Frohe Weihnachten!

Up until this year, I’ve celebrated Christmas at home in the States with my family. It’s pretty similar ever year; we eat a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and Pillsbury Doughboy biscuits, gather around the Christmas tree to talk about  Jesus’ birth, open up our presents one by one, and then spend the rest of the afternoon preparing enough turkey and Boursin mashed potatoes to feed a village (or two) – a classic, comforting, American-esque Christmas day.

And that’s how I expected to spend my Christmas every year… not at a German night market eating seasoned bratwurst and drinking mulled wine in the middle of Osaka, Japan.

But that’s what happened!

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One of the largest winter events in all of Osaka, this German-themed Christmas market is held every year from November 17th to December 25th under the Umeda Sky Building, where guests can wander among colorful, brightly lit stalls offering quintessential German fare, from seasoned Thuringian Bratwurst to a piping hot sauerkraut soup, to foaming mugs of Krombacher beer, to Haribo gummies.

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With such a wide range of appetizing German-inspired treats on display, it was difficult to choose what I wanted to eat – I totally would’ve bought every gingerbread cookie, bag of candied almonds, and imported wine available for purchase if I had the stomach (and the money) for it. Though, my pork-based soup and sausage were surprisingly satisfying, so I managed to abstain from buying up the whole market.

Alongside the food and drink stalls, there were also several offering all sorts of handcrafted items, such as toys, ornaments, cutlery, and intricate sculptures – imported straight from Germany, of course! (Or, at least I’d like to believe they were.)

IMG_E7857Though I was tempted to purchase an ornament or two, I couldn’t bring myself to dish out the equivalent of $25+ for a wooden Santa Clause the size of my thumb. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed browsing the wide variety of trinkets and Christmas-y knickknacks – and sneaking a few photos of them too.

I must admit that tinsel-decorated stalls selling hot wine on tap is difficult to beat, but I’d say that my favorite part of the market had to be the Christmas tree standing at the center of the market, complete with animated lights and a golden star on top. Being greeted and welcomed by a 50 foot tall Christmas tree as I sipped from my stomach-warming, cinnamon-scented beverage made the event all the more memorable.

And it was reassuring to know that there will always be a few things about Christmas that remain constant, no matter where I am in the world.

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In comparison to the last 20 years of my life, my Christmas experience this year was one-of-a-kind. I do have to say that I still very much prefer spending the holidays with my family (and I’d still choose roast turkey over sausage any day), but this is one Christmas that I know I’ll remember for a long, long time.

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Fried Chicken for Christmas

I’m spending the holidays in Japan this year. And in Japan’s case, the Christmas season means shopping malls packed past capacity, twinkly lights strewn along store fronts, classic Christmas jingles ringing through supermarkets and… Kentucky Fried Chicken.

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This is the KFC near the elementary school I work at. (It also happens to offer an all-you-can-eat buffet – one of the only two branches in the whole country to offer all-you-can-eat! But that is a post for another time.)

The first time someone asked me “So are you planning on going to KFC for Christmas?”, I was stunned, startled, almost offended! (And understandably so.) No offense to KFC-lovers, but I wouldn’t go to Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch on an average weekday, let alone on Christmas. A bucket of questionably sourced chicken deep fried in dirt-cheap, chemically modified oil is not the first thing that comes to mind when I imagine a lavish Christmas feast.

But in Japan, it is!

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Hah, and you thought I was kidding, didn’t you?

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Believe it or not, going to KFC on Christmas day has become a nationwide tradition. Every year on the beloved holiday, friends and families line up at their local Kentucky Fried Chicken, huddle around a red and white bucket of battered drumsticks and wings, and enjoy a hearty, soul-warming meal together. (Here’s an article from BBC if you’re interested in reading about how this strange country-wide festivity got its start.)

KFC takes full advantage of the tradition each year by offering deluxe Christmas sets, ranging from 10 to 50 dollars a set. Apparently, though, these sets are so popular that you need to make reservations in advance on KFC Japans’ website, indicating your order and your exact dine-in time, if you want your own on Christmas day.

Curious about what a typical set could get me, I browsed KFC Japans’ site to peruse their seasonal menu options. And, to be honest, it actually doesn’t look half bad. Their most expensive set – a whopping 5100 yen – includes a whole roasted chicken leg, 4 pieces of their original fried chicken, a fresh salad with sliced ham, and a triple berry tiramisu cake.

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Though I admit it may look a bit more appetizing than I expected, the set still doesn’t seem worth the price to me.

(*For those on a budget like me, though, a fried chicken Christmas feast is still very much attainable: even supermarkets and convenience stores offer up their own seasonal specials!)IMG_E7736

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A flyer advertising “premium chicken” sets at my local convenience store.

Since first hearing about this odd Japanese custom, I’ve overcome my initial shock and have gradually begun to warm up to the idea, but I think I still prefer my classic slow roasted 40 pound turkey and mashed potatoes with cranberry sauce for my Christmas dinner of choice. I’m all for participating in local customs and traditions, but this is one tradition I don’t mind abstaining from this year.

(Of course, I have nothing against KFC-on-Christmas-goers though; for those who are in Japan during the holidays and are wanting for a fried chicken feast, I offer my full support!)

When fresh crabs came knocking at my door

I’ve lived in Japan for a little over 5 months now. As I’ve slowly and shakily grown acclimated to life in this strange and unfamiliar country – and somehow managed to survive one curve ball after another – I thought that I’d finally arrived at a point where nothing else in this country could surprise me.

Turns out, as is so often the case, I was silly to assume that.

This past Sunday, as I was just finishing up preparing dinner, I heard a knock on my door – a delivery from the post office. My mom had told me a week prior that she’d sent me a box of Christmas presents, so I assumed her box had arrived. I signed the receipt and the delivery man handed me a large Styrofoam box – I thought it strange that my mom chose to send the gifts in Styrofoam, but I didn’t think much of it. I carried the box into my apartment, excited to take a peak at the presents inside.

But instead of finding an assortment of gifts wrapped in Christmas-themed paper, when I opened the box I came face to face with a pair of frozen, beady-eyed crabs!

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After overcoming my initial shock, I realized that the delivery was not a mistake – these were indeed my crabs.

Because, you see, about 3 weeks ago I’d ordered them myself.

So, let’s rewind to 3 weeks prior: the day I noticed a curious new flyer in the teachers’ room that had a large crab drawn on the front. (My desk in the communal teachers’ room at the elementary school I work at is located next to the cabinets where staff members often post various announcements and events for others to check at their convenience.)

IMG_7774The sign reads: “It’s crab season! 1 is 800 yen. The better the quality the higher price. For those who want to order, please tell Mrs. Yamada (name changed for confidentiality) your address and how many you want to order.”

To give a little background info as reference, Mrs. Yamada is from Tottori prefecture, which is located along the Sea of Japan. Tottori is famous for its adult male snow crab, known as Matsuba-gani, which is caught between November and early March. Apparently, the prefectural Matsuba Crab PR Committee even sets the 4th Saturday in November as ‘Matsuba Crab Day’ and holds an annual event at the docks of Tottori City and Iwami-cho.

Now, I’m no expert on crab – I think I’ve only eaten it once in my life. And even if crab is on the menu, I never order it, since it’s just so darn expensive. I mean, why would I pay $32 for soft shell crab with just enough meat to satisfy me for the night, when I could be spending that amount on groceries for an entire week?

But 800 yen (about $8) for a WHOLE crab? And from a prefecture that’s known to have some of the best fresh crab Japan has to offer? That sounded like a pretty good deal to me.

I messaged two other JET’s who live in my apartment building and asked if they’d be interested in splitting a few crabs with me. They were, as I expected, and we agreed to split two between the three of us. I gave Mrs. Yamada my address and my order and she gave me a smile, a nod, and that was it.

Now, fast forward to last Sunday, when I opened up the Styrofoam box to find the crabs instead of presents. Not only did I have absolutely no idea what to do about them, I was also worried that they’d defrost, come back to life, and start crawling around my apartment while I took refuge on top of my loft bed.

I frantically called one of the JET’s who’d agreed to order the crab with me. Luckily, he was home, and rushed up to my apartment with a large stew pot which we then filled up with water. While we waited for the water to come to a rolling boil, we looked up articles online about how to cook crab, since neither of us had ever attempted to boil one whole before.

Once the water was ready, we lifted the crabs out of the box with a serving spoon and dropped them into the pot. We cooked them for a little less than 20 minutes.

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Once the crabs had turned a deep red color, we assumed that they were ready to eat. We  put the cooked crabs in the fridge, since by then it was too late to eat them right away.

The following evening, we brought out the crabs, melted some butter with garlic and parsley and had a delicious meal!

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The meat was delicate and super flavorful – it was even a little sweet, which I hadn’t expected. And the texture was so soft and tender that it melted in my mouth with every bite. My friends and I picked the legs clean; there was enough meat in the two crabs to fill the three of us. At the end of the night, we all agreed that the experience was a success. Though it was a bit stressful overall, I think it was well worth the effort.

But next time I eat crab, I’m definitely planning on ordering it at a restaurant – I’d rather not have my crab surprise me at my doorstep again in the future.

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“Whale Day”

Japan has been hunting whale for centuries – for food, and also for the sake of the practice, which has long been an integral part of Japanese culture. In the last few decades though, Japan has faced quite a bit of criticism from abroad (and from its own citizens) over whale hunting, due to the rapid decline of endangered whale species in surrounding waters. Though whale hunting has decreased dramatically since the 1960’s, the practice still continues: certain species are illegal to hunt, but a few, like the minke whale, are not deemed an endangered species and are still hunted on occasion for their meat and distributed throughout Japan. Which, in effect, is how whale ended up on every lunch tray in every junior high and elementary school in Minoh on a sunny Monday afternoon.

Yup, you read that right – whale on every plate.

Once a year, all of the junior high and elementary schools in Minoh serve whale for lunch. Affectionately deemed “whale day” by my fellow JET English teachers, I’ve been anticipating this strange and mildly concerning event for weeks now, unable to fathom the idea that the city would be serving whale to its students for lunch. Yet, sure enough, Whale Day arrived – along with enough whale meat to feed a city’s worth of kids.

Because of dietary restrictions, I don’t eat the lunch that my elementary school provides daily for teachers and students, so I wasn’t able to taste the whale myself. But, luckily, I was able to sneak a few pictures of my fellow teachers’ trays before they were claimed.(There’s no way I’d let Whale Day pass me by without at least taking a photo or two!)

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On the menu: soup with carrots, konnyaku, daikon, and seaweed simmered in a dashi broth, rice with dried seaweed, a carton of milk, and deep fried whale meat

I also asked a few other JET’s what the meat tasted like. They described it as “tough” and “gamey” – much more like red meat than fish. One person said that it tasted similar to deer. Overall, everyone agreed that they didn’t dislike it, and wouldn’t decline a second helping if offered, but weren’t blown away by the taste or the texture. Nor was anyone interested in searching after whale meat again in the future.

IMG_E7745At the time, I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to sample a piece, but after hearing my friends’ reports – and after looking at these pictures again – I think it’s safe to say that I’ve gotten over my disappointment.

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A (long overdue) visit to Salunpowaku

When I found out that I’d be living in Minoh, the first thing I Googled while researching the city was “cute cafe’s.” (True story.) And Cafe Salunpowaku happened to be the top result.

Browsing past reviews on Cafe Salunpowaku – all of which were overwhelmingly positive – I discovered that the cafe not only prides itself on its use of all-natural, organic ingredients, but also specializes in gluten-free, vegan cuisine. Veganism isn’t as widespread in Japan as it is in the States; in fact, I’ve heard from a few ex-Vegans that practicing Veganism is nearly impossible in Japan. Gluten-free products, too, are extremely hard to come by in Japan. I couldn’t believe my luck – I’d stumbled upon perhaps one of the very few all natural, 100% vegan cafes in Osaka. And it just happened to be less than a minute away from Minoh station!

I originally planned to visit Salunpowaku the week I’d arrived in Minoh, but I’d slightly underestimated just how hectic getting adjusted to life in a brand new country would be. Salunpowaku slid down my list of priorities, as things like “figure out how to apply for a credit card” and “how to unlock bike without key??” took its place.

But after finally settling into my apartment, and after unlocking my bike, I finally found the time to make the long awaited trip to Salunpowaku.

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With the help of Google Maps, I found my way to the front of the cafe – a friendly sign with the menu (declaring its vegan and allergen-free meal options with pride) greeted me at the front entrance. I could easily tell from the sign that I’d arrived at the right place.

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My friend and I visited the cafe around 10am, so a little too early for lunch, unfortunately. We asked for their drink menu instead and were pleased to see a diverse selection of beverages available, from herbal teas to hand-drip coffee, to lattes steamed with organic, non-GMO soy milk.

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Upon the waiter’s recommendation, I ordered the 豆乳よもぎオレ, or the soy milk yomogi au lait. Yomogi is an herb made from the Japanese mug wort plant and is known for its distinct, vibrant green color. My friend ordered the strawberry black herb tea. Both of our drinks were brought to our table on little wooden trays with flowers painted on the surface, which I thought was a lovely touch!

At first, I didn’t want to taste my drink – it was too pretty to ruin! But I’m glad I did, because the flavor was even better than the appearance. Everything about the drink was perfectly balanced – the bitterness from the yomogi, the frothiness of the milk, even the temperature. There was a counter near the tables with little jars of brown sugar and syrup, but the drink was flavorful enough on its own to not need additional sweetener. Overall, the au lait was a light and refreshing mid-morning treat that I strongly debated ordering again.

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I ended up not ordering another, but I definitely plan to during my next visit. And I’ll be sure to go during lunch time, so I can sample their brown rice chickpea curry (which I could smell simmering in the kitchen, by the way, and it smelled incredible!).

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For anyone who happens to be in the Osaka area and is interested in visiting this cafe for a meal or a freshly brewed beverage, here’s the link to the address on Google Maps. I highly recommend Cafe Salunpowaku to all – vegan or not!

Preparing for my first winter in Osaka (on a budget)

I was born and raised in sunny southern California – where the weather is about 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, year round. In January, the temperature can drop to the mid 50’s, but mid 50’s is about as low as it’ll go. So, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never experienced a real winter before. And when I say real winter, I mean a below 30 degrees F kind of winter, a winter that turns stepping outside into a brave and daring feat – a winter I am grossly under-prepared for… But since I’m living in Japan now, that’s just the kind of winter I’m about to face.

December has only just arrived, and the temperature in Minoh has already begun to plummet. My 8 minute stroll to the bus stop is a challenge already, even with a heavy coat. And a scarf. And gloves.

But, luckily for me – and for the millions of other Osaka residents about to brave an unforgivable winter, Japan has found ways to make these next few bone-chilling months bearable, and I have made it my goal to take advantage of as many of these warmth-inducing solutions as possible.

The first task on my survival checklist was to redo my wardrobe, since all of the clothes I’d brought from home were intended to be worn in an Osaka-n summer, not winter. But, I’m on a teacher’s budget – restocking my closet with a brand new wardrobe wasn’t a possibility. And that’s how I discovered Heat Tech.

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Heat Tech is a collection by UNIQLO – a chain of affordable clothing stores in Japan. Heat Tech’s under armor is made from a durable fabric that supposedly retains heat really well. I’d heard positive reviews from several coworkers, so I decided to buy a few articles for myself. And I’m glad I did! The material is surprisingly thin, it’s light, and most importantly, it keeps me warm. And it’s cheap! A long sleeved crew neck T-shirt cost me less than $10.

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Though my pair of “ultra warm” leggings have been a big help so far, fabric too has its limits. Clothes can only help retain so much heat, and there are some body parts that need a little more warmth than others. And that’s where these lovely little packs come in:

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I got this particular pack of body warming stickers for 100 Yen from a local Daiso, but I’ve seen them stocked at nearly every supermarket and discount store around, often conveniently displayed at the front entrance. All you do is unwrap a package, peel off the back, and stick it anywhere on your body for instant heat. To my surprise, I could still feel a bit of heat from a sticker nearly an hour after I’d peeled it. No idea how that works, but I’m not complaining.

Next – food: I can’t talk about winter without at least mentioning food.

I could go on and on about seasonal winter foods in Japan – nabe alone deserves its own blog post – but I’ll stick with the two winter-friendly snacks that have helped me survive on a budget.

The cheapest, and most abundant, warming winter snack I’ve found is oden at conbinis (convenience stores). Oden, also known as Japan’s traditional winter fast food, is a stew of various ingredients simmered in dashi broth. Ingredients range from potatoes, to skewered meat, to acorn jelly. At conbinis, a large food warmer sits at the front counter, where customers can help themselves to individual oden ingredients – each about 100 Yen. Sometimes, conbinis will have weekly specials that lower prices to 50 Yen!

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Though a little pricier than oden, my most favorite cold weather treat is definitely the 焼き芋, or roasted sweet potatoes. Japanese sweet potatoes are a little different from the sweet potatoes you buy in the states. Japanese sweet potatoes have a purple skin and creamy yellow insides. I think they’re also smoother in texture and a little sweeter than U.S. sweet potatoes.

Like oden, they’re everywhere – and they’re always warm. Each sweet potato is fresh and sweet, just the right amount of soft, and quite filling for less than $2 a piece. I’d say that one could work well as a meal by itself. They’re usually near the front entrances of supermarkets, kept hot in a warmer or on a bed of charcoal, often wrapped in individual brown bags. Kind of like this:

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Yet another cheap, and quick, option for those in search of relief from the chilly outdoors are vending machines – now well-stocked with tons of hot drinks. In the summer, all of the drinks were cold, but as the temperature began to change, vending machine selections changed too.

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I’d say that 100 Yen is not a bad deal for a cozy beverage (or a can of corn consomme soup!). Sometimes, I buy a drink just to act as a hand warmer, when I don’t have my nifty body stickers with me.

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And finally, the main reason I’ve been able to survive the cold – my air conditioner, which as I was overjoyed to learn, is also a heater.

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I was planning on buying a separate heater for my apartment, which are pretty expensive, but a friend who has been living in Japan for two years now informed me that my air conditioner should have heating functions too. So after work that day, I attempted to decipher my remote control. And sure enough, hidden in the left hand corner, I recognized one of the kanji characters for heat – 暖. (In Japanese, 暖かい means warm.) So, if you ever find yourself needing to operate the dual air conditioning-heater unit in a Japanese apartment, look for 暖房 (pronounced danbou) on your remote control.

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Another cool thing I discovered as I was deciphering the cryptic maze that is my remote control is the timing function. All I have to do is set a certain number of hours, and my heater will start up automatically when that number of hours has passed. I set it to start about 30 minutes before I arrive back from work so that I’m greeted by a cozy, heated apartment right when I step inside.

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I can’t say that I’m looking forward to the next 3 freezing months, but I will admit that Japan does a pretty good job at trying to make the wintery season – almost – bearable. I might as well enjoy my ready-to-eat perfectly cooked sweet potatoes while I can.