Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Dried Fish Snacks

The Yoshidas introduced me to eating these fish snacks at their house. These are sold whole, in bags- they like to put them on a plate and stick them in the microwave for a few minutes until they are dried and crunchy. (Ummm, yeah, you'd be killed in the States if you did this for more than 5 seconds).

It's creepy to see these little (pinky-finger sized) fish staring up with those big eyes- and then be urged to eat them WHOLE, head to tail, bones and fins. Despite the weird texture and sensation, I have to admit they are tasty- kind of sweet, kind of salty, kind of fishy!

Another popular snack is sweet dried baby squid. They are much more "fishy" tasting- kind of like the tiny dried shrimp my mom cooks with- except you don't cook with these! You pop them in your mouth, and you get thirsty, so you wash them down with a beer, which makes you crave something to munch on, and thus, the vicious cycle (kind of like our version of peanuts as beer snacks).


Nabe (pronounced "nah-bay") is Japan's answer to the Chinese "hot pot"... It is amazingly delicious, healthy, and interactive! I've been lucky enough to have been invited to several nabe parties, and despite the fact that all the food is boiled in dashi or soymilk or broth, I still feel that I will gain 20 pounds by the time the winter is over. The whole production is several hours long, beginning with a few snacks while the pot(s) and stove(s) are being prepared.
First, a portable stove is set in the middle of the table, surrounded by plates and bowls of fresh vegetables, tofu, mushrooms, meat, crab, fish heads, or whatever the host(ess) wants to serve that evening. Then, a large clay-fired pot filled with the boiling broth is placed upon it, and everyone just goes to town, dumping vegetables and meat or whatever in the communal pot. When we compared it to "fondue", some of them were shocked/ disgusted/ intrigued that we would have whole meals where we dipped food into cheese or chocolate!! After several hours of eating, all the remaining food is taken out of the pots. A dish of cooked rice and a raw egg are tossed in one pot while udon noodles are put into the other, and then you feast on that for another hour!

The big group of people is some of the people on my volleyball team. Long story, but the (wo)man at/on(? oh god, I've been in this country too long!) the left center is actually a "new haIf"- as in transexuaI... a special friend of our volleyball coach. A lot of the dinner conversation centered around her hobbies, jobs, etc. but we weren't ready for the nude modeling shots that she pulled out of her purse!! But I suppose after a few drinks everyone was feeling pretty happy and open (4000¥ all you can eat/drink= $35)! The night then moved on to Azitos for more food and drinks. Fantastic food, bottomless drinks, questionable tendencies (ass-grabbing!), coming home tipsy past 1am on a school night- ahh, I seem to have found my New York scene in little Miyazu!!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hanging with the Yoshidas- early January

OK, do you love the boots or what? Too bad we haven't had much snow this season!
The Yoshidas basically adopted me and Paul during the New Year's holidays... We went to a ton of onsens (Japanese spas) with them (it was a bit weird at first, hanging out naked together, but it's such a natural part of life for so many Japanese that I gradually got used to it). Of course, the men and women's sections were separated, so I'm not sure how Paul fared with the ogling of the big tall gaijin strolling among them. Also, it was great to not be in the freezing cold apartment. The warmth of the onsen stayed with me for hours after, and managed to loosen up my non-massaged back/shoulders! Besides the onsens, they took us on long drives all over the Tango region... I even experienced my first "snowstorm" with them, in the mountains near my home.

They took us to several special shrines where the construction is now outdated and only a few remain in all of Japan... Both were surrounded by immense towering trees. One huge moss covered tree had a little shrine inside and over the years, people were lodging coins into the bark of the tree.

Somehow the Yoshidas also seem to know all these cool hippy Japanese artists, and take it upon themselves to bring foreigners to visit them. So, one day, we drove out to see this textile artist guy and his wife who lived in an old wooden house, way up in the mountains. They gather branches, leaves, pine cones, and other natural materials from the area and boil them down into natural dyes in their one room workshop. The wood burning fireplace in the middle of the room serves the dual purpose of heating the room as well as the huge pots of dyes.
His wife weaves exquisite kimono and other amazing items on a loom while he comes up with designs and hand dyes the kimonos. The two met in art school 20 years ago and still are liberal and easygoing. He said he wants to go to San Francisco so he can "moon" all the tourists from a cable car!! (apparently, this is what SF is famous for!). We must have been there for like 6 hours, sitting on the cold, hard floor. But when we left, they presented me with a delicate, perfectly balanced hanging mobile of some of the branches used to make his dyes!

so where to start??

wow, so there's a lot to share since the new year...

So I guess I'll start with my new year's celebration- it's a little late though, so not sure who cares (or who's still reading!)....

It's a really mellow, traditional holiday, compared to the craziness in New York and everywhere else I've ever celebrated it. Jun, Paul, and I feasted at our favorite izakaya and around midnight, headed off to the enormous shrine in Amanohashidate.

There were hundreds of people there already, waiting in line to pay their respects, ring the giant bell, and make wishes for the coming year. First we rinsed our hands, scooping the freezing cold water with the ladles and pouring it over our hands, then sipping from it. Families, obachans, children, and teenagers all mingled about and patiently inched their way up to the steps of the shrine. We joined them and when we finally got to the front, we tossed a few coins into the slatted offering box, rang the bell, clapped two times, and bowed. I have no idea at what point the new year started, but of course, there was no kissing or Auld Lang Syne or champagne, but the experience was still pretty magical. It was shattered by the commercialism of the brightly lit stands selling little charms and colorful trinkets to bring people luck for the coming year. Just to be on the safe side, I bought a small red owl bell to hang on my key chain.

Next came the wishes. Jun directed us to a box where we bought paper fortunes that predicted our upcoming year's luck, ranging from health to career to love, etc. People were folding their fortunes up into long strips and tying them to tree branches or to the cords strung across the courtyard.

That was it. I think we were home by 1.30am! No mochi or special new year's meals since I had no real Japanese family to hang out with. It was awesome that Jun chose to spend her New Year's showing me and Paul around. We ended up biking back over to Amanohashidate the next couple days since the weather was so nice! The place was mobbed though- this is one of the times when people from all over Japan travel back to their hometowns and families. Most of the country is also shut down during those first few days of the holidays, so there was nowhere else for people to go except to go sightseeing and go to the temples and shrines in the area. We even got Bryn to come over and have french toast with us!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

it's been awhile....

Sorry for the delay in updating.... I finally downloaded the pictures from the last month. I've been trying to keep busy since Paul left! (sniff, sniff)

So, to share a bit of a day in the life.....

Friday, I had the randomest day, or a day of "firsts", I suppose.

I went to the library for the first time (the nice librarian begged me
to visit during the bon enkai before Christmas). Checked out some children's storybook to practice reading my hiragana. I filled out the "library card" and she stamped the little card, and put into the pocket on the front cover- wow, what a flashback!

Then, found out the ichi-nenseis had some sort of New Years game ("Hyaku ni Ishu"?). They were supposed to have memorized 100 traditional Japanese poems- and the first 3 lines of the poems were being read, but only the last few lines of the poems were on the cards. They were sitting in groups on the gym floor and grabbing the cards as the poems were being read by teachers. I walked in and had a card shoved at me. The teachers were like- "OOOh, Rori! This will be so fun! READ THIS!!!" It was all in kanji and hiragana, and the students were so busy concentrating that they didn't know I was up next. When they heard this awful gaijin voice reading (er, struggling with) Japanese, they all bolted up an were like WTF????!!! But I think it gave the students some comfort that it is difficult for me to read Japanese, just as it is hard for them to read English...

So, after that, I got back to the staffroom and was inquiring about some information and they were like, yeah, you should have received that in your mailbox. MAILBOX???!!?? what mailbox? uh, so 6 months after I've been here, I find out that I have a mailbox in the staffroom... right, so there was stuff from last August in there- but luckily most of the stuff wasn't really important. It was frustrating- like what? could someone have mentioned that when I got there? or after it's packed and overflowing, someone could probably realize that I probably had NEVER checked my mail?

Later on, when i was in the faculty restroom all these teachers rushed in
and started taking off their stockings! They were like "Take off your
stockings and come with us! Hurry!" so i did, thinking... WTF.... ok, here goes another Japanese experience.... so we all marched into the nurse's office where there were already a bunch of teachers, men and women, barefoot in the dead of winter, all waiting in line to stick their feet into this contraption where they jellied up one foot with "conductivity jelly" and stuck it into this machine which measured our... calcium level? bone density? i think. it was pretty hilarious... and soooo random.

Then, went to dinner at my favorite izakaya with Bryn, Jannie, and Jun. Another delicious meal and then for the first time, went to the only bar in lwataki, a snack/karaoke bar. The older woman who runs the place is probably the most stylish, energetic, funky woman this side of Tokyo. She welcomed us (well, Bryn, the regular) with screams and open arms, continually filled and refilled our glasses and plates, and shoved the karaoke book/mic at us. All of the other patrons were older Japanese locals who were all singing old Japanese songs- all of which Bryn creepily knew. We decided to pull an oldie-but-goodie and give them a rendition of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head". I must admit we livened up the place a bit. The decor of this place was mid-80s modern- plastic-y silvery gray wall panels, black ceilings, chrome accents, pink corduroy-ish velour-ish sectional sofas, and rounded black little barstools. So eerie. I was looking for a framed Patrick Nagel to complete the scene.

oh... a day in the life.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Holiday vacation- part i (Ishigaki)

Paul has been a dream, waking up early with me while I get ready for school and making me fantastic breakfasts of french toast, pancakes, hash browns, eggs, oatmeal, espresso, etc... The weather was pretty cold too, so he was getting over jet lag and trying to stay warm in my freezing apartment, doing chores and being very handy, fixing stuff, as well as fixing meals!!!

We celebrated his birthday at my favorite udon shop, then ice cream sundaes at Mipple, and then played some taiko drums and video games at the video arcade at Mipple. It was like being in high school all over again. But the real birthday present was going to Okinawa- especially with Japan's awesome airline birthday discount! (Tickets are at least 50% off for up to 3 guests if you use the discount within 7 days of your birthday- anywhere the airlines fly!)

We headed off to Kansai airport on Thursday morning on our way to Ishigaki-jima in the Yaeyama group of islands, the southernmost group of the Okinawan Islands. It was cold and raining when we arrived, and I feared that we chose the wrong location for our winter tropical getaway!

But the next day, the sun came out and we enjoyed the balmy weather the rest of the trip! Since Christmas is not an official holiday and the main holiday is New Years, there were very few tourists around. I think there were probably about 15-20 people on the plane there! Ishigaki is definitely one of those beach towns where it probably is so cute and quaint during the summer with the tourists and everything, but in the off season, it was deserted, and in some places, pretty depressing. Buildings were rundown, although there were some interesting pieces of architecture, and most shops were boarded up.

Our first adventure was to find Cape Hirakubo, the northernmost point of the island with a famous lighthouse. The bus ride took about an hour, and we were the only passengers for most of the trip! I'm not sure if the houses along the road were abandoned, or if they were just shut up during the off-season. The buses don't run often, so the bus driver told us that the next time he would be coming back was in about 5 hours! Since the lighthouse wasn't a stop on the route, we got off at the last stop- basically at the edge of civilization, armed only with a few cookies in my "emergency low-blood-sugar stash". We walked down a few different dirt roads until we found the main one to the beach. The water was spectacular, ranging from turquoise green to deep dark blue. However, it was probably the dirtiest beach I've ever seen- thousands of plastic bottles, pieces of foam, buoys, nets, and trash had washed up on the shore of the beach!! We didn't see a single soul the whole day- we walked the entire length of the beach as far as we could go in each direction, even trying to clamber up the rocks trying to reach the lighthouse, but couldn't make it. The sun was out, but the water was pretty cold- no swimming or sun tanning for us- just a lot of windswept hair!

After a few hours, we walked back up to the main road, and since we still had a couple hours to kill before the bus would be coming back, we decided to start walking to the next stop. We didn't realize how long that would take- but it was a good hour's walk! We saw a giant crab, and stopped off at another beach. It was much cleaner, but not as scenic. At this point, we were famished- we split the cookies and finally got the bus back!

The next day, we decided to explore the famous Kabira Bay area, a bit closer to civilization. There were some tourists here (mostly Japanese) but few of them actually walked down to the water and took off their shoes. I think they were in shock that Paul and I were wearing flip flops during the winter! The shallow water was crystal clear blue/green and we walked along as far as we could go, trying to get to the next beach, Sukuji Beach. We ended up having to walk back up to the bay and catching a taxi to Sukuji (got ripped off with a "gaijin rate"- or we, uh, "contributed to the local economy"). Sukuji was as deserted as the beach from the day before. It was pretty spectacular- the shallow waters spread out a hundred feet into the sea, only reaching the tops of your ankles at most points. It was warm enough to wear swimsuits, but still too cold to swim! We ate, napped, and relaxed.... ahhhh....

Holiday vacation- part ii (Taketomi)

I loved the tiny island of Taketomi, about a 15 minute ferry ride from Ishigaki. We were originally trying to make the ferry for the jungle island of Iriomote but somehow missed it, so we ended up taking a short day trip here instead.

Hibiscus and bouganvilleas lined dreamy crushed coral paths, patient, slow-moving water buffalos pulled carts of tourists around, and the sparkling white sand beaches had the clearest waters I have ever seen. The colors of nature seemed to be saturated to the maximum: shiny black cows dotted bright green pastures and the clear blue skies formed a backdrop to the Mediterranean-like red tiled roofs.

The tiny island only has about 350 residents, and the rules for preserving the island are pretty basic- no 2-story structures, no asphalt roads (all roads are made of crushed coral so definitely no street lights!!), no selling of land to outsiders, and all houses must have walls made of natural materials and the traditional red tiled roofs. There are hundreds of "shisa" sculptures on roofs, gateways, and entrances- little lion/dog-like creatures that are supposed to be guarding homes.

Kondoi Beach is a beach that people dream about going to. We laid out on the beach for hours, but I think Paul got pretty burned!! The other beach, Gaiji-hama even had star-shaped sand! (They are actually the dried skeletons of tiny marine creatures).

Thoroughly relaxed, we came back on the ferry and had a fanastic Christmas Eve feast at Garlic Busse, a garlic-themed restaurant. Paul and I exchanged Christmas gifts at midnight- oh so romantic...

Holiday vacation- part iii (Iriomote)

Christmas day!! We tried our luck to go Iriomote again today. It seemed like this island was domed for us from the beginning- we missed the ferry the day before, and unfortunately, the guy we were trying to contact to do zip-tours through the jungle was out of town. Then, the ferry that we wanted to take was cancelled due to rough seas, so we had to take another ferry that went a different route. After waiting another hour or two, we finally got onto the right ferry, where we were tossed around in those choppy waters for the next hour!!! We docked and then were shuffled onto a bus, not knowing where it was going and drove another hour on a winding coastal road (no roads go through the interior of the island). Iriomote is 90% covered with dense jungles and there are few residents. We had no idea what was going on and ended up getting off at the port that we were orignally supposed to arrive at, thinking there would be an information booth we could go to. Apparently not- since the ferries weren't running, no one was working at the port either... A helpful woman found us a map and pointed us in the direction of the Urauchi-gawa, the Amazon-like river that runs through the island. There are boat trips that take tourists to waterfalls and hiking trails deep in the jungle, so we headed off for that. It was a little frustrating not know what was going on but we just started walking. It was a nice way to see the island, I suppose.

We walked about an hour until we finally got to the river's mouth. The guy at the booth told us we had just missed the last 3-hour boat trip that was going to the waterfalls and we could only take the short hour-long river trip (they both cost the same!!) Man, after all that! If the weather/water was warmer, we would've rented kayaks and explored the river on our own, but we settled for the boat ride, admiring the impressive mangroves and cool rock formations. It was nice to relax our tired feet, but it was also a pretty anti-climatic way to see the interior of this jungle that we had heard so much about!

Holiday vacation- part iv (food)

This trip had probably some of the most delicious food I've ever had... However, I was really surprised at the lack of fresh fruit!

We had a lot of the usuals, but somehow they just seemed more tasty, perhaps from the tropical environment we were in.... fried octopus/squid, ice cream, pizza... and then there were some new dishes- we tried a really weird salty seaweed delicacy called "umi budou" (seagrape) nicknamed "puchi puchi" for the sound it makes when each caviar-like "grape" pops in your mouth (also used to describe bubble wrap!). We feasted on Malaysian seafood hotpot, Filipino-style pineapple pork, dim sum, sashimi, and noodles. There were even a few western style cafes which had great drinks (coconut cappuccino), desserts (bananas foster), and bagels!

We tried many of the Okinawan dishes- "yaeyama soba" (noodles served with pork in a clear broth), "goya champuru" (a stir-fry of bitter melon with noodles & eggs), and "rafte", which is fatty, tender slices of pork that has been simmered for so long that it basically falls apart in your mouth... there was another version of this that we had a Garlic themed restaurant that was made with the famous Okinawan beef. I didn't care for the local beer (Orion) so much, and I thought the "awamori" (Okinawan "sake"- it's actually a type of shochu) was nasty. Paul had a few tastings (he said it tasted like scotch) and we even found a bottle of this awamori in a store with a curled up Habu snake at the bottom!!! We ordered "tako raisu" one night, thinking it would be rice with octopus, but no, it was "taco rice"- Mexican-style beef, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and salsa on a bed of rice.

Our hotel had a free breakfast every morning which I dubbed "bread fest"- it consisted of unlimited coffee/tea and all the bread you would/could want. There were the same few varieties every morning served in big baskets- white, "cheese", "cinnamon"?, and the most interesting- "ben imo"- a bright purple bread made from the purple sweet potato. In addition to the carb fest, scoops of potato salad were also offered, and on Christmas morning, there were even rice rolls with miso soup.

Everyday, we would spend 20 minutes at Hot Spar, the local convenience store- like 7-Eleven but with pretty good, fresh packaged lunches. We would load up on provisions for that day's adventures, buying fruit, drinks, cookies, snacks, and of course, the main meal- lunch. We chose from an assortment of sandwiches to bento boxes of rice with fish, vegetables, fried chicken to noodle salads to onigiri (rice balls).

After dinner one night, we found the Banana Cafe, a very hip bar/lounge/restarant, so we decided to stop in for a drink. I wish we found this place when we got there! It looks like a place right out of Nolita, with the dark wood furniture, candles, broken tile floors, and eclectic menu. I couldn't help but take a picture of the sign outside posting its hours.

One of my favorite snacks (and smells) is of the pancake-like "fish" sweets that are made on the streets throughout the year. They are filled with custard or red bean paste, served hot off the griddle, and just perfect anytime.