Friday, November 9, 2012
Monday, November 5, 2012
While waiting to decide how many of us were entering Kumamoto Castle, I noticed a man walking across an intersection with his pet cat on a leash. Wait, a cat willingly [insert anything human here]? I can't get my cat to step through the threshold to go outside. That's probably a good thing, I suppose.
Saturday, November 3, 2012
Karatsu Kunchi (Karatsu Festival) is held the first weekend in November each year for the past 400 years. Massive wooden floats (hikiyama), lacquered with layers of washi weighing 2-5 tons, are paraded down the streets of Karatsu in wooden carts with wooden wheels 2-3 feet in diameter. Additionally, there may be 6-10 people who ride on a float, playing fifes or taiko (drums).
The display of helmets, palanquins, and figures from history and folklore are pulled by 50+ people consisting of mostly men, then boys, and an occasional girl. At certain points along the parade route, the wooden wheels roar down the street amidst the cadence chants, "En-ya! En-ya!." It's an incredible visual and auditory experience mixed with the gustatory and olfactory beckoning of festival treats everywhere.
The float of Shuten douji (oni leader) biting Minamoto Yorimitsu's kabuto (helmet) is derived from a legend where Minamoto and a group of men were dispatched by the emperor to kill Shuten douji for kidnapping daughters of noble families and eating people. The men were given gifts from the gods - special sake, cord, and a helmet.
When Shuten douji was incapacitated from the sake, he was bound with the cord, then decapitated. As the oni's head flew up, it landed upon Minamoto's magical helmet trying unsuccessfully to bite his head.
Kinjishi means golden dragon.
Shichihomaru represents takarabune, the treasure boat of the 7 gods of fortune (shichifukujin) -- Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Daikokuten, Ebisu, Fukurokuju, Hotei, and Juroujin. At the front of the ship, not easily seen below, is a dragon.
Outside of Japan, those who play video games are probably familiar with Bishamonten, god of warriors, in Onimusha. Hotei's statue is popular - people rub his belly for good luck.
Shachi is a killer whale with a tiger's head. They are often seen on the rooftops of samurai homes, castles, and gates as protection from fire by spitting water to extinguish the flame.
Aojishi is green lion.
Uesugi Kenshin's helmet and mask are paraded as he was a great warlord during the Sengoku period. He is known for being a keen military tactician and administrator and a follower of Bishamonten, the Buddhist god of war.
Uesugi Kenshin's rival was Takeda Shingen, represented by his helmet and mask.
Tai, sea bream, symbolizes good fortune and is often seen during celebratory occasions like weddings. One of the 7 gods of fortune, Ebisu, is often pictured with tai. Its pectoral (side) fins are movable. As the float is pushed up and down and the fins flap, it gives the appearance of swimming.
He was a slippery fellow to photograph. My father really wanted a picture of this float. As we roved around the parade route, we would catch a glimpse of it racing before us between buildings. We ran after it several times, each time it would slip around a corner until we finally caught him.
Festivals bring vendors. There were vendors of all sorts -- fishing, shooting games, cutesy trinkets, scary shows, fortunes, festival gifts, grilled foods of all types, takoyaki, desserts, candies, ...it was quite intense.
The scent of grilled and deep fried foods was unbearable. We only have two stomachs, so little space and time, so many choices. We happened upon two women quietly working within their tent and ordered beef yakitori, which was a bit tough but tasty. Grilled meat. How could it not be tasty?
[Chicken] yakitori was tender. Of course, it was salty...and oh, so good. My father also bought fried chicken pieces called kara-age. It is similar to popcorn chicken.
I also bought a whole grilled squid slathered in a salty sweet brown sauce. It looked and smelled so delicious, but was a bit difficult to eat without napkins. Ah well, I licked my fingers clean. Sauce was probably smeared all over my mouth.
I was tempted to buy one of these happy looking bananas. I probably should have, since it was the first time I had ever seen these. Who knows if I'll ever see them again.
1st weekend in November
Karatsu, Saga Prefecture
Friday, November 2, 2012
Hakata has numerous regional food specialties of which I was able to indulge: [Hakata] ramen, mentaiko (spiced cod roe), and takana (salty pickled mustard leaves) at the table in ramen-ya (ramen shops). Aside from yatai (street vendors), Ramen Stadium at the top floor of one of Canal City's wings presented us with five ramen options.
At the front of each ramen-ya is a barker greeting and encouraging hungry customers to their restaurant much like the steamy street stalls just a block away, an attraction for tourists and a destination for locals. Japanese street stalls date back in the 1700s and are different from American food trucks in that you can eat at the stall seated on a stool.
Unlike yatai where one orders from the cook, the restaurants here have a vending machine standing prominently at the front of each store. A touch screen in English, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese displays menu items from types of ramen, drinks, and side dishes like gyoza.
Money is first deposited, then selections are made. Once the transaction is finalized, printed ticket stubs for each item ordered spits out, and change is given. As we walked in, we were shown to our table and relinquished our tickets.
My shoyu ramen was topped with grated ginger, citrus zest (unusual), and wispy shaved onions. Of course, I gifted the onions to my father. Under the toppings are bits of ground meat and wood ear. The sliced pork was tender and smoked - the best slice I've ever tasted. I don't usually like cha siu because it's often soggy and fatty.
Instead of the usual curly noodles, these noodles were straight. It is so refreshing to be able to order ramen with confidence the noodles aren't overcooked or grossly undercooked. It was just right, with an appropriate chew.
I realize that Hakata ramen is synonymous with tonkotsu ramen, pork bone broth that is milky white. The broth was greasier looking than I expected coming from a shoyu broth because of the ground meat and the possible use of pork in the broth. Another surprise, I didn't bloat from the salty soup.
Another Hakata tradition, if anyone is still hungry after their bowl of ramen and there is sufficient soup, an extra "ball" of noodles may be purchased (bottom right on the vending machine screen above), or, as my father taught me, by asking your server, "kaidama, kudasai!"
At Misono, an extra ball of noodles costs only 100 yen. I was too full that I barely finished my bowl.
Canal City in Hakata, Fukuoka is like nothing I've seen before as far as shopping malls go. Granted, I passed up going to Mall of America in Minnesota a few years after it opened so I haven't experienced the, then, largest mall in the world. I have been to Vegas. Also, as a foreigner, if you show your passport, you're able to receive discounts in a number of stores.
With 6 levels of shopping (2.5 million sq ft), there really is something for everyone...unless you're into trolls hanging upside down from the ceiling serving pastries. Then again, there's a Moomin bakery and store here. (Moomin is huge in Japan but relatively unknown in the US) The mall is located in what seems like the heart of the city, within walking distance from the entertainment district, a major railway terminal (Hakata Station) with 16 railway and 2 subway platforms.
All manners of restaurants, clothing, desserts, electronics, kiddie and more grown up toys, cinema, books, jewelry, art, sports, shoes, relaxation therapy, and so on from high end to bargains are available. Uniqlo has quite a visible presence on 3 floors.
Spiral Girl had a lot of fun looking clothes, but made for young, thin Japanese (that was redundant, wasn't it?) women. Fall is definitely the best time of year to go window shopping - cool light coats, fun styles since it's cool enough to play, and beautiful shades of subdued hues.
Along the perimeter of the mall, there was a smoking tent so cigarette smokers can stand under the protection of a tent to smoke. That's pretty nice of the mall to offer this since I wouldn't have thought to and don't see these at all in the US. It's far enough away from the door so you don't drag that smoke into the mall area.
There's even a Taito arcade near Capsule Toys (later post). We just took a quick peep, but didn't really stop in - too busy trying to get our ramen dinner.
Between Taito Station and Capsule Toys, this would make any 30 something fanguy or gal a poor person.
Had I known there as a Rockport store at Canal City, I would have bought a pair of shoes since we no longer have a standalone store in the region. We have access to a few Rockport shoe styles through Macy's and Lucky shoes, but I'm really not exaggerating when I say a few, at least for women.
My father makes the best fried rice. I think it's because he lives life fully and, as a result, seasons without restraint -- but not with reckless abandon on either. Garlic, Spam, peas, eggs, onions, salt, pepper, beni shoga, and a healthy dash of furikake provides a wonderful fusion of salty, sweet, nutty piquancy in every bite.
Breakfast was to have been a light meal, but it was quite filling. For a mid-morning snack, I was tantalized by two flavors of Japanese Kit-Kat bars, pumpkin and vanilla. My father mentioned that Kit-Kat is very popular in Japan, a bit by chance and a bit by marketing genius. By advertising the bars with the slogan, "kitto-katsu" (go ahead, say it out loud), students and anyone attempting to overcome any challenge will "surely win" (literal translation). Neat, huh?
After we made our visits and did some shopping, we embarked on our journey to Japan. Our meal on our Hawaiian Airline flight was to have been Japanese curry with rice, then we were informed it would be Hawaiian barbecue pork. We received barbecue chicken and rice with edamame and bamboo shoots.
The grilled chicken marinated in shoyu was neutral-good, neither dry nor moist. The rice was overcooked, but adding edamame and bamboo shoots is a good idea, perhaps with a little shoyu, mirin, and shiitake. Of course, I didn't eat the salsa (raw onions). Dessert was a cloying and semi-fluffy pineapple cheesecake slice. A drink that I often miss, the taste of Hawaii, passion-orange-guava juice, was offered throughout the flight.