Saturday, September 30, 2006

Sayonara


If you’ve stumbled upon this blog by chance, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Mehan and for one year, I lived and worked in a small town called Oirase, in northern Japan. This blog contains my thoughts, ramblings and photographs from a year of working, traveling and living in the Japanese countryside. So pull up a seat, pour yourself a cup of tea and let me tell you a tale.

To my loyal readers, thanks for your unwavering interest in this blog during the last year. Don’t be fooled by my often snarky attitude: my year spent in Japan was one of the most enjoyable, interesting and challenging journeys I’ve yet had the pleasure of embarking upon. I met some really incredible people over in Japan and I certainly owe no small part of the fun I had to them.

If you’re interested in teaching English in Japan, I really can’t recommend the JET Program more highly. While there are now a number of private English schools in Japan, none of them offer you the security, level of compensation or prestige of JET.

As for me, well, I’m hitting the dusty trail with a satchel on my back, heading west into the murky depths of America, with a dream in my head and a song on my lips. Okay, not really. I’m currently working as an editor for a publishing company in Washington DC, but that’s almost the same thing, right? As I left Japan in July, it didn’t really make any sense for me to continue writing this blog. I did briefly consider starting up a new blog but really, the last thing the world needs right now is another jaded hipster peddling his opinion of MP3s on the internet. I would like to start up another blog someday but I think that I’ll wait for the right idea to present itself to me before I do. Until then, you can check out my reviews at DCist, where I’m a contributor to their music section.

It really makes me happy to look back on this blog and to remember all of the good times we had in that crazy place called Japan. I sure hope you feel the same way.

-Mehan

The Goshogowara Fire Festival

Every July, Goshogowara City (on the western, Tsugaru side of Aomori prefecture) holds its annual fire festival (himatsuri). The purpose of the festival is to pray for fertile soil and a good fall harvest. This is accomplished by parading giant dragon floats around town and into an open field, where they are burned. Fair enough.
Upon arriving at town hall, we were directed to a changing room where a team of old ladies would help us change into our festival outfits (modeled by the lovely Leo, above). Of course, the festival organizers had failed to communicate a number of things to us, like the fact that white socks were apparently required. As I don’t even own a pair of white socks, I was told that I would have to wear the requisite (and extremely painful-looking) rope sandals on my bare feet. After a series of negotiations however, I was permitted to wrap white cloth around my feet instead.
Anyway, here’s what the dragon floats look like. Unfortunately, we were not permitted to carry any of these and were instead relegated to carrying a giant, flaming bundle of tindersticks:
Once our float had been lit on fire, carrying it became a somewhat unpleasant task. As we walked through the streets with the float hoisted on our shoulders, fire and ashes rained down on us from above. But wait, wouldn’t that be dangerous? I suppose it would be, if it weren’t for the volunteers who sprayed us down with water at the end of every block. Keep in mind that it wasn’t a particularly warm day and the hose brigade seemed especially fond of spraying the foreigners. Thanks guys.Despite the arduousness of our journey, spirits remained high.
We eventually carried the float to its final destination: a hole in the ground where it could be used like a giant matchstick.
Matt reminds us that in order to carry such a float, you must be very strong and also, ridiculously dressed.
Leo reminds us that he is covered in ashes and also, that he is a master of making funny faces.
For our efforts, we were treated to free tea and onigiri (rice balls).

After enjoying our meager meal, we walked around the festival for a bit, taking in the sights. Here, we see some demons getting down and funky with it.
I can’t remember what ended up happening to the floats that we had worked so hard to carry but we couldn’t really see from where we were sitting, anyhow. The festival’s grand finale was a huge fireworks show, which featured some metal dragons spitting fire at each other and other such things.
On the walk back to the car, Matt decided that he could no longer bear the pain of the rope sandals and opted to walk barefoot instead. Oh, Matt.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve seen my fair share of strange things in this country. You’ll probably also recall that I’ve eaten a variety of strange animals including whale (a highly endangered species), puffer fish (a highly poisonous species) and wild boar (a highly delicious species). So when I tell you that the adventure that I’m about to relate to you possibly takes the cake for both strange tourist attractions and unusual local cuisine, I hope you’ll know well enough that I mean business. [Editor's note: It's worth noting that the following account includes only animals sighted outside of Aomori prefecture and is in no way intended to step on the proverbial toes of Operation Bear Watch]

As you might recall, I’ve been involved in a Japanese conversation course for some time. The class is held in Hachinohe once a week and aims to offer local foreigners with various levels of Japanese language ability an opportunity to practice their conversation skills. My class usually consisted of myself, the lone American, the infamous Scot Ewen, local English hooligan Charlie Tyack and between two and three young Chinese women who lived and worked in the vicinity of Hachinohe.

Well, one day during class, we had managed to go off on some sort of tangent (as we were wont to do, especially after Charlie and Ewen joined the class) and were discussing odd types of cuisine that we had sampled. I related my story of Momoishi’s canine culinary secret and someone forced Ewen to describe haggis. Then, one of the Chinese girls in our class, Eiko-San (I’m sorry if I’ve horribly mangled the Romanized spelling of your name here but since you don’t speak a word of English, I don’t assume you’ll be reading this site anytime soon, so it’s probably rather irrelevant anyhow) remarked that she had eaten bear meat in Akita prefecture. Without a minute of hesitation, our teacher rushed to debunk this claim, stating that “Japanese people don’t eat bears". Japanese people don’t eat any strange animals, this was simply a case of a Chinese person trying to disparage the Yamato race. Of course. Eiko-San, however, insisted that it was true and even told us that she had eaten the meat on a bear farm (kuma bokujyou) in a small town called Hachimantai.

Well, Eiko-San wasn’t the type to take being accused of lying lightly. A few weeks later, she came into class armed with two road maps and a number of flyers from the farm (pictured at left). She pointed out the exact location of Hachimantai on the map and gave us specific directions to the bear farm. Our teacher looked at the flyer, paused as if mulling things over in her mind and then announced that yes, this bear farm must indeed exist. Encouraged by the flyer, images of bears both tiny and massive frolicking in the hills danced through my brain. I was intrigued, to say the least.

Thus it was decided that on a particularly pleasant Saturday in July, we should make the nearly four hour journey into our southern neighbor Akita, to see this bear farm for ourselves and to dine upon the succulent meat of this fearful creature. Of course, no adventurer, no matter how brazen, can eat the meat of a bear without adequately preparing his or her palate. Thus it was decided that on the Friday night prior, we would convene in Hachinohe at my favorite bar Hanbey— purveyor of whole grilled canaries, frog legs and other such oddities.
As luck would have it, the chef’s specialty of the night was fried scorpion.
Here we see the ever-daring Leo sampling the sumptuous invertebrate as Megan looks on in either horror, admiration or (most likely) a combination of the two. According to Leo, the scorpion tasted like “fried”.
The following morning, we all convened again in Oirase, hung-over and in no shape for a four-hour car ride. Onward ho! Along the way, we saw this rather amusing sight: a farmer spraying his crops using a large, remote-controlled helicopter. Charlie took a brief video of it that will hopefully appear on his blog at some point. File another one under “only in Japan”.
At long last, we arrived at the bear farm, which was, thankfully, exactly where Eiko-San had said it would be.
After paying about 400 yen and stepping inside, we were greeted by this sight; a number of large pens, containing any number of bears of various species.
Of course, this wouldn’t be Japan were there not some measure of danger involved in a family attraction. So of course, you can walk within a few feet of the bear pens, separated from the beasts by only a short fence and a paltry rope net.
Aw, he’s so friendly! Just like Winnie the Pooh!
Er, nevermind.
Despite their ferocity, we managed to befriend a number of bears, including Vincent Van Bear, missing an ear and underappreciated during his own lifetime;
the Notorious B.E.A.R., who was, seemingly, too corpulent to move;
Onsen Bear, who enjoyed nothing more than a dip in the hot springs;
and finally, Standing Bear, who was not a Native American but rather, an actual, standing bear.
After walking around a bit, we decided that it was time to see what these bears were made of. After depositing a few hundred yen into a machine ominously labeled “bear snack” (kuma no oyatsu), we received a bag of…bread? Surely no bear would be interested in something as plebian as bread?
We were however, quite wrong in our assumptions. At the sight of the bread, the bears started performing various tricks in order to get our attention. These included clapping, gesturing, standing and what appeared to be primitive bear speech.
The bread even incited a few fights. Yikes!
Chicago baseball fans can rejoice, as cubs were also in no short supply at the farm.
Here we see Charlie Tyack looking nervous in front of the massive Kodiak bears.
Toward the outer reaches of the farm, Matt discovered this caged bear. Why was this lone bear enclosed in a cage all by himself? Bad behavior? Preparation for the equivalent of bear veal? There was no way to be sure.

Well, after about 15 minutes, we had exhausted our options in terms of looking at the bears. Now consider this: we were young, stupid, unsupervised and provided with an almost limitless supply of bears. Our next course of action was clear: it was time to do what man had long dreamed of doing. It was time to shake hands with the bears.
Matt, being the bravest and most foolhardy among us, decided to go first. Holding a small piece of bread, he extended his hand toward the cage. The bear grabbed the bread with his paw and surprisingly, did not attempt to tear off Matt’s arm.
Tyack was next, locking his hand in a tight grip with the bear’s. Before long, we had all shaken hands with the bears, in a demonstration of cross-species solidarity.
Here we see a close up of Tyack and the bear. As you can see, that bear isn’t letting go of the bread any sooner than Charlie does.
Not one to be outdone (read: a genuine idiot), Matt decided to perform two more feats of bravery: feeding a bear bread and touching the inside of a bear’s mouth. Thankfully, no one else in our entourage was stupid enough to attempt to duplicate either feat.
After making friends with and shaking hands with so many bears, it was quite clear that the time had come to eat a bear. I mean, what else can you do with a bear? Luckily, there was a restaurant across the street from the bear farm that was created expressly for this purpose. While we waited for our food, Matt grappled with a grizzly in an apron…
…but then hugged and made up. Awww!
Meanwhile, Megan showed off some Korean pride.
At long last our food arrived: a washoku (Japanese-style dinner platter) featuring bear stew (kumanabe). How did it taste? Well, the meat was quite soft and tender, not at all stringy. In terms of flavor, it was similar to other red meats like beef or buffalo but had a certain flavor all its own. In a word: delicious!
After a grand adventure, we bid farewell to our bear friends and returned to the cold, white north. So long, bears!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Tobu-Kamikita Picnic For Differently-Abled Students

Every summer, the Tobu-Kamikita board of education (which oversees schools in Oirase as well as in the neighboring town of Rokunohe) organizes a special day out for differently-abled students. Taking place in late June, this picnic of sorts allows the students time outside of the classroom to bond with their teachers—as well as with each other. While some of you may recall my critique of the way these students are normally handled in the Japanese school system, this event provides an example of something positive and inclusive that one school board does to make differently-abled students feel more integrated in their schools.
The day started out in front of the local gymnasium where the students were asked to give brief self-introductions. While these introductions were quite simple (name, school, grade level, likes and dislikes), the pressure of speaking in front of a crowd stressed-out at least a few of the students. I’m happy to say, however, that all of my students did quite well. Here we see two of my elementary schoolers with Tsutsumi-San, who organized the event.
The day began in front of the area’s (and allegedly, Japan’s) oldest ginko tree. I was carrying a heavy box full of sketchbooks at the time, so I was lamentably unable to take any photos. After spending a few minutes answering ginko-related trivia questions, we traveled to Icho Sports Park to view my adopted hometown’s most prominent landmark. Remember when I visited Oirase’s Statue of Liberty replica, over a year ago and reported that it sported decidedly manly features? Well, now you can judge for yourself.
Here’s the obligatory group photo. Not pictured: me.
One of my greatest teaching-related triumphs is the story of my relationship with Gou-Kun. Gou was a first grader when I first started teaching at Momoishi Elementary School and no matter what I did, he never seemed to be able to remember who I was. Considering that I’m about a foot taller and at least five shades darker than anyone else in the town, I was always a bit surprised that he couldn’t seem to recall any memory of me. Well, after almost a year of teaching, Gou eventually started to remember me and even got excited (instead of scared) when he encountered me in the hallway or in class. He’s in the second grade now and poses here with his portrait of yours truly (he was supposed to be drawing the Statue of Liberty but you can be sure he wasn’t reprimanded by me). The text reads “Mehan Sensei”.
Here’s Gou-Kun again, this time posing with a drawing of my cat, which is surprisingly accurate considering that my cat lives in Baltimore.
Meanwhile, one of my other students (the one who screams a lot) decided that he couldn’t be bothered with drawing and went off in search of bugs instead. Two of his teachers and even his principal assisted him in the hunt.
Finally, it was lunchtime. The picnic’s organizers had really gone all out to ensure that the meal was a memorable one (my longtime fans will notice the presence of the hunter in the background—he was actually quite indispensable in the planning of the event and obtained most of the foods used). First off, they constructed a long track out of bamboo through which they piped cold water.
They then dumped noodles into the track while the students waited, chopsticks at the ready, to catch them as they raced down the miniature waterslide.
After catching a bundle of noodles, the lucky contestant simply dunked it in a bowl of cold broth and proceeded to slurp. This is actually in keeping with the Japanese dish zarusoba, which is quite popular during the hot summer months.
This smart old dude from the school board, however, figured out the secret: most of the noodles inevitably end up in the basket at the end of the line.
Even though there were more than enough noodles to go around, I soon found that they were only an appetizer. The main meal consisted of yakiniku, with a plethora of meats, fish and vegetables available for grilling, as well as tofu and unadon (barbecued eel served over rice).
After lunch, we all gathered around for a rousing game of smash-the-watermelon-while-wearing-a-blindfold. Ah yes, of course.
Luckily, when watermelons are smashed, everyone wins! All in all, 2006’s Tobu-Kamikita picnic seems to have been a great success.