Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"You are what you eat"

Inspired by the Good Magazine Picture Show "You Are What You Eat", this is a picture of my fridge after going grocery shopping today:

English Assistant Language Teacher | Semi-Rural Northern Japan | 1-Person Household | Often skips meals | 2009

(The caption is also modeled after the article.)

So far I think I'm doing a decent job of buying local/domestic.

Top Shelf (left to right):
- Akita Prefecture milk (one of the prefectures directly below Aomori)
- bottle of Towada Tare sauce (one of our specialties!)
- lemon/peach/mango tea made in Miyagi Prefecture (Tohoku Region--i.e. the same region as Aomori Prefecture!).

Middle Shelf (left to right):
- Iwate Prefecture (the other prefecture directly below Aomori) tofu--in Ziploc container
- Yamagata Prefecture (again Tohoku Region) white peach jelly
- Chinese chestnuts (whoops! see note below)
- (Danone) Bio aloe yogurt made in Gunma (northern part of the Kanto region, at least)
- Meiji aloe yogurt (behind the Bio) made in Tokyo (a little further south)-- no aloe flavour available in the Bio brand today

[Note on the chestnuts: I was tricked/confused because there's Chuugoku Region (includes Hiroshima Prefecture) in Japan, but Chuugoku is also the Japanese name for China. Since the product was certified organic by the Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS), I thought maybe the chestnuts were from the Chugoku Region. But after a little research, I found out that there are indeed organic chestnuts from China certified by JAS, so... ^^;; Surely there must be Japanese chestnuts available somewhere?! But at least China is closer than America (previously purchased almonds).]

Fruit/Veggie "Drawer" (left to right):
- Aomori Prefecture (from Sannohe to be precise!) cherries
- Towada mini-tomatoes
- Aomori Prefecture carrots--behind tomatoes
- Ibaraki Prefecture (again, northern part of Kanto Region) green peppers
- Towada cucumbers

After grocery shopping, I decided I was hungry enough to put a little more effort than usual into making (note, not "cooking") dinner. So I went through the extra effort of peeling a carrot, scooping the seeds out of a green pepper, and putting some soy sauce and bonito on tofu for a bit of protein--not to mention, variation!

With the bonito, I guess my dinner was pescatarian* rather than vegetarian, but it's not like I'm trying to become vegetarian anyway. I'm simply too lazy to cook meat. =P

(*With pescatarianism people eat seafood but not meats like chicken, beef, pork, etc. Since Japanese people usually make a distinction between meat and fish, if you tell them you're vegetarian, chances are they'll think you're pescatarian and serve you fish instead of beef/chicken/pork, etc.!)

Anyway, one thing I've realized about trying to eat more local produce/products is that it increases your grocery shopping time because you have to stop and read labels for everything! And since my Japanese geography is terrible, I was even pulling out my JET diary and looking at the map of Japan to choose brands made in prefectures closer to Aomori!

If I have time one day, I think I should go to the Michinoku Eki and see if there's a bigger selection of local (Towada) produce/foods there. There's also a fruit/veggie store just down the street from me and a produce stand right outside the Taisozuka... Right now I usually go to the Jusco because it has convenient hours (open 'til 11pm), and offers a point program (using WAON), but I really should at least check out the smaller, neighbourhood shops sometime.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Going green...

Lately in an effort to be more ecologically/environmentally friendly (or "eco" as they call it in Japan), I've been making minor changes to my shopping habits.

When purchasing produce, for example, I've been trying to purchase local Towada stuff as my first choice (even if it's slightly more expensive) and domestic as my second choice. The only thing I haven't been able to give up is bananas (from the Philippines).

I'm also trying to avoid purchasing beverages in PET (plastic) bottles; instead, I'm going for stuff in Tetra Paks. Recently, it's been mostly ice tea--lemon, peach, and/or mango. Of course, the best thing I could do is to stick with water, but I'll have to wean myself off gradually.

Another thing I'm attempting to wean myself off of is pre-prepared/packaged foods. Instead of buying the super market bentos, I'm trying to "cook" more meals for myself. Of course, since I'm a poor cook at best and lazy to boot, this has resulted in my having more uncooked dinners.

Inspired by Joeie and Hotaru no Hikaru (v5 ch27), I've discovered that cucumber, broccoli, and tomatoes make for a fairly substantial dinner. Sometimes I add a plum, some strawberries or cherries for dessert as well. For protein, if I have time during the week, I might hard boil a bunch of eggs and have one with the raw veggies. For dairy, I've been eating a lot of Danone Bio (Activia in Canada, I think) aloe yogurt. Unfortunately it only comes in the individual (80g cup) size, and not the large containers, so it's a bit more packaging than I like...

I figure I get more than enough carbs from school lunch (obviously only on weekdays) and breakfast (how would I survive without my Multi-Grain Cheerios?!), so I don't really bother with any for dinner.

Another diet change--although it's not really an "eco" thing-- is that I'm making an effort to cut down on my snack--chocolate, cookies, chips, etc.--intake as well. At first I wanted to go with roasted almonds as a healthy snack to satisfy any savoury food cravings, but then I realized that they (the almonds) are all from America. So now I'm trying to find a domestic healthy savoury snack. (Found dried eggplant...chips(?) in the Towada Jusco today, but as much as I love eggplant, I wasn't brave enough to test them out...) I think for sweets, I can probably be satisfied with fruits. I also discovered locally made banana chocolate chip muffins I can treat myself with once in a while. ^_^

Of course, I'm still going to be eating less than healthy stuff--my monthly cone from Baskin Robbins, for one--but I'm trying to be a bit healthier/more balanced in my eating. Part of what sparked the change is that I was looking at the reports from my past two annual physicals (all city employees have to have them) and I realized that although most of the not so great things--weight, blood pressure, etc.--had gone down in the second one, my cholesterol level had actually gone up. My dad's heart surgery made me realize that I really need to be more careful about cholesterol.

I know I should also be exercising , but I haven't been able to overcome my laziness for that yet. ^^;;

Anyway, another reason for my recent attempts at diet change is that I've been reading a lot of online magazines like Green Living (Canadian), Ode (Dutch) and Good (American) that make me want to do more to make the world a better place. I'd like to think that the changes to my purchasing/eating habits are making a positive impact, no matter how small the effect may actually be.

Along the same lines, I've recently been participating in some campaigns:
- Better the World: Make money for a select charity just by surfing the web!
- One Million Acts of Green: A project that originated from CBC's The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos and has now gone global! Sign up to perform "an act of green" to see how much a small action can reduce your annual carbon footprint.
- Free Rice: Each correct answer to a multiple choice English vocabulary question earns a donation of 10 grains of rice to the UN World Food Program to help end hunger.

And through Better the World I've discovered an awesome online bookstore: Better World Books. Each purchase you make contributes to global literacy, and you can also help save the environment by purchasing used books and/or carbon offsets for shipping from the site as well. The prices are quite competitive, and shipping is only $3.97 worldwide.

Unfortunately, I can't say that the international shipping is particularly fast: my order was supposedly shipped on June 2nd, but I still haven't received it! (In the meantime, something I ordered from RightStuf--also based in the US--was shipped on June 9th and arrived this past Tuesday, June 23rd.) But so long as I *do* get my books (I'm rather worried that they've been "lost in transit") I'd say it's worth the wait to be making a contribution to literacy and also saving money simply by doing something I'd be doing anyway (i.e. buying books).

I can't imagine making a wholesale life(style) change like Brenda, for example, but I want to try to live more conscientiously, doing the small things I can to make a difference--like using a powerbar and unplugging electronics/appliances when they're not in use; or setting my A/C temp higher in the summer and my heater temp lower in the winter.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Things I (will) miss

The official start of my third (and final) year working in Towada is in 6 weeks. Hard to believe I've only got a little over 13 months left living in Japan.

Lately I've been thinking a fair bit about all the small things I will miss, as well as all the small things I miss now and am looking forward to having again when I go back home.

Things I miss (now):
  • Libraries! Other than cleaning up my room (not to mention dealing with all the stuff I've left in various other parts of the house), I expect to spend a lot of my time after I get back reading! On average I think I've only been able to read one new book per month since moving to Japan!!
  • Breakfast restaurants!! Every once in a while I get a craving for eggs benedict...
  • Steak: Japan does have steak, but it's either too thin or too fatty (since Japanese people tend to like their beef marbled...)
  • Interac: It still seems strange to me that a society as high tech as Japan is still a mostly cash-based society
  • Canadian food labels: Canadian food labels really give a lot of information; plus I miss seeing labels in English and French! (Quite odd, actually, considering that I only really read the English...)
  • Oven: Baking ~150 cookies every Christmas and Valentine's Day is ridiculously time consuming when all you've got is a toaster oven that can fit about 9 cookies at one time
  • FoodTV: Good Eats, Unwrapped, Ace of Cakes, Iron Chef... Even though I can't cook for the life of me, I enjoy watching others who can!
  • 680 News: I am so hopelessly clueless when it comes to what's going on (in Japan and the world) since I'm too lazy to check online news sites or to watch the news on TV

Things I will miss (back in Canada):
  • Eneos: I love my local Eneos gas station. It's pretty much the only place I get gas in Towada, and I've done most of my car maintenance (various fluid changes, tire changes, shaken, etc.) there as well. After my car accident, some of the staff even asked about the change in car!
  • Portion sizing: Japanese restaurant portion sizing is SO much more reasonable than in Canada (or America).
  • Kit Kat: It's probably better for my teeth and weight, but I'm definitely going to miss trying out all the seasonal and regional Kit Kat flavours!
  • Baskin Robbins: Again, I'm going to miss the new monthly flavours!
  • Festivals: Toronto does have various festivals, but it's not the same as having local festivals where students from your school(s) perform and it seems like everyone in the nearby area comes out! And of course, I'll miss the takoyaki, yam fries, and other festival street food!
  • Tsutaya: No more 100 yen and half price rentals that allow me to check out all sorts of Japanese movies. Actually, I'm going to miss easy access to Japanese movies and dramas period
  • Used stores: It particularly sucks that I won't be able to pick up an entire series of manga in one large discounted set anymore. And I'll have to go back to ordering movies new from CDJapan and most likely getting hit with customs' taxes...
  • All-inclusive prices: Having the tax included on the sticker price and not having to pay tips in restaurants!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Looking back, looking forward

So our new ALT is confirmed!! At first we thought she'd be coming with Group C (which is really late!) but it turns out she'll be coming with Group B, which is much better! Unfortunately, I won't be in Towada for the first five days or so after her arrival, but hopefully I can be sufficiently helpful afterwards. ^_^

(Out of curiosity, any new Aomori-bound JETs reading this?)

Some unsolicited advice to incoming ALTs (selections from and additions to my "So you're moving to Japan" and "More thoughts on moving to Japan" posts from last year):

- find and join your local JET community now! For Aomori-bound JETs, there's the Aomori Listserve and Aomori JETs Facebook group. A lot of people are selling cars now, and chances are (unless you're in a big city like Aomori City) you're going to want one!

- if you've renewed your passport within the past year, bring your old passport with you; ditto if your current driver's license is less than 3 years old (if you weren't allowed to keep your old license, consider getting a copy of your driving record to prove how long you've been driving) -- this will save you a LOT of hassle if you decide to stay for a second year and need to get a Japanese driver's license

- IF you can comfortably wear Japanese-size clothing (if you're tall, it might be difficult...) and you're NOT going to an ultra-rural town/village, only bring clothing that you REALLY like and always wear (the more versatile, the better) because chances are you're going to buy clothing in Japan and it's a pain to have to donate/throw away a lot of clothing when you're leaving

Rough Japanese Clothing Sizes (from Uniqlo, a fairly ubiquitous Japanese clothing store chain):
Length: 150-185 cm
Chest: 78-112 cm
Waist: 66-100 cm

Length: 149-166 cm
Bust: 74-98 cm
Waist: 57-81 cm
Hips: 82-106 cm

Shoe sizes are also comparatively limited:
MEN: 24-29 cm
WOMEN: 22-24.5 (Some stores may have L or LL sizes which go up to 26 cm, but the selection is generally quite limited.)

- for females, remember that deep-cut tops and clothes that ride up/down to expose skin are not so great for an office/school environment; people WILL comment, even if not to your face

End of advice. (Again, see previous posts for more detailed suggestions.)

As always, the onset of summer makes me remember being a newly arrived JET and feeling worried but excited and insecure but eager. I remember loving the school visits right from the get go, even though I always felt like I could be doing so much better.

And I remember talking to my parents a few weeks into teaching and telling them: "Sorry, but I think I'm going to stay here for two or three years." (Before I came I was positive I was going back after one year.)

It's a strange feeling, looking back, seeing how far I've come, and knowing that this next year will be my last.

After almost two years, I'm finally reaching the point where I don't have to spend a lot of time planning lessons and making materials before every single (elementary) school visit. Of course I still try to come up with new games, and I still have to make materials on occasion, but I'd say I can prepare for visits in 30 minutes or less at least 60% of the time now. (Even three months ago I'd probably have said I was spending 60 minutes or more preparing for 70% or more of my elementary visits...)

Now I'm more concerned about making documentation (bilingual lesson plans, school schedule translations, etc.) for my successor. Having benefited a lot from the various materials left by previous ALTs (and Andy, of course!), I want to pay it forward and leave my successor with as many game ideas and information about school life/events (mainly at Kirita) as possible.

That said, my goal since my first year has been to make life both easier and harder for my successor than it was for me. I'd like it to be easier in the sense that s/he will have even more information/materials available to use than I had when I first came. But I'd like to leave Towada having done such a good job and having made such a lasting impression in my work that whoever comes after me will really have to work hard to live up to the schools', teachers' and students' expectations.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tired every day...

I won't say that I've been too busy to post--because I spend waste a lot of time on Facebook, randomly surfing the net, etc.--but I will say that I've been too tired to post lately because of the amount of time I've been spending at school.

And when I say "school" I mean Kirita, specifically. Out of five visits to Kirita so far this month, I've only left at my scheduled time (5pm) once. The rest of the time I've been leaving between 6pm and 7pm (usually around 6:30pm). And this "overtime" is on top of elementary school visits before Kirita on two mornings, and two lunch time eikaiwas with the teachers.

So yeah, I really haven't felt like doing anything more strenuous than web surfing, reading books/manga, or watching anime/J-dramas after coming home for the past little while. I really don't know how regular Japanese teachers put up with the crazy long hours! And at least I know that when spring/summer/winter vacation comes, I can actually go on vacation and not worry about school for a while, whereas they usually still have to go to school! It's a crazy life!