Sunday, March 23, 2008


As a five-foot-six gaijin woman, it's sometimes hard not to feel like a blonde giant in a sea of five-foot-two, 85-pound Japanese women. Take, for example, the time I went swimsuit shopping and had to buy the only gaijin-compliant XL-sized suit in the store (I'm a medium back in good ol' fatty USA). Or the time when I unsuccessfully attempted to buy new running shoes and found that even men's sizes were too small for my massive feet. Embarrassing.

But I've found a way to feel normal-sized again: It's called sumo.

Those sumo dudes are HUGE. I can attest to this fact because I attended my first sumo tournament in Osaka this weekend. A group of us JETs set up camp in the "cheap" (read: 5400 yen) seats behind the ring and soaked up sumo in all of its fat-rolled glory. There was a lot to take in: the thousands of fans in the stadium, the intricate pre-fight ceremonies, the colorful robes that the referees wore, the practice of throwing salt in the ring before each match to purify it, and, of course, the massive size of the wrestlers themselves.

But perhaps what struck me most was the fact that these sumo wrestlers -- despite the fact that, you know, they weigh an average of 325 pounds -- are really just regular dudes. On our way to the tournament, we saw a robe-clad sumo guy (he must've left his glorified diaper -- or mawashi -- in the locker room) getting off the subway just before us. We ran into another one in the conbini when we were buying drinks and snacks (he was, too). And one of my friends said he saw a couple of wrestlers getting out of a cab in front of the gymnasium just before the matches.

See, they're just like you and me -- 325-pound versions of you and me.

I wonder if they have trouble finding a swimsuit that fits, too?

Monday, March 17, 2008

In Pursuit of the ペニス

Yessir, that's a picture of exactly what you think it is.

Considering that, up to this point, Muy Oishii has been a fairly family-friendly blog, I warn you up front that this post will dabble in what might be considered PG-13. But, my dear friends and family, this past weekend's adventure -- a trip to the Hounen Matsuri -- was too hilarious not to share. Based on the picture above, I'm sure you can gather, well, the long and short of the story...

is a Shinto shrine located just north of the city of Nagoya, and is actually a fairly somber place. It's a fertility shrine where couples can go to pray for conception or to offer thanks for a healthy new baby. But on March 15, all of that sobriety goes out the window (literally-- there's a sake cart involved) as Tagata Jinga comes alive for the annual Hounen Matsuri (Fertility Festival). A giant 13-foot, 620-pound wooden phallus gets paraded through the streets by teams of 42-year-old men (42 is considered an unlucky age in Japan -- maybe this is why?) before it is, err, inserted in the shrine. Afterwards, there's the aforementioned free sake for everyone, plus plenty of chocolate-covered bananas and other appropriately-shaped goodies.

Interesting fact: Because the Japanese love shiny, new things, and, for religious purposes, believe they're more pure, a new 13-food, 620-pound wonder gets carved every year. The wood (sorry) gets blessed at the shrine before carving begins, and the crafter also wears special purified clothes. After the festival, it gets housed in the shrine until the next year, when it is sold to a local family. The word is that the new owner builds a shine for it inside their home -- apparently, a 13-foot shrine.


I road tripped to Nagoya (and subsequently got lost and circled the city for 90 minutes) in the company of four other Fukui JET gals, but it turns out that every other foreigner living in Japan had also decided to descend upon Tagata Jinga in worship of the wonder that is fertility. Because the shrine was Gaijin Central, we made fast friends with some interesting characters: some good ol' boys from Wisconsin (I never realized how much I missed hearing The Dairy State accent on a regular basis - braaaaaats, anyone?), a grad student from Azerbaijani, a dude from Syria, a German economist, a Hong Kong-born Kiwi, plus a Japanese hand masseuse. I also randomly reconnected with a friend from Chicago in a grocery store parking lot. Nice.

Nothing like a little ペニス (pe-ni-su) to bring folks together.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Pomp & Circumstance: J-Style

Today was graduation day at Sakai Junior High School (the Japanese school year ends in March); thus, I got to participate in my first graduation ceremony (1) in Japan and (2) as a teacher. In some ways, the ceremony reminded me a lot of my own graduation experiences in the USA. Allow me to share some universals:

- Moms cry a lot.
- Participants are forced to sit through lots of long speeches.
- Gym lighting makes for weird pictures (see above).
- The school band plays "Pomp and Circumstance" (yup, same song, even here in Japan).

But, this being Japan and all, of course some things are bound to be different. And, as the saying goes, the difference is in the details. Lots and lots and lots of details. In fact, the painstaking attention to detail in a Japanese graduation ceremony make the U.S. version look like, well, a 5-year-old's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.

That's not to say that we Americans don't prepare for graduation. When I graduated from junior high school, I had to be fitted for a gown, for example. And I remember meeting my fellow 8th graders in the gym for a quick rehearsal, where the folks in charge showed us where to stand and sit and how not to trip on our walk across the stage. Things like that.

This all pales in comparison to Japanese graduation prep. Sakai Junior High has been abuzz for weeks with meetings, paperwork and rehearsals. Last week, classes were cancelled one afternoon to give students time to get ready.

But the day-before practice is the stuff of legends.

Yesterday I joined ALL the students - not just graduating third years - in the gym for an all-morning (read: 4-hour) rehearsal. The first order of business was bowing - presumably something that any Japanese person has been doing since he or she has been able to walk. Nonetheless, we spent an ENTIRE HOUR rehearsing the bow, making sure all students dipped at the perfect angle in perfect sequence. Next, graduating third year students rehearsed receiving their diplomas. The principal read each of their 150-some-odd names as they practiced walking toward the stage, walking up the stairs, bowing, grasping their diploma one hand at a time, holding it over their heads, and then bowing again in unison with the next student in line. Then, first- and second-year students practiced clapping in unison as their graduating third-year peers filed into the gym.

There was singing practice. There were remarks from the principal and vice-principal. There was a short break when teachers went back to the staff room to discuss what needed to be improved. (Their verdict? Bowing, of course.) There was more bowing practice. And finally, because the Japanese graduate in their school uniforms instead of the ol' cap and gown, there was an appearance check. Teachers made sure that uniform pants, socks and skirts were the right length, buttons were where they should be, collars were pressed, hair was an acceptable length, and eyebrows were unplucked (really).

Lest we be underprepared, students then spent the afternoon cleaning the school, raking the lawn, hanging signs, and even clearing small pebbles from the parking lot. The place was immaculate.

All of this for a 90-minute ceremony.

But, oh, what a ceremony it was. I felt so proud as my third years marched into the gym (in perfect unison, of course). I silently cheered as they nailed each of their three zillion bows. I got little goosebumps as they sang their school song for the final time. Despite the language barrier, I got a little misty when a third year homeroom teacher cried through his address to graduating students' parents. And I was flattered when graduating students gave me flowers and hand-written messages after the ceremony, considering I was one of dozens of teachers and friends that they had to remember of their big day.

I'd never seen the third year students look so happy. I will miss them dearly when the new school year starts in April.

So I guess all the Pomp and Circumstance paid off in the end. Just don't ask me to practice my bow anytime soon.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Fire, Ice & Obama Cookies

Japan is about 7,000 miles from the United States.

That should be enough distance to keep me somewhat sheltered from the pre-election craziness (read: name-calling and mud-slinging) that is capturing headlines in the USA right now. That's not to say that I'm not interested in following our nation's democratic process. Without disclosing my political affiliations here, suffice to say I'm thrilled to see so many of my fellow Americans engaged in this year's election. I, like so many, am ready for big change in the White House. And I'm certainly planning to vote via absentee ballot come November.

But what's caught me off guard is the number of Japanese folks who are also following the election. Closely. I've had lengthy (read: lengthy-for-me-in-Japanese) conversations with my new swimming buddies about the Obama-versus-Clinton race between laps at the Maruoka pool. My fellow teachers at Sakai Jr. High have asked me to shed some light on America's oft-confusing election process. And, last week, a 3rd grader at one of my visiting elementary schools asked me who I was planning to vote for - in perfect English.

So it would seem that Fukui is election crazy, too. But while America's choice for the next president will certainly have ramifications here in Japan, perhaps what's causing all of this interest in my little corner of the world is the fact that Fukui is home to a sleepy little fishing town called...


Yes. Obama, Japan is a town of 32,000 people at the south end of the prefecture. It's about 2 hours from my apartment by car. Like most of Fukui, Obama's the kind of place that nobody's ever really heard of - the kind of place that Lonely Planet forgets to mention and that comes up black and pixilated on a Google Earth search.

That is, until Barack entered the picture.

Now, Obama, Japan is pretty darn famous - at least by Fukui standards. Or maybe it's that Obama (the man) is pretty darn famous in Obama (the city). The folks there have started selling "I Heart Obama" t-shirts and headbands. Someone even told me that they're making manju, a kind of Japanese confection, with Obama's face on them.


Either way, I had the privilege of visiting Obama yesterday, though it wasn't necessarily for the lure of Barack's cookies. I took part in the Omizu Okuri (Water Sending) - a festival that's been going on for 1,200 years. Held at night in the freezing cold, the event was actually quite eerie: Using light from hundreds of torches, hooded Shinto priests chant and bless water at a shrine in the mountains. They carry this water, called kozui, through the forest to a river. After another ceremony and the lighting of a huge bonfire, the kozui is poured into the rapids. Folks believe that the kozui water arrives at the Big Buddha temple in Nara 10 days later, so there's another festival there on March 12.

The hundreds of spectators at this centuries-old ritual get to purchase torches, write their wishes on them, light them, and follow the Shinto priests down the mountain. This seems like a good idea in theory, but in practice, walking through slippery snow with thousands of tiny Japanese folks with torches (read: they held their lit torches above their heads, which, quite conveniently, was my eye level) proved to be quite terrifying. In hindsight, I should have traded my wish for "World Peace" for a wish for some extra medical insurance...

At any rate, the festival was fantastic. The pictures I posted here don't really do the experience justice, so try to evoke your sense of smell as you look at them. Imagine a mysterious mix of pine, smoke, holy water...and Barack Obama cookies.