Akita Road Trip 2014

Three day weekend. Good company. An open road. It’s road trip time!

Life is like a Kei car going up a windy mountain road: loud and full throttle 😀 The prelude of our first (of what we are sure will be many more) three-day-weekend road trips began with an excursion to Hirosaki, the castle town of Aomori Prefecture. In these parts it’s a time of apples and harvesting, so the Ringo Kouen (Apple Park) we visited was ripe for the picking. It’s approximately 200 yen for every kilo you pick and the time limit is fifteen minutes. Guides give tours of the land, explain local farming techniques, teach the proper way to test apples for ripeness and instruct in the correct methods for picking apples. Apples are absolutely my most favorite fruit in the world so when it came time for mine to be weighed, an astounding four kilos in fifteen minutes seemed to break the gaijin picking record 😉

 

Akita Prefecture is known for two things: Namahage (evil demons who come to terrorize and steal your children) and bijin (beautiful people, particularly women). There are also no apple flavored drinks, jams, or themed foods anywhere. That is sadly how we knew we were no longer in Aomori. Otherwise it looks much like the rest of Tohoku, windy mountain roads and the most beautiful trees I have ever seen in my life. Though the rest of Japan might feel that Aomori is the backwoods and full of country bumpkins, there are surprisingly more adventurous and kind people in these parts than anywhere else that I have seen. A woman working at the Namahage Museum told us many interesting stories about how her husband was a farming activist who lived out of his car and traveled all around the country to test water and soil levels for pollution. Most of my adult night class students have also traveled abroad a minimum of six to ten different times for farming conventions or have generally seen more of the world than the average city slicker (which is what they call city folk). There’s just something about Tohoku that’s off beat and refreshing. I recommend any traveler looking to get a real taste of Japan to go into the backwoods to see how real people live and celebrate life. Akita and Aomori so far have not disappointed and I look forward to travelling to each and every prefecture before my time is up in Japan.

We finished our day excursion to Akita with a relaxing out door onsen, watching the moon rise above the trees. Onsen (for those unfamiliar with the concept) is a communal outdoor or indoor bath and it is often times translated as bathing in a hot spring. While ours certainly mimicked the natural environment in which a hot spring would be found, it was by no means natural.

To get to Akita from Aomori, it is a three hour drive, round trip six, and requires at least one gas tank refill in a kei car. If travelling with a group of friends cost of the trip is cheaper because it’s broken down among four or five people. Generally you’re looking at this for a cost analysis break down: ~3,000 yen for gas (one 18L tank); ~2,000 yen for toll roads (or free if you don’t mind driving four hours on a non-toll road); ~1,000 yen for dinner at a restaurant (half that price for convenience store food); ~700 to 1,000 yen for onsen. The trip is easily going to cost 10,000 to 20,000 depending on your personal spending habits though as omiyage (souvenirs) can be upwards of 2,000 yen for everyone in your office.

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Three Second Rule and Other Adventures in Home Economics

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Home economics is taught during a students’ last few years in elementary school. Here in Aomori the topics covered include sewing, cooking, nutrition, cleaning, washing clothes, and farming. Though I did not have the opportunity to take pictures of the soy bean or potato harvesting that went on a couple of months ago, I might yet be able to see the rice being collected if I get called in next Wednesday. At this point in time I would like to point out that though my elementary school had a thriving arts and science program, home economics was the far away distant dream that would not be an option until high school…

Lunch in Japan is also quite different from the United States. Food is prepared by the local school lunch plant and shipped to each school in town but it isn’t served in a cafetaria or by any staff member. Instead, kyuushoku (school lunch) becomes a collaborative effort that is distributed in each class room by the students themselves, similar to cafetaria duties. Then while everyone is eating, students selected to serve as school announcers relate the nutritional information of each meal before playing music for the lunch hour.

Cooking days for home economics at the elementary school occur once in a couple of months, if not once a semester. Students contribute ingredients and the equipment is provided by the school for them to use. Skills learned include the proper ways in which to prepare food for consumption (washing, peeling, chopping, and spotting for mold or rotten parts of ingredients), how to read and interpret recipes, substituting certain items for others, and the actual cooking part itself. All students chop their own vegetables so emphasis on class cooperation and mature level of expectations are widely understood and followed.

But that isn’t to say that kids won’t be kids, even here in Japan where so many behave like mini adult versions. In one epic moment, one of my students accidentally tripped and dropped her ingredients on the floor. Before anyone, even the head teacher, could react she grabbed the spilled veg and invoked the most sacred rule known to man, woman, and child alive by shouting: “THREE SECOND RULE!!!” And yes, in the soup they went – much to the head teacher’s horror and my amusement.