Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Spring Equinox 春分の日 and 山菜ご飯

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Spring has sprung

March 20th is a public holiday, celebrating the spring equinox. According to Japan Australia it should start to warn up now. It has actually got much nicer, but I am not packing away my woollens just yet!

We thought it would be appropriate to eat some 山菜ご飯 (sansai gohan or mountain vegetable rice) to enjoy some of the  "wild herb" of spring (which I bought in a packet...). There's a nice article about sansai in the Japan Times. The version I made only has warabi (bracken/fern fronds), gobou (burdock root), takenoko (bamboo shoots) and carrots.

A cross between a spring meal and a cold-and-flu cure

I have quite a nasty cold at the moment, so along with the 山菜ご飯 and miso soup (which feels amazing on a sore throat, probably because it is so salty) I made tofu stewed with an entire bulb of fresh ginger and a cucumber salad with garlic and lemon dressing.

When I was on my way home in the afternoon the owner of my neighbourhood bar/Tex Mex joint came running out with a bottle of apple juice for me to help me get better! I live in the nicest neighbourhood.
Surprise juice!


Speaking of being sick, Hyogo Prefecture has just become the second prefecture to ban smoking in schools and hospitals. You read that correctly... only two prefecture have bans on smoking in schools and hospitals. Still, two is better than none.

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Friday, 16 March 2012

Cycling and Camping with Dogs

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After a long and depressing winter last year I desperately wanted to get away and relax. Without a car our options for travel with the dogs are a bit limited, but I came up with a genius idea… we’d buy a bicycle trailer, pack a tent and take off down the coast stopping when we got tired, tied to no schedule; completely free. Sounds great, right? The first challenge was finding a trailer that I felt was safe enough. We decided on the Doggyride, which seemed safest both for a higher weight (since we’d have them both in one trailer) and because of the axle, which theoretically will keep the trailer upright even if the bike tips over. Challenge two was getting this lovely trailer to Japan. We achieved this painlessly but not cheaply via Madi’s Remailing Service. The trailer was shipped from the manufacturer in Holland to America then finally to Japan. Yosh! We took the puppies out for a test run and they looked most fine cruising through town, if I say so myself.

Even the grumpiest looking people can’t help but smile when we pass them with the Doggyride. Phase two was to check up on campsites with riding distance. This turned into a bit of a nightmare… although there are dozens of campsites within cycling distance most of them wouldn’t allow us to bring dogs and the ones that would were off dirt roads that we didn’t want to brave with the trailer (it sits low to the ground and doesn’t have much suspension~ apparently in the RnD stage they discovered that dogs get more motion sick the better the suspension). Eventually I found a campsite that seemed perfect. It was inland, not along the coast, but the ride was not too long and on a well surfaced road, and they welcomed dogs. We decided to spend our entire vacation there.
We loaded up our hiking packs with tent, sleeping bags, mats, trangia, dog food, metal spike and long leashes, bicycle repair kit etc. By the time we were done the packs were about 30 kg each. We figured it’d be ok because we were biking, but I actually had trouble picking mine up to get it on. The long suffering Mr, who is much stronger and fitter than I am (admittedly, most people are stronger and fitter than I am) was given the trailer to pull. With both dogs inside it added about another 30 kg. After being cold for months, the good weather hit the day we left. It was hot, and we were sweaty within minutes. The first part of the trip took us through the city, which was difficult cycling (busy streets and narrow footpaths). We decided to take a quick rest stop on the outskirts of town, at the port. As we turned a corner to go into the parking area we went over a slightly uneven patch of road and the trailer tipped over immediately, both dogs falling out through the sunroof. It took a few seconds for the Mr to stop completely (his brakes weren’t really up to the amount of weight the bicycle was carrying, and the dogs were dragged a little way along the road by their harnesses. It was heart stopping. Were they ok? Would they be too scared to get back in the trailer? How damaged was the trailer? They were not only unhurt but completely unphased by the experience. The trailer was a little torn but intact. Us humans were quite shaken however. We considered turning back, but decided to carry on. Our next stretch of road was a lovely new bike trail beside the ocean; wide, smooth riding. Mostly. A section near the end was unfinished. There was only curb and highway. We had another serious talk about giving up and going home, but when things get more difficult I tend to get more stubborn, and I refused to be beaten by a mere lack of anywhere to ride. I balanced on the curb and walked, pushing my bicycle and hoisting it into the air whenever a truck went by. At the other end I left the bike and my pack (only in Japan) and balanced my way back to take the Mr’s while he waited with the dogs. Finally, we carried the trailer between us with the dogs inside and got across alive. As we cycled into the city of Beppu we encountered another problem- the puppies became motion sick and vomited all over the inside of the trailer. Then fought about who was going to eat it. At the time we were feeding Acana Pacifica, which has a strong fishy smell. Coupled with the acidic, metallic smell of vomit this was not pleasant to deal with. 

We stopped in Beppu to clean up and buy some food. It started raining. We got under some shelter and consulted our maps. Then looked at the road ahead. Then looked back at the maps. The route our google earth searches had led us to believe would be reasonable short and on a gradual incline in fact headed right up a mountain range. We looked at the trailer and thought about pulling it up a mountain while the dogs vomited copiously. We decided to walk instead, and stashed the trailer (after running all over town trying to find somewhere with a locker big enough or a left-luggage couter, we ended up nervously parking it in a car park). As we set out on foot, the sun came out again in full force and steam rose up all around us. The packs cut deep into our shoulders. We eventually stopped for a break and I wasn’t sure if I could go on. Just carrying the pack was exhausting me, let alone walking up the ever-steeper road. We sat and talked while the puppies played in a muddy puddle (unlike most shiba inu, who try their best to stay clean, our two love mud). Spying a taxi rank we decided that I’d take both packs and taxi to the campsite while the Mr kept walking with the dogs. After getting the tent up and the packs safe inside I’d walk back to meet them. After I hopped into the taxi alone the driver asked if someone else was going to pick up the others, and after hearing our plan he insisted on driving all of us. Because his taxi was fitted with fresh white lace seat covers (and technically animals aren’t allowed in taxis) he asked me to keep the wet and muddy shiba in the footwell. Sadly, not being able to see what is going on makes Hayate rather upset, and he barked at the top of his lungs the whole way… which turned out to be a twenty minute drive. The poor old driver must have been cursing his generosity! Despite being a small dog, Hayate barks like a rottweiler. As we drove we realised how impossible it would have been to walk up (and cycling even more so). The road was steep and winding, with trucks and heavy traffic on both sides. Worse, there was no shoulder at all; on one side was a sheer cliff face and on the other a drop down into nothingness. 
Our Bit of the Campsite
The campsite was lovely. Perched on a mountain top in the midst of a forest and beside a lake, we had an amazing view over the entire mountain range and plenty of options for exploring. The lake was populated with pleasure boats and white swans*, the first I have seen in Japan. We pitched our tent as far away from everyone else as we could, assuming (correctly) that the dogs would bark and annoy everyone. I wish I had more photos; our packs were already so heavy that I didn’t want to add the weight of the camera, so all my pictures are from my phone.
Harassing birds has been a life-long hobby for Hayate. He started out with sparrows, then began trying to sneak up on pigeons, and even barks at crows through the window (despite the fact that they could easily eat him alive… Japanese crows are huge, probably ravens rather than crows). When he first saw the swans from the safety of our campsite he pricked up his ears and commenced stalking manoeuvres. When he saw one up close on land and realised how massive they are, he was absolutely terrified. He must have thought that the birds had summoned their king to get revenge for his bird-harassing ways. This terror was intensified during the night, when the swans grazed loudly on the grass surrounding our tent. Even I was pretty scared actually, it is an unbelievably loud sound and their looming white shapes in the starlight are more than a little intimidating. Consequently, Hayate spent the night running in and out of the tent barking (we had the dogs tethered to a spike outside but with leashes long enough to allow them to come into the tent to sleep).   
We had a great time. The shiba come alive in natural land scapes in a way we never see in the city. 

Eventually, however, we had to face the depressing reality of getting back down the mountain by foot. The best way we could think of to stay safe was to go before the daily traffic started up. We broke camp in the dark and started heading down in the pearly dawn light. Every time we heard traffic coming we grabbed a dog each and leaped into the drainage ditch. Most of the way down the ditch was about two feet deep and half full of leaves and debris, so we had no way of knowing what nasty things might be hiding underneath. We saw broken glass and snake skins, but the worst we stepped in were spiders and mud. It rained on and off throughout the day, but we got home alive (albeit bedraggled and exhausted). We must have been quite a sight on the way back- muddy sleepy dogs riding a vomit-scented trailer pulled by sweaty red-eyed humans with crazy camping hair.
It was insane, dangerous, exhausting… and I really hope we can do it again some time.

*Swan in Japanese is, literally “white bird”. A black swan, then, is a “black white bird”. This makes me smile.
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Thursday, 15 March 2012

Slugs and Snails and Puppy Dogs' Tails

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The moment the bell sounds the end of class, twenty little girls leap from their seats clutching Jewel Pet note books and bubble-gum scented markers and race to be the first in line for my “sign” (autograph). I do it with swirling flourishes, hearts and smiley faces. Some of my students have more than ten signs, but they always want another. A little boy presses against me from the other side and watches as I write.
“I don’t want a sign” he asserts, fiddling with my sleeve or pocket or hair. “Signs are stupid.”
As two girls compare their signs  ~ one has a heart dotting her “i" and the other has a flower ~ they squeal in unison “Cuuuuuute!”
“I don’t even like you” the boy says, one foot standing on mine, grubby fingers tracing the letters I write. “Shall I give you a sign?” I ask. “I hate you” he yells and runs away. When I leave to go back to the staff room he is hiding at the bottom of the stairs, where no one can see. Wordlessly, looking at the floor, he hands me a Pokemon notebook full of sketches of Kirby and Spiro.
“You’re really good at drawing!” I say, and he smiles shyly. I autograph his notebook on a back page, where it will stay a secret.
“You smell nice” he whispers, and runs back to class as the bell chimes again.
At the end of the day I find a present on my desk:
Kirby
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How Have I Lived Without Seitan??

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I finally made an order with FBC for some vital wheat gluten and decided to use a Post Punk Kitchen recipe for my first attempt at using seitan. It was amazing. Utterly amazing. The roast is stuffed with shiitake (a local speciality here), leeks and thyme. The roast itself has subtle fennel undertones.

How did I live my entire life as a vegetarian without ever trying seitan?! So to celebrate my new obsession, here is some Black Metal Vegan Chef for you:

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Tuesday, 13 March 2012

ASMR, Sakura and Anime

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I read an article at NeuroLogica this morning that sparked a small epiphany in me (you all read neuroscience blogs over breakfast too, right?).  The article is about autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). To quote the article:
"It is described as a pleasurable and calming tingling sensation in the back of the head. It is often called a brain orgasm, or braingasm (which I think is a bit misleading, since the regular kind of orgasm occurs in the brain with some peripheral manifestations). This experience can be triggered by a variety of odd sensations. The ASMR Research and Support website (you knew that had to exist) gives a list:
- Exposure to slow, accented, or unique speech patterns
- Viewing educational or instructive videos or lectures
- Experiencing a high empathetic or sympathetic reaction to an event
- Enjoying a piece of art or music
- Watching another person complete a task, often in a diligent, attentive manner – examples would be filling out a form, writing a check, going through a purse or bag, inspecting an item closely, etc.
- Close, personal attention from another person
- Haircuts, or other touch from another on head or back
This is a diverse list of triggers, but I can see what they all have in common. They all seem to engage the same networks of the brain – that part of us that interacts carefully and thoughtfully with our environment or with other people.  There is something calmly satisfying about such things."

I have had that feeling for my entire life, but I assumed that it was one of my oddities and that no one else experienced it. In case you are wondering what any of this has to do with Japan, this sensation is one of the things that first attracted me to Japanese culture, but I’ll get back to that later.

The first time I clearly remember this feeling was on a summer afternoon, watching my sister draw. Golden sunlight was streaming through the window and the only sounds drifting through the viscous air were a far away lawnmower and the soft rhythmic scratching of her pencil moving across her sketch book. In the stillness her concentration was palpable but also entirely private. I felt happiness so intense that it was almost painful to breathe. That moment was so perfect and so still that I knew it could not last, and maybe no future moment would even equal its perfection. I don’t think that ASMR is inherently linked to sadness, transience or 物の哀れ (mono no aware), they just happen to coincide for me.
Sakura, spring bamboo and powerlines
Many of the things I enjoy about Japan share this mixture of still concentration and lingering sadness. Although I think rather too much is made of it, it’s widely written that sakura (cherry blossoms) are considered so beautiful because of their evanescence. If they survived for three months they would lose part of what makes them so beautiful. 物の哀れ (lit. the pathos of things) is a significant term for students of Japanese literature and it is a feature of many of my favourite Japanese films and anime.
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Saturday, 10 March 2012

Keeping a Dog in Japan

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Sunset with Hayate

Attitudes and challenges

It hasn’t been particularly easy. Shiba are not the easiest breed, my Japanese is not the best and we don’t have a car. Had we been able to drive to a dog park (there are none close by) our first year with the puppies would have been a different experience. Although it is certainly not unique to Japan, we find it frustrating that everyone around us buys into the alpha mythology. Dr Dunbar is extremely popular in Japan, but everyone we know uses physical violence in training. When we were struggling with our training it was hard to hear “you should just hit him” three or four times a day. There are also some pervasive beliefs about dogs that made it hard to socialise Hayate when he was a puppy. Most damaging is the idea that two males can’t be allowed near each other because they will fight. How do they think dogs ever survive without human intervention?! Even after Hayate was desexed, people would pull their dogs away from him and tell us that it was “dangerous” to let them near each other. Even worse are the people who allow their dogs close enough to sniff but interpret play bowing as aggression and yank the poor dog away with the leash.

Who wouldn't want to play with this cute little guy?
On the other end of the scale there is a lot of patience and acceptance of dogs. Hayate is really loud, and we have never had a single complaint. Whenever I apologise to my neighbours they say that babies cry, animals make noise and nature is what it is. There are far more places where our dogs are welcome than there are in Australia, including cafes, restaurants, pet-friendly hotels/B’n’Bs and some shops. Dogs are allowed on trains if in a crate, and we once had a taxi driver give us a lift with both (at the time very muddy) dogs in tow.
Doggy Health Insurance

In Australia I had never heard of pet health insurance. The insurance we have for the shiba is incredibly good value, and they get their own cards! 

What having dogs has meant for us

Sleepy puppies, sleepy Sunday
Deciding to get a dog (which fairly quickly turned into getting two dogs, but don’t tell… officially Kuri is “visiting for a while”) was both the best and worst thing we could have done for our social lives. We can’t spontaneously head to karaoke after dinner and sing the night away with friends. Overnight trips require extensive advance planning. My husband and I rarely go out together on weeknights because we don’t want to leave the dogs alone after they’ve been alone all day. In terms of becoming part of our community, though, the dogs have opened doors for us that we didn’t even realise were closed. The dogs provide a “safe” reason for strangers to approach us and engage in conversation, for neighbours to visit and for co-workers to connect with us. After our first year in Kyushu we moved into a different apartment, because the one I had inherited from my predecessor did not allow pets. One of the main advertising points of the new apartment building is that it allows dogs (relatively unusual in Japan) and consequently most families have a dog. Near the apartment is a park (well, more like a long nature strip dividing the road) with rubbish bins for dog poo (it is very rare to find bins anywhere in Japan; for an interesting explanation of why see HERE). This means that when we walk our dogs we regularly meet our neighbours walking theirs. If we ever bumped into neighbours from our old apartment we’d nod and maybe say hello, but that was the extent of it. When you have a dog, that changes completely. We exchange our dogs’ names, ages, what tricks they can do; we sympathise and offer advice about training problems. We are part of a ready-made community. The funny thing about these relationships is that they center so completely on the dogs that we never exchange our own names; I am “Hayate Mama” and I know my neighbours by their dogs’ names too!
 
We became friendly with our elderly next-door neighbours after I wrote to them apologising for Hayate’s barking. They invited us over for tea and said that my letter had been a wonderful opportunity for them to feel more connected with their neighbours. A young family on the other side of us can’t keep a dog themselves, so their daughter wants to play with ours. Best of all, our super (kanrinnin) liked Hayate so much that he adopted a surrendered black shiba puppy himself, and we’ve been good friends ever since. He has been a huge help to us in all sorts of ways. Then there are our co-workers. After word got around that I had a puppy, staff who had never spoken to me offered to drive us to the vet, gave us dog toys and organised ‘play-dates’ with their own dogs. I think it was more than just having something in common or a topic of conversation; I think that getting the dogs was a tangible sign of our intention to be involved in our community long term. By its nature the ALT positions are often “revolving doors” with new ALTs coming and going year after year. Some staff see little point in getting to know someone they don’t expect to be around for long. The dogs are a symbol of our intention to stay.

Hayate playing with the care-taker's shiba
video

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I’d Rather be in a Japanese School than Anywhere Else in a Disaster

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As the first anniversary of the tsunami approaches, thoughts of disaster, loss and survival are foremost in everyone’s minds. Like. Most people, my nearest tsunami evacuation point is a public elementary school. There is nowhere I would rather be, and nowhere I would rather a child in my care to be.

Elementary Schools are Self-Contained Fortresses

A Standard Japanese Elementary School Building Design

Japanese school building and grounds
The same design, different prefecture
Well, fortress might be a bit of an overstatement, but schools are built strong and are kept new. Public schools in my prefecture are torn down and rebuilt every few years, ensuring that they are always equipped with the latest earthquake and fire resistant technologies. 

The site of a demolished school. Eventually this will become part of the playground.
School rebuilding in progress. The building on the left is the "old" school, the scaffolding on the right is going to be the new.
Had an earthquake of the same magnitude hit any capital city in the world other than Tokyo, the outcome would have been very different. The technology that goes into the foundations and internal balances of buildings in this country is awe inspiring. Every elementary and junior high school has an accessible, flat roof with a guard rail or fence. Helicopters can land on these roofs, and in some places where the tsunami flooded even the upper floors of schools, staff and students were able to evacuate to the roof.  
Elementary schools are equipped with commercial sized kitchens (where hot school lunches are prepared every day). They have stores of food, crockery and usually (at least where I am) a dedicated gas supply. Newer schools generate solar electricity and schools in colder areas have wood stoves in the classrooms and plenty of fire wood stockpiled. The nurse’s office has two to three beds and a supply of futons and bedding. The cupboards are stocked with basic medications that students may need but forget to bring to school, including asthma inhalers, as well as emergency/first aid supplies and an ice machine.

Schools Use a “Cell” Organisational System

In the case of an emergency, the staff at a Japanese school could finish an attendance check in around ten seconds. I’ve seen this done during preparatory drills. This is possible due to the way schools are broken down into concentric units of decreasing size. I don’t know if disaster preparedness is the reason for the system, but I do know that it has, and will, save lives. It works like this: There is the entire student body, for which the student body president is responsible. Within the school are the different grades, who have grade leaders. Within each grade are the different classes, which usually have one male and one female class leader each (in my schools, anyway). Within the individual classes are group units of four to six students. Each of these units has a leader and a second in command. When the entire school is assembled and the teachers need to check attendance, each group leader can check at a glance if their members are present and report to the class leader, who then signals the grade leader. Each of the grade leaders flashes a signal to the student leader. In this way the attendance of a thousand students can be confirmed with no adult intervention and with lightning speed and reliable accuracy (with only four to six students in the smallest unit there is no chance of anyone being forgotten or overlooked).
 
Although the entire video is awesome, skip to 6:49 to see an example of this "speed attendance checking"

In some elementary schools there is an additional system that pairs the first graders with a sixth grade “buddy” who is responsible for their general welfare throughout their first year at school. When the whole school goes out for an excursion the older kids hold the younger ones’ hands when they cross the road and so on.

One of the deep tragedies of last year’s disaster is that so many schools decided to send the children home after the first earthquake. If they had stayed at school, their chances of surviving the tsunami that followed would surely have been much higher.

Edit: Read this really interesting critique of the official school response system for tsunami.
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Thursday, 8 March 2012

But your dog is Japanese…

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Black Hayate can secretly understand quite a lot of Japanese

We were sitting at an outdoor table, clutching our coffee mugs to warm our freezing fingers, watching the dogs playing in at the dog park. Because there are no parks near us and we don’t have a car, our shiba don’t get the off-leash socialisation they really need. Getting to a park requires an epic journey by bicycle and Doggyride trailer that takes an entire day and several bouts of motion sickness from Hayate, so we don’t do it as often as we should. On this particular day Hayate was getting a little over excited playing with a frightened looking toy poodle, so I called him over and asked him to sit for a treat. The women sitting at the next table turned to me with an incredulous expression and said (in Japanese): “Your dog can understand English? But he’s a Japanese breed!” I was too taken aback to know quite how to respond, so I just said that since we’d had him since he was a puppy he only understands English cues. By this point some other “dog park mums” had been attracted to the conversation, and a second woman helpfully contributed this gem: “But even though your dogs only speaks English, it can play with our Japanese speaking dogs fine. Isn’t that amazing?”

Amazing indeed.
Even in a Japanese dog park, we're the only ones with a shiba inu
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Tuesday, 6 March 2012

A Week of Breakfasts and Eigo Noto

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Bagel and Scrambled Egg
I know, it doesn’t sound interesting. My breakfasts aren't, but keep reading anyway, because hopefully the story is. One of the lessons in the recently introduced text-book for fifth-grade elementary school has the students listen (the CD is provided) to four descriptions of breakfasts, delivered by Americans putting on accents that would be considered a form of ethnic vilification in most other contexts. The point of the exercise is for the students to answer what country they think each breakfast-eater comes from. So we have the Japanese girl eating rice and natto, the French boy with his croissant and the Korean girl eating kimchi. Because of course all Koreans eat kimchi for breakfast. Korean culture is kimchi, K-pop and TV dramas about terminal illness, right? Check the box and move along. The fourth breakfast is a bowl of cereal. I stop the CD before it gives the answer (America, of course!) every time I do this lesson and ask the kids what they have written. Then I tell them that all of their answers are correct. Because a lesson that requires me to say to a child: “no, Australians and British people and Canadians and New Zealanders don’t eat cornflakes you fool! Only Americans eat cereal!” makes me die a little inside. Then I ask the kids what they ate for breakfast that morning. In three years I have never had a single child answer natto. Some have rice, most have toast, a few get grilled fish and a disturbingly high number eat chocolate buns and coffee milk. This exercise isn’t usually on the teaching plan and often makes the home room teacher embarrassed, as though by admitting to eating toast the kids are letting Japan’s image down in front of a foreigner. Several teachers have entreated the students to eat more rice after I do this. I know it’s a little cruel to deviate without warning from the script, but I think it is worth it.
Porridge and Berries
I am teaching this lesson tomorrow and I was given a script that goes:
Me: “Ms K, what do you eat for breakfast?”
Ms K: “I eat miso soup and rice. What do you eat for breakfast?”
Me: “Today I had cereal and a banana and a glass of milk and a boiled egg.”
These are supposed to be examples to illustrate the kinds of model dialogues teachers can have in front of the class. Because English is still a new subject and many of the teachers are deeply insecure about speaking English the examples in practice become scripts, with ten out of ten teachers saying “I eat miso soup and rice” when at least half of them have nothing but canned coffee from the vending machine for breakfast. Because I got advance warning this time, I decided to be pro-active and photograph my breakfasts for a week. The kids learned the days of the week recently, so I am going to combine some review with the new material by saying “Today I ate cereal. On Monday I ate toast.” It’s not that my breakfasts are interesting or healthy, but they also have very little to do with the colour of my skin or the accent I speak, and that is the subversive message I want to sneak into the lesson. Maybe I’ll even eat kimchi tomorrow, just to confuse them!

Cereal... not in America!
Eggy Bread
Beans on Toast with Garlic Scrambled Eggs
Pancakes with Banana and Honey
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Thursday, 1 March 2012

Yoyo Market

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Costco, Ikea, and more from Yoyo Market

I mentioned Yoyo Market in my post on being vegetarian, but I've never actually used them (what can I say, I love FBC). Ashley seems to like them though, and she knows everything, so check out her review \(^0^)/
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Public Bathing and Body Image

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Onsen overlooking the ocean
I live in an area famed for its thermal springs (onsen). Tourists from all over Japan flock to my prefecture to bathe. Many of the baths are supposed to be helpful for specific ailments and have the mineral composition of the water listed beside each bath. Some baths have electric currents running through, some are naturally carbonated, some are out-doors and some are chalky-white with mud. What they have in common is that, for the most part, these baths are public and nude. Almost all onsen are sex-segregated (although there are one or two “mixed” baths for the adventurous). Usually you go into a locker room, strip off, and then walk into an area with rows of low stools in front of large mirrors and taps. You sit in front of a mirror and wash thoroughly, trying not to splash anyone beside or behind you. Women scrub one-another’s backs and help their friends rinse long hair. Then you get to the actual bath, where you unwind and catch up on the neighbourhood gossip. Everyone baths together; grandmothers, babies, tweens and middle-aged women all naked and free of make-up, push-up bras and elastic stays. I’ve seen mastectomy scars and stretch marks and wrinkles and no-one feeling the least bit uncomfortable about being together there, exposed. When I first started using public baths I thought what a wonderful thing it must be to grow up seeing a variety of real body types. In particular I envied the pre-pubescent girls. When I began to go through puberty I had a good idea of what adult female bodies looked like but no idea what the transitional forms were. It would have been nice to have had pre-warning of the strange shapes growing breast move through. One of the commonly discussed problems facing young women with body image problems is that they see thousands of advertising images that portray unreal bodies (photo-shopped, airbrushed, racially homogenous etc). Having little else to compare their own bodies with, many young women assume themselves to be lacking. Now, I think that focusing on advertising alone is an oversimplification, but you get my point. How great to have this ever-changing montage of real bodies from all walks of life and all ages to broaden one’s understanding of bodies. Yet… it doesn’t seem to work out that way. Japanese women have incredibly high rates of disordered eating, and eating is heavily gendered (in many elementary school classes I have eaten with, boys are given second helpings of lunch while girls are encouraged to eat less than a single serving). I’ve heard of maternity clinics that admit pregnant women who gain more that the permitted couple of kilos and put them on a strictly calorie-controlled diet. Women who happily lounge on the warm stones surrounding a bath completely comfortable in their nudity cover themselves from neck to ankles in loose fitting long sleeved smocks before venturing into the mixed-gender world and are shocked by the idea that in Australia singlet tops and shorts are standard wear in public.

Edit: Please read this one for more information about hot spring resorts and breast cancer survivors
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One for all, all for one

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A pervasive stereotype about Japan is that it is a highly group oriented society in which the individual is repressed. In the undergraduate years of my first degree I studied Orientalism and wrote essays de-constructing totalising stereotypes. Then in my first foray into the post-graduate (for which I wrote about Japan’s history textbook controversies) I read in lurid and depressing detail about the suppression of individualism in the school system and the imposition of uniformity so extreme that even students with naturally brown hair were required to dye it black. Then I started working in schools, and gained an entirely different perspective. I’m going to state it provocatively: Western schools are more group centric than Japanese schools. Did that get your attention? The reason I think inaccurate stereotypes about group-ism persist is a fundamentally different understanding of groups (I emphasis inaccurate, because there are areas where Japan is incredibly group oriented in the oppressive way English speakers usually have in mind). “One for all, all for one” is a hugely popular saying that is emblazoned all over class banners and is a regular school festival slogan. It means exactly what it says: A group is made up of individuals, and every individual in the group is equally important to the group. In contrast, in Australia when we say “individualistic” what we actually usually mean is “majority rules”. It may seem like I am playing with semantics, but if you think semantics don’t matter then frankly you haven’t read enough Orwell!
Let me give an example. In the “group-oriented” Japanese classrooms where I work, if one student is struggling and loudly disrupting class the teacher will cease teaching and devote all of their attention to that child, while the rest of the class twiddle their thumbs. In “individualistic” Australia, one student would never be allowed to disrupt the learning of an entire class. We’d just send the individual out of the room and address the majority. When there is a conflict between what is best for the individual and the majority group, Australian systems tend to prioritise the group (when it comprises the majority). In Japanese schools, I feel that the group does what it can to support each individual.
I wonder how different my perspective would be if I worked in a high school or an exclusive private school?
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