Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mamma mia!

That phrase makes both of us laugh tonight, for a few reasons. First of all, we nearly fell prey to a second "scam the foreigners" attempt, at the same restaurant where it happened last!

I felt like saying one of Mario's catch phrases, "Mamma mia!" when I figured out what these guys were up to. Both times that they have brought us our change, they have tried to give us 10 yen (cent) coins rather than 100 yen coins. I imagine they think we probably don't know the difference. However, since I sometimes border on the obsessive side when it comes to finances, I always total up the bill, and have luckily caught them both times.

The first time, I thought, oh it's just a simple mistake from the waiter. But it happened again, at the same restaurant. So, they've got to be doing it on purpose. Are we going to go back there? Surprisingly, yes. It's our favorite restaurant in Tokyo. And its name...

Mamma mia.

One more interesting tidbit about our restaurant experience and our observations of the "politeness" of Tokyo-ites (to the extreme). Our server hadn't come around in a while after bringing drinks and appetizers, so I grabbed the attention of one of the sous chefs who was walking by (I didn't know he was a chef until after what happened next). He stood behind me, as I stumbled through our order. By now, I'm ordering in short phrases that are 90% Japanese and 10% Engish. When he walked away, I noticed that he had written the entire order on his hand...since he wasn't carrying a paper pad...since he wasn't actually a server.

So, rather than saying, "hold on a sec" and getting a server or some paper, he politely took our exhausting order without hesitating. That's Tokyo for ya.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Brad's blog

Since Brad is feeling a void from only reading about politics, religion, and who knows what else, and not being able to discuss them often with friends, he has started his own blog about those kinds of things at:

Yes, Brad + 3 Ds, dot blogspot, dot com.

Check it out and leave a message!

Rebel without a cause

Just when I thought everything was "normal..."

I do have one admission for the "strange and unusual" category. On Saturday, while en route to our friend Danny's place for lunch with some friends, I got pulled over...on my bicycle!

Yes, a police officer, on foot mind you, stopped me to "ask a few questions." I muddled through some Japanese and he tried his best with English. Basically, from what I understood, he wanted to check the registration on my bike to see if it was properly registered with the city. See, in Tokyo, you have to file and maintain registration on a bike the same way we do with cars. So yes, a Japanese policeman basically said, "license and registration please." Except I was on a bike.

I was actually borrowing our friend Brendan's "extra" bike, which was a hand-me-down gift from another teacher this year. Since I knew I couldn't quite explain all of that in Japanese, I just said that I was a teacher at St. Mary's (pronounced "Saint-o Mary-zu"), and that the bike was owned by another "sensei." He knew the school, which was great news, and asked the name of the teacher.

I nearly said "Brendan Riley," but just then, the other teacher's name popped into my head: Mr. Ofstedahl. Yeah. Can you imagine trying to get a Japanese guy to say "Ofstedahl-san?" On the radio, he called it in, and instead simply asked if it was registered to a "gaijin," or foreigner, and gave up on actually pronouncing that good ole' Midwestern surname. They said, yes, it was indeed registered to a gaijin, and the police officer graciously let me continue on my way. I'm not sure what would have happened had I been wrong.

Later, when looking at the bike, I discovered why he pulled me over. There is a sawed-off piece of a former bike lock hanging below the seat. He must have thought that I'd stolen the bike and was actually pretty observant to have seen that from where he was walking. In any case, that was my second encounter with police in Japan. In both circumstances (the last was during our campfire on the beach), they were polite, courteous, and harmless. Let's just hope it stays that way.



The most striking thing about this week is actually its utter un...striking...ness.

Is it weird that life in Tokyo, Japan is starting to actually feel, well, normal? We are far from "home" and things are still quite different from most of what we've experienced the last 20-some years, but yes, things are settling in and feeling pretty normal.

We check for Fuji on a daily basis. Sometimes we see it, sometimes we don't.

We are now used to walking, riding our bikes, or riding trains everywhere we need to go. We've only taken one taxi, when it was called for us by our principal when we first arrived. You should see my thighs. ha!

We've adjusted to the cost of food, and now know if something IS actually too expensive, or if it's just Tokyo-expensive.

We have finally put some finishing touches on our apartment. You know, curtains covering all the windows so we're now able to walk around our own home in our underwear. Amen to that. Also, we completed our dining room table set. It's comprised of a heated floor mat (similar to an electric blanket, but like a rug), a new, super-soft rug, six "floor pillows" for seats, and a beautiful wood table (about two feet tall).

This Saturday, we'll celebrate Thanksgiving at the Whites', with over a dozen of our fellow teachers from St. Mary's. Rachael and I have managed to scout out nearly all of the ingredients necessary for a "perfect" Thanksgiving feast. Am I nervous for Rachael to pull off all the delicious delicacies that she has planned? No way. Am I nervous for my first stab at cooking a Thanksgiving turkey? Oh yeah. Please pray for me, as I attempt to brine, prep, cook and carve these 26 pounds of birdie goodness.

Yes, life seems normal. So normal, in fact, that we're going to press pause on the whole thing and come home to visit for a couple weeks for the Holidays. We'll see all of our family, the Cahills and the Whites, and spend some much-missed time with friends in the Twin Cities.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Last night, Brad and I decided it was time that we would try our best to find and make an authentic Japanese seafood dish. There are many varieties of fresh seafood here that are quite cheap, so we had a lot to work with. I searched for some recipes and found one for Calamari Stew that sounded good on a cold night. So, Brad and I went on a search for the perfect squid!

Near our apartment, there is a narrow street lined with small fish markets, a meat market, and various vegetable stands. The first fish market we stopped at had two perfect squid ("ika" in Japanese)- the last two they had to sell that night. Since the fish is fresh from the morning catch, when they are "out," they're out). It was strange when I saw the squid's little black eyes looking up at me... yeah. See for yourself.

We brought the squid home and looked up how to clean them online. It seemed simple enough, until I tried to pull the head off the squid. Yuck. Brad did that. After removing the head, beak, and insides, we sliced the squid into thin pieces. The stew turned out to be really delicious, but I think next time we will ask the fish monger to clean the squid for us!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Oh Mt. Fuji, how we love you.

I had to go to school a bit early this morning to get some materials ready for a sweet new science experiment for the boys (syringe rockets...oh yeah), and got an excited call from Rachael a few minutes before school.

"Did you see that?!!!!"

"See what?"

"Mt. Fuji! It's perfectly clear out this morning and now it's all covered in snow. It looks like one of those classic pictures of Fuji where it's all huge, and white, and towering over the other mountains."

"Crap, I biked today." (different route than walking)

Sadly enough, I missed this wonderful sight, but at least Rachael got to see it. Hopefully Fuji-san will come back to visit sometime. I swear the mountain intentionally hides 3/4 of the year. That way, for the brief and infrequent times that we can see far enough to lay our eyes on it, we're absolutely blown away by its size and beauty.

We look for Fuji every morning on our walk to school, and sometimes, when we're lucky, we get a peek of this incredible sight that so perfectly represents the natural beauty and grandeur of this island nation.

Apparently today was one of those least for Rachael.

(Earlier this year, during one of those walks to school when Fuji came out to play.)

Fuji Info

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Paying Bills

Grocery Shopping #2

Today, after our Japanese lessons, Brad and I rode our bikes to the grocery store. It started out as a completely normal shopping trip; we bought some veggies, tofu, and meat for some stir fry, then we went to the checkout. We noticed a lady at the register ahead of us trying to speak to the cashier. We had no idea what she was trying to say or do because we were too far away to hear. When it was our turn at the register, the lady came up to us and asked (in French) if we spoke French. Unfortunately, I have lost much of my French speaking skills so I was not much help. She was able, however, to speak English very well and asked us where the nearest pharmacy was. We did what we could to point her in the right direction.

We chatted for a while and found out that she was from Paris, France. After telling her that we spent a couple of days in Paris on our honeymoon, she asked if we planned to go back to Paris someday. We both replied with an enthusiastic "YES" and she immediately offered her contact information. She explained that she was in Tokyo visiting a friend and if we were ever in Paris again we should contact her. She was a beautiful, kind woman. Our encounter with her was a refreshing reminder that people from all over the world have the same struggles being in an unfamiliar country as we do. I was also reminded of how many wonderful people we have met during our short time living in Japan. We now have contacts in countries all over the world! It is truly humbling to be blessed as we have: we are healthy, happy, and surrounded by people who care about us (whether they are right here in Tokyo or an ocean away in the U.S.).

There are some other interesting tid bits about grocery shopping in Japan. Seasonal produce has a big impact on what we are able to buy. There are very few vegetables that are available to purchase right now because Japan does not heavily import from other countries. Pumpkins (not the orange kind, the green kind) are readily available, as well as mushrooms, leeks, cabbage, carrots and potatoes (including sweet potatoes). Importing can be nice because it makes a wide variety of produce readily available, but the impact it has on the environment is astonishing. It is a relief to know that we are buying food that is grown right here in Japan.

If it isn't the seasonal aspect making grocery shopping difficult, it is the price. We paid nearly $8.00 for a bag of shredded cheddar cheese the other day. Yikes.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Fall Break

This weekend was officially our fall break at St. Mary’s, so many of our friends here traveled within Japan to places like Okinawa and Kagoshima, and others went to nearby hot spots like Guam to get some R & R.

Rachael definitely needed some R & R as she got over her third cold of our short time here in Japan. Rather than traveling, we spent time here in Setagaya-ku, and had a few fun adventures.

First, we continued our Japanese lessons with our tutor “Shingo-san.” Here is a photo of our homework for this week.

We’re working on phrases like: Whose pencil is that (Dare no enpitsu deska)? That’s Rachael’s pencil (Korewa Rachael-san no enpitsu des). This isn’t my watch (Watashi no tokei ja arimasen). I eat rice (Watashi wa gohan o tabemasu). etc. It’s definitely a difficult language to learn, especially with the complexity of the written characters and alphabets, but knowing a few phrases is already helping give us some much needed confidence in the public sphere. It is also reminding us of how incredibly difficult it is to learn another language- the amount of time, the financial cost, and the exhaustion of studying alien-looking letters and words for hours on end. It’ll certainly make you reconsider looking down on anyone else for not being able to speak a particular language, as is often central to debates about immigration in the States.

Later on, Brad and our friend Brendan went downtown to check out some thrift stores, and new/used vintage clothing stores. Unconfirmed sources have indicated that Brad also stopped excitedly at a Wendy’s and ordered a heart-attack-on-a-bun (Double cheeseburger with bacon). As far as cool new Tokyo clothes go, we’ve limited ourselves to one new clothing purchase a month, so here are the October purchases. Boots for Rachael and a sweaterish thing for Bradley.

Tokyo style is similar to New York, but bizarre in its own subtle ways too (women are often dressed in scandalous short skirts and high boots or frumpy, unflattering potato sack type shirts). We ended that night with a rich and hearty beef stew with a red wine base. My gosh this woman can cook!

On Saturday, we talked to the fam on Skype for a while and finally showed them our apartment (since Brad bought a 30m LAN cable for our internet). After chatting for a few hours, we went to the famous Tsukiji fish market. The market opens quite early in the morning (4am), so we just went to see the area and check out the outdoor market that surrounds the bustling fish market. Here are some shots of the area- fresh sea creatures of all types, beautiful knives, and various other food-related stands. After touring around a bit, we stopped for a delicious lunch at a sushi restaurant. Here’s the cool part: Besides having some of the freshest sushi we’ve ever had, we actually were able to read the word “sushi” in hiragana (one of the Japanese alphabets)! Woo hoo! Guess the lessons have paid off.

In the afternoon, we stopped by our church to help out with a small event for kids from a local orphanage. There were games, treats, and even a magician that wasn’t half bad. From there, we met some friends at TGIFridays and went to see a fantastic documentary film about the creation of the Broadway production, “A Chorus Line.”

Sunday, we worked on grading and papers, and Brad played drums for the evening church service. All in all, it was a nice weekend to catch up on sleep, see a few new things, and spend some time with friends.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


We’ve largely avoided writing about politics on this blog, but when both of us have been brought to joyful tears by the events of a day, it’s probably time to reflect a little.

Watching John McCain and Barack Obama give their respective speeches tonight reminded us of how great our country is. We are lucky enough to be led by such incredible leaders as these two men, and to exercise the amazing privilege of voting for our chosen leader. Senator McCain showed his true spirit tonight, as a man of integrity that has given everything he has to the service of his country. And as McCain said himself, America “spoke clearly” to usher in Mr. Obama, a brilliant, energetic, eloquent, steady, inspirational new leader, as the 44th President of the United States.

"Canvassing" the streets of northern Iowa before the caucus/Our Obama "House Party"

For the last couple years, we have worked diligently on the behalf of this historic campaign, and couldn’t be more proud to have been a part of it all. Although no leader or president is perfect, this man will indeed bring a needed change to the United States of America. My third grade students perceptively noted last year that he “doesn’t look like all the other presidents,” and that is not insignificant. It is not by accident that this barrier has been shattered- America has been transformed, and this is merely evidence of that shift. America still has a long way to go, but it continues to advance towards the goal of being a more perfect Union. Tonight pushed that ideal several steps forward.

In the words of Hillary Clinton, “In quiet, solitary acts of citizenship, American voters gave voice to their hopes and their values, voted for change, and refused to be invisible any longer.”

Now, we will pray for this man, who literally has the weight of the world on his shoulders. We will pray that he makes wise decisions after seeking wise counsel. We will pray that he is kept safe from those whose hatred blinds them to attempt to hurt him. We will pray that Americans’ renewed passion and engagement will sustain us through the tough times ahead.

Senator Obama’s candidacy was guided by the phrase “Change We Can Believe In.” We do believe in the potential for this man to be a truly great president, and for him to turn around our country from the disaster of the Bush Administration. This is just the beginning, but what an incredible day this has been for our country. Simply amazing.

Waiting for primary results with Mayor Rybak. / Working hard for our country!

Emceeing a fundraiser in Minneapolis/ Meeting Barack in Iowa

Obama visits the Twin Cities/ Putting my arm around our next president

President-elect Obama taking time for a photo with volunteers