Saturday, July 19, 2008

Last few weeks: Sukiyaki, Sue, and the farewell parties

The past few weeks have been really busy. The day after we got back from Fuji san we had a "sukiyaki party" with the local ramen chef and his girlfriend. Sukiyaki is a delicious Japanese beef dish that you cook at you table with soy sauce, veggies, tofu... We went out to a local onsen(hot spring) with the two of them and then back to the ramen shop for sukiyaki. It was a Monday, which is his one day off, and it was just the four of us. It was wonderful.

Charlie prepping for dinner. (The first time we met him, he told us we could call him Charlie)

Charlie and his girlfriend.

We had a few more days of school to make it through until Sue's arrival. Then on Thursday night we headed to Kansai Airport and happily met her there. We had a great week with her. We spent a lot of the time in Kyoto, but were able to do some new things too. We went to Himeji and Himeji castle, Kobe, Kurama Onsen(awesome), and had a lot of relaxing time. It was great to hang out with Sue and she was here to celebrate our third anniversary!

Sue and I at Himeji castle.

Sue and Dan eating Okonomyaki and Yakisoba.

Dan and I on our 3rd anniversary.

After Sue left, we had the boating club farewell party, one week left of school, and then a farewell party from the board of education on the last day. For those of you who haven't stayed on top of our day to day happenings, we have gone sailing with a group of old men this year five or six times and spent extensive time with one of them. So they threw us a party at a nice platform restaurant in Kyoto. The restaurant has a back deck that extends out over part of the Kamogawa River. Along the downtown portion of this river it is lined with restaurants like this, but we were told they we expensive, so hadn't tried one yet. It was really nice.
Platform dinning in Kyoto

Me, Dan, Toshio, and Matsuda san

We then had a week of school to finish up. The students were really great and came and told us many thank yous. I even had one boy manage to tell me he would be "a little sad" when we leave. So, Friday night we had the Board of Ed. farewell party. It was much more formal than we had anticipated. When we arrived(on time) everyone was already there and seated. We were lead to our seats up at the head table with the superintendent, the principals, and three unknown but very important people who later gave speeches. A few peoeple spoke, Dan and I spoke, and then we were presented with a gift from the city, a beautiful ceramic platter. All of our teacher buddies were seated over at another table. I was surrounded by people who didn't speak English, but were unphased by the fact I spoke very little Japanese. This was funny, because 5 feet away was a table of bilingual friends. Anyway- the party was nice. It was held at a local restaurant, which we were happy about, because we like the owners. There was a formal Kanpai(toast), and many small meet, vegetable, and fish dishes served. After dinner, teachers from each school gave us a gift, we had a group photo, and then I noticed everyone was standing up looking at us. I recieved a quick nod at our belongings from Attarashi sensei and asked Dan if we should leave. He was quickly told by Nambu sensei that it was the Japanese way and that he would follow us. So everyone was standing there waiting for us to leave, but we didn't know it. Very funny!
Farewell party

Us with some principals and teachers

Formal picture with owl

After the party, we went out with Nambu sensei and met Kinoshita sensei and some other teachers for karaokeing in Kusatsu. It was our first time and we liked it better than American karaoke. Here you rent a room and can order food and drinks by phone to the room, where you sit around with a small group of friends and do casual karaoke. Dan and I lead it off with the Bangles' Eternal Flame(there was a small English selection). We then realized everyone else was really good- really really good. After a few drinks, we were getting requests for Disney songs. We quickly shot those down, but were somehow tricked into singing a Beauty in the Beast duet. They loved it. I can't believe it took us all year to try this!

Nambu sensei and I

Dan on the mic

Kinoshita sensei(on the left) and two other Ritto teachers

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Fuji san, 3776m

Last weekend we took Friday off and headed over to Fujiyoshida, a small mountain town at the foot of Mt. Fuji. Apparently, this is where the ancient Fuji san pilgrims would start from, so there is a tori gate and a shrine that make the entrance to Mt. Fuji. All the pictures from the town show great views of Fuji, but he was hidden behind a giant cloud the days we were there. It wasn’t really cloudy out, but there was just a big cloud hiding the highest mountain in Japan.

It is still “rainy season”, so we didn’t know what we’d get, but we actually had wonderful weather for our hike. On our train ride to Fujiyoshida, we met an Irish girl. We talked for a while and then parted ways. Saturday morning, Dan and I got up early to go get some food before the big hike. We ate delicious cinnamon toast and coffee at a cute café, then took the train to the station to catch the Mt. Fuji 5th station bus.

After we bought our bus tickets and took our spot in line, I ran into the Irish girl, Blaitin, again. She came on the same bus and the three of us ended up spending a grueling nine hours together. We took the bus up to Fuji’s fifth station, which is where most people start these days. The volcano has ten stations, the tenth being at the summit.

The first hour or two wasn’t too bad. We occasionally passed a hut or a station and had many “konnichiwas” along the way. Most people start at night, sleep in a hut, then climb up to the summit for sunrise. We were not interested in climbing at night, nor during the “official season” when 10,000 people a day attempt the climb(I have seen pictures and people are just wainting in lines on the trails). This along with many things we’ve done, proved to confuse people. Climbing Fuji san, like most things in Japan is done one way. Anyway- Dan was leading the way and Blaitin and I were trailing. We were in one big cloud and everything was foggy and hard to see. At one point around the seventh station she almost turned around, but didn’t and then around the eigth station I felt like turning back too. After that point it just became treacherous. I had never climbed at that elevation before, and it proved to be a different animal. Every switchback or two I would have to stop and catch my breath. After a while the clouds broke a bit and we could see parts of Fuji and the big patches of snow that still hung around. There was one spot where people were stopped and looking at something, so we went over to see what it was. There were a couple crazy people snowboarding down a huge field of snow. I also heard reports that people were seen carrying mountain bikes to the top. Crazy!

Here I am around the ninth station.

This is Blaitin and I chuggin up the mountain from Dan's view.

Finally after five hours, we reached the summit. It was amazing. I felt awful. It started snowing a little. I got my photo taken with some old Japanese ladies who had made it up there. Old Japanese ladies are tough for the record. I constantly see really old ladies riding bikes, tending to rice fields, and doing their neighborhood assigned duties. Much different from old people in the US. So- once at the top my main concern was the crater. I had read that some people have fallen fatally into the crater or been blown off the top of the volcano by high winds. Neither of those things happened to us, so I was relieved about that. The crater was interesting to see, and we took lots of photos with it.

We hung out up top for about an hour, then headed back down the steep mountain. I felt like I was weightless. I loved going down, but Dan said it was more difficult for him than coming up. It took four hours to get back to the fifth station. It was still technically off season, so buses stopped at two thirty. We were prepared for the worst- hiking all the way to Fujiyoshida. Luckily some hiker took a cab up to the station to start their hike just as we were ending ours and for the bargain price of 12,000\(about 120$ ), we were happily driven back to our hostel. Having three people to split the cab made it bareable. So, in celebration of our tremendous feat, the three of us went out for dinner. We ended up at a place called “Skylark Gusto”. A Japanese take on the American family restaurant. The fries and beer tasted great and afterwards, I was so tired that I almost didn’t make the walk back to the hostel.

Me, Dan, and Blaitin next to Fuji san's crater.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Wrappin it up...

This is me by the Kamogawa in Kyoto.

So, we’ve begun the great count down. We have one week until we go to Fujisan, two weeks until Sue comes, four weeks left of school, and five weeks left in Japan.

I won’t say that their aren’t mixed feelings about the approaching end of our Japanese adventure, but more than anything, I am excited to go back to the US and relax. Unlike the train systems and the sweet car technology, that is something that the people here have not mastered. People here don’t relax, or their relaxing is working. I don’t believe everyone really likes it enough to validate the extremeness of it though.

The one place here that we have found a little oasis of relaxation is in Kyoto by the Kamogawa. The Kamogawa is a wide shallow river that runs through the city. It’s not even all that pretty. Like the mountains up in Nagano. The mountains were pretty, but while I was skiing, I kept noticing the beautiful view always included some concrete support structure somewhere, holding a piece of the mountain in place. The Kamogawa has that going on. The whole bank and bed has bed cementified. It’s nice enough to sit next to and drink a beverage. So, that’s what people do. On a nice day, people sit along the river, drink beer, barbeque, and just hang out. This is the only place in Japan I have seen this happen(other than cherry blossom season, and then it’s sake, not beer). I love it.

I must make a disclaimer. We are in Kansai(the region around Kyoto). People in Kansai are old school. They love being Japanese and seem to conform even more than other parts of the country. It’s even evident in the clothes people where. Here you don’t really see tank tops or sunglasses. I was once told by someone I consider to be relatively “normal” for this area that “we think that sunglasses are showy”. They don’t, however feel that wearing gloves, huge welding masks, scarves and umbrellas in the middle of summer, to block the sun from their whitened skin, is showy. But, go an hour south(Osaka) and people are wearing more “normal” clothes. Last time we were in Osaka, I even saw a girl with a sun tan!

Anyway- the end is near. I am mostly happy about it, but Dan and I were talking about what we’ll miss most about Japan:

#1 not the job

#2 the trains

#3 the healthy food at convenience stores

#4 some of the people we’ve met

#5 the Kamogawa

Here are some pictures of what we’ve been up to lately:)

Here I am making takoyaki(octopus balls) with Kinoshita sensei. I love Kinoshita sensei.

Here we are with the Fukadas. We went up to the top of that bridge. This bridge has the longest distance between the support things of any suspension bridge.

This is a kiln in Shigaraki. Shigaraki is a town up in the mountains known for it's history of pottery.

This is us out in Kyoto with our friend Masami.

This is the sunset view from Koshien Stadium(between Osaka and Kobe), where we went to see the Hanshin Tiger baseball game.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Cooking Nihongo Style Part 2

So, another teacher that we work with invited us to come and cook with them. I personally like this trend. This time it was one of our favorite sensei, Noda sensei. He works at Ritto Chugako and sits across from our desk. He is an art teacher and seems to have things in common with both Dan and I.

We were invited to come over to his house for a gyoza making session, lunch and then out to the Kusatsu aquarium with his daughters. He said he would pick us up at our house at 11:00 by car.

Right at 11:00 our doorbell rang. We opened it to find not only Noda sensei and his two daughters, but also a friend of the girls. This meant I had to run back up stairs and grab another Michigan pencil and piece of candy, because instead of two nine and ten year old kids to impress, there were now three.

We left and went directly to Noda’s house in Kusatsu. It was in an area we had never been to(meaning it wasn’t right by the train station), and it seemed nicer then many neighborhoods that we had seen up until then. Not in a fancy money way, but more in a there are stores to walk to, friendly neighbors, etc. kind of way.

We went in, were offered slippers and coffee and a seat on the tatami, while Noda finished prepping for our class. The three girls, Nao and Natsuki, his daughters, and Yuka, the friend, came and sat with us. Yuka by the way was wearing a cast on her left arm because she broke it playing dodgeball. Natsuki was present for the breaking. We proceeded to drill them with half English and half Japanese questions that we had vocabulary for: What is your favorite color?, What animals do you like?, How old are you?, etc. They giggled and hid their faces and eventually started asking us similar questions.

Then the coffees were done and Noda announced that it was time to make gyoza. He had already mixed the ground pork/beef, onion, garlic, cabbage mixture. The girls, Dan, and I surrounded the mixture and began. The girls showed us how to dip the wrapper halfway in egg, add some meat mixture, and then fold and pinch the wrapper. After formed, we placed the dumplings on a floured plate. When we finished, Noda told me that we had made 90 gyoza.

To finish the gyoza we went back to the tatami room and sat on our knees around the low table with a big electric frying pan on it. We fried up the gyoza and feasted on them, curry and rice, and salad. The girls had heard that we liked curry and rice, so they had prepared it for us. After lunch, we were suckered into a few card games before we left for the aquarium. The kids were really nice, so we obliged and played speed and some Japanese version of memory.

We then headed out to the aquarium. It was a typical outing with kids. They seemed to want to go faster and pound on the fish tanks and be kids. Pounding on the fish tanks was not corrected like it would have been in an aquarium in the states. I tried for a second to suggest that they might be scaring the fish, but they didn’t seem to care. The aquarium was filled with fish and other life from the nearby Biwako(Lake Biwa). This is the reason for our Prefecture to be linked with Michigan as sister states. Lake Biwa is the largest lake in Japan, so naturally it would be paired with the Great Lakes State.

After we went through the aquarium, we walked out to the park by the lake and found that Yuka had packed a ball for the outing and wanted to play dodgeball. I thought this was funny, but half-heartedly played with them. I was the first out.

We headed back towards the Noda house, stopped for ice cream, and barely made it in time for Yuka to get picked up by her dad for juku. Juku is the out of school school that a lot of Japanese kids go to. I think that usually kids go after school in the evenings. This was a national holiday, thus no school today and she was still going to juku. I guess she should since her parents pay for it. After Yuka was off, Nao and Natsuki taught us how to make paper cranes and then Noda sensei took us home.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Cooking Nihongo Style

At Ritto Chugako(Junior High School), we got a new English teacher for the new term. Her name is Kageyama sensei. She is probably a little bit older than our parents, but hides it well with the nice make up application and black dyed hair. I think most people dye their hair here, making age very difficult to guess.

Anyway, Kageyama sensei is very nice and offered to teach me how to make Inari-zushi, which are these really good little rice and tofu things. I thought this was a great opportunity to learn so authentic Japanese cooking techniques, so I accepted.

I took the train to Kusatsu station where she told me that she would pick by up “by car” at 11:00. That’s how everyone talks here. I come to school by bike, I went to Kyoto by train, I will pick you up by car… After I arrived a few minutes early and saw how nice it was outside, I was second guessing my decision to commit to such a potentially long indoor activity for a day off.

Then in one hurried motion, Keiko Kageyama ran in and apologized for being so late. I looked up at the clock and saw it was 11:01. Not late by any standards with the folks I have associated with my entire life. We quickly walked down the stairs outside the station and over to her car. Her husband was standing there. We shook hands, I gave Keiko a Detroit mug, and we were off for Kageyama no uchi.

As we walked in the house, I heard a very familiar sound. It was their rice cooker playing the same song that my rice cooker plays when it is finished. I said that it was good timing and she seemed very surprised that I knew the sound of the rice cooker. That’s another thing that cracks me up. People are constantly surprised to hear I have picked up any vocabulary, knowledge of the country, skill with the chopsticks, or any other things, even after being here over eight months now. I realize that it’s a type of flattery and politeness on their end, but sometimes I feel like come on, enough with the image thing.

Getting started, I was handed an apron and told that it suited me well, by two different people(her daughter, Miho, was also there. We guessed eachothers ages- she also looked much younger than her actual 33.) Then we went in the kitchen. It was small and efficient looking compared to a western kitchen, but I have seen smaller ones to. The best thing I noticed about it, was that there was a trap door thing in the floor that she lifted up once to get an ingredient. It was like a little mini pantry in the floor. I was impressed.

So there are a few ways to go about making Inari-zushi. You can make the tofu skin wrapping or purchase the tofu skin, and make the sauce from fish broth or make the sauce from water. We made the tofu skins and made the sauce from water. She thought westerners would like it better that way, and seeing that it’s much easier, I had to agree.

We cut the pieces of fried tofu in half, split them open and turned them inside out. We made a sauce in a pan of water, sugar, salt and soy sauce and cooked the tofu skins until all the water was cooked off. There was much discussion of how to say “cook off the water”. Then was the sushi rice. The rice was ready and waiting in the cooker. We put it in a larger bowl and mixed in a sauce of vinegar, sugar and salt. I think this aids in the sticky factor. There was an option for mixing in some finely sliced tiny vegetable pieces, so we made some with and some without. (I have also seen Inari-zushi with sesame seeds mixed into the rice, so next time I make them, I might do that)

After the tofu skins were done, we spread them out on a plate. Next, we stuffed the tofu with the rice. The sticky rice was sticking more to my hands then to Keiko’s for some reason. She got a big lacquered platter out and we lined up out little army of completed Inari-zushi on the platter.

There was some left over sushi rice, so we also made maki-zushi(sushi rolls). We put cucumber, imitation crab, and tuna fish in them. She rolled one and I rolled one. Hers looked so much better than mine. But they were nice and complimented me talking about how proficient I was at sushi rolling.

Miho, meanwhile, had made a yogart and strawberry desert and Kareage(Japanese fried chicken). Then when I thought we were ready to sit down and eat, Miho busted out bacon and asked how I liked my bacon sandwiches. I was a bit confused. I played along and answer random questions for a minute, until I realized they were also making BLTs. I imagine they wanted to make me feel at home.

The feast was amazing. Keiko’s husband joined in and we ate tons of good food. He commented on my proficiency with the chopsticks. They packed up lots of food for me to take home and drove me home.

Friday, April 11, 2008


Since we are over here in Asia, we figured we should go see another country too. We thought about Korea, China, Malaysia, and Russia, but decided on Vietnam. I think it has a more exciting sound to it, since Americans have only one image that comes to mind about the country. Also, once you get there, it’s really cheap.

Here I am in Hanoi

So, over our two week haruyasumi(spring break), our moms came for a week and then we went to Vietnam for nine days. It was amazing. We had a hard time deciding on which region to visit, but after discovering Halong Bay, opted for the north. We flew into Hanoi, spent a few days there, then took a boat tour of Halong Bay for three days and two nights, and headed back to Hanoi for a few more days.

Hanoi was crazy. It was loud, dirty, busy, old, and I loved it. The architecture was beautiful and unique- lots of French influence. The traffic was like nothing I could have imagined nor do I think I could adequately explain it. Motorbikes everywhere, no crosswalks, you just walk and they go around you. There were street venders wearing conical hats(not in a touristy way)trying to sell anything they could. This bothered me at first, but I learned how to deal with them. The sidewalks were filled with people sitting on low plastic stools, like ones that you would find at a dollar store and think, what would anyone use this for? They would be cooking, visiting, smoking, selling things, monitoring their shop, or just sitting. I especially loved the groups that were cooking, because those were the ones that smelled so good to pass by. There were also very bad smells in Hanoi too. Lots of good and bad smells.

Crazy traffic

People crossing the street

The city has many districts, the main ones being the old quarter, the French quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake district, Ba Dinh and Dong Da. All the things to see are within a thirty minute walk from the middle of the city, so we stayed in the middle and walked everywhere. We stayed in the old quarter in a place called the Sunshine 3 Hotel. We later saw the Sunshine 2, but I don’t think we ever stumbled across the original. There is quite a range of accommodations in this city. You can pay anywhere from 7 USD to 250USD for super fancy place on the edge of the city. We thought we would splurge and went for a 25$ a night place. For 25$ we got a really nice room with a mini bar and a computer with internet(this included a traditional Vietnamese breakfast of pho, a type of noodle soup or a few other options- we liked the pho). We lived like kings! Dan was excited because he could actually drink what was in the mini bar, unlike the US where a beer is like 10$, the hike up on the price would put it around 1$. The Vietnamese currency is the Dong, and we figured that about 50,000 Dong is about 3$.

All this plus two more beers was 5$ USD

The first couple days, we saw the sights and checked out the most intriguing restaurants from our book. Our favorite was the Tamarind café. It wasn’t the most traditional, but the food was amazing. Another cool restaurant was a place called KOTO. It trains disadvantaged youth to work in the hospitality industry. It was a really cool place and the food was great. We went to Ho Chi Minh’s house, a few temples, cafes on the lake, markets, the water puppet theater(amazing), museums, galleries, and lots of shops.

Temple of Literature

Hoa Lo Prison("Hanoi Hilton")

Ngoc Son Temple

Water Puppet Theater

Nha Tho(St. Joseph's Cathedral)

We had read about these places called Bia Hoi, sidewalk street stalls selling ridiculously cheap beer. We heard it was the cheapest in the whole world. They were all over the city, but we found one, liked it and stuck with it. We also happened to meet an awesome French couple, Julien and Elojie, there. We met up with them several more times throughout the trip. Anyway- Bia Hoi supposedly means fresh beer. They have to sell it quickly so it doesn’t go bad. Hence a glass was 3,000 Dong, roughly 18cents. The people that ran this place had the cutest three year old granddaughter, who decided she liked me and sang me a fifteen minute song.

Bia Hoi with our new friends Julien and Elojie

Hanoi has a great/strange art community. There are really cool art galleries everywhere selling original local art, but there are also little galleries with young artists painting reproductions of famous paintings. They are all over the place and they all have the same reproductions. I don’t know how many times I saw Picasso’s Guernica. The artists were really skilled, but it was strange to see them pumping out old European masterpieces.

After a few days in the city, we got up early to meet our ride out to Halong Bay. We booked with the cheapest tour we found. There were tour places all over the place selling the same tours for different prices. The guy seemed sketchy, and an hour after when we were supposed to be picked up, we were still waiting. I thought for sure we had been had, but then we were picked up, driven(wildly) to Halong and had an amazing time. The only weird part was that for the different sections of the trip we would have different guides.

A junk on Halong Bay

Us in a cave

floating fishing village

We boarded our boat(they call them Junks), had lunch and cruised around the bay. As we went we started talking to all the people on board. There were folks from the states, Montreal, Vietnam, Ontario, South Africa, Malaysia, France, and Holland. We had the coolest group of people with us. Everyone was really interesting and traveling to wonderful places. The first day we cruised around, took pictures, went kayaking, and at night we stayed in cabins on the boat.

Our cabin

The second day we went to a large island called Cat Ba. We went hiking and checked into a hotel with our crew. After the hike we realized a couple people had some money taken from their bags, but another switch in tour guides made it difficult to do much about it.

Simone, Liz, and Dan hiking Cat Ba island

view from our hike on Cat Ba looking at Halong Bay

ladies of the boat(me, Marie Michelle, and Ellen)

That afternoon we walked around the little town and found a café. One of our new friends, also named Dan, a Vietnamese American, taught us how to have Vietnamese coffee. The next day we went back on the boat then headed back to Hanoi on another wild bus ride.

part of the crew

Going back to Hanoi, we were able to see anything we had missed the first time, and revisit the restaurants and cafes that we really liked. Overall, the people were really nice and the city was beautiful. Meeting all those people traveling all over the world was inspiring. We heard about some really nice beaches in Cambodia from our new friend Dan. I could use more of a tan and further stick out from my Nihongo coworkers.

Tamarind Cafe

Tropical Fried Rice(so good)

The next few pictures are supplementary and need some added explanation. Rice wine is a very popular and traditional drink in Vietnam. It is often infused with dead things, often snakes, but sometimes other things, to bring supposed health benefits. Some of the dead things are supposed to bring men strength and stamina...
As those of you who know me well enough would probably guess. I didn't get too close to these large vessels of deadness. Dan took these pictures.