Saturday, July 31, 2010

Izu Islands Part 1: Kozushima

This month's big adventure was a trip to the string of islands south of Tokyo called the Izu Islands, or at least that is what foreigners call them. If you google "Izu Islands", you get plenty of hits in English. However, every single student to whom Ryan mentioned the name, returned a blank stare. Many Japanese folks have a vague idea of the closest, biggest island, Oshima, but that is all. (side note: -shima/jima just means "island", so all end with that) I was hopeful that this general lack of knowledge would bode well for a quiet weekend.  We decided to go as far as the overnight ferry would take us, which is Kozu shima. We boarded at 11:00 pm in Tokyo and finally got to our island by about 9:00 the next morning. In order to get to farther islands, one must either fly (a few of the islands have landing strips) or take a longer ferry or cruise ship. Incidentally, the next island out, Miyakejima, was recently evacuated for volcanic activity. 

The ferry ride itself was actually quite an adventure. Although with enough advance planning (whatever that is), you can book an actual seat or bed, the good majority of the ticket holders (ourselves included) were entitled merely to a place somewhere on the deck. Any place. Good luck with that. Here is your complimentary striped tarp.

Although we were there an hour before departure, we were approximately the 999th ones in line. We slowly streamed onto the boat behind so many large groups with ice chests, fishing poles, surf boards, you name it. Every group threw down their gigantic blue tarps (a la hanami) and quickly made themselves at home. As we started tiptoeing through all their established camp sites looking for a place to call our own, we started to get worried. We split up and kept radioing back to the other with bad news. Even the crappy place behind the exhaust was taken. This was looking very bad. Then I returned to the boat entrance. Because of the way the crowd was getting issued onto the boat and up the stairs, there was a little dead space on the side. I pointed to the space and asked if it was okay. With a quick nod, three groups of us quickly filled in and spread out. It was an awesome spot. We could lean back and watch the Tokyo lights go by. 

The next morning we got picked up at the dock in Kozushima by the mama-san from our minshuku (a small hotel in someone's home, like a B&B). Although our plan was to climb Mt. Tenjo, the intense summer heat precluded this. After checking in, cranking the AC and taking a quick nap, we instead rented some bikes and went for a ride around the main part of the island. We headed toward Akazaki, where there is a system of wooden walkways and bridges built around a nice swimming hole and tide pools. 
Though the Akazaki area was a little too crowded for our liking (a band of European college kids was loudly making their presence known), we had our pick of any other secluded beach on the coastal road back to town. There were lots of little coves and some very cool geology.
The heat was pretty oppressive, but all the swimming offered a nice break. As did the ferry office down by the pier. Here they graciously provided a big tatami lounging area, vending machines and had the AC turned up high. Ahhh!
Back at our minshuku, we took another nap (yay vacation!) and had a lovely traditional meal of cooked fish, sashimi, tempura, rice and so many little bowls of goodies, all prepared by mama-san.
After dinner we took a stroll down to the beach and went into what appeared to be the only bar on the island. We sat on the upstairs patio looking out at the beach and watched the sun set. After a while, groups of young folks started passing by, each group carrying a bucket and filling it up with water at the fountain in front of us. Sometime later we saw why. We got three separate shows, including some bottle rockets. 
The next morning, after a big multi-bowl breakie, we caught our ferry to the next island over, tiny Shikenjima.
We will just have to climb you next time, Tenjo-san...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

rocks and culture weekend part II

Right on the banks of the river where we were studying our geology, was another wonder, of the cultural variety: a fully-functioning craft village. Similar to the villages we visited in Takayama, these structures had thatched roofs and various old-timey tools. But this village also had...
...a real working waterwheel...
...a blacksmith forging knives in front of us... 

...and chickens!

In one of the structures they were actually raising live silk worms. This batch is chomping away on their favorite leaves. At some point, maybe when they are big enough and tired of eating, the worms are put in little cubicles, inside of which they spin their silk webs. The building also displayed looms and stuff that the craftspeople use to make silk fabric. 

This artisan uses the handmade silk fabric to decorate the traditional umbrellas.

With a little more time to kill before the train ride home, we stopped off at the Toyohashi Nonhoi Park Zoo and Botanical Garden, which is surprisingly vast. There are amusement rides, huge indoor botanical gardens, as well as outdoor flower gardens, a zoo, refreshment stalls and, most importantly, a great natural history museum. The only things the park didn't have were people. Granted it was the late afternoon and it was rainy, but this huge place was a ghost town. We had it all to ourselves.

And did I mention the dinosaurs?  This place would be great to visit if you had little kids that could just run around and crawl all over these guys.

And like I said, the history museum was surprisingly well stocked with fossils and mineral samples and lots of educational displays that you can even figure out without understanding the Japanese. Really cool place. I certainly hope that the lack of visitors was just a fluke and that on sunny weekend days lots of families are taking advantage of this really fabulous (and inexpensive: only 600¥, which is ~$6) resource. 

Friday, July 23, 2010

rocks and culture weekend

Last month I received an email from one of my coworkers. The Japanese portion of the email was quite extensive, but the English translation essentially said "We will go on a geology excursion. Let me know if you want to join." Despite having little to no information upon which to base my decision, I said yes. What the heck. My first field trip in Japan. As the weekend approached, folks (my boss, my parents, Ryan) starting asking me various questions, such as what geology I would be looking at, where I was going, when I was leaving/returning. To all of which I had no answer. This got me starting to worry. I took off work the Friday before so that I could purchase some new hiking boots and a small day pack, thinking that these items could potentially come in handy. I hoped that I wouldn't also need a tent, etc. However, my worrying was for nought. It all worked out splendidly and I had a really nice time. Here are some pictures. 
A professor from a different University organized the trip and brought a few of his grad students along with five from our University. Their school has a rule about wearing hard hats during field trips, so that's how you can tell them apart. I'm told our school has the same rule. Oops.

We left early in the morning and took a 1.5 h bullet train West toward Nagoya to an area by the Toyokawa river. 

Lots of greenery here, but not many animals. There were just a few of these giant bullfrogs.
From recent rains, the river was really full. This was great for pictures, but unfortunately covered up a lot of the geology that we were trying to find.

Every field trip will include at least one picture of people squatted around looking and pointing at the ground, or in this case, some nice contact metamorphism.

The organizer, Professor Michibayashi, did a great job of describing all the features in both Japanese and English. He is also great at getting the students fired up. Apparently when he does his field excursions for his research, he is very hardcore and stays in very rough conditions - barren fields in the middle of nowhere, for instance. However, when he goes on trips with students, he prefers it to be a bit more mellow, bless his heart. 

We stayed at a little ryokan, with all the usual trappings: onsen, yukatas for everyone, a big, 20-bowl dinner and equally expansive breakfast. Above is the sign that they tell me welcomes us to the hotel. I shared my room with two female grad students who, fortunately for me, speak perfect English. We had a nice time.

In addition to the onsens and the dining rooms, there were also video games and this living room filled with lazy boy recliners, which I found kind of amusing.
Also amusing slash bewildering were some of the items on sale in the lobby.
Stay tuned for part II of the weekend, in which we check out some ancient culture and head to the local natural history museum.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

German cooking class

Oh, I have fallen so behind and haven't even shared pictures from this month's cooking class.

This time we had a German computer scientist who is getting his PhD at Todai share some treats from his homeland. I think right from the start, the ladies were messing with him. For instance, despite having multiple aprons to choose from, (including the nondescript yellow one I was given), the head lady gave him this tiny pink number to wear. Here he is overseeing the dessert, a kind of bread-pudding-like pancake with raisons. 

The next dish was schnitzel, or as they call it here, katsu. First you pound the pork flat, then dip it in egg, then flour, then panko (bread crumbs) and then you fry it up nice. Mmmgood.

Then came the would-be piece de resistance: the special liver dumpling soup. I received the translation for this recipe early in the week and was told that reporters were coming to check out the dish and everything (!?!) To make liver dumpling soup, one starts with approximately 500 lbs of raw ox liver. Or so it seemed. That is a lot of liver. There's no turning back now.
The liver is mixed in the food processor with softened bread and parsley and salt and pepper. Meanwhile a vegetable broth is being made from scratch. Leaving the skins on the onions gives the broth a nice yellow color. That was a new one for me. Below they strain the broth to remove the solids.

At some point when I wasn't looking someone made an awesome mayo-less german potato salad. So here the final meal, clockwise, which corresponds to the descending order of my preference, is the potato salad (it rocked!), the schnitzel/katsu (tasty), the pancake kugel thing (could use more sugar) and the liver soup (hard to keep down). I feel bad about that last one, since it took quite a bit of energy to make and everyone was so hyped up about it. But I'm sorry, no amount of parsley and broth is going to hide the fact that this is liver. And liver is disgusting.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tenaga-Ashinaga: ramen in Takayama

Although most of our meals in Takayama were included in our hotel price, we did have lunch to find on our own. Since I've been on a bit of a ramen kick lately, I decided to do a little research and track one down in town. Right next to the river is this place, called Tenaga-Ashinaga. Naga means long, so this name essentially means "long arms - long legs" and is referencing the official Takayama mascots:

And the ramen was fabulous. Ryan had the regular, shown below, which came with egg, thick bamboo shoots, scallions, some sheets of nori and a really tender, flavorful piece of pork.

I went with what was called the "hida beef gristle". I thought maybe they mistranslated the word gristle, because the picture in the menu showed some nice, thinly sliced beef. But no, they got it right. It was gristle surrounded by huge chunks of fat. I am not sure if the fat is intended to be eaten. I couldn't do it. However, it did give the broth an incredible flavor. Ryan and I compared spoonfuls and mine had a whole lot more depth and meatiness. It was really amazing. We slurped them down with a couple of frosty mugs of beer and then headed back to the bus station to catch our ride home.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Takayama and Shirokawago

It recently came to my attention that we only have one more year here. Until now, I feel like we have been rather lackadaisical in our approach to travel. Well, no more. With the count down on, I have a new goal of taking at least one trip per month. Our June trip was to Takayama in the Japanese alps. The kanji for Takayama is surprisingly simple, it is just 高 and 山 which mean high and mountain, respectively. We took a 5-hour bus to get up to our high mountain and checked into our ryokan in the middle of the afternoon on Friday. Upon check-in, the room has a low table and chairs. Then while we are at dinner, it magically turns into a pair of comfy futons.

Around the ryokan, we wear our yukatas. I like this hotel's pretty green ones.
Downtown Takayama is home to narrow streets of traditional dark wood buildings, where you can buy things like sake, traditional fans and shoes, and tasty bits of the local specialty "hida beef".
Each old building seemed to hide a secret garden within.
Takayama is also known for its folk village, where they have restored some thatched roof A-frame houses from ancient times. It is an open-air museum that you can wander around at your leisure.
The folk village (Hida no Sato) in Takayama proper has a nice small collection poised around a quiet lake. There is also a much bigger town with the same type of old farmhouses about 50 minutes away called Shirokawago. This town actually has a full-time live-in community (though probably centered around tourism).
It rained quite a bit on the day we went. But that likely kept the crowds at bay, which was fine with us. The town of Shirokawago appears to be fairly self sufficient. Below is a rice paddy and below that I think maybe onions or garlic.
Back in the day, they used to keep silk worms. Several of the big thatched roof houses have museums inside, including this one that shows how the silk worms were housed...
...and sake and rice were stored.
We ducked into this cute coffee shop, with its wagon wheels and thinking man, to sit out the rain.
You can sit right up to the window and look across the field to the shrine. The proprietor keeps a little notebook on the counter so that guests can doodle and write a greeting. Lots of international guests come to Shirokawago it appears. This makes sense because it is apparently a UNESCO World Heritage site. We had no clear idea what that meant, so spent a good chunk of time sipping our coffees and looking up lists of World Heritage sites on Ryan's iPhone. The U.S. has 20 (do you know any of them?) and Japan has 14. Italy and France have been spoiled with 44 and 30, respectively.