The Politics of Onsen 

Public baths can be daunting to foreigners because of the language barrier and the unwritten etiquette. We visited plenty of public baths during our vacation last year, but I still get nervous about inadvertently breaking one of the rules. And my nascent language skills aren't quite up to the challenge of conversing about the finer points of public bathing. So our Sunday onsen (hot spring bath) visit left me feeling both extra clean and a bit confused.

We know the public bath drill. First, you wash your hair and body at a separate wall of spigots, using a large washcloth. After washing, you can soak as long as you like in the hot baths. Once you're done bathing, you shower off again before returning to the dressing room. It's all very civilized and quite enjoyable after you get past the "roomful of naked people" aspect.

I followed the drill: washing, soaking, contemplating. When I felt adequately onsened, I headed back to the spigots, but my spot near the soap was occupied. No matter. I figured I'd cool off with a soap-free rinse at another spigot. The woman next to me offered me some of soap she had brought. I told her that I was quite daijoubu, but thanks. And then she offered the soap again, with a kind (tolerant?) smile and a "kudasai."

Crap. "Kudasai" always makes me nervous because it's used for requests and I often don't know how to read the request. Did she mean "please, feel free to use my soap"? Or did she mean "No, seriously, it's completely unacceptable to not use soap after bathing. Don't you know the rules?" Not wanting to offend, I gave a very formal thank you and lathered up my oversized washcloth, desperately trying to remember whether I was supposed to use soap after soaking in the bath.

Next time, I'm taking my own soap.

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Beware of the Bears 

Beware of the bears. They're verrrry scary. No, really, they are. Grrr!
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The "East-i" is JR East's shinkansen track inspection train. It runs at night, when regular passenger services do not run. There's no commercially made model of it, so a member of the Iwate Model Railroad Club ("Iwatetsu") made this one himself.
related link
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October Skies 

It's been a while since we've posted a sunset photo. The sunsets haven't gotten any less incredible.
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Gift Daikon 

Our neighbor across the street gave us a daikon (Japanese radish) from her garden tonight.

Guess I need to get pickling equipment sooner rather than later.
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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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