[The American Years]

Friday, December 29, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where there are two citrus fruits that you may not be familiar with. You thought you knew all the citrus fruits, didn't you? So did I. Check this out. For fans of citrus this is huge.

The two fruits hail from Okinawa island. (Insert joke here combining the US military presence on Okinawa, "Fruits", and "Don't-ask-don't tell".)
They are Uzu and Shikwasa. (Like lemon and lime, only with about 10x the pucker factor.)
Neither of them is edible on its own, but the juice of each, heavily sweetened (and/or combined with alcohol), is found in delicious items.
Uzu is a common flavor of Chu-Hi, and I've had Uzu soft ice cream and sherbert. At this time of year I've heard of people taking Yuzu baths. I don't know if the bath water has the juice in it, or if you float the whole fruits in there with you. Supposedly it will keep you from having a cold all year.

Uzu's green cousin is Shikwasa. It's available in vitamin C drops and Vitamin C drinks. The vending machine in my office offers it as a hot health drink. If you need a kilogram of Vitamin C all at once.

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Now it's time for a copyrighted feature of this podcast:
Japanese is Too Difficult To Learn, So Let's Not Even Try.
Homophones are common in Japan. (Oh grow up. I'm speaking of words which sound exactly the same.) Sometimes they can be annoying and difficult. But some can be downright fun.

As soon as you tell someone who speaks Japanese well, "Hey, that is just like this other word," their response is always, "Mmm. But it's different Kanji."

Well, sure, I could tell that when you said it. I think that's why they have Japanese subtitles on Japanese programs sometimes.

Some good examples. "Kazeh" means wind. "Kazeh" also means a cold, like the kind you come down with.

"Why did you miss work yesterday?"
"There was a strong kazeh."
My current favorite is kaki. Not pronounced 'khaki' like the pants, but more like 'cocky'.
Persimmons are kaki. Writing is kaki. A fence is kaki. The summer season is kaki. And an oyster is kaki, which I think is great because of the supposed mythical power of the oyster.
If you dare to sit on a fence in the summer and write about eating persimmons and oysters, you are very kaki indeed!
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Next time on JITDTLSLNET, the dreaded counters! (Not kitchen counters, either) By popular demand!
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The Japanese do vending machines. Do they ever. Mostly drinks. Almost everywhere you have drinks for sale in vending machines, and almost nowhere do you see people drinking a nice satisfying beverage in public. Do they take the drinks home? If so, why not stop at the convenience store where there is a larger selection? I haven’t figured that one out.
But for me, the foreigner who has no qualms about enjoying a cool (or even warm! from the same machine!) and satisfying canned beverage right out in the open in front of Buddha and everyone, it’s great.

During hot weather they are a godsend. Hot as octopus balls? Kids are thirsty? No biggie. 200 yen later we’re all cool as the other side of the pillow.
During cold weather, it's so great to wrap your hands around a can of hot tea or cocoa or coffee, that you don't even need to drink it to feel warmer.

The Japanese don’t stop at drinks though. You might think that a tasty crispy snack might be the next step. Some little bags of squid jerky, a nice pouch of kaki-no-tani (spicy orange puffed rice – better than it sounds) , some tasty shrimp-taste crackers? A little something to make a meal out of the beer you just bought from the machine next door?

Oddly enough, it’s not done. Not that I can find. There are almost no food snacks sold in vending machines. In fact, I’ve seen alcoholic beverages in vending machines more often (3 times so far) than I’ve found snacks. Now, they do have ice cream, but I’ve seen that only twice, and once was at a big-time tourist trap.

The other time I saw food it was a French fry machine. Which made them fresh. Yes, you put money in, and it dropped your potatoes into oil, salted them, and served them to you in a little paper cup. The novelty was a bigger draw than the food quality to most people, including me. What a concept.

But that is it for food, in my searching so far.

However, a different kind of vending is big. I have now bought a hot noodle lunch for me me and the kids, and bought 3 haircuts from vending machines. And I want to do more.

This is done via a menu-vending machine. You see what you want in a picture, match up the Japanese (or the price -- it's easier) to the correct button, and buy a ticket. You later give that ticket to the attendant, and you’re off to the races.

This worked great in the barber shop (see previous post). I pressed the button which I can just barely read that says "Cut" (praying that it is taking about my hair), hand the ticket to the barber, and 10 minutes later my ears were lowered to the acceptable range.

At the restaurant, you push the buttons, and hand the tickets to the lady while you wait in line for a seat, and when you sit down your food arrives.
This system is superior for at least one reason, and might only work in a country like Japan for 2 reasons that I can think of.

The superior reason: The Clean. It all comes back to The Clean. Nobody touching your hair at the barber shop or your food at the restaurant is handling money at the same time. Just little tickets. Germ control is important to the Japanese after all.
It could be pointed out that I am handling the money, I touch my hair, I eat my food, and yet still I live a healthy life. But don’t try to tell that to the germaphobe with the mask on in the seat next to me on the train.
I actually don’t know if Japanese view money as a possible vector for germ sharing. I will say that their money is always incredibly crisp and flat. I never come across a wadded bill. So if only by appearance it seems perfectly clean and healthy. It even stays crispy in milk.

Now the two reasons the vending ticket system works here, and might not somewhere else:
(1) No tipping. The barber and the waitress (and for that matter, the butcher, the baker and the chopstick maker) provide fantastic service, because it’s their job to. Nothing more nothing less. Nobody here expect a tip. There is no jar on the counter at Starbucks or anywhere else. It must seem rude or pitiful that the Americans have jars everywhere asking for small change. With the ticketing system, after you buy your ticket, you are done with money. (So far, this system might just work for Canadians wherever they go in the world…. What’s the difference between a canoe and a Canadian?...You can get one of them to tip.)

(2) Nobody is going to personalize their order. After getting out the ‘bowl of noodles’ ticket, nobody is going to write ‘extra pork, easy on the bean sprouts, not too much soup, no fish-paste patty please’ on the ticket. If you get the ticket, you get what the ticket says. As the title of this blog advises: Don’t Break the Set. Japan is big about not breaking the set, and so the ticket thing works.

I am now seeking out the next things that I will find in a vending machine. I envision being able to get your nails done, buy a car, file your taxes all via tickets bought at vending machines. I will keep you updated with what I find.

By the way, buying a car via vending machine makes sense as new car dealerships here don’t have inventory parked on site. (That would be a waste of precious land.) You buy a car and then wait for it to be built and delivered.
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From the "Well, at least they are trying" department.

Lemonade? (I did buy it for the label.)

Elvis? Not sure what they were going for here.

In temples, castles, hotels and other places where you are directed to take off your shoes, sometimes they give you slippers to wear around. Sometimes half of my foot is covered.

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Japanese proverb:

If the father is a frog, the son will be a frog.
(Sorry, Zane.)
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