Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving feast


After many weeks of anticipation, Joe and I headed downtown to a JET friend's house last Sunday for a proper Thanksgiving feast.

Turkeys are hard to come by in Japan, but our friend Aaron managed to obtain one through an online meat shop based in Nagoya. For the right price, this ex-pat can provide you with a wide variety of meat shipped from Nebraska. A 10-pound bird set Aaron back 60 bucks with shipping. His frozen turkey arrived in the mail. How 'bout that!

Now, even those who are able to get their hands on a turkey this time of year still face another challenge: how to cook it. Most of us apartment dwellers have no oven. It's just not a standard appliance in Japan. But luckily, Aaron just got married to a lovely Japanese woman named Tomoko, and her parents live nearby and they have an oven. So he carted it over to their house and cooked it and brought it back.

Joe and I came bearing big bowls of mashed potatoes and salad, as well as canned cranberry sauce from the import food store. A few other friends contributed stuffing, wine, chips and dip and some sort of French style apple pie. Once we'd made gravy from the drippings, we were all set.

There are no words to describe how good it was. The turkey was magnificent — perfectly cooked. And the dinner itself was so comforting. It was really nice to have those traditional foods from back home. Way better than last year, when Joe's mom initially told us she planned to video tape her family's Thanksgiving spread so we could feel part of the holiday (and perhaps feel the urge to come home to visit, I imagine). I was horrified. The last thing I wanted was to see all the mouth-watering food we were missing. Well this year, we didn't miss the good stuff. God bless Aaron and Tomoko!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Autumn splendor

Sandankyo Gorge

The leaves in Hiroshima change color about one month later than they do in Ohio. Last autumn we never really got a good look at the fall foliage during its peak. Around the time the leaves were in color in the city, we took a trip up north into the mountains to Sandankyo Gorge, only to discover that the leaves change a couple weeks earlier in the countryside. Guess it's a bit cooler. Then we took a trip to Miyajima, but due to some confusion we completely bypassed the park with all the colorful maple trees, and after taking the ropeway to the top of Mount Misen, the crowds were so thick that we couldn't get a ride back down until after dark, thereby missing all the scenery in the park.

Having learned from last year's experience, this year we were determined to do it right, and we did.

We took a trip up to Sandankyo on Nov. 9 and caught the park at the perfect time. It was a much better trip than last year, when it started thunderstorming as soon as we got off the bus, which made for a long, wet, very chilly trek to the waterfalls for which the area is named (san = 3; dan = step; kyou = waterfall). Though unlike last year, it was very, very crowded. There was a steady line of people hiking along the path in both directions. Sometimes that made it difficult to get good photos, but really I guess that was to be expected. As the Japanese like to say, "Shou ga nai." (It can't be helped.)

Since we wanted to catch the express bus home, Joe and I didn't have time to hike all the way to the waterfalls this time, but that was OK. We really just wanted to see the leaves. Very, very pretty.

Then this past Saturday we headed to Miyajima and met up with another JET friend and some of the girls in her English club. For a few of the girls, it was their first time to Miyajima, which I thought was odd. There's a world famous UNESCO World Heritage Sight practically in their backyard, and by high school they'd still never seen it? I guess it's not so uncommon. And really, when you think about it, how many big tourist attractions in our area back home are there that we were never in a rush to see? I mean, they're always there.

So first we paid an obligatory visit to the famous orange gate and the pagodas.

After stopping for lunch — oysters, the island's well known for them — we took a walk through Momijidani Koen (literally, "Japanese Maple Valley Park"). It didn't disappoint either, with lots of trees blazing brilliant orange and red.

So it was nice to get out and enjoy nature this month.

The only disappointment this year has been the trees in our neighborhood, which were butchered just as they started to turn a pretty gold. I came home one afternoon a couple weeks ago only to find a crew of Japanese guys swarming the trees lining the sidewalk between the train station and my house, hacking off every last limb. Horrified, I ran back to the apartment to retrieve my camera and then came back out to photograph them, much to their amusement.



The trees outside my house now look like they belong in a Hitchcock film. *tear*

I can only assume this severe pruning was necessary to prevent these trees from getting too big around the power lines, and the Japanese killed two birds with one stone by trimming them just before the leaves fell, thus eliminating the need for leaf pick-up. Trees along the streets look this way all around my area of the city now. Too bad.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Betcha Matsuri


Monday, Nov. 3, was a holiday in Japan, which meant yet another welcome three-day weekend for me and Joe.

We took advantage of it with a day trip to the charming town of Onomichi, about an hour and 15 minutes away by bus. The draw: the Betcha Matsuri, or as I like to call it, the "Crying Baby Festival." This seemed like the perfect event to witness on Culture Day, as this celebration is very, very, very distinctly Japanese. The aim of the festival is to bring good health and well-being to little children, so tons of parents flock to the festival with their toddlers in tow.

Throngs of people were crowded around a shrine next to Onomichi Station when we got off the bus around 10:30 a.m. There were so many people it was hard to find a spot to witness the action unfolding in the center of the crowd, where some kind of traditional Japanese drama was underway.

Joe and I wandered around and ended up in a spot on the ground right next to the shrine when the play ended and the real action began. Suddenly the crowd crushed in to fill the grassy patch where the play had been, toddlers riding on the shoulders of their parents everywhere. Immediately, the screams and crying began.

"Kowai! Kowai! (I'm scared! I'm scared!)" cried one older girl as her mother dragged her by the hand deeper into the crowd. Tears gushed down her face. The mother was unphased.

Into the crowd came a few young men wearing creepy Japanese monster masks with wild eyes, horns, long noses, sharp teeth and long curling tongues. They carried bamboo whisks — long sections of bamboo with the ends shredded into pieces like a broom — or celebration sticks with a colorful ribbon fringe. Other men accompanied them with wooden rods and big drums.

Photo by Joe

Photo by Joe

Photo by Joe

Parents thrust their terrified children forward to be poked by the rods and hit on the head with the bamboo whisks. Children thus "thrashed" are supposed to have good health over the next year. As you can imagine, this was a traumatizing event for the children, being shoved toward frightening monsters eager to smack them on the head. They cried bloody murder, but many of their parents just kind of chuckled. Everywhere, hands holding cell phones and video cameras floated above the crowd, capturing their cries for posterity.

Photo by Joe
As Joe put it, "Faces are melting!"

I know it's wrong, but when I see the picture of the poor baby above I just think of Jesus Christ.

Photo by Joe

You really have to feel bad for the kids, but I also couldn't help but laugh. The kids are going absolutely ape-shit while their parents are smiling happily. It's ridiculous! And even if the babies are sobbing, sometimes they were still awfully cute. At one point I pointed out a very cute crying baby to Joe and laughed about how precious he was, only to have the mother shoot back a dirty look. Well, I guess I was pointing and laughing at her crying kid, after all. Joe said I reminded him of Nelson from The Simpsons when he points at someone who's hurt and goes "HA-ha!"

Not all the kids were bothered by the treatment. This little bugger was pretty serene:

Photo by Joe

Around noon the madness ended and some young men carried the omikoshi (portable shrines) and drums off to other locations in the city, where other babies would receive swats throughout the afternoon.

Apparently this festival traces its origin back a few hundred years to a time when three men walked around town wearing masks of the Betcha (demon gods) to drive the plague out of town. Now the Japanese commemorate the event with the festival.

In a strange sort of way, this ritual struck me as the Japanese equivalent of taking your kid to see Santa Claus. You know, when kids are really small they sometimes cry when mom and dad plop them down in the fat man's lap. That big guy with a booming laugh and a wild white beard can be intimidating to a little kid, but parents leave the kid there anyway and smile and take his picture. I gotta say, though, walking away with a promise of a My Little Pony has to be way better than being promised you'll avoid the flu this year.

Oh well. At least a lot of the parents took their kids to Mr. Donut after it was all over with. There's something to be said for that. Sprinkles make everything better.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Yes we can!

It's probably a good thing I'm not home right now, because I'd just run around spending all my money on newspapers from the day after Election Day.

With the time difference, I was eagerly anticipating the election results around lunchtime on Wednesday last week. When I saw the results pop up on and, I was jubilant. My eyes filled with tears. I excitedly updated some nearby co-workers, who were surprised but serene. But like all the Americans celebrating in the streets back home, I wanted to yell and hug everyone and jump for joy. In my afternoon classes, I happily told my students the news and many of them responded with the slogan they've heard so often on the TV news — Yes We Can!

I felt emotional the rest of the day. Between classes I was glued to the Internet, reading the results and trying not to cry. I just felt — I still feel — so proud of my country and so optimistic for the future. It feels so good to know America will get a leader who appeals to the best in us. Someone who respects us. Someone with vision. It's uplifting.

A black president. It's something I doubted I'd see in my lifetime. Yet it's something that even my 93-year-old grandmother lived to see. My grandmother. Now I'm sure she never thought she'd see the day a black man was elected president — or the day she'd vote for a black guy for president. It's amazing.

Yesterday I visited the Newseum online archive for Nov. 5 and checked out all the headlines post-Election Day. Seeing all these front pages, I still feel tears well up. I look at them and I still can't believe it. Wow!

Probably one of my favorite front pages from Nov. 5 came out of Sioux City, Iowa.

Believe It. What a perfect headline. Even though the polls showed Obama way ahead, I think when we all finally saw the headlines trumpet his victory, we just had to say, "I can't believe it." Well, believe it, America.

Yes we can.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Obama is beautiful world!

Election Day is FINALLY here! YAAAAAAY!

Ach, the wait this election season has been interminable! It's like an election year is now the rough equivalent of double a dog year. For a while I feared we were stuck in some tortuous Groundhog Day loop in which Sarah Palin kept spewing slime over... and over... and over...

I dropped my absentee ballot for Obama in the mail weeks ago. Now it's everyone else's turn. Everyone back home, go vote! Ohio, this is your chance to redeem yourself. Please Ohio, please redeem yourself.

We have a chance to elect a truly good man president. A remarkable, inspirational, genuine person. Don't blow it! Go vote Obama!

In celebration of this marvelous day, I bring you this joyful video of people from the little town of Obama, Japan, cheering on their man. You'll be singing along all the way to the voting booth.

Raaah, rah rah rah rah O-ba-ma! Raaah, rah rah rah rah O-ba-ma...

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Takehara Bamboo Lights Festival

Saturday evening Joe and I took a trip to a little town called Takehara to see the Bamboo Lights Festival.

Remember last February when I wrote about our trip into the snowy countryside to go sledding and celebrate Setsubun? And how the old Japanese men sawed up long shoots of hollow bamboo into little shot glasses? Well, the bamboo is cut up in the same fashion for this festival, but instead it's used for lanterns. Lots of them.

From the train station, we followed the clusters of glowing orange bamboo lanterns through the streets til we finally reached the historic district, also known as "Little Kyoto" for it's old-world charm.

The streets were crowded with adults and children, some in kimono, admiring and photographing the lanterns clustered in large displays. Even with all the people, I felt relaxed and content in the peaceful atmosphere created by the flickering, glowing lanterns. The night air was clear and crisp. Flute music drifted through the crowds.

A very pleasant surprise was in store for me at the first large display. I had expected to see lots of lanterns arranged in patterns to spell words and form pictures. What I hadn't anticipated, however, was that the townspeople would carve the bamboo into their very own Japanese jack-o-lanterns.

It was the day after Halloween, and I'd been feeling homesick missing some of our fall traditions back home like pumpkin carving (Japan doesn't have large pumpkins like we do back home). Yet here were the sort of sights I'd been missing. It was a real blessing.

The displays were beautiful. Magical, really. I was so glad we went.

My pictures aren't the greatest since I was taking shots without a tripod (Joe was using it). But this should give you an idea what it looked like.

There was a walking path running through this sea of lamps.

I can read this one (above). It's the name of the town, Takehara, which literally means "bamboo field." The city was built 2,000 years ago on three bamboo and grass plains. Now there are large bamboo forests around the outskirts of the city.

Tunnel made entirely of bamboo strips

Bamboo artwork

My favorite part was a display of dozens of hanging lanterns with holes carved in them. Really, really cool. Joe got a good pic.

We noticed a lot of people trickling out from an alleyway, so we followed their path up a hill and came to a tiny shrine where people were praying. I snapped this photo of lanterns along some stone Buddhas near the shrine.

Joe and I were surprised that there weren't more food vendors at the festival. There were a handful that all sold pretty much the same thing — hot dogs, rice, takoyaki (octopus thing-a-ma-bobs). In a way, I was glad that the vendors hadn't overrun the place and ruined the ambiance. Though, I wouldn't have minded a bigger food selection... Guess ya can't have your cake and eat it, too.

As we headed back toward the train station, we saw a couple troupes of women performing in the streets. (Joe took the picture of the ladies in blue.)

A beautiful evening, capped off with beautiful music. We had a lovely time.