Sunday, August 08, 2004

Strangers in a Strange Land

I spent part of the weekend up in Matsue, the prefectural capital. Saturday afternoon there was a taste-testing party for foreign residents of the Matsue area. Shimane, I guess, wants to create a dessert product to market in Western countries, and they hope to debut it in New York City this January. They wanted to find out what kinds of Japanese desserts would do well in NYC. I'd figured this would be a good opportunity to, well, to stuff my face full of delicious sweets.

But it was not to be. Apparently sweet bean paste is a very traditional Japanese sweet, and this is what consisted most of the desserts we tried. One woman who was there who seemed to have lived in Japan for some time, said that these weren't really "desserts" in the sense of something eaten after dinner; they were very fancy and would be eaten during tea ceremonies. Many of the desserts we tried were very sweet, but in a tea ceremony, they compliment the bitter green tea. Myself, I had my fill of sweet bean paste. Right now I'm between the novelty, OhI'veNeverTriedThisBefore phase, and the familiar, MmmI'veReallyAcquiredATasteForThisStuff phase, and I'm smack in the middle of the gross-out, Don'tShowMeAnotherPieceOfSweetBeanStuffEverAgain phase. It's not that the desserts were wretched and made me want to spit them out of my mouth, but they were just too darn sweet and too... beany. And very dry, but then one doesn't eat biscotti either without a drink on hand.

If they wanted our opinions, they got them. Most of us were just not feelin' the sweet bean paste, though there were a few desserts that seemed to be well-liked. One was cheesecake with a bit of... um... something in the middle. Another was a vanilla sponge cake with that same... something in the middle. Another was kinda chewy, like a cross between jelly and juji fruit. There was one that someone said tasted like Turkish delight, but by the time I got up to try it, it was all gone. And another that was like a chocolate-filled cookie; it was dry, inside and out, but I thought it would taste good with coffee.

There was a video crew there, too, which I had not expected. During the event, which lasted an hour and a half, they went around and briefly interviewed everyone there. They talked with me, unfortunately, right after I'd eaten sweet bean paste shaped like a pumpkin.
"What did you just eat?" she asked.
"Uh, that pink pumpkin one there," I said, pointing to what was left of it.
"What did you think?"
"Hmm. It is very pretty, very visually attractive, but I thought it was too sweet, and didn't have much flavor. Maybe I would like it more if it had some fruit flavor or something."
She nodded and smiled and went on her way.

At the end, everyone got a box of some sort of sweet. Mine? They look like beans on ice.

I knew that a lot of the Shimane JETs would be in Matsue Saturday evening for the Suigo-Sai Festival, and I also wanted to go&emdash;for the fireworks and to get together with English-speaking people. But I wasn't sure how I was going to get back, since the festival started at 8pm, and the last train I could catch back home would leave around 4. I made the mistake of bringing this concern up to Tokue. Someone had shown us, a Japanese site that contains an Japanese-English translator, but language translation programs have a long way to go yet before they can be used in any meaningful way, especially ones that translate between two languages with such opposite syntax. So Tokue determined that we should pay a visit to his friend in the Nita Police Department, Yushi (his first name; I think his last name is Nakamura). Yushi has a fair command of the English language, and had acted as interpreter my first day in Shimane, when Abe and Tokue took me out shopping. So I felt very silly bothering him in the middle of his work day, just to say that I wasn't sure how I was going to get back to Nita, but that I was pretty sure I'd figure something out. He asked for a photocopy of the fax I'd received from Ashley and Marcie, the Shimane Prefectural Advisors, so he could more fully understand what was going on. I tried to convince him that the entire fax contained much extraneous information, but he wanted time to read over everything thorougly (his English isn't that good), so I shrugged my shoulders and said sure. He came by the Yokota BOE again Friday afternoon, and I told him and Tokue that I'd decided to go to the taste-testing party, and see if I ran into any other JETs there who would be willing to put me up for the night. If so, I'd do that, and return Sunday; if not, I would still have time to catch a train back to Nita (since the taste-testing party ended at 3:30). Yushi said, "You have to be back by Monday." I said, "I know that...."

See how that last paragraph was long and mostly devoid of meaningful information? That was exactly how I felt about the whole matter. When I mentioned this to some of the JETs I met up with in Matsue, they said that it might be because my predecessor, Marion, left so early that they're protective of me. Marion's leaving had nothing to do with anything she did while in Japan, but okay.

So after the taste-testing party, I was able to find someone, namely Nina, who let me stay at her apartment overnight. So great, I was glad I could go to the festival. We had a few hours to kill, and someone mentioned that another JET, Cindy, was in the hospital. This was news to most of us, so a few of us went to visit her. She had a bad throat infection over a week ago, and she could see a big, white ball of puss at the back of her throat. She went to the hospital to get herself checked out, and when they checked her white blood cell count, they told her she would have to stay there. It seems that the puss from her throat infection was oozing, and the infection spread throughout her digestive system, and even into her sinuses, and within a day her body was racked with pain. She's quite a bit better now, though she's not able to eat much, and the doctors think she should be able to leave on Wednesday. We spent about an hour there, chatting about us new JETs in Shimane, and Cindy's condition, and we wished her well.

After that, Nina, her boyfriend Mike, Finton from Ireland, and I went to an Italian Restaurant. They make a good caesar salad, with proscuito and a spa-boiled (soft boiled) egg. And after that, I met with everyone else at the train station to head down to the lake and watch the fireworks. It was cool: I got to see again some of the people I'd met at orientation, and in general to forget that I was a foreigner. The fireworks were fantastic; I can't remember seeing any better than these. Maybe if I'd grown up near a large city I would have, but these were awesome. They had 6,000 fireworks to set off in half an hour. They'd do several, one at a time, then have a barrage of them all together, like a grand finale, but they did it four or five times throughout the show. My favorite individual fireworks were the ones that popped white, and then each of those pieces burst again into a smaller burst of color. They had ones shaped like cat faces and smiley faces and hearts, the success of which depended upon the orientation of the firecracker when it burst, since the images were two-dimensional. My favourite part of the show was when they launched the fireworks at a 45-degree angle, and they exploded right over the water, with lots of the glowing pieces landing in the water before they burned out. Chris, who was well on his way to inebriation, said, "And now we will recreate the attack on Pearl Harbor." I wondered aloud if the boat was sinking. But the effect was very cool.

I'd only ordered a salad at the Italian restaurant because I wanted to try "festival food." But after paying 300 yen for a can of iced tea, I was willing to wait even longer before I ate. And eat we did, at another restaurant, the name of which I've forgotten. We were able to reserve a room to ourselves, which was cool, cos we could talk loudly in English without bothering anyone. We were going to order everybody for oneself, but then we decided to order a bunch of stuff, and split it up evenly. I tried fried chicken knuckles, which is just fried chicken cartilage, and that was kind of nasty; it was like I was purposefully eating the part of fried chicken that, on any other occasion, I would purposefully spit out. Cow tongue, too, which was not as bad as I'd imagined. Some chicken (I think) in avocado and mushrooms—that was really good. Oh, wow, lots of different things, and not all Japanese.

It was the most wonderful thing to be able to string together several English sentences and not confine myself to simple words, not revert to bad sign language, not wonder what the joke was, not feel self-conscious, not puzzle over social propriety, not struggle to make myself understood.

Now I know how JETs become such fast friends.

Oh, and when I got back to Nita this afternoon, it was 32C, so I decided to catch a bus back to my apartment—except I got on the wrong one, and ended up all over southeast Shimane for an hour before the bus finally returned to my area. The driver was very nice. He didn't speak any English, but he communicated to me that he would eventually return to Nita, and then went so far as to drive me to my stop, even though I'm pretty sure it wasn't on his route. He gave me an umbrella, too, (!) cos it had started to rain. This was doubly good, because I'd left my umbrella at the Yokota BOE on Friday, and I won't be back there until next week. So I started out the bus ride feeling really frustrated with myself and the stupid Japanese bus schedule, and ended up in a good mood.

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