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...
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
New Year's in Japan seems to be an ongoing celebration throughout the month of January. Shinnenkai
, or New Year's gatherings held after January 1, bring people together to share in the optimism of the fresh year ahead and to partake in traditional events. We were invited to one such event last week, mochitsuki
As we've mentioned before
is one of the traditional Japanese New Year's foods. Mochitsuki
is the traditional mochi
-making ceremony, during which members of the community use large wooden mallets to pound polished, cooked rice into a sticky paste. Once the paste is made, it is formed into small cakes, which can then be eaten.
At the encouragement of our hosts, we took a turn kneading the mochi with the giant mallets.
It was fun, but we clearly lacked the energy and expertise of the locals.
Once the kneading was completed, people alternated pounding the rice with a quick water rinse to keep it from sticking to the equipment. Children, assisted at times by their parents, got in on the pounding too. It was a great community event; one that we're glad we went out into the white-out conditions for.
J-Life Lesson #46: When living in a part of the country where it snows every day during the winter, check frequently on your air-drying laundry.
Best Use of All Your Dishes
As longtime readers of the blog know, learning to cook Japanese food has been one of the great pleasures of my life here (eating the Japanese food has been Matthew's great pleasure). Last week, I got really ambitious and decided to make a standard ichiju-sansai
consists of soup and three small dishes, as well as steamed rice and tsukemono
(pickles). These dishes come from families of foods named by their method of preparation, such as suimono
(vinegared dishes), nimono
(simmered dishes), and mushimono
(steamed dishes). Each dish should come from a different family.
For our dinner, we had a nimono
, simmered burdock root), an aemono
, tofu dressing on vegetables and konnyaku
), and sashimi (katsuo tataki
, seared bonito) with ponzu sauce. The tsukemono
were pickled carrots from my nuka-zuke
Making the dinner was pretty time-consuming, as was the cleanup. It was totally worth the effort.
, the pufferfish perhaps best known for its potential lethality as a foodstuff, is in season now. This restaurant is advertising its Fugu Festival.
The festival appears to be featuring a sampler of fugu
dishes, including fugu
sashimi, fugu chirinabe
(hotpot), and fugu zousui
(rice porridge mixed with soup). There are four other unnamed dishes available as well. It's 5,000 yen for two hours of nomihoudai
(all-you-can-drink) and the fugu sampler ¡½ we're passing on this one.
Many people in Japan, male and female alike, hang multiple small mascots from their keitai
(cell phones). Mascots range from characters associated with the phone company to well-known comic, manga, or anime characters. I've only got one on my cute pink phone.
It's Hello Kitty, of course, but she's special. Sanrio makes Hello Kitty merchandise specific to each of the prefectures, representing events or products for which the prefecture is known. This Kitty-chan
represents the famous Heian period poetess, Komachi
, who according to legend was from what is now Akita Prefecture. Komachi was also regarded as a great beauty, which Matthew thinks makes her name particularly fitting for the Akita Shinkansen
Visiting shrines and temples is an important tradition for New Year's. At large temples, people go on New Year's Eve, and the temple bell sounds 108 times to ring in the new year. Other people arise early, and welcome the new year by visiting a shrine or temple at sunrise. In any case, most people go sometime in the first three days of January. This visit is called hatsumoude
Our nearest shrine, perhaps in recognition that no one wants to be up at dawn in Tohoku in winter, invited the people of the surrounding neigborhoods to visit at 8 am on New Year's Day. We figured this would be a good way to enjoy an old tradition. So, despite our late night
the night before, we got up early and made the snowy trek to the shrine grounds. There we found bonfires, friendly greetings, fish paste, and sake. From time to time someone would approach the shrine itself to make an offering and prayer, but mostly it was conversation, drinking, and eating around the bonfires. We ran across several people who remembered us from undoukai
People also wrote their prayers for the new year on paper or wood, which they threw into the fire. The rising smoke carries the prayers up to the gods.
After we were there a short time, a group of men were leaving, and insisted we should go with them. We were uncertain, but they seemed friendly enough, so off we went. Along the way, we learned that our destination was a nearby temple, where there would be more sake, fire, and food.
Also along the way, we overheard this exchange (in Japanese):
"It's fun bringing the gaikokujin
(foreigners) with us."
"Don't call them gaikokujin
. Call them nakama
The temple was one very close to our house, and it was beautiful in the snow.
We paid our respects at the altar, then enjoyed more sake along with some snacks, and listened to our new friends speaking in the Tohoku dialect
. Before everyone returned home to enjoy osechi ryouri
, we got a group photo.
It was an auspicious start to the new year, and left us feeling warm inside.
We've made a calendar
of our favorite photos from the blog (and other photos we've taken here), and it's now available for sale! We make $5 off each one — not much, but it does help keep the site running. Just click the "related link" for this entry, or look for the ad over to the right.
We now return you to your regular blog blathering.
December is the busiest month of the year in Japan. Nengajou
need addressing, bonenkai
(year-end parties, of which there tend to be many) need attending, and houses receive thorough cleanings. By the time New Year's Day rolls around, people are tired and want some relaxation. Traditionally, families would visit their local shrine to offer prayers for the new year before retiring at home for a day of drinking sake, reading nengajou
, and eating osechi ryouri
are the traditional New Year's foods. Each food is eaten for a purpose: health, longevity, or wealth, among others. Historically, they are prepared in advance and stored in a large, three-tiered box (juubako
) until New Year's Day; consequently, they tend to be heavily salted, sweetened, or vinegared for preservation purposes. Although people still make osechi
at home, you can also buy most of the traditional foods already prepared.
We had a small subset of osechi
, including some non-traditional treats that had been given to us as gifts earlier in the weekend.
Clockwise from the top left: kuromame
(sweetened black beans, eaten for health); iburigakko
(smoked pickled daikon radish, an Akita specialty that a friend gave us); Japanese olives (a gift from the same friend); and salt-grilled yellowtail.
Clockwise from the left: konbumaki
(simmered kelp rolls tied with gourd strips, eaten for happiness); kamaboko
(fish paste; red and white are auspicious colors for the new year and symbolize celebration); tazukuri
(candied sardines, symbolizing an abundant harvest); and rice bran pickled daikon.
Clockwise from left: another look at the kamaboko
; kinpira gobou
(simmered burdock root and carrot); ringo kinton
(mashed sweet potatoes and apples; eaten to bring good luck); another look at the tazukuri
Not technically part of the osechi
is also traditionally eaten on New Year's Day.
According to our local friends, ozouni
in Iwate consists of a clear soup base, chicken, daikon, carrot, ikura
(salmon roe), Japanese parsley, and mochi
. We had ours for lunch, before a lovely drive to Semi Onsen, where we enjoyed a New Year's soak in the rotenburo
, surrounded by two feet of snow.