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battle scars

April 28, 2011

I’ve gone back to kickboxing twice since my last post a few weeks ago where I mentioned trying it out for the first time. So it seems like a good time for a recap!

Beyond the brief try at kicking a big bag near the end of my first session there has actually not been a whole lot of kick in my boxing.

We are still meeting at the Kabukicho kickboxing gym, though the last two times we met up for ‘class’ on Thursdays instead of Wednesday as we did the first time. It has been as much less crowded.

I’ve stayed for about an hour both times, but not a whole lot of that is actual active time. I still feel awkward and unsure of what I am doing, so I spend a lot of time standing around watching and waiting for instructions rather than taking initiative on my own.

Best images I could manage to capture at the gym: Jees with the bag, Kenta & Daisuke practicing

The basic structure seems to be: arrive at the gym and wait outside until all four of us show up so we can enter together. Once inside, change in the tiny particle board changing box next to the door. (Kenta and Daisuke strip off their pants and change into shorts on the gym floor, but I don’t think I want to be following their lead on that).

Once changed, we stretch and warm up in the corner, and then I commence the waiting around, broken up by bouts of pair practice with either Kenta or Daisuke in between their own practicing.

Practice is regulated by a digital clock high up on the wall. It counts down continuously, alternating between a 3 minute period and a 30 second period, with a loud beep marking the end of each. You’re supposed to train for each 3 minute period and then rest for 30 seconds.

Generally when we do pair work I go for about 2 or 3 rounds, depending on how I feel, then rest and watch Kenta and Daisuke take turns coaching each other until they get tired and ask if I want to go again. The last two classes I think I got in a total of 2 or 3 such practice bouts while there.

Here’s a video I took covertly of Kenta and Daisuke practicing during my second class. They both commented when they saw it that their kicks look weak. In person there is a lot more power going into them. It’s fairly intimidating.

During my second class I started with more shadow boxing on my own in the corner while the boys warmed up with the punching bags.

I was having a problem adjusting to the movement for the right punch, which requires turning from the hip with each thrust. To get the most power behind the punch, you’re supposed turn your right leg inward, pivoting on the ball of your foot, while reaching far forward with your right arm and pulling your left shoulder backwards. I had issues coordinating all those movements at the same time while keeping my right foot from lifting off the ground and maintaining balance.

Kenta picked up on all of this when he pulled me out to practice, of course. The first few rounds were the normal left jab right punch combo, but by the end of the evening he was going for entire 3 minute rounds having me do nothing but right punches over and over, all while goading me by saying things like “Motto tsuyoku.. tsuyoku.. chigau, motto” (come on stronger.. stronger.. no, MORE) and “don’t lift your foot.. keep your shoulder back.. put your hips into it.. longer movement” etc.

I did okay, and saw some improvement by the end, but it was spotty and hard to control.

I stopped when my wrist started feeling sore, and Jees (who was tired and mildly hung over) and I left early.

On the way home I noticed a nice patch of broken capillaries on my right knuckle. It made me feel kind of badass and hardcore, and I showed off my battle wounds to Eric proudly when I got home.

The next day the joints on my right hand were killing me, and it was pretty hard to make a fist and hold on to anything that required closing my hand.


I was concerned about gripping the bar in Group Power with my gimpy hand, but realized that the bar diameter was just large enough to not cause much pain, so I went to class as planned and just went slightly easy on the weights to make sure I didn’t drop my barbell and hurt myself any further.

It took a full week for the last of the soreness to go away… at which point I went back to kickboxing and managed to do the exact same thing again.


This time I did only 2 bouts of 3 rounds each. I was tired and couldn’t seem to put any real energy behind my punches for the first go around. Kenta actually said I’d done really well the week before and tried to use that to get me to put more into it, but no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t seem to land any decent hits.

After those first few rounds I took a long break of about 20-30 minutes. I almost went home at 8:30, but Kenta asked if I wanted to go again right before I actually made up my mind, and I figured I might as well give it one more shot.

We used the newer of their two sets of pads this time, and I’m not sure if it was that or the rest, but I finally managed to get in some good, strong punches. Encouraged, I went for 3 rounds. This time he mixed it up some and did combos like left-right-right left-right-right, or left-right-right-right left-right to test my reactions.

Kenta asked if my hand was okay several times, but it didn’t feel bad at the time, so I kept going. Just like the week before I only noticed the bruising after I finished and took of my gloves.

But unlike the week before, this time I was prepared and iced my injury as soon as I got home.

The bruise once again faded within about a day or so, while my hand continued to be sore for most of the rest of the week. The damage seemed to be concentrated on a spot at the base of my right ring finger, but it was more of a dull ache connected to movement than an acute or constant pain.

I had to skip kickboxing this week since I seem to have come down with some kind of nasty upper respiratory illness, and next week is out, too, as we are booked with concerts over the Golden Week holiday. But I do think I will need to adjust and compensate for this if I’m going to continue kickboxing.

last of the sakura & pancakes

April 21, 2011

Sakura, or cherry blossoms, are a big thing here in Japan. I’m sure that anyone familiar with Japan and Japanese culture in any way already knows that, but I don’t think many people who have never experienced late March and early April in Japan really have a full grasp on exactly how big of a deal it is. Every single person, from the pre-schoolers to the old grandmothers who have lived through 80+ years of it look forward to the blossoms coming.

My first year here I was surprised at exactly how pervasive the sakura obsession was. I was not really surprised at my instructors and Japanese friends bringing it up in conversation, nor groups of middle-aged women on the street; but seeing small children, suit-clad business men toting briefcases, and even gangs of high school boys bursting with anticipation at the coming of the pink blossoms was not what I would have expected.

And it’s not just certain portions of the population of Japan that makes a big deal out of it; it’s truly a cultural institution. I’d say it comes close to the 2-3 weeks surrounding Christmas in the west, but rather than culminating in a major holiday with family and gift exchanges, it culminates with massive picnics and drinking parties and a week or so of everyone finding every excuse they can to be outside near a park.

Blossoms still hanging on as the first green leaves appear towards the end of the blossoming process.

If you have never been in Japan during spring you might not realize it, but a very large number of the trees planted around towns, rivers, parks, etc. are some kind of sakura, which causes the entire country to explode in pink blossoms around the same time every year.

A couple of weeks before the event itself, when the buds first start appearing on these trees, the entire country goes on high Sakura alert. The weather reporters begin predicting the dates for the progression of the ‘cherry blossom front’, and come out with detailed maps showing the degree to which blossoms in various areas and parks have opened based on a multi-part scale; social and work related groups will begin pinpointing the best dates for hanami; and the stores explode with limited edition sakura-flavored or themed products.

Children will gather up and throw petals at each other and their parents much like snow in the winter.

Somehow, despite this having been my 6th consecutive Spring season in Japan, the blossoming of the cherry trees always catches me by surprise. I’m not sure if I have some kind of recurring amnesia, or if I just I fall victim to desensitization because of the hype leading up to the trees blossoming, but I’m fairly certain that the blossoms have exceed my expectations every single year. Before they open I find myself filled with an expectation for them to be beautiful, but also mild sense of “been there, done that, have the pictures” that tempers my level of excitement.

Fallen petals being carried away in streams on the river.

The first few buds open slowly over a several day period, with slightly more pink visible each day. It’s pretty easy to look at the trees during this time and think “oh looks like they’ve blossomed.. nice!” and move on, but this is really just a pre-show. The real peak always comes practically overnight, and when it happens it is impossible not to realize that it has happened. There there is always that one “Wow” moment when you step outside for the first time and are stopped in your tracks in wonder at the sight of it all.

For me that usually seems to happen when I head out for a run along the nearly river, which has sakura trees planted up and down its entire length.

My running path along the river as it appear about one week after the sakura peak.

The blossoms only last about one week at best after they reach their peak before they fall, almost like snow, and cover absolutely every surface in pink. This is possibly my favorite part of the entire thing. I remember vividly the first time I got caught in a sudden gust of wind on my way to class five years ago and found myself in the middle of a whirlwind of flying pink petals. It honestly felt like a scene straight out of a movie that couldn’t possibly be real, and yet every year it happens again.

I don’t think anyone ever really gets it until they’ve been in Japan to see it happen.

Despite essentially doing hanami three or four times in one week (Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Thursday), over the weekend I went back to Shinjuku Gyoen with Eric in tow for one last glimpse of the flowers. I wasn’t expecting there to be much left at that point, but apparently they keep a larger variety of trees than I realized and many of them were still blossoming, so it was still very, very pretty.

We got a little bit rained on while there, but it was worth it for the views. I didn’t bring my camera, but Eric  brought his and got some great shots. I think I’ve probably already reached my quota on sakura pictures for this year, though, so I’ll refrain from sharing any.

On Sunday we headed back out to Chiba for another Luna Sea session. As is our custom, I made pancakes for breakfast that morning. I go through a lot of pancake experimentation and recipe tweaking, but for quite a while I’ve been using a spelt flour, flax, & cottage cheese based combination that yields a fantastic tasting, higher protein but still fluffy pancake.

Sadly, I had been out of spelt flour for a while, and my favorite cottage cheese seems to have fallen victim to the quake supply problems and disappeared from the shelves. So instead I opted to use up the last of the pumpkin I opened the week before and make whole wheat pumpkin spice pancakes.

They may be out of season and from totally opposite time of year, but they still came out very, very well.

Whole Wheat Pumpkin Spice Pancakes

120 g whole wheat pastry flour
25 g flaxseed, ground
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp allspice
2 eggs
125 g pumpkin puree
125 g whole milk
20 g blackstrap molasses
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp maple extract

Measure all of the dry ingredients into a medium bowl and use a whisk to combine well.

Add the wet ingredients the jar of a blender, and pulse until the mixture is thoroughly combined and homogenous.

Pour the wet mixture onto the dry ingredients, and whisk until just combined. Use as few strokes as possible and don’t worry about small streaks of flour. Let the pancake batter rest for about 10-15 minutes before cooking to ensure the fluffiest possible pancakes.

While the batter sits, warm up a griddle or non-stick pan over medium low heat. When hot, brush the surface lightly with butter or coconut oil. Use a 1/4 cup measure or a ladle to pour the batter onto the griddle. Let cook until bubbles just begin to break the surface, then gently flip the pancakes and cook for about 1m more before removing to a plate. Keep the cooked pancakes staked and covered with a kitchen towel to keep them warm while you finish cooking the rest.

This recipe yields 8 pancakes. I like to eat two pancakes each fresh from the griddle and reheat the leftovers for breakfast the next morning.

divided attention, catching up & mexican casserole

April 19, 2011

One thing I have learned about myself over time is that I’m not so great at dividing my attention between several things at once. Oh, I can multitask and time several different concurrent actions very well when it comes to things like putting a meal together, or editing photos while watching TV and carrying on a twitter conversation at the same time; but when it comes to the subject of a main focus or activity in my life, I tend to only really be able to focus my attention on certain areas at any given time.

The most obvious example of this is an ongoing fight between a particular pair of my interests: fitness vs. knitting. I’m not sure why, but I have never managed to carry on both of these activities with any real dedication concurrently. The times I’ve been most productive and interested with knitting projects, I can’t seem to get myself to the gym– and the times when I am deep in my fitness routine, I don’t seem to be able to keep up with knitting.

But lately the struggle has been between blogging and actually living my life and enjoying my day-to-day activities.

I’m sure it’s pretty obvious from my last two posts here that this time of year is absolutely gorgeous in Japan. Because of the sudden upturn in the weather, and the fact that the real height of spring and the cherry blossoms only last for about two weeks tops, I have been doing my best to make the most of the daylight hours.

In addition to doing hanami at Shinjuku Gyoen and along the river near our neighborhood, I’ve also been heading out to the park near here most afternoons with a bottle of tea, some fruit, and a book to read. It’s been nice to jut sit out on the grass in the sunshine and watch the kids play and birds fly around over head for a few hours at a time.

But, being me, somehow this seems to have interfered with my ability to sit down later in the day and actually write, and as a result I’ve fallen pretty far off my preferred blog schedule of posting three times per week. This is never good for me, because having a backlog of things I want to blog about and pictures I really want to share tends to stress me out and make it even harder to get back on track.

So! Let’s play some catch up, and I’ll come back to topics I want to discuss in more detail later on.

Quake stuff:

The aftershocks continue. We’ve had several moderate to large jolts in the two weeks since I posted about the 7.1 aftershock, which was the largest since the day of the 9.0 itself. The biggest of those was a 7.0 the following Monday at about 5:17 pm.

Somehow I found myself watching videos of the earthquake taken from Tokyo that afternoon. I think with everything going on in Tohoku my memory of what the actual quake felt like here had gone hazy, and for some reason I wanted to remind myself of what it was actually like for us.

Since we escaped to the park just 15 seconds in, and rode out most of the shaking on solid ground rather than under our desks, my experience is different from what many of these videos portrayed. I watched several videos from places like Disneyland, Shibuya, etc., but the one that stuck out to me the most, was this video taken from a security camera in Edo-ku, Tokyo. Please take a minute to watch it, and remember that Tokyo was actually very, very lucky and didn’t suffer much real physical damage despite the power of the quake.

Then remember that we were about 300 km away from the actual epicenter, which significantly weakened it for us.

I was watching these videos and musing on how hard it was to recall the actual sensation of the world shaking like that when the Yurekuru alert went off on my iPhone. The shaking hit about 10 seconds later. I was still rattled from the previous aftershock a few days before and jumped up to get myself into a door frame without bothering to pause the video I was watching. I rode out the quake by myself with the startled screams and rumbling of the original quake playing in the background. To say it was disconcerting is an understatement if ever there was one.

It did not help that this quake mimicked the 9.0 in the sense that we were besieged by aftershocks once every 5-20 minutes for the rest of the evening afterwards. After several weeks of relative calm it felt like those first few days all over again. To make matters worse, the next morning at 8 am another strongish quake (6.3 or so) hit Chiba while I was having breakfast. It was one of the closest large quakes we’ve had. Not fun.

All this sudden activity after the recent quiet was mentally draining and took a toll on me. I was out of sorts for most of Tuesday and even tweeted at one point:

I bounced back fairly quickly after some time in the park and more hanami, but the largish aftershocks have continued every few days since then. No more 7.0s, but a few have been closer, such as the ones in Ibaraki the other evening, and Kanagawa at 2:30 am before that. Kanagawa was relatively weak, at I think only about 4.5, but it wa also the closest one we’ve had.


My student’s trip to Kesennuma was delayed by one day because of damage to the roads from the 7.1 aftershock on the evening of the 7th, but he still made it up there for several days of work that weekend. He came back with pictures to show me, and interesting tales of his work.

It seems that he did a lot of house calls to check on patients who were unable to receive medical care due to hospital closures, and also spent some time in evacuation shelters assessing some of the evacuees. He spoke of families so happy to receive medication from him that they tried to give him gifts in thanks, and said that the work was very rewarding.

Two things surprised him during his trip. The first is how Kesennuma is clearly divided into the coastal area, which was completely destroyed, and the inland area, which is still functioning relatively normally. He said the difference was really strange, especially since we don’t see much about the inland parts of the city on TV. He mentioned even being able to eat yakiniku one day at a restaurant there that had reopened already.

The second was that he did not diagnose many cases of PTSD. He said that a lot of the evacuees had low-level symptoms, but that very few had enough for a real diagnosis. In spite of the tough situation he said he would like to go again to help more people if given the chance by his hospital.

This is getting longer than I meant. I’ll finish catching up in another post. Here is a recipe in the meantime:

Last Monday, after I’d calmed down a bit from the latest aftershock, I made a mexican casserole I had been planning to put together for quite some time. I used to make black bean casserole fairly often and had actually had been thinking of making one again since before the quake. Just a few day before it hit, I’d made a batch and a half of corn tortillas while doing my taco prep to ensure I’d have enough tortillas leftover after for just such a purpose. Of course, in all the excitement of post-quake life that stack of leftover tortillas had been pushed to the back of the freezer and somewhat forgotten.

By the time I got around to actually following through on this recipe I didn’t actually have any black beans on hand. So rather than make my standard old recipe, I changed things up a bit to work with what I had available and needed to eat. It came out quite well, and we ended up getting a full eight servings out of this one recipe, which kept Eric and I fed for most of the week, with some other meals worked in between for variety.

Chicken & White Bean Mexican Casserole

6-8 corn tortillas, cut in half
480 g chicken breast, cooked
1/2 tbsp coconut oil
150 g onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
200 g red pepper, diced
240 g diced tomatoes (1 can)
240 g sweet corn (1 can)
240 g white beans (1 can)
3 jalapenos, minced
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tsp chili flakes
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp cumin
150 g shredded mozzarella cheese
salt & pepper

Shred the chicken using your hands or two forks and set aside. I like to use poached organic chicken breasts for recipes like this. To poach the chicken, I place the breasts into a skillet with a splash of soy sauce and a few pepper corns and add just enough water to cover them, then bring the water to a full boil over high heat. Once the water is at a boil, I cover the skillet, turn off the heat, and let the chicken sit for 30 minutes to finish cooking, then drain and rinse the breasts with cool water before shredding.

In a medium skillet, heat the coconut oil add the diced onions. Cook the onions until they turn translucent, then add the garlic and red peppers. When the red peppers begin to soften, add the shredded chicken, diced tomatoes, spices, lemon juice,and about 1/2-1 can’s worth of water as needed.

Let cook for about 5-10 minutes, then add the corn and white beans. Heat the mixture through, adjust the seasonings as needed, and remove from the heat.

To make the casserole, layer the tortilla halves, chicken & white bean mixture, and cheese into two layers in a deep casserole dish.

Bake at 180°C (350°F) F for 25-30 minutes or until the casserole is heated through and the cheese is golden brown and melted. Let cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Makes 6-8 servings.

I like to go with smaller servings and beef up the meal with homemade drained yogurt and corn chip or a salad on the side to stretch it as far as possible.

shinjuku gyoen in spring

April 13, 2011

I’ll be back with a real update when I can stand being inside again…

once every year…

April 10, 2011

Every year, without fail, I manage to forget how beautiful it is here this time of year.

Every year, without fail, there’s a moment I walk outside and remember.