Tax Time 

Tax time in Japan doesn't seem to evoke the same image of oppressive bureaucracy that it does in the U.S. I wonder if it's because the forms are simple and colorful?

Or it may be because the instruction booklet includes a cute cartoon lady to guide you through the process.

Actually, it's probably because the tax system itself is fairly straightforward. In fact, it's so simple that most people don't even have to file. Instead, employers just withhold the correct amount. But what about deductions, you ask? You tell your employer about them in December, and they make an adjustment on your last paycheck.
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Distant Views 

On Sunday, we went to Geto Ski Area, where the unusually clear skies afforded long range views in all directions. The summit is usually shrouded in fog, so it seemed like a special treat.

To the east, we could see Mt. Hayachine, about 65 kilometers away in the central mountains of Iwate.

To the west, we could see Mt. Chokai, straddling the border between Akita and Yamagata, near the Sea of Japan, a little over 70 kilometers away.

And to the north, Mt. Iwate was barely visible, also about 70 kilometers distant. (We posted a closer view of Mt. Iwate last year.)

Finally, here's a map showing these mountains and Geto in relation to Kitakami and the east and west coasts of Japan.

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Hina Matsuri 

March 3 is about more than just good ear health. It's also the day of Hina Matsuri, or Girls' Day. Families with daughters celebrate the day to ensure their future happiness. The most recognizable feature of the celebration is an elaborate display of dolls (hina ningyo).

The dolls represent the emperor, empress, and members of their court. I believe the flowers are peach blossoms, which represent the traits of composure and tranquility.

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National Ear Health Day 

March 3 is National Ear Health Day. Why? Because some countries don't mind enshrining puns in official proclamations. "Ear" is mimi, and "three" is mi, so 3/3 is "ear".

It's a day to pay careful attention to ear health, and how better to do that than with a licensed Toy Story ear-shovel (mimi-kaki) to clean the wax out? I was raised to "never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear," but in Japan, ear-shovels are popular souvenir items. This one was a gift from one of my students who went to Tokyo Disneyland, and the alien is actually a bobble-head toy.

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A heavy overnight snow made the tetrapods in the Waga River near Kunenbashi look like pairs of seaweed-wrapped rice balls.
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Amazake is sweet, non-alcoholic, fermented rice. It's served in winter as a traditional hot drink. Nowadays, it's usually made by dissolving kasu — rice pulp filtered out during sake production — in hot water. But "real" amazake is not a by-product of sake production, it's its own fermented product.

Real amazake is less widely available than kasu in stores, but in my opinion, it's a vastly superior product. Although only a few grocery stores seem to have real amazake, many offer packages of moldy rice. Covered with the koji mold needed to make amazake (or sake, for that matter), it's used as a "starter" for making real amazake at home.

So, here's a close-up of the moldy rice we bought last week.

Making the amazake is fairly easy, but takes about 6 or 7 hours. In the end, it was worth it: some of the best amazake we've had!
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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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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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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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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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