Shochu Cocktails

Each Friday evening, after spending a rather mind numbing week at work, I like to unwind with a drink or two of my choosing. Recently, I have been a fan of the chu-hai, usually the higher alcohol content varieties. A new favorite is a hybrid vodka chu-hai called 99.99 or フォーナイン. (four nine) It does the trick reasonably well.

No idea what this English description means, but it sure tastes good!

But if you really want to get creative, and save some hard earned Yen, here is the recipe:

Buy your shochu in bulk. I prefer the liter bag varieties found in most supermarkets. Get a few liters of soda water. And finally, stock up on some Korean fruit vinegar (pomegranate, green apple, muskat!), which can be found at import stores like Kaldi, Jupiter, and Costco.

Shochu in a bag, Korean fruit vinegar, and some soda water. Good times!

Take 2 parts soda water, 1 part shochu. Add a splash of fruit vinegar, and enjoy (on the rocks is best). You really can’t go wrong.

Ode to the Salaryman

Recently I received some correspondence asking for my insights into Japanese culture, in particular the concept of “salaryman” (サラリーマン). Although my response may seem harsh, possibly exaggerated, the grain of truth runs deep. I’ve had to slightly edit my original response, but much of it remains intact. I may have been in a slightly jaded mood the day I wrote this. But what else are blogs for? It might touch a nerve with some people. But regardless, it is my opinion that Japanese attitudes towards work-life balance and gender roles need to be addressed, in a dramatic way, if the country wants to navigate the next 50 years successfully.

I framed my response in the style of a university lecturer.

Thank you for your enrollment in DMH University’s MA in East Asian Studies. We look forward to your participation in the course modules. You have chosen to begin your studies with our Modern Japan module (J301 and C433 respectively). Taught by Dr. DMH himself, we believe you’ll find his style casual as well as engaging.

Lecture 1 – Salaryman Dr. DMH

Where to begin with those “things”. Yep, “things”, because I am not really sure they are human. Can’t put them in the same category as WOBs(Waste of Bloods) because not really sure they have (B)lood at all. They are basically nonpersons to me. They are one of the primary reasons certain aspects of this nation suck. Actually, if they could all be gathered on to an enormous metaphorical bus and then driven off another metaphorical cliff into the ocean I would be extremely content – like Buddha under the Bodhi Tree.

Here is the run down of a salaryman’s daily life. This is not a generalization, every single one of them follows this daily pattern to a T. There are no round pegs in square holes. And I would reckon that 90% of the working male population classifies themselves as “salaryman”:

1) Wake up at a reasonably early hour (6:00-7:30 AM). Eat a meticulously prepared breakfast of rice, miso soup, and some kind of foul fermented soybeans, washed down with green tea – all which he assumes will be ready for him, prepared by his wife and/or mother he still lives with (especially if he is not married, but there is a good likelihood that he lives with mother if he is that most honored of all children – the first born male). Put on a well ironed black suit with black or dark nondescript necktie and jacket, regardless of scorching hot temperatures in the summer – rarely does the salaryman break a sweat because of his inter-dimensional lizard skin.

2) Either drive or commute via public transport a long enough distance to be sufficiently exhausted upon arriving at the office, 1 hour minimum (2 and a half hours in most cases – one way!) This is what the salaryman refers to as “free time”.

3) Arrive at office and bow profusely to everyone, deeper bows to senior staff, and shout with over machismo “Ohayou Gozaimasu!”. The enthusiasm in which they say this phrase is remarked upon in hushed corners later in the day and is the primary characteristic used to evaluate potential mates for the office ladies to marry.

4) 8:30 to lunch – work dutifully at very non-private desk, robot like, not once discussing anything other than work related topics with anyone around you.

5) Lunch – either prepared by wife/mother in a “obento” box (that is arranged with so much care and precision that one has to question the sanity of the women who made it) or eaten at restaurant with co-workers (other co-workers at this time tell “crazy” stories of their day at their non-private desk)

6) After lunch – until 6:00 PM (refer to # 4)

7) 6:00 – (undetermined) – The salaryman absolutely does not think of returning home at this time – some often commit seppuku, ritual disembowelment, at their desks when such thoughts do occur. Work continues as before, even if there is no work to do.(in such cases it is acceptable to stare at computer screen for several hours) Salarymen are only permitted to leave when boss leaves or is given very special permission to leave by boss. At that point the salaryman then shouts “Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu!” while deeply bowing. This translates as “I am sorry to disgrace myself, leaving in shame at this early hour, my family and deceased elders shall disown me should I gather the courage to face them again!” Others remaining in the office then shout “Otsukaresama deshita” meaning, “You are not forgiven!”

8) The work day does not end at this time, for 60-90% of days the salaryman must go with co-workers and boss to izakaya – a place to eat and drink and let one’s guard down for the remaining hours of the day. While drinking at izakaya – salarymen get very personal and reveal their true self. Salary men might make bold claims like “I like beer” and “I enjoy working at this company very much!” Such wild discussions will remain confidential and will never be referred to within the office.

9) 11:00 PM – 2:00 AM Salaryman returns home. Quickly washes up and and goes to bed in separate room from wife – in order to not have sexual intercourse.

10) Next morning – REPEAT #1 – #9

On the rare day off many salaryman can be seen overcompensating for lost time with their children and wife. They behave with gusto in public parks and shopping malls – ensuring that onlookers see that he is a great father and wonderful provider for his family.

It is important to note that “salaryman” is not some abstract sociological concept only discussed by social anthropologists. In fact, I have met many men who refer to their occupation as “salaryman” as well as many children who refer to their father as a “salaryman”. It is also considered a great goal in life to become a “salaryman”. When students write essays about their future job many declare “I want to be salaryman.”

As stated before it is my humble opinion that Japan would be a far greater nation should the “salaryman” be completely eradicated. That being said, the situation is far more complicated. More “salaryman” are being created daily by a monolithic education system hellbent on churning out faceless, necktie wearing, soulless robo-office workers. So to truly address the “salaryman” problem one has to dismantle the Japanese education system – the focus of our next lecture.

Japanese School Lunch

The one and only thing Japan does well in regards to their school system is school lunch (給食, kyushoku). Each day, for a very reduced fee, elementary and most junior high schools, provide a highly balance Japanese style lunch. Each calorie and nutrient is carefully considered. Sugar and processed foods are kept to a minimum. There are no vending machines. No bringing in outside foods.

pork cutlet, white rice, miso soup – a fairly typical Japanese school lunch

I’ll admit that sometimes certain dishes are less than palatable. But I know for certain that my body is getting exactly what it needs.

The Japanese take great pride in their school lunch. Many adults often pine over their kyushoku days. My wife was noticeably jealous when she learned I would be getting school lunch when I began working in the public schools here in Sapporo. (all school employees also get lunch at the same reduced rate) There even is a recent trend of restaurants serving exclusively school lunch menus. (Check out Kyushoku Toban) Yes, at an inflated price, you can pay to relive your kyushoku days. They even serve milk in the tiny cartons!

I Don’t Read Manga

It seems like every expat I have ever interacted with in Japan came here to be in closer contact with some beloved manga they read back home. They wanted to get closer to the source. To read it in Japanese. To spend hours in manga cafes just like the locals.

Well, I don’t read manga. Never have, never will. You know why?

Because I am an adult!

I have never seen the appeal of these small, black and white illustrated picture books. Maybe I am missing something. But my philosophy is: If everyone seems to be into something – don’t do it. Do the opposite. I read novels and nonfiction. I appreciate real art. Not mass produced, serialized fluff for the masses.

Yes, I have tried to read manga. I suppose it could be a decent learning tool for colloquial Japanese. But this obsession the foreign community seems to have with these juvenile paperbacks seems a bit ridiculous. I’ll keep reading long-form, unillustrated tomes – and leave the comics for the kiddies.

Earth Gym

It is my opinion that paying for a gym membership, no matter where you live in the world, is one of the worst wastes of money imaginable. Here in Japan is no different. In the last year I have utilized my own surroundings, and incorporated some simple exercises that have helped to shed 25 kilos. And I did this all with little to no cost.

The secret: walking. Walking daily. Walking everywhere. My employer reimburses me for my daily commute using public transportation. They do this regardless of if you use it or not. So I cut my public transport use in half by walking the first leg of my commute every morning and afternoon. (35 min each time) I avoid the crush of people on the morning tram ride and am able to pocket about 10,000 Yen on transportation fees.

This walk is relatively flat, so to compensate, each afternoon/evening I take another brisk walk up Asahiyama. It has a nice paved course and a steep enough incline to get the blood moving. I pretty much do this rain, snow, sleet or shine. It’s a year round thing.

My evening walk up Asahiyama offers wonderful night views of the city.

But walking is only part of the equation. Each morning and afternoon I do a Perfect Pushup routine that is simple and consistent. This product is compact (I’ve packed it on trips abroad), and really helps to isolate muscles and lock your wrists in place. It’s done wonders for my strength training.

Come and Get Me NHK!

Japan has a curious problem when it comes to its public broadcaster NHK. On the one hand, they will claim that anyone who owns a TV (or a smartphone capable of downloading the NHK streaming app) must pay a yearly fee of approximately 13,000 Yen (130 USD). On the other hand, they do nothing to enforce not paying this fee, and go about collecting fees indirectly through middlemen. Because of these two facts, it makes the legality of the NHK fee seem murky at best. This isn’t your average gaijin talking, avoiding fees under the blanket of linguistic ignorance. A large portion of the Japanese public avoids paying this fee too.

I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with the dreaded NHK man. But rarely have I had to actually interact with these scumbags. This is done by simply not answering the door for anyone unless I am absolutely sure it is an expected guest or package delivery agent. No one else gets past that firewall. I’ve seen them through the keyhole, waiting, often ringing the buzzer several times, hoping to catch you letting your guard down and opening your door. NHK third-party agents are known for being overly aggressive, forcing you to sign up for payment by interrogating you endlessly should you mistakenly answer their door to door call.

Of course “aggressive” is a relative term. An “aggressive” Japanese collection agent isn’t really all that intimidating if you come from suburban America, where thwarting Jehovah Witness reps and their like was almost a sport. So when I accidentally opened the door to an NHK agent by accident a few years ago, I just made sure to channel my inner crazy in order to make him see the error of his ways.

Some of us have tried the “gaijin smash” in such situations: feigning Japanese language ignorance, and hoping that does the trick. This can have a 50/50 chance of success, as agents might possess some English skills or have ways to maneuver around that barrier. I decided to take it one step further.

As soon as I realized that I had opened the door to an NHK demon, I decided to make him regret it. I went full Jody Foster in Nell, mumbling incoherently in my own imaginary language, flailing my arms wildly, and acting mentally disturbed.

I almost broke character, laughing when the dude continued to try to get info from me in Japanese and broken English. It took him a few minutes but he eventually relented, backed his way into the elevator, and sayonara-ed sheepishly as the doors closed.

I quickly closed my apartment door, re-secured the lock, and breathed a sigh of relief. The man didn’t even leave a pamphlet, nor did he get my name. In fact, more than 3 years have passed since that frightful day and I have yet to encounter another NHK agent.

So stay strong my foreign friends. Be bold, be weird. You can defeat NHK via unorthodox behavior and embracing your inner Nell.

Snowbugs Ain’t No Fun

Autumn has really settled in here in Sapporo. I’ve been eyeing up my snowshoes. First snows could be only a few weeks away. More likely around Christmas time, but one can always hope. In the meantime, we are stuck with consistent rain and temperatures hovering around 5 Celsius. In the early morning. If we do get a breakage of sun, it usually means a small aphid known as the 雪虫 (yukimushi, snow-bug, wooly aphid) makes an appearance.

Cute, right? Wrong… from October until the first snow, these tiny bugs float in the air, tiny cotton balls attached to their backs. They make your commute a living hell, as they stick to your clothes, embed in your hair, fly up nostrils, and craw in your ears. Often I arrive at work and have to debug myself in the bathroom. It makes commuting by bike next to impossible as you are smacked repeatedly by these little bluish/white fluff devils. Just one of the perks of living up here in the north of Japan!

Japanese Pancake Scams

Quick…What is the first things you think of when I say “Hawaii”? If you are from most of the Western world, images of pristine beaches, blue ocean waters, and maybe a nice margarita will shoot through your mind very quickly. But if you are Japanese, you think of pancakes.

Yes, pancakes. Because somehow, through years of marketing savvy, the Japanese have been convinced that Hawaiian pancakes are the single most important cultural item to be indulged in from the Aloha state. Who perpetrated this falsehood is difficult to determine, but my hunch is that it was the Japanese themselves.

Let me explain. I had traveled to Hawaii several times (Big Island, Oahu, and Maui) prior to going there with my wife in 2009. I did all the touristy things (and even some less than touristy things). I walked the Waikiki strip, went snorkeling on an overcrowded buffet boat, walked Kilauea’s lava fields, and scootered the road to Hana. But not once did I feel compelled to indulge in pancakes. My wife, on the other hand, started pining for pancakes the minute we landed. In fact, she had several pancake location scoped out and circled in her guidebook. I was a bit confused by this.

Want to know why? Because Hawaiian pancakes aren’t a thing. I mean, there are pancakes, just like there are anywhere in America. Maybe they are a bit more pricey from those found on the mainland, but that is to be expected. But “Hawaiian” pancakes. Sorry Japan, but you got played. Most likely a bunch of Japanese tourists started “discovering” some regular breakfast joints in and around Honolulu. Then they made the conclusion that those pancakes where unique to the island. Then they spread that rumor back in Old Nippon. Then suddenly there are overpriced package pancake tours of Hawaii. Then, finally, a never ending stream of overpriced, pancake specialty restaurants opening all over Japan.

I loath these places. Pancakes in Japan are marketed as a kind of gourmet dessert and usually cost over 1000 Yen (about 10 USD). Check out these monstrosities from Mint (Sapporo Pancake and Parfait). Their スモークサーモンとアボカドのパンケーキ (Smoked Salmon and Avocado Pancake) is an insult to pancake culture worldwide.

The Robotic “Ohayou!” Bell

I often joke about how the Japanese people are basically automatons, who mindlessly shuffle through their days, responding to stimuli much like one of Pavlov’s dogs, predictably and without spontaneity. Well, this actually isn’t a joke in most circumstances.

Each morning I arrive at my desk around 7:45. I do this primarily so the vice principle can see me and check off some mental box in his head for my hard working spirit. From 7:45 until 8:25 I basically zone out.

At 8:25 my meditative state is rudely interrupted by the school bell. At that point all the teachers in our Orwellian open plan staff room stand in unison, the vice principle announces the day and date (as if we are 4 years old) and semi-shouts “Ohayougozaimasu!” (おはようございます) Then everyone bows, sits down, and a cacophony of mini meetings begins throughout the room. This happens every single school day, without fail.

It is insane thing to witness. Most of the teachers seem not even conscious of this robotic procedure. It is the closest thing I have experienced to witnessing a demonic possession. It’s downright scary.

5 Reasons I Don’t Say Hello

I don’t respond to Japanese children (or adults) who say “hello” to me on the street. My reasons are varied:

#1 By responding, you are reinforcing the widely held view that all foreigners of Western distinction speak English decently. Japanese children need to become more aware that this is not the case.

#2 I don’t talk to strangers and neither should they. Sapporo is a big city of approximately 2 million people. This isn’t some small village where everybody knows your name. More importantly, Japanese children are taught from a very early age not to talk to strangers. What is more strange than the white man who makes up less than 1% of the population? By shouting hello at you they indicate that they don’t value you as a human or exist within their cultural norms. (so all rules are out the window)

#3 Almost every time I have responded with a “hello” in kind, the children (and adults) almost universally laugh with their friends or runaway. This makes the exchange even more awkward. It also proves that their motives are less than altruistic. It’s much luck how some humans whistle or click their teeth to get a dogs attention. Don’t reward them for this behavior.

#4 I make my living teaching English. If I respond to the random “hello”, kids most likely will tell their parents, who then will feel justified in whatever meager English education their child receives at elementary school. They’ll think that those unqualified Japanese English teachers must be doing a great job! I don’t give them the satisfaction. Supply and demand. I won’t give away the only commodifiable skill I have in his country.

#5 It’s rude! I wear headphones almost anytime I venture outside alone. Why? To give my brain the excuse to ignore every person who even attempts to “hello” me. Almost all of these unreciprocated hellos is shouted at me from behind, from a school window, or from across the street. I don’t want to come off as rude by not responding, but shouting a foreign greeting to a random stranger a block away is just bizarre. I encourage everyone to mockingly shout “Hola!” repeatedly to a latino-looking pedestrian across a busy intersection in Brooklyn. Good luck with that…