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!

Yanagawa: The Venice of Japan

Day trip to Yanagawa

Yanagawa Canal Trip

Yanagawa is a small town in southern Japan about 45 minutes from Fukuoka (by train).  It has little canals running through it which were originally used as irrigation ditches.  Today these canals are used for scenic boat rides.  Boats called “donkobune” are propelled by local men with bamboo poles down the moats through narrow tunnels and around sharp bends and past beautiful expanses of old stonework, houses, monuments, and water-side shops.   The word Yanagawa literally means ‘willow river’.  I should have guessed that, because there are hundreds of these trees lining the canals.

bbq eel on top of rice with cooked egg...hard to describe just how good this was

Our lunch – steamed eel w/ rice

Our boatman never stopped talking (except when he was singing), and even though we had no idea what he was talking about, it didn’t matter….it was an absolutely beautiful day to spend an hour going through this pretty town.  Near the end of the ride, the smell of steamed eel filled the air and we kept spotting all the wonderful places we could stop and have lunch.  One place in particular had a line out front, and we headed for that as soon as we got off our boat.  Luckily we didn’t have to wait and we were seated right away.  We could see the stack of eel dishes being steamed in the back.  We simply asked our waitress for her recommendation (“o susume”) and we were not disappointed.

Autumn colors

The Golden Ginkgo Trees

After lunch, we decided to walk back to the train station to work off our lunch and stretch our legs since they’d been scrunched up from sitting Japanese style all morning.  On the way back, we decided to visit the old castle ruins, but there really wasn’t much there except a few rocks and some beautiful old ginkgo trees in their prime autumn gold color.  We walked down one of the “100 best roads” in Japan, and discovered this town is also the birth place of one of Japan’s most popular poets.  It’s really amazing all the unique little experiences there are here in Japan….most of them simple, yet all so satisfying.  Yanagawa is yet another place we’d gladly visit again.

Who says you can’t make good Italian food in Japan?

Cooking mushroom risotto at home

I’ve been searching all over the city for Arborio rice to make risotto.  I finally gave up.  In the land of rice, I think they refuse to import it from anywhere else.  They are very proud of their rice, and they should be!  The quality of rice here is light years above the typical rice available in the US.

Thanks to a Google search, I discovered that short grain rice makes a good substitute for Arborio rice.  My source says that it will be just as creamy, just not ‘al dente’.   So, we broke down and decided to try and make some “Mushroom Asparagus Risotto” for dinner tonight (using the rice we normally use to make sushi -which is a short grain rice).

Japan has more fresh mushrooms than anywhere I’ve ever been, so I figured dinner would be good even if the rice was a total failure because the mushrooms are fabulous.  Vegetables here (while a little expensive) are truly awesome!  Mushrooms are the exception…they are very inexpensive AND awesome.

We used four different varieties of mushrooms (don’t ask me which ones – although one was definitely oyster mushrooms).  We also used chopped garlic and onion, asparagus, green onions, wine, and (of course) freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.  We ended up with the best mushroom risotto we’ve ever made…and as long as you don’t over cook it, it still ends up ‘al dente’.

So, we agree with you Japan.  There really is no need to import rice from Italy.

Current Fukuoka Weather Report

Weather Forecast

Current Fukuoka Weather

What the ??

I use Weather Underground a lot.  For me, it has always been the most accurate weather tool available (at least anywhere I’ve used it).  It usually gives very accurate information on the current temperature and condition.  I’m used to seeing:  sunny, cloudy, rain, light drizzle, windy, etc…  However,  I’ve never seen this condition before.  It’s not like we are living in the Sahara Desert and experiencing a sand storm.  I suspect it was meant to say “Haze” – but whoever is responsible for preparing the forecast has made a really interesting translation…lol.