View from the DMV 

Lately, we've been spending a lot of time at the driver licensing center, which means we're getting pretty familiar with this view from the parking lot.



That's Mt. Iwate, the "Fuji of Northern Tohoku". It last erupted in 1919, and from 1998 to 2003 it shuddered a bit without erupting. But for now, Iwate-san is sleeping quietly.
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Mountain Food 

Living in Kitakami places us smack in the middle of sansai ryouri country. As its name translates, sansai ryouri is cooking based on mountain herbs and vegetables. Yesterday, the local model shop owner's wife gave us a bunch of gyojaninniku, a type of mountain garlic or chive, along with instructions for preparing it. It's apparently pretty rare outside of Hokkaido, although the bunch she gave us was from Aomori.

We did as she'd instructed, chopping the gyojaninniku finely and steeping it in soy sauce before mixing it with hot rice. We also threw in some minced shiitake (and thank goodness for the easy access to cheap, fresh, delicious shiitake), and Matthew added some nattou.



I don't know whether this technically counts as sansai ryouri, but it was really honking good.
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Grand Opening 

In Japan, nothing says "Now Open for Business" like a big colorful target-on-a-stick:



These signs were announcing the opening of a new hair salon. Seeing them always makes me want to play Katamari Damacy so I can roll them up.
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Neighborly Gifts 

Shortly before I left Washington, I had dinner with a couple of friends. One of them had lived in Japan as a child, and she spoke of the strong sense of community that pervaded Japanese society at the time. It still exists today, as evidenced by things like the yakudoshi ceremony, the call for volunteers to man the neighborhood recycling collection point, and the reminders that keeping the parks clean is everyone's responsibility.

It's also evident in the neighbor gifts. When a family moves into a house in a new neighborhood, they make the rounds to introduce themselves and say hello. They also bring a small gift to each of the new neighbors. It's a nice custom, albeit one that could, at times, take the new residents by surprise. Our new neighbors did a double-take when they came by last week. I don't know whether the foreign face or the loud woofs and massive dog heads caused it. We exchanged pleasantries and they gave me a small wrapped gift — and one more link to the community.
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Ready? Here We Go! 

There comes a time in many expatriates' lives when they have to trade a significant privilege in their home country for the same privilege in another. It's a privilege borne of study, practice, near-misses, frayed nerves, and hours upon hours spent standing in line in a soul-sucking fortress, listening to Phil Collins on endless loop, waiting your turn for someone to be mean to you. Repeatedly. I'm talking about drivers' licenses, of course, and our time has come.

We went to the main driving center in Morioka yesterday to start the process of changing our U.S. licenses over to Japanese ones. We'd heard that they'd turn us away if we didn't have a translator with us, but Matthew had been so successful in scheduling our appointment in Japanese that we decided to risk it and go ourselves. Expecting a standard-issue MVA/DMV experience, we took lots of reading material and braced ourselves.

We actually got to the driving center early, so we were really prepared to wait. Instead, the guy Matthew had spoken to earlier came to get him about five minutes after we checked in. We had separate interviews, which made me nervous because of my weaker language skills. To my relief, the interviewer was very kind and patient, even though he called me by my middle name the whole time: Kay-san (more accurately, Kei-san).

He apparently felt that our driving experience was good enough to take the written and driving tests, so he set us up with the paperwork for those. After all of that was done, he took us out to the photo machine to get the necessary pictures. The voice on the machine encouraged us to "relax" ourselves for the photo. "Ready? Here we go! 3, 2,1 *click* Thank you! Please wait for your photo to print." Seriously the photo machine was nicer than any DMV employee I've ever encountered.

Total time? An hour and a half. We still have to take and pass the tests to get our licenses, but we're on our way, and have nothing but warm fuzzies for the Iwate driving center people.
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Sakura Season 

In case you're wondering why there's a new entry after we announced the end of the blog, well, it is April 2. Gotcha!

Cherry blossoms aren't due to open in northern Tohoku for at least two more weeks, but that hasn't stopped the drink companies from putting out special cherry-flavored beverages.



Tazawako Beer comes from the town of Tazawako in Senboku City, Akita Prefecture. Senboku City also contains the town of Kakunodate, which is famous for the weeping cherry trees sharing space with old samurai houses.
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The End of the Blog as We Know It 

Some of you have surely noticed we've been posting less and less often over time. Matthew's been here just over a year, and Stefanie's been here almost a year. We've seen (and commented on) Kitakami in all seasons, and we're running out of things to say.

And, it seems that lately we've been busier than ever with new hobbies, classes, and friends (and a crazy work schedule).

After much discussion among the management of Let's Sharing, we've made the painful decision to end the blog now, before it goes into too much decline. We'd rather go out while we're on top than let it devolve into a bland blog of infrequent and boring posts.

We want to thank everyone for coming by, and for all your comments.
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Afternoon Snack 

Convenience stores equal convenience food. Hence, grilled-ham-on-a-stick:


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Traditional Clothes 

Earlier today, I had lunch with my koto teacher and her other students. After the lunch, the Japanese students showed the three foreign students how to wear kimono, the traditional Japanese robe. Getting into full kimono is an elaborate process, so they only did simple kimono for us.

Here, the women are working together to tie another student's obi:



And here's an example of the finished product:



I'm told that the clouds-and-flowers pattern on this kimono is a classic one. The colors are beautiful, aren't they?
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One Year Later 

It was one year ago today that I woke up for the first time in Kitakami. I'd arrived the afternoon before, met some co-workers, and gone shopping for a handful of essentials — a futon to sleep in, a towel so I could take a bath. I had a busy day ahead (orientation at work and more shopping), but I was excited, so I had no trouble getting up and getting ready. Then I stepped outside into this:



Welcome to Kitakami! Here's your first snow.

That kicked off what has surely been one of the most exciting and educational years of my life. A year ago, this adventure had just begun. A year before that, it had not yet been conceived — we were still planning our vacation in Japan. I can't help but wonder what will happen in the next year, and I can hardly wait to find out.
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