The Not-a-Rice Ball Rice Ball – Onigirazu

An onigiri is a rice ball. The verb nigiru meaning to shape or mould something in your hand(s), not unlike, um, a rice ball. It’s also important to note that rice balls are the standard, go-to, easy-peasy meal of choice all over Japan (what a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was to my generation when I was growing up).

It’s not an exaggeration to say that since coming to Japan I’ve made hundreds of these sticky fellas. I’ve wetted and salted my hands, tucked salmon or tuna or pickled plums inside, and squish-squish-squished the rice into an onigiri. Or at least some malformed, gaijin version of one. Sometimes I even wrapped them in nori-seaweed.

But, alas, the boy-child has moved out of the house, and my husband doesn’t eat rice, nor do I. So no more rice balls.

That is until just recently, when I discovered someone kicked the whole onigiri  meal up a notch. It’s this thing called onigirazu (<–That’s the negative form of the verb right there.) *Not* to shape or mould something in your hand. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

After further study, I found that not only do you *not* shape the rice in your hands (which if we’re being honest here is actually the most exciting part of making the darned things), but you can add any ingredients you can possible dream up. You’re not stuck with the traditional salmon, tuna, and pickled plum fare.

So I thought, hey, why not? I’ll give them a try. Here’s my second attempt at making onigirazu. (First attempt = hideous = me weeping into my apron.)

First, you decide what you want in your not-a-rice-ball rice ball.

Mmm, pastrami, cheese, lettuce, cucumber. Why not?


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Next, on a piece of Saran Wrap you lay out nori (a special kind of nori that as far as I can tell is only different in that it is salted and more expensive). Then spread on some rice, thinly. Thinly now. Don’t make the same mistake I made that first time. #rememberhideous


Then you pile on all your goodies, in any old order, I guess. Mayonnaise FTW! Top all this off with another thin layer of rice (Not shown because it would cover up the yummies).

Pro tip: If you put the cheese on top of the warm rice it gets melty~.



Next (and this is the hard part), you fold those four corners over to make a little package. This is where the Saran Wrap comes in handy. To do it properly you kind of have to hold the whole thing down and press on it, so the rice warms the nori and softens it and it forms a nice shape. (Seriously, this isn’t as easy as they make it sound, and also…it feels a whole lot like “moulding” in your hands when you’re doing it. Just sayin’.)


But then it finally keeps its shape and you get to retrieve your sharpest knife and you cut that puppy in half (or in fours for the wee ones!)

Voila! Onigirazu!


They’re veritable rice sandwiches! Which might not sound as melodious as onigirazu, but hey(!), if it’s got lettuce and mayonnaise and some sort of luncheon meat on it, it’s a sandwich in my book. (Bread’s entirely overrated.)

The above is kinda my recipe, but if you Google around you can find all sorts of great fillings.  Smoked salmon and cream cheese, BLTs, chicken salad and lettuce, spam even!

There you have it. This new (but actually it’s been around for 25 years, just no one knew about it) thing that’s happening in Japan: The not-a-rice ball rice ball. Or, as I like to call them, Rice Sammiches!


And for my next trick: peanut butter and jelly onigirazu.

What? Why not?


*There are loads of great sites out there you can search in English, but here’s one in Japanese that has a bunch of photos to give you all kinds of ideas.




Pushing the Reset Button

Lewin’s Equation: B = f (P, E). Behavior is a function of a person and his/her environment.

The way I figure it, Ol’ Kurt Lewin was trying to tell me that in order to change my behavior (being an all-out slacker about my writing), I needed to remove myself from my stale environment (um, where I was) and go somewhere else.

So I did.

Now here I am in the States for a little over a week, holed up in an adorable house on the west coast. And you know what?

I’m writing.

It worked! Lewin, you old dog, you. You were right.



My new routine goes like this: I wake up around five thirty-ish every morning, make coffee and pretty much get to work. The rest of the day is butt-in-chair, eating breaks, bathroom breaks, and a whole lot of tap-tap-tapping on the computer.

The words might not be profound, and — if we’re being perfectly honest here — there’s probably a whole lot more time spent staring at the screen and re-reading the same sentence 200 times than actual new words being birthed, but that’s okay, too. It’s still forward movement as far as I’m concerned.

That’s the good news. All those ruts of bad habit that I’d developed in Japan seem to be gone. You know, like taking several naps a day and checking Facebook every third breath.


But then yesterday I noticed that some of my good habits have vanished as well. For one, I used to walk everywhere in Japan. Hours. Now I only manage a daily, 30-minute trip to the beach and back. I just can’t help feeling guilty about any time spent away from the computer. Another thing is that in Japan I had finally learned to stop eating until I was overfull. Here in the good U.S. of A., however, there is so much amazing (Read: I can’t find in Japan) food, and it’s all so available and so cheap and the portions are so freaking enormous.


Nom nom nom.

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I’m not fretting though. It’s temporary. Being here feels deep-down good. It feels like my reset button has been pushed, and I now realize it’s up to me — after I return home — to hold close all the positive, forward moving habits I can and discard the crap that was dragging me down and wasting my time.

Who knows what’s going to happen in the next few months, few years, longer? I certainly don’t. But I do know I’d rather be working toward something exciting than sitting in front of the TV on my butt all day  — which with all the great programming out there these days, is something I could see a different version of myself doing, numbing and on some level enjoying it. Nope. Not this me. Bigger fish. Fish fry. All you can eat. Wait. What?

That said, it’s now time to get back to that butt-in-chair thing I was talking about earlier. No TV though. I promise. Okay then, just at night. Two hours. One movie. We’ll call it research.  Or vacation.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

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My desk.

desk 2 view

My view.

I really am looking at my screen. I am.

A Watershed and an Existential Crisis

One year ago this month my son, Julyan, started his second year of university and moved out of the house. At the time I thought I was being clever by planning ahead, applying for a scholarship and a prestigious workshop, also picking up a few more part time jobs. Keeping busy would stave off empty nest syndrome, right?

Well, I was right. Kinda.


As it turns out it wasn’t empty nest syndrome that blindsided me. It’s not about me missing my son — actually, I’m thrilled to see him thriving after what was a horrendous high school experience. Instead, it became apparent that after he left the house, I began having my own little existential crisis. There was me trying to figure out who I am. What now? What kind of person do I want to become?

This last year has been a watershed. There have been enormous highs and painful lows. Through it all I kept trying to self reflect and look inside or, when that didn’t work, I attempted to see myself as a third party would, with some kind of objectivity. But I just couldn’t pinpoint it. All I knew was something felt out of whack. Wrong.

Then it hit me.

All my life I’ve been pretty good at fitting in. We moved around a lot when I was a child, and adapting to new environments was an important skill I had to learn. It’s no surprise then that after 25 years in Japan I’m an old pro at “being Japanese”. Not entirely, that’s impossible, of course, but I have the self deprecation card laminated and slipped inside my front shirt pocket for easy withdrawal.

Undervaluing myself and excessive modesty worked well when, for 18 years, I had to play the Japanese mom role and fit in as much as possible in an attempt not to be the nail that stuck up. Invariably the backlash of my gaffes fell upon my son.

It’s only been very recently, with the help of an amazing friend, that I’ve finally come to realize I’ve played the part of someone totally void of self-confidence for so long that I have in effect lost all my confidence.


Now that the problem has been identified, I can work on fixing it and rebuilding a new me. I can honestly say that for the first time in decades I’m tickled pink about my goals and dreams and my reasons to see them come to fruition. Add to that the fact I’m old and less afraid of screwing up and doing hard work. Time is running out. What else can I possibly do at this juncture?

Yes, everything might feel out of whack and wrong, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s exciting. It’s something to work with. Anything is possible.

Truth be told, there is a request from a publisher to read my new stories for a possible second collection. My agent still digs me. I’m moving way out of my comfort zone and trying my hand at (and really enjoying how difficult it is) podcasting. Even my website has been moved from one host to another and it’s all refurbished and shiny. I absolutely love it and thanks to a dear friend who did all the heavy lifting, it feels like just the push on the back to get me blogging again.

Stars are aligning. Ducks are falling into step behind one another. I’m sitting here about to set my lighter to this laminated self-deprecation card and see what happens.

Stick around, friends. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I got a good feeling about this. Are you with me?

Not Cookie Cutters

These are not cookie cutters.

Well, I guess they could be cookie cutters. But they’re not really.

You can  find them in all sorts of Japanese stores. They’re usually sold in sets of four, like this.


So what they are, actually, are vegetable cutters. You use them to cut carrots or daikon radishes or, heck, even sliced cheese into pretty seasonal shapes.

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Then you can add them to soups and stews. Or you can pop them in the microwave to soften them up and put them in your obento to decorate it and make it pretty. Anything your heart desires.

The big mystery for me  was that I always suspected they were seasonal. I mean this is Japan, the country of four distinct seasons. And there are four of them, right?*

I just recently learned I was right! It only took twenty years.

And now I’m slightly confident which flower each represents shape and what season it corresponds to.

Spring was easy: Cherry blossom. You can always tell by the five petals with very slight dimples at the points.

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Winter was easy, too: Plum blossom. Plum blossoms also have five petals, but they are perfectly round and oh-ho cute.

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The other two stumped me.

But I asked a lot of questions and did a lot of searching. Here we go.

Summer is a dhalia. That one was hard, but when you look at the veggie cutter above it kinda looks like a dahlia. (Although, I guess it could be a Chrysanthemum which would work for the season, too. But I like the word dahlia better.)

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Finally, fall is a kikyo or Japanese bellflower. Another one with five petals, but all pointy. And very, very seasonal.

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So if you ever decide to buy the veggie cutters remember to use the right one for the right season. You do that and you’ll certainly impress your Japanese friends and family! If nothing else you can teach them about the bellflower. I don’t think many people know about that one.

*For some reason the above photo has FIVE cutters.

New mystery to solve: Discover what shape that fifth one is.

It never ends…

Monkeys on a Stick!

I’ve been wanting to write about this for awhile, and now I’m finally getting around to it. This is what I love about Japan.

Monkeys on a stick.

Before I went into the hospital to get my gall bladder out – um, ages ago (last spring?) –  a good friend gave me this little thing as a protective charm of sorts. Adorable, isn’t it?

Nine monkeys on a stick.


It’s called Kunan wo tori saru, 苦難を取り去る。

It’s a play on words and meanings and what Japan does so well. Kunan (苦難) are two Chinese/Japanese characters that basically both mean distress, suffering, hardship. So it’s hardship doubled, right?


Wo tori saru (を取り去る)  means to take away.

So, basically to take away suffering or distress or hardship from a person. It’s given when someone doesn’t want you to suffer or feel hardship they present you with this stick and voila!

But why monkeys on a stick, you ask? Well, let me tell you.

If you write kunan by different characters you get ku(hiki) (9匹)=nine (animals) and  nan(ten)(南天) = the name of a sacred bamboo stick called nandina in English. The saru part of “wo tori saru” becomes monkey(s)!

I’m not sure how sideways you have to look at it, but I’m guessing those nine little monkeys were there to take away my suffering and distress. They did quite the good job, too, because I don’t remember really being in too much pain after the surgery, I healed up so well they let me go home early, and despite having no more gall bladder, I can basically eat and drink anything I want without any discomfort.

Okay, with that last part I am firmly knocking on wood, or a sacred bamboo stick, maybe!