Manhole Covers 

In America, manhole covers are a largely ignored part of the urban landscape. They are quite plain, bearing little more than a note of what utility it serves and a tread pattern so that pedestrians won't slip.

In Japan, though, each municipality has manhole cover designs that reflect local specialties, historical sites, or festivals. Whatever a town is famous for may end up on the manhole covers.

Here's one of Kitakami's designs:

And one from Hottoyuda, famous for its hot springs:

And one from Yokote, depicting Yokote Castle, a kamakura (snow hut), and cherry blossoms:

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National Pastime 

Matthew and I finally got around to doing some karaoke together this weekend at a pub/snack downtown. As I understand it, most karaoke in Japan these days occurs in small private rooms (or "boxes") within clubs, rather than out in the open like in America. This pub/snack owner loves music, however, so she has an extensive karaoke setup in the main part of her small establishment ― big screen TV, remote controls with touchpads for researching the listings and reserving songs, and portable mics. Matthew had been here before, during his solo stint in Kitakami, and wanted to return. The owner was friendly, quick with the imo shochu (sweet potato liquor), and insistent upon the karaoke.

With her encouragement, we blew through a diverse selection of songs, including a touching duet on Bon Jovi's "Livin' On a Prayer." There was some Carpenters, there was some Ramones; there was ABBA, there was Heart. If I recall correctly, we did the Doors and the Pet Shop Boys back-to-back. I got up enough courage to do some songs in Spanish. The owner was impressed enough with my "Cielito Lindo" to strongarm me into doing a song with her ― in Portuguese. That did not go so well.

We closed out our set with The Clash, "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" But we had made our decision ― it was time to go.

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Something's Missing 

We've had some beautiful weather lately, perfect for taking the dogs on long walks. Whether truly clear or decorated with wispy clouds, there's something that makes the skies here special: no contrails. There have been a few days when planes are flying over (we aren't far from Iwate Hanamaki Airport) and the weather conditions create contrails, but it's very rare.
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Best Seat in the House 

Behold, the kotatsu:

A kotatsu is a low table frame covered by a blanket, which the tabletop sits on. A heat source is located somewhere under the table; ours is electric, and is bolted to the frame. You sit with your legs (or more, if you like) under the blanket, which traps the heat. Like many houses in Japan, ours lacks central heat and much in the way of insulation, so we've stocked up on things like heaters in preparation for the winter. Frankly, even if we had heat, I'd want a kotatsu ― it's all fuzzy and cozy and warm.

I hesitate to put this in the "Strange Japan" category, because what it really deserves is an "Awesome Japan" category. I love the kotatsu!
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Is there anything you're planning to do "someday"?

Last May, we traveled to northern Japan. It was an amazing experience, and afterwards we sometimes talked about the possibility of moving there. Then, in October, we decided we would actually do it — "someday".

That "someday" was comforting. No hurries, nothing that needed to be done right then. We had plenty of time to get our affairs in order, save money, and prepare ourselves. We were able to think of ourselves as bold, adventurous people — "We made this momentous decision!" — without having to actually do anything about it.

Just a few days later, a year ago today, everything changed. Life presented us with a crossroads, and forced us to make a choice. It was time to really commit, if we were seriously going to do this.

But what if that hadn't happened? Where would we be today? Would we still be in Maryland, making our plans to move to Japan "someday"? Would that "someday" ever have come?

If we could do something when we had to make a choice, why couldn't we do it without life forcing the issue? What were we waiting for?

What are you waiting for?

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Leap of Faith 

"If you're gonna jump, then jump far." ― Natasha Bedingfield, contemporary British philosopher

Having a comfortable life means having a place to stand, and room to maneuver. It means walking around, dodging obstacles, and sitting down with a drink in your hand at the end of the day. It means home, stability, refuge. You might go near the edge, but you don't jump.

But when the ground starts to crumble under your feet, you have two options. You can step back to safety, or you can jump.

One year ago today, we decided to jump.
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Fall Colors 

On Sunday, we took advantage of the fine fall weather to make an excursion on the Kitakami Line. This railroad crosses the central mountains of Japan, traveling between Kitakami and Yokote (in Akita Prefecture). Running along steep hillsides and across mountain valleys, it offers spectacular views — especially in autumn, when the leaves are changing.

In Kitakami, some fall colors are starting to show, but as we ascended it became clear the leaves were much further along in the mountains. Exiting the first tunnel into a mountain valley, the change in view was so startling that everyone on the (somewhat crowded) train gasped.

We were in and out of tunnels most of the way, with plenty of breathtaking scenery in between. Sometimes the colors were brightest on the hillside near the train.

Other times, it was the view across a valley that was spectacular.

At the end of the line, we took a couple of hours to walk around Yokote. Brightly colored trees shared the view with Yokote Castle.

We left Yokote in the early afternoon so we'd have time to stop in Hotto Yuda, an onsen (hot spring) village along the way. There's even an onsen inside the railroad station! The town is on the shores of a mountain lake, in an area justly famous for the turning leaves.

We enjoyed a soak in the spring (more on that later), then returned home, refreshed but exhausted.
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Fish-Butchering Prowess 

Fish ― the most intimidating staple of the Japanese diet. We didn't cook fish much in America, but it's so easy to get cheap, high-quality fish here that it seems ridiculous not to. Not only can it be hard to cook well, it can be hard to know how to eat. Presented with a bite-sized cross-section of river fish last year, I ate the entire thing, including the spoo (read: innards), and felt wretched immediately. About two weeks later, I learned that some Japanese don't even eat the spoo because they don't like the taste. It's apparently like nattou in that respect.

Back to fish. Cooking fish in Japan frequently means butchering it yourself. Grocery stores sell river and smaller ocean fish whole. So if you're salt-grilling, you have the option of grilling the whole thing intact and eating around the spoo and bones. Or, you can de-gill and gut it; you would also have to do this if you're making sashimi or one of the simmered dishes. I've been practicing fish butchery intermittently over the past few months, and I think I've finally got it.

The first time I butchered a mackerel, the metallic smell that accompanies bloodletting kind of freaked me out (did I have a bad mackerel?). Also, I didn't do a particularly good job of filleting it; Matthew spent the better part of dinner working his way around bones. Now, decapitating, gutting, and filleting the fish all happen cleanly with just a few careful cuts and tugs on the appropriate fish parts. (I did get a bit careless in carrying the intestines over to the sink by one end, causing a large glop of spoo to drip out and land on the floor. It is worth noting that the dogs wouldn't go anywhere near the spoo either.) Last night's miso-simmered mackerel was a predominantly bone-free delight, and the dogs scored a bit of mackerel sashimi.

We haven't tried making sashimi at home yet, but hopefully, that day will come.
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Small Shrine Near the Station 

We've remarked before on the large number of small shrines that dot the cityscape. This one is near the station, next to a two-story bicycle parking garage.
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The Politics of Onsen 

Public baths can be daunting to foreigners because of the language barrier and the unwritten etiquette. We visited plenty of public baths during our vacation last year, but I still get nervous about inadvertently breaking one of the rules. And my nascent language skills aren't quite up to the challenge of conversing about the finer points of public bathing. So our Sunday onsen (hot spring bath) visit left me feeling both extra clean and a bit confused.

We know the public bath drill. First, you wash your hair and body at a separate wall of spigots, using a large washcloth. After washing, you can soak as long as you like in the hot baths. Once you're done bathing, you shower off again before returning to the dressing room. It's all very civilized and quite enjoyable after you get past the "roomful of naked people" aspect.

I followed the drill: washing, soaking, contemplating. When I felt adequately onsened, I headed back to the spigots, but my spot near the soap was occupied. No matter. I figured I'd cool off with a soap-free rinse at another spigot. The woman next to me offered me some of soap she had brought. I told her that I was quite daijoubu, but thanks. And then she offered the soap again, with a kind (tolerant?) smile and a "kudasai."

Crap. "Kudasai" always makes me nervous because it's used for requests and I often don't know how to read the request. Did she mean "please, feel free to use my soap"? Or did she mean "No, seriously, it's completely unacceptable to not use soap after bathing. Don't you know the rules?" Not wanting to offend, I gave a very formal thank you and lathered up my oversized washcloth, desperately trying to remember whether I was supposed to use soap after soaking in the bath.

Next time, I'm taking my own soap.

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