Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Top Ten/ Goodbye Okuizumo

I'm sitting in my apartment for the last morning of my life in Okuizumo. In the past year my Japanese ability has quadrupled, I've eaten more rice than I have in the other 23 years of my life combined, and I've made some really great friends. There are many things I am glad to say goodbye to, and many things I will greatly miss. Here's a top ten Japan

Top Ten Things I am glad to say goodbye to
1. School lunches- a great quantity of food I am required to eat every day regardless of whether or not I like the menu.
2. Being stared at- sometimes it feels like I've grown a second head the way people stare.
3. San'in- a girl who lives on sunshine should not have been sent to an area known for its dreariness
4. Ceremonies- The Japanese love ceremonies like crazy. Most of the time while they're occuring I'm plotting an escape route
5. Lonelines- Being in foreign country combined with one of the highest eldelry populations in Japan is not conducive to a swinging Friday night
6. Language barrier- anytime I have to do anything it requires a great deal of brainpower. Everyday tasks like buying laundry detergent or ordering food is a lot more difficult when you can only understand half of what's going on
7. Boredom- They don't work me very hard at the schools, which I suppose most people wouldn't complain about. But I'm a girl of action, and sitting at a desk all day makes me want to chew my leg off.
8. Expense- Even out here in the inaka everything is a lot more expensive than America. In the future when I am charged 8.50 for a movie ticket I will cry with joy.
9. Body issues-most Japanese are naturally thin, so their clothing is meant to accentuate a flat body type. This makes clothes shopping around here enough to warrant a therapy session.
10. Sun- Japan isn't known as "the land of the rising sun" for no reason. Even in the winter the sun rises crazy early here, and in summer as early as 4 AM. Even on cloudy days the sunrise is so bright it usually wakes me up. And in turn it sets really early- in winter before 5 PM. Now that's a downer.

Top ten things I will miss (besides the people)
1. Kaitensushi- God, I love that stuff
2. Safety- I never lock my doors. If Iwere to put my purse by the side of the road someone would probably stand guard at it for me. Vending machines and bicycles stand proudly in public places without fear of vandalism. The Japanese communal society means that idiots generally don't mess up things just for the hell of it, as Americans are so prone to do.
3. Cheap, delicious fish- Indiana is somewhat lacking in the fresh seafood department
4.Landscape- Okuizumo is quite beautiful, with its grand mountains and rice fields as far as the eye can see
5. Customer service- People who work public service jobs here are great. They actually want to make sure you get what you want. Who would have thought?
6. Being a celebrity to the kids- Although being recognized immediately by everyone in town has its downside, the kids here really seem to like me. Wherever I go I hear shouts of
"It's Natalie-sensei!" and get hugs and high-fives
7. Cash moneys- I have a good job that pays well. I can buy the things that I want and even pay off my student loan. Pretty sweet.
8. Universal Health Care- Japan already has implemented the health care system so many Americans are fighting so hard against, and I love it. Once I got sick and had to go to the emergency room in the middle of the night. How much did it cost me? $30. I went to the dentist and took care of many cavities. The bill? $16. I know money comes out of my paycheck each month not only for my expenses but for those less fortunate than me but you know what? I'm ok with that.
9. Learning- I learn new things here every day, whether it be some sort of grammar point or sometime about farming or the seasons. For example, did you know rice plants have flowers? They only bloom for about 3 days. Who knew.
10. Adventure- Every day is an adventure, and I've had the opportunity to do so many interesting things. Although living abroad can be really stressful and draining, it also opens up so many opportunities and makes us grow a lot.

I'm so thankful for this year of adventures, and a little sad that it's over. But I know that there are many more exciting things to come.

Hello, next challenge!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Getting all I can out of it

July is my final month in Japan, and I've been doing my darnedest to get all I can out of my last days here. Here's a recap of the best of the past two months






June







After a three day English Camp known as CHESS (which was fun but thoroughly exhausting) I made a farewell trip to the fabulous Lexi and western Shimane. The first night we went to a Firefly Festival in Gotsu. It was a fun night, although my legs were ravaged by mosquitos in unmentionable places.




The next day we went to Tsuwano, known as the Little Kyoto of the Sannin Region. It was a beautiful little town, complete with a super cool Fox Shrine and plenty of cute little touristy shops and gifts. The path to the shrine is a mountain ascent lined with hundreds of red Torii, those sweet gates Lexi is posing with. This is probably my new favorite shrine.






I bravely tried some wasabi flavored soft serve, which turned out to be an extremely poor choice. At first I kind of liked it, although it was REALLY spicy, but my stomach hated me very soon after. We remedied the situation by eating some handmade yuzu sherbet- yuzu being a delicious fruit somewhere in between a lemon and a lime.




July
I spent the weekend of the fourth of July visiting my host family in Hiroshima one last time. Although there was a decided lack of fireworks and American Patriotism, I had a wonderful time as always. We visited Hiroshima Castle, where I got to try on samurai gear and a real kimono. We also ate dinner at the Ramen shop where Sena works part time.

I'm always amazed to realize how lucky I am to have met this family. They are super cool. Host Dad has decided to change jobs, which means no more free Nori for me, but most importantly he's doing something most Japanese would never do. In Japan most of the time when you join a company it means you're in it for life, no matter how much you start to hate it. So switching jobs for him is a big d eal, and I'm really happy for him. Sena has also grown a lot. Risa always was the "English Speaker" of the family, but since joining college Sena has become really interested in English as well. Some students from Illinois University are doing a foreign exchange stint in Hiroshima, and he has made good friends with them. He's showing them around and volunteering a lot. He now will even speak to me in English a bit, and he's really good! Yay, Miyake Family!!!


I just got back from a visit to Tokyo with my little Japanese sister Megumi. As always we walked like crazy an d ate like crazy. Sounds to me like a perfect combination. The weather was, to coin a phrase, sweating balls. The rainy season is finally over and has been replaced by pure heat. It was about 35 degrees Celsius during the day. Phew!










Some of the highlights of this trip were going to the Tokyo Sky Tower which will soon be the tallest building in the world for at least a couple of weeks. (Take that, Dubai). I hope
Tokyo tower doesn't feel too jealous.






We also went to Kamakura to visit 大仏 the Great Buddha. Actually, the first day we went we had too much fun walking around, eating, and looking at souvenirs so we arrived at Buddha after it closed. I came back another day though, and this time succeeded. Kamakura's Buddha is actually the second largest in the world. The biggest one is in Nara and actually has its own building. But you can climb inside Kamakura's buddha and see the inner structure. It was pretty sweet.

We went to a 花火大会 Fireworks show in Yokohama. It was ridiculously crowded. Making our way through throngs of yukata-clad Japanese we fought for some traditional festival food like takoyaki and yakisoba. It was fun, but made me claustrophobic. Maybe I really am a country girl at heart.

Having people like Megumi in my life helps me remember that there really is something bigger going on here. And trips like these help me remember why I love Japan so much in the first place.

One week to go, and counting.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Okuizumo

On one note- in America it's Independence Day. In Japan it's just the fourth day in July. In Japanese, Independence Day is called 独立記念日which is kind of a difficult word for me so I just say "America's Birthday" which everyone pretty much understands. Besides, when I say Independence Day most Japanese think of the sweet action flick starring Will Smith, which is not entirely historically accurate.

On another note, I realized that although I have blogged faithfully about many interesting places and adventures in Japan, I really haven't said so much about my town, Okuizumo. So here we go.

Okuizumo was only actually formally established about ten years ago. At that time it was two seperate towns, Nita and Yokota. Actually even before THAT Nita and Yokota were a bunch of seperate towns too. So, there you go. Okuizumo is located in Shimane Prefecture, Japan's second least populated prefecture, second only to our neigboring Tottori. I'm from Indiana, which isn't considered a particularly large state by American standards. But Indiana's land mass is actually 14X the size of Shimane. Are we getting a clearer picture of "countryside" now?

The town is famous for three things- Nitamai (rice) Nitagyu (beef) and Tatara (steel). And finally I've found out why those things have come to be so prosperous here. Rice and beef go hand in hand. Big, healthy cows poop a lot and make excellent fertilizer for the rice, chock full of nutrients. Also, the clean water running down from the mountains provides a lot of fresh spring water full of minerals which is great for cows and rice plants alike. The water also has tiny granules of iron known as iron sand, which is perfect for making fabulous steel. So thanks, mountains.This is my house as seen from Google maps. I live in a section of Nita known as Ai. It's a pretty rural community, tucked away in the mountains. As you can see if you walk outside my aparment all you can see pretty much are rice fields and hills. It's very beautiful.



And here is my apartment. My apartment complex is full of students from the local community college. Before last April it was super quiet, but the new freshmen who have moved in now occasionally have parties it seems. And I think my upstairs neighbor has an illegal cat, as I hear it howling some nights. Japan car is the cute blue on in the middle. We have a parking lot out back, but I'm just too lazy to park behind.





This is Ai Shokuhin Center, which literally translates to Ai Food Goods Center. It's a tiny grocery store that's just a two minute walk from my apartment. I can buy most of my daily food goods here, from tofu to soy sauce to sake. Yum. The staff here are very friendly and I see a lot of parents from my schools and sometimes kids from Ai Elementary.






But if I want anything fancy like paper towels or cinnamon I have to go to Thanks. For those of you who read katakana you will know they write it as "Sankusu" and the locals pronounce it as such. Sigh... It's in Minari, about 10 minutes drive for my house, and is like a big, ghetto K-Mart.





Minari is like the downtown of Nita, and as such has many important places. Although each little section of Nita has its own post office, including Ai, they are mostly useless as they are closed most of the time. So I usually go to the Minari branch. I have nothing but good things to say about the postal system in Japan. Postal workers are kind and polite and helpful. When I bring packages in they will give me bubble wrap, extra boxes, and help me box everything nicely. They suggest for me the cheapest shipping methods and also tell me when it will arrive. Also, I still can get mail on Sundays. There's nothing like hearing the doorbell at 7 o'clock on a Sunday night and opening the door to a friendly postman with a package for me. Plus, the postman here ride cute red motorbikes. Beat that.




Also in Minari is my bank. I have nothing but bad things to say about my bank. It's called the Sannin Godo Ginko, and although I know Sannin means the region of Japan where I'm living and Ginkou means bank, I have no idea what Godo means. And quite frankly I don't care. The office hours of this bank are from 9 am to 3 pm every weekday, not open on weekends. Yup, that's right. Smack in the middle of my work hours. And in Japan, even the ATM's have operating hours. This ATM is only open until 7, like everything in Okuizumo, and will charge you a fee if you use it from 3-7 pm. I can only withdraw money from a Sannin-godo ATM and this branch is only located in this area. So when I travel I have to withdraw a bunch of money and pray. Also, there is no online banking and the savings accounts do not accrue interest. Really, I may as well keep my money under my mattress.






All complaints aside, Okuizumo is really a very lovely town with lots kind people. Check this river behind my apartment where many locals go fishing. As I'm nearing the end of my stay, I'm starting to get a little sad to leave this place with so much beauty and history. It's been an up and down ride, but all in all I'm very glad I came.




And Hey! I'm not quite done yet.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Food for thought

Japan, along with a plethora of weird seafood, has some pretty unusual veggies too. Here are three recipes with ingredients you've probably never heard of.
(To access the recipe just click on the pic!)

Goya Chanpuru

Goya, also known as a bitter melon although it's pretty much not like a melon at all, is an extremely bitter vegetable often eaten in the island of Okinawa. People eat it around these parts usually in eggs or some other capacity that can counteract some of the bitter flavor. It's said that the bitterness of goya helps us beat the summer heat, so chow down!

Kinpira Gobo

Gobo, also known as burdock root, is a woody vegetable that when prepared poorly tastes like what I imagine a twig would, but when prepared correctly is very tasty. They often julienne it and cover it with mayo for gobo salad in the school lunches. Kinpira refers to a style of Japanese cooking that just means simmered with soy sauce and sugar. With all this fiber, your insides will get cleaned out for sure. Thanks to the fabulous Lexi for this recipe! Renkon Okara

Renkon, or lotus root, is one of my favorite Japanese vegetables. It's like a crunchy potato shaped in a pretty design. Renkon is also often made into kinpira or salads, which shows off it's cute little shape, but I found a more unusual recipe for you all. Okara is actually kind of like the leftover curds from making tofu, but I've found soft tofu works just as well.

Hope these wet your appetite! Dig in!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

This is not a riot





It's the 大山たいまつ行列 
Mt. Daisen Torch Parade
.

So what happens when you arm a thousand Japanese people with kerosene-soaked rags stuffed in bamboo?


They make an orderly procession down a huge mountain path.

Oh, Japan.











Let me start from the beginning. The principal of Takata Elementary School, Mr. Kadowaki, invited me to come with his family to Mt. Daisen. Mr. Kadowaki loves English, and often has me come talk with him during my free periods about strange English grammar. And Mt. Daisen a huge mountain just outside of Shimane in Tottori Prefecture. Many JETS enjoy skiing and snowboarding at Daisen (which literally just means big mountain) in the winter. I had never been there before, but the view sure was gorgeous.

His two sons, Satoru and Kanato are quiet, smart boys. Satoru is obsessed with airplanes and wants to be an air traffic controller. Here we are enjoying some festival food (a locally brewed beer for me, takoyaki for the boys) and getting ready to climb the mountain.







We climbed about half a mile up Daisen to the shrine 
大神山神社 Oogamiyama-jinja (Literally Big God Mountain Shrine. I'm seeing a pattern to this place . . . ) On the way up we colleced our taimatsu or torches. They were literally bamboo poles with kerosene soaked rags shoved down the tubes. Nice.

At the temple we encountered some priests dressed up as 天狗Tengu- birdlike mountain goblins. Now, in Japanese folklore there are bad tengu- the ones who cause mischeif, and good tengu- the ones who guard temples. I think these were good tengu, although they did attack visitors who strayed too close and made them have their picture taken.






The actual parade started about 7:30. Some priests said a blessing, and they and the tengu led the procession. Participants walked up to a huge ceremonial fire to light their taimatsu and make their way down the now dark mountain path.

It was literally one of the coolest experiences I've ever had in Japan.

As the boys and I lit our torches Satoru whispered "I love fire." I told him he was a pyromaniac, which is probably now his new favorite English word.






I can't really fault him though. I love fire too.

It is said that a good thing will happen to you this year if your torch lasts all the way to the bottom of the mountain. Satoru had let out too much wick at the beginning of the parade, which made a spectacular fire, but unfortunately burned out too quickly. Kanato's torch was too thin and he had the most problems keepin it lit. But mine was perfect, and lasted all the way to the bottom. Yeah!





Monday, June 7, 2010

A really cool Temple and a really cool Shrine




It's not hard to get tired of seeing shrines in temples sometimes in Japan. I mean come on. Once you've seen so many of these majestic old buildings they do kind of blend together. So when my friend Ashley came to visit me with her friend Laura and they suggested two new religious edifices to visit, I wasn't entirely enthused.That just goes to show how little you can know about where you live. I look at Shimane as a place to live. Where can I buy edible food? Clothes that fit? How do I get my oil changed? Not that exciting.
But they looked at it as tourists, and found some really cool places to visit.

The first was 清水寺 Kiyomizu-dera , a temple in Yasugi City. (NOT to be confused with my formerly favorite temple in Kyoto, also called Kiyomizu-dera). What makes this temple special? Two things. One is that restaraunts surrounding Kiyomizu serve a special kind of food called 精進料理 shoujin-ryouri. It's a cuisine based on the dietary restricitions of strict Buddhist monks who actually eat a vegetarian diet. Although I had once learned about this food, I had long ago forgotten about it. So I was very pleasantly surprised by our delicious and healthy lunch.


"Is that tofu?" the culinarily inclined of you might ask. Well, not exactly. This is ごまどうふ or sesame seed tofu- the poster child of shoujin-ryouri. It's made out of ground sesame seeds and a root called kuzu. Grinding the seeds and the kuzu to such a fine paste takes a loooooong time, especially back in the days before food processors. So the job was given to low-level monks- boring work is good for character and meditation right? It was extremely sticky and had an interesting sesame flavor. It was tasty, but I'll stick to good ol' tofu tofu, thanks.
This dish was various kind of 煮物 nimono - foods cooked by boiling with light sugar. In the front is a mountain fern, with some seaweed behind it and a pumpkin to its right. That stuff on the left is tofu skin or yude, and there are two pieces of tofu prepared in two ways behind the pumpkin.This is called chawanmushi, as you may remember from the wedding post. It's an egg custard dish that usually has various kinds of vegetables and some meat. Well, of course being vegetarian cuisine this one had no meat (yay!) but it did have ginko nuts (yay!) which were an interesting surprise. Ginko nuts taste like an interesting mix between quail eggs and chickpeas.These clear noodles are called are made out of konnyaku root, also known as devil's tongue root. They magically have no calories, which is awesome. Unfortunately this means they also have no flavor, which is easily fixed with a dab of wasabi and some lemon as you can see. Phew!




It was a big meal with several courses, but very low calorie. I wish I could eat shoujin ryouri every day.




The other really cool thing about this temple was the pagoda. Now, in other countries a pagoda by itself is a place of worship. In Japan, they usually have a pagoda hanging around a temple just as kind of decoration, so I've never found them that interesting. But this pagoda you can climb. I would have laughed at you if you asked me to climb a pagoda in Japan. I thought it impossible. But we did it. The ladders were tiny, tight, dark, and death defying, but the view from the top was beautiful.



We also visited a sweet shrine, 八重垣神社 Yaegaki-jinja near Matsue. Remember the story of Yamata-no-Orochi, the eight headed serpent and the god Susanoo who slew him? (You better not forget it. It's not going away). Well, apparently after Susanoo slew Orochi, he and the gal he saved moved to Yaegaki. This shrine, erected where they were said to live, is dedicated to marriages and matchmaking. At this shrine you can take a piece of rice paper to a special pond known as the mirror pond. You lay the paper in the pond and put a ten yen coin on top. If the coin and paper sink within fifteen minutes, you will have a happy marriage. If not . . . well . . . video
Luckily mine dropped in 8 minutes, so I'm safe. Ashley and Laura were safe too. (Actually, I can't imagine this taking longer than 15 minutes). Apparently there are also giant wooden phalluses on the grounds, but I forgot to look. Curses!!


I guess it just goes to show that you can't get complacent where you are- there are always new and interesting things to eat, explore, and do.

Monday, May 31, 2010

焼きさば


Before I came to Japan I was certainly a picky eater. I am a vegetarian and until recently didn't eat fish. This meant that any food within the proximity of something that had a face immediately became inedible. I hate milk, cheese, and mayonnaise, I don't eat fried foods, and despite a desperate love of chocolate and frozen yogurt I'm not big on sweets.

Japanese people are trained from an early age to eat everything. At school lunches, everyone is served the same thing, and everyone is expected to clean their plates down to the last grain of rice. Even as adults, when Japanese order at restaurants they don't ask for any substitutions. Thus, going against the grain and requesting a substitution is kind of a big deal. So my short stay in Japan has taught me to be a lot less picky.

Case in point: 焼きさば or Grilled Mackerel. In the upper right hand corner is a picture of this local specialty in its own fancy plastic sack. Mrs. Fukuda-san says that very few places grill mackeral whole in Japan anymore, and even fewer on a wooden grill like at the food center next to my house. Apparently people come all the way from Hiroshima just to get this fishy treat. So although the combination of good recommendation from the locals, and delicious fishy scents wafting my way every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, I couldn't bring myself to try one. Why?
Because this is how it looks unwrapped.

Yes, ladies and gents, it delivers what it offers: a whole grilled fish. Not only does the thought of my food looking back at me give me the willies for sure, but also I was afraid at what else they might not have removed from the fish. As I've grown accustomed to eating more and more things I previously would have labeled "gross", I came to want to give this bad boy a try. So when Moto came to visit we decided to try one, with the caveat that he would eat all the parts I didn't want (head, skin, innards, etc).

The friendly people at the food center wrap your fish straight from the grill in butcher paper, then newspaper, and put it in his own little sack. It's a wood grill and the fish is grilled au naturale as is on a great bamboo skewer. Luckily, it turned out they removed all the guts before grilling (which is more than I can say about some of the fish in the school lunches) so we didn't have to worry about those surprises. And guess what?
I liked it.


Now, don't get me wrong. I still prefer my fish sans head, and fish skin isn't a delicacy for me. But I can get over it, and even enjoy it. In the past finishing a meal with in as horrific a picture as this would have made me lose it. Instead, I just burp and get on with my evening.

What do you think? Wouldn't it be nice if we all were a little less picky?
No cheese though, please.