Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Whaling Sheds & Banjo Music

Merry Christmas from Japan! After trips to Hong Kong (to meet Fearless Husband) and to the US (to see my family) for me, and a deployment that included stops in Hong Kong and Cambodia for FH, we're both back home, very happily settling in to spend a little time together for the holidays. It's finally cold here in Sasebo, much to my relief and pleasure, and we've got the kerosene heater going. FH's settled in to play his computer game, and I figure it's finally time to finish writing about my adventures with MM (from last March!) As always, click on the images for larger versions.

The day after our trip to Huis Ten Bosch, MM and I headed to the porcelain town of Arita. MM braved the rainy streets in his rain suit -- a waterproof shirt and pants of white Tyvek (I think) that he unfolded from the tiniest little pouch. It was astonishing, and kept him dry as he explored, looking like a slender Michelin Man (no, that's not what MM stands for!) I was terrible company, very boring, staying in the car to catch up on a backlog of work. (More about Arita in another post!) Sunday, MM headed out to Nagasaki overnight, and I collected him the next evening at the JR (Japan Rail) station, where we enjoyed tonkatsu and conversation.

The next morning, March 27, dawned with grey skies and drizzling spring rain, but that didn't stop us! My work finally done, we headed out, armed with directions to Hirado Island and Ikitsuki (pronounced "ih-kit-ski") Island, about an hour and a half to two hours away by car. This was my first long drive (not that I let MM know that!) Along the way, I saw a little sign by the side of the road, with an arrow pointing to Senryu Falls. I asked Mike what he thought, and he was game, so I made a U-turn and off the route we went! I'd never heard of Senryu Falls, but I love waterfalls, and it seemed like a good idea to at least check it out. Mist shredded against the surrounding hills as we drove up a twisty road through what looked at first like a residential area, then seemed to be more like steep farmland. A few precocious cherry trees had begun to bloom a pale and misty pink, delicate and ethereal against the other trees, either dark evergreens or leafless and bare.

I was just about at the point of suggesting we turn back around and continue on to Hirado, when the road suddenly ended in a tiny parking area, big enough for perhaps four or five cars. A sign in Japanese (no English) hinted that perhaps we'd arrived at our destination....we hoped! A wide footbridge with vivid red rails arched over a busy stream in a small ravine, and we crossed the bridge and headed up the path. As we crossed the bridge, a second car pulled up behind us, and a businessman, in suit and tie, hopped out and hurried past us, heading up the steep little path like a man with a mission. MM and I took our time, wandering up slowly past a landscaped area with rocks and plantings and a little picnic area. The path split in two, but investigation proved that the two routes came back together again a little further on...one direction took a meandering route past the picnic gazebo, the other simply a more direct route.

As we made our way up the increasingly steep path, the businessman hurried past us, headed back to his car. MM and I looked at each other, a little puzzled, and kept going, curiosity piqued now! The uphill path became stairs, and after a very short climb, we arrived at a funny, slightly ramshackle little shrine building. A row of shoes on the thick wooden step was evidence of other humans, but we'd seen no other cars in the lot, and we couldn't see any people, even now! The shrine itself was open on one side, doors thrown back to display offerings before a cluttered altar as well as the ubiquitous wooden box with wooden grille top, specifically for coins. Tattered ropes hung down from a couple of rusty bells, so one could alert the spirits to one's prayers. Fresh incense burned, explaining the mystery of the businessman, who must have felt the need for prayer before a big presentation or meeting. There was a whiff of kerosene on the air, and we figured there were priests or a caretaker and family in the attached wooden structure. Across the "landing" from the shrine was a clean, empty wooden building with three walls and a roof...perhaps for prayers or gatherings? In front of the open building was a big rectangular trough of a sink, with a metal pipe stretched across it. Holes had been punched in the pipe, and chopsticks stuffed in some of the holes to plug them. Other holes were open, and a few constant, very thin streams of water squirted into the mossy basin. I think the pipe was spring- or stream-fed...the stream, after all, was right beside us, rushing down the hill, and there didn't seem to be any evidence of serious plumbing.

Past the two buildings was an open concrete area, sort of a balcony or viewing area, where one could stand (or sit) to contemplate the rushing water. To one side of this space were more stairs, headed further up the hill/mountain in a dripping green tunnel. Two stone temple dogs flanked the stairway, and studding both sides of the path as we went up were statues and figures and stone lanterns, large and small and of many different styles. Some were carved stone, some were cement, some were glazed porcelain. Each had a little collection of small coins, sake glasses, and plastic cups -- offerings -- placed before it. O
ne glazed porcelain dragon particularly caught my eye, as did a large stone "guardian" statue, with a background piece that had once been colored red, and a little cloaked figure on a base of faded glazed tile. Other little statues were surprises (including a serene little bald buddha who made me smile!) mostly hidden on rocks and ledges within the vegetation. I was thrilled to see some Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which I'd never seen growing wild before.

The falls growled and rumbled beside the path...though there were several rather large
cascades, there wasn't one big, roaring portion that would cause one to say "oh, THAT'S the falls." Instead, the stream leapt and foamed and sprayed its way down the mountainside, with a different view at each "landing" and each new perspective. I think we both really enjoyed our unexpected side trip to Senryu Falls...and as we headed back to the car, the drizzling rain lifted. The wetness and mist had lent an otherworldly quality to our adventure, and it seemed just perfect to have the rain stop and a few bits of blue sky peek through the overcast as we finished!

MM and I continued on our way to Hirado Island as the sun played hide and seek, and we both enjoyed watching the passing countryside, shops, and residences. Once across the lovely red bridge to Hirado Island, I drove as slowly as I dared so MM and I could gawk.
Hirado was a trading port, welcoming the Chinese and the Dutch (who were later moved to Dejima in Nagasaki during the Edo period). There's a beautiful castle in the main town of Hirado on the island, though most of it is a restoration rather than the original. MM and I chose not to stop, and headed on, driving the length of the island to cross the next beautiful bridge (blue this time -- the longest continuous truss bridge in the world, measuring in at 1312 ft.) Ikitsuki Island was even more beautiful, and more remote, than Hirado. It's primarily known for whaling and hidden Christians, oddly enough. See http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,925197,00.html for a fascinating article about the "crypto-Christians" of Ikitsuki Island. The main industry is fishing (whales, squid and flying fish), though there is also quite a bit of agriculture (rice and beef cattle...and honestly, the cattle surprised me. Rice paddies? No surprise. A herd of cattle? Startling, in that very Japanese landscape!) We drove past lots and lots of fishing vessels, and relatively small harbor enclosures, each with a very large, open-fronted shed right at the water, for butchering whales. Part of me was appalled, and part of me was fascinated. MM and I explored the island, driving completely around it, stopping occasionally to explore interesting paths.

We stopped for lunch on Ikitski Island at the Cafe Payala, an adventure in itself! We entered with a little trepidation, past the dog tied to his doghouse just outside the front door. Inside, half was a restaurant, with mismatched tables and chairs, the other half a mish-mash of seating (a couch, some folding chairs, a bench seat from a Volkswagon van, etc.) and a small stage cluttered with a bewildering array of musical instruments (guitars, an Irish harp, various Asian instruments from Okinawa, Vietnam, etc., a full drum kit, and so forth). Beatles memorabilia decorated every surface. The menu was very short, and listed two pizzas (meat or seafood), minestrone soup, a BLT, or Japanese chicken curry. The ponytailed, Graeful-Dead-groupie-type owner/chef/waiter paused to show MM the freestanding woodstove (one of MM's companies makes most of the world's woodstove thermometers, and MM was fascinated!). The pizza, complete with clamshells, was delicious, and our new friend played a bit on the banjo for our entertainment, singing "On the Bayou" phonetically, as it was pretty clear he spoke very little English. What an odd experience that little place was! Before we left, MM and I purchased a couple of the guy's CDs as souvenirs of our visit.

On we went to the lighthouse perched high on a headland at the tip of the island. The views were astonishing, down hundreds of feet into amazingly clear blue water, and across the water dotted with little islets to a coastline with gigantic windmills. We drove back down the opposite side of Ikitsuki Island, stopping here and there to wander down interesting paths.
We drove home in the golden light of the setting sun, to meet Miyuki at a local izakaya, where we had more sashimi (including whale meat!) and seafood than I've ever eaten at one time in my entire life. We'd had squid jerky and ginger chips to snack on during the afternoon, but by nightfall, we were starving. I'd told MM about my first visit to an izakaya, where Miyuki and Yuri tried to get me to eat the fish eyes, so the minute a fierce-looking, whole hobon fish was placed before him, MM plucked one of the eyes out and popped it in his mouth. "Hmmmm....chewy," he declared, before helping me demolish the rest of the fish's delicious flesh. No one can say MM's not adventurous! We sampled various kinds of chu-hi, a "wine cooler" sort of drink made with shochu (where sake is fermented like beer, shochu is distilled like whiskey, and exponentiall stronger!) mixed with various fruit juices. We tried mango, ume (sour plum), and yuzu (a sour citrus fruit), but my favorite was lychee.

Stay tuned for our trip to Unzen and Shimabara the next day -- see below for a few more photos and a video!







video

Monday, October 01, 2007

How to Succeed in Blogland (Without Really Trying)

I do not do memes.

Let me repeat, I do NOT do memes. However, one of my very favorite people (and fellow blogger)
Mary at Resident Alien tagged me with this meme, so I find I can't help myself. She flattered me as well, telling me she was hoping to prod me into posting more adventures. What she doesn't realize is that posting this relieves some of the guilt and pressure I was feeling to post, so now I can relax for a few days! HA!

Roolz 4 R33ly Gr8 Blogging:

  1. Use L33T-speak whenever possible (see above). Everyone will then realize you are uber-cool and not just a bored, middle-aged military wife.
  2. When you really want to emphasize something, make each word its Own. Fragmentary. Sentence. For example: "I may not post often, but I think about posting All. The. Time."
  3. White text on a black background shows that you are uber-hip, and also that you are very serious about writing just for yourself. Your audience will feel special if they think you are blogging for Serious Reasons, not just for popularity. This -- despite the headaches caused by trying to read the tiny white letters on the heavy black background -- should make you more popular which is, after all, the reason you blog in the first place!
  4. Use as many acronyms as pseduonyms as possible. Readers love to feel "in the know" as they read your blog, smug in the knowledge that they are part of the priviledged few who've been around long enough to know that LexHBBS is actually "Loser Ex-Husband's Bitchy Boss' Secretary." This technique has the added benefit of forcing new readers to sift through your archives, trying to decipher your current posts.
  5. Fill your blogroll with the coolest of the cool, as if they were all close personal friends. Forget your real friends -- no one knows who they are! If your blogroll doesn't start with Dooce, Amalah and Perez Hilton, you're a loser. (Edited to add: I don't hate these A-listers. I enjoy reading Amalah occasionally, though I'm not much of a Dooce fan. I'm just speaking to the practice of filling one's blogroll with ONLY A-list bloggers, as if you never read any other blogs, or as if you are trying to prove you are one of them by association.)
  6. Never write long blog posts. Only nerds and mouthbreathing eggheads want to read actual text in the first place, so you can rest assured that no one wants to make the effort to read more than a paragraph or two. But post every day, even if you have nothing to say except whining about how unfair life is (to you, of course) or describing your child's gastrointestinal processes in graphic detail.
  7. Beg for comments. Whine for comments. Plead for comments. After all, comments are how you know if you are popular. But...if anyone ever leaves you less than absolute and fawning praise in a comment, take big offense and ensure that your next post is a snarky and sarcastic diatribe against the offender.
There, with tongue firmly in cheek. How's that, Mary? Actually, I had fun! I tag...umm...Liz and Lori.

    Friday, September 07, 2007

    Dragonfruit Season

    Edited with a new image, below!
    It's been far, far too long since I've managed to post here, and I apologize. Our unexpected trip to the US, my mother-in-law's passing, pneumonia, and simply having a husband at home again have all taken their toll. But...it's time to get back to adventures, and I'm still so very behind! Here's another grocery store story, to tide us all over until I can post more this weekend about my adventures with MM.

    I was browsing through my favorite neighborhood grocery recently, examining the produce, which never fails to surprise me. There were the plump and lovely summer tomatoes (remember how that one turned out?) and deeply-pigmented bell peppers, shinier and smaller than the broad-shouldered monsters I'm used to. I edged along the aisle lined with careful rows of hideously expensive canteloupes and spherical watermelons, jewel-faceted plastic bowls of tiny tangerines and heaps of slender, purply-black eggplant. Ginger, cleaner and less wrinkly than the knobs in the commissary, sits beside something that looks like ginger, but isn't, with reddish bud shapes growing out of it like the buds of a waterlily. There are delicate stacks of toothy shiso leaves and several versions of scallions of varying thickness and straightness (the long onion I've read about in cookbooks?), beside obscenely thick and pale logs of daikon radish.

    The boxes of perfect white button mushrooms are quite expensive, and each box contains perhaps ten small mushrooms...but as if to make up for it, there are so many other varieties of fungus. There are bunches of tiny, willowy enoki, like bleached dandelion stems after the fuzz has been blown away, and fresh, flat-capped shiitake piled like skipping stones. There are fat mushrooms, all thick stem with a little flare of cap at one end, and bouquets of brown-capped mushrooms that seem to be separate until one picks up a package and finds all the stems are fused at the bottom into one big clump, and one ruffly kind of mushroom that looks as if it's trying to pretend to be a head of lettuce.

    One largeish refrigerated section of this tiny market is entirely filled with small plastic bags of pickles -- a huge variety of land and sea vegetables in brine or vinegar, with garlic, with sandy miso paste, with tiny red rings of chiles.

    One of the things I like the most about Japanese markets is the seasonal availability of the produce. Sure, some things are available year-round, and that is the case more and more. But much more than in American markets, certain things are only available when they're in season...which means they're still being bred for taste and sweetness and succulence and aroma, not how well they'll travel or how long they'll last on the shelf. There's also a great reverence for produce from certain areas....mushrooms and potatoes from Hokkaido, gigantic, frosted-black-skinned clusters of grapes from Kyoto, peaches from this area and apples from that.

    Yes, quite often the produce is insanely expensive by American standards, but to be honest, I think I'd rather have a single basket of strawberries so fragrant and sweet I'll remember them for months, than a basket every month of hard, green-tasting berries with no scent. Suddenly I can imagine spending two or three dollars on a single peach, when I'll only need the one, and it will be an experience of really savouring a single exquisite fruit. I finally truly, viscerally understand the concept of quality over quantity. Can you really remember the last bunch of grapes you ate? The last apple? The last time you closed your eyes and sighed with pleasure from the experience of eating one perfect tangerine? The memory of the peach I chose is going to stay with me for a long, long time...and I'd rather wait with anticipation for the next season than have a tasteless imitation out of season.

    I chose an inexpensive (relatively -- less than $6) globe of a watermelon, and an intensely fragrant, Roald Dahl-style peach, almost half as big as the watermelon, and a clear plastic bowl of tiny tangerines. And then, I saw the oddest fruit I've ever seen. It was an oval fruit, larger than an apple, like something that ought to grow out of a cactus. The thick, smooth skin was bright fucshia studded with green-tipped...spines? Flippers? Protruding leaves? One was almost $3 (which I later discovered was insanely cheap...I found less attractive specimens for almost three times that price in another store!) and carefully nestled in a nest of styrofoam netting. I picked one up gingerly, afraid the spiny parts might stick or sting me, and found the sticking-out parts to be relatively soft and leathery, and the fruit itself to be heavy for its size.
    Of course I bought one.
    The cashier tried to tell me what it was, but it took several tries before I understood that she was trying to tell me in English -- it was a dragonfruit, which made total sense. Take a look. What else would you call it?
    I took it home (took photos, of course), and looked it over. How to go about this? Well, there's sort of a hole at one end, where it was attached to its parent, I assume. I took hold of one edge of the hole and pulled. The skin peeled back easily, revealing a white oval of flesh the shape and size of a large goose egg. A knife blade slipped easily into the egg, and a wedge pulled out showed that the flesh was studded throughout with a galaxy of tiny black seeds. No pit, no core. Everything encased by the skin was edible. The taste and texture was much like a kiwi fruit, but without the kiwi's tartness, and the seeds were almost indiscernable, just adding a nice hint of crunch, again like a kiwi. It was pleasantly sweet and very moist, and I enjoyed it very much.

    I've since learned from my more knowledgeable friend, D, that dragonfruit are native to Okinawa, there are two types of dragonfruit, and the second type has vivid fucshia flesh. I'll have to keep my eye out for the second kind! After the first one (and the squeal of delight from D when I told her about it!) I hurried back to buy more. I bought one for D, one for myself and Fearless Husband, and one for Miyuki's parents as a gift. That's all...there were no more, and I haven't found any in any store since.

    I'll have to mark my calendar for next year, so I don't miss dragonfruit season!
    Edited to add the photo of the dragonfruit growing from Emiri! Now I can really see why they call it dragonfruit! And I was sort of right...it looks like the fruit of a cactus/succulent. Thanks for the photo, Em!

    Saturday, July 28, 2007

    Annette

    Sorry for the silence...we're not currently having Adventures in Japan. Fearless Husband arrived home in Sasebo after a two and a half month absence. 12 hours later, we found out his mother was in the hospital and gravely ill. We scrambled, and with some help from the Navy and the Red Cross, we arrived in Nevada less than 48 hours after FH got off his ship.

    My mother-in-law is an amazing woman. She's raised FH since he was about a year old, and has been a wonderful, loving, kind, laughing mother. She's tall and willowy, with big beautiful dark eyes and rich, dark hair and a gleaming, almost-constant smile. She and FH loved to trade books, and to tell each other about new authors each thought the other might like. She welcomed me like a long-lost daughter, taught me her recipes for FH's favorite dishes, and traveled all the way from Nevada to North Carolina to see her son marry me (and got along with absolutely everyone, the entire time!) She's gracious, elegant, and just plain fun to be around.

    It's hard here right now for everyone. The grief and sadness is so sharp and heavy it's sometimes overwhelming. However, family has been brought together, old rifts have been healed, and though the illness was sudden, there has still been time for goodbyes to be made, and last words spoken. Those are the silver linings here.

    .My mother-in-law is the absolute opposite of all those old jokes. I'm so lucky to have known her, and could not have picked a better mother-in-law if I'd had the choice of any in the world. Thank you, Annette, for your friendship, for your laughter, for welcoming me like a daughter, and for doing such a great job raising the incredible man I married.

    I love you.

    Edited to add: Annette died this morning. I'm so glad we got to come and say goodbye, and receive that last, beautiful smile.

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    The Tomato Sandwich

    No photos, as my camera batteries are dead but...

    Imagine, if you will, that you are walking through a small neighborhood market in Japan. Your basket is laden with twelve tiny, incredibly sweet local tangerines, two skinny, glossy purple eggplant, ten pale green asparagus spears with tight, fat, rounded heads (almost like a cartoon of asparagus, or pale green Sharpie markers) in two bundles of five fat spears each. You nod and smile at the other shoppers, mostly little old ladies shuffling along like hump-backed snails or young mothers moving at the speed of light with silent infants in tow. (If you're me, you're probably imagining yourself as an integral part of this community, "The Interesting American" as opposed to just another clumsy, loud Navy Wife with a beat-up car. Enjoy this dream while you can.)

    After looking over the various prepared foods -- fried octopus, sushi rolls with what looks like a filling of hot dog and lettuce (!!), various rice preparations decorated with nori -- nothing seems quite right with the humid, heavy summer weather outside. Instead, you're drawn to that distinct,slightly spicy scent of summer, the display of large, dusty rose, locally grown tomatoes. How about tomato sandwiches for dinner? Thick slices of scarlet summertime on bakery bread with a little mayonnaise, a little kosher salt, a grinding of black pepper...light, yet luscious, full of childhood memories.

    Carefully you select a single fat specimen, fragrant and perfectly ripe -- the kind of tomato that would be delicious tonight, possibly tomorrow, but overly sweet and mushy by the next day.

    You peruse the mostly incomprehensible labels on the shelves, selecting (you hope) a small squeeze bottle of the delicious, silky, not-as-heavy-as-American mayonnaise (Kewpie brand, which makes you smile). You've heard the lowfat Japanese mayo is not as sweet as the American brands, so you take the chance on the stuff that has (you think) a quarter of the calories of the regular stuff. Into the basket it goes, and you hold your head high, proud of your health-conscious behavior.

    Bread...hmm. The loaf of white bread is cut far too thick, and would be cottony and hard to swallow. There are no whole-grain options, as this is a very small Japanese bakery, running more towards little pastries and loaves of white bread with no heels. Besides, the right summertime tomato sandwich begs for soft, plain bread, not a hearty loaf. Oh, perfect! A package of flat, pale, soft little buns, each with a small sprinkling of black sesame seeds. Each one is just a tiny bit larger than the circumference of your single tomato. You imagine splitting a couple of these, filling them and making that dinner, along with perhaps a little cucumber salad. You even grab your favorite tart lemon soda as a treat, "70 lemons' worth of Vitamin C in every bottle" it proclaims in English.

    You check out, proudly using your few words of Japanese with the harried cashier as she rings up your purchases. "Konnichi wa. Arigatou gosaimasu. Arigatou." Nod as if you understand when she tells you how much, sneak a peak at the register display, and hand her your money. When she offers you your trading stamps with an incomprehensible question, refuse them and gesture that she give them to the next person in line, who collects them. She smiles and bows. The cashier smiles and bows. You smile and bow. Once more, with feeling, "Arigatou gosaimasu."

    You unpack your bounty at home, and begin supper preparations. You carve the perfect tomato carefully, and taste the mayonnaise (yes, it's amazingly good for lowfat!). Get out the salt and pepper. Open the package of beautiful rolls and pull out two, wrapping the rest for later. Use your serrated knife carefully, so you don't smash or tear the bread.

    Wait...the roll is dragging at the knife in a really odd way. The knife emerges smeared with something thick and purply brown. What the...?

    Oh.

    These aren't little white bread dinner rolls. These are dessert buns filled with a paste of sweetened adzuki beans. Good? Sure...a little bland, a little heavy, but not bad. But for tomato sandwiches? Not even close.

    The dream of "The Interesting American" fizzles away, as you slink to the freezer to pull out a Lean Cuisine, hoping it isn't too frostbitten.

    Oh well. There's always tomorrow. And now you know the kanji for "adzuki bean paste."

    Sunday, June 24, 2007

    Dutch Tulips & Japanese Porcelain

    (As always, click on the images for larger versions.) MM and I headed out on Friday, March 23 to Huis Ten Bosch (click to visit their website), a huge, local amusemsent park. Unlike American amusement parks, there are no roller coasters, no "rides" (except a single, gorgeous merry-go-round), no midway games. Instead, Huis Ten Bosch is a huge Dutch village set incongruously on the coast of Japan, surrounded by typical Japanese mountains. I'd say it's a model of a city, but the owners are selling "canal-side housing" and hope to make it a viable community of 10,000 eventually (as well as an admission-charging place of entertainment).

    There are museums, several shows, hundreds of thousands of tulips, windmills, restaurants, canals and shops. There are boat rides along the canals and out into the harbor, photo opportunities with costumed characters (think "Hello Kitty" as a giant cartoon tulip), and a huge fireworks and laser show every night. From what I understand, Huis Ten Bosch also has wine tastings and cheese festivals. (Click here for a .pdf brochure detailing current events at Huis Ten Bosch.) It really isn't a place I thought I'd visit, as I'm here to see Japan, not a reproduction of The Netherlands...but I was very pleasantly surprised.

    Our first stop was the Teddy Bear Museum (see the giant floral teddy bear topiary beside MM's head!) I figured it would be cheesy and cutesy, but it was fascinating, with teddy bears and toys from all over the world, from the 1800s to the present, from simple children's toys to artistic concepts never meant to be played with. The first stairway was lined with bear-themed antique postcards, and the hallways between the various exhibits held framed photographs of the teddies of famous people. Though MM and I often enjoy some of the same things, we also often have very different ideas about what is "interesting"...and we each found much to hold our interest.

    The flowers that day were really spectacular -- huge blocks of astonishing color, the banks of tulips much as I'd always imagined them to look like in The Netherlands (though of course on a smaller scale!) MM and I wandered slowly, stopping for a "cheese shake" (a tangy blend of fruit and some sort of cream cheese...rich but not cloying). MM explored the first big windmill we came to, as it's been outfitted as a windmill museum (he explored several spots without me, as my knee was really giving me fits that day).


    I didn't realize M.C. Escher was Dutch, but he was...and there was a fascinating building filled with Escher-esqe paintings, mirrors and architecture. Pretty mind-bending! We stopped in to watch a short Escher movie, which was very interesting. It was written and produced by a Japanese film studio, and was a very Japanese story called "The Legend of the Waterfall." The story seemed to revolve around a little Dutch girl with blonde braids overcoming all sorts of Escher-type obstacles to find her dog and find her way home. I'm not really positive, as the whole thing was in Japanese. Oh, and it was a 3-D movie, complete with 3-D glasses, so the Escher-type creatures flew at the viewer, and water flowed into our laps, and a glowing sphere of water began and ended the movie. (???) For example, one of Escher's black and white woodcuts (?) is a series of black and white blocks that "morph" into different shapes. At one point in this piece of art, the black shapes are demon/bat creatures and the white shapes are angels. So...in the movie, there is a black and white tile floor that begins to morph into the different Escher creatures...and the demon bat creatures fly out to attack the child. Her ingenuity somehow helps her fend them off, and the glowing angel creatures come to help her and bestow blessings upon her. The angels are complete with wings and halos, yet are somehow "spirit creatures" rather than Christian angels, even though they look like the angels on a Christmas tree...after all, Japan is not a Christian country. At the end, the child makes it to the magical city in the clouds, with Escher's impossible waterfalls flowing all around it. She gets her dog back, and flies home to live happily ever after. It was a very bizarre movie, very confusing...and lots of fun!! The whole experience was very Japanese...when the movie ended, everyone got up and politely and quietly filed out the doors at the bottom of the theatre, carefully depositing their 3-D glasses in recycling bins beside bowing attendants.

    MM and I continued to explore, walking around the stables to look at the HUGE black draft horses, posing with the fluffy giant tulip mascot, pausing for a panini lunch (panini, in a Dutch amusement park, in Japan...talk about a cultural mix!), peering through a big freestanding, empty gilded frame that looked out over the flower gardens spread out in a riot of color -- seems one can take a photo of the frame and flower gardens, so it looks like a framed painting of the flowers. We stopped at the carillon museum, which was astonishing, with an absolutely amazing holographic video of little bell-crafting gnomes explaining the history of carillon bells (in Japanese). There were carillon bells from around the world, including several from the 12th century! They were not behind glass, and were within inches of us...we were simply admonished not to touch by discreet signs in several languages, and trusted to obey. It was a struggle, but I managed to keep my fingers off the bells! There was a huge working replica of a giant carillon there in the museum, standing two stories high, along with various "keyboards" like an organ, with each key and pedal connected by a cable to a bell. It was incredibly intricate, and incredibly interesting! MM enjoyed the music box "Fantasia" museum and show, which he said was fascinating. I skipped it due to lots of steps and the knee issue again, but next time, I'll have to check it out.

    We enjoyed a porcelain museum, displaying some of the most highly-respected Japanese porcelain work and discussing the history of the Dutch influence and Dutch trade. The glass museum was an almost overwhelming display of mirrors and chandeliers and cut glass pieces, complete with a small, dimly lit "wedding chapel" on the top floor, with really amazing individual pieces glittering and glowing in the darkness from their solitary displays around the circumference of the room. We stopped in a gift shop that seemed to have half dedicated to Escher memorabilia, souvenirs and toys, and the other half dedicated to a men's clothing shop. I stumbled upon some really wonderful t-shirts celebrating the anniversary of Commodore Perry's visit to Japan, complete with a sketch of Perry's unsmiling face, and a cartoon speech balloon emanating from his mouth, printed with a cheery "Hello!" It made me laugh, imagining the imposing Black Ships steaming into Tokyo harbor, a somber Perry coming out onto the deck...and suddenly waving and shouting out a high pitched "Hello! Hello! Hello!" the way the Japanese schoolchildren shout it at me when they see me. With MM's urging, I shamefacedly explained to the saleswoman through charades and a few words of English that I was a direct descendant of Perry. She got so excited she was practically in tears, and insisted on taking several photographs of me with her cell phone!

    MM and I enjoyed a wonderful Japanese meal in one of Huis Ten Bosch's many restaurants -- we each had a beautiful lacquerware compartmentalized box filled with beautifully presented eel, sashimi, pickle, egg custard, squid, tempura and spring vegetables. I'm so sorry my camera battery died early in the day, as the presentation was really lovely. After enjoying our leisurely meal, we strolled a little longer, ending up at the docks in the dark admiring the strings of tiny twinkling lights on the rigging of the reproduction sailing ships. I ended up not being able to resist temptation, and bought some mouth-blown, locally-made glass sake cups while MM perused the glassware, porcelain and many bottles of shochu on display. We'd hoped to stay for the nightly fireworks display, but the cool air and our aching feet dictated we head back to the car. Neither of us realized how far we'd walked from the entrance, and making our way back through the rapidly emptying streets became a real test! I was worried that we were headed for a "closed" entrance, as towards the end, we were the ONLY people visible...but MM's optimism kept us going, and we finally made our way out. Just before we reached the car, the fireworks began, and we were able to see a little bit of them through the trees before retrieving my car and heading home.

    The next morning, after an omelette breakfast, we headed to the NEX on the base to get some good walking shoes for MM before pointing the car towards the Arita porcelain area. We paused for a lunch of deliciously garlicky ramen and another (failed) attempt to teach MM to overcome his American good manners and slurp his noodles properly. I can slurp them now with gusto, but still haven't mastered how to slurp without flicking the tip of my nose with the end of the drippy noodles!

    We spent a lovely afternoon in Arita. We stopped at the Gen-emon kiln and showroom, which has been running for over 400 years, owned by the same family for all that time. We drove through the twisty main street of old Arita itself. I parked the car, and despite the rain, MM donned his rain suit and went out into the wet, looking like a skinny Michelin Man (no, that's not what MM stands for!), with a gleam in his eye to explore, finding the various shrines and temples built by the porcelain artists and potters and poking his head into various shops while I caught up on some paperwork in the car. (I know, I'm boring! But more about Arita later, as I have photos from my trip there with Mom and Bro!)

    After MM returned from exploring in the rain, we headed back to Sasebo. Even though it was rainy, the long shopping arcade is roofed, so I knew we could walk around without dealing with the wet. We walked for a while, glancing into several shops and pausing at my favorite fruit vendor's stall for some fresh loquats, fragrant strawberries, and an odd, small, oval, yellow melon with a floral fragrance (it turned out to be sweet like a honeydew, but rather bland...not as delicately perfumed inside as it seemed from the outside).

    Dinner was at my favorite tempura place, which is a tiny little room up steep wooden stairs, containing a horseshoe-shaped wooden bar surrounding the cook's station, and not much else. It's run by an elegant, silver-haired gentleman, a pretty middle-aged woman, and a young woman who runs out with rice, miso soup, pickles and drinks. I think the three of them are a family, but I'm not sure. We enjoyed various pieces of tempura made right there on the spot in front of us -- shrimp, squid, various vegetables -- incredibly light and delicious, dipped in lemon salt, green tea (matcha) salt, or a light sweet/salty tempura sauce. My favorite is the lemon salt...it's amazing! MM decided he wanted to try the potato shochu. We were both surprised when he was brought a very large pottery tumbler full of ice and potent shochu! I had a small sip, and it tasted to me like a mellow, slightly less strong version of vodka, but with that same metallic/organic aftertaste that sake always seems to have on my palate. That night, MM wanted to watch "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" but after the first thirty minutes, I think our adventures caught up with him, and he decided he was too tired to watch it all (it's a pretty involved movie, and you have to pay close attention!) so he headed to bed. I headed to sleep myself not too long after he did!

    The next day after breakfast, I took MM to the train station so he could head to Nagasaki for an overnight on his own. He'll have to write his own adventure about his time there! Monday evening, I picked him up from the station, and took him to tonkatsu dinner (I've written before about tonkatsu, which is the breaded, fried pork cutlet that one dips in a sauce one makes from ground sesame seeds and a fruity sauce similiar to A-1). Tuesday we were off again, early for me (ha!) to head to Hirado Island and Ikitsuki Island.

    Our adventures of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (3/27 - 3/29) to come in the next day or two...Hirado Island, Ikitsuki Island, Senryu Falls, the amazing Unzen, Shimabara Castle...and more!

    Wednesday, April 11, 2007

    Showing Off "My" Japan

    I'm sorry it's been such a long time since my last post. I'm so busy having adventures that it's hard to find time to write about them! As always, click on the images for larger photos.

    Even though I've still got things to write about from last summer and fall (Thanksgiving, meeting various porcelain artists, the Yosakoi festival, a parade I happened upon one day, etc.), I want to give you a glimpse into more recent events, as they are (of course) fresher in my mind. But trust me, I'm keeping notes, so eventually you will hear about it all.

    On March 19, my friend (and mentor and ex-employer and author-for-whom-I-design-books) MM came to Japan to visit. His plan was to spend three weeks in this beautiful country, with the first nine or ten days spent based in Sasebo, visiting me. Due to a miscommunication (and a stomach bug) on my end of things, we didn't meet up until the 21st, when I took the train to Fukuoka to escort him back to Sasebo. The train trip was pleasant, as always, as we rode alongside the incredibly green rice paddies and through long tunnels cut through the abrupt and shaggy mountains. Luckily, MM is as adventurous as I am, so when he said he could probably eat something just before we boarded our train (standing in obedient lines--no clustering or shoving here!), I jumped out of the line to purchase a bento lunch at the little food kiosk there on the train platform. I had no idea what specifically was in that particular bento, but I was reasonably sure it would have something from the standard range of rice and pickles, with perhaps shreds of omelette (tamago) or bits of mushroom or pieces of fish. I think it was a great introduction to Japanese life for MM , as we shared the mushroom-studded rice and bits of Japanese pickle (no fork, of course, only chopsticks), and watched the countryside slide by.

    That evening, we headed out to Fearless Husband's favorite curry restaurant, Coco Ichibanya (it was FH's last night at home for a while). I'd worried at first that it was a little too "chain-restaurant-with-plastic-booths" for a guest, but decided that MM would have plenty of chances in Japan to go to fancier restaurants, and this was the sort of place that Japanese families frequent on a regular basis...this was the REAL Japan. FH got his usual level 6 or 7 (I don't remember which...either one will blow away mere mortals with powerful heat!) and I got my tamer-but-still-spicy level 3. I think MM got the level 2, and even that was a little much for him! (Note to self: start visitors out with a level 0 or 1, unless you KNOW they're chili-heads!) However, despite the heat, it was a fun evening, talking and laughing and catching up, and showing MM various little things about Japanese life. For example...I hang onto the o-shibori (wet cloth) we're given at the start of a meal, because there usually aren't napkins -- and if there are, they tend to be not-very-absorbent little scraps of tissue -- and I always, ALWAYS need something to wipe my face/hands/shirt/table with...the waiter seats you and gives you menus, but does not come back to the table to bug you ("Ya'll ready to order yet?? *heavy sigh*) until you push a little button to ring a bell...curry in Japan is a saucy, messy dish, and simply can't be eaten with chopsticks, so large spoons are provided, and it's expected that you will use them (much to MM and FH's relief!)

    The next morning, I took FH to the ship and said my goodbyes (*sniffle*) and headed back to the house. MM and I had breakfast, and ended up sitting on the kitchen floor (I know...weird!) and yakking away for a couple of hours, catching up on several years of adventures for each of us. Finally, we got our acts together, and headed out the door. We
    went to Kashimae Pier to enjoy the spectacular weather -- cool breezes, blue skies and bright sunshine. After woodfired pizzas at Pinocchio's (sounds Italian, but with the various mushrooms and seafood, they were very Japanese-influenced Italian!) we strolled the docks, and MM (of course) ended up discovering some really spectacular architecture sort of hidden away, almost as if the architect had designed the building for his own pleasure. We decided to take the hour-long Kujukushima (literally 99 Islands) cruise around the 208 or so little islands in the harbor. I took a late-afternoon cruise on my own last fall, and it was really beautiful...but it was hazy, and the sun was setting, sending long shadows into the various hollows. This cruise was quite different, with the bright sun, flags snapping in the wind, intensely turquoise water and wind and wave-scoured rocks. We speculated on the various kinds of aquaculture around us (found out later it's almost all oyster farming), and pointed out particularly Japanese-looking twisted pines and interesting wind-scuplted embankments to each other. The first time I took the cruise, the recorded announcements were in Japanese and Australian-accented English. I guess that day there were more English-speakers on board than just me...this time, with MM, we seemed to be the only non-Asians on board, but there were many Chinese tourists, and a tour group from Taiwan. So, the announcements were in Japanese and Chinese...no English at all. Oh well! However, I knew from prior experience that the captions on the illustrated map of the islands were almost identical to the announcements, so we weren't missing much -- and it was interesting to realize that I can now REALLY tell the difference between spoken Japanese, spoken Chinese and spoken Korean. They all used to sound alike to my American ears, but now they're as different as German and French!

    After the cruise, we wanderered a little more, and MM suggested the aquarium and shipping museum. As much as I love aquariums, for some reason, I'd never felt particularly drawn to this one. But our cruise tickets entitled us to a reduced admission, so off we went. The place was near empty, but in this land of virtually no unemployment, there were two employees at the ticket desk, and two more to bow and welcome us into the museum itself. I was pleasantly surprised at both the shipping museum and at the aquarium. Both were quite small, but both were really beautifully designed, with a great deal of fascinating information. Though most of the signs were not in English, there were little green boxes on pedestals scattered throughout the shipping museum.
    One picked up the single padded earphone and held it to one's ear, and hit the appropriate button on the box (English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean) to hear a recorded spiel about that particular exhibit. There were astonishingly beautiful wooden models and cros-sections of ships and hulls, a scale-model of a Japanese merchant ship that one can walk through, a reproduction of a portion of a Viking longboat (along with a very funny horn-hatted Viking mannequin with a bushy red moustache), a dugout canoe, a timeline of the various boat types through the ages and how each developed (dugouts, reed/rush canoes, etc.) and more. It was really fascinating!

    The aquarium was very small, but equally wonderful. The first exhibit I came to was a large table covered in shallow plastic pans, with two plump, grinning grandmother-types with head kerchiefs and rubber gloves. It looked like a temporary craft area for kids, but it was an oyster table, and for 500 yen (about $4) one could purchase an oyster with a cultivated pearl inside, open it then and there with the provided tools, and take home an opalescent shell half and a real (cultured) pearl in pink, black, gold or white (the color was the main "surprise" as each oyster was guaranteed to have a pearl). MM had gone on ahead, so I succumbed to touristy, childlike temptation and plopped into a folding chair, handing over my 500 yen. The two old ladies gave me a glove for my left hand (that was a Charlie Chaplin moment, as the two tried to put the glove on my hand FOR me, at the same time, stuffing my fingers every which way and snapping the latex against my wrist, arguing in Japanese!) Then I was handed an oyster -- very different from the tough, lumpy, granite-colored oysters I'm used to. This one was bronze-colored, with a tear-drop rounded, delicate shell, flanged on one side where the hinge was. I inserted the oyster knife, and tried to follow the pantomime of my two helpers as they contradicted each other, lectured me in smiling Japanese and eventually grabbed my hands to "guide" me in forcing the hinge apart. I sat back for the ride, letting them manipulate the oyster, the knife, and both of my hands. Satisfied that I'd done it right (with their help), they handed me a long pair of tweezers. MM came up at that point, to find me gleefully digging for the pearl, the two ladies laughing at my efforts. Finally, out popped a perfect, luminous white pearl -- really surprising me as it suddenly surfaced in the grey mucous of the oyster like the moon rising from a swamp. The ladies gasped with surprise and pleasure, and I beamed happily. Whether it was real or, as I strongly
    suspect, part of their act, they seemed to imply that MY pearl was one of the BEST pearls, and I was supremely lucky. They took it from me, wiped it clean, tucked it in a tiny cellophane bag with a clean (not splintered by three sets of hands) irridescent oyster-shell half, tied the top prettily with a piece of gold ribbon, and ceremoniously presented me with my treasure. Silly? Sure. But I had so much fun!

    Off to the next exhibit we went. I was enjoying the brightly lit tanks of colorful saltwater fish set into the fake rock walls of the darkened "cave tunnel" hallway, when I gasped in shock and surprise. Right beside a waist-high exhibit of vivid tropical fish was a tank that reached to the floor level...and my toes were about an inch of glass away from a huge tangle of vicious-looking moray eels in semi-darkness. Wow...THAT was a powerful juxtaposition! Their tangled bodies were each quite a bit thicker than my arm, and their jutting jaws seemed full of malicious intent. I couldn't tear my eyes away from them for a long time....the way their tank seemed to be a long, rock-walled tunnel from ceiling to floor really added to the feeling of secretive and powerful danger. Then movement caught my eye, and I was immediately drawn to the next exhibit...a huge
    tank taller than my head with a thick "arm" that jutted out into the room. Recorded gull cries and waves echoed as I stood, fascinated, first staring into a school of silvery fish moving flashing and moving like one sparkling creature instead of hundreds of tiny individuals...then absolutely captivated by several HUGE sea turtles swimming majestically by me, only a couple of inches away from my outstretched fingers. I could've stood there and stared all day. There were other exhibits, of course...glowing, tiny jellyfish pulsing with slow grace to move their impossible, transparent bodies...tanks of pufferfish and luminescent lionfish...a large "touch pool" of urchins and crabs and whelks...tank after tank of astonishingly-colored live corals and aenemones. I'll definitely be going back!

    Afterwards, we wandered through the touristy shops in the "cruise terminal", looking over the various items that are specifically "Sasebonian", such as biwa (loquat) pies and jellies, and various bottles of sake and shochu. We bought a little biwa pie for dessert later, and a bottle of shochu, and headed home. Our supposedly "slow paced day of relaxation" was surprisingly tiring for us both! We shared some shochu at home, along with a quick dinner of kielbasa/cabbage/onion/apple, and then were both more than ready to sleep!

    Next up: our trip to Huis Ten Bosch!



    A trio of videos (I have sharper versions, so let me know if you want me to send you the higher resolution versions):
    A Silvery School

    Sea Turtle

    Jellies

    Monday, March 05, 2007

    Cocooned Buildings & Yakiniku

    There's so much to write about, and so little time! I can't believe we've been in Japan for over a year now. The time is just flying! Here's a mish-mash of observations and interesting (to me at least!) little things...sort of a collage of a post. (As always, click on the images for slightly larger versions.)

    Spring is trembling on the cusp of exploding here. The cherry blossoms are about to burst into bloom, and the days are alternating between sunny warmth and grey chill. Kyushu is an incredibly green island, which I tend to forget while driving around in the grey and tan city. Last spring, Miyuki and two other friends and I took a drive up into the mountains for a "hydrangea viewing". Certain roads are lined on both sides with unbroken walls of hydrangea, and they're covered in heavy, nodding flower bundles in pink and lavendar and blue. I'm hoping to go again this year, with my camera fully charged. Last time was astonishing, and I was heartbroken that my camera battery died after only a couple of shots. Here is a rather poor image of smiling H, where you can see the hydrangea peering in the car windows. Here is the view from the spa where we stopped for lunch, and where I hope to return. The mountains and rice paddies look so lush and beautiful! Even during the winter, flowers have surprised me here. They spill from alleyways, fill terracotta pots jumbled around the front doors of houses, and cascade down grey stone walls. The colors are all the more striking for being surrounded by so much grey and beige and rust.

    Nature in general is very highly regarded here, of course. One funny example of this is the "Engritch" slogans on the wheelcovers of the little jeep-like 4WD cars here. I can't always snap a shot of them, but I'm going to try to collect more. The Rasheen wheel cover says "Listen to the murmuring of a stream. Run after wild birds. Rest in the bosom of the woods." I guess one does all of this AFTER one has driven crashing into the forest? Another wheelcover shows a diver cavorting in silhouette with a dolphin, superimposed on the planet Earth. The slogan: "Save our nature!" Guess they mean to save it from stuff other than car exhaust?

    I'm also amused by the branding of cars here. The little blue one in the photo is a model named "Carol" with the slogan "Me Lady" painted on the side. I LOVED that car, but somehow, Fearless Husband wasn't as into it as I was. Go figure! Cars here have odd names to American ears, such as the "Move", the "Today", the "Cube", the "Life" and (most surprising to me) "La Puta". That last one means "the prostitute" in Spanish, Tagalog and Portugese!!!


    Then, just as we have celebrity-branded vehicles (such as the Eddie Bauer edition Ford Explorer), so do the Japanese -- the "Hello Kitty" edition Daihatsu Move. No, I'm not kidding! The Japanese tend to dress in dark or neutral colors...navy, black, brown, rust, olive green, cream, tan, etc. But they seem to enjoy more vivid colors in other areas. There are plenty of cars in pink, purple, lavendar and apple green. My car is a pretty vivid teal. And heavy construction machinery is in a rainbow of colors, unlike the American "caution yellow". Here, you will find teal cranes, purple bulldozers, turquoise and green backhoes...they almost look as if Fisher Price built them!

    When construction is being done anywhere, a scaffolding is erected around whatever is being worked on (house, high-rise, street sign, support column for the new highway) and fabric is draped all over the scaffolding very neatly, like a big package. I've been told part of that is safety, so pieces of the construction process and/or paint droplets are contained away from passing cars and people. The fabric (which is a loose enough weave to be very slightly translucent in some situations) might also help protect whatever is being built or renovated from the weather. But it looks like a cocoon to me, from which the new sign/bridge pillar/apartment building emerges, clean and finished and pretty, like a butterfly. In this land of jumbled houses, rust-streaked sheds and dilapidated roofs, it's almost as if it's perfectly fine to look at the young and beautiful or the old and dilapidated, but never appropriate to see any building unfinished or in the midst of refurbishment...as if it's in a state of undress. Here is a photo of the big torii gate in front of the base draped in green cheesecloth-like stuff when it was being repainted, with the shadowy figures of workers barely seen inside the tent-like folds. I'll have to see if I can get a shot of a similarly-draped high-rise. Yes, it's raining. Yes, the workers are still working. Construction workers seem to work in all weather, at all hours. It's common to see much road construction happening late at night, when traffic is light, and even on the worst rainy days I pass construction in action.

    Can't think of a good transition, so imagine your own here. Many of the restaurants in Japan involve the diner in the meal more than just as a consumer of food. At the tonkatsu place, for example, each diner is given a little bowl with unglazed ridges gouged into the bottom, and a round-ended wooden stick. One is expected to ladle out a spoonful of sesame seeds into the bowl, and then grind however much or little one wants. Then tonkatsu sauce is added (one is spicy and one is sweet, supposedly, but I don't taste much difference) and one stirs it up to make a paste or sauce as thin or thick as one wishes. The pouring sauce is fruit-based, and tastes a little like our A-1 sauce...but the fragrance of the crushed sesame seeds is really wonderful, and the two flavors go together really beautifully. Then one dips the insanely tender slices of panko-crusted pork cutlet into the sauce...delicious!

    Another favorite restaurant is the yakiniku place. Yaki means "cook" and niku means "meat". Pretty self-explanatory! Diners are shown to a table (low and Japanese style or American-style booth) with a grill embedded in the center of the table. The yakiniku I went to in Okinawa was heated with cylinders of charcoal, but the one I frequent in Sasebo has a gas flame heating a crysanthemum-shaped metal burner beneath the grill grid. One orders a platter of meat, sometimes sauced, sometimes not. Some platters have a variety of different beef cuts, some have beef, chicken and seafood. Each platter comes with several leaves of cabbage, a thick slice of carrot, some thick rings of onion, a slab of bell pepper, and a slab of eggplant. Sometimes, Japanese pumpkin (winter squash) is included. Everything arrives raw, even the meat, and each diner then cooks his or her own meats and vegetables to a preferred doneness. A segmented dish is provided for various dipping things -- pureed garlic, some sort of sweet pepper puree, soy sauce (of course), a mix of coarsely-ground salt and black pepper -- and each piece of meat or vegetable can be dipped in one or a succession of condiments, "bounced" on one's bowl of rice, and then eaten. The rice is seasoned with meat juices, garlic, salt, etc. from this "bouncing", and is eaten bit by bit throughout the meal, so each layer of the bowl of rice is seasoned. Meat is very expensive in Japan, and the meat at a yakiniku is usually of a VERY high quality (I've had Kobe beef, as well as several other kinds, named for the area from which each comes). The diner is not given a ton of meat, compared to an American steak dinner, and the meal is not cheap...but it's exactly enough. By the time one has cooked, seasoned and eaten, the belly is full and a good, long, pleasant time has passed in conversation and the action of cooking. Pauses have to be taken as various bits are being cooked, so there's time for conversation. I love the yakiniku place!

    Last fall, I went to the Navy Ball with my friend L. The ball itself was fun, but nothing special...people dressed up, there was plenty to eat and drink, the music was loud. However, I met some interesting people and that was fun. One woman named Michiko was dressed in her formal kimono, in elegant juxtaposition to all the red sheaths and sequins and black gowns with plunging necklines. I got an interesting photo of her having a cigarette outside and watching the dancing through the glass doors. With the cigarette and the kimono, she made me think of something out of a late 1940s movie. Afterwards, a group of us "sea widows" went out to a karaoke bar, which I hadn't done before. It was fascinating! The bar was called The Westerner, and it was the smallest bar I think I've ever been in. There was a single low table to one side, and a U-shaped bar with perhaps 12 barstools. Other than a shelf of liquor bottles, two karaoke tv screens and the chaotic jumble of "Western memorabilia" on the walls (including an all-but-topless 1960s painting of a redhead in a cowboy hat leaning on a saddle), that was it. Both the "barmaids" were Japanese women in their late 50s, with heavy makeup, cowboy hats, leather mini-skirts, and their American nicknames burned into the leather of their belts. "Kay" happily served us drinks, and offered the karaoke menu. One could sing songs in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean, for 200 yen (about $1.80) per song. The drinks were small, and VERY expensive -- but a very skinny and very tipsy Japanese man insisted on buying drinks for all of us, as long as we'd sing "Country Roads" and "Grandma's Feather Bed" with him...loudly. (Turned out he was a cardiologist on vacation in Sasebo and this was his idea of a fantastic night, singing American songs with American Navy wives. His own wife watched and smiled tolerantly as she sipped her cocktail.) This gentleman crooning with overdressed American women was highly amusing to a couple at the end of the bar, near the painting of the redhead. For some reason, the barmaids drew mustaches on several patrons using eyebrow pencil. I'm not sure quite why, but it went along with the loan of a battered straw cowboy hat, so maybe the Dick Dastardly mustache was part of being an American cowboy? Later in the evening, the woman pictured here had a mustache drawn on, too! She's flashing the peace sign in the photo, which seems to be The Thing to Do when having your photo taken in Japan.

    I've attached two more photos, just because I like them. One is a a silly picture I took of the little bitty clams I used in miso soup. Miyuki and her mother helped me pick out good miso and dried wakame for the soup, and insisted that it would be best to have these little shellfish. The shellfish were delicious in the soup, but I enjoyed the discarded shells even more. I love the color variation on them -- some look like miniature landscapes! The other shot I took out of the car window, of some washcloths drying in the sun. I just liked the yellow of the cloths, the dingy turquoise of the awning, the coral of the haidresser's cape, and the terracotta of the wall.

    There you have it...a little disjointed, but still, things I wanted to share. I love it here...more soon!

    Saturday, February 10, 2007

    Birthday Izakaya & Bits of News

    Menu at the izakayaI'm so sorry for the long delay between posting adventures. I've been having them, and am so behind in writing them all down, but it's just been hard to actually sit down and do it! So...you may get several adventures in a row, out of chronological order. My apologies, but when motivation strikes, and opportunity presents itself, I have to get to writing! Current happenings below, catch-up stuff shortly. No, really, I promise!

    It's been a chaotic few weeks. We got home from our 13 days in the US (three of them spent simply traveling!) in mid-January, and began gearing up to get Fearless Husband packed and ready for heading out to sea. Then, on January 20, FH's maternal grandfather, who lived with FH's grandmother and parents, died unexpectedly. So, instead of getting on the ship on January 24, FH headed home to help and support his family. We couldn't afford for me to go too, and it was a good thing, as it freed him up to be a support and a comfort to his grandmother, mom and sister, and not worry about me. Then, on February 4th, my step-grandmother died. It was not unexpected, as she'd gone severely downhill for the past couple of months and it was a relief in so many ways...but it is still sad,and I will miss her. She was a truly great lady.

    But...enough of the sad news. Life is good here. I have my husband home briefly, at least until they fly him out to meet the ship next week. The big news is that the base has decided to hire me as a part-time contractor for the next 6 months! Basically, I'll continue to do what I've been volunteering to do at the base newspaper, but I'll also redesign the online newspaper, the base website, and the "welcome aboard" CD that newcomers are given. The contract is task-driven, with a list of projects, and suggested deadlines. The money will certainly come in handy, and it feels really good to have this validation of the value of my work for the base.

    Kites on the walls of the izakayaI have found a small group of women with whom I like to do things. We've decided to get together every Friday night, alternating adventurous meals in Japanese restaurants with making dinner in our own homes for the rest of the group, taking turns. We're a diverse group, ranging in age from 22 to 41, and coming from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Illinois (so far!). We enjoy one another's company, and have fun talking and playing various card and board games and exploring Japan. It's great to have a group of intelligent, interesting women with whom to interact...and they understand when I need to be by myself and don't want to join them for an adventure. We had our first Supper Club gathering (three of us) at a tonkatsu (basically a fried pork cutlet, but with a whole "ritual presentation" deal..more on this later!) restaurant last Friday, and four of us gathered at K's house this evening for a wonderful meal of homemade rotisserie chicken breasts with herbes de Provence and a caramelized onion cream sauce, and a dish of julienned peppers and eggplant with herbs and olive oil. Yum! We got to enjoy a slightly abbreviated version of the nightly fireworks from Huis Ten Bosch from K's balcony, and then we played a great card game I'd never played before called "Phase 10" and simply enjoyed laughter and camaraderie. Next week, there should be at least five of us, and when B comes back from visiting the US, she'll be our sixth.

    My birthday was quiet, but fun. FH wasn't able to be here, but we talked on his birthday and again on mine, and that was good. On the sixth, I worked during the day, then met Miyuki and her friend Yuri, a concert pianist who's married to a doctor and has two children. Miyuki gave me a packet of ebi wasabi rice chips that her mother picked out especially for me, as she knows I LOVE both ebi (shrimp) and wasabi (very hot green horseradish). She also gave me a stoneware bottle of shochu (a liquor made from rice, wheat or potatoes that is similar to vodka and WAAAAY stronger than sake). She said it was 200 years old, but I can't figure out if she means the actual beverage, or just the company. Regardless, I won't be opening it until a special occasion...and the grey stoneware bottle, with its painted blue kanji, is so very cool!

    New friend, YuriYuri is really pretty and delicate, and speaks very little English. She really wants to learn more of the language, and is eager to learn to cook American dishes. We made a deal...she'd help me with my Japanese language and cooking, and I'd help her with English language and American cooking! She wants to get together to do something together quite often, which makes Miyuki a little nervous...Yuri can afford to do FAR more than Miyuki and I (she wants to go to a place that serves lunch for about $100 a person, for example!!) She also has a son who is one of Miyuki's students, and that gives her a certain power over Miyuki...on one hand, Miyuki can't gracefully (or politically) refuse Yuri's requests, but she also can't afford financially to go out so often, nor can she afford for Yuri to think she is not a dedicated teacher. The other teachers already think Miyuki is a slacker because she only works 7am to 6pm (though sometimes until 10pm!) six days a week, and there are some teachers who work 7am to 10pm seven days a week! I have to walk a tightrope, as I am eager to do things with Yuri, but don't want Miyuki put in a difficult position -- and Yuri wants Miyuki to go with us every time to translate. It is VERY hard for a Japanese person to say no, especially to a percieved superior.

    (I actually met Yuri the night of the Bean Throwing Festival on the previous Saturday, and we went to an izakaya near the train station...more about that, including the fish head soup, complete with giant fish head staring at me, and the fried fish-bone "crackers" soon, honestly! I even have photos! But for now, this is the more recent adventure.)

    For my birthday, we went to a local izakaya (sort of a Japanese tapas bar -- small, local and relatively traditional) and it was really fantastic. We walked in the (sliding, of course) front door, pushing through head-sized flaps of dark blue cotton fabric at the doorway. To the right was a very cramped bar stretching the length of the equally cramped, but impeccably clean, kitchen. The bar had maybe seven seats, specifically for single men. We turned sharply to the left, kicked off our shoes in a 24" x 24" square of tile, then stepped up into a narrow tatami room with three very low, relatively small tables. Other than a kerosene heater, that was it for furniture! The walls were hung with painted, dusty paper kites, an odd print of a fish, and some dusty wooden shelves holding various vases, knick-knacks, and a clock. It didn't feel like a restaurant or bar to me at all!

    Sweet potato steak, onigiri, tofu and egg in the backgroundThere were a couple of laminated menus on the tables, entirely in Japanese, with no photos, and no rubber food in evidence anywhere. Luckily, the menu was pretty simple, as most izakayas specialize in one or two types of food. I was able to slowly spell out a little of what was on the menu, which thrilled me to pieces! I felt like a little kid, so proud of myself for stumbling through "Yaaaaaa... maaaaaaaaa... eeeee... mohh..., yama imo! Sweet potato! Suu.... tehhh... ki.... Steak! Sweet potato steak?? What the...?" Turns out they were well known for their sweet potato steak, which ended up coming in a small, rounded, rectangular cast iron dish. It was soft, and a little glutinous, and yellow...it looked like a plate of melted cheese, but it was mountain potato (sweet potato) mashed and cooked into a flat serving. It was the furthest thing from a "steak" that I've ever seen, as I could've eaten it with a spoon (and had trouble with chopsticks!) but it was really delicious--savory, very slightly sweet, with all the pasty chalkiness of the starch cooked away. It was topped with pieces of lettuce, and slivers of nori. I know, it doesn't sound delicious, but it was! In the picture, the sweet potato steak is in the foreground, and Miyuki's nori-wrapped onigiri (rice balls) and her tofu with egg is in the background.


    I also had a circle of burdock root that had a chicken sausage spread on one side before the whole thing was skewered and grilled...a charming cast iron pot of a sort of rice porridge, made with thin slivers of green onion and plump, insanely fresh whole oysters, the ubiquitous homemade Japanese pickles, and the best squid tempura I've ever eaten in my life. We three sat at one table, talking and laughing, while three Japanese women and an absolutely adorable moon-faced toddler with handlebar ponytails ate at one of the other two tables. The bar in the other half of the tiny restaurant catered to a very slow, but very steady stream of single male (mostly older) customers the whole time we were there.

    Red lacquered sake cup and iron pot of rice porridgeThe izakaya served hot tea, water and sodas, of course, but was primarily for customers craving food accompanied by one of three alcoholic beverages. The first and foremost was, of course, sake. There were many brands available, most to be served warm, but a few designed to be served cold. The customer can always choose to have just about any sake hot or cold. I prefered it cold when I first came to Japan, but have found I'm developing a taste for it served quite warm. In this case, a little glass sort of like an old-fashioned juice glass was brought to me, literally brimming over. The hot glass was set inside a little square cup made of very small, relatively thick pieces of wood dovetailed together to make it watertight. The wooden cup is a traditional sake cup, but it's very odd to drink out of a thick-sided wooden box! You can pour the sake from the glass into the wooden cup, but the glass really is hot, so it's best to carefully lift the overfilled glass to your mouth using the wooden box. After you've drunk about half of the sake from the glass, you can pour the rest into the wooden cup box (to join what's already spilled over when it was brought out to you!) and sip it until it's gone.

    Sake is made with pure, clear water, cooked rice, and yeast. That's it. It's similar in strength to beer or wine, but is not really either one. Shochu, as I already described, is more like vodka, and can be made with rice, wheat (Miyuki kept saying "made with flour" and I kept thinking "but which flower?" until I realized she meant wheat!) or potatoes. It's clear, just like sake, but exponentially stronger. Shochu is used to make chu-hi. These are like a cross between American cocktails and a not-very-sweet wine spritzer. Shochu is mixed with soda water and a flavoring -- sometimes slightly sweet, sometimes a little tart -- and with the alcohol content of a wine cooler or spritzer, not a highball. Chu-his come in cans in various convenience stores, like sodas, and in flavors like lemon, grapefruit, lime and ume (Japanese plum or apricot, rather tart) and occasionally seasonal flavors, like the current strawberry flavor. It's traditional to bring a salty snack with sake, like crunchy rice-cracker-paste-coated peanuts in flavors like bonito and wasabi, but in this case, they didn't bring anything to accompany my single sake, as we had ordered lots of food.

    Afterwards, we hiked back up a considerable hill to Miyuki's car, with the still-quite-full moon hanging in the sky, the air uncharacteristically warm for February. I marveled at the difference in my life and my experiences, even just since last year, as I talked with Miyuki and Yuri, using my few words of Japanese, able to understand a few more as they talked, and realizing I could actually read several of the signs in katakana, hiragana and kanji around us. I was replete with good food and great companionship. The only thing that would have made the evening any more perfect would have been having Fearless Husband with me to share the adventure.

    More soon!