March 1, 2008

Japan's Countryside, Rice Paddies and Random Acts of Kindness

Today, after yet another lazy weekend morning, we decided to follow some advice given by our Living in Kobe book and headed by train to a town named Sasayama. We took three trains and a short bus ride and two hours later arrived in this quaint little mountain town known for its castle ruins and pottery. While on the train, we went into tunnels which took us into the mountains. We emerged on the other side in the real countryside, with open land and mountains everywhere. Traditional thatched-roof Japanese houses everywhere, and not a city in site. Once our ears readjusted after getting out of the tunnels, we realized that we were also in the midst of rice paddies. Canals of water run through the rice paddies allowing for intentional flooding of the rice fields. The rice fields, which we were seeing for the first time, just went on forever.

Upon arrival in Sasayamaguchi, the weather took an immediate turn from beautiful blue sky and sunshine to a cold rain and dismal sky. Within minutes, the mountain breeze brought back the sun and amazingly fresh mountain air. This town, we realized, was true Japan. This translates to "No English anywhere." (and no other gaijin anywhere!). This was as far off the beaten path as we have been since being in Japan. It was a little daunting, especially with two hungry kids, but it was at the same time really fun. It took us a few minutes, but we eventually figured out which bus was the correct one to take us up towards the castles.

While on the bus, an older woman sitting across the aisle from us took a liking to the kids. She was smiling and saying little Japanese phrases to them. Then, we noticed she took out some papers from her purse and the next thing we knew, she handed each of the kids a just-made paper airplane. Needless to say, the kids were elated and she was equally happy to make them smile. Then within two minutes, she had taken some origami paper, made a few folds (okay more than a few) and gave us a little paper cube, with a little blow hole to blow it up. The little acts of random kindness that we experienced today just blew us away (more on this later).

After getting off the bus, we found ourselves in the heart of the "old downtown." Adorable tiny street with shops selling meats, vegetables, wood-working goods, pottery, and fabrics. All around us in every direction were mountains. We consulted with a lady on a bike, who helped us find our way to the information center where we were immediately handed the English tourist map - this proved to be very key during our day here where not one of the signs was in English. Before that, everything was so foreign and in Japanese, that we took a picture of the intersection where the bus dropped us off in the hope that it would help us to find our way back!

We had a quick bite for lunch (which allowed us to formulate a game plan) and then took a stroll down the nearby street to where the ruins of Sasayama castle were. This castle, built in 1609 survived until 1949 when it was destroyed in a fire. Most of it was rebuilt in 2000, though pieces of the original stone walls and gates remain. The real beauty of this castle was in the surrounding area, including look-outs to the surrounding mountains, a shrine, and wooded areas. Being ringed by mountains reminded us a little bit of Estes Park, Colorado (but with smaller mountains). The view was just breathtaking and it didn't take much to picture ourselves back in the age of the Samurai, looking out for attackers from on high. Today, Jacob and Lauren both remarked about how peaceful and beautiful it was. ("It's peaceful here!"). They were right. For the loudest kids in the Japan, it is striking that they both can really appreciate such things!

In the culinary affairs department, we tried some of the local delicacies in Sasayama. While we didn't sample any of the local Inoshishi-nabe (wild boar), we did have some black soy beans (called kuromame - you have to check out this linked recipe, which apparently includes a "rusty nail"!?). These are not traditional black beans like what we eat at home - they are large and taste like a cross between lima beans, raisins and jelly beans - sounds weird, but truly delicious. We bought a package to bring home so that we could remember our trip to Sasayama.

We also bought a nice pottery vase in a teeny tiny alleyway shop down a meandering street in town called Kawaramachi, which is known for its "merchants houses," called Tumairi. When we walked in, the shopkeeper served us all hot green tea and the kids were given some made-in-China Dinosaur keychains to play with (and keep as a gift!).

We also checked out a great little sake museum, which teaches (albeit in Japanese) and illustrates the process of making sake. The free museum included gigantic wooden barrels, wooden tools, and clogs for stomping the pre-sake rice mash. The kids tried them on!

On the train ride back home, an elderly Japanese man approached us who spoke pretty much no English. He kept trying to communicate and handed us a few sheets of paper scrawled with Kanji and some Hiragana. Eventually, what we managed to figure out were that these were tanka poems that he had written (on the train!) as blessing poems for our children. He mentioned that Mike could get them translated at work, which he will surely do. (Coming from the East Coast of the US, we are conditioned to believe that when people approach you on trains and hand you things they are either (a) crazy; (b) looking for money; or (c) both. We both had to fight off this thought, because the whole time it seemed like this was something nice). We'll let you know how the translations read.

All in all, while today was heavy on travel, it was a really great day. It felt invigorating to be up in the mountains and to be out and about in "real Japan." Our mission in the upcoming months is to discover more little gems like this.

Finally, here is an important question for our readers (if you still exist out there!). As we've previously mentioned, in Japan small gift-giving is a cultural phenomenon. Everyone in Mike's office gets little sweets from any co-worker who travels anywhere on vacation. Ilena gets cakes and other little gifts of appreciation anytime she hosts a play-date. We keep wishing that we had a stock of good American-type gifts that we could give to people on such occasions. But upon thinking about it further, we realized we had no idea what such a gift would be. Any ideas - please comment!


Amanda said...

When I was in Japan with a group of students from Chicago, we brought boxes of Frangomints chocolates,a typical "Chicago" thing. An east-coast analog might be salt-water taffy - easily portable, doesn't spoil, nicely presentable, and fairly unique to the region.

The Ricketts Family said...

What about something like Hershey's chocolate syrup? Smucker's jelly?

Loved hearing about your day and all your great travels. It is amazing to us that you are getting along so great without knowing Japanese (although I know you are learning more each day).

Melissa said...

I posed the question to some friends, and suggestions included jellybellys, brownies and salt water taffy... personally, i think refrigerator magnets are fun too - we always buy them when we go on a trip. (and the kids won't eat refrigerator magnets before you can hand them out as gifts!)

jmgesq said...

How about small boxes of notecards with pictures of NYC sites? Not too expensive and since the Japanese really like paper they might like that.

Keychains? Magnets aren´t a bad idea. Also the City of NY has a little store and a website I believe. You could probably check it out online and if you like I could send you some stuff or give some to Matthew to bring when he comes.

Also, I can look around downtown since I´m in the Statue of Liberty area for some keepsakes that you might like.

Matthew J said...

In keeping with the theme of where we live (or originate from), my friend mentioned soft pretzel mix (to make your own) or little liberty bells (that really ring) as keepsakes for the philadelphia area.