Sunday, October 2, 2016

McDonald's Japan Chocolate Fries

McDonald's Japan Chocolate Fries Part I: "McChoco Potato"

From late January to mid-February, McDonald's Japan offered a limited time Valentine's Day menu item of fries with regular and white "double" chocolate sauce. As soon as I read about it on RocketNews24, I knew I had to try it.

McDonald's Japan McChoco Potato double chocolate sauce fries

McDonald's Japan McChoco Potato double chocolate sauce fries

Friday, May 20, 2016

So you're moving to Aomori...

Nine years ago I was waiting for a message/call from my parents to tell me when my JET Programme placement letter arrived and where I was being sent while touring Europe with two friends. We were in London when I got the call from my dad.

- "You're going to Towada City in Aomori Prefecture. It's got a university so it can't be too small/rural."

- "What kind of university?" I asked.

- "An agricultural* university," I believe he replied.

- "It's definitely a rural placement!" I thought.

(*Actually, it's a veterinary university.)

So if you opened your placement letter and freaked out a bit when you saw the words "Aomori Prefecture," don't worry, you're not alone.

As you will soon be tired of hearing, "every situation is different" (ESID), but from my personal experience as a five-year JET ALT turned lifer (I got married so the move to Towada became permanent), I can say that Aomori is a great place to live.

To be honest, all of Aomori Prefecture is basically by definition rural, but there are definitely benefits to rural placements. The main thing is that you will get to experience a side of Japan that few outsiders get to see. If you need to, you can always visit a big(ger) city and get a decent sense of city life/the city experience, but you can't really get the full small town experience just by visiting. I've been able to plant and harvest rice, pound rice into mochi (rice cakes) using a giant wooden mallet and mortar, dance bon odori (a kind of folk dance) in a yukata (light cotton summer kimono) in an outdoor art park, and do so much more that I probably wouldn't have had a chance to experience in a bigger urban placement.

And the food here is so much fresher and cheaper than Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc. Sure, if you want a specific type of international cuisine or ingredients from back home, Aomori can't compete with bigger urban cities, but if you're buying seasonal, local produce, Aomori beats Tokyo for quality and cost any day hands down. Every time I travel to a big city in Japan, I come back to Towada and am amazed at the deliciousness of simply seasoned (if at all) fresh, local vegetables, fish, &etc..

Heard about the crazy expensive giant tuna from the Tsukiji market fish auctions? Chances are that came from Aomori (Oma Town) and you can eat it freshly carved right before your eyes for a reasonable price at the Oma Super Tuna Festival in October.

If you're not yet convinced that life in a rural prefecture will be your thing, well, just try to keep an open mind. Hopefully you'll see when you get here what a great place it is.

(The local JET community is great too. Although I didn't hang out with many people from outside of my city/local area even when I was still a JET, I still keep in contact with the current JET community through Facebook, etc. Even though I haven't personally met most of them, from my online interactions with them, they seem like a pretty good bunch.)

Speaking of which, my number one tip if you are coming to Aomori on the JET Programme this summer is to join the Aomori JET Facebook Group (assuming you use Facebook). You will be able to find your predecessor (or someone who knows them) and/or a re-contracting JET in your placement city/town/village or at the very least someone who lives nearby.

If you are planning on getting a car, you should also join the Jet Lemonade Stand (青森) as leavers will probably start listing their cars there within the next couple of months. TIP: Even if you don't need to drive for work, if you have a license and can afford to get/maintain a car I would highly recommend considering getting one. Aomori is big and spread out and the population isn't big enough to support a highly developed public transportation system. Lots of interesting places are not easily accessible by public transport. Having a car will give you freedom to explore all the various places and events** Aomori has to offer. Also, having a car will make life in the winter (which lasts almost five months) a lot more bearable

(**Shameless plug: if you're interested in getting an idea as to the types of events we have in Aomori, check out my other blog Towada & Beyond for a sampling. Although I haven't been able to post events from every single city/town/village in Aomori yet, I've got at least one event for most places. See the Aomori Events by Location page for a list of annual events in your specific placement location.)

And while I am dispensing unsolicited advice, I would also recommend relying on your predecessor or other ALTs living in your placement city/town/village for specific advice as much as possible.

For example, when it comes to choosing a cell phone provider, even within the prefecture there is a lot of variation in terms of which companies get good reception in specific areas. For example, when my husband lived in Hirosaki City, he used AU and it was cheap and had good reception. But in Towada AU reception is not very good so he switched to Docomo after we got married. (After the big 2011 East Japan Earthquake & Tsunami, Docomo phones could still receive and make calls, but AU lost reception almost immediately and nothing came through until a couple of days later.) Softbank has better reception than AU (although still not as good as Docomo), but the Softbank store in Towada has rather poor customer service. So even though it is a little bit more expensive, we generally recommend that Towada ALTs stick with Docomo for its reliability (we have lots of schools far from the city center) and good service.

Other places are probably different, so it's best to get advice directly from the people who know your specific placement the best--current JETs and/or other people living there.

Oh, and for those anxious to hear from your contracting organization (CO), in Aomori, COs are officially allowed to contact new ALTs from Thursday May 26, 2016, so you might want to start checking your inbox (and junk mail folders, too!) to see if you have any messages. (Note: Some COs might not email you first, but mail you information directly instead.)

Anyway, I've rambled on quite a bit, so I'll end here. Feel free to get in touch via the comments section if you have any questions about my experience (past as a JET and/or ongoing as a permanent foreign resident).

(Note: All comments must be approved by me first, so don't worry if your comment doesn't show up immediately--I will see it! Also, if you don't want the comment to be published but instead would like me to email you a reply directly, just mention that and include your email address in the comment and I'll email you and delete the comment without posting it.)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Better Canada

I may no longer reside in Canada, but I am still a Canadian. Although the past nine years have made me less than proud to be a Canadian, my pride as a Canadian was restored this past Federal (National) Election. 

The Harper Government's leadership of Canada has led to the deterioration of Canada's international reputation as well the erosion of democracy, science, environmental protections, care for veterans and much more within Canada. (See a "brief" list of some of the damage wrought by Stephen Harper as Prime Minister of Canada on The Tyee: Harper, Serial Abuser of Power: The Evidence Compiled.) 

Thankfully those disheartening years seem to be past. On October 19th, 2015, the Liberal Party of Canada, under leader Justin Trudeau, won 39.5% of the popular vote which translated into 184/338 seats in parliament to form a majority government. (Detailed election results available on CBC News: Canada Votes.)

Justin Trudea hasn't even been sworn in as Prime Minister yet (so he won't officially become the Prime Minister until November 4th, 2015) but Canada is already better under his leadership.

He has invited all of the provincial premiers to join the delegation--demonstrating a willingness to collaborate with the provinces and to further cooperation between the Federal and Provincial governments. This, of course is in stark contrast with Harper, who couldn't be bothered to attend Council of Canadian Premiers meetings and had a decidedly adversarial relationship with Ontario's Premier, Kathleen Wynne. (The Globe & Mail: Premiers agree to attend Paris climate summit with Trudeau)

He is further working to make the Canadian Government collaborative instead of adversarial by also inviting opposition party members to attend the UN climate summit in Paris--unlike Harper, who shut opposition party members out of important international talks. Sixty percent of voters in the past election did not  vote for the Liberal Party. By including other party leaders in the delegation he is giving all voters a voice and more truly representing Canada. (CTV News: Trudeau invites May, other leaders to join UN climate summit delegation)

And of course the fact that he is bringing such a large delegation to the Paris climate summit demonstrates a willingness to address the climate change issue in the first place--again, completely unlike Harper.

On a completely different note, he has also committed to electoral reform, doing away with the first-past-the-post system that gave his party a majority government in the first place. (Had the election been held using proportional representation, the Liberals would only have achieved a minority government.) By also examining online voting and mandatory voting, Trudeau has also demonstrated a desire to increase voter participation rather than trying to suppress it as Harper did through the (un-)"Fair Elections Act." (The Toronto Star: Electoral reform looms for Canada, Justin Trudeau promises)

Oh, and let's not forget that he specifically created an opportunity for members of the press to ask questions at the National Press Theatre shortly after winning the election--something Harper reportedly hadn't done in about seven years. (The Huffington Post Canada: Trudeau Takes Questions At National Press Gallery Theatre In Departure From Harper)

I'm sure that I will disagree with Trudeau's policy choices, etc. sometime (the TPP and pipelines being foreseeable issues), but in less than a week as Prime Minister-Elect, Justin Trudeau has already started restoring my respect for Canadian democracy and the government and given me hope for the future of the country.

So thank you, Justin Trudeau. And thank you, fellow Canadians for voting (even if you did vote for the Conservative Party). 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

B-1 Grand Prix in Towada: Day 1

The B-1 Grand Prix in Towada is a massive 2-day event featuring the local "soul food" of sixty-two different towns/cities across Japan from Hokkaido to Kyushu.(More information about the event at my Towada & Beyond blog.)

Wanting to avoid the predicted crazy hordes of people, my friends and I crafted out a "divide and conquer" strategy that had us split up to cover three different venues to get a total of about 10 different dishes. We started walking to the venue almost an hour before the event was due to start. Even stopping occasionally to take photos and to chat with (former) students, acquaintances, etc. we managed to get in line a good 15-20min before the start of food sales.

It was raining pretty heavily while we were in line, but thankfully it let up by the time things got started at 9:30am. Based on my experience during the 2013 Hokkaido/Tohoku B-1 Grand Prix in Towada where I waited about 2 hours for Kofu Tori Motsuni, I was expecting ridiculously long line-ups. Whether it was due to the rain, or the early hour, or just that I happened to have picked the less popular booths, I don't know what it was, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how short the waits were.

My longest wait (pictured below) was for Komagane Sauce Katsudon. I was waiting in line for about 15-20 minutes until 9:30am, but I only waited about 3-5 minutes from when they started distributing the food.
Komagane Sauce Katsuodon Flyers 2015 B-1 Grand Prix in Towada

After the katsudon, I headed to the Tottori Tofu Chikuwa booth. There were maybe 3 or 4 people ahead of me in line, and I probably waited for 1-2 minutes or less. The wait time was just long enough for me to notice the little work of sand art (Tottori is known for having vast sand dunes) seated off to the side.
Tottori Tofu Chikuwa Souken 2015 B-1 Grand Prix in Towada
Tottori Tofu Chikuwa Souken Sand Art 2015 B-1 Grand Prix in Towada
Tottori Tofu Chikuwa 2015 B-1 Grand Prix in Towada

On my way to the next booth on my list, I stopped to get my picture taken with the Ohotsk Kitami Shio Yakisoba mascot. I had tried the Shio Yakisoba during the previous B-1 event in Towada, so I didn't feel bad about taking a picture with the mascot or even for getting a "Ohotsk Kitami Shio Yakisoba Supporter" sticker stuck onto my t-shirt despite not actually getting any food from them this time around. I liked the mascot and the "personality" of the group so much, I even ended up voting for them (again, this despite not actually getting any shio yakisoba this time round)!
Ohotsk Kitami Shio Yakisoba Ouentai 2015 B-1 Grand Prix in Towada

Next on my list was Joushuu Ota Yakisoba. The wait was so short I didn't even think to take out my camera for a photo of the booth!

Less than ten minutes after the start of the event and I was heading for my fourth booth, Minamiuonuma Kirizaidon. They had people dressed up as samurai, so of course I couldn't resist getting my photo taken with them.
Minamiuonami Kirizaidon DE Aitai 2015 B-1 Grand Prix in Towada
Minamiuonami Kirizaidon DE Aitai B-1 Grand Prix in Towada

My last stop was for Kuji Mamebu Jiru. Since I had tried a mouthful of someone else's bowl last time, plus I had purchased a package of instant (just heat the pack over the stove in a pot of water) mamebu jiru at the grocery store, I hadn't been planning on getting any, but since I had tickets leftover and plenty of time before the others were due to arrive to meet and divy up the food, I went for it. And it was a good thing I did because it ended up being both my favourite food and group! They had a mini sumo dohyo (just big enough for one person) and a guy dressed as a sumo offering "ohimesama dakko" (お姫様抱っこ "princess carry") which was pretty funny and cute! Plus, they had little stations set up within their line where you could try things like sifting through a sandbox for "treasure", etc. to keep you entertained while you waited. Unfortunately I didn't think to take a picture of the little activity booths because there was no line-up and I just went straight for the food. (Of course I voted for them as well!)
Kuji Mamebu Heya 2015 B-1 Grand Prix in Towada
Kuji Mamebu Heya 2015 B-1 Grand Prix in Towada
Kuji Mamebu 2015 B-1 Grand Prix in Towada

A mere 15-20 minutes after the official start of the event, the two of us who were in charge of getting food at the Track & Field Venue had everything and were sitting in the bleachers waiting for the others to arrive.
B-1 Grand Prix in Towada

Out of all the food that we got, only half of it (Kirizaidon, Tofu Chikuwa, Mamebu Jiru) was for me; the rest was for the others in the group. (Clockwise from top left: Minamiuonuma Kirizaidon, Komagane Sauce Katsudon, Joushuu Ota Yakisoba, Tottori Tofu Chikuwa, Kuji Mamebu Jiru, Imabari Yakibuta Tamago-meshi.)

Apart from the three dishes I had picked up for myself, I also had Tsu Gyoza that one of the others had picked up for me from the Baseball Diamond Venue.
Tsu Gyoza B-1 Grand Prix in Towada
Tsu Gyoza B-1 Grand Prix in Towada

I only actually ate the gyoza and mamebu there, though. The rest I transferred into Ziploc containers I had brought with me to take home. The others also packed up at least one or two dishes each to take home. Between four of us we had managed to get about 10 different dishes and finish eating all in about an hour!

After eating we voted for our favourite groups and then wandered around a bit before heading home. So we managed to eat a lot and enjoy the B-1 Grand Prix and still be home by around lunch time. It was great!

Originally I had only planned to go the one day (today), but the experience was so fun and painless (much less crowded and far less waiting than I had expected) that I might actually go back again tomorrow just to people watch and to find out who was voted this year's Gold Grand Prix winner.