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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hatcho Miso and Beyond

My last afternoon and evening,  Ko-san, Peter-san, Dave-san, Chen-san and Lina-san joined me at Hatcho Miso.  What?  You've never heard of Hatcho Miso?  Here's an excellent description from the Yamasa Website:

"Miso" is a slow-fermented soybean paste with a strong salty flavor, and forms one of the bases of Japanese cooking. Very versatile, it is used in sauces, with meats, fish, vegetables, tofu, but above all in Miso Soup, a part of the staple diet of Japanese and as common as rice. Breakfast is not breakfast without miso-shiro (miso soup), and it has entered into many sayings...for example, "ore no miso shiro wo tsukutte kureru?" or "will you make my miso soup?" meaning "Will you marry me?" Several types exist - white and red being the main varieties - and every region of the country has its peculiar method of producing miso. Miso is made by fermenting soybeans with water, and while some types include other ingredients such as rice, Hatcho Miso is renowned for its traditional method of production (unchanged for at least 500 years) and distinctive taste and color.

Hatcho Miso Home Delivery Service
Hatcho Miso Home Delivery Service

Hatcho Miso is made by the Hatcho Miso Company in Hatcho, or Eighth Street, of Okazaki. Hatcho Miso is famous for the same reason that Okazaki is famous: Tokugawa Ieyasu. Apparently having a liking for miso soup made with hatcho miso (or so the company says), Tokugawa Ieyasu made sure that his armies were supplied with the local bean paste. Being very long lasting, very high in protein, energy and other nutrients, Hatcho Miso is an ideal trail food. Having Conquered Japan, Tokugawa moved the capital of Japan from Kyoto to Edo (no Tokyo), and continued to have Hatcho Miso shipped to his castle there. The Hatcho Miso Company became famous as purveyors to the Shogun and later gained even more prestige as purveyors to the Emperor.

Hatcho Miso is darker red and earthier flavored (almost like a rich beef broth) than any other Miso soup I've tried.  It is world renowned for it's flavor but also because the process has remanined unchanged and there are no additives.  The beans are shipped from Hokkaido, washed, scored so that the bean opens up, then salted and sprayed with the local bacteria, that is unique to the region.  The beans are then put in huge 8 foot tall vats, pressed down with hundreds of river rocks, then allowed to sit for two and a half years to ferment.  

We were all dying to go on a tour of the place and go through the tasting room.  By the time we arrived there was only one tour left and although the tour guide didn't speak English, it was easy to understand the gist of the story. How the soybeans were transported in the old days, how the laborers crushed the beans by hand, and hauled them up to rafters for first fermentation, then later packed them so tightly in the cedar vats so no air could get in or out.

Each Giant Cedar Vat stores enough Hatcho Miso to feed 300,000 people

In the tasting room

I don't have a picture but there is also Miso Ice Cream, which was delicious and Miso beer...(they weren't tasting that at the time however...Snap.

The cool thing about Hatcho Miso is that it is so super probiotic that people swear by it as a medicinal food, as well as being high in protein, fiber and vitamins.  It is also famed for its ability to prevent or alleviate (??) radiation poisoning.  After Chernobyl, 40,000 tons of Hatcho Miso was ordered by Russians and Europeans. 

The day ended at a local Okinomiyaki restaurant.  A few beers, a shrimp Okinomiyaki for me, and some laughs at the end of the day were a good send off.    

Peter-san asks, "now what do I do?"

The master chefs show him how.

Dave-san is an expert!

I am making a little heart with my hands.  Typical Japanese picture taking custom for girls.  
(One odd fact:  When Japanese people take a picture they say very loudly:  "Cheese! 3,2,1!"  and then at the appointed moment, nobody, except Americans, yells out "Cheese"...

At the end of the evening, it was just me and the boys.  Lina and Chen left earlier.  We stood outside of the Okinomiyaki place and chatted for awhile about class, teachers, Yamasa in general.  I felt the continents diving again.  The goodbyes were short, a quick hug, a "please write, let's Skype, let's stay in touch! Please!"  and was the end.  

My apartment was 15 minutes away.  I was used to the walks, day and night, and I headed back.  The men were on their bikes all going different directions.  

I took everything in as I walked.  The Volvo dealership.  The little mom and pop shops that lined the street.  The giant funeral parlor with a big purple neon sign reading in both English and Japanese "Tear."  Everything looked like Anime; over-bright.

My apartment seemed empty when I returned.  I cried a little, packed a little, cried a little more.  I ended up going over to Chen and Ro-sans apartment, needing company and to say goodbye just one more time.  We sat for awhile and chatted- gossiped about a love affair we believed to be happening in class...  And then it really was time for me to say goodbye for good.  

I went home, drank my final Suntory Malt beer (how I wish they sold those in America!) and watched a Japanese game show, now not so bizarre to me.  Well, this one was a little more normal than some -- or was it beginning to seem normal to have the wild music, crayola subtitles and loud gasps "heeeeeeeyyyyy????????" emit from the audience every 10 seconds.  I didn't know, I just sat back and enjoyed my last two hours of "showering" my brain with Japanese.  

Then I climbed the loft up to my futon and stared at the ceiling conjugating verbs until I fell asleep.


The next morning was a pleasant goodbye at the Yamasa Office. I brought Sees Candy Lollypops and orange foil pumpkin wrapped chocolate balls - what I thought would be novel to Japan --little did I know Halloween has taken Japan by storm.  But Sees Candy is Sees Candy after all, and famous in it's own right.  The front desk woman took the candy from me and announced that I had brought yumena California no okashi (famous California candy).  The staff was a little surprised, and I don't know if it was because I am the customer bringing something for them.  But I was truly thankful for all that they had done and how amazing their service was.  Of course I didn't have the right vocabulary to explain that, but I think the candy showed how I felt.

My favorite office worker ran to get my wi-fi deposit and then walked me out of the building saying goodbye and he hoped he would see me again.. I plan on returning next year and I told him so.  A nice way to end my stay at Yamasa with him watching over me as I made my way to the train station.

As I headed up to the Okazaki station, which I knew so well by now (even knowing which platforms headed where, and how much money I would need for each stop without having to read the map), I watched older women in kimono buying coffee and young artist types with odd hair cuts reading the unfathomable newspaper.  I didn't belong there, but I didn't not belong.  I was not an outsider in the way I was three weeks ago.  I shopped at the same grocery store, made dinner and breakfast every night in my kitchen, hung my laundry out to dry, just like they did.  I put up with the local election megaphone trucks that roamed the streets each afternoon yelling out political slogans, sat mindlessly drinking a beer in my living room letting Japanese television dramas wash over me, just like they did. I was greeted by charming business suited crossing guards every morning on the way to school - one stationed at each corner of the least busy streets imaginable, and I dodged battalions of after school bike riding children in their school uniforms every afternoon, just like they did.  

I was outside of the culture but had been able to somehow enter it, one layer deep.  Like the language itself, every layer revealed more complexity, more flavor, more joy and yet more frustration for me because I had a deeper understanding now that I had not "arrived."  How did I ever think that three weeks immersion would get me closer to my beloved adopted language and culture?  In fact it took me further away from it because now I could see just how far there was yet to go, how many layers there were to peel back.  And the layers seem infinite.  And yet even knowing this makes the pursuit seem sweeter somehow.

I waited alone, truly alone for the first time in one month, on the train platform waiting for the train that would take me to Nagoya and then another Shinkansen on to Tokyo.  I know I'll be back.  Girl leaves Okazaki.  But not for long. So I won't say sayonara.  I will just say Mata rainen, ne? (Next year again, right?)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

My Last School Day at Yamasa

Of course, Chen-san and Ro-san and I had to have a final dinner and study evening together just before the test.  It was always very hard for us to try to stay too serious for more than 30 minutes at a time.  I made dinner this time (they had treated me to dinner the night before at their apartment).

My last day in class,  there was a feeling in the air, for me at least, that this was going to be somewhat anti-climatic.  We had all felt so close to each other these three weeks.  Not only was I leaving the next day, 5 of the other students were moving up to the next level.  The land mass was breaking up, soon to become continents, adrift in separate seas.

Peter plays Chopin in the Student Lounge
An uneasiness existed that I hadn't really felt before.  Lunch was odd - some stayed for lunch, others left.  I had to do some paperwork in the office, so missed much of the normal gathering.  When I returned to the lounge, most of the folks were finishing their lunch, deep in conversation already.  I sat amongst them, finishing my food and listening, but not really participating.  Peter finally got up and played the piano, which I  looked forward to every day.  It was Chopin again, and I went up to listen and try to sing the part that sounded like "I'm always Chasing Rainbows," a song I learned very young from a Tammy Grimes Record.  A few days before when I had recognized the little part within his music he was amazed and said he didn't know there were words to Chopin!  We laughed, and from then on, I would sometimes try to "sing along" to the passage he played.

The Yukult lady arrived, a little late, and made her sweet way through the lounge, as she did every day.  I felt bad to not buy a little carton of tangy yoghurt probiotic drink from her, but for some reason didn't. Food wasn't soothing my nerves.

Our darling "Yukult" lady...

I think some of the uneasiness, for me at least, was the fact that I was required to give a speech to the school at the end of the day.  I had tried to get out of this but Declan (the head of school) would not allow it, saying that no matter how long one is at Yamasa, one must address the faculty, student body and staff at the end of their stay.

I had worked on my speech two nights before, and gave it to Sugita Sensei to take a look.  He explained a few particle changes (of course!) and seemed to think well of the rest of the speech.

Time ticked on towards the end of the day.  The final teacher on Thursdays was a sensei that none of us liked.  She only had a two hour gig in our class every Thursday afternoon, but it was always very boring and she did not have good teaching, or listening skills.  She expected us to keep up with her, no matter how fast she spoke and without explanation.  It had annoyed me the week before when I asked to have a clearer explanation and she just rattled something off at full speed to me, and didn't try to break it down in any way.  I got mad enough that I actually excused myself and left the room.  Dave-san told me later that neither he nor a few others understood the task either.

As class came to a close and people looked like they were about to fall asleep, I brought out my large box of Sees gold wrapped lollypops (chocolate, vanilla, cafe latte and butterscotch) that I had brought from California and said Happy Thursday everyone!  Everyone, including the teacher, was ecstatic about this turn of events...and then it was time for me to give my speech.

I would like to say that I delivered it brilliantly.  I would like to say that I had developed such great language skills in my three weeks there that I was able to pull off a masterful reading that gained everyone's wrapt attention and earned everyone's deep admiration.  I would like to say that, but I can't.  It was a mediocre speech, given with as much flare as I could muster.  I tried to include almost every grammatical form I had learned.  This didn't make it clunky, but the lack of precise vocabulary did.  Oh well, I was fine, I got through it, people clapped and hugged me.

My friends at Yamasa on my Graduation Day.  We are doing the Yamasa Ninja!

Afterwards, I handed out Obama bumper stickers and pins to my close friends and they honored me by posing for this picture.

Although my uneasiness subsided for a bit, I still felt that things had changed.  People had already moved on a little in their minds from those three weeks together in which we lived in each other's back pockets.

More on the final evening and departure day in my next post.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Everyone's Japanese (Minna No Nihongo)

Title of the Text:  Everyone's Japanese
So much (too much) happened in the past 10 days, I couldn't keep up with the blog.  I hoped to add more, but studies became more important and I was wiped out most evenings.  The final days of class were intense for me. I felt I needed to do really well  on the final test and prove that all the effort was worth it.  I ended up getting exactly the same on my written and oral tests as I had the first two tests - well, a bit better on written this time...(84%) and 90% oral.  I crossed every t and dotted every i, as it were, on the written exam, but still fell down on particles, getting only half correct - and then I forgot to answer one whole question.  Although particles in simple sentences are easy as pie, as the situation (and sentence structure) gets more complicated, so do the particles.  When I listen to an ESL adult whose native language is Spanish, even if their grammar and vocabulary are excellent, it's the english particles that often trips them up and gives them away.   I mean think about the use of "at" or "in."  Very subtle differences in their use ("I am at the hospital.  I am in the hospital." Both correct but slightly, subtly different and situational).  Anyway, I think when one masters articles in Japanese, one has mastered quite a hurdle indeed.

N..Desu Anyone?
So there was lots of detail in my studies last week.  We also spent time learning how to give and receive - which, as you can imagine is an intricate round of verbs in Japanese.  Those verbs that have to do with who gave what to whom, how close in relationship that person is, if the subject of the sentence is the receiver or the person who gave the present, if the gift giver or receiver is a family member or a boss...all have different verbs.

In my private lessons with Sugita sensei,  I was able to go over in more detail the things that were tripping me up in other lessons.  The use of "n desu," not particularly hard grammatically, but remembering when to use it... (used as a means of explaining why something did or did not happen, it is often used as an apology attached to a verb or adjective...the use of it in a question shows surprise or sometimes disapproval towards the listener.  If the questioner uses "n desu" then you better damn well use "n desu" right back in your explanation.   Or it might not show disapproval but just exceeding interest.  But as it happens, it is such a quiet little addition to a sentence that one may not always hear it, so one has to listen for it in body language and eyebrow expression as well.
Ko-San passes out after finishing final test

But it wasn't all hellishly hard.  I spent a wonderful Saturday in Nagoya at the amazing Nagoya Fall Matsuri with my friends.  We all ended up splitting up because the crowds were too impossible, but it was fun to hang out while we could.  The parade ends in a big battle at the main intersection, showing the fight between three prominent daimiyo to govern and rule all of Japan as Shogun after over 400 years of bloody civil wars.  Of course the final victor is Tokugawa Ieayasu.  But the street battles are wonderfully costumed and even had a dose of comic flair.  The following pics are a mixture of pictures from my camera and Ko-s camera, neither of us had a great picture of the battle scene.  Too busy watching it I guess.

The parade begins with nine huge festival floats pulled by 14 strong men!

The Unicycle club of Nagoya!

Nana-Chan, the beloved mascot of Nagoya!  They dress her up in all different ways through out the year....

Ninjas on Parade!

The Battle Begins!
Tokugawa Ieyasu wins the battle!

After the Matsuri, I walked along the food stands eating fresh grilled whole fish and tasting malt beer.  As I got to the stage at the end of the park, an all men's choir dressed in dark jeans, deep red blazers and blue ties were singing a Japanese song.  The conductor for these 37 men of various ages was a young, very beautiful Japanese woman.   I moved closer to hear them.  After that song they moved into their final song, Bridge Over Troubled Water.  I don't know what came over me, but I was moved to tears.  These earnest men, with their beautiful voices singing "Rike a Bridge Ovah Troubred Watah, I Wir Ray Me Down" at the top of their lungs and in such perfect harmony, (so beautifully that you could almost hear the strings that Paul Simon orchestrated for the piece)...the beauty of their effort and their struggle with the wording and final mastery of the feeling of the song, had me crying all the way through.  Luckily it was dark and the ever polite Japanese are very conscious of not ever looking directly at me, the lone caucasian woman in the park.   So my tears could flow, pretty much unnoticed.

Nagoya Matsuri Food Festival, Nagoya Radio Tower in Background

What I love about the Japanese is this earnestness, it's a great word to describe them.  At school we learned it as まじめ majime (though it might not mean the earnestness I am describing here...) In my experience, there is nothing that is not done here without earnest effort.  At all times, in shops, in restaurants, on the street, in the school office, at the airport, whatever action is happening, the people have every good intention of making sure the task is complete and that all are satisfied.

 I was reminded of this on my first trip to the grocery store this time, which was more like a Wallmart.  I couldn't find a section that had paper supplies, but knew there must be one and so asked a young mother who just happened to be shopping near me if she knew where that section was.  Despite the fact that at that very moment her toddler daughter began to scream her head off the women dragged the child and her grocery basket half way across the store; things kept dropping out of the cart, the child was screaming, the mother and I were picking up the assorted products off the floor as we walked -- all to make sure I got to the paper isle.  No matter what my protestations were, telling her I was sorry and it's O.K., I will find it, please don't worry, it's all right, etc., she continued, ever smiling at me, to complete the request.

I am outside of the culture and I don't know what might go through a person's mind who feels that they have to drop everything to help someone else; are they annoyed? Do they wish they hadn't been asked? Do they feel good about it?  Does it not bother them at all, it simply just is something one does?  I don't know.  I just know that in America someone would have said, "It's about six isles over," and left it at that.  There is something  so beautiful to me about how far people here are willing to go to help others.

And beautiful too is how 37 gentlemen could put their hearts and souls into a song whose lyrics betrayed them, but whose sentimental feeling still rang as true as a lovely bell in the autumn evening.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Just a funny aside.  I have a little crush on one of the Japanese staff here and last night this old Gary Larson cartoon popped into my mind.  Had to share it 'cause this is really how it is (though the genders would be reversed):

Oh well...shikata ga nai (it can't be helped...)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Inuyama Jo and the Big Test

Chen-san and Ro-san came again this evening (like they did last Tuesday) to study for tomorrow's big test.  Our test will be on using grammatical structures like "before I came, after I came, when I came, in order to have XXX become something else, (and, incase you are someone who actually happened on this blog because you study the language the まえに、いくとき、いたとき、と。。。いいですよ、どやて forms(ますぐいて、まがて, etc. like how to show someone on a map),  and the inevitable
。。。んです form which shows natural flow of communication but which DOES NOT come naturally since it uses the じしょ form but is often used within a formal context.)

Agggghhhhhhhh.... plus three chapters of vocabulary.  Here are my friends and I, feigning happiness while we study...

And here's how we really felt....

I'll let you know next time how i did....


The trip to Matsumoto ended up not happening BTW.  We all met at the train station and I had concerns for all of us to try to go that far in a day and actually enjoy the trip- especially since someone told me the night before that the Ukiyo-e museum I was dying to see was not in the heart of the city but another 15 minute taxi ride away.  My Taiwanese friends are students with student budgets and I didn't want to force them to go on such an expensive trip, so we changed our minds at the train station and headed to Inuyama instead.  Inu means dog, and Yama means mountain.  The town is very charming and has the original castle intact (castles are called Jo, so Inuyama Jo).  It is the oldest castle in Japan, and is still privately owned by the same family that owned it since 1617.  The town was charming, the little street leading to the Jo not too touristy, (oh a little, but not like it is elsewhere) and the weather was fine.

Inuyama Jo
If I was concerned that I would have to lead my group of Taiwanese friends and be the leader, I needn't have worried.  Ko-san, the only man, quickly took the lead and Ro and Chen-san instantly took the roles of being my nieces, calling me Julie-chan and aka-chan (Julie baby and little dear one) making sure that I was buying my ticket correctly, making sure I had a seat, holding my back pack for me while taking pictures.  I don't feel THAT much older than they are (but I am) and I kept telling them I was quite fine, I've traveled a lot, but I think the Taiwanese courtesy (much like the Japanese) is about taking care of others, always.  There was also a thing about them being Taiwanese and me being American that made them want to take care of me.  They don't know each other at all from before being at Yamasa.  But they have banned together to form a little Taiwanese group.  Ken-san bowed out since he's been to Inuyama before and wanted to save himself for the next day when he and Ko would head to Nagoya.

We take our shoes off to enter the Jo, and carry them around with us in plastic bags....

Chen-san takes pics

Ko-san overlooking the river.  

Inuyama Jo is situated perfectly for defense purposes, as these pictures show.   A beautiful and useful river behind, the valley stretching out far and wide below.

We gather around our text book, "Minna No Nihongo" ("Everyone's Japanese Language")

We are attacked on the streets of Inuyama!

It was a great and LONG day, since we also went to a part of the town that was an architectural park from the Meiji period -- the Japanese moved hundreds of structures from around Japan to this park, representing various building styles going on at the time that Japan opened its doors to the west.  The European influence was phenomenal and one gets to walk through original buildings, including the front door of Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel (which I forgot to get a picture of).    (BTW, in order to get there, we had to use our newly learned vocabulary about directions...)

After the long day of walking around and speaking in our new language together, we were all very very tired.  We hopped a bus to Nagoya and sped through the night on a 90 minute journey, Chen-san sitting next to me, sharing her earphones so we could listen to music together, Ko-san in the seat right behind us, Ro-san right in front. We all fell asleep together bouncing along the highway.

We arrived at Nagoya train station and then after a great dinner of Nagoya specialty barbecued chicken wings, pork tongetsu on a stick, rice and miso soup, our evening ended in a 5 story Japanese pharmacy (やっ清く)。.

 Ko-san explained to me that Taiwanese are crazy for Japanese medicine.  The place was full of Taiwanese and Ro-san and Cho-san walked me through showing me all the special items that I must buy.  I did buy some vitamins (after checking the label - Ro-san swore by it) and some Japanese medicine plasters for aches and pains (which, I'm actually looking forward to trying).  Ko-san had already been there three times to buy presents for his family, so he waited outside.  When we were finished purchasing, we came out and he was gone.  We looked around a little nervously for a few minutes, then saw him running down the street towards us with a shopping bag.  "I'm so sorry!  I can't believe it!  I just bought a camera and I got such a good deal!"

The most amazing thing was that 90% of the time, we all spoke Japanese.  They can all speak a little English, and much better than they think they can, but we didn't try.  We practiced all of our vocab and grammar, taught each other new words, and just enjoyed each other's company.

There was a moment when we were all walking down the street, away from the lovely Inuyama Jo when I had a sudden pang in my heart.  I know now, from long experience, that these friends of mine may remain friends for awhile, but that because of time and circumstance we will drift apart.  I know that this time and place and feeling, the feeling of love when you open your heart to new people, when you let them in at the exact same moment that they are letting you in, is a precious and fleeting thing.  I know that when I was their age, I believed that you could hold on to that feeling forever, with the people you fell in love with.  And traveling does indeed allow you to fall in love more easily.  My new wonderful friends won't be in my life for long, and it's that recognition of really needing to hold on to a moment, the feeling of absolute love that has only the moment that it is given and no more that breaks my heart.  And yet, I wouldn't trade  this feeling for the whole world.