Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving in Japan: A Virtual American Feast

It's that time of year again, when the question rings from abroad, "What do you do for Thanksgiving in Japan?"

Japanese "Labor Day Thanksgiving," 勤労感謝の日, usually falls a handful of days before American Thanksgiving.  However, Labor Day Thanksgiving doesn't revolve around poultry dishes or Pilgrim stories, nor is the celebration wrapped around the US Labor Day traditions of outdoor barbecues or back to school shopping blitzes. Nonetheless, it is a red marked holiday giving thanks to laborers for their hard work, and thus granting them a day of rest* from the job.

*On that note, I might have to write some over-time checks for the local team of IT laborers that I had working on placing my Thanksgiving orders on their holiday. That said, I guess I created my own Labor Day (on-line) shopping blitz too.

Thanksgiving Day, the way Americans know it, does have a direct translation in Japanese: 感謝祭 = kanshasai. In reality, it is more widely understood and practiced as, "Thursday," and thus remains school or business as usual. Moreover, Black Friday does not kick off the Christmas shopping season, although my guess is that Cyber Monday deals probably can feed off the World Wide Web-airways' leftovers, even if there is no turkey sandwich or turkey soup to be had while surfing.

Well then, what do I do for Thanksgiving?  I do what it takes to recreate my Mom's dining room setting and menu from 6,600 miles from Columbus and about as far from the necessary ingredients.  The main-dish challenge serves as its own, 2 to 25 pound obstacle. "Turkey" is considered a gamy meat in Japan, and not farmed nor found in or around local or even distant Japanese supermarkets.  That's right, you can find raw sea slug or guts and intestines of almost any animal in the ecosystem at a any random corner stand, but turkey?  Even liberally basted with wasabi and soy sauce, that would be considered "fowl."

The Hunt for Orange October: The following photo illustrates how we weren't going to let the unavailability of American pumpkins stand in our way to make Jack-O-Lanterns at Halloween. With such cultural dedication, we felt Plymouth-rock solid inspiration to forge ahead and create an American Thanksgiving in Japan with limited resources.

Japanese winter melons, 冬瓜 - togan, are dusty green
until you take your daughter's paint set to them.
The past few years I have spent 2 hours each way in the car and $26 round trip on the toll roads to get the coveted, imported bird from Costco, Japan. This year, our family school calendar(s), pocket book and energy level just didn't see the journey as worth it.  Instead I decided to take my stubborn dedication to local markets, including my home computer, which started before Halloween Costco discontinued importing American pumpkins and I dedicated my Pioneer-like efforts to hunt down ingredients locally and see what I could come up with on-line.

(Foreshadowing: we will be giving thanks to Amazon this year.)

We set our Thanksgiving dinner plan for Saturday, November 30.  The Hunt for Traditional Thanksgiving began on November 4, with my first trip to the FarmNo, it wasn't the beloved Tuller's Fruit Farm of Columbus, Ohio, fame - home of the pumpkin patch, every vegetable and fruit in season, and fresh pressed cider and apple fritters by the baker's dozen.  My Honda hayride led me to Kaldi Coffee Farm. You would think I needed the caffeine fuel to deal with my wish list, but no, it's the name of an import mart at the "Mallage" in town. Yes, Mallage is a "cutsie" Japanese-English name of the mall.  

I was able to fill the bag (pictured) with the spices needed to make an onion dip for an appetizer, to make gravy despite the lack of a gravy boat, flavoring for pumpkin pie, and, as well as some baking ingredients for corn bread and pie crusts. It was never a fixed dish at the Zidonis family table in my memory, but while in line at the register my eyes caught a glimpse of the top shelf (in the crowd of shoppers that day, only my eyes could) showcasing a can of cranberry sauce.  I wondered how many years it was there, then nabbed it anyway. After all,  it will at least serve its purpose in the form of adding color and tradition to the table; tradition, that is, according to the slide shows of Thanksgiving meals that I have been showing my students over the years in American Cultural Lectures.  Finally, I've made myself an even more practice what she preaches teacher.

Canned goods and bottled spices, fresh from the "Farm,"
 just the way the Native Indians intended.                                             
Next step: stuffing.  I'm not interested in stuffing. Apparently my Dad was spoiled by his mother's sirloin tips-based homemade stuffing, so any kind of breaded filler never made it near our spread growing up.  But I ordered two boxes of all American KRAFT via Amazon Japan from a company called "Oasis" in order to feed at least two of the Dilenschneider mouths at our table this year, and just to have something familiarly "Thanksgiving" looking to cover up the fact that all else may fail.** Even though I don't need two boxes of stuffing for 4 people, the delivery charge seemed steep for just one box, considering it was the same for two.  I guess I've committed to putting it all together again next year.  High hopes. High apple pie in the sky hopes. 

**At the time of this writing, the French-farmed-frozen turkey on order is a day late on delivery. That detail alone could stand for the "all else" in the "may fail." I'm hoping the President didn't pardon the one bird with my number on it! 

Hoping to "stuff" the guests since the arrival of the elusive turkey is "up in the air."
About that turkey.  I will never reveal how much I am paying per pound, but I spent hours researching it over days, so I would add my labor per hour charge and the price should really be double the already 300% mark-up I put on my charge card.  Maybe I should have heeded that "Labor Day" Thanksgiving after all and not been so quick to mouse-click "add to shopping cart."  

I tried to lessen the yen and dollar damage by going through 17 screens to apply for an Amazon Japan gift card on the reward page of my Japan based credit card.  It was the least I could do, considering the Settlers were learning to build fire to make it all happen at the First Thanksgiving.  Nonetheless, the final screen informed me that I can expect my card to be processed within 8 weeks. Well, that will make for quite an affordable Martin Luther King Day feast, since my attempt at "hunting" down a discount wouldn't work for a purchase this week.

The mystery bird: appropriately out of focus
I found a couple of options.  One would have been an easy, quick-fix, boneless wonder that would just require an hour in the oven to give it that baked feel.  But I went for the whole beast, and narrowed down the company based on the size and the price were not going to cancel Christmas.  I purchased the poultry delight on Amazon Japan, from a company called, 男の台所 = otokonodaitokoro. The vender's name might have been my first clue of trouble.  Translation: Man's Kitchen. Well, it's a day late so far, and if the CEO of the company is anything like the man in my house growing up or the men of the house now, the package might contain a box of popcorn, a bag of beef jerky and a copy of the 2006 Ohio State vs. Michigan game.  But we are giving Thanks after all, so this is all coming from a place of love and respect. Besides, it is those fond memories I am trying to recreate, remember?

I lifted the digital image of the mystery bird (above right) from my account purchases page on Amazon.  If it doesn't make the scheduled delivery, we might just be licking the screen.  I'll break open that second box of stuffing if need be, however, since I am not going as far to order Yankee Trader turkey scented candles for effect. Even I have my on-line shopping limits this holiday season.

How to roast a turkey without a conventional oven
If I am going to roast an animal, I need some supplies.  An oven.  That's right, there are no conventional ovens in Japanese homes.  They are equipped for boiling seasoned mountain vegetables, stir frying, deep frying, and there is a drawer extention of the range that serves as the fish grill.  So I have 2 microwave ovens: one if for reheating purposes, the other has a rudimentary "oven" function.  Both are small, but that's par for the course in Japan (well, courses have 18 holes, but fees are steep, and we're back to the detour of an underlying yen-based theme).

I needed to order a roasting bag to get this baking process right, and to have a chance at "authentic" tasting oven baked delicacies.  Also, to be safe and consistent, a meat thermometer. The safe part is to thoroughly cook the beast, the consistent part, was not to botch my shopping record by ignoring the, "people who also bought "A," also bought "B" notice on my account update. Those accessories came directly from Amazon Japan with no middle man (or Middle Man's Kitchen), therefore, it was a next day delivery, to the university where I work.  I think the secretary that signed for the package had stories to tell at her dinner table that night.

My next step was to be a little stress relief.  Get some local goods to actually have something that didn't come in a cardboard box with bubble tape and packaging receipts.  I went to a local farmer's market for the Japanese pumpkins (kabocha, often called "winter squash" in English) and other fresh produce for vegetable dishes and casseroles.  A neighborhood farmer has a stand on his property with a small "100 yen" deposit box where I loaded up on home-grown potatoes and yams.  So the mashing and starch dishes are covered.* (*I couldn't resist the covered dish/pot-luck reference.)

Neighbor's farm plot: The potatoes (far left) and chives (far right),
 and Japanese radish in the center will meet our table.
Local shopping was successful, and I could count on the 業務スーパー = gyomu supa grocery store to provide the beverage and dairy in bulk!  The basis of any American feast begins with a bulk cart load, and 業務スーパー is the closest I can get to a made in Japan big haul.  Wine and spirits for the cook and guests, milk and ingredients for cheesecake and pastries and just in cases are now covered.

It's Wednesday evening in America. My friends and family are either pre-baking, pre-basting, or hitting the roads to beat the weather or the traffic to see relatives.  I will oversee my daughter on her homework, and set our family of 3 off for school in the morning, a Thursday as usual.  But not a Thursday to take for granted.

No day of the week, month or year that our family is "in our usual" routine is taken for granted.  Hopefully I'll sign for that frozen turkey that will fly in tomorrow from France, via the Man's Kitchen in Japan, and start my pre-baking on Friday. We'll welcome my Tokyo-based brother-in-law, Joe on Saturday for a grand feast of fun family and conversation.  I'll be exhausted and exhilarated and on every level. On Sunday, we'll wake up to actual coffee from Kaldi Coffee Farm and I'll begin counting down the days until I round up the challenge next for an American Thanksgiving in Japan, 2014.

Uncle Joe and Hana, an American Thanksgiving in Japan 2012

Bob, Hana and Uncle Joe: Trimming
the tree preview, an American
Thanksgiving in Japan 2011

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Undokai: The National Fountain of Youth-Sports

うんどうかい=UNDOKAI=Sports Festival:
Not your usual podium shot of the winner's circle
うんどうかい=UNDOKAI=Sports Festival:
More than a national mini Olympics
Field Day!

Specifics escape me, but I vaguely recall Fishinger Elementary School holding a Field Day Event, staging the two 6th grade classes against each other in some form of a track meet competition on a grassy field (hence the name) behind the school.  I was mid-race - perhaps a loosely measured 100 yard dash, when I encountered my first and only bee sting to date.  I don't remember what place I finished, or if our class won, but I can almost still feel that nasty bite.  Despite a general liking for school and sporting events, and a not-so-bad taste for "OFF" bug spray, without the yellow jacket to my right thigh, I might not have had any prize recall of that day at all.

Elemetary School Field Day in Japan (Contrast):
No record of my elementary school race--
it wasn't exactly an event that had a stadium audience,
or even one devoted parent with a Polaroid.

Preschool Field Day in Japan: How can you forget an event with such cute 50 meter dash training? 

In Japan, "Sports Festivals," (運動会, undokai) are unforgettable milestones, and not soley because they are red marked on the calendar allowing the entire country to revolve around the fan-fare. The undokai is a one-day event, an all day event. Meticulous preparation "false starts" begin an average of a half year in advance, while the recovery period "cool down" requires an average of double that time (I give myself another fortnight until I'm back up to average speed this round). 

The typical program kicks off with a 35 minute opening ceremony, followed by 20-some events administered on precision time protocol, and a 20 minute closing ceremony (scoring system also noted on right).

Cliff Notes: History in Brief

The annual event dates back to the Meiji Era (1868), and the ritual of the undokai propelled into a national requirement in more recent history, during the Showa Era (1966).  Since the event had been in practice since the 19th century anyway, the government declared "Health and Sports Day" (体育の日, Tai Iku no Hi) to be a holiday in Japan for the first time on October 10, 1966, in commemoration of the pomp and circumstance surrounding its formal version: the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Summer Olympics.  
Families take refuge in their UVA protected
tents (also on the checklist) from the often
sweltering Sports Day heat, which serves as the
locale for the 45 minute  lunch break.

That's right, Japan hosted the summer Olympics in October, during the month which most of the globe dubs fallThe coaching strategy on that calendar move is said to be three-fold: to avoid 1) the wetter than the synchronized swimming pool rainy season from June to mid-July, 2) the hotter and steamier than the torch temperatures of late July and August, 3) and the riskier than the platform diving typhoon season in September.   

Happy Mondays Never Get Me Down

Fast forward to the Heisei Era (2000), and Health and Sports Day is no longer held exclusively on 10/10; rather, it's observed on the second Monday of October, thanks to the government's adoption of the "Happy Monday" policy* in favor of a man-made three day weekend. *I approve of the borrowed use of the English word "Happy" in this case, as well as the importation of the made-in-the-USA "uniform holiday bill" act to create an extended weekend. Kompai (Cheers) to Health and Happiness!

Tai Iku no Hi sets out to "foster an enthusiasm for health and fitness," or, in layman's terms, to foster a cut throat rally in the form of an all out Tug of War (always the apex on the Sports Day program), and in the end, opponents march off the battle ground, sing in harmony, and pose for a memorable group photo. The Summer Olympics is returning to Tokyo in 2020, and trust me this host nation is not rusty in the ceremonial or planning department. Thanks to hundreds of years of sports festivals, these mini Olympic level dress rehearsals have been in full force at every sector of society: from nursery schools to senior centers; to convenience store to Ginza department store staffs; to political parties to entertainment industry party circles; to thumb wrestler hobbists to sumo wrestler stable masters and beyond.  

Red vs White Olympic Competition

I'd judge Japan to be the defending gold medal champions of mass enthusiastic participation, themed ceremonies, and finely tuned agenda execution. The scheduled "Happiness" on the programs has united the country on fields across the landscape for centuries, and in seven short years from now, the world joins in on the 2020 Summer Olympics stage. To illustrate a lane of this undokai track picture in Japan, I'll focus on my experience with the school field days, and you can let your imagination sprint off the blocks from there.  

First, classes don't face off the way our gym teacher Mr. Rohal rallied the Fishinger Bulldogs. Instead, with the flip of a reversible gym hat, the whole school divides evenly at random, with mixed ages, classes, levels and sexes.  The team names even take the Japanese flag split down the middle: Red vs. White.

The Face Off: Red vs. White

Students divide for the all or nothing
Red  vs. White Tug of War.

Varsity Preparation 

Preparation starts an academic year in advance, when school calendars are set and distributed to parents.  Several months in advance rain date details are confirmed.  In our case, East Elementary's Sports Festival was on a Saturday.  If it rained, it would take place Sunday. If it rained on Sunday, the second rain date was scheduled for Tuesday. There would be no school either way on Monday in compensation for an intended weekend school day.  If it rained on Tuesday, rain date #3 was set for Wednesday.  In the event of a Saturday or Sunday meet, students and families were to bring obento, or packed lunch.  If rain date #2 or #3 on Tuesday or Wednesday were enforced, the students would be served the scheduled school lunch, but families and guests would need to bring obento for themselves.  Again, there would be no school Monday no matter what the weather was that week and thus no lunch policy to note.  Are you following this? Well, it doesn't matter because Saturday was sunny anyway.

Olympic Brown Bag Lunch

The above is a snippet from the annual school calendar. The left side indicates that undokai is scheduled on the 28th and maps out potential rain dates for the week that follows.  You are not expected to understand any of the mess I cut and cropped and lined up here, just feel the pain in the form of still fresh tug of war rope burns as a type.

Not exactly your peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a brown bag:  The obento (stacked lunch box) for undokai is a home made creation with decorative, sports-themed love. Note the characters on the rice, elementary school kid in center, and bunnies on either side represent the Red and White team rivalries, crafted from fish paste.

がんばれ!(Good luck) written on sausages out of cut seaweed, blue ribbon winning hopefuls in the fruit dessert tray, and various blends of flavored rice in the form of cute little athletes from the mother's love preparation end. Cups are filled to the brim with regulation barely tea, a caffeine-free favorite.

Collection from Toe to Head

Now that were clear on the date and lunch policy, the notices including calls for round-ups of random goods begins from head to toe.  We'll start with toe.  Literally, the first thing we need to do is follow fixed measurements to make fitted bootees for the students' classroom chairs.  On the day of the festival, they take their chairs outside to the dirt-ground assigned spot under the "just for that day" awninged tents.  When they bring their chairs back in the school at the end of the closing ceremony, they would otherwise track small stones and sand into the sacred no-outdoor-footwear hallways of the building.  Twenty years in the culture and I'm quite accustomed to the slipper rules, but for inanimate objects, this was a first for me.

I took the sketch and instruction handout to the fabric store and my daughter selected a pattern. She was free to choose color and design, as long as there were no logos, TV anime, or famous manga character involved, as those potential invaders distract from the educational process. The bootees need to be submitted a month in advance so that the students can practice their "agenda time trial" dress rehearsals during gym class.

Fresh from the tailor, "Reform." Material: $3.95,
Handiwork: $11.95. Years saved in sanity for not
attempting myself?  Countless.
My daughter was in first grade at the time and thus I encouraged her to look into the future of her likes and dislikes in order to use the same pair, one day a year, through 6th grade.  I imagined over 99% of the PTA population stitched their own child's chair bootees.  After all, or above all, there is a direct cultural link between the amount of love you have for your child to the effort it takes to hand make everything. We drove our fabric and instructions straight to a tailor, assured we could pick up the professionally finished product in 7 days or less.

Foul Called by (Seam) Line Judge

Mid-week I received a phone call from the seamstress, asking me to confirm the measurements.  She had an order from the parent of a 4th grade boy at the same school and his numbers differed slightly.  After further investigation, I learned that student chair and desk sizes are slightly smaller 1st through 3rd grade therefore the booty measurements grow with their leg sizes from 4th grade on.  Fast forward to present day, as a Mom of a third grader, this marks the last year for our pink bunny bootees.  I didn't bother asking the tailor if I was the only one of the two cheating mothers she second guessed (perhaps assuming I misread the details) on the centimetres in the orders placed, which preserves my mental state at least until the next item is rounded up.  Thanks to the leaked intel on said 4th grade mother, perhaps I can adjust my statistical analysis to only 98% of the parents stitched their own.

Classroom chairs line the grounds.  Notice the dirt accumulation on the blue booty on the far left.  That saved the grace of the interior of the school from the impure soils of the outdoors. The desk chair leg protector!

Trash Collection: Not so fast, everything can become school supplies!

First graders cut, sized and donned
colored capes for their dance routine.

Soon after the bootees were toted to school with a 4 week wiggle room window, the call came for paper fans, disposable chopsticks and a multi-colored hula hoop for dance numbers. In addition, they required white rice grains or bright red beads (depending on if you represent the White or the Red team) to fill 1 quarter high of 2 drained, rinsed and de-labeled water bottles for noise makers. If you've ever had the pleasure to attend the happy madness of a professional baseball game in Japan, or even get a glimpse of the highlights on TV, you will understand where that precise, uniform and on-beat cheering blaring from the stands is mastered.

The Red Team in action cheering students on with their
emptied, drained and decorated water bottle noise makers.
The advance collection is less in part of giving the parents time to accumulate supplies (which I suspect would be more of the American way), yet more to get these miscellaneous items to school for the students' hands-on preparation and practice drills. Even the rice grains go to school in a zip-locked bag or tupperware, separate from the empty bottles, so the students can construct their noise makers in science class, experimenting with different amounts and levels of rattle or flash. 

Synchronized Education

Undokai may be a one day event, but considering the integrated curriculum, each subject manages to incorporate the build up, or "training," as a significant part of the students' education. For example, her weekly schedule listed a scattering of sports day prep class activities on a daily basis for at least 2 months preceding its execution.  In addition to the obvious gym class and previously mentioned science class lesson plans, math class dictates that they mock up agendas and time tables, in civics they draft invitations to the city officials, in art they design and construct themed banners, illustrated programs, and cheering paraphernalia, and in calligraphy they take their brushes to the ink wells to scroll massive banners scripting the chosen theme of the year.

Coloring vinyl trash bags, finely chopping them and
fastening them to laundry clips make for art class pom pons.

Coordinated formations at the Kindergarten demonstrate the 101 uses for the modern hula hoop.
Save and wash your take out meal chopsticks
 to build your own flags for jazzercise.
Four to five weeks in advance marks the deadline for applications for parent-participation events. Immediately following the "voluntary"contract of agreement submission, diagramed instructions and applicable rules are distributed within 3 weeks prior to game day, for parents to study and master.  After all, academic preparation of associated regulations are mandatory in order to maximize levels of "happiness" and execution.

On "field day," two events line up in the gullies while one has the main ground, so if you are educated in advance on the how-to, the agenda can go as planned, printed and published.  I don't want to be the first one to set those itineraries off by even a New York minute. In Japan, I'm convinced that scheduling and timed agenda following are Olympic events, and from my judgement, they are defending gold medal champions in both sports.

Waiting in starting block position on deck for the next parent-child
tether ball-like event.  All participants jog on and off
the field for every event-to keep time and maintain fitness.

Parents' (In)voluntary Involvement

Participation from parents is a requirement. It's not written per se, but you do tend to walk around with a euphemistic Horrible Mom/ Deadbeat Dad sign across your forehead if you're not out there in your Richard Simmons "Sweating to the Oldies" gear right along side of the kids. Plus, sign-up sheets are signed, stamped and returned with enough advance warning that the wrath of the failed to-even-intend-to play family might blackball the child from future entry into the right schools and thus advancement into prestigious company of employment.  Okay, it's not that harsh, but you get the idea -- everybody joins in and actually enjoys it.  The latter is not a requirement, but it tends to be the consensus.

Run within the Lines, Sign on the Dotted Line

My involvement in this race was really more
as a traffic guard, otherwise the sandbox
might be the finish line (refer to alternative
result in photo at left).

There's always"one kid" who finds
 her own way to race.
 My field day background doesn't
match the lifetime experience that
my counterparts in Japan have.

親子ゴロン:BigBall Relay rules, objectives,
procedure and diagram

The form at left is dated 9/10,  the bottom portion had the dotted line to clip and submit the sign up by the 9/13 deadline.  Detailed instructions and rules dictated four Big Ball Relay Race teams of 4 members.  The 3rd grade student-parent groups take the east end of the grounds while the 4th grade students and parents start from the west end.  The rules, objectives and instructions are clearly spelled out, numbered and detailed.  If you are more of a visual learner, the diagram illustrates the position of the students and parents, placement of the cones, game ball and goal.

The link below provides a snippet of the highlights of the Big Ball Relay.  You get a taste of the peppy music, the collective understanding of the rules of play for the one time only event, as well as the graceful and timely execution of the race.  Oh, the highlight really is that our team (peach colored headbands) won the relay.  It was a non-scoring event, but the competitive spirit the government set out to foster through the Happy Holiday, was felt by all.

Click here for video:

Non Regulation Jerseys Permitted

Parents don't have a uniform like the kids for our sports day athletic pursuits, yet we are not without a guiding handout that goes only slightly beyond the international standard of common sense that would simply infer loose fitting clothing and shoes we could move easily in.  I find Thanksgiving dinner pants work well for the 3 legged race since they do get tugged around, and Converse-style tennis shoes tend to better than running shoe soles since they have absolutely no lift, which prevents injury when you are dodging cones, ring obstacles, or other children during mad dashes.

Moms double up on pairs of giant sandals for a shuttle run here.
Although you can't see the footwork, we are smiling happily,
and sporting our uniform colored headbands.
 My Richard Simmons fashion reference was no joke.

The fine print on the left reads, "We are not alone," in English.
The graphic to the right? I'll leave that to your imagination.
The school teachers don't assign themselves a required uniform to sport that day.  However, in the uplifting group spirit that Health and Wellness activities strive to promote, they design, order and model matching collared shirts, showcasing the theme of the year.   In case you were feeling lonely or under appreciated in your quest to meet the supply lists demands and obento preparation expectations, you can be assured by the mass-produced slogan of the year, "We are not alone!"

Civilized Food Fight

Any event involving food will have a strict code in the presentation category.  Items are wrapped and individually packaged so mess on clothing and potential contamination is diverted. In the bread eating race relay, contestants dash across the field, and mid-way, use only their mouths to retrieve a sweet bean paste filled or melon flavored roll, then continue to the run to finish line.  Organized, civilized feeding frenzy at its finest, participants are free to eat the baked delights during the 30-45 minute lunch break scheduled on the program. Snacking and drinking during non regulated periods is poor manners, though there is no point penalty.  

Gentle reminder, "We are not alone" in our break times, so schedule your hunger and thirst needs accordingly. I've introduced "bobbing for apples" to play groups and American culture classes over the years, and the disgust of sharing spit water has always been a barrier.  After participating in such kinds of obstacle courses, I'm thinking if I peel, chop and wrap apple slices and clip them to a poll, I might forge new territory in cross-cultural celebrations.  Just 7 years until the olympics to execute that plan.

Two teachers hold up a limbo-style bamboo bar and load and reload the melon rolls and sweet bean buns in rotation for each heat.  The staff's speed and efficiency is even more impressive than the participants' sprinting abilities.

White-gloved Tug of War

One could think the mass events are militaristic. Besides, Tug of War competitors are issued 軍手 (guntei), which literally translates as, "army hands" (students already have their own in their supply stash, as we were assigned to stitch their names in the thumbs of both weeks ago). The white cloth standard are described in English as "white working gloves," and serve as essential gear for gardening and handiwork in Japan, in addition to being ubiquitous during school events.  The guntei are to be donned again at the end of the event for clean-up and pack-up participation. Post closing ceremony clean up is not required, but you may find yourself bumped to the top of the list of rainy season patrol duties during its next revision if you are caught sneaking home early. On a related note, the same gloves are "coincidentally" distributed for "voluntary" seasonal weed the school grounds events.

If you have to ask for weeding gloves when you "volunteer,"
consider yourself busted for not having
signed up for the Tug of War.
Tug of War: Parent teams and student teams
compete separately. It's not age discrimination - parents'  events are not scored. All events are co-ed.
Checklist Finals

The "to bring" list on the day of the games for the kids is not overwhelming, considering the small cargo loads of random supplies that have been going from home to school for 6 weeks by now.  That said, there is a final checklist with two boxes by each item for the student to tick and the parent to double check. Event day is considered an official school day for the kids, thus they leave the house to meet their assigned walking groups as usual around 7:30 AM.  They have the privilege of wearing the backpack of their choice for the day, not the regular boxy Randoseru backpack designed for carting school textbooks.

The contents: lunch, thermos, and "bonus" beverage - for this day only they are allowed to have up to 500 ml of non carbonated sports drink in their bottles, but never juice or pop.  Usually on school hiking or field trips, they are limited to iced green tea, barely tea, or water. Other pack contents include their pair of indoor shoes in its fitted cloth sack (since those are sent home every Friday and they will go to their classroom before and after the festival for meetings), gym uniform shorts and shirt, including the red/white reversible gym hat. They wear the standard issued yellow hat for the walk to and from school, but the gym hat they wear shows the color that represents which undokai team they are on: Red or White. The hat trick could be considered the loose equivalent of the US "shirts and skins" pick up game of basketball, but much more refined, and not bordering on R rated).

Ariel represents the okay for the day pack.
Under her chair is the permitted for the day sports drink
in orange tote, thermos of ice water,  and
chair leg bootees (I take every chance to point those out).
The gym hat elastic band has been refreshed (tightened) at home and pre-approved by the staff.  Etiquette essentials such as a handkerchief, a towel (not for showers, but in case they need to wipe their brows from sweating to keep time), a plastic bag for toting their dirty and dusty chair leg bootees home, and their renrakucho notebook to record notes and homework assignments at their final meeting in the classroom, and a pencil case rounded out the list of requirements.

Masters of Ceremony

Taiko drum roll: Live shot of the Opening Clap in action
following 35 minutes of opening speeches.
City Mayor and city VIPs cheer along during the pep rally.

Opening and closing ceremonies include: Speech making, marching bands, school songs, national Sports Day and National (Kimigayo) Anthems contribute to the main ingredients in any Japanese event, and I'm not even referencing the obento here. I'm convinced that without the opening and closing claps anchoring an event in Japan, the Happy Monday ships would sink.

School Band gets us feeling "On Top of the World"
during the Opening Ceremony.
Cue the Carpenters

Although making props by hand is part of the education surrounding undokai, I'm not referring to the handy-man carpenter here, rather, the singing sibling duo composed of Karen and Richard.  They have been gracing the opening and closing ceremony of all kinds at least since I landed nearly 20 years ago, and presumably for decades prior.  They really have a song in their repertoire that can weave into any mood or theme, whether it's a field day, a graduation, a wedding or a funeral (they have piped through them all).

School Song (upper left) printed on the back of the program.
The front cover (right) is drawn a student sketch, illustrating
the traditional timed fill-the-net with red or white balls contest.

National Undokai Song: I'm not sure if it's official, as part of the Health and Wellness Holiday, but the upbeat melody makes for a Happy Monday.

The festival music covers the map, the Japanese and world maps, in all different directions, level of formalities, and genres.  The opening ceremony features a flag raising ceremony while the band plays the national anthem.  During the dances, Japanese pop music chosen by the student performers blares through stereo speakers. Meanwhile, athletic obstacle or racing events feature some kind of upbeat motivational or "pace-up" soundtrack.  The adrenaline was flowing while skipping off the grounds to ABBA at my recent big red ball relay debut.  We won the event that round, and I attribute part of my confidence in the success to my years of karaoke experience at "Dancing Queen." 

The "Opening Clap" kicks of the ceremonies,
as team representatives salute the principal,
and prepare the field for warm up stretches.
Standing at attention to line up for pre-game and post-game student led stretches. Guests, parents, and faculty join in on the side lines,  echoing, "We are not alone."

After the closing clap, signaling the end,
athletes march back to their assigned seats.

This isn't an "everyone gets a trophy" society. Red has slaughtered
White the past three years, and my daughter is determined to be on
a winning team one day. So far, the arbitrary team assignments
has flipped her hat to the red side since 1st grade. 

Final Medal Count

The majority of events count toward the Red or White Teams' final score, yet grade-level-wide dance numbers and any competition involving parents are for exhibition purposes.  Apparently school officials know better than to put more pressure on parents than the already cut-throat competitive duty of multi-tasking: organizing the kids' to do and to bring list, while crafting the perfect obento and finally pitching the tent.  Although there is a closing "award" ceremony at the end of the games, it is without individual or team prizes in the form of gold, silver and bronze medals, let alone even a podium pose in the sense of a mini Olympics.  The score is displayed on large colored boards with hand-flipped numbers throughout the contest, and each triple digit number is announced via loud speaker at the end of the day.

The results generate rowdy applause for both sides, yet a more racous roaring for the winning "color."  Though tears are shed, fun is had by all.  My daughter, Red Team member defeated 3 years in the running, declared with cheer at bed-time that night, "I only wish undokai was every day!"  If that's the cheerful attitude she takes from her semester-long experience, then I suppose the gold medal goes to a successful chapter of this integrated slice of education. In contrast, from the judge's panel where I'm sitting, I felt more along the lane lines of needing a complete year to recover, a declaration I delivered internally, without the accompaniment of a megaphone or converted coke bottle noise makers. 

I confess a preference to buy my time by taking the next six months to round up the necessary supplies for the new colorful sets of cheering gear and get a "leg up" on placing the order for her slightly longer 4th grade chair bootees for next year. Perhaps her advancement to the next grade will flip her luck to the right color side, the "winning" side, of the hat. In the meantime, she continues to be motivated to run, skip, hop, tug and dance, thanks to experiencing all of the stages that the Health and Wellness Day events "fostered," while she counts down to next year. The make-it-yourself pom pon tables have turned and it's my daughter cheering me on to rally for the next round. Undokai can a fantastic experience for all ages, so with my thermos of 500 ml non-carbonated Fountain of Youth-Sports, I toast to another successful Happy Monday policy.  And I would award the day the Gold even if that (now) 32 year old bee found it's way through my Tug of War white gloves. 
Agony of "de-feet": Red team loses. The athletes try to lift their egos along with their dusty chairs equipped with protective slippers make the trip back to the  classrooms.  Next year the kids, and the chairs, will be back for a fresh round!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Trip to the Grocery Store in Japan: Life isn't a Bowl of American Cherries

Supermarket Shopping Without a Cape

Brian Sipe's passing game would be strong enough that it was safe to escape to Kroger's.  Most of the Columbus, Ohio, weekend shoppers (save Cincinnati fans) would be home in front of their TVs, giving us the green light to load the wood paneled station wagon to the brim with brown paper grocery bags without the usual long-line hassles. My Mom and I would each push an over-sized cart, tag teaming down every aisle, loading up for a week or two.

You didn't need to be a superhero, or have a home-state MVP hero status to navigate the supermarkets in Ohio. Outside of the Brown's being intercepted, there were no notable obstacles - we were flanked with big carts, transported big sacks to a spacious car, and unloaded them into a roomy fridge and lofty cupboards.  Assuming Sunday football went in our favor too, coupons or not, it would feel like an all star two-for-one game day.

Though there are no live football game conflicts to contend with here, every trip to the grocery in Japan feels like a NFL level game, especially since the only helmets in play belong to the 50% of the daily shoppers commuting by bike.  The past 9 of my 19 years of full contact supermarket shopping in Japan have been by car, but the memories of the double loaded front and back bike baskets, with a sack dangling off each handle bar are not as distant in my memory as when Cleveland had a chance at a postseason berth.   Yet even with the convenience of my compact "Honda Vamos," obstacles abound - little portions to little cart, to little car to little fridge, and next to no cupboards, many more trips than our "once every weeks or two" days of yesteryear.

Food Off Stalker

"Food Off Stalker (ストッカー)"
Food Off Stalker, Shiraoka, is thousands of miles from Kroger, Columbus, in more ways than geographically.  Kroger is a named after its founder, a common American trend. Stalker?  I can only imagine, but prefer to keep the idea of where I shop for my family G-rated, so I won't take a detour done the brainstorming aisle.  Though the origin of "ストッカー"  may be a guarded secret, I am certain that I am not alone in the belief that "Food Off" is a poor naming choice for the American shopper, as it screams, "Your Day-Old Poultry Stinks!" So when I need to make a quick dash for milk and bread, I have to decide if I need to file a restraining order on the Stalker, or file a report with the Health Department on Food Off Salmonella.

The Daily Trip

My South Dakota based sister-in-law recently inquired, "What's a typical trip to the grocery store like in Japan?"  Well, a typical trip to the grocery store is exactly those two things: atypical, and, a trip. I'll do my best to trace the steps from start to finish on any given "game" day.  First, gearing up to shop doesn't include flipping through the Real Estate and Comic sections in the Sunday Dispatch to get to the coupon inserts.

Rather, Japan has a serious love affair with Point Cards.  Every store has a point card system.  Even though the stores are more draining than discounting, at least carrying the little cards to get stamped for each purchase makes you feel like you're weighted down with yen bills. Besides, you feel somewhat productive as the stores stamp a circle for every $50-ish dollars spent, leading up to an eventual dollar off your total purchase. "Food Off" likes to give "off" the impression that it offers more discounts than its competitors, as the one trendy use of English in Japan to tag "Off" onto sales indicates.  Department stores post signs when they are having end of season "Off Sales," and there is a chain store for discount and used books called, "Book Off," an 'off'-shoot of its more disturbingly named parent company, "Hard Off."

Stalker's スタンプカード (Stamp Card) is straightforward: for every $10 purchase, get 1 stamp, fill 15 slots on the card during the period between 3/1- 6/30, redeem $1 off purchase during the period from 3/1-7/29.

Not A Lot of a Parking Lot 

With limited operating hours from 10 AM to 9 PM, you may find when you approach the parking lot, if your time management skills failed you and you hit the 11 AM and 4 PM pre-meal-prep rush, it's a one car in, one car out of the lot policy.  True traditional cooks shop twice a day, while mediocre housewives squeeze in a, "I sometimes want the best for my family," heartless once a day.

Peak times remind me of the last stretch of road approaching Blossom (Cleveland) for a summer Jimmy Buffet concert, but without the double encore in an outdoor amphitheatre as a reward for your bumper to bumper efforts. Plus, the soundtrack when you enter is far from "Margaritaville," as the Carpenters are the usual muzak du jour. The exception is the five minutes before closing, when "Auld Lang Syne" through the speakers, at which time, you either scramble with your final selection and make your way to checkout, or pop open a bottle of bubbly and steal a kiss from the nearest Stock Boy, which could be where Stocker-Stalker got its name. (Incidentally, ストッカーis a homophone for both). 

The internationally recognized handicapped parking decal holds true for Japan. In addition, a newer release reflecting the "Silvering Japanese" society, not to be confused with the "Stalking Japanese" society, sets spaces aside for those able-bodied individuals who could use the boost of a few steps closer to the door. Drivers new to the roads must have a visible maple leaf sticker on their cars, while the elderly display an oak leaf.  The 思いやり(courtesy) parking for the elderly, expecting mothers, those traveling with infants - basically anyone that is called to early boarding on a flight, (except the First and Business) is probably reflecting part of nature as well. Perhaps it depicts a multi-colored four leaf clover to symbolize the luck of landing one.  All the while, my mind is more focused on spinning through the lot "stalking" out a regular spot.

Pictured at left is the standard handicap permit slot.  The spot on the right is not reserved for drinking fountain parking as the illustration suggests, rather, (おもやり)omoiyari, courtesy parking, "putting others with various needs before yourself parking." 

Paper (N)or Plastic?  

Neither. Paper is not a choice, and plastic is apparently more of an explosive option, as noted below. Arm yourself with your collection of "My Bag = マイバグ" on your errands (yes, they use this "English" expression for your personal tote), to save the environment first and foremost, but also to avoid the potential electric shock, let alone the nickel surcharge should you require a store bag as noted in the small print:

"The plastic bag is charged.  It becomes a 5 yen piece."
Or perhaps you're 'Best Off' getting the store plastic bag, providing you interpret the above warning, "The plastic bag is charged" to mean it self-ignites into currency.  I could be reading too many fairy tales, or could have just been living in Make-believe-land too long.  After all, it has been years since Cleveland sports fans have broken ground and settled in Denial.

"My Bag, My Umbrella"
Mini Go Carts

Now to grab a cart, which is one extra small size fits all, to accommodate maneuvering through more narrow aisles and larger crowds than the US Kroger Freeway system.  You can stack your cart with 2 baskets, on both the upper and lower racks *not recommended if you come by bike, keeping in mind the balancing act of a load for the wobbly commute home.  The space conservative have a slot for the umbrella to hook on (mine modeled in photo at right: properly lodged side hooks), and a safety  knob at the end so the point doesn't knock small children or run your pantie hose, unless of course that is your goal.

I have fond memories of pushing my Fisher Price shopping cart through the store shadowing my Mom. Its contents included a plastic set of a slab of steak, corn on the cob, a tomato, a bunch of red grapes and a mini bottle of catsup.  That children's toy might have been based on Japan's adult cart concept, if you trade the food contents for affordable local produce and swap the catsup for a bottle of soy sauce. I trailed her in my younger years, until I was big enough to push the Kroger cargo load cart, in tandem with the increasing appetite load and Zidonis kids' leg length loads.  She was a great sport for loading that in the back of the station wagon, and for that matter, other shoppers and employees were more than forgiving.  Over the past 8 1/2 years of my own motherhood, I've found Kroger has upgraded the ride for kids with a car-cart the size of the car I drive in Japan.  The carts for kids to push here are much more down-scaled, size-wise, per my retro 70s experience.

Kiddy cart in foreground, not your fisher price toy.  It has top and bottom basket, and usually she manages to fill it with display items that we usually return on a victory lap just before checkout. 
Unlike the Kroger experience I have when I'm on my annual State-side visits in August, there is no Starbucks kiosk to greet me upon entrance.  If feels like a sip of decadent vacation to wire up and charge the aisles.  The closest we have here is the chilled beverage aisle, which hosts ready made one cup servings of the Seattle java, yet it's not a sip and shop culture, as eating or drinking while walking is a cultural taboo. Besides, the carts reflect that rain gear storage takes priority over the leisure life beverage slot.

Ready-to-go beverages for take home only, not for buying to leisurely sip while you shop.  Carts have a slot for umbrellas, not for drinks like a movie theater seat, despite the feeling that a trip to the store is a work of fiction. 

"Oh Say Can You See" ... see these prices!

On this summer day, from the photo one would think Japan is gearing up for Independence Day, which wouldn't make sense, but at the same time, what makes sense about the concept of the Red White and Blue streaming above produce of my local Saitama Prefecture supermarket?  Pledge Allegiance to the American Cherry Campaign. The US import is usually in season faster than the preferred and pricier Japanese variety, so the Stars and Stripes send off the pride vibe to buy American, pits or not, providing the price is right.

There's no place like home, or like the home of the batch of American cherries on display.
"I'm On Top of the World" is usually the most popular Carpenters song of choice to be streaming through  my shopping experience, which is appropriate because a pair of gift melons from the north usually run about $150, which takes care of the "Wonder in Most Everything I See" refrain of the song.  The out of this world meat price myth rings cow bell true for Japan-farmed cattle, but like the more affordable American cherry import, Australian imported beef is attainable in the sense that you can eat dinner and pay rent in the same month. Yet a serving of Japan-raised beef from the south?  Add the lyric, "Steak Price Tags" to the tune of "Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me Down."

Price tag for HIS and HER steaks, approximately $30 for the one on the left, and $25 on the right.  At least it comes with a plastic flower displayed in the center.
My left hand in the above photo is not a result of a game where I imagine I'm approaching the out-of-reach, expensive slabs. Instead, it's a reality check on the size. Pre-cooked, they are slightly bigger than my palm, yet shorter than the length of my hand - certainly smaller than even a Japanese bread box.  On that note, what defines bread box, and what would you put in it if we really had one in the non-figurative sense?  If cooking out steaks is not an affordable option, there are more entree ideas in the sea. 

The Fresh Fish Box
Seven varieties of Holy Mackerel!
Each tub of ice water is hosting a looks-the-same-but-different variety of freshwater fish, which is not something you usually see with heads and tails in tact in land-locked Ohio State grocery stores, unless you count a picture of friendly cartoon trout on a fish stick box in the frozen food section. The fresh catch requires a tad  more maintenance than the heat-and-eat frozen dinners, and are rarely paired with tartar sauce, but at less than a dollar in season, I don't ruffle feathers.  Or fins.
Squid (いか)
Pronounced, "ika," I know many that would just say, "ick!"
Alternatively, although it's a slippery task to gut the innards from squid and octopus, the reward is that they can be served raw, grilled, deep-fried or boiled and condiment options are bountiful.  If you are learning the language, octopus (たこ)with its phonetic, sounds-like "taco" pronunciation, can be quite disappointing if you are expecting a spicy, salsa, south of the border delight. Some Midwesterners might need the tequila chaser on hand, the non slippery hand.

Cooking Support
Lucy's Advice, 5 Cents Stand
She doesn't look a lot like Lucy from the Peanuts Gang without the blue dress and saddle shoes, but you can be confident in her skills based on her Iron Chef hat, apron and sanitation mask, despite the previous evidence that the fish tubs are packed to the gills, uncovered and unwrapped.  She will help you with the "how-to" of marinating, grilling, stir-frying vs. deep-frying, including recommended side dish options.  Note the stacks of printed menus and color brochures, spelling out the proper sized plate for every different dipping sauce available. A book of rules apply to the pairing (even more than in the searing) process, but rest assured there is a Support System in place.

Bakery Basics 101: Anything between 2 slices of bread does not a sandwich make.
Wonder Bread and Super Bread Heroes

If you're low on nickels from the Cooking Support Stand, the quick "Fresh Sandwich" is a valid alternative. A sample of the special of the day ready-made sandwich: deep friend pork cutlet with teriyaki sauce on white, or mango with whipped cream on white.  There are more than 50 variations on seaweed on the shelves, but they pretty much stick to one "Wonder bread brand" sliced white variety in the bakeries, which remains the true wonder to me with my "yen" for wheat, pumpernickel or rye. Even considering the affordable $4.00 and $2.60 "fresh" specials featured in the above photo, "stale" doesn't sound much worse.

Anpanman (アンパンマン) is a popular animated picture book and cartoon for children.  His head is a bun made by Uncle Jam and he is a true bread roll super hero.  I've never met a bakery in Japan that doesn't have a version of Anpanman's sweet bean curd filled face.  He can be seen below, poised ready to give his signature An-punch or An-kick on command, in the center with the おすすめ(chef's recommendation) tag and a healthy 99 cent price tag.  If you've ever bitten into one, you'd wish the hero remained 2 dimensional the way his creator intended, in books and on screen, since 1973.  If you don't wish to bite into the too cute to eat smiling and dimpled face, take my word for it, bean cured tastes like it was baked in 1973 too.
Fluffy, white and surprise fillings usually line the supermarket bakery shelves.  Sweet bean curd filled superhero Anpanman buns (center) or salmon roe flake topped rolls with mayonnaise design (left) are standard "staples," and tend to taste like office supplies too. 
ABCs of Shopping, without Knowing the ABCs

Though there is not a slice of whole wheat grain for miles and miles, if you want a taste of home, don't try looking for the blaring Stars and Stripes-like clues anymore.  Plan on digging deep in the aisles, and learning to read, because the next chapter of shopping for your life will turn into a guessing game that can send you straight for the spittoon.

By now you're thinking, okay, I've given the sushi and Japanese noodle fare a cultural shot, but it's time to prepare a comfort food stash to fight potential bouts of loneliness and cravings for home. The last time you were learning to read, you were most likely brown bagging a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with your buddies. Let the guessing games begin.  Of the following 7 containers, 5 are fermented with fish stock and garnished with wet seaweed, while the remaining 2 are ground with peanuts and go best with blueberry or strawberry jam.

Peanut butter (ピーナッツバター) flanking the top (middle) row, far left and right.  Center top and bottom 3 are miso (味噌) soup paste.  You want nothing to do with the latter combined with jam.   

Chunky peanut butter donning the red cap, smooth in blue.  Unfortunately, one slight slip of the knife into the wrong tub and you wonder if anything in life could actually be smooth again. Nothing "Jiffy" or "Skippy" about it: one fast move and you could make a serious mistake by applying miso soup paste to your fluffy bean curd bakery bread roll.  Miso paste and purple sweet bean curd a PB (ピーナッツバター) and J does not make.  If you're "fed" up with the challenges surrounding the American sandwich plan, you can go for the Japanese answer to the American sandwich, the (おにぎり) onigiri, or rice ball.

Ironically, the perfect rice "ball" is a triangle.  I used a mold for the first few years to master the shape.  I got that down after a decade. Next step, on to taste, since one could say mine tastes like mold.
The posters at the top display various rice balls wrapped in seaweed, with popular fillings such as pickled plum (umeboshi) or salmon.  It's the picnic or the "brown bag," lunch on the go staple in this country.  They taste better than the description lends, that is they don't taste like staples, unless you accidentally bite into the umeboshi pit.

Grocery Literacy Level 2

If you graduated from reading the difference between peanut butter (ピーナッツバター) and miso (味噌), then you can advance to the subtleties of deciphering the linguistic differences between sugar and salt.  One look at those words in parenthesis next to their English equivalents, you can sense that in the case terms such as, "peanut butter" in Japanese, borrowed words and phrases employ the phonetic alphabet katakana in Japanese and it stands out a little more then words written in kanji or Japanese hiragana.
Left to Right: 塩(salt)、砂糖(sugar)
Pictured on left are 2 bags found on any home pantry shelf.  But do the "letters" on the bags do anything to reveal the mystery powered contents? Hint: The intended use of the bag pictured on the far left is for the rims of your margarita glass, while the contents of the bag on the right is for adding by the spoonful to your coffee mug.  Mix those up and you might as well have eaten Octopus Tacos and a Miso Paste and Jelly Sandwich.

Flour, the Garden Party

Life's answers don't come in a simple box of Bisquick. At least in the flour department, the pictures illustrated on the bags give a clue to the recommended use, assuming that you are somewhat familiar with the Japanese cartoon drawing style, or common menu items.  Even at this level of multiple choice, you would need to read a little more than just "what kind of flour" you're buying since all other required ingredients would take some literacy, and I won't even go into the detailed language and symbols inscribed on all kitchen appliances and gadgets here.  Providing you are not too discouraged to cook and eat, I'll introduce a sample of just the 7 varieties that squeezed into the view of my camera lens from the shelf.

Advanced beginner: who knew there could be so many spins on a bag of flour?  Only 7 fit in my camera lens view.

Starting from the far left, suggested uses for each bag reads: octopus balls (which I realize should be my headline over flour), followed by pancake mix in pink, okonomiyaki (a Japanese style pancake-omelet-meets-pizza, grilled with "ingredients to your liking"), mid-level-strength for breading or frying, then on to the thinner variety (best for tempura); next up, heavy deep frying for spicy fried chicken in purple, and finally, what could have saved me all this space, bringing up the tail end with no picture on the bag, the All Purpose Flour in red. Hang in there, we'll break for coffee next and I promise we will hit the liquor section soon.

The coffee aisle doesn't really leave you with a linguistic puzzle, as the bags of beans are often written in both English or Japanese.  "Special blend, mocha, kilimanjaro" are commonly available, but never in decaf.  I haven't seen decaf available in a local store or restaurant since my 1994 landing, forcing me to venture to out to international marts when I need to tone the wires down, though that jacks the prices up, creating a need to get money "wired" from home.  

In coffee shops and restaurants, there are rarely-to-never any "free refills," as coffee in Japan is an experience or ritual rather than a habit, or addiction. 
The barista said it took 6 years in training to learn this...
...took me 6 minutes to sip it.
I'm pictured at left, smiling, perhaps because it's before the bill, but also out of respect for the artisan who prepared this chef-d'oeuvre in front of me at the counter.

Yes, like everything else in the service industry, presentation is key when it comes to coffee, which may or may not be related to the reason why one of the largest selling brands in Japan is Key Coffee.  The close up of my coffee masterpiece is at the top right, and you can see it's clearly not an image of Anpanman's hat, but modeled after a Miyazaki film heroine. They take great pride in their "service" so hitting the big bucks in pricing is justified.  Besides, the Melba toast was "free," although, like the drink, not refilled (nor was Melba a heroine).  If you're just in the market for a quick fix, then go on the price tag and social class cheap by opting for Stalker's bargain basement (despite the fact that there are no basements in Japan) blends, American or European.  I have no shame.

The American yellow label is customary as it is a "weaker" color to the "robust" brown on the European blend.  Both recommend serving with cream, which hints to how the Japanese feel about foreign brews.
As the generic American and European blends recommend serving with "cream," you can be sure entertaining additives are nearby. American, European or Special Blend, I've never met a native English speaker in Japan that hasn't enjoyed his or her own version of being asked if they would like "a little creep" with their coffee.  Even if bribed with the elusive concept of refills, I will turn down the offer in every case: The number one seller of creamer in Japan is called Creap, taking center stage below among his rivals.

Bad coffee is best when served with bad cream, "Coffee Fresh, Creap, Creamy Powder" are top picks.  
Coffee talk triggers thoughts of breakfast. When I was a kid, breakfast translated into Cap'n Crunch on school days, and on vacation, the even more sugared version, Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch.  Rest assured there is no Miso flavored Cap'n Crunch here, so the mix up as illustrated in operation PB and J thankfully is not an issue.  Along the same lines, kids' cereals the way I remember them, of any variety, aren't an issue here either.  The selection includes limited variations on a small handful of Kellogg's imports - the Corn Flake,  the Rice Puff, the Wheat Flake and, for one kick of pizazz, the Granola Cluster.  From the golden triangle (unfortunately not Golden Grahams) of the 3 grocery stores on my regular-stop radar, the picture that follows boasts the largest cereal selection. That's as good as the breakfast cereal "Life (Hey Mikey!)" in Japan gets.

A friend of mine sent a care-package a couple of years ago, hooking our daughter on Lucky Charms.  Now she even sees the omoiyari courtesy parking spot symbol as the Green Clover.  Yet there is no sign of Lucky the Leprechaun in our cereal "aisle" (more like quarter of one side of an aisle) as the choices are not the mile long walk lined with his colorful friends in Apple Jack, Fruit Loop or Trix Make Believe Land.

Kellogg's corner market in the tiny cereal corner.
Tony the Tiger Family Size
Box sizes are clearly smaller than their State-side counterparts, but that is in line with everything else.  If the photo at left doesn't convince you of the scaled down size of cereal selection, focus on the photo at right.  My left hand, previously modeled with a steak serving, is not even poised at full-flex on a family size box of Frosted Flakes. To parallel, milk and juice cartons only come in a one size fits all quart size.

Even more fun is slashed when you consider, the "menu" ideas on the side panels of the boxes - while American kids enjoy games and quizzes, the labels here feature snack menu ideas, using Corn Flakes as a top layer on crackers with mayonnaise.  Since cereal hasn't really caught on as a morning meal, it's more commonly pushed as a walk on the wild side layer of crunch in a fruit - yogurt sundae, or a high end coffee shop dessert combined with ice cream. Perhaps that doesn't matter to the Japanese, as, the "it's not just for breakfast anymore," orange juice campaign slogan would ring more like, "it's never been for breakfast but it is available as a 'snack' to go with your $9 cup of Key Coffee."

The more common use of cereal: the Corn Flake layer of fruit parfait.
I imagine they feel the need for a coffee break snack like the above if they start their day with the traditional Japanese breakfast, which centers around a bowl of Rice as opposed to a bowl of Rice Krispies, featuring grilled fish, fermented beans, miso soup, pickled plum and dried seaweed.  We've tapped on the fish, miso, umeboshi and seaweed already, but the fermented bean (納豆) options are more plentiful than the cereal varieties.

納豆:Fermented beans is one way to start your day.

More spins on umeboshi than on Corn Flakes 
Photographic evidence above proves that the cereal aisle has 4-5 shelves of "cereal," yet there are 6-7 shelves of pickled plums and fermented beans.  It could be a deal they have with the coffee shops, since with a start of the day already, literally "rotten," who wouldn't foot the $15 bill for a corn flake shake?

"A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter"

My generation can recite the above line from a classic Sesame Street short where a Mom sends her preschooler to the store with the above list, to be a responsible "big girl" and remember the 3 items.  In the era, the container of milk was an assumed quart of milk, which in the States, I believe is still available on the shelves for nostalgia's sake.  In Japan, the quart, known here as 1000ml, is the one size fits all.  It does fit all, assuming you buy no less than 3 at a time.

Small, medium and large all equal 32 fluid ounces (1000ml)  in every "case."
Kids in my hometown fulfilled the educational ritual of graduating from "Safety Town," where we mastered the rules of the road and honed our turn signal skills for riding a bike.  The highlight of the program was the grand finale craft of  making a traffic light from a half gallon sized carton of milk.  No wonder nobody signals on their bikes here (and they also break Japan's "no riding with umbrella law" on a daily basis) - with no half gallon, Safety Town's cardinal Red-Yellow-Green lesson doesn't make the syllabus.  

Is the reason why milk and juice boxes are so small a marketing tactic?  After all, the smaller sizes keep you going back daily, which is appropriate since you only can average 3 measly (not to be confused with muesli) breakfasts out of the Family Size box of Flakes anyway. My $25 beef is that clearly the engineers have worked it out, since their hard liqueur sake containers flank the shelves in larger than 1000ml (quart) sized cartons.  Next time I put salt in my American coffee, maybe I'll just throw caution to the wind and pour sake over my cereal.  Perhaps how that's the Cap'n got his title after all.

This is the more than a kick than your vitamin D fortified aisle, raising suspicion that the larger than quart sized technology does exist, just not for dairy. 
Homebrewing flask sales:  DIY fruit sake
"There is a season, turn turn."  Though the Byrds are a little too hip-indie-folk for Japan's grocery soundtracks, store and merchandise decor celebrate and market the changes. Beer cans change with each season. Kirin, Asahi and Sapporo rival in sales, but they find peace in beautifying lager labels and nature-loving graphic cans.  They feature fall leaves, turning to snow capped mountains, clearing the way for cherry blossom designs, and finally fireworks for the hot festival months.

Summer doesn't only electrify and light up on beer, but it also takes over for the home fruit sake brew: jar and store your own blend, if you prefer the jugs to the cartons. I can't pretend that I've done this, but something about using fresh plums and fermenting them in jars in the kitchen-floor-hatches seems like a waste of cooking energy and storage resources. For me, those 2 floor cupboards represent the closest I will get to having a basement or pantry.  Mine are packed with boxes of microwave popcorn in bulk from Costco Japan. I spend enough resources to make the 3 hour, $26 dollar toll round trip to get the kernels in there to think about making room for jugs of ume-shu plum wine anyway.

Buy One, Get something that has nothing to do with anything, Free!

If jarring your own liquor sounds like too much labor, there is no lack of come-ons to purchase imported wine.  It is a rice wine country, so I enjoy the winning end of the Let "Freebies"Ring that come with the Red, White and Rose.  It's often like the kids' toy basket at a Family Restaurant, you just never know what trinket the markets are going to tack on.  I have a hair scrungie from a bottle of Malbec and a Pokemon key chain from a bottle of Chardonnay, to name just a couple of my carnival like take-aways. 

Cabernet on ice?
Chicken salad sandwich:
Hold the mayo, double the whisky
The Shiraz (left, yellow label) comes with a chocolate dressed up as a gold coin.  Management must be capitalizing on the said health benefits of the flavonoids in dark chocolate combined with the resveratrol in red wine.  Alternatively, they could be giving themselves a gold coin and 4 star review on their Australian import ability. 

Furthermore, in restaurants in Japan, wine by the glass of any color is served more than chilled, whether you like it or not. The mini ice cube tray prize on the Cabernet perhaps is taking the concept a few degrees, Fahrenheit or centigrade, a bit too far for my (now frozen) pallet.

Bar Snacks Beyond Beer Nuts

If the cashier doesn't accept chocolate coins for steak, and you are eating on a budget, go for the jug of whisky that comes with a can of chicken (above right), even sandwiching them between a couple of Ritz crackers if the previously debuted mango cream wonder bread special from the bakery doesn't strike your fancy (below).  

Suntory's Old: A New way to dress up your Ritz
Needless to say, now that we've found ourselves in the happy hour prep-section of the supermarket, naturally we "stumble" upon beer snacks.  Not a familiar jar of Planter's salted peanuts in sight, but plenty of spicy, pickled, or jerkied squid, shrimp, sea urchin, beef or eel, in order to whet, or dry the appetite.

"Pass the...well, just pass, please."

Moving away from the over 21 crowd pleasing theme (well, the drinking age is 20 in Japan), there are plenty of family friendly snacks to add to the bill, and no shortage of cute add-ons to attract the under 10 crowd. When you have an 8 year old assistant pushing her own mini cart in your shadow, it's hard to ignore the abundance family-friendly snacks, as logos come to life.  I should note that the "kawaii" (cute) culture in Japan is not reserved solely for the little ones, as Hello Kitty and Disney gear is also marketed to every bracket of society from homemaker to businessperson. You have to admit, the snack rack below would just be as sad and lonely as a plain ol' Keebler Cookie promo.  The red teddy (not that kind of adult market) photo bomb makes the sale:

All ages in Japan love the cute themes throughout - this teddy bear surprise is an example of what makes it into the bottom basket of my daughter's kiddy cart.
I spent a great deal of our shopping trip among the other AWOL kids in Kroger's crowding around the sample trays.  We pros knew the best picks were usually centered in the deli section, where you could feast on a rolled up slice of turkey, or cubed cheese chunks on crackers from the dwindling "take one, please" basket.  They do the same thing here, except there isn't a deli, there are no Triscuits, no fresh cheese rounds to cube on the market, nor any turkey to be caught in Japanese cuisine.

Instead,  in the spirit of mimicking Asian street market fare, (yet far from State Fair fare), they do set up little tent-like stands, with regional or seasonal themes.  Utsunomiya (宇都宮) City is famous for their (餃子) gyoza, or "pot stickers" (pictured below).  Serving ideas and selected sauces are featured, and disposable chopsticks and samples flourish.  The difference between Stalker and Kroger is that if you taste, the cultural norm is to purchase a pack to go.  I say that's a dissimilarity, maybe because when I made an all you can eat meal out of samples when I was 9, I wasn't carrying a wallet; however, it is likely my Mom was tracing my bread crumb path and picking up after me with her charge card in the end.

Pot sticker tasting corner: Chef pictured in red shirt, meticulously tending to his display.
The housewares aisle might not look like the tailgate or home party supplier of Midwestern America, where you usually can pick up plastic forks, spoons and paper plates. But if you are taking happy hour supplies and appetizers to share with house guests, you need more than simple cutlery (well disposable chopsticks are simple cutlery here, pictured in the above sample by the 100s) for them to enjoy their visit. Guests remove their street shoes in the entrance and expect indoor footwear to be offered even before that first welcome drink. A selection of guest slippers fills the what could have been an extended cereal aisle in a full range of prices, colors and styles.  I admit this is an absolute last minute purchase must.

Guest slippers are one step fancier than family style, so live it up, and enjoy your pickled squid appetizer. 
If the lines at checkout are long, you're out of luck as far as browsing the tabloid headlines or latest cover of People magazine to catch up on the most recent celebrity marriage, "bump" sighting, divorce, or mug shot.  There is a magazine and book section, but not near the registers, which is not a problem considered cash-based Japan has no check-writers holding up the line, and customers are lightening quick at putting exact change with their point cards in the money tray. Although I don't get to catch up on the latest Red Carpet scandal, I bring myself back to my geographical reality abroad by pursuing and quickly skipping the Japan whacky game show TV guide and sports mags (read: national soccer highlights) and check out with my mini cart, double baskets loaded.

If the cooking consultant doesn't troubleshoot all of your homesickness, consider yourself having saved 5 cents from Lucy's advice stand and transfer those funds into the toll road fund and embark on the trip to Costco Japan. Brands and varieties are still limitied, and heavy on the Asian fare, but the bonus is that you can at least get that box of Frosted Flakes in a size that you can put both hands on.  Costco carts are also American sized, but the crowds are Japanese sized in number, so be warned if you are trying to capture that US experience: the following picture is worth a thousand minutes in line for a 100% all pork hot dog.

There's no place like home.  Or a Who concert.
No, Costco Japan isn't exactly Kroger's with my Mom.  But I do go a couple times a year to get "gamey" turkey and other fixings to tease my senses with her homemade holiday meals.  On a regular basis, I stick to the new reality that I've made home.  I imagine I'm sitting with my star-shaped ice cubes, chilling the champagne, in my final wait for the "May Auld Acquaintances be Forgot" chorus to chime through at Stalker, or, while I'm dreaming, a Big Cleveland win.  I don't know which will come first, but I have my semi affordable bowl of American cherries to comfort me in the meantime.  And for the most part?  My tongue in cheek delivery aside, grocery shopping in Japan really isn't the pits after all.  Finally, Auld Lang Syne" blares its last verse, signaling loud and clear in my native language to wrap up my purchases along with my reflections into "my bag."  I'll take the cue, and "CLOSE NOW."