Archive for July, 2009

HumpDay (In Japan), July 29, 2009

July 28, 2009


So I’m in Japan, and I’ve been asking folks back home what they want to know and see about Japan. One of our readers dropped me a line via my Facebook page, asking for a “food tour” of Japan.

Yikes, that’s a tall order. A full culinary tour of Japan would fill volumes.

But, I’ve been thinking of how I can incorporate a post about foreign food into a parenting blog. I decided the best choice would be to try to capture some very basic, traditional and best of all – easy – summer lunch dishes I think the whole family will enjoy.

We’ve eaten these dishes at home, so I know you can get the ingredients in major grocery stores in the U.S., but you may have to shop around a bit.

So we’ll start with an appetizer, move into a small salad, explore some drinks, then onto a side dish and finish with a very common, delicious and fun noodle dish.

If you have any questions about any of them, or any other simple Japanese recipes, feel free to drop them into the comments.

Enjoy, which is to say, Itadakimasu!

  • Edamame (Boiled Soy Bean in Pod) –For anyone who’s enjoyed the fresh, healthy flavor of green peas, straight from the pod, they’ll love these. My kids can’t eat enough of these. Typically served as an appetizer in Japan, soybeans are arguably one of the healthiest little snacks on the planet. A word of advice: Although they can be prepared using regular table salt, I definitely recommend you pony up for the sea salt.
  • Japanese Cucumber Salad – Cucumbers are a very common veggie in the summer here in Japan. This is a simple recipe for a low-fat, low-carb, low-sodium, tasty little side salad. I totally recommend their tip about toasting the sesame seeds. A few extra minutes of prep – but it really gives the flavor a boost!
  • Japanese-Style White Rice – No Japanese meal would be complete without white rice. Even breakfast. I’m not sure what else to say about that. Got rice?
  • What to drink? Most common is cold tea or water. Our favorite is cold Mugicha, brown tea. But there are several varieties of tea that are sold cold in 2 liter bottles here. To get them bottled like this in the U.S., you’ll probably have to find an Asian grocery store. But if not, you might find them at your grocery store in tea bag form, make it hot and chill it ahead of time. If nothing else, plain ice tea would suffice, but not sweetened. And stay away from some of those common bottled “green teas” with kimono and fancy dragon artwork that you see everywhere. You might find one or two that are decent, but check the labels. Most of those have no business calling themselves tea, and are loaded with sugar, corn syrup and a concoction of artificial flavors. (Sorry Lipton and Arizona, but you are.)
  • Soba – (Cold Buckwheat Noodles) On a hot, humid and heavy day, when both kids’ and parents’ appetites wane, nothing beats the heat like a dish of cold noodles. Now – I admit – the idea of cold noodles is bit strange at first, much like the idea of any new food, but trust me on this one. Follow the recipe, go cold, and you’ll have a table full of happy, noodle slurpin’ eaters. A word on noodle slurping: In Japan, it’s completely OK. In fact, in some high-end restaurants, it’s rude not too! If that doesn’t get the kids to finish a whole bowl of healthy buckwheat noodles, I don’t know what will. And you can always tell them that it’s OK with Japanese food only. For example, our oldest knows not to slurp his spaghetti. But on hot day, he plows into a dish of soba like a Hoover … just like everybody else here does.



Japan Trip 2009: Part One

July 24, 2009

It’s hard being here.

That is, it’s hard trying to balance participating in every new experience my kids have in this strange and wonderful land, while at the same time trying to capture it in photos and notes.

I get that feeling every time we come here. Occupational hazard of a journalist I guess.

philo dinnerBut other than that, experiencing Japan from an insider’s view borders on bliss. This culture has spent centuries perfecting the art of making guests feel welcome – which I absolutely do.

Much of our time spent since I arrived has been in the home and company of my wife’s aunt who lives in Yamanishi.

It was about a half-day drive west from our home base in Chiba, where my wife’s immediate family lives. Kumi’s sister, Miwa, drove. In all, it was Miwa, her four-year-old son, Sora, Kumi, our two boys and I. Kumi’s dad drove separate.

map_japanFor reference, Chiba is on the east side of Japan’s largest island, Honshu. The city lies near Tokyo and I couldn’t tell you where one city ends and the other begins. It’s an urban sprawl unmatched by anything in the States – and is simply hard to imagine or describe. It’s like something out of a sci-fi flick, with buildings stacked upon buildings for as far as the eye can see – and a constant flux of people, cars, mopeds and bicycles.

But eventually, as we continued inland, the skyline of towering industrial development dispersed, faded and eventually gave way to a green and blue-grey backdrop of colossal mountains.

farmAlas, we had arrived in the countryside. Tokyo is something to see, for sure, but in my opinion, nothing compares to a drive through Japanese rural life. Mountains, hot springs, rivers, traditional Japanese homes and farming. It’s the only place I’ve ever known where the deeper I travel into, and the more lost I get, the more centered I feel.

Kumi’s aunt’s house sits inside the forest, along the bank of a gully. The house was once owned by an artist, who rented the house out to photographers as a studio. It was a deep and spacious place, with three levels, each like a stage with large curtains separating the levels. Around every corner, was something interesting and creative that the previous owner left behind. After we settled in, had dinner and were rested, the following day her dad and I took a hike into the woods and along the stream at the base of the gully.


It was exhilarating.

I hiked alot as a kid, and hadn’t been up to me knees in a cold creek in years. And I admit, at three years shy of 60, Kumi’s dad is pretty hard to keep up with. Dad

He made it a point to tell me the water in the stream was from the mountains and that is was clean and OK to drink.

I hadn’t heard that in a long time.

Seems like everywhere I go these days, someone’s making a point to tell me the opposite.

The four days in Yamanashi was one activity after another. The Japanese can pack more activity into a single day than anyone I know. The secret to keeping up, I discovered, is to figure out the rhythm. It took me four visits to understand that. They have a saying in Japan: Deru kui wa utareru, (the nail that sticks out gets pounded down.) I come to interpret this to mean that Japan is like a giant structure, or machine, and everyone is part of it. It operates ever efficiently and flows like water. Anyone out of rhythm is like a cog out of place, and it throws the whole system off. That’s why the nail sticking out gets pounding down – not by force, but by momentum. It’s hard to explain – and like I said, I’m just now starting to understand it myself. It might be a few more visits before I can fully define it. I hope so – I hope to define it again and again. Because we could glean so much from that single concept in America … or as ironically called, the United States.

futonMy kids get it. They adapt better here than I do. I suppose that’s true of kids in general – with the exception of sleep. They say it takes one kids day of adjustment for every hour of time difference. So, if it’s 12 hours difference between America and Japan, that’s about 12 days till they’re adjusted to a new sleep schedule … or something like that.

One thing is certain – I no longer get pounded down here. I used to get exhausted when we’d come. Now, I eat when everybody else does. I shower at night like everybody else, I take my cues from others – and I go with the flow. There’s no room for abstract behavior here.

And, having previously tried, I realize how much I miss by trying to do things my own way.

The true beauty of this land is to observe and learn the rhythm, and to simply get in step with it. It’s wonderful. I’ve learned to anticipate what’s coming next. There is a time for everything here. Everything is taken care of if you can learn the rhythm, and allow yourself to trust it. The momentum flows toward a state of doing, toward achievement, arriving at comfort, and repeats day after day.

The hardest part about going back to America is looking for a similar rhythm where one just does not exist.

auntAfter a great visit in Yamanishi, we said good bye to Kumi’s aunt and headed back to Chiba.

A great thing about being in a foreign country with kids is that even long car rides are entertaining. Here, the steering wheel is on the opposite side of the car, and they drive on the opposite side of the road. That makes it interesting enough. But everywhere we look, we see things that are unusual to us.


Here’s Sora, Kumi’s nephew, and one of our traveling companions, enjoying a cucumber on a stick. The kids absolutely loved these. The sell these and other fresh foods at the service stations along the expressway. Sure beats a bag of chips or Burger King (no offense, Flame-Broiled Whopper, you’re still my number one.)

Have you ever driven through a mountain for like 5 miles?

I hadn’t before, but they do it all the time here. tunnel back

Philo thought that was pretty cool. (yeah, me too.)tunnel

red road

Red roads. They have alot of red roads in Japan. You know, your riding along and the road just turns red for a while. That happens, right? I don’t know – it just seems cool to me.

bug bandThen there’s the bug band. This thing is great. It’s an elastic band held with Velcro, and the device on top emits small but safe amounts of nuclear radiation to deter bugs. Kidding. It’s actually the same chemical that’s in bug spray, diluted, and dispersed into the air by a small internal fan and has a little on/off switch. Keep the bugs away and let’s the kids feel like bug-thwarting superheros. And as you can see … the bugs here are no joke!

mushiYes, that is real and yes, they are everywhere. It’s pure irony. Everything here is small. Cars, roads, meals, coffee, people – everything but the bugs. Well, that’s not entirely true. Where the roads may be narrow, the minds of the Japanese are wide, and their hearts are big. It’s a culture built on respecting yourself and caring for others. My wife has a philosophy borrowed from her late grandfather: “Be strict to yourself, and kind to others.” As far as any common thread I see woven throughout this entire culture, that sums it up perfectly.

I bet he was a great man, her grandfather. He was a farmer. Loved bonsai. He died when she was young.

prayerEach time we visit the countryside, we make a trip through the vineyards and peach orchards he once tended, until we come upon his final resting place there among the mountains and cherry blossoms. We bring flowers, burn incense, bow our heads and silently wish him continued wellness in the afterlife. We gather water in traditional buckets, and pour it on the stone, cleansing it.

It’s really something, seeing my kids here, in this place that is genetically so much a part of them – a part I can only know from observation.

They are Japanese and I am not. I strive to understand the culture, but that is the best I can do. They however, have it in their blood.

ji-jiWhen I see my father-in-law playing with or holding my kids, I am reminded of the depth they have inside them. That they can belong to such two differing cultures, such alternate worlds – one built on principles of new-found freedom and independence and another steeped in deep meaningful tradition and service to others – is a privilege I am so proud to afford them. It’s a healthy blend I think, for the world they will someday face. Whether they choose a world in the east or west, in between or both, I think we’re setting them up with open minds.

Someday when I am gone, when and if someone ever comes to visit my stone to wish me well in the afterlife, whoever they are, if they too were raised to have an open mind and an appreciation for all kinds of people, places and things of this world, then I will indeed be eternally grateful.

More to come …