ただいま Tadaima

It’s been over a year now since I’ve returned from Japan.

As I became so busy with my studies back in England, I had almost given up with writing for this blog. But, I realise now that I can’t keep away. Japan will always have a special place in my heart, like an old friend, who, no matter how bat-shit crazy they gets sometimes, I will always think of with affection.

I’ve been lucky enough to make a lot of new friends with Japanese language students in their fresher year, who are in exactly the same position I was when starting this blog. There’s something special about being able look back on my time in Japan and being able to see it from a more grown-up standpoint, rather than the magical land of rainbows that I had imagined it to be before I went.

As I saw my friends fervently preparing for their year abroad, I felt a strong urge to condescendingly pat them on the head and say, “You have no idea what you’re in for, young one”.

Pangs of nostalgia hit me at random moments – when I hear a song we used to sing at karaoke, a smell that reminds me of my host family’s home, when I look at old purikura or photos I took on my travels, I feel like I want to go home, back to Japan.

I wasn’t there for very long, but those hot summer and chilly winter days made up the time of my life, and each day stood out for me like a whole week or month back in England.

I had written a lot of draft posts that have sat forlornly on my dashboard, like dusty manuscripts wanting to see the light of day. Now as I flick through them I realise that even though they were modest goals, completing each one made me truly happy, and I should honour those feelings with my words.

So, due to popular demand, I have decided that I shall indulge myself in my memories once again and return to writing for 101 Things in Japan. Thank you to all those that have stuck with me and to new readers – please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle, you’re in for a ride!

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I’m still alive

Hey guys! Just a quick post to let you know that even though it’s been a while since my last post, I am still walking on this earth (somehow I have managed to avoid falling off a cliff and/or being arrested so far).

As I mentioned before, I ruined my camera when I went to Koya-san, and being as disorganized as I was, I couldn’t get it fixed in time for my next field trip to Mie Prefecture (see below).

Therefore, I bought invested in a brand new camera. Introducing, my new love:

A Panasonic Lumix GF1, red. After extensive research, I had decided on a compact DSLR since they’re a bit more established in the market than when I bought my previous camera. With it’s detachable lens capability, I can carry a DSLR quality camera with me in a small package. You can read the specs and the cnet review here.

The pictures I have already taken with this camera are absolutely beautiful. Finally, I can get this blog back on track to a couple of posts a week, so stay tuned as I go back on schedule with completing The List!

Meanwhile, I took a two day trip to Mie and got up to a lot of mischief.

This is the view from the bottom of the Gaizoshou Ropeway – a cable car ride that goes a couple thousand meters up and is known for it’s changing beauty during each of the four seasons. I caught it at a good time in fall when the leaves were an array of colours. I would love to go back when it is winter and hills are covered in snow.

 

Meoto Iwa are two rocks that represent Izanagi and Izanami, said to be the creators of the Japanese kami (gods). They are  joined by a straw rope that weighs over a tonne. Despite this, the rope is ritually changed several times a year.

 

Unomori Jinja is a relatively small and unknown shrine that was near the hotel that I stayed at. I visited it early in the morning, which gave it a tranquil atmosphere – a refreshing change to all the very touristy shrines I’ve been to lately.

 

I ate this feast at Moku-Moku farm, where you got to look at the cute animals before being lead to the adjourning restaurant to eat them. The guilt was a little bit much for me, so I ate very little meat and just stuck to the vegetables and sweet potato. (This table was laid out for 8-10 people by the way, my stomach hasn’t grown that big….yet).

 

These are the disks/spools used to make braids at the Iga Kumihimo Center. Kumihimo is a traditional art that involves many levels of skill. I managed to make quite a pretty bracelet after a lot of trial and error and constant bugging of the kumihimo lady who had to keep undoing the last five minutes of my work to take out kinks in my braid. It was a great experience, and at only ¥1000 I highly recommend it.

Okage Yokocho is an old Japanese style shopping street that mainly sells food. It looks and smells great to walk along it! It’s a little overpriced, but the food is great and I bought most of my omiyage from here because the foods tended to represent Mie’s specialities.

 

And finally, this is the river by the Ise Grand Shrine (of which I was not allowed to take pictures of). Also known as Ise Jingu, this shrine is one of the holiest Shinto Shrines in Japan. Apparently, the highest priest or priestess must be from the Imperial family. There wasn’t too much to see, since most of the buildings were blocked off from the public, but I could definitely feel the majesty of it in the atmosphere, especially when I looked up to see the Japanese flag waving at fall mast between the autumn painted trees.

#12 MOS Burger

MOS burger is most easily described as Japanese style McDonalds. Which means that it’s a little bit more expensive, but the flavours are delicious and the service is better – although McDonald’s service in Japan is pretty high compared to their grumbled burger-flippin’ counterparts in the West.

Pictured above is the default MOS burger. As an ex-vegetarian, I still don’t usually eat too much meat when I can help it, but I figured the cultural experience was worth it 😉 It tasted delicious, definitely much better than McDonald’s (in the UK anyway).

As always, I was a little bit nervous ordering in case the cashier asked my something I couldn’t understand and therefore break through my gaijin camouflage but the process was pretty easy. I made my order, paid, and was given a little stand with a number on it which I put on the table where I chose to sit. The wait was about 3-5 minutes – a small price to pay for what I assumed was a freshly made burger. The brought it over in a small basket with a glass of iced water.

It’s a shame I don’t see nearly as many MOS Burger chains as I do McDonald’s but I guess the price gets to some people. It really isn’t too much more than the price of a normal burger at home, but here food prices are pretty low, so that’s perhaps why. In any case, if you find yourself resisting the western giant that is McDonald’s whilst you’re in Japan, MOS burger is a pretty good compromise.

Or if you’re really hungry, you can just go for this:

#87 – Noh

The stage

According to Wikipedia:

Noh (能 ?), or Nogaku (能楽 Nōgaku) is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. Many characters are masked, with men playing male and female roles. The repertoire is normally limited to a specific set of historical plays. A Noh performance often lasts all day and consists of five Noh plays interspersed with shorter, humorous kyōgen pieces.

Men dressed as ladies

They should have just said something like:

Noh, or Nogaku, is a theatrical performance of which nobody understands a single word, not even native speakers of the language in which it is performed (if indeed it is Japanese). Far from being a source of entertainment, it is rather a chore that people feel they must endure at least once in their lifetime in order to qualify as a ‘culturally educated’ Japanese. Alternatively, it can also be viewed as an chemically free and effective sleeping aid.

I went with my host family and the kids to see a performance at Ikuta Shrine. Despite being told on multiple occasions that one must research the story before attending, I obviously did no such thing. A friend came with a print out of the script in English, which I took a minute to flip through, so I had a rough gist of the story line as hard as I tried, I didn’t see any of the plot moments on the stage.

Of course, it was a little exciting to hear the classical Noh sounds you might have heard and have associated with the Orient. I myself have heard it many times playing Ninja Gaiden on Xbox.

This picture pretty much captures the average age of the audience.

If you thought the first part was tolerable, then you should wait until the second part which wasn’t much more than a bunch of guys just chanting for an hour and a half.

Overall, I didn’t understand any of it, and the novelty wore off after the first half hour, but in the end, I’m glad I went to see a Noh play at least once in my lifetime.

Also, the shrine was pretty.

#14 Natto

If there was one dish that most foreigners could pick to eliminate from tainting Japanese cuisine, it would be natto.

Natto is a dish made of fermented soybeans, which basically means it’s a bowl of sticky, slimy and snotty goodness.

I put it on the list because, as with all things that are gross tasting, it’s supposed to be extremely good for you. Soybeans are full of vitamins, protein and are low in fat. All three of which I shouldn’t be saying no to.

So when my host mother announced that we would be having natto for dinner, I didn’t know whether or not to laugh or cry.

She had made it a little differently, with green beans (pictured above) instead of just plain natto. With trepidation, I stuck my chopsticks in, and slowly lifted a few beans high enough to break the snot strings and put them into my mouth.

… actually, it wasn’t that bad!

It actually tasted quite alright, I had certainly eaten much grosser stuff. I think for most people, it’s not really the taste but more the texture that bothers them, but the green beans certainly helped with that.

In the end, I finished the whole bowl, and quite enjoyed it. It was quite filling, even though it was only a side dish.

So there you go, at least one foreigner in the world who doesn’t hate natto. Call me if you want to showcase me.

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