Thursday, 29 March 2012

Food Adventures: Supermarket Sushi

Some things make me love living in Japan. One of those things is shopping in the supermarket in the evening after work and buying lots of reduced food. Admittedly, you can do this in most countries, but in England it would mean soggy sausage rolls and squashed sandwiches. Here, it means sushi and sashimi.

Dinner for two...¥600 (£5). YUM.

PS - Today, I saw an actual real live flower. Growing outside. Spring might actually come to Sendai this year after all.

OK, so they're only buds. But we're getting closer!!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

My week: A fortnight

I'm going to continue to title these posts 'My Week', even though I'm too lazy not enough exciting stuff happens for me to post every week. This really is a random collection! 

I had to make this scary and impossible craft, with 12 children, 1 roll of tape, no common language and about 15 minutes of the class to do it in. Fun times. 

A ridiculous amount of oyster shells aka My Dad's worst nightmare.

I had to go to Kesennuma to teach earlier this week. 4 hours each way with a hotel stay. But it was pretty and sunny....

...and I saw fish drying...

...and my hotel had a funny name. It was actually called the Pearl City Hotel, but an unfortunate Katakana issue means that the 'Ci' bit has to read 'Shi'. I'm 100% mature.

There is nothing like cute biscuits to cheer up a boring office day.

We started watching Series 1 a couple of weeks ago, and we've now almost finished series 3. It's awesome, addictive and annoying, in almost equal quantities.

We went skiing again. 

I made a big mess. I cut John's hair for him, as I was clearing up the cuttings, I knocked over a cup of rice that had been left on the fridge. And there was already a lot of other stuff on the floor because of moving it out of the way for said haircutting. Oh dear.

Proper tin openers cost ¥1000 (£10). So I improvised. Anyone who has ever read 'Three Men in a Boat' will understand why I was laughing hysterically as I did it. And anyone who hasn't read it, should.

Spring still isn't thinking about arriving in Sendai (we had more snow last night for goodness sake), so I brought spring to my nails instead...

...and to my table with a pot of flowers and a glass of summery smoothie in the afternoon sunshine.

And I made a Victoria Sandwich. In a rice cooker. And it works. Yum.

Food Adventures: Changing Menus

Over the last week or so, John and I have made a resolution to have bigger breakfasts and lunches and smaller dinners. Our work means that we usually don't get home until 10pm, so we eat really late, and so big filling dinners are going to make us fat, give us indigestion and stop us sleeping well. Perhaps we should have thought of this sooner, but old habits are hard to break!

So here are a few meals we've had recently...

An Arabic dish called Al Kabsa. This was SO GOOD. One of my favourite things we've made in ages. It was basically this recipe, with a few subsitutions/things missed out but nothing major. 

We served it with homemade pita breads, which I'm making pretty much daily at the moment! I can't get a pocket in them but I haven't given up trying, and they're delicious anyway. I think that this recipe is the easiest and tastiest I've found. It's easily adaptable to make naan breads (add a little yoghurt and raisins at the start, add a mixture of sugar and coconut into the middle near the end). I even made garlic bread tonight, by frying garlic in butter with a bit of basil and black pepper and stirring that into the mixture). Mmmm.

John cooked us a fish that either was kippers, or was very similar to them, for breakfast, with Miso Soup so we felt more Japanese! It was the first time I'd tried them and I wasn't a fan of eating the bones. Do you like the sneaky toast balancing so everything stays fairly hot?!

We treated ourself to lunch out the other day, and I had a かつ丼 (Fried meat, pork in this case, on rice with egg). Yummy. 

We've also had Drop Scones (with raisins in the mixture, served with sliced banana and yoghurt), Welsh Cakes (served with fruit smoothie) and Tamago Kake Gohan as breakfasts recently, and they're all delicious and filling, and fairly good for you if you serve them as I suggested! We're trying to trying out lots of different ideas with our breakfasts, so I'd love any suggestions!

Our lighter dinner have included pumpkin soup (fry onion with LOTS of ginger and a chilli or two, add pumpkin (or butternut squash) and enough stock to cover. Bring to boil, simmer until soft. Blend, add coconut milk/normal milk. Eat. Delicious and easy) , miso soup with soba noodles and fishcakes.

We're getting the hang of what we can cook here!

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Music and Mums

I'm the last person to try and get new music ideas off...I'm too lazy to find new music and just wait till it finds me. Plus, as I've mentioned before, I most often listen to audiobooks or Musical soundtracks anyway.

But I've been listening to Owl City a lot recently, and I wanted to share this cute video I found to my favourite song. Owl City were a bit of a one hit wonder, their song Fireflies reached the top of the charts a couple of years ago but none of the rest of their music has done much. But I still love them and I hope you all enjoy this song. I just downloaded their 'All things bright and beautiful' album, which is just as good as Ocean Eyes (their older and more famous album). I can recommend it if you want a cheery album to bring in spring!

Also, today is Mother's Day in the UK, so HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY to my lovely Mummy! And what a good excuse to share some old photos...

Us at a Brownie Guide weekend

My family at my brother's graduation

Building dens with Brownies

Us in sewn form

On top of the World...well, of Britain anyway!

My brother loves his family...

Friday, 16 March 2012

A Sunny Day Exploring

This week, Sendai finally decided to put some effort into moving away from winter, and giving some actual sunshine and warmth! It was so lovely the other day that I went for a bike ride, and found a gorgeous reservoir a little way from our house. It was still frozen over and was beautiful.

Sunday, 11 March 2012


Living in Tohoku, I couldn't really let today pass without a comment.

I wasn't here last year during the Earthquake and subesquent tsunami, and I don't pretend to understand what people went through on that day, and the time that followed.

But yesterday, I was teaching in Yamoto, a town that was greatly affected by the tsunami. I don't know if it's a average sample of the whole town, but around half the students I teach lost their houses. The journey there is still on bus rather than train because the line was destroyed, and it drives along the coast, past a lot of affected areas. Whilst Japan has done a fantastic job at clearing up the mess left by the tsunami (as these photos show), it's important to realise that the job is far from finished. As well as huge areas where houses have obviously been washed away or pulled down, there are still individual houses, where there is repairable damage, that are left open to the elements with debris all around. Presumably these are houses where the occupants died, since I assume people would have come to clean their houses/yards by now if they were there to do it.

Driving up to Yamoto, it still feels like a disaster area, albeit a cleaned up one. There is still a lot to do, and people's lives are still being affected everyday. Whether they lost a loved one, lost their home or whether it's just living in an area that reminds you daily of what you suffered.

So today, by all means think about (or pray for if you're so inclined) the people that died last year. But give a thought for the people still living too.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Food Adventures: A Japanese Home-Style Set Meal on a Budget

So my first Japanese bank statement came through this week, confirming what I already know: I spend too much money. I'm not silly with money but Japan just seems to eat it somehow. Mothers (mine and John's!), stop panicking, I'm not spending anything like what I earn, but I would like to save more for holidays/when I return to England. Most of my money seems to get sucked up on food. No matter how 'Japanese' I try to go with my diet, meals still come out expensive. There doesn't seem to be cheap food options in the same way there are back home.  Partly it's a problem with still mentally converting prices to £s. When the exchange rate is what it is, that's bound to make me feel depressed. But since I have nothing to compare it to, that's what I'm having to go with at the moment. If anyone whose is living or has lived in Japan fancies sharing what they spend on groceries a week, I'd love to hear. The only estimates I can find online are usually followed by statements like '...and a meal out in an average restaurant costs around ¥5000'. I don't think they're on the same budget as me! Or, occasionally people just suggest eating instant ramen constantly. I'm not that broke yet!

So anyway, this week it's been about eating fairly cheaply. A couple of meals of soup (one miso soup with soba noodles in a soy sauce dressing, and one of pumpkin soup with croutons and pumpkin seeds) brought down our weekly food budget a lot, and John spoilt me on Tuesday by having this delicious spread out for me when I got home from work!

Traditional Japanese set meals are a lot prettier than this, but in the same way, they are made of a few different dishes, that everyone shares from, and eats with their own rice. Usually there would be a fish or meat dish, along with a couple of sides, but since we're trying to be cheap and healthy, this was entirely vegetarian. 

Aubergine (or Eggplant if you are so inclined) with miso. This was the tastiest by far. Yum yum yum. The recipe is here. That website has a lot of good cheap food ideas, but it drives me mad by not allowing right clicks to open a new tab.

This was a John invention of green beans, red pepper and pumpkin fried with a sauce of pretty much equal parts soy sauce, mirin and rice vinegar. It was tasty enough and nice and fresh, but nothing to blow you away. 

This was made entirely because there was okra on offer in the shop, and is okra simmered in soy sauce and dashi stock, with wakame seaweed and sesame seeds. It tasted fishy, and was an interesting different dish. 

Sorry, too much writing and not enough photos for a food post, so one last photo...
7/11 (obviously the best conbini in Japan), is selling chocolate mans. Mans are steamed buns, traditionally pork (which are OK in my opinion), but it's the pizza mans that I love. YUM. Soft bready dought filled with cheese and tomato. Mmmm. And now they make a chocolate one. Filled with delicious runny chocolate sauce. Life is complete.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

My Week: Oh, weather!

This week, me and the weather have been having mixed relations. To be fair, being from England, this is a fairly standard state of affairs, but this week has been particularly tumultuous. We had a couple of days of gorgeous, hurray-spring-is-on-it's-way weather, then a day of freezing cold wind, then one more day of springtime, before the world dumped another 15cm of snow on us overnight. Urgh. Cue a couple of days of cursing the snow, cursing myself because I still haven't bought waterproof shoes and cursing everyone who ever told me Sendai wasn't that snowy (but in their defence, apparently this is the coldest winter Sendai has had for 25 years. Great). But then we went skiing, and the snow near my apartment has melted. So I guess I'm back on OK terms with the weather. For now.

OK, enough excessive prattling about the weather (how middle class British am I?!), here are some photos...

Last weekend I went to another Hinamatsuri event at the International Centre, where I painted these dolls.

Met two girls off JET, and we were all fairly useless together!

View from our apartment on one of the sunny days. It's a shame about all the wires!

The cold weather got to us, and so I made this for dinner. It's one of my favourite recipes, controversially by Jamie Oliver. You can find it here. It's yum, and pumpkin works well in it :D

I was so stressed walking my bike home in the snow that I stopped and took a photo of a random tree.

Because I constantly worry about the lid of my instant ramen coming unflapped in the microwave. OH NO. 

This week I discovered pinterest. About a year behind the rest of the world, but I am in love and addicted already. Aside from useful things, I found this, which made me laugh a lot. It's me, 99% of the time! Source

View from the top of the ski slope we went to. Izumi Spring Valley. Pretty :D And the white blob on the right in the massive buddha statue I've mentioned before. Really need to get round to going to see it properly!

My favourite thing about skiing is the scenery :D

John (in black nearest the camera), looking like a pro. He is turning into one. I am not.

I hope everyone else had a lovely week too, and enjoyed the weather more than me!

Friday, 2 March 2012

Yummy Presents

I Japanese people for so many reasons, but right now I especially love their generosity.

Last week, a friend I'm doing a language exchange with, gave me these chocolates.

They are so cute, and I am far too in love with them to ever actually eat them!

And then, my lovely Japanese tutor gave me some beautiful hinamatsuri sweeties. 
She also showed me the beautiful hinmatsuri display in her house.

Yum yum. These are really cute too, but I am eating them. Slowly :D 

I think I'd better get baking so I've got something nice to give them back next time I see them both! 

Working for Peppy Kids Club in Japan

This might be a bit premature since I've only been here a few months, but I've had a couple of emails from people asking me about Peppy Kids Club/iTTTi Japan, because there really isn't much information on the internet about the company. So, after I'd written a rather long email, I thought I might as well post the bulk of it on here too, to help anyone else who is looking. And I've done it in a Q&A style to make it more accessible. You're welcome :p

What kind of work is PKC? 
It's teaching children at private after school classes. Personally, I'd much rather be playing games, doing crafts and singing stupid songs with kids than teaching stuffy businessmen grammar, but it's totally a personal preference. Think before you apply about whether you're happy to work with kids everyday. My youngest class are 3 and my oldest are 17, but the average is about 8-11. You'll be teaching Tuesday to Friday evenings, and during the day on Saturdays (usually). There will be anything up to 13 kids in a class, but most commonly there's about 8 students. 

Where are you teaching?
With Peppy you're teaching at 3 or 4 separate locations, and you're (almost) always teaching independently. The classrooms are all just by themselves, taking up the space where a shop or apartment or something would usually be, rather than being in bigger schools. It's great because it means you have a lot of freedom, but I think it worries some people because you have complete responsibility for the kids. 

Is it true the commuting is a pain?
Because you're at 3 or 4 different schools, and because they're all in random locations, you'll probably have to commute quite a long way for some of your schools. I only have 3 schools, and one is a 20 min bike ride away, one is about 90 minutes by foot/train/bus and the last one is almost 3 hours away (that is because the train line leading there was destroyed by the tsunami last year, and I am only teaching there for one more month until I get a closer school about 2 hours away). The commuting is a pain but it's not the end of the world. It's outside rush hour, and the company pays. It sucks getting home at 10/11pm, but you do usually only have to go work at 3pm.

What are the working hours like?
Peppy has really quite short working hours. The MOST I work in one week is 15 teaching hours, and the least is 6. I also have one week where I don't teach at all, and instead I have "office days" where you're supposed to plan classes (but there's never enough to do so it'd really studying/computer game playing/reading/whatever time!). Even if you included the commuting time as work time, I never work anything like a full time job. Obviously, like anyone working, there's quite a lot of time spent at work, but it's really not that much compared to most jobs! 

What about days off?
As for days off/holiday, I was confused about this right up until halfway through training!! Most working weeks are Tuesday-Saturday, although depending on your schools it might be a little different. And then holiday-wise, you get a week off at the start of May for Golden Week, a week off in August for Obon, about 2 weeks over Christmas and New Year (this is when the 5 company holiday days are), as well as several 3/4day weekends, random days off, and 5 paid holiday days to be taken when you like. You can also take extra unpaid days off, as long as your supervisor agrees, and while I haven't tried to do this myself, the other people I've spoken to said it's usually pretty easy to do so long as you give enough notice. There's more time off than I thought there would be. 

Can you survive/save on the money you're given?
You can easily save money if you want to. We think we could save at least 60,000yen a each a month, and I still feel that we're making the most out of opportunities and not stressing about money to be able to save that much. Maybe in the months when we have holiday time and we go away we won't be able to save that much, but personally I'd rather make the most out of being in Asia (we're going to Taiwan for week in May :D). Some teachers seem to really struggle on their paychecks. I honestly have no idea how though. Lots and lots of alcohol, crazy trips and too much shopping I guess. But Japan isn't that much more expensive than England, so unless you're stupid you can definitely save money. Oh, but be prepared to be broke when you first arrive, whatever company you go with: the exchange rate is crap, it'll be a while until your first paycheck, and there's a lot of starting up expenses, like buying a phone, a bike, setting up utilities etc.

Is it easy to meet people?
As for meeting 100% depends where you get placed. We've found it hard to meet people, but our circumstances are a bit complex since we're in the area that was affected by last year's tsunami. So a lot of foreigners left after that and there's still a lot fewer than before. But we have met people, it just might take a little while. It depends on so many factors, but there are plenty of people to be met! I think I need to get better at being brave enough to just accost random people in the street! One of the things about Peppy that isn't so good is that because you're working alone with children, there aren't many adults to be met through work. 

Are you pleased you work for PKC?/Are they a good company to work for?
Whilst we've had plenty of minor issues with Peppy, they are pretty good and helping you sort out problems/translate for you etc. They're not very forthcoming with help until you directly ask them about it, but then we've found them mostly pretty good. The work is pretty easy and the hours are fairly light. I don't feel like they are trying to screw us over. 
BUT, having said that, if I have other options, I don't think I'll work for them for more than a year. Working in the evenings isn't ideal, and I'm not a massive fan of their curriculum. Our apartment locations completely sucks which is their fault, and they weren't great at being honest with us and treating us like adults when we first came. 
BUT, I do think they're a good, easy and relatively stress-free way to come to Japan. A good starter company, I think.

I hope that information is helpful to anyone who is thinking of working for Peppy. If you have any more questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer. And if there's anyone who disagrees with me, then feel free to write that too. And if anyone from Peppy reads this, I hope I don't get fired! 

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Things that Baffle, Confuse, Amaze and Annoy

Moving to another country, especially one as different as Japan was always going to present daily occurances of things that made my brain hurt a bit. There are plenty of one off things that I don't understand, but here is a little list of the things that I wonder and worry about on pretty much hourly basis.

In no particular order...

* Why, when 98.5% of the population are Japanese (and of the other 1.5% are nearly all Korean and Chinese), are so many signs and announcements everywhere in English? I am definitely not complaining on this point, it enables me to keep my head above water with my pitiful Japanese ability, but I just don't understand. Who is it benefiting? Well, me, obviously, but me, and other stupid Westerners like me, definitely can't shop enough to make it financially worth it for companies to pay for so much translation.

* Japanese toilets.
They do have heated toilet seats though, so I 100% forgive all the confusion.

* People who sit on a crowded train with their bag on the seat next to them, and deliberately stare out of the window/at the floor/at their phone to attempt prevent themselves having to move the bag to allow someone to sit there. Grrrr. And people who will stand for a 30 minute train journey when there are seats, because they are too polite/shy/stupid to ask someone to move. Does anyone really enjoy standing on trains? 

¥100 shops. I love them. How do they make everything in them for 80p? Detailed blog post about their amazingness to follow at a later point in time.

* Not having an oven. There's no space for one in my apartment, even if they were more common in Japan, but this still makes me sadder than anything else on this list. Roast dinners, cupcakes, sweet potato chips, date loaf, lasagne, smartie cookies....the list of things I dream about cooking if only I had an oven could go on and on.

Maybe they don't need to wish my brother Happy Birthday next time, but I want these! And, note to self, DO NOT look at all the photos of all the baking you've ever done, while currently unable to bake. It will make you sad.

* WHY IS THERE NO INSULATION? Double glazing is NOT a modern invention. Japan is NOT a warm country. Annoying English door to door salesmen need to move countries. Condensation on the inside of my window being ice in the morning is not cool. (Or is is very cool. ha ha ha.)

* The price of fruit and vegetables. I know it's because they are all imported but it still makes me sad to pay £1.30 for an apple, £2 for a lettuce and 60p for an onion, and to know that I'm not going to able to buy any delicious summer fruit this year without selling my body/my soul/John/my computer (delete as appropriate).

* Why Japanese food doesn't make me fat. It should. I eat like a pig, and there's a lot of fried food, tons of starchy carbs and too many tasty snacks, but somehow I still lose weight. 

As my students say constantly in my classes、 わかないい!(I don't understand!!)

PS - Sorry Dad, I know you told me on skype yesterday that the best thing about my blog was that there were lots of pictures and you didn't have to read too much, but I'd already planned this post. You'll have to struggle through!