The ExPat Returneth

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Festival Fish

When we lived in Japan, one of our favorite activities was attending festivals. You could count on candy apples, chocolate bananas, takoyaki (batter dipped octopus balls), yakisoba (stir fried noodles), and beer. The kids loved putting on their yukata (cotton kimono) and trying their hand at the games. 

Kid Tai float
The big festivals have some kind of special significance, usually related to Shinto rites. For example, on the Expat header you see the giant fighting Tai (Sea Bream) fish from the Toyohama Tai festival.

But there are also many neighborhood festivals throughout the year, particularly in summer.

Taiko drumming at a festival

The big festivals are fun. Crowded with tourists from Japan and elsewhere, they usually featured some kind of parade and ritual. Many times the drinking of sake accompanied carrying heavy floats. No motorized trailers decorated with tissue covered chicken wire, these floats are portable shrines. The most famous is the Gion Festival in Kyoto where giant, wooden shrines on wheel, some several stories high, are pulled and pushed through the narrow streets. Crowds scream as the shrines make tight turns and threaten to tip over. Beer and sake flows among crowds packed shoulder-to-shoulder.

A Gifu festival shrine
The Gion festival floats in Kyoto

The neighborhood festivals often times have an activity attached. Our local festival had a kind of scavenger hunt where we had to answer questions at different stations for a prize. We won shrimp crackers. The girls were pleased. I was hoping for the big money win: a bag of rice.

Fish Catch

The yoyo balloon game
Free swords at a neighborhood festival

At a festival, you could always count on finding the particularly unusual or amusing. Twice we saw a man dressed in diaper and panda mask claiming to be Pandaman. The Onigiri man, wearing a rice ball hat, extolled the virtues of rice balls at a nearby neighborhood festival. Sometimes we'd run into a festival. We love the serendipity of walking around a corner and finding ourselves immersed in revelry.
Onigiri (rice ball) man at a local festival
A Animecon festival

What kinds of festivals did you attend in your host country? Please share! Anyone attend one of the many naked festivals?

The Konomiya Naked Festival

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

My Cost List for Living In the Most Expensive Cities in the World

Recently a report by Mercer Consulting listed the ten most expensive cities in the world for expats. According to Mercer, that while the global economy is slowing, the cost of living is still rising in many places throughout the world. These benchmarks affect how companies look at compensating their expats living overseas. It also affects workers' decisions to make the move. 

It turns out my husband and I have basically lived in three of the ten most expensive cities in the last twenty years. Japan made the list three times. Tokyo is the most expensive city to live in now (we lived in Yokohama, connected to Tokyo by urban sprawl). Osaka made number three. And our sweet, little Nagoya? Number 10! Woot!

Nagoya; view of Oasis 21
According to the article, renting a luxury apartment in Nagoya still costs half the price of the same apartment in Tokyo. Their other parameters -- for example, a fast food meal, an international newspaper, a gallon of gasoline, and a cup of coffee -- are the same price in Tokyo and Osaka. I would agree with this assessment. Food, gas, etc., is going to cost about the same wherever you go in Japan. Renting in Tokyo is ridiculously expensive and prices have been driven up by the Great Tohoku Earthquake last year.

However, looking at some of the prices listed, I'd like to know why it's costing someone $6.38 to buy a cup of coffee in Nagoya. Everyone knows you can get a breakfast set at Komeda for about $3 which includes coffee, toast, and a boiled egg. McDonald's large coffee and sausage McMuffin is $2.10. And what fast food meal cost $8.42? They're not eating at Yoshinoya, that's for sure.

As an expat, you want your company to recognize the cost of living in these cities. Mercer based their rankings on the cost of 200 items. Here are some other prices I'd like to see in the list:

The cost of a single Croc shoe when your child loses one in the gap between the subway platform and the subway. And the cost to your pride when your children and wife cry all the way back to the hotel because of the missing shoe.

The cost of a cab ride to your home from the end subway station when your husband falls asleep on the train to wake up in a deserted station and realizes the trains are done running for the night.

The cost of weekly breakfast sets for you and your preschool age child because the preschool opens one hour later than the elementary school and it's too far from your home to drive back and to sit in your car for an hour would drive you completely insane. (See price of Komeda and McDonald's breakfast sets listed above).

Where not to keep your iPhone
The cost of a new iPhone because you kept one in your backpocket when you helped your child in a squat toilet at a park and then helplessly watched the phone drop down the sewage hole.

The price of trying to make a three year old walk home from a festival so crowded that getting on subways or finding cabs is impossible. The actual price is found at a 7-11 in the form of candy. Lots and lots of candy.

The price of walking your children to an early morning sumo practice at a local temple and their getting to meet a sumo wrestler? Free. That's the kind of experiences that makes putting up with high prices in foreign cities worth it. 
Meeting a Sumo

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Zaru Soba: Delightful Cold Summer Noodles

It's the third week of summer vacation and like many moms, I'm enjoying a more relaxed schedule. However, I find lunch a hassle. My children seem to think summer living should include room service with a menu plan. The minions have lived overseas and they know there is more to the palette than PB&J. I have enough trouble coming up with dinner ideas. To me, lunch is a powerbar and an apple. Maybe a cheese-stick and Triscuits if I'm lucky. I like PB&J. The short ones scoff and give me complicated explanations on healthy eating that has been hammered into their brains by the school system.   

Zaru Soba
We have created nutritional monsters. Mine made worse by their strange non-kid appetites.

So I make them Zaru Soba, cold soba buckwheat noodles, and everyone's happy. It's simple and fast (yay for me) and satisfies the little foodies. Win-win.

In Japan, this is a common summer lunch dish, although you could eat it for dinner, too. Hot soba noodles in a soup is also a common dish and can be accompanied with tempura, mountain vegetables, deep-fried tofu, and other ingredients. We'll save that for cooler weather. 

Cold noodles sounded a bit strange to me the first time I tried them (although we do eat noodle salads in the US), but I was immediately hooked. The soy sauce based dipping sauce is tangy and refreshing, the buckwheat taste of the noodles  earthy and smooth. Really delicious.

Noodle Soup Base
What makes the noodles so simple to make is the sauce. Noodle soup base sauce added to hot or cold water makes many Japanese soups and sauces. This stuff rocks. You can find this soup base at most Asian stores and some large supermarkets. Just mix the base with water. Of course, you can always make the sauce yourself with soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and dashi stock -- but why? If you're into cooking the hard way, here's the recipe from JustHungry recipes are yummy, but even she says the simplest way to make these noodles is to buy prepared base.

Soup Base proportions
Here's my snapshot from the back of the bottle showing the ease of making all the different sauces/soup bases. As you can see, for Zaru Soba it 4 parts cold water to 1 part soup base.

Soba bundle and Soba package
Zaru Soba for One 

Prepare Zaru Soba sauce the easy way above (1 cup cold water to 1 Tb of soup base) or the hard way (see

1 bundle of Soba (buckwheat) Noodles

Boiling Water (no salt, no oil, just water)

Condiments to sprinkle on the noodles 
(suggestions to follow)

Soba generally come in packs with the dried noodles tied in bundles. One bundle makes enough for one person, depending on the gusto of the eater.

Bring a pot of water to boiling, add noodles, and boil for 6-7 minutes. Test for doneness. They should be firm but not hard. Rinse hot noodles in cold water (don't plunge in cold water, rinse them and run your hands through them) and allow to drain. 

Actually, Zaru Soba is named for the zaru, a bamboo flat basket. It acts to drain the water from the noodles. We bought zaru dishes (at the Japanese version of the dollar store, no less), which are rimmed plates with a bamboo insert.

No 100 Yen Store close by? If you have a sushi roller, put it on top of a plate. That was my old standby. Otherwise... so your noodles sit in a small puddle. Life will go on.

Dipping the noodles
Put about a cup of cold soup/sauce in a small bowl. Dip the noodles as you eat them in the sauce. Add condiments as you like. My girls like nori (roasted seaweed) cut in little slivers (I do this with a scissors) and sprinkled on their noodles. Sliced green onion is delicious. Toasted sesame seeds, wasabi, and grated fresh ginger are also popular. Add these to the soba sauce.

Do you have a favorite summer dish from your host country? Please share!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

ExPat Yakitori to Feature in

Hey y'all! It seems our Ohanami (cherry blossom viewing) Yakitori post caught the attention called 

"a wiki project providing travelers with
information on local cuisine in cities around the world."
Eat it abroad and make it back home. Pretty cool, huh? So I'm linking that original spring post here, but including the recipe below. Yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) are also great for summer grilling!

Cherry Blossom Viewing Yakitori

Basic Yakitori: grilled (yaki) chiciken (tori)

Chicken thigh (about 3 lbs), skinned and boned
2 bundles of green onion (white part only), if you like onion
1/3 c mirin (sweet rice wine for cooking, you can substitute cooking sherry)
2 T soy sauce
1/2 t minced fresh ginger (we use ginger paste, works nicely)
1 clove minced or pressed garlic
bamboo skewers soaked in water (so they don't burn)

Cut chicken into about 1 inch pieces, making certain the pieces are roughly the same size. If you're using onion, cut them into 1 1/4 inch lengths. The chicken will shrink.

Mix the marinade and soak the chicken. Some recipes will have you thread the chicken on the skewers and brush the marinade on while it's cooking. You can do it either way. Marinating is easier and you get a stronger sauce flavor. You know how I feel. It's your kitchen. Whatever.

Skewer the chicken alternating with the green onion if you're using the onion. 

Grill the skewered chicken on a grill or broiler. Cook, turning once, until meat is no longer pink inside.

Aspara-Bacon and Tomato-Bacon

Rinse the vegetables. Wrap a 1/2 piece of bacon around each veg.

For the asparagus use 2 skewers and thread about 4 aspara-bacon horizontally (will look like a ladder). 

Use bacon wrapped cherry tomatoes (grape tomatoes are too small, others are too big) and thread them on one skewer.

Grill or broil for about 15 minutes until bacon is crisp.
Asparabacon from Isekaya Ginji restaurant