Typhoons, Rice Harvests, and Udon – Oh My!

So last weekend we had a typhoon. Well, not the real deal, since we’re not right on the coast. But we did have strong winds and heavy rain, and Monday’s classes got cancelled so we only had to do a few hours of prep work and then were able to go home! There was a lot of talk about the typhoon beforehand, but it didn’t turn out to be anything alarming. Just A LOT of rain. On the final day of the typhoon (Monday), I was really interested to check out the river and see how it had changed. I was genuinely surprised to see how much it had expanded! Check out the video below to see it!

But first, a couple pictures of how the river normally looks, so you can compare. These pictures were taken in the spring:

And now, the post-typhoon video:

Fortunately, the impending typhoon did not affect our weekend plans. The city’s tourism board had invited several of us to join their green tourism event, which is apparently a growing trend. It involves going on a tour to the countryside and doing – well, countryside-ish things. This time, the plan was to harvest rice and vegetables on Saturday, and learn to make udon on Sunday. This was actually a real privilege for us to join, since the rest of the tourists (who came from Tokyo!) had to pay for the tour. They were hosted overnight on Saturday night, while we were driven back to our apartments and picked up again Sunday morning by one of the gracious tour administrators.

On Saturday, the first day of the tour, we were picked up and driven to a local farm. We were first served a very hearty lunch of curry and vegetables:

Then it was time to harvest rice, the old-fashioned way! We were taken to a picturesque rice field, where several people were already working.

Part of the rice field, with shocks of rice stalks in the background:

The rice was planted in bunches, so we were taught to take a sharp scythe and cut each bunch at the base. After cutting three bunches, we laid them on the ground, then went back to cut three more. After accumulating twelve bunches, we tied them together with dried rice stalks. It was interesting work, and I really enjoyed it because it reminded me of working in the garden at home! It was hard work, though, and we were marveling at the fact that we had only done a small part and there was still so much that the farmers had left to do. “Wow, do they do it all by hand?” we wondered, looking at the very large field that was left:

Then we asked, and were told that usually machines cut the rice these days. Oh well. So much for that theory.

After cutting down our allotted rice patch and tying the bundles of cut rice together, we hung them upside down on a rack made of sticks stuck in the mud.

After the rice harvesting, we went on to harvest sweet potatoes. It was fun, although pretty much the same as harvesting regular potatoes. Reach in the dirt and dig around til you find one!

We worked for a short time, and then the token “harvesting” was over. (There was still a lot more that the farmers would have to harvest for real later!) We headed back to the house for dinner. First, we made mochi (pounded rice) the old-fashioned way! That involves taking glutinous rice, like this:

And pounding it with sticks, like this!

We were served a delightful dinner of oden (boiled vegetables, eggs, and fish cakes), soup, mochi, passion fruit, and more. After relaxing and enjoying the meal, we were returned home for the night. The next morning, our adventures resumed as we were picked up and driven to a nearby farmhouse. This house is one of Tamura’s hidden treasures – it’s probably only about 15-20 minutes away from my house by foot, and it’s set up like a small museum. The gentleman who acts as a guide there told us that it’s 180 years old, from the Edo period.

The rest of the tour group from Tokyo soon came to join us. First, we listened to the engaging and very funny guide explain some of the history of the house. He also showed us the process of building a fire in a pot that acts as a food cooker. He explained that it was usually used to cook rice, although today he was cooking sweet potatoes in it.

After our tour of the farmhouse, we went inside a nearby community center building to make udon. Udon is a thick noodle that’s very popular here in Japan. The process for making these noodles is similar to when we made soba (buckwheat) noodles, except this time it seemed like we rolled and worked the dough a lot more. We even put it in a bag between newspaper and kneaded it with our feet!

After the udon making, we made a type of sweet that’s common here – a glutinous dough similar to mochi (pounded rice), filled with sweet bean paste. It sounds weird, but it’s quickly becoming a favorite snack of mine!

After our cooking fun, we had lunch, which of course included the noodles and the mochi treats we had made! One of the Japanese women there also graced us with the retelling of some Japanese folk tales – told, of course, in Japanese, so I couldn’t really understand them. 🙂

The day’s program was cut a little bit short, because there were concerns about the incoming typhoon. It had already been raining all day, and it was important to get the people from Tokyo back before things got worse. So after lunch, we ended our visit by heading back out to the farmhouse for a group picture. The hilarious farmhouse guide was there, too. When we’d been talking to him earlier that morning, he’d acted shocked when finding out that the two American teachers who went with me were already married. He exclaimed that he was fifty and still single. Then, when we were taking the group photo, he was standing near us. “Cold-o. Cold-o,” he said. I assumed that he was saying that because of the damp, chilly weather. Then, “My heart is cold-o,” he said. “Find me somebody to love!” Of course, we cracked up about that.

Needless to say, the two days of the tour were jam-packed with new experiences, and it was really fun to get to learn some new things. If you’re interested in seeing video footage (including the funny farmhouse guy!), my friend Kelly, who also went on the tour, took some awesome videos of the trip. She and her husband are expert travelers and have their own YouTube channel called Real World Travelers, so check out the videos she made at the links below!





Yamagata, Part 3

Presenting the last episode of the Yamagata Adventures!

First, the story of the search for a hot spring! As I mentioned in my previous post, Kaminoyama Onsen, the town we visited on our second day in Yamagata, is known for having hot springs, and we were hoping to visit a hot spring bath while we were there. We had a map featuring the location of several bath houses in town, so after we were done exploring the castle and other historic sites, we started wandering the town looking for a bath.

Before we started our search, though, we took time to enjoy one of the free foot baths that were scattered throughout town. These are large basins filled with piping hot water, with seating around the sides so all you have to do is whip off your shoes, have a seat, and relax your tired feet! The foot bath we chose was at the top of the hill right near the castle, so we had a fabulous view!

Next, we tried hunting down a good bath house. The first place we went to looked promising – but we were confused by the fact that it looked like a fancy inn. There was even a woman in a yukata standing near the doors, waiting to welcome people! We thought that maybe there was a bath house inside that we could use, so I walked to the door and asked about it. The lady that we talked to, with very typical Japanese elegance and graciousness, said something to us and pointed outside, then proceeded to walk down part of the road with us even though she was wearing the precarious traditional Japanese shoes! We thanked her and continued down the road in the direction she had pointed. We stopped and looked around. No sign of anything that looked like a bath house. Hmmm. Well, our map said that it was here, and we didn’t dare to go back and ask again, so we set off in a different direction.

After some walking, we discovered bath house number two. It was tucked down a side street, and the building looked very old and unimpressive. In my head I had visions of the wonderful hot spring we had visited at the Hawaiians resort earlier in the summer, with the beautiful baths that included an outdoor bathing area. No, I decided, this rickety old place wasn’t going to cut it. So we kept walking.

Bath house number three probably would have been a great possibility if we had decided to go there. As we were walking down one of the main roads, I saw a building with a sign that identified it as an inn, but with public access baths. A Japanese man saw me looking at the sign and happily informed me that we could bathe there. It looked promising, but I still had some idealistic visions of resort-style baths in my head, plus the price was a bit more than I wanted to pay. (In retrospect, it was very reasonable, especially if the quality of the bath house was decent. Sigh for me and my skinflinty ways).

By the time we got to bath house number four, we were quite tired of walking. “Is this it?” We looked at the building. It looked just like bath house number two, the same one that had given me the creeps earlier. Just a nondescript old building, definitely with no outdoor bathing area.  I figured we didn’t really have much stamina left to look for a new place. As we were trying to figure out what to do, a lady walked out. She saw us standing there uncertainly. “Douzo,” she said. “Go ahead.”

We ended up deciding to go in. In the building was a little vending machine, where you buy a ticket for the bath. There was another button that said something about hair, so I figured it was for shampoo. Happily for my stingy little heart, the bathing fee was very cheap. But was this really where we wanted to go? Everything looked sad and tired – the worn-down shoe cubbies, the dusty old pay phone. Hesitantly, we bought our tickets.

Into the main building we walked. We looked in the window of the ticket counter, which was right in the middle of the building, strategically placed so that the person inside could collect tickets from both the women’s side and the men’s side. (We were on the women’s side, in case you were wondering.) We handed our tickets to the old guy behind the counter and walked into the undressing area. Shabby. Very, very shabby. There were wooden cubbies (no lockers) and an old vinyl couch mended with duct tape. The bathing area looked old, too, and only had one bath. “Do you really think we should do this?” my friend said.

Of course we should! When else will we have the experience of visiting an authentic Japanese bath house that probably hasn’t been updated since the sixties? Nobody else was there, and we could have it all to ourselves! I was a little nervous, though, about the guy at the ticket counter. I checked to make sure that he wasn’t actually able to see us from the counter. Nope. We were safe! But first…”I don’t see any soap in there!” Since we didn’t bring soap, that meant we’d have to buy it. Oh well. I took a 100 yen coin and went back out to the ticket machine, then gave my ticket to the guy at the counter. I expected him to hand me some soap. No. He gave me…a faucet handle. I must have shown my confusion because he explained something to me about putting it on the faucet. I carried it back into the dressing room. Maybe it was to turn on the hot water, my friend suggested.

Anyway…time to undress. We took our washcloths and our faucet handle into the bathing room. My friend was still apprehensive, but I was determined to get my money’s worth out of the experience. She looked at something on the floor. “That’s a cockroach!” she said. I looked. Well, I didn’t have my glasses on, but I did see a bug. Hmm. We looked at the faucets. Yes, the handle we had procured did turn on the hot water. That didn’t solve the soap problem. Oh well. We rinsed off without soap, then got into the steaming hot bath. Ahhhh. Nothing beats a relaxing soak in a dingy, bug-infested bath house. In all seriousness, it wasn’t that bad, but we were both kind of weirded out by the decrepit conditions, so our relaxing soak soon came to an end. We got dressed, got our things, and gave back our faucet handle, deciding that a shower was high on our priority list when we got back to the hotel.

Thus ended our not-so-glamorous experience looking for onsen. Which brings me to a happier topic: food! Yonezawa, the city that we stayed in overnight, is famous for beef, so we made sure to visit an upscale beef restaurant so we could try some high-quality beef. That in itself was an experience; the menu items were so pricey that we ended up buying a full-course meal and splitting it between the two of us. We also had some nice meals at the hotel; breakfast was included in the cost of our stay, and we got a really large meal each morning! Since we were there for two days, we tried the Japanese-style breakfast one morning, and the Western-style breakfast the next. They were delicious!

To cap off this final post about Yamagata, here are some pictures and videos illustrating today’s stories. Enjoy!

Ye olde bath house
“Are we really going into that tub?” “Yep!”
Hotel breakfast, Japanese style! Rice (of course), soup, egg, pickles, fish, and nattou!
Hotel breakfast, “Western” style – eggs with ketchup, semi-cooked bacon, broth, very thick toast, fruit, yogurt, and salad.
Different beef cuts at the gourmet beef restaurant.
Yakiniku – grill-your-own beef!

And two videos of the beef delicacies we tried at the fancy restaurant. We took these with my phone, so I apologize for the questionable audio quality.

Thus ends the lengthy account of our vacation in Yamagata. Although not everything went as planned, I felt like we got to experience a lot of authentic cultural activities, and it was a great way to spend our long weekend!

Yamagata, Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of the Yamagata Adventures! Our first day in Yamagata was spent in the city of Yonezawa. However, on day two, we decided to take the train to Kaminoyama Onsen, a town known for its onsen, or hot springs. We discovered after we arrived that the town was having a festival that day, so unbeknownst to us, we had picked just the right day to visit!

After getting off the train in Kaminoyama Onsen, we visited Kaminoyama Castle, a reconstruction of a historic castle.

Next, we walked to a nearby shrine. To our delight, we discovered that there were people in costume, getting ready for a parade later in the day.

We were hanging around, watching the costumed people and trying to figure out what was going on, when a man spoke to us. He began talking – mostly in Japanese – about “armor,” and invited us into a building in which there was a display of samurai armor! The room was filled with men, mostly younger men, who were getting ready to dress up as samurai. The gentleman that invited us in, and another one that spoke good English, were very accommodating and took the time to explain some of the outfits to us, let us take pictures, and even let us try on one of the helmets!

Boy, was that helmet heavy! We were also shown the soldiers’ footwear – rather flimsy-looking straw sandals. I found it a little strange that they would wear such a heavy helmet but have very light footwear. However, I guess since the head is more important, it makes sense that it’s more protected. I think they also had stockings and/or leg coverings too, so that probably helped.

Next, we walked down some of the town’s streets and visited some historic houses that were marked with signs. For the house below, we could actually go inside and look around. There was also a sign out front stating that complimentary beverages were being served in the yard. Sure enough, behind the house was a small pavilion, and several kind ladies offered us tea and a variety of snacks, including handmade items and local specialties. We got to try cherry preserves, pickles, candied gourd, and other interesting things!

I saw this on one of the streets – an old-fashioned Japanese mailbox. I see them once in awhile, and I think they’re so interesting:

We also visited another shrine that had a picturesque row of red gates:

And yes, we did get to see part of the town festival! There were a couple of carts filled with girls and women dressed in traditional costumes, and they were “pulled” by a group of men (I couldn’t see for sure, but it sounded like there were motors on the carts as well). They stopped the carts every few meters and some of the women would get up and perform a dance. We got to see the procession heading out, and then, since we were walking all over town, we continued to hear them and even ended up seeing them again a couple of times.

We had a great time visiting this charming town and enjoying their historic sites and festival. And yes, we did have a few more adventures in Yamagata – stay tuned for the third and final segment of the Yamagata tales, which may or may not involve a sketchy bath house and a meal at a fancy beef restaurant. See you next week!

Yamagata, Part 1

Well, the good news is, I’ve done enough traveling in the past month that I actually have a backlog of material to use for my blog! No more boring random posts about my visit to the grocery store! 🙂

In September, one of my teammates and I took a trip to the city of Yonezawa, in the neighboring prefecture of Yamagata. We had lots of interesting experiences there, so that’s what the next couple of posts will be about.

We took the shinkansen to Yonezawa on Saturday morning and arrived about mid-morning. These tiles were in part of the sidewalk outside the station. Japan is big on capitalizing on local products and specialties, and apparently these are some of Yonezawa’s.

We tried to check into our hotel but it was too early, so we walked to a nearby park to kill a couple of hours. The park had a temple and other historical buildings, so it was one of the area’s tourist attractions. Outside the entrance to the park was a remarkably large patch of water lilies.

The seed pods, or whatever they are, have the coolest indentations on them:

Inside the park area was a Shinto shrine. This shrine had a red gate near it. The red gate is not unusual for a shrine, but I thought the row of flags behind it was interesting.

The gate in front of the shrine:

The shrine itself. The large ropes in front are connected to bells. People ring the bells when they pray. I can’t remember if they always do…I guess I don’t pay enough attention. 🙂

This is the water that people use to ceremonially cleanse themselves. I don’t know if it’s optional because I feel like I hardly ever seen anybody doing it.

The temple grounds were very picturesque and there was a pretty fish pond.

Surrounding the park was a lovely canal stocked with koi fish. Some people were feeding them, which I thought was interesting and horrifying at the same time. In my opinion, koi are just gross! I went and looked on the other side of the bridge, and even there I could see koi swimming hastily over to get their share of the plunder. The pigeons were also trying to get in on the action…

In front of one of the nearby buildings was this friendly fellow. He has some historical significance but I can’t remember what…

After exploring the park, we wandered around and bought lunch from some vendors. Yonezawa is famous for its beef, so we tried beef croquettes and my friend bought a niku-man, which is a steamed bun filled with meat. Yum! After a leisurely lunch, we walked back to our hotel and checked in. And…that’s all for Part 1! Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Yamagata adventures!