Friday, August 29, 2008

Making Salt

Being a person who likes to produce a lot of my own food, I was inspired by my friend, Wren, to make salt. I've been working on this idea for about 6-8 months, trying to determine the best way to do it entirely carbon-neutral. The pan was difficult because I couldn't afford to give up one of my baking pans for three weeks and I didn't want to buy a new one. But luckily I happened upon an old aluminum pan when exploring a storage room at my previous house. As Wren noted, a Pyrex glass pan is probably best for scraping, but this pan was free and not being used.

[The first batch]

Next, I had to acquire the salt water. Not difficult. I found some not-being-used capped plastic bottles on a beach, kayaked out into the blue water (that's an actual term to describe water where you can't see the bottom) and submerged the bottles, filling them with subsurface water.
Then I poured a liter into the pan and let evaporation do the rest. The most challenging part of staying carbon-neutral came next. It's hard to get the last bit of moisture out of the salt, particularly because I live in a humid place and the salt keeps sucking moisture back out of the air. So I put the pan in my solar oven mid-afternoon through early evening until the salt was thoroughly baked. I quickly removed the pan (after learning my lesson a couple times), scraped the salt off, and sealed it in a small airtight container.

[My third batch evaporated untouched for three weeks and the salt crystals that formed were huge - averaging 1/4'' square, but some as large as 3/8'']

Each batch nets about five tablespoons of salt. This doesn't quite keep up with my consumption (especially when I give it away), but that's not my purpose. I can buy 2.2 pounds of salt at the store for a dollar so this is something I just do because it's fun. And local.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Japanese Suburbs

My favorite thing to do while staying at the language school on the outskirts of Osaka was to take a bike after classes and ride the neighborhoods. There were some really old houses in immaculate condition (fine woodwork on the gates and doors) and fun little alleyways to explore. Occasionally I was able to sneak a peek into some of the gorgeous gardens inside the gates, too.

The tract housing was what really caught my eye, though. For some reason it surprised me. I thought it was only an American thing. The difference here, though, is that this mass-housing is built near train stations (or rather, train stations are built near everything). While cars are in most driveways, they aren't necessary for travel into Osaka.

[Better hope your neighbor isn't going to the backyard while you're going to the front]

Monday, August 25, 2008

Observing New Foreigners

The new JETs arrived a couple weeks ago but this past Thursday and Friday they had their Okinawa orientation. I helped out with the ‘remote islanders/elementary’ session and attended a couple evening social events.

On Saturday 40+ people showed up at the port in Naha for the annual Tokashiki [Island] trip. I helped a little with the organization before the 10am departure, but got on the Zamami boat when it was time to leave. Once home I hurriedly unpacked, ate lunch, then packed up my kayak and headed over to Tokashiki. Even with a slight headwind I did the ~4km trip in 1.5 hours, far faster than expected. I caught a mahi-mahi on the way, too, which provided my dinner.

[This fish looks a lot smaller than I remember it]

The party was what you’d expect from 40 twenty-somethings camping on a beach alone: lots of alcohol, one-night couples, and late bedtimes. It also gave me a lot of insight into the Okinawa JET population. They are very different than the other large group I have seen abroad, that of my Peace Corps class. The JET group seems to have fewer like-minded people (on issues like environment, social class awareness and understanding, gender issues, anti-consumerist). I think the JET community would still fit into the liberal stereotype applied to those living abroad, but the liberalism I see here is more along the lines of a new word I saw last year: latte liberalism. (It means preaching liberal values but not actually observing them.) The diverse crowd makes things interesting, but friendships were easier for me in Peace Corps where I found more similar people.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

My Japanese Speech

On the last full day of our Japanese course we had to give a speech about where we are from (in Japan or elsewhere). I chose to do a speech on Zamami accompanied by a slideshow.

I talked about the ocean, eisa, and fishing. I wrote all of the sentences more-or-less myself, so they don't contain a lot of new words to learn, but this speech did help me a lot with sentence structure and hiragana reading. Most of the alphabet that you see below is hiragana. There are a few foreignish words (like kayak, drum, and dance) that are in katakana. I'll put the English words in parentheses and maybe you can see the difference between hiragana and katakana. There are also a few kanji in the speech - they are recognizable as much more complicated characters.

きょう は わたしの町、ざまみに ついておはなし します。
まず、うみに ついて、 つぎに えいさに ついて、最後に つりに ついて おはなし します。

まず 海に ついて、かんたんに しょうかいしましょう。
なつは うみのみずは あつい です。  ふゆ は うみのみずは つめたいです。
はちがつ に うみは とても クリアで きれいです.
およぐ ときは、スンケリング (sunkaringu - snorkeling) が おすすめです。 

では、つぎに 沖縄の えいさは でんとうてきな おどり です。 
沖縄の おんがく と ドラム (durumu - drum) で ダンス (dansu - dance) を します。

最後に つりは さいこう です。
沖縄の がらと かじきと まぐろです。 がらが いちばん すきです。
カヤク (kayaku - kayak) か ふねに のって つります。
さかなは とても おおきくて はやいです。 

なつが いちばん いい きせつ です。
ぜひ 沖縄の ビチ へ きて ください。
えいさ とつい が おすすめです。

では みなさん ごしつもん よろしく おねがいします。

It is cool that a year ago I'd have been helpless with this speech and now I can write and read it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Koushien Tournament - Summer 2008

I wrote about the spring Koushien high school baseball tournament back in April here. There are two Koushien tournaments during the year. The spring tournament is an invitational and is a bit smaller than the summer tournament that every team in the country competes to be in. Koushien is huge in Japan, comparable to the NCAA basketball tournament in the U.S, except here the teams have an even stronger, more local fan base.

In this year's Okinawa qualifier, the team that won the spring Koushien lost in the final to Urasoe Shogyo. As expected, Urasoe is also a strong team. Koushien has been going on all week and happens to be only an hour away from where I'm at in Osaka. Urasoe won their first three games and made it to the final four, to be played Sunday. So another friend and I decided really late Saturday night (or Sunday morning?) that we'd go Sunday.

We followed the crowds on the subway and managed to buy tickets at the gate before it sold out. We grabbed two great seats and noted some differences from American professional baseball games. The tickets cost only about $12 and the food was only at a slight premium to prices outside the stadium. Also, the crowd plays a huge role in the game, playing instruments and singing chants at enormous volume while their team bats. And the game progresses quickly, lasting just over two hours.

The game was unfortunately a heartbreak for Okinawa. They were trying to preserve their star pitcher for today's final by starting the number two pitcher. But he had a rocky second inning and the star (in as a reliever) couldn't recover before the other team scored nine runs. It was a really fun experience, though, and something I cannot see in Okinawa.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ride and Park

Our language school is in what I would call the suburbs of Osaka. There's a fancy premium outlet mall here as well as tons of new apartments and housing. We're one stop short of the airport, which is across the bay on a man-made island. The train system here is fantastic and from the looks of it, hundreds of people ride their bikes to the station as the first and last part of their commute.

We don't have a need for bike security on Zamami so I was impressed this week when I saw this clever bike lock. You insert the key and turn it, which releases that spring-loaded bar that is through the spokes. The key can only be removed when you push the black knob down to insert the metal bar through the spokes and lock the bike again. The lock could easily be removed from the frame, but you'd still be stuck with the lock secured around the rim. Not the hardest lock to overcome, but these bikes - seen en masse in Japan - are not worth the effort to overcome the lock.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lost With No Translation

I got five out of twenty answers correct on my 'easy' test, which is five more than I would have had on the test everybody else took. Yesterday I had to meet with a director of the school to discuss my Japanese incompetence. She sorta accused me of lying on my application by announcing the number of study hours I declared then looking at my expectantly. I guess I was supposed to tell her I lied, but I wouldn't do that. So I told her I'm bad at learning, which seemed like the second best answer.

I am having a miserable time at this school so far. I was placed in the lowest level class, which is still way out of my league. I can't ask questions because I don't know how to ask them in Japanese and even if I did, I wouldn't understand the answers, which the teacher insists on answering in Japanese. Also, I'm so lost I wouldn't know what to ask questions about.

I was really optimistic that this school was going to be a big turning point in my Japanese learning, but I never imagined it was going to turn me sour. This is a really hard experience.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Laundry = せんたく

I probably should have taken greater warning a month ago when I filled out my language questionnaire and composition assignment for the two-week Japanese course I'm currently attending in Osaka. I was pretty proud of my ability to decipher the question for the composition assignment, but there was no hope that I could write anything meaningful down. So I wrote something to that effect in English. They wrote back and said I needed to write something. So I told them what my hobbies are.

I didn't know how out of place I was until orientation started today and it was all in Japanese and everybody else (56 people) understood what was going on. They talked and talked and presumably told us all about the format of the program and what we are going to learn. Then at the break a woman came up and started asking me questions in Japanese.

Rarely do people speak to me in Japanese in real-life, meaningful situations. So my lack of ability to understand doesn't really matter. But this mattered. The woman knew who I was because of my crummy application and was trying to tell me that this class is not designed for me. She said that everybody is at a level quite a bit higher than me and the curriculum is designed for them. She ended by saying "good luck." (She also told me she really likes Zamami.)

Then we had the placement test. It was four pages long and I couldn't even understand the first question (the easy one!). Nor the second. Ordinarily I would guess, but I didn't think that was such a hot idea on the placement test. After ten minutes the woman brought me an 'easy' test which was all in hiragana, an alphabet I do know. Unfortunately, as I'm learning, my Japanese knowledge primarily consists of vocabulary words. When speaking I just piece vocab words together without the proper grammar to connect them. That didn't really cut it on the test, though.

Afterwards the woman came up and asked me if I knew what the sentences meant that I couldn't answer. I said yeah, mostly, except for this word and that word. She said that word is 'train' and that word is 'station.' We kept doing this until things clicked for her: on Zamami we don't have trains or stations or buildings over three stories tall or concerts. So I don't know any of those words. Which means the next two weeks are probably going to be a pretty humbling experience (not to mention a less-than-fun part of my summer vacation).

On the upside, they have free laundry here!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Akita's Kanto Matsuri

Akita prefecture’s cultural fame comes from its annual lantern festival known as Kanto Matsuri. My visit conveniently coincided with it so we went up to Akita City last night.

We were really early so I spent a lot of time adoring all the women who were wearing yukatas. A yukata is like the summer version of a kimono. There are some slight design differences, but the most noticeable change for the women is the lighter fabric. They aren’t worn often in Okinawa (I’ve seen them only once), so it was a big deal for me. It’s also voluntary for the women to wear them, so it was pretty awesome to see so many ladies getting into the spirit.

Some men wear a men's version of the yukata, which makes for a very cool couple in my book.

[As if little Japanese girls weren't already cute enough]

The festival extended for 12-15 blocks and brought in many tens of thousands of people (they claim over a million for the three-day period). Just before dusk huge groups of ladies streamed onto the street and all performed the same dances to the same music for about 45 minutes. We watched one JET English teacher participate with her group, which was really neat.

[These flute players and drummers went nonstop during the 15-minute performance intervals (at which point everybody shifted a block so the spectators could see different groups)]

Just after dusk the streets empty of ladies and fill with trucks pulling trailers with huge taiko drums followed by troupes of kids playing flutes and singing followed by the lantern carriers. The lanterns are mounted on big bamboo structures that resemble a sail. They are lit by candles. The bamboo is raised by a couple of guys, then, when it’s stable, it’s raised again and a 4-5’ bamboo pole is added to the bottom. They’ll do this a couple times and, if they’re gutsy, keep going. The most added poles we saw were nine, which put the top of the whole lantern ‘sail’ about 60-70 feet off the ground. Freakin’ amazing, especially when they balance the whole thing on their palm or forehead and battle wind gusts. Do they ever fall? Absolutely! We saw about a dozen crash, but no major injuries or deaths. Usually the candles go out en route to the ground, but that doesn’t keep future victims from screaming.

[Lanterns as far as the eye could see in both directions]

Monday, August 4, 2008

Windmills, Buddhas, and Rice

I am in my sister's town of Kisakata in Akita prefecture.  Kisakata is our hometown(Anacortes, WA)'s sister city.  It so happens that the Anacortes exchange students are here right now, so we'll be joining them tomorrow.  But today Kristin took me on a tour of all the cool stuff, including a dairy that uses its own cows to make cheese, milk, and ice cream (we only sampled the latter, which was exquisite).

[Vestas windmills powering Kisakata]

[Rice everywhere]

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Light Change

[my 10,000th picture in Japan (on my 364th day)]

More people cross this intersection in Shibuya, Tokyo every two minutes than live on Zamami.

[At night, from above]

Friday, August 1, 2008

Fancy-Catching Cheese

By the way, this 1.1lb (500g) bag of cheese cost me $9.