Thursday, June 26, 2008

For you Feed readers

I know a fair number of people follow this blog through feeds. I've set the feeds to give you the headline and the first paragraph of each post, making it easy to see if the post is anything you want to read. Blogger offers the feed in two formats: Atom and RSS. As it turns out, the RSS feed here has a bug so it will only give you the headline and nothing else.

So, any of you using the RSS feed should probably consider switching to the Atom feed instead. The link at the bottom of the blog front page is for the Atom feed, and you can change your RSS feed link by simply removing the "?alt=rss" bit at the very end. Most or all feed readers handle Atom just fine nowadays and it's a better publication format so for most of you there's no real reason to stay with RSS.

As an aside, a couple of people have wondered why I don't offer each entire post as a feed, not just a small excerpt. I have two reasons: first, I really dislike full post feeds myself, especially for the kind of longwinded, wordy and redundantly descriptive posts that I write, with images taking up lots of space on top of it. I follow a lot of blogs, and in my feed reader I just want to get a quick overview to select the few posts that I actually want to read. A long post published in its entirety defeats that.

The second reason is that I like to keep an eye on what posts get read and what does not. I can't collect that information on posts read through feeds, though, so making people go to the actual blog helps me get feedback on what people find interesting. It's still not perfect since visits to the home page does not count towards any individual post, but it does give me an indication. FYI, what sells here are posts about visas, the Cup Ramen museum and population statistics. I can agree with that priority order.

Monday, June 23, 2008


We're back. Borlänge-Osaka is a pretty long trip (22 hours, door to door) and I'm desperately fighting jetlag so I'm not going to attempt any kind of coherent post tonight. We had fun, which is what matters, and got to celebrate a real midsummer.

Bäsingen steamship dressed up for midsummer.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Repost: Clam Miso Soup Recipe

Sometimes friends in Sweden ask for Japanese recipes. The problem with cooking much Japanese food in Sweden is the same as cooking Swedish food in Japan: important ingredients may be extremely expensive and hard to find, if indeed they are available at all. You can get quite far with a bit of ingenuity, of course - some ingredients can be omitted altogether, and others can be replaced with something vaguely similar. Still, at times you'll just have to accept that you can't make the real thing.

But not this time. This is a very Japanese miso soup, and I know for a fact that it is fairly easy to make in Sweden (and in most parts of the world). First, though, some info on the (non)ingredients.


The only specifically Japanese ingredient here is miso paste. Miso is a crushed, moist paste of soy beans and/or rice that have been fermented and then salted. As with anything traditional there's a huge amount of specialized knowledge to be had for those with an interest (take a look at the Wikipedia entry) but really you only need to know that the longer it ferments the darker it gets. And the darker it gets the "darker", smokier and fuller (and less salty) is the taste. Really light miso, pale yellow in color, may have fermented for a month or so, while the darkest types may have been aged for a year.

Which kind to use is mostly a matter of taste. At my current place of work you pick up a bowl with the soup ingredients and fill it with the miso flavour of your choice from a vending machine (no, the Michelin guide is not going to come knocking at this cafeteria anytime soon). It's not just used for soup, but can be used as a spice or ingredient in all kinds of food (try pickling fish fillet's or pork chops in miso for a few hours before frying them). Miso is very durable; if you keep it in an airtight container it'll keep for a year.


Most forms of soup is based on "dashi", a light unsalted broth made from seaweed, dried fish and/or dried mushroom. Of course, most Japanese don't bother making it from scratch (it's easy enough, but it takes time), and instead use some form of instant powder, just like you normally buy stock rather than make it yourself. But unlike miso, instant dashi does not seem to widely available in Sweden, and it is ridiculously, hideously expensive when you do find it. The ingredients needed to make your own (the right kind of konbu seaweed, katsuobushi and so on) are also hard to find.

Note that some brands of miso have dashi powder already mixed in. This is convenient when you just want to make a soup, but means the miso is not really useful for any other cooking. So for this recipe I'll show a form of miso soup that doesn't use dashi at all. Or rather, we let the main soup ingredient, clams, provide the stock as it cooks.

Figure about four clams and perhaps 3dl water per person. Cook the clams until they open (about 3 minutes or so). As always, don't use clams that don't close when you tap on them, and remove clams that never opened after cooking.

Then take some miso paste, perhaps a heaped tablespoon per person into a ladle and mix the miso with a bit of the soup in the ladle. The reason is not some mystic eastern ritual but simply that miso is not very water soluble and if you just dump it straight into the pot you'll end up with clumps of miso in the soup.

Let it simmer (not boil) for a few minutes, pour it into bowls with the clams and add some garnish. Doesn't get much easier than that.

We often use mitsuba in this soup, but feel free to experiment with any herb or leaf; chives goes well with this too, for instance. You can also add croutons or beansprouts to good effect. Tofu is common in miso soup but avoid it here; the clam shells ends up crushing it during cooking.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Repost: Oyakodon Recipe

[We're travelling; a post from my old blog to keep things going here]

Donburi (丼) is a Japanese rice dish. It means "rice bowl", and the dish is just that - a large bowl of rice with a sauce-based topping. The beauty of it is that it's all served and eaten in one bowl, making it a very convenient lunch or quick meal. If you have cooked rice already (thanks to your timer-equipped rice cooker, for instance), you can come home and have dinner finished in as little as fifteen minutes.

Oyakodon, "Mother and child bowl", is perhaps the most well known variety of these dishes. It's a topping of chicken and egg in a soy sauce broth. The name oyako (親子) comes from oya (parent) and ko (child), reflecting the use of both chicken meat and eggs. There's another variant called tanindon (他人丼), or "stranger donburi" with beef instead of chicken.

The dish is surprisingly simple to make, and with the possible exception of the soup stock all ingredients should be readily available pretty much anywhere.

1.5 - 2 dl uncooked rice
100 - 150g chicken
1 - 2 eggs
1 - 1.5dl dashi
0.3 - 0.5dl soy sauce
2 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 onion
5cm leek

The amounts are for one person; the lower end is for a normal portion, while the upper is if you're hungry and aren't going to have any side dishes.

The ingredients for Oyakodon. In the center chicken meat, then clockwise from the top mirin (sweet rice wine), dashi (soup stock - get instant dashi powder), sugar, onion, eggs and soy sauce. The leeks are missing; I forgot to buy.

For those trying to do this in Sweden, the only ingredient you'll have trouble with is the dashi (soup stock). When I last visited I did find instant dashi in one store, but it was much too expensive (almost exactly a 50-fold increase in price compared to Japan). To make your own, you need seaweed and dried katsuo flakes (which I didn't find either). The exact stock doesn't matter all that much for this dish, however. You can make a usable stock from dried mushrooms, for instance, or a thin vegetable stock. If you use ordinary stock, remember that dashi is supposed to be thin, clear and unsalted since you'll often use it with salty soy sauce. I guess you could try using vegetable stock at 1/4 strength and reduce the soy sauce a bit. I think the most important ingredient of dashi is the monosodium glutamate, so for the more chemically inclined it may be worthwhile to try using vegetable cooking water and a spoonful of MSG.

Mirin, sweet rice wine, should be available in speciality stores if nothing else. You're not using much at a time and a bottle will keep for ever, more or less, so the price is not a problem. Soy sauce is the Japanese variety which is thinner and saltier than Chinese soy.

The idea is to make a sauce, cook the chicken and onions in it, turn off the heat, then add beaten eggs and chopped leeks (which I omitted below) and carefully turn it so the egg and chicken mixture is still a little runny. The residual cooking heat should just barely set it, giving it a creamy, slightly runny consistency.

Oyakodon Oyakodon
Cook the rice. Put almost all dashi, mirin, all the sugar and soy sauce in a pan and bring to a biol. Add thinly sliced onions and let them soften a bit, then add the meat. Slowly cook it until the meat is done (about ten minutes should be plenty). The sauce will reduce quite a bit; that is intentional.

While the meat is cooking whisk the eggs with the rest of the dashi (just a little bit; perhaps two tablespoons or so), a teaspoon or so of mirin and a few drops soy sauce (you don't want to darken the eggs, just give them a little saltiness). Chop the leeks, if you haven't forgotten them.

Take the pan off the heat, pour the eggs over the chicken, sprinkle leeks on top (please imagine fresh, green, dew-kissed slices of leek above), then slide the mixture on top of a bowl of rice so that the egg sort of stays on top.

Oyakodon. Unfortunately I was so busy trying to take a picture I forgot to turn off the heat. The bowl of Oyakodon is rather overcooked overcooked as a result. That I forgot to get leeks doesn't improve it either. Still very good, though.

You eat this by itself or with a couple of side dishes (miso soup, pickles, salad, tofu). It's normally served in one bowl as above, but I've seen it with rice and the mixture in separate bowls. Donburi is easy to vary; you could use tofu instead of chicken (the firm kind of tofu in that case), add moyashi (bean sprouts) or other vegetables, or skip the eggs altogether. Below is another, Chinese-inspired variant with mushrooms and carrots in a sweet and sour sauce and a few representative side dishes:

Mushroom Donburi
Chinese-style mushroom and carrot stirfry donburi. From upper left, tofu with katsuobushi; blanched spinach; and pickled turnip.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


We're off. Finnair has a direct flight between Osaka and Helsinki, so we'll be staying in Helsinki for two nights, fly to Stockholm for one night and finally to Borlänge where we'll celebrate Midsummer with various far-flung members of our family that will get to meet each other for the first time. If you've never heard of Borlänge, by the way, don't fret; you're not actually missing anything.

This means I'm basically off the net for a while. To make sure this blog doesn't go totally silent, though, I have queued up a couple of old posts from my previous blog; hopefully they'll show up when they're supposed to. I'm leaving the comments unmoderated as well. It will be good to get away for a while, and with the rainy season in full swing this seems like an excellent time to leave Osaka for a week.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What is Normal?

There's a constant low-level political argument in Japan about "becoming a normal country". This is often trotted out as a part of arguments for changing the constitution to allow a "real" military with offensive as well as defensive capability, and allow it to participate in military operations abroad.

Tobias Harris of Observing Japan takes a look at what's actually normal as far as nation states go. He argues (convincingly in my view) that the renouncing of military power in favour of economic weight and dense links with other nations today is the normal state of being, while the obsession with territory and projection of military power has become an anachronism.

Go read it; it's good.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Nursing Crisis

Asahi Shimbun notes that there is a real, serious and increasing nursing care - home care and daily life assistance especially - staff shortage in Japan, one with potentially disastrous consequences as the aged population in need of care increases, and the pool of potential staff decreases along with the number of young people. In order to swiftly and decisively rectify this situation, the current government has just enacted its solution into law.

The solution? To "take necessary measures" by April next year. The actual measures deemed necessary are left undefined. I'd love to have a job where this kind of declaration can be passed off as having done actual work. Perhaps I should adopt the same work mode: instead of doing actual research, analyze the results and spend months getting a paper into shape and published, I'll just occasionally send out a declaration that a paper with "appropriate scientific content" should be published sometime in the future. I think I'll use the freed-up time to learn golf perhaps, or crochet.

But I digress - why is there a shortage of workers? As Asahi Shimbun points out, the nursing schools aren't even close to filling their quotas of students and 20% leave the profession every year. As it turns out, pay has a lot to do with it. The average - not starting - salary is 200000 yen per month; a Swedish junior nurse has an average of 320000 yen (11000 and 18000 crowns respectively). You work long hours (lots of unpaid "service overtime"), nights and weekends, with up to 16-hour shifts. Oh, and you need a license to practice, so you need a year or two at a vocational school minimum, which you (or your parents) have to pay tuition and living expenses for.

How bad is this? If I were to shift careers from research into something more hands-on, would this be a choice worth investigating, or would I be better off economically with - let's say - the fast-paced glamour of convenience-store clerking or chain restaurant management? Let's see!

Just yesterday a local branch of the Yoshinoya chain was looking for temporary workers; the hourly rate was 900-1100 yen depending on experience, rising to 1100-1300 yen an hour for night shift work. Convenience stores have similar rates. Let's assume 50 hours a week of work for the nurse; with a nominal 40 hour workweek and unpaid overtime this sounds approximately right. With 200000 yen a month that comes out to just about 1000 yen an hour; pretty much exactly what I'd make as a convenience store clerk with some experience and occasional night-shift and weekend duties. But of course, there's differences too:

The nursing care worker has professional responsibility for elderly and ill people, and can get into very big trouble if she (I'd write "he or she" but who would we be kidding?) mixes up medications or fails to recognize early signs of acute distress. The convenience store clerk, on the other hand, has professional responsibility for little more than the till and the sale time limits on the onigiri and reheated sausages. The nursing care worker is licensed and has spent a fair bit of money on the studies needed for their profession. The convenience store clerk and the restaurant worker, well, hasn't.

But of course, the clerk is facing limited-time contract jobs with low pay and few prospects of advancement. Which, it turns out, is usually the case for the nursing care worker as well, with a majority not being regular employees, but working under the same kind of dead-end temp contracts as the clerk.

I'm not surprised 20% leave the nursing profession every year in Japan; I'm surprised the number isn't much higher.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


It's busy at work, in part because I'm taking a week off from the end of next week; we're going to Sweden to celebrate Midsummer with my parents and my sister and her family (who all live in the USA, and who have never met Ritsuko, nor have I met them). This weekend is the last opportunity for me to do any real preparations for the trip, so blogging has had to take the back-seat for a while.

One thing I did today was to pick up a lens for my brother (camera equipment is still quite a lot cheaper in Japan than in Sweden even if prices have evened out somewhat). And as I was buying the lens I did the mistake of looking over a few of the used equipment shelves. And there it was: a Yashica Twin-Lens reflex camera in near-perfect condition.

Yashica Mat 124G
Yashica medium-format twin-lens reflex camera.

Digital SLR cameras are great: quick and easy to use; easy to bring along and readily adaptible to most any situation from portraits to sports. And it's digital, so you can take hundreds of images without worrying about space or cost. The problem is, those are all drawbacks as well. When it is so very quick and easy, it's so easy to just snap away without thinking through your composition, without thinking about what it is you want to show the viewer; without, in fact, thinking at all.

So using film, and medium-format film like this, is a good antidote. A TLR (twin-lens reflex) camera is by its nature fairly slow to use. You see the world back to front on a ground-glass screen at the top, not directly through a viewfinder. It's a fixed-lens camera so you have no zoom and no way to switch lenses. And a roll of medium-format film will give you 12 exposures in total, so you had better make each one count.

At the same time, pictures from cameras like this really are easier to get right than ever. Just bring your digital camera along, and use it as your combined light meter and polaroid back for test shots to see that your exposure is right. I'm looking forward to this. But no, I'm not taking it along on the trip, tempting as it is to do a "one picture per day" kind of thing with it.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Short takes

Life revolves around work at the moment, and as I try to avoid work-related posts here (I blog to get a break from work, not to further it) posting is light. There's nevertheless a few interesting tidbits worth posting about.

Center, work time; right, spending time with Ritsuko-time; left, language study time. Not visible at this resolution, blog time.

Actually, it's a "Banpeiyu", a kind of pomelo, and the worlds larges citrus fruit. It lasted us for days.

Shisaku points to some welcome news: the LDP far-right is preoccupying itself with campaigning for a return to Meiji-era grammar and spelling for the Japanese language, citing reasons such as the Japanese spirit being embodied in its characters - and I do believe they mean a quite literal spirit here - and the post-war orthography reforms having destroyed it (and thus, I presume, being part to blame for the lack of children, independent women and a viable political opposition).

The good news? Every hour of effort they spend on this doomed project is an hour they're not spending on something that could actually affect anybody. And it should be but a short step to convince these people that computers, internet and word processing is similarly soul-destroying for the language, so they'll end up writing their policy proposals in longhand, sending drafts to each other by courier. With any luck, it could keep them from doing any legislative mischief for years.