Project Kimono 

Due to an upcoming koto performance, I'm in the market for a kimono. They're beautiful, so I'm excited about the chance to wear one. There's a snag involved in buying one, though: new kimono are prohibitively expensive. A new kimono, obi (belt), and all of the various accoutrements can start at $3,000. If you can find one to your liking, a used kimono is a fraction of the cost. With this in mind, on Sunday we visited a local secondhand store known to sell used kimono.

The shop had one whole corner dedicated to kimono and kimono accessories. We got down to business, searching through shelves of kimono to find ones that might work. Because of my Western build, few had any chance of fitting, and we were able to quickly whittle those few down to one: a dark red kimono with simple prints of pastel birds around the hem and on the sleeves. It seemed to fit, but because we really didn't know what we were doing and knew we'd also need to choose an obi, Matthew called a local friend to come help us out.

While we were waiting, a stranger who had been watching us commented on the kimono. She started wrapping and folding it as if we were actually putting it on. Our friend showed up a few minutes later, and the two of them started talking to each other about the fit. I soon filled the role of a tall, curiously-shaped mannequin, with nothing to do other than listen to the "Theme from Shaft" over the PA system and shoot quizzical looks over their heads at Matthew as the women consulted in rapid-fire Japanese. They apparently decided that it would work, because they then moved on to choosing an obi for me.

We joined them in sorting through the large selection of obi. Serendipity was on our side, and we found the perfect match in a pale, silvery mocha obi woven with a cherry blossom pattern. We agreed that we'd chosen well and sealed the deal. I still have to get some accessories to complete the look, but I'm pleased with the kimono and grateful for the generous guidance of people who know what they're doing.
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Amazake 

Amazake is sweet, non-alcoholic, fermented rice. It's served in winter as a traditional hot drink. Nowadays, it's usually made by dissolving kasu — rice pulp filtered out during sake production — in hot water. But "real" amazake is not a by-product of sake production, it's its own fermented product.

Real amazake is less widely available than kasu in stores, but in my opinion, it's a vastly superior product. Although only a few grocery stores seem to have real amazake, many offer packages of moldy rice. Covered with the koji mold needed to make amazake (or sake, for that matter), it's used as a "starter" for making real amazake at home.

So, here's a close-up of the moldy rice we bought last week.



Making the amazake is fairly easy, but takes about 6 or 7 hours. In the end, it was worth it: some of the best amazake we've had!
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Lost and Sold 

At our main grocery store, there are often vendors or special sales displays near the front of the store. Around the end of the year, for example, you'll see guys selling calendars and small statues of the next year's animal. Other times, there might be housewares or boxed gift sets of things like instant coffee or soy sauce. It's always new stuff, too, not like a flea market in the store.

Not today. Today, a large banner stood in the center of the display announcing the nature of the items for sale: JR Wasuremono. Literally "JR Forgotten Things," they were from Japan Rail's collection of belongings left behind on trains. It's an unusual, if very sensible, solution to the problem created by collecting lost items by selling them, JR makes money and gets them off of their hands. Perhaps it's an idea to take back to Washington and pitch to Metro.
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Acceptance 

We're outsiders here, there's no getting around that. The word for foreigner — gaijin — literally means "outside person". Even people who have obtained Japanese citizenship find that they can't be fully accepted.

On the other hand, it's possible to be a part of the community, even if you aren't fully accepted. In that spirit, we eagerly participate in community activities from undoukai to yakudoshi. We always check the kairan-ban (traveling bulletin board) for new events, and ask questions when we need to.

After we'd been here a year and a half, one day our neighborhood leader approached me at the recycling collection point. Surrounded by stacks of newspaper and bags of plastic, he produced the neighborhood's address book. He explained that we weren't in it because we were foreigners, but he'd been thinking we should be in it. It meant joining the neighborhood association, which is 300 yen a month.

I politely said yes, then went home feeling like we'd been accepted to some extent. It was a small gesture (and it would cost us money), but we were now officially part of the community. A few days later someone dropped by to collect our membership fee and recorded our payment under our names, newly written in the book.

Then, about two weeks later, someone else came by and left us the address book and the kairan-ban, declaring that it was our "duty month". "Our what?" Each household is responsible for distributing neighborhood information and collecting association dues for a month. "Oh."

So it wasn't just a small fee and our names in a book. We were no longer guests in our community, and we were expected to help out. With no idea what to do, we imposed on our most helpful neighbor to explain things to us, then got to work — hearts lightened with the knowledge that, if only a little bit, we were being accepted.
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Fish on Fridays 

I finish work early on Friday afternoons, during the time that Matthew has a break between classes. We've developed a little ritual going over to the snack shop in the mall and buying a couple of taiyaki.



Taiyaki are filled, baked treats in the shape of a sea bream. They often have a sweet filling, like anko (red bean paste) or pastry cream, although some have savory fillings like sausage and cheese. Today's taiyaki were filled with anko and cream cheese.
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Snow Day 

Today's our first day of serious winter weather in Kitakami. It's the kind of day where snow either falls peacefully or blows madly throughout the day. It's the kind of day when the temperature flirts with zero, but decides thawing isn't worth it and backs off a few degrees. It's the kind of day where you regret not picking up the wipers the last time you used the car. It's the kind of day that makes you wonder whether driving, walking, or bicycling is the best option for getting around.

It was in that frame of mind that I swept the stack of accumulated snow off the seat of my bike before setting off for work this evening. It was pretty slow going, since there were limits to how fast I could ride on streets and sidewalks thick with new snow while the wind blew sharp needles into my eyes. The slowness was fortuitous, given that my brake handles were frozen solid and therefore unusable. Thank goodness for Flintstones brakes.

I didn't have much company as I navigated through shallow snowdrifts and across expanses of solid white road. The ride was actually quite serene, the normal noises of the city having been hushed by the falling snow. Whatever reservations I might have had about riding my bike in the driving snow had been replaced by the contentment of exertion and solidarity with nature — a contentment no warm, but slippery, drive could ever give.
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The Benefits of Being Late 

Much like last year, we joined our neighbors at the local shrine for hatsumoude early on New Year's morning. During the course of our visit, some of them invited us to go over to the ward's community center for mahjong later in the day. We'd played mahjong once before at the ward's monthly game night, so we were happy to join in. The games didn't begin for a couple of hours after the shrine visits were over, which gave us time to go home to hang out with the dogs and read our nengajou.

We ended up getting to the ward hall about half an hour after the start time, only to see that all of the tables were occupied. Then we noticed that the blackboard was open and had a serious-looking chart on it, the kind that would later show rankings. This was no just-for-kicks holiday mahjong gathering it was the annual New Year's mahjong tournament. At the end of the day, the winner would walk away with actual money. Well, only two yen per point, but still: money. Not the place for beginner mahjong players.

The scorekeeper invited us to park with him, offered us beer, and explained the proceedings to us. We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking beer and watching the more experienced players go at it, cheering at the end for the victor. They invited us to stay for snacks, speeches, and awards, during which one of the organizers apologized for not having room for us to play. We in turn apologized for not being good enough to play, which they all seemed to find amusing.

Next year, they said.

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Festival of the Seven Herbs 

Traditionally, January 7 is a significant day in Japan. According to Shinto custom, adopted from ancient Chinese custom, January 7 is jinjitsu (person's day), a day when criminals are spared from punishment. More applicable to the general population, January 7 is also the day of nanakusa no sekku, the Festival of the Seven Herbs. People celebrate nanakusa no sekku by eating nanakusa gayu, rice porridge with seven herbs. It is believed that eating the seven herbs on this day will bring good health and longevity in the upcoming year. It is also believed that eating a light meal of rice porridge and herbs will help settle stomachs troubled by six days of indulging in sake, beer, and osechi ryouri.

There are seven herbs traditionally used in nanakusa gayu, although it seems that what actually gets used depends on what's available in each region. You can buy the traditional seven in packaged sets.



Clockwise from left, the seven herbs are hakobera (chickweed), suzushiro (daikon radish), gogyou (cudweed), nazuna (shepherd's purse), seri (water dropwort, or Japanese parsley), suzuna (turnip), and hotokenoza (nipplewort).

We followed the recipe on the package and put toasted mochi in ours, in addition to the herbs.




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108 Bells 

In Japan, New Year's Eve is full of rituals to prepare for the passing of the old year and the crossing into a new one. One of these rituals, joya no kane, occurs at Buddhist temples. Joya no kane is the ringing of the temple bell 108 times on New Year's Eve. As we understand it, each of the 108 tolls represents a sin or a defilement of a person's mind. If a person hears all the tolls, he can repent for 108 of those defilements. The tolling begins before midnight and continues until the tolls are complete, straddling the changing of the year.

We went to Zenmyouji, a small temple rising above rice fields west of Kitakami to experience joya no kane. The tolling was underway when we arrived, as local people had already come to pray and make offerings at the bell. We were greeted by a very friendly woman who directed us up to the bell. She instructed us to approach the bell with our hands folded, make our offering, and ring the bell before returning to the greeters, who would give us a mikan (clementine). She then invited us to enter the temple for a prayer ceremony that would begin at midnight.

Incense greeted us when we entered the temple, as did a number of other attendees. At midnight, the ceremony began with the ringing of a smaller bell inside and the beating of a drum. The monk offered his prayers, then invited the attendees to approach and offer theirs. All the while, the larger bell outside tolled, as people continued to arrive and ring it, asking forgiveness of the old year's wrongs and praying for a better year ahead.
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Dawn of a New Year 

The new year dawned with spectacular weather, which some people have taken as an auspicious sign for the year.



We weren't actually up at dawn on New Year's Day, so this photo is from the second. But the weather was gorgeous both days, so we expect New Year's Dawn probably looked a lot like this.
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