Thursday, May 27, 2010

Power Spots

There are a few workshops at school that the kids can participate in and one is essentially "international club". They want to learn more about other countries, especially the USA, since they have me here. Later we are going to cook Japanese and American foods together, for example.

So, today a few students came and asked me questions about the US. Some were about how junior high school was in my country, what surprised me about Japan and such. My favorite questions were from a group of baseball boys (you can tell by their shaved heads). "Are there any legends from your state?" Why, yes, in fact there are. So, I told them about Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox and I googled a picture of the real deal--you know, up in Bemidji.

Next question please. "Are there any power spots in your country?" Now, from the pronunciation, I thought they said power sports and so I started thinking about Ultimate Fighting and sky diving and stuff. Then I asked to look at the paper to see for myself. Hmmm...power spots? They followed up, "Are there any places we can go to get power?" I asked what an example of a power spot in Japan would be (except in much simpler language). "Akimiya", they said. That's one of the two Shinto shrines in town. Ah. I had to pause. Then I told them--nature. The Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountains, the ocean, Niagara Falls. I googled pictures of these.

But it got me thinking. I guess for Mormons, Temple Square in Salt Lake City would be a power spot. For Catholics maybe St. Patrick's Cathedral in NYC. For some uber-capitalist maybe Wall Street or something. That's one of the fundamental differences between Japan and the USA. Japan is so homogenous. One power spot works for most Japanese people. Most Japanese are somewhat Shinto (and somewhat Buddhist) whereas every American would have their own personal power spot that is meaningful and empowering to them and it may or may not be linked to any religion. Even if they are religious they may choose the north shore on Lake Superior. It's hard for these junior highers who are so wrapped up in their world of school and club sports and homework, with maybe some manga and anime thrown in, to imagine how different and diverse the US really is. Thus the workshop and having me here, I suppose. I'm sure the average junior highers in the US aren't thinking too much about Japan. Also, I'm sure they'd consider Mt. Fuji a power spot too.

It also got me thinking, can I get power just from going up to the shrine behind my house? Does it work if you're not Japanese? hee hee!

Here's a picture of one of our favorite little hidden temples, just up the mountain a bit from us.

Monday, May 17, 2010


We feel really grateful that we live in a HOUSE with room for a garden. It seems like usually when you live abroad, you don't get to literally dig into the dirt and grow stuff. So, we're trying to take advantage of the opportunity. We got a ride to D2 (like Home Depot) and bought dirt, compost, plants and seeds. We're trying to make some seedlings work but we also bought some plants. Mostly we're focusing on things that are expensive here or hard to find. Basil and cilantro were musts but we also got 3 kinds of tomatoes, peppers, green beans, salad greens and more. So far everything's doing gang busters even though they're just in containers. Hopefully everything won't die when we're away in Bali for 3 weeks in August.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Onbashira Festival

This is how our friend Taya describes this festival (she's been to it 3 times now!):
Every 7 years they spiritually renew the shrines by replacing giant log pillars in the grounds. Trees are selected, prayed for and cut and dragged through the mountains, through rivers and valleys and the town until they find their final resting place in the shrine. Guys ride the logs down slopes, through rivers and while being raised to standing position; weighing a few tonnes this is quite dangerous.

We attended the festival in Chino (a town 2 train stops away) and in our town, Shimosuwa. Josie got some pretty good video of one of the logs coming down the mountain in Shimosuwa.

Last weekend was the final stage of the festival where they erected the logs at the shrines, one of which is just up the street from our house. Unfortunately, Josie was too sick to attend much of the festivities. For three days you could hear announcements, taiko drumming, bugles, primal screaming and yelling. We did manage to go out for a short walk or two and see what all the fuss was about. We took video of them dragging the log up to the shrine, but we're having trouble posting it. Maybe we'll put more video and photos on flickr soon.

Sad footnote: Two men died this year while falling from the log as it was being raised up. They say it was probably because they didn't have their safety harnesses attached. Maybe because they were too drunk on sake? Or just trying to be tough? In any case, the festival carried on as usual. I guess that's how it goes when it's been happening for 1200 years.

We found it interesting that they allowed the vendors right up on the shrine grounds. Japanese culture and religion are so intertwined; maybe that's why they seem to have less deference for keeping shrine activities free of commercialism. Then again, every vendor has to give a cut of their profits back to the shrine. Similarly, we heard that when they sell Onbashira merchandise like pens with Hello Kitty riding the log, Hello Kitty also has to give a percentage to the shrine. Here are some pictures of the vendors.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Road Trip

So, Golden Week was a while ago now. We mostly stayed around our parts, but we did go on an epic 16.5 hour road trip with our friend Nerida one day. We covered a lot of ground that day. Mostly we were searching for these old thatched roof houses which we finally found right before sundown.

We tried this delicious mochi on a stick with a miso-based sauce.

On the way there we checked out Takayama. We were searching and searching for a parking spot when it turned out you could just pull right up to the shrine, no problem (like these cabs).

We walked around the district with old, traditional houses. John had to try one of these "sembe" (rice crackers). Obviously, he liked it!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Baking in Japan

I had been baking a lot before I came to Japan and was trying to prepare myself for potentially not having an oven here. However, as it turns out, we have a pretty decent one. It looks like a big toaster oven but it's tall enough for things to rise and gets hot enough to make pizza. So, I've actually been baking up a storm here--popovers, muffins, scones, cakes, cookies and even an apple pie the other day. I asked my sister to send me American measuring cups and spoons because doing conversions was getting annoying. She also sent me my favorite baking tool--the pastry blender. I have been able to find most of the basic ingredients I need--baking powder and soda, flour, even wheat flour, etc. Everything comes in much smaller amounts and costs a lot more though. Then there are the specialty ingredients that are difficult (and exciting) to find.

These gingerbread scones were made with love and the help of some friends. Molly sent the dry buttermilk, Nerida got the molasses in Tokyo, Trisha sent the currants I used instead of get the idea. I really recommend this recipe:

Comfort food is especially important when you're living away from "home". Japanese sweets aren't really all that sweet. Adzuki bean paste? Mochi? Green tea flavored everything? While it's fun to try new foods, it's nice to have familiar tastes too sometimes. Plus, I can keep up with one of my favorite hobbies!

Oh, and here's a picture of the famed oven.