Saturday, March 27, 2010


It's springtime here, and springtime in Japan is synonymous with graduation. I had the pleasure of attending two graduation ceremonies: Takao Elementary and Nita Middle School.

Graduation is a big deal here in Japan. The ceremonies are very grandiose, complete with lots of bowing, long speeches, and many other formalities. Many of the teachers here were quite shocked when I told them most Elementary/Middle schools in America don't really have graduation ceremonies. The length and formality, combined with the fact that the ceremonies were held in unheated gyms in 40 degree weather, made the physical experience very unpleasant for me. At the same time, I was so honored to be the insider on an event that was so important to everyone around me, and tried to focus on that aspect. These ceremonies constituted a very singular episode of my life.

Another thing about graduation in Japan: it's not only the students who are leaving. In America, especially right now, teaching jobs are fairly difficult to obtain. BUT, teachers are allowed to stay at that position until it is no longer available or they decide to retire. In Japan, teachers are guaranteed jobs, but postings are determined by the Japanese Government in Tokyo. All teachers are required to do a two year posting at rural school and a two year posting at a school far away from their home. I think the maximum time you are allowed to stay at any one school is something like eight years. Many of my teachers live hours away and either make a ridiculous daily commute or get apartments here, giving up their family and home life for their job.

I was told to be wary that Japan has major staff changes in April, but I couldn't imagine it happening to me. I heard no news of change until the beginning of next week, and then news from all my schools hit me like a sack of bricks. My beloved supervisor (aka my Okuizumo mom) Mrs. Fukuda-san, is retiring. Mr. Kanetsuki, my Takao JTE (the slim man in the front row on the right of this picture) is leaving for a school in Higashi-Izumo. Mr. Okuda, the girls volleyball coach, is transferring to another middle school in Kisuki. And these are only the people close to me; there are many others leaving. Change has hit my world like a tornado, and I'll have to scramble to find my place again.

So when I look at the picture above, I have many mixed emotions. Takao is the school above all others that made me feel at home, a real member of their faculty. This was largely due to the extremely personable Mr. Kanetsuki.

I am awed and slightly saddened by the shuffling around of people's lives due to this system, but respectful of its benefits.

And part of has to laugh, because when I look at this picture I have to think of the Sesame Street song "One of these things is not like the others . . . "

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sake Brewery

So many of you may not know that I've joined Jujitsu. There is a man living in Izumo named Yoshi who I think is secretly Brazilian (he thinks so too.) Anyway he speaks really great English and teaches the class for 100 yen a week, and it's fun. I always enjoy the chance to get to beat up other people under the guise of "martial arts" so I'm all in.

What does this have to do with a Sake Brewery, you ask? Well well well. One of the guys practicing jujitsu, Yamada-san, also happens to work at a traditional-style Sake Brewery called 開春 Kaishun. Last week thanks to Yamada-san gave us an exclusive tour of the factory , complete with taste-testing. I'm not gonna lie. It was pretty sweet. Yamada-san is a blue belt which basically means that he could annihilate me with ease. But, he's really a kind and funny guy. He explained the whole process to us in detail, mostly in Japanese but sometimes with startlingly good English. Thanks, Yamada-san!

First things first: you gotta have the rice. There are three kinds of rice in Japan: rice for eating as is, rice for making mochi, and rice for making sake. This can further be subdivided into brown rice, 玄米genmai or white rice 白米 hakumai. Maybe this will reveal how blonde I truly am, but before I came to Japan I thought brown rice was a different kind of rice than white rice, just like green apples and red apples are two different varieties of apple. Wrong. White rice is actually just polished brown rice, aka with the outer hull removed. The hull is what makes brown rice so healthy: all that fibery hull-goodness. The more the rice has been polished, the more it costs and higher quality it is considered. On your left is some mighty fine white sake rice.

What happens next? The sake rice is mixed with water, bacteria, and lactic acid in a big vat. No, that's not rice pudding. That there is the beginning of some delicious sake. The aluminum kettle you see is filled with ice water to keep the mixture cold as it ferments. We got to taste this intersting looking goo. It tasted kind of like super strong yogurt. Very interesting. Below you can see the beaker of lactic acid and also some powdere bacteria. Apparently there are different grades of both these ingredients that are used to make the higher quality sake. Apparently some bacteria are fancier than others. Who knew? I think this is what is called a starter mash.

After the rice is all nice and chalk full of delicious bacteria, the rice is allowed to cure for several days. Here is our rice, curing in a nice warm room. Mmmm. We got to taste this as well. I was skeptical, but went for it. At first it was like chewing on oddly textured rice- not cooked but not soft either. Then came a big yogurty punch. Weird.

After that the rice is brought to these huge barrels and slowly mixed with water to create the sake mash. This is where the magic happens. It's allowed to ferment for about thirteen days at this factory. The high grade sake brew longer at colder temperatures. Interesting fact about these huge vats: Don't stick your head over the openings. Fermenting sake releases carbon monixide, which can instantly make you dizzy and faint. It's seriously like getting in a closed garage with the car turned on. People have died because they faint and then fall in these huge vats to their liquidy death. Morbid? Yes. But darn, what a way to go!

Below are some photos taken carefully from the brim of the vat. On the left is a new mixture, it had only been put in two days ago. In the middle is one that had been brewing for seven days. It used a more traditional brewing process that allowed the mash to ferment a lot more. Yamada-san said they could only fill these vats halfway up with mash or else it would froth over during fermentation. On the left Yamada-san is explaining to Brent, a fellow jujitsu-er, about the process.

Sucess! After brewing, the rice is pressed to let all the delicious sake goodness drain out of the rice. It's hard to see in this picture, but literally little waterfalls of sake are running down this structure. And I got to stick my spoon in and taste it. Ohhh, yeah. Before it's bottled, the last bit of sediment that will float on top of the sake is skimmed off. This is sold as super cheap sake. The rest gets bottled and consumed by millions of Japanese businessmen and fellow sake lovers around the world. We got to sample as well. It was quite delicious. Higher end sake has a kind of fruity flavor, whereas the stuff they skim off the top tastes mostly like rubbing alchohol. I'm making my very serious sake-tasting face, in case you couldn't tell. Masumi-san, the lady in the middle, was going to have to drive in a few hours; so although a shot of sake probably wouldn't hurt, she opted to go by the spoonful method. Brent is very happy to receive free sake.

It was really cool to see how some of the traditional ideas were kept while still moving on to some new technology. I got to learn about an interesting process, see some cool and crazy science, and drink some delicious sake. Nice.

Monday, March 15, 2010

On Beyond Tokyo

So it turns out I had to buy another gadget to get the whole uploading thing to work for my phone. But now, Success! Natalie 1 Japan 0. Take that.

My lovely and crazy friend, Megumi, invited me to come to Tokyo and then on beyond to her hometown in Toyama prefecture at the end of February. I happily agreed, because
1. I really wanted to get out of Shimane
2. Megumi got a job with a company that will be sending her to China at the end of the summer so she'll be leaving me for exotic lands and
3. I've decided not to renew my JET contract, so I'll be coming home at the end of July and I want to see as much of JAPAN before that as I can.

Our adventures were so numerous I'm not sure where to begin. But, I suppose the beginning would be a good place to start.

I ventured to Tokyo by a phenomenon kown as a night bus. In Japan, driving a car is expensive for a plethora of reasons. For one, getting a driver's license costs upwards of $3000 dollars. Also, all highways are tolled so when driving long distances you can choose between spending days using local roads or paying out the ... erm ... nose ... in tolls. Finally, once you actually reach your destination, good luck finding parking. Especially in big cities, parking lots are few and far between and EXPENSIVE when you can find them. For all these reasons and more, Japan has developed many cheap and useful modes of public transportation. The most popular of course is the train but unfortunately in Shimane we don't have a good train system. Even the Shinkansen doesn't go this far, no siree. But there are highway buses that are actually safe and will take you almost anywhere you want to go. I boarded the Susanoo Express (Susanoo is the wind god, he's the one who chopped off Yamata-no-Orochi's eight heads) at 7:30 pm from Shimane, and arrived at Tokyo Station bright and early 6:30 the next morning.

After resting in Starbucks and injecting caffeine (yes, Starbucks has infiltrated Japan too) we wandered over to the grounds of the Imperial Palace, which are a short walk from Tokyo Station. It's rumored that the Emperor actually lives somewhere inside this huge complex, but I'm skeptical. The grounds were breathtaking though. Outside the palace there's a huge park and many gravel pathways. Megumi says the buildings around the palace grounds are have some of the most expensive rent in all of Japan, because the open air of the palace actually allows sunshine to penetrate the widows of the buildings. Seriously, you will never see an open area like this in Tokyo City for any other reason than for the Emperor. We were there a few days before the Tokyo Marathon, so we saw many runners out enjoying the sunshine and training their legs off. Apparently there's a new trend known in Tokyo as 美ジョウッガ (bi jogga) or "beautiful joggers" to whom looking good while running is almost more important than running fast. You'll see them wearing running skirts and sporting clothes complete with cosmetic compartments so they can touch up their makeup as they run. We kept a lookout for these bi-jogga as we were walking and marveled at them.

Next, we crashed the Japanese Diet building. It was pretty interesting. We happened to get there just when hundreds of school kids also were coming on a field trip to their nation's capitol. The nice thing about this was we just tagged along also for a free tour (not that I understood much of what was being said). I was also happy that I didn't have to have a fully body cavity search as I feel I would have if I wanted to tour say, the Senate building or something. The structure and interior decoration was entirely Baroque, which was quite a contrast to the tatami mats and folding screens I was hoping for. Oh, well. We got in trouble for taking a rest in the seats in one of the court rooms, and by in trouble I mean a governmental security guard politely asked us not to sit there. A nice government lady outside even offered to take our picture. I'll admit, I'm not at all interested in politics of any sort, but I'm still proud to be able to say I saw the Diet .

Traveling with Megumi is always a gastrointestinal adventure. We both love eating healthy, international food. So, that afternoon we stopped in for a late lunch at a Vietnamese buffet. Now, let me stress, that it is extremely difficult to find international food in Shimane. There are a handful of "Chinese" places around, a handful of "Italian", and maybe an "Indian" restaurant or two, but that's the extent of it. I put these words in italics because they still taste distincly Japanese .Even those few cuisines can only be found in Izumo or Matsue. So eating in Tokyo is a huge relief. There are all kinds of restaurants everywhere, and we do our best to sample them all. Here we are eating Pho- Vietnam's famous rice noodle soup, and Goi Cun, my very favorite kind of spring roll. YUM. The deal was you ate all you could stomach in 90 minutes for one low price. So, Megumi and I ate for a half hour then took naps in our booth for the next hour, much to the chargrin of our waitress. Heh heh heh.

The next day we took yet another night bus to Toyama, Megumi's home prefecture. Now she told me before we went that it was like Shimane- very countryside and very mountainous, but it's nothing compared to Okuizumo. She even has a mall in her hometown- pretty fancy! Toyama is apparently famous for its medicine and its delicious fish. Medicine salesmen used to go door to door selling their goods, employing a "use now pay later" system. I was fortunate enough not to need to sample the medicine, but I did try the fish and that was VERY good. We stayed at her parents house, which was large and spacious and very lovely- much in contrast to the cramped lifestyle of Tokyo.
This is part of a display for the Hina-Matsuri, or Doll Festival. Hina-matsuri is celebrated on March 3rd and is a festival to pray for the happiness and health of young girls. The display is usually a huge, multi-tiered collection of fifteen dolls each complete with its own accessories. Megumi said her parents got tired this year and only set up the Emperor and Empress, the two most important dolls. I don't blame them! That's a lot of dolls.

We tried on her old PE uniforms. Every school in Japan has two kinds of uniforms: Dress Uniforms and PE uniforms. My two very rural schools, Takata and Takao don't even do the dress uniform thing. In the summer they just run around in their PE uniforms and in the winter they wear normal clothes. I kind of think the kids have good feelings toward their PE uniforms especially, as they're comfortable and casual. Her parents also have a super cute dog named Koro. He's a kind of Shiba-ken, one of the most popular dog breeds in Japan. I love shiba-ken and actually often watch the Shiba-Cam when I can't satiate my need for cute. You can see I'm starved for animal contact at my apartment, save for the goldfish that greet me when I come home, so I spent a lot of time playing with Koro-chan.

The next day we went sightseeing. It was a choice between the Unesco World Heritage Sight in Gokayama or neighboring Kanazawa to visit the Ninja Temple. Gokayama has a charming village built in the gassho-zukuri style, characterized by steep roofs made out of rice straw. I'm sure it's very lovely and important, but come on. You know which one I chose.

The Ninja Temple (it's proper name is actually Myoryuji) was built in the Edo period. I'm going to preface my explanation by saying that I didn't take any pictures, as her cousin came with us and was in charge of the picture taking but then promised to send actual copies by snail mail (ahhh, curse that medieval technology). But, if you click the link above it will take you to the temple's website which has a ninja flash animation that I hope will more than make up for my lack of pictures. Anyway ninjas did not actually inhabit this temple, it got its nickname because of its many trapdoors and hidden rooms. It even has a special hidden room for Seppuku, or ritual suicide, which once you enter you pysically cannot leave. In the Edo period, houses were only allowed to be built two stories high, but this structure had two hidden stories extra. In the courtyard there is a well that supposedly connects to Kanazawa Castle so in case of a surprise attack someone could swim to the castle and warn the Daimyo. As it is a dark, slimy, underwater tunnel several kilometers long I'm not sure to the practicality of such a well, but you can't begrudge them ingenuity. It was a super cool temple, and I definitely recommend it to any ninja-wannabes who visit this fair land.

Sunday evening we took yet another night bus back to Tokyo and arrived there bright and early Monday morning. For my last day in the big city we did some shopping and found some more delicious food. On the right you can see one very popular kind of Japanese food known as 丼 donburi. This basically means rice in a bowl with stuff on it. In Okuizumo, since we're famous for our beef, 牛丼gyudon or beef rice bowl is very popluar. I would just like to note that most kanji in the Japanese language are hardworking little suckers, appearing in many different combinations to make many different words. However, the kanji 丼 just means "rice bowl with stuff on top". That's it. No wasting time fraternizing with other words. Pretty funny, actually. Anyway my rice bowl was a seafood bonanza. Yes, that is an octopus tentacle poking out and yes, I actually ate it. The little red balls are salmon roe known as ikura. No, I didn't eat those. Luckily they're Megumi's favorite so she happily took them off my hands. My favorite? Salmon. Now in the states I was a pretty strict vegetarian, even a vegan at one point. But Japan, with its ubiquitous and delicious seafood, as well as its propensity to put meat into unexpected places, has made me chill out a lot. I still consider myself a vegetarian but, dear god, do I love salmon.

That afternoon Megumi's roommate Chie asked us to participate in her own filming of GeGeGe no Kitaro, a famous anime whose artist, auspiciously enough, is from Shimane. In this anime our hero Kitaro hunts ghosts and monsters but, ironically, is a goblin himself.
I got cast as 九尾 the nine-tailed fox god and had to memorize lines. That was an interesting feat, as Chie wrote the dialogue in old Japanese, which is kind of like asking a foreigner to memorize lines from the King James Bible or Shakespeare. Megumi got cast as Sunakake Baba, a creepy old woman. Her roommates are all really cool and diverse people. The girl with the huge red bow (Bun-chan) and the girl with the gum-taped head (Naomi-chan) both did study abroad in Germany. In fact you can see the video Naomi's german boyfriend filmed for her here, Naomi Come Back. I'm not gonna lie, it's fantastic. The director, Chie, is about to graduate and start work as a video game designer. Her other roommate was at work at this time and thus not in the picture, but she's traveled all around the world too and is a hilarious person. Anyway, as soon as Chie edits and puts together anime, I'll post the YouTube link. I promise. Even though it's going to be embarrassing. They've already filmed a couple Sailor Moon Episodes which I'm trying to find online too. Those crazy girls.

One last exhausting bus ride later and I was back in good old Shimane. Four night busses in 6 days= exhaustion.

There's a saying in Japanese that goes 出会いがあれば別れもあり "If there's a meeting then there's a parting". Unfortunately this is true in our relationships But for certain people in my life, I'm sure that just as many times as we part we will meet again. Good luck in China, Megu-chan!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Time Warp- Sports Day

I had a great, great time in Tokyo and Toyama last week, and I fully intend to write a dazzling, breathtaking blog about my adventures. In fact, specifically for this purpose I bought a cable that can connect my phone to my computer and get all the fabulous pictures I took off my camera. After an entire week of work, I finally was able to successfully download the driver for this cable. Now my computer recognizes there is a phone connected to my computer . . . but that's it. I have no idea how to get my pictures. CURSE YOU, TECHNOLOGY!!!!!!!!!

Anyway until I can get that going, I decided to write a blog that I skipped from when I was just a newbie here. In Japan, every school has a phenomena known as Sports Day. Sports day involves the entire school participating in various athletic events that range from the usual to the extreme. Here at Nita Middle School, the students divided into three groups- blue, red, and yellow. I was officially a member of the red group, although I didn't get to participate in any events and spent most of the day knitting a pumpkin. Our Sports Day was in the beginning of September and we were blessed with some sunshine and only slighly nippy weather. All the events took place on the track behind the school- complete with gratuitous mountain vista in the back.

As I mentioned, events varied from normal to wayyyyy out there. There were relay races-駅伝 or ekiden. And when I mean there were relay races, I mean THERE WERE RELAY RACES. A lot of them. I counted, and without overestimating there were approximately 1,128 different ekiden, with every possible combination of students. (Ok, it might have only felt like 1,128. Still.) But we all know you don't wanna read about relay races. You want to know about the odd events. And oh boy, can I accomodate you.

One event was called むかでが多い!or Too Many Mukade! Remember the blog post about that horrifying insect known as the Mukade? It's like a centipede on steriods. With poison. In this race, the boys got their feet tied together to look like this monster in a kind of ten person three-legged race. (How many legs does that make? Eight?) After that it was pretty straightforward- the team who can run around the track the fastest wins. Of course, hilarity ensued as half the teams toppled over in piles of wiggling limbs. I thought the gloves on the head boy were a nice touch.

Another great even was a kind of capture the flag. But in this capture the flag, five boys held up a pole with a flag on the top, and three boys from another team have to climb on top of the other boys to capture the flag. Imagine lots of smelly feet in faces, stepping on heads, and the like. Excellent.

This last even was probably the most extreme. Did you notice all the students were wearing headbands marking the color of their team? Well, in this even on boy sat on the shoulders of two teammates, and tried to attack his rivals and rip the headbands off their noggins. Extreme, right? In fact this even boasted the greatest injury- one boy got scratched in the eye and fell off his teammate brethren and bumped his head. He was carried off the track in the arms of the principal, bleeding on Mr. Fukuda-san's nice suit. I asked Mr. Fukuda-san about the boy later. "Oh, he's fine" he said. "Just a scratch."

It's not that the girls didn't have interesting events too, they just weren't as intense as the boy's competition. I found one even particularly sexist however, as it was called 掃除 souji or "Cleaning" and involved the girls using huge brooms to sweep soccer balls through an obstacle course. Hmmmm.

A major part of the points was divvied out to the team who won the cheerleading competition. I'm posting the Blue Team's video below for your watching pleasure. In the beginning of this video, the four boys in drag are supposed to be coming over from America. What do are they dressed as? A nerd, a cowboy, a school girl, and a chesty blonde.
God Bless America.

May I just add that there was no adult supervision or choreographing in these cheers. Teams of third years took over the entire thing, practicing every day for a month during lunch break and for hours after school. Now that's dedication. Lafayette Jeff Students, wanna have a cheerleading competition too?

Although the yellow team won the cheerleading competition- guess who took home the gold!!! YAY RED TEAM!

Sports Day is one of the most important days of the year in Japanese schools. Every school has their own sports day, from kindergartens to high schools. I actually got to go to a kindergarted sports day- it was one of the most fun and adorable things ever. I didn't take any pictures because the cuteness was overwhelming.

Someday, someday I will figure out my phone, and you all will get caught up on March. Until then, hope you enjoyed this time warp!