Monday, December 17, 2007

Happy Merry Christmas!; a substitute for an actual card in the mail?*

*NOTE: I have seen Happy Merry Christmas on more signs, bags, and my students Christmas Cards here than not. Does any English speaker actually say this?

'Tis the season to be Stressed? Always feels like it, but I always love it. I guess I'm in a love/hate relationship with the holiday season because there are so many amazing traditions and events that I love and look forward to, and that whole Jesus being born thing was pretty amazing, and spending time with family and friends is always a plus, and of course the holiday music and food... okay, so 95% of the time it's amazing. BUT, it is stressful, even in Japan. And, I honestly hadn't really had too much stress yet, so it's been a change.

I've been lead teaching Christmas classes (planning, prepping, and teaching) in all my schools for the past couple weeks, making Christmas cookies (which I can't do justice to because I can't bake anything without an OVEN), going to our JET Christmas enkai (party... hopefully post about my first experience in a ryokan later) and going to some kiddo's Christmas parties and events outside of school in addition my usual weekly routine of work, language classes, karate, and watching Grey's with the girls (yes, I'm still keeping up my current American TV drama-dy scene).
These are some of my sixth graders at the elementary school that takes 30 min. to bike to... good thing they're so cute and like/pretend to like my lessons, or the trek would be a lot more painful!
At orientation I met an awesome American woman that has lived here for 17 years now and has just built a new beautiful school for her English and Culture School conveniently 30 min. from my house. She teaches English night classes to students as well as baking and other culture related cooking to adults. SHE was my Christmas angel I think, without which I would not have been able to enjoy real, fresh Christmas cookies, homemade jam filled shortbreads, hearty bread, spinach dip, pesto cream cheese spread, good fruit cake (which I was pretty sure was non-existant), hot apple cider, chicken noodle soup, and the list goes on! Thanks Deanna for the amazing spread and thanks to Brooke for being an amazing violinist. Yay for Christmas music!
I also got to see a bell choir and try my hand on the noveau bells of the day. I wasn't as good as the 8 year olds. They sounded good, but I think they needed more cowbell.
The only thing I really understood throughout the "service". Well, this song, and my nervous mutterings while trying (very poorly) to distract the kids while our technical issues with a certain PowerPoint we had prepared, failed to start. Felt SO bad our 10 minutes as "special guests" for the kiddos was totally lost:(
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Oh, and what do you know? Not one, but TWO Santa's made an appearance for us. Of course they had gifts, which is why I understand now why every student in school that can't/hasn't spoken a word of English to me yet would come up to me and say "Give me present". I just said, "Sorry, no present for you" but a million other things were runnin through my head.

Aside from all the Christmas business that's been going down, I've also been researching and planning for my long anticipated trip to Thailand! This is one of the first trips I've gone that I've really taken the reigns on by myself. It's really exciting to read about all these new and amazing places and things to do, but it's definitely overwhelming. There are so many logistics to take care of. So many. My friend Katie from college is meeting me in Thailand and then coming back to Japan for week. I sent her like a 2 page agenda of the trip, so I think she feels pretty confident I won't let her down:) However, I leave tomorrow night and haven't packed a thing yet - right on schedule.
Anyway, that means I may be a little incommunicado for the next few weeks and postings are going to be delayed, but I'm hoping it'll be worth the wait.

Have an absolutely WONDERFUL Holiday Season, everyone, and know that I love and miss all of you and our holiday traditions especially. Dance to "All I Want for Christmas is You", sing "Happy Birthday" to baby Jesus, watch "A Christmas Story" and bust out some New Kids on the Block Christmas tunes for me, will ya?

Post Picking: onto Peelin'! Sweet Potatoes are Still SWEET!

I was trying to wait until I snatched some of Alex's pics from this day to post about it, but I haven't gotten over there to grab any and I think he must be lazier than I with his photo blog cuz they're a no show. Anyway, I wanted to get it down before visions of sugar plums (or white sandy beaches) fill my head and I forget about it all after the holiday.
Okay, so, over a month ago I was fortunate enough to harvest sweet potatoes with Tomomi and her in-laws at their farm. It was a blast (see previous blog), and I learned a lot about the harvesting process. They told us that in a month, they'd peel the potatoes. I never was particularly excited to peel potatoes for dinner at home or anything, but for whatever reason, I had a deep desire to peel me some potatoes! So, I pretty much hounded Tomomi about when they were doing it and offered repeatedly to help. I was super interested in how it worked and absolutely adored the family the last time we were there. I think Tomomi thought we were crazy for wanting to work on Saturday, but it was far from work to me, and I was happy she obliged/gave in.
We got to their house and saw the overhang that used to have crates and crates full of potatoes drying in them to having trays and trays of peeled potatoes in them. They looked and smelled way different. Tomomi explained that the darker ones had been out drying longer, and/or Yoshii's father had peeled them and not done the best job;)

Close up of a dried sweet potato. The dry, cold winds in Gunma work especially well for this process of drying, and after they potatoes have dried, they have a totally different taste and texture. They then get packaged and sold around the area - but I was cool enough to get the product before it hit the market - that's right!

We started learning about the process and our jobs, but not before Syooma got his job for the day: to look ADORABLE!!! Mission complete. (I think he's a Wisconsin boy at heart).
With the big sheets of saran wrap around us, and gloves on, we're ready to go! Alex was for the sure the prize geijin (foreigner) for the day, peeling nearly 3 times as many potatoes as me (and that was with photo breaks and all).
Me, "hard at work". I think I got the least potatoes peeled out of anyone... I'm blaming it on the fact that I was too busy socializing and intercultural-izing; not my poor culinary speed skills.
To my left is the master, my potato peeling sensei, Noriko. Despite her getting the short end of the stick with me as her student, she was amazingly genki all day. She explained the process to me great, even though we don't speak the same language, and would jump over to kindly show me an easier or more effective way or doing something if she saw me struggling. SOOO KIND!

My 'lil station before we take a break. For lack of a better word, I refer to the potato scrappings as "excrements"... not quite the word I was looking for. Check out the video below to get a scan of the whole working area.
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I don't know how it happened, but at 10am, 1pm, 3pm, and 5pm SHARP, all of sudden there was a table and food and tea and coffee set up for a snack or meal. Seriously, I'd be peeling away, peeling away, and the next thing I know everyone's moved their crates and are over at a table, smiling and patiently waiting for me to come over. It was amazing, and everything was delicious! I LOVE trying new foods, and this is for SURE the best way to do it.
Our morning snack had tea and coffee (so me, not liking/despising both, had to be the idiot that asked for water), fresh oranges, sugared uze (like a lemon), dried persimmons, dried peaches, pickled cabbagae and daikon, and an assortment of bite sized cakes and candies. The Kobayashi's and their neighbors grow and prepare all the fruit and vegetable dishes themselves and each have their own recipes. They were all oishii (delicious) to me!

After we peeled the potatoes and soak them in water, they get stacked and steamed. Yoshii's mom, Sakae, would then bring them out to the truck. I agree with Tomomi that this is the best way to eat the potatoes - mmmm, squishy!

Touring and tasting the dried sweet potatoes. At least the cold, and I mean cold, and bitter, and brutal! - wind is good for something.

Alex and Laurel's sensei, Mitsuko, my sensei Noriko, and me, after a "hard day's work". I really did have a blast, but my hand was definitely cramping and my lower back a little tight by the end of the day. These ladies peel every day, from 8-5pm (with the little breaks) for a month straight! Every season has it's crop and the responsibilities of harvesting and preparing it. Mrs. Kobayashi commented that all summer she's looking up (picking grapes) and all winter she's bending over (for potatoes). I don't know how they do it, but I'm glad they do and grateful they allowed me to experience a piece of their life. I learned so much from them - they're all so interesting and inspiring! Hopefully they learned a little from me too:) A HUGE thanks to Tomomi for being the translator all day:) She's amazing!
Fresh out of the steamer, Sakae is still working past the imaginary 5 o'clock bell (check out the video below to get some live action of this and the BBQ).

After a quick sweep and some rearranging, the workroom became a communal dining room where we all gathered to enjoy an awesome dinner - Japanese BBQ. It was really interesting to see everyone interacting and felt like any good cookout with smiles, banter, and great food all around. The round of beers didn't hurt either.
The atmosphere was the same, but we did come up with some differences: 1)Types of food (America = namely a big chunk of meat, maybe some corn or potatoes Japan = lots of smaller chunks of meat and lots of veggies ) 2)Types of marinade (America = anything from thick southern A1 steak sauce to Italian or lemon marinade) 3)Types of grill (America = gas and charcoal, Japan = some kind of coal, but definitely not like ours) 4)Utensils (chopsticks instead of forks, knives, spoons, and spatula and flipper for the cook) 5)No "grill master" here - everyone flips whatever's in front of them.
I was mesmerized and loving it.

Steamy potatoes and BBQ!

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I'd go back and peel again in a heartbeat! What harvest is next, ladies? Count me in!

Monday, December 3, 2007

3-day weekend means I gotsta go somewhere: Tokyo, baby!

Since Thanksgiving Day was also Kamara's birthday, it gave us the perfect excuse to go to Tokyo and celebrate with her. Conveniently, I also had to get two vaccines and thus two sore shoulders at the International Clinic in Tokyo. Don't worry though, I totally got a lollipop. We stayed at the same amazing suite in Roponggi and had a night out on the town for the birthday girl.

The next day, after getting our shots for Thailand and having an amazing Chinese lunch, we headed to the area of Tokyo known as "Asakusa". Apparently this golden thing is supposed to be the foam on the top of beer, because it's a brewery... but it really just looked like poo to me... which for some reason made me want to hold it.
Not far from the poo, we reached our destination: The Senso-ji Temple. But first, we had to pass through the Thunder gate.
I'm good at holding things... ie the massive Chouchin Lantern.
Can you find me?
In between the first gate to the temple and the second gate to the temple was this little shopping area called Nakamise which translates to shops in the middle - gotta love the creativity. I loved this area!
This street is normally crowded, but since it was a holiday it was PACKED!

And then, there in the distance, with golden rays protruding, we found this gem!!! Take a guess who took the longest and was last to order. I ended up getting the Hokaido (northern most prefecture of Japan) speciality which I couldn't get anywhere else... a complete success. Next time I'm totally getting tofu though.
Are we there yet? Nope, just to the second gate - the Hazomen gate.

Temples in the middle of a city, or the city overtaking the temples?

Still before we actually got the temple: we passed an area where you could pay 100 yen ($1) for your fortune... I didn't know they could be bad fortunes. Apparently neither Gopika or I are supposed to be traveling to Thailand; uh-oh.

Kristine and Carol on the other hand got good fortunes.

Next step: tie your fortune on the rope. I don't know why, but I thought it might release me from the bad fortune; like, 'ahhhh, I've reflected, and now I can move on. Let me tie this crappy fortune to the rope so I never have to look at it again.' Instead, my fortune broke and wouldn't stay on the rope, inevitably leading to my eternal bad luck.

Cleansing ourselves before entering the temple. Hand, hand, mouth, spit.

Alas, the Sensoji-temple.
Temple etiquette:
1) Toss in money
2) Clap twice
3) Bow
4) Pray
Where there's a temple, there's a Buddha.

The one and only (?) Hozomen.
Brightly colored candy coated fruit chunks served on ice - great marketing!
There was another great shopping area nearby where I ended up buying the sweetest pair of $2 go-go boots for Kristine to wear to the Christmas Party. The next best find was this mashed sweet potato filled apple. How did I not think of doing that with my harvest of sweet potatoes? I mean, I did em candied, in soy sauce and sugar, baked with brown sugar, chunked and cooked in rice, and fried in a skillet. Mashed and stuck in an apple was the obvious next step.
In conclusion: Asakusa = golden poo, lots of people, the best soft served ice cream ever, a beautiful temple even if it takes forever to get there, and shopping worth the wait.

Thanksgiving Day Spread: From Food to Fun

For the past 5 years at this time of year, I've been cramming for finals, making my annual "I'm a townie and proud of it" high school visit, spending time with family, and overindulging in all the delicious foods the relatives continuously cook up!

This year was a little different. I didn't miss the cramming a bit, but I certainly missed time with my family and friends at home. Luckily, it gave me yet another excellent reason to reach out and remind others (and myself) how thankful I am for their presence in my life. I'm also really lucky to have already formed our own 'lil Gunma family and made some great friends so far. I missed the Gtown romp, both at school and Bubs (or whatever local bar is popular these days), but I had my fair share of cheap wine here and great company. I missed out on Aunt Mary's delicious green bean casserole and deviled eggs and Nicole's always delicious desserts (namely because they have ice cream), but we had an amazing "traditional" Thanksgiving spread here; better than I could've ever expected (but with a price, which I've never had to dish out before:) )

Check it out!
Laurel and Chris opted to carve the turkeys. I opted to graciously accept and devour the turkey.
I can't lie - I was a little concerned it looked overcooked and was gonna be all dry, but I underestimated the Japanese on this one. It was perfectly moist and fell off the bone - which worked out great with the lack of knives on the tables.
Shane and Terry wasted no time digging in.
Gotta get the family table shot!
PS - You can save yourself the effort of asking me where Waldo is... I got asked like 12 times that night... he's in Hawaii though, in case you're wondering. He's trying to escape the coldness of Gunma.

Even though the dinner was "endless", there's always room for dessert.

And even though I try pumpkin pie EVERY YEAR thinking, "maybe I'll like it this time around. I should - it's tradition!", another year passed with the bitter taste of pumpkin pie on my tongue. Luckily, they also had bread pudding. THAT was delicious!

Okay, now not to underscore the awesomeness of Guitar Hero, which was played at home last Thanksgiving, but there is a close runner up here with Wii. After dinner we headed to Alex and Laurel's for what seemed like neverending options of games that were awesome. I don't care if this system is for the video game challenged and totally dumbs the "gaming" down - that's just my style! I dominated at cow racing (which is what Laurel and Kurtis are doing)...

but not so much the "find your own Mii" game. It was awesome, nonetheless, but apparently it takes me about 2 seconds longer than everyone else to find the matching or nonmatching Mii. I think I found a way to over analyze a video game... which doesn't help point-wise.

But as soon as they brought out boxing, I was back in the game!
All in all, it was a pretty great Thanksgiving celebration. I taught my elementary school students about Thanksgiving (very 'dumbed down' version) and what it means to me. I reinforced that in America, it is a national holiday and most everyone gets off of work on Thursday. I think I made the teachers and principal feel bad and they kept apologizing and thanking me for being there. It wasn't the intent, but it was sweet anyway. Japan does have "Labour Thanksgiving Day" on Friday, and many families go out to eat and travel during the 3-day weekend.
In holiday tradition, I've got to say, that "This year, I am thankful for many things (that I'm not gonna list because it will bore the crap outta ya). But, I will say that I am thankful for the wonderful opportunity I've had to live and travel here in Japan so far. I'm thankful for the support I've received at home and here. But most of all, I think I'm thankful for modern technology, which (when working!) has allowed me to stay in touch with family at the most crucial times - expected and unexpected. Also, thanks to those who have continued to make the effort to keep in touch and remember me:) Love Ya'll!"
We are now clinking imaginary glasses - Cheers!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Ashikaga "Harvest" Festival = a day friends, food, music, and the copius harvest of WINE!

When you hear, "Harvest Festival", you're probably not intrigued in the least. Harvesting means farming, right? And what's fun about farming, or crops, right? Wrong!
The 24th Annual Harvest Festival at Coco Farm and Winery in Ashikaga, Gunma on November 17th had little to do with farming and lots to do with reaping the benefits of the grape harvest this year. Ie. wine! Ashikaga's this little town up in the north of Gunma that took me a bike, train, and cab ride to get to; but man, was it worth it!


Overlooking Coco Farm and Winery.

But before we could get there, we had to purchase our wine packets (complete with wine of choice, wine glass, corkscrew, and commemorative pin!), and pose with these ridiculously awesome wine bottles running around.

Can't forget the grapes!
Not only were there a ton of foreigners actually attending the festival, there was international food being served all around. Brooke was super pumped that the first tent we came to was a "white dude with 'authentic' bread and cheese!"
Getting closer to our destination, but free food samples distracted us along the way. If you look close enough, you can see a blown up wine bottle on top of the hill. Remember that.
To the left was where we bought more wine. Too bad they didn't have samples of that out. Namely because the bottle we got was pretty disgusting and sampling would've helped make a better choice, but also because I really like free samples.

We got there shortly after the scheduled starting time, and it was already PACKED. We made space on a very slanted portion of the hill.
"Kampai" (Cheers!)
We foreigners tend to clump together to enjoy things. There was red, white, and a rose wine to choose from in the packaged bags.
Onto that tasty "rustic bread" and goat cheese! Mmmmm.

I was pretty torn between the comfort of sitting on my butt and enjoying the beautiful scenery, great company, live music, and of course, wine, OR getting up to walk around and try out some more of that tasty food! Eventually, food won. I did NOT choose giant chunks of ham on a stick.
Instead, I got me a pork taco, served right outta the cart, just like in Mexico...
... and paella! Mmmmm, rice, seafood and veggies.
Tasty, tasty!
What's this? I don't have to move to get food because a guy came up the hill to us! And it's ICE CREAM!!! Yes, please!!! I'm so excited for wine and grape ice cream that I couldn't be bothered asking someone else to take the picture.

Back down the hill again for more food and wine perusing. On the way, I decided to test my Japanese out. The couple below had a pitcher of what looked like sparkling apple juice or something, and I wanted some. Our conversation went as follows:
Me: "Kore wa nan desu ka?" (What is it?)
Him: "Insert a response consisting of Japanese words and some motions here"
Me: "So desu ne! Ikura desu ka?" (Is that so? How much does it cost?)
Him: "ni-sen san-pyaku-en" (2400 yen)
Me (after much thought trying to figure out the cost): "Haiiii, wakarimasu. Oishii desu ka?" (Yessssss, I understand. Is it delicious?)
Him: "More Japanese words and motions, resulting in a full pour of the drink in my empty glass!"
Me: Happily test out the drink, which was fantastic!
Him: "Disuki desu?" (Do you like it?)
Me: "Haiiiiiii! Disuki desu! Oishi desu!" (Yes! I like it! It's delicious)
"Nihongo wakarimasu!" (I understand Japanese!) After which this celebration ensued.

There was also live music: three bands ranging from jazz to jam band jazz-y. We tried to get up closer to listen to them, but immediately got booted out because we didn't have the necessary VIP passes. We were literally followed from the deck down to the first floor. I did sneak in this pic of people on the hill though.

Back to relaxing on the hill with food and funny stories.
Dressing pets up in people clothes (because that's who clothes are for - people) is a HUGE pet peeve of mine (pun intended). But, for some reason when Carol and Kristine got all cutsy with this one, it was okay.

A view of the hill and designated eating area.
I'm not sure who thought of it first, but looking up at that hill, somebody realized "we need to climb this hill. We need to get to that blown up wine bottle." And so we did. We met these fun Japanese people on the way up who serenaded us.
These are some of our other friends. No idea what route up the hill they took! I saw these pics later.

We made it! Thanks again, Alex for your awesome panoramic shots. This is looking over the city of Ashikaga.
And down over the festival and Coco Winery.
I kept thinking "somebody should tell this guy he can't fly!"

Alas, we all made it to the top!

Op, one more shot with the massive wine bottle!
That could possibly be the least flattering still shot of me ever - so click on the play button to check out the view I had from the top of the mountain at the Ashikaga Wine Festival, I mean, Ashikaga Harvest Festival at Coco Winery.
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PS - I did seriously think about buying a bunch of bottles to send back to my wine affecionado family and friends, but I found out the price of shipping and taxes for the package and it's beyond ridiculous. Monatary efficiency overrules thoughtfullness on this one guys. Sorry to be such a tease:(