Thousands of Miles from Home


I Demand a Recount

I am expecting the New Year in Japan to be exciting or at least celebrated in different manner, but I have to get Christmas out of the way first. As was mentioned earlier, I traveled to Tsuyama on christmas day by train to spend time with Janna (who lives in Tsuyama) and Cori (who was coming from Okayama). But before that, on Christmas Eve and after the surf rock band concert and dinner, Jittan, Shoko, Masatoshi, Shun, and I opened our christmas presents. I gave Jittan one of my West Virginia t-shirts with a huge bass fish on it. She thought it was hilarious and we all noted that about three of her could fit inside it. For Shoko I found her favorite candy in Okayama and wrapped it with a considerably smaller West Virginia t-shirt. Shun got a shirt with a bunch of flowers on it (haha). He liked it, though. I put the most thought into Masatoshi's present, but maybe beacuse he was the easiest to shop for. I found some great dog-print boxers and a dog-print tie as well. Since he's always squinting at things through his glasses, I found a massive magnifying glass at the 100 yen shop. And a dog statue from one of the shrines we visited earlier in the year. He laughed for a long time so I guess he enjoyed the gifts. I even caught him using the magnifying glass later.

I got some gifts too. My parents sent me some socks and a lime green turtleneck for cold weather, and Mimi sent (matching) gloves and scarf which match my emo black jacket. Nora sent two awesome stuffed robots with funny names. The Watanabes bought me two books, one about sumo with a ton of funny pictures and another about Go (which is extremely difficult to comprehend). They also bought me a stuffed dog made from super-soft material that I had my eye on for a while.

But back to Tsuyama. After arriving at Tsuyama station I met Janna and discovered that Cori was going to be late. Janna and I rented some bikes then went shopping at a nearby mall while Cori figured out which train would get her to Tsuyama. A few hours later Cori finally arrived and we rode our bikes around town, ate lunch, then back to Janna's house. After some cake and a chat with Janna's family we headed to the Tsuyama International Hotel where the three of us would be staying that nite. The Tsuyama rotary club was hosting a party so about 25 people were there for the occasion. Dinner was amusing, with an appearance from Japan's own Santa Claus who facilitated the gift exchange. By the end of the evening I received some picture frames, a dreamcatcher, bizen pottery, and various other miscellany. Oh and lots of chocolate.

After dinner, Janna, Cori, and I stayed up a good part of the nite in the apparently deserted hotel. There (among other spectacles) we encountered the door leading to nowhere as well as the "stairs of refuge."

In the morning, I woke up early for continental breakfast, then went to the girls room to see if they were up. After we packed everything, Tomosue-san and Hikasa-san picked us up in a giant Hummer. It looked even larger because of the small size of japanese cars in general. After making a quick rap video featuring the Hummer, we were on our way. Our first stop was Diasen, a famous mountain to the north of Tsuyama. When we arrived I saw snow for the first time in Japan, although it was a little thin for skiing. We stopped for a while on Diasen and rode a ski lift to where people were skiing and snowboarding. A massive snowball fight insued involving both kids and rotary members. We didn't ski due to the lack of snow, but were promised that in the next few months we could come any time we wanted.

After some refreshments on Diasen, we piled back in the Hummer (which turned out to be useful on the icy roads) to go the nearby Tiffany museum. With my knowledge of Mr. Tiffany, I suspected the museum would contain a bunch of lamps, and maybe some jewelry. I was way off. There were masterpieces in each of twelve categories manufactured by Tiffany: lamps, windows, ceramics, furniture, fancy goods, art jewelry, vases, silver, enamels, bronzes, mosaics, and paintings. On top of that, the museum plays host to a very large garden in which I would have been forced to spend a great deal of time had my mother been nearby. I was very impressed, and in fact wished I could have spent more time in the museum. In the chapel of the Tiffany museum, some handbell players performed and then sang energetic christmas songs that reminded me of "Sister Act."

Before calling it a day, the five of us stopped at a nearby famous onsen to relax after a long day (of relaxing). The onsen was shaped like a giant bowl because the town is known for bowl making. Made sense to me. Although I cannot vouch to be a critic of japanese onsen, the water quality was good and the company friendly.

That evening, after a dinner of sushi, I bid farewell to Tomosue-san and Hikasa-san. Cori and I took a high speed train back to Okayama, where I then caught a bus for Tamano. Arriving home, I found that both Miyu and Mai had returned from college. We talked for a long time and watched "Dawn of the Dead" before I collapsed from exhaustion. Mai gave me a Tokyo Giants (baseball team) mascot figure that doubles as a bank, and I gave Mai and Miyu something from my collection of fine West Virginian goods.

The following day I started the sad process of packing for my next host family. But I'll leave that up to another entry.


Nora's christmas gift all the way from America. Two handmade stuffed robots that sat nicely on the christmas tree :D 

Two days before Christmas, Masatoshi took the whole family to a fancy dinner at the Marine Hotel. A jazz band played (his favorite). Picture is of a snow machine at the end of the performance 

For Christmas Eve, Shoko, Jittan, and I went to Miyama Park for dinner, and a band played. But not just any band, a surf-rock "wipeout" style band. Probably the best Christmas Eve ever. 

Jittan and Shoko in the holiday spirit 

Janna with crazy-hand mannequin. We went shopping in Tsuyama on Christmas 

The Rotary Christmas party at the Tsuyama International Hotel (I stayed the night after the party) 

Santa Claus made an appearance for the gift exchange 

If things start getting ugly... 

Even crazier, this door goes nowhere! Japan is insane! 

Our ride for the day in Tsuyama. Janna said "It's like being in a rap video" 

This is the face I would make if I were in aforementioned rap video 

At Diasen mountain, where we did not ski because there wasn't a lot of snow, but perfect snowball weather 

We travled from the ski slope to a Tiffany musuem. Me in the English garden 

Part of the garden inside the Tiffany musuem 

Before I took the train back home, the five of us went to an onsen (public bath). This one was shaped like a giant bowl because the town is famous for bowl-making 

Christmas in Japan

Before I pack up and leave for my next host family I have to post at least a few pictures of this Christmas, because it was unlike anything I'd expected or experienced in the past.

Just pictures for now, more detailed explanation to come later...


Yuudai and Nakkan! 

Some of "the adults" 


Party people in the house 

Meeting the mayor of Tamano 

My translator, who graduated from WVU 

On the playground 

Extreme Sports: Hazard cone beachside limbo 

Andee wearing Jittan's hat 

Finding Nemo at the Marine Hotel 

Long jump to the sea 

Handstand on the beach 


Shoko and Jittan under the christmas tree 

Shoko with a sign reading "The Shokster" 

At the Lions club meeting 

Dealing with Public Officials

I would wait to post this later, but this week deserves posts in porportion to the amount of fun experienced. And otherwise I would become lethargic and forgetful.

Jittan is here for the holidays, with a brand new digital camera (many of the picture posts are hers). After the last Lions club meeting, and in a strange twist of fate, the club invited Jittan, Andee, and myself to another Lions club meeting at the Marine Hotel. We all acted as translators for Evelyn (Jittan for chinese, Andee for malay and english, me to eat leftover food). This would be a good opportinity to talk about not only Lions club meetings, but Rotary meetings as well. In Japan both the Lions and Rotary clubs open their meetings with a song (mostly japanese, sprinkled with english). The meeting then takes place with speakers and such, photographs are taken, and meeting is closed again with a song. The Rotary closing ceremony involves standing in a large circle, holding hands, and singing a song I did not know. The Lions club however, in a ferocious manner that would befit a lion, ends their meetings by making closed fists, punching both arms out horizontal to the floor, and saying three times, "we serve all." (Note: I am not making this up)

Following the Lions club meeting, Evelyn was scheduled to meet the mayor of Tamano. As it turned out I was supposed to meet the mayor the following day, but the Lions club asked me to come along anyway and translate. I figured I could size him up one day and know what to expect the next. Before the meeting, however, was a three hour stretch of time to kill. It was a nice day so Shoko, Jittan, Andee, and I went to nearby Shibukawa beach, and then to a playground. Shoko looked like a schoolgirl on the swings, and everyone agrees she is much more like a sister than mother. After the playground we had tea and cake at the Hotel, then left for city hall. The Mayor didn't keep us waiting, and we went right into a large conference room to meet him. He has a crazy hairstyle but seemed very friendly. And if I had a dollar for every translator in the room I could have easily bribed a public official. I did very little talking (it was Evelyn's meeting, anyway) but made sure he would remember my face for when I came the next day.

For me, meeting the Mayor was full of surprises. When I arrived at city hall with Shoko, the Rotary councellor and president (man who traded me the light up house for a box of cookies) had already arrived. Furukawa-sensei, a teacher from school, also came to translate for me. From what I can tell, when people come to meet the mayor they are expected to know little-to-no japanese. In fact, if I had met the mayor when I was origionally scheduled, it would have been a few weeks after coming to japan. It was rescheduled due to a typhoon that flooded Tamano, and then rescheduled again after a second typhoon and set of earthquakes hit Tamano (guess I'm bad luck).

When I walked into the mayor's office, a translator from city hall greeted me with a huge smile on her face. She came right up to me and said "I graduated from West Vriginia University." ::dramatic pause:: I couldn't belive it. She knew exactly where I lived and all about Morgantown. How wild! I forgot all about the mayor until the secretary told me I could go into his conference room. The mayor recognized me from the day before, and we had a really great meeting. I understood most of his japanese, and really didn't need any of the numerous translators in the room.

After the encounter with the Mayor I came back home where Jittan and Andee were hastily cooking food for that night's huge holiday party at our house. Tons of people came, including some friends from school, english teachers from the area, and most of Shoko's japanese friends. There was a ton of food, and during the party Jez (english teacher from Australia) played piano and sang. Jez told a funny story about renting a car to Ben from Ben Folds Five in Australia. When Ben returned the car he left a copy of his unreleased album in the cd changer. He came back to get it the next day but not before Jez had made a copy for himself. I would have just been happy renting a car to a rock star. On top of that, Neil, another english teacher, hung out with Guster at Tuffs, and John Davey lived near the Barenaked Ladies, his brother knowing two of the members. No fair. Much fun was had at the party but I'll let the pictures tell the story.

Until next year...


Shoko laughing at her friend's english 

Hanging out with Shoko's High School friends 

The Lions Club president and I 

Evelyn in a snappy looking blazer, me sporting some Keith Harring 

Shoko and the stash of gifts 

Trying my luck at the ring toss 

My best Yon-sama inpression. Or maybe Harry Potter 

Latkeman; a can of oil and a dream 


Peter from Australia, also known as P-chan 

Everyone in Japan eats christmas cake, with the same frequency that Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Your guess is as good as mine 

Happy Christmas'u' 

Fight For Your Right

This week is full of parties and visitors (as fits the holiday season). As far as people, a new boy Peter from Australia is staying in Tamano for a month, going to Tamano High School. I met a girl from Malaysia, and Jittan is also staying with the Watanabe family for a few days before winter break. Shoko is getting ready to host a knockout holiday party, inviting more people than I thought lived in the town of Tamano.

This week, the ESS (English speaking society) threw a party after school. A bunch of kids showed up, but ironically all business was conducted in Japanese (except conversation between Andee, Peter, and I). I ate far too much candy, cake and chocolate, and was repeatedly whooped at UNO. This reinforced the fact that many japanese games are "punishment" related. By that I mean that the losers are usually subjected to some sort of (small) torture. In the case of the ESS party, losers had to drink a whole glass of shaved-ice topping, sugary enough to shut down a kidney. Other variations I have wintessed at school include a slap to the arm (shi-pe), a finger flick to the forehead (deco-pin), and a chop to the head (you guessed it, cho-pu). After the party (because it's always good to chase sugar with oil) I made another batch of latkes, twice the size of the first installment. Andee came over to help dispose of them.

This week the Rotary Club of Tamano threw their holiday party at the Marine Hotel, which Masatoshi, Shoko, and I attended. It was good to see some of the rotary members get tipsy and play bingo following the extra-large buffet style dinner. While I did not win at bingo, I was a huge winner for the evening. One of the rotary members, after having a few too many drinks, offered to trade a box of cookies which I won at a ring toss game for a large unopened box wrapped in red paper he had won at bingo. My mind shot instantly to the thought of a Japanese Monty Hall from Let's Make a Deal. Did I really want to trade my box of cookies for what may or may not be in his box? Perhaps it was filled with cabbages, as I had witnessed so many times on that addictive TV program. For all I knew it could be a goat, or a lifetime supply of baked beans. Against my best judgement (and love for cookies), I made the trade and thanked him by pouring another glass of beer for the rotary member (a sign of respect). When the night was over I went home with two boxes of expensive pears (gifts for everyone at the party), a fiber optic christmas tree that now sits in the TV room (much less tacky than one would expect), two boxes of chocolate cookies, some japanese lottery tickets, and a light up fiber optic christmas house that Shoko gave to one of her friends as a christmas gift (it won't be missed).

Later in the week, I found the chance to go to two parties at the same hotel in Tamano. Another new face had shown up in town, Evelyn (real name Poon Tze Sun) from Malaysia who was on exchange for a few weeks in Japan through the Lions club. Shoko was celebrating a Tamano High School Reunion (she refused to tell me which year) and the new girl was having a Lions club welcome party at the same place. Shoko's brother, who is in the Lions club, asked me to translate Evelyn's english into japanese. I'll repeat that. Shoko's brother asked me, a run of the mill American looking gaijin to translate for Evelyn, who could pass for japanese anyday (although speaking chinese). I laughed for a long time at the idea, but couldn't resist going. I went to Shoko's party first, chatting with some of her high school friends before going upstairs to the Lions club party. Evelyn was already there with her host sister whom I had met before. Evelyn gave a small speech that she had written in japanese, the Lions club president said a few words, then we began to eat. Throughout dinner the Lions club members asked questions to Evelyn which I translated (more or less) into english, and then retranslated her answers back into japanese. Luckily for me, as the night went on and more alcohol was consumed by the Lionarians (sort of like Rotarians?), they got more brave about their use of english. This led to some really hilarious moments where tipsy japanese men tried their best at simple, although often misused, english words and phrases, while repeatedly questioning me if I though Evelyn's host sister (who was a Lions member's daughter) was pretty. I was so happy when Evelyn told me she had a good time, because if I had not have witnessed this sort of crazy behavior before it would be the strangest welcome party I'd ever seen. We talked during the dinner in english, and she told me a little about Malaysia (of which I know very little).

When the party was over, Shoko's brother brought me back downstairs to where Shoko was finishing dinner. She told me that some of her friends were going to go to a karaoke parlor, and asked if I wanted to come along (but of course). The bar was close, so we walked. Along the way I realized that I knew many of the people who were at the party, and others introduced themselves to me. When we got to the parlor, I chatted with two men who knew me indirectly; one had a daughter at Tamano High School, and the other practiced Aikido with my homeroom teacher (I am thinking of joining their Aikido class sometime next year). The man to my left thoroughly embarassed his daughter (I'm sure), by calling her on the phone and telling her to talk to me the next time she saw me (for reasons I am unsure of). Subsequently, today at school she pointed herself out to me, and we had a good conversation. Another man at the party called his friend in Tokyo who couldn't make it to the reunion, and told me to talk to him in english, really fast. Everyone got a pretty good kick out of that. All he could say was "I don't understand," and "too fast!" By the end of the evening I learned that japanese people really like to drink whiskey and water, and that you can still be middle aged and have fun.

But everyone already knew that, right?


On the Seto-Ohashi heading to Shikoku 

The main shrine of Konpira-san, about 500 steps up the mountain 

The steps of Konpira-san 

I guess this is why Konpira-san is a shrine for ships 

Outside of Konpira Osibai; Kabuki theatre 

The main seating area and stage of the Kabuki theatre 

Kabuki bathrooms, clean and simple 

VIP seating 

The mechanism for rotating the stage 


In my ongoing attempt to catch up to the present, I will recount the activities of this Sunday, a trip with my host family to Konpira-san, a famous mountain on Shikoku island. However, beginning today, I discovered that I will be attending some sort of party everyday for the next week or so. Then on the 28th I will be moving to my new host family, Kawai-san, after a christmas trip to Tsuyama and perhaps Daisen mountain for skiing/snowboarding. Winter break starts on the 24th, so depending on time and computer access I will try to avoid long periods of radio silence. With that said...

Konpira-san is located on Shikoku island, the fourth largest island in japan. The official name of the mountain is Kotohiraguu, and it was called Konpiradaigongen during the Edo period. Konpira, if you were wondering, is an Indian God who protects Buddism, hence the name, Konpira-san.

Konpira-san is known as a shrine to ships, but the exact reason was not explained to me. Something about an old man stopping on the island and climbing a large amount of steps to look out over the city. And if there is one thing that Konpira-san posesses, it's steps. 1368 steps, to be exact, all the way to the small shrine at the top of the mountain. The specific reason that the Watanabe's took me to Konpirasan was to hopefully get a glimpse of a special room that is only opened to the public every 125 years. Unfortunately, there were people lined up the first 300 steps waiting to see the room, so we decided that I probably had a better chance of viewing the room in another 125 years. Not to waste the trip to the mountain, I convinced Masatoshi and Shoko to take the trek up the 1368 stairs to the pinnacle (a feat Shoko had only performed once before, and Masatoshi had never attempted).

I consider myself "capable" when it comes to math, but comprehending large numbers always had a way of perplexing me. "Math field day" repeatedly angered me when it came to estimating the number of pennies in a jar or some such nonsense. But I now have very concrete and palpable knowledge of what it feels like to climb, and then descend 2736 stairs. As a consolation I was lucky that I didn't try the climb in summer, which would have been much more uncomfortable. It was actually quite refreshing to reach the top of the mountain and gaze out over the town of Kotohira. And even though the lower shrines were packed with people waiting to see the famous tatami room, very few wandered up to the top of the mountain.

On the way back down the mountain, about 500 steps from the bottom, I really needed to use a bathroom. I felt worried because the sanitation of bathrooms can be questionable (varying from dirty to "hole-in-the-ground"), and I didn't expect much this high above sea level. My host dad inquired, and we were led to a very fancy, very new looking shrine addition. Upon entering the bathroom, my jaw dropped clear to the marble tiled floor. In addition to a heated toilet seat, this bathroom sported hot and cold water, a large mirror, as well as handtowels, a veritable unknown in many japanese bathrooms.

After returning to the bottom of the mountain, I ate a lunch of Konpirasan udon, then left to visit a nearby Kabuki theatre. Konpira Osibai, also known as Kanamaruza, is the oldest Kabuki theatre in japan. It was built in 1835, during the Edo period. Recently it has been fully restored, and one can tour all parts of the building, including backstage and dressing room areas. Some of the special features of the theatre include a revolving stage, as well as platforms that were rotated, raised, and lowered by human power. The revolving stage allowed for multiple scenes to be prepared backstage, the rotated into place quickly.

After the theatre, we stopped for some cake in a local shop before heading back to Tamano.


Happy Hanukkah, Chanukkah, etc...

For all of you who have been repeatedly bamboozled by the mysteries of a certain winter holiday, I highly suggest you read this informative description of Hanukkah

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, New Year, Qwanza, and so on...


With Minami High School International Club 

Beginning of the fashion show 

Showing off their dresses 

Dressed for a fight 

Finale of the fashion show 

With the bookkeeping club 

Kids from the international club 

Kimono made by Minami fashion students 

Karaoke kids 

View from the back of Takeshi's bike 

Minami High School Craziness

Before the meat of this entry I have to mention why December is "the most wonderful time of the year" in Japan. Oseibo gifts (or seibo) are end of the year gifts usually given in mid-December to people one respects. My host father, being a local doctor, is respected by many in the community. This means that our house is overflowing with candy, cakes, udon, chocolate, meats, seaweed, dried fish, oil, shrimp, tons of fruit, and enough beer to to subdue a rhino. Shoko seems indifferent to the gifts, probably after many years of receiving them, but I can't believe the amount of wrapped presents I find on the doorstep after coming home everyday.

This weekend I got an invite from my friend Nobuko, of Minami High School, to her "Open School" ceremony. At first she told me it was a graduation ceremony, but I knew it was a little too early for that. Her his school is in Okayama City, so I was a little unsure of what bus to take to meet her. Shoko assured me that taking a bus near our house would "probably" get me where I needed to go. The "open school" started at 9:30, but Nobuko asked me to come a little early to help her set up for her club's exhibit.

Around 8:30, the bus I was riding sleepily pulled into Konan Sho Gakko Mai along with some junior high school kids that seemed to be going to the same event as me. Junior high school kids seem to stare at me a little more than the average japanese person, but it doesn't bother me too much. Sometimes I try to start a conversation, but it usually ends in giggling (I am the giggle-ee, not the giggler). I was a little early, so I walked around the block to get a feel for where I was. The morning traffic was heavy, and the weather a little cold witout a cloud in the sky. When I came back to the bus stop I spotted Nobuko and a girl I didn't know on the other side of the street. I waved hello and they led me to their school a few blocks away.

Minami High School, as I came to realize later in the day, boasts many exciting clubs and classes that I had not seen at Tamano High School. One of the main events for the "open school" was a fashion show put on by the school's fashion students. And when I say fashion show, I don't mean a few dresses on display. Between 40 and 50 dinner dresses, gowns, punk clothing, midieval wear, and 70's flamboyant outfits were on display by the designers in short choreographed scenes with music on the school's main stage.

But I'll try not to get ahead on myself. After I arrived at school Nobuko introduced me to some of her friends and took me to the room where her international club was hosting an "airport customs" exhibit. She had asked me to act like a customs officer in the morning, which turned out to be a blast. Her club had made a large metal detector out of cardboard, painted black, and stationed me, resident english speaking kid, along with the school's english teacher as two customs officals in a foreign country's airport terminal. Parents, students, and the general admission of the open school festival could try their hand at a prepared english conversation with two real-life native english speakers. My part went something like "Are these all your bags," and "do you have anything to declare?" while the english teacher asked, "How long will you be staying in this country?," stamping a fake passport. We switched rolls halfway through get a feel for both positions. I had a great time because some kids would get real creative with their responses in english, deviating from the printed script by informing me that they had to declare "two guns and a knife" in addition to a stash of illegal parapharnalia. Other kids just smiled and laughed when I tried to get them to pronounce the word "declare."

I also met Minami High School's exchange student from Canada, who took over for me when Nobuko suggested that we leave to get a good seat for the fashion show. When we entered the school gym, lots of kids stared at me and asked Nobuko who was the weird kid with her. I told them (in japanese) that it didn't matter because I couldn't speak japanese anyway (haha). The fashion show was spectacular, but I will let the pictures do the explaining. After the show I went with a group of kids to see the other exhibits in the school festival.

One exhibit that caught my eye was a "bookkeeping" club, which turned out to be a hospitality/entrepreneurship class. Their exhibit involved a personal conference with one of the class's students to simulate a business meeting. Nobuko asked if any of the students spoke english, and we entered a dimly lit room to find about 10 kids dressed in fancy clothes yelling "hello" and "welcome" in japanese. We were shown to a back room lit with candles and served fruit punch while being bombarded with compliments and broken phrases in english. Clearly these kids were all about hospitality. Through my laughter I started up a conversation in japanese with the head of the "business meeting," and even though he tried to trick me into saying weird phrases I didn't let him fool me too easily. We took some pictures, then were ushered out of the room by the same 10 guys who shouted compliments on the way in. It was something one would truly have to experience to understand the complete humor, but I assure you I laughed for a long time after the meeting with the hospitality club.

After the school ceremony, I didn't have to be back in Tamano for a while so Nobuko, Miko, Takeshi, and bunch of other kids took me to sing karaoke with them. About three hours later we emerged laughing, hoarse, and hungry. Some kids had to leave, but the rest went to Gusto, a surprisingly "Eat'n'Park" type restaurant with a bunch of other students I had seen from Minami High School earlier in the day. Just like american 24 hour restaurants, we ordered cheap food an hung out talking until I decided it was time to head back to Tamano. After saying goodbye, some kids took me to the bus station where we found that the last bus had already come, so I got a ride on the back of Takeshi's bicycle to Tenmaya Bus Station where I could catch a later bus. I came home to find Shoko sending e-mails on her cellular phone, her usual evening activity.

A very good day.




Slaving away in the kitchen 

That's right, by hand. No food processor here 

Deliciousness in the making 

Into the oil... 

The perfect latke 

The use of chopsticks is required 

And in the words of Julia Child "Then we Eat!" 

Journies Into Cultural Cooking

On certain occasions (and I call them occasions because they happen only occasionally) I have cooked food for my host family in Japan. So far I've been lucky and nothing has exploded and/or poisoned anyone. But when it comes to making latkes (defined as "a pancake, especially one made of grated potato"), it might be more of a curse than a friendly gesture to cook them in someone else's kitchen (due to a lingering oil smell that attacks clothing, hair, and any exposed skin). However, Shoko has cooked many deep fried oil dishes, so I didn't think the burning oil and potato smell would bother her too much.

I have not had much personal experience with latke preparation outside of Morgantown's world famous Latke Birgade, which I sorely missed participating in this year. However, at this outpost in Tamano, Japan, I had my own latke celebration (shlivowitz not included). While there are many variations, the latke recipe is inherently basic: potatoes, onions, some eggs and flour, then into hot oil until crispy and brown (no latke before it's time). I found that the most difficult stage of the process had to have been grating the onion. I haven't cried that hard in a long time. Shoko had gone to the store to buy some apples for my homemade apple sauce, so luckily no one witnessed my red-eyed display.

I guess pictures are better than words, but a few tears and oil burns later I had a good amount of crispy, gold delicious potato pancakes. I also made appsauce, which to the culinary beginner such as myself might sound rather impressive. It truth I put chopped apples in the microwave for 10 minutes, or until mushy. Then top with brown sugar and serve. My whole host family loved both the latkes and applesauce (even Shun who is very picky), and Andee came over the next day to finish off what we didn't eat. Next time I'll have to make a larger batch.

As a funny side story, my host family had a jewish boy stay with them a few years ago. His family sent him a menorah for Chanukkah, and every night he lit the candles and put the menorah in the window of the Watanabe's house. One night, after all the candles were lit, the family woke up the next day to find the window cracked and melted where the menorah had been. Oy Vey!


The fencing tournament's layout 

Saluting the judges 

That's quite a reach 

Yon-sama, he seems fake to me 


Sushi Parties and Fencing

First I want to mention that I added songs to the "music" section of the blog. Expect more soon.

This weekend, Tamano happened to play host to an all-japan fencing tournament, held at the fitness center near my house. Shoko and I found some time to go on the last day of the tournament. Neither of us had ever witnessed a fencing tournament, aside from my short-lived fencing career on a trip to Hollywood with the MHS drama club a few years ago. Upon entering the arena I received an informational packet (in japanese) about fencing, with enough pictures and basic terminology to figure out the object of the sport. We arrived to watch the early morning matches, so luckilly the crowd was not very large. We took our seats near the front of a raised seating section and waited for the bouts to begin.

Eight fencers squared off in four matches on four different sections of the gym floor. A judge was designated to each match in order to determine the scoring. The fencers wore protective suits fitted with some sort of sensors that set off a buzzer after being pierced or slashed by their opponent. Often the action was hard to follow because of the player's overall speed. Both buzzers would ring simultaneously, and without the guidance of the judge I wouldn't have had any idea who had scored the point. After all the matches were over, Shoko and I walked around the area for a while then went home.

That evening, Shoko's mother threw a small party at a local tea house. Shoko explained that the party was called Bo nen kai (meaning to forget the year, or perhaps wish it farewell). I should also mention that shops everywhere are overflowing with roosters and chickens, signs of the 2005 Chinese new year. We arrived at the tea house and were guided to a large tatami room full of people I didn't recognize. We sat on large pillows on the floor of the room. I answered the usual questions about myself, where I was from, if I could eat japanese food, and how long I had been in japan. The tea house specialized in sushi, and along with a main course of fish and mushrooms I left feeling very satisfied.

During the dinner, my host mom nudged me and asked which of the women sitting on the opposite side of the table I thought liked Yon-sama. Yon-sama (real name Bae Yong Joon, or something similar) is an extremely famous actor in a korean drama, along the lines of "The Young and the Restless." He's famous for wearing sleek glasses and a scarf, and for a while I thought about going dressed as him for Halloween. When Yon-sama arrived at Tokyo's Haneda airport, 4500 people showed up, some waiting overnight, to get a glimpse at the star. In a recent poll, the average age of women who liked Yon-sama turned out to be 46.7. I made some guesses based on personality as to which women liked Yon-sama, and after my host mom asked each if they liked him I turned out to be pretty close.


My host grandmother and dance instructor 

Still dancing at any age 

The Grove Unity Jazz Band 

On the dance floor...the couple on the far right was by far the best 

The waltz 

David Bowie

While I'm not terrible when it comes to the task of discerning ages, I have to admit that it is not one of my greatest talents (manning the "Guess Your Age/Weight" booth at Six Flags or the like would not be my first choice of gainful employment). This is especially apparent when it comes to guessing the ages of japanese people. My host grandmother works as a pharmacist, walks regularly, and has dance class every wednesday night. And judging by her appearance, I would never guess that she is 74. Did I mention she goes dancing!?!

Shoko and I walked up the steps to a large conference room bursting with the sounds of a spanish tango. When I entered the room, Shoko's mother stood with a group of older women and a male dance instructor. They offered me tea and said they were so glad that I came to dance. I said I was only there to watch, but perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind I thought otherwise. I watched the Waltz and Tango while drinking tea, then was finally convinced to try them myself. I didn't step on anyone's toes, and was surprised that I remembered at least a few of the steps.

As it turned out (coincidence?), a large jazz dance party was being held at a nearby school this Sunday. I have been teaching english on thursday nights to a wondeful group of kids, whose mother plays piano for the jazz band. My host father enjoys jazz, so he took me to the school. At first I couldn't even get him to come inside the room with me. He said he would come back later. So I entered by myself to find many (older) people dancing to some upbeat quick-step jazz tunes. The jazz band was rather large, and was sitting behind some traditional jazz band stands that read "Grove Unity." I took a seat near the back, and looked at the band's program. Over the next few hours a wide selection of music had been picked, including the waltz, rumba, samba, quick-step, GO GO, tango, and cha cha. Before I knew it, my host dad had slipped in the back door to listen to the music.

My host dad took a seat beside me and explained that he would stay for the first (of three) sets of tunes, then come back when the music was over. He said he didn't like to dance, but did enjoy the music. It didn't take long before people took notice of me in the corner. There were many couples, of varying ages, but some seemed very skilled when it came to ballroom dancing. When an upbeat quickstep song started, a very short obaachan (polite term for grandmother) with plenty of jewelry came and asked me for a dance. I don't confess to be a great dancer, but I think she had fun. When I finished I got a big round of applause from the people who witnessed the crazy american and old woman breakin' it down.

After the first dance I felt a lot more confident and asked some of the more skilled dancers to show me some moves. With a little refreshing I remembered the cha-cha, and the other dances sort of fell into place. I tried the waltz but didn't come close to pulling off any of the higher level moves. After the first set of music ended, I talked to the woman who played piano, and danced with her to the recorded music that played while the band took a break. When the band started up again, I noticed that my host father had stayed to watch after all. And to think that I couldn't even get him to come in at first.

Also at the dance were some young looking guys from south america. They, like me, couldn't speak much japanese but women were all over them to dance. They danced fast but I was impressed. I was also blown away by one woman who seemed to dance all songs perfectly. Even when her male partners weren't that great. Needless to say I was jealous.

After the concert my host dad brought me back home. He agreed that we both had a great time, and later told me that there was to be another jazz concert with a different band next week. I don't think this one will envolve dancing, but I could use a break.


Almost walked right into this one 

The highest "kami no ie" overlooking the town of Tamano 

This guy has a pretty great view 

Made it to the top 


Some plastic flowers were left, but I couldn't judge their age 

A Life of Danger

I took another trip to the mountains, but this time for some real hiking. Not that easy paved-road hiking of the last mountain I climbed with Shoko. Shoko sparked my interest when she mentioned that there was a way to get up the very steep mountain behind our house, but had not been to the top in five years. We struck out after school one day when the sun was high in the sky. The path started behind an indoor swimming center and led into the hills. At first the going wasn't very steep; mostly through thickets of overgrown weeds and the occasional thorn bush. Soon we realized that there was no real path that could be easily followed, and started to laugh at the weeds up to our necks. About halfway up the mountain, we ran into two dead ends, so I told Shoko I was going to scout ahead to see if I could find anything that looked climbable. After some searching, I decided to forget trying to find a path and make my way straight up the mountain. Shoko said she would work her way back to the bottom, and I could scream if I got into trouble (ha).

After plenty of bushwacking and climbing a half-rock, half-dirt mound I found a clearing on the top of the mountain. Shoko had mentioned that on the top were lots of "kami no ie," or God's house (this is not the "official" name). Regardless, I certainly didn't expect what I found. Every twenty feet (or 6 meters) was a statue of a god carved in stone, sometime accompanied with a small stone house. From the base of the mountain I could see small figures but couldn't make out what they were. When I finally reached the pinnacle of the mountain I found a small "kami no ie" on top of the highest rock. I had a personal photoshoot with my camera on timer, then called Shoko to see if she could see me on top of the mountain. I was covered with briars and scratched a little with thorns, but it was totally worth the climb.

The view from the mountaintop was enough to take my breath away. Especially on such a bright and beautiful day. On my way back down the mountain, I found the "real" path, but it was quite overgrown. Also, I had to stop often to remove very large, very colorful (and hopefully not dangerous) spiders from my path. I found a small shrine that I had missed on the way up, then emerged from the mountain in the middle of someone's backyard. It seemed as if Shoko's trip to the top of the mountain five years ago was the last time anyone had set foot at the peak.