Conquering Your Fears (Well, Mine Anyway)
Between the Great Tokyo Junket of '07 and last week's series of road trips, it seems our journeys have settled into a predictable rhythm. We hit the road, full of excitement about The Road Ahead. At some point, Matthew will comment (more or less urgently, depending on the situation) that I am way too close to the line/post/ditch/guardrail on the left for his liking. (Didn't Beyonce just have a song out about this? "To the left, to the left/Try to keep the car out the ditch to the left.") I will remind him that he can, at any time, study for and take the test to get his J-driver's license. The trip will continue smoothly until we come to an inevitable feature of The Road Ahead: an especially narrow stretch of road, usually bordered by a straight-sided ditch just about the exact width of a car tire. Then I momentarily freak out, convinced that I'll either plow into an oncoming car or drive us into the ditch. We eventually reach our destination safely, and I think "Hey, that was kind of cool. Don't be such a ninny." and feel pretty hardcore for being able to drive on Japanese roads. And then I remember that we have to get home.
Let's talk about Japanese roads, shall we? Japan is a country built on islands mostly, if not entirely, formed by volcanoes, resulting in high, pointy mountains with sheer, steep drops. It's an amazingly beautiful country, to be sure, but its geography and land usage necessitate things like high bridges, 800-meter-long tunnels, and narrow mountain roads with hairpin turns and the occasional 8% grade. And when the roads a) are a normal width; b) lack a tire-wide ditch off to the left; and c) have at least a six-inch shoulder, they're wicked fun to drive and make me wish we had the Swedewagon. When they're bordered by ditches and only about two cars wide, however, they're kind of nerve-wracking to drive.
If you read Matthew's previous post, you've read about the bear road. There were neither bears nor other traffic on it, so it was a piece of cake to navigate. Our caravan to Miyagi-ken, however, took us up steep, narrow roads running between rice paddies requiring you to negotiate with the oncoming driver who was crossing first, then back down steep, narrow roads requiring you to negotiate back-to-back-to-back hairpin curves. Coming back was even better because paddling practice during our surf lesson had rendered my shoulders nearly immobile. (Incidentally, we will blog about our surf lesson, because surfing is awesome. Even if you haven't gotten to the point of standing up.)
Prior to last week, a trip to the beach for us meant the Beltway to Route 50 and over the Bay Bridge. In Northern Japan, the mountains end at the beach, so it's twisty roads and rice paddies all the way. Faced with the choice of not driving versus not surfing -- well, there's not really a choice, is there? Ganbarimasu!
Tase Dam (pronounced "tah say dah moo") creates Taseko ("Lake Tase"), a mountain lake where we have heard you can go windsurfing and even rent sailboards. So yesterday, we decided to take a brief road trip (it's only thirty minutes from Kitakami) to scout it out.
Along the way we took some wrong turns, almost ran out of gas, and otherwise made an adventure of it. We eventually ended up at the dam, where we could get an overview of the lake. After a brief stop, we crossed the dam and turned onto a dirt road.
At the entrance to the dirt road was a sign, "Be cautious of (something)", but I didn't recognize the character telling what to be cautious of. It looked familiar, but what was it?
Oh well, no matter. Japanese roads are full of caution signs. "Sudden curves", "construction", "merging traffic", "cross winds", and so on. And clearly this was a road that required caution: a steep drop into the lake on the right, trees and rocks on the left, and in between, a space just slightly larger than a 1997 Opel Astra station wagon. Yes, we will be cautious, thank you very much. So we drove onward.
It looked familiar, but what was it?
As Stefanie concentrated on keeping the Opel away from both lake and rocks, I racked my brain trying to remember that kanji. It looked familiar, but what was it?
"I wonder if it means 'bear'."
"That character. I think it means bear. Let me check the dictionary... yes, the sign said, 'beware of the bears'."
"Oh. Well, at least we don't have any food. And we can just keep moving."
In the end, we made it safely. Windsurfing is indeed something people do at Taseko, so we'll go back in a few weeks to rent boards.
Yesterday, we drove to Akita for some good eats: Inaniwa udon
for lunch, and Yokote yakisoba
for dinner. (Both are specialty noodle dishes of Akita.)
Anyway, Akita lies on the other side of the Ou Sanmyaku
, the mountain ridge running through the middle of Tohoku, and crossing the mountains meant plenty of tunnels.
Before we moved here, our lives were full of noise. Of course there were always some sounds that stood out from the background noise. A passing train, the morning alarm clock, Aki woofing at the neighbor dogs. But behind it all there was a constant barrage of noise, all blended together into an indistinguishable wall of sound that we learned to ignore.
But here, somehow it's different. Life is full of sounds. This is a city, so there are still the sounds of traffic, but it doesn't drown everything else out. All the sounds are distinct, from the frogs of late spring to the distant pops of summer fireworks, from the honking of swans calling each other in the evening to the electric whine of a departing Yamabiko
shinkansen train. Earthquakes, too, create a unique sound.
As I write this, I can hear an emergency vehicle's siren - something we only hear once every few weeks.
Tonight we took a short walk along the river towards the railroad tracks. We could hear the cicadas singing in the trees, whose leaves were rustling in the breeze along the babbling Waga river. The splashing of water over rocks echoed between the rail bridges, and the local train gave a toot on its whistle before rattling across, soon to be followed by the whoooooosh
of a bullet train headed the other direction. The wind occasionally brought us sounds of distant traffic, crossing one of the bridges. We could hear the caws of ravens wheeling in the sky, and when they came close we could hear their wings beat the air for lift.
Here is the sunset we listened to tonight.
I traveled to Morioka on Thursday to get permission to work on my current visa, which I couldn't otherwise do (it's the dreaded "dependent visa"). I *heart* the Morioka immigration office -- the staff was cordial, informative, and had me out the door with my permit in about 20 minutes, if that. So I took the rest of the afternoon to poke around a bit, beginning with lunch at the 'Bucks. Hey, I had to investigate the possibility of cupcakes
If the one especially posh street I traversed is representative of the city, Morioka is all about food, art, spas/salons, and fashion. I am a fan. Had I worn a hat, I might have tossed it in the air, I liked Morioka so much. As it was, I refrained from tossing the Weitzmans
in the air for fear that their 3" heels would've taken someone's eye out had I failed to catch them.
This monument is located in Iwate Park, in the middle of Morioka. Iwate Park is built on the ruins of the former Morioka Castle; its height allows for beautiful views of the city against its mountain backdrop.
I hope I'm not stepping on any, ahem, non-densha otaku
toes by posting this:
This little guy appears on some of the East Japan Railway Company's (or JR East) trains. I think he's adorable.
The S & M International Matsuri-Fiesta-Party-Thing
In the spirit of festivity surrounding matsuri
, we invited a couple of friends over for dinner prior to last night's fireworks viewing. I was having some menu-development issues until Sunday, when our neighbor from across the street came over and passed me some garden-fresh tomatoes through the kitchen window. In possession of this bounty, I did what any right-thinking half-Mexican girl would do.
I made salsa. And built a menu around it.
Menu of chips and salsa, carnitas tacos with avocado (Sidebar: The Japanese word for "avocado" is abogado
. I find this tremendously amusing.) and rice decided, we braced ourselves for the reality of our chip-and-tortilla situation. Chips and tortillas are available here, provided you're willing to accept chips and tortillas manufactured in Belgium as a viable option. Which we were, and were pleasantly surprised to discover that they didn't suck
. What we were not willing to do was pay 1150 yen, or approximately $10 USD, for a six-pack of Corona.
As it turned out, beer was not an issue. One of our friends brought "appropriate food and drink," as she described them when she accepted the invitation. These included edamame, Japanese vegetable chips, grilled corn, and giant cans of Kirin Ichiban beer. Back at the house post-fireworks, another friend introduced us to a snack of cream cheese cubes dipped in wasabi-enriched soy sauce, which was really quite good.
Mexican food and Japanese food: two great tastes that go great together!
The festival came to an end Monday night with a two-hour fireworks display. To Americans, that sounds excessive, but it was actually quite nice. It wasn't a continuous barrage of explosions; instead, it was a series of vignettes, sometimes just a single firework and sometimes a grouping, separated by short breaks (up to several minutes).
The relaxed pace and long show meant that families set up picnics where they could hang out, chat, eat, drink, and watch the fireworks together, and we did, too. Unfortunately, since we didn't know exactly where they would be launching, we set up our picnic where a utility pole would be exactly in the way. Oh well, next year we'll know!
It's been so hot and humid in Kitakami for the last week that, most days, we haven't been able to see the mountains west of town. We got a brief respite on Saturday morning, courtesy of a perfunctory downpour from Typhoon Usagi, which had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached us. We also had a little baby earthquake, for anyone who's keeping track of natural phenomena in Iwate-ken.
Because it's so muggy, nothing sounds particularly good to eat. We've been relying on the old Japanese standby, zaru soba
. Zaru soba
is cooked buckwheat noodles, chilled and then served with a dipping sauce. The dipping sauce is based on tsuyu
, a combination of dashi broth, soy sauce, and mirin (sweet seasoning), and flavored as you like with ginger, green onions, and wasabi. Normally, zaru soba
is served on small mat-lined trays, which we currently lack because, well, we have no space for them. Here's a photo:
Incidentally, although we have a vague working theory, we have no idea who Big Stif is, or who the brave person is who did something with him/her.
isn't the only dance performed during Michinoku Geinou Matsuri
, but it is the most famous.