Fish on Fridays 

I finish work early on Friday afternoons, during the time that Matthew has a break between classes. We've developed a little ritual going over to the snack shop in the mall and buying a couple of taiyaki.

Taiyaki are filled, baked treats in the shape of a sea bream. They often have a sweet filling, like anko (red bean paste) or pastry cream, although some have savory fillings like sausage and cheese. Today's taiyaki were filled with anko and cream cheese.
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Snow Day 

Today's our first day of serious winter weather in Kitakami. It's the kind of day where snow either falls peacefully or blows madly throughout the day. It's the kind of day when the temperature flirts with zero, but decides thawing isn't worth it and backs off a few degrees. It's the kind of day where you regret not picking up the wipers the last time you used the car. It's the kind of day that makes you wonder whether driving, walking, or bicycling is the best option for getting around.

It was in that frame of mind that I swept the stack of accumulated snow off the seat of my bike before setting off for work this evening. It was pretty slow going, since there were limits to how fast I could ride on streets and sidewalks thick with new snow while the wind blew sharp needles into my eyes. The slowness was fortuitous, given that my brake handles were frozen solid and therefore unusable. Thank goodness for Flintstones brakes.

I didn't have much company as I navigated through shallow snowdrifts and across expanses of solid white road. The ride was actually quite serene, the normal noises of the city having been hushed by the falling snow. Whatever reservations I might have had about riding my bike in the driving snow had been replaced by the contentment of exertion and solidarity with nature — a contentment no warm, but slippery, drive could ever give.
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The Benefits of Being Late 

Much like last year, we joined our neighbors at the local shrine for hatsumoude early on New Year's morning. During the course of our visit, some of them invited us to go over to the ward's community center for mahjong later in the day. We'd played mahjong once before at the ward's monthly game night, so we were happy to join in. The games didn't begin for a couple of hours after the shrine visits were over, which gave us time to go home to hang out with the dogs and read our nengajou.

We ended up getting to the ward hall about half an hour after the start time, only to see that all of the tables were occupied. Then we noticed that the blackboard was open and had a serious-looking chart on it, the kind that would later show rankings. This was no just-for-kicks holiday mahjong gathering it was the annual New Year's mahjong tournament. At the end of the day, the winner would walk away with actual money. Well, only two yen per point, but still: money. Not the place for beginner mahjong players.

The scorekeeper invited us to park with him, offered us beer, and explained the proceedings to us. We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking beer and watching the more experienced players go at it, cheering at the end for the victor. They invited us to stay for snacks, speeches, and awards, during which one of the organizers apologized for not having room for us to play. We in turn apologized for not being good enough to play, which they all seemed to find amusing.

Next year, they said.

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Festival of the Seven Herbs 

Traditionally, January 7 is a significant day in Japan. According to Shinto custom, adopted from ancient Chinese custom, January 7 is jinjitsu (person's day), a day when criminals are spared from punishment. More applicable to the general population, January 7 is also the day of nanakusa no sekku, the Festival of the Seven Herbs. People celebrate nanakusa no sekku by eating nanakusa gayu, rice porridge with seven herbs. It is believed that eating the seven herbs on this day will bring good health and longevity in the upcoming year. It is also believed that eating a light meal of rice porridge and herbs will help settle stomachs troubled by six days of indulging in sake, beer, and osechi ryouri.

There are seven herbs traditionally used in nanakusa gayu, although it seems that what actually gets used depends on what's available in each region. You can buy the traditional seven in packaged sets.

Clockwise from left, the seven herbs are hakobera (chickweed), suzushiro (daikon radish), gogyou (cudweed), nazuna (shepherd's purse), seri (water dropwort, or Japanese parsley), suzuna (turnip), and hotokenoza (nipplewort).

We followed the recipe on the package and put toasted mochi in ours, in addition to the herbs.

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108 Bells 

In Japan, New Year's Eve is full of rituals to prepare for the passing of the old year and the crossing into a new one. One of these rituals, joya no kane, occurs at Buddhist temples. Joya no kane is the ringing of the temple bell 108 times on New Year's Eve. As we understand it, each of the 108 tolls represents a sin or a defilement of a person's mind. If a person hears all the tolls, he can repent for 108 of those defilements. The tolling begins before midnight and continues until the tolls are complete, straddling the changing of the year.

We went to Zenmyouji, a small temple rising above rice fields west of Kitakami to experience joya no kane. The tolling was underway when we arrived, as local people had already come to pray and make offerings at the bell. We were greeted by a very friendly woman who directed us up to the bell. She instructed us to approach the bell with our hands folded, make our offering, and ring the bell before returning to the greeters, who would give us a mikan (clementine). She then invited us to enter the temple for a prayer ceremony that would begin at midnight.

Incense greeted us when we entered the temple, as did a number of other attendees. At midnight, the ceremony began with the ringing of a smaller bell inside and the beating of a drum. The monk offered his prayers, then invited the attendees to approach and offer theirs. All the while, the larger bell outside tolled, as people continued to arrive and ring it, asking forgiveness of the old year's wrongs and praying for a better year ahead.
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Dawn of a New Year 

The new year dawned with spectacular weather, which some people have taken as an auspicious sign for the year.

We weren't actually up at dawn on New Year's Day, so this photo is from the second. But the weather was gorgeous both days, so we expect New Year's Dawn probably looked a lot like this.
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Shameless Commercialism, 2009 Edition 

Another year, another calendar. Check it out at Cafepress: thirteen of our photos from around Kitakami, Iwate, and other nearby places in Tohoku! Just click the calendar to take a closer look.
related link
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Safety Driver 

Late at night, especially on weekends, there's a common sight on the streets of Kitakami: pairs of cars, one with a taxi-style light on the roof. But if you look closely, the printing on the taxi light doesn't say "taxi". It says "daikou".

Daikou is a service for people who drive to a bar, pub, party, karaoke, or whatever, then drink. Drinking and driving laws here are draconian, so even if you've only had one drink all evening, you can't drive home. Instead, you call a daikou company. They arrive with a car (the one with the light on it) and two drivers. One of them drives you home (or to the next party) in your car, and the other car follows to take the driver to the next fare.

Amazingly, this service is cheaper than taking a taxi, so it's very popular.

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Pie Are Square 

A couple of weeks ago, we visited the local model shop. Usually when we drop by, the owner's wife sets out tea and coffee and we visit for a bit after Matthew's done his shopping. This time, she showed me a holiday edition of a Japanese cooking magazine, which got us to talking about apple pie. She apparently had a pie crust in her freezer, which she tried to give me. I had to refuse, citing our lack of an oven. Matthew had told them that he'd be back in a few days with a visiting train buddy. She likes to give us things, so I wondered whether a pie would be forthcoming.

Sure enough, when Matthew went back on Monday, he received a pie. A Japanese apple pie, that is.

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Holiday Finery 

The trees in front of the Kitakami city office, all dressed up for Christmas. The name of the decoration scheme is "Ribbon Showers."
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