The Little Dog Festival 

This weekend was Inukko Matsuri in Yuzawa City, Akita Prefecture. Inukko Matsuri, the "Little Dog Festival," dates back to the Edo Period (about 400 years). It is said that the festival originated after the feudal lord of what is now Yuzawa City defeated a clan of thieves. To protect their homes against future thievery, the townspeople put small dogs (inukko) made of rice flour in the entryways and windows of their homes. For the matsuri, groups build shrines out of snow, at the altars of which they place candles, offering boxes, and inukko.

The shrines have much larger guardians as well:

At night, the shrines and dogs are lit by candles, giving the whole park where the festival is held a magical, wondrous feeling.

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What the World Sees 

"Who do you like: Clinton or Obama?"

Over the last couple of weeks, this question has come up a few times. Especially this week, after Super Tuesday, when more people have asked us our views. People in Kitakami are clearly watching the American presidential race this year.

Clinton and Obama are far and away the names that people ask us about most often. We read American news sources every day, so we're very aware that the American media highlights their historical significance as presidential candidates. It appears from talking to people here that Japanese media is focusing on that aspect of the presidential race as well. As a result, the Republican candidates hardly register at all. Most people don't even ask about them. During a discussion about the election, one person was able to name McCain and Giuliani, but knew nothing about the other Republicans. He only vaguely knew about John Edwards. It will be interesting to see whether people ask more about the Republican candidate once both parties have chosen their nominees.

In the interest of keeping the blog's focus on our lives in Japan, please do not comment on the candidates in the comments section.
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Love at the Tofu-ya 

"Who can take a bean curd, shape it in a square,
Fry a flattened piece until it's gold and light as air?
The Tofu Man, the Tofu Man can.

Many apologies to Mr. Davis Jr. for appropriating his song, but really, I feel like our local tofu shop is magic. You know that scene in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (the one with Gene Wilder) when Charlie finds the dollar in the street and goes into the candy shop, staring around at the chocolate in astonishment? That's how I feel going into the tofu shop with my 160 yen. "One Creamy Awesome Cotton Tofu Delight, please."

Tofu shop tofu is, in a word, amazing. We had some last week, topped with seasoned miso and grilled, and it was quite possibly the best tofu we'd ever eaten, all savory and earthy. Later on, I bought an aburaage, or sheet of deep-fried tofu. Now, supermarket aburaage comes in perfect, tasty rectangles of pale blonde. Tofu shop aburaage, on the other hand, is individually shaped, deep golden, not at all greasy, and tastes fantastic.

The tofu shop staff is also quite wonderful. They're chatty and helpful, happily answering my questions about which tofu will work best in which dishes. We're very glad we finally tried the place, having gone past it probably hundreds of times before we even noticed it. Yay, tofu shop!
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Yesterday was Setsubun, the day before the beginning of the "spring season" in Japan. Setsubun is a day akin to New Year's, when people engage in rituals to chase evil away from their homes and bring good fortune in during the year. The most famous ritual is mamemaki, or "bean throwing." Mamemaki involves the head of the household throwing beans out the door of the home at someone dressed as a demon, while the family members chant: "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" ("Demons out! Good luck in!"). You're also supposed to eat one bean for each year of your life to bring good luck. Here in Kitakami, stores were selling peanuts to be used for mamemaki, rather than soybeans.

We didn't do mamemaki at home (scaring demons away is why we have big fuzzy dogs), but we did partake in the ritual of eating ehomaki at Hige-oyaji's place. This tradition allegedly originated in the Kansai region, but has spread to other areas of Japan. Ehomaki is a fat sushi roll (called futomaki on non-Setsubun days). If you can eat the entire uncut roll while praying, and without speaking, it is believed that you will have good fortune throughout the year. You eat the ehomaki while facing the eho (direction of good fortune) for the year. The eho is determined by the year of the Chinese zodiac; this year, for the year of the mouse, the direction was south-southeast. Hige-oyaji had a fancy Setsubun compass, set with zodiac symbols and their related directions, to tell us what direction to face. Unfortunately, I didn't completely understand what was going on, so I ate most of my ehomaki facing a wrong direction. Oops.
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Ah, the life of the expatriate in the small city ― teach a little, learn a little, get a little press. After our neighbors brought over the newspaper article about the shinnenkai, including the photo of our musical interlude, some of our students told us that the prefectural newspaper had put us in their coverage of the event as well. One of them brought us the article this week; Matthew is quoted in it as thinking that Japanese culture is enjoyable. Alas, it's also not available online.

It's pretty entertaining to learn from our friends, students, and neighbors that they've seen us in the paper or in a magazine. Or on TV ― Matthew was onscreen briefly during a news spot about a train show that he attended with the local model railroading group. We've got a prominent spot on one of Hige-oyaji's photo pages with some of our local friends. And Matthew has been featured in James's promotional materials, including this charming shot on the Kitakami school page.

Just think: you can say you knew us before we were big in Japan. ;)
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Here and There, Then and Now 

It's strange to think that we've been in Japan long enough to be talking about renewals, but here we are. Matthew's residency status expires in March, only two months from now. His contract is up for renewal in April. My residency status expires in June. We intend to renew everything for another year because our lives here aren't finished yet. Even so, there's something that makes me wish we were making plans to go back to America instead.

Life in Japan is very rewarding. We both enjoy our work, we're making friends, and we love Kitakami. The hard things of six months ago have become today's commonplace, almost second-nature things. Even on the worst days, a look around at the mountains brings a sense of serenity that I don't remember feeling in a very long time. What can I say, I'm a westerner. Mountains go a long way with me.

Still, the approach of a natural transition point causes me to think about the things I miss about America. Washington doesn't have mountains, but it does have its own grandeur. Every day of the eight years that I traveled downtown for school, work, or leisure, I saw the Capitol dome. And it never got old. We spent many an autumn afternoon windsurfing on the Eastern Shore, stopping for a rockfish sandwich and a pint on the way home. I miss the contented feeling of driving down the GW Parkway, confident in our ability to navigate to any destination, despite the completely blinkered signage. It took us years to figure that mess out.

I miss Jazzercise, the Vie, the U Street dining tour, and the patio at Les Halles. I miss Woodside and the Swedewagon. I miss American Idol!

For all that I miss, though, I know that there are more new adventures in store for us here. There's more to learn, more to overcome, more keys to lose and reports to file, and more stories to have for when we do return to America, feeling nostalgic for Kitakami.
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Take the Gaijin Bowling 

On Sunday, we went bowling as part of a group event. Bowling in Japan is no different from bowling in the States, down to the clownish rental shoes.

We haven't gone bowling in a very long time, so it took us a few frames to get back into it. Our team actually did pretty well ― three of us broke 100 on the first game, and we all did on the second.

The event was a fundraiser for the local sign language club, some of whom we've met through local friends. In between turns, they were teaching us little bits of Japanese Sign Language, including the signs for "Washington" and "America." As it turns out, the frowny face accompanying a blown spare is an international sign.

At the end of the tournament, the group gave prizes to each participant, ranked from highest score to lowest; I think we were all in the top twenty. Also, people who threw gutter balls had the dubious distinction of getting extra prizes based on the number of gutters thrown. Matthew got one:

Yes, it's candy poop on a stick. A lollipoop, if you will.
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As a kid, I never fully understood Snoopy's paralyzing fear of the icicle over his doghouse. I saw plenty of icicles, and they just weren't big enough to kill a cartoon dog.

Now, I understand. I've had the experience of looking up to see a four-foot gleaming needle dangling above, ready to break free and plunge through my heart at the least provocation. On the bright side, I haven't actually seen any icicles breaking free unprovoked. But I do find myself checking above before walking under an eave.

The four-footers are ubiquitous, but dwarfed by some eight-to-ten-foot icicles we spotted. You really don't want to be hanging out under these.

Meanwhile, the house across from ours has just the right roof slope, at just the right angle to the sun, to produce horizontal icicles:

These are not actually dangerous, but they sure look like they're ready to fly off and perforate the building walls, don't they?

Now if only I could get someone to use a pizza to entice me to safety...
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Instant Gratification 

You can find almost anything your heart desires in vending machines in Japan: soda, beer, hot canned soup, 10-kilo bags of rice. . .

This machine has gotten some play before, courtesy of the late, great, Kitakami Photoblog (Konnichiwa, Julia-san!).
related link
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The Big Chill 

According to our local friends, January 21 was Daikan ― the coldest day of the year on the Japanese calendar. The two weeks surrounding Daikan are also supposed to be colder than the rest of winter, which is easy to believe. Many roads in town resemble skating rinks because temperatures have gotten just above freezing during the day, but it hasn't been warm enough to evaporate the snowmelt. Riding your bike on these roads is quite treacherous; I've taken some spills in the last week or so.

The Japanese have different ways of dealing with winter weather than we've experienced in America. It's common to see cars sitting with their windshield wipers standing out. People do this so that they won't freeze to the windshield, which totally makes sense if you've ever tried to prise frozen rubber away from glass. In Kitakami, street crews don't salt or sand the roads ― driving precautions are up to individuals. Almost everyone has snow tires or chains. Roads aren't graded down to the asphalt. As far as we can tell, they're not really graded at all, but harvested. Snow is clearly removed from them because the level on the roads is lower than that in yards and parking lots, but a layer is still there and there aren't piles of gray, dirty snow lining the streets. The result is that even two or three weeks after a big snowfall, the landscape is still quite beautiful, if the roads are a bit more dangerous than we're used to. It's not a bad trade-off.

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