And Finally, For the Youngest Stirling—Spaghetti Bolognese.

Jennifer, Jenny or Jen Ju (as in the popular Taiwanese bubble tea) is the baby in our little army. Ask Jenny where she was born, and she will excitedly tell you the true story of how she popped out on the foyer of my family’s Taiwanese apartment. She may be 12, but in my mind she’s still a tiny three-year-old sneaking into my room at 6 a.m., dragging her favorite book and hoping for story-time.

Adventurous and curious about food, Jenny is the kid that chefs and food lovers wish for. Jenny always claims the seat next to me when we go out for dinner, not because I’m such pleasant company, but because—as she once explained—I always order the most interesting food.  My husband is convinced that she is actually mine. I swear she’s not.

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A Favorite Childhood Dessert From Guest Photographer, Sibling #9

Except for January, my monstrous family celebrates a birthday every month. That means a whole lot of birthday cake. Before Vanessa came around, all the older sisters dabbled with the world of careful measurements, timing and temperatures. We had a few successes, but many more failures. I can recall two crowning moments of my own. Once I forgot to add baking powder to a cake—you can imagine the outcome. Another time I added liquid dish soap instead of oil to a recipe. Now before you get all judgy, you should know that our dish soap and vegetable oil came in identical 18-liter aluminum cans. Once the labels identifying the products got wet and peeled off, chances were pretty high that you would at best have to rewash all the dishes, or at worst be serving a diarrhea-inducing dessert.

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Visit the Tsukiji Fish Market… But Not in Late December

Even though I spent many years living in Japan every time I visit I still find random, fascinating aspects of the culture and country that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of creating one long blog post I’ve decided to turn it into a series where each week I share one or two observations from my most recent trip. 

If you love seafood and/or food markets you really can’t leave Tokyo without spending one of your mornings gawking at the dizzying display of colors, smells and sounds at Tsukiji fish market. It is one of the most famous fish markets in the world, and where most of the really good sushi restaurants—all over the globe—buy their fish. I visited Tsukiji on December 30th, the last business day of the year for this popular market. Do not follow my example.

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Unfortunately It Is Possible to Get a Bad Meal in Japan

Even though I spent many years living in Japan every time I visit I still find random, fascinating aspects of the culture and country that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of creating one long blog post I’ve decided to turn it into a series where each week I share one or two observations from my most recent trip. 

It pains me to admit that but it’s true. I’ve been guilty of hubristically proclaiming that it’s nearly impossible to get a bad meal in Japan. And while I will say that your chances of finding good food are higher than many other countries, it doesn’t hurt to do a little research beforehand. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

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It’s Possible to Order at a Restaurant in Japan Without Speaking or Reading a Lick of the Language

Even though I spent many years living in Japan every time I visit I still find random, fascinating aspects of the culture and country that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of creating one long blog post I’ve decided to turn it into a series where each week I share one or two observations from my most recent trip. 

I attribute this to three factors. First, many restaurants have plastic replicas of menu items outside their establishment, making it easy to see what they serve just by browsing the window displays. Once you spot a plastic model of something that looks good walk in, get a table and order it. Think of it as buying an outfit right off the mannequin.

Second, food photography in Japan is ridiculously good, prevalent on menus, and the food comes out looking pretty damn close to how it did in the photo. This goes for fast food joints as well. The lettuce is just as green and frilly. The beef patty is just as shiny. Everything is assembled with such exactitude you would think all the employees carried rulers.

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Technologically Advanced Toilets But Sinks Dispense Water The Temperature of Melted Ice

Even though I spent many years living in Japan every time I visit I still find random, fascinating aspects of the culture and country that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of creating one long blog post I’ve decided to turn it into a series where each week I share one or two observations from my most recent trip. 

Japanese toilets are notoriously difficult to use with intricate, complex instructions (written solely in Japanese of course) attached to the wall of each stall. Frankly, in a country where you have about a 50/50 shot of hitting the button for “bidet” instead of “flush” I’m surprised we don’t hear about more foreigners bursting out of toilet stalls, arms flailing wildly, their half soaked pants wrapped unceremoniously around their ankles. In Japan you would be hard pressed to find a toilet seat that isn’t electronically warmed. Not hot, just a comfortable temperature that spares your butt cheeks that initial shock of a stone cold throne. Hotels, restaurants, dive bars, even public restrooms on the street—all warm. However, once you exit your technologically advanced toilet stall your hands will be greeted by water so cold you may be tempted to rush back to the toilet push the “warm pulsating wash” or “blow dry” button just to bring back the blood to your fingers. I couldn’t help but think that instead of spending all that scientific manpower on figuring out the ideal distance between vulva and anus jets or the preferred temperature for the pulsating butt wash, they could look into adding a hot water faucet to the bathroom sinks.

But then again, maybe my priorities are just different.

Looks simple enough…

But open the panel and tad da… don’t read Japanese? Good luck!

A very uncommon sight, I found this extensive English user manual in a department store bathroom in Kyoto. Could a past unfortunate experience with a foreigner have prompted the posting of these detailed English instructions?

Pillow Girlfriends Really Do Exist: Random Observations about Japan

Japan is a country that caters to the fantasy and even the fetish. Hostesses pour drinks and entertain businessmen in bars. Young waitresses wearing French maid outfits or dressed up like popular manga characters serve food and play games with customers at Maid Cafes. There are even bars where the female hosts wear suits and act like men; their patrons are not gay, but mainly straight women. In light of all that, perhaps the fact that some men enter into relationships with body pillows adorned with the image of their favorite anime, video game, or manga character isn’t too surprising.

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New Year’s In Japan Part 3: Visiting a Temple and/or Shrine

I’m not Buddhist, nor do I practice Shintoism but if I’m in Japan at the dawn of a new year I always visit one (or several) of the temples and shrines scattered throughout the country. I love the beauty, serenity, history and traditions associated with each site.

In Tokyo the very popular Meiji shrine is my favorite. Surrounded by a forest, the shrine is a quiet oasis in the middle of the busy city. If I’m in Kyoto, I refuse to leave without a visit to the Inari Shrine, easily one of my top ten places in the world.

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New Year’s in Japan Part 2: Where To Nurse Your Hangover

Every few years I head back to Japan to ring in the New Year. While most Japanese go home and spend New Year’s Eve with their legs tucked cozily under a kotatsu, (a table with a heater underneath and shrouded with a thick blanket) eating soba (buckwheat noodles) and various other symbolic dishes with their families, I do my best to wrangle up a few good friends for a night of debauchery. I’m not a drinker. I’m not a smoker. Simply put I have no vices. But if I’m in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve I’m the girl in the corner of a smoky bar at 5am with a martini in one hand, cigarette in the other, and a line of empty shot glasses in front of her.

This may explain why I don’t drink the other 364 days of the year.

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New Year’s in Japan, Part 1: Feasting on Street Food

Japan celebrates the New Year on January 1st (not some time in late January like the Chinese). More accurately put, Japan celebrates the New Year from January 1st to the 3rd. The holiday always includes a visit to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine (actually, most people hit both… nothing wrong with hedging your bets). And wherever large crowds of Japanese congregate, good food is never far way. During major Japanese holidays like New Year’s the streets surrounding the largest temples and shrines are filled with vendors whipping up popular street food like yakisoba (fried noodles), karaage (fried chicken), okonomiyaki (vegetable and seafood pancakes), yakitori (grilled chicken), takoyaki (doughy balls filled with octopus), chocolate covered bananas, and numerous other treats. All these delicious morsels, accompanied with the free flowing sweetened hot sake and cold Japanese beer, make for an atmosphere that’s always festive and celebratory.

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