Sunday, August 2, 2015

Japanese Food

S-chan, my friend Jordan, and I
Cooking Sensei #1
I have a running joke with my host sister, S-chan. She is very active and has participated in every single culture class and extra activity that the program has to offer. I think it's great that she's is doing so--it is her first time living in Japan, and she hasn't had a chance to do most of the things that the program has allowed her to try. In comparison, there is me--the graduate student who has to find time for her own research around the piles of homework and who has already lived in Japan and has done all of these activities before. We are very different people, to be sure. However, I will go out of my way to fit certain activities into my schedule, and these certain activities boil down to two types: things that relate to my research and food. Naturally, these activities were all scheduled for the second to last week of the program, with the result being that I had an unusually busy week last week.

Our happy helper, Mae
Wednesday we went to Hakodate Cooking School, which is the local school where students learn to make a wide variety of western, Chinese, and Japanese dishes in order to either start their own store or work at a restaurant or hotel. The school decided that since we were all foreigners with a fairly wide range of Japanese language ability, they would try us out on something that foreigners were bound to like: beef sukiyaki don (a dish made with beef, onion, egg, and mushrooms and served on top of rice). So after we had all donned our spectacular aprons and bandanas, we watched the sensei make the dish first before retreating to our individual workstations to try it out for ourselves.

My friend Nisa with the sukiyaki
It was a good thing that there was a student there to help us out, because the Sensei couldn't translate most of the ingredients he had written on the board, and at a certain point it gets difficult to remember all the steps. Our student was nice enough to let us mess up a few times before coming in to help us, which actually was nice because now I know that you are not supposed to add the sake before the rest of the liquids unless you want it to make a really awful noise. It didn't matter: the end result was amazingly delicious. They even prepared a few other dishes for us to sample even though we didn't have time to make them, so we got to try some really good food.

Cooking Sensei #2
Then on Saturday, we returned to the cooking school for another lesson, this time in the making of traditional Japanese confectionaries that are usually served at the tea ceremony (collectively called wagashi). For those of you who don't know, the Japanese really like anko, the red bean that they sweeten and add to almost all of their desserts. It's not bad once you get used to it, but I know a lot of foreigners who have a problem with the taste and the texture, and while I don't agree, I do understand. So for those people, our foray into the world of Japanese sweets might not have been as wonderful as a trip to Hakodate Milk Factory for some delicious sweet cream. On Saturday, we got to make two different sweets: first, a red bean manjuu, which is like a steamed dumpling with red bean paste inside. The dough was a bit like bread dough, so I got in some good practice at kneading it to incorporate all the flour, and then my group spent a long time trying to figure out how to wrap the dough around the anko (which is very soft and malleable) so that they could be steamed. In they end, we probably didn't have the prettiest dumplings, but they were pretty delicious all the same.
Weighing ingredients

We also got to try our hand at making nerikiri, which is a combination of white and red bean paste. This one was handed to us pre-mixed, but the sensei showed us how to dye the dough with red food coloring to make it turn pink and then shape it into different shapes. For tea ceremony, it is important to use natural ingredients, and many of the foods used in tea ceremony incorporate foods in the shape of things found in nature to reinforce this connection. We made one nerikiri that looked a little like a strawberry and one that actually got shaped into a flower that we then decorated with colored gelatin. They ended up being so pretty that I didn't want to eat mine (I ate it anyway).

While technically I have the recipes for everything that we made this week, I am pretty confident that the only think I will be able to repeat is probably the beef sukiyaki don. I'm certainly not sad (it was so delicious, I ate too much and couldn't manage any dinner), but when it comes down to it, I like that usually when I eat something like anko, I am in Japan. It makes it special in some way.

Beef sukiyaki don, a la gaijin 



Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Star Festival: Tanabata Matsuri

The Tanabata bamboo at school
Japan loves its festivals. To be fair, there is a lot to love about festivals in Japan. It's interesting to see how the customs have evolved in different places at different paces. However, since this is the first real summer that I have spent in Japan, I am getting to enjoy some of the really wonderful summer festivals for the first time. Most recently, at the beginning of July, Hakodate celebrated the Japanese festival of Tanabata (the Star Festival), which is a little like Halloween. The whole thing is based off a legend that goes something like this.

Long ago there was a woman named Orihime who lived with her father, Tentei, near the Amano River. Orihime always wove very beautiful cloth, but she always busy. She never had time to meet anyone or fall in love. Seeing that his daughter was unhappy, her father arranged for Orihime to meet a young man named Hikoboshi, who raised cows on the other side of the Amano. The two met and instantly fell in love, and they were married not long after. However, after they were married, Orihime stopped weaving cloth, and Hikoboshi stopped tending to his cows, which became roaming all over the countryside. Tentei became angry and sent Hikoboshi back to the other side of the river, forbidding his daughter to ever see her husband again. Orihime pleaded with her father to let the pair meet, and Tentei finally allowed that the two could see one another once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month if both worked hard for the rest of the year. Yet, on the first year that they were supposed to meet, Orihime arrived at the river to find that the bridge had been washed away by the rain. She began to cry, and as she did so, her tears turned into magpies which lifted her up and carried her across the river to be with her love.

S-chan and M-san decorating

Okaa-san getting ready to
Tanabata snacks

Tanabata, which takes place in a lot of regions right around the same time as the major festival to honor deceased ancestors (which is called Obon), shares a number of traditions with other Japanese festivals, but It also has a few interesting aspects of its own. First is the custom of decorating a bamboo sprig with wishes for the coming year. I did this twice this year--once with the rest of the students at in my program, and again at home with my host family. The second of these traditions is for usually elementary school age kids, who walk around to the houses with bamboo sprigs outside the door. Ususally they are dressed up in traditional Japanese summer kimonos (called yukata). They knock on the door, and when someone answers, they sign a song so that the family will give them snacks.
The finished product
Naturally, this being a small town in rural Japan, once we started to get our first few visitors of the night, word got around pretty quickly that there were real live foreigners giving out Tanabata treats at our house. I don't know if we were the most popular house in Hakodate that night, but we were busy. S-san had to keep running up and down the stairs every few minutes to greet someone else, and usually it was to shrieks of "AAAH! GAIJIN! (FOREIGNERS!)" They were very, very excited.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Destination: Sapporo

Sapporo Classic
It's been a long week and an even longer weekend. One of Japan's many festival days, Tanabata, was celebrated in Hakodate last Tuesday, and so we spent most of that evening running around helping Okaa-san and M-san set up and get ready for all the kids that came trooping around in the bad weather. Then, after two days of speeches (in front of two classes and two teachers) and then an all day midterm-examination, we were finally given a nice long four day weekend. About two thirds of the students in the program decided to take that opportunity to embark on the four and a half hour journey to Sapporo, the capital city of the island of Hokkaido and the namesake of one of the well-known Japanese beers.

We left by bus in the morning on Friday and arrived at Sapporo at around 3pm that afternoon. After checking into the hotel, a group of friends and I set out on the 50 minute walk to the Sapporo Beer Garden, where they have a beer museum and a nice patio restaurant where you can eat Japanese style-barbecue. It was a really interesting exhibit, and, of course, the reward at the end was a draught of the Sapporo Classic beer, which you can only get in Hokkaido. Afterwards, we went back into the city and did some karaoke at a store near the Odori park, where they also incidentally were preparing for a large jazz festival that was going on most of the weekend. On our way home I stopped to talk to some of the people who were milling around and enjoying the scene, one of whom (slightly inebriated) asked where I was from, and when I told him Chicago, he got very excited and shouted "Chicago Bulls!" and then proceeded to do a pantomime of a matador bout with another (slightly inebriated) friend of his.

Astro Boy!!
Shiroi Koibito Gardens
The next day, we trooped out to the Shiroi Koibito (literally translated as "white lover") Factory, which is a local institution specializing in the making of chocolates and candies. The grounds of this place were pretty fantastic; it looked a lot like something you might expect to see at Disneyland, with a garden full of imported flowers and miniature houses that children were crawling all over. There was even one of those fantastic trains that takes you on a tour of the outside of the building. Inside, we were able to watch the candy makers rolling out hard candy and talked to them about how the candy was made. There was also some delicious soft cream (which yes, I did eat). For some reason, the Shiroi Koibito Factory also has a collection of miniatures and toys, so I went and got my picture taken with Astro Boy.

The candy makers; very friendly people
By the time we headed back on Sunday, it had been far too hot for far too long, and I think everyone was looking forward to sleeping on their own futon for a change. I think I slept for a good 2/3rds of the way back, but I did manage to wake up in time to use my new favorite vending machine in the world: the popcorn vending machine. For the low, low price of 200 yen (about $1.50) you can get a cup of either butter, salt, or caramel popcorn! Isn't this country wonderful?
My new favorite thing. 

We are back at school now, looking forward to a few weeks of speech contests and research presentations. I am still going to try to get a few more posts in before the program ends--we have some interesting culture classes coming up in which I intend on participating. Until then, stay cool everyone!


Friday, July 3, 2015

Port city squid

The view from the street in front of the school.
You might not know this, but I am tired. Turns out going to class for four hours every day and then spending up to seven hours doing homework every night starts to wear down on you after a while. Who knew? These past couple weeks have been full of adjustments--to life in Japan, to life in a small town, and to life in a language program. I won't lie and say that it has been easy, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the past week and am looking forward to another five weeks living in this beautiful place.

The view from my classroom
So for those of you who don't know, Hakodate is a port city, and in the past it was an important hub for the transfer of goods and people through Japan from both other Asian countries and especially Europe and the U.S. Unsurprisingly, given its geographic location, there is a strong Russian presence in Hakodate, and near the school where I attend classes there is a very prominent Russian Orthodox church that takes up a good chunk of the skyline. The local Russian consulate is also located in the same building as my school, so there is a nice combination of English, Japanese, and Russian signage on everything. That being said, I don't think I'm planning on taking up another language any time soon.

An ice cream shop on every corner
Looking up from the street in
front of the school
Squid ink ice cream

Usually after class, the our program arranges cultural activity classes that most of the students participate in. Being the graduate student (read: incredibly boring person) that I am, and as one of the students who has already done a study abroad program in Japan, I have chosen not to participate in a lot of these events. Instead, when class gets out, I usually set myself out on a walk around the mountain where the school is located. My homestay sibling, Sam, and I have already found all of the famous soft ice cream shops hidden behind the school. It's a neat little street that reminds me a little of Kyoto, since most of the shops cater to tourists and are definitely displaying the typical Japanese wares for sale. Hakodate's big draw for tourism is its maritime culture, which can be found everywhere from its famous food-stuffs like squid ink ice cream and fried stuffed squid to its manhole covers and city mascot. Don't roll your eyes at me, internet; the squid ink ice cream is actually pretty fantastic once you can get over the fact that it looks like your ice cream has gone bad and that it turns your tongue just a little black when you eat it. Naturally, since we are sitting on a coast, the seafood is pretty awesome as well. Usually our daily miso soup comes with some kind of fish or crab in it, and there is always plenty of sashimi (raw fish) to eat. I know there are plenty of people who say that eating raw fish sounds pretty gross, but personally, until you get to try it someplace like Hakodate, I don't think it really counts.
Tonight's dinner: sashimi bowl! 
 I'm going to try to be a little better about posting more regularly, but with our hectic class schedule, homework, my own research, and trying to spend as much time with my host family as possible, I don't want to make any promises. I'll also be going to Sapporo (Hokkaido's capital city) next weekend with a large number of the HIF program participants, so there should be something interesting to say about that if I can manage to write it down before I get too busy again. Of course, if I don't, I can always console myself with more squid ink ice cream. :p

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Hello Hakodate!

I have arrived in Hakodate and have finally gotten settled in with my host family. I have to admit that staying with a host family as an adult has been one of my primary concerns for this program--I know that they are fantastic for learning to speak the language, but for someone who is used to a certain degree of independence, it can be a rough transition. Additionally, host families really are a mixed bag. It's kind of like getting a roommate in the college lottery system: sometimes you get someone you're really compatible with and then things go pretty smoothly, but sometimes you get matched with the devil incarnate. Host families are pretty much the same. You can spend hours filling out profiles, but sometimes you just get a family that doesn't quite meet the expectations you had for the experience (and vice versa, I'm sure). So far, I don't think that is going to be a problem with my host family.

There are three people in my immediate host family--a mother (Okaa-san) and her son (Y-san) and daughter (M-san). Okaasan makes a living as a fortune-teller. Y-san has traveled the world following around reggae bands. M-san has been taking a year off and is trying to learn English with her mother. They are all very friendly and have been beyond accommodating and helpful as S-chan (my homestay partner-in-crime) and I try to adapt to life in Hakodate. Okaa-san's house is located near a local historic park, Goryōkaku, where the Boshin War was fought in 1869 (for anyone who cares about Japanese history, that was kind of a big deal). They have a gorgeous two story home, located right next to Okaa-san's brother's family and her parents. Okaa-san also loves ice cream, so we've been using the excuse of the fantastic Hokkaido dairy cows to get some whenever we can.

Okaa-san, M-san, and S-chan waiting in line for ソフト・クリーム (ice cream)
This weekend has been a nice vacation before the storm that is going to be this intensive program. Okaa-san has taken us to eat at Lucky Pierrot (a local burger chain with amazing chicken burgers), curry soup (spicy and amazing), kaiten sushi (the kind that spins around so you can grab what you want, and, of course, the Hokkaido Milk Plant that sells fresh ice cream. That's right; be jealous. I got to make friends with some awesome Hakodate cows!

My new friends, Ba-nira and Maccha.
As the one place in Japan that really has the space and climate for good dairy cows, Hokkaido milk is pretty widely celebrated in Japan. They import the milk and milk-products to Tokyo from the northern island, and people around here really seem to love it. Not that I disagree with them, because it it very good milk, but all the same I think I am more impressed with the fact that there is fresh ice cream everywhere in this town. A girl has to have her priorities, after all.

Yo-garuto and Cho-ko
We've also been sitting around and relaxing, which has been nice because I had to run out of Chicago after finishing two of my finals and had to spend some of my first nights in Japan working on a third. We've spent both of the past couple nights watching TV. I found an amazing show about a taxi driver in Kyoto who solves crime using clues from and about food. We also drew a bath tonight, so I got a chance to soak in a Japanese tub for a while before I got too hot and needed to get out. Besides that, ice cream and cow friends are about all of the summer vacation I'm going to get until I get back home in August.

Tomorrow, we will be assigned to our classes and start doing what we came here to do and learn some Japanese. It's an intensive program, and we've been hearing from Okaa-san about how some students have complained about the amount of homework and the strictness of the teachers. I'm sure that it will be fine, but I'm still tired from all the packing and running around and have really enjoyed the chance not to have to worry about studying for a while. Oh well. It's not like I want to be a student for a living, right? :p

Soooooo delicious!

Well, hello bloggy world. It's been a while. I promise I haven't forgotten you, though in the almost four years since I've posted something here probably makes it seem like I have. I've been busy living life--getting my M.A. and applying for my Ph.D., moving halfway across the country, buying a house and taking care of two fur babies... the excuses go on--and unfortunately there hasn't been enough gaijin life for me to write about. Until now.

In a few short days, I am headed off to Japan's northern-most island, Hokkaido, to a city called Hakodate to take part in an intensive language program and live with a Japanese host family. I am beyond excited to get to live for nearly two months in a place I have never been to before and even more thrilled that I won't have to deal with the sweltering heat and humidity of Tokyo for a change. Hopefully living there will give me something to write about for a change.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

#1. The students

So as you've probably figured, I'm back in the states now, working off several long overdue weeks of vacation and ignoring all the things I'm supposed to have been doing. I haven't forgotten about this blog though, nor the countdown that was supposed to have finished before I left Korea. It's just taken me three or so weeks to figure out what I missed most about it. Funny, I don't know if it's what I expected, and I'm sure it will sound sappy and juvenile to some. If I'm being honest, however, the one thing I feel the absence of most is not a thing. It's 150 things.

#1. The students

I'd been living in Korea for almost two years when I left. Some of my students were with me and stayed with me from day one; others would level out of one of my classes and then crop back up in a month or two in a higher class. Like every teacher I had my favorites, but all-in-all there wasn't a single class I disliked; there wasn't ever a time when I hated going to work or doing my job.

Before I left, I gave my email address to all my students.
I've been contacted by a number of
students, and I've done my best to answer them all. I know there's going to come a day when they don't feel the need to write to Erin-teacher anymore, and then a day when they might not remember me at all. I just don't think forgetting them is going to be that easy, but isn't that the benefit of age?