Fugu? Not So Bad! Just Another Day!

So Tuesday was Valentine’s Day. I didn’t do much on Tuesday though I must say I was pretty productive. I slept in, got up and cleaned my apartment. You know, you never really realize how much hair you shed until you’re living in a space about 14×11 feet. Nevertheless, I cleaned up the main room, did some laundry and then headed off to the gym and arrived about 5PM.

Usually my gym workouts consist of 30 minutes of running and 30 minutes of weights, but I was away over the weekend in Ube seeing a friend from my home town, Jake, and the gym is closed on Wednesdays so I figured it was time to make up for lost time. So Tuesday I ran until I hit 3 miles (it’s my usual distance, but I took my time today), lifted weights and did sit-ups for 30 minutes, took a short break and then power-walked a mile or more for about a half hour until it was time to take some taebo-ish class. I must say I don’t think I have sweat that much in my life.

One thing I don’t think I’ll ever get used to is how exercise classes are in Japan. I don’t know much of the language so some of what the instructor is saying is lost on me. Before the class begins the instructor introduces himself and says some inspiring things and then everyone bows to one another and claps. But Kai insisted that I’ll probably be all right. I am not the most coordinated person so I’m sure regardless of language I would have ended up making some backwards mistakes. However, after a while I was able to pick up right from left and was able to perform the kicks and punches as he instructed. I was dripping sweat and didn’t realize it until I began hearing my shoes squeaking on the wooden floor. That 30 minute class was a workout and next Tuesday I hope I can do it all over again. All in all I had fun and Kai was a great instructor. He’s one of the few workers who has attempted to chat with me which helps me feel a little more welcome–though there was another gaijin at the gym that day! The guy didn’t even smile or wave even though we made eye contact.

Now about my trip to Ube! It was a lot of fun and I ate many interesting things, such as iidako (飯蛸). There isn’t an easy way to explain it other than it’s a small octopus that is boiled in a soy sauce-type broth. It doesn’t have to be hot when served to you–in fact Jake and I ate ours cold. In retrospect I believe this is what was given to Mandi and I when we had gone to Tokyo. We never ate them, though. We passed the bag on to one of Kazu’s brothers. At first glance, I will admit I felt a little intimidated by it. I could see it’s brains–inside its head–so I wasn’t sure if I could “stomach” it. I was pleasantly surprised! Jake just grabbed it and went to town, but I hesitated a bit. If there is one thing I can learn from it’s taking more initiative and just trying more things instead of being so standoffish about food. I could have missed out on eating this just by being too afraid to bite into it. The texture didn’t even give off the fact that I was eating octopus innards. Very flavorful, and very delicious.

Among other things I ate was fugu (河豚). Fugu is the renowned blowfish that if not prepared correctly can take your life. I was a little apprehensive to eat it, but Jake was pretty adamant about me trying it. I ended up giving it a try and I came to the realization that it was pretty tasty. Our chef is a friend of Jake’s and also has a license to prepare fugu–I realize that accidents happen, but as everyone can see I am still alive and well. Some chefs even place a little put of blowfish’s poison on the sashimi (raw fish) to add a slight tingling sensation to the tongue and lips and there is usually where the problem arises because the poison is so potent. As far as I know the chef did not do that. I did not feel any tingling. The food was amazing and I am very glad I followed Jake’s lead and tried fugu.

Before all of the delightful food eating we went to Yamaguchi to see the pagoda. I’m afraid I don’t know much about the building besides it being the only one (or one of the few) that is made completely from wood. Wood nails, wood everything. There were a few other people enjoying the view–most of them were bird watchers trying to capture images of a kingfisher (kawasemi). I got a little caught up in the excitement, as well. I’ve never seen one before. It’s things like this (not so much the bird watchers) that make you realize the beauty of small town, more rural cities in Japan. Jake, someone who pretty much lives for the big cities, told me enjoyed small town Ube and was thankful that he was able to experience it. That there was so much to see and a lot of culture to be had. Kumamoto maybe big in comparison, but it’s still considered inaka (rural); however, it cannot even compete with how rural Ube is.

And now I will leave you with this:

Protect Your Home by Throwing Soybeans out Windows and Doors

鬼は外!福は内!
Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!
Evil/Demons out! Good luck, in!

Last week was 節分 (setsubun). It’s a tradition held every year on February 3rd, the day before Spring, according to the lunar calendar. Now-a-days families will have someone (usually the person who was born in the current zodiac year: e.g. It’s the year of the dragon this year, so someone born in the year of the dragon should play the demon) put on a demon mask and the children will throw soy beans at them yelling “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” This is done to cleanse the house of any evil that may have been hiding within your home over the winter months. The ritual of throwing soy beans is called mamemaki.

During this day of work I had one student come in wearing a demon mask with a bag of peanuts. Now, it wasn’t the time or place to take part in Setsubun, but among kids it’s pretty popular and it looks fairly fun. Along with throwing soybeans out of windows and doors chanting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” people also eat something called makizushi (which is an uncut sushi roll) which they call eho-maki. It means “lucky direction roll”. When eating an eho-maki on Setsubun (well, it’s really the only time you’re able to buy one) you do so in silence while facing the “yearly lucky compass direction” determined by the zodiac symbol of the current year. Some people put sardine heads and holly leaves on their door entrances to ward off any bad spirits. Apparently even ghosts cannot stand sardine heads and holly leaves. I honestly didn’t have the pleasure of seeing any sardine heads or holly leaves above doorways but I suppose it doesn’t mean people don’t do it.

Anyhoo. On Sunday I met up with Keiko and the family to have dinner with them. We had a great time eating yakiniku, which is placing thinly cut pieces of meet on an open grill in the middle of a table. I have noticed that the Japanese enjoy eating their meat cooked rather rare. I normally like my meat cooked all the way through so I tend to wait what they would consider to be a long time. A few times they told me it was getting burned–which it wasn’t! I love yakiniku–it’s a great way to spend time together with friends. The meat comes already cut so you don’t have to spend a lot of time fighting with your meal or cutting it into small pieces. The down side is you have to wait for it to cook and if you have a bunch of people around you who don’t mind eating it on the rare side it might be a little difficult to make sure you get to eat your share. But you know–it’s not just meat they eat. They also put vegetables on there as well. I love Japanese pumpkin. 🙂

On the left: Noboru, Keiko, and ME! On the right: obaachan, Misako, and Naomi!

All in all it was a good weekend. I even practiced kendo again for about two hours. It was a lot of fun. This time I was able to get into hitting things. I learned how to hit the head (men) and the arm/wrist (kote). My problem seems to be in yelling. I have a hard time screaming at the top of my lungs and yelling MEN or KOTE depending on what I strike. That and it can be a little embarrassing. I was a rowdy, loud kid when I was younger but as I got older I became quieter. Many people ask me to repeat things when we’re just chatting because I talk quietly. I wouldn’t say I mumble at all, but I can be pretty quiet. Here is basically what I did my last session. I didn’t strike my teacher’s kote or torso. I mainly focused on the men (head strike). But that sort of yelling is what you are supposed to do. It’s safe to say afterward my throat feels pretty raw.

Tomorrow’s battle is won during today’s practice.

Pretty much how I trained today--in front of a mirror.

Today I had kendo training. This time it was with an actual kendo sensei and also with a friend of mine who I met on my trek up (technically it was down) 3,333 stairs to a very old temple. It was a lot of fun and very difficult. There was a lot of multitasking; but unlike the multitasking I am used to it was much more physically challenging. There are so many things to pay attention to when it comes to the basics of kendo. Your feet positioning, how you move your feet, how quickly you move one foot compared to the other, where your center is, making sure you’re moving your hips correctly along with the movement of your body, how you strike with your shinai (bamboo sword) and how you hold the sword in your hands. All of this must be done correctly otherwise you will begin to create habits–bad habits–that will be hard to break.

Full kendo gear. The armor is called "bogu". I don't have that yet.

Today was difficult for me. As I was training the basics–the foundation of learning kendo–in the background were high school students sparring and practicing and one couldn’t help but notice that they were way out of my league in terms of skill. But honestly, are you surprised? Most of them begin training at a young age and just continue on through high school. The crack of the shinai, the bellowing yells to express their ki, the quick and fluid motions that look almost effortless as they move to block a hit… it made me covet their skill. Sure, they aren’t 8dan or even close to it, I’m sure. But they have skill and they have the spirit… and I’m still finding it hard to do all the things I stated above and still yell out as I do them each time I swing my sword.

However, I am lucky. My sensei is a 7dan. The highest is supposedly 8dan. He tells me it will take years before he is able to test for it and the tests one must go through for it sound excruciating. The levels of kendo are on a 1-8dan system. To teach kendo legally you must be at least a 5dan; but if you want to have your own dojo or lead one you must be at least 7dan. I am told if I work hard I can probably achieve 1kyu which is one of the few levels that exist before one can get 1dan. As an example, it could take about 2 years just to get 1dan… pretty long time.

Until tomorrow!