Rice cooker cooking

Did you know that you can make 焼きいも (yaki-imo)—roasted sweet potato—in a rice cooker? I put in a couple of centimeters of water and used the quick (30 minute) rice setting. It came out with a perfect texture.

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Kotatsu

Warm kotatsu
Warm kotatsu

The only good thing about chilly weather in Japan, in my opinion, is the kotatsu. It’s an iconic piece of Japanese furniture, consisting of a low table with a heater in the top. A blanket is draped over to keep the heat trapped inside, and it is immensely warm and cozy.

Y had yearned for a kotatsu when we lived in Canada, and in Australia, too, as we lacked a heater and winter nights were chilly. So, on moving to Japan, one of his first items of business was to acquire a kotatsu. This month we also got a new blanket, and so now he is almost permanently installed in the kotatsu when he’s home. (Yes, he dozes there, too, a tendency he’s had his whole life.)

MUHI

Summer in Japan is glorious, but there are mosquitoes. Lots and lots, and they’re big and blood-thirsty. This is the case in many places across the world, of course, but Japan is definitely bad.

A couple days ago, Y was complaining that he had been bitten twice on our way home in the evening, and I said, “oh my leg feels weird; maybe I got bitten, too.” Next thing I knew…*SMACK* *BLOOD SPLATTER* *OW*! Y had caught a mozzie in the act of biting me. Thanks for dispatching her, honey. Yesterday, I was outraged at the audacity of the mozzie that got me on my face, right on my cheekbone.

Fortunately, there is Muhi. Aka, the best thing ever.

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Muhi comes as a cream in a tube (as shown above) or in a thinner liquid that you can roll on.

When I get mosquito bites, they usually swell up quite a bit, often to 4 cm across (ugh), but when I put on Muhi, the swelling goes down in a minute or two, and the itching disappears quickly.

I got a ton of bites in Western Australia—primarily in the uni gym and occasionally at work in the Law Library—but even if I used Stingose or tea tree oil, the swelling and itching still stuck around for a few days. Maybe I’m just more allergic to antipodean mozzies?

Anyway, if you’re a preferred target for mosquitoes, pick up some Muhi if you ever visit Japan.

Trash

Yes, that’s right. I’m writing about trash. Rubbish. Garbage. It is in fact a complex topic for residents of Japan who want to sort their rubbish properly. Japan is a densely populated country with not much in the way of natural resources and extra space, but very much into consumption, so waste management is very important. There seems to be a pretty good civic effort into sorting trash for recycling and disposal, and naturally, there are many rules and procedures.

I picked up a handily bilingual city garbage guide so that I could do it properly. (Yes, there are cute characters to make it more fun.) As you can see, we are required to separate our trash by type at home, and since we live in an apartment complex, there are different sections in the trash collection area for our building where we can dump each type.

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If I get confused, I can also consult the garbage separation Mictionary

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It’s often difficult to find public trash bins. The most likely thing to find is bins for recycling bottles and cans near vending machines, but otherwise, public trash cans tend to be scarce. I’m not sure why this is (and frankly, I’m too lazy to look into it further, sorry). I’ve heard a theory that fewer public trash cans actually leads to less litter, while another possible explanation I’ve heard is that there is a fear of bombs in trash cans in public places. Anyway, when you do find them, there are separate bins for different types of trash. Below is the trash and recycling area at a university. (The flame sign is for burnable garbage as opposed to recycling.)

recycling

This wouldn’t be a proper post about trash collection in Japan if I didn’t mention that garbage trucks play music as they’re collecting. On hearing music in streets, I’ve asked Y more than once, oh, is that an ice cream truck? And of course he says, no, that’s a trash truck. Some tunes include When You Wish Upon a Star and Auld Lang Syne.

As for recycling: I probably need to write another post about plastic more specifically. Despite such earnest efforts at recycling, Japan is addicted to plastic packaging. So many bags, wrappers, food packs, etc. etc.! It’s interesting that it’s common to buy bottles of liquids like spray cleaners, shampoo, hand soap, etc. only once, and then buy refill bags for the same bottle that have much less packaging. However, sales clerks tend to be lightning fast with their bagging that often I can’t explain that I don’t need a plastic bag in time to stop them. I once bought a rice ball (onigiri) and drink at a convenience store and ended up with each item in a separate bag. Much of the produce in grocery stores is in plastic as well. Anyway, I’m getting carried away–will need another post.

To close, here is a recording of a truck driving around inviting people to bring out electronics, furniture, etc. that they no longer need. There are periodic collections of household rubbish by the city, but I think this is a private entity that will recycle or resell the stuff for profit. You often hear voices like this calling out in the streets, and it sounds rather eerie to me! (Sorry about the video…I just wanted to record the audio and can’t be bothered to do anything else with it! Or maybe it’s artistic or something.)

Masks

One cultural phenomenon that is immediately obvious to visitors or immigrants to Japan is the popularity of wearing surgical masks. You can see them everywhere, on all kinds of people (any gender, age, or status). I found it disorienting when I first visited, but by now, I don’t even really notice and wear a mask myself from time to time.

This article on Japan Today gives a bit of background and explanation. Apparently mask-wearing became extremely popular beginning in 2003 due to the promotion of new types of non-woven masks.

From articles I’ve read as well as my own observations and conversations, some of the reasons for wearing masks are thus:

  • Politeness toward others when sick and/or fear of becoming sick, which seems valid given the crowded nature of Japanese cities and especially public transit
  • Reducing hay fever symptoms (I can vouch for this; I think it helps)
  • Keeping your face warmer on cold days
  • Hiding one’s non-made-up face when running a quick errand (sheesh)
  • Sun protection, maybe? Japanese women are very much into protecting themselves from the sun
  • Pure aesthetics, e.g., for youth gang subcultures (!)
  • An attempt at social isolation (according to the article; I’m skeptical about how common this is)

Masks come in many different models and even different colours, although I rarely see any other than white. I particularly like one made for wearing at night when you have a cold, with moistened inserts that you put in the front to help with breathing.

Do masks actually prevent the spread of disease? Apparently the jury is out on that and at this point, it doesn’t really matter given the ingrained popularity.

Disaster preparedness

I had “disaster preparedness” on my list of potential blog posts from the beginning, but it now unfortunately seems timely following large earthquakes is southwest Japan (far from us but scary).

Not to freak anyone out but…

Japan is a small but rugged country prone to lots of natural disasters: earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, mudslides, tornadoes (really!), and volcanic eruptions. Also snow storms, although not much where we live compared to northern Japan. I think that pretty much covers everything; at least I guess wild fires are a bit rarer than other places I’ve lived. So none of this is a joke: it’s really important to be prepared.

I’ve written about government inefficiency, but the local and national governments alike do pretty well with preparations and education. Schools and local governments have frequent drills and distribute information about safety and evacuation locations. The Tokyo municipal government has a fantastic preparation and survival guide, even in English, although it’s better not to think about all the potential scenarios it discusses if you’re prone to brood about the possibilities. The awesome rhino mascot may lift your spirits, though.

When disasters do strike, rescue and relief is deployed quite quickly in comparison with other countries. Recent building construction in Japan is designed for seismic activity as much as possible, so earthquakes that would wipe out other places can be sustained to some extent here.

In addition, some earthquakes can be detected a short time before they begin, and in such a case, alerts are automatically sent out across mobile phone networks and news media. This short clip from a BBC news radio broadcast explains how the earthquake alerts work: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03r3gm2. As the clip mentions, trains are automatically stopped when a earthquake is detected. Some other things, like gas stoves, often have auto-shutdown features when shaking is detected.

You can also sign up for non-crucial emergency alerts on your phone: I get alerts for all significant earthquakes, severe weather warnings in my region, and police alerts for my ward in the city. (In Japanese, though, but at least I can understand what type of alert has been issued!)

Another interesting service is Web 171. It allows people to leave and collect messages from each other if phone lines are jammed in an emergency. You can log in through the web or phone into it by dialing 171 to leave messages directed at other people who you’ve designated as contacts in the system. (It’s only active in case of an emergency.)

So, what have we done? Well, we have shock absorbing cushions on the bottom of our larger furniture (bookcases). We need to do more work on that, though. We try to store heavier/breakable things lower and lighter things higher. We know where evacuation locations are, and we’re trying to stock up extra food and water. Our bathtub is always kept full, to bathe in of course, but also as a water supply. And we’ve stocked a couple of emergency backpacks with food, first aid kits, basic toiletries, etc. etc., similar to this: http://global.rakuten.com/en/store/realchuchu/item/10002119/

Again, not to freak anyone out, but it’s good to be prepared…

Baths

I had good intentions to start this blog earlier (a few weeks ago), but alas, it has been painful to get started. If I could only directly plug my thoughts while in the bathtub directly into the blog, it would be epic. I have written veritable novels (or at least really long blog posts) in my head while in the bath, but then the words evaporate. Well, at least I’m left with a list of ideas to work through.

So, baths. My bathroom, literally a bath room, is shown below. The Japanese style of bathing is as follows:

  1. Fill the bath with water if not already full. Tangent: Actually, we keep ours filled all the time and drain it once a week or so. We have a hose so that leftover water can be used in the washing machine. The plastic “lids” in the picture cover the bath and retain the heat a bit.
  2. Turn on the water heater (gas). A friendly voice tells you that the bath has been turned on.
  3. Wait for the cheerful music and friendly voice to tell you that the bath is ready, maybe 30 minutes later or so depending on the water temperature beforehand. The water has been heated and topped up if the tub wasn’t full.
  4. In the bathroom, wash your body and hair using buckets of hot water from the bath or the handheld shower head. You can splash around since again, it’s literally a bath room.
  5. Once clean, get into the tub for a soak.

This is the procedure in public baths as well as at home. Wash first, then bath!

bath