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Monthly Archives: January 2009

Hooray! Two posts in one week, I’m finally getting this baby back on track. In fact I’ve got a massive stack of stuff to write about now and plenty of free time at work to knock out some posts so we should finally be ahead of the game again.

Woo hoo!

Anyway today I just want to go over a few miscellaneous odds and ends that have been gathering up and need to be addressed.

New School

No photos as, well, it isn’t very interesting looking, but I have recently moved to a new school, Higashiochiai.

In contrast to my last placing out in the middle of nowhere Higashiochiai is smack dab in the centre of the kobe metropolis. Well, not quite, but it is decidedly urban. And whereas Iwaoka was an hour’s journey everyday Higashiochiai is less than half the time away. This is a massive boon to my free time and has granted me an extra half an hour in bed in the morning. Bliss! And no snakes either.

However I’m now in a decidedly weird situation. I will probably be moved from this school at the end of March and it is already nearly the end of January. I have barely 2 months left at Higashiochiai before I will be shipped out yet again to meet new teachers, get to know students and generally adjust. This means I’m kind of in limbo. Sure I work here but I feel like all of my efforts here are pointless. I don’t really have enough time to properly get to know anyone, students or teachers and I certainly don’t have enough time to train students up to my expectations of them in lessons.

Still everyone seems nice enough so far so I guess I’ll just enjoy it while I’m here and worry about the future later.

Sweet Potato Kit-Kats

I have been as lax with my kit-kat reviewing as I have with the blog in general but I intend to let this error persist no further. Already I have skipped over informing you people of the important evolutions of strawberry cheesecake and blueberry cheesecake kit-kats, cookie kit-kats and anko kit-kats. Maybe one day they shall return to stores and I can educate you as to their deliciousness or lack of delciousness. Alas, that is a dream for the future.

For now let’s talk about sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes are very popular in Japan. In fact potatoes of all kinds are fairly popular but particularly potatoes that are traditionally grown in Japanese soil, of which swete potato is one. In fact there are a wide variety of sweet potatoes native to Japan ranging from the purple skinned but orange centred imo to the wholly purple beni imo.

Sweet potatoes can be used a both a savoury option, in nabe (a kind of stew), roasted, boild or baked on its own or pressed into rice and as a sweet option, made into a dessert called daigaku-imo, sliced, fried and sugared or used as a starch in wagashi (tea ceremony sweets). There are even varieties of shochu made of it. And now there is a kit-kat version.

And it is delicious! Incredibly delicious. In fact it may be my favourite variety of kit-kat. The taste is incredibly nuanced and complicated for kit-kat. It’s mostly a kind of caramel flavour but a very rich caramel with nutty, earthy notes coming through too.

And it tastes, not even slightly, like a sweet potato.

Delicious though.

Umeshu

You may re-call from this post all those many months ago that I was making some umeshu.

Well here it is.

As you can see it has gone down in height by quite a significant amount. This is because I have been drinking it, not because of the ume absoribing the water or anything like that. The colour has obviously changed to a more recognizable ume tone and the ume have shrunk.

My how they’ve shrunk, and now they look like little brains. Tiny brains in a jar. I’ve always wanted to own some brains in a jar, now I can fantasise that I do.

The taste is, actually a little bit disappointing. It’s definitely umeshu but it isn’t as sharp as I usually like my umeshu and furthermore it is very, very sweet. To the point of almost being sticky. I aim to try again next year with much less sugar in the mixture.

I also aim to brew it for a whole year. We cracked open the jar around about Christmastime after a period of more than 6 months but I am now informed that a ful years wait is needed to make a fully mature umeshu.

I should point out that my girlfriend was very happy with it though, even if it is a little bit sweet for me.

Mushrooms

Until the next spring my attempt at making umeshu has drawn to a close but now I have a new project to divert me.

Growing shiitake mushrooms.

My wonderful girlfriend got me a grow your own mushroom kit for Christmas. After dithering with the Japanese instructions for a while I eventually figured out what to do and have been cultivating a patch of mushrooms in the same cupboard the umeshu used to live in.

My first mushroom was constrained by the shape of the bag and had begun growing before I had even opened up the kit. It went a bit strange shortly after I set up the kit properly and turned all watery and…odd. So I ripped it off.

Presently I am growing 1 single solitary but unbelievably massive mushroom. The biggest shiitake I have ever seen. I am going to eat it for my tea tonight in fact in the hopes that if I cut it off it will stimulate all the other spores to start growing.

I will keep you updated on further mushroom news.

Finally I like to end any odds and ends post with a video showcasing the madness that is my adopted land.

http://content.fliqz.com/applications/1f866af11db04864bca16236377b518f.swf

This is a trailer for the upcoming live action version of the yatterman anime. Yatterman is about a pair of super hero mechanics riding a giant robot dog who fight a trio of super villains who also have various robots, and a 3 person tandem (tridem?) The show is mostly about the villains and the comic relief they offer. In tone it feels like hannah-barbera filtered through Japan. And now they are making a live action movie. I have high hopes for this.

Okay, I concede I am not quite living up to my New Year resolution.

Still, let’s see if I can improve things from this point on; starting with an old favourite, amusing stuff my students have written recently.

I have recently begun working at a new school (again, gah!) and one of the first things the teachers at my new school did was dump a load of work on me that my new students had written over the winter break.

This was a comedy goldmine.

Apparently at my new school the teachers had been very good at introducing the students to some higher level vocabulary. Words like pleasure, one (in the sense of oneself or one does), restless, etc, etc. However the students weren’t quite so hot on how to properly conjugate these new words, leading to such examples as…

Well, see for yourself.

“I will pleasure me in winter vacation.”

“I will pleasure in winter vacation. I want come early.”

“I want to go to Okinawa because I want to raid a banana.”

“My dream is ueding dtheina. Becoues I think many peapol smailing get home. They’re get married to happy. They’re never happy mamols plezant for them.”

“I exerted a cultural festival.”

“I like my bedroom because it is very restless.” (he meant messy)

“”2nd term was great! There was field day, culture day and eisteddfod.”

Cue conversation between me and the Japanese teacher of English.

Me: What do you think eisteddfod means, I can’t think what English word it could be.

JTE: Hmmm. No, idea. I’ll read the Japanese version they wrote.

Okay apparently they mean music festival.

Me: How did they get eisteddfod from music festival? Does it sound similar in Japanese?

JTE: No, let me check my dictionary.

Me: What does it say.

JTE: Apparently it’s an arts festival in Wales.

Me: What! Wales!

(cue gales of laughter for ages)

There were two other entries that are absolutely heartbreaking too.

For example, one girl was talking about the Akashi suspension bridge and wrote:

“When I saw it, I was happy, for the first time.”

Now obviously she meant “when I saw it for the first time I was happy.” But even so

don’t you just wanna give her a hug?

The other heartbreaking one was in answer to the question. “How was your second

term?”

“What!!! How was it!!! It was terrible. Oh my god!!! I studied very hard but I love the

comic books too much. When my mother came in she yelled at me and took the comic

book. The next day, my mother took all the comic books. I was very sad. I didn’t get a

good grade.”

Awwww. Rest assured I gave you a good grade fellow comic fan.

Sorry guys but both my camera and my SD card are elsewhere as I type this so I have little recourse but to do a quicky video post.

Real posts to resume next week gang.

In contrast to Menchi’s eventual fate, to be eaten by Excel as an emergency food supply, Chi, the star of “Chi’s Sweet Home” gets, well, a sweet home. This anime, about a stray cat adopted by a family and told from the cat’s point of view is without question the cutest anime ever made and possibly the cutest thing on the planet.

I should note that the subtitles on this version are not especially good as they editorialise far too much to make the English seem more natural. However it is the only embeddable version of the song that I could find.

Better post on Saturday I promise.

I’m back. 

Did you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year period or I suppose I should say “Holiday Season” for our American readers (all two of them)? I certainly did. My Christmas time activities are a private affair, largely because it would just consist of a list of the various ways I gorged myself like a pig, however I will be posting something about my New Year festivities shortly. 

My resolutions this year by the way are: 

1.    Study for the official Japanese Language Qualification level 4 or 3. I haven’t decided if I stand a shot at 3 yet but 4 is practically worthless.

2.    Join the gym (yes, pretty obvious).

3.    Consistently get at least two blog posts on the site a week and attempt to get more. 

Before I talk about the New Year first I want to talk about the very last thing of interest I did last year. A trip to the onsen town of Kinosaki

Kinosaki is a very small town roughly North of Kobe on the opposite coast of Japan. It is famous for two things, Onsen and crab. Both were in enormous abundance when Fran and I visited last year. 

The start of our trip was a very long train ride. It is quite easy to get spoilt by the trains in Japan which are both fast, comfortable and amazingly frequent. When the Shinkansen turns a journey that spans the entire length of the country into something that can be done in half a day it is a little easy to lose all sense of perspective when it comes to rail travel. Alas, Kinosaki is such a small and out of the way spot that there is no shinkansen access to it. This leaves the traveler with two options for getting there. Take the regular JR at regular JR prices but change trains frequently and spend about five hours on them or reserve a seat on a special train that will cost as much as the shinkansen and go direct but only move at regular JR speed taking about two hours to get there. Being the laziest traveler in the world I opted for the latter. 

And I must say the scenery was spectacular. Japan is all about its coastline, everyone lives here and it’s just one big continuous urban sprawl along the southern coast. On my rare trips into the inside of the country I am always taken aback by how much space there is and how much untamed raw nature is left in this country. Japan really is a land of dichotomies. It doesn’t have proper suburbs it just moves from city to dotted villages in the blink of an eye. 

The scenery itself was wonderful. Great grey mountains, fierce looking forests and rice fields up to the horizon. However, it was a touch monotonous in its wonder being all of the same character for the entire journey. We did get very excited when we spotted snow on the mountaintops and the roofs of people’s houses but sadly as we came back down from the mountains any sight of snow began to vanish and Kinosaki itself was woefully un-Christmassy. 

That said the town was absolutely delightful. It was pretty small and focused on two main roads. One running away from the station and one crossing this road that consisted of two pavements each opposite a river. The river street in particular was really lovely, a page straight from a Japanese history book. Lined with willows and lit by lanterns at night with wild herons living in it. It was simply too perfectly quaint. 

As I said Kinosaki is famous for its onsen and its crabs and the assault of crab imagery begins as soon as you get there. Visitors to the town start their trip by being assaulted by a giant crab monster.

And the main street is lined with market stalls and vendors with boxes of live snow crabs wriggling out in the open waiting to be bought. 

We wandered down the street taking in the absolutely gorgeous architecture. Everything is done to a very traditional Japanese style and the streets feel positively ancient, even though they’re not. 

Eventually we got to our ryokan, a kind of traditional Japanese Inn. 

To anyone considering a trip to Japan or currently living here I cannot recommend ryokan enough. The standard practice for a ryokan is to stay in a Japanese style room with tatami mats on the floor, all the chairs and tables at floor level, a sacred alcove with a scroll and plant in it, and the futon beds packed away. Each night a maid will come into your room at an arranged time and unpack and lay the futon. Meals are eaten in the room and again are brought to you at an arranged time by a maid. The level of service is incredible. Quick, efficient but also really friendly. We had a nice chat with our maid about football as he got our beds ready. 

And as for the meals, wow. I can honestly say without hyperbole that our meal the first night in the Ryokan is the best meal I have ever eaten in Japan. True to the theme of the town dinner consisted mainly of many variations on snow crab. So we ate: 

Snow crab sashimi (i.e. raw snow crab)

Grilled snow crab

Snow crab nabe (snow crab in a hotpot stew)

Tsukemono (Japanese pickles)

Kaiseki (various arranged small side dishes such as a small piece of tofu with a sauce on it, a prawn, etc)

 And to top it off just a whole crab there to be used as we saw fit.

This in addition to the usual extras like rice and miso and dessert. 

The Ryokan claims that the menu offers 2 and a half crabs per person but it feels more like 20. It takes an incredibly long time to eat and by the end of it you are fed up of crab but my god is it good. Really, mouthwateringly taste bud glorifying, kiss the chef good.

 

The next night we opted for the not quite so impressive but still pretty amazing Beef menu. This consisted of more sashimi and kaiseki, a kind of savory custard with food in it called … a bowl of cold soba noodles with dipping sauce, an absolutely wonderfully done tempura set and finally sukiyaki with tajima beef. 

Tajima beef is one of the many variants of Hyogo beef (which is what Kobe beef is generally known as.) Like all the Hyogo beef family Tajima beef is incredibly soft and tender and beautifully marbled. Japanese beef is not usually used to make steaks but rather it is served in thin slices and eaten in a traditional Japanese stew such as nabe or sukiyaki. Sukiyaki is a kind of do it yourself hotpot, similar to fondue. Everyone sits around a bowl with some stock bubbling in it and takes it in turns to drop vegetables, tofu, fu, meat and other things in it. Watch it cook for a few seconds, dip it in raw egg and then eat it. Rare tajima beef cooked in such a fashion is a rare treat that hits every taste in your mouth at once. Mine is watering just remembering it.

Breakfast was not served in our rooms but rather in a shared banquet hall. It was nowhere near as amazing as dinner but it was still impressive and very, very Japanese. Fish, rice, miso, pickles, tofu and the odd bit of veg. Lovely.

The other major difference between a Ryokan and a hotel is that the baths/showers are shared. Now, before visions of school showers or camping pop into your head I should probably say that the baths are shared but private. The Ryokan has 3 and each one consists of a really very hot mineral bath, an area to clean yourself and a vanity mirror. In Japan the tradition is to clean yourself thoroughly and then get into the bath which is purely for relaxing purposes. And very relaxing it was too. There is nothing that soothes a long train journey and a heavy dinner than a nice hot bath. Particularly one that stays hot and is run by someone else for you. 

But who needed hotel baths when we were in an onsen town! Well we avoided the onsen experience on our first night but the next day we got up bright and early, ate breakfast in the ryokan, had a bath and then got dressed to go out and, what else, have another bath. 

I must say it’s a holiday idea I could get used to. Get up, eat have a bath, get dressed, go for a wander, have another bath, eat a delicious crab sandwich, have yet another bath, wander back to the ryokan to play some board games and eat a fantastic meal then get dressed up to hit the town and have…yet another bath. 

To some people that may sound like the most boring itinerary on earth but it is incredibly relaxing. Rather than a hectic sightseeing holiday it is a properly relaxing break from work. I cannot recommend it enough. Even then some of you are thinking “a bath may be all well and good but four in one day?” Surely that’s boring. Well it might be but the trick is that in onsen you take sort but frequent baths in different places. Onsen are hot, really, very hot. Much hotter than you’re thinking I assure you. Being in them is a wonderful experience but after a short while it becomes too much to bear. So you get out, cool down and dry off. And then have a short walk to a different bath which offers a different view. The short but frequent baths all add up throughout the day until by the evening your limbs feel like spaghetti wobbling in the breeze. 

Fran and I hit four different baths out of the seven that Kinosaki has to offer.

Ichi-no-yu
This was a “cave bath”. Basically a rotemburo (or outdoor bath) set into some rock so that it has a roof. It was lovely, not too hot and very atmospheric.

Kou-no-yu
Set quite far away from the others up the mountain somewhat but closer to the natural hot springs. A lovely rotemburo in a relaxing setting with birdsong and other natural features to help relax you.

Gosho-no-yu
Fran and mine’s favourite. Decorated to look like the imperial palace in Kyoto this has a two story rotemburo that is excellent. A perfect temperature and a wonderful setting. It also has a steam room and a kind of stone chair heated by hot water to help vary the experience a bit.

Sato-no-yu
The fanciest and most impressive of all the baths. The onsen is split into two sides, one of which is themed after a Turkish bath and the other which is traditionally Japanese. Which gender can use which bath switches daily. I had the Mediterranean and Fran the Japanese. With the exception of a massaging shower in the Turkish bath (which was lovely) and a penguin sauna in the Japanese one (a kind of walk in freezer which was mostly just cold and not very pleasant in Fran’s opinion) the features are the same on both sides. An indoor bath, a jacuzzi, a bath with powerful massaging jets, a rotemburo, a sauna, two steam rooms and a few showers. We stayed in this bath longer than any other moving hot to cold, hot to cold, steam to shower to bath. It was really invigorating and the best of the lot. The only points off are for the slightly cheesy theme.

Finally the major appeal of the town was experiencing something so very Japanese. The town was not brimming with people but it had a decent crowd there. In fact it had just enough people, not so many that it felt crowded and people got in your way but not so few that it felt quiet and desolate. Instead there was a constant feeling of lots of couples doing exactly as you were. Eating when you were, bathing when you were (but at enough different baths that they never felt full) and finally getting togged up in the evening in Yukata and Geta and hitting the town. 

Yes, here I am. 

There isn’t a whole lot to do in Kinosaki at night (beyond take another bath) but one thing it does offer is really ancient arcades full of pachinko machines that appear to pre-date world war two. 

Pachinko, for those not in the know, is a kind of Japanese fruit machine/pinball hybrid. You buy a set of balls and feed them into a machine. The balls fall down the machine and into slots. Depending on the value of the slots you get more balls back. The idea is to get more balls than you started with. You then exchange these balls for a “prize” and then immediately exchange the prize for cash (a way to get around Japan’s ban on gambling). Theoretically there is some kind of skill element but Fran and I had no idea how that was meant to work. It all looked like a load of balls to us. 

Disenchanted by Pachinko we had a go at a popgun game which was ludicrously easy. The idea is to use a cork firing gun to knock over some statues. However despite looking like a rifle you hold it in one hand and can lean as close to the statues as you like. Being a mutant gaijin I used my gibbon like arms to reach over about 6 inches from each of the statues. I thus got a perfect 10 out of 10. I figured this was just pathetically easy but I felt significantly happier when I noticed the small crowd of onlookers who were amazed by my accuracy and when Fran missed three times. We won a flute by the way, which Fran won’t let me play. 

More than the games though simply the atmosphere of being there, at night, by a river lined with willows and lit by lanterns dressed in Yukata and surrounded by other people all dressed the same. Hearing the clip clop of geta on the road and the laughs of young couples. It was like being transported to another world entirely, of traveling back in time. And nothing intruded to spoil the moment, no cars or bars or other noisy reminders of the modern world. 

There was only one downside to the experience and that was cost. Our Ryokan set us back a cool 90,000Yen. About 450 pounds each for our two night stay. However this did include entrance to all the baths, our food, towels, our Yukata, etc, etc so basically this price accounted for the entire vacation. And anyone I only mention this for the sake of being complete as I am of the opinion that it represents good value for money. It was pure bliss and it stands out as one of the best experiences I have had in Japan

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