Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Day 30 Challenge: A Whole Day of New Things

Today on the final day of my "Month of Living Dangerously", I had loads of new experiences-- all of them food related, strangely.

This morning, I felt so lucky to have found these. I almost walked right by them without even noticing! No time to sit down and enjoy a hot pancake breakfast? No problem, just grab some pancake flavored crackers...seriously, these are my new love.

Then later in the afternoon, I did something completely out of character. I made a home-cooked meal and shared it with the soldiers in the barracks... another first. I'm happy to do it again even.

Finally, my crowning glory of the day. First time ever to make homemade tamales in two flavors-- spicy chicken and also olive, chili, and cheese. I found the corn husks at the commissary here, and then chose this easy recipe online. A little time consuming, but worth it! I so miss Mexican food while we're here in Japan. 

How do you get your Mexican food fix wherever you are?

PS, Tune in tomorrow for updates and a round-up of my "Month of Living Dangerously". Did "Happy Van" ex-boyfriend ever write back? Is the neighbor still stubbornly parking in the guest spot? Have I noticed any physical differences since the Oxygen chamber and sweat spa? It will all be revealed.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Day 29 Challenge: Ghosts of Boyfriends Past

Have you ever googled any of your old boyfriends or girlfriends out of curiosity to see how they ended up?

A while back, I was poking around on the Internet and I looked up a boyfriend I had when I was 15 years old. I'm almost 38 now, so we're talking about an adolescent relationship I had 23 years ago.  Well, I did find some information about him, the most interesting being that he accomplished exactly what he wanted at 15 years old-- to become a musician. In fact, he tours around the country now and has a following. I genuinely feel happy about that. 

In the months since that discovery, I've thought about those old days from time to time and remembered some of the funny details. 

On our first date, he took me to a Maternity ward to look at Newborn babies through the glass. Obviously that was back in the times when security was low and anybody could linger around. I remember thinking that was the most creative and original first-date ever. 

He had an old white 1960 Volkswagen Bus, which we named the "Happy Van". We used to drive around in it listening to Depeche Mode.

He had the most unusual family situation. His mother divorced his father and then married his father's brother, but he swore there were no hard feelings anywhere. I remember thinking that his family must have been really progressive or something. Now I realize we WERE living in the deep south. 

After two months of dating, we broke up over the telephone, and right after I had to go to my part-time job at the Space and Rocket Museum. Remember that 80s movie Space Camp? Well, I worked there and had to wear an astronaut uniform to work. That was the last time I talked to him, but I can't say I've harbored any ill feelings towards him over the years. 

I thought about getting in touch with him a few months ago, but didn't out of shyness or awkwardness or something. So my challenge for the day was to contact him and say hello. AND that's what I did. I wrote "Happy Van" in the subject header line and sent him a friendly email.

You want to know a little secret? I don't think I'll mind too much if he doesn't respond. I got such a little burst of energy just from reaching out and doing it.

If you could contact an old friend from your past, who would it be? 


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Day 28 Challenge: The Martians Have Landed

In my English classes last week, I did a lesson about hobbies. We talked about their favorite pastimes as well as which ones they find challenging or exciting. I also asked them which hobbies they believed to be dangerous. I was expecting them to rattle off a list of extreme sports, but no, the class all agreed that "SUNBATHING" was a very dangerous hobby.

It's definitely not uncommon to see Japanese women here sporting mega Darth Vader sun protective visors. If you live in Japan, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Take a look at this internet article about Japanese aversion to sun and the sun visor phenomenon. 

So, my new experience of the day was to wear one of these Martian "Black Widow" hats as I went about my business...

Drinking morning coffee on the patio


Eating a hamburger


Enjoying the beach

On a side note, these Martian visors fly off the store shelves here in Okinawa. A week ago, I saw a huge display of them at a store, but when I went back to buy one yesterday, there were only 3 left. Even my very pretty and fashionable 25 year old Japanese language tutor owns one!

Dulce de Leche Heaven

A few years ago when we visited Argentina, we fell in love with dulce de leche. Ever tried it? It's similar to caramel, but it's milky and creamy and wonderful. In fact, there are entire grocery store aisles devoted to it.

In Okinawa, it's a little bit impossible to find, as you can imagine. But I did discover how to make my own. It's super easy, in fact. Take a can of sweetened condensed milk, pour it into a glass pan, and bake it at 425 degrees in a water bath for about an hour and a half.

Since it's been super hot and humid here (perfect weather for lazily eating ice cream), I thought I'd try making Dulce de Leche Ice Cream using the same technique from Challenge 20 .

First, I made the dulce de leche as described above. Then I mixed it with a can of evaporated milk and froze it for several hours, stirring every so often. How easy is that? Again, only two ingredients!

The result?

Amazing...you seriously have to try this!

What's a favorite food or ingredient you discovered in a foreign country?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Day 27 Challenge: Cookie Baking Contest

I entered a cookie baking contest for the first time ever today. My entry was inspired by our recent trip to Hawaii for my husband's 40th birthday-- macadamia shortbread cookies dipped in chocolate.

So, how did it turn out?

Well, I WON ....

SECOND place out of ... TWO entries in that category! 

Okay, I didn't get the satisfaction of first place, or even the satisfaction of second place since who else would've gotten second? BUT my prize was a set of kitchen towels, which is great because kitchen towels have sort of been a point of contention in our household lately. (I washed our good ones with a red sock a while back...)

So, what are your favorite cookies? Would you ever enter a cooking contest?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Day 26 Challenge: Origami Tribute to Michael Jackson

Last month when we went to Hawaii, we saw an origami exhibit in Narita Airport with some of the most intricate and astounding pieces of origami art. 

Can you believe all of that is simply folded paper? It's simply amazing to me that origami has been practiced in Japan since the 1600's. Some origami pieces we saw that day were so tiny that you could only see them through a magnifying glass!

So today, my new challenge was to take an origami class, and it was there that I heard the MJ news. Let me tell you, it was hard to concentrate on paper folding after that shock, but I did manage to whip out a few traditional items-- a crane, box, and tree. (a little crumpled looking, I know)

Later, when I got home and watched all the news (yes, MJ was the only thing on both BBC and CNN International), I decided to try my own hand at origami and felt inspired to create an Origami Michael Jackson...

Okay, so I can't say that I had been a fan of his since well, about 10 grade, but Thriller was a milestone in my life, having been one of the first records we ever bought.

With that, I leave you with my origami King of Pop doing the zombie dance...

Did you ever try to recreate the Thriller zombie dance in your backyard or den? Come on, be honest! 

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Day 25 Challenge: Drinking grass

Today I attended my first ever Japanese Tea Ceremony, and it was so enjoyable.

I really admire how the Japanese have managed to preserve this cultural ritual and pass it down the generations.  I also respect how they put so much attention on the details of "how" to do something and get satisfaction from that. I think it must force them to live in the moment and not think about the end result so much. Maybe a good lesson for many of us-- me, especially!

The tea ceremony starts when you put on these wooden sandals (a little better fit than my others from Challenge 23) and walk across a stone path to a water well.

There you wash your hands and face.

From there, you climb through a tiny munchkin door into the Tea Room, which is considered a sacred space.

Once inside, the Tea Master explains the meaning behind the ritual and instructs how to drink the tea properly. 

Turns out that it's a very complicated process involving the direction of the cup, the way you hold it, and how many slurps you can take (31/2 to be exact) You also have to be solemn and whisper to your neighbor a phrase in Japanese which translates, "I'm sorry to be drinking this tea before you."  

In addition, this tea is like no other I've ever had before. It looks a little like green paint, right?
The taste? Like freshly cut grass, I imagine!

I'm smiling, but my knees are killing me! 

Overall, it was so fun and informative. Have you ever been to a traditional Tea Ceremony? If so, how did you sit like that for so long is what I wanna know!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Day 24 Challenge: Another bizarre beauty treatment

Near our house, I often pass by this shop with a peculiar looking sign of a woman wrapped up in a large marshmallow pink trash bag. Many times I have wondered what kind of unusual Japanese beauty enhancement this could be. 

Since I'm trying out new challenges, this one was perfect. I had been curious about it for a while, and I had no idea what I was walking into. Why do I get such a thrill out of that? Can anyone else relate?  

Anyway, after some hand gestures and broken Japanese, I learned that the chairs are individual "saunas". Let me explain... 

First, you remove your clothes and don the funky pink robe with one teeny tiny opening for an arm. You're definitely confined inside that thing. Then you sit on a stool on top of a wooden chair with a gap in the middle. 

Underneath the chair, they put a steaming pot of herbs including chamomile, lavender, rose hips, and mint. Once you get over feeling like you will be tonight's soup for dinner, the herbal smell is lovely.

Next, they turn up the pot full blast and you sit there and cook for about 45 minutes. They give you a pitcher of water and some salt to suck on in case you start feeling a little faint from dehydration, and a little emergency bell.  (yes, I called them three times, but not because I was dizzy. I just needed more water... and then a fan... and then for them to turn it down) 

When it was all said and done and my beet red face returned to a normal color and I could walk without my knees buckling, I saw how genius these chairs are. You get all the benefits of sitting in a sauna, but it's individual. You can customize the temperature to your own liking rather than being in the same stuffy germ and bacteria-laden room as everyone else. In addition, your head is outside the sauna bag, so you can withstand the steam for longer.  You can also read a magazine and watch TV while doing it. Just remember that you have to eat a bag of chips first!

So, what beauty treatments have you come across in different countries?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Challenge 23: I think I'm turning Japanese

Today I had a few minutes before my Japanese class, so I stopped in a store that sells inexpensive clothing and accessories for young women. Its equivalent might be something like Forever 21 in the States.

That's where I spotted the yukata! 

Yukata are casual kimono-like robes that are worn in the summer here. Unlike kimono, they are cotton and machine-washable-- no intricate embroidery or fine silk-- they are cheap! Even better, the store was selling yukata sets (robe, obi, and shoes) for only 3900 yen (about $39).
So, my new thing of the day was-- you guessed it-- to buy a yukata.

My Japanese teacher told me yukata are worn on special days to festivals, fireworks shows, or temples. I asked her if anyone ever wears them out to dinner and she looked at me kind of funny, but then said it would be okay if I did since I'm obviously a foreigner and can do pretty much what I want with my yukata.

At first I questioned my purchase... do I really need it? When will I wear it? Is it practical? But then I remembered that this month of living dangerously is EXACTLY for decisions like this... in other words, when else in my life WILL I ever get to buy and wear a yukata?

So, I'm planning to wear my yukata in all kinds of situations here-- like the bridesmaid dress you always hope to wear again, only I'm really going to since I know I have a free pass as a wacky foreigner. 

Striking a typical Japanese model pose...

Hmm... do you think my feet are a little  big for these shoes? Some old Chinese emperor is horrified in his grave by my monstrous feet...

It should also be noted that had no idea how to get the robe on... there's some rule I think about whether to cross left over right or right over left, and I'm pretty sure I did it wrong. If you're in the know, please HELP!

So, a question for you... what's the most useless or impractical thing you bought in a foreign country? 

Monday, June 22, 2009

Challenge 22: Frijol popsicle?

Today was a long hot day and BUSY...but I did manage to find a new strange Japanese treat to eat on our balcony as the sun went down.

I found this in the supermarket:

Looks kind of weird, huh? All I kept thinking about was cold pinto bean dip and how in the world could it possibly be made into a dessert? Turns out that Azuki (red beans) are a popular ingredient in sweets in Japan.

Surprisingly, I liked it even though it was very beany.

Have you ever eaten an Azuki dessert? What do you think?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Challenge 21: Bull Fight!

Today's new adventure was seeing a bullfight in Okinawa of all places! 

It turned out to be such a fun event (and oddly energizing) and not gory or violent despite my preconceptions. The fight starts off with the bulls locking horns and ends when one of them turns and runs, but it's not a fight to the death. 

Even more interesting are the handlers who are right out there in the ring yelling and directing the bulls towards each other. When a bull is declared the winner, there's huge cheering in the crowd, a big bottle of awamori is awarded, and the little son or daughter of the lead handler rides on top of the bull around the ring.  Fascinating!

A team of handlers had to hold this little guy on!

After the tournament, everyone stormed the ring and we were able to get up close and personal with the bulls. 

Gingerly making contact with the overall winner bull... scary! 

Whoops...I must have done something to make him mad!

Challenge 20: Chocolate soup

We had dinner guests last night, so for my new thing yesterday, I wanted to make a special dessert for them-- ICE CREAM! I never made it before and I don't have an ice cream maker, but I figured it couldn't be that hard, right?

I found a recipe for Nutella ice cream on the food blog Chocolate and Zucchini. Nutella is one of my favorite things-- chocolaty, nutty, and velvety. I heard a rumor there's a dessert restaurant in Italy devoted entirely to it. 

The recipe itself was super simple and fairly easy. It only required two ingredients:

Basically, you mix the two together, chill, and then freeze the rest of the day. You do have to take it out and stir as hard as you can about every hour or so. Find the exact recipe here.

So how did it turn out? 

After eager anticipation all day, at the time we served it, it hadn't quite set. It was kind of like serving a bowl of milkshake. The taste was good, but the texture was very runny.

BUT... I just checked this morning and this is what it looked  like. Nothing wrong with ice cream for breakfast if you ask me!

So, now I have this fantasy of all the unique other flavors I can make. Have you ever made your own ice cream before?  

Friday, June 19, 2009

Challenge 19: Neighbors

Today was the Happy Mansion Meet and Greet gathering that I hosted at my apartment. I posted invites on everyone's doors, but really had no idea how many people would actually come.

It would've made me happy if only ONE person came, but I was pleasantly surprised by more than that.... Some of the attendees were a young mom and her baby daughter and 8 year old son, a Japanese spouse and her son, another woman of two teenage daughters, and a cute family of five!

It was really nice to chat with everyone, and I discovered that the timing of the invite came at an important time. 

I didn't know, but tragedy struck the Happy Mansion earlier this week. One neighbor living alone had a heart attack and called for an ambulance. When it arrived, he was unconscious and they had to break down the door, then sadly later died at the hospital. We talked about how if we had all known each other better, we might have been able to help somehow... 

We swapped info and now we all have 4 new contacts and (hopefully) friends in our building. I'm really glad I did this challenge. 


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Challenge 18: Japanese Pizza Lost in Translation

Okay... I've been putting this challenge off for a long time. It's by far the scariest one out of all of them. 

My heart was beating the whole time, but I ordered a pizza in Japanese! In my head it was all going so fast. You'd never know though because on the video, my speech is slow as molasses. My face does look panicked in a few places too. See for yourself:

Actually, I even had to call the poor guy back because I forgot to tell them our apartment number! 

We weren't sure if we'd really get the pizza, but then we heard the doorbell ring. Success!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Challenge 17: Happy Mansion

One of my favorite movies ever is In America. Wasn't the ending amazing? 

If you weren't lucky enough to see it, it's about an unlikely friendship between an idealistic immigrant Irish family living in a rundown Manhattan apartment building and their Nigerian next door neighbor. (Rent it on Netflix) You never know how your life will change from just knowing your neighbors, let alone actually being FRIENDS with them!

So, for my new challenge today, I decided to do something completely out of character for me today. I'm hosting an afternoon social party at our apartment and I invited all the residents in our building. I made up a flyer and taped it to the inside of the elevator AND put copies on everyone's doors. I even put a translation in Japanese, so all would feel welcome.

Yes, our building is really called the Happy Mansion... check back on Friday to see how it goes.

How friendly are you with neighbors? Has it been a good experience or bad one?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Challenge 16: No Balloons for You, American!

It's been raining almost nonstop for the last 6 days. I think it's safe to say we're officially in the rainy season now. It's very gray and dreary outside, so this tree caught my attention as I was driving by.

When I got closer, I saw it was a balloon shop, and as I've never been inside one of those, I stepped in. This place had any kind of balloon that you could want-- balloons in jars like candy, balloons hanging on the wall, even balloons with skull and cross-bones.

I inquired about a balloon for my friend who is leaving Okinawa soon, and the sales lady answered in the strangest way, "You might want to buy your balloon on the base. There's more selection and they're cheaper there."

Hmm...was this Japanese humility or a cultural misunderstanding? I've never been encouraged to shop somewhere else before. Anyway, I did buy a balloon and left. As I walked across the street, I noticed this bar with this sign on it:

When I turned around, a Japanese lady was standing on the street watching me. When we made eye-contact, she gave me the peace sign.

Can anyone explain what happened? Did I stumble into a anti-American part of town? Did the Japanese woman feel sorry for me? 

Wherever you are in the world, have you ever experienced something like this?

Half-way Through My Month of Living Dangerously

Friends, I've been doing my new challenge everyday for 2 weeks now, and I really can't believe how fast the month is going! Thanks for all the ideas... I want to do them all!

If you remember, some of my reasons for this experiment included feeling limited here because of language and culture, wanting to get the most out of Japan, and suffering from a mild case of island fever. So... half way through the month, what have I learned? Has it changed anything about my life here? Here's a few revelations so far:

1. At first, I felt pressure to find a new thing everyday. But I quickly realized that amazing new opportunities abound here. Seriously, everywhere I look! Probably wherever you are too, so get out there and do them!

2. You get a tremendous boost of ENERGY from doing something new. It's even better if it's something you felt shy or intimidated about. (Example: confronting the neighbor) 

3. The thrilling part is not really about that actual new thing, but the new situations it puts you in and the funny unexpected things that happen there. (Example: Mommy, she's eating poop!)

4. I honestly haven't felt island fever at all. It's been so fun to wake up every day and wonder what my new challenge will be!

There are still 2 weeks to go. Here's a little hint of what's to come-- cookies, costumes, more strange beauty treatments!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Challenge 15: Mommy, she's eating poop!

Japan is the ultimate land of food gimmicks. 

Every month or so, there's some limited edition food item that comes out and if you don't take advantage of its temporary availability, you'll miss out on your chance FOREVER... it happened to me back in December when chicken nuggets in the shape of chickens were all the rage, and when I went to buy them, I was DENIED! 

My new challenge for the day, therefore, was to try out the latest rage, Mr. Donut's mini donut hamburger and french fries. You see, Mr Donut, a popular donut chain and MOS Burger (see our hamburger review) teamed up for this special "donut hamburger hybrid" promotion. 

A few weeks back, I tried out the "hamburger donut" at MOS Burger, basically just a hamburger in the shape of a donut. I have to admit I didn't quite GET it, but maybe that was just cultural confusion.  

But the mini donuts shaped like hamburgers and fries? No one has to explain that one to me! I mean, just look at how cute they are!

The buns were donut holes, the patty was a square of chocolate bar, and the fake tomato and lettuce on top was strawberry and green tea cream. The fries were churros, and though I expected the food fantasy to extend all the way to the fake ketchup too, it turned out to be actual real ketchup... so I ate churros with ketchup (another first!)

After my little snack, I walked around and stumbled on another food adventure. I found this booth selling all kinds of different seaweed. How often do you see that in the states?

The nice lady helping me offered me a sample of this last one, telling me that it was her favorite and the most delicious. Right as I was taking a bite... 

...I heard a boy's voice say in English to his mom nearby, "Mommy. she's eating poop!"



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