Friday, January 29, 2010

Sushi Roulette

One of my faithful readers (or very unfaithful readers, as I doubt he ever actually reads this blog) has informed me that my posts of late have become a bit . . . dry. No one wants to read heartwarming tales of home, or about amazing fantastic opportunities to experience traditional culture. No Natalie. The people just want to hear about you eating weird crap.

Well, I'm here to please, so here goes.

One of my favorite kinds of Japanese food (although admittedly stereotypical) is sushi. But not just any sushi, dear readers. Oh, no. It's 回転寿司=kaitensushi.

Kaitensushi, or conveyor belt sushi, is the most magical thing in the world. Plates of sushi are carted around the restaurant on a moving belt. Each plate is its own tantalizing, delicious, or just plain unusual kind of sushi. You just take whatever you want, and then when you finish eating they count up your plates and tell you the damage. Each plate ranges around 105 to 200 yen- that's a little over one or two dollars each. Practically highway robbery. Mmmm, Delicious.

My favorite kinds of sushi include:
salmon nigiri natto maki
negi toro gunkan maki and tekka maki 

So when I kaitensushi I tend to pick these guys a lot. But along with traditional favorites, there are many wacky kinds of sushi such as corn sushi or hot dog sushi. There are also weird and sometimes delicious deserts that come down the belt. When I got back from the States this winter, attempting to get out of my sushi rut, I declared that I was going to try a new dish I had never eaten before. Unfortunately that's when my friend stepped in. He chose one for me. In fact, he chose the grossest looking dessert on the belt.

<--- Taiyaki Jello. Taiyaki, the name of that fish looking thing swallowed by the whipped cream, is a pretty popular treat in Japan. It's actually a pancake type thing baked in the shape of a fish filled with adzuki bean paste. Now, even at the best of times, when the taiyaki is warm and fresh and golden brown: I'm not a fan.

This taiyaki, however, was kind of stale and very cold. The jello he was stuck in was the strangest flavor ever. Ian though it was kind of coconut-ty in an unpleasant way, but I thought it tasted like jellified cough medicine. Not to mention the thought of all the cow bones that went into the making of that jello . . . brrr. No thank you. But I did say I would try something new, so I persevered. Here is me not enjoying my dessert-------->

I tried to give him a taste of his own medicine, but he would have none of it. "No Natalie! Eat all of your fish cake or you'll go to bed without any more sushi!" Jerk. On an interesting note, in Japan they call "jello" "zerry" which is kind of like their pronunciation of "jelly". And our concept of jelly is a mystery to them. They know jam, but not jelly. Isn't language interesting?

I suppose I should have specified that I wanted to try something new and tasty, not new and gross. In the end all I was left with a half eaten fish cake and 105 yen for my troubles. I guess that's the way the sushi roulette rolls.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Service Pack 2 Incident

This Sunday the unimaginable happened.

My computer died.

Before I went to sleep Saturday night, I began installing an update for Windows Vista. Service Pack 2. If it's from Windows I can trust it, right?
Blearily waking up Sunday morning, I found my poor little laptop blinking between its start-up screen and the ominous blue screen of death. Not a good sign. I did everything I knew possible to fix it, all to no avail.

Needless to say I freaked out a little bit, as this laptop is really my only means of communication with the outside world. And by "freaked out" I really mean taking turns between hysterical bawling and hurling curse words and lude gestures at Microsoft. Who in the heck could I find in Okuizumo that knows enough both enough English and enough about computers to help me? How could I afford a new laptop? What would happen to the years and years of carefully accumulated crap on my old hard drive? It was not a pretty prospect.

Luckily, there was just the person. The only foreigner in this town besides us three JETS happens to be a nice Canadian guy who has lived here for the last 12 or so years. And not only that, as it happens he is a computer engineer. Ridiculously lucky? That's me.

So now I sit- typing on my newly restored computer, trying to remember how to make it compatible with Asian Language fonts, and thinking how sometimes fortune can be found in an unfortunate situation. The moral of the story, kids, is back up your hard drive, don't trust Microsoft, and make as many friends as possible. You never know when their secret talents might be your lifeline.

Without his help I would still be wandering the streets, clutching my computer to my chest and howling unintelligible pleas to uncomprehending ears.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tatara: Part Two (The Real Thing!)

So I left you on the edge of your seats in Tatara: Part One wondering "Were they able to produce good iron? How many swords did Natalie make? Will her nose be forever full of charcoal?". These answers and more will soon be illuminated.

On November 27th all elementary students from Nita area came to make tatara. I arrived at nine that morning, but the men actually running the gig had been there since around five; making preparations, stoking the fire, and generally being excited. You can see Kihara-murage-san standing in the background looking pensive.

This day the students were divided into four stations: Charcoal duty, temperature duty, bellows duty, and Satetsu duty. Students rotated around in the groups so that everyone got to do each job at least once.

First in the circle of duties was charcoal duty. From the group of kids on charcoal duty, one was selected/volunteered to be mini-murage. This kid (when given the OK by Kihara-murage-san) called out for the charcoal to be poured in, or for the satetsu to be sprinkled in, or for the group working the bellows to be less vigorous because the fire was getting too hot according to the students on temp. duty. The other students in Charcoal group measured out two kilo portions of the charcoal we had chopped yesterday and were in charge of dumping it . . . ever so gently . . . into the furnace. You don't want to pour it in too quickly or the impact would cause a huge blast of heat and sparks to shoot out and burn your hands (not that such a thing happened to me when I tried or anything).

Next in the rotation is Temperature duty (the most boring of duties if you ask me, as it does not involve the potential for burning your hands off). In this station the students took two readings of the furnace fire- the lower temperature and the upper temperature. To accomplish this they poked a long thermometer into pre-made holes on the east wall and then recorded the readings on a huge chart. This was done to assure that the fire would be hot enough to melt the iron sand, but not so hot as to get out of hand. Our furnace's lower temperature remained around 900 degrees Celsius, and the upper reached over 1000 degrees Celsius. That, friends, is over 1600 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit respectively. On the left you can see Kanestuki-sensei, the English teacher at Takao Elementary. He is on of my favorite teachers- crazy and fun.

Bellows duty was a blast (hah hah). We worked a large wooden bellows which felt kind of like using a rowing machine. You push in the lever and hot air blasts out the other side through tubes connected to the furnace.I couldn't get a still picture of these students because they were bellowing their little hearts out. Good for them.

On satetsu duty, two one kilo piles of statetsu were weighed out into a small wooden boxlike structure. They carried this over to the tataradou and, when the time was right, used a small metal shovel to sprinkle the iron sand over the fire. One half was sprinkled facing west, and one half was sprinkled facing east. I assume this was done logically for even distribution, but subconsciously for their love of ceremony and doing things in meaningful ways. It was actually the students' job to take care of the satetsu, but in the picture on the left you can see Mr. Fukuda-san showing 'em how it's done. As I wrote previously, this fire is flippin' hot. It is very difficult to hold your hand steady and evenly sprinkle iron sand over a flame. The kids were troopers and did their work well.

Satetsu and charcoal were the two main jobs. These ingredients had to be added gradually over the course of the day to achieve a nice even melting. One exciting feature of the tatara furnace was that sometimes it would crack a little bit and flames would shoot out. I freaked out the first time this happened, but everyone else was nonplussed. They just took a huge brush made out of rice straw and dipped it into a bucket of clay slip, then slapped that slip onto the crack. I got to do it once. It was fun.

There were two small mouse holes in the furnace on the north and south walls. Generally the temperature around these holes was cool enough so that the molten iron hardened and didn't pour out. But periodically the workers would break open the hardened iron and allowed some molten iron (called Noro, as is my favorite kind of yarn) to flood out. Apparently they did this so they could check the consistency and purity of the noro. Below you can see the specimens displayed along with the time they were gathered.

Around four thirty all work stopped. The iron stewed and simmered in the furnace, allowing the heavy molten iron to sink to the bottom of the furnace. We had about a half hour break, during which I played tag with the girls of Ai Elementary. Kids here love tag, and I like to play too except they are fast as rabbits and I am not built for speed.

Anyway. At five we all gathered and had a small ceremony for the tatara finale.
I'm not sure how I thought we would get the steel out of that furnace. Perhaps I thought that we would let it all run out of those little mouse holes, which retrospectively is more than a little ludicrous. But the reality was more crazy than I ever could have expected. The students literally dismantled the furnace, tearing down the walls with pickaxes and poles and brute strength. This process took over an hour, and if you want to watch the relative mayhem I will try to post the video below. I couldnt get it to work yet.

Unfortunately my camera ran out of memory and I didn't get to film the end, which was of course the most exciting part. After finally demolishing the structure we so toiled to make the day before, a huge pile of angry, steaming steel was left naked on the earthen floor. As you can see, the outside surface was "cool" enough to be grey, but the inside was still a scorching red hue. It was hissing and steaming with all its might. The students used tongs to drag it over to a large bucket of cold water. Everyone together lifted the steel chunk with shovels and tongs into the bucket to quench it. The monster sat boiling for quite some time. This was one hot chunk of steel. "Looks like the Iron God is angry" noted Kamedake's principal of the spectacle. I would have to agree.


The finished product was a monstrous thirty kilos. Isn't she beautiful? Unfortunately, although it's very nice steel I'm sure, as far as tatara goes this stuff is not good enough quality to ACTUALLY make a sword with. So my total sword production amounted to zero. All this steel is to be used for is being displayed around Okuizumo's eleven illustrious elementary schools as a testament to the awesomeness of the students and everyone involved.

Which isn't such a bad use after all, if you ask me.

for another good but very dry Tatara explanation, click here!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I came home for Christmas.

This is both more and less complicated than it sounds. Booking both an international and domestic flight, taking the necessary planes, buses, trains and cars to get to my destination, and negotiating visits with the necessary fabulous people can almost be more complicated than heart surgery. Coming home was process that started as soon as I came to Japan: the promise of a meeting with my loved ones carried me through some hard times here in the sticks. But at the same time I have to marvel at how, if necessary, I can leave the mountains of Okuizumo in the heart of Japan and fly halfway across the world home to the cornfields of Indiana in the span of twenty-four hours. It's a pretty great age we live in.

Being home was weird and wonderful. My visit was just a drop of time- singular and self-contained. I hugged people I hadn't hugged in six months and it almost felt like only days had passed since we parted. Being home, Okuizumo seemed like a strange dream. Now I'm back, and it's almost like my time in Indiana was a dream as well. But without being too cheesy I'd like to say that the warmth of my friends and family will carry me through the cold days of winter we all have to survive these next few months.

Just some highlights:

Hanging with the fabulous Megumi in Tokyo

Ministry of Silly Walks with my best man, best friend, and best older sister (well, I had to follow the pattern Cassie)cookie time

the family
my tokyo host family with Mami-san sitting next to me, Kazuki-kun on her lap, and Yuusuke-kun on mine (Mami-san was pregnant with him last time I saw them! Oh my!)

Happy New Year, guys :)