Driven to Drink

Oh Bill, you make everything better. So does whisky, speaking from experience.

When I arrived in Japan I thought, here's an opportunity to learn about Japanese food and drink, mostly drink and specifically sake. Because the Japanese booze it up big time, and sake is what they drink, and when in Rome, right?

Nope. I got it all wrong.

First, the word sake (pronounced sah-keh, not sah-key) doesn't really mean what we think it means. Sake is in fact the word in Japanese typically used for salmon. What? Yeah, what we call sake is in fact referred to as nihonshu in Japan, which translates to Japanese (nihon) alcohol (shu). To make it more confusing, the Japanese word sake is also another word for alcohol in general, but not for nihonshu specifically. Don't ask me, just keep in mind that if you ask for sake over here it's highly possible they will bring you salmon.

Second, what we call sake is fermented rice brewed in the same way as beer so we're also wrong to call it "rice wine" ... dang it.

Third, sake/nihonshu isn't the most popular alcoholic beverage in Japan! That would in fact be shōchū, a completely different, stronger liquor (sake is 9-15% alcohol and shōchū is 25-35%) made by distilling barley, buckwheat, sweet potatoes, etc. Who knew? Don't get me wrong, sake is taken very seriously in Japan, but so is just about everything they make. Sake is no exception.

Fourth, one small yet very important detail – I don't actually like sake! I did make concerted efforts to appreciate it. I sampled many different kinds and grades. But they all taste like either saliva, or alcohol mixed with saliva, or alcohol made from rice water (yuck), or nothing much at all (in other words, saliva). I tried it cold, warm, hot, room temperature. By itself, with sushi, ramen, udon, yakitori. I really tried, but if something tastes like spit ... I don't know, some things you just can't force. I don't mind a little shōchū sometimes but it's like drinking weak vodka. Kinda boring.

So what's a drinking girl to do? Naturally, she moves up the chain of alcoholic beverages produced in Japan and finally hits liquid gold. Whisky. Now we're talking! And it's not just me – ask the whisky guru who recently deemed a Japanese whisky to be the best in the world for 2015. Japanese whisky is THE booze right now, and guess what? The good stuff is nearly impossibly to get your hands on ... unless you're made of money or happen to live in, say, Japan.

Lucky me.

But I won't be seeking out the best in the world, in case you're wondering. I do however love the simple non-kanji design of these squat little 500ml bottles of Nikka Whisky from the Barrel. They're adorable and the contents are so very, very drinkable. For those of you in Japan or visiting Japan, it's the perfect little gift and great introduction for people like me who up until a few weeks ago knew exactly nothing about Japanese whisky. For those of you outside Japan, you'll have to spend more (a lot more) and the selection is extremely limited. I recommend asking your favorite bartender (you know you have one) for a taste.

Oh, and unless you've been living under a large rock, you drinkers know it's all about whisky now. This is not your pappy's cigar drink or excuse to beat his spouse anymore. Doubt me? Check out these boozin' ladies and these bars and these cocktails. You might also know that Suntory recently acquired Jim Beam, among others. Sorry patriots, but there are tons of other whiskies out there to choose from and you can probably even find one or two made locally – so hit the liquor shops this holiday season. As if you need a reason?

Back to Japan. Without explaining the last 100 years of Japanese whisky production (not that I could), just know that 1) they know what they're doing, 2) there are only eight (soon to be nine) distilleries in Japan, and 3) the Japanese distill in the style of Scottish whisky (i.e. Scotch) hence the Scottish spelling whisky rather than American whiskey (e.g. Bourbon) or Irish whiskey. If you want to know more about whisk(e)y in general this will help. And if you want to know more about Japanese whisky read this short introduction or this longer description.

But if you're like me you really just want to start drinking. Or cooking with it, whisky makes food taste so much better it's scary. I consulted the overwhelming online whisk(e)y community and landed on the informative, unpretentious blog Whiskies R Us written specifically about Japanese whiskies. This post in particular told me not only what's good but also what's affordable.

And so far ... soooo good. Cheers! or kanpai! as they say over here.

[Please drink responsibly, in other words don't be an asshole.]


I Hate You Japan

I did my first I Love You Japan post but now I'm going to lay right into this country. Sure it's fun to live here and every day is an adventure. I like adventures. But on a daily basis some of them become tiresome, real fast.

And now, the #1 reason Japan sucks ass:


That's a picture of my house. Snow started falling this week and I'm painfully reminded of its inefficiencies. Heated toilet seats are nice and all, but seriously? That's NO replacement for a warm house, people! Is it really too much to ask? These days, in what's known to be the most developed Asian country and some would argue the most modern country in the world? Yes, apparently it is too much to ask.

Let me explain. Houses here have no central heating. Whatsoever. In anyone's house anywhere in Japan. Instead kerosine heaters heat one or two rooms that are kept shut off from the rest of the house. Also, homes in Japan are constructed with little or no insulation and paper-thin walls. I can't really figure this one out. My only theory is if the house falls down during an earthquake the walls won't be heavy enough to kill people ... as much. But that's all I got.

To stay warm people are fond of using electric space heaters, the aforementioned heated toilet seats, heated lap blankets, heated shawls and hand muffs (powered by USB port – I kid you not), heated rugs, heated foot pillows, hot water bottles, heating pad inserts for clothing, "heat wipes" (chemically heated wet wipes), and probably the dumbest of all, the Kotatsu.

This brilliantly designed contraption is a coffee table draped by comforter or blanket with a heater inside. Um no, I'd rather get in a sleeping bag with my dogs than take part in that aesthetic nightmare. Sorry. Would you want your living room to always look like a kid fort? Didn't think so. No matter how cozy and "exotic" these things look.

Here's another one, just in case you think I'm making this shit up. Note the obtrusive kerosine heater in the corner.

We have one kerosine heater in the main room, which is the living room and kitchen. The heater runs all the time and thankfully it's is hooked up to the ugly tank outside that also heats our water via the slightly less ugly (and extremely loud) on-demand water heater next to it. Both sit outside of all homes for the world to see, so I'm guessing city code requires them to stay out there in sub-zero winter temperatures. Because that makes so much sense.

Anyway. About that kerosine, a very nice man comes by in his cute little truck to fill the outdoor tank. He has no set schedule and sometimes he shows up every week or so, but sometimes not for weeks and we nearly die from exposure when the tank runs out. When we figure out what's going on we get someone who speaks Japanese to call the gas company and they send him over. That happened three or four times last winter. Good times.

Back inside, smack next to the bed in the bedroom upstairs is another kerosene heater we have to re-fill by hand every few days. (I keep it strategically hidden under a sheepskin in summer.) Can't tell you how many times we turned it on to warm up the room before heading up to bed, only to find it empty and cold, oh because there's no gauge on it. (Yeah, there's intelligence for you.) Refilling this thing is a real joy: Take its inner tank out, try not to drip gas on the bed (or tatami, stairs, hall, my slippers, the dogs, etc.) go outside with dish gloves on to avoid getting gas all over hands – the horrible smell takes days to dissipate – and attempt to pour or, if fingers aren't frozen yet, hand-pump kerosine from portable tanks, also left out there by the gas man. If he showed up that week.

The rest of the rooms are all cold all the time. When I say cold I mean you see your breath from December through March. I put on a down jacket to go in those rooms. So much fun!

It's not like I haven't been proactive. I've asked around. The expats laugh and say "Welcome to Akita!" A friend from New Zealand even calls winter here inhumane. Japanese people totally accept this way because to them there IS no other way. One guy suggested I put bubble wrap on the windows, so I went to the hardware store to investigate. The stuff is made specifically for windows, but it looks like aluminum foil. Sorry Japanese dude, I refuse to put foil on my windows LIKE A CRACK HOUSE. I don't care if there's no crack in Japan, I have standards.

So living through the cold months in Japan is one step away from winter camping. I'm from Colorado, I like camping, I like winter, I've even winter camped before ... but living like this every day?? It's rough. Not to mention totally inefficient and expensive. I don't think I'll ever understand it.

Okay, rant over. That was a long one. Believe it or not I'm trying to stay positive about living here but I'm still a realist and (I hope) this exercise will be cathartic so maybe I won't attempt hara-kiri before I split Japan. In other words, good on you for being my virtual therapist.


I Have This Thing About Kitchens

When I stalk a house or apartment online or in print, I quickly flip through to get to the kitchen. It makes zero sense because I don't really cook. No, that's why I keep my spouse around, as my personal chef and manservant of course. Yeah, so I can't explain the kitchen obsession. I guess because I like food.

Anyway, I've completed several kitchen overhauls (like, say, this one) and today I present my 1920s bungalow kitchen renovation in Denver, the house I shortly thereafter rented out to someone else while I took off to live in Japan. Tragic, no? (Yes.)

Everyone loves a kitchen re-do. Here's how it looked when I bought the house – we all know the sweet-ass vintage '80s/'90s look.

That hurts my eyes. Could have been worse but you know I was dying to get my hands on it. After a lot of obsessing and a yearlong shitstorm of squirreling away every cool design I came across onto my kitchen board, I ended up with a very basic, affordable style with plenty of flexibility for personalization.

Here's how it all went down.

First, I emptied the old cabinets and made a temporary kitchen in the adjoining office complete with cereal, s+p, coffee press (in the bathroom sink for this picture), mini crock pot (unused), electric kettle, toaster, some other things I can't remember now, and microwave in the closet. This is all I need in a kitchen to survive anyway, so it wasn't a difficult adjustment. Luckily the refrigerator stayed in place and the renovation happened around it.

The crew removed the old cabinets in about 37 minutes. Amazing. If only the rest of the job had gone like that.

And off it went.

The new cabinets took weeks and weeks because the Ikea installation company assigned to my project had only one guy to spare. Fortunately he was a meticulous installer with an insane work ethic (14 hour days?) but I felt bad for him and helped out more than I ever thought possible. But hey, I learned a lot. Like, say, that I never want to install cabinets on my own.

Gradually the room started taking shape. I didn't change the layout much, which kept the project manageable and relatively short-lived.

And one day, the stove wasn't in the middle of the dining room anymore.

Then the counter went in ...

... and the sink.

Crazy amounts of stupid little decisions go into kitchen renovations, most of which I'm now suppressing. Fortunately.

At this point I started painting the walls and reluctantly began to contemplate backsplash ideas. Such a commitment! I've never been good at commitment.

Things were progressing quickly toward the end and I still hadn't decided.

The boxers weren't helping, they looked liked this through the entire ordeal.

Then one day it was done.

Just a simple, classic design with a little modernity thrown at it. Removing upper cabinets made the room feel bigger and open. I took the remaining upper cabinets way up to the ceiling so there's no shortage of space for all the cooking things. (We have a lot.) I keep the microwave in the un-pictured hall closet, microwaves are ugly and mess with my spartan vibe. This is why I built an under-counter microwave shelf in my studio kitchen.

Something missing? Hahaa! No backsplash. But for once I was happy about my perpetual state of indecision because I started liking the minimal look I had going. I went back and forth ad nauseam on plain subway tile or marble slab or marble subway tile or hex marble tile but for now I really like the simple, clean, no-noise look. I used good paint so food splatter comes right off and I can touch it up if needed.

I considered painting that back plaster wall a dark color like (whaaat) black or streaky grey. Backsplash possibilities are endless, clearly a real problem for me. Suggestions welcome. But for now the best answer really was the simplest, and in this case the cheapest. I'm calling it Occam's Anna's razor.

Sorry about the shit photos, I mostly used my old iPhone due to laziness. The entire project took 8 weeks from start to finish, not including the faucet that was backordered for months.

And there you have it, my sweet little kitchen in Denver that I'm not even currently using.

The goods: Ikea cabinets and sink, Bosch appliances, quartz counters with matte finish (because concrete is significantly more expensive and curing would have taken too long and I have no patience), Vigo faucet, barn wood shelves on Ikea brackets, and the clamp light is from Amazon, also comes in white.


One year in Japan

So that flew by. Doesn't seem possible but it's already been a year since my arrival. And what do I have to say about Japan? Truth is it's like living on another planet most of the time. Many pleasant surprises but many disappointments too, watch for my I Love/Hate You Japan series. 

I like to think I've used this year to work on me-things I never had the chance to before. But I'm lazy too and I'm pretty sure I just got lazier over the last year. You know that saying "When you want something done, ask a busy person"? I'm the opposite of that person now. 

In an attempt to give myself some credit anyway, and do an annual check-in of sorts, here's a list of things I have, and have not, accomplished in the last year.

Goals I've reached:

+ Lived in Japan (okay, there's a LOT to that one all on its own)
+ Learned how to travel in Japan
+ Lost weight and got in better shape
+ Learned to cook fish (sort of)
+ Posted more here in blogland
+ Bought a good camera

Goals I could possibly still reach:

+ Read lots more books
+ Watch most of the movies on my lists
+ Build shelves in the kitchen
+ Learn how to use my new camera
+ Visit Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and/or Cambodia
+ Travel to Hawaii or Guam
+ Spend more time in Tokyo and Kyoto, and travel more around Japan

Stuff I wanted to do but now I know probably won't:

+ Really learn Japanese (no thanks, I don't have a decade of my life to spare, and I just don't care that much)
+ Ride the bullet trains all over Japan (shinkansen are only affordable for people with tourist visas, I have a resident visa so it's significantly cheaper to fly)
+ Watch more than three of the scary movies in my lists (I'm turning into a wuss)
+ Learn about Japanese gardening (what was I thinking? I'll never be a gardener, in any country)
+ Establish genuine friendships with Japanese people (it seems they'll never stop gawking like I'm an exotic zoo animal)

Things I had no idea I'd be doing here:

+ Building Wordpress websites
+ Living in a home that's one step away from camping
+ Learning so many difficult truths about Japan
+ Having a hell of a time finding anything well-designed
+ Watching way too many TV shows

I'll try to remember to check back in here once in a while – but can't make any promises.

Geisha in Flight by Shohei Otomo via Imgur


I Love You Japan

I've been trying to come up with an idea for posts that explain what it's really like to live in Japan. I'll try to write about just one thing I love or hate about it for each post. And because I'm trying to stay positive about this living-on-another-planet experience, today I'll start with something I love about Japan. (These will NOT be things hipsters rave about upon return from their wabi-sabi zen vacations.)

Today's subject: Safety.

Not from typhoons, earthquakes, radiation leaks, or tsunamis. I'm talking crime. Japan is ranked the safest country in the world. It's incredibly safe here and it's pretty amazing to know in an absolute sense that I'll never be gunned down in the street randomly or otherwise. Unless I start mixing with the yakuza gangs, it's just not going to happen. Sure there's some crime but when it does go down it's a very big deal, like when that teenager recently strangled a classmate. Total outlier and a HUGE deal!

Point is that murder, robbery, home invasion, reckless driving, these things simply don't happen like they do in other countries. Women can walk around most city streets late at night and not worry about anything. I don't have to lock my car or house and if someone nicks my bike at the train station? Chances are it will be back the next day. People care more about society as a whole than themselves as individuals, and everyone watches out for each other. I love that about Japan.

Lost in Translation (great film) stencil via deviantART