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.
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:(

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Christmas in October!?!?!?!

Let me begin by saying that I love Christmas. I love the holiday cheer, I love the fact that people go out of their way to be nice (despite the fact that should be that kind and giving on a daily basis), I love the food and the family, I love the corny music (I will definitely be dancing around my kitchen to Mariah Carey, when the time comes, even if it is by myself) and I love the anticipation of opening gifts from loved ones that show they remembered me and always seem to know exactly what I want/need.

There is one aspect of Christmas that drives me absolutely crazy though: the commercialism of it . It drove me nuts at home when literally the DAY after Thanksgiving every theme and decoration and product was green and red or Christmas related. It's annoying anywhere, but here there was already decorations up before Halloween!

I guess the whole Christmas thing is like Halloween in that it's totally a commercial holiday and done from a marketing standpoint - not really celebrated. More and more families are making their own traditions with family during the holiday, but since less than 5% of Japanese are Christians, there's not the tradition of celebrating Jesus' birth of course. I'm still learning about what Japanese do during their winter vacations. I know what I'll be doing this year - I'm going to Thailand, baby! Look forward to some killer blogs from that trip:) Saved the best for last:

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sweet Potatoes are SWEET!

Our lovely friends Tomomi and Yoshii were talking about how they harvest sweet potatoes in October when we went hiking with them over a month ago. Alex, Laurel and I were all excited about it and kept bringing it up and asking them to go. They couldn't really understand why. It's work, after all and just something they do out of obligation to the family. They thought there was a million cooler things we could be doing than harvesting sweet potatoes on a weekend day, but we insisted they let us join in on helping out some weekend.
The first weekend of November was the last day of harvesting and we were lucky enough that they amused us by allowing us to come. I'm pretty sure they left the smallest most insignificant patch for us to "work" on, but it was still a total blast! I wish we could've helped out more.

First we went to Yoshii's parents house, where they store all the potatoes. As you can see, they already had the majority of 'em picked.

I'd never seen a Japanese sweet potato before. This one was especially gnarly.
Grandma and the girls (Yoshii's 3 nieces) show us how it's done. Tomomi's explaining to me how you know whether the potato's a keeper or not.
Check out the video at the bottom to see it in action!
After putting the potatoes in the bins, we had to load 'em up into the truck to go back up to Yoshii's parents house. And by we, I mean Alex. I pretty much sat on the machine thingy the whole time and sorted through the potatoes as they came up the conveyor belt. It was so much fun - it felt like that "bop the head" game at Chucky Cheese's - but instead of bopping, you're pulling out sweet potatoes!
We stopped about halfway through for a mid morning snack. They had beverages and the most delicious grapes ever all prepared for us! What sweethearts.
You can see how massive they are here. Mmmm. It's weird, but even grapes are much different here. I've only seen red grapes in the grocery store, and they're SUPER expensive (about $5 for one small bundle). Grandma got them from her neighbors - within their little community group they farm potatoes, grapes, strawberries, tomatoes and cabbage and then share with each other. The grapes come in these big sized ones, medium sized, and mini concord grapes. I always thought the sugary grape taste of like fun dip and suckers and medicine was fake and tasted nothing like real grapes... but it does taste like grapes - the Japanese mini concord ones! Anyway, the inside just literally pops out of the skins when you bite them. You can see Emi in the back just popping the inside out into her mouth. I'm not sure what the reason is, but I have yet to see Japanese eat the skins on fruits. They cut it off of apples and pears, and throw out the skins of grapes.
Alex with camera in hand, capturing all the best moments.
I think Shooma was jealous what with all the delicious grape eating... he must have been pretty disappointed in this dirty plastic bin.
Trying on Grandma's hat for size - too cute!
Tri-pod action = group shot!
Then we headed over to the field that Yoshii was working on. He was tilling the field that had been finished harvesting last weekend.
Yessss!!! I get to try out the tractor! It was just like mowing the lawn at home (which I love, by the way. No joke), except WAY slower and without my tunes to drown out the obnoxiously loud engine. Gorgeous day though.
Tomomi and Shooma...
and literally 5 min after I took that photo, I took this one. This is my favorite kid in Japan, hands down! He can be a little fussy at times, but he's way too entertaining to ever be really upset with.