Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Foxy Japan

Origami Inari Fox (from www.h5.dion.ne.jp)

A few weeks back I had a rather tasty style of rice for school lunch known as kitsunegohan. I pressed the name into my memory but gave no more thought to it (other than to enjoy it of course).

Some days later the weather was rather sporadic - sunny with sudden bursts of rain - and I heard a teacher refer to it as kitsunenoyomeiri. My brain, despite being rather cold and wrapped up in itself at the time, sparked at recognising kitsune and I asked what it referred to. I discovered that kitsune -狐- is Japanese for fox, kitsunegohan meaning "fox rice" and kitsunenoyomeiri -- meaning "the fox's wedding."

After some asking around and a little research I discovered that in Japanese culture the fox is perceived as a highly intelligent and magical creature, featuring heavily in folklore. In Shintoism, the god of rice - Inari* - uses foxes as his messengers. It is from here the name for the rice dish comes from. It is also believed that foxes marry eachother during rain showers, hence this type of weather referred to as "the fox's wedding." Foxes are also perceived as tricksters and deceivers, and it was once believed that any woman out on her own at night could be a fox in disguise. It is also believed that a fox has the ability to possess a human and control his actions for its own purposes.

*Inarizushi -稲荷寿司- is a type of sushi dish, consisting of rice stuffed into a layer of fried tofu. It's very delicious and tastes (obviously) very similar to fox rice.

An all that from a tasty bowl of rice.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

I eat suzumebachi for breakfast

A few weeks ago a couple of us headed down south to the deepest, darkest depths of Neba village where Matt had arranged for us to meet a few locals and partake in some delicacies. I think the photos below will explain all.

Our first job was to remove all the bees and pupae from the honeycomb.

Gently gently.

Oddly sweet once you get past the slimy bit.


Bees, half-bees and pupae.

Cooked bees, half-bees and pupae. Yum!

A quick forage in the woods turned up some delicious Shiitake mushrooms..

.. and some others ideal for miso soup.

Dessert was... er.. not what I was expecting. The Suzumebachi ("Sparrow Bee", also known as the Giant Asian Hornet or "Yak-killer") is probably one of the most frightening insects you are likely to meet in rural Japan. A sting from one of these things is rather nasty and kills dozens of people every year. Not only has the pain been described as "a hot nail being driven into the flesh", the poison itself melts your flesh. At the same time the hornet gives off a pheromone that tells all the others in the area to come and sting you. That's if you aren't dead from the first one, of course. Crunchy but sweet.

Autumn & Onsens

Woof! A long time since the last blog. I must be slacking. My excuse is I've been enthralled with the Japanese Autumn. That'll have to do.

This month the sun has still been lovely and warm but the mornings and nights have been rather cold. This in turn gives the prefect opportunity for onsens! The one in Takamori is one of my favourites and offers great views of the Shimoina area and the Minami Alps. The pics in this blog are a couple I'm taken there.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Typhoon Chaba

It's currently typhoon season in Japan (and the rest of the southwest Pacific) and typhoon 1014 "Chaba" is currently in it's way past Tokyo and back out to sea, where it'll lose it's ferocity and die at sea.

Below is a couple of screengrabs from the Japanese Meteorological Agency (www.jma.go.jp) which does a fine 'n' dandy job of charting typhoons, earthquakes and similiar forecasts.

Today it hasn't stopped raining in my part of southern Nagano and judging by the noise of the overflow river next to my house, it rained a lot last night too. Chaba is (was) rated a 4 (5 being the most violent), and managed to kill a few people down in Okinawa on it's way up the south coast of Japan. For me the good news is that the typhoon clears the skies of clouds, so tomorrow will be a lovely day!

The red X is where I live, roughly.

Climbing Mt. Kaikoma

Last Saturday I joined two teachers from my school on a mountain hike/climb a ways from Ina-shi. The mountain, Kaikoma, is nestled deep in the famous Japanese mountain range “Minami Alps”, and stands just under 3000 metres in height. The journey to the top was a hard 4-hour hike/climb and a 3-3.5 hour return.

At the bus stop as the sun rises over the Minami Alps

So I arose before dawn and joined them at Matsukawa IC for the drive north. After reaching Ina we headed east through Takato and up into the mountains. We parked and caught the bus deeper into the mountains. The drive up was really enjoyable; the Autumn colours here are simply breathtaking. We also saw deer and “mountain deer”, which look a lot like really butch and leathery goats. I managed to get a fleeting photo of one before our bus disappeared around the windy mountain road.

The "mountain deer"

An hour passed by and soon we found ourselves overlooking the great valley we'd travelled through, the Kurogawa (黒川; “Black River”) snaking it's way through the mountains far below. A few minutes more and we arrived at the base encampment to start the climb. At this point it was just before 8 in the morning and the sun had been up for about an hour, although it was still horrendously cold. I'm so very glad I wore my skintight longjohns under my jeans! And my proper walking boots of course.

On the bus we'd managed to pick up another Japanese hiker who spoke good english. He'd also done the hike several times, so just like that our group became four, including a "guide", and we hiked together.

Our destination in the distance

The hike itself was the hardest I've done since I've been here. For a substantial portion of it we were actually climbing, hands and feet on rocks and boulders. I enjoyed it of course, but it was really hard-going. The route we followed took us through a beautiful Autumn-coloured forest, along a stream, then up through a forest, across a really alien-looking mountain of boulders, another really steep trail (which we climbed as much as walked), until finally we broke through the trees at the top at about 10.30. Exhausted, I collapsed onto a rock and was in the midst of breaking out my sandwiches when one of my colleagues laughed and pointed into the distance (upwards). “Lunch is there, the top of the mountain.” Yes, we were just a little over half way to our goal. I munched some peanuts dejectedly, then hauled myself up for the next part of the climb, which saw us struggled over more boulders and lots of scree on very steep slopes. One thing that always amazes me here is how many people go hiking, yet there are no safety measures should you find yourself heading for the edge of the cliff. None at all. Not even signs. You'd bounce and cartwheel all the way down too!

Anyway, after our final slog we arrived at the top, and I was unsurprised to find a small shrine at the top, with offerings from the travellers over the years. I was surprised however to realise how many mountains I could see. We couldn't have picked a better day to climb – the sky was clear, the sun warm, the wind just a little chilly – and there before me I saw the great range of mountains moving into the distance. And low and behold, there was the top of Fuji-san, another 800 metres above us. I must climb that next year!

Kofu (Yamanashi Prefecture) from the top of Kaikoma

Windswept, sunburnt and absolutely knackered. But victorious!

After salami sandwiches and coffee for lunch we headed back down, taking a slightly quicker route than the one up. It was still gruelling – my toes kept sliding into the fronts of my boots because the mountain was so steep: the following day I would still be suffering with sore feet. Other than that though, I was fine, which surprised me a little.

Hello Fuji-san!

Shrine at the top. The offering: a bottle of tea

The route down took us back down the scree and boulders, then through another part of the forest. The Autumn leaves blossomed above us, and I jokingly called out to any wandering bears, much to the horror of my colleagues. Apparently bears are dangerous. I told them I wanted to eat bear ramen and they looked at me with a mixture of reactions, but mainly mirth, which was the idea.

Climbing back down

After the long hard hike we settled into an onsen at the camp near the carpark to ease the pains away. We then head back to Iida to a restaurant I hadn't been to before. While I love Japanese food and find 99% of it really tasty, it had been a long time since something had stood out to me, and the restaurant's udon/soup/broth was quite simply, divine. And well-deserved, I think.

The last leg through the forest

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Wild boar

This weekend I finally visited a small restaurant in my village that I've been meaning to since last year! Infact I can't believe I haven't before, seeing as I drive past it almost every time I go out. One of our block's newbies, Jake, came for the experience too.

We both opted for the 猪手食 (inoshishi teshoku; the wild boar meal set), which consisted of yaki-style wild boar meat and vegetables, plus rice, konnyaku (a jelly-like snack made from processed fish), miso soup, 漬物 (pickles) and fresh orange. It was the first time I'd tried wild boar and I found it juicy and tender, and the price of the teshoku, really cheap.

There are four items on the menu that I'm aiming to try, wild boar being the first. The others are 松茸 (matsutake; pine mushroom, an expensive delicacy available almost exclusively in Autumn), 熊 (shika; deer) and 鹿 (kuma; bear).

Matsutake - 松茸

To give you an idea of what these mushrooms can cost, the Principal of one of my elementary schools managed to find a crop of them out in a local forest (they are very hard to find) and brought them into school about ten days ago. He had between twenty and thirty of them, all of which fit on a standard newspaper page. I asked him what that would fetch in a shop and he told me the minimum would be 5 or 6万円 (£400+). He laughed when my jaw dropped.

Yesterday a local salesman came into my Junior High to sell punnets of these mushrooms. Each punnet had between one and three mushrooms in it, depending on their size, and each punnet was at least £10-15! That had better be a tasty mushroom!

The teshoku

The boar!


Miso soup


Tuesday, 12 October 2010


Yesterday I woke up to sunlight streaming through my shoji screens, so packed a bag, my camera and my guitar into my car and headed out the back of my village into the Minami Alps. My destination: Shirabiso Kogen, a big flat mountain top that overlooks the alps. I took my girlfriend there earlier this year and decided it was high time I paid it another visit. I took some pictures, had some food, and found a spot to plonk down and play my guitar. A day well spent, peaceful and serene. I could stare at these mountains all day... and I did.

First signs of Autumn.

Minamiminowa Illumination Festival

My favourite illumination. It reminded me of Will O' the Wisp on the surface of the water.


A terrifying head on a scarecrow. Too far Japan, too far.

Crab from Sonic the Hedgehog?

Cute house (terrorised by giant child in the background).

"Stained glass" style. Another nice exhibit.

On Sunday night I headed north with some friends for the Minamiminowa Illumination Festival, an event held in the middle of a forest/park. It was nice to see everything all lit up in the dark and glowing, and the exhibitions have now put me in a really Christmassy mood. If only I had some garish, electrically-powered tat to stick to the outside of my house... where are you poundland when I need you?!