spring

Things I’m Loving – April 2015

As I was reviewing my Things I’m Loving list for May, I discovered I never posted my April list! I guess it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise because April felt like a string of deadlines held together with days of increasing stress, moments of thinking I was about to have a lull in my schedule to relax, and realization that there was yet another extra project/reading/paper thrown at us. April was definitely not my best month but I was able to pick out a few things that made it a little less stressful.

1. Spring flowers!

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April was full of both spring showers and spring flowers. Walking between classes, it was always nice to just breathe in the fragrance and take a moment to concentrate on something outside the stress of school work. And it brought back memories of relaxing walks through Showa Kinen Park to view the Flower Festival there last year. It makes me want to go back right now!

2. Study groups

When studying up for finals, I’ve found that study groups can be a huge help. If there was a concept I was trying to figure out, sometimes hearing someone else’s perspective would help things click. And I found that explaining concepts to others was helpful not just to them but also to me as it helped me solidify my understanding since I had to be very clear in my explanation. A win for everyone!

3. TheBus

Yes, that is the name of the public transportation system here in Honolulu. 😉 You might be thinking this is a strange thing to include on my list, especially if you’re familiar with public transit in the US. When people think of public transit here I’m guessing the first thing that comes to mind for most are the hassles of buses not showing on time (or at all), standing out in the rain waiting, etc. Usually I walk to campus and work just for the exercise but during April when my schedule was so tight, that extra time for sleep was much appreciated. And really I never encountered any problems with the system here. I would simply check on my phone to see when the next bus would arrive and head out to the nearest stop. Of course traffic can always make the timing a little off but the buses I rode were all carrying a tracker so I could simply check my phone for an updated ETA at any time. Convenient!

4. The Blacklist

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Image source: http://www.imdb.com/

Granted, I didn’t have a lot of time for watching TV as finals approached, but I did try to keep up with some of my favorites, including The Blacklist. This series starts out with one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals, Raymond Reddington (played by James Spader), turning himself in. He offers to share with them information on other criminals they don’t even know about but will only talk to Elizabeth Keen (played by Megan Boone), an FBI profiler brand new to the job. The show is in it’s 3rd season now and the mysteries surrounding Reddington and Keen are still being slowly untangled. It’s a fantastic series and I think Spader steals the show. I would definitely recommend this!

5. Pepperidge Farm Double Chocolate Nantucket cookies

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These made a regular appearance on my shopping list, so much so that if my husband was stopping at the store and asked if I wanted anything, he’d say, “I know, cookies. Anything else?” And no, cookies weren’t making up my entire diet. I simply trusted him to come up with the rest of the meal plan and I focused on the dessert. 😉 Each cookie is packed with dark chocolate chunks and you know how I feel about dark chocolate. With or without milk, these are just so good!

So that’s my list for April. It was a very hectic month and I think I allowed myself to get much more stressed than I would like to admit. But these items helped make the month a bit more pleasant and May has been quite different as you’ll soon see with my May list. Stay tuned!

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Things I’m Loving – March 2015

It’s just now the beginning of April but the temperatures have risen here in Honolulu and it’s already making me think of summer. Even though it was just a year ago that I was in Japan and enjoying the beginning of sakura (cherry blossom) season, it feels like that was years ago and a world away. My days are still filled mostly with school-related activities, whether that be class, studying, or working on any of the several projects I’m involved with at the university. But I think when it’s so busy, that’s probably one of the most important times to take a few minutes and reflect so here are some of the things I was loving in March! (more…)

Showa Kinen Park (Almost) All To Myself

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Yesterday I took a look outside at the clouds threatening rain and decided to take a chance (along with an umbrella) on a walk at Showa Kinen Park. The weather held and, probably because of the weather, I almost had the park to myself. That meant plenty of peace and quiet to enjoy all the May flowers!  (more…)

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!

Setsubun Holiday: Demons Out! Luck In!

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February seems too early for spring in Japan but with the unseasonably warm weather and plum trees blossoming, it does feel like spring is in the air. So I suppose it is only appropriate that today is Setsubun (節分, “division of the seasons”), the holiday in Japan marking the lunar calendar change from winter to spring. This holiday is also associated with the Lunar New Year so some traditions are centered around the idea of cleansing away any evil from the previous year to make way for a fresh start.

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My husband and I joined in a Setsubun celebration held at a local shrine to see how they celebrated this particular holiday. After a Shinto ceremony inside the shrine, priests and a few invited guests from the local community stepped outside to throw roasted soybeans to the awaiting crowd. Many of the others there had large bags they held open to catch the soybeans before they hit the ground but we had not come so prepared and it was up to the hood on my jacket and my husband’s outstretched cap to do the job for us.They also threw a few small parcels wrapped in paper which turned out to hold roasted soybeans and paper slips exchangeable for prizes. Our haul included a couple dozen roasted soybeans, a pack of wet tissues, and a bag of some kind of hot lemon drink mix.

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The roasted soybeans are called fuku mame (福豆), or “fortune beans,” and are used in a few different ways. One of the other participants at the shrine told us to make sure to eat a soybean for each year of our age to bring good luck. He also told us that at his age, his stomach couldn’t take eating so many so that should tell you he was an older guy. It seems we frequently run into older men and women at festivals and such who are very happy to instruct us in the related customs and traditions (and I am happy to hear what they have to say).

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Another custom, called mamemaki (“scattering beans”) or bean throwing, involves throwing roasted soybeans at whichever family member is chosen to wear the Oni (demon) mask. While throwing the beans, you yell “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外!福は内!), which translates to “Demons out! Luck in!” This symbolizes driving away any evil spirits while welcoming good fortune into the home. I saw a lot of Oni masks used as decorations for the holiday, including this one on a little dog figure on top of a collection box for seeing eye dog training. Isn’t he adorable?!

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It is also tradition to eat eho-maki, or “lucky direction rolls,” for Setsubun. Many include seven different fillings as an association with the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, called Shichifukujin (七福神). Our rolls included cuttlefish, omelette, cucumber, salmon, tuna, shrimp, and scallops. Yum! Usually thick sushi rolls like this are sliced into more manageable, bite-sized pieces but this will not do for fortune rolls. Since slicing them would symbolize cutting the good fortune, these have to be eaten just as they are. When eating the eho-maki, it is also tradition to face in the good luck direction for the year (east, north-east for 2014) while thinking about what you want for the following year. Oh, and you are not supposed to speak until you finish your entire roll. The rolls we got were so large they just fit on the plate and I am a really slow eater so I had plenty of time sitting here quietly, thinking up lots of things I want for the year.