For all the complaining we've been doing about the cold (and now that our friend Christina has been visiting for almost a week, there's been half again as much commentary), it does have its benefits. For example, visiting onsen is much, much more awesome in the snow. You're wicked cold when you first enter the building, and then again when you change to wash, but sitting in the bath heats you to the core. Then you're warmed through, and ready to go out in the snow again.
Even better is sitting in a rotenburo, or outdoor bath. The water is nice and hot, the air refreshing and cold. Falling snow sublimates on the surface of the bath, melting a little more slowly on your skin. If you're lucky, you can see a beautiful, white mountain from your seat, maybe crowned with the glittering lights of the traditional Japanese inn (ryokan). The cold is an integral part of the experience ¡½ so much that you don't mind the slushy roads that take you there, then lead you home.
Right before I left Washington, I paid one last visit to my fantastic stylist. My hair never looked so good until I started going to Vera (although I had much better stories about the abusive French stylist I saw prior to her), so it was with much sadness and apprehension that I got my last trim. After all, I was leaving her care for a nation composed almost entirely of people with thick, shiny, stick-straight hair. What was a curly-haired girl going to do? Two years is a little long to go without a haircut, even for me (which was a point of contention with the abusive French stylist).
Perms are very popular in Japan, so someone suggested that I find a stylist who cuts permed hair. Fortunately, I was able to find something better. As it turns out, my Japanese teacher's stylist is a Japanese woman with naturally curly hair, which is pretty unusual. Clearly, she was the stylist for me. So, I pushed past the nerves, scheduled an appointment over the phone (Woo-hoo! I made an appointment over the phone!), and got my first haircut in Japan today.
I highly recommend the Japanese haircut. There's lots of head massage action involved, and very close attention to the look of the cut, down to the individual hairs. Also, there's lots of head massage action. It looks and moves like a good cut, though I won't know for sure until I try to do something with it tomorrow. Yay for the J-haircut!
Sponge cakes with strawberries, whipped cream, and placards
Cheesecakes with gold dust for holiday snackers
Chocolate yule logs with Santas and sleighs
These are a few of the cakey displays . . .
Here in Japan, no Christmas is complete without a Christmas cake. Christmas cake
is traditionally sponge cake with whipped cream and strawberries. It has morphed into far more extravagant things, like cheesecakes or chocolate cakes covered in ganache (melted chocolate mixed with cream, and sometimes liqueur). You can also get them decorated with white chocolate Mickey-head plaques or holiday wishes from Kitty-chan
Grocery stores, conbini
, and patisseries
have had these glossy brochures out for about three weeks now, advertising their scrumptious holiday wares.
I have no idea what those "targets" are there for, but they sure make this tree look like some kind of monster from Doctor Who.
Based on the earlier-than-normal snowfall, it seems that we're in for a long, cold Tohoku winter. At home, we're living under the kotatsu, small space heater at our sides. We wear long underwear to bed and burrow deep within our doubled duck-down kakebuton. The dogs seem to appreciate the heated electric carpet we obtained from a departing expatriate. That's how you know it's really honking cold: the Akita inu, who should be adequately coated for the winter, are digging on the heated carpet. We know it's cold because we can see our breath inside the house when we wake up in the mornings. Yeeks.
The change from Fahrenheit to Celsius exacerbates the feeling of coldness. When I started the car yesterday, the temperature gauge flashed at me: 1.0C, 1.0C, 1.0C. Later, it flashed at me again: 0.5C, 0.5C, 0.5C. These are temperatures slightly above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, which we've clearly experienced, but seeing them expressed in single or fractional digits makes them seem significantly colder. Soon, we'll be in negative temperatures; I wonder if the car will find those flashworthy.
Still, we and other locals continue to travel on our bikes. Yesterday, I saw a guy riding home in the snow, carrying three big daikon in the basket on the front of his bike. There's certainly a different kind of "normal" here than we're used to...
What we're thankful for:
- Friends and family who said, "Go and have fun!"
- Friends and family who added, "And don't forget to come back."
- The "moving crew" of friends and family who helped get everything in storage.
- The neighbor who drove Stefanie to the airport when her taxi didn't show up.
- Small neighborhood restaurants like Funabatei where you can go for really good eats and friendly people who make you feel welcome.
- That Matthew chose to work for James English School instead of Nova.
- Hot coffee in cans from vending machines.
- Happy, healthy dogs enjoying our adventure with us.
- A kotatsu.
- Inexpensive organic rice from an English student who is a rice farmer.
- Our new friends here who patiently show us the ropes, tolerate our mistakes, and give us vegetables.
- Getting back that childlike feeling that the world is full of new and exciting things.
- We've got each other, and that's a lot. (For love, we'll give it a shot!)
One of the charms of small, rural towns in Japan is the public music. In Kitakami, music plays from a central location every day at noon and then again at five, seven, and nine o'clock in the evening. We are told that the music may have been used to help farmers to tell time in the days before watches. Today, it's mostly a lovely thing to hear in daily life ¡½ another of those little touches of "old" Japan.
The music differs from place to place. An American who lived in a small town to the north spoke of hearing, among other songs, "Greensleeves" at seven o'clock. Kitakami Yakyoku
, or "Kitakami Night Song," is the song we hear everyday. You can hear a sung version of it here
We've gotten varying stories on when the snow comes to Kitakami. Mostly, we'd been told the first snow is usually near the end of December, or not until January. But another local said it usually snows around the end of November or beginning of December. So we didn't really know what to expect.
called for some snow flurries in the middle of the night. So, we were a little surprised that when we went out to meet some friends at 5pm, there was snow already falling, and by the time we returned home, there was even some on the ground.
This morning we awoke to six inches of snow on the ground, and big flakes still falling! Eventually the snow got much lighter and the sun came out, so we walked the dogs.
"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.