Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dizzy December

Let’s start at the beginning.  This is what has become of the shiobiki salmon:

My efforts to lie low in the weeks leading up to Vietnam have been nearly impossible.  With the end of the year approaching, I can feel the tense energy in the air.  Everyone is frantically trying to get that last lesson, practice, dinner, party or what have you in before the clock strikes 2009.  Kodo, my sake-shop-owner friend threw me a little ‘going-away’ party last Wednesday night.  Really, I think he jumps at any ol’ reason to invite his friends over, drink wine, eat cheese, bread, and various Japanese foods.  It might have also been our last private English lesson as next year I’ll be teaching an actual public class on Wednesday nights at the Board of Education.  I’ve been advertized in the town newspaper and get stopped everywhere I go by people saying that they’ve signed up!!  The next night, I went to dinner in Arakawa with one of my favorite collogues from Kamikaifu Elementary.  She’s one of my favorites because we both share a dangerous passion for food – AND she bought me an Advent Calendar the week before!!  We meet at a restaurant that features the ‘Locomoco.’ Others might know this dish as ‘The Big Kahuna.’  It’s a hamburger, gravy, egg, vegetable, and rice combination that is quite possibly one of the greatest mesh of flavors ever!!  Because she always gives me gifts, I felt the need to give back cookies and a CD, then she felt bad so gave me a CD out of her car, and then I felt bad so gave her another CD out of my car!!  Oh, Japan!! 

Earlier that Thursday was the Senami Elementary Kirakirakirakira Concert.  Each grade except 1st (2nd~6th) put on a musical performance.  Some classes danced and sang, others played instruments and sang.  Hiki sensei invited me to sing and dance with her 2nd grade class.  I practiced the dance once in the morning and was asked to stand in the front row during the afternoon performance!!  Haha, imagine this: 20-something teeny tiny 7 year olds and big monster Naomi in the front row looking from side to side to try to keep up with the dance while singing ‘last Christmas I gave you my heart…’  When Hiki-sensei showed me the pictures I couldn’t stop laughing!!  I still can’t stop laughing!!  I’m going to need to ask for a copy of those pictures – hahaha!!  Oh yes that was a memorable fun experience J 

The next day was the weekend, and our last musical rehearsal.  The practice was held in Maki, a bit south of Niigata City, and about 2 hours away from Murakami.  Normally, I would stay the night with someone in the area, but due to another food invitation, I had to book it back north for Saturday night, then south again for Sunday’s rehearsal.  I’m comforted to know that we got a ton done with the musical, but also know that with over a month off between now and the next and LAST LAST practice, haha we’ll just see how the next one goes.

So Saturday night, Kawamura-sense from Murakami-Minami Elementary invited me to his home for home-cooked food and a chance to meet his family.  His wife cooked the most delicious miso soup, grated yam and maguro (fatty tuna) sashimi, salad with plum dressing, french fries, corn dogs, spring rolls, croquet, and tempura oyster!!  When I said that I would have rice AND drink beer, I thought that was the norm, accept everything.  Kawamura-sensei said that he would have beer, but no rice.  That night was a night of new knowledge for both parties.  I taught them about the USA, and they taught me that generally, men don’t eat rice with beer.  Beer replaces the rice.  I guess it’s a good carb-swap, but Niigata rice is SOOOO good, I could NEVER turn it down!!  I fell in love with this family – both children, Moe and Taku swim and play baseball.  Since both parents are teachers, it makes sense that they would use every opportunity presented to teach their kids something new.  They all have a huge interest in traveling around Japan and internationally.  This past summer, Kawamura-sensei and Moe did a 2-week home stay in Vancouver, during which it shows how much English they learned!!  For dessert, I chose the purple sweet potato and chestnut cake.  Taku showed me his coin collection ranging from olden times Japanese currency to current coins and bills from other countries.  Moe explained in clear English the pictures of their family and her time in Canada.  I gave them cookies and Advent Calendars (thanks mom!!) and they sent me home with the yummy leftovers. 

The next day was back down to Maki for the dress rehearsal and then Kaitenzushi with Obaachan!!!

 ridiculously awesome unicyclists:

Monday, December 8, 2008

1st Snowboard of the Season (Sunday, December 7, 2008)

Seeing as the weather in recent weeks has been cold, wet, icy, and just overall yucky, a much-desired trip to the mountains looked iffy.  Yesterday, Flo and I had come to the decision: probably no snowboarding today UNLESS the small chance of the weather being beautiful happened.  I woke up around 8:00 and saw something I hadn’t seen for days: a bright shining sun.  ‘Hey hey what do you say, looks like a beautiful day!!’ was the text message I sent her, and after some quick research as to what ski parks were open and throwing all the snowboarding supplies into my car, we were on our way to Yamagata Prefecture’s Zao Ski-jo!!

Our area in Niigata-ken got some snow and ice from yesterday’s icky storm, but Yamagata’s mountains got FEET of snow!!  The drive over and up made us feel like we were traveling through a winter wonderland.  I’m sure you can imagine me periodically screaming “WOW THIS IS GORGEOUS!!”  Thank goodness for the maps of Niigata and Yamagata the past predecessors left in my apartment, because we were basically able to get there with no problems (only had to stop and ask once).  From 113 to 13 to 14 to 12, and 2.5 hours later we saw a ski slope, lift, and parking lot, pulled over and couldn't hold our excitement in any longer!!

We quickly found out that Zao Ski-jo is one of the biggest parks in Japan.  To start, the lift tickets are touch-and-go-cards to get you through the turnstiles.  The first lift we took up from where we parked the car was coincidentally the biggest of all the lifts (the kanji for it is 大森: big jungle).  A rail AND a hood came over us after we got on and it took FOREVER to get up, which was fine because the run down went on and on and on!!!  Seeing as this was our first snowboard of the season, we headed down the easier-looking routes.  The snow was powdery and perfect the whole way down, but we ended up in a completely different spot than we had started.  No worries, we still had a few hours left and took this as an adventure to find our way back.  The other lifts were slightly smaller, not covered, and shorter.  In order to get to higher ground or to another part of the mountain range , we essentially had to ‘transfer’ lifts.  “I think next time we should take 25 to 23 to 27, and that should get us to the top where we can work our way all the way down, look for signs, and maybe ask someone.”  27 took us ALL the way to the top.  We could feel the temperature dropping by entire degrees Celsius, and were engulfed by the clouds.  It was a pretty steep and hazy slide down, but after looking for the big jungle kanji and asking a few people we made it!! 

As with every good ski day trip, we ended it with a delicious meal in Shibata.  We met Colleen (佳鈴) and Jon for Thai food at the Cruise Diner and warmed up with the help of spicy curry and hot coconut milk tea.  

Cookies (Saturday, December 6, 2008)

90% chance of sleet all day, and nothing to do made me not want to leave the side of my two heaters.  Lucky for me, I didn’t because everyone came to me!!

WHOAH, BACK UP.  Today could NOT have been a better day to receive a heavy flat-rate package from BARBI!!  In it was ALL the non-perishable holiday essentials: corn bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, spam turkey, candy canes, holiday candy corn, Hershey’s kiss chocolates, Christmas decorations, a spice apple scented candle, AND a REAL wishbone!!!  THANKS SO MUCH BK, LOVE LOVE LOVE IT ALL!!!!

So yeah, Flo came by and we decided to combine our baking supplies to make oatmeal raisin cookies in my itty bitty oven while watching movies all afternoon and evening.  Jess also stopped over in between running errands, which was a good thing because he helped us eat the cookies. Unfortunately, my electricity shorts out when the heaters AND oven are going at the same time.  As long as the cookies were baking, we were shivering.  Out of the 4 dozen cookies we made, we ate them ALL!! 

KODO in Niigata (Friday, December 5, 2008)

Through a woman in or around Murakami that most ALTs know (except me), Hannah was able to get us 4th row seats at a KODO concert!!  For those who don’t know, Kodo is the BEST taiko drum group in the universe. 

Getting there was an adventure in and of itself.  Even though we left right after work, with traffic and the cold rain, it took nearly 2.5 hours to get to Niigata City.  Then trying to find parking amidst full lots made us 20 minutes late.  Aimee and I made it though, and met up with Taiko and it was AWESOME!!

My favorite performances are always the ones where they dance with their drums and smile J  I can’t find the words to describe how mind-blowing the beautiful flutes, voices, beats, bangs, muscles, rhythms, and so on were!!

Shogakkou Matsuri (Friday, December 5, 2008)

I’ve been fortunate enough to get out of middle school work/boredom after lunch for the past two Fridays to attend Kamikaifu-sho Matsuri and Senamikko Matsuri.  Each grade, 1~6, prepares their own attraction for the rest of the school, visiting kindergarteners, preschoolers, teachers, and parents to enjoy.  Haunted houses, obstacle courses, rope climbs, chopstick-tissue-catch, basketball, darts, bowling, golf, fishing, ring-toss, and a box maze were only a few of the offerings.  This is probably comparable to our 4th of July Block Party as a kid.  One of Hiki-sensei’s students told her that he was so excited, he could hardly sleep the night before!!  

Iwafune Sunet (Thursday, December 4, 2008)

I decided to drive around Iwafune for a bit after school got out.  It’s a cute little port town, a little south of Murakami Proper (even though it’s technically included as part of Murakami City).  Today was one of those rare sunny days, and it would have been a shame to not pull over to watch the sunset.  When I got out of my car, one of my students was walking her dog.  She stopped to say “Hello, Naomi-sensei!!” and ended up sitting and talking with me until the sun disappeared behind the clouds.  

Thanksgiving Murakami Musical Rehearsal (Sunday, November 30, 2008)

Finally, the time has come for a musical event to be held in MY town.  No need to pack for the weekend, get up early and go to a faraway part of the prefecture, or impose on another person’s place for the night.  This weekend was in our house!!

Coincidentally, this musical practice fell on the weekend of Thanksgiving.  Lucky for us Americans, it’s become a musical tradition to have a Thanksgiving feast.  We rented cooking and eating rooms, all brought our own dishes, and ate until we dropped!!  Along with the traditional TURKEY, salad, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, vegetable and cheese casserole, potatoes and vegetables, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, apple and pumpkin pie, cake, and cookies (which were ALL delicious), Daphanie made a Singaporean soup, Richie cooked meat wraps, Natasha baked a South African Milk Tart, and Taeko brought billions of kaki. 

Funny story about my sweet potatoes: this really should come as no surprise to family and close friends, but I messed up!!  You see, what happened was I was ridiculously busy as usual all week, and bought the satsumaimo (sweet potatoes) in advance on Thursday.  On Saturday morning, I woke up early to prepare them before rehearsal.  When I cut the ends off, I noticed something terribly wrong.  They were purple!?!?!!  The grocery stores and vegetable stands wouldn’t open until it was too late, so I decided to just go about baking them, mashing and adding milk, butter, salt and pepper.  To my surprise, they were sweet and yummy BUT the most brilliant color of purple I’ve ever seen in a food!!  I can’t read kanji very well, so I guess I just skipped over the ‘murakaki’ (purple) at the grocery store – woops!!

Kudo's 60th (Friday, November 28, 2008)

My sake store/calligraphy/English student friend has an annual wine party at the end of November.  Lucky for Jess, Flo, and I, we were invited to be part of the staff at this party/60th birthday celebration.  At our last English lesson, he said something about how we would be serving wine to people as they walked into the ballroom.  He thought it would be cool for his guests to be greeted by gaijins (foreigners).  He had me write out a speech out for him in English so that he could shock the viewers with mad English skills.  On top of that, he asked me if I could say a little something about why I decided to come to Japan, and how awesome Murakami is.  Sure, no problem!!  Our compensation would be the nijikai (after party) with the rest of the staff members.

Jess, Flo, and I walked over to his sake store to catch the bus to the party.  On the bus, we met some pretty hilarious characters.  This old man talked to us the whole ride about his life and the happenings of Murakami while his wife kept showing off her mink jacket that she won through janken (paper scissors rock).  Upon arrival, we were immediately put in our wine-serving place, and told to try the wine we were handing out, but make it quick, so ‘kampai’ chug, done.  Not too much after, we were told to go to the backroom, where we were assigned tables and instructed to pour the first of 9 wines.  Every 20 minutes or so, the next wine bottle was to be brought out to the tables.  White wines, red wines, Italian wines, California wines, and peach wines were all part of the menu.  There was a schedule of performances: at 7:00 the band will play happy birthday to Kudo, 7:15 he’ll give a speech; 7:30 he’ll sing, 7:45 the guest singer will sing; 8:00 Naomi will give her speech, at 8:15 Kudo and the band will change into their Hawaiian shirts and play a couple songs and so on.  To my surprise, I was worked into the schedule more than just the speech.  I was to give the guest singer flowers, talk in front of the 206 attendees, play the tambourine with Flo and Jess for 2 songs, pull tickets for the raffle, and be the center janken person for the bike give-away.  I was a little nervous about the speech since I hadn’t really prepared anything on paper.  I knew what I wanted to say, and how I would deliver a couple of the sentences, but it was all in my head.  Thankfully, by the time I was called to the stage, the audience was feeling the buzz from their 4 glasses of wine, and gave me a huge round of applause after every sentence.  This gave me enough time to think about what I wanted to say next.  Plus, it made me feel like a star.  Let me explain the mass janken tournament in a little more detail.  I stood on center stage, everyone stood up and we paper scissor rocked.  If anyone lost or threw the same thing as me, they would sit down.  We’d do it again, and again until an old man won the brand new white basket bike, which he took for a goofy ride through the elegant tables.  There was crazy dancing from both adults and kids going on.  The proud mink lady did a funky solo dance for the crowd, babies took the stage, and Jess pulled Flo in for an intense swing dance routine.  Everyone loved us and treated us like celebrities.  When it was all over and done with, people asked to shake our hands, take pictures with us, and gave us business cards.  This whole evening experience was all the payment we needed for helping out with the party, so the after party was just a huge bonus.  Wine, sushi, delicious Japanese hors d'oeuvre, and hilarious conversation were a perfect cap on the night.  

Yonezawa, Yamagata Onsen (Sunday, November 23, 2008)

Courtney’s English Conversation class friends planned a trip to Yamagata and allowed her to bring a friend!!  Lucky for me, that friend was me!!  They came to the mainland from Sado, and trained it up north to Yamagata Prefecture.  We all met up at Sakamachi station, and I only had a couple of minutes between trains.  Once on the train, I was informed that there was no bathroom.  No problem, I thought, I’ll just dehydrate myself so there is no problem. 

It’s always fun to see a new part of Japan.  This is a little country, but each region prides itself on its own unique food and scenery.  Yamagata is known for their soybeans, beef, wine, mountains, and hot springs.  The whole weekend, we were the stereotypical Japanese tourists, taking pictures of ANYTHING in front of EVERYTHING.  Assuming that our fellow Japanese travelers knew what they were doing, Courtney and I giggled and went with the flow.  Before getting to our hotel, we stopped at a grocery store to pick up basket loads of snacks and alcohol (which we had to sneak in, since they were against hotel rules).  We stayed at a ryokan, or Japanese style inn, where 8 of us shared a large tatami-mat room.  Upon arrival, a table was set in the middle of the middle of the room.  Some of us got into our onsen (hot spring) clothes, and we set off to the streets of Yonezawa.  The group tried some foot baths together (and by trying I mean dipping our feet in AND tasting!?!).  Some were hot, warm, salty, sulfur-y.  Eventually, the girls took a walk to another foot onsen, and the boys went back to the ryokan for the real deal.  We all met up for the huge and delicious Japanese dinner, featuring Yonezawa’s special soybeans, beef, and miso. 

After dinner, the girls hit up the onsen.  We dipped into both the indoor and outdoor hot springs multiple times, learning the phrase ‘gakuraku’ or ‘it feels like heaven.’  Everything was calm and relaxing while enjoying good conversation until that dehydration from the morning caught up to me.  I had to get out, NOW.  In the middle of a conversation, I impolitely, but still politely excused myself.  We had been in for quite a while so everyone followed.  I quickly rinsed myself off and went to the changing area where I started to see spots.  “Daijoubu?” (“Are you OK?”) Keiko asked.  “Daijoubu … janai” (“I’m OK … NOT”) I replied as the spots turned into darkness and both of my ears started to go deaf.  So of course, everyone semi-freaked out and was overly nice, trying to get me water and make me comfortable and help me not feel embarrassed.  “I just need a little bit of water” I kept on saying, still half blind and deaf.  “This has happened before, I just need to sit down … OK, is it cool if I lay down?”  So then I laid down (basically naked), and just when I thought I was going to be better, “I think … I think I’m getting paralyzed.”  The feeling in my fingers started to go as my hands clenched.  That’s when I knew I need a lot more than a little bit of water.  The more I drank, the better I felt, and within a couple of minutes, I was 100% again.  Phewf!!

When got back to the room, the futons were laid out for us, all pretty and in order.  We had to do a little shuffling around though, so that we could re-set up the table to play cards while eating and drinking our smuggled goods!!

The next morning, I awoke to EVERYONE up and staring at me.  “Oh My God!!”  It took a while for the shock to settle down, but I guess they all wanted to get going to another outdoor onsen, but were debating on whether or not to wake me up.  Well I was up, and within minutes out the door to another hot spring.  This one was AWESOME, as it was located between snow-covered mountains, and bubbling up HOT water.  When we got back to the ryokan, breakfast was served.  Oh how I LOVE Japanese breakfast J