January 2007 Archives

Appointed Official Offends

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"The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed," Japan's Health Minister, Hakuo Yanagisawa (71) said in a speech to LDP party members earlier this week. "Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can do is ask them to do their best per head … although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines."

Did Yanagisawa think he was being clever? Did he believe that calling women birth-giving machines was going to encourage them to reproduce? His government profile says he is married, but mentions no children. He ought have consulted with Mrs. Yanagisawa before giving that speech.

Prime Minister Abe chastised him and told him to "be more careful" in the future. I think someone with such a disregard for women really ought not be Minister of Health and Labor at all. Mr. Prime Minister, if you really want the birth rate to increase, chuck out Yanagisawa, and bring in someone who won't offend the birth-giving machines.

Geesh.

Do not litter

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As if the Turning Point Exam last April wasn't enough of a clue, I got another clue today that I've graduated into Japanese middle age.

Walking home from lunch, I saw two high school students walking their bikes up the hill near my house. One laughed and opened a couple of those prize-filled globes that you buy from bubblegum machines. Then he threw the hemispheres on the sidewalk.

I was outraged. How dare he litter my neighborhood? I stood in the path of his bicycle and stopped him.

"Sumimasen ga..." I pointed at his trash and paused to conjure up the right words in Japanese.
"Eh? Excuse me?" he answered in English before I could say anything else.
"You dropped something. You should pick it up."
"Oh. Sorry." He called to his friend to wait for him as we marched over to his trash.
"This is my neighborhood. I like to keep it neat." I tossed two clear plastic tops into his bike basket as he picked up the colored bottom halves.
"I'm sorry."
"That's better." I smiled and went on my way.

I totally rained on his toy parade, but I'll bet he doesn't do that again soon. Confronted by a middle aged gaijin lady! The shame, the shame.

Basic White Bread

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Dense bread makes great toast - soaks in lots of butter!

This bread isn't the most exciting loaf ever, but it's simplicity is going to make it a staple in my kitchen. The crust is a tiny bit sweet, the bread is finely grained and neutral in flavor. It takes 3 hours from start to finish.

Basic White Bread
makes 1 loaf

2 cups bread flour
1 cup all purpose flour
2 tsp instant (quick) yeast
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp oil or melted butter
2 Tbsp honey
1 cup milk (heated very warm)

MIx the dry ingredients together. Add the wet ingredients and stir to form a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for ten minutes. Allow dough to rise in a cloth covered, oiled bowl for an hour or until doubled. Punch the dough down and shape into a loaf. Allow to rise in oven (with the light on or with a pan of warm water) for about an hour. Bake at 180C for 40 minutes.

Slow Life

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It seems like there's a backlash against the speed of modern culture. More and more in Japan I'm seeing the media supporting slow food, simple pleasures, handmade things. I'm sure Japan is just following the trend the world has started.

The slow food movement started it all in Italy, but now we have SOLE food (sustainable, organic, local and ethical), LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability), crafting hobbies evidenced by MAKE: and CRAFT: magazines, and more people doing it for themselves.

I am very interested in locavorean foods, particularly when I can find organic and local combined. I'm trying to cut out the middleman (and all the additives and preservatives) and make my own food from scratch more often. Not only is it tastier, but it's so much healthier. Fresh bread, fresh pasta, more vegetables from within a 150 km radius - yum!

And here I am at the end of a busy day of my slow life. I made some earrings to wear to the Australia Society ball on Friday, finished grinding bones and spreading them on a board for Cennino's Apprentice, and we've just enjoyed a meal of homemade soup and freshly baked bread.

Of course I am also participating in a four-way IM with my friends - one of whom is making polenta for the first time and getting advice as she goes. Even in our slow life, we use the Internet to communicate across town and around the world.

Looking

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Our very kind realtor, Mr. Matsudate, and his kohai sidekick, Tobe-kun, picked us up this afternoon for a tour of some houses and a visit to their office to discuss future possibilities. Five hours later we rolled back home, having looked at four properties. Let me describe them to you a bit, so you can imagine what we're experiencing.

"2 Flat" was an older house on a quiet street in a high-class neighborhood. It looked like the poor relation of the adjoining houses. Each of the two stories was its own self-contained apartment. Not even in the running, except that the neighborhood is a good one.

"Mickey House," not far from an elevated highway, was obviously owned by someone with children and poor taste. The living room had a chandelier, the walls papered in English florals, the kitchen backsplash was tiled in embossed Mickey, Minnie and Donald profiles. I think we'll leave it for another happy family.

"The Nade" is an top-floor apartment just around the corner from our current place, so it is the perfect location. It has two big roof terraces, plenty of windows and a nice kitchen but too many built in cabinets in the other rooms that limit the way our furniture will fit. It feels cramped and I can't imagine living with the sofa in the exact same position for 20 years.

"Yakuza Poi" was the most interesting of the four. It has a stunning view towards Tokyo Tower and an interesting layout of 2 large bedrooms and a tatami room plus a pretty enormous LDK. Unfortunately, I think the place was a mob hangout because it has marble floors with brass trim, hotel lighting fixtures, and a urinal in the bathroom.

So we struck out today. But we'll go out again next week. There are three intriguing floor plans, including an apartment just a minute's walk from Hanzomon, a house near Yotsuya 3-chome and an apartment in Kagurazaka. Stay tuned for more details...

Cennino's Apprentice

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creative perspectivesThis week I apprenticed myself to an Italian painter. He's been dead for nearly 600 years.

Cennino Cennini wrote Il Libro dell'Arte about the techniques of the professional painting in the 14th century. It's been translated into English (several times) and is known as The Craftsman's Handbook. It covers topics from drawing to making castings. I am going to see if I can't learn to be a Renaissance artist by following his instructions.

There's a huge appeal in doing this. I feel my life is too digital and sometimes too ready-made. Working with 14th century materials is about as hands-on and basic as you can get. By the end of the project, I will have heaps of new knowledge (though how I will use my ability to mix cement for ceramics, I don't know). And along the way, I'll be creating all different kinds of things - from silverpoint drawings to paint brushes. It's also a fun puzzle to translate from 14th century Italy's culture, customs and materials into what's available in 21st century Japan. I've already hit snags and I'm not even past the first step.

I'm documenting all of this as I go along on a new mediatinker site called Cennino's Apprentice. You're invited to have a look and to comment if you wish.

Focaccia

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Rosemary and cheese focaccia ready for dinner

This focaccia is a breeze to make and comes out soft and chewy on the inside with a crispy top. From start to finish it takes under 2 hours. I used instant yeast, which can be mixed directly into the flour and makes the dough preparation quicker, but I'm not 100% thrilled with the flavor of that yeast. Next time, I'll try active dry yeast and see if that improves the recipe. Regardless of the yeast, this bread was yummy and gone in two days. Can't go too far wrong with rosemary, pepper and grana padano!

Focaccia
makes 16" round (8-12 servings)

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups bread flour (strong flour)
2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar
1 pkt instant yeast (11 g)
1 1/3 cup warm water (45C/110F)
2 Tbsp olive oil (plus some extra for oiling the top)
1 Tbsp rosemary, chopped
1 tsp black pepper
2 Tbsp Parmesan cheese, grated

Mix together the flours, salt, sugar and yeast. Stir in the warm water to activate the yeast. Add the olive oil and continue stirring to incorporate all of the flour.

Knead on a floured surface until the dough is smooth but still quite soft, maybe 4 or 5 minutes. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat the dough with oil. Allow to rise, covered with a cloth, for 30-45 minutes or until doubled.

Punch down the dough. On a large oiled baking sheet, flatten the dough into a large disc about 1 cm thick. Spread with about a half tablespoon of oil. Use a rounded spoon handle (or a large cooking chopstick) to dent the dough all over at 3 cm intervals. Sprinkle with rosemary, pepper and cheese.

Sit a shallow pan of hot water in a cold oven. Put the bread pan on a shelf above the water. Close the oven and allow to rise about 20 minutes, or until doubled. Turn the oven on to 190C/375F and bake for 20 minutes or until browned on top. Cool on a wire rack.

Mitsuzou

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Our host poured it from a "Hawaii Deep Sea Water" bottle, but it was definitely not water. It was thick, milky and slightly chunky. We were drinking Japanese moonshine, illegally home-brewed sake. It packed a wallop but not from the alcohol as much as from the chili pepper used to prevent spoilage.

Looking forward to having some more of that soon. Maybe I'll make some myself...

Empty Handed (Headed)

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Plenty of tools and materials, but a dearth of ideas

On the Pony

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Riding the bronze pony

I will never grow up. I waited only a little impatiently as a father snapped photos of his toddler astride the bronze pony at Zoorasia. As soon as he lifted him down, I moved in, only to be beaten by a gaggle of girls who raced up faster. They moved away when they realised I wasn't just an adult, but an adult who intended to get up on the pony.

I flung a leg over, but I couldn't leap up in an agile Lone Ranger sort of way. With my knee over the pony at shoulder height I called for Tod's hand to pull me across the rest of the way. At which point I was laughing hysterically and MJ & Tod were snapping photos.

Getting down was easy and the girls who were waiting were very happy I was done.

Themed Food Decoration

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Peking Duck with duck carrots

六鳳居 in Chinatown, Yokohama, presented this quirky garnish on our plate of Peking Duck. It's so cute that perhaps I will start serving dinner with little vegetable representations of all my meat products.

Househunting

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Tod & I are thinking of buying a house (or an apartment) in Tokyo. I've been scouring the Japanese real estate websites for interesting places in our ku and nearby. It's definitely going to be a challenge to find just the right combination of features, location and price.


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This isn't what I'm looking for. But if it were, I'd be set!

The current trend in moderately priced ($500,000 - $750,000) new homes in Bunkyo-ku and its surrounds is a three story wood structure with a plaster exterior trimmed in brick facing. The first floor has an entryway, a full bath and one room in addition to a covered parking space. Living/dining and kitchen are on the second floor, and there are usually two rooms on the third floor. Some plans include a small roof balcony. There is no yard or garden. The square footage is about 960 sq feet (89 sq meters).

For my own reference, and in case you want to poke around yourself, here are the realty websites I've been using and some handy Japanese vocabulary to help you search.

東京23区内central Tokyo
文京区 Bunkyo-ku
一戸建て house
マンション apartment
土地 land
新築 new
中古 used
1000万円$85,000
1億円 (10,000万円)$850,000

and the numbers in the rooms indicate the size in jo; each increment is about 20 square feet

Post-nuclear Food, Japan style

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Meet Japan's post-nuclear food: Cheese In Norimaki Arare

What's post-nuclear food? Tod & I are certain that Combos (a popular American snack of processed & flavoured cheese-filled cracker nuggets), along with Twinkies and CheezWiz, will nourish the survivors of any nuclear disaster. So little of nature goes into Combos they seem indestructible.

This week I found Japanese-style post-nuclear food. These are "Camembert" filled rice crackers wrapped in sheets of dried seaweed. I like them about as much as I like Combos (not very much at all). Tod also likes them about as much as he likes Combos (quite a bit).

I guess if DRPK drops a bomb, I'll know what to snack on afterward!

Knitangle: Tassled Hat

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My sister coined the word knitangle to describe all those wonky rectangles we beginners knit and crochet. I have a stock of them and until I learn to increase and decrease, I'm going to make quite a few more. But I hate the thought of all that knitting going to waste or being unravelled. Enter Knitangle - ideas for reclaiming knitted rectangles - with tutorials for making projects from simple rectangles. I suppose you could even knit a rectangle on purpose to try the project.

The Knitangle project sheets include a photo of a finished item, a materials list and illustrated instructions. Expect them as an irregular mediatinker feature until I am done with my stash or take the time to learn some new knitting tricks.

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The first Knitangle: tassled hat from a 3:5 rectangle

Download the Knitangle Tassled Hat project sheet (180KB PDF)

Light and Shadow

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Glowing shadow

creative perspectivesAs the late afternoon sun streamed into my office at a steep angle, bringing my daily 30 minutes of winter warmth, I noticed a strange light flickering on my wall. The lenses of my glasses focused the sunbeams in the middle of my shadow.

I had to remove my specs and play a little bit. It was giggle-inducing fun to make the glowing eyes move around the wall.

Garlicky Tuna-Potato Salad

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Here's another quick and delicious tapas side dish to server with your favorite glass of Spanish sherry. This can be made in about 5 minutes entirely from pantry items, so no excuse not to show off a little next time someone drops in unexpectedly in the evening. You could also take this to the proper level and do it all from scratch. It woudl certainly taste fresher and more vibrant, but it will take longer than 5 minutes. Despite the ready-made ingredients, this is quite tasty.

Garlicky Tuna-Potato Salad
makes about 1.5 cups

50 g instant mashed potatoes
150 ml hot water
50 ml milk
1 can tuna, drained
1 tsp garlic chips, crushed
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbsp capers (or green olives or pickles), chopped
salt & pepper to taste

Prepare the potatoes by combining with hot water. Add milk and stir until smooth. Mix in the remaining ingredients. Season to taste. Serve on toasted bread or in small dishes as an appetizer.

Powder Australia

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A trip to Niseko, Hokkaido, is like visiting a foreign country. Almost every restaurant, hotel, pension, public service and service-worker caters to a horde of (mainly) Australian tourists on summer ski holidays. I got so confused, I couldn't figure out when to speak English and when to use Japanese. It was strange, but not unpleasant.

Tod and I made up the weak links of the sporting group, but we gamely tried our best on the itty-bitty "family slope." Tod had his first ever downhill skiing experience and enjoyed it. Skiing was good for both of us. Snowboarding, on the other hand, is not as easy as it looks. If you manage to hit the groove it's really fun, but most of the time I was just hitting the snow - hard. Yesterday's 2 hour lesson has me aching and bruised today.

Everyone else in our party was an expert skier or snowboarder: Tim flew in from London to ski with our mutual friend Simon, and Tracey and Ashley are naturally athletic with good balance. They were zipping down from the top of the mountain for a few days before we arrived and will stick around Niseko til the end of the week.

I made up for my lack of snow skills by cooking a lot of meals for the assembled group. I hope nobody minded that I hogged the kitchen most of the time.

My mail spam is nearly all downloaded and I'm going to drop my twinge-y tailbone into a tub of hot water for a soak before I head to bed. I hope you all had a happy new year!

2007 starts out on the right foot

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Wiggly piggly new year wishes from me & Tod.

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