Thursday, June 28, 2007

Letters of Reference

Now that I have my PhD and am "on the market" I have to ask people for letters. I understand the point, but it's times like these that I envy my husband and others in his profession who only have to provide contact information for people who will serve as references.

That seems so much easier and less anxiety provoking than asking for letters. I often worry that my references won't send their letters on time; they are busy academics afterall. I also think it gets old contacting my references everytime I see a position I want to apply for. I know everyone just writes one letter and sends the same one out to all the places I apply to, but there's got to be an easier way...

One easier way would be if my references sent me a bunch of signed letters in unaddressed envelopes that I could just send out when the need arises. If they are worried about the confidentiality of their letters they could sign over the seal on the back of the envelope. Of course there would be nothing to stop me from opening an "extra" to see what my letter writer says about me.

What is the letter writing protocol these days?
I grew up operating on the assumption that if someone writes a letter for you, you should send a thank you note. I do this for anyone who writes a letter on my behalf. I've written letters for my students but have never received a formal or informal thank you note from any one them - even for letters I produced on short notice. Is this custom now passé?

Another thing I have noticed is that many of my letter writers have shared their letters with me. It's very rewarding and encouraging to read those letters, and it certainly helps me to become a better letter writer myself. Why don't more people do this?

Maybe they do. I'd be interested to hear other academics' experiences with letter writing. How common is it for references to let you read their letters? And, do you share your letters with your students? Why or why not?

I don't share mine. I have never really considered sharing my letters and I would certainly be taken aback if one of my students asked me if s/he could read my letter. How rude! These things are supposed to be confidential, aren't they? Maybe these reference letters are less confidential at the PhD level. Who knows, but it is curious that so many of my letter writers have let me read their letters. I think sharing supportive letters with PhD's applying for academic positions is a really great idea for the reason that newly minted PhD's don't have as much experience writing letters. Having access to model letters would be very helpful.

It's frustrating that at this point in the game I don't have a position lined up for the fall and given the way academic hiring works, I won't have a teaching position for the upcoming school year and won't be applying for the next academic year's positions until October-November. At leats now I have a PhD in hand so I can apply for a bunch of positions I wasn't eligible for before. That's exciting! But it also means I'll have to ask for those letters all over again...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Larger Than Life Items in Japan

Japan is full of strange stuff. One of the most amusing categories in the weird and unusual is the larger than life items that appear on buildings.

Here are those I know about:

This giant chef ...

and the tea cups with saucers mark the entrance to the "plastic food" and restaurant supply street in Tokyo.

This larger than life wasabi plant hangs above a store in Matsumoto that exclusively sells products, including cookies, made of wasabi.

Wasabi is a relative of the mustard family that grows in cool, wet mountain valleys along rivers in Japan. It is often served with sushi and sashimi which makes a lot of sense since many spicy herbs are used for their antimicrobial properties. If you make a habit of eating raw fish, you'd be wise to always have wasabi with it!

It is possible to get genuine wasabi in the U.S.
Pacific Farms, a company based in Florence, OR, grows and makes genuine wasabi. They say that wasabi grows well in that part of coastal Oregon because the climate matches the best growing areas in Japan. Beware that many imitation wasabi products are sold. They are typically horseradish colored with food dye - it's cheaper.

Another large vegetable:

Larger than life sea life is easy to find...

Sumo anyone?

What is the gold thing supposed to be?

And last but not least, the giant gorillas of Japan!

Smoking Manners Campaign

I saw posters like these in Japan - they hang in the subway trains - and are part of the country's public health campaign. I like the spiffy design; the Engrish poetry is amusing too. You can see many, many more signs here.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Great Monkey Wave

An amusing take on the famous Great Wave of Kanagawa by Hokusai.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Paper Making Stencils: Katagami

Once I learned about how the katazome paper I love so much is made (with stencils) I got really interested in the stencils, called katagami. Those who know me well already know where this is going...

I am headed toward making the paper myself using stencils I also make myself!

Or - at least something like it, cutting corners here and there like not using rice paste or wax but instead blotting on the paint through the stencil. I know it would be not be katagami-katazome, but I don't want to mess around with a more involved process when I have a vision for how it would work with a simpler one.

Yesterday I completed a carp stencil I cut using HP premium 32 lb. white paper. I wanted to see if I could do it.

I think it turned out well, but it won't hold up to repeated use. I figure it's pretty much a single use item. I have spent all day selecting the one spot to use it and haven't come up with anything definitive yet. I am leaning toward putting it above a door nob (the office closet door), the plant stand Sleyed made for me, or a card.

Moreover, now that I see I have no trouble creating a stencil of fairly intricate design (it's about 3.5 inches square), my next step is to create a stencil that will hold up to repeated use.

I recall seeing some thin foamy rubber that would fit the bill at one of the craft stores around here. I remember it being the type of substance that could be cut with a X-acto knife.

I think rather than making paper I'll start with painting fabric. I think it would awesome to deck our bathroom out in katazome-style printed fabrics and stencil painted wood with coordinating patterns - shower curtain, vanity, cabinets, towel rack, etc. It could look really, really neat. I want to get started this weekend! I'll try a pillow case first...

Here are some stencils I think I could recreate.

Japanese Paper

Japanese paper comes in a variety of forms, the most typical being chiyogami (yuzen) and katazome.

Yuzen paper is made through a silk screening process and uses more colors. These are some typical examples.

I really like this one. Had I seen it in Japan I definitely would have had to have it.

If I decide I really have to have it, I can buy it at an outrageously marked-up price here.

The paper-making and printing process is incredibly labor intensive.

Yuzen also comes in a distinctive red and black laquered paper.

Here's a pattern I am very fond of. I didn't buy a sheet of it when I had the chance because it smelled terrible - a very strong paint odor. I didn't want the rest of my paper to smell like it. Later I found a box covered with the paper that didn't stink so that's what I brought home.

This Japanese site is an excellent place to buy yuzen online. The prices are the best I've seen. $6 for a 38 x 25 inch sheet. Other online retailers of yuzen charge double or even triple that for a sheet half that size. Shipping costs about $11 for 7-28 day airmail. Jun-gifts also sells souvenirs (postcards, geta, keychains, etc) at really reasonable prices.

While shopping for paper in Japan I quickly realized there was a particular style of paper I liked the most - katazome. The style can easily be recognized by the woodblock-like patterns printed in colors of persimmon, brown, navy, and olive on a creamy white background.

Katazome paper is made in a complicated process using paint applied through stencils. The technique is very similar to batik and has customarily been used to make fabric for kimonos and noren. Instead of using wax to block off places where the dye isn't wanted, katazome makers use a sticky paste made of rice flour. It's spread on the fabric or plain paper over a stencil and allowed to dry or cure. Dye or paint can then be applied and after it has set, the rice paste can be washed off.

I couldn't buy enough of this stuff!

So what can I make with all of this paper?

It's possible to make beads out of paper... but I don't have the know-how to do that - yet. I really like what this artist (Anna Sofia Designs) has done with the paper. I really like that the bracelets are double sided so when you get tired of one side you can turn it over and wear the other side too. I've spent the last few days trying to figure out how I could achieve this look by an easier process.

I love to have interesting switch plates and electrical outlet plates in my house.

Until I saw these, I hadn't thought about using the paper to cover switch plates, but I think it's a fabulous idea. I could easily see a couple of downtown boutiques selling these things!

And of course, there's always the katazome paper covered box. I've made boxes before but always used my own paper to cover them. Before going off to graduate school I made paper out of junk mail and used some of the paper to cover boxes that I also made.

I've thought about making some more boxes, covering them with the katazome, and selling them if I can figure out some short-cut techniques to box making. The way I do it is way too labor intensive to justify selling it at a price people would actually pay.

If I decide to make boxes, the first design I'll try is this one that I saw in a craft store in a Kyoto mall.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Monkey Stories - Part 1

While I was at Arashiyama monkey park (on a mountain overlooking Kyoto) one morning I noticed several monkeys playing with rocks. They'd rub them around on the ground, several at a time, making a racket. Chimps run bipedally while dragging branches on the ground. That, too, makes a ton of noise and is done to intimidate other chimps. But this stone rubbing was definitely not like that. It happened while monkeys sat quietly and alone. They appeared to be completely absorbed in the stones, so much so that I thought the behavior was rather autistic-like.

Here's a video I found on You Tube of one monkey who is so focused on her stones that she completely ignores the infant who wants her attention.

This stone play has been observed at Arashiyama since 1979 when primatologist Michael Huffman first noticed it while researching the site. Huffman reports that by 1983, stone-play had become commonplace. Half of the monkeys in the community had been observed playing with the rocks and the vast majority of those monkeys were youngsters born in the 3 years after the behavior began. The youngest monkeys Huffman observed playing with rocks were just over one month old.

Playing with stones is a cultural tradition passed down from mother to daughter and from sister to sister. It then spreads out to playmates from other families. You might wonder why it spreads first among females. The answer is simple - Japanese macaques are a female-bonded species (in primatology terms they are matrilineal).

What I wondered was how this behavior got started in the first place. Surely some individual started it - but - that's not what intrigued me. To me, stone play looked an awful lot like gathering food. The monkeys appeared to be behaviorally prepared to collect round food, but what did they once gather?

As it turns out, monkeys who lived on Arashiyama used to have access to citrus trees that produced fruits about the size of the rocks the monkeys now play with. Whether they actually ate them or simply played with them is anyone's guess, but Huffman thinks this behavior has little to do with foraging behavior.

Instead, he sees it as play with another purpose - it aids motor development. The monkeys gain perceptual and motor skills that improve coordination.

Besides seeing monkeys rub rocks on the ground, I also observed one monkey with her arm full of stones. I mean FULL of stones.

She carried them a few feet and then dumped them all and walked away.

I also saw an older monkey sitting by a neat little pile of rocks he must have spent some time gathering. That was cute. I thought about asking if he wanted to play Go...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Smoking in Japan

Smoking is one disgusting habit I saw everyday in Japan in spite of public health advertisements to curb it.

I got a kick out of signs like these.

There are smoking areas set up along train platforms, much like smoking rooms in airport terminals except the ones on train platforms are open air so non-smokers still get a whiff of the less than fresh air pretty frequently.

This anti-smoking poster pictured below caught my eye for obvious reasons. I saw it in a train station.

People can smoke on trains, including the bullet train, but only in certain designated cars. When we took the Shinkansen we sat in a non-smoking car but that didn't stop someone from lighting up.

Smoking is also allowed in restaurants, something which makes for a much less pleasant meal if you ask me.

Whenever we ate in a restaurant or cafe, as we did at least a half dozen times, we were inundated with smoke.

Another interesting thing about smoking in Japan is that cigarettes are sold in vending machines everywhere.

You can easily buy a pack of smokes at any time of day; just walk down a street and eventually you'll find one with a cigarette stocked vending machine. You may also find one that has sake.

The easy accessibility of smokes makes me wonder why they bother having a minimum smoking age at all.

Monday, June 18, 2007

In & Around Kamakura

The candied grapes this guy is making were hands down the yummiest snack we had in Japan - and at about 80 cents each - a great deal considering how delicious they were!

The grapes were the giant seeded kind and were served warm. He rolled them in a sugar concoction and then dipped them in another. They were served on sticks like caramel apples but tasted much, much better - crunchy on the outside, warm and sweet on the inside and so very good.

If you see this stand at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu (a shinto shrine in Kamakura) be sure to sample some of these delicious grapes!

Given the subjects of my first three posts on Japan you'd come away with the impression that I miss the food the most - and - you wouldn't be entirely incorrect!!

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu is one of the most visited shrines in Japan, but the grounds are the real attraction, I think.

There's a lovely lotus pond with white doves and dozens of white flags.

There are red torii, a giant display of sake barrels (offerings to the gods), arched bridges - both stone and wood, colorful shrine buildings, and an enormous ginko tree said to be 1,000 years old.

The place is very picturesque; you'd never guess that it has quite a history of bloodshead and war associated with it.

The walk from the town of Kamakura to the shrine is fun if you take the narrow streets lined with quaint little shops and fun statues - like the ubiquitous cat figure who always has one paw in the air.

There are several shrines to visit in Kamakura and also the second largest statue of Buddha in Japan.

Made of bronze and standing about 44 feet tall, the Great Buddha of Kamakura is imposing - and - impressive considering it was made almost 800 years ago. It's hollow and you can go inside for about 16 cents. We did. There isn't much to see.

The smell was delightful - I really love the incense that is burned at these places. I spent two weeks trying to figure out what it was and the closest I got was that it must be a mixture heavy in frankincense. I am still kicking myself over not buying some when I had the chance.

There are giant rope slippers hanging up that belong to the Buddha. I'd say they are 5-6 feet tall. Posing for group photos in front of them is nearly as popular as posing in front of the Buddha. Here's a shot of the slippers courtesy of my FIL.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Pocky - A Fun & Delicious Japanese Snack

Everyday in Japan I ate Pocky, a fun snack made delicious by its perfect combination of salty and sweet tastes. I found the chocolate coated thin pretzel sticks were a perfect antidote for mid-day hunger brought on by climbing the stairs at temples, uphill walks to shrines, and treks through seemingly endless shopping districts.

Pocky comes in a nice variety of flavors. There's the kind in the red box, which I started with. "Original" Pocky is milk chocolate and easy to like. From there I branched out to try other flavors: strawberry, green tea, tiramisu, mango, coconut, and "Men's Pocky." As it turns out Men's Pocky is just dark chocolate Pocky.

Original Pocky is packaged in a slick cardboard box about the size of a short paperback novel. Inside are plastic foil packages that contain 4-12 pieces, depending on how ritzy the flavor is.

Original and Men's Pocky gets you the most Pocky for the money, but I found out the fancier flavors with the "mousse" faux-chocolate candy coating contain only four pieces per plastic package. That's fine when it's mango flavor, which smelled like mangoes but certainly didn't taste like them. The other Pocky "premium" mousse choice, tiramisu flavor, had a totally insipid taste without any appreciably scent, so it was lackluster too. At least the mango smelled good! The mousse Pocky packaging urges one to "lighten up your day with Pocky's super-smooth aero-chocolate" but they may just as well have told us to enjoy better living through chemistry.

The Pocky boxes pictured at the right are original, strawberry, and mango. We arrived early to the monkey park one morning so we passed the time waiting riverside at the foot of Arashiyama near the famous moon viewing bridge - and eating Pocky.

Green tea Pocky is interesting, but its flavor pales in comparision to the wonderful flavor of the delicious green tea soft ice cream I enjoyed a few times while in Japan. I wouldn't say the flavor of green tea Pocky is exactly flat, but there isn't much to recommend it.

At this point, you're probably wondering why I called Pocky delicious at all! Well -- if you stay away from the three dud flavors, you're left with four perfectly good choices.

1) Coconut Pocky adds coconut flakes to the chocolate. The chocolate tasted like dark chocolate so it was especially good. If I hadn't waited until the end of the trip to sample this flavor, I would have eaten many more! As it were I only had one box, most of which I shared. Next time...

2) Men's Pocky - Dark chocolate Pocky. My traveling companions couldn't detect any discernable difference in taste between Men's Pocky and the original flavor Pocky that comes in the red box, but I would venture a bet that we could all pick Men's Pocky out of a line up in a blind taste test! Now about the name... why? Why call dark chocolate flavor "Men's"???

3) Strawberry Pocky - A great choice if you want Pocky but not chocolate. The strawberry flavor tastes like the strawberry flavor milk I remember never getting to have at home as a kid, but occassionally getting at a friend's house. I can't quite remember the name of the stuff, but I think it may have had a rabbit representative. Strawberry Pocky tastes very similar.

Of course, if you don't like any of those flavors you can always stick with Original flavor Pocky. It's yummy and easy to like if you are also the type who enjoys Hershey's Kisses.

Incredibly, I had never had Pocky before visiting Japan even though it is widely available in the U.S. and even in the tiny town in which I reside. Who would have thought? Now if I can just find the yummy gummy taffy I had in Japan I'd be all set...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Japan Stories 1 - The Typical Day

What follows is a description of a typical day in Japan accompanied by a few side stories about such things as facial blotting paper - a new-to-me product.

If I were in Tokyo now, I'd be about 45 minutes away from waking up to start the day (Friday). A typical day began with me being woken up by the light of the rising sun, which thanks to no observance of daylight savings time, meant I woke up really early (5:30 am most days).

The humidity meant my skin was always moist so doing makeup became a complete pain in the ass. I'd see women riding around on the subway and bus and wonder how they managed to get the makeup they wore to stay on. My guess is loads of powder.

They've also got facial blotting paper that can be used to sop up shine instead of using powder. This story explains the purpose and history of the paper. It's pretty interesting. The Yoji-ya company mentioned in the article has a store front in Torrance, CA. I saw this brand frequently in Japan, but I have to say I am partial to the one with the elephant logo!

The brand with the elephant logo is ubiquitous and stylish. I wish I had an image of their logo...

I probably do, but because my photos are all labeled something like IMG_1858.JPG it will be a while before I am able to locate the ideal photos to use to supplement my blog words. I didn't anticipate this problem when planning how I would post about Japan, so until I label my photos, I will have to go with stories created around photos rather than vice versa.

Anyhow, while I was shopping in Kyoto I sampled some of the facial paper. It works very well and there has got to be about a dozen different brands available.

You see, for any product you could imagine owning there are dozens of choices in Japan.

If you saw the pen selection available in Itoya, an upscale office and art supply store, you'd be blown away by the wide range of choices in everything from ink color to size and shape of the grip. And, don't forget the multitude of cases you have to choose from to store your new pens!

It's the same way with facial blotting paper. Just as there are dozens of brands of facial paper, there are also tons of different cases in which to store your paper. I was tempted to buy one of the stylish little packs but I'd need a whole cargo container's supply to keep up with the amount of oil my skin produces!

We'd usually headed out at around 7 am to catch the bus to go get food from the Family Mart (a convenience store) or at McDonald's. I don't get any mileage out of pancakes but I discovered I like the McD's hashbrown/tater-tot, so I always got one of those and a salmon onigiri and coffee from the convenience store.

Onigiri is a rice ball wrapped in papery seaweed. They are delicious, nutritious, filling, and cheap. The convenience store onigiri comes on triangular packages that are double wrapped with plastic in such a way to keep the seaweed wrapper away from the rice until you open it. The seaweed wrapper tastes much, much better when it is dry so the clever packaging is a very good idea. When you open it step-by step according to the plan you end up with is a perfectly wrapped onigiri, ready to eat.

Onigiri can be stuffed with anything, like fish eggs, which I wanted to avoid. It didn't take too many mornings for me to recognize the kanji for salmon. I just looked for the four vertical lines hanging below the boxy squiggles (below, symbol on the left) and the four horizontal lines in the symbol to the right of it.

After eating, we'd use our 500 yen metro passes good for all day use to visit a shrine, garden, or temple. That would easily eat up several hours, at which time we'd stop for refreshments or lunch. In the afternoon we'd go shopping or wander around a known area such as the Nishijin textile district. Sometimes we'd visit another shrine, garden, or temple. We'd get sensory overload around 5 or 6 pm, eat dinner, and then head back to our hotel for the night where we'd relax by watching Japanese TV.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Back from Japan!

I haven't posted for quite a while because I've been in Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto, and a few other spots). The trip was a wonderful way to celebrate finishing my PhD and was a fantastic gift from my husband's dad. It's a good thing we're not in the year of the monkey or I'd be broke. There were pig/boar doo-dads and trinkets everywhere. I would love to be in Japan or China for the year of the monkey next time it rolls around! That's 9 years away - leaving plenty of time to save up :-)

Although I got back on Sunday, I am still out of sync with local time. I keep waking up in the middle of the night wide awake and then I sleep in - the first day until 1 pm, then 9 am, then 11 am... I should return to a regular schedule soon. One really pleasant thing about waking up in the middle of the night is that I invariably wake up to the sounds of the wind chimes I bought in Japan.

Below is what a typical for-sale display looks like. Note the paper strips hanging from each bell. The paper strips should be left on because they help catch the wind to make the bell chime. The bells and their sounds are a symbol of summer throughout Japan and are called furin. Their sound is believed to be cooling, which in Japan during the summer, is very welcome as days are hot and humid. The bells don't actually cool the house but they do signal that a breeze is present. The psychologist in me sees this as a perfect, indeed, classical example of conditioning.

This morning I made myself go outside as soon as I woke up to make sure I got a healthy dose of sunshine to cure my jet lag. I also have an exceedingly pathetic garden to attend to so it was easy to spend a few hours outside! There is nothing like going to a place famous for its gardens, soaking up the beauty of them for two weeks, and then returning to your overgrown, weedy yard to give you inspiration to prune and plant!

Before I get carried away with a rambling post on Japanese gardening, of which I know little about but am now very appreciative of, I'll just say that in days and no doubt weeks to come I will write topical posts about what I saw in Japan.

Here's a taste of what's to come:

* Japanese women's fashion (high heels, skirts, handbags, etc - especially the SHOES!)

* the fish market (giant tuna, crabs, eels, unidentifiable sea life - I have a video!)

* environmental concerns

* my exprience hand feeding baby monkeys at Arashiyama

* Western vs. Japanese style toilets

* Japanese gardens

* the "plum rains"

* compact everything

* dealing with germs

* Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples

* how women stay pale & why

* smoking

* green tea

* Pocky