Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Heavy petting on the CBC

Almost immediately after I wrote about my trip to an Osaka cat cafe, I got an email from a senior producer at CBC News asking for permission to post my story on their website.

I was so flattered and excited I said "yes" right away. My story was posted on the CBC's Citizen Bytes website earlier today.

It's only been up for a few hours and I already have hate mail from a rabid dog-lover!

And as if being featured on the CBC's website wasn't awesome enough, the editor of an online cat magazine also emailed me to see if I'd be interested in contributing an article for the next issue. Who knew writing about cats would be so rewarding?

It was a great confidence booster. It makes me think that maybe, maybe I could make a serious attempt at freelance writing. Or maybe I should move back to Canada and open a cat cafe.

Monday, February 23, 2009

One hour of heavy petting

I went to a cat cafe in Osaka yesterday. Although, describing it as a "cafe" is somewhat misleading. It's more of a cat brothel than a cat cafe.

It's hidden inside a nondescript office building. An elevator discreetly whisks you up to the third floor. The elevator opens into a small hallway where you must remove your shoes and put on a pair of slippers.

You then open a sliding door to enter the cafe but before you can go any further, you are instructed to hold out your hands, palms up, while an employee sprays them with disinfectant.

You are then directed to the counter to pay in advance. Six hundred yen (about $5) gets you all the cats you can stroke for an hour. A few hundred yen extra gets you a drink to quench your thirst after all of the heavy petting is over.

After you have removed your shoes, sterilized your hands and paid your money, it's time to get down on your knees and play with the cat of your choice.

The cafe is called Neko no Jikan 猫の時間 (or "Cat Time" in English). The 20 cats that work here have free range of the place, sitting and sleeping wherever they like.

The cafe consists of two large rooms. There is the cafe area, which is exactly what it sounds like. There are couches and small tables where you can sip a cup of coffee while a cat sleeps on your lap or at your feet. It is a cozy space with soft lighting and classical music playing quietly in the background.

The other room, attached to the cafe, is best described as a cat playroom. No drinks are allowed in this room. You can play with the cats or just sit on one of the many couches and watch all of the four-legged loving go down.

The cafe was busy but not crowded. The vast majority of customers were women. There were a few men but they had all come on the arms of their girlfriends. The most enthusiastic customer was a middle-aged man with a 1950s rock-and-roll pompadour. He made a point of talking to all of the cats, clucking and cooing over their every move.

"Oh look at you! You sure like to sleep don't you? Oh, yes you do. Yes you do. You cute little sleeper you."

(I am translating this from Japanese so that might not be exactly what he said but the meaning behind his words was clear.)

Of course, cats being cats, it was somewhat difficult to seduce them into spending time with you. They would sit in your lap for about a minute before squirming out of your embrace.

If you wanted a cat to play with you, you were better off buying some tuna from the cafe in order to lure them in. These ladies bought some tuna and they were instantly the most popular people in the room.

The woman with the pink cell phone on her lap could tell I was feeling a bit left out so she handed me a piece of her tuna. As soon as I started waving the tuna around, I had no shortage of cats wanting to sit on my lap. But once the tuna was gone, so were they.

Everyone was pouring out love to these cats but the cats weren't giving much back. Cats do not love openly and blindly like dogs. Cats can be affectionate and playful but they are also independent and solitary (or stubborn and uncooperative, depending on your viewpoint). I was happy enough just to be near them.

I had never heard of cat cafes before coming to Japan and I'm surprised the trend hasn't caught on in the rest of the world. Cat cafes are a great idea, especially for people whose landlords won't allow pets in their buildings. Or for people who can't have a cat because they live with an allergic partner.

It's a brilliant concept. If I can find a cat cafe in Kyoto, I'm going to go at least once a month.

If you are in the Osaka area and want to visit Neko no Jikan, you can find a map here. There is no English spoken and no English menus so be sure to learn some basic Japanese before you go. Of course, that's just to communicate with the staff. You only need to speak the language of love with the cats.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Surgical masks and safety glasses

My eyes have been unbearably itchy for the past few weeks and I had no idea why until I found out that it's hay fever season. Yes, hay fever in February.

Apparently, the cedar trees are to blame. Or, more accurately, the Japanese government is to blame for planting so many of the damn things in order to resupply the country with timber after the war.

But it turns out replanting the country with fast-growing cedar only ended up creating a nation of allergy sufferers. Oops.

If you walk into any drugstore in Japan right now you will see special displays devoted to fighting the effects of cedar pollen. Allergy sufferers have an arsenal of weapons to choose from. The most popular products? Surgical masks and safety glasses.

Almost everyone who is sick (or is trying to avoid getting sick) wears a surgical mask in Japan. It's very normal. It's also very considerate. Sick people wear a mask to avoid infecting others. Healthy people wear a mask to avoid getting sick. Of course, I didn't know any of that the first time I saw someone wearing a surgical mask. I thought they had SARS or Ebola or something. It was very disconcerting.

And while everyone wears masks, I have yet to see a single person wearing safety glasses. I have seen the glasses for sale but I have never seen anyone buy them.

My eyes are unbearably itchy but I just can't bring myself to wear protective glasses and a surgical mask in public. My western vanity won't allow it. Plus, I'm not convinced the glasses are all that effective.

I think you'd need an airtight seal in order to keep the pollen from irritating your eyes. You'd probably be better off wearing swim goggles or a gas mask (which I have actually seen someone wearing in public . . . in Vancouver, of course).

Friday, February 13, 2009

Adventures in Japanese cooking: Part II

Remember how I said one of the things I wanted to do while living in Japan was learn how to cook Japanese food? Well, I never did progress beyond gomoku gohan before the Japanese cookbook I borrowed was due back at the library.

That was more than three months ago. Since then, I've done little more than let my desire to delve into the world of Japanese cuisine simmer on the backburner.

I realized it was stupid to try to teach myself how to master the art of sushi in the very country where sushi was invented. Why struggle through complicated recipes on my own when I am surrounded by experts who can teach me everything I need to know?

So I decided to sign up for a sushi-making class in Kyoto. For something so beautiful and delicate looking, sushi is surprisingly easy to make.

You just cook up some rice, cut in some vinegar, lay a sheet of nori on a bamboo rolling mat, slap some vinegared rice on it, throw in some fillings, roll the whole thing up and chop it into pieces. Easy!

I decided to fill mine with avocado, cucumber and raw tuna.

Laying it out was easy. Shaping it into a tight, cylindrical roll was difficult. I just couldn't get it right. My sushi was constantly falling apart at the seams. These two deformed specimens ended up on the cutting room floor.

They may not have been attractive enough for the group tray but they still tasted damn good. (The best thing about taking a cooking class is that you get to eat everything in sight.)

Here is a photo of the finished product. I'd probably ask for a refund if someone served this sloppy-looking sushi to me at a real restaurant. But still. Not bad for a group of first-timers!

My only complaint was that the class was a bit too social for my liking. I was paired up with a young Japanese guy whose idea of a conversation consisted of firing question after question at me. I was convinced there was no one on earth who could ask more questions than my dad but Kenji proved me wrong.

Kenji's never-ending questions were meant to show off his vast knowledge of all things non-Japanese. (He was clearly an English conversation enthusiast -- just not the most socially skilled person in the room).

Most of his sentences stated with "I hear" and ended with "is that true?"

For example:

"I hear people in Canada don't eat squid or octopus. Is that true?"

"I hear people in Canada call octopus devil fish. Is that true?"

"I hear people in Canada don't eat rice. Is that true?"

"I hear grownups in Canada don't read comics. Is that true?"

"I hear there is only one week of summer in Canada. Is that true?"

(Was this kid for real? I know he was just trying to be friendly, but come on!)

It went on and on and on like that for most of the night. I spent more time clearing up Kenji's misconceptions than I did learning how to make sushi.

At one point, I managed to escape to the other side of the room. But it didn't take long before Kenji was glued to my side again.

"Can you use chopsticks?" he asked, while I was holding a pair of chopsticks and shoving a piece of sushi into my mouth.

I was completely exhausted by the end of the night. Not from making sushi but from answering Kenji's questions.

It was fun, though. And I took pictures of absolutely everything so I now know exactly what to buy at the grocery store when I attempt to make sushi on my own.

I'm glad I'm finally learning how to cook Japanese food. My goal is to take one cooking class per month. Next on the menu? Okonomiyaki!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Maybe I spoke too soon?

My warm and fuzzy feelings about living in Japan have turned cold and prickly thanks to a dreaded houseguest who showed up unannounced on my doorstep last night.

He somehow managed to break into my apartment while I was out. He sat alone in the dark, waiting for me to come home. I turned the key in the lock, opened the door, flicked on the light and there he was. Right there in the entranceway. A big, brown cockroach.

He didn't even try to scurry away. It was as if he was patiently awaiting my return.

"Oh, hi. Welcome home. What's for dinner?"

I don't think so! I let out a primal scream and crushed him under my shoe, grinding him into an unrecognizable pulp.

Dammit. I knew I should have cleaned up the cereal I spilled all over the kitchen floor before leaving for the day. The cockroach's antennae probably picked up the delicious scent of All Bran (or "o-ru buran" as it's called in Japan) wafting out the front door.

I didn't bother to clean up the mess because I thought I was safe. Cockroach season isn't supposed to start until April. Cockroaches in February? Unheard of!

So much for the respite. Time to go back to living in a near constant state of paranoia. Checking the tub for cockroaches before I have a shower. Jumping back in fear after I open the kitchen cupboards. Scanning the ceiling for cockroaches before I fall asleep.

When I wrote about maybe staying in Kyoto forever, I hadn't seen a cockroach in three months. Now that they're back, I'm ready to board the next plane back to Canada.

I just can't deal with this alone. I either need professional help to get over my cockroach phobia or a live-in boyfriend to fill the role of primary bug killer.

Seriously. I will marry the first guy who tells me he crushes cockroaches with his bare fists.

I am from a cold, northern country. I am not afraid of grizzly bears, cougars or coyotes. But I simply cannot deal with Japan's cockroaches, poisonous centipedes and geji geji.

I am where I belong. I'm not where I belong.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

I am where I belong

I feel like I finally, truly know what I want to do with my life. I want to be a student. Forever.

Getting paid to study Japanese at Kyoto University is the best job I have ever had. I don't want it to end. I love going to class. I love learning new things. I love Japan.

I am doing exactly what I want to be doing. And I am getting paid to do it. It doesn't get much better than that.

Going to school on the government's dime is so much better than working in an office. There are no cubicles. No office politics. No stress. I feel like I'm on vacation.

Yes, I have tests and exams and reports and presentations. Learning Japanese is hard work. But it is a labour of love. I enjoy going to school all day and studying all night.

Learning a new language is good for your brain. It keeps your mind sharp. My brain feels all strong and muscley. Not smart, mind you. Just mentally fit.

The good news is that I can continue studying Japanese at Kyoto University throughout my 18-month scholarship. I thought it was just going to be a six-month language course but my advisor told me I could take higher level classes for free while carrying out my research.

The even better news is that I can extend my scholarship for five years and do a PhD if I want. I don’t have to make up my mind until November so I'm not going to think about it until then. It's tempting to stay in Kyoto indefinitely. It really is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

I could see myself living in an old house in the mountains, drinking green tea and reading Murakami in the original. I'd have a couple of cats and a vegetable garden. I could learn karate and practice catching flies with chopsticks. It would be a good life.

I was never really happy as a journalist -- a job that requires you to be extroverted, confrontational and aggressive. I am none of those things.

What I am is curious. I am interested in absolutely everything (well, except maybe hockey. And cars. And golf.). I suppose my curiosity is what drew me to journalism in the first place. I wanted a job where I could do something different every day. Journalism was good for that. One day I'd be sitting in a courtroom covering a murder trial. The next day I'd be standing in a potato field interviewing drought-stricken farmers.

But I never really wanted a career in journalism or public relations. I just wanted to learn new things. That's all I've ever wanted to do. And I am now getting paid to do exactly that. I finally feel like I am where I belong.

I want to be a student. Forever.