Thursday, December 27, 2007

Back to Work

I spent most of today washing windows. Normally that would depress me because I hate cleaning. (Cooking and laundry are ok, but windows?!) But since these windows were in a greenhouse and this greenhouse has been out of commission since before Thanksgiving, I was thrilled to be getting it back on line.

Back in November I walked in and smelled gas. It wasn't freezing, but I could see my breath, which isn't something I aim for in a greenhouse. Wouldn't you think getting a heater fixed was a simple thing? Not in NYC around the holidays; it's not worth the effort for most contractors. So I schlepped the plants over to another greenhouse for the duration. And now, more than a month later, I'm bringing the babies home.

It'll take a while to get the landscape back to its former glory, but that's what I'm here for.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Where the heck is Hijiori Onsen?

A week ago today I was in Hijiori Onsen.

Hijiori where? Most Japanese don't even know where it is, so I'll tell you. Take the Yamagata shinkansen (bullet train) to the end of the line (Shinjo). Next, take a local bus another hour to the end of that line: Hijiori Onsen. Hijiori Onsen is so small that the only butcher in town has beef just twice a week. We were there for 4 days and didn't see a single other non-Asian face.

It snows a lot in Hijiori. Rolly-bags don't work so well in the snow. They tend to collect snow behind them, like a reverse plow, making every step harder than the last. Since we were mis-directed getting off the bus, we walked about 10 times further than we needed to...over a bridge and up a hill before we stopped to ask for directions.

Yamagata-ken (Yamagata prefecture) is famous because every town has at least one hot spring. Hijiori Onsen has more than I could count. We stayed at the Maluya Hotel, a ryokan (inn) that dates from 1868 and has 4 baths: a family bath (for a single group at a time), 2 larger, shared baths that alternate between men and women, and a rotemburo (an outdoor tub). People come to an onsen town to take the waters, and the mineral content of each bath is posted outside the tub. Even if the signs hadn't been in Japanese, I wouldn't have understood their significance. But that didn't keep me from enjoying the water.

Personally, I'm fond of the rotemburo because there's nothing like sitting in a hot tub while snow falls on a Japanese maple ten feet away. We also visited two of the public baths in town. For less than $3 you can soak to your heart's content, naked, with all the local ladies. We bathed 3-4 times each day, showering before each soak. Bathing became our occupation. In between baths we walked, read and wrote in the ryokan's cozy library, shopped for food, and cooked. Most ryokan guests get breakfast and supper with their room, but as toji guests, we'd signed on for something different.

Toji guests make an extended stay, cooking for themselves and taking the waters. It's a time to relax and recuperate from whatever has worn you down. The hotel kitchen was on the first floor, right near the front door. I can say with absolute certainty that every guest that walked into that ryokan was quite surprised to see two gaijin (foreigners) cooking their own supper. Let 'em stare...we had a blast.

Equipment was limited: there were 2 coin-
operated, gas burners; 10 yen gave us 10 minutes of heat. Cayce and I love to cook and we were up to the challenge. We ate well, shopping for local mushrooms, persimmons, and pork, making daikon pickles, rice pudding, and wait for it...cheese! Our food smelled so good that the ryokan cooks came out to see what we were doing.

After 4 days of snowy weather and intensive hydro-therapy, Cayce and I got back on the bullet train and headed to Tokyo, then Okinawa. Quite a change from a rotemburo in the snow.
P.S. Two of the pictures w/me in them were taken and contributed by Cayce Hill! (The third, w/me & Cayce together, was taken by Dora, the attendant at one of the public baths in Hijiori Onsen.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

from the sublime to the ridiculous!

The past three days have been a blur...and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Monday morning on Okinawa started out much the same as Sunday, with breakfast in the sunshine: eggs, salad, pineapple, rice, and miso. Then Masa-san called us around back to the kitchen to help with supper. He'd promised us a chicken barbeque, and he was just now killing the chickens. We've all heard the expression "running around like a chicken with its head cut off" but that's not entirely accurate. There's very little running involved. Those headless chickens careened violently from a rock to a wall to a tree to the porch, leaving trails of blood as they bounced from one object to the next. Their movement was fast, chaotic, and powerful, and even though I had my camera in my hand, I couldn't bring myself to photograph it. Meat is delicious but death is traumatic. I'm not sorry I saw it, but it didn't feel right to snap the shutter.

Dyer (Cayce's brother) and another guest plucked the three chickens and Masa-san got out his blow torch to burn off any remaining stubble. Next he pulled out a VERY sharp knife and butchered the birds. It was fascinating to see the inside of a whole chicken: stomach, heart, liver, testicles...almost nothing was wasted. I photographed every step, but the images are pretty gory so I'm not sure I should post them here.

Masa-san knew I was a plant person, so he got permission to take us through a friend's garden in the village. Okinawa isn't in the tropics but it sure felt tropical, especially when we picked mini-bananas, kumquats, and a green citrus fruit called shikwasa right off the trees. So many of the plants in the garden are houseplants for us back home; I recognized a lot of old friends.

On the way back to the Minshuku we stopped for fresh greens. Not at a store, no that would be far too pedestrian. We simply leaned over the fence and Masa-san called out to the old lady sitting by her field for an armful of whatever she had. They were delicious and peppery and reminded me of tat-soi, but I don't know what they're called.

Next we piled in the back of his truck (I'm sorry Mom, no seatbelts) and drove to a rainforest trail. We hiked about an hour in, over slippery red clay trails, ending at a giant tree. It was an excellent introduction to the local flora and I wish I'd had a field guide to nail down some of the botanical names of what I was seeing.

Dinner that night was chicken, and I doubt I'll ever get closer to my meat.

Tuesday morning we left bright and early for the airport and flew to Kyoto and dinner at Kiku-noi, a superb Kaiseki restaurant. Cayce and I had lunch there last April, and it was a life-altering meal. This time we splurged on dinner, and fasted all day to make room for what we knew would be an elaborate, seasonal menu. It couldn't have been more different from our dinner the night before, although both were built around fresh, local ingredients. Our dinner at Kiku-noi included sea cucumber and cod roe, duck hot-pot with sweet winter onions, and a warm rice broth w/cod testicles. We couldn't get the waitress to admit to the testicles, but Dyer had a sneaking suspicion, and this morning, at the spectacular Nishiki food market we confirmed our guess when we saw great piles of them laid out for sale.

Also this morning we made a quick visit to Kiomizu-dera, an extraordinary temple in the Hagashiyama section of Tokyo. I'd been during cherry blossom season last April and wanted to see it again in a different light. The morning mists made the views almost absurdly beautiful. A few fading leaves remained on the trees and I felt like I was inside The Tale of Genji where the melancholy you feel upon observing the last leaves of fall is an essential part of their beauty. I don't know when I'll be back, but I'll treasure the memories of this trip forever.

Right now they're calling my flight.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Okinawa is WAY more than o.k.

Here is my first full day on Okinawa:

Woke at 6 and snuck out of the room so I wouldn't wake my roommates. We're four people sleeping on futons in a tatami room at an eco-hostel on the northern tip of Okinawa. I read for about an hour as I waited my turn for the bath. The bath is hot: about 44 degrees Celcius. It's interesting how the morning baths invigorate and the evening baths relax.

At 8 we had breakfast outdoors: fresh pineapple, eggs w/home-smoked salmon, cucumber, rice, miso soup. Our host, Masa-san, takes great joy in doing everything himself. He built this minshuku (hostel) w/a traditional thatch roof and he and his wife are committed to a local, seasonal slow food menu.

After saying goodbye to some fellow travellers (w/whom we shared much alcohol last night when we arrived), we got in the car and headed south. I'm the designated driver and this is the first time I've ever driven on the left hand side of the road. It's a rite of passage; I didn't think I had many of those left. First stop: the beach. We didn't swim, but spent about an hour poking through shells, watching a man dive for sea urchins, and revelling in the sea air.

Lunch was at a tiny, open-air cafe deep in the rain forest. This is one of those places we would NEVER have found without Cayce's expertise and research. Perched among giant tree ferns we drank lemon verbena tea and I had a pizza made with local anchovies. Do you think that's why the cat befriended us?

Next stop: the Hiro Coffee Farm. The smell of roasting coffee beans confirmed that we'd found the right spot. First we drank tea made from coffee leaves, then several pots of delicious local coffee. It was hard to tear ourselves away from the families who ran the place, their kids, the bright colors, and very warm sunshine.

But we did. Then continued south and west, across the island through pineapple country. When we stopped to take a photo of a field of fruit, the couple harvesting their pineapples looked apprehensive at first, but ended up giving us each a whole fruit to take with us, then sliced several open and fed us on the spot! (Please note her socks; these are to wear w/geta, the wooden sandals.) This woman was very adept with her knife.

We reached the west coast and headed north back toward the minshuku. Gorgeous beaches on the left and a troubling amount of Miscanthus on the right. The vast amounts in the landscape put it on a par with Phragmites in the NE US. We stopped in at local coop stores, buying salt (an Okinawan specialty), fruit, and almari (a distilled rice spirit) for this evening.

Back in time for another bath, a beer, and some down time before dinner. Joe is playing Hendrix on his guitar and Michael, I wish you were here.

I'll back track when I can to catch you up on our time up north in Hijiori Onsen. Suffice it to say that yesterday we went from 2 feet of snow to roadside hibiscus in bloom.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Starting in Chichibu...

This may be my only chance to post while I'm in Japan... tomorrow we leave for a remote spot where cell service is unlikely, and a high speed internet connection is probably out of the question.

I arrived @ Narita airport yesterday (or the day before; that whole International Date Line thing is a little confusing) and was up 29 hours before collapsing onto the futon on Cayce's floor last night. But oh so worth it.

Delayed by de-icing at JFK, duped by a sleeping pill (I got a mere 2 hour nap w/a dose of Sonata!), thwarted in my attempt to find a luggage locker for my suitcase, Cayce and I drank copious amounts of sake on the train from Narita to Tokyo, then north to Chichibu, where last night was the grand finale of their annual fireworks festival.

I found that if I kept moving I could stay awake, and eating helped, too. Our first food stop was an amazake vendor who graciously agreed to keep my suitcase behind her table, then thanked us for the privilege of baggage-sitting with a free package of mochi. We wandered the streets of this little town eating gyoza, skewered chicken & scallions, steamed buns stuffed with black bean paste and suffused with sake, even a gyro made by a man from Lebanon. And of course, more amazake.

It was my first temple festival and I finally got to witness the infamous parades of men shuffling through the streets w/their heavy (heavy!) floats, chanting wa-shoi as they stumbled in unison. At a parking lot percussion concert we shared roasted chestnuts with some friendly faces. (Those huge taiko drums pierce through to your core.) There were very few visible foreigners at the festival, so we attracted more than the usual share of stares and offers of food.

After 4 hours of blessed sleep, we leave this morning for Yamagata and toji at the Hijiori Onsen. I'll continue to write, but it may be 8-10 days before I can post again. Sayonara