Thursday, August 19, 2010

Welcome to Stampytown!

Justin and I finally actually signed our lease the other day, after about six days of squatting lease-lessly in the apartment. It felt a bit weird to me after the Western system, but the landlord has a long-standing relationship with the school and seemed to know we'd get around to it sooner or later. I think we're the third consecutive school tenant in this apartment, and three of the six apartments in this building are FIS teachers.

Since the school plays some sort of legal role in us getting the apartment (I know they pay the key money, which as far as I can tell is a legal bribe of 1-6 month's rent just for the right to pay rent), we signed the lease over there. Or, more accurately, "stamped" the lease. Stamping is big in Japan. This is Kumi's box of stamps for filling in school data on various forms:

This tiny stamp (maybe 10 point font or so) fills the school address in for you neatly:

Back in Scotland, Justin and I did our darnedest to major in the longest-named programs at the entire university ("Material and Visual Cultures of the Past" and "Material Cultures and the History of the Book." Makes you long for "Biology," don't it?) When I submitted papers at the end of each semester, I had to fill that name in on two cover sheets and a plagiarism declaration. I really could have used a stamp like Kumi's.

To Justin and my great entertainment, our part in the contract process required stamping as well. Japanese "sign" contracts, open bank accounts, etc. with hanko, little round stamp-sticks with surnames on them. For common surnames, you can buy pre-made stamps, although many people get custom ones to make forgery more difficult. For our wacky white surnames, of course, it was custom all the way.

Kumi spent quite some time deliberating over precisely which Japanese vowel to use for Justin's surname (Gahff? Gohff? Guff?) but didn't seem much concerned over clarifying the hiss-sound in my surname, which I didn't think was that unusual in Japanese. Consequently, while Justin's hanko is the very-accurate "Goffu," I'm stuck with "Mashi." Like, "What are you doing over there with the potatoes?" "Oh, I'm getting all Mashi." I suppose this is Justin's karmic reward for tolerating two years in Korea as Mr. Gopp.

On our paperwork for our "Alien Registration Cards," one of us had to choose to be head of household and one of us was "spouse." Justin ended up as head, and has holding it over me ever since ("I like chunky peanut butter better, and I'm the head of the household!" "I don't want to shave today, and I'm the head of the household." One of these days, I'm going to kick him - right in the head of his household!) This gross injustice is compounded because certain things should be in the name of the head of household, and therefore he also gets to stamp more than I do.

Here's Justin in the midst of a Stamp Act. (Little history teacher humor there.):

The shapes indicate whose stamp goes where. I think the far-left stamp is the landlord, and the school's stamp, as guarantor, goes in the triangle. But all I am sure of is that the circle was us.

Stamping is harder than it looks. The stick is an incredibly awkward shape, and if you let it slide even a smidge to the right or left, or if you don't press hard enough, you'll end up with a wonky signature. God help you on a multipage contract like our lease, where you actually have to stamp across the "gutter" where the two pages meet. Sometimes they throw in a staple just to keep things exciting. I actually goobered so badly on our Internet contract that the guy tore up the page and started over. Guess that's why I don't get to be head of the household.

Finished product:

Don't you go identity-thieving now!

Follow-up: Slate's James Ledbetter on Why The US Isn't Japan

In a previous post, while responding to an  earlier article by Alexandra Harney, I suggested some reasons why the US might be in better shape now than Japan was in the early 90s. (For example: The US, being a multi-ethnic state, is more willing and able to supplement falling birthrates with population growth through immigration.)

In a follow-up article, Slate's James Ledbetter has different take, focusing less on demographics and more on economics. Basically, he claims, our bubble wasn't nearly as big as Japan's, so our bust won't be nearly as bad. Let's hope he's right!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Don't panic: no one's been stung!

But when we went to the beach the other day, the place was swarming with these clear, racquetball-sized balls of goo, which we could only assume were little jellyfish. Seeing as the lifeguard was totally complacent and there was a large crowd bathing and suspiciously little screaming going on, we deduced that the jelly fish were harmless. Of course, that still didn't make it any less freaky to brush against them in the water or to grab them by accident.

Later, a co-worker explained the jellyfish situation. It turns out, these little guys are juvenile jellyfish, and every year they start popping up around the middle of August. By the end of August, they've matured--and begun to sting. This is apparently the origin of the old wives' tale that anyone who goes swimming after the Obon holiday will be dragged under by a sea nymph.

Luckily, the mature jellyfish are a lot easier to spot: unlike the juveniles, which are almost completely clear, the adults are pink- or blue-tinged, with a cloverleaf pattern in the middle, and about the size of a small dinner plate. But the best plan, I think, is to follow the locals, and only swim where there are other people swimming (and not writhing in pain).

Bonus: Every autumn, the waters off Japan are invaded by the Nomura's jellyfish, one of the largest jellyfish in the world. Larger and heavier than a full-grown person, schools of Nomura's jellyfish often gets tangled in fishing nets, sometimes causing smaller boats to capsize.

Apparently, in the past, the Japanese have responded to these invaders by eating them. Nana and I have had Chinese-style jellyfish, and we can vouch for their tastiness if prepared the right way--that is, dried, salted, cut into tiny little strips, and marinated to heck.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Japanese Shopping: 100 Yen Stores (And, Eyelids!)

Nowadays, 100 yen is approximately equal to a dollar (one yen ~ one penny), so a Hundred Yen store would be similar to a dollar store. Of course, in the US, dollar stores are notorious for selling things that cost much more than a dollar - and has anyone ever seen anything for five cents or a dime at a five and dime? (Okay, Mom, I meant RECENTLY.)

100 Yen stores aren't like that. Everything in the store is, as advertised, 100 yen - unless marked otherwise, and surprisingly few things are. Check out some of our hundred-yen loot from Daiso, the 100 yen store motherlode:

Flip-flops, very useful in case you forget which gender you are:

Children's Japanese language practice sheet, now taped up in our bathroom for practice:

Japanese version of the water-eating hippo from our Korea days (essentially a carton of dessicant to combat wicked Japanese summer humidity). We bought four - one for each closet, one for under the kitchen sink, and one for the bathroom.

Things we did not buy, but are of interest:

Jigsaw puzzle providing correct Japanese pronunciation of "Dachshund" (note: not from Daiso)

Eyelid tape:

Now is the time when we get controversial! Partay!

Eyes are an issue in East Asia that could be a blog post all their own. In the West, most people probably define "Asian" in a large part by eye shape - more elongated or "almond," to use the poetic term. This shape is in part due to some skin over the eye called the "epicanthic fold." (see picture on the Wikipedia article here). Not all Asians have such a large fold but this "monolid" look is more common here.

Some Asians have an aesthetic preference for double eyelids. (Note: I know this is a comedy site. Many a true word is spoken in jest.) Some people blame this on "Western cultural imperialism" with white models and the like, which would suggest that an Asian using double-eyelid tape is trying to "look white." Others point out that large eyes are preferred in all cultures because they are associated with youthfulness and look energetic - I, the whitest whitey in Whiteytown, wear mascara to give myself a larger eye without any ethnic implications, so why can't an Asian girl do the same?

In any case, the law of capitalism dictates that where there is demand, so shall there be supply, and consequently there are all sorts of products allowing you to get them. Eyelid tape and glue are used to stick skin above the eye together and create an eyelid (see tape video here and glue video here). There is also the option of surgery (before and after pictures here; no gross surgery pics, I promise).

I have no moral opinion on this, but I do have an amusing and ironic anecdote to stick in here. When I was in middle school or high school (or one of those times when people are dumb), I noticed while leafing through celebrity magazines that a lot of famous women have eyelids that are not visible when their eyes are open - see, for instance, Jessica Simpson or Reese Witherspoon. I myself have eyelids for which the technical term is "gigundo." Check those puppies out:

The point of all this is that I developed a complex that my eyelids were too big. In the meantime, my Asian counterparts were purchasing tape from the 100 yen store (the theoretical point of this post) and poking their eyeballs with plastic sticks in an attempt to get their eyelids bigger. This is basically the eyelid version of my lifelong struggles with skin so white I occasionally get visits from the Ghostbusters, only to discover that my Chinese suitemate at summer camp, who was a stunning even shade I can't call anything but gold, felt that she looked like a peasant.

I believe the moral of this story is that people are dumb, and I definitely need to live in Asia.

Monday, August 16, 2010


I know it seems like all we do is eat . . . and until school starts, that's pretty much the truth! (Though we've also been spending a lot of time at the beach.)

Tonight, Nana and I went out for soba, one of our favorite Japanese foods, at a noodle shop down the street from our place.

Soba is a thin buckwheat noodle that can be served either hot or cold. It packs a lot of flavor, even when unseasoned, and has the most fiber of any Japanese noodle style.

The simplest cold soba (mori soba) is basically a pile of noodles on a plate, which you dip in an icy broth (tsuyu) of sweetened soy sauce, seaweed stock, and rice wine--flavored with wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and scallions to taste.

Eating cold soba noodles is a real test of one's chopstick chops. Here's Nana's technique, demonstrated on a plate of zaru soba (cold soba with seaweed):
(Note: E-mail subscribers may have to click through to the blog to view the video.)

There are also a variety of hot soba dishes, which usually take the form of a big bowl of soup. I picked one at random and ended up with the standard soba-noodles-in-soy-broth with a topping of some kind of pickled vegetable (Nana guessed rapeseed) and flavoured with a bit of lemon peel.

The result was delicious, and totally unexpected! That dash of lemon, plus the bitterness of the pickle, gave the ol' soy broth a whole new flavor. Yum!

EdBurgher Repost: The Slow Demise of the Japanese Economy

(Over the next couple weeks, we're going to be re-posting a few Japan-related items from our old blog, The Educated Burgher. For those of you who have seen them already: feel free to ignore them. For those of you who haven't: gape in awe or something.) 

Alexandra Harney of has an interesting article up today about the perfect storm of economic stagnation and demographic decline that for the last decade-plus has had the Japanese economy locked into a slow downward spiral. The occasion for the article is a macabre hunt for bodies: some Japanese families have been hiding the deaths of their elderly relatives so as to continue collecting their retirement benefits, as in some cases one or two generations of un- or underemployed family members depend on these benefits to make ends meet. (You may remember a news story a week or so back about how the world's oldest man, a Tokyo resident, turns out to have passed away quite some time ago.)

But the article goes far beyond simple sensationalism, describing how many signs suggest that the US could be in the early stages of a similar spiral: high youth unemployment and underemployment, high and rising education costs, fears of deflation suppressing expansion, and aging population, and near-total legislative deadlock. Of course, in my opinion, the US may have a few trump cards up its sleeve that Japan doesn't, such as a stronger small-business tradition and, all the current noise about the issue aside, a much better track record of attracting, legalizing, and retaining immigrants. (Japan's extremely strict immigration policies certainly don't help with its shrinking population!)

On a different note, it turns out Fukuoka is one of the places in Japan bucking these trends: despite a downturn in the city's banking industry, according to Wikipedia Fukuoka is Japan's second-youngest city (average age: 38) and second-fastest-growing. There still seem to be a lot of unoccupied apartments--though I suspect that's partly the result of folks traveling for the summer, as well as the result of multi-generational families consolidating under one roof.

(Originally published 14 August 2010.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

EdBurgher Repost: A Japanese Dinner

(Over the next couple weeks, we're going to be re-posting a few Japan-related items from our old blog, The Educated Burgher. For those of you who have seen them already: feel free to ignore them. For those of you who haven't: gape in awe or something.) 

We've had a lot of questions from friends and family about the food here in Japan. Well, we're happy to say that we really haven't had a bad meal yet. And when you can't read the menu, there's a lot of serendipity involved in procuring a meal.

Last night, for example, Nana and I went downtown for dinner with some friends. We chose the restaurant by the time-honored method of walking until we were too hungry not to stop at the first cool-looking place we saw. Then, as a group, we ordered one each of the five items on the "best" menu. (We couldn't tell if these were the specials or the most popular dishes. Or, of course, those with the highest profit margin.)

Here's what we got (with apologies in advance for the poor picture quality, and for the fact that I was a little slow with the camera at times):

-A fried scallion pancake, similar to a dish we had in Korea.

-Breaded & fried chicken with a mild mustard, ginger, & garlic sauce.

-Fried tamago (mildly sweet egg) stuffed with fish eggs. Gone too quickly for me to get a good photo!

-Simple fried gyoza (pork dumplings with a soy dipping sauce).

-Beef belly (think bacon, but with beef) stewed with potato & onion.

When we finished with these, we asked the waiter (in halting Japanese) to recommend something else. We ended up with motsunabe, a dish that originated right here in Fukuoka.

Motsunabe is a type of nabemono, which basically means it's a simple soy broth with a bunch of meat and veggies piled in it, and it cooks right in front of you at your table. The meat in Motsunabe is usually either pork or beef offal. Ours was cow stomach!

Which brings me to another early lesson we've learned about Japanese food: so far, it seems like they can take just about anything and make it tasty. That's not to say there isn't simple food here--one of the best meals we've had so far was basically a bowl of chicken noodle soup, sumo-style. But not knowing what we've been ordering has also led us to some great meals I don't think we would have found on our own.

(Originally Published August 13, 2010.)

Welcome to The Senseitions

Hello, readers! I'm assuming most of you found your way here from one of our old blogs, School of ROK (from our time in Korea) or The Educated Burgher (from our time in Scotland). For you folks, we probably need no introduction.

For anyone else, here's what you need to know. My wife and I have been living overseas since 2007, when we started teaching at Asia Pacific International School in Seoul. (In fact, we still show up on some of those slide shows!)

After two years in Korea, we moved to Scotland, where we both did one-year postgraduate degrees at the University of Edinburgh. Mine was in a quirky little corner of the humanities known as book history (ie, the history of writing, reading, publishing, etc). Nana's was in the history of material objects, with a special emphasis on the history of clothing. I tell you this because it might explain some of our more eclectic fixations. You'll also notice that we're batty about history and language--and we absolutely love to eat.

Beyond this, our blogs are probably the best way to get to know us. So as this one grows, please check out our old blogs, too. Comments are always open and suggestions always welcome. Enjoy!

About our Name: Please excuse the punning--it's just something we do. "Sensei" is Japanese for "teacher," and all the Jane Austen puns were already taken!