Monday, December 10, 2007

Japanese Cheese

The Japanese don't appreciate cheese the same way Westerners do. At least, that's what I gather from shopping at local supermarkets here. In the States you can go to a your local Ralphs and find an entire display island of assorted cheeses with various sizes, colors, and flavors, but here, my "cheese section" consists of a couple different brands of maybe two or three cheese flavors, which are all pretty much the same flavor anyway: processed.

OK, none of this is really surprising. If you're at all familiar with Japanese cuisine, you should know that cheese isn't a big part of it (though glatin is pretty popular here). The real reason I'm posting is just to share this:

This bright red box caught my eye as I walked by the cheese and butter section. Closer inspection revealed a picture of pre-sliced cheese with a curious pink middle layer in every slice, and the word "ham" prominently displayed. Ham and cheese, together, in one stack of cheese-like slices, for the ham-and-cheese fan on the go. Of course, I added it to my basket.

All right, so it wasn't real ham. The box actually says "ham-flavored cheese" which may or may not be less strange. I still find the box interesting. Let's take a closer look:

Here you can see the distinct pink and white stripes labeled "ham flavored cheese in the center" and "60% gouda on the outside." Apparently being 60% real cheese is a selling point. What I really like, though, is the picture they have in the lower left corner. The ideal way to eat ham flavored cheese, apparently, is on a plate with some slices of real ham, some lettuce and olives, and a tall glass of beer.

Anyway, I'm just having some fun because I found something I'd never seen before. I know this isn't any more strange that some things we have in the States. It's certainly not as weird as our Jimmy Dean Chocolate Chip Pancakes and Sausage on a Stick.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Kanmanji Temple

I'm not sure what this little building was. It's not the temple itself.

Back when I went down to Kisakata to watch karate, I decided to stop by a temple that appeared on the tour map people were handing out at the train station.

I don't know much about the history of Kanmanji temple. There was a big sign near the entrance with a lengthy explanation, but it was filled with unknown kanji, and I didn't want to spend an hour translating it with my dictionary. Thus, unfortunately, I can't tell you who this guy is here:

I was able to look up some of the temple's past in its Wikipedia entry, which places the its origin over a thousand years ago, though I doubt any of the surviving buildings are that old. The gate, for example, is supposed to be 300-something years old:

There's no English entry for Kanmanji on Wikipedia, but if you want to have some fun, you can view the Japanese page translated by Google, which interprets Kanmanji as "perfused swastika." Disclaimer: Google translator doesn't work well with Japanese grammar or kanji.

Detail of some of the carvings on the gate.

This is a statue of Matsuo Basho, the famous traveling poet, most well-known for his collections of haikus. Kisakata was one of the northern-most points in his journey before he turned back southward.

There was a large graveyard sectioned off from the rest of the temple, but there were also some graves just in the entrance area.

People left flowers and cans of tea near the graves. Perhaps they got the tea from the vending machines at the entrance from the main road (vending machines are EVERYWHERE!)

These are all statues of the same guy: Jizo, the guardian of the spirits of children who die before their parents (including the spirits of children who die before birth). It is said that a child who dies before their parents is doomed to spend an eternity piling stones along a mythical river bank as penance for making their parents suffer. The parents pray to Jizo asking him to intervene, and he hides the children under his cloak, speaking mantras to them and leading them to the afterlife.

Correspondingly, the statues of Jizo often have babyish faces and are dressed in bibs or children's clothes.

Sorry. I don't know who this is.

For some reason, there was a whole clowder of cats in residence on the temple grounds. Here they are crowding around some food set out by one of the care-takers.

A large building, not the main temple

The main temple building. I saw a separate group of visitors approach the entrance and each, in turn, deposited some money and struck the hanging bell.

I'm sorry I haven't been posting all that often. Everything is going good and Minami High School is busy as ever. It's definitely been getting colder here and we've already had a good amount of snowfall. I'll try to update more often. Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 9, 2007


It turns out that the biggest jack-o-lantern I've ever made was in Japan. I brought in the pumpkin pictured above for my third-year class to carve, but it wasn't easy. It took two people, myself and another teacher, to lift it, and then we carted it to the classroom.

Everyone seemed to have a good time, though it was a little disorganized since it was so last-minute (I only managed to procure a pumpkin the day before, thanks to the other ALT who visits my school).

The class involved was my 3H class, hence the creative design for the nose and mouth. (The faces are censored because, technically, it's illegal to show recognizable pictures of your students online without parental consent).

I let them do everything themselves, although the partially mutilated top is mostly my fault. I got them started cutting the top off, but I started too high. After going around to some other students, I came back to find that, having been unable to remove the top completely, they had begun chipping away at the poor pumpkin's left lobe. So, we tried again lower, hence the scars around the top.

When they cut out the first piece from the face (the heart-shaped eye), they were almost more interested in the removed piece than the pumpkin itself. They held it up triumphantly and shouted "kawaiiiii!" (all girls). They thought it was so cute to have this little heart-shaped piece of pumpkin. As some of them continued to work on the pumpkin, others worked on the heart piece, boring out it's center to make it into a bowl and filling it with chopped-up pumpkin cubes like some kind of melon. They asked if they could eat it. I told them they weren't supposed to and they immediately went around offering some to other teachers in the halls.

I prepared a couple other activities for them to do while not working on the pumpkin, like this origami witch's cat design I found online.

It was mostly girls that got into the origami. Not surprisingly, the cats all came out rather well. In the end, none of them took their cat with them, and now I'm left with a drawer full of them.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Kokutai: Sumo

Yep, there's Sugichi again. Now, when your friends ask you if you've ever seen a sumo wrestling cedar tree, you can confidently answer, "Yes."

I've been lazy about getting this post up for no good reason, except that it means I have to look through the dozens of pictures and videos I took to choose the best ones-and I took a quite a lot of sumo.

Sumo was great! I think I'd have to say it was my favorite of the Kokutai events I saw (I liked Karate, but it didn't have the energy of sumo). For one thing, everyone's attention is focused on one center ring (dohyo), so when a match ends (and some did so spectacularly) the whole crowd reacts at the same time. In the meantime, people shout to their favored wrestler to "Go for it!" or say "You got it! You're all right!"

Teams of three wrestlers from each competing prefecture are welcomed by applause as they enter the arena. The dohyo had to be constructed for the event, according to official specifications. Every dohyo has a shrine-like roof suspended above the ring, with four different colored tassels hanging from each corner, representing the respective spirits of the four cardinal directions.

The beginning of a match seen from where we sat. Frank from Noshiro joined me in what we discerned to be the Akita section of the crowd on the second level.

Now, part of being a tall, light-haired foreigner in Japan is attracting curious, surprised, or suspicious glances, hearing the people nearby mutter things about you, or even burst into giggles for no other reason than the obvious. It should be no surprise that us gaijin get treated differently. Some love the attention. Personally, I think it gets a little tiring sometimes. Still, I'd be a hypocrite if I complained, since I can't honestly say that I've never taken advantage of being a foreigner when it's beneficial for me to do so:

"How much is this fruit?... Free? Oh, you shouldn't have!"

"What's that? It's OK that the machine ate my ticket? Thank you!"

-which brings me back to sumo. After a couple full tournaments, Frank decided to call it a day and left. I was about to follow suit when I decided I'd first check out the view from the standing area on the ground floor. Not twenty seconds after walking in was I approached and offered a place on one of the "benches" where some people sat and an unopened can of tea. So, I decided to stick around a bit, watching from my new viewpoint:

I conversed casually with the guy sitting to my left, asking him a few questions about sumo now and then. As it turned out, he lived just down the road, and was supplying lodging for the Hokkaido sumo team. I ended up staying to the end, after which he invited me to his house for dinner. My sense of modesty said no, but my desire for a unique Japanese experience said yes and we drove over to meet the rest of his family. I immediately felt guilty about accepting after entering their house. I found myself really wishing I had brought some nice gift with me to give them, but anyway, I tried to be a nice guest, enjoyed talking and eating with them, and made sure to get their address so that I can look them up in the future (and bring something to thank them).

Most matches ended with someone being pushed backward out of the ring, while others (like this one seen here) ended with someone just being completely thrown out. Some others ended with people falling forward on their face, backward off the stage, or being lifted up in a giant bear-hug by the other guy and just carried out (which always got a good reaction from the crowd!).

Some more pictures:

Sumo matches being as short as they are, I took over 40 videos of individual matches with my camera. Here's a few selections (linked to google video because there's a bunch):

Video 1 - The smaller guy manages to squirm around to get behind his opponent, making it easy to lead him out of the ring.

Video 2 - This match ends quickly when both guys fly out of the ring together. Notice that the match begins only when both opponents are touching the ground with both fists.

Video 3 - This guy was by far the smallest competitor there. All of his matches pretty much went like this one. We think maybe he was supposed to go to the athletics event and got lost.

Video 4 - Here's a pretty close match that Akita won. If you watch it, I think it's pretty clear that Akita wins as a direct result of Frank's and my cheering.

Video 5 - Another close match. This time, Akita lost.

Video 6 - There were a couple sections of bleachers occupied by kids on a field trip or something. They cheered for whoever was on their side of the arena, and pretty much didn't stop doing cheers the whole day.

And finally, here's Keiko and Tomomi, the mother and daughter of the family I visited. Tomomi must be the only Japanese person alive who can play the accordion.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Kokutai: Karate

I spent my first day off from work down in Kisakata, watching the karate events. Matches were held in four different rings simultaneously, and went on all day. First was men's kata (one person performing a predetermined array of moves on their own), followed by girls, boys, and women's sparring, as well as the first round of men's sparring at the very end.

Here's a wide shot of the whole place.

Halfway through the day, they took a break from the matches and presented the "Sugichi Dance," performed by a whole bunch of little kids and a guy in a Sugichi costume. Very cute. Here's a video:

Go team Akita! You're the best... around...

This is a video of one of the kata entries. Performing a kata is not unlike performing a piece of music. In both cases, you have to do a specific sequence of actions in order. This sequence can be written down, but ultimately must be memorized, or at least internalized through muscle memory (but it's not like karate practitioners can read a list of moves while they do them). The choice and order of the notes or moves isn't random (aleatoric music aside), but has a relative sense of progression. Also, there is a certain level of skill and exactness required to articulate notes and phrases just right, or to have a good stance and body movements. The whole performance has inherent dynamic variation, which it is the performer's job to emphasize and communicate in their performance. Still, there is plenty of room for creative interpretation- how fast/slow to perform certain moves, when to pause, when to kiai (shout), etc. Ah, I miss karate.

And finally, here's a clip of some sparring, or "kumite" (no, not the secret freestyle martial arts tournament in 'Bloodsport'). Sparring is pretty much a game of tag. Points are scored by striking the front torso above the belt, or the face. It's not really fighting, and it's not about hitting hard. Still, a few kids managed to get bloody noses, despite those clear face guards.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


(enormous dragon head at the Tazawa-ko train station)

About 45 km east of where I live is Lake Tazawa (Tazawa-ko), the deepest lake in Japan. It's kind of Tahoesque, with its clear water, surrounding mountains, and ski resorts in the winterdefinitely one of Akita Prefecture's most photographed and visited sites. I was really looking forward to going, and was glad when Rob, another ALT, organized a camping trip two weekends ago. I was even more glad when the typhoon approaching us at the time shifted northward leaving us with great weather for the weekend.

A (blurry) picture of the bungalows we stayed in.

On Saturday night, we had a wonderful potluck barbecue, thanks very much to Tristan, an ALT from Utah, who didn't stop chopping and grilling until everyone was eating. Then, we all went down to the lake's shore for a nice campfire. A few of us tried out the cold waters and experienced Lake Tazawa firsthand. It was incredibly peaceful just floating there, surrounded only by a starry gray sky and black mountains, reflected in the water all around.

A visitors' center near the campground.

The lake was just down the road.

On Sunday morning, we all split into separate groups. I went hiking with Rob, Tristan, Rheanna, and Mike, because I wanted to try out my new hiking boots, and because I was determined to get to the top of a mountain this time. As it turned out, we didn't need to do a whole lot of hiking (the bus took us most of the way up), but we got in some good exercise, saw some views, and had time for dinner and onsen (hot springs) afterward.

A deposit of volcanic rock or perhaps an alien landscape from Star Trek TOS.

Tazawa is surrounded by rows and rows of mountains, completely covered in deciduous trees and shrubs. Just imagine this view in the fall, when all the greens, blues, and purples turn red, orange, and yellow.

A channel carved out by lava on the side of a hill

A nice view of Lake Tazawa from a distance.

Some fall colors making an early appearance.

Some people hiking up a peak opposite from ours.

Making our way back down.

After hiking, we went to a cozy little spaghetti place whose walls were decorated with musical instruments. Then, three of us finished off the day with a trip to the onsen (my first!).

An onsen is a sort of bath house that uses the naturally heated water from local hot springs. First you undress (men and women are usually separate, but not always), then shower off, usually with a detached shower-head, sitting on a wooden stool. Then you go soak in the onsen, usually outside. You get a little towel to preserve some bit of modesty on your way to the baths, should you care.

The water in the onsen often contains minerals from the hot springs, which are supposed to be good for your skin. Ours was white and cloudy so that you couldn't see below the surface, and it had a faint odor (I hear some of them are pretty stinky!) The whole time, we were completely open to a cool breeze and a wonderful view of Lake Tazawa and the surrounding mountains, just as the sun was beginning to set.

This is from the bus ride back from the onsen. At this point, we were all too tired and relaxed to say anything. It was a nice way to end the day.