Quirky Japan: Eating Daggertooth Pike Conger

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Japan has a “foodie” culture and presentation and delicate tastes are very important at restaurants. They also eat everything that comes from the sea including the summertime Kansai (name for the western region of Japan where we live in Osaka) dish, hamo. It is in the foreground in the photo above and served with beefsteak leaf, wasabi paste and either a spicy red sauce or mustard. It was delicious but when I looked up the English name for hamo, I found it was dagger-tooth pike conger (Muraenesox cinereus) a type of eel. It lives on the sandy bottoms of oceans up to 100 meters deep.

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Hamo is best in the summer and I love the seasonality of seafood. Fish are best to eat at certain times of the year and each season brings with it new fish and other creatures to try. I am trying to learn all of the different seasonal fish and also learning how to prepare them. I never grew up eating much seafood, but really like it and I know that it is very healthy for me. One of the starters was the summer noodle, somen, which is in the foreground in the photo below. It is served cold. I had these dishes at Fujiya a restaurant close to the kitaguchi-nishinomiya station.

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People like to socialize and drink over meals in Japan. Restaurants rather than bars and dance clubs are less popular than restaurants. Meals last a long time and are many courses. It must be the Japanese metabolism that keeps people thin here because when they go out, they eat a lot. Below was my kanji lesson for the night. The top part is the kanji for white and the bottom has a portion for bird and go forward, which signifies “white hawk” and it is a type of sake. I would like to learn more about how sake is made and the different types of sake.

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Aging Japan

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This is a common sight in morning parks throughout Japan. Groups of senior citizens perform synchronized stretching exercises. I photographed them yesterday morning during my bike ride in Senri Chuo central park. 1/3 of Japan is age 60+ and 1/4 is 65+ and this reflects a trend in people living longer and young people having less children. If it continues, in 40 years, 2060, 40% of Japan will be over 60 and the population will drop from 128 million in 2010 down to 87 million. A professor at Tohuko University continued the calculations, stating in the year 3776, Japan will be down to 1 remaining child.

In some ways this is good for Japan in that Tokyo, Osaka and other cities are overcrowded. One needs to be selective when going for holidays or excursions during breaks. Traffic and crowds are something always to be aware of. In many ways it is bad however, to have a dearth of young people, especially regarding taxes and pensions. It will force Japan to consider immigration to get more working age people here.

The exercise group is an example of the healthy living here in Japan and why people live long, productive lives. Older people eat a lot of fish and vegetables, don’t eat big portions and do a lot of walking and biking. That compares to the sedentary lifestyles and highly processed unhealthy diets of many Western cultures.

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Taking my mind off Japan’s demographics, we are in the middle of sakura (cherry blossom) season and it is really stunning! There are lots of cherry trees in the city and as you can see, they are shining in color. The culture appreciates this explosion of life and the ephemeral nature of the bloom. Hanami (viewing parties and picnics) are common at this time of year.

Geocaching on the Yodo River

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Sunday afternoon we took the kids down to the Yodo River, one of the big rivers running through Osaka into the bay. There are over 300 geocaches along the shores of the river and people come from all over to see how many they can get in a day. We did a loop around both banks of the river and got a bunch, but not close to 300. The sun was out and despite the cold winds, it was quite pleasant to be outside. The Japanese love baseball and play all year round as you can see by the photo above. I also like to see the large number of bikes at the park. That is one of the reasons the Japanese are so healthy is that they get a lot of exercise, which is a suggestion for Americans to improve their health.

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As I have previously written, geocaching is a great excuse to get outdoors, spend time together as a family and explore new areas. The river banks are for public use in Japan and one finds sports fields, golf courses, bike paths, fishing spots, etc. We are passing over the Nagara bridge, just outside the central business district (photo above)

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Above are the old locks that carried boats between the Okawa and Yodo rivers. Because of dams and levees to prevent flooding, the two rivers had a large difference in elevation. They are no longer used and city officials have turned them into a sort of outdoor museum.

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A highlight for me was crossing this train bridge. The tracks are under construction so no trains are crossing, but Oliver was really frightened to cross, thinking a train would come. There is space on the side and it is safe, so it was a managed risk situation. We made it across with no problems.

Thanks to Josep for driving and Pico and Bernie for helping us find so many geocaches!

 

 

Viewing the White Egret

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On the way home from Tottori we stopped at the famous Himeji Castle in the Hyogo prefecture. It is an UNESCO world heritage site and the finest example of the classic Japanese feudal period architecture. We arrived too late in the day to enter, but we did admire it from the substantial grounds surrounding it. It is called the “white heron” or “white egret” because with the roof gables give it the appearance of the white bird taking off in flight.

Castles are always funny to me in that people don’t realize all the awful things that took place on the site. They are usually the sites of great battles where men died and if the raid successful, the women and children enslaved. Because it happened so long ago however, people look at them for the architecture and history, but not the tragic human story. Himeji is no exception to this rule and since it was originally built in the 1300s, probably many people died fighting for control of the castle and the town. It is built on a hill and dominates the city.

It is remarkable that it is still standing. During World War II, a bomb landed on the roof but failed to detonate, meanwhile the entire city was destroyed by the allies. It survived the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, while once again, many buildings in the city were destroyed. Earlier, it was almost demolished and developed by the locals, but the expense of tearing it down, prevented various parties throughout history from doing so.

I am glad that it remained standing and perhaps if we are in the area, we will return to go inside. We found several geocaches around the castle and despite the rainy night, it was a good time. I want to thank the Tsubaki and Marce families for coming with us!

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Temples of Japan

After our hike we drove across town just before closing time to walk the grounds of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto (photo above). This is another former villa of a rich shogun which upon his death, was turned into a Zen Buddhist temple. From the photos of the temple, it always looked like it is out in the countryside, but a busy street is in front of the grounds and property is in an urban zone. Arriving 5 minutes before the front gate to the complex closing was excellent timing for photos and lack of crowds. It is a thin coating of gold foil, not made of solid gold. The shoguns loved their ponds and gardens, which made for a stunning reflection in the setting sun.

Temples in Japan are similar to the monasteries in Serbia for me. They are usually located in bucolic settings, which is the attraction, as I don’t seek spiritual things. It is also an insight into the culture of a country and there is always a bit of history. They make for a good destination for a day out and a reason to get out of the house.

The biggest temple in Minoh is the Katsuo-ji  (in Japanese, “ji” means temple) which I’ve blogged about before. It is a nice hike we can do from our house and takes about 4 hours round trip. On my brother’s first day in Japan, we went up through the Minoh quasi national park forest to the temple. Despite the rain, it was a relaxing hike and as you can see from the photo above, the clouds made it even more mystical.

Temples also have attractions for kids. They love to feed the koi, or as I call them, colorful carp. There is also incense and candles to light and reflect on family members, both living and dead. Most have a gong or bell that can be rung and the kids can also get a fortune paper and tie it to the string. At katsuoji, you can also get the Japanese dolls, daruma. We have darumas representing our family under the biggest cedar tree on the property.

Harvesting Rice

Owen operating the Mitsubishi VMS 11 rice harvester

On a perfect autumn morning we got to harvest rice in the nearby Shukonoso neighborhood. Our suburb of Minoh is dotted with paddies and rice is such a central part to the Japanese culture and diet, I always wanted to help out in the harvest. Our CAS coordinator arranged the opportunity through one of her neighbors, Kubo-san. His family have been harvesting rice for the past 800 years, so to say it is a family tradition, is an understatement. Osaka, like many metropolitan areas through the world, has grown immensely to overtake what was once a quiet village, Shukonoso is now part of the city. The families of Shukonoso continue to harvest rice, although, it is not a necessity today. Kubo-san is an expert garden and landscape designer, and told me his family does not make much money from their paddies, but they do it more for tradition than anything. Japan is not a big exporter of rice and the government subsidizes its production. Japanese prefer the short grain, glutinous rice that is good for sushi and chopsticks. My children prefer the this short grain rice, especially when we add the rice vinegar. I prefer the long grain jasmine variety, produced in Thailand.

Kubo-san shows us how to cut the rice bundles.

Kubo was very kind to put up with us wanting to “help”. He showed us how to harvest in the traditional manner, with a sickle. Rice seedlings are planted in bundles and 3-5 bundles are cut and laid on the field at a time. They would then be hung and dried before the grains are pulled. Instead, we fed the rice stalks into the harvester. Kubo then allowed us to drive the harvester along the rows. It was like mowing lawns, slowly going down the rows.

Spending time in the field also gave me the chance to look at the irrigation system. There is an intricate system of reservoirs, damns and canals like a spider web going from the Minoh hills down through the city to the Osaka bay. It makes it easier for the rice seedlings to combat pests and weeds to have them grow in a few inches of water. That system must have been developed over the centuries. I am not sure how it works, but everyone must work together to get the water where it needs to go to at the proper time.

We counted between 44 to 62 seeds per stalk.

The experience gave me a better appreciation of rice and brought me closer to Japan. Thanks to Lyn and Kubo san for allowing Owen and I to participate.

It is funny to me that I eat so much rice now. Growing up in 1970s  rural Michigan in the pre-globalization era, my mother never served rice and we didn’t eat at ethnic restaurants. I really didn’t eat much rice until university and my first international posting in Colombia. Rice is as popular in South America as Asia. We were strictly a “meat and potato” family growing up. We eat rice on an almost daily basis and the staples of my youth, bread/butter and potatoes are rare at the dinner table for the Kralovecs.

Growing Rice

Our suburb of Minoh is full of rice paddies and gardens. You can find them scattered between residential and business districts. Often there are several fields together. The method of rice cultivation here requires standing water and so coming from the hills of the Minoh quasi national park down into the city, there is a system of  irrigation canals and reservoirs for capturing rainwater and storing and directing it towards the fields. The field above, as you can see in the another photo below of the field, has an reservoir right next to it. The reservoirs are a great place to see and hear wildlife. I’ve taken many photographs of ducks and herons.

There are canals everywhere, mostly on the sides of roads. In a safety conscious country like Japan, this is unexpected because they are easy to fall into on a bicycle or car.

The rice paddies are mostly tended to by older people, which there are a lot of in Japan. The government subsidizes the production of rice in the name of national culture. Small, private  farms are not economical, but it is nice to see agriculture everyday and the Japanese practicing this facet of their culture. I wonder if the younger generation will continue this practice? I also would like to know how much the government spends on this.

The last week in May and first week in June is when rice if first planted. The seedlings are started indoors and then brought out to the fields. You can see the seedlings in the photo above, they are next to the man.  Most of the planting I saw was by a machine that looked a little bigger than a riding lawnmower. The Minoh city office organized a community planting for families and they did it by hand. The fields are then flooded and farmers watch to make sure the water levels remain static. The water blocks out other weeds from outcompeting the rice.

When I get back from summer holiday and August, the rice will look as it does below. The rice is harvested in mid to late September and I hope to participate in a harvest this year. It would be interesting to see how it goes from field to the store. I have no idea.

Our First Professional Japanese Baseball Game

Tiger left field Matt Murton at Bat

On Monday we went to see the Hanshin Tigers to host the Chunichi Dragons. The Dragons won 9-2, and the 44 year old player-coach for the Dragons, was 4-4 with a home run and double to lead them to victory. Both teams are around the .500 mark, being fourth and fifth in the standings respectively.

It was a fascinating afternoon to experience the differences between baseball in Japan compared to the USA, especially the stadium experience.In the USA, most people go to baseball games for day or night out and many times the game is secondary to the food, the music, the attractions at the park, the in-between inning entertainment etc. The crowd is also much more subdued in the USA. In Japan, I think people go to let off steam and shout and sing. There is much more noise and group singing here in the games. It is a tradition in many Japanese games to have spectators release balloons during the seventh inning stretch and it is as enjoyable for kids as singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”.

Koshien Stadium is the most famous ball park in Japan. It is 80 years old this year and is one of the few outdoor stadiums, as most of the teams play in domes. It rains a lot in Japan so I see why they do this. Koshien also has a totally dirt infield and real grass in the outfield, rare for Japan as well. It also hosts the high school baseball national championship tournament, which is almost as popular as the professional league, every August.

The Tigers are the second most popular team in the league, behind the Yomiuri Giants from Tokyo. They are owned by the same company, Hankyu, that started the school I am working at. The Tigers however, have only won the league only 9 times compared to the Giants 45 titles and they have been compared to the Boston Red Sox while the Giants are the New York Yankees. The Chunichi Dragons, from Nagoya, also have won 9 titles, and with the Hiroshima Carp, are one of the strongest organizations. All of these teams play in the six-team central league. It is a shame that there is only a two week window in June that the central league teams play with the pacific league teams.

My favorite part of the experience were the songs the best players had. The Tigers have an official song writer and when a player comes up to bat, the crowd sings a particular song written just for that player. Only the veteran or best players have personalized songs. They are catchy tunes and the fans know all the words. My favorite was the song for Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s song. I would have loved to have a song written for me, although it must get tiring to hear it during every at bat.

The Hanshin Tigers are one of the big national teams. There is a second team in Kansai, the Orix Buffaloes, who play in the Osaka Dome. Koshien stadium is halfway between Kobe and Osaka and is about the same distance away as the Osaka Dome, which is just south of downtown Osaka, from our home in Minoh. I hope to go to a Buffaloes game, and get a chance to see some of the other Pacific league teams. The Tigers get about 1 million more fans yearly at their games than the Buffaloes.

I would like to thank our friend Kenta for inviting us to the game! We are going again Sunday with him to see the Tigers take on the Carp.

Life in Japan: School Uniforms

Boys leaving the train station in their school uniforms.

Last Saturday upon dropping off Owen at the train station for his trip to Kobe for soccer, I ran into a large group of students. They were on their way to school. Many Japanese students do go to school for a half day on Saturdays. This may be to do some special test preparation for university or high school entrance exams or special lessons in civics or community service that are not covered during the regular school week.

Prussian military officer in uniform circa 1912 (courtesy of Worldwar1.com)

The boys’ school uniforms are distinct. They are called ga-ku-ra-n, which translates to “gaku-school/student” and “ran-Netherlands”. Historically in Japan, the “west” or all Europeans, were referred to coming from the Netherlands because at the time, they were the most common traders in the few ports that were opened to foreigners. The school uniforms first were designed in the late 1800s and modeled after western military styles. I read where uniforms for boys were modeled after either French or Prussian soldiers. I wonder why they haven’t changed since? Is it the Japanese respect for tradition and uncomfortableness with change for certain things?

I think it is a good look, however, in putting myself in a young person’s shoes, it must be a bit uncomfortable to where these to school, especially the hats and buttoned jackets. As you can see from the photo above, they do look like soldiers or policemen directing traffic.

Girls uniforms are modeled after naval uniforms. I’ll get some photos later. Some uniforms are more in the British style classic school girl uniform with plaid skirt, tie, and vest. You can see this in the photo below. The girls wanted a photo with my son Oliver and nephew Seby when we were visiting Kyoto this fall.

At the private international school I teach at, uniforms are not required. Some girls however, where the British school girl outfit as a fashion statement. Some want us to adopt them as the school uniform, I think because they have been featured in pop culture in television, movies and graphic novels.

Christmas in Japan

We had a funny experience earlier this week when we tried to buy a Christmas tree. We heard that Ikea sold real trees so on the last day of our rental car, we drove south to the store. Ikea is located on reclaimed land in the Osaka Bay, close to the mouth of the Yodo River. The waterfront in Osaka is not developed as a tourist destination, but instead is very industrial with a large port and factories.  My guess is that land was cheap and it was easy to receive imported goods so Ikea put their store there. The store is not near public transport so Ikea runs their own shuttle bus from the Namba station.

After about a 45 minute drive we got to the parking lot and there was a frenzy of activity near the entrance. They were selling “trees” around the corner from the entrance and when Nadia asked a salesperson how to buy a tree, she tells us that they are quickly selling out and to hurry to buy a ticket for a tree and stand before they run out. Nadia left for the sales desk and I went out to select a tree. When I got there however, I saw that the “trees” were just large branches. The locals were presenting their tickets and wrapping their branches in newspaper and were carrying them to the cars like babies. Hilarious! They were very happy with their branches. I guess it is all relative and in thinking about the size  of most Japanese apartments, a large tree would not fit. I quickly called Nadia and told her not to spend the 2,000 yen on a branch. Being from northern Michigan and having spent several years shaping Christmas trees at Hanson’s Tree Farm in my home town, I couldn’t get myself to buy a branch. It was a full branch, but it would have been worse than a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Instead we ended up getting an artificial tree. The main point was the kids, especially Ocean, loved trimming the tree and we infused some Christmas spirit into our house. We decided to put up the tree early this year because we are traveling to Australia for the holiday and want to enjoy the tree for a longer time.

The view from the Ikea parking lot back towards Osaka

I didn’t want to take any photos of people, so we sent Oliver to snap a photo of the branches to give you an idea of what they looked like. He took the photo that led this post, this branch sitting on a pallet, waiting for pickup from some happy customer.

I find it interesting as well that the Japanese love Christmas! There are decorations everywhere and Christmas carols playing in the stores. Nadia bought some ornaments and decorations at the local Ikea version, Nitori. Halloween was big here as well.

The view from the Midosuji Highway – downtown Osaka