Cake

Things I’m Loving – October 2014

October was such a busy month for me and I’ve been taking the last couple days just to relax and recuperate as I prepare for November. It’s been fun to jump back into grad school and that atmosphere of constantly learning new things but it’s also been a little difficult to make the adjustment from having tons of free time to schedule activities as I like to having to hunt for time in my schedule just to study. Through September I was adding things into my schedule slowly so it wasn’t too shocking to my system. During October though, I just jumped into anything that came my way and unfortunately that meant that there was a two week period where I was spending every moment in class, getting into my new job (which definitely didn’t allow me to ease into the position but went more the “trial by fire” approach), helping plan an event, writing papers, or studying for midterms. Thus the need for absolute relaxation and laziness the past couple days. 😉 But as busy and sometimes stressful as the past month was, there were still lots of things I loved.

1. Rilakkuma Nara charm

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This little guy was a constant reminder to just relax. In case you don’t recognize him, this is Rilakkuma, a character popular in Japan. His name says everything you need to know about him: “Rilakusu” is the Japanese pronunciation of “relax,” while “kuma” is the Japanese word for “bear.” He loves to just sit around eating snacks and relaxing. This particular phone charm was one I got while touring around Nara. You can see Rilakkuma is wearing little horns like the deer who live there and eating the senbei snacks those deer love so much. So cute! And so relaxed! Sometimes while studying, I’d look over and see this charm and remember to just breathe and relax. It’s good to have that kind of reminder around.

2. Dragonfly paperclips

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These little dragonfly-shaped paperclips were another strategy I used to improve my study environment. At one point I had stacks of papers I was using to help prepare for a biostatistics midterm sitting all over the counter. Disorganization can actually stress me out, especially when I have something else stressing me (like midterms!) so I just wanted to organize everything. These cute little paperclips didn’t just help me organize but always made me smile, even hours into studying.

3. Rainy weekends

This may seem like a strange thing to add but when you’re stuck inside studying and it’s a beautiful, sunny day outside…well, that can just seem cruel sometimes. 😉 The weekend when I had the most studying and paper writing to do also just happened to be the weekend a hurricane passed south of Hawaii and drenched the islands. We didn’t get much wind but we had steady rain the entire weekend and it made for the perfect study weather. Maybe there is a silver lining in every cloud!

4. One-man Kabuki Storyteller

We had the opportunity to see a rather unique event hosted by the Japan Foundation this past month. This event was a shamisen demonstration and a kabuki play reorganized to be sung and played completely by one man, Kunitoshi Kineya. If you’ve ever seen a kabuki play before, it is heavily stylized form of Japanese theater known for elaborate costumes and very dramatic movement. For this version, Kunitoshi played the shamisen and played all the vocal roles…singing narration and changing his pitch and tone for each of the different characters. Instead of dressing in elaborate costumes and moving around the stage, he sat in the middle of the stage with his shamisen for the entire performance. It was very different from any kabuki play I’ve ever seen and it gave me a new perspective on kabuki. While most kabuki plays I’ve seen have captured my attention with the dramatic movement and costumes, that was stripped from this performance and allowed me to focus on the auditory piece that I don’t usually focus on. It really gave me a new appreciation for the work the actors and musicians put into the musical aspect of the play. And during the shamisen demonstration, he even sang and played an arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner on his shimasen! He was quite a talented performer and we had a great time.

5. Cold Stone Creamery’s Midnight Delight ice cream cake

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My husband’s birthday was this past month and since ice cream is his favorite dessert, I got him an ice cream cake from Cold Stone Creamery. Chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream with fudge, chocolate shavings, and chocolate ganache…what’s not to like?! He was very happy with it and I have to say it was delicious. The portions they sliced were way too much for a single person though. And you know how much I like chocolate so if I’m saying it, it must be true. 😉

Now that it’s November and I’ve survived the midterm crunch, I’m really hoping to settle into my new schedule a bit more so I don’t feel quite so tired at the end of the next month. I’m setting myself a goal for November: integrate self-care time into my schedule so I make sure to relax, whether that time is used to meditate, watch some TV, hit the gym…whatever will allow me to take a few moments to relax and keep things in perspective. Okay November, here I come!

A Little Owl Love at Fukuro Sabo

You may have heard of cat cafes in Japan where you can sit and enjoy a drink and perhaps have a slice of cake, all while cats roam around the room looking for treats and head scratches. They are fairly popular with those folks who love cats but cannot have one in their own apartment and though I was surprised to hear of them at first, it really makes a lot of sense. But have you ever heard of an owl cafe? They exist! (more…)

White Day in Japan

White Day presents

White Day presents

It has been a month since Valentine’s Day and that means today is White Day (ホワイトデー) here in Japan! What is this White Day holiday? Well, it is one of the interesting differences in how Valentine’s Day is celebrated here in Japan. Back in February, my Valentine’s Day post was all about how women give men chocolates to celebrate the holiday in Japan and how these chocolates might be honmei-choco (本命チョコ, “true feeling chocolate”) given to boyfriends or husbands but also might be giri-choco (義理チョコ, “obligation chocolate”) given to coworkers, bosses, or friends. White Day is the day when men are expected to reciprocate by giving gifts to those women who gave them chocolate on Valentine’s Day.

In the spirit of the holiday here in Japan, I made homemade chocolates for my husband on Valentine’s Day this year. So today, I received White Day gifts from him! He knows exactly how much I love chocolate so he gave me a delicious layered cake in the shape of a heart (which I ate immediately, of course) and a box full of chocolates I cannot wait to try! As soon as I opened the box and smelled the yummy chocolaty goodness, I wanted to immediately try each different kind…but I’m going to at least try to exert some willpower and eat them slowly over the next few days like a reasonable person. I managed to close the box after only eating two pieces (a dark chocolate matcha piece and a white chocolate piece with orange liqueur) so the challenge begins now!

Things I’m Loving – February 2014

Pine cone art

Pine cone art

Another month has flown by in 2014 and that means it’s time once again to think back and reflect on my experiences over the past month. I had an absolute blast on my short visit to Hokkaido, which was probably pretty obvious from the numerous Sapporo Snow Festival photos and day-by-day posts over the trip (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3). I also enjoyed celebrating the Japanese Setsubun holiday by casting demons out with soybeans (seriously, best excuse to throw food!) and celebrating Valentine’s Day in true Japanese style with homemade chocolates for my husband. Here are a few of the other things I’ve been loving in February.

1. Lunar New Year decorations

It’s the Year of the Horse! Yay! I’ve been horse crazy since…well, for as long as I can remember. This has given me the perfect excuse to collect a couple more horse-related decorations. The tenugui (towel) reads 馬九行く (uma ku iku), which means “9 horses going,” but is also a pun for umaku iku, or “go well.”

2. Snow!

At the end of January, we’d had no snow and I was really feeling a bit let down by winter. If it’s going to be cold, there should be snow! That was one big reason for our trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival. The funny thing was that the day after we got back to Tokyo, a snowstorm hit that gave us plenty of snow and shut down the airport (whew, just made it!) and some trains. I think 27 centimeters was recorded, the most snow Tokyo had gotten in the last 45 years. Then we got another 26 centimeters the following week. I certainly got my snow! And yes, I am one of those people who gleefully wades and hops through the snow like a little kid. I dragged my husband out after every snowstorm and found that some of the local kids were having their own little snow festival with snowmen in all shapes and sizes, Hello Kitty versions, too!

3. Hot vending machine drinks

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With all the time I’ve spent out walking in the cold this month, I’ve come to appreciate the hot drinks from vending machines so much! You can find vending machines just about everywhere in Japan so anytime I was out and feeling chilled, I grabbed a hot drink and—voilà—instant hand warmer! My favorites are the hot chocolate (of course) and the milk tea. The only negative is that hot chocolate usually comes in a metal can and since it’s hot, well, you’re holding a hot piece of metal! I don’t think they are so hot they could burn you but they are sometimes uncomfortable to hold if you’re not wearing gloves. So remember the gloves!

4. Uchi Cafe chocolate cake with whipped cream

These small chocolate cakes are available at the Lawson convenience store right by my apartment. They come with a little pastry bag filled with whipped cream so you can add as much or as little as you like. These are filled with chocolate deliciousness and I cannot get enough of them! But in the interest of health and weight maintenance, I do limit myself. Luckily for me, they’re so small that I can get away with the roughly 200 calorie indulgence every now and then. It’s certainly incentive to go exercise every day! (I couldn’t seem to get a picture before devouring the entire thing so all cake photos are from this source.)

5. Signs of spring

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Yes, I know that snow was earlier on my list but I think I’m finally to the point where I’ve had enough cold weather and I’m ready for spring. Even though there is still snow on the ground, the plum tree blossoms seem to promise warmer weather to come. I love how beautiful and fragrant the blossoms are!

6. Coursera course: Moralities of Everyday Life

Moralities of Everyday Life is a MOOC (massively open online course) offered through Coursera and taught by Paul Bloom from Yale University. For the past few weeks I’ve been watching the lectures and reading the suggested articles all simply because I found the subject interesting. I still have a few video lectures to watch before I’m done with the course but I have found it absolutely fascinating. The course seeks to explore morality from a modern science perspective, focusing on many questions on moral belief and moral action. It also covers research conducted in lab settings looking at how children view moral problems and at what age various aspects of morality are developed. I found the differences in perspective that vary between and within cultures to be especially interesting. If you find the differences of opinion on morality and perspective fascinating, and if the course is offered again, I would highly recommend it.

I guess it’s time to say goodbye to February and hello to March. Hopefully I’ll have plenty of wonderful things to share over the next month!

Celebrating Christmas in Japan

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What do these boxes mean in Japan? Why, they are the symbols of Christmas of course!

Though I spent the last two Christmas holidays in Japan, this past Christmas was the first time I really got a taste of a Japanese-style Christmas. The previous year we had family visiting us, so in the middle of touring about Tokyo and Kyoto we had tried to make Christmas feel more like our typical family celebration with traditional foods and the day centered around family (in person and over the phone). For this recent Christmas though, my husband and I decided to experience Christmas in more of the Japanese tradition.

So how do you celebrate Christmas Japanese-style? First of all it is important to understand that Christianity is practiced by a small minority of Japan’s population so most Japanese Christmas celebrations and traditions do not have an underlying religious connotation. It feels more like a cultural holiday than a religious holiday with Christmas songs piped through store speakers and many twinkling light-covered trees displayed in homes, city plazas, and as part of many winter illuminations but without displays of crosses or manger scenes common in the US. Also, while Christmas is observed on December 25th here in Japan, it is not a holiday that people get off from work.

Japanese Christmas traditions include KFC chicken, Christmas cake and a romantic date. Surprised? I was!

Supposedly the KFC chicken dinner became tied to Christmas when an expat customer commented to a store manager that in a country lacking turkey, fried chicken was the next best thing. This suggestion made its way up the ladder to become a hugely successful campaign and Christmas tradition. While I can’t promise this story is true, I can tell you from personal experience that turkey is really hard to find in Japan. When I did a traditional Christmas meal in 2012, I searched several supermarkets before finally discovering we could order turkey from Yoyo Market, an online supermarket delivering import foods from Costco. But for our Japanese-style Christmas, we had to go for the Japanese KFC tradition so we placed our fried chicken order at the local KFC a week before Christmas.

We did the same for our Christmas cake, ordering a white cake with whipped cream frosting and strawberries. This seems to be the epitome of Japanese Christmas cakes though there are several different types sold. Many include various types of fruit on a white cake while others, like the one we chose for 2012, are entirely chocolate. When I was a kid, my family’s holiday get-togethers always involved several cakes so this Japanese cake tradition was something I could easily get behind.

In preparation for Christmas, we put up our little artificial Christmas tree purchased from a local department store. It came complete with lights and decorations and added an immediate holiday cheer to our little apartment. To add a little flare to our tree, I decided to add a couple of capsule machine prizes to our tree as ornaments. Before coming to Japan, my only experience with these machines had been during childhood, getting small toys/prizes from what we called the ‘egg machine’ at the front of the grocery store. Here in Japan you can find these machines in various restaurants, stores, and on some street corners and they contain small toys or collectibles that may attract children or adults who are interested in the specific collection included. My prize collections so far: a Rirakuma bear and a shiba inu in a hot dog costume. What better way to add a piece of Japan to a Christmas tree? I think it turned out great, especially with all the prettily wrapped packages underneath.

On Christmas Eve, we set out to pick up our ordered Christmas goodies and returned laden with a KFC fried chicken package and our Christmas cake. To add a little of our own traditional foods, we added some cranberry sauce (complete with requisite can shape) and made mashed potatoes, gravy, and stuffing. It turned out to be a fun and delicious Christmas meal!

Now earlier I mentioned that a romantic date is also a part of Christmas. Without the religious meaning behind the holiday, Christmas has been portrayed not as a time of spiritual miracles but of romantic miracles. As such, it is seen by many as a perfect opportunity for a romantic date and many restaurants and cafes advertise for this. Viewing winter illuminations is also a popular activity as part of a romantic Christmas date. So keeping with the Japanese tradition, my husband and I headed out for a date, viewing several winter illuminations in Tokyo and stopping in a cozy cafe for hot drinks and a few tasty morsels. And yes, cake was one of our selections despite having almost an entire cake still at home. Hey, it’s the holidays!

So that has been our Japanese-style Christmas experience! I always enjoy learning about and experiencing Japanese traditions and it was so much fun to enjoy Christmas through the Japanese lens. If you want to see more about winter illuminations, check out my previous blog post: Japan Winter Illuminations.

Thanks for reading and I will bring you some New Year stories soon!