Day and Night 

Here is Geto Ski Area as seen from our house, day and night. (They offer night skiing and snowboarding on some of the slopes.)

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White Day 

Matthew went off to work the past two days bearing cookies for girls. Why? Today is White Day in Japan, the day when men reciprocate for gifts women gave them on Valentine's Day. Women don't have to be involved with someone to give him a gift; they can give gifts, frequently of homemade chocolates, to boyfriends, co-workers, or just friends. Or teachers. Or crushes, which can lead to disappointment.

Men have two categories of gifts to choose from: honmei gifts, or the main gifts like jewelry, and giri gifts, or the "runner-up gifts." As you might expect, the honmei gift goes to a guy's significant other. The giri gifts go to those women whose Valentine's gifts he feels obligated to reciprocate. According to the Japan Times, it is customary for men to spend three times the value of the Valentine's Day gift on each White Day gift. (Which makes me wonder how they figure that out. Isn't it kind of gauche to leave the price tag hanging around?) Wouldn't it feel weird to give a guy you really liked some homemade chocolates, only to get a thousand yen confection in return?

So, the two of Matthew's students and the neighbor who gave him gifts got cookies today, while his loving wife . . . did not. I didn't really understand how the holiday worked, so I didn't get him anything on V-Day, thereby acing myself out of cookies. Apparently, sharing my beer didn't count as a gift. Damn.
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Santa Claus's Regular Job 

Contrary to what you might have heard, Santa Claus runs a perfectly respectable cleaning business in Oshu City, Japan, during the offseason:

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Is It? 

I'm no businessperson, but it seems to me that the name of your establishment should answer more questions than it raises:

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Ooh. . . Foxy Noodles 

Last night, I made kitsune udon for dinner.

Kitsune is the Japanese word for "fox." Legend has it that foxes love aburaage, or deep-fried sheets of tofu, hence the name. I think it's because the triangles of aburaage look like fox ears in the bowl.

That's tofu-ya aburaage, by the way. Doesn't it look amazing?
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Karaoke: Competition and Workout 

We've experienced karaoke in Japan enough times now to think that it's substantively different from karaoke in America. In America, it seems that people usually do it as an ironic or goofy thing. Here, it's a sincere form of entertainment. Or possibly sport people practice, and some systems have scoring based on rhythm and pitch. Most of our Japanese friends do quite well, scoring in the 75% - 90% range. We're not that good; maybe we need more practice within our respective repertoires (Matthew prefers punk and rock; my specialties are Britpop and Songs Clay Aiken Performed on American Idol.). Or maybe we need repertoires of Japanese songs to be competitive.

Karaoke isn't just a competition, it's also a workout. At the end of each song, some systems tell you the number of calories burned performing it. We're not sure how accurate the calorie count is, though. For example, one system claims that a midtempo Japanese enka song uses more energy than the Offspring's "Why Don't You Get A Job?" On the other hand, it's good to know that karaoke has health benefits beyond making one's life a bit happier, and since I can't Jazzercise in Kitakami, maybe it's the next best thing.
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Festival Street 

The colorfully lit street of vendors at Inukko Matsuri.

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A few weeks ago, our friendly local liquor store owner / school landlord invited us to take a tour and tasting at a local sake brewery, Kikuzakari. It's a small brewery that has been in the same family for generations. The current president is the founder's great-great grandson, and he took us on the tour personally.

One thing that's obvious when you tour a sake brewery is that OSHA holds no sway here. Workplace safety is your own lookout. Even customers taking a tour are expected to look out for themselves, walking about in poor lighting on wet floors, stepping over the hoses and wires strewn everywhere.

Of course, it was well worth it just to get to spend time surrounded by the yummy yeasty smell of brewing alcohol. It was heavenly. At one point we got to try the somewhat sweet and tart raw sake from a vat that was just about ready for filtering and bottling.

Being a small brewery, many tasks that would be done by machine at a large brewery are done by hand. The day we were there, this guy was gluing the labels to the bottles. It's not a very exciting job — grab a crate, wipe all the bottles clean, spread glue on a label, carefully line it up and press it in place, move on to the next bottle — but I guess somebody has to do it.

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Freezing Our Butts Off 

Spring is coming. Now we sometimes get rain instead of snow, and most days the weather goes above freezing. And soon, photos like this will just be a reminder of what to expect again next winter.

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Across the Wires 

One of my childhood neighbors died recently, giving me occasion to go shopping for a sympathy card. I stood at the very small greeting card display in our local stationery store for a good while before I concluded that they had no sympathy cards. Not that they had run out, but that they simply didn't carry them. Prior to then, it hadn't occurred to me that the Japanese wouldn't send sympathy cards upon someone's death, but that appeared to be the case. I asked some of my students about it later, and was quite surprised by their answer. We've never heard of sympathy cards, they said. We send telegrams when people die.

Telegrams? The things Western Union stopped sending about two years ago because technology had rendered them obsolete? As it turns out, telegrams are used frequently in Japan to acknowledge major life events. Deaths, births, marriages, retirements all are occasions for telegrams. You can even choose special papers for your messages or stuffed animals to accompany them. And, ironically, you can order them on the internet.
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