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Setsubun

Setsubun was a few weeks ago. I’ve never been able to attend any of the events for it during the years I’ve been here, just due to bad timing with work. This year, however, I managed to find some time where I could sneak over to the preschool for an hour to watch two of my coworkers from the Board of Education and terrify all of the children- on purpose!

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Setsubun is on February 3rd and marks the start of spring in Japan, though if you look out the windows right now you wouldn’t know it (the snow is piled high, my friends). On Setsubun, families gather and throw roasted beans at someone dressed like an oni (devil) while saying “鬼は外、福は内!” which means “devils out, luck in!” This custom, called mamemaki (literally, bean-scattering)  symbolizes cleansing away all the bad stuff of the previous year and bringing in luck for the new year.

 

Which brings me  back to preschool, where every year the kids gather in their playroom and are visited by two oni- two representatives from the board of education, who wear devil costumes and carry big, floppy, plush iron clubs. The kids are given peanuts, and when the devils arrive, they have to throw their beans and “drive the devils out.”

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What really happened was a lot of fright and crying! The kids were terrified by the goofy-looking oni. They cried, I cried (I’m a sympathetic crier) but eventually they drove the oni from the room with their effort. Once the kids had calmed down, the oni sheepishly came back into the room to tell the kids that they’d learned their lessons, and how they would try to be good this year- and that the kids should be too, or they’d be back again! I am under the impression that some parents use threats of the oni prematurely returning to get their kids to behave.. from what I saw, it’s probably a very effective threat!

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Besides getting to watch the preschool event, I also made and ate eho-maki with some friends. Eho-maki is a special type of very large and uncut sushi roll, which you eat facing that year’s lucky direction that changes based on that year’s zodiac- eho maki actually translates to “lucky direction roll.” You can buy eho-maki at grocery stores, but we figured it would be more fun to make. There are rules- you have to face the correct direction, you can’t cut it into smaller pieces, and you can’t speak until you eat the whole thing. This year was SSW, which required around five minutes of googling and math to figure out where we should be facing. Turns out, SSW is right towards my heater!

Eho-maki typically has 7 different ingredients, to symbolize the 7 gods of good fortune. And like I said before, you can’t cut eho-maki to make it smaller- that would be like cutting your luck! Or so I was told. For our first, formal rolls we made some smaller versions- so I wouldn’t be stuck eating in silence for ten minutes while I struggled through eating an entire roll. After our good-luck rolls, we ended up just having a nice sushi-party with the rest of our ingredients.

ehomaki

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Hotel Keikoku’s Hina Matsuri

So I got a call a few days ago from the town office.

“Hey, Jordy, will you go to Hotel Keikoku and write something about the Hina dolls there?”

I said yeah, sure, of course, and that I’d go there as soon as I had some time, which I did the next day. When I’d heard “hina dolls” on the phone, I figured they had found a special set, or set up something interesting.

My view when I approached the front doors:

 

Keikoku Entrance (1)

Yes, I was a bit startled.

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Hotel Keikoku is having their first-ever hina-doll festival. Hina Dolls are displayed in celebration of Hina-Matsuri, or Girl’s Day, which is always on March 3rd. The hina-ningyou (dolls) are set up before then in February, and symbolize the Emperor, Empress, and all of their court. The dolls are almost always very ornate and lavish, and are set up on stepped shelves called a hinadan. The Emperor and Empress are at the top, and their attendants are on the steps below them. The dolls are thought to bring good luck and ward off bad spirits.

full hina set

Traditionally, people would decorate their displays with hishi-mochi (diamond-shaped sticky rice cakes), shiro-zake (white Japanese sake) and peach blossoms, because of their beauty and symbolism of spring. Today,  people often also eat sushi and elaborately decorated cakes for Girl’s Day.

Hotel Keikoku brought together 35 full sets of hina dolls for their display, with the help of the vice-mayor and people in Takinoue. It took them almost four full days to get everything set up, but they said it was worth it to see the reactions from their customers.

 

keikoku hallway

While we are in the depths of winter, there can be days without a lot of color, and the employees at Hotel Keikoku wanted to share some joy with the people that visit them. They even are preparing special meals during this time for children that visit.

keikoku exit

Some people told me they thought that the dolls are creepy or scary, and some said that they liked how luxurious the display was. Once I got over the surprise, I personally loved it. Each set is different, and I spent a lot of time looking at them. Undoubtedly, it’s a sight to see if you are interested in Japanese culture.

First Snow

There had been a forecast for snow on Monday for a few days, but every time I looked at the weather predictions, it seemed like it would be mostly rain, with just a few hours just barely edging into snow. I hadn’t changed my car over to my winter tires yet, but I figured if it snowed then rained right after, I would be fine driving to and from work.

snow feet

I was wrong! Right after I got to work on Monday, it started to snow… and kept going… and kept snowing…

By when it was time for me to go home, I had given up on the idea of driving home on my summer tires- I wasn’t sure if I could make it out of the parking lot.

snow car

 

So, I hitched a ride home with another teacher who had been more prepared than I was, and had a lovely walk to school the next morning.

snow walk 1

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This was an early snow, for sure, and now all that remains is a few piles lingering in the shadows.

remaining snow

But it snowed again yesterday, and lingered part of the day, so I’m optimistic that winter is coming soon.

 

 

Wild Foods- Rakuyo

Hokkaido and the rest of Japan has a culture of foraging and consuming the edible, not typically commercially-available, wild plants (known as sansai) that grow lushly all over the island. There’s an abundance of food, if you know where to look and can discern between various plants.

Before I go any further, though, I need to warn you- I’m not an expert. Every time I’ve picked and eaten any of these plants, it’s been with someone who has much more experience than me in finding and identifying them, and I’ve been cautioned and shown lookalike (inedible and sometimes poisonous) plants many times. Sometimes, parts of a plant can be eaten while other parts can’t and are dangerous. So be careful, and go with someone experienced if this piques your interest!

This especially applies with mushrooms, which I am going to talk about today! Because of all the rain that occurs in late summer and early fall, a lot have cropped up, and so I’ve eaten a lot of rakuyo (落葉) mushrooms.

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Some hard-to-gather rakuyo growing on trees.

I would never have though to eat rakuyo if they hadn’t been given to me by my tea ceremony teacher. They’re a muddy brown color, and the bottom of the mushroom cap is spongy, which usually would indicate something that I wouldn’t want to eat. They also tend to look… well… kind of slimy. But don’t let that turn you off from trying them if they’re ever offered to you!

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They go bad quickly, so you have to find them shortly after they sprout. I’ve never seen them offered for sale, and that could be why- just not a long enough shelf life.

I ate rakuyo quite a few different ways. My favorite was soaked in sweet vinegar, but people also eat them in miso soup, with daikon oroshi, and just generally in substitute for other mushrooms in recipes. They are… slimy… but they have a really good taste, assuming you can make it to your mouth and not drop it from your chopsticks onto the table. Give it a try if you have the chance!

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Wild Foods- Kokuwa

Hokkaido and the rest of Japan has a culture of foraging and consuming the edible, not typically commercially-available, wild plants (known as sansai) that grow lushly all over the island. There’s an abundance of food, if you know where to look and can discern between various plants.

I think I’ve had an interest in wild plants and animals since a really young age. However, for the most part I grew up in the city, despite frequent visits to see family in more rural parts of the States. Really, it was when I came to Hokkaido that I started to really get outside, and learn more about my surroundings. During the time I’ve been here, I’ve been lead into the woods, besides rivers, and even just to street shoulders to learn about plants that I’ve doubtless seen hundreds of times, but never paid attention to.

Before I go any further, though, I need to warn you- I’m not an expert. Every time I’ve picked and eaten any of these plants, it’s been with someone who has much more experience than me in finding and identifying them, and I’ve been cautioned and shown lookalike (inedible and sometimes poisonous) plants many times. Sometimes, parts of a plant can be eaten while other parts can’t and are dangerous. So be careful, and go with someone experienced if this piques your interest!

Anyway! The most recent new plant I’ve learned of is kokuwa, also known as zarunashi (this translates as “monkey pear”). I’ve actually seen these laying on the ground and always figured they were some ornamental plant, and basically ignored them. So, when I heard a lumberjack friend telling me excitedly that he had cut down a tree with kokuwa vines and was able to get a lot of the fruits, I didn’t make the connection between that and the little green bulbs I’d seen before. He told me they were like tiny kiwis, and once he saw how interested I was, promised to bring me some the next day.

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This is what he brought me! A humongous bowl of these olive-sized green/brown fruits. And when he cut it open:

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Sure enough, it looks like a kiwi! The softer ones were easy to squeeze out from their skin, and when I ate some they definitely had a kiwi taste.

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These aren’t quite ripe- when they’re much softer and a darker green, they taste best!

This was the first time I’d ever seen or eaten this, so I did some research. Outside of Japan these go by the names hardy kiwi, grape kiwi, artic kiwi, baby kiwi, and others. They grow in Hokkaido where normal kiwis won’t, because they’re pretty tough and resistant to cold, and are actually related to the common kiwi fruit. But they’re kind of a super-kiwi; they grow extremely fast and aggressively, and will kill trees that the vines attach to. People like to make jams and alcohol of them- my lumberjack friend actually made a big jar of kokuwa-shu.

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A kokuwa vine

They have a lot of vitamin C, and you can actually eat the whole thing, though my friend doesn’t enjoy eating them that way. I liked it either way, and eventually moved to just eating the whole thing because it’s easier.

So! Here’s just one of many experiences I’ve had with overlooked plants in Hokkaido. I’ll bring some more soon!

 

 

 

Yukimushi

Winter is right around the corner. You want to know how I know this? Yesterday, I saw this guy:

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And what is that little winged puffball bug, you may ask? That, my friends, is a yukimushi– translated literally, a “snow bug.” They’re very small, about the size of a gnat, and have a fluffy white body, and make people think of falling snow. Most people in Hokkaido say that after yukimushi is seen, it will start snowing within the month. I’ve also heard it said, though, that it will snow in 10 days if you see yukimushi– but I don’t think I quite believe that. It’s getting chilly, but isn’t that cold yet!

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Yesterday when I was speaking with my tea ceremony teacher, I mentioned to her that I was excited for winter (skiing!) and that it had snowed on Asahidake last week. She told me she had been seeing yukimushi for a week already, and when I was surprised, showed me out behind her house. Sure enough, the air was filled with them!

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I couldn’t find an English name for them, but did find out they’re a type of aphid, and have a sticky body. They’re extremely sensitive to heat- even someone’s body heat can make them sluggish (sorry little guys I caught for these pictures!) and so show up only when the weather gets colder. They also only live for a week- the males don’t have mouths, so they can’t eat, and females lay eggs and then die themselves.

September is a little early to be seeing them- maybe we’re in for an early winter! Though I don’t think it will arrive within the next week. Either way, I’m excited for this gorgeous time of year.

 

 

Summer’s End

Hey all! Summer has flown by. I think it always feels short in Hokkaido, like the cold weather wants to crowd out warmer days. But I and the rest of the dosanko made the best of it, and really enjoyed the time we had. Here’s a few shots of classic Hokkaido summer here in Takinoue, as we start to shift to autumn.

 

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Grilled scallops at an oustide yakiniku party, yum.
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The hydrangeas were especially beautiful this year! I’m still delighted they grow wild.
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Me in a yukata on the way to Takinoue’s summer festival… excuse the messy genkan.
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Sunset from the top of Rainbow Bridge. I was actually chilly when I took this!

 

Right now I’m bundled up, because it actually reached 8C last night (46F).  Yesterday it snowed on Asahidake, the highest mountain in Hokkaido. I expect the leaves to start changing soon, and when they do I’ll be back with some more pictures!

 

Where to Eat- Restaurant Alice

There are a couple of really amazing restaurants to visit in Takinoue, and I’d like to tell you about Restaurant Alice!

Restaurant Alice is in Asahi-machi, only a few blocks from the Shibazakura Park. Restaurant Alice is very recognizable from the outside- it’s a vibrant green- and inside is quiet and comfortable.

alice outside

Most of the food from Alice is local, produced on an organic farm here in Takinoue.  Their menu stays pretty consistent year-round, with a lot of Japanese foods that are really delicious.

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From top right, clockwise: miso ramen, omu-spice curry, salad, kitsune udon, seasonal set, gyoza set meal

 

At Alice, they even make their own liqueurs from local fruits. I really like the ume, but the other flavors are really great too. There are some interesting ones that I haven’t seen anywhere else!

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Restaurant Alice is open for lunch and dinner. They also offer locally-produced items, such as foods, sauces and dressings, and even organic bug-repellent incense.

alice prodcuts collage

 

Come drop by!

 

 

Where to Eat- Le Bella at Suehiro Inn

There are a couple of really amazing restaurants to visit in Takinoue, and I’d like to tell you about Le Bella!

Le Bella is the restaurant attached to the Suehiro Inn, very close to the Shibazakura Hill. The inside is really cute and warm, and there’s even a deck that sits overlooking the Shokotsu River. The deck even has standing heaters, to stay warm in the chilly evenings.

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The dining room

 

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The outside deck

They have a party room, which you can reserve for dinner. I have been to Le Bella many times for parties with friends and coworkers!

Le Bella’s food is amazing! While a lot of traditional Japanese food is available, the owner of Le Bella incorporates western cooking into her meals, so you can taste some amazing Japanese-fusion food! The menu changes seasonally, so there’s always what is best at that time of year available. You can even eat deer here!

suehiro food collage
Clockwise from the top: Seasonal foods (deer-meat ajillo, avocado and prosciutto salad, bread, asparagus); deer meat katsu- curry; cold soba

Le Bella is typically open for lunch, but is available for dinner upon reservation. Come visit!