New Friends

the isawa family.jpgToday Julie and her family picked me up at the hotel and showed me a splendid day in Sendai. Her husband, Heizo, gave me a tour of his family’s sake factory; the Isawa’s have been making sake for over 300 years.

We began at the site of the older factory in Sendai, a building 150 years old, and then traveled to the newer site where he gave me an excellent tour and explained the steps in sake manufacturing. I sampled sake in various stages of fermentation, and also nibbled some processed rice.

heizo making sake.jpgFor lunch, we ate at a Japan version of Hometown Buffet, but one with much better food. Euka helped me choose from the vast array of food; she also checked off all of my selections on a menu so I could see how much I ate. Highlights included an egg soft boiled in the onsen (hot spring) waters, and dried tofu. Thankfully, I did not have to eat any natto.

We ended the day at the family home and Wakako showed me her pet dog (Celie), hamster, bird, and fish. Heiki shared some delicious treats from Kyoto, and Euka made me some matcha tea.

A truly memorable day. I feel like old school chums with Julie, and I enjoyed getting to know her beautiful family. I know we’ll visit each other many times, either in Japan or Yosemite.

Hachiko Vanishes!!!!!!!

210px-Hachiko-Shibuya.jpgForget the sushi, mochi, temples, shrines, and sake (well, maybe not the sake)—the Japanese experience at the top of my list for this trip was to stand next to Hachiko at Shibuya Station in Tokyo.

The “loyal dog Hachiko” is a beloved Japanese icon. Born in 1923, the purebred Akita would accompany his owner, Hidasaboru Ueno, to the train station every morning and wait for him to return in the afternoon. Ueno boarded the train one day in 1925 and never returned as he died of a heart attack. Hachiko, however, continued to wait at the station every day for ten years. A statue was erected at the station in 1934, and has become a landmark and popular meeting place.

200px-Hachiko.JPG.jpgThis morning’s Japanese Times headline: “Shibuya’s ‘loyal dog Hachiko’ Vanishes Overnight: Metal Thieves Suspected.” Teenagers gathered around the site of the empty pedestal and were close to tears. “Can somebody do something?” one sobbing girl pleaded. The theft has caused international outrage, and France has offered a temporary fix of a poodle. Japanese officials are already constructing an emergency plaster replacement.

images.jpgJack Bauer—this is a mission for you! Please take some time from finding the nuclear drone missiles that the terrorists have brought to the US, and forget about Audrey’s death and your traitor father. We need you in Japan to hunt down these heartless thieves!!!!! (yes, I am keeping up with 24 on my trip).

PS: This was a lame April Fool's Joke by the Japan Times. Hachiko LIVES!

A Perfect Birthday

I met Julie-san this evening for dinner and she provided me with the perfect dinner companion for my birthday in Japan. She is a friend of Kimi, my Japanese connection in Berkeley; I felt that we formed an instant friendship. Over a superb dinner of sashimi and tempura, along with freshly cooked tofu, we had a wonderful time. I drank a fair amount of her family’s excellent saki, along with an eggnog flavored saki that would be a bestseller in the US. Tomorrow I will meet her husband and children, but I owe her a big thanks for making my birthday a special occasion. Thank you, Julie!

I think I get two birthdays, as tomorrow is my official b-day in the US. I hope that means I get double the presents!

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A Japanese Home, Part III

family dinner in iwadeyama.jpgYesterday we arrived in Iwadeyma for a three-day stay. I am struck by the contrast between the landscape and the people between all three of our areas where we have traveled to date.

I (along with most of the world) tend to think of foreigners as a country of sameness, blurry and indistinct as individuals. This program is so valuable because despite the language barrier we discover we are all the same, with all the same hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

My host family for Iwedeyama has a modern house but retains the Japanese traditions. Nanri, the father, dotes on his dog Andy (named after Andy Williams) a large, lovable golden retriever with the biggest, saddest eyes I have ever witnessed on a dog. Mikiko, the mother, is a beautiful, quiet woman with a great smile. She is a wonderful cook who makes the most delicious breakfasts.

This morning we dined on eel (unagi) and dango, a special treat for my birthday. I’m not sure how many birthdays I'm allowed in Japan, but I am certainly taking advantage of the time zone difference to allow myself for he maximum gift giving!

Matsushima & Zuiganji

“Matsushima ya tsuru ni mi o kare hotogisu (the cuckoo bird cried, crane, lend me your beauty so as I will not be out of place in beautiful Matsushima),” wrote the poet Basho in the 17th century. Matsushima Bay contains over 260 stone islands and islets, decorated with evergreen trees, and shaped into unique forms by time, wind, and water. One of my favorite islands, Mehanashi-jima, (freed horse island), was where they sent horses who became old and could not work any longer. I could almost see the ghosts of the horses as we glided by on the boat, cantering around happily, unencumbered by harnesses.

The Japanese poetry in naming is like music to my literary ears. For instance, a tea room overlooking Matsushima Bay had a place the samurai kept their women called Kametaia, “a place to view the ripples in the water.”zuiganji temple.jpg

In the Zuiganji temple, two things stood out from the flood of knowledge I experienced. First, the wooden floor that sounded when you walked on it like a nightingale to warn you of your enemies. Second, the half jaguar, half tiger painting from the Edo period was truly a mythical, whimsical creation.

A few random mentions. Our guide, Hiromi Tankaka deserves a thanks. She gave us a wonderful tour of Zuiganji temple. An intelligent woman, she taught us much in fact and in memory. In the museum in the tea ceremony room, the two dragons represented the beginning and the end. And a stunning painting, a paper cut by Miyate Mamyuki caught my eye for the stark but remarkable interpretation of the Matushima Island.

A Japanese Family, Part II

Our new hosts, Yaegashi and Yuki Kunimitsu, have a large, beautiful home in Ogawara with a guest house big enough to lodge the entire team. Yaegashi owns a construction company, and we witnessed his impressive buildings all over the city. Yuki’s smile and bubbly laughter was infectious and I enjoyed being with her. Our last evening, the family hosted a Japanese barbeque in our honor. Their kindness almost drove me to tears. Yuki’s father, the chairman of the Kasho Sanzen factory, and I drank many glasses of saki and I sampled the Sendai specialty of Gyutan beef tongue (PETA please don’t revoke my membership!). At the end of the evening, the family presented us all with handcrafted music boxes, a gift I shall treasure.
japanese barbeque.jpg

Mochi Mania

at kasho sanzen factory.jpgIn Sendai, we visited the factory for the company Kasho Sanzen, the producers of the Hagino Tsuki cake, a specialty of Sendai. As the company brochure states, “People appreciate the harmony between soft sponge and original custard cream. Hagi no Tsuki is very popular among young ladies in Tokyo and their most favorite souvenir from all over Japan.” Hagi no Tsuki quickly replaced Kamome no Tamago (literally seagull eggs), confectionary sugar cakes shaped like eggs that taste like dunkin donut munchkins, as our favorite snack.

The company is extremely well run and the owner and director gave us the grand tour. Aside from their specialty, they also produce 160 kinds of cake at the rate of over 100,000 pieces a day. I think we sampled most of the types; at 10:00 am in the morning we were treated to two kinds of mochi, three cakes, matcha tea, and coffee. I don’t think I’ve ever consumed so much sugar in one setting. We also toured the tea ceremony room, where business meetings and brainstorming sessions are held; not sure how it would go over with the YA staff, but it’s a great idea.

Hago no Tsuki has a ten-day shelf life, so I’ll try to pick up a box at the airport before I leave so you can all sample this delicious food.

Jukebox Heroes

Our last night in Miyako, we gave our first presentation to the Rotary groups at our farewell dinner. After a distinctly American menu of cheese, sausage, spaghetti, and smoked chicken, we partook in the popular Japanese pastime of karaoke. My sake intake was high, so somehow I found myself in front of forty Japanese people singing a rousing rendition of John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane.” Nothing like music to bridge the cultural divide! To my utter disbelief, I was greeted with a round of applause and a high score. For just a few moments I had visions of touring with U2…maybe, just maybe!

beth pretends she can sing.jpgAfter the club members had departed for the evening, our team continued our karaoke party until midnight with our interpreter, Shunsuke. I am ashamed to admit songs like “Careless Whisper” and “Beth,” made it on our play list, but we ended the evening with a nice sing along to John Lennon’s “Imagine”—certainly appropriate given Rotary’s mission of promoting peace and understanding. The next evening, during our stay at Amihari National Park, we once again broke out the Karaoke machine. I especially enjoyed hearing John Denver’s “Country Road” being sung in Japanese.

Earthquake Update

I've received lots of emails about my well-being given the recent earthquake in Japan. Glad to know you all care! We are far to the north of the quake. The main island of Japan is about the size of California--I am in an area analogous to Redding, while the quake site is located about where Fresno is.

Really, I Am Sort of Working (When I Am Not Eating)

our team with park ranger.jpgI would be remiss if I didn’t at least briefly mention the professional exchange portion of my trip. Although it seems like all we do is eat and drink (which is somewhat true—I have been full since I got off the plane), I actually am learning quite a bit about the Japanese business community. In Miyako, we took a boat ride at Jodogahama Beach in Rikuchu kaigan National Park, and met with Kenzo Kamada, a park ranger for the area. A staggering statistic: over 5% of Japanese land is designated as a National Park.

We joined the local community at Seatopia, a government funded sea water therapy center, and jogged around the circular pool in the salty water (okay, maybe that’s stretching the professional development category). We also met with Miyako’s mayor, toured a sake factory, and visited a nursing home. My favorite trip was to the meteorological weather station; the director showed us the monitoring instruments onsite and joked about mammatus being “boob” clouds.

My Japanese Family

my host family kikuchi san.jpgIn my first home-stay, I could not have been matched with a more perfect host family. Choemon and Isuana Kitcuchi have become life-long friends over the past two days, and I know I will return with Shad to visit them again. Gracious and generous hosts, they made me feel truly welcome in their home.

Kitcuchi-san tends a magnificent garden, complete with a pond, birch trees (shirakaba), cherry trees (sakura), and a statue of tanuki, a badger-like creature popular in Japanese mythology who stretches his testicles into wings so he can fly (I am not making that up). I have promised to visit in the spring to see her garden in full bloom. Kikicho-san possesses a samurai sword collection and likes to drives sports cars—we had great discussions about how fast I have driven my Subaru WRX.

Their magnificent home overlooks Miyako and exemplifies the serene beauty of the Japanese aesthetic; it evoked a meditative and contemplative mood in me due to its peaceful and harmonious design. I loved walking on the heated floors in the morning, or sliding the doors lined with rice paper as I entered and exited every room, and my cozy futon bed on tatami mats cured my insomnia. my host family room of ancestors.jpg

One morning before breakfast I accompanied their daughter-in-law to the room of their ancestors, where I watched as she lit incense and made an offering of food and water. The room displayed paintings and photographs from three generations of their family. The whole slipper thing, however, continued to elude me, as I kept losing my slippers in the house as I moved from room to room. I’ll have to work on my slipper retention skills.

On my second evening we hit the town in earnest and began with a dinner at Yakitori Torimoto, a chicken barbeque. Accompanying us was Ali, a British citizen who has been teaching English in Miyako since August. He possessed that hopeful energy one only has at 21, and I enjoyed his company. He also helped me immensely with my Japanese. The chef cooked the meal at the table, and we dipped the tender chicken and vegetables in raw egg before we ate it. I drank doburoko, a milky white sake that continues to ferment in the stomach and shochu, a sweet potato based wine.

Kikucho-san decided I need to complete my Japanese indoctrination by sampling blowfish and sea urchin, so we walked to a sushi restaurant in town. The sea urchin (umi) was simply scrumptious, very rich and buttery. Next came the hire sake (sake with blowfish in it); I lit it with a match to heat it, and then took a sip. lighting the blowfish sake.jpgAfter my first sip, Ali said that if I started feeling a shortness of breath, I was probably done for. Not a comforting thought! In Japan, restaurants have to be certified to serve blowfish because of the extreme toxins it produces. Needless to say, I did live to tell the tale.

For our last stop, we walked to a nearby jazz bar as Kikucho-san wanted to buy me an Irish whiskey to celebrate. There is certainly something a bit surreal about listening to John Coltrane while sipping Baileys in a Japanese bar after eating blowfish.

Miyako by the Sea

I just returned from a jovial evening in our new host city of Miyako. After a warm welcome and fabulous dinner by the local rotary group, we accepted an invitation from rotary member Katsushi to finish the evening by visiting his bar. Our team, along with several other rotary members, enjoyed an assortment of specialty drinks that Katsushi himself prepared. katsushi san.jpg

The Japanese culture of seamlessly blending ascetic appreciation into every aspect of life extends to drinking as well. Katushi prepared not just drinks, but meaningful works of art that we wanted to admire instead of consume. He served us a blue grapefruit cocktail with the fruit garnish carved into the shape of dolphins and fish. Next came an intricate fruit blend that took him 15 minutes to prepare: he hollowed out an apple and topped off the drink with a decorative cherry tree (sure beats writing your initials in Guinness foam). sakura specialty.jpg The drink, he told us, expresses the Japanese mind. For the last course, he carved a grapefruit skin in the shape of a dragon for our team leader Andy, as it represented good luck and safe travels. When I return home, my usual drink at the local pub is definitely going to suffer from comparison.

Tomorrow we will begin our first home stay, and we’ll also be celebrating the spring equinox by taking a boat ride in Rikuchu kaigan national park.

Morioka Moments

Sipping tea in my cozy nest of a room at the New Hotel Carina in Morioka while staring out over the frosted city. The sun, slowly but surely, has risen in the sky, yet it hasn’t prevailed over the chilled air. Last night I slept fairly well, as our guide, Takashi Okada’s advice about drinking lots of sake and pulling a late night definitely worked.

Takashi has been an amazing host. He’s a lively man with a fun sense of humor, whether teasing Andy about his size 14 shoes or trying to convince us (unsuccessfully) about the virtues of natto. Today, after we viewed, quite incredulously, a display of smoked eggs, he dashed into a small store and purchased some for us to try. Our Guide Takashi.JPG
Yesterday he took us to the Sakurayama Shrine and when we inquired about Japanese writing, he secured a paper and brush pen and wrote all of our names in all three styles of Japanese charcters: katakana, hiragana, and kanji. Kanji is more than a language, it’s artistic expression, and it’s a prime example of the importance of aesthetics to the Japanese people. A few minutes later Takashi’s cell phone rang “Take My Breath Away,” by Berlin and I had to laugh as the song sounded. A strange juxtaposition of 80’s music and centuries old art.

A rotary exchange is truly something to behold. Andy, our group leader, has used the phrase, “family of Rotarians” and it certainly applies. We’ve received the royal treatment and everyone we’ve met has gone out of his or her way to make this trip enjoyable.

This morning I took a walk in Iwate Park, which is built on the ruins of Morioka Castle on a hill overlooking the confluence of three rivers: Kitakami, Nakatsu-gawa and Shizu Kushi. Nestled in downtown Morioka, the park contains many winding paths, a totem pole, a missing horse statue (melted down during WWII for iron), and a memorial to the poet Takaboka Ishikawa.

During my morning walk, people greeted me with a friendly good morning—being one of the few non-Japanese in the entire city has made me the object of much curiosity. I strolled along the Nakatsu-gawa River and watched the ducks swim. Dogs abounded, their owners taking them out for their morning walk. (One truth is universal—no matter where you are, everybody loves dogs.) A designated swan migration area exists along the Kitakami River, and a flock of the graceful white birds flew overhead while I walked.

Later in the day Takashi drove us to the Morioka Handi Craft Square, where we made our own rice crackers, sampled dango (a popular food of rice balls on sticks covered with the sauce of your choice), and made tie-dyes at Nambu Kodaizome. Making Tie Dye.JPGIn the square we also toured a Nambu Magariya, a traditional Japanese farmhouse. The barn and house are built together; I would like waking up and seeing my horse in the same room! On the way back to our hotel, we stopped by Koiwai Farm, a beautiful parcel of land surrounded by the Kitakami Mountains.

Our dinner last night, termed by Takashi as the “Mt. Everest” of Japanese meals, will be very difficult to top. Takashi ordered every delicacy for us to sample: hoya (sea cucumber), squid, roasted bamboo, seaweed salad, crab, tuna, etc. I had about 50 glasses of sake and feasted on the most delicious oysters I’ve ever tasted. The grand finale? A giant dessert of battered covered ice cream in the shape of Half Dome.

Tomorrow we journey to Miyako, on the coast. Stay tuned for more fun adventures!

Rotary Welcome

rotary team welcome.jpg As we emerged from the gate at the Hanamaki Airport, a group of cheering Rotarians holding banners and flowers welcomed us to their country. The district governor and his wife, Akihiko and Hisae Kasai, along with Rotary members from all over the district, had come to greet us. Hisae adorned us with fresh flowers and some children presented us with origami they had made. What a wonderful, warm welcome!

Sleepless in Osaka

We arrived safely in Osaka yesterday afternoon (or at midnight-depending on your time zone preference). After eight months of planning, our wonderful trip has finally become a reality.

The eleven hour flight went quicker than I expected, my utter exhaustion and the menu of movies a definite help. On my own personal screen, I watched Night at the Museum and Marie Attoinette (I’m looking forward to the James Bond flick and “Shut up and Sing” on the way home).

After our long plane ride, my teammate Alisha and I ventured forth into the unknown city of Osaka for a run and discovered an American shopping center, complete with the Gap and Brooks Brothers. For a moment we thought we were still in Modesto! I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a meal of spring rolls and hot tea at the Skye Bar on the top of the Ana Gate Hotel in Osaka. How’s that for bridging the cultural divide? It’s 5:00 am here, but Echo and I have been up since 2:00 am—sleeping in the afternoon is tough. I am reminded again of the movie Lost in Translation, as Bill Murray could never sleep. Japan will be doubly tough on my insomnia.

We’re off to Morioka this morning, but I’ll post more soon!

Japanese 101

My wonderful Japanese friend Kimi opened her home to our Rotary group last weekend for a brief training on Japanese culture. She prepared a “sushi buffet”—temaki—where we rolled our own sushi using dried seaweed wraps, an assortment of fish and vegetables, and rice. As she explained, making sushi can be a time consuming process, so a temaki party is common practice as it’s a lot less work. We sipped genmai cha (brown rice tea) and nibbled on delicious mochi (sweet pastries made from rice paste).

During the meal, Kimi and her husband Richard gave us pointers on Japanese etiquette and also tips on what dishes we might wish to avoid; natto, fermented soybeans, ranked high on the list. To be fair, we all did try the natto. Although it’s supposed to be quite healthy, the strong flavor and slimy texture makes it truly an acquired taste (though I doubt I will ever acquire it). After lunch we had a field trip to Tokyo Fish, a Japanese grocery store in Berkeley, where I stocked up on tea, Pocky, and mochi.

Later that evening, Kimi and another friend, Rosemary, treated me to a Taiko drum performance by the Japanese ensemble Kodo at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. I watched the performance in awe, struck by the contrast of the athletic effort exerted to produce the thunderous drumbeats and its oddly relaxing and meditative affect. In one composition, the artists used small drums and mimicked the sound of falling rain, producing soft footsteps and working up to a crescendo of a deafening downpour. What a beautiful ballet of dancers and drums.

A Visit From the Japanese

This week, I had an opportunity to meet with a delegation of Japanese who had traveled to Yosemite for training with the National Park Service. Led by Prof. Takeshi Kobayashi from the Gifu Academy of Forest Science and Culture, the seventeen group members, many who work in Japanese national parks, attended a week-long seminar entitled, “Integrating Research with Interpretation in National Parks.” Chris Stein, Chief of Interpretation for Yosemite, was kind enough to include me in the training knowing that I’d benefit from the chance to try out my Japanese.

Japanese interpreters.jpg

Mike Tollefson, Yosemite’s Park Superintendent, hosted a fun welcome gathering at his home for the group for their first evening. Although I was humbled immediately by my inability to understand any of the sentences the translator uttered, I did try to impress the group by saying the Japanese word for “dog” (inu—the one word I have absolute confidence in pronouncing), whenever possible. After we completed our introductions, we sampled excellent saki in Yosemite themed shot glasses and exchanged gifts in the Japanese tradition.

The absolute high point of the evening arrived when two young men from the group inquired about one of the fine pieces of artwork in Mike’s home—beautiful carvings on a “tusk.” What animal did I think the tusk came from? An innocent enough question, but when I checked with Mike for answer, he began chuckling. “It’s the penis bone from a walrus,” he replied. That’s a word I had not yet learned. In the spirit of providing good and accurate interpretation, however, I bravely conveyed the truth back to the students, trying not to blush. Sign language definitely helped bridge the language barrier in this instance.

On Thursday, I spoke to the group about the role of our cooperating association in supporting education and interpretation in the park. The portable backpacker’s bear canister was an object of fascination and interest; apparently the bears have been learning from their American counterparts and food hung from trees is no longer safe. I told the students how the NPS and YA had focused on visitor education to help keep human food away from the bears.

What a great group! I enjoyed their enthusiasm and look forward to visiting some of my new friends when I am in Japan.

Lost in Translation

Last week I really felt I had made much progress in learning Japanese. After dedicating an hour to language skills each day, I had improved enough to be able to speak some sentences to my very confused dogs. Alas, it was a short-lived confidence. My new lesson demonstrated the infinite complexity of Japanese. For example, the language does not have any words for “a” or “the”, so when you refer to an object, you have to use the words for “this” or “that.” Sounds simple enough, but there’s a catch! The word for this or that varies depending on both what the object is and the distance of the object from the speaker. I am doomed!

At the very least, I am comforted knowing my struggle to learn the Japanese language won’t cause me to starve in Japan. A devoted sushi eater (a rare trait for a native New Englander raised on meat and potatoes) since a friend dared me to eat a piece in college while we were both slightly inebriated, I can rattle off sushi orders in Japanese at light speed—ebi, unagi, tekka, hamachi, etc.. Whether I’ll be able to understand anything beyond a menu in a sushi restaurant once I get off the plane in Tokyo remains to be seen.

Actually, there is a beautiful symmetry to the Japanese language that as I writer I find very poetically appealing. In Rōmaji, a Japanese spelling based on the Roman alphabet, the vowels dominate and the resulting sound (when pronounced correctly) resembles a song. True, it’s a song I can’t understand, but as any fan of opera knows, you can appreciate the music even if you have no idea what the words mean.

While I am on the subject of songs, if one more person starts singing that annoying Styx song from the 80’s when I tell them I am going to Japan, I might get violent. (A close second is another bad tune from the 80's: "Turning Japanese.") First, since I graduated from high school in 1987 I had to live through the awful music of the 80's, so enough is enough. Second, your best response at demonstrating your knowledge of the Japanese culture is quoting bad music? Even just informing me you drive a Subaru would be an improvement.

One last thought: Maybe someone in Japan will know what Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation.