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, 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 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!