Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pudding in a balloon

One of the joys of living in Japan is getting to try all the wacky drinks, candy and other products they have here. Take this thing for example, which I found in the 7-11 by our house:

It's pudding in a balloon. Japanese people really love custard pudding (they call it purin) and it's easy to find little pudding cups in all the convenience stores. So why is this kind in a balloon? Beats me. Quite frankly this looks like a teenage boy's dream come true. Who needs to toilet paper houses when you have balloons pre-filled with pudding?

This particular pudding comes from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, which is famous for its dairy products. Note the cow laying an egg (or... a pudding balloon?).

Inside the container, this is what you get:

Pudding balloon, cute little spoon, some caramel sauce and a toothpick. You stab the balloon with the toothpick and then you can squeeze it into the container and add caramel sauce. Or I suppose you could just suck it straight from the balloon.


It was yummy. Tasted the same as the custard pudding in a cup, though.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Mr. Grapefruit Monster

The other day I saw this enormous grapefruit at the neighborhood market with the locally grown produce. Priced at 200 yen ($2), it was about as dirt cheap as any fruit gets in Japan, so I decided to take the gamble and bought it.

This thing had to be double the size of a normal grapefruit. Like the size of a cantaloupe. Actually I wasn't 100 percent sure it was a grapefruit, but it looked like one, and it faintly smelled like one, so... I guessed it was a grapefruit. Hard to tell in Japan, there's quite a bit of mysterious produce here.

When I sliced it open, this is what I found.

Yeah, it pretty much had the look of a grapefruit, just with a skin at least an inch thick. I got out a spoon and tasted it. Pretty dry. Tasted like pretty lousy dried-out grapefruit. I ate a few bites but that was all I could take.

So... the 200 yen gamble was a loser. But all was not lost! For the lousy grapefruit became....(drumroll)

Mr. Grapefruit Monster!


When Joe saw it, he said, "Why'd you waste a perfectly good Oreo?" I knew he'd say that.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

United Airlines: Thumbs Down!

CNN ran this alarming article on Friday about a jumbo jet's mid-air fuel leak during a flight from Chicago to Tokyo. An Air Force sergeant who was a passenger alerted a flight attendant after he looked out the window and saw fuel streaming out behind the wing. The leak forced the plane to divert to San Francisco. At the rate it was losing fuel, it would not have had enough fuel to make it safely to Tokyo.

Of course it didn't escape my attention that this was a United Airlines flight. Joe and I just flew from Chicago to Tokyo on United a couple weeks ago on a Boeing 747, just like this plane. Reading the article, I saw that in fact we shared the same flight number, UA881. USA Today published the plane's registration number, so I dug up the print-outs of our flight information and sure enough, it was the exact same plane.


This incident happened April 18, a week before Joe and I took our flight on the plane.

While scary, I can't say that it's entirely shocking. Our experience flying United left me with the impression that the airline was cutting corners. The flat screen TVs in United's terminals had horrible black blotches all over the screens and clearly needed to be replaced. The food portions we were served were ridiculously small. And my seat tray was broken on both flights. On the flight to the U.S., I had to push really hard on the tray when I was putting it up in order to get the latch to slide over it and hold it up. I'm pretty sure the guy sitting in front of me switched seats because I was pushing him forward so hard repeatedly. On the flight back to Japan, when I unlatched the tray the whole thing dropped forward so hard and fast it knocked the coffee in my hand all over my shirt. Nice way to start the flight. I remember commenting to Joe at that point that if they weren't maintaining these small things, I wondered if they were maintaining the rest of the plane the way they were supposed to.

Apparently not.

I wish the media would follow this story and tell us how this leak happened. I'd love to know if it was due to shoddy maintenance.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mild culture shock (and other odd stuff about going home)

One thing's for sure about being home for two weeks: I never thought Springfield could be so refreshing. It felt good to be back in truly familiar surroundings again. But it was also a little strange, too. I didn't really realize just how used I'd gotten to the way things are in Hiroshima, to the point that things back home seemed somehow "off." It's hard to explain, but I guess you could say we felt a touch of reverse culture shock.

It was a lot of little stuff that threw me. Like, I just couldn't seem to get over the constant feeling that the world looked so empty. Hiroshima is set in a valley between lots of mountains. There are also plenty of high apartment buildings, so that everywhere you go you always feel like there's a lot above you — mountains, buildings, the Astram line, the highway. But in Springfield, everything felt so low to the ground. I looked up and there was nothing but sky. Everything seemed so vacant.

For that matter, everything was so green. The trees were bare when we arrived but everything blossomed after a few days. In Ohio I took for granted the green landscape that surrounded me everyday. I never realized how refreshing that was until we got to Japan and I saw that no one here has a yard with actual grass. Just dirt. Most of the trees and plant-life you see here are very heavily landscaped, with the Japanese exercising tight control over the natural environment so as to maximize the efficient use of space everywhere. Houses and buildings are crammed tightly together. There's a lot of concrete. Even in natural areas, there's concrete. Anyone who's been to Japan knows that the Japanese love to pour concrete down the side of mountains, along river beds, everywhere. It can be pretty hard to escape.

The money felt strange, too. Imagine that, I never dreamed American money would feel strange in my hands. But it did. All the coins seemed too small. I guess I've just gotten used to the larger Japanese coins.

The money no longer felt familiar in my hands anymore. Even the bills have been redesigned with more colors since we left. It looks like Monopoly money.

The food was another thing. A lot of food and drinks were just too sweet. Japanese food is pretty bland and the desserts aren't so loaded with sugar. I almost started to feel like there must be extra sugar added to everything Americans eat. So many things just seemed a little sweeter. The chicken at the Chinese buffet, the lemonade at the coffee shop that was so sweet I couldn't even drink half of it, the "healthy" cereal. Even my parents' tap water.

Not only that, but when did the 6-piece nugget meal at McDonald's become a kid's meal?

And the cereal — it felt funny being able to read the box again! I'm so used to sitting at the kitchen table in the morning trying to read what little bit I can decipher off the cereal boxes. Suddenly it was all in English again and it just seemed so... simple. Like somehow something was missing.

One thing we knew we'd have a hard time adjusting to was the customer service. Nothing beats Japan's customer service. Employees are always clean, respectful, and they almost never screw up your transaction. In restaurants, servers leave the bill on your table right after you've ordered, so you don't have to wait forever wondering when your server will get around to telling you what you owe. The best thing is the call system they have in a lot of restaurants. If you need your waitress for something, you just hit the button on your table and your waitress calls out "Hai!" to acknowledge you and then comes hurrying over to your table to see what you need. In places that don't have a button, it's perfectly acceptable for you to half-shout, "Sumimasen! (Excuse me!)" to get the server's attention. Compare that to America, where I'm pretty sure I might end up with spit in my food if I did that. Or where, on our first visit back last year, we had to wait for the cashier in Taco Bell to finish chatting with her buddy and pop a zit on her neck before asking what we wanted. I'd also apparently forgotten the proper procedure at check-out in stores this time, too. When I bought some pants at Old Navy, the clerk bagged them up and thanked me. I stood there staring at him for an awkward moment until he said "Everything OK?" I'd been waiting for him to pick up the bag and gingerly hand it to me as they do in Japan; he was expecting me to pick it up myself and skedaddle.

I'm also pretty sure I bowed to a bunch of people back home without thinking about it, too. Bowing becomes so ingrained in you in Japan, you do it without thinking. My aunt said I bowed to her after opening up some gifts she gave me. I toured Springfield's new high school and bowed to random strangers before passing them in the hallway. That was weird.

Another weird moment: in the movie theater. Joe was super-excited about seeing Wolverine, so we went to see the first showing at the mall theater. Above the ticket counter, there was a sign posted saying that Monsters vs. Aliens was not in 3D. I turned to Joe and said, "What, are you supposed to be able to see that movie in 3D in other theaters?" He said yes and tried to change the subject, but when I said something else about how neat that sounded, he told me we should talk about it later. Guess I was embarrassing him by asking silly questions that made it look like I was living in a cave. According to him, other people must have thought we sounded like aliens living on another planet. Hadn't I seen all the news stories on this? Well, no, I don't usually pay attention to movie reviews, and being in Japan I'm totally isolated from any of the usual buzz you hear day-to-day about various movies. In a way, I am on my own planet over here.

I also felt that way when I picked up my hometown newspaper, the one I used to work for, and discovered it had changed. There were a lot fewer pages, the pages themselves were narrower, the type on the weather map on the back page was so minuscule I could hardly read it, there was a new design. A lot more ads, a lot less newsprint in the pages that are left. I felt sad and disappointed. It just wasn't the same.

One day Joe and I went to his mom's work to meet her for lunch. On the way out we bumped into one of her co-workers and she introduced us and to my surprise the guy gushed about what a fan he was of mine. I was caught off guard, thinking, "This place is a little far away from Springfield, but he must have seen something I wrote in the paper?" No — he meant my blog! Odd to think people know me now by my writing in the blog, not the paper.

A lot of things have changed while we've been gone, even though it hasn't been that long. New stores open up, others close. Springfield has a brand new high school. They're putting in entrance/exit ramps connecting the main road by my parents' house to the highway. Downtown's all torn up for construction of the new hospital...

And suddenly there are a lot of babies. I guess we're just at that age where everyone starts to have babies? We spent some time getting to know our niece, Chloe, who was just 2 months old when we first met her and is now a lively 16-month old, walking around, saying a few words. I also met my cousin's son for the first time, as well as the chubby-cheeked baby of a former co-worker my age. It was a lot of fun playing with these kids. But it also kind of reminded me that, if we weren't in Japan, we'd probably have our own little chubby-cheeked wonder right now.

And that's a strange thought, too.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Swine Flu hysteria

Having now fully recovered from jet lag after returning from two restful weeks in Ohio, I thought I'd share our experiences dodging swine flu on the way back to Japan.

The swine flu story broke a day or two after we'd arrived in Ohio and dominated the news the rest of the trip. I didn't pay much attention until I heard the newscasters say that workers in Narita Airport in Tokyo were screening all passengers for fevers to stop the spread of the disease. Oh. Crap.

It's not that Joe and I were so worried about developing a case of the sniffles on the plane ride back. And we were fully prepared to lie about our contact with farm animals at my friend Paul's house and Young's Jersey Dairy during the vacation (hey... swine flu or no, a girl's gotta have her cow patty ice cream!). Our biggest concern was what kind of monkey wrench all this agonizing over the virus would throw into our return flight plans. Yeah, we had a three-hour layover between the arrival of our flight in Tokyo and the departure of our flight to Hiroshima, but in that time we had to go through immigration, customs, retrieve our bags, take a bus across town to a different airport on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year in Japan, re-check the bags, go back through security, etc. Suddenly that three hours — assuming our flight arrived on time — seemed pretty tight.

The 12.5-hour flight back went smoothly. Though United Airlines managed to annoy me pretty thoroughly with their broken seat trays (on both flights!) and abysmal food (and I have such low standards about airline food that I've never found room to complain — til now! Might as well've been dog food!), at least they got us there close to on time, which is more than I can say for Northwest, (as you may recall).

We were itching to get up and get outta there after 12.5 hours with our butts planted in our seats. But upon arrival, a flight attendant came over the intercom and ordered us to stay put while officials from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare checked us for swine flu. We rolled our eyes while filling out a form with questions about whether we felt sick — really, would anyone feeling ill answer those things truthfully? Then we sat and waited for the check-ups. Soon we saw how these examinations would be conducted. A half dozen Japanese dudes decked out in hospital scrubs, surgical masks and goggles slowly made their way down the aisles. One guy carried a device that looked like an enormous red video camera. It was a thermal-imaging camera that read passengers' body heat. As he inched down the aisle, he pointed the camera at each passenger to see if he could detect a fever. Barring anything suspicious, his cronies inspected the silly forms, confirmed everything looked OK, and issued yellow certificates of health.

It was kinda freaky sci-fi. I couldn't help feeling like I was in the middle of some futuristic science fiction movie. Across the aisle from me, they questioned one guy who looked fishy on the thermo-imaging camera and then stuck a digital thermometer in his ear. Then they decided he was OK after all and issued him his yellow certificate. Several rows ahead, the goggle-wearing Japanese started pointing a lot of fingers at one guy in the middle seat. We groaned.

After an hour and a half of this, with Joe fretting in the seat next to me about what we'd do if we missed our connection, the flight attendant came back over the P.A. and told us we were all free to go — except for a section of 10 rows seated just ahead of us. Those were all the poor saps seated around the recipient of the finger pointing. Those lucky travelers, I imagine, were in for at least a brief round of quarantine while they figured out what kind of illness that unlucky bastard had. I wondered if any of the people caught in that mess were unlucky enough to be travelers on this plane ultimately bound for Seoul, South Korea (and thus, just pausing in Tokyo). Now THAT would suck!

Joe and I hustled off the plane, past the press photographer taking pictures of passengers, and busted our butts to make our way to Haneda Airport across the city. Luckily, we breezed right through immigration and customs as we always have. That's one nice thing I've got to say about Narita Airport. They care whether you've got a fever but they don't give a damn what's in your bag (at least not my bag). In the end, we made it to our connecting flight all of five minutes before passengers boarded. Sadly, that wasn't the case for at least 150 other travelers who arrived in Narita that afternoon.

As it turned out, there were indeed three passengers who tested positive for swine flu on the flight that arrived later that afternoon from Detroit. Luckily, this time we connected in Chicago.

We returned to work that Monday and practically got the Spanish inquisition from our co-workers, who all wanted to know if we might be infected with swine flu. I also fielded a couple phone calls from government workers calling to double check that I was feeling OK. I heard of a couple other JETs in Hiroshima-ken who were told by their schools to stay home for a week or two rather than risk spreading their imaginary germs to all the students. I admit to being a little tempted to invent some mysterious symptoms after hearing this, but was too worried they'd ship me off for real quarantine somewhere in a sterile, bare-walled, windowless room if I did such a thing. Though, it would protect me from the cold virus that both co-workers seated across from me have been breathing my way this past week...