dorchadas: (Chiyoda)
Mibu no Hanadaue Field
壬生の花田植 (Mibu no Hanadaue, "The rice-field-planting of Mibu," like it says in that link) is held every year in Chiyoda, and has been for over five hundred years. I wrote about it the first time we went, when a student in our English class at the community center invited us to go. There's an account of the festival and what I thought at the time in that other link, but I didn't write about a lesson that we got in Japanese indirectness, so I'll mention that now.

It was extremely hot--probably at least 35ºC--and very sunny, and Kaminaka-san asked us a couple times if we wanted to leave. Initially, we thought that he thought we were bored, so to show him that we were definitely interested (which we were), we said that we would like to move to a different place to get a better view. On the second time he, it was very hot and we were sweaty and tired, so we agreed that it was time to go.

Later, we realized what was really going on. He was tired of standing out in the sun, but having invited us to the festival and knowing that we hadn't seen it before, he didn't want to be the first one to say that he was done watching. Therefore, he asked us if we wanted to stay, since us saying no would give him an easy out.

We went in both 2010 and 2011, and while 2010 was hot again, 2011 was cloudy and cool, and we managed to stay for the entirety of the festival. Somewhat sadly, it turns out there was no special ending, and people just drifted away after the dancing and the planting was done. Still, I'm glad we had good weather for festival-attending, and I am glad we stayed, because we left early in both 2009 and 2010 and staying the whole time was a resolution for us in 2011.

Mibu no Hanadaue Oxen Path
As might be expected of a festival that's been going on for five centuries, the planting done during Mibu no Hanadaue is done in the traditional fashion. None of those straight rows and neatly-placed rice plants that you get from mechanically-planted fields. Instead, the field is turned by hand, using plows pulled by oxen who are done up in elaborate headdresses and wrappings. Before the actual planting starts, there's a parade down this street, where a lot of community and school groups accompany the women who sing and do the planting, the men who beat out the timing of the planting on their drums, and the oxen and their drivers.

One event that changed [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd's and my culinary landscape is that in 2011, we were wandering around the street looking for lunch and we found a couple selling Japanese curry out of their garage. I'm not sure if the husband was Japanese and the wife was Indonesian, it was the other way around, they were both Indonesian, or if they were both Japanese and had just had traveled to Indonesia before, but they had tumeric rice to go on the side with the curry, and it was the best カレーライス I had in my time in Japan. We haven't had it with curry rice anymore, but we make it a lot to go with chicken.

There was also a lovely tea house with a garden out back that we'd go to once a year, during Mibu no Hanadaue. We'd get the matcha, and the sweet along with it, and drink it while looking over the garden and listening to the parade outside.

Tondo Field
That's not actually the name of the field, but that's the main memory I have of it. On the right is the Yae-nishi Meeting Center, and on the left is the field where the Tondo Festival was held every year. Apparently it was a relatively new custom for the area (that link is to the festival held in Onomichi), but it got increasingly elaborate as we attended. The first year it was just zenzai and sake and pickles, and by the third year we had wild boar shot by one of the farmers for getting into his fields, and fish, and onigiri, and it was basically a feast. I wrote about that Tondo Festival here.

That wasn't the only event we attended there, though. The Meeting Center had spring and fall talent competitions, and we participated twice. The first time, I had a cold and couldn't actually perform, so [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd played a guitar and sang, though I don't remember what the piece she did was. The second time, we did "Scarborough Fair" together, and then I sang "Skibbereen" a cappella. We never got any comments on them, and I still wonder what our neighbors thought of me singing what's essentially a dirge at a talent competition.

During one summer, we went to a 皆で手作り遊び大会, which translate as "Let's Everyone Hand-Make Toys Together Gathering!" That was where I learned that I'm hopeless at origami--I tried to make a frog, and while I got halfway done I couldn't get the legs to come together--and where a little girl seemed incensed that I had long hair and kept demanding to know whether I was a man or not. I assured her that I was, and she gave me a very suspicious look. I wonder what became of her?

Lake Yachiyo
In Japanese, 八千代湖. We drove by this place many times, but we went here once, the last year that we lived in Japan. During the spring, when the cherryblossoms were in full bloom, we packed a lunch and took it to Lake Yachiyo, and we ate lunch by the waters and then walked on the paths under the cherry trees, just [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd and I. I did like the other ohanami parties we went to--I especially liked the one in Shobara where we rented a rowboat--but that walk by Lake Yachiyo is one of my favorite ohanami memories.

And that's it! If people liked that, I can do another series for places in Hiroshima, or even other cities like Tokyo or Kyoto. I certainly have plenty to say if people want to hear it.  photo emot-c00l.gif
dorchadas: (Chiyoda)
Shopping Center Thanks
Thanks was built back when the City University of New York had a branch in Chiyoda, and it managed to survive the closure of that university four years later by being the place where the surrounding even smaller towns, like Oasa or Geihoku, came to get goods. We went there a lot, because while it was primarily a grocery store, there were a ton of other smaller stores in there too. An alcohol shop, a bakery, a futon shop that later closed and was replaced with a travel agency (though fortunately after we had bought our futon), a stationary and book shop, a shoe shop, a hundred-yen store, two clothing stores, a pharmacy, a sushi stand...

We spent a lot of time at Thanks, though not as often as other people. While our fridge was around 2/3rds the size of an American fridge, we managed to buy a week's groceries at a time, instead of the two to three days' worth that's more common for Japanese families. [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd got some stares due to our bulging shopping basket until people figured that out.

The sushi stand, called 亀家 (kameya), had sales at the end of every day. At 5 p.m., sushi was 20% off, and at 6 p.m., it was 50% off. If we got there in time, before the crush of obaachans picked the offerings clean, we could get a pretty tasty sushi dinner for the two of us for maybe $15.

I'm not entirely sure what the rest of the building was for, but the bottom floor was a restaurant that [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd and I would go to when we wanted to celebrate some event. It wasn't super high-end, but it was definitely more upscale than Funky Tonky or Iwata or Gusto. And while the internet at large is not too keen on it, we never had much to complain about. There are a lot of seafood-and-rice sets, some huge $100 sushi platters that we never got, noodle bowls, and really good appetizers. And basashi, which is amazing.

If you've heard me tell the story about ordering gekikara tantanmen and getting more than I bargained for, this is where it happened.

Coin Laundry
Yes, that's a raccoon on the sign. That's because the Japanese for raccoon is 洗熊 (araiguma), which literally means "washing bear," and the first kanji there is also the first kanji in 洗濯 (sentaku, "laundry")

We had a washing machine in our house that we washed all our clothes in, but we didn't have a dryer. That's not unusual for Japan, where hanging out the laundry to dry is very common, but during the winter hanging laundry outside is obviously out of the question so we hung it inside. And since our house was uninsulated and Japan is so humid, it would often take two to three days for it to dry completely. It was just awful all around.

It was [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd's idea to start taking our clothes here, and while initially I was against it, I pretty soon came around when the benefits came through. We'd drop our clothes off, go shopping or go to dinner, change them, wait for 30 minutes, then take them home and they'd be done. Plus the laundry is heated, and the clothes are super warm when they come out. [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd would dump them out on the futon and then just lay on them for a bit, soaking up the heat. I really don't blame her.

This is another izakaya, though it's part of a chain and much more obviously a restaurant. The name comes from 八犬伝, the legend of the eight dog warriors, though they swap the middle character out for 剣, which is pronounced the same but means "sword." Because it's a chain, you can see their website here and their menu here. There's a ton of pictures, which is quite a change from Iwata, where the menu was just a solid block of kanji and kana in black on plain white paper.

I'm getting a lot of cravings looking at that menu. Hakkenden was the place where I learned about ochazuke and I always ordered that to finish off the meal, but there's a ton of other stuff there and now my mouth is watering. Kushiyaki, ramen and yakionigiri, gyoza and kara-age, spicy pickles and wasabi octopus, french fries and fried cheese, or--still a favorite--raw meat with raw egg and raw onions. Anyone who's seen me get grumpy when scanning the menu at a Japanese restaurant here in America, click those links and you'll understand.

We also ran into the owner of the local Poplar eating with some of his staff there once, and he bought us drinks for coming in and buying so many onigiri and cup noodles from them. That's service you can't pay for.

Town Hall and Community Center
That very uniquely-shaped building on the right is the town hall, where we only went a few times. We were there most at the beginning of our first year, when [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd had to go get all her various papers and so on sorted out. Since she was the one with a job waiting for her, everything was in her name, so she had to sign up for utilities, register us for tax and immigration purposes, sign up for car insurance, and so on. Later on, I went there to change my dependent visa to a work visa, and later to look for work in the schools nearby.

The building on the left is the community center where we had our biweekly English class. It caught us by surprise the first time we were asked to teach it, and originally I think we didn't do that great a job, but we taught it for three years. A few people left, a few more people came in, and we honed our teaching abilities. There were some great moments, like when we had to go to a different room and ended up practicing directions by laying zabuton down on the floor, having one person close their eyes, and having the other class members tell them which way to go, or when we had a fake restaurant to practice customer interactions, or when we instituted "What have you done since last class?" time at the beginning so that no matter what, everyone spoke some English during class time.

I wrote a blog post about the last enkai we went to with the group. There's still a passage that sticks out to me:
At the end of the party tonight, we all stood outside and looked up at the full moon, and one of the students said, "When you're in America, you will be looking at the same moon." With all the friends I'll be leaving when we leave Japan, it's a good thought to remember.
I still remember that, sometimes, when I'm looking up at the night sky.
dorchadas: (Chiyoda)
The Corner Store
We didn't realize what this was for probably the first year that we lived in Chiyoda. It looks like it's called きもの ("kimono"), so we thought it was a clothing store or something, but it's actually きもと ("kimoto") with a stylized と. It wasn't until much later that we went and realized it was a grocery store with mostly packaged stuff but a small produce and butcher's section. They also had umeshu by the carton. It wasn't as good as the umeshu that our neighbor brought by, which looked like some kind of filthy water with plums floating in the plastic jar it was sealed in but which tasted amazing, but it was pretty good.

That store is also where [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd ran into someone who claimed that he had been to Europe and he could guess any foreigner's nationality. [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd invited him to try, and his first guess was "Swiss!" His second guess was German, and his third guess was British, after which [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd told her she was American.

The response to all this from the shopkeeper was to the effect of, "How can you tell? They all look the same to me."

Poplar Conbini
There's two examples of what's usually called カタカナ英語 (katakana eigo, basically "Japanified English"). "Conbini" is an abbreviation of the Japanese pronunciation of Convenience (like Spanish, there's no V sound in Japanese) and it took me an inordinate amount of time to realize that the leaf symbol next to ポプラ (popura, "Poplar") meant it was the tree. The chain's website here here, though the usual warning about Japanese website design applies.[1]

We'd drive or walk down there when we needed a snack. Unlike America, Japanese convenience stores are actually worth going to. I mean, it's still not healthy, but it's not bottom-of-the-barrel packaged crap. They've got fresh-daily riceballs, bread from the Takaki Bakery just down the road (turn left and click down the Yae Bypass a ways if you want to see that), pre-assembled bentō with fresh rice from the conbini added, and so on. To this day, I still occasionally get the urge to head down to a convenience store for a snack before I remember that I've been to American convenience stores and very little there even looks appetizing, much less tasty.

The Ubiquitous Pachinko Parlor
That giant king there is one of the town pachinko parlors. Yes, one of them. If you turn the view left and look at the empty field next to the huge parking lot, there used to be another one there. The third one was there when we moved in, but closed and was demolished while we were living there. Apparently, the reason pachinko parlors are so common is that they're used for 天下り (amakudari, literally "descent from heaven"), the practice of public officials retiring and taking positions in organizations that they gave favorable considerations toward while they were government employees. Blatant corruption, basically. The associations that run pachinko parlors are owned mostly by former police officers, which makes the yakuza/pachinko connection even more unsettling.

To the right is a small ramen stand that we'd go too occasionally when we wanted a quick bowl of ramen. It was run by a roughly 150-year-old man who was quite possibly the friendliest person I've ever met. I think his advanced age meant we all looked the same to him as well, because he'd keep bringing out plastic toys and little trinkets for [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd when we ate there, as though she was getting a ramen happy meal.

We also ran into him at a festival one day running an unagi stand. He was a man of many culinary talents.

Funky Tonky
This is almost certainly the saddest picture I'll post in this series, because that blank wall and empty storefront used to be Funky Talky. I wrote about the second time I ever went here, and it was probably the restaurant we went to most often in Chiyoda, usually going twice or three times a month. I say Tonky instead of Talky, which is what the little English on the menu said, because the inside was done up like a honky-tonk bar, with round tables, a carved wooden railing, a bar with a bunch of alcohol, and so on.

It was run by a woman and her son--we never got their names--and she did a lot to make us feel at home. Her mother brought her a ton of vegetables to use in her restaurant and sometimes she couldn't use them all before they would go bad, so she'd give them to us. I mostly got the yakiniku pilaf, which you can somewhat approximate by going to Sunshine Cafe in Andersonville and getting the Nanbanyaki, but it doesn't have the fried rice with bits of meat that yakiniku pilaf had. They also had a bunch of versions of American food, like the american hamburger that I mentioned above.

The sad part is that March of the last year we were there, right after the 東日本大震災, we went to go to dinner at Funky Tonky to find it closed. There was a note on the door, thanking people for coming, with another message below that I couldn't read at the time. I didn't think to take a picture and translate it later, because I thought it might be temporary closed. But it never reopened, and we never saw the owner or her son again. To this day, I have no idea why it closed.

I wonder how she's doing, and if her son ever put that French sommelier training he got to use elsewhere?

Iwata Izakaya
This is one I don't have a ton of memories of, but I'm including it for a couple reasons. The first is another example of how in small towns, shops often hide in the most innocuous of places. That's a restaurant, with houses on its side of the street and a lumber shop across the street. We passed this place dozens of times without realizing it was anything special until [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd's jūdō club had an enkai there, and she called and invited me towards the end.

Izakaya are basically tapas bars, where the focus is on both eating and drinking. We mostly went to them for the food, though I'd occasionally get some umeshu (I really, really love umeshu), and Iwata had some great dishes. The main one I remember is 豚キムチ (buta kimuchi, "Pork and kimchi"), which was served all mixed together with these scooped rice cracker chips to pick it up and eat it. It was amazing. They also had 串焼き (kushiyaki, "Fried foods on a stick"), rice dishes, お茶漬け...all kinds of great stuff. I wish there were an izakaya to go to in Chicago, but as near as I can tell we just have upscale ramen restaurants.

[1]: Japanese web design is strongly influenced by the early availability of internet on mobile phones in Japan, so aesthetics are mostly based on optimizing for low-bandwidth phone connections even though smart phones are now common there. Packing tons of text in, no white space, bright-colored images with high contrast to be visible on 256-color screens, and so on.
dorchadas: (Chiyoda)
Walking Path
This is shown from pretty near our house. If you turn the view around and go down the road a ways, you'll be able to see it on the left. And you should probably turn the view around at least a bit, because this section of road's pictures were taken in fall and the trees are great. The momiji especially are spectacular.

This is the road that [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd and I would always walk on when we went for walks. We'd go forward a ways, then turn right along the river for a short distance, then turn right again and walk down what was called the "old road." Considering that Chiyoda has a festival that dates back 500 years (which I'll write about in a later tour post), it makes me wonder if the old road has been there for centuries and the paved version we'd walk on is only its most recent incarnation.

Forest Shrine
I'm partially including this for the fall colors, but also as an example of the little shrines we'd stumble on when walking around town. There were at least three of them within a mile of our house--one of them is just down the road from the brewery, if you want to go back to Part I and look around--and there are probably half-a-dozen others around there that we missed. Japanese people are pretty famously irreligious, but I think a lot of that is just a different understanding of religion than the usual Western attitude. Nearly everyone I knew went to a local shrine on New Year's Eve, but they'd never characterize it as a religious thing. it was just part of being Japanese. Which is the traditional understanding of religion, really--the idea that religion is somehow separable from culture is mostly a modern conceit.

If you turn right and click down the road to the bridge, you can see the water-filled depression in the road that collapsed during a heavy rainstorm. We also caught two students necking under the bridge at one point, but we didn't say anything and just walked on by. Teachers in Japan and somewhat expected to police their students behavior when they're out and about, but neither of us bothered with that.

The Koyamas' House
The Koyamas were one of the families who came to the neighborhood English class we taught. I've written about their younger son Kazuo before here, but their elder son Naoyuki is the one who brought us the katana that's currently resting above our mantle and who once came by our house and asked if we wanted to go firefly-gazing. Relatively early on, [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd and I walked by the house when the Koyamas were having a barbeque outside, and they beckoned us over and invited us to sit and eat with them. It was moments like that that really make me remember Chiyoda fondly.

We also did our part for tolerance, since Mrs. Koyama told us that before she had interacted with us during the class, she had been kind of scared of foreigners, but after meeting us she wasn't scared anymore.

Forest Path
Sadly the Google van didn't go down that path, because we'd walk down there a lot. Just around the corner there is a grove of bamboo, and then a few family grave sites, and then a set of weathered stone steps leading up to a shrine of Hachiman that we'd frequently stop at. One of the first times we went there, we ran into the shrine keeper and had a brief conversation, but every other time we went it was deserted. Sadly, I don't have a clean picture of the entrance or the shrine itself. You're always a terrible tourist where you live.

Stonecarver's House
At least, I have to assume it's a stonecarver's house with a display like that outside. A lot of what's there were graves, but there's also plenty of stone lanterns and just lawn statues like the owls right at the bottom of the image.

The reason I included this image can be seen if you zoom in a bit and look behind the stone table, just to the left of the two Hotei statues. [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd and I always used to think of this as the gravecarver's house, and every time we would see that, we were happy that it wasn't somewhere out there decorating a child's grave. I realize now that it was intended as a lawn ornament, which makes me a lot happier.

Creepy Shrine
Most of our tiny mountain town fit the good stereotypes of a small town. We had neighbors invite us over for barbeque and to the local festivals, bring us vegetables and rice during harvest season, by us drinks when they saw us in local bars, all of that. They also talked about our house being creepy and looked into our basket when we went shopping, but on the whole, I think the good outweighed the bad by a lot.

Sometimes, though, there were scenes straight out of Fatal Frame. The stairway in our house was one, with narrow, steep wooden steps with no railing and a single bulb at the top. The entrance to this shrine was another. During full daylight it wasn't so bad, though even then the layout was a bit creepy. Those steps led up through the trees to an empty clearing of grass and dirt, and then there were more stairs at the far end that led up to the actual shrine. But if the sun was even a bit obscured...well, you get the picture there. At at actual night? We usually crossed the road to avoid the darkness that seemed to spill almost palpably down the stairs. If there were J-Horror ghosts anywhere in Chiyoda, they lived at that shrine.

The shrine was maintained by the neighborhood who had twice-yearly cleanings, and our friends the Kaminakas mentioned that they had taken a turn at cleaning it in one of the pre-class English "what have you done since last class?" discussions we instituted. I remember being surprised at that at the time, because he hadn't been killed by murderous ghosts. If you've lived in the country for a long time--and in Japan, "the country" has basically no streetlights"--you're probably used to that kind of darkness around, though.
dorchadas: (Chiyoda)
I've wanted to make a post like this for a while, but I've always been stymied before because I didn't think of using my phone to take pictures everywhere until about halfway through my time living in Japan, and even then I didn't typically take pictures of daily life. Everything you do all the time seems ordinary even if other people wouldn't think so, after all. I could have used Google maps, but the only places the picture vans had gone were the major thoroughfares, and even then a lot of the major side roads hadn't been explored at all.

Today, I looked on Google maps and found that Chiyoda had been thoroughly mapped by Google Streeview, even to the point of a lot of the single-car roads leading to nooks and crannies all over! So here, I present a lot of the places I remember and my memories of them, with Streetview links so you can see them yourself.

You'll have to forgive the constant shifting between overcast and sunny in the pictures, but on the other hand, it does a good job representing Japanese weather.

Home Sweet Home
We lived in that house for three years. The discolored one on the left is abandoned and had been abandoned for years before we got there, but ours was in great condition. It looks like a cement block on the outside, but the inside is all tatami and wood floors, sliding panels, shōji screens, separate bathroom and toilet, and all the other elements of a traditional Japanese home.

It was subsidized by the Kitahiroshima Board of Education, so we got a huge bargain on the price--monthly rent was 170,000円, which was around $200 at the time and is more like $160 now. That's a big part of the reason we were able to save so much money and also why we never moved, even in the winter when it got incredibly cold--most Japanese houses are uninsulated, and ours had concrete walls filled with sand so it was even worse than usual--or the summer when it was muggy and hot.

We had holes in our shōji screens for a while before we learned where to buy the supplies to repair them, so our house enjoyed brief fame among [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd's students as the creepy house.

A Picturesque Path
If you've ever seen those various postcards or pictures or anime sequences where children are walking along raised paths through the rice fields, while cicadas buzz or crows caw, then you recognize that picture. That was the route that [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd took every day to get to school. Or at least, to Chiyoda's schools--she was at three other schools on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but since they aren't in Chiyoda and I never went there they won't feature here.

That route is also the path we always took whenever we went walking toward the town center or whenever we had to drive anywhere. It's about as wide as our car was, so it's a good thing we never ran into a car going the opposite way. There's a kind of car in Japan called a kei car that were narrower than normal and better designed for urban roads, but we had a Mazda Familia (which we affectionately called "Uncle Enzo"), so we sometimes had to be careful on the smaller rural roads.

Minimalist Intersection
This is what I mean about small roads. This is where we turned left after going down the path between the rice fields. It seems ridiculously narrow, and it was ridiculously narrow, but it's built for left-hand turns so we got used to it pretty quickly. If we were going to the high school, then we kept on straight ahead.

On the right at the side of the road, you can see an open rain gutter. These ran along the roads all over town, filling the air with the constant sound of flowing water even on hot summer days. Sometimes they had stone plates put over them with small holes to let the water in, but in Chiyoda at least, they were usually uncovered. We called them "gaijin traps."

Local Okonomiyaki
When we first moved to Chiyoda, this building was a bakery, but even though there was a sign out on the main thoroughfare and some of [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd's students bought bread from there, we never managed to get there when it was open because it usually opened early and closed early. The one time we arrived during posted hours, it wasn't open.

About halfway through our time in Chiyoda, though, the family who lived there (shop/house combos are very common in Japanese towns) converted their bakery into an okonomiyaki restaurant where they made okonomiyaki to order. We'd select from the menu--no noodles, plus dried squid and kimchi for me, mochi and cheese for [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd--and then they'd make it on the grill in view and bring it over to us. It was amazing, and writing this reminded me how much it annoys me that I can't get good okonomiyaki anywhere in Chicago.

Local Brewery and Shop
I don't have many memories associated with this place, but I'm including it because we walked past it a lot and because we'd get gifts of sake from the various people we worked with--[personal profile] schoolpsychnerd's co-workers, our students, and so on--and a lot of them came from here. The shop is actually quite small and you can see most of it through the door there. The building is primarily the brewery.

And yes, that is a booze vending machine on the right.

Chiyoda High School
I don't have nearly as many memories of this place as [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd does, but it was still kind of the center of our lives in the town, along with the two English conversation classes we taught. I'd walk by it a lot, we'd see [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd's students and their parents, around town, and I'd go to the festivals they'd hold there, like Sports Day or the Culture Festival.

If you've seen any school anime, you might recognize the building. This is because all Japanese schools look basically the same, and we were able to instantly recognize them no matter where we went. The main building is on the left, and the building on the right was a theatre and gym.

Next time, more pastoral memories!


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