Monday, May 31, 2010


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.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Buddhist Wedding Ceremony

Oh, where to begin?

In Okuizumo is a building known as the Shimane School of Design . It's basically a little art school where students can get an Associate's Degree in Art. Nozomi, my friend from the TV station, graduated from said school, and we visited last last Autumn to film an episode of Attack English! We were invited back for a one day pottery seminar. The teacher of that seminar is named Kaori, and last month she invited me to go to her wedding, which just happened to be a completely rare and lavish Buddhist Wedding Ceremony as she is marrying a Buddhist monk named Ippo, which is now my new favorite male name.
Got it? Good.

"Why is a Buddhist Wedding Ceremony so rare?" you might ask. "Aren't you in Japan- land of Buddhism?" Well you are right. There are a lot of Buddhists in Japan. In fact, Japan's two main religions are Buddhism and Shintoism, and the two live harmoniously together in this strange land. Shinto 神道 or "The Path of the Gods" is Japan's native religion and focuses on nature worship and cleansing rituals. Buddhism 仏教 was brought over to Japan from China via Korea during the Nara Period. An interesting fact is that many Japanese people observe both Shinto and Buddhist holidays, but normally funerals are observed using Buddhist rituals and weddings are celebrated with Shinto rituals.

"Oh, I got it." you respond. "So most Japanese weddings are Shinto." Wrong again. In recent years Western style weddings have become popluar, so most Japanese weddings are held in a Chapel with the big poofy dress and funny looking priests and the whole shabang. This is how people like my friend James from Canada can make a living in Japan by being white and playing the part of a priest... errr. "Celebrant" for wedding ceremonies. Basically, few Japanese people have seen a Shinto wedding ceremony, and almost none have seen a Buddhist ceremony. So I'm one lucky gaijin.

The actual ceremony was held at Ippo's temple in Shinji, a town about an hour from me. On a side note, Buddhist places of worship are temples 寺 (tera) and Shinto buildings are shrines 神社 (jinja). When I first arrived at the temple I felt awkard with many elderly kimono-clad Japanese people who obviously belonged there. Luckily soon some of Kaori's friends showed up and adopted me, so although I stood out like a sore thumb at least I belonged there. It was really a beautiful ceremony. It encomassed all the senses- incense was lit, bells were rung and prayers chanted, there were beautiful robes and decorations, and the guests indulged in some delicious Sake
I couldn't tell you most of the things that went on during the ceremony, mostly because I didn't understand them. But it was beautiful.

Above is a picture of the wedding party which includes Kaori and Ippo's family.

Although most of the attendants wore black (which is a no-no both in Chapel and Shinto ceremonies, it's apparently OK in Buddhist ceremonies) I was dressed in my nicest bright blue dress. Just one more way to stick out without meaning to. Kaori actually was granted permission to borrow two hundred-year-old kimono for this occasion. She also rented the headdress, hairpieces, silverware, and traditional house. Her first kimono was a lovely silk white-on-white design, decorated with cranes and pine trees. Underneath the headdress is a wig with a traditional wedding hairstyle which she reported hurt her head. Ippo wore his finest monk's robes, which looked exactly like the robes all the other monks were wearing. After the actual wedding vows were exchanged we enjoyed a tea ceremony in the temple gardens.

For part two of the wedding festivities we moved to a giant traditional old house in Izumo built over 150 years ago. At this point the wedding was bombarded with news crews and bystanders all eager to see this unique and ancient ceremony. In fact, we made the nine o'clock news that night and the Sunday papers next morning. The wedding party marched to the house and was serenaded with ancient songs.

Next came the feast. Kaori chose many traditional Japanese dishes, and Ippo and the mothers-in-law took care of the cooking. Kaori's friend told me in shock that the fish all the guests ate were caught that morning by Ippo himself, and he also prepared the soba noodles that the guests enjoyed. I asked Kaori's friends if the groom usually made such efforts and the girls laughed. No, certainly not. This was a singular ceremony indeed.
Some of the dishes you see above include: kameboko (fish cakes), clear soup, tofu, chawan-mushi (an egg dish) soba noodles (made by the groom), nishime (boiled vegetables with sugar), sashimi (featuring fresh fish caught by the groom), pickled vegetables, fresh fruit, tempura, plum wine, sake, and tea.

During the feast Kaori changed from her white kimono to her black kimono and removed her headress. The head monk, the families, and the bride and groom also gave speeches. I chatted with some of the other bystanders who were also amazed at such an extravagent and traditional ceremony. Kaori made each guest beautiful porcelain cups with a celedon glaze, and elegant chopstick holders which we were allowed to take home with us. From here on she will start holding pottery demonstrations at the temple to become more active in Buddhism. Although the actual wedding ceremony only took about an hour, this feasting, congratulating, and drinking took about four hours.

The third part of the wedding ceremony was only for us younguns'- the partying. I am pleased to say I spent the rest of the night partying with some Buddhist Monks. Outside of their Buddhist robes they are normal men. One loved rap and tried to talk to me about underground rap and hip hop artists, although I am more than slightly emberassed to say he knew wayyyyyyyyyyy more about it than I did. Another was a basketball fanatic and happily chatted to me about the Big Ten Tournament in the states, how he loved Larry Bird, was scared of Bobby Knight, and saddened by the IU Ladybird's recent performance drop. Another monk adopted Obama's "Yes We Can!" motto and cheered everyone on all night.

What can I say? This day blew away all my expectations and pre-conceived notions. I was welcomed into a traditional yet rare ceremony, made some new friends, and partied with some Buddhist monks. Top that.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Katakuri / Spring is here!

Everyone agrees that it has been a long, hard winter, and Okuizumo was certainly no exception. We even had snow in the second week of April. But it seems that FINALLY spring is really here, and we can all go outside to play again.

Last week was Golden Week, and my favorite guy Motohide came to visit me. His purpose in coming to Japan was 1. To eat as much sushi as possible and 2. To propose to me. I teased him about which was higher on the list, especially after seeing his consumption of Kaitensushi. One day he ate 21 plates and the next 22. Man, that boy is a sushi killer.

Anyway, fish aside, we had a lot of fun and took Hiroshima and Shimane by storm. We saw everything- from the beaches to the mountains. In fact, the Fukudas invited us to go mountain climbing. Now it is slightly ironic that people constantly surrounded by mountains and always driving through, over, and around them are such gluttons for punishment that they want to CLIMB them as well, but who am I to judge? Moto and I agreed, and we four set our sights on Mt. Sentzu 船通山which is probably the most badass mountain ever. Why? Well for starters, according to legend when the storm god Susanoo was expelled from heaven he came down this mountain. They also say the base of this mountain is where he defeated the eight headed serpent Yamata-no-Orochi. And legends aside, on the peak of the mountain blooms a very special and beautiful flower known as the Katakuri, which only blooms one week every two years. So we were pretty stoked to climb.

Although the mountain is "only" 1.1 kilometers high (less than a mile) the winding path to the top was probably four or five kilometers long, and it was vertical most of the way. Mr. Fukuda-san is a mountain climbing machine. He volunteers in some sort of forest protection club and therefore climbs regularly. He started us out at a pace that, while walking horizontally seemed painfully slow, but as we climbed higher and higher started to feel pretty sprightly. Mrs. Fukuda-san probably only climbs once a year or so and was happy to walk slowly and enjoy the scenery. Mr. Fukuda-san pointed out many cool flowers and plants that are indigenous to the area, so we got to take some breathers. We also met a motley crew of friendly mountain climbing folks around the way- everyone from little kids to grandparents over seventy. My favorite was a ballsy couple- the man was smoking a cigarette and wearing sandals and the woman was wearing pumps. Still, it was our first time, and the climb took two hours, so we were a little tired for sure.

But the view at the top took my breath away

the fields of katakuri are one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen

they greeted us with their natural beauty like little prizes once we reached the peak

It was truly amazing. The feilds of katakuri were roped off so people wouldn't step on them. They are really precious flowers- they can only survive in high altitudes with special soil. Although they only bloom every two years, the seeds stay alive in hibernation in the years they don't bloom. As a result, many of these flowers are over nine years old (at least their seeds are).

Many families and groups of friends were gathered at the top, picnicking and enjoying the flowers. Some people even brought little butane stoves so they could make cup ramen and miso soup. Mrs. Fukuda-san packed us onigiri (rice balls sometimes with fish or vegetable inside- kind of like Japan's version of a sandwich) and tea. We took a nap in the sun and awoke refreshed, sunburnt, slightly aching, and very happy.
They warned me beforehand that going down is actually harder than going up, but I didn't realize how true that was until my legs started shaking like jelly from the descent. But it was great fun, and I can't wait to go again.