Fish-Butchering Prowess 

Fish the most intimidating staple of the Japanese diet. We didn't cook fish much in America, but it's so easy to get cheap, high-quality fish here that it seems ridiculous not to. Not only can it be hard to cook well, it can be hard to know how to eat. Presented with a bite-sized cross-section of river fish last year, I ate the entire thing, including the spoo (read: innards), and felt wretched immediately. About two weeks later, I learned that some Japanese don't even eat the spoo because they don't like the taste. It's apparently like nattou in that respect.

Back to fish. Cooking fish in Japan frequently means butchering it yourself. Grocery stores sell river and smaller ocean fish whole. So if you're salt-grilling, you have the option of grilling the whole thing intact and eating around the spoo and bones. Or, you can de-gill and gut it; you would also have to do this if you're making sashimi or one of the simmered dishes. I've been practicing fish butchery intermittently over the past few months, and I think I've finally got it.

The first time I butchered a mackerel, the metallic smell that accompanies bloodletting kind of freaked me out (did I have a bad mackerel?). Also, I didn't do a particularly good job of filleting it; Matthew spent the better part of dinner working his way around bones. Now, decapitating, gutting, and filleting the fish all happen cleanly with just a few careful cuts and tugs on the appropriate fish parts. (I did get a bit careless in carrying the intestines over to the sink by one end, causing a large glop of spoo to drip out and land on the floor. It is worth noting that the dogs wouldn't go anywhere near the spoo either.) Last night's miso-simmered mackerel was a predominantly bone-free delight, and the dogs scored a bit of mackerel sashimi.

We haven't tried making sashimi at home yet, but hopefully, that day will come.
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Small Shrine Near the Station 

We've remarked before on the large number of small shrines that dot the cityscape. This one is near the station, next to a two-story bicycle parking garage.
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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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