Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Taking Classes, Keeping Busy, Indoctrinating Myself in Japanese Culture

Soba noodles are one of my favorite things to eat here, so I jumped at the opportunity to take a class in how to make them!  My basic conclusion is that I will NEVER make them, they are so difficult and time oriented and I probably would have to make them ten million times before they even resembled something close to what they should be like.  I suppose such is the way of hand-making any sort of pasta-y thing.  Here, the soba sensei cuts us a mean noodle lickety-split.
Rolling out the dough.  Soba is made from buckwheat flower and it smells really nice when you are kneading it and rolling it.
The art of Japanese calligraphy is called Shodo and from my basic introduction to it, I found that choosing a Chinese character to draw and drawing it for over two hours its really challenging.  As the artist, you must interpret and embody the feeling of this character and then learn to perfect this, or at least arrive at some level of refined form.  Ok, I am in no way licensed to talk about shodo in any sort of informed way, but that is just sort of the bare bones.  I chose the kanji for forest, which is mori and for two hours drew it and after about three trees worth of practice I really couldn't tell if I had made progress in any direction.  Everyone taking the class was middle aged and seemed pretty adept and focused.  This man is working on the kanji for wind.  At one point he added water to his ink to make it a light grey so that it had a lighter feeling, I was amazed at the flexibility of this art. 
The beginning of making soba noodles.  It take many hands to make a noodle.  You have to knead this play-dough like rock of dough until it is ready to be rolled out.
The Ikea of Cooking Schools!  ABC Cooking is a cooking studio located in my favorite mall, right next to my house.  It is full of pastel-y bright colors and men are not allowed!  You can chose from a variety of Japanese and international cuisine, bread and cake courses to be personally instructed in by a very cute instructor.
We made a pork curry.  To be honest, I will never make it again... it was a little weird.  Giner, garlic, onion with ground pork, ketchup, soy sauce, grated coconut and curry powder.  It tasted great, it was just the ketchup/coconut combo that turned me off.  
The studio is full of cute friend-couples.  The only requirement for the course is that you bring aprons and slippers.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

It's Fun to Hang Out with Japanese People

There's no time like the summer time/fall for a festival! Eating shaved ice and getting wicked sunburned while little kids run around eating candy and screaming gives me such fond memories of the 4th of July or any county fair of my childhood. The difference here is that summer festivals feel like this window of opportunity to see people let loose a little (and this seems to make a huge difference for a people who seem ultra-composed most of the time). This is a festival I just went to with one of the teachers I teach with in a small town to the west of Kagoshima city. I ate lychee slushy and drew a mountain scene on a tile and watched little kids in various costumes being forced to perform and couldn't have been happier.
What is cuter than Japanese kids in uniforms? Nothing. Ok, Japanese kids in uniforms and hats with chin straps. There you go.
These kids were carrying the kid-version of Shinto shrines to offer thanks to various spirits and gods for the rice harvest. Woo hoo!

Once and while when I am walking home from the bus stop or wandering through my neighborhood I see little kids playing on playgrounds wearing this kind of hat. Wow, it has a chin strap so it doesn't fall off and a neck flap so you don't get sunburned on the back of your neck (yeah, it really hurts to get sunburned there), or at least that's what I figure its for.
Jumping on ahead, this is what it is like to get really drunk and become convinced you can karaoke to Shakira to impress your new Japanese friends that you can sing in Spanish. Whoops.
Karaoking friends! Ultimately anything goes...they forgave me for Shakira, so I went on to some Mariah Carey and no one will ever forget that...
In mid August there was a fireworks festival (Hanabi Matsuri) in Kagoshima city. For an hour or so they set off fireworks over the bay and they actually were pretty impressive. Everyone got real dressed up for the occasion. Young women wear summer kimono called yukata that are much more lightweight than kimono and they put these snazzy bows on them. If they want to be super cute they curl their hair real big and have a small clutch to go along.
People are often very supportive when I take pictures of them. These guys were so delighted they gave me some free ginseng drink that tasted like wood and absynthe.
The Hanabi Matsuri was the first time that I saw people eating in public. In Japan it is taboo to eat in public (as a Japanese friend whispered to me "that's what poor people do!"), which I find to be fairly inconvenient if you want a snack on the go, so that is yet another Japanese social code that I don't abide by. But here we have lots of stands selling all kinds of treats. What a great feeling to walking around with a stick of grilled pork in one hand and a beer in the other and just oggle the fireworks and the people!
More yukata from behind. I just can't figure out how they tie those bows!
More people delighted that I am pointing a camera at them. Also, no Japanese person can take a casual photo without their friend the peace sign. I don't know why... I've tried asking people "Why does everyone like the peace sign so much?" but maybe that is just a ridiculous question in itself.
To jump topics a little, here is some sushi with charred mayonaise. Japanese people have a huge mayonaise shaped hole in their hearts and I'm not really into it. Conveyor belt sushi is the way to go, its real cheap (I get make it out of there having eaten 'til I'm full and had some sake for no more than $12) and the food comes at you on a conveyor belt! It's really interesting to experience what kinds of sushi exist here that don't at home and vice versa.
For instance, baby squid on rice, and its hard to see it, but in the background is mayonaise tuna with corn. Yeah. Also they are really fond of a sort of cottage cheese with corn wrapped in nori (the seaweed wrap) and most kinds of sashimi can come with mayonaise on top that has been lit on fire by the chef. I haven't gone there with the tuna and corn, but the charred mayo on fish isn't that bad...
I love a trip to the grocery store at home, but here I feel like I am young again. So many wacky things to look at and really delicious foods! I usually go to at least one grocery store a day to just check out what they got or wander around hypnotized by the florescent lights. Ha, a lot of aisles have little movie screens with cartoon characters that convince you to buy a certain kind of yoghurt or chips.
Back to the festivals, here is some okonomiyaki, grilled cabbage egg and other goodies.
Grilled mochi and squid. Delish! You just get that squid stick and really chew on it for half an hour and you feel like you really accomplished something.
Making Japanese friends, Part II. One day Philip and I were walking through a park and saw a group of people drinking red wine. While wine is available here, its not too great and for some reason Japanese people think that all red wine should be served chilled... But anyway, we were really drawn to it after weeks of only rice or sweet potato alcohols and were invited to join the party.
We ended up having dinner at a shabu shabu restaurant. You get a big bowl of boiling broth and swish thinly sliced raw pork through it until it cooks and then dip it in a vinegar-y sauce and its like a dream.
This is called nabe, a big pot where you cooks lots of veggies, mushrooms, tofu and meats in a broth and presto! Incredible soupy goodness!
The meat before cooking it! Mmmm.

Here is a video of the cutest kids in the world, doing the cutest thing ever - playing tiny drums!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Assorted Pictures from August

This is one of my favorite things to eat in Japan.  You get a bunch of raw meats and grill them on a little grill right in front of you.  Once they are done to your liking ( I like it super rare baby ) you dip it in a delicious sauce and have it with rice.  Mmmm!  
And you have to be properly outfitted for any meatfest.  They think of everything here.
Some of the funniest Engrish I have seen yet.  Oh god! Its every where! I always wonder why they just don't hire someone to walk around and check everything...not hard!  Ahaha, this sign was in front of a sweets shop where they were making sweet potato deserts.
I love koi so much! They are like sweet little dogs - you come to the edge of the water and they all come swimming up to you opening and closing their mouths.  I wish I could always have treats in my pockets for them.  In a lot of the cities I have been to around Kagoshima there are always small streams along the sidewalk somewhere in the main part of the city that is full of koi.

A very delicious set menu at a restaurant near my house.
Dragon fruit!  Very dramatic with that juice that stains anything that looks at it and those tiny black seeds... Actually completely tasteless!  So disapointing.
The Terakuni Jinja, a beautiful temple just above Ten Park.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Trip To Yakushima Island

Philip trying to make nigiri sushi as everyone cheers him on.  The chef made it look so easy, but you know how that goes.  

The town of Anbo, on the east side of Yakushima island.  After many hours of confusion due to a lack of tents at the campsite Philip and I thought we would stay at and being rejected from sleeping in the living room of the office of campsite because we weren't married, we found a really great cheap inn run by one of the few people I have been able to identify as a "hippy" in Japan.  Anbo is a beautiful little town right on the sea and we immediately went to a restaurant recommended by our inn keeper. 

Haha, this is what the menu looks like at most smaller Japanese restaurants.  It is often very frustrating, but mostly just funny that I live in this place that offers so much, but because I can't read most Japanese yet... I'm a little stuck.  At restaurants if there aren't pictures of the food, most often I just ask for what the cook recommends and never have been let down.  We spent two nights at this restaurant eating local specialties like deer sashimi, tempura flying fish, and some of the most incredible sashimi I have ever had.
We became friends with the chef who showed us how to mix beer with the leftover crab in its shell and drink the rest of the crab-beer straight from the shell.  Philip said he wanted to learn to make sushi and the chef brought out the fixings for a demo and a challenge for Philip.  By this time most people had left the restaurant and we were all up to our necks in shouchu.  The chef insisted on making us our breakfast and lunch for our hike the next day and had us come to the restaurant at 4 am to pick up our bentos.  We knocked on the door and slid it open and there he was, snoring on the tatami in front of us.  He roused himself and walked us to our bus and saw us off.  Oh, Japanese hospitality!
We set off at 4 am after a night of drinking and eating and bleary eyed, we took a bus to the head of the trail.  The main attraction is Jomon sugi, one of the oldest cedar trees in the world (somewhere between 2 and 8 thousand years old).  It was a nine hour hike up and down the mountain and it rained a tropical rain most of the time, but incredible!  When we arrived at the head of the trail I was astonished to see many circle of heavily outfitted people doing group stretches!  Hilarious! I was a little too tired at that point to join in, but sat on a rock and ate my bento breakfast of rice, egg, and fish and watched everyone flap their arms around in coordination.  For most of the hike we walked along an old railroad track or wooden staircase that led into the hills, like this one.
Stopping for lunch along the path.
A man eats his bento lunch on the side of the trail. Mmmm!
The View from inside a giant tree trunk that had a spring running through it.
A tiny buck picks his way through the forest along our trail.
The river we followed for most of the hike. 
Misting mountains at around 6 am.
On the walk down the mountain the river started looking really tempting, but no one else was swimming in it so we weren't sure how jumping into the rushing river would be met by the other very rule oriented hikers.  Philip and I remembered how in the Polish Alps we had jumped into a slow moving river and everyone around us freaked out and kept exclaiming we would be swept away.   It seems that a lot of cultures had some sort of river phobia... or maybe just a general swimming fear.  Anyway, we got a good swim in that beautiful cold river.
We encountered lots of these ridiculously adorable fuzzy deer, some had spots, and all were about the size of small goats!  The night before our hike, Philip and I had eaten deer sashimi...mmmm sounds a little strange but absolutely delicious.  Cheers Mr. Deer!
I hiked the nine hour trek in only my sandals... my hiking shoes had yet to be shipped to me so I relied on these old friends.  Japanese people are the ultimate gear nerds - everyone is outfitted to the max and in the latest season's fashions for hiking/outdoor gear.  A little too much if you ask me, but anyway everyone kept staring at my shoes and exclaiming and saying how strong I was.  Like it was some super human feat to break free of all the prescribed outdoor store gear and just try some sandals.   Ok, yeah, my feet hurt after the sixth hour of walking, but I got really tired of people pointing at my shoes and gasping so I had to keep my head up.
This is a map of Kagoshima prefecture and the dark green island is Yakushima island.  It was about three hours by "jetfoil" ferry (a really fast boat that feels like you are flying over the water) from Kagoshima city.  On the whole ride they played baseball on the tv screens in the passenger cabin and once again I realized how effing boring baseball is.