I just returned from a two week trip to Japan. With 85 teenagers. And it was amazing.
Our son has been in a Japanese Immersion Program since preschool age and this Research Residency trip is the capstone of all his studies. These 13-14 year-olds are given the outlines of a trip that has been happening at the end of the 8th grade year since the inception of the program 21 years ago. Within the planned trip, the students are in charge of navigating, translating, and researching a topic for which they have a large presentation. They conduct surveys in USA and in Japan, visit Japanese schools, stay in Japanese families. It is a very special learning experience. They even get to choose their chaperones for the trip, and I was very grateful to have made the cut. The chaperones are there for safety and to remind the students of etiquette and if issues arise. But our main role is “guide on the side”. That is fairly easy for me as I am not the best at directions, I don’t speak Japanese, and I am happy to let them lead.
Since this is a blog about food mostly, I will stick to that portion of the trip mostly, but the entire experience was so much more than that. It was life-changing in many ways for me, and extended far beyond finding veg options.
Our large group branched into two separate paths, Group A and Group B, which left us with a more manageable size of 42 students, 6 per chaperone. We stayed at a hotel in Hiroshima for 3 nights at the beginning where they served a large breakfast buffet with Japanese and Western items. Every day the kids gave out per diem money to use for transportation, lunch, dinner and activities. This was money each family had pre-paid for the trip.
I was with my group of really amazing kids all day. I could go on and on about them, but they were just nice people who got along with each other and were motivated. They had their days where enthusiasm flagged, but overall I had no complaints, they were actually fun to hang out with.
One day at lunch we ate at a ramen place where you pay using a machine ahead of time, and then go in with your ticket, and circle special options. I ordered the veggie ramen with onions, mushrooms and a fancy vinegar, but I am pretty sure the broth was not vegetarian. When you can’t communicate, you are with a group, and it is a society that puts just a little (or a lot) of meat and fish into almost everything, it is hard to avoid.
Hiroshima was such a memorable city that was both vibrant and sad, but mostly left me with a message of peace and hope.
After a side trip to Miyajima, we went to Asago City, where we spent the next 5 nights or so in a Nature House. The Nature House is like Outdoor School, but much nicer. It had 5 levels, a gym, cafeteria, meeting areas, ofuro baths and large rooms with tatami mats for sleeping. Every morning and evening we had group meals at the Nature House where a model tray was displayed. Everyone was meant to use it as a guide as far as how much food to take. Every morning there was rice, a type of miso soup and some other items like egg, fruit, or fish. Evenings were similar, but usually had some greens too and maybe some fried roll, gyoza or piece of meat. Our group had 8 vegetarian kids, and myself. Out of that, I would say about 4 of them stayed strictly vegetarian. I asked our Japanese teacher and trip leader if it would be possible for the cooks to leave the little pieces of meat out of the greens or other dishes where they were intermingled but not integral. Apparently, they don’t do custom orders!
That was one of my takeaways from this trip is really understanding how a collective society functions vs an individual one. In a food sense for example, in the US, even things like a coffee order are specially customized. You can order your coffee with specific milks, espresso shots, flavors, etc. That is not to say that in Japan they don’t have many choices- especially with their ubiquitous vending machines! I did notice that everyone sticks to the choices given the group whether that is for the lunch cafeteria meals, the options for a hotel meal, or in restaurants. One time I attempted to ask if I could have vegetable tempura instead of the shrimp tempura with my udon, but it wasn’t going well so I reverted back to just going with the kitsune (fried tofu) udon option instead. Maybe there is something to that “special snowflake” concept after all.
In some ways I found it pretty disheartening that there were so few vegan options added since I had been to Japan over 5 years ago. I did find that there were some almond and soy milk coffee options in the prepared beverage options in some convenience stores which was new. Japan is so wonderful that even if I did have to eat only white rice, I would still go back in a heartbeat. Fish and seafood are part of their culture because of their geography, and I worry about what effect that will have on them as we overfish the oceans.
They do a lot of things really well, and I have never been as clean as in that country. There are separate shoes for being outdoors, indoors, inside the bathing area, and for inside the toilet!
We all spent much of our free time (pretty much any break between traveling and studying) with shopping. Every single 7-11, Lawson’s and convenience store was invaded in our wake. I’m pretty sure all the vending machines had to restock early too! My environmental side really struggled with the amount of plastic bags and one use disposable items that entailed in many cases. Also, the amount of plastic bottles. There is much work to be done as far as using less plastic and packaging. One of the student’s field studies took us to Himeji Castle where every visitor removes their shoes before entering and puts them in a clean plastic bag. I really hope that they reuse those bags, because that is thousands of bags per day. Just have people carry them in their hand, or use reusable bags.
My favorite meal of the trip was a house made somen place in Kyoto that I went to with 3 other chaperones and our cool 24-year-old Japanese intern/teacher. We all ordered separate noodle bowls that tasted like udon which came with hot or cold broth on the side. In the center of the table there were seasoning and ingredients, and some sauces with sesame seeds. It was the best meal of the trip. Part of it was sharing it with awesome people after bicycling all around town on an e-bike probably. Memories for a lifetime.
We also had a couple of fun meals at an Izakaya in Wadayama where we stayed for several nights. There were delicious salads with tofu, tempura bamboo roots, fried lotus chips and other items that were all shared in addition to the mostly meat options. I did skip one final dinner that was at a fancy steakhouse, but was so tired by that point it didn’t feel like I was missing out.
Although I ate a lot of snacks and sweets throughout the trip, I returned at the same weight as when I left. Probably just because we were walking at least 20,000 steps a day, bicycling, and just way more activity than my normal desk job.
The other chaperones and I really laughed more than I have laughed all year. Many “inside” and immature jokes later… I feel deeply grateful for that trip and the ability to connect with my own inner teenager. I hope to return someday, but no matter what, the friends and experience will remain with me.
Recently we decided to get our very first family dog. My daughter has wanted one since she could talk. She is now 14. Although it was very tempting to get a specific breed we liked, I wanted to adopt a rescue dog. It seems like it would be so easy to adopt a dog, so many need homes. I found that it actually required some patience and persistence which was more than rewarded.
We looked at many local shelters like Oregon Humane Society, Pixie Project, and Petfinder which consolidates many of those into one searchable database. Our parameters were that we wanted a “young or adult” dog- not puppy or senior. Not too large.
We struck out several times where we found a dog we liked but someone else adopted him/her first, or we were found not to be suitable because of the age of our children, having a cat, and even not having another dog already. It can sometimes seem like there is a lot of detail and information needed when filling out applications, however these rescue organizations go through a lot of time, cost and effort, and need to ensure that these animals get a permanent home.
In the end we were fully rewarded with a dog I never would have expected to get, and wasn’t even on my radar. Boots Walker Texas Lowrider caught my eye on One Tail at a Time’s website. He looked pretty small with short legs and like a mellow couch potato. His bio said, “He’ll steal your girlfriend”.
When we went to his foster family’s home to meet him, I was surprised at how much larger he was in person. He is a Basset Pit Bull mix and has a sturdy body. He weighs 60 pounds and is impossible to budge when he plants his paws. His personality is pure sweetness and he has a very calm demeanor. We fell in love with him right away.
Our dog had already been neutered, immunized and microchipped.
I still love pugs, frenchies and other purebred dogs- but Oreo (formerly Boots) is such an amazing unique guy that I would choose above any other. “Adopt, don’t shop” now has new meaning for me once I learned that this amazing pup was just days from being put to sleep due to treatable kennel cough. Oreo looks at me in a way that says he is so grateful to have a loving home (or maybe he just adores me). If you work with a shelter who does do fostering first, there is the bonus of knowing what your dog’s personality is like beforehand. I think my husband does feel like Oreo stole his wife, but it’s okay because he fell for him too.
We got extremely lucky to have found our match. Oreo is a great example for how adopting can be amazing. Do some research, read this guide about pet adoption, and learn how to find and care for that very special animal who needs a loving home.
Last month I went to the very first Reducetarian Summit in NY. I was excited to go and meet the founder, Brian Kateman and others who also have a pragmatic approach. Seeing Tobias Leenaert, the Vegan Strategist again was an added bonus as well. I was able to make it a time to visit my aunt and all of my cousins (except one) and their families too.
I’ve been to a fair amount of conferences, and was impressed with the quality of this one. Everything was very organized with well-moderated panels of great speakers, perfect location at NYU across from a park in Soho, good use of technology for online questions to be submitted (cutting out all the long-winded types), nice swag book which included Brian’s new book, delicious vegan snacks and food. And best of all: unlimited very decent coffee. As a designer, I also appreciated the graphics which were bright, fun and memorable.
The people attending were a wide range from all different areas- environmental, food innovation, nutrition and health, animal rights, and social justice. They ranged from students and individuals to those from larger organizations like the Humane Society, OxFam and Rainforest Action Network.
It felt professional and non-judgmental. We came from many different areas, and not all vegan, but everyone shared the common goal of working together to change our food system.
There was a photo booth set up where you could hold up a sign as far as why you reduce: for animals, the environment or health (or all three).
Brian was extremely nice and welcoming. As I was attending on my own, knowing only one other person there, I found the group to be less cliquish than some that have a more narrow focus. I met a lot of interesting people during the breaks and at a social evening Saturday night. I love the inclusive message that we can all do something, no matter where we are.
I would love to come to the next one, and I am happy to see that they have posted all the videos on their website if you would like to see some of the topics and watch those yourself.
The only changes I would make would be to have it during the week so that I could have selfishly had my weekend to explore New York, try more vegan restaurants and spend more time with family!
One big highlight of this conference was being able to meet Tobias Leenaert in person. We’ve corresponded by email and Facebook from his home in Belgium and mine in the U.S. for about a year. Through my design firm, we worked on his identity and some presentation/book illustrations that have not yet been finished.
When I discovered his blog, The Vegan Strategist, it was like a breath of fresh air for me. I had been struggling with the dogmatic ideas I had about veganism, and some abolitionists in the movement. I felt like I didn’t fit in, and that my ideas weren’t accepted.
In person, Tobias was just as he is online, more of a listener than a talker with a dry sense of humor. I attended a few of his talks, mostly panel discussions. He presents his ideas as open for discussion, but has clearly thought everything through evident in his responses to the audience questions.
He is working on a book that I was fortunate enough to read an early draft. This is a book that needs to be written, and to be read by vegan advocates and activists. “Practice slow opinion” is his tagline. If our goal is to make change, than being effective is more important than being right.
I actually saw this in practice one evening as I listened to a direct activist actively try to change the mind of a non-vegan. The non-vegan had plenty of time and opportunity to learn about veganism and was not opposed to the ideas. He just felt differently about animals than the vegan activist.
The vegan activist was speaking very loudly, and asking rapid-fire questions that weren’t questions (“would you kill babies?!”). It was intense and included physical pointing along with the verbal pointed questions. I felt stressed myself just as a spectator. In the end, the non-vegan was playing a game of defense the entire time. It stayed in a respectful zone, but definitely didn’t create any change in either of their minds.
I would encourage you to watch Tobias’ video “Making compassion easier”. I hope very much to meet up again one day, hopefully bringing him to Portland. It was great meeting his wonderful partner Melanie, and colleague Carolina as well during this conference!
This is more of a personal post… My son turned 12 last week, and part of the birthday tradition is that I make him a homemade cake. When he was little, I used to have fun creating themes for his parties around his interests at the time. I remember in somewhat chronological order: Thomas the Train, Pirates, Rockets, Star Wars Legos, Angry Birds, Minecraft and last year was Zelda. Last year as I sat pondering whether I had the time and skills to make a cool fondant Zelda shield cake or not, our cat caught one of my son’s pet parakeets. The bird lived, but the shield cake was replaced with an emergency vet visit. I made a more simple tri-force cake in the end I think.
Here are a few of the photos- as you will see, the cakes are made mostly with love not artistry. I wish I could find all my photos, taking photos on phones has really destroyed my photo collections, although the quality of the photos has improved.
This year, I am sad to say there was no theme. Although we briefly discussed Japanese anime. We are entering the teen years and I guess the cool thing to do is to play video games either together or just sitting in the same room on individual devices. It is kind of weird to watch, but the boys are happy.
I didn’t have quite enough coconut oil so I used half canola. I think I could have cut back on the oil a bit anyway. The cake itself was not too sweet, and the frosting was really delicious. This is one of those recipes no one would know it was vegan. My only mistake was starting to frost it while it was still a little warm and the center layer melted, so I didn’t put any frosting on the sides but piled the rest of it on top instead.
I only have one photo of it, because I didn’t think about artfully staging it until right as it was set on the table in front of excited boys.
After they ate all the sugar, we went to the park to burn it off. They were all armed with a variety of weapons found in our garage: one plastic light saber, two rubber swords, a Zelda Shield, 2 bouncy ball discs (that can be hurled at each other like frisbees or used to deflect like a shield), and one bamboo stick (yikes!).
During their battles, my teenage daughter and her younger friends spied on the boys wearing floppy hats, with newspapers in front of their faces. None of the boys even noticed them! Sorry girls, maybe later.