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Costco in Japan and Karaage Lunch!

This was an awesome day out, and something that two of my Japanese friends and I had been planning since January! With conflicting work schedules, it was difficult to find a time when all three of us could get a whole day free, but this weekend, we finally made it out to the Costco in Kawasaki.

With all the crazy COVID-19 stockpiling going on, I had been worried that the Costco would be crowded with long line ups. So, we decided to arrive there by opening time, at 10 AM. All three of us live in Tokyo, but far from each other. So, we all got up very early in the morning and headed to Kawasaki Station, where we would meet at 9:30 AM. For each of us, it would take about one and a half hours to get there.

For some reason, I couldn’t sleep all night, and finally gave up and got out of bed at 4 AM. I had a nice, slow morning, and arrived at the station early. I had expected people on the trains to all be wearing masks and be practicing the social distancing that seems to be strongly encouraged in other countries right now. However, people were very relaxed, and sat side-by-side as normal.

From Kawasaki Station, it is a 15 minute bus ride, and then a short one minute walk to Costco. There’s something about seeing those bright red letters that gives me the nostalgic warm and fuzzies inside! ❤

We stayed for three and a half hours. Just like elsewhere in Japan, it was totally calm. It was crowded in certain popular areas, but many other aisles were completely quiet. The lineups were quite short as well.

I had heard that American Costco’s had stopped all sampling, and expected this to be the case around the world. However, I was happy to see that samples were still going. The only difference was that they would just put out one or two samples at a time, and then wait for the person to take it and leave the line before putting out the next sample. This meant that there was no chance of anyone but the consumer coming in contact with the sample.

Ah, Nespresso coffee…

Costco’s around the world all carry some of the identical Kirkland brand products, but other than that, it’s great fun to see what is sold at international branches. In Japan, they have things like nori, soy sauce, sushi, tofu, sembei, miso soup, and an infinite selection of rice.

After shopping, we headed back to the station in search of lunch. We found a mugi toro restaurant. Mugi is barley, and in this case refers to white rice that’s cooked together with barley grains. Toro is made when a particular type of mountain yam is grated, and forms a thick, gooey paste. This is poured over the hot barley rice, and topped with a bit of wasabi, shredded nori, and soy sauce.

Each set lunch came with a bowl of mugi toro, but we could each choose our mains. I got chicken karaage!

We carried around this massive bag of chips all day long, passing it from person to person, coddling it like a delicate baby.
Okay, well someone dropped it once as well…

After a relaxed lunch, we went to Yodobashi Camera, which is a huge electronics chain store here. They have everything. We were in search of cellphone cases, and although they found what they wanted, nothing caught my eye.

So, we went to another store called Tokyu Hands. This place reminded me of a combination between IKEA and a toy store. They sold everything from daily necessities and furniture, to all sorts of quirky little gadgets and toys. It was here that I was able to find a cute cellphone case that I’m actually super happy with.

After lying around on their display beds and getting far too sleepy, we headed to a nearby Afternoon Tea. I got a chai ice cream float, while they got apple pie and strawberry shortcake. Although the only thing we had done all day was play and eat, we were pretty tuckered out by the end of the night!

Italian Dinner and English Study in Tokyo

I have been volunteering at a local library here in Tokyo, reading stories in English to young Japanese children. Recently, one of the staff who I work with said that she has become interested in learning English, and asked if I would teach her. I was very pleased, so I happily agreed!

We have decided to meet on Tuesday evenings, after we have both finished work. On our first meeting, we went to a nice Italian restaurant in Asagaya, Tokyo. Most of our conversation was in Japanese, but I was so surprised to see how quickly she learned. The main topic of our English study was…well, pasta. Shocking. XD

We each ordered a pasta and salad set, which came with a drink of our choice. I chose pesto spaghetti topped with parmigiano, and iced chocolate milk.

Since arriving in Japan, I have been truly impressed by Japanese people’s curiosity and eagerness to learn. It is on a level that I have not seen in the West. They never stop studying and asking questions. I even know people who started studying English in their late seventies! I feel like back home, once we reach a certain point in adulthood, many of us are content. We may continue to build on the skills and careers that we already have, but comparatively speaking, there are less who, even after retirement, pick up a new language or instrument, or dive into a new field of research. If we have the time and resources, many of us would rather just go on a cruise, play golf, or join a bridge group.

Japanese people are also so curious about new cultures and people. If they encounter someone from a foreign land, they actually come closer to you, instead of blocking you out. They ask questions and want to learn all about you and where you are from. When they see that a foreigner has a different way or doing something, or a different opinion about something, Japanese people don’t see it as wrong and try to correct you. Instead, they assess their own culture and consider whether this difference offers an opportunity for learning or improvement in themselves. They have traditionally been this way, and it has famously changed the shape of their entire history. Amazing people.

Italian Course Lunch in Tokyo with New Friends

During my time in Japan, I have been volunteering as much as possible in the local area. It’s not only a way to have all sorts of experiences that I otherwise never would have had, but also, it’s been fantastic for making friends with Japanese people outside of my school. This has been the most important step towards feeling happy and comfortable in Tokyo. Unfortunately, due to COVID 19, all such volunteering events have been cancelled since mid-Feb until the unforeseeable future, but as soon as they resume, I plan to get back out there right away.

One time I was volunteering, I met a lovely English teacher. She said that next summer, her daughter would be moving to my home city, Vancouver, on a working holiday. So, she graciously invited me to lunch at their family’s favorite Italian restaurant. She was even kind enough to pick me up in her car. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a car.

The restaurant was actually gorgeous. It seemed so authentically Italian, almost as though we had been transported to Europe. The decor was so beautiful and cozy, and the staff were wonderfully warm.

All the trees that you can see from the windows are cherry trees, so in the spring, apparently it is the perfect spot for cherry blossom viewing. We checked, but the restaurant had already been fully booked, far in advance.

The appetizer was delicious, and might have been my favorite part of the whole course. It is actually very rare to get hummus, chickpeas, and a charcuterie-type platter like this in Japan. I eat this way all the time back in Vancouver, though, so it was a huge treat for me. This was also served with some foccacia.

We chose different pasta entrees. They got swordfish spaghetti with white sauce. (I didn’t even know that was a thing!) I got a more standard tomato sauce with Italian sausage.

After that, came dessert. It was a mousse with a tangy marmalade sauce on top. What a well thought out course meal. Together with some great conversation, thanks to their hospitality, I really had a wonderful afternoon. Thank you! ❤

Coronavirus in Tokyo, Day 3: Sukiyaki, Spaghetti, and Baby Chicks

Not only have all classes been cancelled, but also, our work schedule has been shifted to avoid the commuter rush. Our work day for this month now officially starts at 10:30 AM. That means I have plenty of time in the morning. What did I decide to do with all this time, you ask?

I made spaghetti sauce. In the morning.
I’ve never done that before.

Meat Sauce:
– fresh tomatoes
– canned tomatoes
– ground chicken
– onions
– garlic
– Italian herbs
– salt and pepper
– red chili powder
– just a pinch of curry powder

After getting to school, I of course checked on the chicks near my desk. They’re even more active today! They stretch out their necks more, jump around and flap their wings, and they seem a lot more aware of their surroundings. They have started preening, which they didn’t do the previous day. They’re also a lot more vocal!

From this angle, I can see how birds are related to dinosaurs.

Another new development is that you can see their little wing feathers poking through the fluff. Apparently, females’ feathers grow a little quicker than the males’, so at this point, I’m guessing that we have three girls and one boy. But, only time will tell.

After work, two Japanese teachers and I went to a sukiyaki restaurant at 5:30 PM. A while back, I had done some grading for one of the teachers, and she very kindly treated me to dinner in return! That is far more generous than anything I expected! Honestly, I would have done the grading without thinking twice about it, either way.

The sukiyaki restaurant is called Engawa, and it’s just a few minutes from Ogikubo Station, so we could easily walk there from the school. The interior was beautiful, and the staff were incredibly polite and kind.

We began by ordering a couple appetizers. The first was an assortment of sashimi, followed by little fried fish. Both were delicious. I don’t really think of myself as one who loves sashimi, but it was incredibly pleasant. It must have been high quality, as the fish was very tender and almost buttery in texture.

After sitting and chatting for over an hour, our kind server brought over our cast iron pot and gas stove. She put in the broth, and then added in the vegetables.

After letting them cook for a while, she returned and started cooking the meat for us. I say cook, but really, the meat is only dipped in the broth for a few seconds so that it stays juicy and tender. She actually served us each two rounds. The first was slightly more done, and the second was very rare. After that, she left us to serve ourselves.

I have never, ever had meat that was this melt-in-your-mouth!

We followed this up with a delightful little desert. It was milk gelato with pecans. What a lovely evening, and I owe it all to my incredible colleagues. Thank you! ❤

Corona Virus in Tokyo, Day 2: No School, Baby Chicks in the Office!

Okay, so school without the students wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Yesterday, March 2nd, was my first day at work without classes. This means that we mostly spend the day in the large office, lesson planning and doing other tasks. I’m actually surprisingly busy, and yesterday, I ended up staying two and a half hours beyond my time.

The principal did a fantastic job of lightening the atmosphere. There was a lot of left over ingredients in the cafeteria that had to be used up before they went off: eggs, milk, bananas, sweet potatoes, etc.

So, the principal does what he often does when classes are cancelled…he got out the massive pots and rice cookers, and spent all afternoon preparing different foods for us! He began by making oyakodon, which is a popular meal in Japan. It’s made with egg, chicken, soy sauce, green onion, mirin, and a bit of sugar. It’s then eaten on top of rice, and topped with shredded nori and sliced leek. Delicious!

This was quickly devoured by the teachers, so the principal soon got to work on a massive pot of udon, filled with various veggies and deep fried tofu. We topped this with a raw egg. The principal really is a good cook!

As if all this wasn’t enough to lighten the mood, we now have baby chicks in our office! Since there will not be any classes for a month, the rest of the school buildings are without heat, so it would be too cold for them to survive. So, it looks like they will be in here with us!

We can hear them chirping throughout the day, and they were quite the centre of attention. They will grow rapidly, so I will take photos of them every day. To be honest, they were already noticeably more active in the evening than they had been just that very morning! They’re developing very quickly.

Look at that little guy in the back, proudly standing right on top of their food. XD

Coronavirus in Tokyo, Day 1: School is Canceled

So as a little update, life has changed a lot more than I expected with this whole coronavirus craziness. Initially, you just saw more people wearing masks, then we were advised to wash our hands frequently. Then, I started hearing that some schools where a teacher or student was found to be infected would be temporarily closed for 14 days. Even with all this, I was living unaffected and saw it as some distant minor issue that would blow over before I ever felt the impact of it.

And then, before I knew it, it started to affect me personally. I had signed up for a Japanese speech contest on March 7, and had invited a number of Japanese teachers and friends to come watch. Then, we were all informed that the audience would no longer be able to attend. This was the first thing.

One morning, I arrived to school and there were two masks placed on all the teachers’ desks. Apparently, they are almost impossible to get your hands on now, and even if you do find them, they’re quite expensive.

One after another, other volunteer events that I had been looking forward started to get cancelled. I had been planning to go hiking up Mt. Takao with a couple Japanese friends, but we decided to call this off as well.

Advisories soon started coming out from the JET Programme and AJET to us Assistant Language Teachers that we should take extra precautions. They said we should stockpile food, water, toilet paper, and medicine in preparation for scarcity. Even then, I wasn’t taking it seriously, but when I decided to go buy some rice, my supermarket had been stripped bare in many essential areas.

On Thursday, February 27th, after I got home from school, I heard that Prime Minister Abe had announced that all schools would stop classes from March 2nd until April. Even then, I thought that perhaps, since ours is a private school, we would be exempt. Upon arriving at work on Friday morning, I heard that all schools were cancelling classes. As for the teachers, we would still go to the office, but our starting time was shifted down to 10:30 AM to avoid the commuter rush. Even so, teachers were to take our temperature every morning before coming to school, and if it is 37.5 degrees or higher, we must stay home.

So, that ended up being my last day of classes. As of April, my teaching schedule changes entirely, so this was the last time that I would be teaching these students. It was quite a sad day for me.

Final exams, entrance exams, and the graduation ceremony were all set to occur in March. So, naturally, these cannot take place as planned. Parents will not be able to attend graduation, and instead of all the students getting together in the large gymnasium, they will be handed their diplomas in their classrooms, while listening to a broadcast over the loudspeaker.

I had been hoping to see the lovely and affectionate students one last time before they go off to university or their new jobs, but now, I will likely never get to see them again. We had promised to exchange contact once they are not longer students, but this will never happen now.

In preparation, the kitchen ladies started getting out old packed food that were beyond their expiry date. They were all placed in a large box, free for teachers to take home.

I was able to nab several goodies, nori, black currant jam, and various different soups.

One of the most curious things to come up was two small cans of shark fin soup. They looked a little rusty, and upon closer inspection, sure enough…they’re from 2008. They’ve been lingering in the school kitchen for over 12 years!

I spoke to several students today about how they feel. Although a slight majority were happy to have the month off, many were sad and expressed that they would miss their classmates. It’s quite the unfortunate situation, and I wish them all the best!

Birthday Pottery from Japanese Teacher

Just now, as I was sitting at my desk, one of the Japanese teachers of English brought me a belated birthday present. My birthday was actually several days ago, but I stayed totally quiet about it, and not many people knew. So, she only found out about it a few days ago.

It was the perfect gift, too! I used to have a small black bowl, but I actually dropped and broke it a couple months back. Now, I often just eat from the same big bowl that I use for ramen and soups. Not only was there a small rice bowl, but there was also a tiny matching bowl, which would be perfect for soy sauce or little side dishes!

She told me that this type of pottery is called hasami yaki (波佐見焼), from the Hasami region of Nagasaki. It was developed about 400 years ago, and was distributed not only throughout Japan, but exported to Europe as well. It’s actually really perfect, because I also have quite an interest in the historical events that occurred in Nagasaki. What a thoughtful gift! ❤

Tofu Course Meal in Tokyo

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am meeting every week with two lovely Japanese ladies who want to practice their English. One time, we got into the topic of tofu, and I happened to mention that I love tofu. They then suggested that we go to a tofu restaurant that they had been to before, and we set a date.

The place was called Ume no Hana (which means plum blossom), and it’s located in Kichijoji. The place was so fancy, and far surpassed my expectations! They were so unbelievably kind to take me to such a luxurious place.

It was one of those places where the customers are given their own private room with a sliding door to close you off in complete privacy. The waitresses wear kimonos and come to your room to serve you. The photo below is of a slightly smaller room that I peeked into. Our room had four chairs and a longer table.

The first course was a chawanmushi, which is a savory egg custard containing little shrimp, mushrooms, and a ginko nut.

Beside that, there was a box containing three small dishes. One was a block of gomadofu (sesame tofu), which has a very unique and pleasant texture. The other was greens covered in a tofu-based sauce, and finally, there was unohana, which is strips of veggies covered in sauteed tofu pulp.

For the next course, they brought us a tofu shumai and a piece of tofu wrapped in deep fried yuba (tofu skin), onto which we squeezed fresh lemon. These were my favorite dishes of the whole course!

This…this was so, so good!

Next came little individual hot pots filled with veggies. They lit fires below each one, and we waited for our veggies to cook as we finished off the other courses.

During all of this, there was actually a big square tin that was actually cooking fresh tofu! It takes twenty minutes to cook, so they turned on the heat first thing, before any of the other courses arrived.

By the time we finished the pot of veggies, the tofu had finished cooking. They brought us a big pot filled with steaming hot crab and egg soup thickened with starch, so that it was almost like a porridge.

We scooped the fresh tofu into our bowls and poured the thick soup over top. There was also a spice mix containing sansho pepper, which went beautifully with the tofu dish.

The last course before dessert was oyster rice, miso soup and pickles. We liked the oyster rice so much that we tried ordering seconds. But, there wasn’t any time, because dessert soon came!

Dessert was a set of three small dishes. One was a daifuku made of wheat gluten, rather than the usual rice. It was filled with sweet red bean paste. The other was a soy pudding with ground black sesame. This was delicious! Finally, there was a small soy chocolate. If they hadn’t told us that there was soy in it, I really would have had no idea.

They were incredibly kind to treat me to such a wonderful lunch, and I really cannot thank them enough!

After lunch, I explored the shopping mall in which the restaurant was located. They were holding a special Chocolate Fair, for Valentine’s Day. There were many chocolatiers in one area, and you could sample all the chocolate that you liked!

I know I had already eaten enough lunch, but one booth really caught my attention. I think everyone else noticed it, too, because there was such a long line up! They were giant brown sugar steamed buns, and the aroma wafted through the whole floor.

Can you believe that they were just 250 yen? That’s only about $2.50 CAD. Needless to say, I found the nearest bench and tried it while it was still nice and warm.

After this, I actually had to rush back to Ogikubo because I was going to a Japanese friend’s house to make bhel puri for dinner. I actually already wrote a post about this, if you’re interested!

Katsu Curry Lunch at School

Today was a test day, plus many of the students were away on a ski trip, so there were no classes. As usual, this means that the school did not open the cafeteria, and school meals were also not served. On such days, sometimes the teachers get bento boxes, but this time, the cafeteria staff rolled huge carts of food into the office.

The office space is actually huge. It’s a long room that stretches back tens of meters. My desk happens to be at the very front end of the room, right by the kitchen area. So, all this food is set up literally inches from me, and all 70 teachers come lining up by my desk to get their lunch. It’s very amusing!

The blue box was filled with steaming hot rice, and there were metal vats of curry, chicken karaage, and menchi katsu (a deep fried, breaded ground meat cutlet).

The menchi katsu

There was also a side salad that included a whole bunch of ingredients, including shredded omelette and daikon. Such a treat! Today’s lunch was one of the best so far.

They made so much extra food, plus there were some teachers who either didn’t cone to school today or who did not want any, so there was tons left over, and it has been sitting by my desk all day! Smells so good…

Indian Street Food in Tokyo!

This weekend, I made bhel puri and my version of an Indian street food sandwich. I cook this sort of way all the time back in Vancouver, but I never thought that I could make such things in Tokyo!

I few weeks ago, I posted about making burritos at a friend’s house. She invited me back again, and I was excited to share these dishes with her. This was my first time serving bhel puri and Indian sandwiches to a Japanese person, so I was a bit worried that she would not like the bold flavours, but she loved it!

When I arrived, she had just finished making a pot of hot chocolate, so we sat for a bit and chatted while we sipped on our cocoa and tried the whiskey chocolates that I brought. (We poured a bit of whiskey in our hot chocolate, too.)

This is what went into the bhel puri:

  • Bhel puri mix (found it at a Nepali shop)
  • potatoes (diced and boiled)
  • sweet onions
  • tomatoes
  • cilantro
  • chaat spice
  • sev (crunchy little noodles made of chickpea flour)

Normally, this would be topped with green chutney, red chutney and tamarind chutney, but I didn’t have access to a blender, so I made do by topping it with raita! So, it was sort of like a fusion between bhel puri and dahi papdi chaat, which is another very popular North Indian street food. Dahi is yogurt, papdi is those fried crunchy bits, and chaat is any roadside savory snack.

The raita was a simple recipe:

  • plain yogurt
  • finely diced tomatoes, onions and cucumbers

And for the delicious sandwich, I used:

  • white bread
  • cucumbers
  • onion
  • tomato
  • cilantro
  • cheddar cheese
  • mixed veg chutney
  • butter

Normally, green chutney and chaat spice would also be included, so if you have access to those, I highly recommend adding them as well.

I spread the chutney on both slices of bread, and then buttered the other side of each slice. Then, you just layer on all the toppings and grill it in the pan like a grilled cheese. Bahut bahut achha hai! (Really, really good!)

Oh, and we washed this all down with a selection of imported beers that she had bought just for the occasion!