Saturday, 23 June 2012

Where Does Food Come From Part 2

See Part 1 here.
A big frustration of being a vegetarian in Australia was the cognitive dissonance people happily maintain about where their food comes from. I’m not an evangelical vegetarian, by the way, but being surrounded by people who eat cage farmed bacon while waxing lyrical about how terrible people who eat dolphins are did make me grind my teeth. A lot. I knew several girls in high school who wouldn’t eat meat off the bone because it upset them to eat something that resembled an animal. They were squeamish about being reminded what they were eating, not about eating it. When I was waitressing I heard a number of customers say that they couldn’t order whole fish or prawns because “you can’t eat something with a face”, as though their lamb chop had appeared magically on their plate in just that form. On one memorable occasion a neighbour paid my (at that time vegetarian) father to kill some chickens for him. Then, despite having requested the execution of said hens and subsequently eaten them, the neighbour lectured my dad about how cruel he was for being an animal killer.

Animals are an emotionally charged topic, but the same disconnect occurs with other food products as well. We expect to be able to access what we want all year round, and for our lettuce to be free of dirt and our apples to be uniformly round and shiny. We struggle to understand nutritional information labels and have no idea how, where or from what our packaged foods are made. If you try to talk about the health consequences of making poor nutritional choices you’re attacked for “causing eating disorders” (because, you know, nutrition is just a binary choice between eating chocolate ice-cream from a bucket or starving yourself). I love, love, LOVE the approach (my) Japanese elementary schools take to food. It is socially and environmentally conscious, focused on nutrition and empowers children to make informed dietary choices from a very young age.

The kids begin learning about produce from kindergarten. At four or five years old they have a great time splashing around in mud planting rice.
Kids in mud, being useful!

They release ducklings into the flooded rice fields in spring to fertilise the fields and eat insects. Then in autumn they harvest the rice by hand with their own little scythes.
Apparently no-one ever hurts themselves...
When they begin learning geography they learn the main agricultural product of each prefecture in Japan.

They visit strawberry farms and hot houses full of tomatoes. They know how much work goes into the food they eat, and they are taught to value that.

They chart the nutritional content of their school lunches and at the start of each lunch time the special qualities and production site of what they are eating is announced over the PA system.

Pick a food...
and put it on the nutrition chart
Safe storage and handling is also emphasised
Perhaps my favourite thing, though, is the way they are taught to see food as integrated into everything they study. (I should point out that I live in a fairly rural community and there may be nothing like this much of a focus on food in more urban parts of Japan.) I ate some corn on the cob with a class once and heard all about how they had grown it themselves at school.
This year we're growing tomatoes!
 In social studies they had learned about where corn originated and the historical developments that resulted in corn being introduced to Japan. They sketched the growing plants in art class, and experimented with different additives to the water for science. In health and physical education they learned about the nutritional content of corn, and then finally in home economics they cooked it in several different ways.

Made by a ten year old
Pretty cool, right?

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Bicycle Safety for Kids

I came to work yesterday to the news that another student was hit by a car while coming to school. This happens with unacceptable frequency, and although this student only had some cuts and bruises, not all of my students have been so fortunate. I was interested to read this article about a successful “bicycle license” system for kids. One of my elementary schools has a similar system for fourth graders. They aren’t supposed to ride bicycles before then. There isn’t a license exactly, but we set up a road simulation and have them practice doing head checks before taking off, stopping at stop signs and that sort of thing.

Japanese elementary school playground turned into a road safety course
Bicycle Training at School

While the kids do ride like maniacs, the adults driving the cars are the ones that are really scary. Japan’s car licensing system does not require much driving on an actual road; almost all the practice and all of the testing is carried out in closed systems without other cars/cyclists/pedestrians around. I highly doubt that a first world country exists with a worse average level of driving ability than Japan’s. I saw a car mow down a cyclist just outside my house recently, and the driver didn’t even notice that an accident was happening until the bicycle was so mangled in the car wheel that the car stopped.
A few months ago, in the chill of Winter, a different school told me that there was a two hour police presentation on bicycle safety going on in the gym and could I was expected to attend. The gym was freezing and I was less than enthused, but the presentation was much more exciting than I had expected. It looked like this

Which is reason #54,000 why Japanese elementary schools are simply awesome.
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Thursday, 14 June 2012

Orphans and Organic Yoghurt

The Mr and I visit an infants’ home every weekend and two other similar institutions for school aged children annually. I haven’t written about it much because there are so many limitations on what I can say that it seems too hard to say anything. The children and the staff deserve their privacy and there’s a risk of placing children who have been removed from abusive homes in danger by disclosing any identifying information. This story is really about me and not the children though, so I think I can get through it without saying anything I shouldn’t.

One of the things I do for the babies is to help them stand and work on their leg-strength. They spend all day in a room without furniture or anything to pull themselves up on, so although they crawl normally they’re often delayed with standing and walking. There are too many children per staff member for the babies to get individual attention, and that’s where the volunteer program comes in.
The other day we had a quiet afternoon with fewer babies awake/there than usual, so my husband and I were both able to focus on one little girl. He sat a little way away and I helped her “walk” just over to him, letting her go before she reached him so that she could take the last “step” and fall into his arms. Then we told her how amazing she was and he “walked” her back over to me. It’s such a common scene, probably happening right now in thousands of homes all over the world. For this little girl, though, it was very far from common. She rarely gets the undivided attention of a single adult, let alone two. She toddled like a champ and chortled the whole time, squealing with laughter every time she reached her goal and got a big hug. She’s a sweet little thing who often sits by the window quietly playing peek-a-boo with her reflection. Being the focus of attention brought out so much energy from her, it was amazing! …and then our time was up and we had to leave. We had to sit her back down by the window and say good bye.
On the way home we stopped by the supermarket to get some milk and I saw a young mother, with a baby in a Baby Bjorn, comparing the labels on organic, GMO-free baby yoghurts (nothing like long-winded labels that actually mean nothing to make parents spend more). She had a basket full of health food and was obviously taking a lot of care to provide the very best she could for her family. I had a minor flip out right there in a dairy aisle, staring at this woman in her Birkenstocks with her baby and her fancy yoghurt. Her baby had done nothing different from the babies in the orphanage. None of them has done anything other than be born. Yet this baby was so loved, so cared for. Why does he have organic yoghurt and Montessori toys* while my little girl has bulk-buy formula and her own reflection? It’s unfair and it sucks and the world is all wrong.

If you're waiting for the resolution to the story or the uplifting moment: sorry, there isn't one. But if you want to read more about "orphanages" in Japan you can read this
or this or this or this. And if you would like to donate to help volunteer programs to work with children being raised in institutions, please consider Kizuna Baby and Smile Kids.

*OK, I don't know that the baby had Montessori toys. But they looked like the kind of family who would, ok?! Also, I am not in any way having a go at this mother for being a caring parent or begrudging her child its loving family. It was just a dramatic contrast.

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Monday, 11 June 2012

Where Does Food Come From? Part 1

No comments:
 It isn't exactly new news, but this article about Lawson convenience store adding an organic range
made me think about the attention paid to food sourcing in Japan versus Australia. In my local Australian supermarket, fresh produce was only labelled with its origin if it came from overseas. My bananas probably required an eight hour aeroplane trip to get to me, but because they were domestic they weren't labelled. Non-supermarket contracted produce was available at independent grocers or at markets. In contrast, all produce and meat here is labelled with the prefecture of origin. Also, all the supermarkets in my neighbourhood here in Kyushu have a "co-op corner" where local, usually cheaper, produce and preserves are sold from plastic crates and without fancy packaging or refrigeration. The local produce often has the name of the individual who grew it. I love that personal touch.

Cute old lady farmer
The local farmers are always elderly

Tomatoes are so expensive out of season :(
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Bows and Knives


Naginata club and orphanage visits are the only things I do that take me completely outside of the “school bubble” I generally reside in and let me interact regularly with people who don’t necessarily have university educations or the same specific set of expectations about how “foreigners” behave. Naginata in particular has been a rich site of frustrations and revelations. The J-blogosphere has been all about “micro-aggressions” lately. I’m not going to weigh in on that one because really, there is nothing I can say has not already been said. But the famous example (being asked over and over “can you use chopsticks?” and/or being complimented on one’s chopstick wielding) does bring to mind a surprising conversation I had at a party my Naginata club held last winter. 

We held the party at a Tex-Mex restaurant owned by a friend of mine who had recently joined the club. It was a very exciting experience for some of the older members of my club (which includes an octogenarian), who had never tried any food like it before. As I began eating my burrito, the lady sitting beside me exclaimed that I was really good at using a knife and fork. I was thrown for a minute… I mean, it is crazy that so many Japanese people assume chopsticks are uniquely Japanese and that no-one else can use them, but a KNIFE and FORK?! Then, as the rest of the table chimed in to discuss my prowess with cutlery, I realised that what they meant was actually using a knife and fork simultaneously. In particular they were impressed by the point-down position of my fork. They (and I mean those specific ladies, not all Japanese people) always use a fork to scoop or stab, with the prongs facing up. It was just one unexpected comment, but after that I began to notice how rarely knives are included in the regular cutlery set in the restaurants and cafes I visited. Instead, there is almost always a fork and spoon. The classic snarky response to “you can use chopsticks very well” is “you’re really good with a spoon”. While I would never say this for a number of reasons, not least being that sarcasm doesn’t really translate, my experience with the knife-and-fork conversation made me re-assess my assumptions about what is and is not part of “global” culture.

The second similar experience was when I was packing away some armour I had borrowed. I laid it out and then began to tie the cords away neatly. My teacher went to explain how to tie the cords and then stopped himself, commenting to another student that I was really good at tying bows and didn’t need help. Since I am coming up to my third decade of life, I haven’t been complimented on my bow tying for quite some time. I felt briefly patronised until the other student replied to the teacher “yeah, even children can tie bows overseas, can’t they?” I asked if that wasn’t normal in Japan and they looked shocked at the very idea. I don’t know why I never noticed this before, but almost everyone here wears either slip-on shoes or shoes with zips. The conversation actually turned to the terrible burden business men face of having to wear lace-up shoes and how hard it is for them. In a culture where one changes shoes several times a day, laces make no sense at all; and unless you’re wrapping a gift there aren’t many other occasions when one really needs to tie a bow. 

So there you go, I am now going to add “duel cutlery wielding and bow-tying” to my resume.
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Sunday, 3 June 2012

Apartment Living


Stylish Apartment Building
Outside Japan, I have never lived in an apartment. I lived in a terraced house for a while, and once in a conjoined unit, but never with neighbours above, below and on both sides of me. It is disconcerting that I hear my neighbour’s alarm go off just before mine. Apart from that I actually quite like the sense of community in my building. There’s a notice board in the lobby for messages; when I get home if there’s someone in the lobby or the parking area they welcome me home with a cheery おかえり!There are things both convenient and awkward about apartment life; some that are probably the same all over Japan and some that may be local. Because I know there are some people reading this who are planning to move to Japan, I’m going to explain some daily-life stuff about my apartment. Your living arrangements may turn out to be quite different, but a lot of what I have to say will be useful wherever you end up. I've lived in three apartments in two different prefectures so my experiences are at the very least 'common'.

The Good

I really like tatami. I like the smell, the springiness and the way it shines gold in the sun. I bought little socks for the furniture to protect the tatami.

What, YOUR table doesn't have socks?!

I bought tatami-bug spray but my tatami has happily always been bug-free. Tatami is expensive, and is replaced between tenants. The main expense of moving into a new place may actually be the tatami bill, depending on how many rooms have tatami. Each mat has ten years of wear in it, so it seems an awful waste to replace them every year for tenants who don’t stay long. When we first got Hayate he wasn’t allowed into our (only) tatami room. It turned out that we weren’t very good at saying no to Hayate, and he never damaged the tatami, so we gave up on keeping him out. Then we added Kuri to the family, and she was a different story. We no longer have a single un-chewed tatami mat. She loves it. She rolls around on it to scratch her back, chews it when she is board and tries to dig holes in it when she is excited. She recently expanded her repertoire of destruction by tearing a big strip out of the washi on the sliding door.
This is a little thing but it speaks volumes about the attention to detail that I love so much. The small step from the genkan (entry area where you leave your shoes) into the apartment proper has a strip of luminescence so that you won’t stub your toes coming home in the dark. Likewise the light switches and fuse box glow in the dark. Almost all apartments have some form of balcony for laundry drying. Even if your balcony is tiny you can grow some herb/flowers/veggies on it.

Urban Gardening

The Bad

A lot of apartments (and houses) are poorly insulated and drafty. Our apartment in particular has gales blowing through it because we had to McGyvre a way to get our aircon pipes out, leading to this situation:
And I paid a technician to do this...

As you can see, we’ve resorted to large amounts of duct tape. For the spaces around the balcony doors we use this stuff, which works well (until the dogs decide to play tug with it):

Ashley has a great article about insulation here (that woman knows everything).

The Ugly

I will never understand how the same culture could produce such amazing toilets at the same time as such disgusting drainage systems. My first experience trying to clean a Japanese bathroom was so nauseating that I still retch thinking about it… and it was seven years ago. I’ll start with the kitchen drain, which is surprisingly less revolting than the bathroom. There are no U bends or garbage disposals in a Japanese sink. It’s just a pipe that goes straight down. You need to get a permanent filter (plastic or metallic) to sit inside it and then disposable filters (bags that resemble huge tea-bags or plastic netting) that go inside that and which you will need to change regularly to prevent smells and blockages.
The bare sink
With catchment net and deodorising insert

You can also get a rubber filter to go on top of everything to reduce the smell further. It is unusual to use a plug in a kitchen sick. The usually way to wash dishes is under a running tap (as an Australia, this waste of water took a lot of getting used to). When you are preparing food you may want to use something like this to collect food scraps in.

The ten yen coin (bronze) stops scum from building up

There are triangular nets for these baskets

Usually it would be in the sink, this is just for picture purposes
The reason for this is to allow drainage time before anything goes into the rubbish, because any liquid in the bin will start to smell very quickly (especially in summer) and sloppy garbage is prohibited by some city councils (including mine). Anything you can’t dry out has to be wrapped in newspaper before going into the bin. Even with all of these precautions, your sink will still smell eventually. Mine periodically gargles and sometimes even regurgitates foul smelling water back up into the sink (much to the dogs’ excitement). Although I don’t like to use “heavy” chemicals in the house I dislike the sink-stench even more. You can get liquid cleaners, powder cleaners and tablets to drop down the sink.
They are easy to identify because of the pictures of U-bends... even though no\ sink I have ever had has actually HAD a U-bend
For the bathroom drains I have to use an even heavier kind of cleaner that can dissolve hair and soap scum. Even with a hair filter inside the bath, a cover over the drain on the floor and an internal… thing... hair still gets through. Every couple of months I don heavy duty rubber gloves, take the drain covers off and fish out globs of hair covered in grey soap slime before tipping the cleaner down. Two of the three bathrooms I have had have had drains placed in such a way that the floor could never completely drain, leading to a build up of soap slime, smells and infestations of these little bugs that look like fruit flies but live in the drain. As well as mould, of course. In my current apartment the bathroom sink pipe comes out under the bath, and then both bath and sink drain into the floor. Every time I brush my teeth I see the white spit running out from under the bath and wonder how much just sits under there, festering. The unsanitary (non)drainage is the only thing I really dislike about living here.

Doesn't look so bad, right?
Still looking ok! Many people stop cleaning at this point, not realising what lies beneath...
... which is something like this. This is the nastiest one I've see, most places have similar but less antique looking covers
Take it off, the the true horror appears
Like something out of "Ring"

The Slightly-Annoying-but-Important

You can recycle just about everything in Japan, which is wonderful. I can’t imagine having to go back to sending plastic packaging to land-fill. The downside is that the recycling system seems custom designed to be difficult and inconvenient… and it’s compulsory. Each city will have its own regulations regarding how and when different things are disposed of. When I lived in Nisshin City in Aichi prefecture we had to buy special plastic bags from the council, and rubbish would only be collected if it was in an authorised bag. My current home doesn’t have any such rule. I even put my paper recycling out in a cardboard box to cut down on plastic waste. We have one category of rubbish collected twice a week, another weekly, two more fortnightly and another one monthly and two more six times a year on alternate months. In addition there are things that aren’t collected and have to be taken to other locations ourselves to dispose of. If we need to get rid of an appliance like a washing machine we have to pay a recycling fee. Because this is confusing for everyone, the council publishes a colour-coded schedule every year, and you can get corresponding stickers to put on your calendar. Once you get the hang of how to separate things (jars go in glass but jar lids go in non-burnable) it isn’t difficult, but it takes up a lot of space in a small living space. Many people resort to storing their rubbish on their balconies. I used to have a snazzy three-in-one plastic bin with two draws and one peddle-operated lid. Now that we are leaving two young dogs home alone we have to be more careful to keep rubbish inaccessible, so no more snazzy space-saving solutions.

To Sum Up

Something that puzzles me about Japan is the mix of tiny thoughtful things that make everyday life easier and the huge glaring inefficiencies and inconveniences in areas that I took for granted in Australia. Here’s an example: Light-switches often have a small light on them that comes on when the light itself is off, so that you can see the location of the light switch in a dark room. ATMs close at 4 pm. Anything I want to buy online (plane tickets, books from amazon etc) can be paid for in cash at the corner store, which is open 24 hours. It costs about $15 and takes half a dozen complex steps, around 15 to 20 minutes, to transfer money from one bank account to another. You know the little plastic bags they have in supermarkets for putting fruit and veggies in that no old person can open? Here they have a moist flannel next to them so you can moisten your fingers without licking them and spreading germs. It takes over six hours to buy a mobile telephone, even if you have cash AND a credit card. The same department store toilet will have an automatically opening, closing and flushing toilet with bidet and heated seat in the cubicle next to a squat. You get the idea.
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