Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wednesday Weirdness: Avocado Sashimi

Turns out it's a thing.
I don't know about you, but when I think "interesting," I think "the history of the avocado in Japanese cuisine."

It may surprise you to learn that avocado is not native to Japan. It actually entered Japanese cuisine via California, where transplanted Japanese sushi chefs were looking for a cheap, palatable alternative to toro, or fatty tuna belly.

The Japanese, it turns out, are obsessed with toro, thanks to its rich, fatty flavor and creamy texture. But if you don't mind dropping the tuna-ish taste of toro, avocado is actually a decent approximation. Savvy chefs didn't have to think too hard about swapping out an expensive fish product with little or no distribution in the US for something that, in California, literally grows on trees. Everywhere.

Hence the California roll was born and subsequently transplanted back to Japan, where it remains the only staple of American sushi you can regularly find on the menu. Before long, the avocado took off on its own, popping up in a variety of sushi and non-sushi dishes. These days, reasonably priced avocados can be found in most grocery stores. In fact, they're typically cheaper than they are in the eastern US, and for us at least they've become an important staple as we've tried to trim our consumption of meat.

And avocado sashimi may be the single easiest recipe in the world.

  1. Slice an avocado or two.
  2. Squeeze a lemon wedge over top.
  3. Dip in soy sauce with wasabi to taste.

 Delicious and nutritions.

Today's Lesson
a-bo-ka-do sa-shi-mi shi-ma-su
avocado sashimi make
(I) make avocado sashimi.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sending Money by Japan Post; Or, Carrying Loads of Cash

Pretty much every customs form in the world has a line where you, dear traveller, must declare whether you're carrying more than the equivalent of $10,000 US in cash or cash instruments. I used to wonder what kind of people just had ten grand on them. I mean, who carries ten thousand freaking dollars in cash? Maybe I've read too many Greek myths, but that just seems beyond insane - a level of implied hubris that's practically begging the universe to steal your stash.

So why am I about to show you a picture of Nana holding over $10,000 US in Japanese yen?

Instead of dead presidents, we have dead 19th-century Japanese intellectuals.

You see, Japan is a cash economy. You pay for your dinner in cash. You pay for your groceries in cash. You pay for your domestic plane tickets and your all-female musical theater revue tickets in cash. Granted, you have to go use a special ticket machine at the convenience store - but when you're done, you take the stub to the counter and pay. In cash.

If you're us, you also need reams of paper and a patient Japanese clerk.

I'd write a post about how we did this, but it basically involved printing out a bunch of stuff in Japanese, handing it to the guy behind the counter, and hoping for the best.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, for anything but entertainment, the Japanese are pretty technophobic. Scratch the surface of any business's filing system and it's dead trees as far as the eye can see.

Second, Japan is pretty safe. Petty theft is extremely rare, making loss the only common risk involved in carrying cash.

Third, the Japanese are fiscally ultra-conservative. While household savings rates in Japan have fallen from their boom-time peaks, the Japanese still save a lot of money, most of which they shovel into low-risk, low-return investments like savings accounts and government bonds. As a result, credit cards aren't nearly as ubiquitous here as they are in the States - and neither are the many credit-card-driven point-of-sale technologies that make American debit cards possible.

Finally, the government itself is extremely conservative when it comes to banking and finance. Good for dodging credit crunches and keeping the yen high, not so for providing high-tech infrastructure and customer service. And when it comes to international banking, it's almost medieval: most Japanese have little reason to send money overseas, so naturally the process is both expensive and viewed with suspicion.

This is a roundabout way of saying that, in Japan, most of the usual tricks for sending money home simply don't work. Paypal? Forget it. Online banking? Unheard of. You can go to your bank in person and arrange a reasonably fast wire transfer, but it's super expensive and there are a lot of annoying little regulatory hoops.

That's why most foreigners send their money home by Japan Post.

Now, don't panic - that's not quite what you think, though you are allowed to send cash by mail within Japan.

You see, Japan Post is also a savings bank. As a savings bank, they offer a "transfer" service that basically involves issuing a secure foreign-currency money order in your name, then physically mailing it to your bank, where it's deposited it into your account.

So once in a blue moon, when we have savings to liberate from our zero-interest Japanese savings account (?!?), we have to go through a mildly terrifying ordeal that looks something like this:

  1. Find your banking info. This includes the street address of your "home branch," which is barely even a thing in the US, but they have to send the money order somewhere.
  2. Withdraw about $5000 from the ATM. That's not an extra zero - $5000 is the daily limit. 
  3. Bike very, very carefully for the quarter mile between the ATM and the post office.
  4. Fill out a goofy old form printed in English by an ancient dot-matrix printer.
  5. Walk out the door and promptly forget about the fact that you just sent a five-figure money order across the Pacific.
  6. Be pleasantly surprised and feel irrationally richer when the money appears in your US account.
And that's Japanese technology in a nutshell: we can use our lightning-fast broadband connection to check our balance on a different continent, but only after we've mailed ourselves a million-yen money order we had to pay for in cash.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

How to get on an elephant

I am working on a post on our visit to Patara Elephant Farm, but the truth is a day like that really defies words. So here's some of the 360 photos and video we took that day to answer to the immortal question, "How do you get on an elephant?"

One of two ways. The most common way is up the side, standing on the foreleg and grabbing the ear.

My high school motto was "Strength and Grace." I got 50% right.

But if you're Justin, and you get a crotchety elephant named Mei Kham Souk (note: spelling is me being extremely creative), then she won't let you climb up her leg. You have to do the second way: climb over the head.

And hey presto! That's all it takes to go from landlubber:

to elephant jockey!


What, you want to know how to get DOWN? Oh, fine.Well, first, you tap the elephant on the head and say "Down," in Thai. Which I don't remember.

Then, over the head you go!

Then thank the elephant. They remember if you don't.
Try to get a good photographer. Then you can immortalize the 1/64th of a second in which you don't look like a total klunk and persuade everybody that this was normal for the day.

And that's all for today's lesson. Upcoming lesson include "How to feed your elephant," "How to bathe your elephant," "How to swim with elephants," and "How (and why) to smell elephant poop."