Christmas Day

Merry Belated Christmas everyone! We hope you all had a fabulous Christmas Day and that you all ate too much, got spoiled rotten with presents and enjoyed spending time with your family and friends.

Tamago and I had a very successful Christmas together here in Tokyo. A couple of weeks ago we got a tip-off from one of Tamago’s students that you could get Cooper’s beer at a certain mythical supermarket in Tokyo, so a few days before Christmas we went to investige Nissin World Delicatessen in Roppongi. This supermarket is located in the notorious foreigner district in Tokyo. In addition to the bars and clubs it’s famous for, Roppongi and the surrounding area is where a lot of foreign embassies are located (including Australia). Also, incidentally it’s a good spot to go for a gaijin keitai, if the Softbank near the train station has any left. The staff there speak English!

Anyway back to Nissin. As I was saying it’s located in the foreigner district. As soon as Tamago and I got inside we felt right at home. To begin with there were several Australian mums doing their Christmas food shopping with some very cute kids in tow. Considering how few foreigners we see in our daily lives, it was very tempting to give everyone I saw a huge hug. I managed to keep myself under control and amazingly we found everything we needed for our Christmas feast at this supermarket. We could even have had an Aussie steak if we’d wanted, but we decided to embrace Japan even at Christmas time and bought the biggest hunk of Waygu beef I have ever seen in my life for our Chrissy dinner. We also found TimTams, Lady Grey tea in bulk and Western food in general that is just hard to get hold of in average Japanese supermarkets. It was predominantly American brands but some Australian ones were nestled in there which was nice to see. We ventured up to the liquor store level and found Cooper’s beer, some cider for me and even some decent Australian wine.

Tamago and I had an excellent lazy Christmas Day. We got up late and opened presents from each other and from friends and family. Then we had a fabulous bacon and egg brunch cooked by Tamago. Just because we’re not at home being force fed by various branches of families doesn’t mean we didn’t eat big. After that we had to recover for a couple of hours and watched a DVD. We also spoke to our far away families via Skype which was very special and it made it feel like we were still a part of everyone’s day.

After this it was about 5:30 and we still weren’t hungry enough to do dinner justice so we went for a walk up to Shinjuku to check out the scene at KFC, it was pretty busy and there were KFC employees brandishing fried chicken in plastic bags trying desperately to get us to eat there but we resisted. I still kind of want to grab people by the shoulders here and explain to them that no self respecting Westerner would eat KFC on Christmas, but then I realise I’d have to mime the killing and eating of lambs to depict my perfect Christmas dinner and the urge fades.

After we’d worked up a bit of an appetite we trundled back home and cooked our dinner: Waygu steak! As Tamago said, it was the first piece of meat he’d had in Japan that actually required a knife and fork. It was excellent and well worth the walk in the cold.

Finished off the day with some Christmas themed Father Ted. A perfect Tokyo Christmas.

 

Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve Moon Tan and I went to have a look at the Christmas lights at Ebisu. There are about 8 or 9 different “illumination” spots scattered around Tokyo at Christmas time, and I’d received lots of recommendations from my students. Ebisu won out because it was the closest.

The lighting diplasy featured a massive Christmas tree flanked by smaller trees covered in lights. It was nice, and the place was swamped with Japanese teenagers in love or lust (Christmas is a romantic holiday over here, and all of the love hotels are reputedly booked out on Christmas eve. No room at the inn, indeed!).

The centrepiece of the whole display was a ghastly, hideous, but very expensive looking chandelier. There were seats arranged in a circle so that you could sit and watch the chandelier. It didn’t really do anything for us, unfortunately. On the other hand, I did learn that there’s a museum dedicated to Ebisu beer in the vicinity, so that might be worth a repeat visit.

After Ebisu, we headed over to nearby Shibuya to see what the yoof were doing. That place was going off. It seemed like every santa suit in Tokyo had found its way to the central intersection, and everyone wanted to be part of the Christmas cheer. There were santas on foot, santas on motorbikes and santas in taxis.

We went to the Starbucks that overlooks Shibuya’s main intersection (reputedly the busiest in the world, for those that didn’t know), and tried to order a coffee. Moon Tan wanted me to take a photo of the barrista’s shirt, which almost got us thrown out because apparently photography is forbidden at Starbucks.

We found a nice little Italian cafe that did a decent pasta, and it all felt very festive. A good Christmas eve was had by all.

Angry noodles

On Friday night, I came home grumpy after a very frustrating day in Tokyo. While life over here is pretty easy 90% of the time, every now and then the planets align and you have a day where everything just seems needlessly difficult and you are thwarted at every turn.

Turns out Moon Tan was also a victim of this phenomenon. We commiserated over a beer (for me), some awful fruit flavoured alcoholic beverage (for Ms Tan; called “Chu Hi” over here and pretty much a cheaper, nastier version of a Vodka Cruiser),  and some amazing noodles that Moon Tan had cooked.

These noodles were one of the best meals I’d eaten since I’d arrived in Japan, and I could tell that Moon Tan was pretty pleased with herself. I asked her what she called her creation, and she said “Angry Noodles”. She said that she would never be able to perfectly recreate this dish, into which so much passion had gone. But when I pressed her, she recounted the cooking process, which I share with you all now.

Moon Tan’s Angry Noodles

You will need:

  1. A dangerously small Japanese vocabulary;
  2. A growing sense of hopelessness and rage
  3. To be in Japan
  4. Lots of time to brood (perhaps while your boyfriend is at work and you are trapped, alone, in the tiny apartment you now call home).

Method:

  1. Try and learn some Japanese. Try, but largely fail. Suppress the growing sense that this language seems to have been designed in order to confuse and bewilder gaijin.
  2. Realise that it’s your turn to organise dinner, and that this will entail venturing out into the vast, unfriendly urban jungle of Tokyo in order to hunter gather.
  3. At the supermarket, try and ignore the mounting frustration you feel, knowing that all of the ingredients you need for dinner are somewhere here, but you will probably never find them because you can’t read any labels.
  4. Ask a well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful store attendant where to find the garlic. Try to smile and look like you understand when he delivers a minute-long answer in Japanese, which provides you with no assistance whatsoever.
  5. Spend 10 minutes walking up and down the supermarket aisle devoted entirely to brown coloured sauces. Some of them might be soy; some of them might be teriyaki; most of them are probably some disgusting fish flavour. Select one at random and hope that it will be edible when added to udon noodles.
  6. Back home, start the cooking process. Combine strips of pork and garlic to a frying pan with a bit of oil.
  7. Realise that the “oil” you bought is actually sushi vinegar.
  8. Realise that the “garlic” you bought is actually just salt with garlic flavouring.
  9. Add udon noodles and vegetables. Taste. It’s not horrible, but it’s not great, either.
  10. Channel all of the anger and rage that has been building up throughout the day. Drink a sugar free Chu-hi that tastes like drain cleaner (this will help to focus your anger, while reducing your inhibitions).
  11. Draw on all of your emotions to turn this mediocre dish into a masterpiece. Furiously add curry powder left over from last night’s curry. Add a touch of lemon juice in a blaze of scorn. Reduce the sh*t out of that m%&*^f*&%er, then carelessly slop in some more of that mystery brown sauce. Pelt a handful of garlic salt at the pan.
  12. Congratulations! Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of your broken dreams, you have created delicious Angry Noodles.

Try it yourself!

Chocopie

I’m massively into sugar. Chocolate in particular but cake comes in at a close second. Preferrably chocolate cake. I’m not addicted to coffee, or alcohol, or heroin, online gambling or long distance running (ha!). But I do need a certain amount of sugar buzzing through my bloodstream to function like a decent human being. Tamago doesn’t have the same problem luckily for us or we probably would have broken up years ago. Probably because of TimTams (why do they put 11 in the packet? Prime numbers = evil). However he does enjoy the odd sweet.

One of the most important things that I needed to do in Japan was suss out the dessert situation. Sadly for me, Tamago didn’t feel drawn to Belgium (home of the world’s finest chocolate) or Paris (the chocolate croissant) or even England (mmm pudding). Nope he had a yen for the land famous for raw fish and rice.

Fortunately Tamago and I have discovered the Chocopie. This may be the thing that saves our relationship from certain doom. They’re kind of like an obese Wagon Wheel. They are coated in chocolate and contain marshmallow filling – as you can see from the helpful diagram that features prominently on the packaging:

The really intriguing thing about the Chocopie lies in the biscuity/cakey substance that provides the sandwich for the marshmallow. We can’t figure out what it is. It’s soft, and not biscuit-like at all. But it holds its shape more than cake. Mystery. All we know is that we like it. A lot.

*Note: the Chocopie does come in other flavours. We have sampled the strawberry and it is terrible. We recommend sticking to the original and the best.

Mt Takao

Tamago had a day off the other day and since I’m not working yet we both had a day completely free. Those of you who know us know that we are extremely outdoorsy, we spend our weekends camping and downhill mountain biking. My preferred sleeping arrangement is a swag [great — I’ll set one up on the floor for you, and I’ll take the 1.5 bed! – Tamago]. Naturally, therefore, on our precious day together we elected to go and climb a mountain. Thankfully it is only about 599 metres tall.

Mt Takao is an hour away by train from Shinkuku train station, the main train station nearest to us. That is if you manage to catch an express train. If, on the other hand, you mistakenly catch the local train because you are a silly gaijin and you’re forced to stop at every single station on the way to Takaosanguchi Station (the train station nearest to Mt Takao) it takes about an hour and forty minutes. Give or take.

When we got to the station, it was really easy to figure out which way the walks were, we just followed the elderly Japanese hikers in their gigantic visors and walking shoes. There are English language as well as Japanese maps in the train station. So, ignoring the temptation of the Takao Trick Art Museum (with an Egyptian theme!) that was beckoning in the distance, we two intrepid walkers set off up Mt Takao.

There are several options available to you when you elect to walk up the mountain. If you have your elderly grandmother with you, you can catch the cable car halfway up and trundle along the gently sloping paths to the summit, if you’re hardcore like Tamago and Moon Tan, you can walk up the practically vertical pathway until it converges with the cable car crowd and becomes civilised. Otherwise,  if you’re suicidal you can take the chair lift halfway up.

Mt Takao is considered a sacred mountain and is associated with tengu, Japanese Shinto spirits. There are Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines at the summit of the mountain and smaller shrines along the way. I was particularly intrigued by the tiny statues of little sitting men (perhaps Buddha? But they didn’t seem chubby enough. I’m such a heathen). These statues were everywhere up and down the mountain, even on the tracks that weren’t main tracks. And every single one of them on the day we went was wearing a red or orange knitted beanie and a red or white bib. I love that someone has gone and dressed every single one of those guys. In Australia, someone would have lost the map of all the statues for sure.

One more thing I should mention, Mt Takao is such an unashamed tourist mecca that there are little food stalls, bars (yes bars!) and souvenir shops all the way up the main path. There is also a ‘Monkey Park’ where tourists can see monkeys. We gave the Monkey Park a miss but we did sample a ‘dango’, Japanese dumplings on a stick made from a chewy, slightly sweet paste and toasted so they had a crunchy, salty exterior. Very strange. We weren’t fans but lots of Japanese people were eating them with gusto so maybe our palates aren’t refined enough.

We had an excellent walk, the scenery was stunning, the temples were fascinating and it is unbelievable that such a lush and beautiful environment is only an hour outside of the biggest city in the world. Tamago and I ate our lunch at a rest stop halfway up the mountain and we had incredible views over Tokyo. There are several walks available that are all outlined in the brochure you can pick up at the train station. There are also a lot of maps along the pathways. There does seem, however, to only be one main path and the rest are all a little off the beaten track but still perfectly walkable for the able bodied individual. Tamago and I took an alternate route down the mountain and stumbled across a waterfall and a little shrine to some cave gods. We went at the end of one of the latest autumns Tokyo has ever experienced, at the beginning of December. To see the autumn colours in the future I would recommend playing it safe and visiting a little earlier in the season.

A highly recommended day trip.

What would Nigella do?

I think Nigella Lawson is amazing. Any woman who can make drinking tea in a dressing gown look sexy is an inspiration. In her cookbooks, she writes that all cream used in recipes is double cream unless otherwise specified (it’s never otherwise specified). She endorses using shop bought pastry for pies. She believes in buying disposable containers to cook messy puddings in. If it there existed a religion that worshipped her chocolate brownies I would be the high priestess.

A girl has to have her heroines.

So only a half a week into this little venture, Tamago and I have settled into some semblance of a routine. Because Tamago is at work in the evenings teaching English to cranky Japanese businessmen, I, Moon Tan, the ‘little woman’, the wee Australian lass, am left to take care of dinner. Not under pain of death or anything, Tamago has said on numerous occasions that I don’t have to cook. But I can only stare at my Japanese and TEFL textbooks for so long before I have to scream. So I have taken it upon myself to have a crack at using our little kitchen. Initially I thought, “no problem, I cook at home in Australia all the time. I’m no Nigella Lawson sure, but I have definitely cooked edible, and some have even said tasty, food in the past”.

So a few days ago I set off on my first excursion to the Japanese supermarket down the road with a list in my pocket, a spring in my step and hope in my heart.

Foolish foolish Moon Tan.

For starters pretty much everything in Japanese shops is labelled in Japanese. Shocker. I wasn’t sure if I was buying cooking oil or vinegar, sugar or salt, pork or cat (for the record, I elected for neither in this case). For seconders, there is a lot of food that I have absolutely no idea of how to cook. Sardines for example – who knows how to cook sardines?? No-one from where I come from that’s for sure. I’m sure Nigella has a recipe but even I have some doubts about her ability to make tiny little beady eyed fish appetising.

There are a few familiar faces in the aisles of the supermarket however. Old El Paso has indeed taken over the world and taco kits are available for purchase at my local supermarket. There are also packets of pasta and jars of bolognaise sauce available which was immensely exciting. These two revelations alone will ensure we won’t starve. I even found Milo, which was hellishly expensive and lastly, and perhaps the most comforting thing of all, nestled between the powdered green ocha (Japanese tea) and the instant coffee I discovered a navy blue box containing a variety of Twinings teas. Lady Grey, English Breakfast and even Darjeeling. Nigella would have been proud.

Tonight I’m going to try my hand at Nigella’s very own Spanish omelette recipe, Japanese style. If it’s not a complete disaster, pictures may follow…

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore

Hello lovely readers, sorry it’s been so long between blog posts but we have been a bit busy lately, what with me FINALLY moving to Japan and settling into our new neighborhood and our new apartment!

So I flew in on Tuesday morning and it has been total chaos since then. The flight over was fairly long since I had to go through Kuala Lumpur rather than direct, but my flights were largely baby and chatty old lady free so I can’t complain too much. No hassles getting through immigration and customs either, but I was very cross that they didn’t even check my Yakkan Shoumei because I totally had it and everything!

Tamago met me at the airport and there was much rejoicing. Then we hopped on the Narita express train to Tokyo with my four bags (as a side note I would recommend STA Travel and Malaysia Airlines to all students reading this. They were the cheapest flights by far and gave me an extra 10kg of luggage allowance just because I’m a student!). It’s a long train journey actually, an hour and a half, but it was an excellent train. If someone out there is planning on doing this in the future and you’re planning on staying for an extended time in Tokyo, it’s a good idea to pick up a ‘suica’ card from the lady at the train ticket desk at the same time as your Narita express ticket. A suica is like a multitrip train ticket that you load money onto and then swipe when you go in and out of train stations. There are little machines at most train stations where you can load money and then just go right ahead and start using it! Don’t worry, they have English option menus. Very handy.

My first impressions of Japan have been that it’s a crazy crazy place. It’s nothing like what I was expecting in some ways. For example, I kind of thought that being the biggest city in the world and all, I would see more gaijin like me. But really there aren’t that many. I know that Tamago and I fit in about as well as the Wicked Witch of the West at the Miss Universe Pageant but it still takes you by surprise whenever you see other gaijin. As a duo, Tamago and I draw a few odd looks and stares. A woman actually gasped with surprise in the supermarket tonight as I popped out from the cup of noodles aisle. Can you imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t been wearing makeup?

So I’ve been here a few nights now and most of you are probably wondering how the ol bed situation has worked out. Well most of you will be pleased to know that I have finally met my match in our real estate agent. Let’s just call him the Wizard for now; I’ve never met him face to face and he appears to wield great power and a booming prophetic voice but I suspect it’s all a charade. Despite my many many assertions that a semi-double bed was NOT OK the Wizard has failed to provide any alternative. So Tamago and I have been giving it a go. And I’m not going to lie, it’s not great. I’m not a small woman and Tamago is not a small man so there tends to be a bit of a battle for territory in whatever bed we sleep in. However, I will concede it is not the worst night’s sleep I’ve ever had. Especially because it’s 5 degrees here at the moment! Not sure how it’ll go in the summer though…

Maybe you think I’m overreacting but it’s smaller than it looks in this photo!

The biggest issue with our apartment so far is actually the location. It’s in a great spot…mostly. The only main issue is that it’s rather close to what looked like a big grey area on Google maps which has turned out to be a fruit packing factory. Tamago checked it out a few days before he signed the lease and it wasn’t noisy…during the day. As it turns out, fruit packers love to operate at night, between the hours of 11pm and 9am. It’s a smidge noisy. However again, still not the worst night’s sleep we’ve ever had so we’re optimistic that with a bit of persistance and a bullet for our fruit packing next door neighbour with the squeaky electric fruit trolley, all should be well.

Around the corner from our apartment. Behind the giant white wall is the giant fruit factory

So apart from the bed and the fruit factory there have been many many positives. It’s wonderful to finally be in the same country as Tamago, the food has been excellent and Tokyo is unbelievably quirky and interesting and goes at a million miles an hour. There are so different things to see and I’m completely charmed so far by the people and the places.

My favourite thing so far about Tokyo has been the greenery. I’m told that this city has some beautiful public gardens but I have yet to visit them. I’m talking about the tiny pot plants and twisty trees that grow by the doors of every home and business here.

Our neighbour’s house. I hope they didn’t see me take this picture.

In every tiny plot of un-concreted land there are plants growing. It’s probably very boring to people who live here but I’m fascinated. I am finding it very beautiful and confusing and surreal. For example on the main road near our house in the middle of Shinjuku, a major hub of Tokyo, a sunflower is growing by the road. In November. In the car exhaust, amongst the skyscrapers and in a patch of soil between a busy road and a concrete footpath. How amazing is that?

There’s no place like home.