Saturday, 11 February 2012

Hiking with my boss and my dog...

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My lovely boss and three other staff from the Board of Education invited my husband and I (I feel like the queen every time I say that) on a hike/mountain climb back in autumn. They very kindly but somewhat awkwardly insisted that we bring Hayate, our one-year-old shiba. Hayate had previously ridden in a car three times. The first time he threw up. The second time a friend drove him to the vet when he was sick and he peed in her car. Her hire car. The third time was when a kind taxi driver took pity on us as we struggled up a mountain to a campsite, and Hayate barked so loudly that the poor guy's ears will probably bleed whenever he looks at a dog for the rest of his life. None of those trips were longer than twenty minutes, and my boss wanted us to take him for a ninety minute ride in  an expensive car with the people who get to decide if I get my job again next year. We were not excited by the idea. We tried to warn them about how bad it would be. They wouldn't listen. I made phone calls and entreaties in person to no avail. We figured we would just prepare as best we could. We packed a bath sheet to protect the (leather) upholstery, towels to mop up vomit, a garbage bag for soiled towels, pee sheets, industrial strength ear plugs for the driver, two leashes, wet wipes, dog cleaning wipes and breakfast so that he could eat after we arrived and hopefully not have much to vomit up. We gave him calming drops and motion sickness medicine. We got up at 5 am to give him a walk and a chance to use the toilet before we left.

It started out ok. N-sensei, our driver and resident hiking enthusiast, picked us up and Hayate had the run of the back seat. Then we stopped to pick up T-sensei. I hadn't realised anyone else would be in the same car, so I was a bit concerned. Hayate let out a huge bark right next to her face and scared her a bit, but it was ok. Then we stopped again and my boss got in the car. The fourth BoE member had canceled, so they decided not to take two cars. There were now five of us and Hayate in the one car. I moved into the front seat with him and wished I had packed more earplugs. I began planning for finding a new job next year. Shockingly, Hayate did really well. Once we let him stick his head out of the window he calmed down a lot. I think the main problem in the taxi must have been that the driver asked me to keep him in the foot-well. Not being able to see what was happening probably freaked Hayate out. He spent most of the drive to our hike with his head out of the window, periodically turning around to check that everyone was still in the car. Hayate adds people to his "pack" incredibly easily. Scratch his ears and you're family. He would be a useless guard dog. We had to make frequent stops to let him out when he began to get agitated, and he freaked out going through tunnels (which is unfortunate, as Oita has more tunnels than any other prefecture. True story). Other than that, he was unbelievably well-behaved (for him). Yay! We had one unfortunate moment when N-sensei absentmindedly closed the window with Hayate's head still outside it, but he wasn't particularly hurt and he wasn't reluctant to put his head out again.
The hike (mountain climb?) itself was quite short (only two hours each way). It was quite demanding though. There were long stretches of climbing up/jumping down steep slopes or rocks. Two days later I was still hobbling and groaning every time I had to sit down or stand up. Hayate had a blissful time, but sadly appeared not to be at all tired out by the experience. He made friends with a hiking tour group on the mountain top. The group's leader told us that three months earlier he had been hiking with his shiba on the same mountain and had lost her. He said he'd been there every weekend looking for her, but I can't imagine that the poor little thing is still alive. Hayate liked the guy a lot and got lots of pats from all the hikers. He got quite concerned when his new pack members headed off without him. He hurtled down the mountain and break-neck speed (my neck, as I was clinging onto the other end of his lead with grim determination and badly jarred joints) trying to catch up with them, trying to get me to take short cuts and periodically letting out "marco polo" barks to tell them where he was. Watching him, I wondered how you could lose a shiba even if you were stupid enough to let one off-leash in the forest. I guess she fell and broke a bone; otherwise she surely would have found her way back to him.
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The Naginata World Championship

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The 5th World Naginata Championship was held in Japan in 2011 and I went to watch and support the Oita girls who were on the national team. My club had planned to go in force to support the Oita girls who were representing Japan (the engi^ team). In the end there was too much dilly-dallying and we missed the window for making group plans, so I went by myself and met up with the others who made it at the championship. The contest was held in Himeji, famous for a really beautiful castle. Unfortunately for the poor international contestants the castle was undergoing renovations! I visited the castle back in 2005 so it wasn’t a problem for me and I didn’t have time for sightseeing anyway.
There were a few performances by local school children. The high school girls' rhythm naginata display was beautiful.

It was really interesting seeing the behaviour of everyone at the Championship. I’ve spent enough time in Japan now that I had forgotten how intense things are for people outside Japan who are into Japanese stuff. Many of the contestants were obviously really into Japanese martial arts in the almost reverent way I remember from my Aikido days. I feel so differently about it after watching the school tournaments and so on, it was both nostalgic and (at the risk of being mean) a bit funny. For example, at the start of the opening ceremony all the contestants were lining up very seriously, often bowing as they came into the hall. The announcer told them to begin the parade and then the theme from Rocky started to play. So much for the “sacred space for the cultivation of a warrior spirit” pretentiousness! On the other hand, I got really irritated with the Japanese crowd. The difference in the level between the Japanese contestants and most of the other countries’ contestants was huge, and the people around me kept saying things like “after-all, foreigners just don’t understand Japanese martial arts” and “they are bigger and stronger but they can’t match us for skill”. There’s an obsession here with viewing everything through an ethnic/racial prism (I know it happens everywhere, but for obvious reasons I am more aware of it in Japan). It didn’t occur to them that the Japanese representatives have been doing naginata since kindergarten while most people from other countries probably started in their 20s or even later. It didn’t occur to them that naginata is so obscure that there are not many high ranked teachers in other countries and less overall talent to draw from. They were also laughing at some of the representatives for wearing kendo armour not naginata armour. They have no idea how expensive and difficult to find that kind of stuff is overseas, it’s so normal for them. I felt especially bad when a contestant’s armour came loose and the referee stopped the match so he could fix it. He started to retie it but he was facing the wrong way. The referee expressed disapproval but didn’t indicate what he was supposed to be doing. He kept swivelling around trying to figure out what he was meant to be doing with no-one helping him and the crowd laughing uproariously. That was a low point, but overall it was a fun day. An American name Kevin caught the fancy of the crowd and he got lots of cheers.

The UK team only had three members and one fainted during the opening ceremony, so Australia beat them to a pulp and that’s all that really matters ;) If I’m in a financial situation to join the next one (it’s held every four years) I definitely will. I would be decimated in the actual fighting section but my engi^ is as good as many of the representatives. I’m also much more modest, of course. And, you know, I have the tiny advantage of training with the all-Japan champion (and her grandmother).

Supporting our girls!
Australia's Team
This is the Swedish engi team. In case you couldn't guess.

^In an engi match two people “fight” according to a predetermined sequence. Multiple pairs perform the same routine and the judges award the “match” to the pair who performed the moves best.
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Coldness and Youth: Children of the Wind

There is no winter uniform... this is it, all year round
When I was a child my mother often told me to wear warmer clothes or I would catch a cold. Being a revolting child I used to reply that the common cold is a virus and that wearing more layers wouldn’t prevent the transmission of the virus. Despite my cheek, the idea that getting cold will lead to sickness is deeply ingrained in me (and in Western culture generally).  I also see small children and weaker and more vulnerable to the cold and physical discomfort than adults or teenagers. It’s been interesting for me to have both of these assumptions challenged in Japan. I’m writing this post after shivering through lunch in a classroom without heating or insulation… and with the windows thrown wide open. Although my grandchildren will doubtless never believe me, snow was literally blowing into the classroom. Why were the windows open when it was snowing? Because the ‘flu is going around, and the belief that fresh air will disperse the germs is stronger than any idea that getting cold will make the students more prone to illness. The junior high school girls’ winter uniform is a skirt and ankle socks. That’s right… bare legs. In the snow. No-one apart from me finds this scene peculiar. It’s even worse in kindergarten (three and four year-olds). There the uniform is shorts and cotton T-shirts all year round, and out-door play is mandatory. At a school I visited recently the kids have a fifteen minute 縄飛びタイム during which they skip (jump-rope) to music to warm themselves up at the start of every day. The teachers wear warm clothes and sometimes even jackets and scarves. Kindergartners are called children of the wind, 風の子, and they are seen as incredibly strong and resilient. In primary (elementary) school the children who wear T-shirts through the winter are praised by the teachers and there is a competitive element to how much coldness the kids can endure. When I asked an eight-year-old who was wearing a tank-top on a snowy day if he was cold, the class-room teacher commented “isn’t the power of youth great?” By contrast, many high schools have heating and the girls’ uniforms include stockings. The power of youth must be fading by then…
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An Introduction to Vegetarian Living in Japan

If you like mushrooms, cooking in Japan is fun!
The first thing you need to understand is that the western concept of vegetarianism is based on classifications and assumptions that do not exist in Japanese culture and which are challenging to communicate. You cannot simply say “I’m a vegetarian” or “I’d like this without meat” and expect to get a vegetarian meal. There are some ingrained assumptions that I have which have caused a few unpleasant experiences, especially the idea of tofu as a meat replacement. I bought a packet of “tofu-burger helper” and happily made some burgers only to realise upon tasting them that the mix contained prawn flakes. Similarly I have twice ordered “tofu steak” at different restaurants and both times the tofu can smothered in a meat sauce. One needs to be aware of one’s own assumptions as well as trying to understand the assumptions of the people one is speaking to. I once asked a waitress what she could recommend that didn’t contain meat. She suggested “hanbaagu”, a large rissole (or Salisbury steak for Americans). That’s right, to her “vegetarian” meant “plate of mince”. On another occasion I asked for a BLT without the bacon, saying “I can’t eat bacon”. The sandwich came out with sliced ham. Then you get people who swing the other way. I can’t count the number of times people I work with have exclaimed in surprise that I “can drink coffee even though” I am vegetarian. A teacher brought a homemade cake to the staffroom at the school of a friend and served it to everyone but her, saying “this has brown sugar so you can’t eat it”. My friend isn’t even vegetarian, she just doesn’t eat fish. To this day we haven’t figured that one out.
To calibrate your expectations to an appropriate setting, have a read of these two articles.
THIS ONE Has useful phrases and a list of resources.
THIS ONE is a more general piece with some discussion of Japanese native vegetarian tradition and some amusing anecdotes.
OK, you should have more realistic expectations now. This is important, because there is a pervasive misconception in the English speaking world that a lot of Japanese food is vegetarian, or at least “healthy”. Neither is really true. However, it is not all that difficult to get by as a vegetarian in Japan (especially if you live here and can cook for yourself). Before I go any further with this I have to lay out my disclaimers: I am not always 100% attentive. If I don’t have a lot of choice I will eat miso soup despite knowing that the broth contains fish. I use tomato ketchup in restaurants (which also contains fish product in Japan). When I buy pastries I don’t ask if they are made with lard (they often are). I eat deserts with gelatine in. While I do not knowingly recommend anything on this blog that is not vegetarian I am not promising to have fully researched the background of every ingredient and dish. Please do your own research before eating anything (and feel very free to share that research with me)! Likewise, I am not a fluent or even particularly high-level Japanese speaker. If you notice mistakes or mistranslations do please let me know.
Talking about vegetarianism
To most Japanese people “vegetarian” means someone who eats lots of vegetables. There’s a jingle playing on loop in the produce section of my local supermarket entreating everyone to be a vegetarian. When I first lived in Japan I used to say that I couldn’t eat meat or ask for food without meat. Using that word (肉) got me fish, prawns, mince meat, caviar, bacon, ham and sausages. You’ll read a lot of English speakers joking or making fun of Japanese people for thinking that “bacon is a vegetable”. That is not what is happening. 肉 is translated as meat but the real meaning is much narrower. I would say that it is closer to “muscle”, or maybe the old fashioned term “flesh”. No one thinks that bacon is a vegetable (although it often comes in salads), but it isn’t肉 either. Bacon is bacon. Fish is fish. So my next approach was to list everything: “I can’t eat fish, seafood, bacon, ham, meat or octopus. I can eat eggs but only bird eggs, not fish eggs.” This was time consuming and pretty ineffective because people tended to take it very literally. After giving this list I was served offal and tofu with fish flakes on top. For a long time I ate exclusively at Italian and Indian restaurants (both of which are plentiful pretty much everywhere and always have vegetarian options). This led me to gain a huge amount of weight (not blaming the cuisines themselves, it just tends to work out that you mainly get carbs that way). After a few years I am able to find something I can eat or get a modification to a dish at most places and even get vegetarian dishes at work functions. I think it’s more to do with gaining familiarity with my neighbourhood restaurants than learning any magical phrase unfortunately for my readers, but at least I am example that it can work out (even if you don’t speak fluent Japanese). 
Here are some useful phrases from a Seek Japan article, just keep in mind the limitations I've discussed above about how some of these words can be interpreted: 

Can you make this without meat?
Kono ryouri o niku nuki de tsukuremasu ka.

Can you recommend a vegetarian dish?
Osusume no bejitarian menyuu wa arimasu ka.

I do not eat any meat at all.
Watashi wa niku to sakana o mattaku tabemasen.

I am allergic to meat and fish.
Watashi wa niku ya sakana ni taishite arerugii ga arimasu.

Could you make this without katsuobushi?
Kore o katsuobushi nuki de tsukuremasu ka.

I do not eat meat, dairy or eggs.
Watashi wa niku, sakana, nyuseihin, tamago o tabemasen.

I can eat tofu, egg, cheese, natto, konnyaku, mochi and all vegetables.
Watashi wa toufu, tamago, chiizu, nattou, konnyaku, mochi, soshite yasai wa suki kirai naku tabemasu.

If you live (or are preparing to live) in Japan

Online shopping is your friend. Foreign Buyers’ Club is the site I use most often. It is divided into two stores, one in Japan and one that ships from the US. The Japanese store ships within a week but has a smaller range, while the US store has a much larger inventory but takes over a month to arrive. I stock up on frozen vegetables for quick meals, as well as Amy’s vegetarian products, nutritional yeast and vital wheat gluten for making seitan.
Ambika stocks everything Indian. I make quite a lot of Indian food and I need my spices in bulk. This site also have good value rice (which is nice to get delivered because it is heavy) and gives out Bollywood DVDs when you place a large order!
Tengu Natural Foods is a site I haven’t used but it is popular with a lot of vegetarians. It carries a lot of vegan ingredients like nut butters, as well as organic baby food and environmentally friendly cleaning products.
See also: Flying Pig, Yoyo Market.

UPDATE: Just read a great article over here on having fruit and vegetables (including organic) delivered regularly.
Decide your dedication level
This is a tricky one, but something you need to put some thought into. Will you eat non-vegetarian cheese and cage-farmed eggs? Will you eat vegetables that have been cooked in broth that contains a small amount of fish-stock? If you find yourself in a difficult situation, can you eat a dish that contains meat but leave the meat? That last question may sound bizarre (I assume most vegetarians wouldn’t usually contemplate it) but I was once stuck in an isolated mountain village for two days and nights with nothing I could eat except white rice (it’s a long story). By lunch the second day (yeah, I can’t go long without food) I couldn’t take it and ate a Japanese curry with the chunks of beef taken out. If you can cope with eating a bit of fish-stock your life will be much easier, sad to say. If you are not willing to make any concessions you’ll be fine, but you will have to cook at home most of the time (or eat a lot of white rice). 
Work and food (for ALTs)
I’m an ALT at Junior High and Elementary Schools, where school lunch is provided and ALTs are expected to eat with the students. I contacted my contracting organisation before I had even arrived in Japan to let them know about my vegetarianism. I eat with the children but bring a packed lunch. My lunches are a source of endless fascination for the students (and many teachers too), and has been a good starting point for conversation. I’ve only had occasional awkward moments when teachers try to give me parts of school lunch and then get huffy when I refuse (because they assume I don’t like Japanese food). It’s always been ok after I explain that I am not rejecting their culture, I just have a religious prohibition against meat (untrue, but it is simpler to explain and causes less disgruntlement). The only trouble with this is that I usually try not to let the students hear me speak Japanese, and in this situation the teachers force me to. It can be depressing eating a cold lunch while surrounded by steaming hot food, but I’ve invested in a range of thermos lunch boxes to get me through the winter. It can also be hard to stomach my lunch while watching the kids eat some of the stuff they eat, but that’s another story! The only caution I have is to be consistent. Because I was clear from the beginning there were no problems, but I have heard of ALTs having problems when they initially ate school lunches but then tried to cancel them. One friend has been able to stop her school lunches fine, but a couple of others were subjected to animosity from co-workers. 
Work parties are the second place food becomes an issue. For my first year I used to pay up for work dinners and just try to drink my money’s worth (which is hard, because alcohol is cheap here). At one function the wait-staff went and told the manager that I wasn’t eating anything and he came out and said that they could have prepared a special menu if I had given them notice. I’d never asked about this because I assumed that with a large group paying a set price for a menu that doing a special separate menu included in the package price would be impossible. For the next party I asked the organisers to ask for me but emphasised that I would still come even if the hotel couldn’t accommodate my request. The hotel double-checked about eggs and there were no problems. That was a year ago and I’ve never looked back. Even the time when we had the party at a Japanese-style inn with a fully Japanese menu (and waitresses in kimono) I was served my own delicious vegetarian course. So it is doable, you just need to ask. You can see some pictures of the kinds of things I get served over at this post all about enkai.
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