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Bamboo

Japanese schools seem to spend an inordinate amount of time doing things which gave nothing to do with lessons or education at all. I could go on to describe how this is a feature of the Japanese education system and helps to instil a strong sense of community, culture and group think in Japanese students but frankly I’ve already discussed that on this blog.

Anyway the upshot is that working in a Japanese school means that sometimes all the classes get cancelled so we can all do something cool.

As was the case last Friday when school was cancelled and instead we all played games and ate soup. Yay!

Around this time of year there are a few traditional cultural activities. I have done one or some of these at both my previous schools but at Iwaoka they decided to roll them all together into one big day of Japanese winter fun.

The first of these is that at pretty much every school in Japan the kids will play karuta. Usually only the first graders will play but at Iwaoka the entire school shuffled into the freezing cold gym to sit on the floor and play some cards.

Karuta is just the Japanese word for cards but there is a specific card game by that name too. Basically it is snap but rather than trying to match a card your opponent has just revealed you instead listen to what a speaker is saying and try and find the card that matches. I use this all the time in my lessons (Mr. Adam says elephant and all the kids try and grab the elephant card at once for example) but Japanese people do it for fun too.

This particular karuta game though is very special. A speaker reads out the first part of a poem and students have to find the end of the poem on about 100 cards in front of them.

The game requires not only for students to have memorised 100 poems but to be able to listen, come up with the next part, scan for it and move at lightning quick pace.

Consequently even though the cards were printed in Japanese which I could read, the double disadvantage of not knowing any of the poems and having to read in a second language meant that I couldn’t capture a single card in my brief attempt at playing. So instead I mooched about for a bit, had a chat and tried to stay close to the enormous space heaters for fear of developing hypothermia.

The kids got really into it though. Its incredible how much they can memorise and how quick they are.

Seeing that I was not exactly thrilled to spend hours watching my kids play a card game I didn’t understand at all one of my teachers seized me and took me outside.

Where a Mochizuki was occurring.

Mochizuki, or making rice cakes, is a past time for communities in winter in Japan. It is usually done either just before or just after the New Year. Mochi is a kind of very sticky rice cake. Imagine PVA glue. Remember when you were a kid and you’d leave PVA glue all over the outside of the bottle and it would set into a hard rubbery substance? Well just before it set when it was still kind of stretchy, that is the consistency of mochi. That or play-do which is going stale but isn’t quite there yet. It is actually much nicer than I make it sound but I don’t quite know what is appealing about it. The taste is just white rice and the texture is not very pleasant and a bugger to eat. I think it might be that it provides a comforting feeling. It is, to use an expression of my mother’s, food that sticks to your sides. Like dumplings, or a sticky toffee pudding or a doughy pie. Your stomach just feels really full but in a pleasant way.

I don’t know why this time of year is associated with mochi but I suspect that in olden days it was a good way to turn rice from the harvest into something that would store better. Less surface area means it is less susceptible to mold and any rat trying to eat mochi would soon choke to death or drown. It could also be improvised as fly paper or to fill up the cracks in draughty farm houses. In fact, it would probably make a very good insulation, potentially even better than it would a food.

To make mochi first you boil lots of rice without washing it so there is a ton of starch.

Then you heat up a stone bowl using hot water until it is red hot so the rice will stay warm in it.

Then you grind the rice using a big mallet until the shape of all the individual grains is blurred and it looks like a big lump.

Then the important part, one person folds the mochi into the middle of the bowl whilst another hits it with a whopping great big mallet.

Observe this video of just that.

You need skill, speed, timing and trust to avoid getting your hand smashed in whereas the other bloke just needs tireless muscles and a penchant for the repetitive.

This is the second time I have made mochi but the first time I have made it whilst elderly Japanese men criticised my technique. Eventually they so tired of me doing it “wrong” that they stepped in and freed my cold and aching arms from anymore pounding.

I should probably feel ashamed that a tiny old man took over for my strapping young self but I am not because I know the secret of elderly Japanese people. They are not made of flesh and bone but stone and wood. Their skin is aged teak and their bones are granite. Old Japanese people are indestructible. When the apocalypse comes it will be them and the cockroaches.

Once the karuta game was finished the students came outside to watch a massive bonfire.

This bonfire had been assembled the day before of bamboo and various decorations left over from the New Year. New Year decorations have to be burned before the next New Year or else they will become evil spirits, or yokai.

There are plenty of yokai stories of possessed items. Most famously an umbrella with a single eyeball and a man’s leg instead of handle. When you abandon an umbrella in Japan it will turn into a monster and seek revenge. The same goes for unwanted decorations so instead they get burnt.

We all watched as the school principle went inside the fire holding a flaming torch (health and safety existeth notteth in Japan) and then came out again and lit it more safely from the back.

It went up like a shot. Within barely 30 seconds of lighting it there was a hole in the top and a stream of fire issuing forth. It looked like a volcano.

And the noise was incredibly. Presumably because bamboo is a grass and full of water deposits every time one of these pockets superheated and turned to steam it went off with a massive bang. It was like standing in the middle of a gunfight, or a firework show. I have never heard such a violent fire.

Before too long a small twister had formed above the hole and bamboo ash was being strewn wildly across the playing field, in our hair, on our clothes and basically everywhere. It was some sort of ash…like snow.

Hmmm, catchy name that. Would make a good song title.

All in all it took about 15 minutes for the enormous bonfire ( a good 20ft high) to be completely burned to a crisp.

Before the fire was over my students did various demonstrations to their classmates, the teachers, the local people and some school kids from the nearby primary school which had come to visit and watch the show.

Japanese primary school kids are absolutely adorable. Not only are they much cuter than western kids but this natural cuteness is amplified by the matching hats they are all made to wear when they go on trips. Me and most of my female students were in paroxysms of kawaii watching them.

Sadly I can’t show you the videos I took of the presentations for legal reasons. But they included live kanji painting and taiko drumming. Impressive taiko drumming too. I didn’t even know we had a club! They kept that one quiet.

Eventually everyone was released to go do the most important part of the day. Eat ozouni!

Ozouni is a kind of soup whose main ingredients are miso (a salty paste derived from soy and which turns into a soup when mixed with water) and mochi along with anything else you fancy putting in it. Ozouni is associated with New Year’s where everyone eats some for luck. I had eaten some at Fran’s relative’s house this year and the year before Fran made some for just the two of us. It is true comfort food. Warm, filling, sticky and made with all your favourite things.

Together we gobbled multiple bowls of the stuff graciously prepared by local volunteers. I stopped at two but some of my kids ate as many as five bowls! Japanese people can really eat when they put their minds to it.

There was also kinako ( a kind of sweet flour derived from, guess what, soy) flavoured mochi and mochi floating in a soup of red bean paste. I’ve had both of these before and find them too sweet for words. Except possibly words like coma, diabetes, help and blegh! They’re not horrible but they’re so ridiculously sweet so may as well just mainline sugar.

Finally two primary school kids were hauled up to give a speech thanking us all. It was, without hyperbole, the single cutest thing I have ever seen in my life. Any attempt to describe it properly will just end up with me degenerating into baby talk and saying things like “wook ad da widdle hats isn’t it cutes, isn’t it cutes??!” which frankly, nobody wants to see.

And that, bar an assembly, was that.

You’ve got to love Japanese schools sometimes.

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Day 3. Beppu.

Beppu, for all its quirkiness, the HELLS and the lovely onsen is still not the most thrilling town in the whole world. We had allocated ourselves two days to explore it and we quickly discovered that this was going to be more than sufficient to see everything we wanted to.

So a quick scour of the lonely planet suggested a few less popular tourist options. Fran, being an arsy crafty type immediately seized upon the bamboo crafts museum. I, being a bloke who likes a quiet life and who enjoys seeing his girlfriend being happy, acquiesced.

First we had all the fun of figuring out a bus schedule, attempting to get there and walking past it a few times as it was so non-descript.

Then we had all the joy of the bamboo crafts museum.

Yay!

I’ll be honest with you, it is very impressive stuff. Some of the things people can do using only bamboo and simple hand tools is absolutely astonishing. There are patterns of incredible complexity here. I certainly couldn’t hope to ever produce anything this beautiful and I did seriously admire the craftwork.

But there is only so long that you can look at bamboo sculptures and things made from bamboo before your brain starts to engage in a kind of trial separation. Part of you is taking in all the patterns and making the appropriate cooing noises and part of you has wandered off to think about something more interesting. Like what’s for dinner?

I did like the hats though. I think I look very stylish.

Probably the most interesting thing about the museum was a display about all the different kinds of bamboo there are and which varieties grow where.

Although there were some very impressive individual pieces; many of which are posted here without comment.

The museum did offer a few bamboo craft lessons. On the day we went there they were offering a class in how to make a charm. Fran had a go and was very pleased with the result.

Sick of bamboo and hungry we flagged down a cab to get one of the so called “hidden” onsen of Beppu. In this case Ichinoide-kaikan. Ichinoide-kaikan is not actually an onsen but rather it is a restaurant. However, the owner of the restaurant loves onsen so much that he dug two onsen of his own behind the restaurant. A lunch or dinner comes with a ticket to the onsen. Diners go take a refreshing bath outside and then come in to eat their lunch fully refreshed and cleaned up.

We arrived just after the lunchtime rush and as a result I had the entire onsen to myself. It was an outdoor onsen (or rotemburo) and had a decidedly homemade feel to it that seems to be common with Beppu onsen. It was filled with sulphur again so it smelled of eggs but being outside the smell was dispersed somewhat and didn’t bother me quite so much. And smell aside it was glorious. The restaurant is situated high on the mountain and from the onsen I had a glorious view of Beppu and the ocean stretched out before me and surroundings of a forest of dark ancient looking trees. It was blissful. It was quiet; and silence is such a rarity here that one really does grow to appreciate it.

As well as the main bath the owner has dug a steam room. And yes I mean dug. Rather than using artificial steam he has basically dug a hole directly into the volcano itself until he got steam issuing from it. Then he put a shed on top of the hole and called it a steam room. It was far from the most pleasant onsen experience I’ve ever had but it was at least novel. The shed was really muddy, slimy wet hot mud coated every surface and undid most of the good of the bath. Plus it was incredibly hot, much hotter than a normal steam room or sauna. However my abiding memory is just how scary it was. I was sitting inches from a hole that delved into a volcano. I had close to me a connection to the very bowels of the earth itself. It was issuing forth angry steam and occasionally made a noise. Nightmare inducing stuff if ever there was one.

After my bath I sat, feeling refreshed and cleaned with an ice cold beer and a good book, occasionally enjoying the view and waiting for Fran to arrive so we could have dinner.

Shortly after she did a waitress came over to say we had had a call.

Eh? From who?

The taxi company apparently. Had we left something in the cab?

A quick check revealed nothing. No sunglasses, hats, keys, wallets, phones, bags or anything else seemed to be absent.

It was only as I checked the inside of my bag that I realised I had left the guidebook behind, which had all our maps and the addresses and names of everywhere we intended to go.

Bugger!

We called the waitress over and she informed us that the cab driver was actually waiting outside with the book and he’d take us back down the mountain when we were finished.

How fantastic is that?! I’ve left things in cabs before, mostly CD’s weirdly, but also the odd bag or article of clothing. Never have I seen any of them again. In England the cabby would note we’d left something, drop it off at the dispatch office when he got a moment and go on his merry way. Here not only had the cabbie done the detective work to call the restaurant we were eating in but he came to give us our book back and he stayed and waited for us to finish.
In fact we got a message halfway through dinner to say that he was going to go pick up someone else but afterwards he would come back and wait for us again.

This started a long trend of people in Kyushu being incredibly nice to us, and especially cab drivers. By far the most resonant memory I have of Kyushu is of acts of kindness and thoughtfulness that make me smile just to remember them.

Dinner done and cab taken we did what pretty much everyone does on an onsen holiday. We had another bath.

This time we bathed at Kitahama Termas Onsen. Situated next to the beach, this onsen was the swishiest and most professional of the onsen we used in Beppu. This was far more like what I was accustomed to. Polished floors, rental towels, several different features of bath and more were in evidence. Basically, imagine a big municipal swimming pool but where the end goal is bathing, not swimming. Although it did feel even more like a swimming pool in that the outside pool overlooking the beach was a mixed gender bath that required you to wear a swimming costume. With my trunks on and kids splashing about it felt much more like a warm swimming pool than an onsen. The inside was a proper bath, however, and after all that swimming and pruning up I needed another one. Plus there was a sauna and an ice cold bath and I love the mix of hot to cold, hot to cold one can achieve with that combination. It makes your skin feel all tingly and does wonders for blackheads.

Tired of onsen but having exhausted Beppu we did a little shopping, had dinner at a horrible diner (People may be friendlier in Beppu but the cooking is miles better in Kansai) and then, well, went to another onsen.

Our planned destination was Mugen-no-Sato; a collection of private rotemburo nestled deep within a forest and way up the mountain. The prospect of a small private bath we could share together seemed too good to pass up and Mugen-no-Sato was probably the place we were most looking forward to attending.

We had problems getting there right from the start. It was very difficult to figure out the bus timetable and we ended up riding a bus with the same number as the one we desired but which was actually run by an entirely separate company and which went nowhere near where we wished to go.

When we finally figured out which bus we needed it turned out that we had missed the last one of the night by about 15 minutes.

So of course we took a cab. But the cab driver seems worried. He thinks that Mugen-no-Sato might be closed down. This is the first we’ve heard of this and are quite distraught by the news. Seeing our faces he goes for a chat with his mate. Good news, apparently it isn’t closed down and he’ll take us there.

So begins a journey up a mountain, on winding roads, without a crash barrier, in utter pitch blackness! Seriously, no cats eyes or anything. The only light was from the headlights so we only saw curves in the road seconds before we had to turn.

I have something of a phobia of heights. Weirdly if it something safe like a rollercoaster or if I’m under my own power I’m fine. However cars on mountain roads absolutely terrify me. I don’t mind telling you that I was (metaphorically) wetting myself.

Eventually we pull into Mugen-no-Sato which is dark and barely lit. There is nobody around and the place is utterly silent but for the idling of the engine. The driver decides to have a look around. Now at this point fear has become mingled with paranoia. I don’t know where I am, I’m in the middle of nowhere, with a man I don’t know, in the dark and far from civilisation. Frankly anything could happen and I’m having quiet hysterics in some dark corner of my mind.

The driver comes back and lets us have the bad news. Mugen-no-Sato is closed for the O-bon festival (a festival of remembrance of the dead) and we’ve driven all this way for nothing.

Weirdly this seemed to upset the driver possibly more than it did us. He kept muttering in Japanese about how it was all such a shame, how we had travelled so far and even taken a cab to come here. He offered to take us to another onsen; one which he promised was the best in Beppu.

By this point Fran and I were just tired and having none of it. Neither of us had heard of his supposed “best” onsen so I think we figured it was some kind of scam he had going with the owner. Plus we had our hearts set on Mugen-no-Sato and didn’t want to pay to go to an onsen we weren’t keen on in the first place.

However he was really insistent. No, no, it’s the best onsen in Beppu. And it’s such a shame that you came all this way. Really I’ll take you there, for free.

Excuse me?

Was this a cab driver offering to take us somewhere…for free?

Indeed he was. He charged us to go to Mugen-no-Sato but took us to this other onsen for absolutely no charge whatsoever.

And do you know what? It was lovely. The onsen was also a series or privately rented baths. Admittedly they weren’t rotemburo but instead we rented a little thatched hut which had a bath inside sunk into the floor. It was lovely, really romantic, quaint and a lot of fun.

And that about wraps it up for Beppu. Tomorrow/ Whenever I post it, we begin a long bus journey to the famous and infamous Nagasaki.

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