Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fuji Rock Festival

I love summer. I love the sun, the heat, the holidays... I love summer. One of my most favorite parts of summer in Wisconsin are the festivals. I love the people, I love the food, I love the drinking, and I looooove the music. Festivals in Japan are awesome, but they usually lack the music component. So, when I heard about a three day long music festival in Gunma, I was first to line up at the conbini (convenience store), attempt to buy tickets from the clerk, get rejected, have to ask Brooke to go back and help me, and get tickets for the July 25th-27th extravaganza. I was originally planning on attending all three days of the fest and doing the camping and being broke thing, but the line-up this year turned out to be less than stellar. So I decided to only shell out for one day (which was a still a ridiculous 170 bucks) and choose the day with the best lineup.
It's a pretty big deal, this festival is. Over 100,000 people attended in 2005. There are over 200 Japanese and international artists that play on 7 main stages and several smaller stages throughout the grounds. In the past, artists such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beastie Boys, Coldplay, Chemical Brothers, The Cure, Fountains of Wayne, The John Butler Trio, Joss Stone, Mika, The Shins, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Jet, The Raconteurs, Snow Patrol, The Hives, KT Tunstall, The Scissor Sisters, Gnarls Barkley (and the list goes on, and on) have performed (to name a few). It reminded me a lot of Summerfest, except instead of smelly Lake Michigan there were the beautiful Japanese Alps, and instead of paved walkways there was grass and rivers, and instead of drunk teens throwing up and overflowing garbage cans there were polite hippies, segregated garbage bins for recycling and reusable utensils and cups for drinking.
The fest takes place at Naeba Ski resort which is up in the mountains of Gunma just before crossing over into Niigata prefecture. I'd been there in winter to ski, but the area looked incredible with all the lush summer vegetation and millions of hippies walking around. Yes, the hippies. There was a much different crowd there than I'm used to seeing in Japan, but it was really refreshing and cool. Ahhh, music appreciation lovers.
As you can see, the place was PACKED!
I convinced Nori, Kristine, Ali, and Annie to come.
Heading into the festival...
Jason Mraz was the first act we saw; I was impressed! The guy's got an amazing voice and does all this other crazy stuff with his mouth that I can't even describe. A decent set (albeit a bit slow for the early mornin') and an awesome closer where the band took a few Polaroids of themselves and then threw it into the audience. Genius!
Delicious paella at the international food area.

I became a "White Lies" fan after seeing these guys' set. Stellar performance.
When we came out from the Marquee, this is what the sky looked like.
The festival grounds are huge and you have to walk quite a distance to get from stage to stage. The paths along the way are sweet though. This is as we were walking by "Kids Land", and apparently to be cool in Kids Land, you need what we think was pigskin pointy hats. I was not cool and proud of it.
Mechanical shark in the river.
The Futureheads, who I'd gotten into a bit when I first got to Japan thanks to an a guy really into British music, sounded crisp and clear and put on a stage act that matched their catchy, but a bit rageful, music.

I was maybe most excited to see Ben Folds and he didn't disappoint. I haven't heard a lot of his new stuff (LP's released on-line), so I was worried it was going to be mostly that. It wasn't. He played a lot of Bend Folds Five stuff and tunes off Rockin' the Suburbs, so lots of happy singalongs. He also 'debuted' a new song about Japan, which I honestly couldn't tell whether he was serious about releasing it as his next single or not, because it was pretty ridiculous (based on him getting a concussion during a show in Osaka, Japan), but also pretty good. Only time (or my Ben Folds obsessed friend, James) will tell.

This is what happened in the middle of the Ben Folds show.

The after affects were this... And this.

Much to our dismay, we ended up leaving way earlier than we would have liked due to what could have very well been hypothermia in a few hours. We stuck it out until we were all thoroughly chilled to the bone, and with our heads hung low and a missed Michael Franti performance, we headed back to Maebashi with the radio pumpin'.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Celebrating in the Bellybutton of Japan

Summer is the festival season and I never cease to be amazed by the ridiculous reasons and ways the towns around Japan celebrate. There are similar trends throughout (festival food, signin' and dancin', people wearing yukata), but each festival has it's own special quirk.
Our neighboring city, Shibukawa, celebrates being the geographical bellybutton/center of Japan. They do this at their annual Heso Matsuri, by painting their stomachs with a face, wearing a pseudo-body costume and brightly colored 'hats', then doing a choreographed dance up and down the streets of Shibukawa for a few hours. It was awesome. Some of our friends got in on the action and we got to laugh and point. Traditionally, women can't join that part, but can be in other groups in the parade.
Like I mentioned, there is a specific festival apparel the majority of women and some men wear. It's called a yukata, and is basically a lighter, more casual form of a kimono. The fam and I sported them at the ryokans after going to the onsen, but the ones worn out at festivals usually have louder colors and patterns on them. BUT, I hadn't yet purchased my own, because even the very cheapest of them run for around 50 bucks. I sucked it up for this season and got my own, but hadn't a clue how to actually wear or tie it up. Luckily, the moment (no joke) Dean and I stepped out of the train station, there were 3 ladies there spinning and tightening us up. I probably disgraced all of Japan in my nonchalant presentation of the yukata... whoops!

Cute little hula girls.
(*photos courtesy of Alexander Laws http://www.photoblog.com/AlexanderLaws/2008/07/26/heso-matsuri.html )

My favorite festival food: large pickled eggplants,tomatoes, and cucumbers on a stick.

Okonomiyaki for the masses: that's cabbage coming out of the huge bin... cabbage.

Hiking and Camping at Mt. Myogi

A three day weekend in July gave us the chance to get over to a mountain I've wanted to climb pretty much since I arrived here: Mt. Myogi. It was totally hyped up by past climbers in the area and when mentioning it to co-workers, usually gets a reaction of complete and udder fear. Apparently it's the most dangerous/lethal mountain in the prefecture. So of course, I wanted in.
Our friend Hiro found an incredible, albeit slightly illegal, camping area right by the base of the trail we wanted to start at.
The plan was to get an early start to get through the entire hike before sundown... which did not happen. BUT, it was a blast nonetheless.
Hiro's signing us in at the base so that if by sundown we are not back, they can send out a search team for us... very reassuring.

Hiro warned us about the leeches that come "from the sky" (live in the trees and drop down), but the freakout did not occur until it was actually on Kristine. She lived to tell about it though (several times), and Hiro even got to enjoy the cigarette when we reached the peak.
There were some crazy crevasses we had to squeeze through.
And paths that appeared not to exist.
And waterfalls with pools that I would not recommend ANYONE to drink out of... you be very, very sorry the next day.
And some chains to climb up.

I was the only one brave enough to go to the top of Hammerhead, and it was sooo worth it. The view from the top was incredible!

Group picture: Hiro, Dean, Kristine, Erin, and I.
Since Hiro's friends were already at the 'campsite', and we'd be cutting it REAL close if we continued on to challenge the ridge line (the real scary part), we decided after a lunch break it was time to turn around. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed, but it just means I will FOR sures be making an effort to get back there in Fall.
After the hike we were all sweaty - so a dip in the river sounded perfect. The water was freezing, but definitely refreshing. Dean's a gymnast, so his back flips were a lot more impressive than my pencil dives I think.

Sato-san starts up the grillin' action!
The Satos - soooo cute! Thanks for the delicious BBQ:)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Jamaican Cook-up

One of the main reasons I came to Japan was to get an in depth experience of another culture. Being part of the JET Program has not only given me the opportunity to learn about Japanese and Japan, but has also provided an amazing network with other people from around the world. I can't get enough face time with other people and learning everything there is to know about them and their cultures. Along with learning about their outlooks, insights, politics, lifestyles, upbringing, customs, etc., experiencing other culinary delights is always a treat (pun intended).
We're lucky to have two lovely ladies in Gunma from Jamaica. Symerna insisted that she gets the urge to cook for a big group a few times a year, so who am I to deny her that pleasure?
She had most of the cooking and prepping done by the time we got there, but we all found a way to chip in.

A few ladies making Summer Shandies: beer, lemonade, and sugar... lots of sugar. Mmm. Perfect to beat that mid July heat.

The finished BBQ'd jerk chicken.
Juls bringing out the finished appetizers: fish fritters and a dipping sauce.
Everyone gets served before saying grace and then indulging in the deliciousness that was:
Jerk chicken, coleslaw, red beans and rice, and vegetarian curry.
And our gorgeous host, Symerna, serving up a dessert of vanilla ice cream and chocolate cake.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Grapes: Fun to Eat AND Prune!

So much for 'keeping up' with my blog. The thing with the summer is, that is awesome. Therefore, I am pretty much doing something every second of every hour of every day - and loving it! But, it doesn't leave much time for updating me blog.
Excuses aside, imagine if you will a time when summer was just peeking it's little sunshiney eyes out of the rainy days spring had to offer. Not quite ready to submerse Gunma in the waves of heat, a few last typhoon like thunderstorms were still in the books. June 29th was one of those days. Waking up at 6am on a Sunday after a JET gathering at a beer garden was tough enough in itself, but rain was just adding insult to injury. Luckily, we were about to embark on one of my favorite experiences thus far in Japan: GRAPE PRUNING!
You might remember back in October and November of last year, I had the privilege of heading to our friend Tomomi's husband's family's farm for sweet potato picking and then peeling. They live just north of us in a little city called Yoshioka. It's adorable and the farming communities that they have formed are so endearing and impressive. Since there is a lot of labor to be done for each seasonal crop (ie sweet potatoes, grapes, strawberries, tomatoes, eggplants, etc.), each family specializes in a crop and the other farmers come to help them pick/prune/peel etc. when need be. Late June - early fall is grape season.

Fruit in Japan is pretty expensive (ridiculously so in some cases; ie 1 cantaloupe = 50 bucks, a bunch of grapes = 5 bucks, a carton of cherries = 10 bucks). I think that only fruits with the absolute perfect aesthetics can go on the shelves. Perfectly symmetrical apples, the exact same size peaches in a row without a bruise or freckle in sight, and grape bunches that have each grape intact with the vine and are conically symmetrical to a T! For real. After being on the grape farm though, I can understand the prices a bit more. The time and hand labor that goes into it is intense!

*The vast majority of these pics are borrowed from Alexander Laws: http://www.photoblog.com/AlexanderLaws/2008/06/29/grape-farm.html .

Our first job was to go through with mini scissors and cut the stems that do not have a bunch of grapes growing on them. At first it felt like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but then I got the hang of it... and became borderline obsessed with trimming the uglies. I seriously had dreams that night of lines of grape bunches and the loose ends sticking out and having to trim them.
Noriko explained to us the process while Tomomi translated our roles.
Awwww - Laurel even found this sweet little heart shaped grape!
Noriko's family owns this little famous grape farm. Her knowledge, passion, and smile are always heartwarming.
There are over 28 varieties of grapes just on their farm. I hope I can try them ALL!!!
Alex has an amazing eye.

I only pruned a few of the actual grape bunches because I was so nervous about cutting off too much and ruining it and making it impossible to sell because it'd be lopsided or something. But, I did do this one, which they had me mark with a glove and promised I could come back in fall to claim personally.

The whole foreigner work force with the knowledgeable, dedicated, and incredibly kind and generous Japanese work force.
I love how tight of a ship they run: the ladies work 7 days a week, 9 hours a day. They always take a morning and afternoon tea break and share their homegrown pickled vegetables or other assorted foods.
After farming, we went to a local onsen. The women above are really the ones that deserved to be there relaxing their weary muscles and bones. I hardly felt like we even helped out that much, much less needed R&R. But they insisted! And, after the onsen the Kobayashi family hosted a BBQ at their house: delicious as always.

Shoma got to celebrate his birthday big boy style.

I can't wait to go back to attempt to help some more and of course, claim my bunch of grapes!