Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tatara: Part One (Preparation)

When I was informed my placement in Shimane, Japan, in the tiny town of Okuizumo , I was completely dumbfounded. "WHAT? I asked for Hiroshima or Kyoto. I'm a Japanese major and I haven't even heard of Shimane. What are you people doing to me?" But upon doing a little more digging, I found out that this town is famous for a very traditional kind of ironwork known as tatara. Any Hayao Miyazaki fans out there will probably know this word from the movie "Princess Mononoke". Not only that, but in Okuizumo lives a man named Akira Kihara, a man designated a National Living Treasure by the Japanese government, a man featured in the PBS documentary "Secrets of the Samurai Sword", one of the last murage or tatara masters in the world. In two words: flippin' sweet. Needless to say this information more than took the edge off this news. I made sure when Tatara was to be done in Okuizumo that I got in on it.

So I was scheduled to do tatara along with the elementary students of Okuizumo on November 26th and 27th- two full days of iron-y goodness. Thursday was preparation. On Thursday all the fifth and sixth graders from the six schools in Yokota area came to participate. Students were divided into three groups: brick making, kiln building, and charcoal chopping (nice gerunds, Natalie!).

When the students arrived they were given a tour of the area and a brief explanation of the day's proceedings. Then they were lead off to their first activity: sorting the sand. In America most of our raw iron is in rock form; in Japan its mostly found in sand form- a material called 砂鉄 satetsu or literally "iron sand". Iron sand can be found everywhere in Japan. But in the mountains of Okuizumo satetsu has a ridiculously high ratio of iron: 90% iron and 10% sand. This satetsu is dug from the mountains with shovels and brought to the tatara house in buckets. These two buckets of satetsu are 30 kilos each- that's 66 lbs. They poured them into this small man-made creek and raked the sand. The lighter sand ran down the creek and into the natural river, whereas the heavy iron stayed put. The goal of this station was to clean away most of the sand from the iron- making a 99% iron mixture. We then shoveled the mostly iron mixture back into the buckets. How much did the same volume of satetsu now weigh after the sand was taken out? 40 kilos- 88 pounds. Darn, is iron heavy.

I started out the day by making fat bricks out of the most gravelly dirt substance known to man. Making these bricks was definitely easier said than done. Because the material really wasn't clay, just some weird dirt, they did not want to become bricks and continued to try and break apart. (Although the gravel hurt my hands, Kihara-sama maintained that my hands would be "as soft as plum blossoms" by the time the day was out. Nice.) Plus, the size required about 10 kilo blocks, which is a lot of material to handle for me let alone these elementary school kids and their tiny hands. My first few attempts were a massive fail, and both the brick supervisor and Mr. Fukuda-san laughed at me. So in order to save the dignity of blonde Americans everywhere I persevered and soon was making bricks with the best of them.

The next station was kiln building, which was by far my favorite job. We got to take the fat bricks from the first station and start making the たたら堂 (tataradou) or たた窯 (tatarakama)- the earthen smelting furnace where tatara magic takes place. The first meter of the kama had to be packed very tightly and solidly with bricks. At lunch they burned a huge fire in the structure to harden the bottom bricks before continuing in the afternoon on the top layer, which could be built a little less like a tank. Both the inner opening and the outer perimeter was measured and built according to very strict and mysterious standards. The kiln supervisor kept measuring everything and shouting out instructions- scraping off excess material in some places and calling for extra in others. The kids did really well (I helped too- see my hands? That means I was helpful).

The third and by far dirtiest station was charcoal chopping. The charcoal came in huge plastic bags, and when they poured out the contents I saw a material much unlike what you would use to grill hamburgers on July 4th. This was literally whole trees burned to charoal- I could make out limbs and trunks and everything. These ten year old kids were then trusted with axes and long sharp knivs and told to cut down the huge blocks to small managable pieces. Magically no one lost and fingers, although at this station we got charcoal up our noses and in our ears and eyes, despite or protective masks and goggles. (They love these surgical masks here, despite how completely useless they really are). By the end of the day we chopped over 150 kilos of charcoal- around 330 pounds. That's one big barbecue.

At this point I have a confession to make. Although I remembered my camera this day ( which I congratulated myself heartily for at first) I soon realized that I had forgotten my memory card, rendering the camera useless. Luckily everyone else took pictures and posted them on the second day, so the pictures you are gazing at are actually pictures of pictures from this board:
That's me in the bright blue fleece courtesy of Uniqlo and the bright pink boots courtesy of Mr. Fukuda-san . I even allowed them to make me wear one of the accursed masks for this occasion.

After the initial structure was built they installed pipes which were connected to the bellows. So by the end of the day our humble structure looked like this:
As I said, flippin' sweet.

Look forward to part two: 本番 or The Real Thing!

More Random

I've started to really get used to Okuizumo and my life here. Although I still curse Japan's lack of central heating and its great great love of ceremony or how everything has a certain and specific way to be done- I'm in a good place. I like the kids, I get along great with the teachers and my supervisor, and I get to do all sorts of cool traditional Japanese stuff (last week I did tatara- please look forward to a blog soon!). And I'm getting paid. Nice.

In other news I slammed my finger in a door at Kamedake Elementary school and fainted. Right after it happened I swore loudly (with impunity- thanks language barrier!) and thought that was the end of it. Then the pain set in, and the world started spinning . . . I'm a pain fainter. Ms. Countryman, if you read this you'll remember that fateful Japanese class with twister and Tommy Charlesworth- oh dear. Anyway I'm sure I gave the student who came to get me a good scare. From there I embarked in my first adventure with Japanese hospitals. I learned that there are separate words in Japanese for breaking bones and other "small" objects than for things like cars or windows. My finger is not broken but my knitting schedule is slightly compromised. . . sigh.

I made an advent calendar for my middle school and told the students that if they come ask me in English about the words they don't know they will get a present. Usually presents are enough to entice even the most shy of students, and Wednesday five girls came to talk to me. So far they've learned about candy canes and Rudolph. My evil plan to take over the world though chocolate and christmas is working.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Movie Theater

I saw my first movie in a Japanese movie theater today. It was a very interesting experience. First of all, a movie ticket here costs 1800 yen, more than $18 dollars American. And to think I used to complain about an $8 ticket. Next,you have to choose your seat, even though there were a total of about 5 people seeing this movie when I went. Coming to the states and having to scavange for your own seats must be such a culture shock for Japanese exchange students. I saw "Inglorious Bastards" by Quentin Tarantino and it was fantastic. Usually they dub movies into Japanese before they bring it over, but because this movie featured so many languages they just put Japanese and English subtitles (my preference over dubbing by far). Reading the subtitles was also hilarious. For example, they chose to translate choice phrases like "Well I'll be f$cking d@mned" to "すごい!" which means "Wonderful!"
Oh, Japan.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


It's amazing the kind of turns a simple morning can bring.

This weekend the JETs had a seminar in the city (boo).But my partner in crime, Alexis, and I decided to stay over at a friend's house Friday night so we could explore Matsue more the next day(yay!). Walking to our cars from her house on Saturday morning, we spotted a store that looked quaint and welcoming. Naturally we decided to pop in.

We were greeted by an intelligent looking, quizzical older man. "Hello" he said. "Do you like tea?"
And that's how our auspicious conversation began. He stoked the fire on his charcoal hearth and began making tea, explaining how he bought all his tea water from a special mineral spring up north for fifty yen a liter. He told us about his life- how when he was 24 he began working as a salaryman only to quit four years later, much to the chagrin of his wife. After spending some time as a bona fide beggar, he went back to college to study art and has been making a living as a woodworker ever since. His wife complains that he is a わがまま or an egoist, but he says she married him anyway because he was too handsome. Named 下柳田さん- Mr. Yamanagita (quite a mouthful if you ask me) he is sixty-five years old and from Nagasaki- young enough to have missed the worst of the aftermath of the bomb. He said he likes to watch customers very much and is good at observing traits about them, and proceeded to give Alexis and I a personality synopsis.
And the funniest thing was he just wouldn't stop giving us presents. It started out with tea- cup after tiny cup of delicious tea. Next came food. "Do you like kim chee?" he asked, and proceeded to give us two packages of home made kim chee. When I asked him about his art, because I had studied some woodworking in college, he pulled out two small stirring spoons and gave them to us, explaining that the wood was special in Japanese culture- believed to be protective to the bearer. I asked him about a small tea leaf holder that was a beautiful rich black color. I had never seen such a gorgeous wood that felt so light- usually dark wood has a lot of sap and is therefore quite dense. Yamanagita-san said that it was a special dark wood from the heart of a persimmon tree and that if I would use it he would give it to me for free. "It's a matter of pride" he said. "I cannot accept money. No customer wants this one because you can't see the figure of the wood. Plus, I just made it as a test for my other works." Now this is a beautiful hand carved piece of art. I'm sure it was worth a good amount of money. But he would not accept anything. He gave Alexis one too, saying "This one is missing its inner cover so I can't sell it either. Please take it." I tried to buy something else to say thank you, but he gave me a reduced price which kind of defeated the purpose. He showed us all his woodwork, explaining the different kinds of trees and materials. We even got a hand-written business card and many urgings to return.What was supposed to be a five minute stop to a cute store turned out to be a morning of conversation and friendship. Walking out of the store, presents in hand, I was completely happy. It's not often in the world that two twentysomethings from America can make friends with a retiree in Shimane, Japan. There is a a saying in Japanese, 機会があったら見つけてください that basically means "Take advantage of the opportunities you find". I am glad for the opportunity to have this one conversation.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"We Will Bear It" (我慢します)

Autumn is quickly unfolding into winter here in the hills of Okuizumo- and with winter comes new adjustments for Natalie. Heating is handled very differently in Japan. When us Jets arrived we were informed that buildings were constructed to be cool in the summer- not to be warm in the winter. So the large glass doors and many windows I found to be so delightful in summer's heat are now becoming the bane of my existence. Japan doesn't believe in insulation or central heating, so making a building warm gets extremely expensive. And what do the schools do? They do without.

This is only a slight exaggeration. The teacher's nucleus is somewhat heated, and I am told that once it gets REALLY cold (as if the current highs of 12 degrees Celsius isn't low enough to warrent "cold") the classrooms will be somewhat heated too. But the hallways, bathrooms, and gymnasium will all be whatever the hell temperature it is outside. Heating is achieved largely by kerosene or sometimes electric space heaters. Such a situation is quite a shock for me, as I am a wimp when it comes to cold to begin with. I'm not sure if it's poor circulation or the lack of red meat in my diet, but I am literally always freezing. At first I thought I was going crazy-I wear as much clothes as possible and shiver while the kids run around in practically nothing and don't complain. In some classrooms (ones with carpet or tatami) we even have to take off our shoes, and the kids find this completely acceptable. It blew my mind. But then I realized that 1. Most Americans, when asked to sit outside on a 50 degree fall day without a coat, hat, gloves, or shoes, would naturally get cold. This is exactly what I am doing all day here, except that I'm inside. The outside and inside temperature is equal. They would find it strange for me to wear my outside goods inside but I am sorely tempted. 2. The kids are used to the cold. Most walk to and from school every day rain, sunshine, or blizzard- so a little fifty degree weather is nothing to complain about. Frankly, they are soldiers.

So what am I doing? I have bought a variety of long underwear (Uniqlo makes fabulously soft ones called Heat Tech- thanks again Uniqlo), I wear two layers of socks, and I bought some magic heat packs called ホッカイロ or hokkairo that I can use at will. I don't have a heater in my apartment so to protect myself against the 3 degree nights I rarely leave the comfort of my electric blanket. (Seriously. When I have to pee it's a definite conflict of interests).

But in the end I will just have to learn to bear it. Today before lunch at Takao, the secretary asked "It's a bit cold in the lunchroom- only 50 degrees; is it too early to turn on the heat a little?" "Yes, it's too early" replied the principal. "We will bear it." (我慢します)

My hope is that I will get used to it and not notice it so much soon. I was proud of myself today for not complaining about it too much during class, until afterward I realized I'd lost all feeling in my toes and had to run around to get blood pumping back into them.

Japan, I like you- but your schools have to stop abusing me with their wintry ways.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Last weekend my lovely friend Alexis came to visit me. Alexis is a Californian Jet with a penchant for cooking and art currently hailing from Gotsu. Gotsu is a town about three hours from me boasting an aquarium named AQUAS with beluga whales that blow "bubble rings of happiness". She was enticed to my tiny town by its promise of beautiful 紅葉 koyou or Autumn foliage. And although Okuizumo doesn't have happiness spouting beluga whales, we sure did find some koyou.
She arrived Friday night and we attempted to eak out sustenance. Which is hard when most of the restaurants and all of the grocery stores close at seven. But we found success in a place in Yokota called Takina. We even got to sample a curious beverage they called "Tampopo Coffee" which is a cross between tea and coffee brewed from dandelion roots. Strange but surprisingly good.

On Saturday we got in to the Autumn spirit by going apple picking. We went with my friend, Nozomi, who regrettably turned out to be one of the only unpunctual Japanese people known to mankind. She overslept and delayed us for over an hour. Sigh. Luckily the weather was impeccable- blue skies sunshine as far as the eye can see.

My town is actually only about fifteen minutes from the prefectural border to Hiroshima, so we ventured to a town in Hiroshima called Takano that has a place called Apple Road. It's as magical as it sounds. There is an entire road featuring many apple orchards where, for the price of 600 yen, you can enter and pick and eat as many apples as your stomach can hold. Now since a single apple in the store is not only 1. absolutely tasteless as well as mealy and 2. about 300 yen a pop, this place was great. Unfortunately, we ate too many apples and suffered stomachaches the rest of the day. A lunch consisting of three and a half apples is much too much fiber for a stomach used to rice and fish. Sigh. But darn it, it was worth it.

Yesterday I made applesauce in my ricecooker with yuzu instead of lemon peel so life is good. My whole apartment smelled like apple pie.

On Sunday,rainy rainy Sunday, we tread in to lands no westerner has tread before (or should tread again)- a Tokiwazu Concert. Now, for all of you who have never heard of Tokiwazu, and that is most certainly all of you (because a lot of Japanese people have never heard of it before) it's a combination of shamisen- a traditional Japanese intstrument kind of like the banjo but more "elegant", and traditional throat singing that sounds suspiciously like a meowling cat. Not only that, but the songs are of course all in Japanese. NOT ONLY THAT, but it is sung in Old Japanese, which is the equivalent of an ESL student trying to read Shakespeare; even great English speakers are not entirely sure of what's going on in Shakespeare because old English has little to no semblance to modern English. Same with old Japanese. The verb forms and kanji are all kinds of crazy. NOT ONLY THAT, but we had to sit in seiza the whole time on tatami mats in an unheated room in the mountains. It was a good cultural experience I'm sure, but . . . never again. We actually left the concert early to explore the grounds (the concert was held at an old Tatara museum) and search out some more koyou. We were not disappointed. Everywhere we looked there were red and orange and yellow trees stoichly waiting in the melancholy rain. I was glad Okuizumo put on its autumn best for my friend from afar. On the way home we stole persimmons off a roadside tree and reveled in our delinquency. After returning we decided to cook dinner at my apartment, having exhausted all three of the restaurants my town offers. We made creamy vegetable corn soup and grilled garlic fish with rice- a lovely meal for a grey day.

Autumn has always been my favorite season.

Special Thanks to Alexis for coming and for skillfully taking pictures for me to unscrupulously steal.
And thanks to apples for being so very tasty.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Not English

I don't do the lesson plans for my schools, so often when I arrive and consult with my JTE about the lesson of the day I get a big surprise. Sometimes bigger than others. Often I engage in activities that can only be classified as "Not English". Japanese schools love to put on festivals and activities and such which require the kids to learn a dance or song or make a presentation that deviates from the normal course of study.

For example, in a previous post I mentioned gathering chestnuts with the kids. This was at Takao Elementary, one of my favorite schools but also one that likes to deviate from English class the greatest (shame on you, Takao). One day I arrived and was informed that we were going to carve flutes out of bamboo. The week before last I made chestnut onigiri, and in the next class we literally separated grains of rice with chopsticks. You see, as I said before Nita rice is supposedly very famous and tasty. Takao area is sending some of its rice to the National Rice Tasting Competition in Fukushima Prefecture, which is quite a trip for our little rice. In preparation for this even we poured tablespoons of rice into petri dish type things and inspected it thoroughly- picking out any grains that were too green or brown or had any sort of imperfection. I can say with confidence that I am a chopstick maven when I can pick up tiny grains of rice only using these slippery utensils. Take that, Japan.

I digress. Anyway, at Fuse Elementary our Not English activity is the Macarena. At the end of the month there will be a cultural festival- there will be a person from China, Russia, and England (and America of course- represent!) coming to teach traditional culture from their country. The teacher asked if there were any special dances from America. Now, since I don't really know square or line dancing- and since even if I did I would not infect Japan with this knowledge- I said that I suppose the Electric Slide might be a fun dance. This drew a big blank from my teacher's face. So I said the Macarena was very popular in America (I remember in middle school dancing to that song with my friend Jenni after school until we collapsed in giggles and exhaustion) and his eyes lit up. "Yes yes, let's choose the Macarena!" he exclaimed. So yesterday's class was spent teaching the kids the Macarena.

A few weeks ago at Nita three periods were cancelled due to a road race. I walked in to school that morning not knowing that a race was going to be held- but it was a crisp beautiful autumn day and I asked if I could go grab my running shoes. They were very happy for me to run too (teachers here opt out of the race- I was the only one who volunteered) and so I got to participate. It was only 1.8 kilometers which is about 1.1 miles, but believe me, it hurt. The course featured two killer hills, and although I run a lot, I like to consider myself a turtle runner. I can run slowly for any length of time, but speed kills, man. That day I had to prove myself as a runner and therefore attempt to run quickly. I finished 40th out of over 120 girls so I was content, even though the rest of the day I could not breathe. Ah, running.

Last week at Ai Elementary there was an openhouse for all the parents. Each grade put on its own presentation and parents were encouraged to go around a look at all the cool exhibits. And they were actually very cool. I went around with a lady who lives nearby that I've met before, and she helped explain everything in simpler Japanese for me. There was an exhibit about different kinds of rice where we got to taste Rice Ice Cream (which actually tasted more like frozen rice pudding), there was a kanji quiz (I answered two questions right, hell yes), an car race track made out of cardboard and plastic bottle cars- you name it, they thought of it. My favorite exhibit was probably one that gave a thorough explanation of poop. In Japan poop is not as taboo as it is in America. It's just a normal and slightly funny bodily function. I am pretty sure a poop exhibit in a school in the states would not go over so well. Anyway the kids explained the difference between healthy poop and poop that meant that your body was sick. Afterwards we got to make some poop. They handed us some sweet potatoes in ziplock bags (one mother commented that if she ate the sweet potato she would make some poop for tomorrow- hilarious) and smashed it up. We then added water and brown paint and- voila! Healthy poop.

Today Kamedake Elementary was cancelled due to some similar school festival, and I was asked once again to film an episode of Attack English. The original name for my short series was Attack Natalie!, but I explained that in English that sounds kind of funny ( I don't want to encourage people to beat me up on the streets) so they chose
Attackレポート どげなかEnglish

which translates roughly to Attack Report English. The first two episodes were filmed at Nita Middle school during volleyball practice. They chose this setting because the students were already used to me- I am naturally a bit of a shock and they don't want to set me loose on an unsuspecting Japanese world. This time we went to Ai Grocery Store which is about two minutes from my house and therefore where I do a lot of my shopping. I do not like to be filmed, and I hate to see my face on television. But I know that this is a good opportunity and that the people around here get a kick out of it, so I comply. Anyway, now I can say I have my own TV show in Japan. Who else can say that?

Today in Takao we are going to the Rice Center to send off our painstakingly accumulated creme de la creme Takao Rice. Afterwards I am going with the Superintendent to go apple picking.

Life out here sure is an interesting adventure.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Tottori Sand Dunes/鳥取県砂丘 (P.S. I love you camel)

I have received several e-mails from my former host sister, Risa Miyake, since coming to Shimane. Now I met Risa about six years ago the first time I came to Japan to Hiroshima Prefecture with my fearless Sensei Leader, Mrs. Countryman, and our gang of genki gaijin (lively foreigners). Her family took me in as their own daughter and were kinder to me than I can ever repay them for. The last time I came to Japan I was in Tokyo for a few months- and Risa and her Mother took the bullet train from Hiroshima to Tokyo to visit me. Once again, they were so kind to me. I am lucky to have such good people in my life.

But that was almost four years ago, and at that time I had shocking red hair and was thirty pounds lighter. So I was more than a little shy to meet these guys again. Sometimes we put too much stock in appearances and forget that some people really love you for what's inside- really. It's hard for me to believe that at times. This nervousness made me put off meeting them, when Hiroshima is less than three hours away. When Risa e-mailed me to see if I was free today for her family to come visit, I almost said no. How stupid of me.

Luckily I overcame my fear and said yes. So Mr. and Mrs. Miyake and their son Sena came to visit me today. (Risa is currently attending college in Kobe so she wasn't able to come. Another time.) They wanted to go visit the Tottori Sand Dunes, which I had been wanting to see anyway. It was ridiculously great. No one fainted at the sight of me. Mr. and Mrs. Miyake haven't changed a bit. But Sena has definitely grown up- the last time I saw him he was in fifth grade. Mrs. Miyake says the day I left Hiroshima she found him on my bed crying that I'd gone. Now, he's almost an adult- about to graduate high school and plans to attend a college in Hiroshima for Engineering. He works part time at a Ramen shop. In fact, their whole family has cool and particularly Japanese-ey jobs. The dad works at a nori (seaweed) factory, the mom sells menswear, and Risa works at Lawson's, perhaps Japan's most prominent convenience store. What a great bunch. Not only that, but they brought me gifts of an amazing scarf and three pairs of super cute socks, which (aside from chocolate) are my two favorite things in the whole world. Did I mention these are great people?

Now, my state has the Indiana Dunes, which I went to once in fifth grade, but they were nothing compared to this. Tottori prefecture is famous for these dunes. They are literally like mountains. You can peer over them and see the sea. Climbing them made my rear end and thighs burn like mad. And for some reason they had camels that you can pet. The Japanese word for camel is 駱駝 or "rakuda" which sounds for all the world like a loanword (like "terebi" for television or "sutoroberi" for strawberry). But there is kanji for it, so I'm stumped. I can't find the answer so my mind is itching, not that any of you really care about nerdy Japanese language nuances, so I will get back to the dunes. After climing the dunes we went to pet said camels, and for a coupe hundred yen got to do the tourist thing and climb on their back for a picture. I got to pet an especially handsome guy whose hair was whiter than sand. I liked him a lot. I wish I had a pet camel instead of my stinky goldfish. We then bought some omiyage- Tottori's meibutsu or specialty item is its pears, so we bought many a pear flavored item. We then drove back to Matsue and did some shopping before returning home.

Sitting here at my computer, typing away, I am still warm from the kindness of this family. Sometimes our fear gets in the way of doing what is really best for us. I'm so thankful mine didn't stop me from seeing these wonderful people again. P.S. I love you rakuda

Monday, October 12, 2009

Random Unimportant Things

As I am typing right now, four watercolors are drying in the sun on my porch in the chilly Autumn air. I am wearing some new pajamas that I bought yesterday in a shopping spree for warm clothes, and I just finished a bowl of oatmeal. Life is pretty good.

But this week has been a challenging one. When people think of "life abroad" they imagine a romantic life full of new tastes, colors, and sounds. Not to say there isn't plenty of that. It's just that in real life you can't edit out the long hours of solitude or the awkward half conversations or the frustrations of fractured communication. There are many ups and downs to this life. I am living in a country where I am distinctly an outsider and am constantly reminded of that fact. I look and act different than everyone around me, and in a country that at times values the homogeneity of its people and their way of thinking this distinction is, well, a distinct problem.
It's been an odd week, so it's time for an odd blog.

Here are some glimpses of random events that happened this week.

Tuesday: I spent the morning at Kamedake elementary. As I might have previously mentioned, in Japan there are six periods in a day. At the elementary schools at most I will teach two periods. That leaves me with a lot of free periods. So I sat in on the first and second grade PE class one period. Today's lesson? Sumo wresting. It was so cute- their teacher was quite serious about instructing them on REAL sumo- "Start every movement from the right to the left! Show your intention on your face! A straight back looks strong- a curved back looks weak" and so on. Like-sized kids were paired up with each other and were encouraged to wrestle. Soon after the principal came out and joined in the fun. Willing kids battled with him- this man four times their size. He was very good with them; if he thought they were making a worthy effort he let them win but if he felt they were not doing their best he shouted out corrections until they improved.

I made the mistake of wresting with trying this activity- which resulted in a rip in my pants. Right in the crotch. That's right.

So I scurried of to the local convenience store in the hopes of finding a sewing kit. There was none. In my desperation I chose the cheapest stapler I could find and brought it to the counter. What else was I going to do? Even stapling my pants was better than accidentally flashing my afternoon school.
"You don't want this stapler" the lady said. "It's so old." "That's no concern" I tried to tell her. But she wouldn't listen. Finally I told her that what I REALLY wanted was a sewing kit. She immediately ran off to find the other clerk who produced the desired kit. "Can I use your bathroom?" I asked. "Oh, we don't have a bathroom" she responded. "Where is the rip?" Red-faced, I pointed to the ripped region. Her eyes widened in comprehension, and they led me to the back and guarded the door. I fixed the problem and came out quite relieved and no longer a threat to public decency. She started to ring up my stapler. "Oh, I don't need that anymore, now that I used that sewing kit" I said. This time her eyes widened in horror. "You were going to use it for THAT?" she bleated. I laughed and nodded, thanked her for the use of the sewing kit, and ran off before any more could be said.
Upon arriving at my afternoon school that day I was informed that we were going to gather chestnuts instead of having class. Next week the school lunch was to be chestnut rice, so we had to gather enough to make pots and pots of this delicacy. Chestnuts, huh. For any of you who have never seen a raw chestnut before they are certainly a sight to behold. The very outer layer is an angry, prickly, nest of evil. The inner shell is a tough fortress guarding the tiny nugget of meat inside. When chestnuts fall on the ground in a few days the prickly part will open up to reveal the inner shell. I and the third and fourth graders gathered enough chestnuts to feed an army of Japanese youngsters. Ah, the life of a teacher in rural Japan.

Wednesday: Stress. At elementary and middle schools everyone eats the same lunch. And kids are expected to eat it all, no matter whether they are full or don't like what's served or just plain being contrary- a clean plate is the only way. Unfortunately that goes for teachers too. So, being a picky eater, lunch has been hard for me. They don't make me eat any of the meat that is included in the lunch, but unfortunately here when you say you don't eat meat it doesn't register that pork, chicken, and fish are actually meat too (Like the scene from "my big fat greek wedding"- You don't eat meat? No problem. I'll cook lamb!) Not only that, but the servings are pretty big, and fried food is often featured on the menu. This is a problem for me. So lunch is stressful. Plus, I heard this day that my Grandma was very ill and in the hospital, and my poor old dog had also taken a turn from the worse. To top it off I was freezing, lonely, and could not get a hold of my supervisor. Being a blonde, vegetarian in Japan who only speaks enough Japanese to make herself slightly understood can get old after a while. I am sometimes too poignantly an outsider. Slight breakdown. But I've learned that on days like this all you can do is continue, and wait for the storm to blow over. And it did.

Thursday: Typhoon, which was kind of a dissappointment. I was expecting some of the schools to blow away, or at least Japan Car to go flying. But all that happened was some wind and a lot of rain.

Saturday: Kindergarten Sports Day. Imagine a dozen adorable Japanese toddlers running around with their parents doing silly sports such as grabbing bread from a pole with their teeth or putting on a dance where they were dressed as mushrooms. Ridiculously cute. Then add a handful of elementary school kids who were infinitely interested in playing with me, sitting on my lap, feeding me poisonous looking berries (don't worry, I lived) and playing with my hair. Top it off with a certificate of participation hand drawn by the little ones, and you have one very heartwarming morning. In the afternoon I watched Terminator for the first time with the Okuizumo guys. I'm now slightly more American.

Sunday: Went to Izumo to purchase many warm clothes. I trekked off to Uniqlo- the Gap of Japan, except a little more affordable. Most clothes in Japan for girls are definitely not made for curvy blonde girls from America. They would make me look like an escaped hobo with a penchant for glitter and bows. But Uniqlo has a fairly normal selection of clothes, and I happened to arrive on a sale day. I am now a warm, happy lady.

Monday: Today was a holiday- National Feild and Sports day or something. Anyway this morning I helped Mr. and Mrs. Fukuda harvest their rice. When else in my life would I have this chance? Today we were seperating rice from its straw stems. We used a machine to do the seperating. Mr. Fukuda took down bunches of rice from that had been drying (on one of those structures featured in my "Honorable Rice" blog ) and handed them to me. I proceeded to feed them into a machine with monstrous metal teeth that chewed the rice off and spit the unwanted straw on one side, the gross bugs and other organic litter out the other, and poured the clean unhulled rice into bags. Luckily being a 3-D art student I am perfectly accustomed to machines that threaten to mame or kill me, and the Fukudas were impressed by my aptitude. Mrs. Fukuda then tied up the unwanted straw into bushels. We finished quickly and sat down on the straw- "Sofa" Mr. Fukuda said, pointing to the bushels and laughed. The Fukuda's daughter Kyoko brought us onigiri and we ate it in the fresh air. The sun was shining and the sky was a beautiful clear blue. A great day for rice farming, if I do say so myself.

There is a saying taught to me by my very favorite Japanese man- Mr. Motohide. It says:
雪 もつもれば山となる- even snow, when it accumulates, becomes a mountain. I have found this to be true in many ways. If we let the frustrations and loneliness pile up, it becomes disastrous. We have to let such things blow away. But we have to be careful to let the happy moments, the moments of warmth and community pile up then we can really realize how blessed we are.

Life abroad is sometimes very hard. But more than it is hard it is worth it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Ehhhh? Moments- Seafood Edition

Yes, folks, it's high time for another edition of Ehhh? Moments! As you are all probably aware Japan is known for its delicious and sometimes unusual sea food. Sushi? Delicious! Sashimi? Fantastic! But Japan's love of seafood does not stop there. I've encountered a variety of unusual sea life cuisine- from brightly colored Gunkan Maki (Battleship Roll!) prepared in sushi restaraunts, to the snaily Turban Shell so popular in the Oki Islands, to the Saba served whole (bones, eyes, guts, and all) in school lunches- I've seen so many great and slightly gross things. Here are a couple of the more unusual fishy things I've run across.

Giant tuna head, anyone? This big boy was sitting in the middle of a fish aisle in a nearby supermarket. If you were to take a peek inside you would still find his skull, organs, and part of his spine still intact. (When you are paying almost nine dollars for a fish head you want it all, right?) And just for reference this thing is about the size of MY head, which is not small as human heads go. I'm not sure what he would be used for- maybe soup broth? but he was certainly a shock to see. Giant bluefin tuna are the king of fishes in Japan. In America I saw a Discovery Channel program on bluefin tuna fishermen. The poor fishermen spend weeks and weeks on the sea in the hopes of catching just one tuna. But a single bluefin can go for $2000 to $20000 in a fish market depending on the size and fat content involved. Intense, huh? Think on that next time you are chewing some delicious maguro rolls.

Yes, you're seeing right- this is an entire package of tiny dried crabs. Called Tamago-kani 玉子かに or "egg crabs" these little guys are eaten whole like potato chips, supposedly a good pairing for a cold glass of Asahi. Apparently the shells are kind of chewy. Ewwww. Ingredients? Corn starch, sugar, MSG, sweet sake, salt, and tiny but whole crabs. I still haven't decided yet if I've become adventurous enough in my seafood eating that I would try one of these guys. Maybe just one. With my eyes closed. And a trash can nearby.

These tiny
tiny fish are called jako- chirimenjako to be exact. Jako are surprisingly common in Japanese cuisine. They mix them in with rice to make jako-onigiri, they sprinkle them on stir fry, they serve them with school lunches. I actually ate some jako-onigiri prepared by a cooking class at the local community center. You can buy them in pretty much any supermarket- right next to the fish cakes and the fish eggs. They re not on the top of my list of things I'd like to eat- not even in the top thousand- but they weren't terrible. The texture was kind of unnerving and I never like my food to look at me. But supposedly they are full of calcium and very good for you. I, however, prefer to take my calcium in Frozen Yogurt form.

Did this whet your appetite? Eat up, America!

Saturday, October 3, 2009


This Thursday I got to experience on of the most unusual festivals ever- Oshiko Matsuri. At least that's what the name sounded like to me. When I arrived at my afternoon school on Thursday, Ai Elementary, I was informed that I should expediently finish sixth period and then scuttle off to the festival. Now mind you, I had no idea what festival they were talking about or where it was. They pleasantly said I should just look for the crowd of people and follow them. Oh, dear.
Luckily Fukuda-san saved me. Just as I was steeling myself to leave my apartment and wander aimlessly around Ai, she called me. I walked with her and her husband over to a local shrine I had run past several times before but never really took any notice of. Here they are with a small boy who face bombed my picture. Too cute. I especially like the heeled slippers Mr. Fukuda-san is wearing- the kind especially favored by older local men around here. Tee hee.

The men of Ai gathered in their traditional robes with their sleeves tied up- obviously there was some work to be done. Fukuda-san told me that in Shinto religions women are not really welcome to participate in festivals. "How sexist!" I thought. Until I saw what the men proceeded to do.
The Oshiko-matsuri centers around an object called the o-mikoshi. A mikoshi
神輿 is a small portable shrine that is said to house the local deity. This shrine has two mikoshi- a fancy laquered and painted one and a plain but sturdy wooden one ready to get down and dirty. After giving donations to the priest and partaking in some godly sake and uncooked rice, we were ready to begin. Four villagers started carrying the plain mikoshi away from the shrine through the main gate. Then, much to my surprise, the high priest pushed it down the stairs into the crowd of village men. On the right you can see the men of Ai attempting to crush each other to death. I still am not entirely sure what the purpose of this is. Another lady tried to explain that if a man can get the kami out of the shrine it will bring him and his family honor. But that doesn't explain the men on the outside of the circle pushing the other guys. See that turban man in the suit? His job is to push people. I was seriously confused. Every few minutes the mean would start shouting and as a group heave to the right as if they were trying to pull something out or pick up the shrine. But nothing ever happened. About ten minutes later the high priest climbed on top of the men and waved a flag. And that was that. The fight disbanded, and the men were returned to their wives. Mr. Fukuda-san's toenail had somehow been ripped off (although his plan was to stay on the outskirts of this shindig he said he accidentally got shoved inside). His kimono was also ripped. But he said this wasn't so bad- many years ago the men were actually supposed to try and CATCH the mikoshi after it was pushed down the steps, but too many people died or were seriously injured. So now they just try and crush each other, and suffer some scrapes and bruises gladly. The fancy mikoshi was carried from the shrine through the main gate away to a clearing where the priests started praying around it. The tired men were given some holy sake and some raw beans that were supposed to purify the body. (During this festival followers are not allowed to eat meat- hah! Take that, carnivores!). The priests are the guys on the left in the white with black hats. We stood for a while and watched while they prayed and ate, but then decided it was time to leave. The Fukuda's treated me to a delicious dinner feast- the table was set with sushi, sashimi, tempura, boiled vegetables, and so much other food I expected a small army to pop up and dig in at any time. Not to mention beer and several bottles of sake. How many people showed up in total? Ten. Two of them girls under seven. The Fukudas sure know how to set a feast. On the left is the adorable boiled vegetables known as sansai 山菜 eaten often in the Buddhist tradition of shōjin ryōri. Tiny spiral ferns? Bows of Wakame? How cute!

in the back is Baba- Mrs. Fukuda-san's mom, then on baba's right are Mr. and Mrs. Fukuda. On baba's left are Mrs. Fukuda's older sister and husband. Later another sister and her two grandchildren showed up, and the Fukuda's eldest son Chihiro and his wife stopped by as well.
We chatted the night away and the conversation got more and more confused and lively as the night went on. Chihiro and his wife were infinitely amused by the American pronunciation of the word "cheeseburger" and asked me to repeat it several times. I played string tricks with the girls and they were astonished that we do them in America as well. "Unbelievable" to quote Chihiro.

I talked later with Nozomi-san (Non-chan for short), a local girl with whom I've made friends, about this festival. She said that the Japanese put less value on small injuries to their bodies than they do the spirit of community and festivity. So they are glad to suffer a broken toe or scratch as long as everyone is together. "It's kind of strange, isn't it?" she said.
Strange, maybe. But cool? Definitely.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Adventures with Megumi

One of my favorite people- the ever crazy, fun loving, adventurous Megumi came to visit me in Shimane. Megumi is currently attending college in Tokyo but wanted to come visit Shimane-ken (for some reason she had never been out this way before. . .). Anyway she took a night bus from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and it was for her sake that, at four o'clock Saturday morning, I drove Japan Car to Hiroshima. Now, I am somewhat of a morning person but nothing in this world besides love for my friend would have dragged me out of my warm bed to drive for four hours into the crazy traffic inevitable of a big city in Japan.

And it was definitely worth it. In the morning, we visited Miyajima. I would like it to be made known at this point that my camera chose this time to die- just as I was visiting this lovely , historic place considered to be one of the three most scenic spots in all of Japan. Thanks, camera. Anyway the pictures from here on out are taken on my phone camera and are therefore considerably crappier than normal. Miyajima is a little island off the coast of Hiroshima. It's inhabited by very tame deer that have an appetite for maps and tourist's pockets. They are everywhere and will literally walk right up to you. That giant red torii or sacred gate you see behind us in this picture, is the thing people mostly come to see. While we were walking around the temple we got a got a glimpse of a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony. These ceremonies are ridiculously expensive and intricate- I can't imagine what it must have cost to do one in Miyajima. After the main ceremony a god comes down and does a dance for the bride and groom- he is wearing a crazy mask that looks something like a fox or a dog. Not that you can see anything in this video anyway (thanks again phone camera).

After Miyajima we explored the city some more (i.e. ate and shopped- girls are pros at these activities).Hiroshima was brilliant, and we had a great time. But between Osaka and Hiroshima I've decided I'm THROUGH driving in big cities in Japan. The crowded, tiny roads are one of many reasons to take the train whenever possible
We hung around Okuizumo some today. I would like to point out that even Megumi, who is Japanese and from Toyama which is pretty rural, was astonished at how inaka (rural) Okuizumo is. I'm telling you guys- you have to see it to believe it.

This afternoon we went to Izumo city to see Izumo Taisha 出雲大社 one of the most ancient and important Shinto shrines in Japan. Izumotaisha is famous for its 1.ancient architecture, 2.being the gathering place for the eight million Japanese gods and for 3.its huge Shimenawa.

1. It is built in the Taisha style, the oldest building style that involved a roof made of straw
. Every sixty years it undergoes construction, not the least important of which involves replacing the disgusting, moldy, straw from sixty years ago with new clean straw. This construction takes five years to complete. Unfortunately I happened to arrive in the Izumo area during this construction so I hadn't been able to visit it until now, but fortunately the main work is finished and we can see the front gate. 2. In October all the gods of Japan are said to gather in Izumo at this shrine. So while the rest of Japan is going to be sad and godless (called kannazuki or the "month without gods") we are going to be tripping over them (In the Izumo area we call October kamiarizuki or "the month with gods").
3. The shimenawa or big rope used in Shinto religion to mark a holy place is the biggest in all of Japan- it is thirteen meters long and weighs for tons. I'm pretty sure that is heavier than Japan Car. On the right you can see the underside of one of the fluffy ends of this rope- the diameter of this beast is probably about two meters in and of itself. People try and throw coins in it so they stick there. The fun part is often when you try to throw a coin in instead it will knock loose a shower of other coins down on you. This shrine was built for the god Ōkuninushi, who establishes marriages and good relationships He's the rabbit guy- remember him from my previous post! See, it all comes around.

Sadly, Megumi had to leave me tonight. But I am lucky to have such awesome people in my life.
I can't say anything more or I will start crying all over my keyboard.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

お米/ The Honorable Rice

The secret's out: Japanese people like rice. I mean, they REALLY like rice. Like the Inuits and their one hundred words for snow, the Japanese have numerous words for rice. Before its cooked its called o-kome,honorable rice, then when its cooked its called gohan (which, not coincidentally, is also the word for meal)- there is rice wine (sake), rice candy, special rice you eat for celebrations, rice you give to the gods- the list goes on.
Okuizumo is famous for its very delicious rice. Named 仁多米 or Nita Rice, I find it is rather tasty (although if you talk to any native of the area they will talk about it as the be all and end all of rice). In fact, Minari Elementary recently went on a school field trip to Hiroshima and when describing the trip to me, one boy felt the need to note that Hiroshima's rice was not nearly as tasty as Okuizumo's. Heheh. Everywhere around me there are rice fields. I thought there were a lot of corn fields in Lafayette- but there is no comparison to the amount of rice fields around here. People have recently begun harvesting rice. This rice harvest is something I've never seen before. They have machines that cut the rice and then different areas have their own way of drying the rice. In Ai they make crazy huge walls of rice. You can see three within two minutes of my apartment.
Another family makes use of the guard rail alongside the road for a drying rack. In Yokota it seems they make little rice teepees. I eat rice at least twice a day (I hope to change this in my future pilgrimage to Osaka where there is a Costco and industrial sized cartons of oatmeal. I love rice, but for breakfast oats are my carbohydrate of choice).
Ah, rice.

On an unrelated and much grosser note, I saw my first Mukade the other day. Mukade are pretty much giant mutant centipedes, whose sting can kill a small child. Read: the monsters of my worst nightmares. He was in the doorway of the teachers office at Nita Junior High. There are various gory ways of killing Mukade. You can cut them in half with scissors. You can pour boiling water on them. You can smash them with a hammer. But unfortunately, you cannot simply squish them in a handkercheif. Oh, and they always travel in husband/wife pairs. How romantic.