Chibu’s Dossari Matsuri

Last weekend was Chibu’s first annual Dossari Matsuri, a new festival that was created to replace bunkasai (culture festival).  Khoa was asked by the town hall to be the official photographer, so he was busy all day taking photos.  I was acting as his “assistant” but really all I did was eat, drink, and talk with people.

Outside, many food and game booths were set up for the people of the village to enjoy.  This year, the village sponsored the first annual Gourmet Contest, a cooking competition open to everyone on the island.  Participants were supposed to create a dish that showcased Chibu’s local food.  As you would expect, everything was made with seafood.  Three groups made it to the final round of the contest and were invited to make their dish on the day of Dossari Matsuri and the people of the village would choose a winner.
^ Squid Croquette
^Deep fried squid balls
^Sazae (sea snail) Curry Bread (deep fried dough with Japanese curry in the middle)
^That’s a lot of fried food!
We paid 300 yen (about $3.70 US) for the three dishes.  After eating each dish, we voted for our favorite.  The Sazae Curry Bread, won the competition!
^Lots of people lined up to try the Gourmet Contest food.  I was at the back of the line 😦
Inside the community center, there were many displays set up by different groups in Chibu.  The kindergarten had a section filled with little art projects.  Take a look:
They’re so cute!  I love the Christmas origami!
The Eco Flower Club displayed their handmade flowers at the festival as well.  Each flower is made out of newspaper!
^These flowers were made out of the newspaper displayed on the board.
The police officer in Chibu also had a booth set up.  Khoa and I tried on beer goggles and did our best to walk in a straight line.
^I didn’t do so well…
There was also a test to see how good your reflexes are.  Two of the twenty buttons light up and you have to press them as soon as possible.  At the end of the test, a little print out tells you what age you are based on your reflexes.  My little print out read, “24 years old,” and Khoa’s run through scored him at the young age of 20.
There was also a tuna show where fishermen displayed and cut up a tuna for the crowd.  In Chibu, the local fishermen catch small tuna which are then sold and shipped live to Kyuushu, the large island south of mainland Japan.  Chibu’s small tuna frolic in the warm southern waters, grow big and strong, and then one lucky fish is chosen to come back to Chibu for the tuna show.  This year’s tuna weighed in at a whopping 50 kg (110lbs).
^Using a spoon to quickly make nigiri sushi
^Some already made nigiri sushi (on the left).  Everyone at the show could try the freshly cut tuna for free.  It was sooooo good!
Location: Chibu-mura, Shimane-ken, JAPAN
^Each of these pieces were being auctioned off for 3,000 to 5,000 yen.
Khoa also displayed nine of his pictures at the festival.  We were lucky to get a spot in a bright part of the hallway next to the staircase.
^The Japanese writing simply reads, “Pictures Khoa-san”
All day, people were coming up to Khoa and telling him how much they like his pictures.  One of our students’ fathers liked a picture so much that he just took it off the wall at the end of the festival and emailed us later to say he had it.  Khoa and I were both surprised, a little annoyed because we wanted to display the picture in our own home, but happy because someone liked the picture so much they decided to steal it (I guess there isn’t a bigger complement than that :P).
Here’s the picture that was too good not to steal:
I really like this picture, too;  it’s one of my favorites.  I like how there’s only one man preventing the mikoshi (portable shrine) from toppling into the ocean.  If you’re wondering what’s going on in this photo, take a look at my post about Chibu’s summer festival.
Khoa and I had a great day at Chibu’s first annual Dossari Matsuri.  I’m already excited for next year!

Espressoda: Coffee + Soda = “Why did I put this in my mouth?!”

When we saw Espressoda in a store on the mainland, Khoa and I just had to buy it.  It sounds disgusting, but we couldn’t pass up another opportunity to drink such a random flavor combination.  Coffee and hazelnut sounds great. Coffee and chocolate, even better.  Even coffee and liquor is a pretty good pair (Bailey’s, anyone?).  But Coffee and soda?  That’s a flavor combo that makes you wonder what the makers were thinking.  And that’s exactly why we bought it. 

To tell you the truth, while we were on the mainland, we never got around to actually trying our new found beverage.  We took it back with us on the boat, promising each other that we’d try it when we got home.  A few weeks later and it was still kicking around in the fridge, cozying up to our half empty (or is it half full) bottle of sriracha sauce brought back from our trip to the US in February.  Today, we decided that it was time to see what Espressoda was all about.

As soon as you crack open the bottle, you’re hit with an intense scent of old, burnt coffee.  Not a good start.  I was hesitant to even take a sip of the bubbly concoction, but down the hatch it went.  I instantly regretted my spirit of adventure.  Not only did it taste exactly like it smelled (like old coffee), there was an awkward sweetness that was only amplified by the carbonation.  I don’t know how they did it, but Espressoda tastes even worse than it sounds.  I managed to take another sip, but that was all I could muster.  Khoa laughed at me as my face contorted into all sorts of disgusted poses.  He claims Espressoda would taste better if they put cream in it…I don’t think anything can save this monstrosity of a drink.  I read the Espressoda label and couldn’t help but smirk. “A twist of bold coffee and refreshing soda.”  Not quite.  Even now, as I write this post, the awful taste of day-old coffee still lingers on my tongue. 

The coffee-soda combo made me yearn for my beloved Za Supakuringu (The Sparkling), a carbonated green tea beverage that was only produced in the summer of 2010.  That limited time drink, unlike Espressoda, was awesome!

After a little internet research, I learned that Suntory, the popular beverage company who produces Espressoda, spent $72.5 million developing a special carbonation process to preserve the coffee flavor.  With that much research and cash being poured in to Espressoda, you would think they would have developed a tastier beverage.  But then again, how thirst quenching can a bottle of carbonated coffee be?

Eat fresh in Japan: Subway in the land of awful sandwiches

Sure, there are sandwiches in Japan…but they aren’t very good.  The most common sandwich found at your local convenience store is a ham sandwich with too much mayonnaise and limp lettuce sandwiched between two whiter than white pieces of bread.  Another conbini favorite is egg salad…again with too much mayonnaise and white bread.

When you can easily pick up an onigiri (rice ball) in a miriade of flavors, why go for a subpar sandwich.  The only option to satisfying our cravings for a sandwich has been to 1) make it ourselves or 2) trek all the way to the nearest Subway.

And trek we did.  After a 2.5 hour boat ride, 1 hour bus ride, 1 hour train ride, and 5 min taxi ride, we had arrived.  In the inaka (rural area), travel is slow.  This 4.5 hour trip only brought us 80 miles away from our home.

When we arrived to Subway, the first thing I noticed was the variety of sauces the offered.  I was expecting the plain sauces of American Subway.  You know, mayo, mustard, ranch, maybe even honey mustard.  But in Japan, Subway offers up some very interesting choices.  Aside from the original oil in vinegar, they had caesar dressing, horseradish sauce, chili tomato sauce, wasabi and soy sauce, basil mayonnaise, balsamico sauce, and plain old mayonnaise.  For cheeses they offer “natural slice cheese,” “cream type cheese,” and mascarpone cheese.

Khoa got a roast beef sandwich with thick cuts of actual beef, not the processed stuff.  It looked so good on the poster, but landed up being quite dry.  The horseradish sauce that accompanied it was delicious, but couldn’t save the moistureless beef.

I thoroughly enjoyed my turkey sandwich topped with the works and pesto mayonnaise.  My favorite sandwich in the entire world is a plain old turkey sandwich, but trying to find one in Japan is a challenge.  I was savoring every salty, gobble-gobble good bite.

My biggest fear was that the bread wasn’t going to be good.  You might remember my cravings for bread that isn’t made of bleached flour in one of my posts a while back.  To my delight, the bread options were the same as in the States and I didn’t hesitate to order my sandwich on honey oat bread.

I wanted some chips to go alongside (or inside!) my sandwich, but Subway in Japan only offers potato wedges.  You have your choice of regular, barbecue, cheese, and basil flavor.  We went for the cheese flavored wedges, and although the taste was good, they weren’t made fresh and had been sitting under the heating lamps for a long time.  Had they been fresh out of the fryer, we would have enjoyed them more.

The process for ordering a sandwich is exactly the same and when asking for all toppings on your sandwich, you still say, “give me ‘the works’.”  Everything from the yellow, green, and white brand colors to the cold cut coolers is the same as in the US.

I’m not a big Subway fan in the US, but being so far from a decent sandwich shop, I’ll take what I can get.  For the two of us, the yellow and green glow of the Subway sign is a beacon of hope in our quest to find a good cold-cut-filled sandwich in Japan.

Coffee, coffee everywhere but not a drop to drink (that’s any decent)

You can get coffee just about anywhere in Japan thanks to the millions (yes, millions) of vending machines littered around the country.  “How convenient,” you must be thinking.  Yeah, if you like drinking awful coffee.  I’ve seen vending machines with two of the four rows dedicated to coffee in a can, but none of them are very good.  Many of the ones that aren’t flavored with milk and sugar taste bitter and metallic.

Canned coffee in a vending machine. So convenient…so gross.
In the summer, the vending machine chills the coffee and in the winter it warms it up. So cool!

You can also purchase coffee in cute little faux-paper coffee cups at the convenience store.  Just stick a straw in the top and you’re on your way to “enjoying” a nice iced coffee beverage.  That sounds great, except in reality, these drinks are only vaguely reminiscent of coffee and, frankly, suck.  

Coffee at the convenience store. Clever packaging but still no coffee taste.

If I need an afternoon pick-me-up while I’m at work, my only option is of the freeze dried, instant variety.  Japan has perfected many things, but instant coffee is not one of them.

 

Starbucks, with its sickeningly sweet mochas America has come to know and…tolerate, is actually pretty good in Japan. Adapting to Japanese tastes, Starbucks Japan has toned down its use of sugar and syrups and churns out beverages that actually taste like coffee instead of a liquefied candy bar.  The whipped cream isn’t even sweetened, but the caramel frappucinos still come topped with caramel syrup.

Starbucks Japan: Same logo, better coffee.

Khoa and I visit a little coffee shop in Matsue whenever we get a chance to get off of our island.  They brew a mean cup of joe, but you have to pay 450 yen ($5.73) for a tea cup of black coffee. Yikes!  In the summer, we discovered a whole menu of fun cold drinks.  Take a look at my coffee float.  It’s just iced black coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice cream floating on top.  It definitely takes the edge off of the summer heat. 

Coffee float

 Even in Chibu (pop. 602), there are a handful of vending machines offering canned coffee 24/7.  The general store shelves are lined with three varieties of instant coffee, but no coffee beans or fresh brewed coffee in sight.  We have to cross an ocean for that.  Coffee, coffee everywhere but not a drop to drink (that’s any decent).

9 Steps to Enjoying Japanese Barbecue

We miss American BBQ; huge hunks of meat grilled on a Weber, there’s nothing like it.

However, we still enjoy Japanese-style barbecue even though it goes against everything American BBQ stands for.  We’ve been to many a barbecue party here in Japan and I think it’s safe to say that we have a pretty good understanding of the way of the Japanese grill.

But for those of you who may be unfamiliar with this phenomenon…

Here are 9 steps to enjoying Japanese barbecue:

1) Prepare the coals.  In Japan, most people use wood charcoal instead of the briquettes that are popular abroad.

Be sure to use an uchiwa to fan the flames!

2) When the coals are ready, spread ’em around the rectangular grill.

3) Grab yourself a tin dish and some hashi.

4) Choose your favorite dipping sauce.  Are you a sweet or spicy kinda guy?

This brand of dipping sauce is called, “meat thief”…no comment.

5) Bust out the meat and vegetables.

6) Slap said meat and rabbit food on the grill.  Make sure the meat is completely unseasoned and so thin that it will easily fold in half.  Lid?  What lid?  We grill in the open air here.

7)  Huddle around the grill with your friends.  Fight over the spots upwind of the smoke and sweat profusely waiting for the meat to cook.

8) Grab cooked meat (or vegetables if you swing that way) off the grill using your chopsticks and plop it into your tin dish filled with sauce.

9) Consume and repeat.

*****LIVING IN OKI BONUS*****

Go diving in the ocean before the barbecue so you can cook up some sazae (sea snails) on the coals once you’re done grilling the meat and veggies.

Cooking sazae (sea snail) on wood coals

*****LIVING IN OKI DOUBLE BONUS*****

Enjoy the beautiful ocean view while you stuff your face.

Our $25 Watermelon

Every day we see the most perfect watermelons in the general store and every day we cringe at the price. 2,000 yen for one round watermelon is a little expensive for our taste. But summer in Japan is hot and even though the price is the equivalent of over 25 US dollars, the call of the watermelon was too strong and we finally gave in and bought one. Take a look:

The reason we were so willing to pay this ridiculous price was because we knew that our watermelon was going to be delicious. It doesn’t matter what kind, fruits in Japan are very expensive. I’ve seen a bunch of green grapes for 3050 yen ($40 USD) and Khoa and I sometimes splurge on 300 yen apples (almost $4 USD). During Halloween, a medium-size carving pumpkin can set you back 2500 yen ($32 USD) and that’s a cheap one. One reason for the high prices is because there isn’t a lot of space to grow things in Japan. Another reason is because the farmers take such good care of the fruits. I often see video clips on the news showing fields of peach trees with each fruit individually wrapped in a protective cover while it’s still on the tree. Farmers also hand pick each fruit and store them wrapped in bubble wrap. Even though the prices are high, you are guaranteed to be buying the tastiest fruit you’ve ever eaten.

As we expected, the watermelon was wonderful. Bright pink on the inside, deep green on the outside and the fruit was perfectly sweet and very juicy. Sometimes when I would buy watermelons in America, it always seemed like a gamble because half of the time the meat was very mealy and not so juicy. But when you buy a watermelon here in Japan, it is certain that you will get a sweet and delicious summertime treat…you just have to pay $25 for it.

Would you like some chips with your ketchup?

TOMATO KETCHUP PRINGLES!!!  What more can I say.  I love Japan and all its crazy flavors.

They are technically called, “Sweet Tomato Sauce Pringles,” but there’s no denying that the flavor is meant to taste like ketchup…there’s even a bottle of ketchup on the front of the can.

These taste more like salt and vinegar Pringles with a splash of tomato flavor…and extra vinegar.  Actually, the vinegar flavor was almost too overpowering, causing my throat to become irritated.  But they were still tasty and another interesting snack to add to our list of wacky foods in Japan.  

Just add tequila

Khoa and I took a trip to the big island this past weekend and we were again mesmerized by the variety of items you can buy in the stores.  Many people who live in Okinoshima think that there aren’t a lot of shopping options, and I guess that’s true when compared to the mainland.  But to us, Okinoshima is a mecca of new foods that you can’t buy on our tiny island of Chibu. 

For example, here’s an interesting drink that I found in a convenience store:   

 

It tastes exactly as the bottle describes, salty and…limey.  As I sipped away at my new found drink, I couldn’t help but be reminded of something.  And then it hit me…margaritas!  Japan has managed to bottle a fizzy margarita mix and call it, “Salty Bubbles.”  If only I had some tequila…

Kyuushoku 給食 (School lunch in Japan)

Ah, school lunch in Japan.  I’ve had some of the best meals served to me on those plastic lunch trays.  I’ve also had some of the worst.  You might remember one of my very first posts on this blog that talked about “the worst school lunch in the world.” 

 

School lunch, or kyuushoku as it’s called here, is one of the many examples of team work displayed in Japan.  The students and teachers are split into groups and given a serving duty.  For example, some students serve the soup, others the main dish, etc.  They do this while wearing full aprons, hair nets, and masks.  The students and teachers who are not on service duty form a line, grab a tray, and pick up one of each dish.  Only until everyone has been served their food and the servers have finished and taken off their serving garb can you even think about eating.  But you still have to wait for everyone to put their hands together and say “itadakimasu” (I humbly accept this food).  Only then can you dig in.  I think this is a really nice custom as I recall my poor mother who was still in the process of trying to get all of the food on the table while her three daughters and husband were chowing down.        

 

School Lunch
Beef bowl (gyuu-don [healthy style]), soup, vegetable side dish, melon, and milk.
Summer vegetable curry and rice, Korean Squash gratin, daikon and seaweed side dish, mikan, milk.

 

 

There are also some very interesting customs when it comes to food handling and preparation.  One of our friends works at the school lunch center and says that she has to wash all fruits and vegetables three times.  She also has three different aprons and must change them depending on the task (cutting vegetables, preparing food, cleaning dishes).  Also, one of the staff must eat the school lunch at least half an hour before the students consume it to make sure that it’s safe to eat. Kyuushoku is probably the safest and most properly prepared meal you’re ever going to eat (a lot safer than when I cook and the 3 second rule is fully employed).  It’s also really cheap for the amount and quality of food you get.  I think I pay around 350 yen (~$4.50) for more food than I can comfortably eat that’s extremely fresh and healthy (no frozen food here, everything is made that day).

 

School Lunch
Mabo Nasu (Chinese-style egg plant stir-fry), rice, dumpling soup, vegetable side, milk, and homemade mandarin orange jello.

 

Chibu’s kyuushoku is very special because we actually have three farmers who grow food on the island specifically for the school lunches.  While we are eating, the elementary school students read an announcement about the school lunch and tell us which vegetables came from whose garden.  A typical announcement might note that the carrots and cabbage in the soup are from X-san’s garden and then go on to tell us a few factoids about a vegetable and why it’s good for us.  I think it’s really great that the school lunch center takes the time to acknowledge the farmers who grow the vegetables in our lunches.

 

School Lunch
Cold noodles, mixed vegetable side, watermelon, homemade kabocha steamed bread, and milk.

 

 

Despite the fresh and healthy meals that you are served at school, there are some drawbacks to having to eat kyuushoku every day.  For one, you have to eat everything.  When I first came to Chibu, I left literally around 10 grains of rice in my bowl and was promptly scolded by the elementary school student sitting next to me.  The most extreme example of the enforcement of this rule is when one of the students, struggling to finish something he absolutely hated, was made to sit at the lunch table until he ate every bite.  Two minutes later, the cleaning announcement came over the loud speaker and he missed his chance to play after lunch.  As a teacher, I can get away with not eating everything, but I feel bad getting a free pass when the kids are forced to eat even their most hated of foods.  This is why I force myself to eat my most hated meal: shishamo.

       

School Lunch
Shishamo, Chirashi zushi (deconstructed sushi), potato salad, soup, milk, and a mildly sweet mochi-like dessert.

 

 

Shishamo
Can you see why I struggle to eat these things from head to tail?
Oh also, they’re filled with tiny eggs. Yeah…

 

So there you have it, the wonders of kyuushoku.  Even though I have to eat everything, regardless of how it tastes to me, I love being served school lunch every day.  We receive a menu at the beginning of the month and I always read it, looking forward to my favorite lunches (and dreading having to eat shishamo).  I think the US should take a look into Japan’s cafeterias and try to improve the school lunches.  I loved tater tots and pizza as a kid, but I think there are tastier, healthier options to be found.

So many fish!

If we ever want fish, Khoa and I just have to stand out in front of our house and wait for a fisherman to drive by (which won’t take too long).  Last Monday I was waiting outside with Khoa to be picked up for a work party when the taxi driver (who is also a fisherman) drove by.  He stopped his little K-truck and asked if we wanted some fish.  I said sure and he proceeded to fill a plastic grocery bag with around 20 flying fish, 4 long scary looking fish, a weird purple/blue crab and 3 or so pokey fish (sorry, I forgot their names in Japanese).  Here are some pictures:

Our bag o’ fish. Flying fish on the top.
Flying fish, also known as “tobi uo” in Japanese.
Fly away!
Scary fish. It had some gnarly teeth!  It was delicious.
Imma eat you!
Pokey fish.
Close up of the pokey fish
Blue and purple crab that was caught in the fisherman’s net. So beautiful, I almost didn’t want to eat it…almost.
Blue and Purple!
Boiled crab. Very sandy on the inside, but the legs were delicious! And really salty!

Khoa and I love getting fish from the fishermen, but it’s really tough to gut and prepare them.  We spent about an hour taking out the insides and cutting them up.  As true Chibu citizens, we went out to the ocean in front of our house and dumped out the entrails.

Dumping out the guts of around 30 fish. The hawks came and tried to swoop in for an easy meal, but it sunk too quickly.

We ate well that night.  Foil wrapped fish and boiled crab, fresh and from the ocean we see every day.