Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mission Control. Yes, I made the bed after taking the picture.

As the leaves turn, the mornings become chillier, and the air masses over the Japan Sea announce the change of seasons with never-ending bands of chilly, soaking squalls from seaward (1), I've finally begun to find things close to routine in the classroom. I'm feeling more assured, and, as my Japanese colleagues become more used to me, more confidently relied upon, before the blackboard and in the staffroom. (2) With a routine now solidly in the making, opportunities to break free of the day-to-day are becoming steadily all the more precious-- whether it's to lead a group of AIU students (3) round the local elementaries(4), there to be mass-hugged, sung songs, and asked endearingly left-field questions (WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SALAD DRESSING(5)?), or to hop into my car and drive off in search of adventure somewhere in the hills and hollers.

But not without a spot of planning first, thanks to the power of Minimal Literacy!

A lucky find in one of the numerous travel brochures I've been collecting to this end led me to the Old Ikeda Garden in Daisen, the remains of an old Meiji-era landlord family's estate. As the fall colors came in, special Sunday tours were on offer, so I decided to make the drive.

The handsome main gate to the compound. Queueing for the tour, I was accosted unexpectedly by a professor from the AIU Japanese Department! I'd had no classes with her, but we looked strangely familiar to each other, it seems. So far she's the first civilian I've met in Japan not to immediately compliment me on my Japanese...
Our guide, a pleasant retired volunteer equipped with a Ikeda Garden happi and a chest-mounted megaphone, explains the intricate system of wooden (!) pipes laid down in the 1920s to provide clear water for the decorative pond.  Multiple kilometers of water lines have been replaced already as part of the restoration work.

The garden's most impressive view. The pond (muddy-- did they mess up the pipes?) is larger than it appears...
...because the old-money Ikedas centered their garden around a flourish that almost seems tacky in the context of Japanese landscape architecture-- the largest stone lantern of any extant Japanese garden, if I heard right. It hardly looks it in photos, but the thing is 4-some meters tall.  The Western-style house is another uncharacteristic flourish, about which I should really have been paying more attention. Just like it looks, it's made of reinforced concrete, was built in the 20s, (early enough to make it the first such building in the prefecture), and features...
... a pretty nice interior, under reconstruction, and fantastic gold-leaf/leather wallpaper. (Kinkarakawa, 金唐皮, a word that my dictionary coughs up a lung trying to find, and which got blank stares from the entire group.) Our guide was keen to tell us that the preserved/heavily restored wallpaper was the key on which the grant for the building's refurbishment hinged. "The grant people from the Ministry of Culture said 'Well, there are tons of Taisho-era houses... but how many can say they have such fantastic wallpaper?'"

When I'm not on the move, the sphere of expat society has been coughing up some interest from time to time-- this past weekend marked the Akita ALT Halloween Party, a multi-national hub of a club night, at which I, dressed in the samue, towel-hat and apron of a sushi chef (6), attracted much amusement from the Japanese guests with my attempts at an accompanying vinegary accent, politely but firmly attempted to ward off a beery Portuguese transplant intent on giving me unsolicited advice, in a bibulous trilingual pidgin, on how to "score" with locals, and put my EMT training to good use helping move an immense and very unconscious fellow into the recovery position, before, of course, having an awkward go at some dancing...(7)

 So life rolls on as the fall rolls in. More when I get a few more minutes to spare!

(1) Looks like it's the time of year again when Akita reminds you it's at the same latitude as the wet part of Oregon, though it seems a bit churlish to be whining about this sort of thing as the latest contender for Storm Of The Century cuts a swath through the Eastern Seaboard. I'm watching New York flood on NHK as we speak.

 (2) Openly expressed assessment of my performance, however, will have to wait until all of us are somewhere around switching from beer to sake mid-way through the end-of-Christmas Break enkai.  Kenny revealed to me that after what seemed like perfectly smooth sailing last year, once several of his favorite JTEs were deep in their cups, they horrified him by unleashing a torrent of point-by-point criticism of his performance-- all of which would have been most usefully delivered months earlier.

(3) Visiting, of course, on the same program that let me visit Noishi and several other Oga area schools only a year ago. Funny to have the ALT's view this time around... are college students usually so downright dorky with a roomful of 8-year olds?

(4) I have taken and been given pictures of some of these goings-on, but as the BoE is in the midst of an Internet-age crackdown on personal information leaks, I've decided to make them "limited release". I assure you, they are very cute.

(5)Ao-jiso, bless your heart..

(6) While we're talking sushi, here's some bonus viewing, tongue very firmly in cheek: . Call it my apology for the fact that, unfortunately, none of the pictures of me in costume seem to have come out.

(7) Rumor has it he was a player for the Akita "Happinets" basketball team. He got home fine, in any case.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Time passes onward, as I struggle to keep up some semblance of a blogging schedule between my classroom duties. Since the last update, I've finished the last of the mystery mushroom udon, taught a full week of classes, skirmished with the Katanishi girls' volleyball team, sipped tea with the Higashi Middle Tea Ceremony Club, and in the last three days, been dispatched a second time to the Government Training Center for another teaching techniques conference-- and made time to drive a few hours eastward to Ōdate along with Kenny for the yearly Kiritanpo Festival.

Longtime readers are no doubt familiar with kiritanpo, the Akita specialty I last sampled while learning the ways of bear-hunting at AIU. Mashed rice roasted on sticks may have originated with matagi all across the prefecture (or indeed, anywhere of the other dozens of places in Japan that have similar dishes and desserts), but Ōdate claims it as its own. Kenny told me to expect a low-key gathering of food stands, with an unusually good car boot sale nearby (his winter jacket, in fact, was a West German surplus parka he'd scored a steal of a deal on last year). 

I dug up a link to the festival's website, which practically oozed goofy local flavor from its every pore. Unfortunately, as we discovered when we arrived on Sunday afternoon, it seemed Ōdate had had grander plans for the new year. The festival had been moved indoors to the municipal baseball diamond, a massive dome-tent structure (1)

Calm yourself, Ōmu! Return to the forest!

that loomed over the undersized houses surrounding it in an oddly familiar way.

Given the new location, I was surprised to discover far fewer people than I'd expected inside the dim interior of the arena. Bad news for Ōdate, I supposed-- but, as I learned when I approached a food vendor and tried to get myself a bowl of kiritanpo-nabe, it seemed they'd instead been outdone by their own success. Most all of the stands inside the dome were only accepting advance-sale meal tickets, which apparently had already sold out and cashed in before lunchtime-- leaving us in the early afternoon to hunt for a stand that was willing to accept money for food. It took longer than expected. While we waited in line with the small crowd of other folks who hadn't got the memo about the meal tickets, I took a look at the festival's new website, which I'd somehow missed in my enthusiasm the day before. They'd glossed up the look of the place, certainly-- the disturbingly phallic mascot characters who'd cluttered up the old site were gone. But the boot sale was nowhere to be found, and when I eventually found a stand that could be persuaded to take yen for kiritanpo-nabe, it just didn't taste the same as it had when it was made, to no recipe, by an unintelligible elderly mountain man. At least they hadn't totally banished the Freudian Tanpo People after all. We amused ourselves for a while watching them half-heartedly pose for pictures with visitors.

By the time the early twilight had fallen, (2) we were on the road home again.

(1) Supported by glue-lam beams made of local cedar plywood, a nice touch.

(2) No daylight savings time here. By 4 it's twilight. By 5 it might as well be midnight.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

There's a souvenir store with unusual ice cream (grape topped with plantain, anyone?) on the top of Kampūzan, one of the nearby mountains on the Oga Peninsula. I found one of the wrappers their waffle cones come in while cleaning up the other day... It didn't take me long to remember why I had saved it in the first place.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

After a long summer, the fall looks like it's going to be gone even sooner than I'd imagined-- it's not been two weeks since I was sleeping with the A/C on maximum, and already I'm feeling glad for hot tea on the chilly mornings. In the fields, all but the latest rice is ripe and ready, and lately on my commute to work, I've been dodging combine harvesters and overloaded kei trucks bringing the grain to market. I was woken early last Saturday by the rumble of equipment behind Green House A-- an old farm couple already had the paddies adjoining the apartment well in hand by the time I'd had my breakfast.

Come Sunday a week later, and I was up with the birds too, with different produce on my mind. Among the events buried in last week's bout of Delayed Updateitis was another of my weekend daytrips to the nearby village (1) of Gojōme.

As its name, 五城目/"Fifth Castle" suggests, Gojōme was formerly a provincial castle-town-- a concrete reimagining of the original keep (honmaru/本丸), still looks over the town from the nearby mountain Moriyama, safely guarding a treasured collection of dusty stuffed wildlife and exhibits on local economic history.

Chuck Testa was here.

The "Forest Friends" (森の仲間たち/mori no nakama-tachi)  referenced in the label aren't looking so friendly. And in bad need of a good vacuuming.
Theatrical masks made by a local craftsman...

And a step-by-step construction example.

Logging in the nearby mountains seems to have been a local specialty.

I wonder which bright spark came up with this. The label, 「バチゾリ」/bachizori isn't in my dictionary. Based on context.... it's probably a dialect word for either 'sleigh" or "bad idea".  

Rafting the cut logs downriver-- ikada/いかだ= "raft".
Transportation in Gojōme: the town's first bicycle with its proud owners, the proprietors of  Miyata Drapers. Date  is Meiji 40/1907. 

The commanding view from the donjon's verandah.

Gojōme's history as a castle town turns out to have left one further mark on its modern history-- on days of the month ending in 0,2,5, and 7, it hosts a morning local produce market on Shitamachi-dori, the avenue that runs along the approach to its temple. Run, in the main, by charming, garrulous old ladies(2) with their farms' finest spread over back issues of the Yomiuri Shinbun, it wasn't yet in full swing when I came by in September and filled a morning browsing for cucumbers, nashi, and okra.

 <You live in Funakoshi? Come back in the middle of October>, one of the vendors had said, filling my bag with far more eggplants than my ¥100 had actually paid for. <That's when the mushrooms come in.> <The mushrooms?> I asked, struggling to parse her Akita-ben.

<Oh, yes, the mushrooms! Some years matsutake. What are you planning to do with all the eggplants?>

<With this many... stir-fry the first three and salt-pickle the rest with wasabi?>

<Amazing! You know Japanese pickles! Here, have a few more!>

With my crisper filled with pickled eggplant and visions of mushrooms dancing in my head, I began to plan my return.

I made it in to town by midmorning, just as the market was reaching its peak. Joining me in my browsing were out-of-towners from as far away as Tokyo, a few of whom got much amusement out of my "local" status when I struck up a conversation with them.

It didn't take me long to hit paydirt-- no matsutake were to be had (I hear it's a bad year for them), but dozens of local specialties were on sale-- all of them unlabeled, with un-Googleable dialect names. I asked which ones made good udon and returned with two varieties: hatsutake, a crumbly orange variety with a hollow stem that bruised blue (a characteristic I'd only ever heard about occurring, rather thrillingly, in certain other mushrooms...), and half a kilo of small, brown, slimy fungi which I was instructed, helpfully, to parboil before cleaning or preparing-- and whose name I immediately forgot!

 If the mushroom sellers were doing well, the local bakery was also doing a roaring trade-- I walked in the door just as the last loaf of the day's bread was walking out. <Would brioche be OK instead?>, asked the counter attendant. Why yes, yes it would...!

 There was just enough room in my shopping bag for a mixed quantity of apples and nashi, the most expensive purchase of the morning.
 I drove home and got to the prepping.

I cleaned and stemmed the hatsutake (turns out they bleed an orange, milky fluid)

 and did my best to Google the smaller mushrooms. Were they the variety called kawamuki? A variant of enoki? The search took me down some pretty weird mushroom enthusiast sites... but didn't turn up a lot of solid answers.

 Boiling did, indeed, remove much of the scum, dirt, and leaves from the small mushrooms. Three of the words I'd managed to catch from the guy who sold me them at the market had been "stirfry" "with" and "hot pepper", so that's what I did. They weren't half bad-- like shiitake with a milder flavor and a smooth, silky sort of mouthfeel.

 Meanwhile, I soaked dashi-kombu and the discarded stems of the hatsutake to make stock...

 then strained the broth, added in the mushroom caps, some sake, mirin, shōyu, and salt (plus some shiitake, maitake, and nameko I had lying around) (3) simmered the mess for around 10 minutes , tossed in some spinach, leeks, and another Akita specialty, thin inaniwa-udon...

 ... and served it all up with salad and kimchi. A good end to a good day. When I come back next time, I think I'll ask which mushrooms go well with rice...

(1) Perceptually a lot further away-- it's only 24 km/16-odd miles away but it takes 45 minutes to drive there down the rough-surfaced, narrow country roads. Distance gets odd when the speed limit on most everything is 37 mph. Everyone speeds egregiously, of course, tearing along (*gasp!*) at nearly 50.

(2) Stooped, bonneted obaasans ("grannies") and their leathery, taciturn husbands make up the bulk of farmers in Akita (and indeed in all Japan). When in 30 years they pass on, probably all still in harness, someone's going to make a pile buying up all the farmland and building horrible malls or something...

(3) As I gleaned quickly from reading Japanese recipes for mushroom udon, there's a lot of leeway to work in here, so I opted to more or less wing it. For two liters of soup I added in all probably nearly 1 1/2 kilo of mushrooms and 7 T each of shōyu, sake, and mirin, plus 1 tsp of salt. If any of you plan to play along at home, I bet you'd get good results from shiitake, maitake, and oyster mushrooms.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Let's start this entry with a reassurance: I'm still alive!

Although the remnants of a massive typhoon made its way past Green House A on Monday in a flurry of lightning and thunder, nothing was amiss when I woke in the morning-- save that the news was full of images of cars being flipped in Okinawan parking lots.

I have, however, been visited by the dread Blogger's Disease-- the last weeks have seen me too busy to write down and record the majority of the experiences I'm meeting daily, in and out of the classroom. The JET Program is fond of promoting the sense of accomplishment that its selected ALTs can derive from their jobs. It's certainly true. Excepting that I'm coming home with so much accomplishment lately that it's all I can do to heat up some leftovers, make a lunch for the following day, and crawl into bed.

 In truth, I have been under what qualifies as fairly unusual load-- my debut as a solo teacher has finally given me the opportunity to give the self-introduction speech I've been planning since before my arrival to the dozens of classes in which I assist (1) -- which means I've been teaching nearly every period on every day of these early deployments-- far more than the "actual" English teachers I work alongside. Even talking about topics as near to heart as your hobbies, house, and home country gets awful tiring when you do it for seven hours straight. On the whole, the teaching seems to be going well--albeit in the few lessons other than self-intros I've so far assisted with, I do feel a bit as if I've been largely planned out of the lessons. Kenny assures me that as my lead teachers become gradually more comfortable with me, I'll be able to involve myself further with lesson planning and impromptu classroom direction changes. I hope he's right-- in particular I'm working on ideas to spice up the rather dreary reading passages that seem to make up the majority of the tested material we're obligated to cover. Even so, as long as the kids keep smiling (and leaving elaborate smilies on their worksheets), I'll still be having fun at my job. And there are always the weekends to look forward to, as I still haven't exhausted the supply of local tourist attractions.

The past Saturday and Sunday took me far afield indeed-- to an ALT-organized cabin camping trip on the shores of Lake Tazawa, an azure-blue crater lake near Senboku, a good three hours' drive from Oga. The deepest lake in Japan, my tourist brochures inform me, it never freezes even in the coldest Akita winter-- a property either attributable to its size and geothermal activity or the body heat of a human woman and her dragon-lover eternally gettin' busy at its bottom. (2) 

This'd be Tatsuko, the legendary girl in question.
And this a shrine and prime fish-feeding location nearby on the shore.

The beneficiaries of all of this largesse. Apparently pollution from a nearby dam killed off all of the endemic fish that once inhabited the lake-- these hardy carp seem to be the only thing capable of surviving in the acidified waters. There were mobs of identical fish and not a single other sign of life. How did you guess that I passed on a swim?
 Better still than the lake were the bathing hot springs nearby-- a cluster of famed resorts collectively called Nyūtō Onsen(3). We hit up Kuroyu (黒湯, "Black Water”), one of the reputed best.
This way to the male-female separate baths. The murderously hot natural spring is, obviously, not on the menu of spa attractions. 

 It largely lived up to the hype, from its setting-- a complex of age-darkened, thatch-roofed buildings-- to the all-important water, which was volcanically hot, powerfully sulfrous, and so laden with dissolved minerals that I found chunks of various unusual-smelling salts in my hair the next morning. The baths were splendid--  including two open-air pools that allowed for a splendid contrast with the fall air-- the larger being, as many of the older onsen in the area are, mixed-gender. It definitely takes a gulp of courage to walk out into the open wearing nothing in front of four naked women the age of your mother the first time you do it. (4) It pleases me to report that Kenny and I were the only members of our group to take the plunge-- and better, I even managed nonchalant conversation with my bathmates. Consider my Japan-Hand Self-Esteem at least partially recharged.

(1) "Plans never survive first contact with the enemy", as the poorly-attributed quotation  (which fin d'siecle Prussian said that, anyway-- Moltke the Elder? von Schlieffen? Ludendorff?) has it.  Hence in spite of my advance efforts to ensure that, figuratively speaking, the troop trains into Belgium run on time, I've now delivered the same speech to live audiences at least a dozen times, and have never once done it the same way twice. In particular, adjusting the predictable moments of laughter and "oooh-ah" to suit the audience's mood, attention span, and level of listening comprehension is an interesting balancing act.

(2) Readers, you know which explanation I prefer!

(3)Famed enough to rate mention in Western travel guides, which otherwise gloss over Akita entirely. The name is written  乳頭温泉, "Breast Springs", for the milky color of the water, I presume.

(4) We had to get quite cozy to boot, as even the largest mixed bath in Kuroyu is the size of a largeish hot tub. More fun: it's separated from the changing area by a long exposed boardwalk, so everyone gets plenty of time to see you coming before you make it into the water. It gives you a good long time to wonder if you read the Japanese sign that says "Mixed" right or if you've just made a horrible mistake. That all of my female bathmates had maintained their elaborate hairdos intact and unmussed by the steam made me feel weirdly more unclothed than they.