Tuesday 13 July 2021

Fruits of Okagaki 2: Giant grapes raised with Chinese medicine!?

Hello again, and welcome to the second part of my delicious coverage of the fruits of Okagaki! We are now in the middle of July which coincides with the start of the local grape season, so what better topic for today's blog? The most talked about grapes in town would have to be the Kanpo Kyoho (漢方巨峰), a large and juicy sphere of healthy happiness! The name includes "Kanpo" which means "Chinese medicine" and "Kyoho", the name of a grape variety first crossed into existence back in the 1930s, and subsequently becoming widely produced around Asia and in some parts of other countries such as Chile and the US. Kyoho is a large, dark purple-colored grape that is very juicy and sweet, and when summer rolls around, they are often eaten skinless and chilled. 

The Kanpo part of its name refers to the fact that they are raised organically with the help of Chinese medicine formulations which replace traditional chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Whether this practice influences their flavor or nutritional profile, I am not sure, but it nevertheless is nice to have a local organic option! I don't know how common it may be in your country, but some fruit farms in Japan host "Fruit Hunting" days where they ceremoniously mow down a row of fruit trees with a Gatling gun**......no, that's not right...where they open the farm up to the general public and, for a given price, offer a fruit picking experience where you get to take home what you harvest! This is offered for local fruits such as mikan (mandarin/tangerine) and grapes, so if you like what you have read here about the organic Kanpo Kyoho, then I would certainly recommend a sojourn out to the local vines!

In the next blog, I want to move onto a different topic about Okagaki, but I may come back to talking about fruits and/or other local produce should something inspire me. Thanks for reading and see you next time!

**I couldn't resist the joke, but in the interest of providing fair and just information, the Japanese term 狩り (kari; hunting) used, in what I have (too) literally translated as "Fruit Hunting", refers to hunting in the traditional sense (hunting down and killing animals or enemies), BUT interestingly also works as "hunting" in the sense of "searching out and getting", much like English makes sense of the word in terms such as "Treasure Hunting". Another example of interesting similarities found between Japanese and English.

Thursday 24 June 2021

Fruits of Okagaki Part 1: Loquats and Strawberries

Hello all. Over the next couple of entries I will be talking a little bit about the splendid fruits that you can enjoy in Okagaki, Fukuoka. 

                                                                     Takakura Loquat

Having a temperate climate makes it ideal to cultivate a variety of popular fruits in the prefecture. I guesss it would be remiss of me to not start this entry by introducing the Biwa (loquat) first, it being the inspiration for our town mascots! So the loquat has been grown in Japan for an estimated 1000+ years, and is thought to have originated from cooler, hilly regions of China. It is a small, orange-yellow stone fruit about the size of a plum, with a slight pear-like shape. They grow in panicles and are very delicate, so it is common practice to cover the fruit with paper bags while they are still ripening on the branch. This, however, will not protect them from the clever crows of the region as many of the locals will attest, with the sight of loquat seeds on the roofs of houses being common in at least one part of town apparently, haha. 

As for the eating of our town mascot, you could eat the skin and all if you wash them well enough, but most peaople peel them, which is thankfully very easy. The skin peels away beautifully and stays intact very well so it only takes a matter of seconds. You could then pop it into your mouth or cut it into pieces and eat it that way. The flesh is soft and very juicy and the flavour is very reminiscent of persimmon. You feel very refreshed after eating a couple! The brown seed/s on the inside are similarly sized to lychee seeds, though in my experience there can be multiple (2~4), sometimes fused together. Kind of strange looking! 

                                                 Video introduction to Okagaki Loquat

The popular local variety is called Takakura Biwa (高倉琵琶), which I am assured is highly regarded in the loquat world, and I have cause to believe it, not only because I enjoyed eating them, but also for the fact that high end patissieres have been using them in cakes. In fact, there is a limited edition Takakura Biwa and lemon jelly shortcake available at Cafe comme ca, that looks absolutely delightful, and will set you back a whopping 1,100 yen (~USD$10) for a slice or 11,000 yen (~USD$100) for the whole cake! Very luxurious.

                       Limited edition Takakura Loquat and Lemon Jelly Shortcake ($USD100!!)

Apart from the fruit, the leaves of the loquat plant are also used in making tea! It is supposed to be really healthy for you. From what I have heard though, the tea product you can buy off the shelf is not particularly tasty, though preparing some from freshly harvested leaves improves its flavour significantly. 

Amaou strawberry

 A variety of strawberry known as "Amaou", which is produced only in Fukuoka prefecture, is extremely well regarded and is well-known throughout the country and overseas. Amaou are a lovely red colour with a healthy sheen, are plump, and due to them being raised in colder seasons, ripen slower giving them a long time to store energy, aka delicious sugars, to produce a beautifully sweet and flavourful fruit. In fact, the Amaou variety holds a Guiness World Record for being the world's heaviest strawberry!

 According to my English conversation students (average age 60~70), local strawberries were not always cultivated at these times of the year and this is a relatively modern practice, which struck a chord with me, because I always thought (in Australia at least) that strawberries were produced in the warmer months! There are a number of local growers in Okagaki and I always look forward to the winter/spring season when I can buy them on the same day they are harvested while they are at their best. You should eat them within 2-3 days, which I don't think will be a problem for anyone that enjoys strawberries as much as myself!

In the next entry I will tell you about the famous Kyoho grapes, which are raised in an interesting way in Okagaki! Please look forward to it! 

Tuesday 22 June 2021

Okagaki Town

Hello all, Daniel here once again (and for the first time in many years!!).

Over the next few posts, I would like to talk about the town of Okagaki, Fukuoka Prefecture. So, I finished up as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Program in 2014, and in 2018, found myself back on it again, this time as a CIR (Coordinator of International Relations). Over the last almost 3 years, I have been doing my best introducing Australia and the world through cultural events, weekly culture and English classes, and through a monthly column in the local town magazine. As part of my job (and hobby), it is about time I reflect back on what I have learnt and experienced here, and convey stuff about Japan to the wider world!

                                                          First week on the job in 2018

Okagaki is a town of roughly 30,000, sandwiched between the 2 largest cities in Fukuoka, namely, Kitakyushu city and Fukuoka city. It belongs to the Onga district which comprises 3 other towns including Mizumaki (famous for gigantic garlic and tomato ramen), Onga (famous for its river) and Ashiya (famed for a long history of traditional metalworking/smithing). Okagaki itself is probably best known for its production of the popular Takakura Loquat, and speaking of, the town mascots are a cute boy and girl loquat, haha. Their names are Biwasuke (the boy) and Biwarin (the girl) and they love each other, it is adorable! The "Biwa" part of the name is the Japanese for loquat, a small, oval shaped fruit that is a yellow-ish orange and tastes similar to persimmon, though has a softer texture. 

           View of the Hatsu coastline, northern Okagaki                        Biwasuke & Biwarin

Being conveniently situated between these larger cities and close to the ocean to boot, Okagaki in the past had branded itself as a "bed town", a settlement for workers and their families. In recent decades, however, Okagaki has taken on a life and character of its own, graduating from bed town status and putting much energy into its developlment, making strides in advancing its cultural, agricultural and tourism sectors. Over the next few entries I intend to dive a little deeper on each of these 3 aspects, so please look forward to that!

Thanks for reading!

Friday 20 July 2012

After a rainy summer's morning

Taking a walk after the rain, smelling the muddy earth, chasing this season's baby kajika frogs to their rice paddy homes, and the turtles from potential bitumen graves. It is times like these that I am really glad that I wasn't placed in the city.


Also, I doubt I could get a bunch of 13(!) Dole bananas for 199 yen in the big smoke! Wooh!
someone needs to learn how to make banana bread!

Wednesday 22 February 2012

K&K is 1 year old!

I'm so bored, let's start a blog!
Oh, the waiting! >:(
Finally in Japan :D :D
Summer's humidity suffered
Summer Sonic enjoyed
Superior Fireworks
New animals and/or body parts eaten. Pork chin is awesome, snail is not so. 
School entered
Kids are ridiculous
Gotta love 'em
The spoils of Autumn admired and/or eaten
Festivals ahoy!
Onsen entered!
Green Zone 
Kappa spotted
She's finally home
Oh! So this is what Winter is supposed to be like?
Snowed on for the first time
Winter is a magical snowy wonderland
Novelty ends
215 days in
1064 students taught
But only 50-odd names remembered :( :( :(
Sakura yet to be seen
Graduation ceremony and staff transfers to come
Enjoying the ride so far

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Matsuri 祭り

Matsuri is the Japanese word for festival. There are many many different matsuris that take place all over Japan. It is kind of hard to imagine any town not having at least one to call their own! Some of the common themes/purports of matsuris are the coming of new seasons, the honouring of ancestors and their spirits and making an appeal to the gods for bountiful harvests and safe journeys. When you are planning a trip to Japan, it would be remiss of you to not try and plan around the timing of a Japanese matsuri.

Being a first world country, the smart phone-toting, traffic jam-participating, Calvin Klein handbag-wearing modern Japanese people, at least superficially, lead a lifestyle that resembles those of persons from other first world countries. Thankfully, the matsuri presents a great chance to see Japanese people let all that go away for a day and step back in time to acknowledge their rich culture and traditions. The typical matsuri features dancing, singing, chanting, the playing of traditional instruments, feats of strength as the locals carry or tow portable shrines (mikoshi 神輿 and/or dashi 山車), the donning of traditional garb (especially 'happi' ハッピ), and of course, lots of food. Some matsuris have bonfires, some have lanterns. Some are completely on the land, some take place on or in the water. Variety indeed abounds.

In my time over here, I've been to a few. My very first one was the Ohara Hadaka matsuri 大原裸祭り, a festival that takes place each Autumn in Ohara, Chiba (east of Tokyo). The main draw card for this one is the shio-fumi 汐踏み ritual (translates to "treading on the sea water"). Numerous teams of loincloth-appareled men and boys carry large mikoshi from the apex of a sand dune and down into the sea! These heavy mikoshi are supported by two large beams of solid wood so it is no wonder that each team has approx 20 people carrying them.

At their most daring, the mikoshi bearers go out to about upper chest height at which point they chant and turn and head back to shallower ground. On return to land (and sometimes just before) the teams begin to rotate the mikoshi and later, in a great feat of strength, propel them up into the air with the 'heave-ho' equivalent, "Yo-ii-sho!" shouting proudly from their lips. I don't know if you can insure these expensive mikoshi or not, but for the Ohara mikoshi, the premiums would surely make you cry. 

The whole ritual is performed to grant the particpants with luck and prosperity as well as to appeal to the gods of the shrines to bless them with good harvests of fish. Apparently the more spirited and rowdy the performance is, the more satisfied the gods will be! On completion of the main event the men, boys, and now, women and girls, return the mikoshi back to their home shrines. Often stopping along the way for a drink stop and spirited song. I can't wait to go to this one again.

Another cool festival I went to was the Podunk Autumn matsuri 秋祭り. The festival's purpose is to appeal to the gods for good crops, particularly those of rice as the festival's timing is very close to that of the big rice harvest. In fact you can see the kanji character for rice, kome 米, on some of the ハッピ of the participants. At this festival, the shrines are contained within the dashi  山車 or 'mountain vehicles.' These elaborate wooden carriages are shaped much like a mountain with a couple of distinct tiers. Starting at the top, there is an area for a number of people to stand and sit. Up there are banners for the region from where the team hails, lanterns, decorations, and commonly, a huge doll in the shape of a priest. At times, the dashi are like mobile bunraku 文楽 (Japanese puppet theatre) shows at the top. The dolls themselves are controlled by the top tier inhabitants and they are sometimes made to throw confetti and I think rice too.

Going down, you will see the base of the mountain. This structure contains many intricately carved images if creatures (real and mythical) and plants. A bigger banner is usually attached (check out the photo). Housed within the central structure are many of the local children who periodically peek out pillbox style, claiming many victims through their drive-by of cuteness. Also housed at base level is a large taiko drum which is played throughout the day and particularly during the nighttime street parade. To the sides hang the traditional kane 鐘, metal cymbal/bell things that are played by girls and younger boys. The whole structure is set on 4 wheels and 2 wooden struts.

Podunk's claim to fame/originality is the practice of rotating the 山車. Just as there were many different teams in the Ohara Hadaka matsuri, the Podunk Autumn matsuri contains many teams from many regions within Podunk itself, and also from greater Aichi and neighbouring prefectures as I understood.

The dashi are towed around town and stop every now and then for, what I'll call, the rotation ritual. The men brace themselves for the hard work to follow, the kids peak their heads out in anticipation and the top tier inhabitants get ready to cheer and manipulate the puppet. The best place to see the rotation ritual is in the plaza outside the main train station. They are all spread out and it is easy to see the simultaneous spinning of a number of the 山車. The puppets are waving around, tossing confetti and the crowd is tripping over each other taking photos.

Upon the eventual march toward the Podunk Shrine, my "Japanese uncle" makes sure I and 3 of my foreigner friends get to take part, much to the curious delight of the locals. We are adopted into team Babacho, the region adjacent to the Podunk Shrine and which is made famous (locally) due to its old sacred tree. In a test of strength, we are asked to lift the front end of the heavy Babacho 山車, just the 4 of us. How do we fare? HINT: this is usually done by 6-8 men.... we FAIL. Though, we gather our chi and are very successful on the second try, hurrah! However, no time to celebrate as this is relatively easy compared to the rotation.

Soon after the warm-up act, we are tasked to rotate the 山車. It is an exercise in muscular endurance and ignorance of sustained, shoulder-crushing pain, especially if you've not much between your clavicle and ハッピ! We start out pretty well, our strengths vary a little as do our heights and positioning under the struts, so loads particularly with proximity to the vehicle and height of the participant. I am the tallest, so I got my fair share of the 'joy.'  I forget exactly how many turns are required, I'm recollecting anywhere from 8-12. When we started to go around, we were all surprised at the force we were working against, though we fight through the inertia and get it spinning.

The kids are cheering (maybe), the crowd is being sated and the local photographers are snapping away. We almost, almost complete the required rotations, but it goes down just short of the mark. We are encouraged and try once again and are better positioned and schooled. We get about 2/3 of the way through and are taught an interesting coping stratagem, "Look up and your pain will go away." So periodically we look up. How long before we realise that this is a hilarious placebo? I'm thinking that it clocked in at about 2 minutes, haha. Finally we get it around and then it is party o'clock. The onlookers applaud and our faces are beaming. Then we are offered a draught of deliciously blessed o-sake. They line us up one by one and I am literally lucky last, because being last, I got offered a double helping :D I was happy to oblige (read: indulge) and that garners more applause. What a fun time!

By night time the 山車 are mobilized once more with lanterns alight. In addition to the 山車 are some other lower set vehicles that also contain the taiko and kane. The drums and cymbals of traditional Japan beat and ring loudly across the town as the festival comes to an eventual close.

A really good time and I look forward to attending this year's installment later on in October.

Sunday 5 February 2012

The JET Program / Programme Interview

Hi guys! I hope you are well in your part of the world! Today I am writing to the current applicants for the the ALT position with the JET Program. Your interview is looming and I hope you are not driving yourself too crazy fretting over what to do. To help you out, I will share my experience of the interview as an interviewee at the Brisbane Consulate for the 2011-2012 placement. As my interview was quite enjoyable, I am hoping that my experience closely resembles the one that you will have :)

I truly believe that the interview is nothing to be nervous about! I know that may seem impossible because by this point you have already vested a decent chunk of time waiting for the opportunity and have probably been raising your hopes high for the position. (In Brisbane) the atmosphere was actually relaxed, our interviews felt like a nice chat. They definitely didn't try to make us feel in the hot seat, allowing an opportunity to really show off our personality. I had a smiley academic, a friendly Japanese lady, and a former JET, a roster that I would pretty much expect at your interview (with smiley-ness being at your interviewees' discretion, of course).

So what do you need to prove to them? What are your important qualities? Well, your personality, flexibility and adaptability (PF&A) are important, as is your drive to EXCHANGE culture and language. Sell the fact that you want to not only introduce your country (and others*) to the Japanese, but to learn a lot from them and BRING that knowledge and those experiences back home. If you haven't already, commit to memory that the E in JET actually stands for exchange, not education (so many people make this mistake, lol.) This is your theme for the interview. So how have you been involved in cultural activities in your community? What knowledges can you bring? How can you introduce your country's customs and culture to your future Japanese community? Are you going to dive in and demand a booth at your future school's culture festival? Are you going to do a traditional dance of your country's indigenous people during your introductory lesson? Have fun coming up with your own ideas.

*you get a good opportunity to teach about other countries through the Eigo Noto textbook if you work at elementary school. 

Aside from proving your ability to be a cultural ambassador, you will be proving your PF&A through reciting past experiences and explaining how you handle hypothetical situations. You will inevitably get asked a question about how you would deal with feeling down in a foreign country. Basically I said it was important to keep in contact with friends back home, fellow foreigner friends and any Japanese friends or mentors you feel comfortable with communicating your problems with. I didn't, but you can probably mention that your future prefectural CIR will be invaluable help to you when trying to solve problems. Additionally I threw in other coping strategies such as doing exercise as it is a great way of bucking me up. I would go for a run to clear my mind and they liked that answer a lot. Whatever works for you! Cleaning your room? Eating a big cookie before the run?

It is likely that they will ask you of any situations where a cultural misunderstanding took place and how you dealt with it. A pretty testing question, especially so for those of you who will be going overseas for the first time. Do your best to think of an interesting experience you have had or else you are going to have to think of a plausible fib (hopefully it won't come to that though, haha). My answer was lame, but they thought it was funny so it kinda worked out for me. I mentioned slurping in a soba shop in Kyoto as being a big shock for me and I, heh heh, 'dealt' with it by asking my learned travel buddy about the etiquette of eating in Japan....:) Dressed it up a touch, but they seemed to dig it. "Oh I couldn't believe it! Was I in a particularly bad part of Kyoto? Why were there so many rude customers audibly slurping their hearts out at this particular establishment?" etc.

Also try to anticipate your future working culture and role. Basically consider that  (1) you shouldn't feel that discipline is your job because as an assistant language teacher it really should be up to the home room teacher* (2) you will try your best to keep the channels of communication open and make yourself available in the limited meeting time you are afforded, and (3) you will gladly enjoy becoming a member of the school (and local) community and from time-to-time get out of your way to join in school (and local) events and club activities.

*You should certainly never go over the HRT's head and discipline a problem student unless it really adds up to being a necessity. Also consider that there may be different standards for behaviour in your country versus those in Japan.

Those are probably the main things to dwell on. Additionally you should spend a little time thinking of a couple of reasons for why you chose your preferences (e.g. the experiences you may be able to get, the foods you want to try etc.) That's about all I can think of. Make sure you dress the part (yes to suits and ties for the guys), show off your personality and be ready to address the above questions/issues I have outlined and you should rock it. No need to be nervous, just be comfortable with being yourself. Unless you are a particularly unsavoury character, you have no reason to apply any pressure on yourself :)

Once it is all over, please don't go crazy waiting for the results to come out. Don't pay too much attention to (or even better, be blissfully ignorant of) any 'interviews results' and 'placement' threads on any JET-related forums. In my experience of last year, the mass of unhealthy speculation and misinformation generated on these threads (notice I said 'threads', not 'forums as a whole') verged on being, oh stuff it, WAS ACTUALLY a bold neon-lit shining example of how silly people can be behind a keyboard.

With all that said though, enjoy the limited time you have left in your part of the world. Until next time!