Sunday, February 27, 2011

hina matsuri mystery tour

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You heard me. My “adoptive” Japanese grandmother took me on a hina matsuri (girl’s festival) mystery tour today! I had no idea it was going to last all day and that we would be on a tour bus for the greater part of it. However, that wasn’t the mystery… the mystery was that the tour itinerary had blank spaces where there were supposed to be the names of our destinations.
It was interesting to see how some people choose to spend their time off, and I did get to go to some interesting out-of-the-way places with my cool grandma-friend!

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First, we went to a sake distillery in Sawara. I was like.. wait a second.. why are we going to a sake distillery? What does this have to do with hina matsuri?

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As it turned out, the distillery had a massive collection of hina matsuri dolls on display in the big rooms up above the gigantic tanks of sake. Like, full sets of antique dolls. It was pretty awesome!! As some of you may know, I have my own little collection of dolls, so it was pretty cool to see all of these awesome handmade dolls on display. They’re so amazing! The details on the faces and in their clothing is so perfect down to the last little thread. The designs change ever so slightly from year to year, and you can usually tell when a set of dolls was made by the design of the clothing they are wearing and the female doll’s facial features, which happen to change according to whatever is considered to be fashionable at any given time.

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Then we walked down the road to the river and went for a little boat ride! The boat was outfitted with a charcoal kotatsu, which was really nice, since it was kind of cool and breezy, despite being sunny. The woman steering the boat told us that Sawara’s main industry used to be food production, namely soy products, such as soy sauce, miso, natto, etc. However, the factories have long gone and have given way to a small tourist trade. Sawara was also the home of a man who apparently walked the length of Honshu and made some of the first almost completely accurate maps of the country. You can visit his house if you have time, which we unfortunately did not!

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Then it was back on the bus! We drove towards the town of Narita-san, which is of course near the airport. We stopped at a restaurant and had a pretty no-frills lunch, everything was simple, but good! There’s a huge temple at Narita-san, called Shinsho-ji. It’s an old temple that has recently been ENTIRELY rebuilt, and it was very different from the old temples up in Nikko or Kyoto that I’m kind of used to visiting. It was almost surreal to go to a temple that was this new.

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The main reason for visiting  was to see the plum blossoms blooming behind Shinsho-ji. They were really pretty, and they smelled nice too (*´ω`*)

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After taking a walk around the temple to see the buildings and the flowers, we walked around the little town, bought some omiyage, and some snacks, and were once again on the bus for another two hours or so. Our last stop was a massive indoor farmer’s market near Ushiku, but I didn’t have a chance to look around because we were halted by another obaa-san who talked to us for like 30 minutes about her dog (which was adorable, she showed us photos she keeps in her wallet) and like.. oh I dunno…I’d been listening to Japanese all day so I kind of lost interest after she stopped giving me the usual 20 questions and stopped talking about her dog and the neighbor’s cat. Sorry…(;´∀`)

After we had talked to this lady for like.. foreverrr… it was time to get back on the bus!! So we had to run to the restrooms and back to the tour bus. I was really not looking forward to sitting on the bus for 3 more hours… but we had a nice bento of tako meshi and we finished watching the silly movie that we started watching on the way to the farmer’s market, so it wasn’t all that bad. I guess maybe I’m just not Japanese-sized enough for Japanese tour buses (ー_ー;) At least not for the entire day, anyway.

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I guess I don’t ever really go on group tours, I usually travel alone or with at least one other person. Big groups kind of drive me nuts, I hate time limits... and I don’t quite care for being on a cramped tour bus for more than half the day!! If you’re the kind of person that’s into set tours, Japan has plenty of them to take advantage of, and it does take a lot of the thought and hassle out of traveling. You can book them through any Japanese travel agency, and there are always ads in newspapers and travel brochures you can pick up pretty much anywhere.

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However!! Even though set tours aren’t really my style, I was happy to spend time with my grandmother-friend, she’s so lovely and wonderful and such a sweet, thoughtful human being!!! I also got to eat some really nice food, and see some beautiful things in some hard-to-get-to places. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty good day.

Show Me Japan

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

プリティーお弁当 #5 and #6!

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Well, it’s finals week, and this is pretty much what I do at my desk all day.

Ok, ok. I don’t really just sit around and do nothing. I sit around and read novels, study Japanese, write e-mails, check facebook… uh…tweet random news stories AND…since the cafeteria is closed all week, I think about making the next day’s OBENTO!

☆ ヽ(´ー`)ノ ☆

I’ve been making bento all week, but Monday’s bento (vegetable goyoza, stir-fried veggies, and taki-komi gohan) and today’s bento (leftover lentils, broccoli, saffron rice, and curried chicken) just… weren’t all that pretty, so I did not photograph them. These were the two exceptionally nice looking bento this week!

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Now, for the contents! First, Tuesday’s obento!:

  • stir fried vegetables
  • steamed broccoli
  • mini hamburgers w/ ketchup
  • taki-komi gohan (rice steamed with dashi, miso, renkon, and carrot)

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I actually had made the stir-fried veggies on Monday, and these were leftovers. I tried to replicate the same kind of stir-fry that they make in the school cafeteria, but they have a really well-seasoned wok, and my non-stick frying pan just doesn’t compare! I also can’t generate the kind of heat on my electric burners like they have on the gas stove at school.
Also, being from Pittsburgh, I only use Heinz ketchup. None of that Kagome crap. I love that the bottle has “Heinz” written in katakana on the label. I may have to save this bottle for posterity.

Next up is the bento for tomorrow!

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  • steamed salmon
  • blanched spinach with sesame dressing
  • carrots steamed with butter + honey
  • white rice with salmon/wakame/sesame furikake
  • honey umeboshi (despite being called “honey” they’re not very sweet!)

I’ve also been trying to make different kinds of ethnic-type foods… Monday’s was kind of Chinese with the goyoza and stir fried veggies, Tuesday’s… I’ll say it was American because it was a mix of everything, and today’s was clearly Indian-influenced with the lentils and curried chicken. Tomorrow’s bento is clearly Japanese, as you can see, with the fish, umeboshi, white rice and furikake. Maybe I’ll make pasta tomorrow night and have an Italian bento for Friday!

Monday, February 21, 2011


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This is the train I take to school every day! Yaay.
(it snowed a couple of weeks ago, and I felt the need to document it.)

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I USED to take one of these to school every day…. but not anymore!! I was shocked when I saw this parked outside the station. I have never seen an American school bus in Japan before. I was kind of curious about it, especially since American cars and trucks are SO rare here. The name of the bus is Thomas, which appears to be a North American brand owned by Daimler. Daimler operates in Japan via Mitsubishi Fuso trucks.. where I’d assume this bus was assembled.
It always just really surprises me to see cars and vehicles from the U.S.! They look so out of place!! One of my co-workers has an H3, and it is comically GIGANTIC compared to the teeny tiny shoebox cars. I’ve also seen my mom’s minivan and a Ford Excursion riding around town and in the grocery store parking lot. I wonder what prompts Japanese people to buy foreign cars versus domestic ones? Is it purely for conspicuous consumption? I can’t imagine that it’s cost-effective to own (or store) a Ford Excursion or a Hummer in a country where there’s very little space and the cost of automotive fuel is significantly high. Perhaps other reasons? Does anyone have more ideas or insight into this than I do?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

プリティーお弁当 #4!

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I feel like I haven’t made a nice-looking bento in quite some time. Mostly because it’s winter and I’d rather have something hot from the school cafeteria like ramen or my personal favorite, 野菜炒め (stir fried vegetables). The cafeteria was closed today, since the faculty was having the annual “let’s talk about who may not be moving up to the next grade” meeting, and all of the students left after 4th period. Luckily, I was able to anticipate the closure of the cafeteria, and I got down to some intense cooking last night. Hopefully my creative-cooking-juices will still be flowing and I’ll have some energy to make some obento for next week, since we’ll be having final exams and the cafeteria will be closed yet again.

And now, what you’re all probably dying to know… the contents!

  • chicken sautéed in soy sauce + ginger
  • renkon (lotus root), carrot, and daikon simmered in dashi, soy sauce, mirin and butter
  • steamed spinach dressed in tofu and sesame seeds
  • Rice steamed with carrots, sesame seeds, and mushrooms in dashi, miso, and soy sauce
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The simmered veggies were easy enough to make, modified from a recipe I saw on NHK’s きょうの料理 (today’s cooking). You wouldn’t ever think to add a tablespoon of butter to something that is so…typically Japanese in flavor and ingredients, but it compliments these kind of root vegetables so so so well. Try it!foods 011

The rice I used is standard short-grain Japanese rice, well-washed, of course! I actually added a tiny bit of oil (I used grapeseed oil) to make sure the rice didn’t stick. This particular type of rice, made with broth and vegetables mixed in, is more specifically called 炊き込みご飯 (taki-komi-gohan). I feel like it isn’t an everyday kind of food, and that it is usually reserved for special occasions, but hey… when ISN’T a bento a special occasion?! ヽ(^。^)ノ

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


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Last week was our yosenkai (send-off) for our third-year students. Most schools tend to have some kind of event for graduating students, whether it be from elementary, middle, or high school. There’s another word for send-off,  送別会 (soubetsukai) which is fairly common, but yosenkai, the word our school uses, is a kind of fancy word that denotes that the event is specifically for graduates, and the ‘sen’ can be written with either 餞 (hanamuke, which means ‘parting gift’) or 饌 (‘sen’ that comes from 饌米, or “rice that is consecrated for a deity”). Whatever way you choose to write it, they all basically mean the same kind of event these days.
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The wind ensemble and the dance club performed, as well as the baseball club and a couple of other groups. The music teacher asked me to do a last minute collaboration with him. He asked me to choose a song (!!!) at the very last minute, so I ended up settling on “Good Riddance (Time of your Life)” by Green Day, since I figured that was appropriate for a high school send-off (Ha, maybe like 12 years ago). Also, I didn’t really have time to learn how to play anything new, and I didn’t really feel like playing anything original, since I didn’t feel like my songs would fit with the event. Lastly, I was asked to do this the day before the actual send-off, I just… happened to know how to play it, and the chords were simple enough so the music teacher could ad-lib an accompaniment during the bridge of the song. I don’t teach the third-year students, so I don’t know them very well, but I was glad that I got to participate in the event. Some of the kids even knew who Green Day was, go figure. Getting a chance to play at the Kiryu performing arts center was really awesome, even if the song I was covering wasn’t all that great... The most important thing is that the kids had fun, and I had fun too!
(sorry for the poor quality photos! The school photographer gave me actual, physical, photographs! I took photos of his photos with my phone, since I don’t have a scanner.)


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One of my coworkers is a tea expert!! Well, kind of! He certainly knows a whole lot about tea, and has a collection of different kinds inside the cupboard next to his desk. He makes his own personal stash of bancha (which is roasted green tea) and umeboshi (pickled pums, that I usually get my very own container of every now and again). Today was a pretty chilly inside our lovely concrete block of a school, even though the plum trees outside are blooming and making their best effort to make spring start happening. So, in an effort to warm up, he made me some ume-bancha, which goes a little something like this:

you will need:

  • umeboshi
  • bancha (or just roast some medium-grade green tea yourself!)
  • plum blossoms (optional)
  • honey (optional)


First, bring some water to boil for the tea. Once the water has boiled, turn off the heat and wait a minute!! Then, pour the boiling water into your tea pot with the dry leaves on the bottom, and steep for two minutes.

While the tea is steeping, remove the seed from inside the umeboshi, and place in a teacup. Pour your steeped tea through a fine strainer and over the pickled plum and float a plum blossom on top.

Plum blossoms should have a sweet fragrance, and are bitter to the taste. Make sure your flowers are safe enough to be consumed!! (i.e. no pesticides!)

If you like your tea sweetened, add some honey to this, and it will be really REALLY nice. The overall flavors are actually quite bitter and then sour at the end, but honey will add a really nice sweetness that compliments the umeboshi really well.


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Friday, February 11, 2011

Bannaji snow

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It so rarely snows here, that when it does I get kind of excited about it.

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So, I took a little trip to Bannaji today to take pictures of things with snow on them.

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Sunday, February 6, 2011


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Yum!! Kimchi yakisoba is probably one of my favorite things to make, and it’s so easy!! I’ve added approximate measurements, since you all should know by now that I never measure anything when I cook. I’ve also made this before with moyashi (bean sprouts) in addition to cabbage and onion. You could also easily use beef or chicken instead of pork.
Ready? Let’s begin!

You will need:

  • 1 tablespoon of your favorite cooking oil
  • 1/2 cup of kimchi
  • 1/4 head of cabbage, shredded
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 1 large clove of garlic, minced
  • thinly sliced pork
  • 2 packages of pre-cooked yakisoba noodles
  • 4 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons of ketchup
  • siracha sauce to taste


Take a fairly large sized frying pan or wok and heat up your cooking oil. Then, add the garlic and onions and cook them until they start to become transparent and very aromatic. Then, add your thin slices of pork. Shabu-shabu type pork works well for this. Once your pork is cooked through, add your shredded cabbage. Fry and stir. Stir and fry. Use a medium-high heat.
Then, add the soy sauce and ketchup. be sure to stir well and coat everything, otherwise the sauces will start to caramelize on the bottom of the pan since it will be very hot by this point. Add your pre-cooked yakisoba noodles and make sure they are coated with the ketchup and soy sauce. If not, you can always add a little more to make sure they get coated.
Now comes the good part!! Stir in the kimchi!! If kimchi isn’t spicy enough for you, add some siracha sauce and stir. The pan should be very very hot by this point, so it is fine if you turn off the heat completely and let it finish cooking by the residual heat. The noodles will suck up the ketchup, kimchi juices, soy sauce and siracha, and just become all around amazing. The pork should be completely cooked through and well coated with your sauces.

Serve on your favorite dish or in your favorite bowl and enjoy!!

★ ★ ★

I should also probably mention now that my hometown’s professional football team is participating in the national tournament (otherwise known as the superbowl) and yes, I’m excited about it, even though I’m not able to be at home to watch them or cheer them on with other loyal Pittsburghers.

so.. here we go Steelers!! One for the other thumb!!

Oh wait.. we got that one already…

the other index finger?

Friday, February 4, 2011


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I went with some friends to a local temple for setsubun this year.

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The temple people had spent the entire day making ama-zake. It was apparently only available at certain times of the day. Luckily, we made it there in time for the last batch!

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Afterwards, it was shabu-shabu time!!

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