Something Old, Something New 

On my way to Japanese class last week, I was stopped at a traffic light. An older woman, hunched over a kind of rolling walker thing, slowly crossed the street as cars waited. She wore the wide-brimmed hat, jacket, and knee-high rubber boots indicative of rice farmers; I presumed her bent posture was the result of years spent working in the paddies. When the light changed and traffic began to move, I caught a glimpse of accelerating white movement out of the corner of my eye. A Yamabiko shinkansen was leaving Kitakami Station, on its way north to Morioka. So it is in Tohoku, frequently described in tourist literature as one of the last remaining places to find "Old Japan." The past and the future collide on a daily basis here.
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Bowing Flagmen 

There seems to be a lot of road construction in and around Kitakami. Most times that I've been out driving around within the last few weeks, I've encountered lane shifts, diversions, or some other indicia of road work. Unlike Albuquerque, orange barrels don't appear to have much of a presence here.

My favorite construction phenomena, though, are the bowing flagmen. When a two-lane road is narrowed to one for a relatively short distance, a guy with one red and one green flag is stationed at either end of the site. Sometimes, there's even an advance team about 200 yards beforehand holding a sign asking you to slow down (at least, that's what I think it says). If you are the first car in the line that needs to stop, the flagman will wave his red flag at you, then bow when you have stopped. He will bow again before waving his green flag to let you pass through the construction zone. The courtesy makes it hard to be annoyed about any inconvenience. It's so civilized.
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On the Road Again 

Closed doughnut shop notwithstanding, Sunday's road trip went off without a hitch. The staff at the Kitakami Mister Donut were kind enough to open a few minutes early (to quote the tape on my pumpkin muffin wrapper: "Thanks, you beautiful people!"). We got our road snacks and set off on our journey to the north.

Matthew has been in touch with a local model railroading group that ran a layout this weekend in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture. Aomori-ken is our neighbor to the north; Hachinohe is a mere 2-1/2 hour drive away, on the coast. Fans of our previous road trip stories may be disappointed to learn that the Hachinohe installment of The Road Ahead had none of the prior narrow roads, high curving bridges, ditches, or freakout sessions. In fact, the trip was blissfully peaceful and beautiful, with the mountains beginning to show fall colors in spots. We also got our first look at Iwate-san, the tallest mountain in the prefecture. It's HUGE!

I left Matthew at the Hachinohe City Museum, where the show was being held, and went exploring. The museum is next door to Nejo Plaza, a castle compound built in 1334 by Lord Moroyuki Nanbu. Many buildings within the plaza have been restored, and it's quite fascinating to walk through. Especially the workshops and storage areas, which have thickly thatched rooves made from reeds that hang quite low, such that you have to crouch and duck to get inside (the recordings telling you about the buildings also exhort you to watch your head as you leave). It's interesting to me that many buildings of that era appear to have been constructed from a material much like the adobe used in New Mexico a mixture of mud and straw of some sort. I don't have photos because we only have one camera and someone needed it to take photos of trains. Hmph.

With time left before the end of the show, I went downtown to check out more of Hachinohe. To no one's surprise, I found a liquor store. We can't travel without acquiring booze, so I asked after Hachinohe local sake and was given samples from one brewer. According to the liquor store guy, the drier one I preferred was otoko no sake, a "man's sake." Indeed. I assured him that my husband would be drinking it, and went on my merry way, beautiful sake bottle in hand.

After the show, Matthew and I dined on some of the local seafood for which Hachinohe is known (squid sashimi for him, grilled fish for me) and made our way back to Kitakami and the dogs. The dogs seemed kind of miffed that we went off for doughnuts, fish, and adventures without them. They got over it when we fed them.
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Have We Been Here Too Long? 

We've been told that you've been in Japan too long when things don't seem strange to you anymore. By that criterion, no, we have not been in Japan too long. The latest oddity? The donut and coffee shop next to the expressway on-ramp that opens at 9 am. What kind of donut store isn't open in the wee hours, when you really need a donut and coffee to get going for a road trip?
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Gratuitous Autumn Food Photo 

We had a beautiful, cold autumn day today, perfect for cooking. It was also the first day I've felt up to doing anything really involved. Matthew seems to be recuperating quickly, so I decided to shake up the cooking from just soup or spicy things. We can't quite get away from the desire for spice right now, and I've added a tofu craving to the mix (Japan life = tofu cravings who knew?). Thus, mabo doufu was in order.

Mabo doufu originates in Szechuan cuisine, according to the internets. The Japanese have adapted it by adding sake and miso to the sauce, which also includes tobanjan, a spicy Chinese bean paste. I made a Japanese interpretation, and it totally hit the spot.

I plated it with some grilled satsumaimo Japanese sweet potatoes. I wanted the potatoes unadulterated because the mabo doufu and the third dish (more in a minute) both had very strong flavors, so I didn't oil them (bad call) or anything prior to grilling. Unfortunately, they were a) totally fugly; and b) good, but not complementary to the other dishes. Which was too bad, because I love satsumaimo. They're autumn produce, so there's plenty of time to make more.

I rounded out our dinner with a simple dish of hourenso no goma-ae, spinach dressed with sesame. My cookbook tells me this is technically a winter dish, but I figured I was in the clear because October in Tohoku might as well be winter. It was lovely and tasty, but as with the satsumoimo, it didn't harmonize so well with the other dishes. Clearly, I've still got a lot to learn about arranging menus here.
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Alternative Remedies 

After a week of cold-induced sloth, I'm finally returning to life and the world. Judging from the number of people around town sporting medical masks today, it's not just me. And Matthew seems to be getting the cold now, which is a bummer because we have a Sunday road trip planned. Also because the cold blows, even if you're able to find some measure of relief.

Early in the cold, I started thinking like a New Mexican in search of a remedy. When we had colds in the States, we'd rely on green chile to help clear out our heads. A bowl of green chile stew is like a sauna: partaking leaves you all sweaty and drained, but you're certainly breathing easier. It is superior to a sauna, however, because it comes with tortillas.

Without ready access to green chile, we had to look elsewhere for our capsaicin fix. Fortunately, we are very close to Korea, which has its own frequently incendiary delight — kimchi. Kimchi, or fermented cabbage that is often mixed with a red chile paste, is widely available in local restaurants and stores. I did not feel like cooking much (that should tell you something), so the delivery udon joint was getting a lot of love from us last weekend. A bowl or two of pirikara (spicy-hot) udon and an order of kimchi chahan (Japanese fried rice) later, and I felt less like I had a particularly efficient marshmallow factory operating in my head. Unfortunately, kimchi doesn't do anything for the insomnia and fatigue accompanying the cold, but between being able to sleep and able to breathe, I'd rather be able to breathe.

So, while I'm feeling much better, the course of treatment has had a lingering effect: mad kimchi cravings. And the opportunity to eat more kimchi may be the one silver lining if Matthew does, in fact, develop the cold.
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Morning Glory 

Along with everything else (we even saw azaleas in bloom today), the morning glories are blooming.
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Autumn Insects 

Of course there are plenty of bugs to go along with all the autumn flowers, and it's hard to photograph flowers without getting a few insects as well.

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September Showers Bring October Flowers 

It's fall, and all of Kitakami seems to be in bloom! We don't know if it's from all the rain last month, or the warm weather that continued later than usual, or the combination of the two, but bright colors are everywhere.

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Matter of Perspective 

Overheard in the park today while walking the dogs.

Adorable 3-year-oldish Japanese child looking at Moki: Ookii kuma! (Translation: Big bear!)
Child's amused mom: Inu da, yo. (Translation: That's a dog, actually.)

Incidentally, the big bear decided to eat a couple of green tea bags later in the day without our knowledge. At least he'll have a healthy immune system.
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