Thursday, May 28, 2009

Masks

When I flew to the Netherlands last week, I left behind a country of anxious people. A couple of days earlier Japan experienced its very own H1N1 (previously known as swine flu) outbreak, it started with just a few infected high school students in the weekend to almost 300 confirmed cases in the Osaka-Kobe region the day I left. In Osaka, people were already panicking when the government closed more than 4,800 schools and universities, and urged everybody to wear face masks and gargle in an effort to protect themselves from the new flu. Creating an even greater panic among the Japanese and a shortage of face masks.
Not wanting to panic, I did some research online about the flu and learned that H1N1 flu is not nearly as deadly as the regular seasonal flu. And that wearing a face mask won’t protect you from the H1N1 flu at all:
If you are not sick you do not have to wear a mask.
If you are caring for a sick person, you can wear a mask when you are in close contact with the ill person and dispose of it immediately after contact, and cleanse your hands thoroughly afterwards.
If you are sick and must travel or be around others, cover your mouth and nose.
Using a mask correctly in all situations is essential. Incorrect use actually increases the chance of spreading infection.
I hate wearing a mask, it’s the most uncomfortable thing you can do, especially when it’s as hot as it is in Japan. So I was very happy to find out they are in fact useless against the H1N1 flu, and that you only need to wear one when you are sick yourself. But try explaining that to a Japanese person, they don’t want to hear it. They get this false sense of security from wearing a mask and don’t even know that incorrect use could actually increase the risk of transmission, rather than reduce it. But even today, when schools are open again and even the government has loosened its flu-regulations, I found this news clip on Japan Probe of people standing in line for several hours from as early as 7AM, hoping to buy some face masks at Takarazuka city hall. They only had 500 boxes and they probably weren’t cheap and totally useless to begin with:
The day before I flew home, headquarters ordered all the staff in our school to wear face masks... Well, I don’t mind donning one to take a funny picture with the other foreigners in the school, but like I said I hate face masks, they take away my ability to breather properly, so soon I found a better place to wear it than on my face:
Sometimes I just can’t understand the Japanese mindset. For some reason they’re more comfortable following orders and simply doing what everyone else does without asking any questions, instead of thinking for themselves. Even if that means living in a state of panic and fear, and spending fortunes to turn face mask manufacturers into millionaires. I would like to urge all Japanese to stop spending your time and money on obtaining useless face masks, and to spend just a few minutes on the internet to find out how dangerous this flu really is (or isn’t), and what you can actually do to protect yourself from it. 

Monday, May 25, 2009

Two years in Japan!

Although I’m not technically in Japan today, I still celebrate the second anniversary of my arrival in Japan today, in my head and on this blog!
Last year, on the first anniversary, I was on my way back to the Netherlands for a short in-between-jobs visit and this year I’m already in the Netherlands to attend my grandfather’s funeral. But I’ll be back in the Land of the Rising Sun very soon to start on my third year there!

Opa's funeral

Today was my grandfather’s funeral. Some of my relatives gave touching speeches and all the grandchildren got to light candles in his honor. It was a beautiful and sad ceremony, and afterwards all the guests joined the ‘funeral coffee’ at a cafe nearby.
I stayed behind with my brothers, because it was really important to Djamo to be allowed to push the casket into the cremation furnace. My mother and her sister this for their mother in the past and they told him it brought them a lot of closure. Djamo had been very close to Opa and hoped to be able to do this for his grandfather. Djamo’s wish was granted, so Gyano helped Djamo while I waited outside with my mom.
During the funeral coffee we received lots of condolences from the dozens of friends and acquaintances of my grandparents. It was nice to see the whole family again, and catch up, as we don’t really gather on many occasions. Afterwards we all went to my aunt’s house for one last cup of coffee (we drink way too much coffee in the Netherlands) before saying goodbye to the family again.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Oma's grave

Coming home for my grandfather’s funeral allowed me to also visit my grandmother’s grave who passed away in February. I wasn’t able to attend her funeral, but I did say goodbye to her in the hospice over the Christmas holidays.
So today we went to sunny Gronsveld to visit Opa and visit Oma’s grave. Oma is buried in a beautiful spot in a wooded area and Opa seems to be handling things well. Of course he misses Oma but he’s doing well and I was glad to see him happy.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Saturday in the Netherlands

My mom and Guido went to an Indonesian Pasar Malam today, which I couldn’t join because I wanted to attend my grandfather’s wake in the evening and they wouldn’t be back in time. So instead I did some blogging on my computer in an empty house, a different house than where we lived last time I was in the Netherlands. My parents are moving to a newly built house this summer and their old house is already sold, so this is kind of the in-between house, it’s a bit small but a lot bigger than what I’m used to in Japan.
In the afternoon I hung out with Gyano and his girlfriend a bit. For lunch we went to a Dutch snackbar (ironically owned by Koreans), and I had all my favorites: friet speciaal, frikandel speciaal, a beef kroket and carbonated sweet iced tea! What a wonderful lunch.
In the early evening Gyano and I went to the wake. Our grandfather looked different from what I remember. He was much thinner and his skin was yellow due to his fatal liver disease, so at first it was a bit hard to recognize him. But soon I got used to how he looked and started seeing the man I used to know. It was sad but good to see him one more time to say goodbye. Almost the whole family and lots of close friends came to say goodbye to Opa.

Back at home, my mom and Guido came back from the Pasar Malam with some delicious Indonesian food for dinner, and while I enjoyed that they discovered the joy that my iPhone is.
They especially enjoyed the Grolsch air hockey game, but my mom didn’t really understand the rules and kept ‘cheating’ and therefore winning. It is nice to be home (even though it’s an unknown home) with all the people I love.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Together

I spent the morning with my grandmother. We went grocery shopping and like all the million other times I’ve been grocery shopping with her we arrived at the store before it opened and chatted with all the other early birds. We also took care of some last minute arrangements for the funeral on Monday, read my grandfather’s obituary in the newspaper, and caught up with more family members who stopped by during the day.
I got to pick what was for dinner and I choose a simple and very Dutch meal, which I’ve had many times in the past. My grandmother cooks the best potatoes in the world and her meat is always so tender, and only she can make a salad taste the way she does. Dinner was delicious, and so different from Japanese food!
I’m not particularly fond of Belgium, but I do love their ice cream! It’s way better than Italian ice cream, and it’s almost impossible to get in the Netherlands, and totally impossible in Japan. So I got very excited when I heard the ice cream truck’s chime, and even though I was still stuffed from dinner, I knew it was now or never. So Djamo and I ran outside to stop the Krijmboer (Cream Farmer) and my sweet brother treated my grandmother and me to a delicious treat. I may have slightly embarrassed him with my over enthusiastic behavior at the truck, but he easily explained it away with “She lives in Japan...”
After dinner and dessert Djamo wanted to play some chess. I’m not sure who Djamo’s usual chess opponent is, but he was unpleasantly surprised (see his face below) when he was playing against me. He underestimated me and lost the game, poor guy. He took it like a man, but I’m not sure if he ever wants to play me again.
It was nice to see my other family members but the best times today were when it was just Oma, Djamo and me. Of course, we’re sad that Opa died and we try to comfort Oma as much as we can. Yet somehow we spent quite some time laughing together, and it was so good to finally catch up after so many years. Coming home was a good decision.
Lommel

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Back

After finding out about my grandfather’s passing things have been a bit of a blur, but somehow I went to work a day later, made the final decision about going home, taught some lessons, booked a flight in between lessons and got things ready at work for the emergency teacher replacing me. And now a day and a very boring and long flight later I’m back in Europe. My mother and Guido picked me up at the airport, and it was great to see them especially thinking I wouldn’t see them for at least another year. We made a quick pit stop at the new house, before my mom drove me to Belgium to be reunited with my brother Djamo and grandmother.
They hadn’t known I was on my way home, but they had suspected as much. When I called them to say I was back, they didn’t want me to wait till tomorrow, and told me to come stay the night in Belgium. It was really good to see them and Djamo’s girlfriend Sanne again, of course the reason I was there was sad, but catching up, seeing them and holding them again was wonderful.
Lommel

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

R.I.P. Opa

Early this morning my 72-year-old grandfather passed away in a hospital in Belgium. He was recently diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and lost his fight against the disease today. He leaves behind a wife, three children, eight grandchildren and many memories.
His death was quite sudden and unexpected. I can’t stay in Japan to mourn this loss alone, so I’ll be flying home soon to be with my family, to say goodbye to my grandfather and to attend his funeral.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bag of Dutch groceries

Tomomi went to Europe for her Golden Week holidays, more specifically to Belgium and a small visit to the Netherlands! She knows I’m not planning a trip home for at least another year so she asked me for a list of Dutch things I missed so she could bring them back for me. I’m doing quite fine in Japan without my Dutch favorites, so I could only come up with a few things like my favorite black licorice and ontbijtkoek, and just in case she wasn’t stopping in the Netherlands after all, my favorite white chocolate with rice puffs from Belgium. But sweet Tomomi brought way more with her, not only did she bring the things I asked for, she chose some more licorice and brought two surprises Dutch mayonnaise and curry-ketchup!
I’d been talking to her about friet speciaal before she went to Europe, urging her to try it because it’s so good. And now she brought me the sauces so I can make my own friet speciaal in Japan. Especially after having some friet speciaal at Oude Kaas and loving it this weekend, Tomomi’s surprise was absolutely perfect! I had no idea how happy her souvenirs were going to make me until actually unpacking the bag of groceries today. I guess I miss home and things from home more than I realized! Thanks Tomomi!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Utage

Another one of my students told me about the Utage 2009, an international food festival held on a island near Osaka port. That seemed very interesting to us, so we went on the last day of the festival. It turned out to be pretty expensive because we had to pay 2000 yen just to enter and nothing edible was given in return for that.
Inside there was more than enough food on display, but it was all for sale and it wasn’t cheap. The food was very international and from all parts of the world, and even though I discovered a couple of windmills they didn’t have any Dutch food. But I had enough Dutch food last night, so I wasn’t too upset about that.
They had a large part of the exhibition devoted to Korean food, which was fun to explore after our trip to Korea last week. We found topogi, gimbap, japchae, kimchi, jeon and even hotteok, which I just had to buy, even though we were quite full already from a few mini sandwiches, Okinawan fried bread balls, pizza, a Okinawan burger and some soft serve ice cream.
It seemed a bit pointless wandering about a huge food exhibition without an appetite, even though everything looked really delicious and interesting. We tried some free samples of spicy and salty cod roe, popcorn and tofu donuts and we tried getting into some show but we just didn’t feel like waiting in line for an hour or more. So we left the Utage and spend the rest of the afternoon chilling in a Seattle’s Best preparing for Yasu’s upcoming TOEFL test.
Utage

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Fruity Mother's Day

Today is the day we all pay tribute to our loving mothers, some do it with actions, some do it with gifts, and some Japanese do it with overpriced fruity gifts. Fruit is always rather expensive here, like almost $2 per apple or $6 for a small amount of strawberries, but at least it’s always of great quality (same goes for vegetables by the way). I’ve seriously never found any sour or dry fruit here, and I guess that’s why we have to pay such a high price.
But this Mother’s Day fruit must taste like gold or something: two peaches for $26, a watermelon for $31, 15 strawberries for $31, a bunch of grapes for $47, 9 loquats for $63, a mango for $105, 40 cherries for $105 and a musk melon for $126. I think my mom won’t hold it against me if I don’t buy her this fruit. I don’t need exorbitant fruit to let her know I love and appreciate her: Happy Mother’s Day, Moem!

Oude Kaas

One of my students took my advice to try a Dutch pancake restaurant in Osaka, and showed me the pictures of the pancake he tried. Just seeing it sparked a desire in me to go that restaurant as soon as possible. So we did. We’ve been to Oude Kaas (Dutch for old cheese, which is the main ingredient of the house specialty) before, in 2004. Back then it was located in a basement in Yodoyabashi, but since then it has moved up to the second floor of a building on the Dojima river. It’s the only officially recognized pancake restaurant outside of the Netherlands.
We came here to a eat a pancake, but once I saw the menu, in Dutch (!) and Japanese I discovered too many tasty treats. It was impossibly hard to chose and we ended up ordering way more than a pancake. First, we had bitterballen. They looked a bit pale compared to the ones we get at home and the mustard was totally different, but they tasted very good and very Dutch. Next, friet speciaal! Which are fries with mayonnaise, chopped raw onions and the secret ingredient: curry (slightly spicy ketchup) imported from the Netherlands. They even served it with those small plastic forks we always get at the Dutch snack-bars. This tasted so authentic we ordered a second plate.
Of course, we also ordered a pancake. One with cheese and bacon, and I’m happy to say they looked and tasted nothing like American pancakes. And last but certainly not least we had cooked mussels! I absolutely love mussels, and was really surprised to find this on the menu, as you hardly see mussels in Japan and if you do they’re really expensive, as was this little pot of cooked mussels. But they tasted really good, but I did miss a nice garlicky sauce to dip the little mussels in.
The meal wasn't cheap but worth it and very Dutch. The Japanese chef lived in the Netherlands for about 14 years and is pretty good at recreating the Dutch taste. There were many more interesting things on the menu, like sweet pancakes (apple is my favorite), sausages and stamppotten, but these’ll have to wait till next time.
Oude Kaas

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Saying goodbye to Jungwon

How we wished we had booked a longer vacation in Seoul, we’re not sure why we didn’t because we don’t have to work until Thursday... Being in Seoul for three more days would even be cheaper than spending them in Japan. And we’ve had so much fun hanging out with Jungwon, it has been our best trip so far! Jungwon picked up us at the hotel, where we freed our balloons to the open sky just before getting on the bus to the airport. Jungwon brought some mini Dunkin Donuts for the ride, which we actually ate with some coffee at a Dunkin Donuts cafe at the airport.
Jungwon gave us some cute Korean cards with messages from her and her twin sister, which made us even sadder.
We were very happy to leave Korea (not!) and Jungwon was very unhappy we were leaving. Saying goodbye never gets any easier, but all good things have to come to an end. And who knows, maybe someday we’ll have another reunion. Hope so.
Yasu and I had different flights back to Japan, again. My Korean Air flight back to Japan was even emptier than the flight to Korea. I only saw one other passenger in my part of the plane and she was like 15 rows behind me. It was quite a weird experience sitting in an ‘empty’ plane.
Leaving Seoul

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Our last night in Seoul

We did a lot today but we had so many more plans for today, like seeing some Hi Seoul Festival ceremony, some Blue House where the president lives and works and have another meal of galbi. But somehow we ran out of time and all we wanted was some dinner before our midnight massages. We got back to the city way too late after our mountain trip to have a proper dinner, so we ended up ordering some food in an American-themed bar instead. The food wasn’t cheap, but it was plentiful and rather good. 
After hanging at the bar Jungwon dropped us off at an all-night massage parlor, which sounds very sleazy but it really wasn’t. In Japan Korea is famous for its facials, so we really wanted to try a Korean facial treatment, but because of our busy sightseeing schedule we had to reschedule the appointment twice and ended up doing at midnight on our last night in town. Jungwon booked us a couple room, which meant we got our one-hour facials in the same room. The face massage was very nice but I wasn’t happy with the 20 or 30 minute facial mask, but it was an interesting experience.
Last night

Namsan

Namsan is a 262 meter mountain in Seoul, with a 237 meter high communication tower called N Seoul Tower on top of it. So when you find yourself on one of the tower’s observation decks you’ll almost be 500 meters up in the air. And naturally you'll have an awesome night view of the grand city of Seoul from there.
Getting there can be quite nerve-racking in an overcrowded cable car that was built in 1962. For six minutes (three up and three down) we were smashed into one of the cable car’s windows by a mass of people, which was highly uncomfortable, but at least the view was good.
Namsan

Korean cuisine

It was raining and miserable outside yet this didn’t stop a large group of people to line up in front of a food stall selling something fried called hotteok. The long line and rain didn’t deter us either, as we are leaving Korea tomorrow and this might very well be our last chance to try this apparently popular street food. Our wait was rewarded with a very cheap disc of fried dough filled with a hot gooey filling of black sugar and cinnamon. It was really good and tasted a bit like Dutch oliebollen, yet much tastier. Unfortunately we only bought one hotteok to share, because I wouldn’t have minded eating one by myself... But we needed to save space for all the other Korean snacks Jungwon wanted us to try later.
Next we went to the Teastory Museum for some traditional Korean tea. It’s more a tea house than a museum, but nice nonetheless. The tea was more expensive than a meal (which is still very affordable) and they’d run out of the cinnamon tea I selected, so I had to make due with some other black tea. They served it very nicely with beautiful cups and teapots and a not so beautiful but very useful electric kettle for continuous refills. Yasu and I had some version of black tea (luckily I had some sweetener with me, because I can’t drink tea completely black) and Jungwon had something that looked more like soup than tea. The tea came with free green tea rice cakes, that looked kind of like small pieces of Dutch frikandellen, but then green. They tasted just like rice cake flavored with green tea, not bad and a little chewy.
Back on the street we found another food stall, where we sat down to finally try Jungwon’s favorite, topogi, those sticky rice-cake cylinders with red spicy sauce we were supposed to have before the smell of garlic lured us into an Italian restaurant on Thursday night. And while we were at it, we tried another one of Jungwon’s favorite as well: sundae. Which is not ice cream in Korea, here it’s pig's intestines stuffed with cellophane noodles, barley, and pork blood, doesn’t it sound delicious? Jungwon informed us that topogi and sundae are typical favorites for Korean ladies... It’s not that bad, but I can’t imagine ever favoring this over a hotteok.
After all our snacking, it was time to do some shopping for souvenirs at the Lotte Department Store. We needed a whole load of kimchi, a very popular Korean dish in Japan. I remember the first time I saw Jungwon eating the fermented spicy cabbage in Emory and not being able to imagine why she would want to eat that smelly stuff, now I love it! There was a lot of kimchi to chose from but luckily there was a very friendly lady who didn’t just help us pick the right kimchi, she even helped us sample the kimchi by placing it in our mouths for us. She must have thought we are really lazy tourists.
We’ve tried a lot of Korean food and snacks and so far my favorites are galbi, hotteok, korean seaweed named gim and old favorites japchae and kimchi. I’m going to miss Korean food.
HotteokKorean tea houseMyeongdongKorean food stall

Korean purikura

They don’t just have Korean karaoke, but also Korean purikura. The machines look exactly the same as the ones in Japan, only all the writing is in hangul, obviously. We did our thing in the purikura booth and this was the result:
Unfortunately, the machines don’t send the digital originals to your cell phone, so we had to make due with a scan of our pictures sent to our computers, which is better than nothing of course. The pictures were then laminated and divided so we all had some to put in our wallet afterwards.
Myeongdong

Inspirational Insadong

After another delicious American breakfast at Butterfinger Pancakes here in Korea, we went to explore an artsy neighborhood called Insadong. Even though the weather was crappy, Insadong and its many art galleries was interesting enough for a happy and colorful afternoon.
There were many interesting stalls with artists selling their creations, and one of them immediately caught my eye, from across the street even. It was selling hundreds of little handmade stuffed animals. We loved them so much that I decided to buy one for each of us as a memento of this trip. Problem was we had a hard time just one favorite (except for Yasu, men are so efficient at shopping), so I bought all our favorites, because they were ridiculously cheap anyway. I love cheap Seoul!
Ssamziegil market is a 3-story-spiral-stairway-building. Sounds confusing and feels confusing if you didn’t figure it out before browsing its stores. Somehow when you’re browsing from shop to shop you go higher and higher without even noticing it, and when you think you’ve gone round and will be seeing the same stores again you find yourself on another floor.
It was a wonderful building with loads of interesting shops and decorations, and loads of handwritten graffiti on all the walls and decorations, making everything look even more artsy. Of course we couldn’t resist defacing something with our names too, and we chose one of the big roses for our graffiti (which wasn’t easy with just a ballpoint).
Insadong is a creative place with lots of interesting people and inspirational sights. Like those animal dolls I bought earlier have made me want to craft some colorful creatures of my own when I get back to Japan, and I think I just might!

Friday, May 01, 2009

Midnight shopping

To get to some all-night shopping area in Dongdaemun we used the subway, which is slightly different from what we’re used to in Japan. Everything looks more modern, more sophisticated and quite futuristic, the few pictures I took don’t really do it justice. The seats on the subway didn’t have any seat cushions though, they’re just hard metal seats. This is because in 2003 more than 125 people were killed, when the old highly flammable seat covers were ignited by a disturbed man with a bottle of paint thinner and lighter.
Dongdaemun Market is South-Korea’s largest wholesale and retail shopping district with 26 shopping malls, 30,000 specialty shops and 50,000 manufacturers. It opened in 1905 and used to operate from 1:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m, now it’s open from 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 a.m., with some stores open 24 hours a day. Jungyoon joined us for our midnight shopping event, which started with eating things from sticks (that’s a hotdog on a stick, covered in fries covered in ketchup, Jungwon is feeding Yasu):
The first mall we entered was filled with aggressive sales people, narrow walkways between the messy stalls, poor lighting, exposed plumbing, and cheap and ugly knock-offs. Which really did not put me in the mood to browse, so we left quickly and entered the Doosan Tower next, which looked more like a real mall and was much more comfortable. They say that you can buy anything you can think of in Dongdaemun, not just shoes and bags but also things like plumbing supplies and exotic silks. Yasu took a break from all the shopping at a coffee shop and I went shopping with the twins. And found that some of the stores in this tower even sold American food and toiletry items... Yes, even cinnamon flavored!
I couldn’t believe my luck when I found some cinnamon toothpaste, it wasn’t Crest (the one in the picture is one of my leftovers) but Colgate, but it’s a million times better than toothpaste that doesn't taste like cinnamon! I could only discover two tubes, which I both bought, of course! If they had had 20 tubes, I would have bought them all too. And finding the cinnamon tic tacs made me happy too, as it’s a nice substitute for cinnamon ice breakers, which are not available here.
Seoul subwayDongdaemun Market