Sakura season is waning

In our part of Japan, the cherry blossom season is waning—many trees are still a shimmering pink, but green is starting to show through and the petals are fluttering down.

We live on a beautiful sakura-lined street, and you can feel everyone’s happy spirit as they walk a bit slower than usual to gaze up at the blossoms.

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Winter in Japan

“Winter in Japan” is diverse, actually, as there are several climatic regions. Northern Japan has some of the snowiest large cities on earth, while Okinawa in the south is tropical.

My experience is of the Kanto region (that is, central eastern Japan), where it gets cold, but not too cold, and snow is fairly rare in recent years. Lately the overnight temperature has been getting down to 0 C (32 F), which is very chilly when you don’t have central heating or proper insulation. I don’t know about northern locales, but around here, people generally have wall-mounted air conditioner / heaters, and frequently kerosene or electric space heaters, and drafty windows and doors.

For readers in warmer climes who romanticize the idea of a cold winter, let me remind you of the following: drippy noses, never-ending colds, everyone coughing on the bus, numb fingers and toes, steamed up glasses when you come inside, being simultaneously hot and cold when you’re bundled up but walking around a lot, mold danger from window condensation, slipping on ice, feeling dried out from heaters, painfully cold water from the taps, etc. etc. etc. So yeah, not that romantic.

Anyway, the point of this blog post was to share a nifty list from the Gaijinpot blog, with ‘top 10 tips‘ for winter comfort in Japan. In summary:

  1. Thick curtains and window-sealing plastic
  2. Socks and slippers
  3. Nabe (hot-pot) dinners
  4. Kotatsu (yay!)
  5. Electric carpets
  6. Hot baths
  7. Electric kettles
  8. Walk around in the mall
  9. Stick-on warmers
  10. Travel somewhere else!

(Click through to the blog post to read more.)

New Year’s food

The last three days have pretty much been filled with eating. Because, New Year’s food.

正月 (Oshogatsu) — the Japanese New Year — is the biggest holiday of the year, and of course there are rituals, traditions, and special food.  The holiday generally runs from December 31st to January 3rd, with most people spending time with family and often visiting shrines/temples.

On New Year’s Eve, it’s traditional to eat toshikoshi (New Year’s) soba (buckwheat noodles) for health and long life. We had ours with tsuyu (dashi stock), nagaimo (grated sticky yam/potato), and green onions.

Red/orange/yellow/gold foods are central to New Year’s cuisine, as shown in the photos below, all for good luck! Osechi refers to traditional New Year’s food served in stacked boxes. The style of food dates back more than 1000 years, with the idea being to preserve food to avoid cooking over the turn of the year (which I fully support). We’ve been in Japan for New Year’s before and have eaten many of the traditional dishes, but this was the first time we ordered osechi. I really enjoyed many of the items, but by design, much of it is pretty sweet or salty, so it’s definitely possible to stray into excess. We rather regretted having so much despite sharing it with family, so we’ll have to find some more people to share with next year, plus plan to eat more salad alongside.

For more descriptions of the specific food and their meanings, see Savvy Tokyo or Wikipedia.

Mochi, or sticky rice pounded into little cakes, is also central to New Year’s cuisine. There are several mochi items in the osechi boxes seen above. We also went to a mochi-tsuki, or mochi-making, in Yokohama. It was fun to see the rice being steamed and then pounded with huge mallets. Kids also got to line up and have a go with the mallet. And of course, eating it was the best!

Cooking the rice
Cooking the rice
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Mochi with kinako (soy bean powder) and anko (sweet red bean paste) respectively

(With the sounds of the kids’ mochi-making in the background)

Christmas in Japan

Wondering what Christmas in Japan is like? Think tons of decorations and merchandise, Christmas music blasting in the stores from the beginning of November, KFC, cakes, romantic dinners, and shopping! This GaijinPot blog post (EDIT: and another) has a good overview.

Although this is my first Christmas living in Japan, I’ve visited at this time of year three times before. Of course it’s different from back in North America or Australia, but it’s fun to do new things with a few nods to old traditions as well.

The must haves are: time with family, presents on Christmas Eve, stockings, and my treasured plastic Donald Duck “ornament.”

Happy Holidays to all.

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JLPT Day Follow-up

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I thought I better give a follow-up on my big test adventure on Sunday. I left home at 10am, took a bus, then a train, then another train for a journey of about an hour and 45 minutes. At the station near the test site, a large swarm of gaikokujin (foreigners) rose bodily from the train and fell into a long marching line toward the university. Some kind of uniformed personnel (cops? transport authority? security guards?) kept the mass moving and out of traffic. Upon arriving at the university, we fell into a queue that snaked around through a few switchbacks leading into the building, where we then dispersed into our assigned rooms. I was in lecture hall with 154 other people (yes, I had time to count), and I would estimate there were maybe a thousand people overall at my test site. There were multiple sites in Tokyo, across Japan, and across the world. Go JLPT!

So I got into the classroom just after 12:00, and then the test instructions reading began at 12:30, including handing out of answer sheets and turning off of phones. We had to put our phones in clear plastic bags and then put it our own bags on the floor (not sure why exactly). Then, at 12:45, the vocabulary part of my test began. It ended at 13:15. Then the answer sheets were collected and counted (yes, all 155) for another 15 minutes. Then we had a break for another 15 minutes. Then, 15 minutes of instruction reading and paper distributing and watching the clock until it reached the official start time. Then 60 minutes of test, followed by 10 minutes of paper counting and a 20 minute break. Then 15 minutes of instructions and distribution, and 35 minutes of test. Then the final counting.

And then the journey home, beginning with the test-taking hoard’s collective walk to the train.

So, final tally: 9 hours away from home, for 2 hours and 5 minutes of actual test. (Just over 4 and a half hours in the testing site itself.)

And how did it go? I feel pretty confident about the whole thing, except the very last section: listening. I feel like my listening skills have improved dramatically and I practiced a lot specifically for the test. But the very last section is rapid-fire: you hear one sentence from a conversation, like “Oh, this bag is heavy”, and then you hear three possible responses to this statement by another person, e.g., “Thank you”; “Can I help you”; “Can you help me”. Or something along those lines. The tricky thing for me is that I need a little bit of time to think about who was speaking in scenario and who would answer, which has grammatical implications. But there’s no time to think before the next one begins. And after having been there for 4 and a half hours, my brain was not working particularly fast. I well may have failed that section, which would make me fail the listening section, which would make me fail the whole test. Well, we’ll see what happens, but regardless, I’m plowing ahead to the next level in July!

JLPT day

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I’m taking a short break from last minute studying to quickly remark on today’s activity: I’m taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). Honestly, it’s not much of an accomplishment for me to be taking this level of the test considering how long I’ve been studying, but, well, it’s hard.

I love the official description of the listening competency for my level:

“One is able to listen and comprehend conversations encountered in daily life and generally follow their contents, provided that they are spoken slowly.”

Yes, that’s about right!

In some ways, I think jumping through the right hoops is also part of taking the test. I signed up three months ago, but just found out two weeks ago the actual time and location of the test. Despite living in a city of more than 3 million people and a decent-sized population of foreigners, I have to take the test in a particularly inconvenient spot in Tokyo and will be leaving 2 and half hours before the test begins. The test itself is 2 hours, but there are a couple of breaks and official time for reading the instructions, so I’ll be there for 3 to 3 and half hours. And then home again. It’s an all-day event! But I’ve got my sharpened HB (#2) pencils packed, plus snacks, so I’m ready to go. Onward!

Edit: oh yeah, and I should mention that although the test is all multiple choice, I won’t get the results until February! Well, regardless of whether I pass, I’m determined to take the next level in July.

Random grocery store pics

So yeah, sometimes I like taking photos at the grocery store. Here are a few.