Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hashimaki (chopstick roll) & Matsuri (festival)

Saturday night there was a small festival in our neighborhood. That morning we were woken up by the sound of taiko (drums) beating in the nearby park. Up until that time, there had been no mention of any festival, but the moment we heard the practice we knew it was coming.

By noon they had set up the entire matsuri and were practicing drumming. In case you don't know what a mattsuri is, check out the following link:

We decided to visit the matsuri and check out the action. It was a very small festival compared to some of the festivals we've been to in Japan. I think it was just for the people in our neighborhood.
We had hiyashiame, ひやしあめ, (cold candy), which is a drink sold where the vendor shaves ice on what looks like hand planer into a cup and then adds a sweet liquid that tastes a bit like sweet black tea with ginger in it. It was pretty good. The most interesting part was watching the guy shave the ice to make the hiyashiame. If you ever get a chance to try something original and not westernized, hiyashiame is the thing to try.

While there, we sampled all the snacks and such from the booths where they sell everything from shaved ice (kakigori) to octopus dumplings (takoyaki). And then I stumbled upon one item I hadn't had in a while, chopstick rolls (hashimaki).

Hashimaki looks like a pancake, wrapped around a pair of chopsticks, then covered in a sweet soy sauce called okonomiyaki sauce, topped with mayonnaise, seaweed flakes (nori) and fish flakes (katsuo). You eat it much like you'd eat a corndog, only it's a bit messier.

View the video below for more detail:

And so we enjoyed the sites and sounds of the little masturi in our village. The most enjoyable time was watching the children do the children's dance. Quite a few children would gather around the drum tower (yagura) once a certain song was played. And then they'd go around and around the drum tower doing a type of line dance. It was very cute.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Himeji Aquarium

On Friday my wife and I decided to head over to the Himeji Municipal Aquarium located in the heart of Himeji City just down from the ever famous Himeji Castle. We were debating going to the beach but we decided on going to the aquarium because we both had to work later in the evening. I am so glad we did because it was interesting, fun and cheap.

We left rather late in the morning, I believe it was 10:45 or so, and go to the parking area nearest the aquarium at 11:15. We parked, which was unbelieveably cheap, at 200yen per day. But little did I know that the aquarium rests on top of a small mountain. So once we parked we had to climb for about 10 minutes up to the aquarium. It was good to get some exercise in while we were entertaining ourselves.

More about the Aquarium location:
Tegarayama Central Park

This is an Oasis-like park which is situated close to the central area of Himeji. Covering an area of approximately 116 acres the park makes use of natural features such as two hills, north and south, which are connected by a bridge. From the observation platform there are panoramic views of the Inland Sea, Seiban Hills and downtown Himeji.

Within the park there are a wide-range of facilities; these include an amusement park, an aquarium, a conservatory, a swimming pool, an athletics stadium, a science museum and a library.

At the top of the Northern hill there is a War Memorial in commemoration of all those who died during air raids throughout Japan.

So we pay our fee to enter the Himeji Aquarium. I was thinking it'd be at least 1500 yen each, but it turned out to only be 200yen each. It was unbelieveably cheap, that said the aquarium is rather small, and most of the fish are from Japan. There were about 10 outdoor exhibits, a touching pool for kids, 4 or 5 indoor exhibitions, and so on. There was even an area that taught you how to setup your own aquarium, maintain it, and enjoy nature in your home.

One of the more interesting exhibits was the giant salamander's they had. It must have been 20-30 centimeters long, and looked like a mix between a lizard and a human baby. The salamander hardly moved, looked stuffed, but was very much alive. Despite the fact, it was very exciting to see that creature.

There were countless other animals on display like penguins, manta rays, sea turtles, frogs, sea snakes, eels, giant carp, catfish, jellyfish, very strange looking turtles and so on. It was a very nice time to spend for very little money. If you are ever in the Himeji area and are looking for something else to do other than seeing Himeji Castle, why not stop by the Himeji Municipal Aquarium and feast your eyes on some of nature's wonders.

The funniest thing that happened was seeing two crabs going at it like a couple of lovesick teenyboppers. It cracked me up. Crab sex is not something you get to see on a daily basis, and seeing it nearly brought tears of laughter to me.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Unagi fishing at Kakogawa Ozeki

On Friday my wife, her sister and her father and myself all went fishing at the Kako River in Kakogawa City. This was only the 7th or 8th time I had been fishing in Japan. Before we went, I had a check on my fishing poles that I store in the trunk of my car. Well, two were broken so I had to go buy some new ones at the bait and tackle shop down the street. Most Japanese tackle shops have tons and tons of goods available. I counted about 70 different reel models and countless numbers of rods to choose from.

I and the father-in-law went and purchased 2 new rods and reels, some hooks, and some sinkers. We spent around $35.00 each on some cheapies... hell we were going to be fishing on the side of the bank so why go all out on nice stuff.

Well we had big dreams of catching some うなぎ (unagi) or eel. We had purchased the right hooks, gotten the right bait, and were arriving at the right time to catch the eel. However, when we arrived some old farts were already sitting in the prime spots. So we go stuck in a rather bad area for catching unagi.

Before we went to the river I had mentioned that we should probably set the rods up with line and tackle. However the father-in-law said we could do it at the river. At the time I mentioned this it was still daylight out and I knew by the time we went to the river it would be dark. So we didn't set it up. Instead we waited until we got to the river.

That was a big mistake, at least for me, as I was the one chosen to step up to the plate and fix all the rods and reels. We had 4. I had to set them all up. It took me about 40 minutes to get it sorted out because it was dark, and I couldn't see a thing. Next time we'll do it my way.

Luckily for me we were at the Kakogawa Ozeki, a dam that spans the length of the Kako River. Lucky I say because there were plenty of lights all around the damn and we could see a bit, but it was still too dark to try to thread fishing line through hooks and so on.

So eventually we all were set and started fishing. My wife and her sister were the first two to catch any fish. They had the smallest poles and neither of them had much fishing experience. They caught some bass, a carp and a ギギなまず(gigi Namazu; A type of catfish).  Gigi is the onomatopoeia of the sound that the fish makes. The Gigi Namazu has three horns that stick you when it wiggles so it is very difficult to remove from the hook without gloves or pliers.

I personally wound up catching 3 of these gigi namazu. The first one I caught was about 18 centimeters. It was the largest fish anyone would catch all night in our group. The second two were tiny gigi namazu.

Unfortunately my father-in-law didn't catch a thing so he was the first to mention that we go home. He packed his things in a flash and was ready to leave. He must've been really disappointed, because this fishing trip was his idea.

None of us came home with any Unagi, despite the fact that Sunday was Doyoo Ushino Hi (Eel Day) in Japan. On Eel Day people in Japan eat Unagi (eel) for stamina due to the hot weather. I unfortunately didn't eat Unagi. I ate meatloaf instead.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Katsumeshi (Cutlet and Special Sauce with Rice)

On Thursday I had my final day at the new school. I officially survived the 1st quarter of classes at the two schools that I teach. Japanese education, at least for junior high, splits the year up into 3 quarters, called "Gaki" in Japanese.

Now I have summer vacation for nearly a month and a half. Hopefully I don't piss it off like I did last year sleeping all day and staying up late at night. We'll see how it goes.

But on the last day, the kocho-sensei (principal) comes up to me and says, "Have you had lunch?" I was a taken a bit back by his question because up until this point he's only spoken to me twice. I told him no, and he then said "Meet me around the front of the school, I will take you to lunch." He then b-lined it for his office, and I sat there being stared at by all the other teachers.

There is some kind of funky anti-"wa" shit going on at that particular junior high.
Wa (和) is a Japanese term which has become a cultural concept of its own. Imported from Chinese, "Wa" originally meant harmony, peace, balance.

The Japanese teachers are kind of strange, quite nice, but indeed strange. There is a bad element mucking about in the school. I don't know where it stems from, but it's there and you can just feel it slithering about from the taikukan to the budojo festering its way into every nook and cranny. It's always present, and when the Kocho-sensei invited me out to lunch, well, that evil "Wa" just sprang up like a Pit Viper on Crystal Meth.

So I just jumped up, ran to get my outdoor shoes, and met him at the entrance to our school. We drove about 10 minutes from our school to this nice little restaurant that I had driven by countless numbers of times but had never stopped in for a bite. I should kick myself in the ass for that. We went in and I soon discovered the fare was right up my alley. It was a Katsu Meshi restaurant. Some of you might not have a clue what katsu meshi is, but allow me to fill you in.

Katsumeshi (かつめし)is basically a cutlet of meat, breaded in huge bread crumbs, deep fried, then placed on a generous portion of rice, topped with a special sauce and served with a side of cooked cabbage. It's actually my cities' special dish as katsumeshi originated in Kakogawa city. The restaurant is called パラーディオ, Palla-Dio, and looks much like some Italian bistro you'd see in Milan.And then it struck me why I never went, because the name was Italian and yet the store was all Japan. It seemed odd to have an Italian name for a cutlet and rice restaurant. But Palla-Dio was kick ass! I recommend it to anyone in the Kakogawa area.

So we went in and gorged on the katsumeshi which was superb. We chat it up about education, about the Touching Toilets policy he is trying to bring to the school, and so on. And then the principal tells me that the owner of the shop we are eating in is his former student. He goes on to tell me all about the guy, like what a naughty little boy he was, how he played kendo, that he is married with three children and so on... and minutes later the owner appears and is chatting it up with us.

I had a good time with the kocho-sensei that day. And the katsumeshi was divine! The kocho sensei drove me back to the school and then the kyoto-sensei tells me I can piss of the rest of the day at home if I want. Well, as soon as he blinked, I had my desk cleared and headed home.

By the way, if you are ever in Japan, be sure to check out the many shops that serve katsumeshi.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Jishin (Eartquake) Drills & Gomi Monkeys

In school today we had our Jishin drills, or earthquake drills. We had them at the end of third period today. What's so special about that you might be asking? Well it had to do with our "safety zone" as F-sensei called it. It seems that in the event of an earthquake students run out of the building onto the school grounds.

There were three rules for the procedure.
  1. No talking.
  2. No running.
  3. No Pushing
And sure enough, when he alarm rang, *which sounded like something out of a Star Trek convention, the kocho-sensei and all the other teachers ran to their designated stations throughout the school. And the kids followed the three rules as if they had been controlled by some hidden remote control inside the vice-principals underwear. All the teachers were yelling "Hashiri! Hayaku!!! etc..." It was comical. And the students filed in like little mute pokemon characters.. two by two in utter silence and without incident.

But did they go to our "safety zone" out on the sand coated field where students play their sports? Oh no, that would be too simple. Instead, because it was raining and the field was a bit wet, they all decided that the taikukan (gymnasium) would be a much better place. So I asked F-sensei, what happens if a real earthquake happens while it's raining. And she replied that of course we'd go out on the field.

And so there we were standing in the gym, each grade got their times "1 nensei, 3:10; 2 nensei, 3:40, and 3 nensei 4:20." Then the head of the discipline committee charges up, takes the mic and starts railing on the students for a poor performance.
And shortly thereafter, the kocho-sensei (principal) going off on a totally unrelated tangent, starts giving a speech to students about not littering. He even compares the students to monkeys. He said, "Monkey's don't know any better than to litter, but you humans should." That nearly cracked me the fuck up. I didn't mean to laugh because he was serious, and litter (gomi) has become a problem at our school. But him comparing the kids to monkeys was a bit too much for me... why not pigs... or dogs.... or something, anything besides a (saru).

Which reminded me of the video below:

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Asahi Super Dry & bicycling drunk

On Friday I went out with some of my adult students from a night class I teach. They are all Japanese learners of English that I teach for 2 hours a week on Fridays. Well last Friday we all went to トリドール(toridoru, Chicken Doll). It's a 焼き鳥 (yakitori) restaurant near where I teach.
We were having a welcome party for two new members that recently joined the class. And so we started chowing down on yakitori, and drinking 飲み放題 nomihoudai (all you can drink) beer, for several hours. Ever since moving to Japan, some 5 years ago, I have fell in love with Asahi Super Dry beer and nomihoudai!

Well on Friday, I drank 11 glasses of the 800ml beers in less than 2 hours. Needless to say when I left that restaurant I was stumbling, drooling and slurring. Luckily I rode my bicycle, and didn't put anyone in harms way. Except that is for myself. I nearly drove off the side of this concrete bank about a mile from my house. Had I fell down that bank, I would have wound up 20 meters down in the river. Thank god I didn't crash cause no one would have found me for days. I also kept dropping things out of my pockets... and I would have to turn my bike around and pick them up.. I did this several times that night.

One very kind student however caught up with me and made sure I got home. She drove her car and looked after me peddling my bike like the drunken bastard that I was. The next day I woke up with an Asahi hangover from hell!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Touching Toilets

Today I heard about some strange training that all the teachers at my school will participate in. It seems some company president will give a speech and then a demonstration later on in the day about how to clean toilets without using gloves or brushes.

He teaches a direct contact approach to cleaning toilets, urinals, and bathrooms. Now I normally would have just laughed this off as a joke, but when I tried doing that one of the teachers started showing me the document they received from our principal.

The president of some famous Japanese company will come and give a speech and then he will take everyone to a lavatory at our school, and demonstrate the process. They really don't use rubber gloves, nor any brushes to clean the toilet. From what I understand he actually touches the toilet surfaces with his bare hands. This has got to be a Japanese original.

I personally think this is very unsanitary and disgusting. I mentioned it to several teachers in the teachers room about contracting STDs like AIDS and herpes or HPV from direct contact with toilets. I also mentioned bacteria, germs and viruses that you might get from the surface of a toilet or urinal. Most of the teachers seemed to agree with me, but they said they had to attend the meeting as it was required. Although one teacher said she was abstaining from the demonstration portion of the training.

What is going on with these people? Who the hell advocates touching toilet surfaces with your bare hands? This goes against all common sense regardless of culture. This is a question of sanitation, not mores or norms of a society.

I was very shocked and somewhat baffled as to why they would do this.... I am still scratching my head.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Japanese Flipper: It's Swimming Time

Today I swam for an hour in our school pool. Every day for the last few weeks, since the pool opened I noticed that no one was using after school. So I decided one day last week to break that trend, dawn my trunks and hop in.

I loved every minute. There I was in this Olympic-sized school pool swimming my heart out in Japan. I never dreamed that I would have a job where I would get paid to swim around in a pool, but that is just what I did. And so, on Monday and Tuesday of this week, I did it again. In the afternoon, I got my gear ready, grabbed the pool house key, and ran for it.

I enjoyed it so much, that I decided to try to invite other teachers to join me. I asked the science teacher, the special education teacher, the math teacher, and several others in the ichinensei grade level (7th grade), but none of them were brave enough to do go with me.

So I decided to ask the Kyoto-sensei (vice principal) if he'd like to go. He laughed and told me to run a long and have fun. And so I did. I spent a full 1.5 hours swimming away, back strokes, butterfly strokes, underwater swimming, you name it, I tried it.

And the whole while students were doing their bukatsu (club activities). Several boys from the Yakyubu (baseball club) hollered over to me. And I hollered back. Some of them I could tell wanted to jump in, because the temperature was near 30, and the water was great. But I am not their club advisor so I couldn't give them permission to jump in.

I love swimming at school. I'll probably do it again tomorrow as well, if the weather permits!

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Tuna Fish Heads in the Japanese Supermarket

The other day I and my wife went to the supermarket to get some ingredients for dinner. We normally go to the ghetto grocery called "MaxValu" which I really hate. It reminds me of Wal-mart, too big, too cheap, and too many scumbags shopping there. Not to say that all people who shop at discount centers are scumbags, but when you've had a chance to visit these deep discounters often enough and you start looking around, you'll notice a certain type of people who visit there.

I hate MaxValu. I hate everything it represents, even though their prices might seem lower, I don't think so always. I mean, they can buy in bulk and shave a few yen off their prices. But overall the quality of their food sucks. It's bought in bulk and is geared at the lowest price possible.. even if that means cutting in on food quality. Their produce is awful too, but these post isn't about bashing MaxValu... at least not today.

Anyway we'd decided to go to a smaller store about 5 minutes from our house. The place was called Yamada, and it's quite a bit more refined than the communist feeling Max. So we go into this place, which reminds you of some Italian or French market. The produce is placed in wicker baskets with hay inside, the store music is soft and mellow instead of the traditional J-pop crap from other stores, as well as products that are new, fresh and of high quality than a discount chain.

So we walk around the place, from the bakery in the front, to the produce section, until we finally reach the seafood department. And I tell you, they had one hell of a spread of seafood. Red Snapper, Blue Fin Tuna, shark, salmon, salmon eggs, kingfish, yellowtail, they had it all... and it was all fresh. And then we edged around the counter to a display that nearly chocked me... I got sick just looking at it... and instead of describing it to you, I will just show you a picture, because it forced me to whip out my camera and snap one off.
As you can tell, it still had the eyeballs in it. The carcass was just sitting there in that aluminum pan... It looked like someone had pulled a "Freddy Kruger" on that fish and then set up some altar to appeal to the dead fish's soul. I am not the queasy type either, but when I was ready to eat, out shopping for my food, and then I saw this nasty display of tuna carcass sitting on the counter, it made me sick.

And I guess what really got me was the eyes. They looked glazed over like some 10 hour old donut from Mr. Donuts. The poor fish looked to be in agony despite obviously having been slaughtered earlier that day. I hate looking at the eyeballs of something that I'd eat, it gives me the willies just thinking about it.

And so we floated on by until we came to the sushi. Now I just said I was sickened by the display of that poor dead tuna fish, but that didn't stop my fancy of the hypocritical.. I decided to get some scrumptious sushi, so I picked up a fresh box of premade sushi that was sitting not more than 10 feet from that tuna fish head of doom.

It looked so good. Even the tuna made my stomach do a somersault. So I took it home along with a can of beer that I had to purchase on the way home because Yamada didn't sell beer. And I gobbeled it up like a anteater in the Amazon. It was awesome, and even the tuna melted in my mouth so much so that I forgot about the terror that the tuna head had given me only minutes earlier.