Thursday, April 23, 2009

Nojiri (2)

For the first several years we rented a cabin not too far from the lake. From the boathouse/swimming area, there was a path just past the spring to the left, a steep series of stairs that hugged the side of the hill and provided spectacular views of the lake and mountains as it wound its way to the top. We were, as it seemed to me at the time, about halfway up the hill. (With hindsight I think it was really about a quarter of the way up, but the climb seemed arduous, making the distances exaggerated).

The road didn't go to that cabin. We either had to hoof everything up from the bottom of the hill, or we had to drive to some point above the cabin and carry it down (the preferred way). Even water, we had to carry by bucket from the spring... well. Drinking water, anyway. There was a rain barrell of sorts to collect water from the roof for laundry and baths.

For groceries, we had a few primitive stores at the top of the hill where we could buy fresh local produce and meats, and for a fee, have our purchases delivered.

The soil around Nojiri was Black... volcanic soil, no doubt from Kurohime and Miyoko, and by the end of the day, our feet were always black. Of course, we wore rubber flip-flops everywhere, and this being Japan, never wore shoes inside, so there was a ritual feet-washing of sorts upon entering any cabin/house (to keep the floor clean) and especially at the end of the day to scrub the grime...

All houses in Japan have an entrance area with a shoebox. I still think this makes sense, even here in the US. If we'd take our shoes off when entering a house it would keep much cleaner. I have finally convinced my wife that we should have a shoebox/shoerack near the back entrance (the one from the garage to the house). She still doesn't like the visual effect of the many pairs of shoes marshaled near the entrance. It gives me, on the other hand, great comfort.

I still remember the smell of that black earth, especially after a good rain, and it was likely to rain quite a bit during any visit. I like the rain, and the feeling of being inside and watching it come down, and the damp coolness after it has just stopped, before the sun comes out to warm and dry everything again. In and around the cabin was a forest of ferns, lush undergrowth of various types of plants, beneath a nation of trees -- birches, pines, cedars, maples, bamboo, and many others, I'm sure. The undergrowth would catch the rain and water would bead-up on the leaves and drip onto the black earth. Frogs would wander forth in search of the many insects.

The mother of all flying and bighting insects was called the "buyo." I don't know the english or latin names for this insect, but we all frequently complained of buyo bights, and these bights turned red and itched like crazy. There was a certain type of plant that we knew about, which we would pick a leaf and rub the liquid from the stalk on the buyo bite, and this seemed to be the only salve that lessened the itch.

The closest spring for this cabin was at the bottom of the hill, where the path met the gravel and dirt road that went around the lake. The spring ran clear, and the water was so cold, and sweet. On a hot day, there was nothing better than a long during from one of the springs scattered about the village. I still think it was the best water in the world.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Lake Nojiri in Nagano, Japan 野尻湖(長野県信濃町) A vie...Image via WikipediaNojiri. Cold lake waters surrounded by high mountains. Magical summers. Cozy winters.

It was the magic summer retreat of our childhood. We started going to Lake Nojiri soon after we moved from Matsue to Itami, near Osaka. The summers in Kansai were unbearably humid, and an escape to the mountains, living for a short time in a community of other expats, was just the prescription for our family to recharge and re-energize in preparation for the daily grind.

And so we set off, one hot July or August day around 1966 or 1967 from Itami, taking the Meishin Expressway to Nagoya, thence local roads through such towns as Shiojiri, Matsumoto, Nagano, finally arriving at Shinanomachi, a small villiage with quaint Minka and a difficult Japanese dialect. The trip was long, much longer than planned, hot and dusty (our car didn't have air conditioning) and the six of us (mom and dad in front, the four of us in back) constantly bickered to see who could be made most miserable. [To this day I dislike driving or riding long distances by automobile.] By the time we arrive, it is near midnight and pitch black. We get lost in the gravel trails around the lake, making an orbit around before finally stumbling on the gaijinmura (foreigners' village), where our bleary-eyed friends greet us and hustle us off to bed for the night. The night air is cool. Almost cold. A nice change from Osaka, I think.

I don't remember much from our first visit other than that we stayed in a cabin for a week at the base of the mountains and didn't have to do much climbing. The way to the lake was through the woods, filled with fresh smells, black earth, an abundance of various ferns, and occasional white birch trees. Nojiri was spectacular, and there was no way not to fall in love with it.

The lake was deep and cold, even at the height of the dog days of summer. The mountains came out of the water and rose to breathtaking heights. Kurohime and Miyoko-kogen may have even had patches of snow from the long winter. The drinking water was sweet and cold, fed by natural springs, and had to be fetched by the bucket.

It was the start of a yearly trek, and the source of many fond memories... and the subject of later posts :-)

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Matsue, early '60s (part 2), Learning Japanese

As I said in the first part of this post, we had a lot of Snow in Matsue... this photo was taken around 1962-3 with my younger brother and sister playing in the snow.
We lived a bit away from the center of town. There were lots of rice paddies around us.
Most of our friends were Japanese. We spoke English with our parents, and Japanese with our housekeeper and with the other kids in the neighborhood.
We had a TV... black and white, of course, and all of the programs were in Japanese. I still remember my favorite TV shows from this period... a puppet show called "Chirorinmura," and an animated show about a boy robot superhero, "Tetsuwan Atomu" (Astro Boy).
People sometimes ask me "how did you learn to speak Japanese so well?" I'm tempted to ask back, "so, how did you learn to speak English so well?" But, I usually swallow that urge (you know, you try it a couple of times and see the blank expressions on faces, and know they don't comprehend?), and say... "...well, I grew up in Japan." Which starts the dreaded "wow, how long did you live there" thread, in which I tell my life story about going to Japan at the age of 6, no, my parents weren't Mercenaries, they were Missionaries, and so on.
So learning Japanese, (at least the spoken language) for me, wasn't something I did. It just happened, from necessity. From hearing it spoken before I could utter a word, from playing with the neighbors, watching TV, from sharing a japanese-english language with my siblings that nobody else could understand, ...from living. I didn't learn Japanese... I lived Japanese, and it became part of my fabric that remains to this day, so that, after months or years of not speaking, I can slip back into it as if I were still there, using it every day.
I don't remember a lot about Matsue, except for the snow, for the sea, running around the yard with other kids (we had the biggest yard, and an actual lawn!), rice paddies and frogs filling summer nights with noise, riding trains, endless Sundays at church, dirt roads and gravel roads, and people always staring at me. Of course, I thought all this was normal. And it was.
See my Japan map.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Matsue... Early 1960s

the Keep of Matsue CastleImage via Wikipedia
The earliest memories I have were of being a kid in Matsue, on the coast of Shimane Prefecture near the Sea of Japan. The winters were cold there, and I remember walking down our sidewalk with the snowbanks over my head.

I had the unique experience of growing up in Japan. I went over when I was six months old, and, with the exception of a Norwegian family, we were the only westerners for many miles.

As a young boy, I had blonde hair (it eventually turned brown, and, nuch later, grey). The barber used to collect our hair after he cut it because it was so unusual to him. For some reason, in those days in Japan, a haircut meant "a haircut and a shave" even for 4-5 year old kids. I remember sitting in the barber chair, listening to the slick-slack of the barber sharpening the straight razor on a well-worn leather strap, the gurgling sound as he poured steaming water from the urn in the corner into the cup (I think he used some kind of powdered soap), and the swishy sound the brush made as he worked up a good lather, and then the hot sticky-ticky wetness as he brushed the lather onto my face, and the scrape scrape of the sharp razor removing nothing but lather. Finally, the steaming hot towel to wipe everything away, and the customary chop-chop-chop massage on my shoulders.

"They don't need to be shaved. They're too young," my dad would say. The barber would smile, and agree... then take advantage of my father's attention being elsewhere and shave me anyway.

I remember coming to a barber shop the first time I was back in the states, having my hair cut with electric clippers instead of various types of scissors, and not having a shave. It was a really strange feeling, entirely unfulfilling. "Aren't you going to shave me?," I asked the barber... he laughed. "How old are you, son?" "Six." He would shake his head and grin to himself.

Japan in the early sixties was still poor, especially outside the large cities, compared to the modern Tech Giant it has become. I remember all of the dirt and gravel roads we'd have to drive over. It was much faster to travel distances by train, and I remember the trains well. At that time, there were still quite a few steam locomotives, and there's nothing quite like the sound that a steam engine makes as it is just getting underway... and the smell of the coal fire. In the train, ladies would make their ways down the aisles pushing carts laden with tea, snacks, lunch... various treasures that I was always curious about things like whisky and beer, but soon learned that it was best not to mention those to my parents or their group of peers.

See my Japan map.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cheeseburger in Paradise... NOT!

You know the saying W. has trouble with? That's right... "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on (??)..." OK, so we were feeling very foolish indeed for being suckered in once more to Cheesburger in Paradise, located at 2500 Kalakaua Ave. on Waikiki.

From the outside it looked nice... and even on the inside, it was inviting. The menu looked good, and the waitstaff, wearing grass skirts for some reason, looked interesting. We were seated for breakfast. We waited... and waited... and waited... and finally got our menus. We waited some more... and waited yet again... and were finally brought coffee. I turned to Nancy and said, "This reminds me of last time we were here." She agreed with me. The last time we were here, in 2006, we had come late in the evening for dinner (with our two college/high-school age kids) -- what else, cheesburgers of course -- which were pretty good -- once we got them, but the service was Oh So Slow... We thought we'd give it a second chance. But even for being on Hawaiian time, Cheeseburger In Paradise was slow to the point of really being irritating. By the time we got our food it was almost time for the next meal. And then, the worst part of the wait, waiting for the check so we could leave and go lay out on the beach... now, that was the worst and longest wait of all (it seemed).

CBIP needs to take a lesson on waitstaff teamwork. They still subscribe to the "every waitperson for hisself/herself" tradition, and the service suffers for it. (There were several staff milling around doing nothing we could see while our waitress waited on way too many tables).

So: Location - good; Decor - cool; Food - normal; Prices - a bit on the high side but not bad for the location. Service - polite but REALLY SLOW. Don't eat here unless you are really really patient and have a lot of time to kill.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Snorkeling Sharks Cove

Move over Hanauma Bay! One of our memorable experiences during our visit to Hawaii this time was snorkeling in Sharks Cove, at Pupukea Beach Park on the North Shore of Oahu.

Though our trip was near the end of the Winter season, when North Shore beaches are mostly rough with big waves, we took a chance to visit this area on a day when the surf was relatively calm.

Pupukea has a section of sandy/rocky beach on the left, a fairly protected system of coral and lava rock in the middle, and a more exposed, deeper area on the right. For this trip, we snorkeled in the center area, a network of coral heads and lava rocks with deep holes, teeming with colorful tropical fish. On this day there were maybe a handful of people visiting the park, and it was nice to have a relatively uncrowded snorkeling experience. We saw many triggerfish, Parrotfish, a few grouper, hundreds of sea urchins, tangs, jackfish, clownfish, and other varieties. The number and variety rivaled that of the protected Hanauma Bay on the southeast point of Oahu, a favorite of tourists.

If you have a day on the North Shore, and the waves aren't crashing over the lava wall, I highly recommend you take a dip in Sharks Cove... (no sharks!!)

Monday, March 31, 2008

Ramen and Gyoza in Waikiki

1. Ramen Ezogiku, 2146 Kalakaua Avenue

There was a queue to get in, and the clientele mostly Japanese. Well worth the wait. The specialty here is Sapporo style ramen. I got the Miso Ramen, and Nancy got the Yakisoba (fried noodles). We both got the set that came with four Gyoza and a small Fried Rice. Everything was as good as in Japan. The miso broth had a nice "zing" to it. Our second visit.

2. Ramen Nakamura, 2141 Kalakaua Avenue

Their specialty is Tonkotsu Ramen (made from pork broth), and Oxtail Ramen. Almost across the street from Ezogiku, the shop is smaller, and like Ezogiku, consists of a counter with stools. (Ezogiku also has tables)

The ramen here was also excellent, and I got a set with three Gyoza and a small Fried Rice. The Gyoza were a bit plumper than Ezogiku's, but the miso broth didn't have that "zing." The shop is decorated with the signatures of many Japanese celebreties who have sampled Nakamura's cuisine. We would return here also.