When Good Pickle Beds Go Bad 

Oh, the horror. We've discovered the worst-tasting thing in Japan: pickles from a nuka-zuke bed that's gone off.

As we mentioned in the April Fool's Day post, life around Let's Sharing HQ has gotten quite hectic. I haven't had as much time to attend to the house as I did before, so certain things have gotten neglected. Among them was the pickle bed. According to (in my opinion) the best English-language Japanese cookbook, nuka-zuke beds should be turned every day to prevent harmful bacteria from developing. Also, if the bed goes off, you should be able to tell because the bed will smell sour. My pickle bed didn't get turned for a couple of days, but when I got back to it, it smelled like it always had. It did have a thin layer of white funk on top, which I scraped off before turning the bed. I put in some daikon and let them ferment for a day or so, like usual, and they came out shrunken and softer, like usual. Then I tried to serve them.

What daikon pickles should taste like: still radishy, but earthy and a little salty.
What daikon pickles should not taste like: radishy spoiled milk.

*sigh* Five months of cultivation down the drain.
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Back in early March, I was out walking the dogs when I spotted a train I'd never seen before.

It's Joyful Train Kogane, a special-service train that doesn't usually run on the Tohoku mainline through Kitakami.
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Sendai Utility Panel 

It's not really a manhole cover, but Sendai also has decorative access panels for their underground utilities.

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If the Shoe Fits, Make Sure It's Easy to Get Out Of, Too 

Even though I've lived here for almost a year, I'm still dealing with my stash of completely impractical shoes on a daily basis.

You see, while my Doc Martens combat boots, open-toed strappy sandals with three-inch heels, and knee-high zip-up boots are perfectly fine for an American life, they're not so great in Japan. Living here means taking your shoes off whenever you enter your house, someone else's house, and many restaurants. Most Japanese wear simple slip-on shoes or low shoes like oxfords that can be tied loosely enough to slip off and then on again with the aid of a shoehorn (everyone has a shoehorn). Mules and ballet flats are popular choices for women. They're often worn with very short socks so that when you take them off, you're not walking around in your bare feet or sticking them in community slippers.

I, on the other hand, am usually the last one into or out of the house or restaurant because I need to unzip or untie my boots. "I'll catch up" is my new mantra. The three-inch heels are generally fine, but being open toed, they don't really lend themselves to even tiny socks (although that doesn't seem to stop the Japanese). After an ego-destroying trip to try buying pants, I haven't tried to purchase any kind of clothing in Japan, so I'm still working with what I brought, practicality be damned. Also, I love my shoes, so they're staying.

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Car Wash 

Why shouldn't a car wash be tiny and pink?

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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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