December 26, 2004

December - Part 3

This is a great article about Europe and something I think we in the US are facing in a less constructive way.

Osoji (AKA: the big year-end cleaning)

So we cleaned our offices from top to bottom, since in Japan there aren’t cleaning staff that do anything in any of the office. We even take out our own garbage, etc. throughout the year. I don’t think much was cleaned during the year considering the muck we got from the shelves, windows, floors, etc., but we got it clean and even had a bit of time to work before our office party. I also did Osoji at home since I figured “why not?”

Bonenkei (AKA: “forget the year” party)

Oh man, it was a blast! We had many wonderful courses of food and drink (an-zhu-shu [apricot wine] & kae-ki-shu [flower wine] were my favorites) at a Chinese restaurant called Aberdeen—don’t know why it’s called that and the sign is in English, but it was good! After having a fun time at dinner and being amazed at how much some people could drink, some of us decided to go to Karaoke!

So, we got there and got into our room and people were still drinking strong. I was done by then, but decided to have a bunch of ka-ru-pi-sus (AKA: sweet, carbonated, citrusy drink that has milk) since I wanted to drink something to stay hydrated. Oh, it was a blast! I was so happy that some of the people in the office I don’t know so well came so we were able to have some fun with them as well. Man, the photos don’t lie, we were being as silly as can be and enjoyed every minute of it! At the end of the evening, one of my colleagues had had more than I thought was possible…I kept anticipating he’d be sick or something, so when we left everyone was on there way and he was kind of lingering in the parking lot with his bike just waving bye-bye to everyone. It looked kind of funny. When I got home, I phoned him to be sure he at least made it home ok. Needless, to say, he did.

Okonomiyaki, Onsen, Oh my!

Ok, I should tell you now that I have become a greater Foody that even before! I have decided that I need to try all I can and also try every Okonomiyaki shop I can find in the immediate area. I even got a phone charm with a lil’ Oko-buddy! : ) Fortunately, I have also met others with this sick disposition and we have formed a loose group to compare cafeterias, restaurants, cafes, etc. Earlier this week, I met two women from Russia and Uzbekastan of this new-found group for okonomiyaki at one of their favorite places, I had not previously visited. We had dinner and over dinner, I learned that they had both been in Saijo for several years. They are also big fans of onsen or the public bath-houses in the area. When they heard I hadn’t been, they just about jumped out of their skins planning for when I could join them to go sometime. Now, I am not an especially shy person when I know what I am getting myself into, but I had heard much—good and bad—about onsen and was still not quite sure about checking it out for myself. We tentatively set Sunday as the day we would go, which was fine, until I later found out that besides us, there would also be a bunch of colleagues joining us for the co-ed onsen. I think I would prefer to go alone or with only one or two other people, not a whole office for my first time at onsen. Un/Fortunately, it didn’t work out time-wise, so maybe next time… Regardless, I imagined going to onsen with my whole office and that just seemed odd to me—but then I have never been, so what am I talking about?!?


I decided to go to H City for a bit of a wander-about, people watching, and to do a bit of shopping for a few items I couldn’t find at prices I wanted to pay in Saijo. So, I took the bus to the train, the train to the tram, and the tram to the Hondori or covered shopping arcade in city center. It was hopping like mad since it was only two days before Christmas and I enjoyed watching all of the people wandering about. There were buskers and barkers and beggars in addition to all of the shoppers and store-keeps. Definitely a vibrant time and place. I took my time and slowly found what I was seeking. A little later I met some friends and had coffee and conversation. All in all it was a nice day away from the norm.

Christmas Eve

Christmas eve was a busy, but nice day, all in all. I met friends for lunch at an Italian restaurant. Then a colleague picked me up to help her with some research. We took our time and had some teas/hot drinks I had never tried before and one of which I fell in love with. After a quick stop by the grocery, I went home to prepare some rice crispy bars for the potluck later that evening.

I was joining another colleague and her family to go to their Catholic church for mass and then a potluck dinner. The mass was quite the same as in the US except entirely in Japanese—I only heard a couple of words of Latin even. However, it was also a very Japanese mass. What I mean by that is that folks would bow a great deal. For example, rather than shake hands during the sharing of the Peace they would bow. Also as part of prayers, blessing of the wafers/wine, and the such. I expected it for the sharing of the Peace, but not in all of the other places it popped up.

After the service, everyone set up for the potluck in another building near the church. When everything was set up, there was a kind of opening remarks (like at most functions I have attended), then everyone could eat. During the remarks I looked over the foods on the table thinking of my Lutheran church potlucks from my high school & college years and this was quite different, but quite the same. It was the same in that there was: too much food for everyone, bowls of fruit, a lot of basic foods that are yummy and eat well in such a setting, and plenty of kids about. It was different in that much of the food was quite Japanese. What I mean by that is that to see sushi rolls on the table wasn’t so odd since I am in Japan, but when I had the potato salad, I hadn’t expected the spicy little fish eggs that was part of the mayo sauce. I loved it, but didn’t realize it initially.

I do need to say here that the first thing I dove for once someone told me “dozo” [please take something] was tacos that I had spotted. I have missed very little beyond the people from home, however Mexican food has been hounding me incessantly in the recesses of my mind. I could break down and buy the stuff at much higher prices than at home, but it’s no fun if it’s just me. Hmmm, I feel a taco party coming on…

After church, we went back to her house and visited with her family for a while. They are really nice and I like them. Before we knew it, it was midnight and so the evening came to a close.

Christmas Day

December 25th is like any other regular day—even my Japanese class was in session, though I chose to skip it since I really didn’t feel it right and realized that there were many others that would also not attend due to the holiday or traveling. I had plans to meet a colleague for lunch and she ended up treating me since it was my first Christmas in Japan, was here on my own, etc. She took me to a restaurant I had seen often enough since it’s very close to campus, but I thought it was too dear of a place for me to afford. In fact, it is nice and the prices are quite reasonable—the food was stellar! The meal was “Viking” style or a buffet/smorgasboard as we call it at home. It was the first time I had seen such a buffet in Japan, but it was nice to be able to try so many different foods at the same time. We had our fill and decided to go to the movies. Here, we both like movies and hadn’t been for a long while. We saw “Man on Fire” with Denzel Washington and it was a great movie, though a bit grisly. It was my first time in a movie theater since arriving and it was all in all the same as at home. The film was in English with Japanese sub-titles and people were absolutely silent for the duration of the movie. Even at the really funny parts, nothing…until the end, it seemed as though everyone in the theater was all weepy. After the film, we decided to wander the mall a little bit before heading back to our studies and reading. It was a nice way to spend the holiday.

Posted by cassl001 at 5:34 AM

December 20, 2004

December - Part 2

Just thought you’d like to know…during the trip to Tomonoura, apparently there was a reporter/photographer from a local paper there and took a photo of my and one of the HIC staff making Chickuwa or fish cakes.


I am getting the feeling that Christmas in Japan “is a horse of a different color I’ve heard tell about” as the mayor in the Wizard of Oz put it. This year it’s on a Saturday and on Christmas Eve, I am going with a Japanese colleague to her Catholic church. So far, she is the only Christian I have met who is also Japanese besides the ones in H City that prostheletize to shoppers in the Hondori. Oh, and the Jehovas’ Witness that came by one evening when I was with a colleague and his family at their home—though I didn't really meet her. As far as decorations, much of what I see is simply like at home, but much less serious and less overall. For example, I saw a glass figurine of Santa lying on the ground with bottles laying around him…I’m guessing it’s his Christmas day pose.

New Year’s

I am looking forward to New Year’s though I don’t know what I plan to do. I am thinking of going to temple for the first prayer of the New Year with the rest of the masses. Of course, I am eating myself silly on o-mochi since it seems to be a seasonal kind of thing…with azuki or sweet red beans or plain or with a soy-syrup or toasted or however they come along.

New Year’s is the big holiday here. From what I have heard and seen here, people are preparing for the New Year early on. There are mochi-tsuki events like in my e-newsletter and there are even small and large mochi figurines that people have in their homes with good luck charms—kinda like the marizpan glucksbringer treats in Germany. The difference is that these always have two balls of mochi (or wax since it sits out so long) on top of each other kinda squished a little bit (so they don’t roll away & can hold the other decos) with red or gold ribbon, and also maybe a beckoning cat or a kind of a red character/god? or a mikan or tangerine/mandrin orange on top. I have also seen some other decos with bamboo and many of these different luck items. It’s all really quite pretty in the stores—maybe I’ll try to remember to take a photo sometime. Another part of NY’s is that instead of Christmas card, folks mail New Year’s cards to people—often postcards. On the side of the card near the address there are two kanji that basically tell the post to hold the cards until January 1st and then they are delivered on the 1st. A big part of NY’s is also the first visit of the New Year to the temples or shrines. I have seen photos of this and it’s incredible. Finally, I have learned from a friend that there are various kinds of food eaten from the 1st to the 3rd and each item represents something specific, like longevity, harmony, fertility, happiness, solid foundation, etc. (If you are close enough to MSP, I have sent my parents and Courtney some flyers that have pictures of these special holiday foods. It used to be that people would prepare these foods themselves, but now they are usually ordered. I think it’s because much of it seems to take a lot of preparation for such a variety of and small portions of said foods.)

Sing, Sing a Song…

I go to elementary schools occasionally to help with the “Extra Long English Conversation Lesson” and it’s amazing how some familiar songs are done differently or there are songs I have never heard of. For example, they have a song in English about fingers. The thumb is the daddy finger, the pointer is the mommy finger, the middle finger is brother finger, the ring finger is sister finger, and the pinky is the baby finger. So we sing our way though this song sticking out our fingers at each other as we sing that verse…needless to say, brother finger is a bad, bad boy and I have a tough time “flipping” my group off singing about him…no such concept here about that particular gesture and the teachers gleefully try to get me to be as energetic about that one as the others.


I do more of my own cooking than maybe I should since I could eat at restaurants for the same or at the on-campus cafeteria for even less than cooking at home. Still, I like learning how to make new foods and experimenting, so I cook probably about half of the time. For one person, cooking at home (buying food, paying for gas to cook, then gas to heat the water to wash the dishes, and the water itself) is about the same as eating out economically. For more than one person, it’s is more economical, so a friend or two or three and I sometimes cook together or we each make a dish and then meet in one person’s room to eat.

A bit of info to help with the entry that follows:

Mochi: Glutinous rice, which is steamed, pounded and shaped into small cakes/balls for consumption. Fresh mochi is often eaten as it’s made, warm and still quite soft. Other varieties about, oftentimes quite hard until toasted or broiled. In either case, accompaniments often include nori (seaweed), shouyu (soy sauce), or azuki (sweet red beans). Though eaten year-round, the food is of particular significance during New Year’s.

Shimenawa: Often seen at entrances to shrines, Shimenawa are large (sometimes quite large) sculptures of twisted rope, often times with zigzag cut paper dangling as pendants (gohei). These works symbolically indicate sacred grounds where Japanese gods (Kami) are thought to dwell. They are particularly present during New Year’s. Although New Year’s Shimenawa decorating the entrances to homes often go under a different name, (Shimekazari), their fundamental meaning is similar.

Soba: Known commonly in Western countries as buckwheat, once hulled, the seeds are ground into flour of various grades. One very common use of the subsequent flour is the creation of Soba noodles, usually a ratio of buckwheat flour to standard white/wheat flour for binding purposes. The resultant noodle is uniquely flavorful, eaten both hot and cold with a variety of broths/dipping sauces.

Kagura: A performance or ritual with origins based in Japan’s native folk religion, Shinto. Although the ritual aspects may be somewhat lost in the modern interpretations, Kagura is essentially an invocation of the Gods, followed performance of song/dance. Varieties in Kagura, like variations of Shinto, are diverse. Historical traditions combined with regional variations make broad statements meaningless, as each region invariably has its own styles and traditions. Kagura has been documented from as early as the 9th century and, within Hiroshima Prefecture, is particularly prevalent in the northern regions.

Sunday was a fun day! After having a relaxing chat with a friend over some juice & tea, I went to the train station area where I was to meet the bus and the rest of the group for a trip to Miyoshi City, Sakugi-Cho, Monde District. We got off to a great start and I recognized a few of the people on the trip. I decided to sit with the Iranian family I had met before and it was a nice time to talk with the wife/mom of the family. Once we got to Miyoshi, it was incredible and NHK was there to film it. It was strange, but I jut ignored them when I realized they wouldn’t talk to me since I don’t have sufficient Japanese skills.. We were halfway up the mountainous Chuugoku region in a narrow valley and there were probably 50-60 people waving different country flags to welcome us. As we got off of the bus, they waved and cheered as we walked through the path they created for us and we said “ohayo gozaimas-“es to everyone.

Once we were all off the bus, they lined us up on one side and the folks of the Monde District on the other for some opening remarks. After the remarks, everyone started in with mochi-azuki, making shimenawa-zukuri (luck/holiday decorations), and making soba. I did the mochi-azuki again and watched the shimenawa-zukuri, but there were just too many people for everyone to do it. I also watched others making soba noodles too.

Before I knew it, it was time to start making our international cuisines. I was able to recruit a few Chinese friends to help as temporary Americans to make rice crispy bars. We whipped out two huge batches using up three big blocks of butter, six big bags of marshmallows, and four boxes of Kellog’s rice crispies and one can of beer—for me. : ) As it turned out, as quickly as we could get them to cool and cut, they were gone. It was great fun and I have to admit, I laughed my butt off seeing people eating still warm, gooey rice crispy treats with O-hashi or chopsticks. It ended up that our table was the first one to run out of food since it seemed everyone was attracted by the strange combo of ingredients (all others were various Asian foods), plus the “boom” of the trays as we flipped them over to get the treats out onto the wax paper. It really worked out quite well and though we ran out, I think everyone who wanted to have some was able to.

Once we cleaned up a bit, we walked around and tried some different foods and what was left of the Japanese foods too. I went to try some soup and instead of the small bowl I grabbed, the fellow serving it up put that aside and gave me a big ol’ bowl more than twice what I had intended to get since I didn’t know what I was to eat. Well, he scooped his best and gave me the piping hot soup. The broth tasted really good and thought maybe I could eat all of what he had given me, but then I used the O-hashi to stir up things and grabbed something to put in my mouth. At the last minute I realized it was the fish spine that I almost mow-chowed on. Oops, so I was more careful and opted to not eat the larger fishbones, but enjoyed the soup. (I don’t know why, but spine and neck bones have always kind of turned me off…I think that it’s because when I was a kid, I was fascinated with spinal cords and brains, and all that and for some reason, just cannot imagine eating them knowingly—of course to have the bones makes me think it’s all in there.) Some might be surprised since I was never a fish eater in the U.S.—I wouldn’t say I have fully converted, but the fish here is so much better and I like that most of the time you can get fish that is “meaty” for the most part. And sushi is completely different than “fish” in the US sense. So I guess it’s nearly three months and I still haven’t found anything that I don’t like and I know that I can’t get most of it in the US so I eat away…hee-hee, I suppose that I this will mean that I won’t loose as much weight as when I was in Germany! : )

After the fish soup, kim chee, Filipino & Indonesian foods, O-mochi, and such, it was time to see Kagura. The performance we saw had the following plot outline: “Jinrin” In the reign of the 14th Emperor Chuai, tens of thousands of troops from a strange country came to conquer the land of Japan. Among the invaders was the great devil general Jinrin, who with the wings on her back could flit about the sky, riding on black clouds bringing strife and warfare. Thus, the Emperor, together with his retainer, Takamaro, accepted the challenge, fighting back with a bow and arrow that contained the teachings and the power of the God that created Japan, Amaterasu Oomikami. The Emperor ultimately vanquishes the fierce god Jinrin in this tale of peace and protection. Although in Kagura, a female devil such as Jinrin in relatively rare, she is an eerie and menacing character of the highest caliber. So that’s the plot. The story was incredible! To watch the dances and chants and movements of the characters was unbelievable. I have never seen such good, strange movements with masks that really made me suspend reality. The movements were so different from anything that I have seen in other dancing/performance styles. I really was sad when it was over…it is something I will see again and again, if I have my way about it.

After the performances, they let us look at the costumes up close and even let us try them on…they are so very heavy since there is so much intricate embroidery, horse(?) hair fur, and batting to make the reliefs on the garments. Incredible! Towards the end of the try-on session, one of the performers seemed quite keen on my trying another one on again, so I did and he tied the mask on me and got me all put together. He wanted to show me to some of the other people from Miyoshi, how the costume fit me well since I am so tall apparently.

That was one thing I noticed—probably 90% of the people from the town hosting us were over 60 or 70. Many were in their upper 80’s or so. It was interesting how so many older people when they would meet each other would ask how old the other is. (Sorting out how to address each other maybe?) It was done very nicely, for example an older fellow was standing near the barrel fire, and another older fellow brought him a chair. As he offered it to him, he just asked how old he is—the compared ages and chatted onward. The one thing that was really nice about so many older folks is that I really got a Nihongo workout. Although I really can’t speak Japanese yet, it seemed we were able to communicate some basics back and forth. I am starting to feel like I am using my language in a constructive way rather than parroting stuff like “kore wa nan des ka?” “sore wa nan des ka?” “alle wa nan des ka?” Still, I need to cram some more vocabulary into my head since I just don’t have the words yet.

Another item I didn't really notice until one of the HIC staff mentioned it, was that the older folks were much smaller in stature than the generation I see most often on campus—probably due to different nutrition and hard, laborious work. One of the fellows I sat next to while watching the Shimenawa was a riot. He is 87 years old and a real smarty-pants! When the older women would walk by and say something to him like “move your foot” to get by since we were sitting on the tatami mats, he would let her by then throw a sheaf of long rice grass at her or act as though he were going to pat her bottom. He would giggle and say something after that—a few of us never could quite understand what he said. Later on, an Iranian friend and I were talking with him about how he stays so genki or healthy and he explained to us that he goes to bed each night and embraces his wife tightly, hence he remains genki. I am not sure of a double-entendre, but I’ll be damned the way he explained it, he was looking for a bit more of a reaction than we gave him which was a kind of “oh, that’s sweet” kind of reaction.

Once everyone was together, they had us make two circles—one with the internationals on the inside and then one with the Japanese hosts on the outside. They explained the steps and we learned a new dance. It’s kind of a square dance style dance, but as the chorus of the dance ends, each circle takes a step in opposite directions, so you keep getting a new partner. So we did this twice and at the end, we exchanged the lovely cedar nametags they had for us and addresses with the person we aligned with. The women who is my address exchange is very nice and doesn’t speak much English, so we communicated on a basic level, but are planning to meet in Hiroshima City in January for coffee and something else I am not sure of.

After a few closing remarks, we were ushered onto the bus as all of our hosts made a semi-circle and waved at us until we were out of site and we did the same. These trips by HIC are really a nice way to have a quick exposure and get to know people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. (One of the women I met on the last trip to Tomonoura and I e-mail and we are planning to meet during winter break for example.) After we were dropped back off at the Hiroshima City train station, a Chinese friend, the Iranian family, and I decided to eat something quick at the train station. We let the kids pick and ended up at McDonald’s. I had a Bi-ga-ma-ka-va-lyu-set-to and it all tasted exactly like at home. 1st time to a Japanese Micky-D’s and it was just the same as at home…though they do carry a few different fish items that we don’t have, all in all it’s the same, just a bit more expensive.

Have a great holiday season and I wish you the best in the New Year!

Posted by cassl001 at 12:00 PM

December 7, 2004

December - Part 1

December – Part 1

Friendly Fungi!

Ok, so it’s fall (winter to some) and the mushrooms are in season…not just plain mushrooms with the white caps or shitake, but all different kinds--some I have seen before some I have not. Some of them look like the parts of the others I am supposed to cut off and throw away and others are ready to be eaten right away. The good thing is that there are so many and they really don’t last long, they go on discount pretty quickly. Man, I have always loved mushrooms, but this is making it a passion…the last three nights I have had mushrooms in large quantities as a part of my dinners. I just can’t help myself. Usually I boil some broth (water and bouillon cubes) drop in some soba or udon noodles, pull those out and toss in the mushrooms. Once the mushrooms are kinda blanched I pull those out and toss in some cabbage to blanch. Finally, I have it all tossed together with a bit of a couple of sauces I like. Then I save the broth for the next night. What a meal!

Kindergarten & Mochi-tsuki! (also known as the hammering of rice into paste)

Saturday I was invited to join a colleague to go with his family to visit their youngest son’s kindergarten. The kindergarten was making mochi-tsuki and then making the rice paste into mochi which are rice paste balls. It looked like it might rain all morning, but luckily the rain held off. When we got there, we went inside of this great kindergarten compound and went to the child’s class to put his things in his little cubicle, just like on a school day. We looked at the room and walked around the compound a bit. They started to call everyone to line up with their class, parents & kids alike. All of the kids were so very cute. This kindergarten is quite large with about 230 students and ages 3-6. Each of the classes has a different color hat and the teachers also wear the same color hat as their classes. (The hats are mostly worn while playing outside and protect from the sun on the face and neck.)

Once we got all lined up, they did a demonstration of mochi-tsuki. Once that was done, we all waited patiently until it was our turn to go in and make mochi or rice paste balls. We went in and the kids lined up on one side of the table with the adults, siblings, and me on the other. (This is maybe the only time I have felt noticeably the “other” compared to when I was in Tanzania and it was the “norm.”) After we made the little balls, we put them in a baggie and went back to the classroom. In the classroom, the teacher talked about how mochi-tsuki is a tradition and this was part of many fall festivals (like Sake Matsuri, if you recall). As we were getting things together after story time, the teacher approached the mom of the family I was with and told her that I could try my hand at the mochi-tsuki too, if I wanted. I asked if it would really be ok and she said it would be. So they took me over to the tents where the action was and introduced me to the director of the school who was kind of a ringmaster of the event. He was more than happy to oblige and after gathering some info from my hosts and me, he announced who I was, etc. and let me have at it. It was quite fun and not as heavy a hammer as I thought. The thing is, the head of the hammer is not even since you are beating it like a pestle into a large stone bowl, so to speak. That makes it a bit uneven in wielding it. Still I got the hang of it after one or two blows. The trick is that you have to be careful of is not to hit the person’s hands turning the dough in between the two people hammering in tandem. We didn’t hurt anyone, so by my accounts it was a success—and a lot of fun! We took the mochi we made back to my colleague’s house and after seeing two original PowerRangers shows, we had the mochi warmed with some soy and wrapped in nori or dried seaweed. We also had it with soy flour and azuki or sweet red beans. The latter was my favorite—the older son and I also just love simply the soy flour and azuki mixed together as a treat. I was told a couple of times that it’s not how the Japanese would normally eat it, but I figured eating it like that since it was already in my bowl is the best thing to do. Of course, after a nice morning festival and a good lunch, then the rain just pouring, what was there to do other than go do karaoke with the kids and other colleagues from my department!?!?! We had a good time and half of the fun is watching the youngest get excited about singing the theme from his favorite cartoons then part way into the song get so engrossed in the visuals on the TV, he stops singing and just kind of watches TV—then there’s my colleague from Ehime and he sings & dances his way through some Ehime-locale songs like a Backstreet Boy when they were still revered. What a riot, I haven’t laughed so hard in a long, long time! In case you care, it turns out that the most favored of my songs seems to be “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” I have no idea why—NOT! (FYI: I’ve seen the movie “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell more times that you will breathe in and out today!)

Posted by cassl001 at 12:00 PM