Friday, May 29, 2009

Welcome Dinner!

Last Saturday, Mia and I were treated to a lovely welcome dinner party at a local restaurant (Subarashikikanajinsen - thanks!) :)

The gang (left to right): Mayumi, U, Brian, Mia, Azusa, Akira, Junko

Azusa, Akira and I had hot Japanese shōchū (an alcoholic drink made from sweet potato). It doesn't taste like anything I've ever had in America, and it should not be confused with sake. This was much less strong and much more sweet than sake, in my experience. Mia opted for the much healthier choice of orange juice. :)

Since there is zero tolerance for alcohol when driving (or biking) here in Japan, everyone had made arrangements to get home. Mia drove me home and my students either had someone come pick them up to drive them home, took a taxi, or walked. While Illinois has a limit of 0.08, the limit here is 0.00. No drinks. The fine for drunk driving is 300,000 yen (about $3,000), plus you lose your license and aren't allowed to drive for 10 years, so you simply don't do it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Check out that new header!

We decided that orange bar had to go. Hope you enjoy the new design!

The two little Ouchi dolls are famous in Yamaguchi Prefecture. They represent a happily married man and wife, and are an example of typical art from this region of Japan. A friend told us that back in the day, if a woman was upset with her husband she would show it by simply turning the little female doll to face away from the male one. Though it seems a bit silly (and really passive!), it may actually be true.

Of course, the header picture is not of real dolls, but rather a spray painted image of them. We really liked the juxtaposition of this historic art and, essentially, graffiti. Enjoy!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Japanese Tea Ceremonies

During the week before we left for Korea, two of my adult conversation classes taught me about the traditional Japanese tea ceremony by demonstrating in person!

whisking the tea before serving

The basic steps are:
- Boil some water.
- Use the tea scoop to put one or two scoops of green tea powder into your large Hagi pottery bowl.
- Add boiling water to the powder in the bowl (not too much, only about 3 large gulps of water... see picture)
- Briskly whisk the tea powder and water together in each bowl until a nice layer of foamy bubbles forms on the tea.
- Then you serve the tea to your guests (one Hagi pottery bowl per guest).

There are a series of ceremonial steps that I've skipped here, but I couldn't remember them all and didn't want to make a mistake, so I'll leave that extra research up to you!

properly whisked tea

These were quick ceremonies done during or in between classes, and I was told that they weren't truly "authentic", but I certainly learned something new and we all definitely enjoyed ourselves!

tools: (clockwise from left) whisk, red bean sweets and pastry, Hagi bowl with tea, bamboo tea scoop, green tea powder

One of my classes held the ceremony after class at my student's home where she showed us her beautiful rose bushes, green tea ceremony room, and very nice kitchen! The other ceremony was held during class, and we tried to use as much English as possible to explain the process. One of my students even brought a large book (in English) that was all about the Japanese tea ceremony history, and we read a few excerpts from that for practice!

More photos from our Green Tea ceremonies.

When you're having regular Japanese green tea, you usually drink it out of much smaller Japanese style teacups, no whisk required. Typically, you boil the water, then pour the water into a little Japanese tea pot (kyusu) that has dried tea leaves in it and a metal strainer (to prevent the leaves from getting out of the kettle), then pour the tea from the pot into your little teacups. But some people just put tea bags or tea + strainer into the boiling water and skip the middle step.

More Japanese Green Tea Ceremony info at Wikipedia

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Morning Sunshine

Hubby got these for me from the riverbank on his morning run today.

Sunflowers, Asian poppies, clovers, and wild grass

Rice and Mud

Mia: "So Brian, what do you want to do tonight?"
Brian: " The same thing we do every night Mia, try to take over Japan!!!"

The scheme of the day was rice planting. If we could perfectly hone our rice planting skills, we could grow rice in special patterns recognizable from outer space, telling extraterrestrial life that we (Brian and myself) are the rulers of Earth and that they should pay tribute to us. Alas, as we realized that the typical rice paddy in Japan is only as big as a living room and would be difficult to see from outer space, we decided to just have fun squishing around in the mud instead.

And we did.

Sunday we took the short 20 minute drive to Tokuji, a nearby town, using the Chugoku expressway. Japanese highways are notoriously well maintained, but hideously expensive. We were misinformed that the drive from Yamaguchi to Tokuji (only one exit) was free, so we entered the highway at normal merging speed and flew down the nearly empty lanes. Upon arriving in Tokuji however, we were greeted by a toll attendant who kindly asked us for our ticket. "What ticket??" Long story short, we apparently flew right past the Yamaguchi toll attendant and never picked up a ticket to show where we had entered the highway, thus preventing them from knowing how much to charge us. Luckily we had a map that showed where we entered (and we kept saying, "Yamaguchi-shi, Yamaguchi-shi!!!!" and "Gomenasai" or, I'm sorry!!!) and they found us to be trustworthy enough, so they charged us the ¥ 550, or roughly $5.50, and sent us on our way. Soooooo much money!

To the point! We planted rice in a little paddy off the side of a very small mountainous road in a part of town 20 minutes from the nearest store. A field of mud is flooded with about a foot of water and then tilled so the soil is extremely soft. Nearly all of us were barefoot (about 50 people, Japanese and foreigners) and wearing raincoats because it was raining cats and dogs AND lizards. It was quite the shower. Lines had already been drawn into the mud for us to follow, and many of us took two lines each. We were instructed to take a block of rice seedlings, pinch off 2-5 at a time, and plant them one chopstick length apart. They even gave us bamboo hashi (chopsticks) to measure!

After getting used to our feet sinking pretty far into the mud and ruining our lines, we eventually got the hang of it and were moving pretty fast. The type of rice we were planting is called Koshihikari rice, and is known as some of the finest sushi rice in the world. I hope we eventually get to eat it too!

We found this cute little red-bellied salamander checking out our rice planting skills and decided to give him a bird's eye view.

Planting was from 9-10:30, and by the time we were finished, we were famished. Luckily, we finished a little earlier than everyone else (our paddy was a bit shorter), so we washed up and were promptly sent to the kitchen to help prepare lunch. We learned how to form little rice balls, onigiri, decorated with a single umeboshi, or pickled plum. These are known as Land of the Rising Sun onigiri because the red sphere on white rice looks like the Japanese flag. I'm not sure what went into the rice, but these older Japanese women simply instructed us to dunk our hands in a bowl of cold water, then plopped an extremely hot lump of rice in our hands and made the motions of how to form them into pretty little rounded triangles. Took about 3 before I could do it right.

The rest of lunch consisted of sweet bean mochi, or glutinous rice balls, steamed in leaves, several types of pickled vegetables, and tea. Gotta love Japanese lunches.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Lazy Korea Post

That is to say, this is my lazy post about Korea. Here's a link to pictures! We'll write more later.

[Brian's quick update]
Here's my favorite photo of the ones that I took while in Korea, if you click on the photo, it will take you to my Flickr page where you can explore more of my favorites from the trip!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Gokoku-jinja is a sprawling shrine very near to Sesshu Garden and we visited both on the same day. According to this Encyclopedia of Shinto website, Gokoku-jinja is a generic name for all shrines "dedicated to the spirits of individuals who died in Japanese wars from the end of the early modern period through World War II."

Unfortunately, I really don't have much to say about it since I couldn't find much info in English about this specific shrine. The reason that this was particularly interesting to us was that the priest that we met there (who happened to be locking the place up for the day) actually took the time to perform several minutes of Taiko drumming from inside the shrine while we listened outside. His playing created a very relaxing and meditative atmosphere. Afterward he chatted with us for a while and attempted to answer several of Mia's questions.

3 quick things

Meet Yawnie, our parakeet-on-loan while we're in Japan.
He loves singing, speaks a little Japanese, and likes to sit on Brian's head.

We finally got a shot of the second crane (and a couple ducks).
Is it actually a different kind of bird?

Cute as this picture is, I can't help but wonder if my students think I'm fat!
*le sigh*

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The day that changed everything (kinda)

Anyone not living in the United States who thinks a grumpy old doctor with a cane and Viocodin addiction is attractive understands the above graphic. Hulu has viciously blocked anyone outside the US from using their services.

Ok, ok, you got me. They've always blocked foreign users, but we at least used to be able to use a service like Hotspot Shield, an IP anonymizer, to trick Hulu into thinking we were in the US. However, when we tried it tonight we got this semi-hurtful little message saying something to the effect of, "Hey, we figured out your little trick and you can't use it anymore. Nah nah nah nah nah."

Now we have two choices: use bit torrents and get the episodes illegally, but free and without commercials (see Hulu, you could have at least shown as the ads still!!), or buy episodes on iTunes. I'm happy to report that tonight we took the high road, but who knows how long that'll last. (I'm kidding.... of course we'll always be little angels.... right? *wink*)

If you have any insider info, let us know. *Sigh* Such is the life abroad. We get adventure and stories, but no TV in English.

Note: Hulu, we'd be happy to pay a monthly subscription for your services.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sesshu and his garden

Sesshu Toyo may only be one of the artists I have come to respect in Japan, but he is definitely the one that has most touched my heart. At a young age he was sent to live in a monastery with his uncle because his parents had passed away. One day he was caught drawing instead of doing his chores and as a punishment was tied to a pole to contemplate his wrongdoings. When a monk came to check on him later, he was surprised to find that Sesshu had drawn with his feet in the mud he created from his own tears. The other version of the story is that a monk was startled to see a mouse near Sesshu's feet, which turned out to be only a toe drawing in the dirt. Either way, the monks recognized his talents and sent him to China to learn traditional ink painting among other things.

The Five Storied Pagoda, or Gojunoto, is the beautiful piece of architecture from our previous pictures, was the child of Sesshu. I forget the significance of the five stories, but on top there is a spire with 9 metal rings, representing the 9 levels of heaven. No one enters the pagoda, because it is meant solely for meditative purposes. Additionally, there are no nails used in the entire structure and it's close to 600 years old! I apologize for this poor explanation of the structure, because a lot more was told to me, but it was a few weeks ago. Still, for some reason, Rurikoji doesn't compare to Sesshu's garden.

Sesshutei, or Sesshu's public garden, is supposedly a recreation of one of his famous landscape paintings, but I like to think he planned the garden first, then painted it, then planted it. It's composed of rocks, grass, a few trees, a pond, and a bamboo forest. The result is so moving and simultaneously immobile that you're almost forced to sit barefoot on the wooden planks of the attached house and just breathe. There's no analyzing of the artistry of the scene, no ideas of what to do next in the day, no desire to recreate the image in any way. You are simply present.

The large wooden house attached can be explored and it is full of tatami mat rooms, paintings, small shrines to unknown deities, bowls of incense, bells, and other mystical things. And yet, it seems that it's main purpose is to serve as a contrast to the effortlessness of the beauty just out the back door. The front leads to the zen rock and sand garden from the above picture. That day, we spotted several little tokage, lizards, creeping through the cracks in the steps and sunning themselves on the rocks. They were quite amusing. There's also a tea house attached, though we did not enter.

You can hike up the small mountain (hill really) behind the pond and the garden and see a small cemetery and three small shrines to more unknown deities. The walk was memorable only because an uguisu, Japanese nightingale, was singing the entire time.

It's a shame our pictures couldn't capture the full beauty of the gardens, but I guess you'll just have to come visit us and see for yourselves.

Here's a link to the local tourist guide site about this garden:

The broken ribs of ancient warriors puncture the earth's mossy skin
While the trees take turns showering gold into the pond that has slept the last 500 years,
and plans on sleeping forever.
And why should it ever wake up here?
The birds sing lullabies in the day
and the moon coos to it at night.
The bamboo simply watches from ever increasing heights.

(poem by Mia)