Last impressions

August 31, 2008

So, that’s it. At the time when this post appears online, I’ll be up high in the air, squeezed into a small economy class seat, maybe trying to identify the food in front of me.

So, as already said in the last post, here are some few, last impressions from the wonderful time in Japan. Two photos taken at the Rikugien park in Tokyo. A rather interesting view of Fujisan (well, there are more beautiful pictures of “him” out there, with cherry blossoms or maple leafs in the foreground, the mountain mirrored in the lake… settings like that. But I really like this one, too, sticking out of a massive sea of clouds.

Then, there are two shots from festivals – one taken at a Summer festival here at Ninomiya House, the other at the “Tsukuba Festival”. Followed by a rice planting machine – though the view of a person working in a rice field might look typical Asian, and maybe even supply a somewhat romantic feeling, it’s really hard work. Seeing this machine planting the rice with amazing speed was kinda cool, too, though.

The cicadas are pretty large here, and make an enormous loud sound. Often, people complain about the noise. To me, however, this sound is strongly connected to Japan and Japanese summer, and generated a calm and definitely precious atmosphere. Similar to drinking tea – so take this as a transition to the second last picture: Green matcha tea. It’s rare, however, to see it being served cold, so naturally I had to try it. Well, I like the hot version better, but it was rather refreshing. Last, a cup of sweet sake (see the caption for more information).

Well, I’ve said enough words of farewell during the last days, to many good friends that I made in the short time here. I hope you also enjoyed reading this little blog of mine, getting some impressions of Japan (or an outsider’s impression of your country, in some readers’ cases). I’ll continue answering comments to the blog, and if you’re interested in larger versions of the pictures (generally, 3648×2736, 10 MP), feel free to write me. This definitely won’t be the last time for me in this country, so keep your eyes open for other episodes of my Japan journeys.



More Food Impressions

August 27, 2008

Since I’ll be leaving Japan at the end of this week :-(, I’m using the last posts for exhibiting some more, rather random impressions from Japan. Today’s topic is food and food only. Just some few comments here on this page, then some further information as captions of the single pictures… Enjoy.

When speaking about Japanese food, the first thing that cames to peoples’ mind is sushi. The very first picture of today’s entry was taken in a very nice restaurant in Tokyo, where we sat at the counter, ordered whatever sushi we wanted to eat, and watched it being made right before our eyes. The “sub-pics” of mackerel and sea urchin are just two examples of the splendid food we ate there. The next pictures show a kaitenzushi place where you can just pic up whatever looks good, then pay by the plates. It’s a wonderful way to spend an evening, sitting there, talking, drinking some green tea, eating whatever grabs your attention. The third type is called Chirashizushi: fish and other stuff placed on top of rice. Delicious!

Leaving the sushi places, but still remaining “in the sea” (thematically speaking), take a look at the 6th picture. Any idea what that is? Well, we ordered a cooked fish head, and quickly dissected it with our chopsticks. I was lucky and got the chance to try a fish eye for the first time in my life – actually, it tasted quite nice. Likewise nice were the tsukubai (in English, whelk, I believe), cooked in a bit of soy sauce, sake and mirin.

The 8th photo is from a really nice restaurant here in Tsukuba (actually, the setting reminds me of some places in Kyoto, and I regard myself lucky to have found such a restaurant in Tsukuba): We chose the “gourmet set” and had a great time eating all of the stuff. It took well more than 1 hour, and I thought the amount of food might last for a few days. ^^

Ever thought of putting noodles into bread (or, a hot dog bun)? Well, Japanese are doing this – check out the 11th picture. It’s a strange thing, but actually not that bad. Still strange, but better tasting is the stuff in the next photo: Tororo, raw yamaimo (a type of yam potato) grated and mixed with some sea weed and a raw egg.

The last row’s pictures are there simply because I like them, esthetically ^^. First, the cooking of fresh edamame (soy beans). Then a dried (thus hard, but really tasty) scallop, and finally a close up of some grapes and pieces of a nashi pear – typical fruits of Japanese summer.


Fun Stuff (2)

August 24, 2008

As a foreigner in Japan, you’re prone to be asked whether you like natto. Or, most likely, whether you “can eat it”. You may wonder what’s the deal with this stuff? Well, in a nutshell, natto is made of fermented soy beans, and strictly speaking rotten food (however, so is yogurt ^_^). The problem is that the powerful smell makes you believe in its rotten state quite easily. And the taste … let’s say it can be an acquired taste. Furthermore, eating proves to be quite difficult, due to long strings that emerge when you try to lift some of the beans. You can recognize people eating natto from a distance, because they make this typical, circular movement with the chopsticks in front of their mouths, trying to get rid of these strings. Take a look at the pictures to get a better impression. Now, to the big question: Can I eat it? – during my first stay in Japan with a host family, I didn’t have much choice, and somehow got used to it; later, each visit to Japan has been accompanied by eating it at least once, wanting to give it another try. (It’s definitely better than yogurt.) Recently, however, I surprised (and slightly scared) myself with the realization that I gradually develop a liking for it. In fact, I bought several packs already, eating natto for about every other breakfast during the last two weeks – together with some fruits, green tea, and white rice, if available. The first three pictures display my “morning natto”, followed by one from a restaurant where we ordered natto mixed with pieces of raw tuna.

In Tokyo, we went to a special eel restaurant; pretty secluded, tiny, a real insider tip. The food was great, too, all in all a real wonderful experience … however, I wouldn’t order again the stuff you can see on the 5th pic: Sake (rice wine) heated together with a piece of roasted eel. The taste was strange, naturally pretty fishy, and tolerable if you didn’t breath in while drinking. The smell, however, was another story. 🙂 On the other hand, after we bravely finished the sake, the piece of fish tasted wonderful.

Then, two shots from the symposium (cf. the Kusatsu entry): As typical for Japanese events, attendance is obligational, but sleeping through it is totally accepted. So, after spending most of the nights partying, this was a common sight. However, I have to laugh every time I see that pic, so I decided to share it with you. Next, I guess I have to explain this “cocaine photo”… well, we were fooling around a bit, and some of this white powder got spilled – actually, it’s “Pocari Sweat” powder, used for making this popular (though too sweet) soft drink by yourself.

On a particular crowded day, we chose to leave the cafeteria, just take our food outside and make a kind of picnic. Nothing special, but fun. Then, one of the parties at an izakaya (Japanese-style pub) near our dorm. Looks like Kiwa-san on the left never can sit still ;-)) The following photo was taken during one of our many visits to a sushi restaurant (kaitenzushi): Comparing my 5 plates in the front with the 14 of someone from our group looks kinda ridiculous, doesn’t it?

This green drink from the 11th picture tastes exactly as it looks like (which is not a good thing): A wild mixture of carrots, apples, grapes, radish, green pepper, celery, green peas, asparagus, kale, cabbage, pumpkin, lemon, and other stuff (all in all 24 such ingredients). Whoever invited this unfitting medley of fruits and vegetables should be shot! There’s also a red variant of that juice, but I don’t really want to know what’s inside that one. Ahh, well, I’ll have to try it eventually (you know me; if there’s something new and unknown, I can’t resist), so I’ll acquire this unwanted knowledge in time, too. Update: After drinking some more of it, I about got to like this green stuff (I don’t really need the red one again, though). Next is a photo of bread backed with fish eggs (mentai). It tastes better than it looks like, but too salty, if you ask me.

The last row shows two photos with stuff from Akihabara: The first one is an arranged picture with something that is supposed to look like one of these “adult manga books”, but in reality is a package of cookies. The second shows a vending machine (mostly) with actual food instead of drinks: curry noodles, buckwheat noodles, etc. Crazy? Yes!! Last one of today’s entry: Not a photo, but an ad I found at the Yahoo Weather page: Is this boy pushing up his glasses, or does the image depict a rather crude, yet well known gesture?



August 21, 2008

Obon (お盆) is a very traditional celebration in the mid of August during which the souls of departed ancestors are believed to return to their hometowns to visit their descendants. People all over the country travel to their parents’ houses, set up Buddhist altars and decorate them with proper offerings (which can conveniently be purchased at Obon corners in the supermarkets). Special lanterns are set up that should guide the spirits on their way home. For the same reason, sometimes small fires intermixed with incense sticks are lit in front of the houses – as a greeting of the ancestors, and as help to guide them into our world and to the correct home. At the house altars, people burn incense sticks (two at a time, out of some reason), ring a singing bowl, fold their hands and pray. You see monks out on the street, visiting some houses to perform specific rites.

I had the chance to experience this traditional and private festival firsthand: My former host family (who made my very first visit to Japan possible) invited me to spend these days with them and to participate actively – an offer that I accepted gladly. The photos below show some of the described stuff. Then again, some scenes which I simply liked: For example, the view of some “anti mosquito incense” in front of a Japanese sliding wall. Or a picture of a tatami (straw mat) – with its nice, earthly smell and the fine texture, great for sleeping on it – facing the garden.

On the second day, there was a kind of fire celebration: Small though somewhat heavy balls on strings were set on fire, and people (especially children) hurled these fireballs in the direction of a straw “nest” on a long pole, in order to hit and ignite it. The whole action looked kinda risky, especially when from time to time the balls went of into the wrong direction (accompanied by loud shouts of “ahhh, dangerous, dangerous”), but also made lots of fun. Of course, all caution was thrown aside when enjoying the mesmerizing view of the burning fireballs in the dark night, and hearing the laughing voices. The last four pictures are from my last dinner with the host family, eating soumen noodles – a traditional dish when someone is leaving, wishing for a good journey.

只管打坐  •  nothing but sitting


On the Beach

August 17, 2008

Despite the title, let me start this entry with some more words about Japanese oddity… In this previous entry, I complained about Japanese bicycle drivers – mainly about their slowness. In Tsukuba, there are several (semi steep) bridges, and you often see people, even young people, basically getting to a stop, driving oh sooo slowly, as if managing the “hill” with the very last amount of strength of their weak legs. Sometimes, I enjoy giving them a small shock by passing them really fast.

Anyway, another aspect of typical Japanese behavior in traffic involves their concept of “belongingness”. The world is basically divided into two halfs – the people that are part of your group (uchi, 内) and the rest (soto, 外). This group can be the family, your colleagues, the people you travel with, and so on, depending on the current situation. (Quite often, this belongingness is even made explicit by wearing the same uniform.) In general, everything that is outside of your group is per se unimportant. Now, this separation wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t something wrong with the obstacle detection algorithm of normal Japanese people: Quite often, they seem to have problems sensing objects and people from outside of their “group area”, as if they just don’t realize there’s someone there. Sometimes, this gets extreme: If you see a bunch of school children on bicycles coming your way, run for your life (I didn’t decide yet whether girls or boys are more dangerous. The prior ones are noisier, but the latter ones are generally a bit faster).

Someone told me this story where she observed two Japanese approaching each other frontally on bicycles, driving slowly as always. Getting nearer and nearer … and finally crashing together in slow motion, because nobody moved aside. Surely not because none of them wanted to give way, but probably because their sensing of the other person as serious obstacle was faulty. It must have been a hilarious sight. I actually would pay for a video of that crash. 😉

At the beach: However, I have to add to my sentences above: If you manage to be in some group, you can have a lot of fun, as today’s pictures prove. ^^ We spent a whole day at a beach in Ooarai (大洗): First, stopping on our way at a (slightly expensive) Kaitenzushi restaurant to eat some very fresh and very good sushi. Then spending hours of swimming, playing volleyball, just making nonsense, barbecuing, and finally a bit of fireworks. Again, a very well spent day!

Well, writing about volleyball reminds me of another story (I know I digress again, but so what?): During the symposium in Kusatsu, we sometimes used the gym for playing a bit of basketball. As I already explained in the “brest entry”, Japanese like to shorten their words. Correspondingly, I often heard the sentence: “Let’s play basket!” (バスケットしましょう). The first few times, the image entered my mind of people gathering in the gym, standing around, doing a performance of “playing” baskets; maybe branching out a little, “playing waste bins”, too. I really would have liked to see such a performance. 😀

(PS: To be precise, the literal translation should be “let’s do basket(s)” – but, frankly, the idea of “doing” a basket scares me even more. ^_^)


Homemade Food (2)

August 13, 2008

So, I guess it’s time again for another entry of “food I prepared at home”.

The first row shows something that are probably the typical sweets of Kyoto: yatsuhashi. They come in two variations: The ones in the second picture are called “raw” yatsuhashi (with a filling of red beans), followed by the “baked” version. The smell and taste reminded me so strongly of my old “hometown for a year”. I’m very glad to be able to make some version on my own now. And the Japanese friends I did them for were pretty surprised, too. ^^

Next is a cake with green tea powder, followed by some fish dishes: something called “tai meshi” (which is usually prepared for celebrations), and mackerel saury pike. The mackerel is a typical dish during this time of the year, grilled and served with grated radish. Some more words about the tai meshi, a dish often found at formal celebrations: Originally, you use a whole fish (sea bream) for this dish, rendering it pretty expensive! So I went to the supermarket, looked around for slices … but found none. When asking, they showed me the whole fish (of several kg) and then did the most amazing thing: After confirming that I wanted two slices only, the took the fish away and came back with slices cut out of it. I couldn’t believe it. Yay to the friendly Japanese!

What would Japan be without sushi? In Europe, we normally have the image of makizushi in mind – these rolls with seaweed on the outside, which taste OK, but are just a trivial secondary version. The “real” stuff is nigirizushi, rice with fish (and other stuff) on top. And that’s what we did in my room: With salmon, tuna, shrimps, scallop, and yuba (tofu skin). Doesn’t it look cool?

After a simple but very good dish of fried tofu (yummy!), there are two of self-made ice cream: I chose ginger pineapple flavor, and it turned out to be quite delicious, if I may say so myself. My guests also couldn’t get enough of it, so that’s a good sign.

Last but not least, some – in my opinion – nice shots of a special carafe for sake (with a second, smaller, hollow space within, to insert ice for cooling purpose). In the background, you see the obligational edamame: Green soybeans that go sooo well with sake (and even with tea or simply water), I can’t get enough of them. If anybody knows where to buy them in Germany, please tell me… well, I have to admit that I didn’t really look for them yet at the typical Asia stores, but I don’t want to raise false expectations. The very last pic is a variation of this theme, with dried cuttlefish instead of the beans – also a typical and very tasty snack to accompany alcohol.


Nagashi Soumen

August 9, 2008

So, my time in Japan is almost up. It was a very nice time so far, and even though most of the activities of this blog happened at weekends (don’t get the impression that we’re having parties here all the time – the weekdays are filled with work), we surely did a lot of fun stuff, and I found several good friends. It’s really easy to feel welcome here. The other day, I found a nice cup and teapot at my desk, placed there as a present – without any special reason. During one of the many weekend activities with some people from my lab, I’ve been told to “please don’t go back to Germany.” Though I’m slightly looking forward to be able to have a fluent conversation with everybody around me, it will be hard to leave. Especially with the knowledge in mind that, with high probability, I won’t see most of the people here ever again.

Anyway, instead of becoming depressed, I’ll use this thought as motivation to make the best of my remaining time here (well, I think I also managed quite well so far in this regard)! So, on with a description of a cool event at one of my professors’ house:

Soumen are a specific kind of noodles, made out of wheat, pretty thin, and typically eaten in the summer: cooked, then cooled down and dipped into a tasty sauce. Now, a very special way of doing all of that is called Nagashi Soumen (流しそうめん): You split bamboo stems in half, remove the inner partitions, thus yielding long pipes. Putting two or more of them together, pointing slightly downwards, and you get a system of pipes where water can flow nicely all the way down. Next, the cooked noodles are put into the pipe, and people fish them out of the running water with their chopsticks. It’s not the most convenient way to eat noodles ^_^, but heaps of fun!

The whole thing gets even better if you produce all of the stuff by yourself, like we did: Cutting fresh bamboo, driving away the snakes, splitting the bamboo to build said pipes as well as all the needed tableware: cups, bowls for the sauce, and the chopsticks! It was totally amazing.

In addition to the soumen noodles, there were roasted chicken skewers (yakitori) and tempura: For the latter one, we just went through the garden and some bushes along a small creek, collecting leafs and herbs that were eatable (according to my professor ^^), pulling them through some batter, then deep frying them. Especially the shiso leafs were delicious.

We used some of the remaining bamboo to building a tool that is known as “deer chaser”: a type of shishi odoshi (鹿威し) by the name of sōzu (添水). It’s basically a hollow rod that slowly fills with water until the weight causes it to swing down, empty its content and swing back with a loud “knock”. It’s really amazing how much fun you can half with just some trunks of bamboo. Later, we let the event wind down by strolling along the creek, searching for crayfish and other underwater creatures. A typical party of the traditional kind, and a very enjoyable day.

Space is limited
In a haiku, so it’s hard
To finish what you