Where the Green Fern Grows 

A fern growing in the Juniko area (in Aomori Prefecture) of the Shirakami Mountains.

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Looking Towards Home 

Somewhere across that expanse of water (seen from the Goishi Kaigan on the Iwate coast) lie the shores of California.

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Riding with Monsters 

Do you remember the Pokemon craze from a few years ago? The Japanese sure do. In fact, it's still a craze here. It's even popular enough to be at the center of a joint advertising campaign between JR East and All Nippon Airways. From today until September 15, you can ride a bullet train decorated with your favorite characters. It all kicked off when one of the decorated trains (actually, a coupled set of two trains, an E3 and an E2) headed north from Tokyo, stopping at Kitakami on its way to Morioka.

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Silver Zone 

To remind motorists to watch for older people in the street, these signs appear in certain areas:

Those areas are called "Silver Zones." Aren't the signs cute?
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Monkey Business 

Well, what have we here? What are you looking at?

Oh, I see! You're looking at the fellow on the roof! And he's looking at us.

Back in May, we were driving along the Sea of Japan coast in Aomori Prefecture. We got quite a surprise when we rounded a curve and discovered a group of monkeys hanging around near the road. We stopped for some photos, and found them to be timid but curious.

Eventually, they lost interest in us and returned to munching on fruit while watching the sun set over the Sea of Japan.

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Mistaken Identity 

A couple of months ago, we went on a mountain vegetable-picking trip with some of our local friends. Because we had no prior experience cooking almost everything we picked, we solicited cooking tips as well. For one plant, koshiabura, a friend recommended tossing it with cooked spaghetti and pepperoncini. Japanese cooking borrows a lot from other cuisines, so I didn't think the suggestion to combine a humble mountain plant with imported Italian peppers was too offbeat. I certainly didn't think to ask whether she meant something entirely different.

Before dinner, I headed off to the store for ingredients. Regular grocery store: no pepperoncini. Booze and imported goods store: no pepperoncini. Posh department store: no pepperoncini. I was running out of time, so I made a lateral flavor jump to capers instead. The spaghetti was good, but I wondered how different it would be with the pepperoncini. It was only much later that I started wondering whether our friend had meant pickled peppers at all.

So I asked recently. "When you said 'pepperoncini,' what did you mean?" "Garlic and togarashi (Japanese red pepper). Why?" I explained the futile hunt for small yellow pickled peppers, and we both got a big laugh out of it. But next time, I'm asking what she means if she says something Western.
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Tuna's Where You Find It 

During dinner at the local Okinawan joint, we ordered a new-to-us dish that came with a mystery seafood topping. We asked about it, and got an answer we didn't understand: shi-chikin. While the owner's son disappeared into the back, we consulted the electronic dictionary, but couldn't find anything under a listing for shi-chikin. It all became clear when he brought out a small can and pointed to the mermaid on the side. Sea chicken. Chicken of the Sea. Canned tuna.

Canned tuna has an odd place in Japanese cooking. We find it where we'd expect to: in sandwiches and salads. We also find it where we wouldn't expect to: on pizza, in those prepackaged, unrefrigerated sandwiches with the edges pressed together and the crusts cut off, in onigiri (rice balls). It reaches the pinnacle of awesomeness in onigiri. There's no better convenience snack than a tuna-mayo onigiri ― the creamy, salty tuna, the sticky, slightly sweet rice, and the crisp, ocean-y nori are perfect together.

Additionally, tuna keeps company with an unlikely sidekick: yellow corn (corn in Japanese cooking is another subject entirely). They're a surprisingly tasty duo ― corn and tuna pizza is far from the worst thing I've ever eaten. Salads now seem to lack something if they come with one or the other, but not both. Which raises a question: does the normalization of the tuna/corn partnership mean we've been here too long? It's likely that question will only linger until the next discovery of canned tuna in a completely unexpected place.
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C'est un Byoin 

I haven't been able to determine whether it's intentional or a longstanding typo, but I love that the hospital near JR Mizusawa Station appears to have a French name:

It wouldn't be too surprising for the name to actually be French. French has a larger influence on the Japanese language than I would have expected. For example, one of the words for "clown" in Japanese is a loanword from French ― piero. Also, it seems that the more common translation of the word kuri is into French ― marron ― rather than into English ― chestnut.
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Village Beauty 

A pink waterlily floats in the lake beside the tofu-making shop at Battari-mura.

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Yesterday, some places in Japan celebrated Tanabata, or "The Night of Sevens." Originally from China, the story of Tanabata is a sadly romantic one. It is said that a weaver of beautiful clothes (represented by the star Vega) fell in love with a herder (represented by the star Altair), causing them both to neglect their work. The king of the universe became angry with them, and separated them with the Milky Way, permitting them to meet only once a year on the seventh night of the seventh month.

To celebrate Tanabata, people write wishes on slips of paper and tie them to bamboo.

According to the Western calendar, the seventh day of the seventh month on the traditional Japanese calendar falls in August, which is when Sendai holds its famous festival. And, according to Wikipedia, this year Tanabata took on special meaning with the commencement of the G8 summit in Hokkaido and the Prime Minister's encouragement to the nation to celebrate by turning off lights and going outside to enjoy the Milky Way instead as a symbolic gesture for the environment.
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