Dancing in the street

Last Saturday was Matsue City’s Dan-Dan Summer Dance. Starting at 3pm in blistering 35 degree Celcius (95 Fahrenheit), 80% humidity weather, teams of dancers took to the street near Matsue Castle to show off their moves. We were hot just watching, I can’t imagine having to dance under those kinds of conditions.

There was a wide range of dancers, from women in traditional kimono to elementary school girls in neon tutus to men wielding giant flags.

There were some very memorable performances. For example…

This was a hip hop dance group from Matsue. One of their goals was to learn how to dance “sekushi.” After hearing the announcement of their group’s bio, I wasn’t quite sure what kind of dancing we were about to see. I was preparing myself to be shocked at least…and shocked I was. The first group of girls, ranging from 1st to 6th grade elementary school age, danced to a rap song that included many uncensored “mother f-ers” and mentioned the singer’s own giant…well, you get the picture, this wasn’t a song for innocent 7 year olds to dance to. I don’t quite know how all of the little old grandmas and grandpas felt about this. Next was an N’SYNC song (much more appropriate) followed by T-PAIN’s “Take your shirt off.” I couldn’t stop laughing throughout the entire performance because of the song choices.

And then there was flag guy…

This guy was proud of his flag waving skills and wanted everyone to know it (he even posed for this picture). Synchronized with the music, he waved is huge flag inches away from the heads of the dancers in front of him. He even turned toward the crowd and occasionally flung the red cloth in the direction of innocent bystanders and laughed with confidence as they ducked. He was awesome.

There were many other great dances as well. Here are some more of Khoa’s photographs:

It was Khoa and my first time at the Dan-Dan Dance event and we were glad to have had the opportunity to see it. The three hours of dancing was a great opportunity for Khoa to practice taking photos 🙂

Stabbing snails at the bottom of the ocean

The most shocking thing I ate when I first came to Chibu (other than fermented squid) was sazae.  In Japan, people go nuts over this delicacy.  In Tokyo, you have to shell out $3 for a single sazae.  In Chibu, they are not only free, they are everywhere you look.  Climbing up the side of the docks in the evening, hanging out on the ocean floor while you snorkel; there’s plenty to go around.  If you’re wondering what a sazae is, here’s a picture:

 

That’s right, sazae are sea snails.  And yes, we eat them here.

When I was a kid, my dad had three fish tanks.  One fresh water and two salt water ones to be exact.  I always loved to look at the fish and other creatures in the tank.  I remember my dad kept sea snails to help clean off the algae that were constantly growing on the side of the glass and rocks.  When I came to Japan and was first handed a sazae and told to use my chopsticks to force the little guy out of his shell, I couldn’t help but flash back to my childhood and the little sea snails that helped to clean my dad’s fish tank.  

In this sleepy little fishing village, many old men continue to use a traditional style of fishing called, “kanagi-gyo” (金木in Japanese) to collect sazae from the bottom of the ocean.  From the safety of a boat, fishermen use a hydroscope to peer into the water to search for sea creatures.  Once they have spotted one, tools attached to long bamboo poles are used to collect sea snails, abalone, seaweed, and even fish from the sea floor.

The junior high students and I were fortunate enough to be taught this method of fishing from three local fishermen. 

The “sazae hoko” is the tool that has three barbs on the end.
The “tamo” is the net tool.

Here’s how it’s done:

Once you’ve spotted a sazae using the hydroscope, use the “sazae hoko” to loosen it from the rock.  If the sazae is small enough, you can simply position the barbs of this tool on all sides of the shell, apply a bit of downward force, and sandwich the sazae in between the three barbs.  If the sea snail is too large to use this method, you can take out the small net tool, called a “tamo,” and use it to gather the sazae.  There are also separate tools for collecting abalone which are also attached to long bamboo poles.  The method is similar except you use a long hook-like tool and a shorter barbed tool.

Kanagi-gyo fishing

I tried my hand at kanagi-gyo and it was really challenging.  Peering over the side of the boat into the hydroscope and trying to maneuver the long bamboo pole into the perfect position was difficult.  Applying just the right amount of force to get the sazae to become wedged between the barbs and not slip away took a very skilled hand (one that I did not possess). But the hardest part (for me only) was not smacking the people around me with the long bamboo pole as I tried to retrieve the stabbed sazae.  Instead of adopting the correct method of bringing the pole straight out of the water as I reeled in the sea snail, I decided to take a more dangerous approach and pull the pole in horizontally, smacking a junior high kid on the head.  Oops, bad Michelle-sensei.  I didn’t do it on purpose and I felt really bad at the time, but looking back, it was pretty funny 😛

 

So there you have it, stabbing snails at the bottom of the sea.  Who knew this California girl would not only be fishing for sea snails, but cooking and eating them as well!

Cooking Rice on a Campfire

I just recently went on a camping trip with 10 of the 12 Chibu Junior High School students and 8 of the 12 teachers. A lot it was similar to camping back home; same style tents, cooking on a campfire, night time flash light fun.

But there were some differences as well.

For example, we camped on an island! Chibu is part of the Oki Islands archipelago. Even though there are 4 main islands, the entire archipelago is made up of around 160 islands. We actually camped on an island even smaller than Chibu’s 5 square mile main island.

Another difference was the activities. We lit fireworks, the students took a walk in pairs in the dark while the teachers tried to jump out and scare them, and we participated in an traditional style of fishing for sazae (sea snails) that has become less popular in modern times.

But the thing that caught my interest the most was the way they made rice while camping. It makes sense that Japan would invent a tool to allow even the most remote campers to enjoy their dinner staple. Here’s a picture:

You simply pour pre-soaked, uncooked rice in the container, add water, and cook on the open flame until the water is evaporated. It took about 45 minutes.

Don’t forget to bring a shamoji along to scoop out the rice!

To my surprise the rice was just as good, if not better, than the rice we make in our rice cooker at home. Khoa and I have been eating rice every day since living in Japan. Maybe we’ll buy a few of these campfire rice cookers to take home to the US so we can enjoy rice wherever we may roam.

Smoke on the water, fire in the sky

Since we live on the smallest inhabited island for hundreds of miles in a prefecture with the second lowest population, the rules are a little different.  I like to call it, “Chibu law.”  Want to drive your car willy nilly all over the road?  That’s cool under Chibu law where most roads don’t have a center divide (and we don’t even have traffic signals).  Want to park your car halfway in the road?  Go right ahead, there’s no rule against it.  Want to pee freely in public?  I’ve lost count at how many times I’ve been biking or walking home from work and saw an old man peeing into the ocean…even though his house is a 10 second walk away.  CHIBU LAW!

And under Chibu law, you can set off giant fireworks so close that the ash and sparks rain down on spectators.

Every year during Obon, Chibu holds a hanabi taikai, or fireworks show.  Around 1,500 fireworks are set off during this half hour show.  Khoa loves to take pictures of fireworks and he was really excited to have another chance to do so this year.  Except there was one problem…

A dedicated photographer, Photography in the rain
Khoa taking photos of fireworks in the rain. The wind started to pick up so he had to take a break from shooting and shield the camera with his own umbrella…he was soaked.

This year,  it was raining before, during, and after the show.  Despite pouring rain, wind strong enough to knock our umbrella inside out, and a camera lens with water on it for most of the time, Khoa managed to take some decent pictures.  Take a look:

Japanese Fireworks
You can see the raindrops on the lens

Purple Fireworks

Japanese FireworksFireworks in Japan

Anyone a fan of Deep Purple?

Aside from the closeness of the fireworks, another very special part about Chibu’s fireworks show is that it’s held in the bay right infront of our house.

Preparing for the fireworks show

It really is extremely close to our house!

We’re glad our house didn’t catch on fire!

Despite the rain, watching the fireworks explode over the water was such a beautiful sight!  We can’t wait until next year!

Fireworks on the water
Wish we could have been on that boat!

Take me out to the ball game

No peanuts, no cracker jacks, but a whole lot of other interesting food was available at the Hiroshima Carps game last Saturday.

Although the Carp are as weak a team as their mighty carp name might imply (the score was 0-7 at the top of the 8th), we still had a great time experiencing a Japanese baseball game and catching up with many of the mainlanders we miss seeing while we’re on our island.

Aside from seeing our friends, the best part of the game was the food (this is what being on an island with no restaurants does to you…the highlight of all of your trips is food).
At the Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium (yes, that’s the actual name), you can buy the foods you usually find at ballparks in America; cheese steaks, french fries, nachos, all the greasy goodness you expect to find.
Nachos and Philly Cheese Steaks
But at the food stand right next door, you can also buy steaming hot bowls of udon noodles.   America’s favorite pastime meets Japan’s favorite noodle?  It was funny to watch people carrying their bowls of hot udon noodles through the crowds, trying not to bump into people, which could cause them to possibly throw the scalding hot contents into the faces of low-lying children. Maybe I’m just used to the hand-held fare served at American ballparks, but come on, hot noodles at a baseball game with huge crowds of people milling about?  To each their own, I guess.
Udon Food Stall
There were a number of other options available as well:
Korean Food Stall
Would you like some meat, smile, or meet?
American Food Stall
Strawberry Shave Ice
Shave ice with bits of shaved, frozen strawberries and simple syrup. Soooo good!
No ball game would be complete without a nice, cold beer.  But here in Japan, you have a few choices when it comes to your frosty cold one, and we’re not talking choosing the brand.  No, here in Japan you can enjoy canned beer, draft beer, “tornado beer”, or creamy-top beer.
“What what what?!” you scream. Tornado beer?  Creamy top beer???  Say it ain’t so!
My friend, it is so.
Tornado Beer!!!
Here’s what they call “Tornado beer.”  They use a special cup with a spout on the bottom and rocket the beer into the cup from the bottom.  The result is a cup of twirly beer.  They then add a heap of beer foam to the top.  In Japan, the perfect draft beer is about 1/4 foam.  Tornado Beer, with its twirly swirly foam, just isn’t foamy enough.
Khoa and I enjoyed one Tornado Beer each.  It was pretty good, but aside from the awesome tornado action upon filling, the taste was the same.
I’m sorry to say that we don’t have a picture of the creamy top beer, but just think of a normal draft beer topped off with a pile of foam resembling a soft-serve ice cream cone.  Yeah…it was interesting.  In the states, we strive to serve a foamless beer, but in Japan, they actually create a special machine to make the foam even thicker and pile it on high.
There is a designated cheering section located in the upper deck of the stadium.  Complete with their own band and flag bearers, the cheering section is something that has to be seen to fully appreciate.  Each player has their own personal cheer for when they come up to bat, accompanied by trumpets, drums, and hundreds of mini plastic bats being beat together in unison.  Maeda, the most popular player, appears at bat to the sound of thousands of fans singing a perfectly timed cheer, led by the upper deck.
Maeda Fan
Maeda fan in training
The bottom of the 7th inning is “blow up and release  long, pink, questionable looking balloons” time.  If someone knows why this happens, please tell me.  This was my first baseball game in Japan, and I was a little confused, then appalled, and then amused.
The rival team and their yellow balloons
The Carp fans and their pink balloons before they take flight
close-up of the pink balloons
It just amazes me how coordinated everyone is at the ballpark.  Every die hard fan knows all of the cheers for each player.  When the top of the 7th comes around, everyone  instinctively takes out their elongated balloons and has them at the ready for when the home team is at bat.  The crowd even parts for that little old man carrying the ridiculously hot bowl of udon noodles, giving him plenty of room to navigate the treacherous sea of people.
Last weekend was a wonderful and long overdue vacation out of Shimane prefecture. We had a great day at the ball game, with lots of friends, food, and interesting things to experience.  It was fun to attend a baseball game in Japan for the first time; it probably won’t be our last.  Although there were many similarities between American and Japanese baseball games, sometimes, we couldn’t help but think, “yep, we’re definitely in Japan.”
The Hiroshima Carp’s mascot. Look familiar?
Tatami mat to keep the camera cool.
Yep, we’re definitely in Japan.

The best sushi we’ve ever eaten

Zen Sushi.
The best sushi we’ve ever had.

Hidden down a road, a little ways from the main port of Nishinoshima, is a tiny sushi restaurant.

From the outside, it doesn’t look like much. Approaching the front of the establishment, you can even see the owner’s laundry hanging to dry in the upstairs window. But inside, Zen Sushi will amaze you.

A little mom and pop establishment, the owners prepare fresh sushi made with fish caught in the waters of the Oki Islands. Peering through the front windows, you can enjoy views of the turquoise waters that these fish call home.

The sushi we ate here is hands down the best sushi we’ve ever eaten. Here are a few photos of the wonderful food we enjoyed:

Zen Chirashi-zushi (ちらし寿司)
The house special chirashi-zushi.
Think of this as deconstructed sushi. It’s a bowl of seasoned rice topped with sashimi and other garnishes.
Beautiful!
The brightly colored spheres are ikura, salmon roe.
Onigiri with the perfect amount of wasabi. Just enough to give you a bit of a kick, but not so much that it overwhelms your palette. Delicious!
What I love most about sushi is the freshness of the dish. (Traditionally) it isn’t smothered in sweet sauces or doused in spices like many western dishes. When eating sushi, you are able to taste each ingredient. The vinegar of the rice, the saltiness of the fish, and the kick of the wasabi. So simple. So pure. So deceivingly difficult to get right.
Mozuku, a type of stringy, slimy Japanese seaweed. It’s flavored with vinegar to give it some extra slimy goodness. One of our friends told us that last year, the mozoku didn’t grow well, but this year there are tons of it. We’ve already encountered it twice while eating at restaurants on the islands.
An interesting design on the barrier separating the two tatami dining areas.
Beautiful Nishinoshima.
Waiting to take the boat.
The perfect end to a great day: tiramisu ice cream on the boat back to Chibu.

Solar Eclipse 日食

Eclipse in Japan

On Monday morning, we woke up at around 6am and turned on the TV.  Every channel was covering the solar eclipse.  They showed images of hundreds of people gathered all over Japan, cameras and eclipse viewers at the ready.  Newscasters interviewed a tourist who had made a special trip to Japan from Australia in hopes of catching a glimpse of this natural phenomenon.

Included in the newscasts were tips on how to view the eclipse.  Here’s a funny illustration I found:

I know you all thought you could look at the sun through a sooty piece of glass…but don’t do it!

They were also showcasing the different kinds of glasses that were suitable for viewing the sun.  Here are a few that were being sold in Japan:

Solar Eclipse Viewer
Solar Eclipse Viewer
Solar Eclipse Viewer
Only in Japan…

Leading up to the solar eclipse, many people asked me, “How do you say ‘eclipse’ in English?”  When I told them it’s called an “eclipse,” instead of repeating the word to confirm how to say it, they gave up all together and said, “oh, I see.”  I guess “eclipse” is a hard word to say.  It’s much harder to say than “日食” (nisshoku), the Japanese word.  The two kanji literally mean “sun” and “eat,” which makes sense; the sun really does look like it’s getting eaten.

As the sun was just starting to become hidden behind the moon, Khoa and I headed out of the house.  As we walked, the sun became more and more hidden, causing the formally bright and sunny morning to resemble an evening filled with the warm rays of a setting sun.  Continuing our walk, we eventually  joined the many students and parents who had gathered at the school to watch the eclipse.  It was fun to occasionally take a break from playing with the kids to look through the eclipse lenses at the shrinking sun.  Since we are in Chibu, we are farther north than the optimal viewing position where you can see the sun as a complete ring.
Our tiny island (where the red and orange arrow is)
As a result, at the peak of the eclipse, the sun looked like a crescent moon.  Nevertheless, this was definitely an event that the two of us will remember for a long time.
Chibu (知夫) written with the sun.

Sakura and Soba

Every April, as our reward for enduring the harsh, bone-chilling, “most days it’s colder inside the house than outside” winter in Japan, the formally dull trees explode with tiny blossoms of pink and white.  It’s enough to make you forget that you spent most winter days huddled under your kotatsu (table heater), cursing your house’s lack of insulation and double paned windows, wishing you were back in California and enjoying the warm winters you were spoiled with as a child.  To take advantage of our sakura reward, the two of us headed over to the Kisuki Sakura Matsuri.  Kisuki boasts the longest stretch of sakura in all of Japan, and once we set foot on the mainland, it was just a short (two hour) bus and train ride away (before coming to Japan, we never thought that taking a boat, bus, and train would be a normal trip for us).  We saw many mainland Shimane JETs, walked amongst the barely opened sakura (bummer!), and enjoyed the fireworks display that closed out the festival.  If you’re interested, check out  Khoa’s Flikr for some sakura and fireworks pictures.

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At one of the many food stalls that lined the walkways of the festival, we saw a man hand-making Izumo soba (buckwheat noodles).  I was mesmerized by the back-and-forth, back-and-forth motion of rolling out the soba dough.  I was amazed by the skill and precision it took to thinly cut each noodle into the perfect size for enjoying this wonderful, nutty noodle.  Before witnessing the process of handmaking soba, to me these buckwheat noodles were just, boring, dried packaged noodles that I boiled up to eat for lunch when I couldn’t think of anything better.  But after seeing this man skillfully roll, fold, cut, and boil the soba right in front of our eyes, I came away with a new appreciation for this Japanese food staple.

Cutting the freshly rolled soba:

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Not only was the soba itself perfect, the tools he used to roll, fold, and cut the soba are beautiful:

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Happy Michelle and her soba:

yum!

Soooo good!