Monday, May 26, 2008

my last trip back campus?

Too many wonderful things happened over the weekend. It was a getaway from Tokyo, and a well-needed one. I went back to Niigata to join my friends for the annual ASEAN Japan Nite, and it was more special because they would be graduating in exactly 1 month's time. We came to IUJ together in Fall 2006, but the E-Business students graduated 1 year earlier (and thus, suffered earlier in the workplace too!). Most of them would be leaving Japan for good, and I don't know when I'll get to see them again.

It was good being back and the combination of "friends + food + fun" was proven true again to be therapeutic for the soul (and stomach). I missed the fresh air and greenery the surrounding provided. I wish the weekend was longer. I didn't want to go back to reality so soon. Not when there's nothing to look forward to :p BUT all things must come to an end. So much so that I tried to prolong the weekend by sleeping as late as possible!

Thanks to my sidekick from NZ, and a little magic to spice up the weekend, I will remember this trip for many reasons. Maybe I won't go back to campus anymore, who knows. But I'm glad I made sure I spent as much time as possible with all these people I've come to call my friends. Life on campus was not remembered for its academics as much as for its life and the people in it. For what is life if you have not lived to the fullest?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

that little candle in the house

Things are slowly coming to place. It's like being in a family though each of us are so different from the other. For those who've had the pleasure of staying over at my place, you would agree that living here is like being in a typical home.

The landlord, though not married but retired, is like a father to all of us. He's the most generous kindest Japanese I know, and all my friends tend to agree with me as well. It's really nice when he cooks for us, or brings us out for meals. Sometimes when we get home late, the next day he would ask us what time we came home. Or what our plans are the coming weekend.

Some may take this as prying or being too nosy, but I think he means well. He just wants to talk and practice his English. After all, that's why his requirement is that his tenants be English speakers. I think that's fair enough since he has this desire to improve his command of the language. But we honestly think his English is better than the average Japanese. Though he's always being modest and insists it's not.

When I first moved in, Danny & Adam were my housemates. Even though I was the only grrl in the house, and I know my Mama is worried at times, I give her no cause for concern. One of the reasons why I agreed readily to move in was because these were such nice decent people. The ones I've stayed with in the previous guesthouse seemed so aloof and unfriendly that you'd wanna have as little contact with them as possible.

I was closer to American Adam because I grew up with American TV. So we are pretty much on the same wavelength. But seriously, him being American meant he had that dry wit to him which gave us more reasons to have verbal spars. But it's all in good nature. Danny is pretty cool too, and sometimes I try to practice Mandarin with him. I think the first time I spoke Mandarin to him, he was shocked because I suddenly switched from English and didn't give him fair warning. But he's slowly opening up and getting better at his English.

Unfortunately Adam moved out early last month. BUT I have a new housemate from Spain. So the house is a bit balanced coz there are 2 grrls now. She's half Spanish-half Japanese and yes, for those of you who are curious, she looks pretty exotic. Being chatty and outgoing, we got along quite well, and it's been fun so far. In fact, last weekend was quite a mad hatter in the house as she was hosting her Spanish friend, and my Thai friends were bunking over as well.

Just the other day after work, I was expecting to come home to an empty kitchen. Coz usually when I get home, the rest of the people would have already finished dinner and gone back to their rooms. So I was pleasantly surprised to see everyone in the kitchen at that hour. Watanabe-san was clearly enjoying the atmosphere even though he didn't talk much. Danny bought something from outside and the Spanish were eating their pasta. As I joined them with my tomyam dish, I expressed my delight at having the full house together and wish we could have this everyday!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

the well-mannered japanese

In collaboration with JR (Japan Railways), the Japan Tobacco Inc. put up this community service message in some of the local trains here.

In this case, they do not have Malaysia's "Smoking is bad for your health" message from the government, but at least they encourage good manners. Not only do many Japanese men smoke, but a significantly large number of women do as well. Understandably Japan is a stressful country to live in, whatmore Tokyo. But I was appalled to see a mother smoking in the smokers' area with her kid standing amongst them.

This may seem like a strange message, but for those who have to endure the rush hour commute, they can readily relate to this. No matter how packed like a tin of sardines the train is, the Japanese somehow manages to squeeze himself into that 1 inch space between the people and the edge of the train. This happens all the time at the main lines even when the doors are about to close.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

my first chijimi - korean pancake

Wanted this to be a Mother's Day post, or rather a suggestion on how you can surprise your mum with some simple home-cooked meal. But got too a little carried away catching up on Japanese and The Apparentice Season 6 (yes, broadband can be too pampering at times, how can I go back to dial-up again??). So anyways, this is what I made yesterday, one of my very few Saturdays where I get to chill out and do stuff I like.

There were some leftover chijimi powder from last weekend's slumber party which I didn't want to waste. Now that I think of it, since it's basically savoury pancake perhaps you can use normal flour as well. But I can't read the kanji for flour don't know what kind of flour they have here so I might try it out some time later.

I know this is not a proper recipe, but I really don't know how much flour that is. But add enough water, to get a consistency of full cream milk. Slightly thicker would be good, depending on how crispy you want your pancake to be. Last week the mixture was like gravy, and the pancake turned out to be quite heavy, which is fine. This week I overestimated decided to have a lighter texture.

So anyways, make sure you mix the flour and water well so that you don't have any lumpy stuff in it. Add a little salt to taste. Some chijimi mix may already have some flavouring in it, but in any case, there will be a sauce dip which will add to the flavour. That will come after this.

Cut some leek into 1-inch length sizes. I usually don't eat leek. In fact, this amount you see here is probably more than my annual consumption of leek. I was quite aghast at seeing Hyun use so much leek last week that I thought I'd never eat that pancake, but realised it not only added flavour but colour to the pancake as well. So I cut about 3 stalks of leek there. And yes, when you're overseas you tend to learn to eat things you usually don't eat.

Cut onions into inch-sized cubes. I think other than leek, onion is also another widely used ingredient in Korean and Japanese dishes. Personally I don't think there is much nutritional value in these 2 vegetable and I've always regarded them as decoration or flavour enhancers. Being lazy Not having the luxury of time to cook extravagant dishes, I hardly use them unless I decide to be creative.

Put chopped leek and onion into batter. I find that it's better to not have the mixture too diluted in the beginning as somehow the onion gives out water and reduces the thickness of the batter. It's easier to add water later if somehow it's too thick, but if you run out of flour, there's very little you can do to save your pancake!

For the seafood, we used clams and squid last week, but I personally love prawns so I bought a whole pack of them. Cut them into inch-wide pieces. Don't add into the mixture. Rather, heat up the non-stick pan and pour in about 4-5 tablespoons of oil. Yes, this is not a healthy dish, I've never used so much oil in any of my dishes here before. I don't cook Malaysian dishes, remember?

Pour the batter mixture onto the pan, making sure it is evenly spread out. After about 5 minutes, place the prawn pieces on top of the mixture. Make sure it's on medium fire. For thicker pancakes, this will cook pretty fast. But for mine, it didn't thicken as fast coz it was quite diluted.

Since I was impatient hungry, I tried to flip it, it broke! I was almost sure it would be a disaster of a dish :( Instead of having one nice flat roundish pancake, it became many funny-shaped pieces of pancakes. I was quite disappointed that it wasn't as thick as it was supposed to be, so I tried to fix it by leaving it on longer.

While waiting for the pancake to cook, make the dip. Pour some soy sauce into a dip bowl, add remaining leek and onions. And, togarashi, Korean chilli flakes. If you can't get that, you might want to go with freshly chopped red chillies to give it that spicy oomph. But I can't guarantee that it will taste the same though!

After my 1st batch was done, I couldn't wait, so decided to dip it into the sauce. Oh my, I must say it wasn't that bad. In fact, having it thinner was probably much better since I could taste the other ingredients compared to just the pancake. Since my housemate Danny was also in the kitchen, I asked him to test it out. He said he preferred it to last week's version. Haha! Yatta!

So anyways, while eating, I cooked the 2nd batch. This time having learnt from my lesson, I decided to let the pancake cook a little longer before trying to flip it. True enough, it retained its roundish shape, and since the texture was thinner, it came out quite crispy in the end. Too bad I only had so little leftover flour. I was getting better and craving for more chijimi!

Looking at the end result, I now appreciated the humble leek and onion. They certainly make the chijimi what it is. Make sure you have fresh prawns too, there is nothing worse than eating fried stale prawns mixed with fresh leek and onion. Since this is such a simple dish, anyone can make it. You can even make it for breakfast. It's not too late to surprise your mum with a Korean dish which is both delicious and nutritional. Well, quite!

Friday, May 09, 2008

still not too old for slumber parties

Just when I thought that I had had enough with hosting guests, I decided to hold a slumber party at my place last weekend. Japan was having its Golden Week holiday season. It is basically 3 days of national holidays which can turn into a week long break for some companies who are generous enough. For small companies like mine, we only had 2 days - Monday and Tuesday, as the one on Saturday wasn't replaced. So I had a Golden Weekend instead.

It's like "balik kampung"* time for the folks here. Except that they don't have many races like in Malaysia where each major race return to their hometown at designated times of the year. Since the Japanese are a homogeneous lot, they ALL balik kampung at basically the same time. Making it a very hectic and stressful period, especially if you're travelling out of Tokyo. So I decided I would chill out and catch up with rest after a whole month of hosting.

But me being me, I decided to invite friends from church to come over and spend the Golden Weekend at my place. Well actually the initial plan was to have it over at April's place. But her house was quite far from church and she wasn't sure if her the grandfather living at her place would accept stay-over guests. So I decided to just bring them over to my place, which was only 3 stops away from church. So they came over right after the evening service.

Hyun, the Korean grrl decided to comply with my request to cook Korean food. I was actually kidding when I told her I loved chijimi. I wouldn't have minded if I had to cook, so I was really delighted when she brought all the necessary ingredients not only to make chijimi but lappoki. I'm sure I don't have the right spelling since I see different variations for these dishes, but chijimi is basically a type of Korean pancake, while lappoki is a type of Korean ramen dish in very spicy sauce and sticky rice sticks.

Unfortunately, as with all my parties I got too busy entertaining my guests to take pictures. But this was one of the best weekends I've ever had. We started a bit late, so was cooking and eating till almost midnight. As with all slumber parties, the grrls will take their time to wash up, exchange health and beauty tips, chat till the wee hours and do whatever they wanna do to pamper themselves. My room was fortunately big enough to host all 4 of them (and actually more if they don't mind the squeeze). I was dead tired from it all, but still stayed up to have grrly chats and giggled over topics surrounding guys (and other equally serious stuff too)!

April and Tracy left us early the next day, so Hyun and Yuri had the whole room to themselves. We had leftover food for brunch and decided not to waste time sleeping. So I took them to the Edogawa park and the adjacent Four Seasons Hotel for a walk. This seems to be a favourite tour spot which I bring my friends since it's unbelievably near and offers a cool respite from bustling Tokyo.

We ended up in the Canal Cafe for afternoon tea. It could have been almost perfect for a lazy afternoon chat safe for the drizzle that threatened to spoil the day. But, it was such excellent bonding time for us. They kept thanking me for inviting them over, expressing what a nice place I had, and wished we could do this more often. For me, it was just sharing the blessing of having a nice home when God has blessed me with much much more. I guess with this, it sorta brings me closer to choosing this church to belong to.

*balik kampung - a Malay phrase meaning to return to hometown, especially for major events such Hari Raya Aidilfitri for the Malays, Chinese New Year for the Chinese and Deepavali for the Indians.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

hair treatment

Today was my first time having a haircut here in Tokyo, I must say even though it was a pinch to the purse it was still quite a pampering experience. Through this, some impressions were formed, while some were already thoughts that came to mind some time back, but were confirmed through this particular experience:

1) The Japanese are first class in service! Ever so polite and making sure that you're comfortable and that your wants needs are being met.
2) Japanese guys can be very beauty conscious too, more so than me in some cases.
3) What seems like the "just-woken-up" look actually takes hours to style. With much help from the hair dryer (and/or hair gel and/or hair mousse and/or hair spray and/or hair wax).
4) Guys are more gentle when it comes to washing the hair (I've had this lady back in Subang literally sinking her manicured nails into my scalp while scrubbing my head).
5) Perhaps like in the culinary world, guys excel better than ladies in the hair grooming industry too