I've remarked before on how close we feel to nature here. In Kitakami, you're never far from a river or park or rice paddy or other place that is just humming with non-human life, such as these black-winged dragonflies that have been decorating the riverside park all summer.

And yet, even with all this life, there's something missing. There are birds and insects and spiders and fish and even snakes — but no wild animals. In Maryland, our neighborhood was full of squirrels, and we saw plenty of rabbits plus the occasional opossum, fox, or deer. Mice, rats, and raccoons could appear as well. Here, the only mammals we've seen in our neighborhood are domesticated cats and dogs.

Okay, I actually have seen two wild animals here. Once, on the other side of the river, I saw a rabbit. The second animal we saw was probably a raccoon dog, but we only caught a glimpse as it dashed across the road ahead of us on our way back from Miyagi — and that doesn't really count because weren't in a town. Two in five months doesn't seem like much.

There are plenty of wild animals in Japan, and you can find a lot of evidence if you head for the mountains to go hiking. There just aren't any in town, and that seems odd with all the nature that is in town.
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On a couple of occasions during Undoukai, neighbors told us that a party would take place immediately afterwards. Indeed, while the event judges tallied up the points, each team set up picnic spaces on the outer edges of the field. We had lots of sushi, sashimi, pickles, dango (rice dumplings covered with black sesame, sweetened soy sauce, adzuki bean paste, or edamame paste), onigiri, and packages of cookies and otsumami (beer snacks).

Good thing for all that otsumami, because we had plenty of beer. Including beer in cans so big, they required handles.

After some time, team captains started circulating, carrying their bottles of sake to share. Matthew was the lucky recipient of many refills and friendly visits. I think everyone was impressed that he could speak some Japanese. Or by his moustache.

We ate, drank, chatted, and laughed with our neighbors well into the afternoon. When the party broke up, everyone pitched in to clean up. Clean-up involved separating refuse into burnable trash, non-burnable trash, and the various types of recyclables (plastics, paper, etc). *sigh* I love Japanese organization.

We walked our bikes home along with our neighbors from across the street. No riding for us — in Japan, it's illegal to ride your bike after drinking.
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Fight Fiercely, Kunenbashi 

When Matthew and I decided to move to Japan, we were motivated by the desire to learn more about another culture and another way of life. So, when our neighbors invited us to participate in Undoukai, we had to go for it.

Gathered by teams for opening speeches and organized calisthenics (not only is there a song, but also a whole ordered routine — probably a lot like the factory workers' morning ritual), we prepared for a day of friendly competition. Our team was announced as third largest, earning us a certain number of points up front. Kunenbashi (the neighborhood, not the bridge), represent!

Each team donned a different-colored headband. Team Kunenbashi wore red. The first event was a series of races for the young kids. We adults began our competition with a basketball-passing relay game. A third-place finish in this event stoked our drive for further excellence.

Team Kunenbashi performed well throughout the next few events. These included a relay where we dressed a teammate as a scarecrow, then walked him to the finish line; tea can/beer bottle/giant sake bottle ring toss; and filling a giant sake bottle with team-colored liquid by using small tea cups. And then, we met our Waterloo: Janken.

Janken is a game of extreme skill and concentration, perhaps a bit too much so for the good-natured competition of undoukai. Oh, who am I kidding — it's Rock, Paper, Scissors, and we blew. Team Kunenbashi scored ONE POINT, thanks to our very last player. I think we may want to consider some janken drills in advance of next year's event.

The next event was a 1500m road race. Up to this point, Matthew and I had been responding eagerly to each call for our participation, even if we didn't comprehend totally what the event was. In this case, we thought it was an 800m run. Because neither one of us is particularly athletic, I think we got in a little deep. Matthew ran admirably, finishing in the middle of the pack. Here he is after the race, wearing the cool, damp towel worn by all the other men after a particularly strenuous event.

Well, not the same towel. You know what I mean.

Team Kunenbashi won the next event, tossing small balls into baskets held high overhead. We were not so successful in the tug-of-war, losing both of our elimination bouts. We regained momentum with a third-place finish in the rope-making event. Wow. Before Sunday, I couldn't imagine this at a sports day: "Okay, now we're going to make some rope."

The people participating in the rope-making event were amazing, cranking out more than four meters (about thirteen feet) of rope in five minutes.

The athletics resumed with three final races: a stick-and-hoop relay, a women's relay, and a men's relay, with each leg of the latter two being run by a person fitting into a certain age range (a "different generations" relay, if you will). The stick-and-hoop relay was rather impressive, with Team Kunenbashi demonstrating enough skill to achieve a second-place finish.

Team Kunenbashi lacked someone to run the fortysomething leg of the women's relay, so between the two thirtysomethings, they picked me to be "fortysomething." We also had to borrow an elementary school student from another neighborhood. Sadly, Team Kunenbashi did not place in either of the last two races.

Overall, we finished in fourth place out of five teams. Nevertheless, we had a great time, which was the point. And we still got our cases of beer and bottles of sake as participant rewards.

Confidential to Saru-chan: Happy Birthday!
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It's a little after 4:00 pm, and we're drunk. This can only mean one thing: undoukai! Undou(exercise)kai(meet) is an annual "sports day" when neighborhoods compete with each other in "sports" such as Rock-Paper-Scissors and the 1500 meter "marathon". For the over-fifty crowd there was even a rope-making contest, which was quite a sight to see. (Our neighborhood, Kunenbashi, came in third out of five with about 4 meters of rope in about 5 minutes.)

All that's in the morning, though. The real reason everybody goes is for the after-party/picnic. Sushi, sashimi, fried foods, crackers, dessert, and all the beer or sake you can drink actually, more than you can drink, because everyone will want to refill your glass and drink with you, at least if you're a foreigner.

It was fun, but now we're tired and drunk, so we'll write more and post some photos later. Ja, mata ne! Gokurou-sama deshita!
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Here it is: the grass that forms the basis of the Japanese diet, and is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it serves as a metaphor for food, meals, and — even more generally — for resources and wealth.
related link
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Surfin' Miyagi 

On Saturday, we met up with some friends to caravan down to the Pacific coast in Miyagi Prefecture, heading for the beach where all the Kitakami surfers go to catch waves. The mountains march right out to sea here, separating the beaches with rocky ledges and shelves.

We're windsurfers, but we'd never done real surfing before, so some lessons were in order. We lacked skills but not confidence as we strode out into the water with our instructor and his assistant.

After they wore us out with paddling, they decided to give us a taste of what it's like to catch a wave. Standing up was still impossible for us, but you don't need to stand up to go fast!

Is it fun? Maybe you can see the big grin on Stefanie's face after a good ride.

After a couple of hours we were tired, hungry, and sore. Some yakisoba and onigiri took care of the hunger, but we were still tired and sore for the trip home. At some points, the road provided an overview of the rows upon rows of mountains looming between us and a much-needed rest.

Regardless, Stefanie persevered and got us home safely.

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Conquering Your Fears (Well, Mine Anyway) 

Between the Great Tokyo Junket of '07 and last week's series of road trips, it seems our journeys have settled into a predictable rhythm. We hit the road, full of excitement about The Road Ahead. At some point, Matthew will comment (more or less urgently, depending on the situation) that I am way too close to the line/post/ditch/guardrail on the left for his liking. (Didn't Beyonce just have a song out about this? "To the left, to the left/Try to keep the car out the ditch to the left.") I will remind him that he can, at any time, study for and take the test to get his J-driver's license. The trip will continue smoothly until we come to an inevitable feature of The Road Ahead: an especially narrow stretch of road, usually bordered by a straight-sided ditch just about the exact width of a car tire. Then I momentarily freak out, convinced that I'll either plow into an oncoming car or drive us into the ditch. We eventually reach our destination safely, and I think "Hey, that was kind of cool. Don't be such a ninny." and feel pretty hardcore for being able to drive on Japanese roads. And then I remember that we have to get home.

Let's talk about Japanese roads, shall we? Japan is a country built on islands mostly, if not entirely, formed by volcanoes, resulting in high, pointy mountains with sheer, steep drops. It's an amazingly beautiful country, to be sure, but its geography and land usage necessitate things like high bridges, 800-meter-long tunnels, and narrow mountain roads with hairpin turns and the occasional 8% grade. And when the roads a) are a normal width; b) lack a tire-wide ditch off to the left; and c) have at least a six-inch shoulder, they're wicked fun to drive and make me wish we had the Swedewagon. When they're bordered by ditches and only about two cars wide, however, they're kind of nerve-wracking to drive.

If you read Matthew's previous post, you've read about the bear road. There were neither bears nor other traffic on it, so it was a piece of cake to navigate. Our caravan to Miyagi-ken, however, took us up steep, narrow roads running between rice paddies requiring you to negotiate with the oncoming driver who was crossing first, then back down steep, narrow roads requiring you to negotiate back-to-back-to-back hairpin curves. Coming back was even better because paddling practice during our surf lesson had rendered my shoulders nearly immobile. (Incidentally, we will blog about our surf lesson, because surfing is awesome. Even if you haven't gotten to the point of standing up.)

Prior to last week, a trip to the beach for us meant the Beltway to Route 50 and over the Bay Bridge. In Northern Japan, the mountains end at the beach, so it's twisty roads and rice paddies all the way. Faced with the choice of not driving versus not surfing -- well, there's not really a choice, is there? Ganbarimasu!
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Tase Dam 

Tase Dam (pronounced "tah say dah moo") creates Taseko ("Lake Tase"), a mountain lake where we have heard you can go windsurfing and even rent sailboards. So yesterday, we decided to take a brief road trip (it's only thirty minutes from Kitakami) to scout it out.

Along the way we took some wrong turns, almost ran out of gas, and otherwise made an adventure of it. We eventually ended up at the dam, where we could get an overview of the lake. After a brief stop, we crossed the dam and turned onto a dirt road.

At the entrance to the dirt road was a sign, "Be cautious of (something)", but I didn't recognize the character telling what to be cautious of. It looked familiar, but what was it?

Oh well, no matter. Japanese roads are full of caution signs. "Sudden curves", "construction", "merging traffic", "cross winds", and so on. And clearly this was a road that required caution: a steep drop into the lake on the right, trees and rocks on the left, and in between, a space just slightly larger than a 1997 Opel Astra station wagon. Yes, we will be cautious, thank you very much. So we drove onward.

It looked familiar, but what was it?

As Stefanie concentrated on keeping the Opel away from both lake and rocks, I racked my brain trying to remember that kanji. It looked familiar, but what was it?

"I wonder if it means 'bear'."
"That character. I think it means bear. Let me check the dictionary... yes, the sign said, 'beware of the bears'."
"Oh. Well, at least we don't have any food. And we can just keep moving."

In the end, we made it safely. Windsurfing is indeed something people do at Taseko, so we'll go back in a few weeks to rent boards.
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Passage to Akita 

Yesterday, we drove to Akita for some good eats: Inaniwa udon for lunch, and Yokote yakisoba for dinner. (Both are specialty noodle dishes of Akita.)

Anyway, Akita lies on the other side of the Ou Sanmyaku, the mountain ridge running through the middle of Tohoku, and crossing the mountains meant plenty of tunnels.
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Before we moved here, our lives were full of noise. Of course there were always some sounds that stood out from the background noise. A passing train, the morning alarm clock, Aki woofing at the neighbor dogs. But behind it all there was a constant barrage of noise, all blended together into an indistinguishable wall of sound that we learned to ignore.

But here, somehow it's different. Life is full of sounds. This is a city, so there are still the sounds of traffic, but it doesn't drown everything else out. All the sounds are distinct, from the frogs of late spring to the distant pops of summer fireworks, from the honking of swans calling each other in the evening to the electric whine of a departing Yamabiko shinkansen train. Earthquakes, too, create a unique sound.

As I write this, I can hear an emergency vehicle's siren - something we only hear once every few weeks.

Tonight we took a short walk along the river towards the railroad tracks. We could hear the cicadas singing in the trees, whose leaves were rustling in the breeze along the babbling Waga river. The splashing of water over rocks echoed between the rail bridges, and the local train gave a toot on its whistle before rattling across, soon to be followed by the whoooooosh of a bullet train headed the other direction. The wind occasionally brought us sounds of distant traffic, crossing one of the bridges. We could hear the caws of ravens wheeling in the sky, and when they came close we could hear their wings beat the air for lift.

Here is the sunset we listened to tonight.

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