The Dampening

June 25, 2011

It is so humid. It is so humid. It is so humid.

It is really difficult trying to dry laundry during the rainy season. Even when it does dry, as soon as you put it on, it’s damp. Why dry it in the first place?

This is the end of my third week here in Sasayama. I celebrated with a short fishing trip (no luck!) and a red bean ice cream thing I bought at the supermarket. I lingered for a while in the grocery store trying to match the ingredients on the shelves to what I’ve eaten/grown/learned about. When you pay for something small using a large bill, the cashier (at least this one) has this interesting way of folding the banknotes so the corner of each one is visible, like a fan of money, and then thumbing through them holding them backhanded and leaning forward enthusiastically. There is also a running commentary (in japanese) of the whole transaction by the cashier that, being unfamiliar with the language, sounds something like the technical birdsongs that I wake up to every morning, or maybe the frog dialogue that comes from the ricefields on these steamy nights. Anyhow. I felt nostalgic when in the distance I could hear the baseball diamond near the river I fished, and after a day of ice cream, fishing and baseball, am wondering exactly what people meant when they told be “oh, it’s going to be so different over there!”

But of course it is. Because in North Carolina you cannot drive to the Japan sea for sashimi night.

This is rapidly deteriorating into a food blog. Fitting, because food has been the dominant character in this narrative. Adventures in vinegared rice.

And now a Haiku:

Cabbage in the fields

gnawed by catterpillars jaws

oops I ate him, ew

Over the weekend, we took a drive to Kyoto to visit a monastic friend of Midori’s and pick his Ume, often called a Japanese plum, but which has little plum relation, as it is a kind of apricot. Ume is very very polular here, and is picked unripened in June to make Umeboshi, a horribly sour pickle that is supposed to aid in digestion. They’re delicious. The monastery where “the american bloke” (to quote Tim) lived had a wealth of ume trees, and they offered us all of the ume we could pick.

The scene went something like this:

Tim, the former civil engineer who after a year of work decided that he didn’t like “work”, used his natural sense of engineering to determine the best way of unloading ume from the tree which involved having volunteers hold the edges of a big blue tarpaulin while he vigorously knocked the tree’s branches with a length of bamboo, sending the dense unripened fruits to the tops of everyone’s heads. Add to it the fact that it was raining, so each knock let out a small torrent from the leaves. Midori, in her patient, albeit painstaking, style had climbed into one of the trees and was picking the fruits by hand. “The japanese just work hard but not smart,” Tim has lamented to me on more than one occasion. I don’t really know who was more effective. By the end of it we were all up in a tree getting dumped on. Afterwards Tim, Hanako, Hide and I drove deeper into the city, AC/DC’s highway to hell adding some kind of context. We stopped in Kyoto at a place called “liquor mountain” where “the american bloke” had enlightened us with some universal wisdom on where to find cheap sicilian sea salt to make top-notch pickles. And such was my holy experience in Kyoto.

When I was in Athens two years ago, I was trading language nuggets with a german girl. You know, trading useful or amusing slang phrases in your language that you wouldn’t learn any other way. For some reason I taught her the phrase “fruitful bounty,” which is archaic and were she ever to use it it might send more ripples of confusion than showing her cultural prowess. I don’t know if I’ve ever used that expression. I have no idea how that expression even materialized in that conversation. But in any event, here is my chance to use it now, if only a little too literally.

This, friends, was our fruitful bounty:

What do you do with a truckload of incredibly sour, unripe japanese apricots?

Three keg-sized loads of umeboshi.

Ume syrup.

Umeshu (ume liqueur).

Ume mead (honey-wine).

Ume soda!

Ume honey.

And four jars of ume jelly.

Let me stress this, it is getting ungodly hot.

This week will be more of the same, field work, food, an occasional nap, and the random happening or absurd reality. In fact, the absurd reality came true today (2 days after I started this post) where I ended up working in a japanese pizza kitchen, not too far off from the weirdo pizza shop that seems to be lingering in every minor american city, complete with a Bob Marley soundtrack. Only this one was wood-fired, and the owners were amazing people. And hilarious. It was weird feasting on pizza too. Things in Japan just aren’t so different… it’s just little things…

 I’ll leave with some pictures of mushrooms I took while climbing up and around Mt. Mitake.

Oh, and it was a CENTIPEDE