Apple Country

Stories of rural life as an ALT in a northern Japanese fishing town.


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Matsushima Bay

On the second day of our trip to Sendai, we took the train to Matsushima Bay, which is famous for being ranked as one of the three most scenic views of Japan.  After just a 30-minute journey, we walked away from the station and gawped as the bay slowly came into view.  Hundreds of tiny pine-clad islands were scattered over the calm water for miles, flanked by two larger islands with striking red bridges that took you across the water and over to the temples that stood there.

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The street along the bay was lined with shops where women were cooking oysters and other shellfish from the open front windows.  We spotted several ice cream spots but even 10am was too early for me, so we took a boat trip round the islands for an hour.  We got a good spot standing on the outside deck , but weren’t quite prepared for what would happen when the boat set off… a couple of seagulls appeared flying alongside the boat as we moved forward, and suddenly there was an entire flock of them diving and swooping right next to the passengers on the deck.  Everyone found it hilarious for the first few minutes but they WOULD NOT BACK OFF.  They kept flying at the same speed as the boat, their heads turned towards us as they stared creepily into our souls.  Some idiot decided to stick his hand out towards them and as a result it nearly got pecked off.  It was beginning to feel a bit Hitchcock-esque.

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Please stop

Luckily the terror subdued as we got closer to the islands, which we could then enjoy in peace.  They each had their own unique features, some of which were really extraordinary and it just made me think how cool nature is sometimes… neeeerd.

We also befriended some Japanese university students on the boat which was fun.  Boat trips are always one of my favourite parts of a holiday, and for the first time since being here I actually felt like I was on holiday.  It was nice to do things as a tourist in Japan, which is a completely different experience from living here.

Enjoying the breeze

Enjoying the breeze

After we got off the boat, we wandered up to the museum which stood at the end of a long tree-lined pathway.  It turned out the museum was under construction and it was mainly a mausoleum, one of which we’d already seen the day before, so we just pottered around the area next to it.  There was a huge rocky wall running alongside it with what looked like little caves dotted along the bottom.  I can’t really remember what the sign said but the statues are some sort of guardians for the spirits of the dead?  Anyway it was very old!

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I knew Sasha was a good choice of travelling partner because we seemed to think about when to eat at exactly the right time.  We hunted a little further from the touristy area and found a nice place at the top of a building (it seems that Japanese restaurants are above ground level more often than not!).  We got some tasty ikura  (salmon roe) and perused our maps to decide on our next move.

Itadakimaaaasu

Itadakimaaaasu

We started with a walk to one of the accessible islands with a red lacquer bridge, whose wide wooden slats had once been used as a test to see if you were ready to cross to the temple; if you tripped, you had to go back.  Fortunately there was a nice plank running over the top of it, so I made it to the other side with my dignity still intact.  In front of the temple there was a bell tied to a rope that hung from the eaves, which some people rang before saying a prayer.

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We went off to get ice cream, which in Japan is usually in the form of a 99, but they call it “soft cream”.  Normally I’m an authentic scoop kinda girl, but soft cream in Japan is a million times better than the terrible pathetic excuse for ice cream that is Mr Whippy, so I have no problem with it here.  Sendai also seems to be known for “zunda” (sweet edamame bean paste) so I went for the zunda mochi parfait.  It was green tea soft cream with mochi (a sticky, glutinous pounded rice ball) covered in zunda.  It was amazing so I stocked up on some zunda mochi to take home with me.

There was another larger island called Fukuura island (maybe it’s Fukaura’s twin) which was at the other end of a long footbridge.  We strolled through the dappled forest, stopping frequently to stare through the trees that framed the rest of the bay.  We glimpsed a little sandy area down below and immediately started looking for a way to get down there.  There was no one else there so we wondered if it was okay to go there… but found a slope that took us down and for a while we had our own private beach.  I had my first paddle in Japan!  It was so warm despite it being the middle of October.  Then some other people stole our idea, and when we left I had to subtly put my tights back on in full view of them, including a man who tried to take a picture… This is not the first time a Japanese person has blatantly tried to take a photo of me without permission; when I was tying my shoelace once a man just came over and shamelessly took one like it was totally ok for him to do that.  I wasn’t pleased.

We were also seeing a lot of people walking around with a what looked like a long, toasted marshmallow on a wooden stick, and we managed to find a place where you could get whatever it was they were.  The lady in the shop told me they were sasa-kamaboko and handed me one to take to the open grill where I could cook it to my liking.  We still didn’t really know what they were… but later discovered them to be fish paste cakes.  They looked like squid and tasted like a chewy crabstick, which wasn’t a bad combination but not as good as zunda mochi.

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Eating a giant sasa-kamaboko

Giant sasa-kamaboko!

That evening we wandered around looking for a place to eat and came across a shabu-shabu restaurant.  Neither of us had had it before so up the building we went!  I knew it was a kind of cook-your-own meal, which I’m a big fan of, but other than that it was a new dining experience for me.

Shabu-shabu

Shabu-shabu, so called for the sound it makes when you move the meat around in the broth with your chopsticks.  Swishy-swishy: an English alternative?

It was really good.  We got to choose three types of broth and either pork or beef, then we were left to our own devices.  I would’ve avoided eating raw egg at all costs before coming to Japan but for some reason it makes more sense to me here!  The meat was really thin so it only took about 10 seconds of shabu-shabuing to cook it.  Then you dunked it in the egg followed by a dipping sauce and finally rested it on your rice which absorbed all the tasty juices before you put it in your gob.  I will definitely be eating a lot of this during winter.

Afterwards we wandered to Kokubuncho which is known for its nightlife.  We saw a lot of young men with over-styled hair hanging around in groups wearing dark suits, and realised they were “hosts” who were out looking for customers.  The area we were in gradually got seedier until we got to the red light district of Sendai.  Drunk Japanese students kept stumbling past us and for a brief moment I wished I was back at university… but then one of them started throwing up and I decided I was quite glad to be out of that phase.

Later on we heard music in the distance and followed it until we arrived at a Yosakoi.  Yosakoi is a style of dancing usually performed by a large group of people wearing vibrant costumes, with live singers who also shout things like “sore!” down the microphone to spur the dancers on.  We only made it in time for the finale, but it was still really impressive.

The next day we had to get our buses home in the afternoon, but we still managed to get a good morning’s shopping done.  Everywhere we went there was this amazing warm, spiced scent, coming from the patisseries celebrating Autumn with their perfect pumpkin pies and chestnut-filled pastries lining the window displays.  Autumn is definitely the best-smelling season.

Even though it took me a total of 7 hours to get home without traffic, it was definitely a worthwhile trip.  I think living out in the sticks has made me more adventurous and accepting of the fact that if I want to go somewhere, I’ll just have to spend a bit longer getting there.  Thank you Japan for providing the nation with so many 3-day weekends.  I hope I have as much fun with them as I did this one!

 


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Arriving in Sendai

Despite my little ordeal the other Friday night, I safely arrived in Sendai the next afternoon to enjoy a weekend of exploring the city and eating as many different kinds of foods as I could in the space of two days.  Once I met up with my friend who was coming from Akita, we decided our first touristy thing would be to try gyuutan.  The concept of eating beef tongue didn’t really appeal to me but it’s Sendai’s speciality, so we thought we might as well tick it off first to get it out of the way.  We queued outside a gyuutan restaurant in the shopping arcade, as we decided that if people were queuing to eat there then the food probably had a good reputation.  So the beef tongue itself was okay; it was chewy but not exactly tough.  It actually had a bit of a familiar crunch to it – if you’ve ever bitten your tongue you’ll know what I mean!  I probably wouldn’t rush to eat it again. The thought of eating a tongue still makes me feel a bit weird so I’ll move on.

A little shrine tucked away in the shopping arcade

A little shrine tucked away in the shopping arcade

We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting Zuihoden Mausoleum where Date Masamune, one of the most powerful feudal lords of the Edo period, was buried. (He sounded a bit fearsome, probably because of the missing eye!  Just been reading more about him here if you fancy a read.)  The original building was actually destroyed during the war, and normally when I realise that something’s a reconstruction I feel a bit swizzed; however this one was still very beautiful, in particular the puzzle-like features at the top of each corner, so I didn’t mind too much.

We only had time for one thing that afternoon as everything shut at 16:30, so we headed to the hostel which was four stops down on the train from central Sendai.  It was a lovely guest house called Umebachi, tucked away at the end of a dimly-lit street which made it look very cosy and inviting.  The owners were young and friendly, and offered us tea upon our arrival before we were shown to the dorm.  The hostel was beautifully clean and comfortable, and at £15 a night we were really amazed!  I like hostels because you get to talk to other travellers and you do meet some interesting people – Sasha and I asked a man about the giant cuddly lion he was carrying around and instead of continuing a normal conversation, he started violently squishing the lion for a while and we thought this was some kind of elaborate explanation as to what it really was, but it turned out he was just trying to shove its head inside its body.  However one of the girls in our dorm happened to come from Hirosaki so she was a bit more fun to talk to!

Guest House Umebachi

Guest House Umebachi

That evening we were craving kaiten sushi (the conveyor belt kind) so we went back into Sendai and stumbled across an alley lined with glowing bars and restaurants.  We came to a little place with steamy windows that looked perfect, where the chefs were standing in the middle of the room making sushi at the customers’ requests (rather than the kind of place where you choose food from a screen and it arrives at your table on a little train, which is also fun but we decided to have a go at the proper way!)

We weren’t really sure how to order, but it seemed that everyone was just shouting what they wanted at the chefs who would place it in front of them about two minutes later.  You can also swipe plates off the belt as they come round, and it’s very easy to end up with a huge stack of them at the end!  You can eat as much or as little as you want and it’s still so cheap… I had six glorious plates and it only came to a fiver which is ridiculous if you compare it to what you get at Yo! Sushi.

FInished!

Finished!

Sasha had never done karaoke before, and I will take any chance I can get to drink beer and murder classics such as Total Eclipse of the Heart to cheesy MIDI backing tracks and even cheesier budget music videos where the actors gaze wistfully into the distance in montage after montage.  We spent a good hour wailing in our karaoke room before calling it a night and crashing onto our futons back at the hostel.

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Bon Jovi also made an appearance

(The next issue of GMA has been published and you can see my first contribution to Photo Corner 😀  There are also some horror nano stories written by me and some other JETs in the Wordslingin’ column “Scary stories to tell in less than five minutes” if you want to get into the Halloween spirit! http://goodmorningaomori.wordpress.com )