Archive for May, 2007

So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish

Thursday, May 17th, 2007 by Steph

I love conveyor belt sushi. It’s great because it’s a) fun and b) I can afford to eat it every week. It also happens to be at the only place in town where you can purchase a bottomless cup of soda (a proud American tradition whose absence I mourn in Japan). I’ve become such a regular that the veteran sushi chef behind the counter meets me with a smile when I come in, and nonchalantly places my favorite items on the conveyor belt in front of me. He doesn’t speak, but you can tell what he’s thinking: “I’m not saying you WANT the salmon, I’m just saying you’ve eaten like 20 pieces of it in my store in the last month. Let it cruise on by if you want, it makes no difference to me…”

Conveyor Belt Sushi Place recently opened up a sister store nearby, and I thought I would give it a go in the spirit of loyal patronage. The new place definitely had a different feel; it was more open, had cooler music, brighter lighting, and a comfortable waiting area for hoards of customers that would inevitably come.

My ritual for conveyor belt sushi is usually this: sit, grab an empty cup, a green tea bag, and a soy sauce bowl from the small conveyor belt just over the counter. Snag a tube of wasabi passing by on the upper conveyor belt. Get hot water for tea from the spigot placed just in front of the customer at the counter. Grab ginger and soy sauce from containers at the counter, just to the right of my elbow. Proceed to eat boatloads of sushi. It’s a whole beautiful choreographed dance of deliciousness.

But at the New Sushi Place, everything was subtly different. I didn’t realize how much I’d come to depend on these small details. No wasabi on the conveyor belt. No tea bags, no spigot. Where was everything? I couldn’t begin my meal until I’d found and assembled these basic raw materials. I located small bowl and filled it with soy sauce, but was then stumped at how to proceed. I then spied a small bowl of green powder with a tiny spoon. Ah! This must be wasabi powder, just like the tin in my spice cupboard at home! I took a spoonful, dumped it in my soy sauce.

When the Japanese couple next to me fought valiantly not to snicker, I realized to my horror what I’d done: I put green tea powder in my soy sauce. Let me say that one more time, so it really hits home: green tea and soy sauce. I’m pretty sure that’s a bad combination world-over, no matter where you come from. The kanji on the receptacle’s lid, which I hadn’t bothered reading, was now glaringly obvious.

After living in Japan for almost a year, I kind of thought I was beyond making these elementary gaijin mistakes. I probably should have been deported for such a culinary transgression. Instead, my neighbors at the sushi counter kindly averted their eyes, and pretended like nothing had happened.

Thanks for the fish, New Place, but I think I’m going back to my reliable sushi standby.

Check, please.

Bell Metro

Tuesday, May 15th, 2007 by Chris

I just stumbled upon this wonderful article by Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post Magazine of April 8, 2007. In January, the paper organized a “stunt” with Joshua Bell, the world-famous violinist, to play for an hour at a D.C. subway station during morning rush hour. The results are heartbreaking (in a good way) and I think you will enjoy this article, especially if you are a musician of any sort.

“It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . .”

The word doesn’t come easily.

“. . . ignoring me.”

Bell is laughing. It’s at himself.

“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

Read more…

Pedal Pusher

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007 by Steph

The weather’s been warming up, which means I can locomote by bike again! Biking to school is so much more enjoyable than driving. I pass all sorts of businesspeople, also on bikes, on the way to their jobs. We bow and smile and “Ohio gozaimasu” to each other. I see grandmas getting up to care for their property, shop owners tidying up, cats on the prowl.

Most kids pedal their way to school, as Noshiro is small enough to navigate entirely by bike. I pass every sort of plaid on my way to work… it’s kind of like Scotland and tartans, only here it’s kids and school-specific plaid uniforms. As I get within a few blocks of my school, I start to see my students. They’re always surprised to see me…. maybe adults are supposed to be in cars? They know I have one… perhaps they wonder why I’m slumming it with them? It’s an easy answer: one part California hippie fossil fuel consciousness and one part exercise.

I’ve never really been inspired to burn calories via bike. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived in car-infested areas like Berkeley or San Diego or LA where you suck up more fumes than anything else. However, I just read the account of a woman, just out of college, who biked the Silk Road with a few friends in China. 5,000 kilometres in 4 months, riding through punishing mountainous terrain in Eastern China. This adventure has inspired me to rediscover Japan by bike. If only I had the vacation time, I would circumnavigate Hokkaido, complete the 88 temple pilgrimage in Shikoku, and do laps around Lake Biwa. For now, I’ve settled for rediscovering the countryside around me.

After 9 months here, I figured I pretty much knew everything there was to know about Noshiro. But there are those little streets between the arteries that still beg for exploration. I’ve found new temples and shrines in neighborhoods tucked away in the rural expanse. I’ve discovered beautiful tiny access roads that drift between the rice fields, which have all just been flooded with water for the upcoming planting season. I’ve biked to the next closest city, about 25 km to the east, following the serpentine Yoneshiro river. Along the river is an overgrown forgotten park full of blooming cherry trees and dilapidated playground equipment. Clusters of vertical polished stones indicate a small graveyard here or there.

In the middle of my ride, I stopped to talk to some older ladies to ask where I was, as I’m not sure where my town Noshiro ends and the next, Futatsui, begins. When I asked these women where I was, they said something like “Noshiro inaka desu yo!” and cackled, which roughly translates to “man, you’re in deep-country-side-boondocks-Noshiro!”

Farmers in their tractors pass me on the road, calling out to ask me if I’m tired or cold (no to both!). Farmers farther off in their fields bow slightly in my direction as I pass and do the same. I watch as everyone manicures their rice and vegetable fields, leveling the wet heavy muck, or patiently hoeing the dirt into rows for produce. The birds are out, grey herons and white egrets that stumble warily out of the river brush as I ride by.

I am falling in love with Tohoku all over again as green overtakes the countryside, and spring slowly manifests itself. And I can’t wait to see what happens next, what lies around the next curve.

Chasing Hanami

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007 by Steph

Only if you live in Tohoku are you lucky enough for cherry blossom season and Golden Week to intersect. Ever since I saw revellers sitting out in Kyoto, drinking sake under the blossoms and the stars, I’ve been awaiting my chance to do the same in Noshiro. While the blossoms are finally, finally here, the social aspect kept falling through for some reason.

Last weekend we made plans to party with my adult English class, but the weather was cold and the blossoms weren’t out yet. Tuesday, our English club at the high school was going to make a go of it after school, until two of the girls were caught shoplifting. After that incident it was considered in poor taste to go out and have fun, so the girls stayed after school to do English drills instead. I was invited to not one, but TWO tea ceremony/flower viewing parties last Thursday, but unfortunately, I caught the crud that’s been going around the high school, and I was incapacitated by a 24 hour flu.

So this weekend, with the trees in full bloom, we created our own sakura gameplan. Plan A was to wander through the park near our house, and try to get ourselves “pulled in” to an ongoing party. We arrived a bit late in the festivities, as everyone was winding things up just before sunset, but we did have some nice exchanges with these friendly construction workers, who fancied a good frolic on the swing set.

The rest of the weekend, we went chasing blooms. The most magnificent display was just to the north in Hachimori, which boasts an entire hillside covered in cherry trees. We also checked out two castle parks in the not so near Akita City, but these didn’t hold a candle to the parks closer to home.

On Monday, we were satisfied with the blossom element, but still searching out the party. We said screw it, plan B, we’re going to make our own party. So three of us, all English teachers from America, bravely trotted out to the park, plentiful goodies and alcoholic supplies underarm. No sooner did we all crack open a beer when we were swept into an adjacent party (see plan A).

We were invited to join a party of Izakaya owners and goers, which means they all frequent a particular pub ’n grub establishment in town. It also means they are very practiced at having a good time. This crew brought several dozen glass steins and a beer keg to the park! Festival food for the offering included someone’s tentacles, denuded shellfish, remarkably lifelike shrimp with all the appropriate appendages still attached. We ate hanami dango and sausages and grilled veggies. The party also included a long haired dachsund, who would run amok on the picnic blanket, spilling food and dragging food in his wake.

And now we’re off to Osaka to enjoy the rest of the long weekend. Happy Golden Week, y’all!