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Archive for January, 2010

Ikebana: Week 4

Narcissus, Mitsumata (the white painted branches – called mitsumata because the branch forks into three pieces at every intersection and mitsu means three), and Doracena, in the corn family and goes by Dracaena in English.

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Tako Time

…and by which I mean, octopus.

Perhaps a sign of my going native, but at the time, it didn’t seem like that unusual of a gift.  Why should it?  I’ve already received squid, abalone, fresh salmon roe, and sea urchin in the past six months.  If not still squirming, then at least newly deceased. Also, I can gut a fish and prepare it several ways with the head still intact.  Small achievements, but achievements nonetheless!

So anyway, today’s tako time happened like this: At one of my elementary schools, someone, presumably a parent, dropped off several boxes full of octopus as gifts for the teachers.  I, in turn, received one of these bags of octopus, assured that it was just the “feet” and told to go home, rinse it in hot water, slice it up and eat it sashimi style with some ginger and soy sauce. Now, I don’t dislike octopus, in fact tako yaki (little fried balls of dough with pieces of octopus inside, eaten with Kewpie mayo, tonkatsu fruit sauce, and fresh ginger is delicious!) but to have to simply take on a couple pounds of octopus in my kitchen, suction cups still functioning, was not necessarily part of my evening plans.  I am, however, banking on taking it to our nabe* party tomorrow night and having a Japanese friend take care of it for me….after all, why bring the teacher an apple when you can bring her half an octopus instead?

*Nabe (pronounced na-bé) is a hot pot dish that Japanese people LOVE in winter.  It’s made in a big earthenware hot pot, on a table-top gas stove.  There are many different kinds of nabe but basically it’s comprised of lots of veggies, some sort of meat or protein, and a flavoring for the soup, such as miso, kombu/dashi, or soysauce.  Some types of nabe include Seafood Nabe, Kimchee Nabe, Genghis Khan nabe (mutton and vegetables), Beautiful Nabe (only for women, and infused with collagen and collagen rich food to make your skin “glow”), and Italian Nabe (the only difference is that it has tomato juice in it).  It’s pretty delicious and a nice way to spend an evening hanging out with friends, preferably under a kotatsu, a heated floor table with blankets to cover your feet, sipping on beer or sake in the winter.

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Ikebana: Week 3

Falsely advertising the coming of Spring, my newest ikebana arrangement teases me each time I leave or return to the house.

Tulips, Yuki Yanagi (a type of white and yellow flowered spirea shrub), and Mugi (tall green barley stalks)

Springy Ikebana

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My two weeks in Thailand were sunny, warm, fun, delicious, challenging, eye-opening, and all together, just what I needed.  While it’s always a little hard to be away from family and friends during the holidays, exploring a new – and awesome – country helped in abating my lonesomeness for home.  The trip also came at a good time, when the grey days of Shimokita were slowly but surely wearing me down and the kerosene from my heater had taken up residence in my chest as a nasty cough.  (Incidentally, this caused everyone to force masks on me whenever I entered a building.  Funny, because it’s true.)

Although there were certainly moments I wished that I had a companion to share in the absurdity, admiration, or humor of a situation, I definitely took to traveling alone like a fish to water.  I got to do what I wanted, when I wanted, depending on how I felt.  It was grand.  I also came to realize that traveling, especially alone, in a foreign speaking country really requires one major thing on the part of the traveler: letting go.  You have to be okay with not knowing exactly what’s happening and why at any given time.  This is a hard mental shift for someone like me, but probably a good exercise in character in the smaller scheme of travel and the bigger scheme of life.

Stepping off the plane into the December Bangkok heat felt like an August day in DC.  Almost instantly, my whole body relaxed.  No longer did I have to shiver myself warm.  I found Bangkok to be beautiful, balmy, hectic, pungent, and colorful.  My hotel was adequate and clean – in a convenient part of town, with a big open air restaurant for my complimentary breakfasts.  I spent my time in Bangkok exploring mostly on foot or by way of the river and canal boat taxis – the Grand Palace, which houses the enormous gold reclining Buddha (I spent more time examining and admiring the minute paintings of the Buddha’s life covering the 30 foot walls floor-to-ceiling); Wat Arun, a rather phallic temple on the far side of the river nestled in sparkling mosaic tiles; the Chatuchuk Weekend Market, an incredible maze of shops and stalls, grouped together based on wares (pet supplies, fake flowers, electronics, young designers, Thailand tourist tchotchkes); the midnight Flower Market, heaps and heaps of the most kaleidescopic wholesale floral displays; the ultra-modern and sleek downtown, centered around high-rise consumer-driven shopping malls and a convenient above-ground Sky Train system; China town; a refreshingly ungentrified China town, streets so packed with open-air food vendors and tables that the traffic nearly stops.  And the food! Oh, the food!

Reclining Buddha

Wat Arun

Flower vendors at night watching TV

 

Downtown Bangkok: Skytrain + ubiquitous traffic. *Note the pink taxis!

The street food was by far the best bet no matter where I was in Thailand.  Red and green and yellow curries; wide chewy rice noodles; slippery vermicelli noodles; spicy chicken and pork soups that you could pile high with fresh vegetables and herbs (wing beans, cucumbers, bean sprouts, pickled cabbage, dill, basil, mint…) – beware the offal and chicken feet version, though…; papaya salads; mango sticky rice; all manners of protein on sticks; little, sweet coconut milk pancakes topped with corn or chocolate.  There were fruit vendors on every corner hawking all sorts of exotic fruits (from delicious mangoes to durian to rambutan and tamarinds).   Thailand, it turns out, is a gourmand’s heaven.  Especially after the relatively spice-less Japanese diet, some heat did my taste buds good.

Street Cart Pad Thai - first night dinner

Crunchy young mango, with sugar & chilis

Durian Cart

China Town street dining al fresco

From Bangkok, I traveled south via Krabi to Ko Phi-Phi, the island famous for hosting Leonardo DiCaprio and his movie “The Beach.”  Ko Phi-Phi was certainly breathtaking, but was far too touristy and resort-filled for my tastes.  While I will admit that I, too, was a tourist in Thailand, there are many different breeds of tourist, and the one I found in Ko Phi-Phi smacked of Spring Break Cancun 2009!   In all, not my thing, and though I had a great time meeting up with a couple pals from Japan who were also there at the time, I could’ve skipped it altogether in favor of the next spot on my trip.

Phi-Phi: Longtails on the beach

View from "The Beach" & our longtail boat

Back on the mainland, I traveled to Ton Sai Beach, a section of Rai Leh peninsula, only accessible by a 10 minute long-tail boat ride from a neighboring town.  I found Ton Sai to be everything that Phi-Phi was not.  In fact, even arriving at dusk, after a hectic and round-about day of travel with an increasingly heavy pack on my back, I could breathe a sigh of relief.  Where Phi-Phi was paved streets, neon tourist shops and  sleek Swedish restaurants, Ton Sai was sandy paths from the beach into the mosquito-filled interior, delicious and cheap cart food, and quiet bungalows nestled among the hills.  My cabin was up the mountain, with a fan purring on the ceiling, bats cooing under the eaves at night, and little green geckos slurping around the walls.  The view from my balcony was that of jungles and cliffs and deep blue sky.  Ton Sai was literally dripping with climbers.  With more than a hundred set routes all over the peninsula, it’s a rock climber’s wet dream.  Many of the other travelers I met were there for several months, at least, climbing every day, relaxing at night.  I found it easy to find people willing to trade belays and meet for some morning beach yoga sessions – both of which satisfied some goals I had for my trip.  And, in the end, I’m glad I spent New Year’s listening to reggae-ton and oldies at a bar at the beach, watching beautiful paper white lanterns filled with kerosene heat and wishes float off into the ether, rather than being assaulted by electronica and glow sticks at Phi-Phi.

Ton Sai: Yoga Morning

Ton Sai: Yoga before a day of climbing and beaching

Ton Sai: Climbers starting their day

Ton Sai: the sun sets on 2009

Hesitant to leave,  my next stop was Khao Lak, Thailand, a beach town on the north west of Thailand’s southern leg.  Mostly used as a jump-off point for scuba diving trips into the Surin or Similan National Park Islands  (candidates for UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site status), that was exactly what I did, making good use of the PADI license I earned forever ago.  I joined a 3-day, 3-night live-aboard trip into the Surins.  Unfortunately, I damaged my ear on one of the first dives, and could only do half of the 9 total dives, unable to get down to even 10 to 15 of the 30 meters max we were diving.  The dives that I did partake in, though, were breathtaking – all sorts of fishies (the parrot fish are my favorite), nudibranches, shrimps, bulging-eyed stingrays, tons of graceful turtles, jelly-fish, and reef sharks.  Every dive was followed by a delicious Thai meal cooked by the Thai staff on the boat, maybe some beach time on one of the pristine islands, or some relaxing boat time, reading and swaying in the waves.  Pretty rough life.

Sea Dragon MV Mariner - the boat

Surin Island Number...9?

Hangin out on the boat between dives

Surin Island Number...7?

I was impressed at my own planning and forethought, too, to realize that the nicest and cushiest accommodation I’d booked during the whole trip (at a whopping 34USD!) was right after my return to shore, after several days of sea-water bathing and a rocking cabin.  (Though, the night I slept on the top deck under the stars beat any hotel room I had the entire time!)  The comfort was short-lived, however, as I soon found myself on a creaking and cranky 12 hour, 2nd class night bus to Bangkok, 24 hours after arriving on dry land.  (One of the most convenient things about being a small and flexible person is the ease with which I can get comfy curled up in even the most uncomfortable scenarios.  And the fact that big things, obviously, come in small packages.)

The national flower of Thailand

The beach at Khao Lak, waiting for my night bus back to Bangkok

Bangkok Round II was mostly a wrap up of last minute gift shopping and of checking off the list some stuff I ran out of time for the first visit.  I ended my Thailand adventure with a delicious dinner at an unassuming, hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant, and a $6 ticket into a stadium-seating, Dolby surround sound, HD Sherlock Holmes movie (the first new movie I’ve seen since July) on the 1oth floor of some high-rise mall.  And, in typical Thai fashion, seamlessly blending the ultra-modern with patriotic history and culture, we stood as the national anthem played over a montage of His Highness, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

 

Street cart durian baby

Luxe and cheap movie experience. For 1st Class tickets you get: snack, dinner, and drinks + entrance into the 1st class lounge an hour before showtime + the loveseat option + slippers & blankies all for your viewing pleasure.

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開けましてお目出度うございます!今年も宜しくおねがいします。[Akemashite omedetougozaimasu! Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.] [Happy New Year!  I humbly seek your good favor for yet another year….or in other words, it’s 2010, what up now!]

My apologies, all dedicated readers, for my long absence from the wide world of the interweb.  I’ve been back in Kazamaura for over a week, but there’s been a lot of transitioning going on that has put blogging on the back burner.  I happily inform you that my vacation days were well-spent, but arriving back to the bleak, cold, and snowy wilds of northern Japan was not a little unchallenging.  As far as news goes, though, the days are getting longer (if not a little colder), reminding me that literally and figuratively, the darkest days are over.  Delicious little mikans (essentially a Clementine, but far superior to any Clementine I’ve ever eaten State-side) have almost exclusively replaced the persimmons and apples of yesteryear.  The snow in these parts is thick and white and fluffy – and demands skiing.  A sense of anticipation hums through the school: it’s the third, and last, trimester, and everyone is gearing up for the end of the school year and all the changes that brings.  Personally, I am looking forward to the big mountain boarding, Japan exploring, language acquisition, and changing seasons that I’ve got coming my way.  It’s a new year, so as far as my thoughts go: bring it.

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