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spring detox

April 6, 2011

Spring is definitely here in Tokyo. The temperatures are still somewhat variable, and it was quite cold last week and through the weekend, but this week has been much nicer. I have been taking advantage of the new spring weather by heading out to the park in the mid afternoon to do some reading in the sunshine. I’m clearly not the only one with this brilliant idea, as the park has been packed with local residents and playing children each time I’ve visited.

I’d been hearing for several days that the sakura (cherry blossoms) are in full bloom in specific parts of the city. Ours have been a little behind around here, but they are finally starting to open up. I predict that by the weekend they should be right around their peak. Just in time for hanami.

After my confession the other day about falling behind with the cleaning and cooking, I’ve been doing my best to get back on track. I went through the disaster zone that was my apartment yesterday and organized/tidied up as best I could, more thorough cleaning will follow. Cooking is still mostly centering around large batch comfort foods, but I have started to come up with a few ideas of foods I would like to make soon, so it seems like lack of creativity there might  also be starting to pass.

In my efforts to get back on track, I decided early in the week that it would be a good time to do a bit of a modified fast or a detox to help regain some mental and physical clarity.

I haven’t talked about it at much here, but my nutrition took a slight hit from this whole earthquake and not working thing. Nothing major, but those of you who have been reading for a while or who know me in person are probably aware that I’m very organized with my food, especially during the week. I usually plan out and pack up all my meals for the day in advance (with the exception of dinner, which is planned half of the time and decided on the fly half of the time). Since I am currently in the midst of training to gain some muscle mass, I also pay quite a bit of attention to my macronutrient ratios to ensure I am getting enough protein and that I am eating at the right times.

For the first few days to a week after the quake, the planning thing, as well as the ratios, went right out the window. It just wasn’t on my priority list. Things improved after that, and I’ve still been eating quite healthy by normal standards, but in the last few weeks I feel that I have been eating just a bit too much for my current activity level and letting a little too much sugar creep in. Because of this I’ve been feeling slightly sluggish, lethargic, and have not been seeing the results of my training as much as I probably should be.

I used to do one-day fasts fairly regularly (every few months or so) up until a few years ago. I’ve always felt that they help me regain some mental clarity, get more in touch with my body, and help to reset my internal functions going forward. I also think that brief periods of strict adherence to very deliberate rules, be it though fasting or structured detoxing (like a no-sugar, no-grain detox), helps to reinforce my sense of self-control, and gives me boost of accomplishment; much in the same way that pushing through the last 10-15 minutes of a difficult run does.

Since I haven’t actually fasted in a while and had a group kick class on that day, I decided to go with a modified not-really-fasting type of fast. I decided to limit myself to liquids during the day, followed by a normal dinner after Eric got home. I ended up having two fruit and kefir smoothies for my main meals, and drinking a coconut water beverage that I’d found at Yamaya the day we stocked up on canned foods after the quake as a between meals snack. The coconut beverage sadly wasn’t pure coconut water, which I didn’t realize when I bought it. It had a bit of sugar and water added, but they were lower on the list ingredients, and it tasted alright overall.

For dinner I had pesto mashed potatoes, a few of the remaining pesto chicken mini-meatballs, and some roasted puchi-vale, which is a kale-brussels sprouts hybrid I’ve had a few times before here in Tokyo and LOVE. I hadn’t planned dessert, but in the end threw in some banana soft-serve to round out the meal.

In the end I ate just under 1200 calories on my ‘fast’, which is not drastically low, but, just like with a full fast it left me feeling very clean and refreshed. I’m not sure if it’s related, but that night, as well as the next, I fell asleep quicker than usual and slept like a baby.

confessions & three-bean chicken chili

April 3, 2011

As a followup to my last post I’d like to direct your attention towards this first hand account of what it was like up in Tohoku those first few days as told by an English teacher from Onagawa. His story is powerful and does a really good job of driving home the reality of the situation. I think it might help explain some of what’s behind the guilt and complex feelings I described in my last post.
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One of the annoying side-effects of this whole disaster thing has been the disruption to my normal habits and routines. Beyond the fact that it has left me without work for the time being (a very major disruption!) and has affected our power consumption habits, it has also had an effect on my motivation to do some of the things I usually enjoy, such as cooking and baking, as well as less enjoyable things, like cleaning.

To get straight to the point: despite copious free time, our apartment has been a mini-disaster area, and we have not been eating terribly interesting things since the earthquake.

Honestly, although I tend to prefer organization and I am much happier when things are in their proper place and the house is clean, I’ve never been the best at keeping it that way. It is very easy to fall into the habit of letting items, such as papers, empty bags, unfolded laundry, etc. pile up on tables and in corners for a few weeks until one or both of us reaches our limit and declares it to be a Massive Cleaning Day.

I’d like to think we’ve improved with this over time. I am relatively good at maintaining order once it has been established, and we haven’t let things get as bad in recent years as we had been known to in the past; but in reality I know that it’s a tenuous situation at best.

The earthquake definitely derailed our fragile hold on keeping things clean and in their place. It took us several days to do something as simple as pick up the items that had fallen from our shelf during the initial tremors, and since then the tables and counters have been piling up again, and seem to revert back to that state soon after being straightened up when we actually do something about it. I’m sure this won’t last indefinitely, but at present cleaning and organization have taken a backseat around here.

Typical post-quake dinner of potato & garbanzo bean hash with eggs, brussels sprouts, cottage cheese and avocado.

On the cooking front, my creativity in the kitchen has been very much absent in recent weeks. Rather than using my free time to come up with interesting meals each night and try out new and exciting baking experiments, I have instead been gravitating towards relatively quick, simple, and familiar meals with high leftover-potential and have not done any baking at all in several weeks. Dinner has consisted mostly of simple potato and garbanzo bean hashes, fried eggs with sautéed vegetables and cottage cheese, and quick vegetable pastas that aren’t all that exciting fodder for blogging.

Early last week I broke into our newly abundant store of canned beans to make one of our old favorite fallbacks in the world of bulk foods and save myself from having to come up with idea of what to eat for the rest of the week.

Chili is one of a few recipes that Eric and I have been making together since way back in our college days in San Francisco. Before moving to Tokyo we actually owned a huge 16-quart stockpot purchased specifically with the intention of making massive quantities of chili to fuel us through the week so we wouldn’t have worry about making dinners or lunches on school nights. These days our batches tend to be much smaller, since we don’t have enough space for either a 16 quart stock pot or the resulting massive quantities of chili, but they yield enough to get us through a few days at least.

The recipe I use is mostly unchanged from the basic one we’ve always thrown together, though I have adjusted it slightly over time (such as the addition of a small amount of cocoa power to add some depth). Back home we generally used ground turkey for this recipe, but turkey is not widely available in Japan so instead I tend to add in ground chicken, or leave it out entirely depending on how I feel about animal protein on the day I make it.

Half a serving of leftover chili atop a fried egg with avocado and greek yogurt for lunch.

Most of the time I stick to two cans of red kidney beans, as they are the easiest to get here, but using several varieties can make for a much more interesting and complex chili. For this particular batch I used a mix of three different varieties of beans, since I had so many to choose from thanks to our recent earthquake-inspired restocking of the pantry. I used one each of red kidney and white beans, plus what was left from a can of black beans already open in my fridge.

I like to top my chili with cheddar cheese, greek yogurt, and crushed up crackers, which is something I absorbed from proximity to Eric. The leftovers are good served as is, or can be used to top baked potatoes, as a burrito or taco filling, or for some beefed up nachos. I’m guessing leftover chili would also make for an interesting version of the Okinawan favorite taco rice, though I’ve never tried doing that myself.

Three-Bean Chicken Chili

    1 tbsp avocado oil
    250 g onion, chopped
    3 cloves garlic, minced
    300 g ground chicken
    300 g bell peppers, chopped
    240 g red kidney beans (one can, drained)
    240 g white beans (one can, drained)
    160 g black beans (two-thirds of a can, drained)
    400 g diced tomatoes (one can)
    2 tbsp tomato paste
    1-2 tbsp chili powder
    1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
    1 tsp smoked paprika
    1 tsp chili flakes
    1 tsp cumin
    1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
    salt & black pepper to taste

Heat the avocado oil over medium heat in a large, heavy bottomed pot. Brown the onions and garlic, then add the ground chicken. Use a large spoon or spatula to break up any chunks, and cook until the chicken is opaque and no pink remains.

Add the chopped bell peppers and continue to cook for a few minutes until they soften sightly and brown a little around the edges, then add the beans, tomatoes, tomato paste, and about 2 cans worth of water.

Allow the water to come to a light boil, then reduce the heat to low and start adding the spices. It’s best to be slightly conservative at first and adjust them to taste as the chili cooks.

Let the chili simmer, uncovered or partially covered, for 30 to 90 minutes. The longer you let it cook the better it will taste, but it will be ready to eat after just 30 minutes if you are pressed for time and need to get dinner on the table sooner rather than later. Make sure to check the water level and give it a good stir every 10-15 minutes as it cooks to prevent possible sticking.

Makes 6-8 servings, depending on how you serve it and your appetite. As with all chili, the recipe and amounts are highly adaptable to suit your preferences.

three weeks in…

April 1, 2011

I have been having a hard time writing for the blog this week. It seems that every time I sit down to write a post I draw a blank on what I want to say and blog about. I think that I’m currently finding it difficult to know when to transition from being so earthquake-centric and return normal blogging.

As of this afternoon it has been three weeks since the earthquake. Here in Tokyo things have been very much returning to normal.. or, well.. more like we have been adjusting to our new definition of normal. Radiation levels being part of the weather reports, power saving activities and dimmer lighting, and shortages on specific items at random don’t really seem to faze us much any more. One of the most amazing things about human beings is our ability to adapt to our circumstances and environments, and these are now just part of the new daily routine.

Unlike the week before, I had no waffle problems before we headed out to Eric’s first session since the quake.

I definitely think that those of us still here have been finally settling back into life again recently. Things around us have been normalizing more and more with each passing day, but through it all thoughts of the earthquake, radiation, and the heartbreaking situation in Tohoku are still very much a part of my daily life and always close to the front of my mind. This has been causing some problems with perception for me.

Tokyo is so relatively unchanged that as more time passes I have begun to feel downright dramatic and guilty for focusing so much on disaster related issues on this blog and in communication with others. But I also know that the feelings and experiences that we have from this, even here, are very real and not imagined or trivial.

Gingerbread waffles with homemade greek yogurt, nuts, coconut, maple syrup, and mango slices.. yum!

I have been describing my feelings to others as “non-survivor’s survivor’s guilt,” as that is the best way I can explain it. I feel some guilt for being affected so much by what has happened, but at the same time I don’t believe I deserve to feel anything like survivor’s guilt when I’m not an actual survivor– I don’t have any right to considering how far away and unaffected I am. However, I know I am still very close to things here, and not being directly in the path of the tsunami does not render my experiences illegitimate. We are still living as close to the disaster area as you can get without being directly affected, and Japan is such a cohesive and connected country that any destruction of such a massive scale to part of it is felt very strongly throughout the entire nation.

Finding a balance between these extremes is proving to be quite difficult. But I do know that being here during this time has redefined my entire understanding of shared pain and collective determination to bond together to recover.

Leftover waffles for Monday morning breakfast, this time with strawberries.

For the first two weeks after the quake I had a very hard time with what I’ve heard referred to as jishin yoi, or ‘quake-sickness’ (literally earthquake drunkenness or intoxication, which is kind of awesome). This is similar to motion sickness, and in my case involved feeling like the earth was moving much more often than it actually was. It was most noticeable for me when I was walking in straight lines on the street, in the underground, or standing on train platforms. I often felt as though the ground was rocking gently back and forth, almost like a hammock, under my feet, and I’m fairly certain that I ended up doing the drunk-walk and weaving side to side as a result. This has not been an issue for the past week, though, thankfully.

The aftershocks (which as of writing this number around 865) have been steadily decreasing and weakening in strength, and there have been whole days during which I’ve not really noticed any tremors at all. I’m sure this is partially because of the actual decrease, but I suspect that it’s also because I’ve adjusted to the smaller ones. There have been several instances in which I have been sitting quietly at my laptop and received warnings on my phone and via twitter of quakes felt here in Tokyo that I did not notice at all.

If you have not seen it yet, this interactive quake map gives a very good idea of what I mean when I mention the aftershocks. I highly recommend checking it out. It is a bit slow-moving by default, so if you do check it then it’s probably a good idea to speed it up a bit using the buttons on the right side.

Lunch for most of the week involved an uber-salad with a half portion of three-bean chili on the side.

News from Fukushima continues to be bleak and not moving in the direction we’d like it to move, but I still don’t feel directly threatened by it. As I’ve remarked on many occasions, I think that I’d cause myself more permanent and long-lasting damage drinking a can of diet soda each day than I would exposing myself to the current levels of radiation we’ve got going on here at present. But, as always we continue to keep an eye on said levels.

Savory cottage cheese oats topped with black beans, cheddar, avocado, and a fried egg for dinner on Monday.

The supplies and panic buying haven’t changed much recently. There are still shortages on certain items at certain times, but nothing that really impacts our lives too much. The hard to get item for us this week is my favorite brand of cottage cheese from Hokkaido, which has been totally sold out for a few days now. Whole grain english muffins are also missing from the shelves, though we did find regular white ones at Seiyu.

The train schedules took a further step towards normalcy today on several lines. I’ve heard that the Fukutoshin line, which connects Shibuya with Saitama, is finally running trains along the whole line again, and I was surprised to see Express trains on Seibu Shinjuku this morning as well. In addition to that, certain stores that had been closing early have gone back to regular hours; such as the Starbucks in Seibu Shinjuku Pepe, which had been closing at 6 pm for two solid weeks.

Oatmeal makes me happy: Scottish molasses oats with yogurt, strawberries, nuts, and coconut.

Eric finally returned to his office after nearly two whole weeks of working from home, but my week was not terribly eventful. I went to the gym, ate lunches and most dinners at home, and taught a few private lessons in the evenings. Nothing too out of the normal other than one bout of extreme retail therapy.

This weekend we have a few fun events planned, including a concert featuring our friend Sabrina. For now I’ll leave it at that and hope that blogging starts coming to me easier going forward than it has this past week.

post-disaster tea at the park hyatt

March 30, 2011

Several weeks prior to the earthquake Jessica and I made a reservation at the Peak Lounge in the Shinjuku Park Hyatt for their Afternoon Tea service.

I first heard about Afternoon Tea at the Park Hyatt three years ago, when I came across it on a list of the top 50 afternoon tea services in the world. Jessica and I made a reservation shortly after to see if it lived up to its placement, and fell in love with it. Since then I have been back somewhat regularly, perhaps once every 2-3 months, with Jessica or other friends, and even once with my sister when she visited last year.

The Peak Lounge is located on the 41st floor of the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku, and is bordered on three sides with floor to very high ceiling glass windows looking out over Tokyo. As a result, it is very open and sunny, and the view is pretty spectacular on a clear day, which makes for a really relaxing and crazy luxurious atmosphere.

The real draw, however, is the actual service itself, which is served from 12 – 5 pm every weekend. There are a few options to choose from, but we always stick with the regular Afternoon Tea. This service gets you a tiered tray of three finger sandwiches, two scones with clotted cream and jam, and three seasonal desserts, as well as unlimited tea and coffee from the menu. On top of that, the staff circulates with two trays of seasonal hors d’oeuvres and sweets, of which you are free to take as many as you want. Not a bad deal for just ¥3500~¥4000.

The first time Jessica and I went we managed to order almost everything on the menu. That’s about 20 pots of tea, at two cups per pot– pros that we are, we ordered different teas each time and switched halfway through each pot to maximize the experience. We kept a running tally of the menu prices for the various teas we sampled, and calculated that over the course of our afternoon we put away approximately ¥24,000 worth of tea alone.

Until recently there was no time limit on Afternoon Tea service, and we always made it a point to reserve a table at 12 pm and stay until the end of the service at 5 pm, but about a year or so ago they sadly imposed a three-hour limit on reservations. It’s still very much worth it, but I do miss the five-hour tea marathons we had prior to the change.

Jessica and I decided in late February that it had been too long since our last visit, and made a reservation for the two of us and my friend Keiko to have tea on Saturday March 26th. Obviously we had no idea at the time that our adopted home country would be devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami, much less threatened by a rogue nuclear power plant, in the time between then and our chosen date, but in retrospect it turned out to be pretty well-timed.

Shortly after the quake, I began to look forward to tea in a completely different way than i had been before. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to de-stress and reconnect after everything we’d been through, and I imagined the three of us meeting with the whole experience somewhat behind us but still fresh in our minds. But, as you all probably know, the situation never quite stabilized after that. By the end of the first week Jessica was on a plane to visit her family back in Idaho for an undetermined period of time, while Keiko and I remained in Tokyo wondering what to do next.

At first I wasn’t sure what would happen to our tea plans or whether the Hyatt would even be serving it at all, but I was pretty sure that if possible I wanted to follow through on the reservation. A few days after Jessica left Tokyo I called to check on the status of the Peak Lounge, and changed the reservation from three to four once I confirmed that tea would still be available.

So on Saturday this past weekend Keiko, Eric, our friend Sabrina, and I headed to Shinjuku to take part in a little ‘Survivor’s Tea’.

The conversation was at times much more somber than the last time the four of us had been there, with discussion turning to the quake and nuclear situation more often than not, but other than that it was just as awesome as usual. The spring menu featured Sakura scones and profiteroles, as expected, as well as some very tasty offerings among the hors d’oeuvres; and we all enjoyed ordering as many cups of tea as we could manage. Personally I went through all my favorite offerings, including their Assam, Uva, Iram, Original Blend, Pure Earl Grey, and Chamomile, in addition to a cappuccino.

I didn’t really pay much attention to taking pictures while there, since I was more interested in the conversations and tea, so believe me that it is even better than it looks from the few I included here.

After tea, Sabrina and Keiko came to hang out at our apartment for a while. Keiko didn’t stay too long, but we squeezed in a documentary viewing and dinner at BurgerxBurger with Sabrina before she eventually left for home. It was the first time in two weeks that we got to spend so much time in the company of friends, and to make it even better, I don’t think I felt a single aftershock that entire day.

pink spider & cancellations

March 28, 2011

After the earthquake, most events and social gatherings here in Tokyo were immediately placed on hold. Eric and I had plans to go to two events over the weekend directly after the quake, and I’m sure it comes as no surprise that they were both cancelled. However, the cancellations did not stop there. Over the next few days announcements of cancellation or postponement came for almost every single event that we had scheduled for the rest of the month, and most of the social engagements we had planned were put off indefinitely as we processed the shock of what was going on.

One of the events that we had been planning to see the weekend after the quake was the musical Pink Spider. Most people outside of Japan, and even most of those here in Japan, probably haven’t heard of this particular musical. It pieces together the music of hide to into a rock musical, and was produced with the cooperation of everybody’s favorite bassist J. I’ve been a huge fan of both for many years, and dragged Eric down with me shortly after we started dating 8.5 years ago, so it was a given we’d want to see what this was all about.

Several performances of the two week run of the musical were cancelled, including the show we had purchased tickets to at 1pm on March 12th. Performances resumed several days later, and we received information around then with instructions on how to exchange or refund our unused tickets. I was not really in the correct headspace to go to any events for the first two weeks after the quake, so we put off exchanging our tickets until the last possible day, which was Friday of last week.

The theater Pink Spider was being performed at is actually relatively close to where we live, so we chose to walk there directly. It only took about 20 minutes to get there from our apartment, which is not much longer than it would have taken on the train, considering there would have been a transfer involved. It’s definitely the closest we’ve ever had to go for a music event, which was strange.

At the venue we were directed into a long line outside for people who had called to reserve a spot, and waited our turn to exchange the ticket. It was quite crowded, and I got the impression that many others affected by the cancellations had probably chosen to wait until the Friday evening performance to exchange their tickets due to work, etc.

As always, we were the only non-Asian foreigners present, but somehow this time it felt different in light of all that had happened and the knowledge of how many others had left while we stayed.

We had no real idea what Pink Spider would be about prior to the start and, it being our first Japanese language musical, we were vaguely worried that we’d have a hard time following the story, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. In the end it was pretty much exactly what I’d expected: a thinly veiled excuse to rearrange hide songs for a full musical cast and perform them with choreography. There was just enough story to kind of keep things together and moving forward, but the main point and attraction was definitely hearing how the songs would be performed.

J wandered in and out of the scenes at random intervals with very little reason, and I suspect the entire point of casting him at all was so that he could pay tribute to his friend, attract more viewers, and be involved somehow. He did perform two actual songs (including Rocket Dive) himself during the course of the musical, complete with bass and mic stand, which set off the crowd (myself included, of course) screaming out “J——!!” like the crazy devotees that we are.

After the performance the two headliners and J all said a few words about the earthquake, and thanked everyone for coming to see them despite the hardships that Japan was facing at the moment. There was definitely some of the same feeling of “let’s band together and overcome” that has been oozing out of every orifice in this country lately, and it was both sad, and cheering at the same time.

I had been concerned that I would not be able to get through the performance without getting distracted and going off on mental tangents related to the earthquake, or that I would be too emotional to really concentrate on what was happening on stage, but thankfully that was not the case. I actually think I was somehow LESS emotional than under normal circumstances, considering anything done in tribute to hide usually sees me devolving into a teary mess. I  actually only really teared up during two or three of the more meaningful songs, wondering what hide would think if he were alive and knew the circumstances under which the musical was being performed.

On our way out of the theater Eric purchased the pamphlet, and I stopped by the obligatory donation box to offer up a few thousand yen to the relief efforts under the name of the musical cast and crew. Overall, it was nice to get out and do something normal again after two solid weeks of living and breathing nothing but post-earthquake life.

For reference, here is a list of some of the other lives and events we had scheduled for this month and next that have been cancelled or postponed:

3/12 – Pink Spider Rock Musical at Globe Theatre (postposed to 3/25)
3/13 – Kawamura Ryuichi100 monogatari” live at Nihon Budokan (postponed to 5/3)
3/16 – Inoran Teardrop at Ebisu Liquidroom (postposed to ??)
3/19 – Earthbound Papas Fantasy Rock Fes 2011 at Club Citta (postposed to ??)
3/19 – Yaya Kurofuku Gentei GIG J & Luna Sea Cover band live at Club Top Tsurumi (postposed to ??)
3/21 – Luna Sea Session Tokyo fan music event (postposed to ??)
3/21 – Buck-Tick Standing Tour 2011 at Zepp Tokyo (postposed to ??)
4/23 – Make a Wish Charity Race and Walk in Shin-kiba (cancelled)

the second week

March 27, 2011

One of the strange upsides of the whole situation with the blackouts and disruptions to our lives here in Tokyo is that my gym decided to relax its policies somewhat. On this past Monday they announced that all members would be allowed to use the facilities during operating hours regardless of membership type until the end of the month to make up for any terrible inconvenience that the closings and shortened hours might be causing. Since my gym is in Shinjuku, which is unaffected by the power outages, and my weekday morning membership type falls outside of the early closing zone, this works out highly in my favor.

Basically, even though I have not been inconvenienced by the schedule disruptions at all, I get to reap the benefits and enjoy two solid weeks of full membership.

On Monday I stayed just a little bit late, until 12:30 pm, since I was meeting Keiko for lunch afterward, but for most of the rest of the week I took advantage of the change. I stayed a few few hours past my normal time, until about 1-1:30 pm, most days doing some interval incline walking on the treadmill, taking my time in the sauna, and even fitting in an extra section of Group Kick that I usually can’t make it to after a bit of prodding from other gym goers. All that was in addition to starting Phase 2 of the Rachel Cosgrove strength plan I’ve been doing, of course.

The conversation at the gym the whole week centered around the earthquake, tsunami, and radiation. I was also asked almost everyday if I would be remaining or leaving for America. The hot topic in the sauna, though, was retelling the tale of the unlucky few who had been in there when the quake hit and had to spend 2 hours across the street in the park in the cold wearing nothing but gym bath towels and/or the rental wear the staff grabbed for them.

The extended gym hours couldn’t have come at a better time, considering that I did not actually work this week. I’m not going to go into details as it’s a little on the complicated side, but as an indirect result of the earthquake and current state of things here, I’ve been moved down to the ‘on-call’ status for the time being.

Not working meant that I got to have lunch at home everday. Say hello to my pesto chicken sammich.

My first instinct last Friday, when I realized I wouldn’t be going in to the office for a while, was to try to find an organization in Tokyo with which I could volunteer my suddenly abundant free time sorting donations and helping to get supplies to the victims and evacuees in the shelters up in Tohoku. I emailed the Japanese Red Cross, Second Harvest of Japan, and a few other organizations, but sadly nothing actually panned out. I’m not sure if there are just too many people willing to devote their time, or if the organizations themselves are too overwhelmed to deal with new volunteers, but it’s been very slow getting replies and so far I haven’t been given the go ahead to come in.

More home lunches from throughout to week.. notice a pattern?

I wasn’t exactly sure what do do with my extra time when volunteering didn’t pan out, but oddly between extended gym time and the fact that Eric ended up working from home for most of the week again, I did not find myself too bored. Life is definitely moving on from the quake, but it has been hard to gauge if things are really getting back to normal around us while mostly holed up at home for a second straight week, and very hard to feel normal when my routine is so disrupted.

Some basic updates on the overall situation:

Panic buying: I mentioned in my last update that the reports of panic buying were grossly exaggerated from what I was seeing myself in Shinjuku. Shortly after that more reports began coming in over twitter and from reliable sources echoing the shortages. I went back out to Shinjuku after this to check for myself again. While I still did not see any lines or rationing, and most shelves are stocked with everything up to and including milk and bread, it sadly seems that the reports of a toilet paper rush are true. The stores I checked were entirely cleaned out of toilet paper, as well as 2L bottles of water.

Mango kefir I had thanks to the reappearance of milk at the stores near here.

Blackouts: The rolling blackouts are still occurring, from what I’ve heard. Eric and I live within the 23 wards and have not been affected by this so far. There have been reports coming out lately saying that the blackouts may have to be widened in the summer to deal with the heat. I’ve also heard of likely price hikes, and even the possibility of Japan implementing daylight savings time and lengthening holidays this summer to deal with the power shortages.

Radiation: This seems to be moving along at the same rate it has been moving on for the last several weeks. Nothing is improving, but it’s not getting too bad either. We go through cycles of feeling fairly confident in our knowledge and judgements, and periods of uncertainty.

Wednesday evening into Thursday was probably the low point of this week, with discussions among those of us who have remained here through everything veering off into “how bad does it have to be for us to pick up and leave?”. This was triggered by the reports of contaminated water and spinach. The levels of radiation in the water were alarming for a day or two, but quickly returned back to safe and normal levels again.

Seasonal Sakura mochi daifuku from Takashimaya department store.

The general sentiment that came from various discussions was that ‘wait and see’ is still the best approach for us. While we absolutely do not think we are risking our health any more than usual by remaining here at the moment, we know that there is a definite possibility that we would be if we were to stay in the event that contamination spread into the distributed food supply and we consumed it over an extended period of time.

I’ve heard from several friends who recently returned from elsewhere in Japan or who stayed behind that they seem to think things are improving. I’m not entirely convinced myself, but I do know that if things continue at the same level we will be fine for quite a while. It would be nice to see some actual improvement, though.

pesto, mini meatballs & radiated water

March 24, 2011

I’ll have more of a personal update on my week later on, but for now I thought would be good to write an eye-witness update on the situation here in Tokyo, since even just today I saw some pretty alarming information in foreign news media which was grossly exaggerating the truth. It seems that certain foreign media agencies have latched onto the panic buying and food scarcity topics which were coming out of Japan last week and run away with them in light of recent events.

One piece I read just today spoke of “shops across Tokyo rationing goods -such as milk, toilet paper, rice, and water- as a run on bottled water coupled with delivery disruptions left shelves bare nearly two weeks after a devastating earthquake and tsunami” and said that “the unusual sights of scarcity in one of the world’s richest, most modern capitals came a day after city officials reported finding radioactive iodine in Tokyo’s tap water.” (original article here)

Yes, another doughnut picture, because I have a lot of them: sakura and cranberry cake doughnuts.

I’m not entirely sure where the writers of this and other similar pieces are getting their information, but it is most definitely not from anywhere around us. I have heard stories and seen pictures of some stores asking customers to line up to get inside in other parts of town or outlying areas with fewer stores, but not since early last week at the height of post-quake panic. Here in Shinjuku I’m happy to report that we have never been made to stand in a line or dealt with any sort of rationing through this entire experience. In fact, I have not seen many bare shelves at all lately, not since the bread supply normalized at the end of last week.

Milk continues to be the one item that is most difficult to find, but even so it is still available at many stores, including our very own T-mart, and can actually be pretty easy to find if you go earlier in the day and beat the post-work commuters. Despite the shortage, I have not run out of milk once since this whole thing started, even taking the few days it was completely missing from stores in the middle of last week into account.

Water is still something that sells out quickly, and yes, there was absolutely a rush on it yesterday after the announcement that iodine-131 had been detected at the water purification plant, but it is not to the point of being impossible to get. In fact, I’ve seen pictures of mountains of bottled water on display at Costco, and the government has requested that water companies ramp up production, just in case. Some smart stores, like Summit and Ito Yokado, did impose limits on the number of bottles customers could buy at once, but I’m fairly certain that was a precaution against panic buying and aimed at discouraging hoarders rather than due to limited supplies or true shortages.

This is what happens when you pull out your camera in range of Eric and the necessary props.. (click for big)

As far as the iodine in the tap water itself, the levels have not reached the legal limit for adults and iodine-131 has a very short half-life of just 8 days, so it is not really a cause for alarm at this point, but it is still disconcerting to know that something like that could happen. I do think it’s important to point out that Japanese limits for radiation in water and food are extremely strict at 10x lower than international standards (300 bq/L vs the 3000 bq/L limit set by the IAEA) and already have long-term exposure in mind. At present, Eric and I do not feel that we are in any immediate danger from this, as adverse effects from radiation are generally gained through prolonged exposure to much, much higher levels rather than a sudden low-level two-day spike. However, we have lowered our consumption of tap water and have been drinking a higher proportion of bottled teas and such for the time being as a precaution and for peace of mind.

The levels which triggered the alert and warning for infants yesterday (220 or 190 bq/L) had dropped to at least half by early today, thus falling back down into the safe-even-for-infants range, and will hopefully continue to drop. I am hoping this was a one-time freak occurrence brought on by rain and the cooling operations at the plant, but we are definitely keeping an eye this, as well as the reported cases of contaminated spinach, etc. in Fukushima, in case anything changes. Radiation in the air is dealable, but radiation in food and water is not particularly something we want to take any risks with.

Anyway, on that cheery note, I thought I’d leave you all with a recipe, since I haven’t posted one in a while. Nothing fancy this time, though.

On Tuesday evening I made a quick vegetable pasta with broccoli, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and spinach in a butter, garlic & olive oil sauce to use up some of the abundant fresh produce we have on hand. For protein, I topped my pasta with pesto chicken mini meatballs and a good helping of grated parmesan cheese.

I like to make sure I have quick sources of quality protein on hand at all times to add to my dinner on days when I don’t feel like spending too much time planning or preparing a complicated meal. I generally keep sausages in the freezer as an option for Eric, and eggs are always an option for me, but I do like to be a little more creative from time to time. One of my favorite things to keep on hand for myself are these pesto chicken mini meatballs.

These are perfect for a number of reasons. First of all, a single recipe makes a decent number of mini meatballs without using up too much actual chicken, which keeps the cost down; they are quick to defrost due to their small size; and it’s easy to grab just as many as I need directly from the freezer to supplement whatever it is that I’m making for dinner that night. Usually I like to grab for about three of them to bulk up something like pasta, but I could go with more or less if I were using them for some other kind of dish.

The pesto in this recipe serves the dual purpose of adding interest and flavor to what might otherwise be a plain and boring meatball, and also helps to keep them very moist and juicy. I did not have any basil on hand when I decided to make these on Tuesday, so rather than a standard pesto, I went with a less traditional Cilantro Walnut Pesto. It came out quite well, and I had enough leftover pesto to use in sandwiches, etc. for the rest of the week after taking out the amount needed for the meatballs.

Cilantro Walnut Pesto

    50 g cilantro
    35 g raw walnuts
    25 g pecorino cheese
    42 g (3 tbsp) extra virgin olive oil
    3 cloves garlic
    salt & pepper to taste

Wash and roughly chop the cilantro. Add to a food processor or blender with the rest of the ingredients and pulse until well combined, scraping down the sides as needed. Transfer to a glass jar, or other container, and store in the fridge until needed. You can press a piece of plastic wrap down on the surface of the pesto to prevent it from oxidizing or turning back in the fridge.

Pesto Chicken Mini Meatballs

    300 g ground chicken
    100 g onion
    50 g pesto
    25 g parmesan cheese
    1 slice whole wheat bread
    1 egg
    salt & pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 180°C ( 350°F) and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a silpat.

Grate the onion and parmesan cheese, and process the bread in a food processor or blender to make fine crumbs. Add to a clean, medium-sized bowl with the ground chicken, pesto, and egg, and season with salt and pepper. Using your hands, mix and knead the mixture until it is thoroughly combined and forms a cohesive but sticky ball.

Use a spoon to shape the mixture into small balls about 18-20 g by weight or 1″ in diameter, and place onto the prepared sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until cooked through. Makes 28-30 mini meatballs.