Monday, February 28, 2005

Go-chujang: Korea’s Finest Contribution to My Life

Last week there came a pivotal moment in my life here in Shimokita. I drove one hour over the mountains and through the woods in the snow to pick up my giant order of go-chujang at Shimokita’s only Korean restaurant in Mutsu. Go-chujang is a spicy sort of red bean paste that I categorize as a “happy-food.” Now my cooking is already back into my Toronto groove, as I am once again using go-chujang to marinate my meat, stir-fry my rice, and apply to everything else that I put in my mouth (with the possible exception of my toothbrush—I’m still thinking that one through).

This is one of my favourite snacks—hot rice mixed with go-chujang and sesame oil. It’s a trick I picked up in Toronto where most of my students were Korean, and where my Japanese housemates and I did most of our grocery shopping in Korea Town. In my neverending bachelor’s battle against scurvy, I always mix expensive, organic 玄米 (genmai: brown rice) from Ms. Inaba’s natural foods store in with my cheaper white rice, so this is a fairly healthy and hearty oyatsu (Japanese word for "snack").

I used to think that it would be cool if I could use my “bilingual-gaijin” powers to become one of those people on talk shows who eat things, contort their faces into a series of ecstatic expressions, and say “oishii!” or “umai! [grunt] nnn, umai!” Unfortunately my cell phone self-portraiture revealed to me that I have no talent for this line of work.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

マグロに賭ける男達 (The Men Who Stake It All on Tuna): Shimokita’s Mighty Tuna Hunters

The Tsugaru Strait: Home to the World’s Most Expensive Tuna

I did not grow up with a proper respect for tuna fish. As far as I could tell from canned tuna and tuna salad, tuna fish were about as impressive as sardines

. . . maybe less so because, although I didn’t know what sardines were, at least they featured prominently in early twentieth century literature. I can’t remember when it was in my life that I realized that tuna fish are actually HUGE

And although I grew up in Aomori prefecture, it wasn’t until I moved to Kazamaura that I learned that the next door town of Oma is the tuna capital of the world.

One of Oma's Ice Encrusted Monuments at the Northern Tip of Honshu: Man vs. Tuna

I have spent many words in the past maligning Oma, but that is because I am jealous. Kazamaura prides itself on its cheap spas (onsen) and its squid racing. On a scale of machismo, this does not compare favourably to the masterpiece of Socialist Realism that is the spirit of Oma. The last time Kazamaura was on television was when the village’s fourth elementary school achieved some sort of jump rope record the same year it was shut down. The television special about Oma’s tuna fishermen, on the other hand, is well known and frequently aired. マグロに賭ける男達: “The Men Who Stake It All on Tuna.” I photographed this scene from it off my television set the other day.

It is of the final moments of mortal combat between an Oma man and a tuna fish—blood splashing everywhere. Squid don’t bleed like that. In fact, I have never heard of a Kazamaura man being faced with a squid that fought back. Our village is not combat experienced. On the other hand, squid sacrifice themselves up to the village economy on a regular basis whereas an untalented tuna slayer in Oma might go a whole season without a single catch. Oma tuna are the most expensive in the world. A few years ago a record breaking tuna fish was sold in Oma for ¥22,000,000 (about $220,000). However, very few tuna fisherman are ever able to make ends meet and most rely on their wives’ petty wages for daily necessities. And the stakes are always being raised—expensive sonar systems to locate schools of tuna, high voltage stunning devices, secret and exotic baits, secret family fishing hooks that are fuzzed out by television censors . . . and still it’s a gamble. The coming generation has been opting out of playing the odds, and it is likely only a matter of time before commercial fleets replace the family fishing outfits. Sad, but it’s not popular to make your wife work as a cleaning lady so that you can accumulate debt and go fishing with expensive gizmos.

A Trophy Tuna on Display in Oma

Final Destination: Oma Cusine


Usually I rely on my own cell-phone photography to illustrate this blog. However, all of the photos contained in today's post have been ripped off from other web pages. Please click on the photos to visit the sites from which they originated.

And Then There Are Good Days

You know a day at school is going to be superior when cleaning time is cancelled. I hate cleaning time—I always have ever since first grade. And today, not only was cleaning time cancelled, but the third year girls baked cake in home economics class.

"To Luke-sensei-Mr. Luke-From All of Us, a Gift of Love." There Are Times When the Whole “Mr. Luke” Rubbish Doesn’t Bother Me So Much

Come to think of it, I never did dislike these third year girls. They are exempt from my sentiments expressed in the previous post. In fact, in time I will probably grant indulgences to a good half of the student body as I am reminded little by little that the whole is much worse than the sum of all its parts.

To Luke-sensei: Today’s Menu—CAKE—(From Everyone) We Put Lots of Love into Making It. Please Never Ever Forget the Taste of This Cream. Members: Asuka, Yuko, Miho, Akina

For those of my readers who get sick easily from the sort of warm fuzzies reported above, I am providing a little school trivia to clear your palates.

No, No . . . . This is Tea

Natural remedies still command respect in Japan, and our school provides tea as a gargling agent in place of pharmaceutical substitutes. Rather than relinquish huge sums to acquire expensive mouth washes to stem the tide of influenza, the school can simply have the house keeper make up enormous batches of relatively cheap tea before she goes out to help the janitor shovel the parking lot. In a related topic, it is said that Chairman Mao never brushed his teeth but opted instead to rinse his mouth out with tea every night before bed. One can only imagine how revolting his green teeth and heinous breath were to the young virgin peasants he had rounded up from time to time. Not to mention his venereal disease that he didn’t think was a big deal. So my students aren’t bad in comparison. They brush their teeth after every meal.

Monday, February 21, 2005

A School of Songs and Singing

My junior high students are always singing. I am not usually present to observe this phenomenon, but singing has been an integral part of school life at Kazamaura Junior High School for many years now. When the students arrive at school in the morning they go to their designated areas for fifteen minutes of morning choir. Before they disperse to their club activities at the end of the day they return to their designated areas for fifteen minutes of “after school” choir. In music class they have choir. Always choir. When there are visitors, they have choir. When there is a school ceremony they have choir. The most important event in the school’s Culture Festival is the choral competition. As my teaching partner once commented to me, “They like to sing.” This seems odd to me. They do not strike me as the singing type. Viewed inside their crowded habitat we refer to as “school” they give every indication of being sullen, indifferent, and entirely opposed to all that might be construed as constructive participation. Truth be told, I do not like the student body. This is harsh, but there is a great chasm separating us. I cannot remember how to stand in their shoes, or even what the world looks like from where they are standing. I remember my early childhood in incredible detail. Perhaps that is why I enjoy my elementary school students so much. But later on things grow fuzzy. I appear to have killed Adolescence somewhere along my way. I used to be on the other side—fighting adult supremacy and teacher-generated crimes against young humanity. Now, when I survey the classroom; watch the dozen unchecked conversations that die a little, then spring back to life again as I pass through the isles; observe my teaching partner’s voice dissipate into the heavy air; a feeling of mild contempt swells through me. A recurring realization sickens me: at some point I switched sides. An epiphany of sorts, akin to Winston Smith’s dying thought: “I love Big Brother.”

The Kazamaura Board of Education's Annual Report

A couple of days ago, this year’s sixth graders came for a one day orientation to see where they will be spending the next three years—possibly the beginning of the end of my bond with them. They were seated in the gymnasium and sung at by the first year class, the second year class, and the third year class in succession. For an instant my heart softened toward the singers, much like on those odd occasions when we meet on neutral ground, when I exchange smiles with one of them at the mall, or a few words with some of them at a village event. For a moment, they were performing—faces in motion, almost pious—performing something meaningful. Then they clambered down the stairs and insolently commenced with their interminable civil strife.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Valentine’s Weekend Part the First: In Which Thumper Punishes Me for My Crimes Against Machinery, and I Miss My First Pre-Marital Counselling Session

A Picture of Desolation: An Empty Ferry Dock, an Empty Parking Lot, and an Empty Thumper with the Doors Locked and the Engines Running

This was my big Valentines weekend with Yuko and her family in Sapporo. I was to arrive in Sapporo at noon on Friday, attend the first in a series of premarital counselling sessions with Yuko, and have dinner with my future in-laws. However, it was my destiny to find myself in the situation described under the photo above. Naturally, my first option was to call JAF (Japan Automobile Federation) in order to milk some more service out of my annual membership fee. However, it turns out that JAF only has one representative in Oma, and that he evidently isn’t on duty at half-past-seven in the morning on holidays. Nor is my own JAF-representing mechanic back in Kazamaura. Heck, he could have walked across the street to my house and picked up the spare car key off my book cabinet before coming over to render me my JAF service. Unfortunately he didn’t even answer his home phone. I also thought about phoning my supervisor to ask him to pick up my key and make the ten minute drive to Oma to bring it to me but decided that that would be an un-politic thing to do before breakfast time on Constitution Day. So I had the ferry terminal manager call a local service station. They were willing to try prying Thumper open for three thousand yen—but not until nine o’clock. In the end I phoned up the Oma taxi company and asked them, since I was making a round trip, if they would drive me home and back for the regular rate instead of the out of town double-rate. The lady on the phone left me with the impression that the answer was yes, but I neglected to confirm the matter with the driver and ended up paying five thousand yen for the twenty minute taxi ride. I am used to setbacks of this nature, but it really struck home this time that when Yuko marries me she will also be marrying my (self-inflicted?!) setbacks . . . . Happily for me, she readily forgave all and had a good time without me at our premarital counselling session with Pastor Yahiro and his wife. . . this time . . . . But I shall always make a point of riding out my setbacks like a seagull in the surf.

As I often do when in distress, I went home and made pancakes. I think this habit has something to do with ancient memories of Roy and Almanzo Wilder frying pancakes in The Long Winter while the rest of their South Dakota town starved. That scene remembered from my family’s bedtime reading sessions has always given me a cozy feeling.

Valentine’s Weekend Part the Second: The Sapporo Snow Festival

This weekend provided me with an opportunity to go to the Sapporo Snow Festival for the first time in twenty-four years or so. As a child I went to the Makonamai site on a Japanese Self-Defence Force base, but unfortunately I didn’t do my research before going this year so Yuko and I ended up at the main site in Oodori Park. Sad to say, this was the last year for Makonamai and the Self Defence Force’s participation, so I guess I’ll never get to relive my first snow festival experiences. Having said that, we had a great time at Oodori Park . . . .

Sapporo’s Snow Warriors Just Outside Sapporo Station

Later in the Day—Someone Had Pity on Them and Gave Some of Them Some Clothes

Honouring Kitty-chan’s Thirtieth Birthday

A Train or Something

I waited ten minutes with my cell phone camera for this shot of a kid coming down the snow slide with his mother, and that big gaijin brute with the briefcase walked right in front of me to take a picture himself!

Gift from the Earth

Asia Power: Yuko, with Mickey and Mini Riding the Chinese Dragon

Another Slide

Some Pagan God of the Far East: Bae Yong-joon (Known as “Yon-sama” in Japan), this pagan deity is sometimes worshiped by pushing two snowmen together to depict the act of kissing. At the Sapporo Snow Festival an entire segment of the park was devoted to The Winter Sonata. Unfortunately this was the only face of Yon-sama that escaped the mid-week thaw unharmed.

Nagoya Castle with Foolish, Underdressed Dog Owners in the Foreground Showing Off Their Foolish Over-Dressed and Undersized Dogs

A Tiger and Stuff

Valentine’s Weekend Part the Third: Revisiting the 1981 Sapporo Snow Festival (Makomanai)

Mom, Anna and Me in Front of a Life Size Snow Building

Sinderella Warning


A Self-Defence Force Soldier Protects Little Citizens from Ouwies on the Ice Chutes

Jack and the Bean Stock?

Stuff that Used to Be Cool, but That Isn’t Anymore

Transportation for Anna and Me

Silly Anna, Did You Really Think That Someone Was Going to Pull Us?

Some Other Kid—Hopefully He Faired Better . . .

My Favourite Childhood Memory from Snow Festival

The View

Our House in Sapporo (1979-1981)

My Dad’s Own Personal Snow Festival

Check Out my Dad's Relationship with Snow (February 8)

Is it just me, or has Sapporo been slacking off in the last few years?

Valentine’s Weekend Part the Fourth: No Soba for the Likes of Us at 八雲 (Yagumo)

As we reached the end of Oodori Park, Yuko and I ran into my sister Sarah and some Tsugaru JETs: Sarah H., Trish, and Abby. We decided to go to a soba shop together but never did get lunch. When Yuko went up to ask the waiter (middle-aged man) for a table for six he informed us that it was very busy and that seating that many would be too difficult. When Yuko asked him to see the waiting list he bluntly told her to please try elsewhere. Having never been the recipient of such behaviour from the service industry Yuko was left visibly stunned—and then began to frost into a cold fury. However, since the two of us had to make a two o’clock appointment we left the others to sort themselves out while we looked for a Starbucks in order to grab something quick. One flight down on the escalator, though, and I decided to return and photograph the establishment. When we got back Sarah H. informed us that a large group had just vacated an entire table and that the waiter had quickly ushered two ladies who came after us to that table. The trouble with these situations is, it’s hard to say for sure what the underlying motives are. Did the waiter not want a group of young gaijin to deal with on a busy day, or did he honestly think that the restaurant couldn’t accommodate a table of six on the last day of the Snow Festival? It was certainly already accommodating a group or two of (or near to) that size when we arrived.

As I said, Yuko was embarrassed and furious (she will be calling the head office of Yagumo this week), but I was honestly more annoyed at the lady who walked into this photo I was trying to take of Yuko making an angry face in front of the restaurant. After all, for some of us this is old news.

Valentine’s Weekend Part the Fifth: In Which Yuko and I Try on Our Wedding Dress and Tuxedo

The Two O’clock Appointment Was with the Wedding Dress Shop Owned by a Couple of My Sister Anna's Students

Since it would be crass of me to post a photo of Yuko wearing the actual wedding dress before the event, I shall substitute it with this picture of her in her other white dress—the one she wears to work at the mental hospital.

And likewise, let the tuxedo we selected be represented by this black and white photo taken by Yuko’s father.