Defensive armadillo

 

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I never used to be a big fan of rice – I’m more of a potato and pasta person. That was until I moved to Japan. The reason being that Japanese rice is ooh so delicious even without the sweet and sour sauce or chicken tikka masala that most Westerners would demand with their rice.

I grew to like Japanese rice so much that one time on my way to an important academic conference (you can read about it here) I was so nervous about my presentation that I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. So when I went to a supermarket before the presentation to buy a bottle of water, I walked out not only with a bottle of water but also with a £40 rice cooker and some Japanese rice.

Even though buying a rice cooker on a conference trip was maybe slightly crazy, I think that that rice cooker was one of the best buys of my life, given that after the purchase, our au pairs used to lug huge 10-15kg bags of rice from the supermarket back home on a regular basis.

I loved my rice cooker and it became a bit like a pet to our household, after all instead of your usual Western rice cooker, I think ours looks a little bit like a defensive armadillo curled up in a ball (see photo above). My husband, who is going through a midlife crisis and is considering buying a motorbike, has however been eyeballing the rice cooker as a potential crash helmet.

My rice cooker (like pretty much all Japanese rice cookers) cooks the rice always to perfection – just as sticky as Japanese rice should be. And if you decide to leave the cooked rice in the cooker, it keeps the rice hot up to a day or two. My Japan and Japanese rice cooker experience have left me wondering why on earth had I been cooking rice in a saucepan on a hob all those years before we moved to Japan (even when correctly cooked, it just does not compare to the rice produced by a Japanese rice cooker!). So, when me and the kids came back to England a couple of weeks ago (me for a holiday, the kids to stay for good), I decided to bring the armadillo with me to our home in England.

We managed to fit the cooker in my suitcase (at the expense of many of my clothes ending up in the bin to make room for the hefty armadillo), transport it in one piece from Japan via Finland to England, place it on a central place on the kitchen counter, plug it in… to hear a loud pop and observe fire and sparks shoot out from underneath the rice cooker. It had not occurred to me (or my husband) that the current in Japan is only 100V whilst in England it is 240V. The poor armadillo got somewhat an electric chair treatment, and now we are worried it did not survive the warmer than necessary welcome to England.

In the hope that the armadillo is still alive and kicking, my husband went to buy a transformer to make it compatible with the current in England, but it turns out that the transformer would set us back by £130 (recall, I only paid about £40 for the cooker in supermarket in Japan). Not only that, the transformer was apparently a huge black-and-yellow piece of equipment you might see builders carrying around (and thus not something I want on my kitchen surface even if it would mean saying goodbye to the rice cooker).

I’ve just had a look online as to whether or not I could find a new Japanese rice cooker in England and found that our £40 armadillo’s identical twin costs £200 on Amazon! Like I said, I have really grown to like Japanese rice – we all have, so much so that we’ve got a draw full off all sorts of moulds for my children and my husband’s sticky rice (see photos below).

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But I don’t really know what to do… £200 for a rice cooker just seems quite a lot to me, partly because we haven’t been able to find Japanese rice in Brighton anyway – the only ones we have found are either Italian or American approximations of the real thing, thus in my eyes (and probably in the eyes of most Japanese people) unacceptable copies.

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So, the task for the next couple of weeks is to (a) buy an affordable Japanese rice cooker, (b) locate a shop that sells Japanese rice in Brighton and (c) find a rice-loving builder (who owns a suitable transformer) in order to rehome our beloved armadello, or alternatively hand it over to my husband to be used as a crash helmet.

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The beginning of the end

 

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Our time in Japan as a family has come to the end, as the children have now moved back to England.

I am currently also back in England but will go back to Japan in September for another six months to complete teaching for this academic year (which finishes in March). My lovely, modern husband will be looking after our children for the coming several months and will (happily) be in charge of arranging our kids’ Aikido, guitar and swimming classes, after school clubs, parent get-togethers and even attempting to bake something for the Parent-Teacher Association’s fundraising – maybe I am a bit ambitious with the last item on this list, or at least with the part that he would happily do it, but you’ll get the point that my husband will look after the kids’ school stuff and hobbies for the next six months while I will be the modern wife and mother who will be working 6000 miles from home.

The kids’ move has meant that the past month or so was in many ways extremely emotional, as the children had to say goodbye to their friends and teachers in Japan.

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This is a goodbye poem my son wrote to his best friend in Japan. It says: Sorry. Now I need to go to England. I am sure I will let you go to visit my house in England or Finland. And I like you. Can you always play? I wish I could stay. You are important because you are my friend. Till the end.

 

We’ve also had to say goodbye to the apartment that was our home for 2 ½ years. I was only able to get through the last week of emptying and cleaning of the apartment with frequent (and generous!) pourings of my favourite, plum wine.

 

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My last supper in the apartment

 

In addition to their friends, my son will  miss butamans (Chinese pork buns) and my daughter will miss strangers’ constant exclaims of ‘kawaii’ (‘cute’) at her. On the other hand, my husband will miss his Japan to England commmute as much as I miss the daily inspections of my children’s bodies for ticks during our recent visit to Finland (they have a huge problem in Finland currently with those horrible creatures (ticks not kids) whose single bite can result in a life threatening illness).

From now on, instead of my husband, I will be travelling between the two countries.

The past month was also extremely stressful, one of the most stressful times of my life in fact. Not only did the last day of the academic semester coincide with our flight back to Europe, but we also had to empty our apartment, move my stuff to a flat share, and most traumatic of all: negotiate with the kids which of our lorry load of toys would go into our three suitcases heading to England and which in the bin. In desperation, my son carried one huge soft toy dog in his arms to the airport in the hope that he was allowed to take that on the plane – he was even prepared to make a scene if the airport ground staff told him that he would have to leave it behind, but in accommodating Japanese style, we were allowed to take the toy on the plane! There was one happy boy on that Finnair flight holding a dog nearly as big as a St Bernard.

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A nervous toy dog and his owner before finding out if doggy is flying to Europe or not.

 

I am in two minds about the move. I love Japan, the reliability of its public transport, delicious food, people’s considerate approach to others and interesting culture. In England public transport is abysmal, food in many restaurants below par, and people in many ways are less considerate than the Japanese. However, culturally and socially England is amazing, and I am prepared to live with the disgraceful Southern Trains, cold bangers and mash and bad service setting me back £12, and people pushing in on the train before I’ve had a chance to come out because of that wonderful sociable, friendly and accepting ethos (I will not address the result of the Brexit vote here, but I feel that overall people at least in English cities like Brighton are still very friendly, tolerant and open-minded).

Come September I will miss the kids and everything about them: them not waking up next to me in the morning, them not running to the hall when I get home from work to give me a hug while shouting ‘Mummy’s home!’, us not playing Monopoly or Top Trumps after dinner or just hanging around on a weekend, but I am taking a positive view of the next six months. This is an opportunity for me to re-live my time before kids. So, instead of being melancholy about this I will take this as a great opportunity to see the Japan that I would not see with the kids – staying overnight in a monastry, seeing a multitude of beautiful temples, experiencing natural beauty, soaking in outdoor and indoor hot springs, endulging in fancy restaurants with elegant food, letting my hair down in izakayas (Japanese ‘gastropubs’) i.e. experiences that do not strike kids as amazing, but to me sound like heaven.

So, for the next six months, I will be writing little anecdotes of my solo travels, experiences and observations of Japan. Stay tuned for the next chapter.

What does Japan sound like?

 

What does Japan (or at least Osaka) sound like?

Well, in July anywhere in close proximity to trees it sounds like this (short video below).

 

 

The cricket-y sound you hear on the video is created by cicada, which in Japan are known as semi. You may agree with me that the noise is so loud that you can barely hear your own thoughts! It’s not only the noise that semi makes that can disturb your day but my Japanese friends have warned me not to walk under trees in which semi are chirping – you’ll get peed on!

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This is not the best photo of a semi, given that the insect in my photo is dead but it’s the only photo I’ve got. Sorry.

 

 

 

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Tall, taller, tallest

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The view from Harukas, Osaka

Many people (excluding the ones with a fear of heights) like visiting tall buildings, so much so that different cities/countries/companies seem to be having an everlasting race for the sky to see which city/country/company has the tallest building on the planet. Due to this, the reign of a given ‘tallest’ building only lasts for a short number of years, until the time when it is no longer possible to build taller buildings. Or maybe that day will never come?

You see, I recall a recent dinner table conversation with some male acquaintances (none of whom were structural engineers, architects or bricklayers – and neither am I). Somehow the conversation got onto the topic of tall buildings in the world: Burj Khalifa in Dubai, Tokyo Skytree, Shanghai Tower, Taipei 101 and Harukas in Osaka.

Going off on one, there is also of course Trump Tower. My 8-year old son asked the other day why there is a building called ‘fart tower’. It took all my willpower to resist telling him that it was because there was an asshole at the top of it.

The men agreed that there was no limit as to how high big objects could be erected until it is no longer feasible to reach higher altitudes. I joined their conversation and said that it is likely that there is a limit, not only from a financial point of view (I mean, how expensive would it be to add an extra floor to a 10 km tall building rather than an extra floor of a shorter building) but also that due to the earth being round, which in my non-structural engineer’s mind says that there must be a point when the earth’s surface would no longer provide a structurally sound foundation for a ridiculously tall building (I based my assertion on my knowledge of building towers of wooden blocks with my children – the taller the tower the bigger the base). Maybe this was a stupid thing to say, but in my opinion not any more stupid than talking about the possibility of having infinitely high buildings. They nevertheless laughed and said that only a woman could point that kind of an argument out. I, in turn, wanted to point out that only men with certain issues would spend time comparing the size of erect things.

I have since talked to my husband because I was so furious about the mansplaining that took place around that dinner table. He isn’t a structural engineer, architect or bricklayer either but he agreed that finance was one of the biggest limits to building an indefinitely tall building. He also added (1) problems with elevators/transportation from the bottom to the top of the building (2) wind and (3) materials. In addition he pointed out that of course there is a limit because at some point you would theoretically hit the moon/sun/other object.

Tall buildings are obviously a popular tourist attraction and a great place for a marriage proposal, wedding venue or a party. What a spectacular place to propose to your partner – not only for the view, but also for the convenience. If the answer is not what you were hoping for you can always threaten to jump off the building because you think your life no longer has any meaning (or alternatively you can threaten to throw them off the building) – only kidding! Please don’t go jumping or throwing people off of buildings even if they don’t want to marry you (or respect your passion for spectacular erections).

In any case, Japan has many tall buildings, the tallest of which is Tokyo Skytree, a tower that stands a whopping 634m tall. See photo below.

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Tokyo Skytree

 

Here in Osaka, we have the tallest (300m) inhabited building in Japan, Harukas.

 

It’s one of our favourite places to visit in Osaka, partly because

  • the view is stunning, even though Osaka is not exactly the prettiest of cities, see photos above and below
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Harukas, Osaka

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The view from Harukas, Osaka

  • on a weekday it is not particularly busy and so you can just sit there for hours and relax

 

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  • the café at the top of the building sells delicious pineapple ice cream (and wine) – perfect for relaxation
  • the toilets at the top with glass walls that will allow you to take an interesting mirror selfie for your Facebook page (unless your reflection in the mirror resembles a chipmunk, like mine does below, in which case you might want to refrain from posting the photo on Facebook).

 

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  • the light display in the lift is beautiful – it makes you feel like you are on a journey to somewhere lovely (maybe somewhere far away from the depressing post-Brexit reality) (see the video below)

 

 

I suppose the only negative is that when you get to the bottom, you realise that you are not in a beautiful world where everyone is intelligent and loving, but that you are in a huge department store and you need to try to find you way back to the tube.

If you are ever in Osaka (and if you don’t suffer from a fear of heights) you should visit Harukas, that is of course unless by that time there is already a taller building, maybe one that reaches the sun.