Sunday, April 6, 2008

My trip part 4

It's been a while, but here is part 4. I hope to be doing updates more frequently, as the semester is over and I have LOTS to say. If you haven't read parts 1-3, go ahead and check those out. Like I said before, I'll be posting pictures once I've finished.

So, what was this area all about?

I was about to see.

After weighing our options, the sister and I decided to first go to a winery. Living in Northern California in the heart of wine country, I’ve been to quite a few in the past, so I knew what to expect. One thing that was odd from the beginning is the sister was telling me she couldn’t drink ANY wine while driving. As respectable as this notion was, it was also a bit strange, as I can’t recall a single event of wine tasting where the driver didn’t take a single taste. While I’m not sure about the liquor laws in Japan, I know that America has a legal limit and anything below that is quite alright. For almost anybody, a single taste of wine would not put them over the limit. I’m assuming the laws are a bit stricter here, which is probably for the best.

It was raining slightly and it was cold enough for any slight drizzle to be obnoxious. There was a nice garden out front, but based on the temperature, it wasn’t worth exploring, so we went inside. I didn’t notice at the time, but it seemed we went in the exit, which wasn’t a big deal. Upon entrance, I was a bit surprised how much like a large American winery this was. There was a room where they were selling snacks, cakes, and fancy dips. Past that was the tasting area. In theory we were supposed to see that on the way out, not the way in, but it didn’t matter so much. The longer I looked, the more I realized how different it was, as what were normally fancy crackers and chocolates was replaced with dried fish snacks and a variety of pastries. The most horrendous and sad part of it all is that the wine shop was missing cheese. I’m quite aware that good cheese a scarce commodity here in Japan, but I figured if there was one place to get fine cheeses would be in a winery.

When we went to the tasting section, it was not what I was expecting. We were given small glasses and allowed to go around tasting any of the wines we desired. These were not wine glasses by any account, more resembling shot glasses, but smaller. Most of the wine was available in bottles but a few types came in wooden jugs with taps. I’m used to people serving me wine, and for a few types there was someone eagerly serving, but most were self service.

The wines ranged from pretty good to really terrible. They were generally quite sweet, and on some it was nice, but on others it was just too much. The pear wine and one of their champagnes I found to be quite good, and a few others were decent but still seemed far behind the quality I’m used to in America. Then again, I know Japanese people like sweeter wines than Americans and Europeans, so while it might not been my cup of tea, they seemed to be doing their fair share of business for a rainy Thursday.

After the tasting, we went on to view their mini tour of the production facilities. This was a sharp contrast from the American wineries I’ve seen. In America, they love to show off the oak barrels for aging and the process of production and how it relates to history. Wines aged in steel barrels are usually not shown, or at most briefly displayed as an alternate method from the traditional barrels. American wineries pride themselves on quality and tradition. On the other hand, this winery proudly displayed their steel barrels and modern mechanized production process, a step that Americans prefer not to talk about. The focus was obviously on technology, not tradition.

The sister got a chance to taste some gourmet non-alcoholic fruit juices and snacks while I was doing the drinking. As we were leaving, after purchasing a few bottles, we stopped by a miniature ice cream stand on the way out that was selling winery made ice cream. There was wine flavored ice cream, made with real wine and my memory is foggy, but I believe it either said 1% or .1% alcohol in the ice cream. The sister and the girl behind the counter both said it was a bad idea to eat it if you were planning on driving. They were so strong on this point that they both thought even tasting it was a bad idea. While I truly admire their discipline, even at 1%, it would take 5 times as much ice cream to equal one beer, and the volume was a normal cone, so, and I’m being quite generous, the volume of a standard can of beer. While I think the sign said .1% not 1%, I’ll be even more lax and assume eating the cone was comparable to drinking 1/5 of a beer. While maybe the lightest of drinkers may be affected by that, I can’t possibly imagine anyone who could be affected by even a taste. But, as the signs seemed to indicate, the question asked and the answer given about not even allowing a taste to the driver were common, so this wasn’t the first time it had been asked. With some pondering, it made me realized how much better this solution is, and while alcohol flows like water quite often in this country, I’m very glad that drinking and driving is taken extremely seriously and the thought of ‘okay to drive’ isn’t considered.

The next point of interest was a bit of a bust, yet also another learning experience. Much like in America, there were rest stops along the highways. One thing I’m finding is Japan has very unique town cultures and every town, no matter how big or small, seems to be famous for something. We stopped at a rest stop in an area apparently famous for their traditional textile manufacturing techniques. The building which we stopped was pretty typical, with a convenience store that sold fruit, a generic restaurant, and gift shops highlighting local food and culture. One interesting section that was pointed out to me was a collection of wooden toys which to my understanding were locally made, and the brand was quite famous across Japan. There was a newspaper clipping that showed the emperor’s children playing with these wooden toys.

The sister, still being my tour guide, was actually quite disappointed, as this building used to contain a section where they were weaving fabrics by hand and explained a bit about the process. Instead of this, there was a big empty room, which was a tad depressing, but it was a nice stop anyways. I could tell she was more disappointed than I was, which makes sense, because I didn’t really mind so much and she wanted to show off something interesting that wasn’t there anymore.

After the rest stop, we decided to see some traditional points of interest. On our way, we drove by a small train station, and the sister wanted to show me something special. The station itself was quite unremarkable, as it was a bland building and some tracks. Outside, however, there was a quite large, possibly seven feet or so, bust of Ultraman. I couldn’t quite understand why, but it was an odd site and worth driving by to look at. Of course, I took a picture.

We headed to Nanyo City, where the first stopping point was this large shrine which was the most famous in the area. To get there, we had to climb a large set of stairs, as this had been built on the top of a mountain. At the top of the mountain was a large bell, which apparently dates back to 1626 and was one of the few spared when the Japanese government needed more metal for World War II. From what I was told, they still ring it from time to time.

The main shrine itself was quite massive and elegant. There were plenty of hand carved decorations and a thick thatched roof. The roof alone reminded me of some buildings I have seen in England, while the rest was purely Japanese. There was some signage in English which helped me learn a little about the temple. It was built some time in the 16th century, and it was one of the few still surviving in the area. I’m sure if this same building was in Tokyo or Kyoto, there would be mobs of tourists. However, there were very few people, which was nice but also a bit sad. There were several smaller buildings around the main one, and I wanted to take a closer look, but as there was so much snow, it was a bit awkward to get there.

At the bottom of the hill, there was a giant Ginkgo tree. It seemed like people were unsure how old the tree was, but it was thought that the tree was planted at the end of the Gosannen no Eki war, which ended in 1087. If that was true or not, one thing was for sure, this was an old tree.

We went driving, and I kept hearing these vans driving around. They all had megaphones on the top and were shouting, while inside people wearing white gloves were smiling and waving to everyone. It turns out that there was an election coming up real soon, and they were trying to gain some political support. I found it more obnoxious than anything else, but I’m neither Japanese nor a resident of the area, so my opinion didn’t really matter to them.

We drove for a bit, and enjoyed some fun and interesting conversation and I really liked seeing the scenery around. The sister showed me this gorgeous pagoda in quite an empty area. It was amazingly striking, and seemed kind of in the middle of nowhere, which added to the drama. I couldn’t read the sign, as it was all in Japanese with lots of kanji, however I could read, and was explained that it was originally built in 860. Not 1860, mind you, but 860. From what I gathered, it was previously destroyed and rebuilt, but the original date of construction was 860, which is quite impressive. It was built with all interlocking wooden pieces and supposedly no nails were originally used. It was clear that there were nails in the handrail around it, however I couldn’t see any in the building itself.

There was another small building behind it which looked quite dilapidated and a sign with a digital reproduction of that building looking much nicer. It seemed like that building was just about to undergo renovation, so future generations could see it too. While its current state was a tad depressing, the knowledge it was coming back was quite welcome. There were a few other sites around, but the obvious important part was the building that was soon to be rebuilt and the pagoda.

We headed on back and on the way were instructed to pick up some ingredients for dinner. One such ingredient was beef, but not just any beef. Yonezawa is well known for having some of, if not the best beef in Japan. I actually had heard this before, but had long since forgotten about it. Everyone knows about Kobe beef, but apparently foodies enjoy Yonezawa or Matsuzaka beef better, and most people seem to agree that Yonezawa is the best. The mother wanted to cook sukiyaki, and I certainly found that a pleasant choice, as I absolutely love that dish. We picked up the Yonezawa beef, and then returned home.

It seemed everyone was still a bit full from lunch, but the father and I snacked and drank while the sister and mother ended up cooking. I helped out a little, but as I’m quite useless in the kitchen and most of the work was already done, I didn’t have much to offer. When the diner came, it was fantastic. The sukiyaki was quite flavorful and robust; just what I wanted on a cold winter night. The beef was quite good, but while I liked it, I wasn’t totally blown away. Then again, it was an ingredient in a very flavorful dish, not a stand-alone testament to the quality of the meat. Maybe next time, I’ll try Yonezawa beef grilled alone, or in shabu-shabu form. Something so I can get a flavor of just the meat.

As the night and the drinks poured on, the mother ended up breaking out her jug of homemade plum wine. I may not be a plum wine expert, but this was good stuff, quite easily what I would consider to be the best I’ve ever had. We were getting more comfortable with each other’s company and after a nice meal, the father, mother and I decided to retire to the kotatsu room and play some hanafuda. The problem was I didn’t know how to play and they didn’t know English.

When asked about hanafuda, I let out a bit of an overenthusiastic “Aaaah!” at the idea of playing. I didn’t know the game at all, but I recalled learning that Nintendo got their start by selling hanafuda cards back in the late 1800’s. I had no idea what I was doing, but the game was quite simple to understand and after 2 rounds, I pretty much had it figured out, even though it wasn’t explained to me using words. I can’t speak for the father and mother, but I had a very enjoyable time playing it. After several rounds of that, the father challenged me to a game of Othello. It seemed like something he really enjoyed playing and while I liked it too, I hadn’t played in years and I was no good then, so I got my ass thoroughly kicked. It was quite fun, and added a lovely end to a very long and wonderful day. After that, it was time for bed.

But the next day, there was something said about a ski trip?

Sorry guys...

Sorry everybody.

Now that it's nearing the end of the semester and the beginning of great weather, I've been absurdly busy. I haven't had time to finish the story of my trip or post about the many, many things that has happened since then.

Anyways, in a few weeks, I'll be done with school for a month. I should have time to catch up, but until then, be patient. Thanks for reading!

(picture taken of a sign that I see on my way to my tutoring classes)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

My trip part 3

Here is part 3 of my trip. When I'm done with the essay, pictures will follow.

The next morning, I woke up bright and early to the sound of a dog scratching at my door. While I could think of more pleasant ways to rise, I can certainly think of worse ways too. I joined the family as they were discussing what to eat. They decided on natto, a fermented soy bean dish known for being unpopular with foreigners, combined with mochi, a doughy substance made from rice that I’d only eaten sweetened as a dessert. While I honestly enjoy natto now, I wasn’t quite sure how it would mix with sweet mochi. I was aware that not all mochi was sweet, but I couldn’t picture it, so I was anxious but nervous to try. The night before, there had been some confusion about bathing, as I said I was used to showers in the morning and this got mangled into “I don’t want to take a shower at night”, so the mother told me that she was making fresh mochi which would take a while, so now was the time to get clean. She pulled out a mochi maker, which was also surprisingly a bread maker.

I was told the bath was warm and ready for me, with bath salts added in to make it a more pleasant experience. Bathing in Japan is totally different than America. In Japan, you shower before you bathe, and in the tub you just soak. You do not, by any means, go in the tub dirty, and it is not strange at all to have an entire family use the same bath water. There is a shower right next to a tub and they had a plastic device that rolled over the tub to prevent water, soap, and any dirt from getting in before they bathed. Thankfully I knew enough about Japanese faux pas to not dive right in.

For the second time in my life, I was in a bathroom and unsure about how I’m supposed to clean myself off. There were two different sets of nozzles, one obviously just for the bathtub and one for a showerhead and water spigot. The showerhead had a total of three knobs. One seemed to be for the temperature, but the other two I wasn’t sure of. There was a small metal knob on the left and another knob with Japanese characters that I didn’t recognize in the center. The center knob seemed to be fixed in position, so I turned the left knob and water came shooting out, like it was a pressure relief valve or something. Sitting naked in a cold room not knowing how to do anything is a bit of a humiliating experience, but I didn’t know what to do. Out of desperation, I tried the center knob and it moved, producing the desired result. The problem was it just required more force then I had expected.

After showering, I got in the very delightful warm tub, enjoying myself very much. I heard a clacking sound coming from somewhere in the house. I dried myself off and after some insistence from the sister, blow dried my hair. The clacking I heard as I approached the kitchen was a visiting monk who was either blessing the house or warding away bad spirits, I’m not sure. I was really anxious to see what I was doing, but as I’m not Buddhist, nor do I have a good understanding of Buddhism, I felt like I would be intruding.

The family really wanted to get a picture of me next to the monk, which I happily but awkwardly obliged. The monk was an older man, quite rough around the edges, wearing some very dramatic ceremonial garments. He sat down on the family’s pillow next to the family altar and I sat next to him for a picture. I didn’t know what to do, so the family using their camera and mine, we got some pictures of me with my hands behind my back and a big goofy smile.

After the picture, we all sat together at the kotatsu with the sunken floor below it. I watched as the monk was discreetly paid by taking an envelope placed on the table before his arrival. We drank some tea, and I heard about how he was the head of the local temple and had been for quite some time. The family explained that I went to an American school in Tokyo and the confusion of the name “Temple University” was repeated. I was used to this by now, but adding a head monk into the process kind of made it a bit awkward.

The monk left and the family told me part of the awkwardness is they think that he was losing his hearing. Shortly afterwards, several people arrived, some were relatives and some were friends. I didn’t quite get all the relationships figured out, but it was like meeting anyone else’s aunts and uncles in America. They were all significantly older than me, yet warm and accepting. It is customary to give gifts upon arriving at someone’s home, so when I arrived, I gave the family a gift of “Tokyo Bananas”, a treat that somehow became synonymous with visiting the city and a bag of handmade candy from my new favorite candy shop in Nakano. When these people arrived, box after box of miscellaneous treats were piling up. It was pretty unbelievable exactly how much stuff arrived.

One of the relatives was a teacher in the art of the tea ceremony. She brought us this really thick green tea and instructed me to hold it at head level with the palm of my left hand, turn it twice towards me with my right hand take a small bow and sip. This was so we could admire the tea bowl’s lovely design, and apparently the bowl is the proper way to serve it. I found the tea to be really good, and I was eager for seconds, which seems to have been a bit of a surprise, as most people seem to find the taste a little bitter. Apparently, I was told, that snacks are as equally important to the tea ceremony as tea was. After a few bowls of tea, I got to see how it was made, which was ridiculously simple. There was this special type of powder you put into a bowl, and with a special bamboo whisk, you stirred it and that’s all. It came out really foamy and creamy.

Shortly after the tea, we went out to lunch. We drove up to this fairly tiny restaurant and took our shoes off and entered a small room. There were trays already made up and ready for us and we just had to sit down and eat. It was a bit odd to just sit down and start eating with no ordering or waiting. This was, without a question, the most elaborate Japanese lunch I’d ever had. There were several small dishes with pickled radishes, a type of light Japanese kimchi, some sprouts, a slice of what I assume was a piece of very expensive melon, and large dishes of sashimi (slices of raw fish) and tempura. There was also a bowl of miso soup, a bowl of rice and this container of something that looked like pudding but was fish based. I’m not sure what it was, but I had the same pudding-like dish in an izakaya and I hated it, but at this place it was much better, and I actually enjoyed it. Next to all these elaborate dishes, there was this type of fish and rice dish. When we sat down, we lit a fire beneath the dish and near the end, it was fully cooked and really hot, but delicious.

Even before I sat down for that massive spread, I was still full from an overwhelming breakfast. Even before breakfast began, I was not at all hungry from the massive dinner a night before. As if lunch wasn’t enough, when I was finished, people wanted to give me more tempura or whatever they had left. To avoid being rude, I tried to say no, but after the second offering, I said yes and just gorged myself. Throughout the meal, I was getting really thirsty. I drink a lot of liquids with my meal in general, even for an American, and often times in Japan you get very little to drink or nothing at all. At the end of the meal, they offered more tea, which I anxiously took. Without thinking I took a sip and burned the hell out of my tongue. While I was in terrible pain, nobody else seemed to mind.

As awkwardly quick as the meal had started, it ended just as abruptly as it began. We all got up and left in what seemed to be a rush. We climbed into our cars and drove to another parking lot across the street. It seems that some of the people we were with had tickets to a play by a troupe visiting from Tokyo. After they left, we all went back to the family home and me and the sister were going to explore what this area was all about.

So, what was this area all about?