"Okame, kame, kame, uma nat-TOU!"
The music in Japanese grocery stores is insidious. It's not like the Muzak/adult contemporary/soft rock stuff that plays in American grocery stores. It's more like 1970s game show music interspersed with 1950s product jingles, on constant loop. And each store has its own unique selections, further lending to the ambiance of the store (e.g., the JOIS has the checkers wearing mint-green flight attendant uniforms AND sounds like the set of "The Price is Right").
Additionally, there often will be tape recorders scattered throughout the store, eternally playing advertisements for whatever product they're nearest to. The nattou ad at the nearby grocery store is especially fiendish. You say, "I have the nattou song from the Big House stuck in my head," and everyone knows what you mean. And then they sing along.
"Okame, kame, kame, uma nat-TOU!"
Chrysanthemums are in season now, and some people are very serious about cultivating them.
These ones are part of an array that runs the length of the house behind them. They're a welcome shot of color on a gray day like today.
Saturday Night Cooking Club
Since our first trip to Father Hige's restaurant
, we've kind of become regulars there. We'll drop by after work every so often for a drink, some really good cooking, and an animated chat at the bar. On Saturday night, we went there again with some friends.
After a couple of hours of joking banter, talk naturally turned to Japanese food. I mentioned that I Ioved cooking, and that as part of my culinary explorations, I was going to begin making nuka-zuke
(rice bran pickles) the next day. First, however, I needed to obtain some seaweed to go in the pickling mash. Much to my surprise, Hige-oyaji
kindly gave me a big piece of the necessary seaweed, along with a piece of a different type of the same seaweed. He and one of our friends then proceeded to give me a tutorial on cooking nabe
(hotpot dishes) with it, complete with little drawings.
At the same time, Matthew and another member of our group were involved in an intense discussion about the proper vessel for shio-zuke
, or salt pickling. Shio-zuke
, our companions had explained, is the traditional Tohoku pickling technique ― rice bran pickling is more common in the Kanto (greater Tokyo area, generally) and Kansai (area including Kyoto and Osaka) regions. Wooden tubs are needed for proper salt-pickling because they encourage the right kind of fermentation. Using a synthetic tub just gets you salty vegetables.
Today, the nuka-zuke
bed is in its fourth day of development. Thanks to our friends, we'll also be exploring shio-zuke
On sunny days, everyone hangs their laundry out to dry and their futons out to air. We're no exception.
(like comforters) are very fat and fluffy because we've put both layers in the set together for the winter.
I'm afraid of the dark. It doesn't take much to freak me out at night, especially here, where the streetlights are few and far between. On my way to meet Matthew for dinner after work one night, I had a frightening experience that I recall even now, whenever I hear a specific sound.
I was crossing the large street near our house when I first saw the unmarked white truck. It had a red lantern hanging off the back, and played an eerie bamboo flute melody over and over. Low, then high, then low to high again, trilling. It passed me, and I crossed the street, thinking what a curious thing it was. As I walked alone through the darkened streets toward Matthew's office, I heard the melody again. And again. Over and over, low to high, haunting. One street over, the unmarked white truck with the red lantern moved in parallel.
After a few more repetitions of the melody, I started to get nervous. The streets were empty, save for me and the lantern truck. For a city, Kitakami is remarkably quiet, which made the mysterious flute even more unnerving. And it was dark, and the streets were unfamiliar, so I couldn't escape it by choosing an alternate route. I kept moving.
Walking. Red lantern glowing, one street over. Flute playing, haunting, low to high. What was this thing, and why was it stalking me?
By the time I reached the school, my nerves had mostly receded, along with the music. As I told Matthew and his co-worker my scary tale, the music began again, drawing closer. The truck crawled into sight, red lantern glowing, slowing to a stop below the window. It had come:
The mobile ramen shop.
In America, manhole covers are a largely ignored part of the urban landscape. They are quite plain, bearing little more than a note of what utility it serves and a tread pattern so that pedestrians won't slip.
In Japan, though, each municipality has manhole cover designs that reflect local specialties, historical sites, or festivals. Whatever a town is famous for may end up on the manhole covers.
Here's one of Kitakami's designs:
And one from Hottoyuda, famous for its hot springs:
And one from Yokote, depicting Yokote Castle, a kamakura (snow hut), and cherry blossoms:
Matthew and I finally got around to doing some karaoke together this weekend at a pub/snack downtown. As I understand it, most karaoke in Japan these days occurs in small private rooms (or "boxes") within clubs, rather than out in the open like in America. This pub/snack owner loves music, however, so she has an extensive karaoke setup in the main part of her small establishment ― big screen TV, remote controls with touchpads for researching the listings and reserving songs, and portable mics. Matthew had been here before, during his solo stint in Kitakami, and wanted to return. The owner was friendly, quick with the imo shochu (sweet potato liquor), and insistent upon the karaoke.
With her encouragement, we blew through a diverse selection of songs, including a touching duet on Bon Jovi's "Livin' On a Prayer." There was some Carpenters, there was some Ramones; there was ABBA, there was Heart. If I recall correctly, we did the Doors and the Pet Shop Boys back-to-back. I got up enough courage to do some songs in Spanish. The owner was impressed enough with my "Cielito Lindo" to strongarm me into doing a song with her ― in Portuguese. That did not go so well.
We closed out our set with The Clash, "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" But we had made our decision ― it was time to go.
We've had some beautiful weather lately, perfect for taking the dogs on long walks. Whether truly clear or decorated with wispy clouds, there's something that makes the skies here special: no contrails. There have been a few days when planes are flying over (we aren't far from Iwate Hanamaki Airport) and the weather conditions create contrails, but it's very rare.
Behold, the kotatsu
is a low table frame covered by a blanket, which the tabletop sits on. A heat source is located somewhere under the table; ours is electric, and is bolted to the frame. You sit with your legs (or more, if you like) under the blanket, which traps the heat. Like many houses in Japan, ours lacks central heat and much in the way of insulation, so we've stocked up on things like heaters in preparation for the winter. Frankly, even if we had heat, I'd want a kotatsu
― it's all fuzzy and cozy and warm.
I hesitate to put this in the "Strange Japan" category, because what it really deserves is an "Awesome Japan" category. I love the kotatsu
Is there anything you're planning to do "someday"?
Last May, we traveled to northern Japan. It was an amazing experience, and afterwards we sometimes talked about the possibility of moving there. Then, in October, we decided we would actually do it — "someday".
That "someday" was comforting. No hurries, nothing that needed to be done right then. We had plenty of time to get our affairs in order, save money, and prepare ourselves. We were able to think of ourselves as bold, adventurous people — "We made this momentous decision!" — without having to actually do anything about it.
Just a few days later, a year ago today, everything changed. Life presented us with a crossroads, and forced us to make a choice. It was time to really commit, if we were seriously going to do this.
But what if that hadn't happened? Where would we be today? Would we still be in Maryland, making our plans to move to Japan "someday"? Would that "someday" ever have come?
If we could do something when we had to make a choice, why couldn't we do it without life forcing the issue? What were we waiting for?
What are you waiting for?