Let's TV

I was wandering around The Daily Beast and I stumbled upon this interesting little article about celebrities selling out overseas by doing commercials they'd never be caught dead in on the U.S. airwaves.  Not surprisingly, most of the commercials were Japanese ones. 

They're pretty funny and they managed to capture quite a wide range of Japanese products that Dustin and I regularly use. My favorite of all of the commercials is the Wes Anderson-directed one starring Brad Pitt. Though you'd never know it, what's being advertised is the cell phone company yours truly uses herself. Softbank is the company most gaijin (foreigners) use, probably because it's one of the few with a useful English helpline. That came in very handy when our first bill was $250 instead of the $8 we'd expected...

The commercial featuring Ah-nold is for an elixir/energy drink. While Dustin might not drink that specific brand (and maybe he does, I don't scrutinize the bottles), he quite often downs an elixir in the morning for a little boost. Elixirs are everywhere. Typical western medicine isn't falling off the shelves like it is back home, but traditional remedies like a mixture of herbs and vitamins are everywhere. The mindset is that you're not just to drink them when you're immune system is down, but for general health. I can't stomach them. They taste like cough medicine, but slimier. Dustin swears by them. He even bought a few of the Final Fantasy brand elixirs when they were in the conbinis for a few weeks.

Finally, there is a Ben Stiller commercial for Chu-Hi. Not only is that my preferrred Japanese-style drinks, lemon (the flavor advertised here) is usually the flavor I choose. Many girls in Japan pick this up from the conbini and sneak it in to a karaoke session. The last commercial in the article, the Harrison Ford advert for Kirin beer, is selling a beer I sometimes find Dustin drinking.

They are pretty funny.  Check them out yourself:


Sake, yum yum yum

Last Sunday, we went up to Niigata for a sake tasting festival. Over a hundred different types of sake all from Niigata prefecture! It vaguely reminded me of the wedding expo Dustin and I visited this summer. I left the sake tasting festival feeling much less accomplished than when I left the wedding expo, though I did manage to drink more cups of sake in one day than I had ever previously drank. 

Before coming to Japan, I thought all sake tasted just about the same, like a watered down version of vodka. Now, I can certainly say that almost every sake tastes as different as every flower smells. I tried some very weak sake that tasted like water, some very strong sake that burned my throat, some sakura sake that had a slight hint of cherry blossoms, some lime sake that tasted very citrusy, some champagne sake that tasted like sweet sparkling wine. There was warm sake and cold sake, each with its own subtleties.

We took a break from the sake tasting to put some food in our stomachs and watch some fellow sake-tasters get roped into pounding the rice for mochi or perhaps future sake, I'm not sure which. I happened to sit next to a nice older man who had already consumed his fair share of sake. He asked me if I'd tasted "The Number One Sake." I didn't think I had, but I couldn't be sure. He pointed out which booth it was on the map of the festival. We made our way there by the end of the evening, with only a few minutes before the festival was to finish. It was definitely the number one sake. It was so crisp and refreshing. It had won the prize of best sake in Niigata prefecture the year before; Niigata is known throughout Japan for having high quality rice, thus high quality sake. Since the festival was over, the Number One Sake guy just kept pouring us cup after overflowing cup of really expensive sake. He was trying to finish off the bottles of already opened sake instead of tossing them out. We picked the perfect time to visit that booth. 

We even sampled cigars at the festival. We each grabbed a free cigar (actually, I just tried a puff of Dustin's) and headed outside to the special cigar tent. The tent seemed a bit crowded, so we tried our cigars outside. Kyoko's was mysteriously broken in half, but she puffed on it for a while before giving up and breaking off the useless nub. 

The speed in which the festival was cleaned up was amazing. The Japanese are truly efficient.  The festival ended at 5:00. We straggled out around 5:10 and they were half-way cleaned up by then. I imagine that this huge convention hall was spotless by 5:30.

The only regret I have about the sake tasting festival is that the sake flavored gelato ran out before I had a chance to give it a try. One of our friends tried it soon after arriving, because she is obviously much smarter than me. She said it was delicious. I believe her. I've already tried melon, green tea, and red bean ice cream since coming to Japan. All of which were quite interesting. Sake and black pepper are two flavors I'll be on the look out for!

p.s. There are a few pictures of the sake festival in the "Oh, Brother" album, which you can link to on the right hand side of the blog.


Sickness in Motion

(Disclaimer: This story is slightly gross, so don't read it if you are eating or thinking about eating in the near future.)

Yesterday, I wasn't feeling too well, but I won't give up a precious day's pay, so I went to work anyway. I had to go to Naoestu, which is my farthest away school, an hour and a half train ride. I normally enjoy this train ride, because I can sit back and relax, listen to music, maybe play DS, or read. On this particular day, however, I started to feel a bit queasy. Usually, I sit in the seats that face the direction the train is going in, but none of these were available, so I sat in a seat that puts you in a position where you are moving sideways. My state of nausea, unfamiliar traveling position, and the fact that the heated seat felt especially heated combined disastrously and caused me to vomit right there on the train. At the time, there was still a good long hour until I reached my destination. Thinking it would be helpful or perhaps not thinking at all, I caught most of the sick in my hands. Then, I was left with two handfuls of puke and no idea what to do with it. I looked around at my fellow passengers, but they all looked away if I caught their eye. I hoped that someone would open one of the doors near me at the next stop, but no one around me got on or off the train.

I just stared at my hands wondering how I could possibly make this a better situation. Some high school girls came over and stood next to me for about 30 seconds before realizing I was holding vomit. They quickly shrieked and ran away. Finally, three stops after the unfortunate incident, someone nearby got off and thankfully left the door open. I poured my puked out the train door onto the tracks. I figured I'd be able to clean myself up once I got rid of the excess vomit, but it didn't occur to me that my hands would still have a pukey film on them. I went back to staring at my hands wondering what to do next. I didn't have much time to think though. 

About 2 seconds after I sat back down, all of my fellow passengers, who had ignored me and pretended nothing was wrong for 3 whole stops, surrounded me. About 5 packs of tissue were shoved in my face, a handful of wet wipes were given to me, and an older lady started cleaning off my face with a hand towel. Someone produced two plastic bags: one for all of the used tissues and wet wipes and another for my sweater and my scarf, which would be useless for the rest of day, leaving me slightly colder than I would have liked.  We reached a major stop shortly after this and most of the people who ended up helping me got off there. The old woman asked if I was getting off at Kashiwazaki and I said, 'No, Naoestu." She frowned at me and I could tell she wanted to offer some words of encouragement, but she didn't think I'd understand. She took the bag of trash off with her and said, "Ganbatte," or "Good luck./You can do it." 


Long time... long post

Sumimasen. Sorry for the long gap in posts. No excuse really. Just laziness. Plenty of excitement has been had by all, but I just couldn't motivate myself to share it with you lovely people. That having been said, let me share some of my goals for 2009:
*Cook one new recipe a week
*Study Japanese for 3 hours or more each week
*Plan the best wedding you or anyone you know has ever been to
*Eat a bit healthier (All those adorable Japanese sweets are so tempting!)
*Travel outside of Niigata 3 times
*Write on this here blog twice a month at minimum
*Do yoga and meditate more often

In the first two months of 2009, I've come closer to achieving some goals more than others. Our new Peppy School Year is starting in April and Spring is on the door step, so I feel a greater sense of renewal now than I did in January. I've been feeling sick for the past few weeks and therefore grumpier than usual, but now I'm feeling much better. With a happier demeanor, perhaps I can stick to my goals a bit more successfully. And now that I've put them out here on the internet for all to see, hopefully you guys can keep me accountable and bug me about my progress with these goals. 

What have I been up to besides making and failing to meet personal goals? Well... At the end of January, one of my friends, Jessica, turned 23, so a bunch of us headed to Niigata to celebrate in "the big city." One of my other friends, Cat, is a belly dancer and teaches at a studio in Niigata. The owner of the jazz club below her studio told her about a jazz performance in the club that night and said she should bring all her gaijin friends with her. The performance started at 9:00, but we were only half-way through our bottle of wine and pizza at that point in the night. We finally made it to the studio around 10:45 and the performance was well underway. The club was packed. There were at least two people sitting on every chair and it appeared that every inch of floor space was covered by someone's shoes. The entrance door to the club led directly to the stage. When we peaked past the door, the owner waved us in, but there was no where to go. She continued to wave us in, so we headed for the only open area of the club, behind the bar. We had to cross the stage and walk in front of the audience to reach the bar. When the band finished their song, the club applauded the musicians and then gave the new audience members, us, a round of applause for being foreigners. The music was great though I only understood the very few English phrases thrown in here and there. It was my second Japanese jazz experience and I must say it is one musical genre they've translated beautifully. We were all enjoying the music when the owner got on the mic and announced there would be a belly dancing performance. Cat looked around the room for the belly dancer for a moment before realizing that she was about to do an impromptu belly dancing show to some jazz music. If she was nervous, it didn't show. She got up in front of the crowd and danced beautifully to songs I doubt any other belly dancer has ever used in a performance.

After a mint martini or two at cozy Café 37, we decided to head back to the station where we had stored our bags in lockers. We had planned to stay at a sento, an onsen/hostel. We got to the station and found, to our shock and horror, that Niigata Station was closed until 6:00 a.m.! We walked around the station looking for different entrances that might possibly be open, but to no avail. It didn't take us long to decide that the only place to wait out 4 hours until the station reopened was a karaoke bar. Some of us were more tired than others and fell asleep at random intervals throughout the karaoke performances. Cat was dozing off one minute and the next, I looked up to find her dancing around on the benches. Joe and I both took a little nap and then simultaneously popped up to join Jessica in a lovely rendition of Britney Spear's "Lucky." Yusuf's friend, referred to by all as Brother, had the most dramatic sleeping experience. In the middle of a tirade about something none of us can quite recall, he decided to pass out, falling suddenly on the table spilling water about and breaking a few glasses. 

We went to retrieve our bags from the station at 6:00 a.m. We got to the sento, had a quick bath and fell asleep quite easily. Around 11:00, we began to wake up, bathe, and stumble around wishing we'd stayed on our cots a little longer. We had some Indian food, spend many hours in Starbucks trying to wake up, and ended the birthday revelry by engaging in one of Jessica's favorite activities, purikura.  

Dustin and I decided to stay in Niigata an extra night on account of our Round One addiction. We played medals, but lost big time. We decided to come back in the morning for SportCha, the 3 hours of free play. Check out at the sento was 9:00 in the morning. Luckily, it was right next to Round One. We checked out at 8:50, ran into the conbini for breakfast, and headed to Round One. Unfortunately, we didn't know that Round One doesn't open until 10:00. So, we spent an hour in the snowy cold waiting and waiting and waiting. Once we got in, we decided to spend just an hour and a half at SportCha since I was especially tired and crabby. I spent my entire ninety minutes in the massage chair room listening to some relaxing Philip Glass. It was 1500 yen well spent. 

All in all, it was a fun weekend; however, the hour spent outside Round One combined with the hours of sleep lost on our adventurous night cost me my health for a week. Luckily, it was an office week and I spent most of my time at a desk, being particularly un-genki. I did have to fill in for a co-worker at the end of the week. I tried to don one of the surgical masks courteous Japanese people wear to keep their sickness to themselves, but after 5 minutes, I thought I was going to suffocate. I don't know how they wear them all day long. It made me feel even sicker. By some miracle, I had a rare three day weekend, so I spent many hours in bed and drank loads of o.j. Dustin, being the kind and loving fiancé that he is, went to the drug store to find something to make me all better. He brought back Strong Wakamoto. On the box, there is a picture of a girl holding her chest, a picture of a girl holding her stomach, picture of a guy flexing his obviously strong muscle, and a lot of kanji that we didn't understand in the least. Dustin said he thought they were general vitamins to build a strong immune system. I was sickly, so I didn't question him and starting taking 3-4 a day. He took one occasionally to fight off any potential immune system deficiencies.  After about a week, I began to feel better, but I didn't know if extra vitamin C, lots of sleeping, or Strong Wakamoto deserved  credit. I wasn't sure if I should continue to take these vitamins, especially if I didn't know exactly what they were. I wasn't too worried, since the Japanese don't really do medicine and almost anything you find at the drugstore is actually a bunch of herbs and vitamins. Still, my curiosity had to be sated, so we (and by we, I mean Dustin) looked up all of the kanji that were written on the front of the box.  Much to our surprise, we discovered that we'd both been taking an anti-constipation pill  for about 7 days! It must not work too well, because neither of us noticed too much of a change in that area. Needless to say, I will be translating anything and everything I put in my body from now on.

January and February were very snowy months. When I first realized the snow was going to be sticking around longer than the 2-3 weeks I'm used to in Missouri, I retreated to my apartment where my warm blankets and space heater kept me unfrozen. After weeks of laziness and boredom, I gave in and decided to participate in some Japanese winter activities.  Some of the Peppy teachers formed a team to compete in the International Snowball Fight Championship (also known as the World Snowball Fight Championship depending on which banners or literature you read). It was my first Japanese festival complete with vendors selling squid on a stick, chocolate covered bananas, and sake starting at 8:00 a.m. The boys began drinking beer around 9:30, but I waited to try some Niigata sake until 11:00. I had just enough time to finish my cup before we had to fight our enemies. Since girls could be hit 5 times before being out and boys could only be hit 3 times before being finished, I was declared the team captain. I had a lot of pressure on me, because the rules stated that if the captain got out, the team lost. As team captain, I was required to dress like an idiot. I was given the type of hat a rice farmer might wear, giant snow shoes, and a huge wooden paddle with which I could defend myself. Some of the teams come just for the costume competition. Teams like the Obamas, the girly men, and the banana-head girls weren't there as serious snowball fighters; they just wanted to dress up and have fun. Our first competitors were a bunch of girls dressed up and not serious about winning. We creamed them. The second team we fought, however, was full of baseball players, who were much more athletic than anyone on our team. In this case, we were the ones creamed. Towards the end, I looked around and realized that Dustin and I were the only ones standing. I said, "Dustin, we're the only ones left." Moments later, Dustin was out, too, and I suddenly found myself retreating into the fetal position trying to escape the barrage of snowballs raining down on me.  Defeated though we were, we didn't let it get our spirits down. A few magical rides down the hill on sleds and 10 minutes of awesome BMX bike tricks and everyone was more than happy. We'll spend next winter training and be champions in 2010!

The weekend after the snowball fight, we headed to another mountain for snowboarding. Neither Dustin nor I had ever tried the sport, but we'd skiied before, so we figured we could get it easily enough. We rented snowsuits and snowboards and scampered up the practice hill to learn the ways of the board. Our friend Mikiko gave us tips and showed us how to fall and get back up. I mastered the falling part, but never quite got the getting back up without taking the board off first. Dustin slid down the hill a few times before feeling confident enough to hop on the lift and snowboard down the mountain. Mikiko asked if I wanted to come along, but I opted to stay on the hill and practice a while longer. When she'd made it up and back down again, I was still trying to make it down the 50 foot hill without falling and it wasn't going well. My frustration was obvious, so Yuko, Mikiko's friend, suggested I switch to skis, which I'd told them I had tried before. What I hadn't told them was about my last experience with skis, when my much more experienced sister had taken me on black diamond hill where I freaked out half-way down and had to be carried down by the ski resort staff on a snowmobile.

I got to the top of the practice hill, donned my skis, and skied down the hill flawlessly. At the bottom of the hill, I was greeted by a joyful Mikiko and Yuko clapping and telling me what a great skier I was. (It's the Japanese way to overly praise. My friends and colleagues are continually amazed at my Japanese despite the fact that I know a very limited set of useful phrases and Japanese characters.) They suggested that we go to the top. I was slightly nervous, but I knew they would wait with me all day if I didn't go then and there, and I didn't want to delay their fun any longer. The view on the ride to the top was peaceful and gorgeous, but as we got closer and closer to the end of the lift, I got increasingly terrified. I wasn't ready for this.

Mikiko sailed down the moutain on her snowboard, but she asked Yuko to stay with me, since she was on skis, too. I started going down the beginners path slowly and not so surely. I remembered that I need to make a pizza shape to slow down and I just kept pushing the backs of my skis out further and further until I'd slow down to a halt and then speed up a bit until I got scared again. Yuko tried to give me pointers, but we had a major language barrier. We got down the mountain about a third of the way and suddenly, it got very steep. I tried to make the pizza, but I pushed out my skis too far and they crossed and I tumbled down, slamming hard on my right shoulder. Memories of my last skiing experience flooded back and any sliver of confidence I'd had left my body. Yuko helped me get grounded again and put my skis back on, but I just kept falling over and over again, each time landing hard on my right shoulder. Eventually, the pain and terror became too much. I didn't want to go on, but I literally didn't know how to tell Yuko. I pointed to my shoulder and said, "Itai," or "Hurt." She said, "Daijobu?" or "Are you ok?" I said, "Daijobu nai. Kowai." or "I'm ok no. Fear." We looked at each other not knowing what to say or do. I started repeating, "Kowai... itai... kowai... itai... kowai." 

The pain, anxiety, and frustration got to me, and I started to cry. I'd only met Yuko a few hours before and she really didn't know what to do and was getting increasingly more uncomfortable. Being the polite Japanese girl she was, she tried ever so hard to make me feel better and assure me everything would be ok. She said, "Walk?" I really didn't want to walk the remaining third of the mountain carrying my skis with a bum shoulder, but it seemed a far superior choice to skiing the rest of the way down. I slung the skis over my left shoulder and started to walk while she went to put her skis on to, I assumed, ski the rest of the way down alone. She must have called Mikiko to ask her what to do, because I walked down for about 5 minutes before Yuko found me and told me to stick my skiis in the snow and called Mikiko to explain to me that the medic was coming to take me the rest of the way down. Yuko and I sat awkwardly in the snow, not able to say much to each other. I hadn't bothered to enjoy the scenery until she said, "It's beautiful." and pointed to the view. Since we were just sitting there and it was rather breathtaking, I decided to take a picture. Tears were streaming down my face, but Yuko thought I should be in the picture. She motioned that I should wipe away the tears and said, "Don't cry." before snapping a photo. It was an oddly sweet moment. A short while later, the medic came, I got on the back of yet another snowmobile and had quite the déja vu. I spent the remainder of the day in the "lodge" drinking tea and reading. A trip to onsen after skiing, a lidocaine patch, and a few days of moving my arm as little as humanly possible did wonders and I have no lasting damage from my second traumatic skiing experience. Maybe I'll try it again next year, but I'll wait to buy a lift pass until I've spent half the day on the practice hill.  And I will be taking a Japanese class at the Civic Center starting in April, so I can better communicate with everyone.

*Photos of the snowboarding trip are at the end of the "Oh, Brother" album and the snowball fight photos are now at the top of the list!