Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mmm! Pig guts.

Since arriving in Japan, I've discovered many Japanese foods I like. Joe and I are regular customers at the local sushi restaurant, and last winter there were many cold days when I enjoyed a steaming hot bowl of udon, these deliciously thick noodles like the kind you'd expect in grandma's homemade chicken noodle soup. The tempura (deep fried vegetables or seafood) is also super tasty though probably super sinful. I recommend the Just Hungry blog for many yummy Japanese recipes.

While testing my palate, I've also put many "foods" in my mouth that I never dreamed I'd eat. Any number of fish eggs (roe), shrimp with the eyes and legs still attached, a sea snail and a half-cooked crab leg that very nearly made me hurl in the middle of a restaurant. Just to name a few that come to mind.

Often, eating these things has not really been a matter of choice. Well, the crab leg was a choice, but I didn't realize it wasn't totally cooked. The other things were served to me by Japanese who might have been offended if I didn't try them. The snail was actually kinda decent. The fish eggs I can do without.

I've grown so accustomed to the idea of eating things that ought not be edible that it didn't really phase me when my new Japanese friend from the gym called me to invite me to dinner someplace serving, she warned, food I may or may not be willing to consume.

"I wasn't sure how to say it in English," she said, "So I looked up the word in my dictionary. I'm not sure if I'll say it right but I think it's called...pig..." A pause.

Pig what.

"Pig... EEnards?"

Silence while reality set in. "Innards?" I said, half in disbelief.


Pig intestines. I laughed. Then said sure. What the hell. I'd eat pig innards. Bring it on.

So a couple of Saturdays ago Joe and I met her downtown and headed to a nabe (pronounced "NAH-bay") restaurant. A nabe is an earthenware pot that they set on a portable burner in the middle of the table. This is our nabe at home. And Joe with his winter beard.

You're supposed to toss in some raw meat and mushrooms and veggies and cabbage and water for broth and let it cook right there at the table. The stuff in the restaurant looked a lot better than what we cobbled together at home.

I admit to being a bit apprehensive about the pig innards, but excited to try something new, too. My general take on exotic but seemingly disgusting food is that there are a whole lot of people out there who seem to think it's good, so it's got to have some sort of redeeming quality.

After all the stuff cooked in the pot for a bit, I spooned some out into a bowl and sprinkled some red spicy seasoning over it.

It tasted like pork, but chewy. Once you got used to the chewy part, it wasn't bad at all. Pretty tasty, actually.

And now I can say I've eaten pig intestines. Not sure how to feel about that.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Just try not to squirt milk out your nose.

A beautiful thing happened recently.

A Pizza Hut opened up near our house. Just a 15-minute walk away.

This welcome development means that once a month, when Pizza Hut has a half-off sale, instead of paying the regular $30 for a large pizza, we can easily get a pie for an easier-to-swallow $15. And, we can now invite friends over for pizza nights. Yea!

That's exactly what we did last Thursday. A couple of Joe's Japanese girl friends and our Aussie friend Roo (short for Andrew, how fitting for an Aussie, right?) came over to eat pizza and watch Thank You For Smoking.

While they were here, Roo showed us this hysterical Japanese fitness video on YouTube. Apparently at one time, these videos were made to help the Japanese learn English. They repeat short English phrases over and over while performing some aerobic moves.

Like this one. I'd say these phrases would be handy for Japanese housewives, don't you think?

I particularly like the part where they do the smacking motion while reciting, "It's your fault that this happened!"

I'm also wondering if this video would be good to show my freshmen the next time we have a lesson on health and doctor visits. Maybe I'll make them learn this dance.

I have no idea if these deliberately were made to be this ridiculous or not, but I have to think these Japanese girls don't know what they're actually saying because how else could they keep a straight face?

I have to admit, I do wish they had exercise videos to teach me these phrases in Japanese. It would be awesome if I could say "I can't stand the sight of you!" in Japanese. I could even say it to people and claim complete ignorance for being the stupid foreigner.

OK, one last one.

Uh, so, OK. First, was that a bra on that guy's head?! I wasn't sure.

Hilarious of course, though the video begs the larger question: Is this how some Japanese view westerners? Or Americans specifically? Really?

You may think that's silly, but it may not be. I remember talking to one of my students in English Club shortly after I started teaching in Japan. She said she wants to study English in college and I asked if she's interested in studying abroad. She said she'd like that, maybe in Australia or England. "What about the U.S.?" I asked. "Would you like to go to America?"

She said no. I asked why. She said something in Japanese, which the Japanese teacher translated for me.

"I don't want to get shot."

OOOOOOooooo Kaaaaaaayyyy. Great. Don't want to get shot. That's lovely.

So of course I explained to her that, despite what the media would have everyone believe, not all Americans tote guns and go on shooting sprees for fun. I told her that, except for the one visit the reporters once made to the police firing range, I had never held or shot a gun. And none of my family or friends had a gun, either. Most places are safe, I told her, and most people don't carry guns around. She seemed genuinely surprised.

When you see a video like this last one, you start to understand why she might have those kind of ideas.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Step right up, getcher turtle rides here!

Monday last week was a pretty lazy day for Joe and me. Thanks to the Children's Day holiday, we were enjoying a day off work by puttering around and enjoying the sunshine. Children's Day (May 5) is a day to celebrate the healthy growth and happiness of children. Sounds like a good enough reason to take off work to me.

We were walking leisurely under a sunny sky to the Nitori home furnishings store when we happened by this little enclosed area with parents and small children milling about. I was astonished to see several giant tortoises lumbering about in a pen, with children feeding them cucumbers and carrot sticks and greens.

I was thoroughly tickled. A random petting zoo for tortoises?? It was the last thing I ever expected to see on the sidewalk on the walk to the furniture store.

I love Japan.

Some adults sitting at a nearby table were selling jars of the veggies for 100 yen ($1), which I happily forked over. I think maybe only kids were really supposed to do it, or at least parents with kids there, but maybe I got a pass for being so exuberant. They probably just didn't want to attempt to point out, in English, that I am not, in fact, 4 years old anymore.

Maybe I'm easily entertained, but it was a real thrill to see those monster turtles up close. I held the cucumbers out with a pair of tongs and they chomped 'em up just like good turtles should: slow and steady.

Unfortunately, I was too big to join the little tots for the turtle rides.

You shoulda seen some of their faces when their parents tried to set them on the shells of those mighty beasts. Pure terror! When one father held his little daughter out in front of him and tried to set her on a tortoise, she clenched the back of his neck with such ferocity you'd think he was dropping her not into a pen of sedate reptiles but a cage of starving wolves. Precious! Happy Children's Day, kid! Now begins your life-long phobia of turtles! Hurray!

Up close, they (the tortoises... not the children) look ancient. Their heads are leathery and wrinkled and spotted. Slowly, their heads sway from one side to the other, searching for the next closest carrot stick, their scaly club-like arms pulling them along so deliberately, so sluggishly, you feel like their shell must be like lead.

I call this one Mort. Mortoise the Tortoise.

Striking fear into the hearts of small children, Mort bolts across the pen at slug speed!

Appropriately, there was even a hare hiding out at the far end of the pen, ready to put the smack down on any of the smaller turtles if they got too rowdy.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Adventures in Kyoto

Everything is starting to get back into the swing of things after a few holidays the past couple weeks. Somehow I just haven't gotten around to updating the blog. Again. Between working out and Japanese class and work it seems like I'm always pretty exhausted by the time I'm able to sit down and relax.

April 29 was Showa Day, a celebration of the birthday of Japan's last emperor. Since it fell on a Tuesday, we took that Monday off work and took a four-day trip to Kyoto. I was super excited about this trip, as Kyoto is regarded as the cultural capital of Japan with many, many magnificent old temples. Since the city avoided serious bombing during World War II, it still has a lot of old pre-war buildings. People tell me that you can explore the city for months and still not see everything.

It was about a five-hour trip by bus, which passed quickly and comfortably for me with a good book called "What Should I Do With My Life?" by Po Bronson. Yeah, I'm a little embarrassed to admit I read such a thing, but... it's a question that HAS been on my mind lately. After Japan, then what? I don't know yet. But anyway, Joe and I have decided we love traveling by bus. They're so roomy here that even a big gorilla like Joe isn't cramped.

We stayed in a hostel for the first time. It was called Backpackers Hostel K's House Kyoto, and for 5,500 yen per night ($55), we got a small room with a table, bunk beds and an air conditioner. We were on a floor with several other private rooms and a shared bathroom. It was immaculately clean, the beds were comfortable (by Japanese standards, anyway) and the air conditioner worked. Better than some of the hotel rooms we've stayed in for double the price! Plus the staff spoke great English.

The hostel was probably a 10 or 15 minute walk from the train station, located near Gion, the famous entertainment district that I was warned can be slightly seedy after dark. However, I never saw anything that made me feel unsafe. Gion also is known as the place where you can glimpse geisha, which is why I wanted to stay there.

The first thing that struck me about Kyoto, once we walked away from the giant gleaming train station, was how... unimpressive it all was. It really looked like every other city in Japan I've seen so far. Lots of concrete and plain dingy old buildings cramped together like sardines.

After we dropped our bags off at the hostel, we walked along this river on our way to find someplace to eat.

This is a shot of a big intersection around Gion.

A bit underwhelming, to say the least.

That feeling faded quickly though as we embarked on our sightseeing tour.

My favorite place was probably Fushimi-Inari Taisha, a complex of five shrines sprawled across Inari mountain in the city's south end., a tourism web site, says Inari is the Shinto god of rice. But my Lonely Planet guide tells me Inari is the god of cereal grains, which I think is a lot cooler.

The really cool thing about this place, though, is not the shrines. It's the walk to see them. Thousands of orange torii gates form a 4-kilometer tunnel up the side of the mountain, leading visitors to the shrines. We hiked the whole way.

There are times in Japan when I just have to pause and remind myself that it's all real — Yes, I really am seeing this with my own eyes! Even now, after nine months here, it's hard to believe I'm actually seeing these ancient places, that I'm really here. I feel lucky.

The shrine at the top was nothing special, though we did get to watch a group of older Japanese people praying and chanting at the shrine.

All along the way, visitors had left countless miniature toriis as offerings, particularly around the many stone foxes guarding the path. According to Lonely Planet, "The Japanese traditionally see the fox as a sacred, somewhat mysterious figure capable of 'possessing' humans — the favoured point of entry is under the fingernails. The key often seen in the fox's mouth is for the rice granary."

Probably my next favorite spot was Kiyomizu-dera temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is one of the most famous temples in Japan.

To get there, we trekked up another huge hill (this one in eastern Kyoto) past lots of little shops selling Japanese souvenirs and sweets. At the top is a big temple with a decent view of the city. It juts over the side of the mountain, supported by a bunch of huge pillars. The temple was first built in the late 8th century, but it was reconstructed in 1633. It still blows my mind to think about how old so many of the temples are.

Kiyomizu-dera is named after a sacred waterfall. I never actually saw the waterfall itself, but there was a structure where some of the water was directed into a few falling streams. Visitors stuck tin cups on the end of sticks into the streams and drank the water, which is supposed to have healing properties.

I also enjoyed seeing this ancient pagoda there. All the pagodas we'd seen so far had been pretty well maintained with relatively fresh paint jobs. But fresh paint hadn't touched this one in ages, and it was cool to see what they look like when they're left untouched.

With all the Japanese maple trees that surround this place, it must be positively spectacular in the autumn. I'd love to see it again, if I can muster the patience to deal with the crush of the crowds.

Other highlights:

— A Zen temple called Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion because it is covered in pure gold leaf. It too is one of Japan's most famous sites.The temple originally was built in 1397, but an obsessed monk burned it to the ground in 1950. It was rebuilt five years later.

Kinda neat, but tacky. Architecturally speaking, this temple has nothing on some of the others I've seen. But it is unique, have to give it that.

We also tried to visit its counterpart, Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion. Though it is not actually coated in silver, some of my Japanese co-workers have told me they like it better. It was undergoing some revitalization work when we arrived, though, so we chose not to pay the entrance fee to see it under construction.

— Ryozen Kwan-on, a shrine serving as a tribute to the unknown soldier of World War II. It is dedicated to the memory of more than 48,000 foreign soldiers who died on Japanese territory. This shrine is characterized by an 80-foot high statue of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. A Bodhisattva is "a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others," and Avalokitesvara means "Lord who looks down."

Some chanting type music was being piped over loud speakers around the statue, and when you stood before it it just felt like this enormous thing was staring down at you. Creeeeeeepy!! Though the statue and main hall were in great shape, it was interesting to see that the actual memorial hall to the dead soldiers was in a state of semi-disrepair. The grounds leading up to the memorial hall were covered with weeds and the inside was rather old and dreary, containing a display with urns containing a bit of earth from all the countries involved in World War II.

— Ryoan-ji, temple of the peaceful dragon, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ryoan-ji is home to Japan's most famous Zen rock garden. It's a large rectangular area with 15 large rocks surrounded in a sea of carefully raked white pebbles. This is regarded as one of Japan's cultural masterpieces.

The brochure they gave me said "It is up to each visitor to find out for himself what this unique garden signifies. The longer you gaze at it, the more varied your imagination becomes. This rock garden surrounded by low earthen walls may be thought of as the quintessence of Zen art."

Yeaaah... It was lost on me.

Joe and I sat and stared at it for a couple minutes. I imagined the rocks representing the major turning points or hurdles of a person's life during their journey from birth to death, the whole time feeling ridiculous about trying to imagine some deep significance in the whole thing. I turned to Joe and mouthed the words "This is bullshit." He nodded vigorously, and we left to explore the gardens around the temple, which weren't all that impressive.

Add Zen art to modern art in the categories of artwork that I don't understand. Must've missed that gene at birth.

Moving on...

— Nijo Castle, another, you guessed it, UNESCO World Heritage site. Kyoto and neighboring Nara are full of them.

The castle just celebrated its 400th anniversary. This castle was different from the others I've seen, which have been ornate multi-level structures full of peaks and ornamentation. It looked like a single story or two with a couple large peaks in the roof. It was hard to get a good shot that looked like anything, but this was the view from the lookout.

The front entrance of the place was ornate.

We took a tour of the inside. It has 33 rooms, most of which are bare rooms covered with the straw tatami mats. The floors squeaked — you could almost say they sang — with every step. They're called Nightingale floors and they were intentionally built that way to alert residents to intruders. Photographs were "strictly forbidden" on the inside, unfortunately, so I can't show you what it looked like but it was filled with old wall paintings and and intricate carvings above the sliding doors.

Also on the castle grounds, it was cool to climb up to one of the look out areas where you can see out over the moat. The stone walls surrounding the complex are incredibly thick. It boggles the mind just to think of how much effort was involved in constructing them (or what it would take for enemies to penetrate them!).

— Heian Jingu, a shrine that deifies two emperors of Japan. Emperor Kammu was ruler of Japan in the late 8th century, when Kyoto was founded and went on to serve as the country's capital for more than 1,000 years. Emperor Komei took over the throne in 1847 and is credited with laying the foundation of modern Japan.

I think the picture at the very top of this blog was taken at the entrance to the shrine complex, but I don't remember for sure now. I was really impressed with the look of this shrine. It was so beautiful. And behind the temple itself was a gorgeous and peaceful Japanese garden.

I enjoyed hopping the rocks to cross the pond.

— Maruyama Park, famous for its beauty during cherry blossom season. The cherry blossoms are gone now, but it was still a relaxing place to wander around in and it had this cool building with a bunch of lanterns.

So those are some of the main sights we saw in Kyoto, though there are numerous other places I'm not detailing here. We also strolled around the massive stone walls of the Imperial Palace but found out we couldn't actually tour it without going to some government office to apply for permission to see it, which we didn't have time to do. We admired several other ornate temples we stumbled across during our long walks all over town (we took the bus a few times but still did a ton of walking). In particular I enjoyed walking along the Philosopher's Path, a pleasant walk dotted with a few charming coffee shops and plenty of trees, some with beautiful wisteria vines clinging to them.

We also stumbled across some geisha or maiko (geisha apprentice), or at least some people dressed up pretending to be them. There was a business in the Gion district charging $300 to get all dressed up and made up like a geisha. So we saw several of them walking around in Gion, but I wasn't sure if any of them were the real deal.

Another pleasant surprise was the bald, hunched monk we saw slowly plodding through the grounds of a temple we passed by. It was just so cool to see him.

So, I enjoyed Kyoto immensely. A fascinating place to explore. And, there were lots of little things to be appreciated, too. The little purple flowers I saw growing all along the sidewalks, the amusing fake stuffed cats in all the souvenir shops, the green tea ice cream stands... this sake (rice wine) vending machine sitting on a street corner just a stone's throw from a playground in a quiet neighborhood.