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Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

For the last few days I’ve been mourning my time in Japan. The more time that goes by since I left the more that my life and experiences seem like a distant memory. I feel those memories and feelings slowly slipping away as I create new memories and carry on with my Canadian life. Mourning is the only word that comes close to the feeling associated with what is happening. I’m not sure if it’s necessarily a mourning of Japan or more simply a mourning of my global wanderings. I need to hop on a plane to ANYWHERE!

For now, until I have the funds, I try to subdue my urge to travel by ordering take out from various countries and by visiting local Asian grocers to buy too many things that I don’t need. All of this stuff was found at Tian Phat Asian Grocery on the Bedford Highway. I was already impressed as soon as I opened the door, the beautiful aromatic smells that hit you when you enter are amazing. They had a lot of stuff that I haven’t seen outside of Japan and a variety of foods from various other countries (Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, China, India, Philippines).

I couldn't pass up these.

I couldn’t pass up these.

Can't wait to furikake the shit out of my rice!

Can’t wait to furikake the shit out of my rice!

Gari Gari kun!

Gari Gari kun!

Whaaa?! Japanese Mayo!

Whaaa?! Japanese Mayo!

All the Vietnamese flavors!

All the Vietnamese flavors!

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BBQ Sauce

 

Mmm shabu shabu

Mmm shabu shabu

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Visa Update

I finally received my Certificate of Eligibility from Japan this week and I was able to send everything off to the Japanese Consulate in Montreal. My visa should be processed and back to me by August 7. Because of the delay I had to change my original flight which was departing on August 3 to one week later. I’m still flying out of Halifax but now I’ll be heading out on August 10th and arriving in Tokyo on August 11th. I will miss the first day of school but luckily the kids aren’t back until the 18th so I will only be missing orientation stuff.

I’m much more relaxed now that all of the important stuff is out of the way. Now all I have left to do is clean my apartment and spend time with the special people in my life and enjoy the last bit of time I have.

I predict a lot of patio beers.

Wilser's Room

Wilser’s Room

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Searching for Clarity

“I was in the EXACT position in 1998. To stay in Japan (and formally study Ikebana and Art History) or return to America for graduate school. I will tell you: I was in a hurry to “get on” with my studies and felt that “25” was some sort of cut-off for going to grad school. I WAS AN IDIOT. It is one of the few regrets I have in my entire life. I should have stayed in Japan: I wasn’t ready to leave; I LOVED it there, and it cast a shadow over my graduate studies. It wasn’t until I moved to Boston and starting shifting my focus to higher education that I stopped regretting returning to the states. Living in Japan is not for everyone, but YOU LOVE JAPAN. You can always return and continue your studies here, but don’t cut short this adventure: you will regret it. The program you seek will be here: you can always apply to it (and you don’t need me to get in!!! You are brilliant.) That is my best advice. No graduate school, no matter how beloved, will touch the adventure, beauty, grace, elegance, history, charm, and sheer quirkiness that is Japan! Finish this phase, and you will know when it is time to leave–if it is ever time to leave. I left Asia in 1998, but it wasn’t until 2006 that I found something I loved even more in the fields and coast of New England. I’m not sorry I went to UVA or lived in DC, but my heart ached for Kyoto….every…….single…..day.”

 

“…you will know when it is time to leave…”  I haven’t quite found clarity yet but this comment I stumbled upon did catch my attention. Thinking back on when I decided to leave Japan it did feel like my time was up, that I had learned all I needed to learn and that it was time to move on. When I left, I didn’t regret it and even now in the confused, unhappy state that I am in I still don’t regret leaving. I have felt nostalgia for Japan since leaving but regret is something I have never felt.

 

momiji

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I have found my happy place. I’ve been stressing out a lot about everything lately which includes a lot of over thinking, crying and anxiety but I’ve finally found some peace. I’ve come to accept the fact that I cannot necessarily change what will/will not happen in the future, I can only change myself and maybe steer my life in the right direction.

One of the things that has been on my mind is applying for a Japanese visa. Luckily I have a job lined up and the school that I will be working for has started the process. However, this process can take several weeks depending on how busy immigration is and considering the time of year, I would say that they’re pretty busy with applications. My school has applied for my Certificate of Eligibility but even if it does get processed in a timely manner it still has to be sent to me here, in Canada and I then have to go to the Japanese consulate to apply for the actual visa. That wouldn’t normally be an issue but the closest Japanese consulate to me is in Montreal which is a 9-10 hour drive away. I do have the option of mailing my application but that requires me to also send them my passport.

So here are the facts:

  • I have not yet received my Certificate of Eligibility from Japan.
  • Once I receive it, mailing it along with my passport to Montreal will take a couple of days.
  • When the consulate receives my passport and certificate, the visa application process will take up to 5 business days.
  • Receiving my passport and visa back from the Japanese consulate will take a few days by mail.
  • My flight is booked for August 3rd.
  • No passport = no flight.

It’s all out of my control but I’m okay with that. If I don’t end up getting to go to Japan, I will be out $900 that I paid for the flight and that sucks but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Not going to Japan doesn’t mean I would stay in Fredericton for those of you that are thinking that. I’ve toyed with the idea of moving to Halifax a few times and that seems like it would make the most sense.

But if I end up staying in Canada, friends, DO NOT let me go into fashion retail management again. That, is not a happy place for me.

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This past month has been a bit hectic for me and unfortunately I don’t think the chaos of emotion and stress will be settling down anytime soon.

Some of you may already know, but after living in Canada for the past year, I have decided to return to Japan. It likely comes as no surprise to most of you given the size of the space in my heart I have reserved for Japan and the unrelenting dissatisfaction I have been feeling since the winter.

My decision to return was not made in haste but a decision that I contemplated for a long time. It wasn’t the only option I gave myself, I also considered relocating to Halifax but didn’t want to find myself feeling the same unhappiness. I don’t think Japan is ultimately the answer to my state of mind but at least I can focus on what I love and what I’m good at while being able to enjoy a comfortable life and explore the world around me.

It’s really hard to say how long I’ll be there for this time, I’d rather not limit myself to time constraints. The employment contract I have signed is for one year so I can say that I will be there for at least a year. There are reasons I left Japan just as there are reasons why I’m choosing to leave Fredericton. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I’m not able to recall what those reasons are but I’m sure once I’m back in the land of the rising sun I will remember.

I’m leaving behind some very significant experiences and people that I will have to learn to stay connected with without the convenience of locale but I am willing to do anything to keep those connections tight.

It is a bitter sweet return but as the title says, I need to go back in order to figure out how to move forward.

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Japan: The Delicious

The Delicious

You have not lived until you have tried Japanese food. I don’t mean the California rolls found at the supermarket or the dry ramen noodles, I mean real Japanese food made by Japanese people. Food is somewhat of an art form in Japan. It’s similar to French cuisine in that it’s not just appealing to the palate but to the eyes as well. Even the fake plastic food that you find outside most restaurants in Japan are incredibly detailed and unlike many establishments in the west, what you see on display or on the menu is actually what your food looks like when it arrives at your table.

  • 刺身 Sashimi

I watched an episode of Bizarre Food with Andrew Zimmern last night where he traveled to Japan to try some weird and wacky Japanese foods like beef tongue ice cream and funazushi but he also visited the Tsukiji fish market where he ate fresh tuna sashimi. Watching him eat reminded me of how much I miss fresh sashimi, my craving at that moment was so strong that I could taste the freshness and feel the texture in my own mouth. It’s difficult to explain the flavour of sashimi to someone who has never tried it but I can tell you that it does not taste like “fish”. The best word I can come up with to describe it is “fresh”.

sashimi

Melt-in-your-mouth goodness

  • Candy (駄菓子) and Sweets (和菓子)

I’m pretty sure that I was an old Japanese lady in a past life simply due to my unhealthy love of anything ume (especially umeboshi) and Japanese sweets (especially in mochi form). The Japanese have a way with sweets that’s incomparable to any other country. I think what makes Japanese sweets so special is the subtle sweetness. Even things like ice cream and cookies are so lightly sweetened that it can easily go unnoticed to a typical Western palate.

A sweet paste made from azuki beans is used quite frequently in Japanese sweets, usually as a filling in mochi or taiyaki but is also used as a topping for ice cream. I’ve heard from many foreigners living in Japan that they don’t like sweet beans but I’m a fiend for the stuff. Recently I was lucky enough to have a friend send me some tsubuan and mochi flour so that I could make daifuku, they didn’t turn out the greatest but they still tasted good especially with my sakura tea.

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Traditional Japanese dessert

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I could really go for some green tea and this plate right now…

yatsuhashi

I have an unhealthy relationship with yatsuhashi as well

Serving sizes in Japan are (usually) just big enough to be satisfying and that goes for candy as well. Of course you can find large bags of candy (mostly at Costco) but candy stores (dagashiya) tend to sell little tiny packages so it’s easy to sample lots of different treats without making a huge investment. Perhaps that’s part of the reason Japanese children aren’t fat like Western kids?

Dagashi

Dagashiya (candy shop)

  • Tea

麦茶 – Mugi-cha (barely tea)
ほうじ茶 – Houji-cha (roasted green tea)
ウーロン茶 – Oolong-cha
The list goes on and on.

When you want a refreshing drink in the summer you’re more likely to buy some mugi-cha (wheat tea) or green tea rather than soda. Okay, that was a bit of a generalization. I am more likely to buy mugi-cha or cold green tea to satisfy my thirst on a hot summer day.

Bottled tea was one of a number of things that surprised me about Japan. It wasn’t necessarily the sheer number of options, it was the fact that none of them were sweetened like the bottled teas in North America. It took some getting used to especially when you expect that shot of sugar in a mouthful of tea but my palate adjusted and now I prefer the natural taste of straight tea and can’t drink sugary bottled tea.

lineup

  • Shochu/Sake

I didn’t develop a taste for sake until after I left Japan and started feeling “homesick” for anything and everything Japanese. Now I quite enjoy it, especially hot sake on a cold, winter night.

There are about as many different sakes as there are villages in Japan. This wikipedia entry on sake list all the different varieties of sake plus the different ways in which they’re prepared which gives you endless combinations!

I’m not sure if it’s because sake is drunk from small cups or it’s a result of something being lost in translation but more than one person I have spoken to here in Canada were under the impression that you’re meant to shoot sake like it’s tequila or jager. I felt almost offended by this assumption. Sake is meant to be a sipping liquor, not a shooting liquor unless your sole purpose is to get wasted instantly and don’t care about enjoying your drink.

  • Matcha/Green Tea

I don’t want to get all high and mighty and pretend that I know more about green tea than all of you reading this simply because I lived in Japan but the watery shite that is being passed off as matcha or green tea in North American cafes is nothing like the real thing. First of all matcha and green tea are two different things and cannot be used interchangeably. Green tea is composed of actual tea leaves (dried of course) while matcha is dried green tea leaves that are ground into a fine powder. Both are slightly bitter but equally rich and full bodied.

I really miss the rich, bitter taste of matcha. Pairing the bitter taste of matcha with something sweet like chocolate or ice cream makes for an incredibly satisfying dessert option but without the need for overindulgence. My favorite treat at the moment are these amazing chocolates. These are a perfect example of the subtle flavours used in Japanese food. They are a perfect balance of bitter and sweet.

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They go great with a hot cup of tea

 

As I said before, one thing I noticed when I returned to Canada after living in Japan for so long was that my palate had changed and become more sensitive to intense flavours. Although I still occasionally crave the rich, sometimes sickeningly sweet rush of intensity that comes from a marshmallow square or the painfully intense seasoning of Western potato chip flavours, I never enjoy it once I eat it. The sweet is so intense that I find it overpowers any actual flavour. Now I prefer the subtle sour/salty combinations in Japanese snacks like ume (sour plum) flavoured potato chips and the delicately sweet taste of anko (red bean paste) or daifuku (rice cake).

Honestly there are a lot more delicious things in Japan but I would spend all day writing about them so I just picked my top 5 for now and I’ll leave the rest for you guys to discover when you visit Japan. Or if you’ve been to or live in Japan let me know in the comments what your favorite Japanese food/snack is.

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Japan: The Unique

A couple of weeks ago I got word that a good friend in Japan fell very sick and ended up in the hospital. It all went downhill from there and she passed away on Saturday, February 15. This post is dedicated to her because what made my experience in Japan so memorable were all of the people I met and shared coffees, dinners, projects and laughs with, Kathryn was one of those people and I feel incredibly grateful to have known and spent time with such a beautiful person.

Rest in Peace
Kathryn Booze-Ishiwata 1977-2014

The Unique

  • People

When I say people in Japan are unique, I’m not just referring to Japanese people but also the people that choose to live in Japan. We are a strange and wonderful breed of human, as are the Japanese perhaps that’s why we fit together so nicely.

Living in Japan (more specifically Tokyo) granted me the opportunity to meet people I would never have met had I remained living in Fredericton, New Brunswick or even Canada for that matter. I met a lot of Canadians and Americans but I also met people from all over Europe, Jamaica, Australia and one of my best friends was from Turkey. All of these people had different reasons for coming to Japan as well as very different reasons for staying. For many of us long-term residents were linked by one phrase, “I was only planning to stay for one year.”  Any of you reading this right now who are currently in Japan know exactly what I’m talking about. Japan is something of a Never Never Land where you get swept off your feet by the quirkiness and the (mostly) trouble-free and convenient way of life and soon it’s 4 years later and you wonder where the time has gone. For me that time was spent having intriguing conversations and forming relationships with interesting people, I also spent a lot of that time really finding myself and discovering what I’m really passionate about.

The interesting people I met are not only interesting but sincere in their words, their actions and their life. They live with such passion that it’s impossible not to feel and be affected by it. These people are also the most supportive people I’ve ever met. I’m finding that in Canada whatever projects you want to start or career you want to pursue there is a lot of competition that you have to deal with but in Tokyo withing the gaijin community (at least the community that I was a part of) will back you 100% so long as they see that you are passionate and sincere. These incredible people have even continued to support me in the projects I’m working on back here in Canada and I would do the same for them if they asked. To me, that is friendship in in truest form and another reason that being away from Japan and my friends there has been such a difficult thing to deal with. So I have to say thank you to all of the wonderful people I met while I was in Japan (you know who you are) and I’m sure we will cross paths once again.

  • Convenient Public Transportation

I’m unfortunately currently living in a place where public transportation is not viewed as necessity for the proper functioning of a city therefore is not a high priority for government officials. Even when it runs, it’s not exactly what you would classify as convenient. Although I don’t miss the crowds on Tokyo trains I do miss being able to go to the station (many areas have a few to choose from) and waiting no longer than 10 minutes for a metro or train.

There are lots of cities all over the world that have intricate, multi-line subway and train systems but from my experience Tokyo is the only city that keep theirs at the highest standard. Maybe it’s because if they didn’t the system would all come crashing down. Trains (for the most part) run on time, when they’re suppose to so that the rest of the country is on time as well. If trains are late, people are late for their jobs and therefore productivity is down. I have to admit I was pretty spoiled by the metro system, to the point where if a train was 2 minutes late I would almost feel upset even though I knew it was on it’s way.

  • Stationary

Had I been born in Japan I would have become an intense stationary otaku, I just know it. I was obsessed with pens, paper and stickers enough as it was when I was a child and Japan (on many different levels) made all of my childhood dreams come true (including seeing a robot dance in real life). Perhaps it’s because calligraphy is such an important part of the Japanese culture but pens come in hundreds of different colors, scents and weights. It’s not as simple as choosing between red, blue or black or deciding if you want to use ball point or gel, choosing pens is serious business.

  • Tiny Themed Bars

Shinjuku’s Golden Gai is the area that is best known for it’s tiny little bars. Most of these places are no bigger than an apartment bedroom and seat no more than 10 patrons at a time but that’s the beauty of them. They are quaint, intimate places to enjoy a drink or two after a long hard day at work and are wonderful if you and a friend feel like doing a bit of bar hopping.

  • Specialty Shops

If there’s even a small demand for it, Tokyo has got it and has a shop for it too. There are thousands of tiny little boutiques scattered throughout the city that cater to very specific interests. There are shops for dog clothing, shops for lovers of all things 80’s, not to mention all the vendors in Akihabara that specialize in various electronic parts and the sexy bars that cater to every fantasy you can (or can’t) imagine. What I’m trying to say is that whatever you want, whenever you want it, Tokyo has it and that includes stationary shops and most recently a shop that sells nothing but KitKats.

KitKat boutique

  • Japanese Tea Time (not the ceremonial type)

There’s nothing quite like tucking into an old tea house or sweets shop that’s been run by the same lady for decades. The scent of match, azuki and sweet cakes filling the air as everything is baked fresh. Fresh and deliciously appetizing bite-sized treats are displayed carefully and priced accordingly. ¥100 ($1) may seem like a lot to pay for one small momiji manju or a piece of match roll cake but you’re not only paying for quality ingredients, you’re paying for the hard work and dedication that goes into each and every piece.

You browse around, adding little treats to your equally little basket knowing that there is not one thing that you won’t like despite the fact that you haven’t even tried it yet. You pay and sit down to wait for your freshly made matcha that miraculously goes with everything. Satisfaction comes in small savory bites in Japan and that goes for meals as well. You wouldn’t shove an entire daifuku in your mouth and then be on your way because 1) it wouldn’t exactly fit in your mouth, and 2) in order to catch and appreciate all of the subtle flavours of both your tea and sweets you have to take your time.

  • Being one of the only suppliers of Western style cupcakes

Being a westerner in Japan is tough sometimes, especially when you’re craving a western food or flavor. Despite their cute appearance cupcakes have not taken hold of the Japanese bake shops, they’re still a relatively new thing. My theory is that Japanese patisserie have a hard time capturing the essence of the American-style cupcake. It’s moist and delicious cake base topped with a sweet flavorful frosting but most of the cupcakes I’ve tried in Tokyo with a few exceptions are dry and bland. This is what inspired me and my fellow baker to start the Love Hate Bakery, we wanted tasty treats! Unlike in Western countries, Tokyo is not over saturated with cupcake shops, it’s a fairly new thing and hasn’t really taken off the way it has in Canada or America. The lack of buttery, moist goodness gave us an advantage and it didn’t take long for word to spread about our treats. We even had a few regular customers. It felt good to provide goods to the expat community who so needed them.

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