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On Thursday, I had my last ikebana class/Going Away Party with my ladies.  Although it was just one of the many “goodbye” parties I’ve had in the past few weeks, it was definitely the hardest.  We arrived early to do our flower arranging (Lilies, Okureruka leaves, and Kemurisomething-or-other, which translates to “smoke something or other”) and then cleared the way for a veritable feast.

Two kinds of tempura, three different cuts of maguro (tuna), hand rolls, fried squid!, tamago yaki (sweet egg omelet), chawan mushi (steamed, eggy custard), pickled veggies, and seaweed salad

My Sensei made the kanpai speech, and we ate for awhile, and then I was asked to say a few words.  Normally nervous in situations where I have to speak Japanese in front of a rapt audience, this case was different.  I spoke about how I had always wanted to learn ikebana, and how it was one of my main desires and goals this year in coming to Japan.  How I told this to as many people as possible, until someone finally took pity on me and introduced me to this group of ladies.  I talked about how, at first, I was hesitant to commit to a weekly class because of time constraints and prices, but how gradually, it became one of my favorite events of the week.  How on days that I was down or anxious (like Thursday), coming to class, working with the flowers, but more so, just being in the company of such women was a relief, and a respite.  How they welcomed me into their group, fed me tea and taught me bad Japanese.

Often, in Japan, I have felt a need to act a certain way; play a certain role.  This was exhausting, and sometimes resulted in an intense desire to hide from “Japan.”  Ikebana, however, was the one place where I felt completely at ease.  That there were no preconceived expectations of me, and that I was free and accepted to, in fact, be myself.  And in doing so, I weaseled my way into the hearts of these older Japanese ladies – my obateria.  Safe to say, they’d never met anyone like me ever before, and as strange and foreign a creature as I am, they accepted me.  And I think they even liked me, too.  There were tears when I said goodbye and drove away.  That next week, they will be meeting same time, same place without me, feels wrong and sad and lonely.  But so it goes.

The mango was placed there for express, comedic value

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Beko Mochi

July hasn’t been the most blog friendly month, and for that, I’m sorry!  Turns out that getting ready to leave the country to return home, at the busiest time of the school year, has made for less time waxing poetic on the internets.  Please forgive.  I’ll try to get in some last interesting tidbits of Japanese culture and thoughts on leaving within the next couple weeks.  Stay tuned.

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Japan, as you might know, is big into sweets.  In addition, Japanese people enjoy several textures otherwise not valued in the Western world.  That of mochi-mochi, hoku-hoku, and neba-neba. (Oh! How I love Japanese onomatopoeia!)  These texture descriptors roughly translate respectively to: springy and chewy (like omochi); technically “not soggy” but I consider it more fluffy (like a baked sweet potato eaten hot with butter); and slimey and gooey (like natto – fermented soybeans – or overcooked okra).  This mochi-mochi aesthetic is very apparent, as almost every region in Japan has their own form or preferred style of making omochi.  Here in Aomori’s Shimokita, they make Beko mochi which is, more than anything, just a way to make something mediocre tasting look pretty!

Mixing the Mochi

Creating the design, part by part

I’ve been given countless gifts of beko mochi in the past year, but I had yet to make it.  Turned out, though, that one of my ikebana ladies is a beko mochi master, and offered to give me a crash course in the production.  Instead of making beko mochi from cooked mochi rice (a sweeter, smaller grain of white rice), it’s made with equal parts mochi flour, regular flour, and then some white sugar.  These ingredients are then mixed together by adding hot water until they form a sticky, heavy lump – not unlike play-dough.  Then small amounts of colored powder are mixed in to create different colors.  These colors are rolled out into logs or snakes (think sculpy) and by way of good memory, mind expansion, and magic are twisted, combined, flattened, and smushed into a cohesive design.  These examples are mostly cherry blossom flowers, but I’ve seen everything from irises, daisies, and cartoon characters.  The final log is then sliced thinly and steamed before being eaten.

Move over best gfs in America - my soulmate might just be this loudmouthed, 60+, Japanese dance teacher with 4 dogs

Wait for it...almost there...

Truth be told, it’s not the most delicious sweet. (A little beko mochi goes a long way in sitting in your belly.) But it’s a pretty cool process and very particular to my region.  I doubt that anyone outside of the prefecture has even heard of it, except now of course, my loyal American audience.

Ta Da!

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In October, I talked about Harvest Season here: the many garden plots and the plethora of potatoes, soybeans, cauliflower, tomatoes, and daikon that grace the fields and plates of our little town.  I also mentioned getting to harvest rice with one of my elementary schools, which we then used for the big Omochi Party in November.  Well, seasons have changed, winter has come and gone, and now planting season has begun in earnest.  My happiness level and appreciation for the beauty around here has skyrocketed with each blue-sky day and the rising temperatures.  The lack of Daylight Savings Time this far north makes me feel a little like I’m living in the Arctic Circle.  At 4:45am it’s bright as day outside my window and the sun doesn’t set until well past 7.

Baby rice starters

Ofcourse they got dirty! They're kids! **PS. This is for all you NYers out there...mad love from Kazama

Yesterday was no exception.  In the afternoon, I joined the same elementary school to plant the rice that they will then harvest again next fall.  Although I arrived with galoshes, it became pretty clear that they were impractical for the procedure.  So, like my kids, I rolled up my pant legs and waded right in, baby rice starters in hand to plant in perfect grid-like rows already established before we arrived.  The mud was warm, thick and squishy.  And it made me really, superbly, blissed to be out in the sun, calf-deep in earthy sludge, listening to the shouts and giggles coming from my students and fellow teachers.  Sometimes there’s not much more to say than: it was fun.

See the grid rows here? They are made with an archaic looking cylindrical metal tool (about 5ft wide) with spokes, and rolled across the mud (which has been flooded in preparation the last week or so).

Modeling the finished product

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My monthly Sunday is up at Go Girl.  Read here.

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Beijing
Three hours, one in-flight meal, and three-quarters of a movie after departing Tokyo, Ellie and I arrived in Beijing’s international airport on a balmy Friday afternoon.  It took awhile for it to set in, but it became pretty apparent that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Welcome to Beijing!

Beijing seems to be a city in transition.  Unlike Tokyo, Beijing is a sprawling, smoggy city, built perpetually out out out, rather than up up up.  The streets alternate between wide, multi-laned avenues humming with four- and two-wheeled traffic, and tiny cobbled alleys in the older hutong traditional neighborhoods.  These, too, are teeming with cars and bikes, often impeding pedestrian traffic.  There are Western influenced grand, stone parliament buildings and hotels that take up wide city blocks, McDonalds and KFCs rubbing shoulders with Rolex advertisements, and sharp-looking businessmen stepping into their Audis.  Walk a few blocks and you are dodging bicycles and sidewalk trash, being beckoned from nearby shops with choruses of “Pretty lady, you buy shoes? silk? necklace?”  A few more, and you are in one of Beijing’s stunning parks, watching retirees flow through their Tai Chi exercises, or young Beijingers holding hands and looking amorous (a site not often witnessed in reserved and modest Japan).  The delicious smells of the street-cart food stalls mingle frequently with the public toilet odors in many of the hutongs, assaulting the senses every couple feet.  Beijing may be in transition, but nothing about it is subtle.

A busy, commercial district

A quiet, residential hutong in a different part of the city

As for sites, we did all the required ones: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, and a few other “lesser” temples and parks.  The largest public square in China (…maybe even the world?), Tiananmen Square was the seat from which Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic in 1949, and is also, apparently, the most heavily guarded and patrolled site in China.  We arrived at sunset, along with countless other Chinese who were enjoying their evening strolling around, flying kites in the wind, and snapping photos of Mao’s iconic portrait.  The Forbidden City, which lies directly north of Tiananmen Square took up an entire morning of ambling.  Although we tried to go on a Saturday, we discovered crowds so thick and hectic (due to the weekend being one of China’s national holidays), that we were forced to return later in the week.  When we did return, however, it was worth the slog through the other tourists.  The Forbidden City is huge, and fascinating.  Long ago the seat of power for the emperors and empresses of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it houses temples, squares, public receiving halls, gardens, as well as rows upon rows of low-roofed, brightly-shingled buildings that housed the royalty, and all those employed under the crown.  For years it was off-limits to the inferior citizenry.

In the summer months, when the heat of the city became unbearable, however, the royalty would escape to the Summer Palace, on the shores of a mandmade lake in the northwest of the city.  While the architecture and the grounds of the Summer Palace were extraordinary (it includes a man-made island in the middle of the lake to which the Empress banished the Emperor, like some lavish order of sleeping on the couch), I found it difficult to appreciate it to its full extent.  It was as crowded as the L train on a rainy Monday morning.  As packed as an outdoor music festival during the headlining show.  As teeming as the crosswalks of Shibuya on a Saturday night.  It was a mess.

Mao, above the Gate of Heavenly Peace - one of the entrances into the Forbidden City

In the maze of the Forbidden City

Summer Palace - don't let the relative calm of this photo deceive you. This place was teeming.

Impressive though these aforementioned sites were, the Temple of Heaven was my favorite.  In the southeastern quadrant of Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is exactly as the name suggests: a Temple for communicating with the Heavens.  The temples themselves are ornate and beautiful, but the draw, for me, was more in the grounds and the people using them.  Perhaps a boon of communism, but Beijing’s retirees seem to live a life of leisure and luxury.  Free admittance into anywhere in the city for those over sixty, the Temple of Heaven was the hot-spot for the mature crowd.  They gathered to play any number of games I’d never seen or heard of (variations of hacky-sack with a ‘birdy’ with rings and feathers; toss involving rings and landing them over your partners’ neck; Tai Chi groups or singles undulating among the trees) and solitary old men writing Chinese calligraphy with walking-stick sized paintbrushes and water along the sidewalks.  It seemed to me everything that a Chinese park should be.

The Temple of Heaven - in ancient Chinese times, circular shapes signified Heaven, while squares symbolized Earth

You can see the funny birdy in the bottom right corner. I brought one home with me, and plan to spread the craze to America soon.

Solitary lady flowing with her Chi

Other highlights of our trip included renting bikes for a day and cruising around the city.  Because Beijing is so flat and laid out in a straightforward grid pattern, navigating was pretty simple.  Dodging traffic and potholes, on the other hand, proved to be a bit more nerve wracking.  We were also able to check out the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College, lesser tourist attractions and therefore delightfully peaceful after a crazy day biking.  On the other end of the architectural spectrum, we made a point to visit the famous Bird’s Nest arena, built specifically for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  The whole complex (Bird’s Nest, pool, waterfront, nearby hotels and accommodation) is truly staggering.  It is new, clean, bright, big, and streamlined.  A subway line – albeit four stops long – was built specifically for the Olympic games.  We chose to visit at night and were rewarded with a much cooler ambiance that what I would expect during a blazing hot day with no shade.  And lest you think what squares we are for doing all the typical tourist stuff, we also spent a great afternoon at the Midi Festival, Beijing’s kick-off summer music festival, showcasing mainly Chinese bands and DJs but also a few lesser-known names from Europe and the US.  It was fun getting to experience the Chinese youth and subculture, with everyone rocking out their best festival wear.

A view of the main building within the Imperial College, which sits adjacent to the Confucius Temple

Que Olympic song....now.

At the big stage of the Midi Festival, about to hear some (mediocre) band from Russia

And how can I talk about a trip to China with no mention of food, yet?  Well, I can’t.  Where to even begin?  Let me start, though, by saying that Ellie and I truly lucked out.  Rather than left to fend for discovering everything ourselves (which we did pretty damn well I must say), we were hooked up for a day by a friend of Poppa Seltz and got the local’s tour treatment by his nephew and his lovely wife, two cool kids our own age.  Not only did they show us around the Temple of Heaven, but also introduced us to a typical Beijing breakfast of pastry-type breads and some foul-smelling fermented soy bean soup, and to real, honest-to-god, delicious Szechuan cuisine.  I have never tasted better shrimp and peanuts, or cubed and fried chicken cooked with mounds of red chillis in my life.  Peking Duck, treated by Poppa Seltz’ friend Mr. Li, also lived up to every expectation I had.  Did you know that the crispy duck skin with it’s juicy, buttery layer of fat should be dipped in sugar first?  It changed my opinion of this fowl forever, and I was already a fan!  Street food, too, pulled through when we needed it.  Cold, spicy, sesame noodles on a hot day; mini, steamed pork buns for breakfast; a pineapple or a coconut full of coconut water for a quick pick-me-up; a beansprout and cabbage filled burrito.  And there were still so many things left to try!

Scorpions and seahorses on a stick: Next time!

Ellie waiting for some noodles from a street vendor

An authentic Szechuan feast with our new friends Si Si and Zhongyuan. (Si Si would know, she's from Szechuan province!)

I’ll leave you here on that tasty note.  Check back soon for Part II: our Great Wall trip, and for a more cohesive wrap-up on this last little excursion of mine.

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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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One of the cool things we got to do while Justin was here in November was partake in an Omochi Making Party at one of my Elementary schools.  Omochi, pounded down sweet rice cakes, can be eaten in a variety of ways, and in one day, I probably consumed enough gluten to last me a month.  In today’s modern Japan, omochi can be made conveniently by a machine, similar to a bread machine, which will cook the rice and then pound it out itself.  Never even have to sully your fingers with the messy affair.  In old Japan, though, omochi was made by physically pounding out the cooked rice in a huge wooden mortar, called an usu, with a large mallet, a kine. One person wields the usu while another tends to the rice, wetting it with cold water so it doesn’t stick, and flipping it around for an even consistency.  Which is exactly what we did.

Once pounded out into a huge sticky ball, omochi is typically made into smaller, rounded, sticky balls.  These can be added or topped with a whole slew of goodies.  At this party, we began our Omochi Feast with Ozoni soup, a clear dashi-based soup with carrots, shiitake mushrooms, burdock root and ofcourse, delicious melted mochi.  Ozoni soup is typically associated with the New Year, but can also be eaten at other times of the year.  The 5th and 6th grade students also set up various “stations” for all the other omochi preparations.

One station consisted of mochi brushed with a soy-sauce and sugar mixture, and wrapped with nori, seaweed.  Another station offered mochi in oshiruko, an azuki bean soup, as well as mochi stuffed with anko, azuki paste.  Yet another station slung out mochi covered in kinako, a sweet/salty soybean flour, and the last station had mochi covered in a sweet and savory, caramel-colored soy-based sauce. (Notice any trends? How about soy and rice?)  I left the party with a full belly and tired arms.

Usu and Kine

Justin pounds rice. Old lady cowers. Kids view big tall white man wielding heavy instrument with suspicion

Mochi 5 Ways - not including Ozoni soup

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