Cost of Eating – Japan

Hello, readers! Today I bring you a post about one of my favorite topics – FOOD!! This trip to Japan is the first time I’ve ever had to come up with and grocery shop for my own meals here, so I thought I might give you a peek into what it is like planning (and paying for!) meals in Japan. I’ve also been trying to incorporate healthier foods into my diet, so we’ll  explore what healthy eating here looks like, too.

First, we’ll deflate a couple of common myths that Americans seem to have about food in Japan. One is that food is not NECESSARILY more expensive here than in the States. It really depends on what you are buying. Some things are significantly more expensive, while other things are significantly cheaper. We’ll go into more details about pricing later on.

Second, food is not NECESSARILY more healthy here than in the States. Again, it depends on what your choices are. There is a lot of seafood, and other “healthy” foods such as vegetables, tofu, and fermented foods. But if you’re looking for a lot of the foods that we consider healthy in America – multigrain items, whole wheat flour, low-carb snacks – forget it. There are LOTS of lightweight, nutritionally empty crackers, cookies, breads, and pastries here, but not many good options in the way of healthy snack foods.

Also, one final note: I’ll be writing prices in yen, but for the purpose of comparing them to American prices, 100 yen is ROUGHLY equal to one dollar. That is, 1 yen = 1 dollar. In reality, the yen has been strong compared to the dollar lately (I think that’s how you say it LOL) – for example, the exchange rate today is 100 yen to 90 U.S. cents. But for doing mental calculations, thinking of 100 yen as one dollar is pretty convenient.

So, without further ado, let’s explore some of the food items that you might find at the grocery store (or in my fridge!):

Protein:

  • Eggs. I eat a lot of eggs. Mostly because they’re fairly inexpensive – maybe around ¥160 for a carton of small eggs. They sell them in packs of ten here, though, not twelve!
  • Tuna. Yes, they do have canned tuna here. It’s not very cheap, but sometimes I can catch it on sale.
  • Fish. They have lots of fish varieties here – even more than I want to explore. (“No thanks” to the squid, eel, and fish eggs!) I usually do the easy thing and buy frozen fish that is already coated with bread crumbs. Then all I have to do is fry it up!
  • Beef/chicken. Ground beef and chicken, as well as other cuts of beef and probably pork, are sold here. Honestly, I don’t pay a lot of attention because I don’t eat a ton of meat. It seems a little pricier here to me (and the packages are generally smaller), but if it’s on sale, I buy it.
  • Tofu. I don’t know how much tofu costs in America, but here it is cheap, cheap, cheap! Usually around ¥60 per carton. I don’t normally go for tofu, but I’ve taken to eating it here occasionally just because it is so cost-effective. Plus, I hear it is healthy for you, too. 🙂

Vegetables/fruits

  • Root vegetables. Like this miniscule bag of potatoes. (No 10-lb. bags of potatoes to be found here!) Root veggies like potatoes, onions, and carrots are about the only types of vegetables I’ve found that seem to be consistently cheap (at least of the types of vegetables that I eat). This bag cost ¥100.

  • Other vegetables. Sadly, many vegetables here are pricey unless it’s summer and the stores are selling the local produce. I do the best I can to find veggies on sale, but I’ve noticed the prices getting more expensive and the selection becoming more limited as we’ve moved away from the harvest season. I still try to buy a variety, though. Right now I have a package of spinach I bought for ¥200, a yellow pepper which was around ¥130 yen, and an avocado that was on sale for ¥100. I also have occasionally been finding spaghetti squash, which makes a cheap and healthy meal!
  • Fruit. I can’t really talk about fruit here without feeling rather desolate. Oh for the wide selection of fruit in America, imported from all over the States (and the world), with prices that enable me to indulge my fruit passion! Sadly, here the selection is much more limited, and unless it’s in season, it’s nearly always pricey. Bananas are reasonable, but that’s about it. I do buy apples pretty consistently because I’m so fond of them, and I can usually get a bag of six or so for about ¥500. Citrus fruits are pretty plentiful, at least this time of year, but berries (except for strawberries) are a rare sight. Forget about frozen fruit, too. They have all of two or three varieties – generally options like mangoes, blueberries, and mixed berries. All in packages not much bigger than the palm of my hand. Sad, sad, sad…

Grains

  • Bread. If you like white bread, this is the place you should live. You will have no problem finding regular white bread, as well as all sorts of fluffy and flaky rolls and pastries. But wait! They do sell wheat bread, yes they do! In a package containing three slices:

This package, happily, was on sale for ¥80, ¥20 off from its original price. The slices of bread are quite thick here as you may (or may not) be able to tell from this photo:

In fact, you can actually choose which thickness of bread you want depending on the package you purchase. They sell packages of eight slices (more similar to the thickness of American bread), packages of six slices (probably similar to the piece in this photo), and packages of four slices – which, as you can imagine, are very thick!

  • Flour/oats. They do sell white flour here, but I haven’t seen wheat. Although I admit I haven’t looked for it specifically. I’ve been wanting to eat more oats, so I bought some of those the other day. They had exactly one kind, for a price of about ¥400:

  • Cereal. The cereal varieties here are very limited. They carry cornflakes, and usually frosted flakes as well. Beyond that, most of the cereal is a granola/puffed rice type cereal, with bits of dried fruit and other goodies. These are two in my cabinet right now:

The one on the left contains strawberries, raisins, and sunflower seeds, while the one on the right is maple-flavored and has bits of dried sweet potato, raspberries, raisins, and walnuts. Delicious! They were both on sale, for about ¥600 each, which is about as cheap as you can expect to find cereal in a package that size.

Since this post is getting frightfully long and I still have some food items to share, I’ll cut it short and resume it in the next post. I’ll go over some snack items and I may or may not be talking about chocolate :), so stay tuned!

 

Lunchtime!

So this week’s post is about the best time of day…lunchtime! Actually, it’s about lunchtime at kindergarten. My coworkers and I teach at the local kindergarten about two times a week, and every week or two we stay after our regular class and eat lunch with the students. The students eat in their classrooms, so each of us chooses one class to eat with.

I’m not always in the classrooms for the whole getting-ready-for-lunch process, but from what I have observed, it goes like this: First, the students all go out to the sinks in the hallway and wash their hands. Then, they come back in their classroom and each child takes his or her chair and puts it at one of the low tables in the room. They also each take one of the “bentos,” or lunch sets, from the box that has already been delivered to the room.

This is where the process starts to deviate even more from the typical American lunch. Two of the students stand in front of the tables and “introduce” themselves (I think this is to get practice giving self-introductions?). They lead the other students in a lunchtime song, then in a prayer giving thanks for the food (probably very unusual for Japan, but this is a private school owned by a Christian). The students all fold their hands and chorally repeat the prayer, then unfold their hands and continue a long recitation of something else. I’ve only been able to catch part of it, but from what I can gather it’s some sort of appeal/gratitude-giving to parents and others who prepared the meal.

The process is ended with the word “Itadakimasu,” which literally means “I receive” in a very humble form. This is one of the key phrases used in Japan – if you go to a meal at someone’s house, or if someone gives you a snack, this is a phrase that you should definitely say before you eat!

After all these preliminaries have ended, the students can finally eat. School lunches here are much more uniform than in the States. From what I understand, even at public schools students usually eat the school lunch instead of bringing their own. Here at the kindergarten, each student brings his or her own container of rice, and the school provides the rest of the meal – a small divided box filled with a variety of meat or fish, vegetables, and fruit. The lunch option changes from day to day, but from what I’ve seen it always contains food from these three categories.

Here are a couple of pictures of the school lunch (in the yellow box), with the containers of rice that the students bring themselves. The specks on the rice are from seasoning packets that the students sprinkle on to make their rice more flavorful. They also each have their own fork/spoon/chopstick set (the reason you can’t see the chopsticks in these pictures is because the students have them in their hands!). They also usually have their own packet of wipes, and a bottle containing – what else – green tea! There might be some exceptions, but most of the students whom I ask tell me that there’s green tea in their bottles. They are surprised when I tell them that children in American don’t drink green tea!

One thing that always surprises me is how the children gobble their lunches with gusto. I very rarely hear complaints about the types of food in their bento box. They chow down on their rice, meat, fruit, and veggies until they’re gone. When I think of the picky five-year-old eaters in America, it kind of amazes me.

After polishing off their lunches, the students pick up their dishes and go out in the hallway again to brush their teeth at the sink. Then they pick up their chairs and make rows, choose a book to read, and sit down. The completion of lunchtime is fairly open-ended; as each student finishes, he or she follows the clean-up procedures and then reads, alone or with friends, until all the students are finished. So, all in all, the whole lunchtime process takes about an hour or so. I usually stick around and read with the kids for awhile during this time. Much to my shame, most of them can read the kindergarten-level books faster (and with much better intonation!) than I can. I guess I need to keep practicing my elementary reading skills!

So there you have it – a peek at lunchtime in a Japanese kindergarten. Makes you want a bento box and some chopsticks of your own, doesn’t it? 🙂

 

 

Happy 2018!

Hello everyone – I’m back! I can’t BELIEVE it’s already a week into the new year! I had a fabulous time spending the holiday with my family in the States, and now it’s back to work!

My visit in America felt way too short, especially considering that I had a long travel time (two layovers) each way. The initial flight from Japan to the U.S. is around 11-12 hours, so my time on the plane is basically filled with watching movies, eating, and sleeping. Luckily I had no super long layovers this time! In any case, the trip was definitely worth it – I got to see my grandmother, spend time with my siblings and parents, and eat some greasy, salty, sugary American food. Yum!

Now that a new year has turned and I’m back to life in Japan, I’m feeling a bit introspective. I’m curious about what the year ahead holds. 2017 was a year of big changes, and I know that 2018 will also hold lots of new experiences and growth. In some ways, the past year was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated, which makes me contemplate how life has a way of turning our expectations on their heads. Life carries a lot of beauty and joy, but due to its frailty and our fallible human natures, there’s also a lot of pain mixed into the joy. The irony is that the pain, as excruciating as it can be, is what makes us better people (if we let it!) and gives God the opportunity to do awesome things in us and to make us more connected to Him.

So, with these thoughts in mind, I’m trying to enter 2018 with fairly open expectations. In a lot of ways, my life here in Japan will be easier than last year, since I’m more familiar with my job and the culture. We’ll also have a turnover of about half our team, so we’ll be getting some new teachers this spring. I don’t have any new year’s resolutions per se, but I definitely want to focus on learning more Japanese and perhaps try to pass one of the levels of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) that is offered here.

Well, I’ve talked a lot about me, so it’s your turn. Any big plans for 2018? Any great (or small) resolutions, or cool ways that God has been working in your life? Leave me a comment below! And to all my family, friends, and valued readers – I hope you have a wonderful upcoming year. Savor the joyful times, and use the challenges as springboards to develop grit and to grow a thriving relationship with God. Happy 2018!

Merry Christmas, Japanese Style (Part 2)

As I wrote in last week’s post, the kindergarten at which I work recently had their Christmas program – the three- and four-year-olds one week, and the five-year-olds the following week. Today’s post is about the five-year-olds!

One thing that I did not mention in the last post is that the parents, who have to find a seat on the floor of the gym, line up early to get a seat as close to the front as possible. I found this out the hard way, the first week of the program. My apartment is on the first floor, directly beside the driveway that leads into the kindergarten. That means I can hear the employees, parents, and children talking every morning as they walk past my apartment on their way to school – especially in the summer, when I have my window open!

Anyway, early in the morning on the day of the three- and four-year-olds’ program, I heard loud voices outside my apartment as I slept. Only half awake, I kept trying to figure out why there were voices so early in the morning. I slept for awhile, but the first couple of voices were joined by more voices, until I was finally awakened for good around six thirty. Since I can’t look out my window without being seen, I continued to remain baffled about the voices until I saw my coworker later, who told me that all the people outside had been parents waiting for the program to start.

Well. With that knowledge in mind, I decided to go to bed early the next weekend, so I wouldn’t lose sleep from the five-year-olds’ parents chattering. I forgot all about that plan – until I woke up early Saturday morning by voices outside my wall. I looked at the clock, just for the record. Five fifteen. FIVE FIFTEEN! The program doesn’t start until eight forty-five, people! And it’s COLD out there!

Apparently, when you’re a proud parent of a performing five-year-old whose every move MUST be captured on video with no heads obstructing the view, none of that matters. Fortunately, the parents this week were much quieter than last week’s, so I was able to fall right back asleep and not wake up until my alarm went off.

The format for the five-year-olds’ program was very similar to the previous weekend’s. More singing, dancing, frilly and sparkly costumes, and blowing and banging on various musical instruments. The girls, all dressed in white, did a beautiful rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” which my coworker had taught them. Since we were next to the stage getting ready for our own performance, I regrettably didn’t have my camera on hand to capture it.

There was also a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk:

A couple more plays followed, and then the band performance:

I marveled at all the work and the practicing that must have gone into these programs. Do we put that much effort into our performances in America? Since I didn’t go to kindergarten in America, I don’t have anything to compare it to. But I do feel like that’s one thing this country does well – not being afraid to work hard in order to make an event successful.

As a thank you for participating in the program (singing three carols and reading the Christmas story), we got lunch provided for us both weeks. The first week, we also got a Christmas cake. Yes, Christmas CAKE. Forget the sugar cookies and gingerbread men; here in Japan it’s all about a fluffy, white cake with equally fluffy, white frosting, topped with a strawberry (or two or three) and an edible chocolate decoration. There are other varieties besides white cake, too; I’m still hoping to receive a chocolate cake!

Here’s the small cake I got:

And here is the grocery store’s Christmas flyer, advertising the cakes for sale!

On that note, it’s time to say a temporary goodbye. I’ll be going home for Christmas vacation, so I’ll be taking a short break from blogging so I can spend as much time as possible visiting with my family and stuffing my face with my favorite American food! Merry Christmas everyone!

Merry Christmas, Japanese Style (Part 1)

So for the past two weekends, those of us who work at the local kindergarten took part in the school’s Christmas program. Last Saturday morning, the three-year-olds and four-year-olds performed; this past Saturday, it was the five-year-olds’ turn. We American teachers also had to sing several Christmas songs! It was fun, though, and I got some photos and videos of the children’s performances. Hope you enjoy!

The program for all of the age levels followed a similar format. Each involved singing and dancing of some sort, usually part of a play. There were also band performances. I was impressed by how well all of these young children did, although the three- and four-year-olds definitely lacked coordination, which was sometimes amusing!

First up were the three-year-olds. They performed Little Red Riding Hood.

I quickly realized that there are some common movements in the various plays that were performed. Since I’m not very familiar with American children’s drama, I’m not sure if these are unique to Japan or not. First, the dancing involved a lot of swaying forward and backward. It felt like almost every song/dance included that. Why? I wondered. Because it’s easy for young children to do? I also noticed that the “good guys” in the stories often ended up chasing the “bad guys” around in a circle,  and usually when the “bad guys” were defeated, they showed their defeat by either lying face down on the floor, or lying on their backs and flailing their legs back and forth.

Next, there were some dancing Santas, and then the story of Momotarou. This is a popular Japanese folk legend in which a boy comes out of a peach, gets adopted by an elderly couple, then grows up to fight and subdue some Japanese-style devils who are terrorizing the village.

Here is the Peach Boy himself:

Another thing I noticed was that, in these plays, there were often doubles of the main characters. Again, I wondered if it was because of the young age of the children. I guess I need to learn more about drama!

Here is a video of two Peach Boys (you can see a couple of the “devils” peeking out from behind the “island”):

After a couple more performances, the parents of the three-year-olds cleared out, and it was time for the four-year-olds to perform.

There were some dancing ninjas:

The story of Hansel and Gretel. The two girls in the front are the crying Gretels. Yes, there are two, and two Hansels as well.

There was another rendition of Little Red Riding Hood. There was also a performance by the school band. I thought they did pretty well for four-year-olds! The band performance was the last one, and then after some final words, the program was over…at least until the following week, when it was the five-year-olds’ turn to perform. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

 

Lots of Onsen-ing

This weekend passed remarkably quickly…is it really Sunday evening already? Yes, it is, and it’s back to work tomorrow! Fortunately, the weekend’s events were all good ones. On Saturday morning, the four of us teachers who work at the kindergarten went to the three- and four-year-olds’ Christmas performance. That was fun – but more about that next week!

The main event that we were looking forward to was a weekend trip to Hana-no-yu, an onsen resort in a nearby town. Our employers had promised us this trip after we completed English camp, the special day programs that we held at elementary schools in October. The senior teachers from our team had all been to this resort multiple times, but it was the first time for us new teachers! We’d heard positive things about it, so we were all excited to go.

In the afternoon, the twelve of us piled into two vans for the drive to Hana-no-yu. About an hour later, we arrived at the resort. Well, I’m not sure that resort is the right word, but it’s basically a hotel complex that has hot spring baths. Upon our arrival, we were instructed that the tenth floor baths were open for women before dinner, and the first floor baths were open for men. After that, they switched. We were also shown our rooms and told what time to meet for dinner. Then we were given free reign until dinnertime.

This was only my third time at a public bath, but when in Japan, do as the Japanese do, right? My coworker and I, who were sharing a room, decided to hit the baths right away. We put on the provided yukata and slippers, and shuffled our way upstairs to the tenth-floor bath. We did the mandatory scrub-down, then explored the several baths that were available.

Fortunately, this experience was nothing like my infamous encounter with the sleazy public bath in September. These baths were clean and spacious. Since they were on the top floor, we were able to look out at the surrounding hills and town. It was very relaxing to soak in the piping hot water and gaze at the clear, dusky sky as the day faded away.

Unfortunately, the water at most of these baths is so hot that I can’t stand it for too long. After a few minutes, my heart rate increases, and my mouth starts feeling dry and metallic. It’s perfectly acceptable to sit on the edge of the tub, or get out altogether for awhile to cool off. And that’s what I did – but after soaking in several different tubs, I knew my body just couldn’t take any more heat. I went back down to my room to relax before dinner.

Dinner was wonderful – a buffet with lots of food choices, both Japanese and otherwise, and my favorite part – ice cream! There were even chocolate chips, sprinkles, and chocolate sauce, so I could make a good old-fashioned American sundae. Delicious!

After dinner, we decided to try the first-floor baths, since they were now open to the women. There was an indoor bath, but there was some outdoor air coming in, so the room was very steamy and it was hard to see. There were also outdoor baths, so we decided to give those a try.

That’s when I found my heaven. One of the outdoor baths was a round wooden tub, filled to the brim with warm water – but not too hot. Although it was nighttime, we could still see some of the aspects of the landscaping in front of the tub, including a small tree that still had most of its leaves intact.  My friend and I sat there for the longest time, enjoying the delicious contrast of the warm water and the chilly November air. (Before anyone freaks out, yes the outdoor baths are walled in and there is complete privacy!)

I spent quite a while trying all the outdoor baths, and soaking for a long time in the ones that were a comfortable temperature. By the time I headed back to my room, I was toasty warm and a bit dehydrated.

The evening ended with an energetic karaoke party held by some of my teammates in one of the hotel’s four karaoke rooms. I’d never done karaoke before, so I just observed for a while, then decided to get some sleep.

In the morning, breakfast was another buffet. There were a lot of Japanese meal options, but since I like having traditional “American” breakfast foods in the morning, I mostly stuck with those. I found some flaky pastries, including some with a chocolate filling. We were told that the bread was handmade – on the premises, I assume. They were truly amazing – I felt like I was at a French patisserie!

After breakfast, it was time to leave. Our relaxing weekend was over! Still, it was a wonderful experience, and I’m grateful that our employers were kind enough to take us!

 

 

Giving Thanks

In honor of Thanksgiving, I decided to write about some things I’m thankful for in both countries that I’ve lived in. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to experience two different countries, I have a heightened appreciation for the things are that unique to each place. So here we go!

Things I’m thankful for in America:

1. Family. Top of the list, hands down. Because family can’t be replaced, no matter where you live!

2. Central heating.  Yes, I have a wall-mounted heater/air conditioner. And a kerosene space heater (which I haven’t pulled out yet because I really don’t like the fumes). But central heating is not as common over here as in the States. There are heaters in my office at work and in the classrooms, but no heat in the hallways. And let me tell you, when I’m washing the windows with a wet rag in an unheated building in the morning…my fingers get COLD.

3. Real ovens.  I had grand visions of baking wonderful American treats (like pies!) for Thanksgiving. But I gave up, partly due to lack of ingredients, and partly because trying to bake for a crowd in an oven the size of a large microwave is a little daunting. Yes, I can bake one pie at a time, but I’d be in the kitchen for a long time!

Things I’m thankful for in Japan:

1. Efficient public transportation. Having come from a state where there is very little public transportation – at least in the area I live – I really appreciate the fact that I can hop on a train to just about anywhere in Japan, and expect a safe, speedy ride that arrives on time.

2. Heated toilet seats. Because if your house can’t be warm, at least your bum can be.

Oh, and deep tubs. I hardly ever take a bath in America, but I actually do sometimes here, because the tubs are deep enough to take a proper bath in. Meaning that I can sit upright and still have the water come up to about chest level. They’ll make a good Japanese bather out of me yet!

3. Japanese food. I feel like I’m always talking about the food that I miss from America. And it’s true, there are several things I really miss, especially as we come upon Thanksgiving. But I’ve also discovered new favorites here that I know I’ll miss when I return to the States. Persimmons (my new favorite fruit!), plates of 100-yen sushi, and daifuku, a wonderful confection of filled mochi (chewy rice dough). Yum…

So, there you have it…a few of the things I’m thankful for this holiday season. What are YOU thankful for??

Don’t Say Kekkou… (Part 2)

Welcome back to part two of our trip to Nikko! After our morning explorations of the shrines and our hot noodle-bowl lunch, we made our way to my favorite part of the trip, the Kanmangafuchi Abyss. The “abyss” is a gorge with a stream flowing through it, and a path has been created beside the gorge so that people can walk along it and enjoy the scenery. It was quiet and peaceful, with very few tourists, and the beauty of the stream was amazing.

Before we got to the stream, there was a row of Jizo, which are a type of Buddhist statue. They are often dressed in red bibs.

We then made our way through the woods along the gorge. There was a gorgeous crystal-clear stream, and this small waterfall:


We explored some of the paths leading away from the gorge as well, and found a cemetery. Some of the monuments were overgrown with lichens:

Next, we visited the Shinkyo Bridge. I heard somewhere, although I don’t know how true it is, that it’s the most photographed bridge in Japan. So what did we do? Why, took pictures of it, of course!

And that’s why they say, “Don’t say kekkou…until you’ve been to Nikko.” (“Kekkou” in Japanese means “satisfied” or “wonderful.”) The ancient architecture, calming nature, and picturesque scenery in Nikko means you haven’t truly lived until you’ve been there. Or so say the people who are trying to persuade you to visit. 🙂 It’s true that it is a beloved tourist spot in Japan, and I saw many foreigners there from all over the world. It was definitely worth at least a day trip. And now, I can say that I’m satisfied!

We headed home in late afternoon, via a local train and then the shinkansen, or bullet train. While we were waiting for our own (not very fast) shinkansen, we saw a couple of the really fast ones go by. I had never actually seen one of the super speedy ones, and I was shocked at how fast they went.  I tried taking a video, and I still don’t think I was able to fully capture the speed. It was a take-your-breath-away type of speed.  Each time one went by, I just stared after it in a state of shock.

Well, that finishes the tale of our trip to Nikko. See you next week!

Don’t Say Kekkou… (Part 1)

Well, I’m finally getting around to posting about my trip to Nikko! One of my teammates and I went there on a day trip in September, but I’ve had so many other things to blog about that I haven’t had the chance to write about it. It’s one of the top tourist spots in Japan, so enjoy the pictures and come along on a virtual trip with me!

Our trip got off to a late start due to an earthquake the previous night. It wasn’t too bad, but apparently it was bad enough that it set the trains back. Our first train was delayed by at least forty minutes, and since we had three trains to take, that means we didn’t roll into Nikko until close to noon. Our first stop was at Toshogu Shrine, the place where Tokugawa Ieyasu (a very important person in Japanese history!) is entombed. This place is very famous, as it actually contains many different historic Shinto and Buddhist buildings tucked into Nikko’s beautiful forest. Here is the area leading up to the shrine:

Written prayers that people tie to branches:

Right outside the gate to the main shrine complex, something that appeared to be a stage was being built. I thought it was an odd place to see such a modern structure. I’m assuming it was temporary, but I have no idea why it was there!

My friend decided to go inside the main complex and have a look around at the famous buildings, which supposedly had some fabulous architecture. I didn’t feel like dishing out the entrance fee, so I decided to explore the surrounding area, which contained many other buildings and things to look at.

The path beside the main shrine complex was very picturesque. For some reason, people had placed many small rocks on a stump and on the stone lamps lining the walkway. I’m assuming it has some religious and/or superstitious significance, but I’m not sure what.

This circular arrangement was behind one of the shrine’s gates. From what I could determine, it appeared that people were supposed to go through and around it a certain number of times for good luck.

After spending a good chunk of time at Toshogu Shrine, we headed to a nearby restaurant for lunch – a noodle bowl containing Nikko’s specialty, dried tofu skins (the off-white stuff on the left-hand side of the dish in the picture below). It wasn’t anything spectacular, but I thought it was tasty.

And so ends today’s portion of our Nikko adventures…come back next week to read about the rest of our explorations in Nikko, as well as why you shouldn’t say “kekkou”!

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!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRU47ZThYpQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ea3d-yFjQQ