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Sanno Matsuri まつり 祭り

As the seasons change one exciting form of public entertainment is the many festivals, often regional or for specific purposes, which take place in Japan. When I say Japan I’m really speaking about my own very limited experience, in the Hida Takayama region of Gifu prefecture, and the Takayama Spring and Fall festivals.

In April you can truly witness the change of seasons, with drastic changes happening overnight. Literally, I’ve woken up to fields of flowers that were not there the day before.
Takayama’s spring festival, or Sanno Matsuri, celebrates this change of season. Takayama’s festivals are generally regarded as one of the best in japan, due to the sheer beauty of the elaborate displays called Yatai.

Now let me take a step back here. It’s hard to know how to describe what the Yatai is, and the closest english is probably “parade float” but I really hate to use those words for two reasons. 1. I’ve never been a fan of parades, and I wouldn’t compare one to the festivals. and 2. When I say “float” it makes me think of an inflatable Donald Duck ballon or something, and the Yatai carts are ornate wheeled displays with intricate carvings, lacquering, woven-work and decorative metal-work, found both on the outside and inside – some with intricate mechanical puppets which perform as part of the entertainment.

 

My understanding is that the different Yatai carts were created by different surrounding communities, with contributions from various artisans from those communities. Over time they would be further improved, and with a bit of competition between the communities the carts would become even more beautiful.

As expected there is music, dancing, performances, and of course my favorite… many differed food stalls to choose from. I recommend attending one for yourself if at all possible.

A Rice Field is Born 田んぼ

Not being from the countryside, let alone Japan, I’ve asked myself the question: How are all these beautiful rice fields prepared, planted, cultivated, harvested? I’ve heard the same question from friends and family as well.

Fortunately, this year I got to see the process take place over a couple months as the one behind our house was turned from a dry, already-harvested field – into a fresh newly-planted one.

Hooray for rice!
Hooray for rice!

By the time we arrived in March, winter was fading away along with the snow, and most rice fields sat empty with dry stubs where the rice had been harvested last year.

Ready to till
Get outta the way!

But as spring would start to appear, I would see these fields being prepared for growing in the new year.

Empty rice field, pre-flooding.

This starts out as you probably might expect. A tractor tills the dirt with large rotating blades, turning the soil over and chopping up any plant material.
Next the sides of the field are shaped up, corners rounded, and sometimes covered with plastic to help “keep water in”.

Next the fields are flooded. How? Well up here in the mountains water runs everywhere and constantly supplied from the snowy mountain tops and several rivers in the area, so everyone has plenty of water to irrigate their fields.

Quite a difference from water-deprived California from where we came.

Next, the fields are tilled once again…. maybe 3 or more times, getting the soil into a nice fine, smooth texture. I often see people adding fertilizer pellets at this point either walking the field and throwing it by hand, or via a machine (backpack with a pellet shooting  attachment hose). After some time and continued irrigation it’s time for planting the Nae (苗) or baby rice plants.

It seems like most people purchase these by the crate from a nearby grower. And next comes the fun part. The crates are loaded into a small tractor type vehicle which is exclusively for planting the little seedlings into the ground. It is quite satisfying to watch.

Planting By HandDo people still do it by hand as well? Yes, at least I saw several old farmers doing it the manual route, though I have to imagine it adds many hours to the equation.

From here the water stays with the seedlings for a good, long time. How long? I don’t know – I’ll update you when something changes!

And there you have it. I’m sure there are many more steps involved, but for a visual overview, this is what it looks like.

Shirakaba Family Land 白樺 ファミリーランド

A spontaneous weekend family road-trip took place. We recently made it to an amusement park in Nagano, called Shirakaba Family Land 白樺 ファミリーランド. I imagine most Americans are familiar with Nagano due to the winter Olympics of 1998 being held there, and yes as expected there was plenty of mountains and water which would facilitate such an event.

Getting to Family Land from Takayama took a few hours, although I recommend paying the toll roads to get there faster. Skipping the last toll road and trusting our GPS took us up some wild mountain road to get there which had me a bit white-knuckled at times.

Family Land was perfect for ages 3-8 or so I would say, although the whole family had fun and even our 1 year old went on some rides. I would have to say that Japanese amusement parks, or at least this one in the off season (ski season over) was very laid back. Definitely the most stress-free amusement park I’ve ever been to. The number of people wasn’t overwhelming, and the atmosphere relaxed.

Some of the rides they had:

– Elephant ride (similar to Dumbo at Disney)
– A smaller Roller Coaster (still too big for my kids)
– Go Carts
– A beautiful mini-golf putt-putt area
– Zip Lines
– ATV riding
– A canoe water raft ride
– Multiple bounce-house type areas
– Merry-go round
– Large adult-size trampoline area
– Swan boats on a lake filled with fish
…you get the idea!

Plenty to keep little ones busy, but not overwhelming either.

TIPS:

  • You can either pay “per ride” or get an “all day pass”. We opted for 1 day pass and figured the other parent could go per-ride, as one of us would often be watching the baby. In retrospect it was far from strict, and we could have just paid per-ride. I mean how many rides can you fit into a day with two little ones anyway?
  • Attractions were spread out into a few different areas, so there was quite a bit of walking. I’d recommend a stroller, baby backpack, water, sunscreen, hats.
  • The food area we ordered from was nothing spectacular, mostly fried food and took a long time. It’s probably a good opportunity to pack lunches for the family and bring them with you.
  • We stayed affordably in a nearby hotel for one night, which included all you can eat (and drink!) dinner and breakfast, which really makes for a great start & end to the day.
  • I should also mention that the area contains several other places which can be visited including multiple farms, a ski resort, a brewery, etc. You could stay multiple days and find plenty to do.

While I didn’t make it to the brewery, I was able to track down a few of the local Shirakaba beers in our hotel, and managed to end my evening with one in the cool mountain air. Delightful! Adding it to my list of Japanese beers I’ve enjoyed.

Shirakaba Beer Review

Malty, thick but satisfying. Kind of like a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast with a bit of sugar. Surprisingly easy to drink, could easily have 2 or 3 in a row. Not hoppy at all. Slightly sweet aroma like ripened apple skins, but subtle. It’s what I want from a craft beer, a special and complex taste that I can sip and enjoy. It’s my last beer of the night, and perfectly timed.
More Beverages>>

From Crows to Coke Bottles

The first couple trips to Japan, almost everything stood out as different.
Even the things that were nearly the same still bore some tiny, interesting differences. Now 5 trips later, and a month into living in the Gifu countryside – the initial shock has wore off, and the much smaller things which were overshadowed before, stand out a bit more. Not forgetting of course that even a move from a big city to the countryside itself brings many differences, even within the same country. Every once in a while I’d like to note some of the differences experienced in my new daily life. Today I have a small list.

I could write many blogs on how the sounds alone are so different…

Opening a Coke bottle:

A strange looking Coke
A strange looking Coke

It’s more of a sudden pop, a tiny explosion. Rather than the American gradual carbonated burst. Probably due to the different formula. Main ingredient looks like sugar rather than corn syrup.

The sounds at night:

I guess this one should be obvious but even the crows make a different caw than the ones in California. Different animals, temperatures, and spirits. Makes things a bit surreal in the dark.

The cost of goods:

When I would tell everyone I was moving Japan the question I often got was, “Isn’t it expensive there?”. And it’s a bit tough to answer, when comparing the countryside of Japan to the middle of LA. Rent is a fraction of the price here, as you would expect with such a city/countryside comparison.  Gas is more expensive, although I’ll be driving far less now. Groceries are more expensive in general and the quantity is noticeably smaller. But quality is definitely higher, locally grown and sourced.

Sushi grade fish on the other hand (for sushi lovers like me) is definitely less expensive! In short – it really just depends on what you are talking about.

IMG_0269Convenience Stores:

On that same topic. Convenience stores have a dedicated wall of inexpensive food, with lots of healthy options made fresh that morning. And when it’s gone – the shelves are empty. In the US, shelves never go empty and eating from a 7-11 is rather gross considered an absolute last resort.

Relative safety:
Part of it is probably being in the countryside, but I see it in the cities too. Bikes are rarely locked up and more than likely people leave cars and houses often unlocked. It feels odd to see a long row of bikes completely unsecured, and people leaving valuables out in the open. Understandably, it’s because the crime rate is extremely low.

Talking toilets:

Talking everything really. If it’s an appliance made recently chances are it talks to you.

Coffee Vending Machine

Money:

In Japan it seems like in large part, everyday life in Japan mostly deals in cash and every store has their own point card. I’m thinking Americans like seeing the immediate discount while Japanese more prefer to spend points. Also, the American equivalent of a dollar and five dollars are coins, meaning lots of coins! I guess I need myself a new wallet with built in coin purse.

Atmosphere:

I guess this more relates to being in the countryside but the sound of running water is everywhere. And being nearly spring time everyone is turning over the earth preparing their fields for planting and you get the smell of fresh soil. It is very peaceful.

The Egret Has Landed

We’ve landed in Japan and after a few weeks, so much has happened since that 11 hour flight that I hardly know where to start. I could write a blog on 20 different topics;

First and foremost in my thoughts are my kids, and how I’m explaining this whole adventure to them. My sweet 1 year old girl, is mostly just loving all the new attention and excitement as she is still a baby. But I do find a greater importance in speaking to her in English consistently and repeatedly, so that she gets enough exposure to the sounds and syllables of English speech to develop appropriately. The fact that she’s just started walking here is a reminder of everything “new” that she can get her hands on. And there is so much that is new! She’s also sleeping more, which i mostly attribute to all the new stimulation and winter weather.

My toddler is a bigger challenge in my mind;
At age 3 he is basically a mostly-functional person, complete with independent thoughts, emotions and lines of questioning and reasoning. I’ve explained a lot to him in very simple terms for his understanding, which he recites back to me with extraordinary accuracy. But while I think he understands that much has changed, I’m not sure he understands the permanence. To him, it’s still as if his old preschool and friends could reappear at any moment, which sadly they will not. But there is much for him to be excited about.

Our long daily walks outside bring out a vast amount of English communication between us on a variety of subjects, which of course delights me. It’s almost as if he knows he needs to practice with his one source of English as he talks nonstop. Food is something of a challenge, as I have never seen a voracious of an eater, pound for pound, as my 3 year old. At least I can say that it is generally quite healthy food. 

The support of grandparents and other friends and family here have helped smooth the transition. The broad countryside, snow to play with, and new places to go and experience. Yet I am also watchful, for any sense of loss he may experience – yet not have the words to express.

He has started an entirely new preschool based in a different language. I have faith in his intelligence and adaptability, but still – it’s a lot of change at once for a little guy. The number of items required to start a public preschool is rather surprising when compared with the US! From hats, to indoor shoes, a kids futon bed, umbrella, handkerchief, tissue paper holder, bags for school items, etc. I can only assume there will be lessons associated with each and a high degree of organization involved because I’ve never seen anything like it. But the teachers are sweet and wonderful, and he is loving and embracing it completely – which puts me at ease. I’m hoping that with my toddler starting “full time” tomorrow i’ll start having more hours for Japanese studies. I’d hope to remain illiterate for as short as possible.

Our room, currently with family, is mostly settled and organized at this point. The first couple weeks was just about figuring out up from down, getting a bank account, getting a cell phone (neither of which was an especially smooth process) and getting bills settled.

Generally we are enjoying the clean air, a quieter more natural environment, good food and drink, and more time with each other and other family. 

BEER  ビール お酒 飲み物

So yeah, BEER… and all the other great drinks in Japan.
Enjoying the amazing cuisine and beverages is definitely a huge part of my visits. On my last trip I attempted to try a different beer or drink every day. I especially enjoyed the local Hida Takayama brew, which is definitely something special. I have no doubt that after moving there (2 weeks from now) entirely new worlds of flavor will open up to me.

With the popularity of craft beer growing in japan, and Japanese whisky winning “Best in the World” status, it seems as if Japan is making great strides beyond the commonly known ‘sake’ in the U.S.

One of my favorite sipping drinks is Shōchū () which is typically made from sweet potatoes (the good stuff) or barley. To my tastes, it is typically a bit dryer than Nihonshu (what Americans call sake) with mellow herbal flavors and aromas.  Truth be told, the smell of Shochu reminds me of Japan – wherever I’m at. But this beverage will be the subject of a future blog post all its own!

Here are a few tasty beverages that were part of memorable moments;

The Daruma Awakens 達磨起きた

It was a little over a year ago, my last visit to Japan. In the fall, with a spectrum of leaves. This was the visit in which to decision to move would manifest itself, starting from a cute notion, to a plausible idea, to an actual full-fledged plan.

img_1847ed

I had been conducting my usual shopping trips for souvenirs. These usually consist of hitting the local Santa themed thrift stores, the Daiso dollar store, and various other small stores for trinkets and small gifts. On one such occasion, a cute little Daruma figure caught my eye. He was nothing of significance really. I had found and purchased much more interesting Daruma figures before.

But this Daruma was a little solar-powered toy, the kind you might place in a  window. There was probably 50 of them in the display, all rocking back-and-forth, side-to-side like cute, red little pendulums, powered by the light.

santaIf I was going to pony up the 150円 (about $1.35) for the little guy, I wanted to make sure he was working well and would work at home. I picked up several, examining each individually. A face with a little frown and furrowed eyebrows staring back at me – setting them down one after the other. They all seemed to function, so I’m not sure what I was really looking for. Maybe the one rocking the hardest? Or most accurately? Quite likely they were all identical, but I tend to be a very slow and meticulous shopper.

I settled upon one, and he was purchased and quickly found his way into my suitcase and pile of other souvenir give-away’s.

And there he sat for weeks.  After some some months, he returned to my memory, and thought I’d bring him to work. I placed him in my window. I being thoughtful to place him in the path of a sunbeam, for maximum exposure. I checked on him through the day, but he would not budge.
He only sat. Staring blankly. Possibly meditating.

drama

Thinking that maybe he just needed some time to charge, i left him alone – and after some days forgot about him. An occasional glance would confirm his stubbornness.
I would move desks at some point, and he would be inherited by another co-worker. He became lined-up with a number of other colorful desk figures, including Star Wars, superhero’s, etc.

Many months would pass without so much as a jiggle – nearly a year.

But somehow, once again the little red orb would find his way back to my desk, as our office became reshuffled. It was somewhere around this time (a few months ago) that we began to sell off our possessions, and truly take action toward our move to Japan.

And it was around this time I noticed something.

I thought it was just my eyes at first. The vibration of  the room or imagination, but i would catch an ever so slight movement. Not easy to verify at first. Not until I clearly noted a full rocking back-and-forth ever so subtly one afternoon.
daruma2
It also happened that on this day I would sell a majority of my music equipment. And the next day he was still,  once again.

A week or so later, I would catch him in the act again, rocking a bit – on the same day in which we would sell our furniture. Again, the next day, perfectly still.

He has kept up this pace, with ever increasing frequency. I’ve begun to check him, almost like a clock now.

Will we sell something today? Will we receive news? Will today be lucky?

As the days tick-off, and our departure grows near – his rocking has become quite frequent! Likewise, our posessions are quickly heading out the door, and our commitments to leaving grow, our 30-day notices at work, and to our landlord has been submitted. Goodbyes are being exchanged.

At this rate, I expect him to be fully and completely rocking-out by the time we depart for Japan. Is there some significance to his awaking and his apparent excitement about our big move? I cannot tell you.

But I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better not to question the universe, and to just move in the same direction that it takes you.