Friday, July 31, 2015

Touring Like a Local

I live in the small town of Urasa, Japan. It is located 2 hours by bullet train from Tokyo and is nestled right up against the large mountain range running through the middle of Japan. That means it gets quite warm and muggy during the summer and bazillions of feet of snow in the winter. Here's a map to give you an idea:

Over the last few weeks, I've had the chance to visit some of the notable areas in my surroundings. Here are a few:

1) Rice Fields, Watermelon & Mountains
Everywhere you look, there are rice fields. These plants are currently very green and the rice stalks haven't really sprouted yet (I have no idea if I'm using the correct terminology but, whatever). This creates a lovely landscape. Interspersed between the rice is watermelons. They are delicious! Even though they are grown in our backyard, they are still quite expensive. Everyone here has a wonderful garden and people are very diligent about working in their gardens each day. Lastly, the Japanese Alps provide a lovely backdrop to all the agriculture.

The view from campus
2) The Shrines, Temples & The Naked Man Festival
Though spiritual and superstitious, Japan is not really religious. Here, Shinto and Buddhism fuse together to create a distinctly Japanese spirituality. This is seen in the numerous shines and temples throughout the country. Even in the small area surrounding Urasa, you can find several shines and a rather large temple. The temple is called Bishamon-no-Sato and is in the heart of Urasa.

A few weekends ago, I got to go on the school tour and visit Bishamon-no. What made the tour even more enjoyable was my local high school tour guide. She spoke very good English and shared the history of this beautiful site. Bishamon-no is probably best known for its Naked Man Festival. Though I haven't experienced it myself, it's sounds wild. First, men dressed in loin clothes consume large amounts of sake. They then carry HUGE, lit candles down main street towards the temple. Once there, they scuffle to reach the inner part of the temple. Keep in mind this happens in the dead of winter in a place that gets 10+ feet of snow each year.

Shrine #1
Shrine #2
The water purification pool (at every shrine/temple)

The gate at Bishshamon-no
The temple

What I'd look like at the Naked Man Festival

3) Echigo Winery
Urasa also happens to be the home of the Echigo Winery, one of the more famous wine brands in Japan. I hear that the cheaper wine isn't so good but the more expensive stuff is pretty decent. It also happens to have the best Italian restaurant in town.

4) Urasa Park
Even though it's small, Urasa also manages to have a beautiful park. Here's a few photos to demo for you.

Although small, Urasa has managed to keep me entertained.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Food in This Land

Let's talk about the food in this land.

1) Vending Machines

Beverage vending machines are absolutely everywhere - everywhere. You can find them in any store and even on the side of a country road. Surprisingly, I have yet to find a vending machine that sells food...except for one. The Casual Frozen Foods 24 Hour Hot Menu vending machine. This vending machine sits above the cafeteria at IUJ in the lounge area. I haven't gotten brave (or desperate) enough to try the food in this vending machine, but perhaps one day I will.

Yes, food can be casual, frozen and hot all at the same time.
The delicious vending machine choices.
2) Noodles

I have been in Japan for almost 2 weeks and already I feel like I've eaten my body weight in noodles. Soba, ramen, udon...the choices are limitless. You can select the size, broth base, and toppings that accompany each of these noodles. Personally, I'm partial to udon but all the noodles are pretty tasty.

Ramen with all the fancy toppings.
3) O-Sushi

Avacado Sushi
Sushi. It's so special that in Japanese it gets the honorific "o"which conveys respect. I feel mildly ambivalent towards sushi but I feel thrilled and excited towards its method of transportation.

During my first week in Japan, I had the opportunity to go to a conveyor belt sushi place. I've seen those in the US so that part didn't wow me...until I realized you can order personal sushi using the computer at your table and it gets delivered on a mini shinkansen (Japanese bullet train)! There are just no words for this awesomeness.

Shinkansen Sushi!

Pickled vegetables
4) Mountain Vegetable Restaurant

The only thing I've eaten more of than noodles is vegetables. And most of them are unknown, mystery vegetables.

Last week, I went with some of my colleagues to the Mountain Vegetable Restaurant near the school. It tastes just like it sounds - like mountain vegetables. The first part of the meal consisted of pickled vegetables. For those of you who know how much I enjoy salty things, this was much appreciated. The second part of the meal was tempura - deep-fried vegetables. Tempura makes all vegetables taste better. Again, you'll notice in the pictures that the tempura came with a small container - a container full of salt for dipping! The other important thing to point out was that one of the tempura items was brown with small seeds on it. This turned out to be a twig. Yes, an actual twig. Bottom line, I ate many unknown foods during that meal.

Tempura (Please note the brown twig)

Salt for my tempura!

5) Plastic Food

One other interesting food phenomenon about this country is its obsession with plastic food. When you pass by restaurants, you may notice a large display chock-full of plastic food.

Bottom Line = The food in this land is delicious and mysterious.