NZ: Marlborough Wine Country

…Typed while drinking a 2008 Highfield Pinot Noir and eating smoked NZ salmon with fresh blue cheese – our pre-dinner/blogging appetizer…

View from Highfield Winery

View from the Highfield Winery

We spent our first two days in New Zealand in the Marlborough Wine Country in the northern part of the South Island.  Our trip from Japan was great – the upgrade to premium economy on the Air New Zealand flight from Tokyo to Auckland more than paid for itself in comfort, food and wine.

We flew from Auckland to Blenheim on a 14-seat plane. The first half of the flight was cloudy but as we crossed the sound to the South Island the weather began to clear and the view slowly became spectacular. The fingers of the Marlborough Sound emerged from the sea as we began our descent. The valley floor was covered with vineyards as far as the eye could see…it was sort of magical.

After finding the woman who came to meet us with our rental car, we left the 1-gate airport/air force base and headed to our B&B. We checked in, showered and changed into our summer clothes – shorts and a t-shirt – and were off to squeeze in some wine tasting before closing time.  We managed to make it to three and purchased a bottle of wine from each.

We drove into Blenheim (about 5k) for dinner and ended up eating an early meal at a Thai/Chinese restaurant – very good.  We were starting to get tired and headed back home where we had a block of blue cheese, an apple and a bottle of St. Clair Sauvignon Blanc on the deck on the backyard.  After that, we had no trouble getting to sleep – even with the 4-hour time change from Japan.

Our Favorite - Seresin Winery

Our Favorite Winery – Seresin

On Day 2, we started out the day with a breakfast of fruit, homemade yogurt and muesli, croissants, and coffee – not a bad way to get going. We made it to our first winery by 11 am. I think I have decided that the wine you have between breakfast and lunch is invariably the best. Maybe we have this whole wine at night thing wrong? We visited 5-6 more wineries during the day and are now fully stocked for the first week of our trip.  My recommendations for best wines in Marlborough are: Saint Clair and Seresin.

Tomorrow our plan is to get up and have another wonderful breakfast and then start our longest drive of the trip (6 hours).  We will end the day in Lake Tekapo and stay at another B&B.  We should have Internet access on a regular basis after that and will hopefully be able to get more pictures posted.

Daisaitogomaku “Fire” Festival

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Atago Fire Festival

Robert had some work to catch up on today, so I went with a couple of other teachers to our local shrine (Atago) to see it’s biggest festival.  There is not a lot of information about it in English other than “it is a fire festival during which participants overcome adversities and purify their souls by walking barefoot on burning coals”.   How could you not want to go see that?  We got there early so we could watch the whole ceremony from beginning to end.  It lasted 2 1/2 hours.  There was a young shrine “helper” who spoke some English that explained a few things to us.  We bought some long wooden sticks and wrote our ‘dreams and wishes’ on them.  He informed us that they would eventually be thrown into the bonfire where the ‘prayer’ could make it’s way to heaven.

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Burning of the Prayers

The festival started with chanting and singing, and then a procession of the Shinto priests into the shrine hall for prayer.  They eventually made their way out of the hall, where one priest cut the rope surrounding the ceremonial grounds with his sword so all the priests could enter.  This was followed by a series of priests (in pairs) performing different rituals to prepare for the bonfire.  Arrows were shot in four different directions, axes were swung around the burn pile, and a series of other blessings (both verbal and physical) were performed until the torches were blessed and lit.  The head priest sang from his scroll and the pile was set on fire.  Then the drumming and chanting began.  This went on for about an hour while the fire burned.  The crowd (including me) was allowed to throw the wooden prayers into the fire.   The priests attended to the flames…allowing it to burn, yet keeping it under control with holy water.  The constant rhythm of the drums and chanting was almost hypnotizing.  The priests had large wooden prayers which were thrown in last.  The fire was finally allowed to die down.  The priests then began raking the coals and spreading them out.  Finally, a pathway was created through the center of the hot coals using a large bamboo tree trunk.

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Walking on the Coals

The observers started taking off their socks and shoes. Our shrine ‘helper’ informed us it was OK for us to walk across if we wanted.  The priests and priestesses went across first, then the observers – of all ages.  Maureen decided she was going to walk on the coals.  I thought about crossing it, but I figured my soul doesn’t need any purifying :).  Actually, I would definitely do it next year if Robert is interested in seeing it.  After the last participant finished the walk, we watched the priests put out the rest of the flames.  The day was still young, so I even had time to head out and do some Christmas shopping.

Return to Dazaifu

Walking around Dazaifu

Temple Doors

Last time we were in Dazaifu it was brutally hot….so hot we couldn’t think straight, much less enjoy the area.  In fact, we spent most of the time in the National Museum just to stay cool and sane.  We’ve been wanting to go back for a while and since the weather was perfect and another flea market was taking place, we decided to venture out that way again.

Our first stop was Komyozenji Temple which we didn’t see last time.  It was nice and quiet.  We almost had the whole place to ourselves.  It actually looked and felt like winter had arrived at this temple…even the old floorboards were cold.  And I’m not sure when those monks are suppose to rake their gardens, but the back was covered in leaves with no gravel visible.  We took our time in there trying to soak up all the calm and quiet we could before heading into the bustling flea market.  We both admired the simple, yet beautiful woodwork throughout the building.  Eventually, we made our way back into the crowds and checked out the market merchandise.  There were plenty of choices if you wanted fabric, kimonos, obis or jewelry.  There were a couple of pottery stalls and a few with antiques, but we didn’t see anything we couldn’t live without.

Rice fields

Rice Fields

We decided during lunch to finish our day with a walkabout.  The town has lots of places to see, so we thought we’d knock a few of them out by following the recommended historical walk through town on one of the back roads.  Dazaifu is an incredibly pretty and very relaxing little town.  On our walk, we saw lots of little side roads that lead up into the hillside…beckoning us for a future visit.  We visited a couple of other temples and then spent some time hanging out at the Dazaifu government ruins (which is more of a park) enjoying the wonderful weather and watching families play.  Robert enjoyed listening to a few kids practicing on their trombones.  Amazingly there were still some very colorful fall spots along the base of the hills.  We eventually boarded the SLOW train back to Tenjin and picked up a few more macaroons.  They should last us until maybe Monday. 🙂

Our First Thanksgiving In Japan

Our turkey

Thanksgiving Turkey in Japan!

Even though Japan does not celebrate Thanksgiving, we want you all to know that we did not miss out.  The culture committee at our school planned a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner for all the staff and teachers that were interested.  After we found out it was an all you can eat buffet, we made sure we went for our hour walk/run that day to ensure we had a good appetite.  The dinner was held at the Hilton Sea Hawk Hotel (near the Yahoo Dome) which is about 2 miles away from our place.  We rode our bikes to the hotel.  This was the first time we actually set foot in this hotel.  It was quite impressive.  It had huge windows facing the bay and a large open lobby which was already decorated for Christmas.  Our buffet room was in the far corner surrounded by windows and facing the water.  The food table in our room was filled with all the traditional Thanksgiving dishes as well as a few desserts.  We were all anxious to start eating.  Then we found out we could also select food from all of the other buffet bars as well.  Hello crab legs, beef carpaccio, tempera, scallops, pizza, curry, etc…plus a sinfully overloaded dessert bar (which we visited 5 times).  While we still would have rather been home with friends and family this was not a bad consolation prize.  We are already looking forward to having Thanksgiving dinner here next year.

It started to rain later in the evening, meaning we would have to take a cab back to our place.  This also meant we would have to walk back to the hotel in the morning to get our bikes.  Instead of complaining, we decided to drown our sorrows in another serving of bread pudding (covered in caramel sauce). 🙂

Sumo Mania

Nihon Kyokai Grand Sumo

Grand Sumo Tournament in Fukuoka

We went to the Nihon Kyokai Grand Sumo Tournament downtown Friday afternoon.  After a few matches of trying to figure out what was going on, we really started to enjoy the event.  We would go again in the future without hesitation.  The auditorium isn’t that big, so even though we didn’t have the best seats we could easily see everything going on.  Next time we’d like to be closer to the action though.  Now, Sumo wrestling is nothing like western-style wrestling.  Sumo matches are more interesting, and the actual bout only lasts about a minute (and sometimes only a few seconds).  We only watched the last couple hours of the day. Next time we’d like to go for a full day.  When we got home, we read the booklet they gave us which covered the history of the sport as well as the rules, the rankings, and the ceremonial rituals involved. There so much going on it’s hard to go into all the detail, but here are some of the basics:

Nihon Kyokai Grand Sumo

The Match

Sumo wrestling has been around for over 1500 years.  It’s origins are religious and that is why there is a roof resembling a Shinto shrine hanging over the ring (dohyo).  The four tassels hanging from each corner of the roof represent the four seasons.  The ring is constructed out of rice straw bales covered with a special clay and a thin layer of sand.  There are no weight limits in sumo, so it’s very possible a wrestler (rikishi) could have a much larger opponent.   The wrestlers are promoted/demoted according to their win/loss record (except for the rare few that reach the highest rank, only 69 in the last 300 years).  At the start of each match the names of the opponents are introduced in a monotone pitch that is similar to a slow chant.  Over the next 4 minutes, they go through a series of spiritual rituals including rinsing their mouth with water, wiping their body with a towel (both for purification),  and throwing salt into the ring (for protection against injuries).  They also face each other several times with the goal of intimidation (including staring, clapping, stomping, and raising their legs).   This also gets the crowd excited about the match swaying them to chose a side.  The loser of a match is the first one to (a) have any portion of his body go outside the ring or (b) to touch the ground inside the ring with something other than the soles of his feet.  The loser leaves the ring.  The winner is presented with an envelope on a fan, that he ‘blesses’ and then takes with him.  That envelope contains his prize money.

There are so many other interesting things related to this sport including the opening and closing ceremonies, the clothing the participants wear, the role of the judges, and the life and training of the Sumo wrestler.  It’s also kind of fun to see their big buns and bellies :).

Click to see: Our Sumo Video

Korean Day

FIS Korean Day 2010

Opening Ceremonies

FIS Korean Day 2010

Tae Kwon Do

The Korean Junior International Chamber of Commerce hosted a Korean Day at FIS this year (for the 1st time). FIS has a large contingent of Korean students and this was the chamber’s way of saying thanks. Plus it was also an excellent opportunity to advertise Korea. They did a hell of a job! The whole day was fantastic.  The videos and cultural activities were informative and fun.  I have to say the whole experience got me excited about taking an extended trip to South Korea (I will avoid the North for now).

The best part of the day was the Korean barbecue. The Japanese don’t eat that much beef and pork but the Korean’s sure do. They had the grills going outside and the smell just before lunch was driving me crazy. I was hungry!

FIS Korean Day 2010

The Barbecue Pits

FIS Korean Day 2010

Korean Mom’s Cooking

Once the elementary school finished up their lunch the high school quickly moved into the lobby and sat down to a super-sized dose of protein. There was beef, chicken, pork, different sausages along with noodles, sushi-like rolls, and kimchi. Most of the teachers (including me) just kept eating – and they kept bringing the food. I haven’t had much beef in the last 3 months (maybe twice) but I did my best to make up for it today.

I hope that Korean Day at FIS becomes an annual tradition. I sure enjoyed it, and I know all the students did too. What a wonderful way to learn more about the Korean culture – and their cuisine.

Exploring Downtown Hakata

Enoteca Wine Shop

Wine at the Enoteca

A couple of weeks ago we took the subway to the Hakata area of downtown to check out the Kawabata Shopping Arcade, Kushida Shrine, and some temples we missed the last time we were there. Hakata is a suburb of Fukuoka, but it used to be a separate city.  A river runs through the center of downtown, and Hakata is basically on the east side, whereas Fukuoka is on the west side.

My favorite find of the day was the Enoteca in the basement of Eeny Meeny Miny Mo (yes, there is actually a department store with that name).  It has a great selection of French and Italian wines.  Had it not been 10 o’clock in the morning and our first stop, we probably would have depleted our savings there.  We weren’t going to tote around wine all day, so we passed on any purchases, but at least I know where it is.

Finally made it to the shrine...what a relief!

Interesting Fountain at Kushida Shrine

We crossed over the street and walked through the covered shopping arcade glancing in all the shops.  This is the oldest shopping area in the city.  There is a good variety of merchandise in there as well as some yummy food stalls.  I’ll have to come back some rainy day to do some damage shopping.   At the end of this street was an entrance to Kushida Shrine (which was founded in 757 when Hakata was designated as the base of trade between China and Japan).  On the grounds is a gigantic ginkgo tree (which is so large it is has several supports holding it up).  It is believed to be about 1,000 years old.  I like how some of these really old shires have an eery feeling about them, and I enjoy reading about their history and seeing all the artifacts associated with them.  I think that is why I don’t tire of visiting them.  There were lots of interesting things to see here, but Robert was especially amused by the fountain of the little boy peeing.

Shofukuji Temple

Shofukuji Temple Grounds

Next, we were off to find the ‘grove of temples’.  It’s actually called the Teramachi Area on my Fukuoka Now map.  It was about a 10 minute walk through a fairly busy part of the city, but once we got back there, the streets were narrow and it was exceptionally quiet.  The first temple we came to was Shofukuji Temple, which is Japan’s oldest Zen temple and the place where tea was first introduced in Japan.  The old twisty pines were kind of cool, but I was a bit disappointed that the actual temple was not open to the public.  The second temple, Tochoji Temple, houses the largest sitting statue of Buddha made out of wood (40 feet tall).  We couldn’t take a picture of it (as photos are prohibited),  but it was worth the visit.  The third temple, Jotenji,  is the birthplace of udon and soba noodles.  We never made it to Jotenji because (ironically) we were starving and thus headed back into town to get a bite to eat (and buy lots of those macaroons Robert fell in love with the last time we were there).  Those macaroons by the way…are long gone. : (

Road Trip to Itoshima

Raizan Sennyoji Daihyoin Temple

Raizan Sennyoji Daihyoin Temple

One of the veteran teachers at FIS offered to take a few of us on a road trip to a temple in Itoshima, and we wasted no time taking him up the offer.  It’s great when the locals offer to show you around their town.  They know the best spots – and they are usually not the tourist spots.

Itoshima is a peninsula 20-25 minutes drive south of Fukuoka.  The local train skirts the area, and there is bus service to a few key spots, but a vehicle is really the best way around. It was drizzling rain this morning and we hoped that it would help keep the crowds away.  On the way there we took the scenic drive, which included a quick stop at a smaller shrine, over a mountain range, and along many back roads until we got to Raisan Sennyoji Daihihouin temple.

The two main attractions at the temple are the 16 foot buddha with 11 faces and 1,000 hands, and the 400-year old maple tree in the front garden.  The colors on the grounds of the temple were amazing…occasionally bordering on surreal.  Pictures cannot do this place justice.  In addition to enjoying the temple grounds and buildings, we also attended our first Buddhist prayer session (Robert even thought it was cool).  The elderly Japanese in the room took it very serious…folding their hands, and chanting & singing along with the monk who pounded on a drum.

Our Barbecue with Oysters

Our Barbecue – with Oysters!

I think we were the most excited about the next part of the trip….eating at the oyster shack on the beach.  We left the temple, passed through the town of Maebaru, and made it to the coast.  We then drove along some narrow back roads and eventually made it to the local fishing docks which had 5-10 large party-style tents with colorful signs on the outside. We picked a tent and headed inside. There was a large rough timber table with two BBQ grills inset into it – perfect for our group of seven.  A lady came and took our order and before we knew it we had ten pounds of fresh oysters, two large squid, two brined fish and five scallops in the shell on our table ready to be barbecued…by us.  We also had a nice selection of beverages that we had purchased at the grocery store on the way…the makings for a perfect afternoon. The food was even better than we had imagined – and we had imagined good food.  We will go back there soon, even if it means taking a train, a bus and long walk to get there!

Yusentei Garden

Yusentei Garden in the Fall

Yusentei Garden in the Fall

After visiting Rakusuien Garden in September, I have been wanting to find it’s sister garden….Yusentei Garden.

Well, my quest has been fulfilled!

Since we had another gloriously beautiful day, we decided to ride our bikes to this garden and view some more fall colors.  After a fairly long bike ride (I was beginning to wonder if we were ever going to get there), we arrived at the entrance.  This was obviously ‘the thing’ to do today.  There were plenty of other people there snapping pictures of everything they saw and a couple older women painting.  I could write about how beautiful this place was or better yet….you can just view the pictures.

“Fall”ing Behind in Momochi

Momochi in the Fall

Reflective Pond near Fukuoka Museum

I must admit, I have not been as diligent as I should have been about writing posts.  You can blame it on the weather!  We’ve had absolutely perfect temperatures for the last month and the leaves have been changing; so, the last thing I want to do is sit inside and write.

I especially love it when I can get out in the morning and go for a walk/run around our neighborhood.  The last few times I actually took my camera with me so that I could take pictures.  I tried to capture some of the lovely colors as well as the sculptures that adorn the area.  Enjoy the pictures!