted on our food.

A small side note, at a theme cafe it’s generally alright to take a picture of the food and the restaurant itself. However, before to ask to take pictures of the the waiters/waitresses working there. Some places will allow it while others won’t. At the Pirate Cafe in Akihabara, we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the pirate maidens.

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I chose a cat and freaked the girl out because she didn’t know how to draw one. Oops!

Also, while the food wasn’t terribly expensive, the table charges at themed restaurants can be pricy. Be sure to ask how much per hour it is to be at a table.

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The kanji is for ‘pirate.’

Even at convenience stores, sometimes they will have some cute special edition sweets that you can only get at one specific chain for a certain amount of time. Sometimes they will have special edition things that are movie or anime tie-ins. Not so long ago, there was “Attack on Titan” gear and foods being sold at the 7-11 combinis, and Pokemon does its rounds through the stores every other month or so.

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A delicious chocolate bear cake!

Most of the time the cute foods in Japan will not only look adorable but they will also be super delicious! I feel like in the U.S. I often had to choose between something that looked cute but probably tasted like preservatives and future cancer, and then the delicious foods that were just kind of slapped together with no real thought into how it looked. In Japan, I feel like I get the best of both worlds, both great taste and great art.

To the Person Who Stole My Underwear

I’d heard rumors that people like you existed. People told me to beware of your perversion, to never let my laundry stay alone for long.I always knew the risk was there, so I was vigilant. Yet, I am human, and I err. For forty five minutes I left my laundry alone. I was hungry so I went home to eat dinner, and you took your opportunity to fuck up my good day.

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Last night, when you took all of my bras and underwear out of the top left dryer in the coin laundry, you probably assumed that I wouldn’t kick up a fuss. It’s just laundry, after all, what’s the big deal? Then, I suppose you needed a way to carry your ill begotten goods out of there, so you also took my light blue laundry basket, which also held my laundry detergent. Who would really get upset over some old laundry basket and soap? It’s not exactly the end of the world. Besides, most women don’t report such thefts, after all, since it’s a “harmless” crime. It’s embarrassing to report, it makes people uncomfortable, so why would your victim even bother to go through all the trouble?

Well, guess what? I’m American, bitch, and I’m not going to be your victim. I’M GOING TO BE YOUR DESTRUCTION.

Kicking up a shit storm for trivial reasons is America’s national pastime. I called up the Itako police and my Vice Principal. They took my report, and they even took down a list of all MY STUFF that you stole. Yes, it was absolutely one of the most humiliating moments of my life, but it’ll be worth it if they find you. They took pictures. They’re going to review the camera footage outside the coin laundry (which may or may not work, I’m honestly not sure).

Yes, it’s just laundry, but it’s MY LAUNDRY. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to find bras in Japan?! In the end, I don’t. I wait until Christmas when I go home to buy them. You took my favorite one, dude! Why? You’ve got a thing for purple and bows? You sick bastard. I don’t know who you are, but I’ve imagined you in my head as a stereotypical old geezer with a lecherous smile sitting on hoards of other taken lacy garments.  Alternatively, I also picture you as a closeted transvestite who doesn’t want to risk exposure. As much as I might slightly sympathize with the latter, the underwear was MINE. The basket was…well, technically it was free from my predecessor, but then it was MY FREE BASKET. So fuck you.

The police took down my phone number and said they’ll be in touch. I’m not sure how serious they’ll actually take it, but I’m more than willing to hope someday soon I’ll get a phone call telling me they caught you (hopefully NOT wearing my stuff, ew). Rest assured that if all else fails, then you should know I’m not even done.

I do have a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired through college antics. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you return my underthings now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will…most likely report you to the police. Killing seems a tad excessive, but I can make sure you at least get some jail time for it. Justice shall prevail (maybe)!

You should be aware that Hinode is a really small part of town, so everybody and their mother already knows what happened. They’re more than upset about it, saying that you are one of the reasons Hinode gets a bad rep for theft. They are not pleased, and they like me more than you. We’re looking for you, sir, ALL OF US.

Good luck trying to take my laundry basket out into public, doucheschnozzle.

Learning to Shake with the Quakes

Early this morning, I woke up to my apartment shaking a little bit. I didn’t bother to get up for this one. I was comfy in my nice warm bed and it was way-too-early-something a.m. I rolled over as something clinked and fell somewhere in my kitchen. I made a grumbling noise as I pulled the blankets over my head to go back to sleep.

I started drifting off, feeling the earthquake kind of rocking me back to sleep. Strangely, I thought to myself, “This one is actually kind of enjoyable.”

Now that I’m awake I felt a bit puzzled over that reaction. Two years have passed since the big 3/11 earthquake here in Japan. Still, I get people asking me how safe I feel in Japan with all the earthquakes. The answer is actually a little complicated. I’ve come a long way from my first encounter with earthquakes about a year and a half ago. The first big one I ever encountered I was staying with my predecessor, Lauren. We were roomies for a couple of weeks before she headed back to the good ol’ USA.

Maybe the third or fourth night I woke up to the entire apartment swaying and rocking. The dangling light fixture in our room violently swayed back and forth. Stuff on the desk fell off. Lauren told me to just hand on, this one wasn’t so bad. I remembered thinking, “What the #$%@ does BAD feel like?” My mind couldn’t help but recall the news footage from the big earthquake that only happened few months before I arrived. I shuddered a little at the thought, but suppressed the fear.

Steadily, the earth settled down. The swaying stopped. Lauren got up and I followed her outside. Neighbors across the way were outside. Lauren and I said we were okay and we asked if they were, too. When we were sure everyone was alright, we headed back inside. Lauren smiled at me as we climbed back into bed (well, futon for me), “Congratulations! You just experienced your first earthquake!”

I laughed at that and we talked a bit. It took me awhile to settle down from the excitement, but I went back to sleep a little while later with no problems. I wasn’t afraid of another 3/11. I knew that the odds of another one happening in my lifetime were slim, not to mention that most of the injuries and deaths occurred due to the tsunami that followed the earthquake and not the quake itself. Also, I suppose it helped that I loved Japan more than enough to put up with a few odd quirks. Kentucky has tornadoes. Japan has earthquakes. I could deal.

My first “bad” earthquake happened in September of 2011. I can recall this day with clarity because there was double the trouble. A huge typhoon came bashing its way over Itako. The winds were so damn strong I thought they were going to break my kitchen window. On top of that, my phone’s earthquake alarm went off. I shouted at it, “Really?!” just before the biggest shift happened under my feet. The electricity flickered on and off a couple of times before it went out completely. I stumbled my way into a doorway and held onto the frame for dear life. For all of maybe a minute, my apartment shook so hard from the wind and the quake that I seriously wondered if it would break. Luckily, it passed without any harm done, but the electricity was off for most of the night. Dark and stormy, indeed.

And with that, I discovered what “bad” meant. I was oddly thankful for the rather early terrifying experience. I followed the wise advise from the senior members of our JET collective in Ibaraki and made myself an emergency kit. Water, food bars, copies of passport, and much more got put into a backpack that I put away in my closet. It’s still there, waiting to be used, even though I’ve totally stolen some of those bars for breakfast every so often. I adopted the stance that I wasn’t going to live my life in fear of the next “big one” but I’d be prepared for one just in case.

Since then, I didn’t really consider most of the others that shortly followed to be nearly as awful. I didn’t even blink an eye when the small tremors come and go in a matter of seconds. More than once, I slept right through a medium level quake, only to discover from my co-workers in the morning. Oops! For quite some time, I got into this false sense of security.

My complacency ended when another “bad” one happened. In January of 2012, I was working out with my friend Ai at the gym. We were on the exercise bikes, talking about this and that and the other. Suddenly, everything abruptly shifted so hard I stumbled off my bike. The gym is located under Kashima Soccer Stadium, so I felt tons of concrete and steel jerking back and forth right above my head and wondered for a brief, horror filled moment if it could come down on top of me.  Of course, it didn’t, and steadily everything settled right back down. Ai and I checked each other out and everyone around us went into a flurry of checking their phones and the news for reports. Gym attendants came in to tell everyone the gym was closing up just in case of aftershocks.

When big ones hit usually all the people in my area will feel it as well. I’ve called people to check on them and used Facebook to message some people when I can’t get a hold of them. I’ve now made it a regular habit to post a quick status update about the earthquake after it happens so everyone knows I’m alive. I stay on top of the news and ask people what’s up right after it happens. Since I was doing it anyway, I went ahead and volunteered to be a block member for my area. That basically means that I keep track of the JET ALTs in my little southern block of Ibaraki. It’s all of four people and myself, so the job is far from daunting.

In the end, I suppose the best answer I can give to how I feel about earthquakes is that I’m staying on alert all the time in the back of my mind.  I don’t think about it consciously, but I’m as prepared for one as I’m going to be. With some experience under my belt, I take each quake as it comes and react as is necessary. As I mentioned before, the the small bits of fear I feel are kind of thrilling for me. And I got to admit, getting rocked to sleep by mother nature was freaking awesome.

When Living Abroad, Fear is Part of the Thrill

I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked by people back in the good ol’ USA,  “Aren’t you scared to live all by yourself in a foreign country?” Usually, the last bit implies that I might as well be willingly trying to drive myself straight into hell itself. Who would want to leave the comforts of home to go off to some unknown part of the world and live there? Not to mention, it’s dangerous to go alone! The awfulness of it all, oh the horror!

Sakura in Shibuya Park in Spring

The horror!

A follow up to the frequently asked question is this statement, “Wow, you are so brave!” Brave? Hardly. I scream like a little girl when I feel like I’m in peril. I’m not proud of this fact, but it’s true. I don’t do stoic or composed very well. I won’t lie, on the plane ride over to Japan for the first time a year and half ago, I clutched the arm rests so hard on take off I indented the headphone plug’s shape into my palm. Also, I kept whispering to myself over and over again, “Statistics, statistics, statistics!” while praying I didn’t end up living out the opening scene from Final Destination.

Also, I moved to Japan. While it’s not a crime free country, my little sleepy town of Itako doesn’t do big time illegal activity (except for the whole Pachinko thing, but that’s not a big deal). Everybody here is kind, polite, and generally just awesome small town folk who want to just chill.

Still, a little bit of fear here and there makes the experience fun for me. I kind of like being scared, of not knowing what’s coming around the corner. It gives me a small thrill to know that there’s a small chance of danger, that I could run smack dab into a situation I’m not prepared to handle.

Oddly enough, I find it even more thrilling when I hit those moments and come out the other side winded from the experience but still intact. It’s just like the thrill of riding on a roller coaster and getting off all wobbly knees and smiles. I survived! Heck yes! Fist pump and get back in line. That’s why I got back on a stupid 14 hour plane ride to go back home for Christmas. In case you hadn’t gathered, I hate flying.

I suppose living abroad trills me for the same reason that I love horror movies. I go in knowing that there’s a distinct possibility I will end up with my heart pounding and screaming from fright. I love them so much that when I took off some time last year to go home I hit up the Scarefest Convention in Lexington, KY.

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Jeepers, creepers! Where’d you get those peepers?

In Japan, I can get those same sort of feelings when I venture to certain cafes and nightclubs in Tokyo.  I once went into a dingy hole in the ground type club thinking, “This probably isn’t a good idea. This is how horror movies start.” To be fair, I didn’t go alone, I brought my friend Candice with me. Turned out to be a pretty awesome place. I ended up having a dance off with a guy named John and spending two hours down there shaking my groove thing.

I will admit there are times where I’ve been a little in over my head. I once ran off to Tokyo without my cell phone. I needed my phone because I was meeting up with a group of friends to go to Gunma. Of course, I didn’t realize that I’d forgotten my cell until I arrived in Tokyo without it. While kicking myself for my mistake, I attempted to find the group in a vast station without them. I failed.

Luckily, I used my head to figure out a way to get ahead of the group on their train line for a later, not to mention quite lucky, rendezvous. Even though I managed to find them, I could’ve very well ended up walking through miles of snow trying to find them if I had arrived up at Gunma alone.

We totally ended up doing the whole walking through winter’s wrath thing as a group a mere two days later, but that’s beside the point.

We were not prepared.

Trekking down a mountain during a white out blizzard is as fun as it sounds, as in not.

Alternatively, there’s the more mundane issues I face, such as bus schedules I can’t read and I’ve got to get to an ALT meeting in less than freaking ten minutes so screw it I’m just going to take a taxi this time. I also encounter people who startle me with words I can’t understand but I know somehow they’re important. More than once, I’ve come face to face with a Japanese person behind a counter at some cafe or a store clerk. I may ask simple question in Japanese such as, “Do you have (insert item here)?” The response I get ranges from short and concise to so complicated I can’t even, wait, what? I can’t follow, speak slower please! Gah! It’s like playing communication roulette. I end up sticking it out and eventually figuring out what they said, more or less, but I end up getting slight headache from the strain.

Still, I’m glad I have every single one of these memories, that I got on those roller coaster rides and lived those horror movie moments. I don’t know how to explain this to people without sounding utterly insane. “Yes, it’s scary, and I like it!” just doesn’t generally give the impression of sound mind. However, it’s true, and I don’t know how to convey that rush to people who’ve never experienced it. The best equivalents I can give also probably don’t sound like much fun to people who hate roller coasters, horror movies and/or traveling.When I share my stories, home bodies usually only hear noise coming from me, not anything that sounds like fun. To me, though, it’s great, and I’m excited for the next thrill.

Welcome to Japan!

Ibaraki Prefecture: Group A

Ibaraki Prefecture: Group A

I’ve heard it so many times and it never gets old. I’m still so excited to be here! Everyone in my city is so nice and helpful. I’m glad I ended up in a place that’s more rural than urban. I’m not a fan of big cities. I like looking out onto the rice fields and just feeling so relaxed. I couldn’t have ended up at a better place for me.

From left to right: Ikeda-san (my supervisor), me, and Lauren Parker

From left to right: Ikeda-san (my supervisor), me, and Lauren Parker

And I couldn’t have lucked out with a better predecessor. Lauren Parker lived in Itako for three years before I came along, and she got the apartment all prepared for me. She even put up pictures and things so the walls didn’t seem so bare. Since she and the Board of Education furnished the apartment, I didn’t have to buy anything when I arrived. Many of the other ALTs did, poor things, but I didn’t!

I also met my Japanese teacher, Yamada-sensei! She's between Lauren and me.

I also met my Japanese teacher, Yamada-sensei! She’s between Lauren and me.

The teachers I’ll be working with at Hinode and Itako 2nd Junior High School seem pretty cool. They’ve asked me to help out with activities during the summer, and I’m glad. I don’t know what I would do with myself if I didn’t help out. I find that I spend my free time just kind of being lonesome in my apartment, and that can’t be healthy. I’ve tried to be more outgoing after school, but it’s hard. I don’t know who to call, when it’s okay to call, or what the proper etiquette is over here. I don’t know. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.

Settling in has been pretty easy, all things considered. My shipped box came in earlier than I thought it would with everything intact. The apartment’s really starting to feel more like home. I want to add more things, like more bookshelves, but I have to wait and get a car first. I need a car for where I live. It’s just too spread out for me to bike everywhere. I enjoy biking, but the convenience of a car is nice, not to mention safer than biking on these broken roads.

The area specifically where I live in Hinode got hit hard by the earthquake. Hinode Junior High School, one of the two junior high schools where I will work for Monday through Friday, actually had the ground around it drop a few feet. The roads used to be smooth and flat, but now they’re bumpy and out of alignment. When I bike I have to be careful of the cracks and crevices, and also spiders. There are lots of spiders here and they are not afraid of putting their webs right a human face distance from the ground, unfortunately.

I’ve had communication issues. I came over with only the basic Japanese skills, enough to basically be an annoying tourist. When it comes to reading and writing, I know Hiragana and Katakana. It’s useful, but Kanji exists. Kanji and I are not friends. I want to learn all the characters so bad, but I can’t seem to keep anything in my head since I came over. I think I might just be out of practice, but it’s also probably got something to do with stress. I’m hoping that when I get more of a routine down things will start to stick.

Still, I think the language barrier is aptly named. Sometimes, not very often but often enough to make me feel dumb, this invisible wall comes up between me and other people. Nothing is getting through and I really need to say something important, but I can’t get the message sent out and then received. It sucks! I hate feeling helpless, and a language barrier can definitely make me feel very much so. It only lasts maybe about two minutes in a conversation, but it leaves a bad kind of aftertaste in my mouth, like the words I couldn’t say are bitter. I really hope that as my language skills increase, the barriers will decrease.

I don’t think the small town celebrity status will ever change. It’s odd to walk around and feel trapped in my own skin. I mean, I don’t want to change or anything, it’s just I’m really aware of the fact now that I’m Caucasian. When I get on the train, I hear the whispers of, “Gaijin!” and I see people pointing and staring at me as if I really am an alien. Also, I’ve never been winked at by so many guys until I came over here. I swear! I’m not that attractive, but apparently that doesn’t matter. It’s kind of nice, I mean, I’m flattered. But I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I’m here to work, not date.

Although, I’ve got to admit I love the Japanese business men. Not the shady ones, but you know the black suit with the black tie. I think it’s hot. I don’t know why, I just kind of do. Speaking of hot Japanese men, I’m apparently a fan of Jun Matsumoto. I really liked Shin Sawada in the drama Gokusen. For some reason, it never occurred to me that Matsumoto Jun is Matsu Jun from Arashi. I’ll go ahead and admit I’m not a huge Arashi fan or JPOP fan in general. Arashi is okay, but I really don’t love the music. I’ll listen to them, but they’re not my favorite. Still, I’ve got to admit I can see why girls just lose themselves over Jun-kun. He’s quite attractive (and a pretty good actor, in my opinion). So, yeah, something I discovered about myself I didn’t know. I’m apparently Team Jun.

Anyway, I think I’ve run out of steam. It’s my first blog post in a really long time. This time I hope I keep it up. I’m not very good at keeping blogs updated, so we’ll see how it goes. Hope you all enjoyed my ramblings!

TTYL!