Artful evening at Kanazawa Matsumoto

Our first Saturday night together we visited Kanazawa Matsumoto for a traditional Japanese meal with geisha and entertainment.  Honestly I didn’t know what to expect from the evening, thinking it would be a formal event and rather boring.  The night proved to be fun & entertaining thanks to our Japanese hosts.

The floor of the dining room was covered in tatami mats, the traditional type of Japanese flooring.  Interestingly, as we walked to the Japanese inn (ryokan), we passed a shop where workers were making tatami mats by hand.  The dining room was filled with six round tables each seating five guests, the tables facing an open area at one end of the rectangular room.  The five people at our table were the only non-Japanese guests.

What made the evening special was the care & attention the geisha showed to every visitor.  Each table had a geisha attendant to make conversation, engaging each guest individually.  Our Australian friends got a “good day mate” in a creditable Australian accent, Laura from Italy was asked what city was she from, Carolyn & I spoke of New York.  With our hostess’ limited English & Carolyn translating from the Japanese we communicated very well, although the important message was communicated without words: that the well-being of the guests really mattered.  It was this concern for our comfort that made the evening memorable.

The meal started with thin strips of raw squid marinated in brine, served in a tiny ceramic bowl, perhaps an inch in diameter, to whet the appetite and encourage thirst.  Then a plate containing tiny squid (hotaru-ika or firefly squid), a large shrimp, two fava beans, some greens, a large snail in its shell, & a slice of beef decorated with a blot of mustard.  Dinner was seafood & vegetables in miso soup followed by rice.  Our attendant was always at our side, serving food and pouring sake and beer.

The entertainment for the night consisted of traditional Japanese music, song and dance, and what I found most surprising, games for the guests.  The instruments used were the voice, the three-stringed lute (shamisen) and drums.  The guests were encouraged to join in the entertainment.  The ladies joined the geisha in traditional dancing.  We learned to play the Japanese drums.  Finally a raucous round of  janken (rock, paper, scissors), with the loser paying a penalty: drinking a cup of sake.  The geisha encouraged every guest to participate.  It was simply great fun and for me, unexpected.  One of the most enthusiastic guests was a Japanese women, tall and thin in denim, there with her daughter.  She challenged both her daughter and geisha in janken, gloriously happy in her victory.

After playing the drums and beating Carolyn at janken several of the Japanese guests shook hands and congratulated me.  They seemed genuinely happy we were there enjoying the evening with them.

Image source: Kanazawa Matsumoto

Related MadSilence post: A woman of the arts


You know he’s turning Japanese

The next few weeks will find me in Kanazawa visiting MS the Younger and Hungrier so look forward to joint posts from this beautiful Japanese city.

According to the Kanazawa City Home Page:

Kanazawa, the biggest city in the Hokuriku region has a population of 450,000, and is a castle town that was ruled over by the Maeda family for three centuries after the first lord Toshiie Maeda entered Kanazawa Castle in 1583. The development of its special products like rice, sake, sweets, etc. was due to its temperate and rainy climate with heavy snow in winter. The city is surrounded by the Japan Alps, Hakusan National Park and Noto Peninsula National Park. Two rivers run through the city; the Sai is said to be a lively masculine river and the Asano to be a sweet, feminine river. Such a natural background of great beauty gives the city a relaxed feeling.

Since the Kaga Clan invited many artists and craftsmen to this area, it achieved a high level of craftsmanship that continues to flourish to this day. Colorful KUTANI POTTERY, earthy OHI POTTERY,  elegant KANAZAWA LACQUERWARE, glittering KANAZAWA GOLD LEAF, unique-to-Kanazawa PAULOWNIA CRAFT, specially hand-painted KAGA-YUZEN SILK, KAGA ZOGAN, KAGA EMBROIDERY, KAGA FISHING FLIES, MIZUHIKI, and KANAZAWA BUDDHIST ALTARS.

The buildings that gave birth to these traditions stand tranquilly and blend in with the modern atmosphere in Kanazawa to create a charming ancient castle town.

Photo credit : Kanazawa City

~MS the Older & Wiser

10 Ten Things to Try in Japan

Muza-chan over at Gate to Japan hosted  February’s Japan Blog Matsuri!  The theme is “Top 10 Lists,” whether that means foods, places to visit, people to meet, etc. etc. etc.  Sadly I didn’t submit my list on time, but why not share it anyway?

Now, Japan is a normal place to those who already live here, but to the rest of us outsiders there are some things that are down-right off-putting.  Like getting naked, or eating things raw, buying condoms from vending machines… but those strange things really are the best parts of Japan!  So here’s 10 things you should do, no matter how weird they sound, because they’ll become some of your favorite things!

1)  Give jellyfish a chance!

Jellyfish Salad from Life Loves the Curious.

Jellyfish Salad from Life Loves the Curious.

Something I learned from Japan: even the strangest and most dangerous-looking sea creatures can be delicious.  Ok, I haven’t given fugu (blowfish) a try yet, but jellyfish definitely fits into this category.  Is jellyfish jelly-like?  Surprisingly not.  It’s actually…. crunchy?  Chewy?  Both?  If you’ve eaten konnyaku, it’s kind of like that, except with a little more bite.  They don’t have much flavor though, being 95% water with no interesting innards or bones to give them flavor.  You can eat their skin, bell, or tentacles.  The other ingredients give them their flavor.  I like them best as pickles or in steamed jellyfish salad with spicy dressing, cucumber and steamed chicken.  MeltingWok has a nice little post about Chinese-style jellyfish salad and preparing jellyfish over here.  Life Loves the Curious does a more step-by-step Japanese version too.  And did you know you could grill it Indian Satay style?  Of turn it into a caramel? Luckily you can eat the immense jellyfish that are currently attacking the Japanese coastline….

2)  Getting Naked with Strangers.

Outdoor rotenburo bath at an onsen!

Outdoor rotenburo bath at an onsen!

America was once land of the Puritans, and it sure lingers on in some ways, like prudery about nakedness in groups.  Ahh, once I was part of that group of people who go “DEAR GOD TAKE OFF MY CLOTHES IN FRONT OF STRANGERS??!?!!” but my ways have been changed by that miracle called the onsenOnsen, or natural hot springs, are one of the greatest natural blessings of Japan – I guess you need something to balance the earthquakes and volcanoes!  Shuck your clothes, wash at the scrubbing stands in the main area of the bath, and then relax outside in the hot water.  Back in the day baths were not segregated, but these days most baths are, so you don’t have to worry about getting ogled by old men, although gaijin guys will get eyeballed by people in the bath (or so I’ve heard).  Well, that’s one reason you get a modesty towel XDD  Check out OnsenJapan for some more info on onsen etiquette and famous onsen in Japan, or head to North Carolina, where there’s a Japanese style bath you can try without the plane fare!

3)  Eating it raw!

Egg on rice - the prefect Japanese breakfast, by on  Flickr.

Egg on rice - the prefect Japanese breakfast, by on Flickr.

Yes, yes, sushi comes into this, but also raw egg, raw horse, raw whale, etc etc etc.  And as gross as it sounds, give it a try.  At least once. Some people have this amazing fear of their food and most don’t feel comfortable eating anything that isn’t cooked to a Health Department approved temperature, but there’s no need to be afraid.  Japanese chefs are very careful about fresh ingredients and most things are cut up right before you eat them.  Eggs for dipping your sukiyaki or topping your mornings rice with will not kill you.  Get over your fears and enjoy the slurpy slimy-ness of raw food!

4)  Buy just about anything… from a vending machine.

5)  Strangely flavored sweets.

Soy sauce ice cream!  Some companies even make a soy sauce syrup  to put on top of vanilla, just like hot fudge.

Soy sauce ice cream! Some companies even make a soy sauce syrup to put on top of vanilla, just like hot fudge.

Kits Kats in roasted soy bean flavor?  Soy sauce or wasabi flavored ice cream?  Cherry blossom scented rice cakes?  Salt, beer, or edamame flavored gelato?  Sweet red bean flavored caramels?  If it’s an odd flavor (at least to the Western palate), you’ll find it in Japan.  Surprisingly, the majority are quite delicious.  Salt gelato is something I’ll miss back in the States.

6)  Bean paste.

Home-made anko.

Home-made anko.

Made from beans?  Yup.  Mealy and melty like beans?  Yup.  Savory like beans?  Nope.  Anko, bean paste, is made from sweet azuki beans that are cooked until they fall apart and make a thick paste.  It’s stuffed in bread to make the ever-popular anpan, rolled around balls of mochi to make ohagi, eaten like a soup, put on top of ice cream, and even used in some beauty products!  Weird?  Yes.  Takes some getting used to?  Yes.  Worth it?  Absolutely.

7)  Walk and bike everywhere.  I walk or ride my bike to work almost everyday, in all types of weather.  It’s good exercise and produces a very small carbon footprint.  The world is very different when experienced while on foot, in the first-person: the sun on your head,wind & rain in your face. You get a real feel for the land and its people. For the visitor, walking and biking gets you “off the beaten track” and allows you to experience this beautiful country in ways not accessible to the motor-borne traveler.  Give it a try…you’ll have good company and plenty of it.

8)  Giving Japanese a try. Japanese is spoken in Japan and virtually no where else. A few basic words: Konnichiwa (kon-nee-chee-WAH): Hello. Dōmo arigatō (doh-moh ah-ree-GAH-toh): Thank you. Sumimasen (soo-mee-mah-sen): Excuse me.

9)  Love hotels.  I’ve heard stories…  Enough said.

10)  Getting Lost… and Un-lost.  In Japan you’ll get lost. It’s virtually assured. It’s not just that you can’t read the street signs…oftentimes they’re just not there. I once asked a Japanese friend about the lack of street signs and was told they like it that way: it assures privacy. If invited to his house you’ll be given detailed travel directions. But don’t worry if you get lost, the Japanese get lost also. Being lost can be an adventure and a portal to unexpected discoveries. So relax and enjoy the adventure. And don’t worry, the polite Japanese are always willing to assist.


geographically and socially, that is not easily accessible to most visitors to the country.

Daijoji Temple, Soto Zen Meditation Experience

Zen meditation brings to mind a lot of things: monks with bald heads, whacking sticks to keep you awake, incense and chanting… and you aren’t half wrong!  I was lucky enough to get into an afternoon tour of Daijoji Temple, one of the better known Soto Zen training temples on the west coast of Japan.  Soto is one of three different kinds of Zen Buddhism, all with different meditation-based practices that lead toward Enlightenment.  Soto’s take on meditation is called “just-sitting.”  While other schools envision mandalas, ponder “koans” (essentially improbable questions that when meditated upon help to bring you to Enlightenment.  The most famous being: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” ) or chant while meditating, Soto Zen practitioners use none of these focuses.  Your goal is to let thoughts naturally arise and pass by without bothering them, like a cloud in the sky.  With practice you are able to enter a state of mind where there are almost no thoughts at all.  Soto practitioners believe that every person was born with innate Buddha-hood, and that by looking beyond the thoughts and personality imposed on us by our environment we can see our own Buddha nature.

The temple itself is located on the top of a mountain, above the cemetery where Maeda Toshiie is buried.  It was founded about 700 years ago by Dogen (the actual founder of Soto Zen itself!!) and many of the buildings have a history just as long.  You could feel the history of the temple as you walked up the long, cedar-lined path that led to the entrance gates.  Moss-covered Buddhas and Bodhisattvas watched us silently as we climbed the path, with withered flowers and whiffs of old incense coming from the graves behind the mountain plants…


Car gremlins?

I’ll have to get a picture of the flying wiener on the front of the car some day…

~MS the Younger

International Festival… and a new (old?) hobby

This year, the International Festival here in KZ was bigger than ever!  They extended the festival to 2 days and moved it to the front of Kanazawa Station, which is a very well populated area, so we got lots of exposure.  The ALTs did lots this year, with a bake sale, charity craft sale, and lots of music and food from around the world!  For such a small city, Kanazawa has a very strong international community.  We’ve got people from the Middle East, Americas, Caribbean, Europe, Africa, Australia… name most countries and we have at least 1 person from it.

International Fashion!   Featuring (from left to right) Kenya, India, and Tonga.

International Fashion! Featuring (from left to right) Kenya, India, and Tonga.

In my role as Friendly Local American I participated in the International Fashion Show (in Kenyan dress) and sang a few English songs from around the world with a friend from a neighboring city.  Even though we had a small audience it was a bit nerve-wracking. I caught a cold and thought we wouldn’t be able to perform at all, but a large cup of black tea with honey saved me from ignominy! We performed “Botany Bay” from Australia, “Wild Rover” from Ireland, and “This Land is Your Land” and “Country Roads” from America. We were actually going to do my newest favorite song called “Paperweight” but high notes were a bit out of my range that day.  It’s amazing how most Japanese people know only about 5 English words but can sing John Denver’s “Country Roads” in English very well. We also ended up dancing the Virginia Reel in the Scottish Ceilidh dancing workshop! It was really exciting, because although I’ve been here for 3 years this was my first time participating in the festival!

Stitch 'n Bitch, babies!

Stitch 'n Bitch, babies!

Perhaps one of the best parts of the International Festival has been the rediscovery of that old friend, crocheting!  And just in time for winter, too.  There’s nothing better than sitting with a warm blanket on your lap, working away with a cup of something hot and steamy by your side.  A bunch of the other ALTs in our area are avid crafters – knitters, crocheters, earring and hair-tie makers (some of them Ravelry logo.even have their own Etsy accounts!)…  I never realized how many talented people we have in the prefecture!  Luckily some of them are motivated as well as talented so we started up a little “Stitch ‘n Bitch” group, or, as we call it, “Sit ‘n Knit,” to make stuff to sell for charity.  They introduced me to an awesome little site called Ravelry, which all of you knitting and crocheting fans should sign up for.  It’s a notebook/pattern/crafting help site with an amazing community of interesting people and free patterns – a really fun community dedicated to bringing knitting and crocheting out of the “grandma” world.

My current project:  The gorgeous “Garden Scarf” from The Happy Hooker, by the same author as Stitch and Bitch.  Looks scary, but absolutely easy to put together.  WIP ~50%.  I swear the colors are more awesome under natural light!

Garden Scarf - 50% done!

Garden Scarf - 50% done!

I’ve begun to obsessively read crafting blogs.  My latest “blog crush” (as my friend over at SweetfernHandmade puts it) is for the amazing Attic24, home of rainbow crochet hand warmers, lovely bird ornaments and gorgeous photography from the north of England.  Look at that picture!!  Doesn’t it make you wanna go on a yarn buying spree and then crochet a rainbow to hang on your ceiling!!

A picture of the amazing rainbow handwarmers from Attic24 - her designs are so inspiring!

A picture of the amazing rainbow handwarmers from Attic24 - her designs are so inspiring!

Alright, enough with the fangirling over crafts – you’ll just have to wait till next time for the crochet/knitting/sci-fi fandom podcast review!

~MS the Younger

A woman of the arts

CAB1Recently, my friends and I visited the Japanese city of Kyoto for two days of fun and excitement.  For me the highlight of our trip was the visit to Maiko Transformation Studio Shiki in the pursuit of beauty, Japanese style.  Studio Shiki provides kimono-dressing, makeup and photography services, essentially making you over like a maiko, an apprentice geisha.  It was a little expensive, but I’ve wanted to do this for three years, and finally had an adventuresome friend who wanted to experience it with me!

The Transformation Process in four parts:

Part 1: The Finding
First we had to find the place!  It was up in the outer parts of the city, very near to Kiyomizudera, the famous water temple.  We walked and walked and walked, but every moment was appreciated because I’ve never been to that area before— lots of winding narrow streets and traditional buildings, with the unexpected pagoda or temple hidden in different corners, evocative of old town Kyoto.  We finally found the studio down this little staircase on a very busy (but tiny) tourist street.

CAB2Part 2:  The Stripping
After checking in, we were divested of our outerwear and handed a basket full of undergarments and special tabi socks.  We snuck into the locker room, only to find ten other women already crammed into it!  Good thing we’re all comfortable with getting undressed in front of total strangers (I knew those many hours spent luxuriating at the onsen would come in handy sometime).  We had to put on this little cotton robe with a very deep v-neck in front and back… and then scamper up the stairs to the 3rd floor in out newly applied split-toed socks.

Part 3:  The Making (Up)
We then waited in line with a bunch of other women, each with different stages of their makeup put on.  First, a hair net is applied and your face de-oiled and rubbed down with wax, which helps the white makeup stay on (those ladies know how to apply lotion—what strong hands they have!).  Next, we moved to the “ghost” station, where the layer of plain white makeup is applied.  Except for the back of the neck with its two-pointed fence shape, applying the white layer is a bit like painting a barn—you close your eyes and they draw this big flat brush over every surface.  Two big buffer pads are used to polish it all up, taking off the extra and making sure it’s in every nook and cranny of your eyes, nose and mouth.  When I finally opened my eyes I had to force my eyelids open—they were glued together!  Next we moved to color: beautiful cherry blossom pink applied to the flat white with red and black accents.  What a price to pay in the pursuit for beauty.  Next on to wardrobe!

CAB3Part 4:  The Robing
We got to pick our own kimono!  It was so cool, the room full of long-sleeved kimono, very long and of every color of the rainbow with different motifs.  All fall styles, of course!   It’s important with traditional dress to wear motifs and colors that reflect the seasons.  There were sage greens with golden Japanese maple (momiji) leaves, purples with wheeled carts, rich browns with chrysanthemum… so many to choose from.  Over 100 pieces of kimono were available.  After making our selection we were led to the dressing room.  In what proved to be a lengthy process, we were then strapped down with padding and tied into our kimono (don’t ask for details, regular kimono is ridiculously complicated to wear, and geisha style is even more convoluted) and selected our obi, the large sash.  Our transformation was complete with as we were crowned with our maiko-style wig (quite heavy) and, slipping into large wooden clogs (called okubo), we ventured outside to display our finery.

We walked leisurely outside while enjoying the beautiful surroundings of old town Kyoto, the stone-paved streets with traditional Japanese-style houses along each side.  The area surrounding Studio Shiki was packed with enthralled visitors, oohing and ahhing over our outfits and makeup.  We were stopped repeatedly with polite requests for photographs.  At least 15 people asked to take a photo with us!

CAB4What an incredible experience to walk the streets of old Kyoto, swathed in silk kimono and richly embroidered obi, with snow-white powdered face and red-painted lips, shimmering trinkets in my hair.  It made me feel very much a Japanese  “woman of arts”, which is exactly what a geisha is—a woman trained in the traditional arts of Japan such as flower arranging, poetry, dance, music and song.  What a wonderful feeling to share in this rich cultural heritage.

~MS the Cooperative Effort

Domo with your coffee


Of course anyone who has a certified Japanophile in the family must be familiar with the Domo character, especially when that lover of all things Japanese is also a  JET ALT.  So it came as no real surprise when, upon entering my local 7-11 store, what should I see but images of this Japanese animated character and mascot.  After all it was good enough last Halloween for the Target chain of American retail stores.

Related links:

7/11 ‘Domo’ Promotion Goes Live
Dark Horse, TPop Join Domo Promo
New at 7-Eleven® Stores

Image source


Hoping to see you in Japan! JET Programme Application 2009

The Jet Programme Logo

The Jet Programme Logo

It’s that special time of year again, that tiny window of 2 months to apply for the JET Programme!  The US website has the application up, which is due on November 24th.  If you’re not in the US, check the participating countries list which will direct you to your country’s application procedure.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain

The Jet Programme is an amazing opportunity that you won’t get in any other country!!!  In this, Japan is special… and a little strange (has any other country tried to import diversity in quite the same way?).  You’ll get travel expenses, an interesting, challenging job, a great paycheck and a chance to make a difference on a local level as well as creating connections between people from countries all around the world.  When I applied I never realized what a life-changing experience living in such a different country would be – and I think it’s an experience that ALL people should have.

Peace in Hiroshima

Peace in Hiroshima

The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” St. Augustine

America is so big that it’s forgotten that other countries exist.  While other countries encourage their students and young people to travel and expand their horizons (for example, the gap year programs in Australia and the UK) America is geographically, and subsequently mentally, isolated.  Yes, we’re far away from many places, and yes, many people don’t study a different language seriously in high school or college, but without that mind-shocking experience of living abroad – eating different foods, seeing different values and religions at work, communicating with your body when you can’t speak or read properly, seeing the universal kindness of people no matter what color their skin is – our minds will always be fettered with that patriotic “We’re the best!” attitude.   Not that I’m against patriotism (I love home and I will never stop loving it for its idiosyncrasies and flexibility), but it’s important to understand why you love your country, and you can’t do that unless you have some other experience to compare it to.  So people, take advantage of programs like Jet or the other English teaching opportunities there are around the world!

Here’s an excerpt from an email I wrote to a friend of a friend who was interested in the JET Programme:

You sound like a lot of us who want to get out of the US and have an adventure…. Japan is one of the most amazing adventures I’ve had yet.  Japan is so familiar on the surface and yet so completely different underneath.  It drives some people crazy, they can’t adapt to it.  Some of us become completely absorbed, Japan just agrees with us better then our home country.  Some people straddle the line between the two, like me.  You can do so many things here, so many doors are open that aren’t at home.  Here you’re an alien rock star, sticking out no matter where you go, being stared at in the street by children and old ladies alike, being treated with extreme respect and kindness most of the time and occasionally being stalked or treated like an idiot.  You will find yourself getting used to being so obvious and use it as a way to draw other people out of their shells.  You will make friends with gaijin from around the globe that you would never meet or even think of socializing with anywhere else.  Your English will be bastardized and you will talk in pidjin English-Japanese (so take your GRE now before your vocab starts to decay!).  You’ll go to karaoke with your students, get drunk and naked with your co-workers, carry penises through the streets and dance at international festivals.  You’ll eat foods you never thought would enter your mouth – you’ll find yourself loving fish and losing weight .  Japan will change you in ways you never expected and I expect that none of us will ever go back to the way we were before, it’s impossible.  You have to be aware of the immense cultural, mental, language stresses that you’ll be placed under and be patient with yourself to get over them, no matter how long you’re here you will be riding the ups and downs of the culture shock roller coaster, but you’ll have amazing friends to tide you through everything from moving to going to the doctor in another language to falling in love with people you can’t communicate fully with, mentally or with language.  It’s a mad mad mad mad world out here <3 but I love it.

Here’s a little more about the bones of the program:


The Art of Catching Noodles

流しそうめん, nagashi somen, is something you absolutely must experience if you come to Japan during the summer.  Nagashi means “flowing” and “somen” is a kind of thin, white wheat noodle, very light and mild tasting.  Typical of Japan, they’ve combined the great outdoors with a tasty treat for refreshing summer cuisine.

The waterfall the restaurant is set-up next to.

The waterfall the restaurant is set-up next to.

Playing in the stream after gorging ourselves!

Playing in the stream after gorging ourselves!

Basically, bamboo or metal slides are set up and cold fresh water runs through the half-pipes.  The person at the top of the slide yells “Iku yo!”  “Here it comes!” and then throws bunches of delicious cold noodles into the slide.  They float down and you grab mouthfuls from the slide in front of you.  Since somen itself is pretty flavorless, you dunk it into めんつゆ, mentsuyu, noodle broth, in which you’ve mixed chopped green onion and grated ginger, wasabi and myoga (which are these wild looking little plant bulbs that taste like a cross between ginger, garlic and onion).  Usually you pay about 500Y for 15 minutes of all-you-can-grab madness!  It leads to noodle stealing and fierce competition even between close friends XD

We traveled to the middle of the mountains for our nagashi somen.  You trek up a long mountain road to get there – it’s about half an hour from the nearest town.  You get out of your car and trek into the woods, crossing over a strong little brook and find yourself in front of a 3-storey waterfall!  The restaurant itself is set up on platforms that straddle the stream.  It’s the ultimate natural eating experience!

In this video the kids are yelling “tabetai!  tabetai!!”  “I wanna eat it!  I wanna eat it!”  In America, this would be kids going “Ewwww!  Fish!  Gross!”  Ahh cultural differences ^^;;;;

Action shot!

Action shot!

One of the best things about this little restaurant is it’s side dishes – especially iwana, a kind of sweet water fish that lives in the local waterways.  They’re caught locally and kept fresh in a mesh metal cage set into the stream.  The little old men who run the charcoal grills go downstream occassionally to net up buckets of fresh wiggling iwana, stick them on skewers whole, roll them in salt and then grill ‘em.  They’re my favorite fish of all time!

Salt-roasted iwana!

Salt-roasted iwana!

~MS the Stuffed <3

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