Posts Tagged ‘inaka’

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.


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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The Great Wall


Contrary to our nature, Ellie and I decided to heed the advice of several concerned parents and friends and elected to use a tour service for our Great Wall trip.  We were told that the Wall was dangerous and that camping along it was illegal.  So, for a relatively reasonable fee, we were hooked up with a private tour guide, a car to shuttle us from Beijing to the Wall trail heads, food, and two nights accommodation along the Wall (though we initially thought we’d get a chance at camping ON the Wall with our guide – our preference).

In retrospect, once getting to the Wall, hiking along it and finding somewhere to camp would have been no problem.  Parts of it are certainly in disrepair, but nothing that a little re-routing couldn’t fix.  Also, we discovered that while it is illegal to camp overnight in the renovated “Scenic Spot” sections of the Wall, most everywhere else is fair game, and undisturbed.  Though people will not tell you this.  And while I don’t know statistics, I would bet that 98% of tourists going to the Great Wall of China go to one of three renewed, government regulated, built-up spots.  This leaves miles and miles of real, often crumbling, but far more authentic sections of the Wall untrafficked and unloved.  Naturally, it is these places that held the appeal for us.  Further, I’ll put it flatly: we did not get along with our guide, who was a sheltered, young Chinese man the same age as us, who clearly struggled internally with years of hating America (per Chinese propaganda) and his recent idolization of stereotypical America and Americans, as the scales fell from his eyes in regards to his own government.  To boot, we were (are) women, and despite the fact that we were paying him for a service (i.e. it was, in fact, our vacation), our desires, abilities, and preferences were nigh taken into account.  Not exactly what you look for in a guided personal tour.


Gubeikou Section of the Great Wall

All that said, the Great Wall is an impressive feat in architecture, warfare and protection tactics, manpower, and natural beauty, and I am delighted to have discovered it.  Built primarily during the Ming Dynasty (between 1368 and 1644) to protect Beijing from nomadic Mongol invaders to the North, in the end, it did little to keep out the formidable Ghengis Khan.  It snakes its way along the ridges of the Yanshan and Xishan mountain ranges, a series of watchtowers interconnected by long expanses of, well, wall.  We learned that it was engineered to catch rainfall and funnel it only towards the Beijing side of the mountains, and here and there, the usual bricks along our walk were interspersed with fine carvings and etchings, detailing the year and emperor under which that section was built.



Etchings over top arrow windows

The first day, we began hiking on the Gubeikou section of the Wall, furthest North-East from Beijing.  The day was dry, hot, and hazy.  This section of the wall, while not renovated, hooks up with Jinshangling, a very popular section of the “Wild Wall,” where we stopped for the night and stayed at an Inn at the base of the Wall in the town proper.  The next day, we awoke to mist and cooler temperatures for our hike to Simatai, perhaps the second most well-known section of Wall in the area north of Beijing. (Second after Badaling, which we did not see, but which I hear is a tourist-trap circus.)  These sections were rebuilt in the 80s and 90s for tourist revenue, and do give quite a nice idea of the Wall in its hey day.  What original stones they could not use for the renovations, they produced similar likenesses.  The hiking was not very difficult at all, although some sections were a little stair-masteresque given all the steps.  After a late and delicious lunch of grilled trout (a specialty of the region), we drove to a village in a really remote section of the Wall, Jiankou.  Here, rather than paying the Chinese government for access, the villagers profited by charging tourists, and I was happier to see my money stay in the remote valley than off somewhere else.


Jinshingling Inn Courtyard - Ellie and I playing with our new birdy toy


View of the Fairy Watchtower in the Simitai section - we were unable to go beyond the spot where we were standing due to "dangerous disrepair." Although for 200 yuan (approx $30), you could bribe the teenage guards to let you pass.


Whole grilled trout in Simitai seasoned with lots of red chilli, cumin, and fennel. Delicious.

That night, we stayed in a guestroom of a local corn farmer, who had become famous in the area for housing many photographers in the 90s.  Let’s just say that while the beds looked decent enough, I was happy to have my own cozy sleeping bag with me for the night.  The last day was the best weather we’d had.  Clear blue skies and a spring breeze to the air.  This was officially the “Wild Wall,” off-limits to regular tourists and by far the most delightfully decrepit portion of the Wall we’d seen.  Footing was treacherous at times and my adrenaline was definitely pumping as I pulled, sidled, and balanced my way up the mountains, praying not to get hurt in remote China without travelers’ insurance.  Here, most of the stones and steps were crumbling away, and plants and trees had reclaimed the watchtowers and paths.  Certain sections, we hiked alongside the Wall for safer passage.  Looking behind me, I could see the Wall wind its way nearly encircling the entire farming valley below.  It was breathtaking and staggering and with sun on my face, my heart swelled.


The entrance and outside patio of the farming family's home with whom we stayed

Jiankou section of the Wall

Pondering upon the highest point of the Jiankou Great Wall

After climbing off the Wall and having lunch on the patio of our farmer family’s home, we returned to civilization in Beijing.  Though the distance was covered in less than two hours by car, the quiet view from our remote part of the Wall that morning and our smoggy and noisy evening entry into the city were worlds and worlds removed.

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Funori Tori

“Please come to school by 7:30 tomorrow.  And bring rain boots.  No, you don’t have rain boots? [Pause.] What did you do all winter? [Pause.] No, rain boots. They will get wet.  What size are your feet? Okay, we will arrange something. [Pause.]  Okay. See you tomorrow.  Goodbye.”

The phone rings again: “Oh yes, and bring gloves. Yes. Bring gloves, and dress like it’s winter.”

Everyone preparing to divide and conquer

Thus commenced my foray into the foraging of funori, a type of carageenan seaweed that is described as a “jelly seaweed” when googled.  It grows on rocks off the shore of northern Japan, and therefore is a specialty to this region.  As you can see from the photos, it varies in color from dark purplish brown to bright orange, and can be short and skinny or long and balloon-fat.  It’s particularly tasty added to a miso soup.

Lone little obaachan in the shallows

I arrived at school extra early on Thursday to get to the pickin’ site with the other teachers, and with enough time to set up a big fire barrel for the purposes of cooking our delicious ‘picnic’ lunch, and to wait for the students.  Every year, the elementary schools in my town have a funori tori (picking) day, where students and parents alike volunteer.  All the seaweed collected is cleaned and then either sold fresh or dried, with proceeds going to the school, typically raking in between $2-3,000.  Think bake sale, but not.

A close-up of some long, orange specimens

The day was cold.  In fact, it even snowed a bit.  (Hello? April?) But the weather here moves so quickly that we were able to enjoy a few moments of sunshine now and again as we tromped around the shallows, scraping the rocks bare with our gloved hands, and shoving fistfuls of funori into baskets or large sacks tied around our waists.

Look at this cool new friend I found!

Potato and pork stew on the beach for lunch

After a hearty and delicious, warm lunch, the kids and most of the parents were sent home, while the teachers and a select few of the funori tori veterans went on to the processing station at the port in my town.  There, we dumped in big cargo baskets of the funori into ice-cold water and washed it “clean” with rubber-gloved hands.  Post-soak and -strain, we picked through it manually looking for bits of other seaweed, trash, or errant snails.  In total, over the coarse of several hours, we harvest 350 kilograms of funori from the coasts of Kazamaura, destined for shops around the prefecture, and perhaps beyond.  If anyone fancies a taste, for a small fee, I have considered starting an exporting business to broaden the plump little reaches of funori fingers the world over!  And how delectable!

Washing/picking through the sea gifts

The end result

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This morning on my way to school I heard a cry. My ears are innately tuned to kitty cries in a maternal fashion, and it cut through me like a knife.  I can hear Samson’s pathetic little mewl from opposite ends of the house.  I looked around and thought I was mistaken, since I couldn’t determine the source.  A few steps later, crouched near a car in the parking lot I saw this tiny little thing, no more than 8 or 9 weeks old, mostly white with black little cow spots, limping and meowing. As I got closer, it snuck under the car, but then tentatively crept out and towards my open hand.  It was purring!  I immediately scooped it up, since a parking lot is no place for a sweet little kitten.  I was on my way into the building to ask if anyone knew about the cat, when someone came out and told me I couldn’t bring it inside and that it was 捨てた猫 (literally, ‘thrown away cat’). Acting on the innate belief that you don’t leave starving and hurt kittens who obviously want human contact in a parking lot, I took it home, put it in my shed, and fed it some tuna.

Back at school, over the course of the next half hour, the kitten was a hot topic in the teacher’s room.  I was worried and torn, wanting to keep it, knowing that it needed to go to a vet, but also knowing that at the moment, I was physically ill-prepared to take care of a cat – no litterbox, no food.  I asked repeatedly if they thought the cat had a home.  Everyone said, no, probably not.  Also, nobody wanted to give me their opinion, though the one idea that they threw around was that it should be taken back to the bridge in town where it was found (it followed a student on her commute this morning) even though it had no home, and left there.

At this moment is where my cultural beliefs on animal treatment  and most Japanese people’s cultural beliefs on animal treatment clashed.  In as sweet and sincere a way as possible, I said that I could give the animal to a shelter where someone would take care of it, but that I could not and would not leave it outside to die. This is when they called in to my supervisor to make a decision.  Evidently, while I was in class, a decision was made and my supervisor came by to pick up the cat. Apparently, they are going to take care of it until they can take it to a humane society, where it will get vet treatment and hopefully find a home.  If this indeed happens or not, I’m not sure. I did, however, get the sense that I had created more work for them than they wanted, even though I would have happily adopted the kitty and carried out all necessary errands concerning its health.

So here’s my struggle and assessment.  If that kitten had scurried away and didn’t want to be helped, so be it.  There would have been nothing I could do. Yet, it’s sweet demeanor and how it obviously craved human contact broke my heart. Here I was holding a good, snuggly kitty with a hurt paw and an empty tummy. For all my Japanese coworkers, I might as well have been talking about a rabbit or a squirrell.  Atleast here in the inaka, they don’t consider cats as pets. Many stray cats run around town, probably being fed every so often, but ultimately shying away from people and living a feral lifestyle. I see dogs locked in 4×4 foot yards, or relegated to the genkan area by a leash, but never allowed to come inside the house. On my way to Mutsu, on the side of a highly trafficked road, there is a golden retriever locked in an approximately 5×8 foot pen, with a doghouse, surrounded by weeks worth of its own feces. I can only imagine it is never let out, nor taken care of in the least. It is animal cruelty and neglect for everyone and anyone to see, and no one does a thing. And how???

One reason, is the cultural framework.  Many people I’ve come across don’t understand the American notion that a pet is a member of the household.  In Japan, it is treated as an animal is meant to be treated, and that means, not at all human-like. (This confuses me, though, since name-brand ‘fashion’ cats and dogs are doted on like Paris Hilton’s stupid little chihuahua.  And just look at all the Japanese youtube videos people take of their cute Scottish Fold kittens!)  Going back to the cultural reasons though, another one is that the infrastructure we are accustomed to for unwanted animals doesn’t exist here.  People are more likely to “throw away” a litter of kittens outside than take them to a shelter where they might find a good home.  Needless to say, people then don’t go to a shelter to adopt like we do in America.  From my experience, nobody takes direct responsibility for stray animals, or maybe even their own.  In fact, if I hadn’t made a big deal out of it, that cat would have been left to fend for itself.

So, this upsets me because I love animals, and specifically, because I could give that cat a better future than it will likely get.  (Also, because I so dearly want a kitty and, while I have decided I won’t go out and buy one, would not object to the responsibility if it fell into my lap. Which, it more or less did.) And I believe that humans are and should be responsible for the ethical treatment of defenseless creatures. And it upsets me because I don’t think Japan can hide behind economic reasons that afflict many poor and developing countries, as far as their treatment of animals.  By far, the more heartwrenching aspects of traveling in Cuba and India were the countless stray and unwanted dogs and cats. However, how can you blame a country for not feeding or neutering their animals when they can’t even feed themselves?  As a wealthy and developed nation, Japan should not have stray animals running around and they should have a wider infrastructure set up to deal with this problem.  Maybe in the more urban areas this is the case, but given that the nearest veterinarian is 1 hour away from my town, the Japan inaka has a long way to go in terms of animal welfare.

Poor kitters…what will become of it?

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