Sunday, December 09, 2012

Let's hammer some rice!

I finally took my kids on a Cultural Adaptation tour. While I have felt badly about leaving them out of my fun, most of the tours are on Fridays while they are at school. I see my solo excursions as a chance to pioneer these adventures for my family, and then decide on which ones are best to take them as a family at a later date. We went on a youth cultural tour Sunday, which was 500 yen per person, to the town of Tsuzu, which is about a half-hour from the base, but only because traffic is slow. We never left the greater Iwakuni area on the bus as we visited Tsuzu's community center.

At this 2nd annual event, the Tsuzu mayor and community welcomed about 70 adults and children stationed on MCAS Iwakuni and shared their New Year cultural events with us.

The mayor of Tsuzu is on the right and the interpreter for the day, Mike, is on the left. There was a joke about Mike liking the microphone, so that may have been where he got his American nickname. The Mayor's last name is the same word that means "minor" in Japanese, so he said he hoped that helped us remember his name. It has so far, Mayor Minor, thank you.
A dozen or so Japanese middle school students from the Tsuzu school were there, and each family was paired up with one. Our student was 13-year-old Nozomi, a very soft-spoken girl whose English was limited.

My boys with Nozomi in the 40-degree weather. I have lectured my children twice about wearing heavy jackets. I think they finally understand why.
But despite the fact that we didn't communicate through language well, we still managed to do a decent job of creating the traditional Japanese new year wreath, called a shimekazari. You hang this on your door or the front of your car to welcome the new year and keep out the "bad" of the past.

They gave about 10 awards for the most attractive shimekazari. Ours did not win. It was pretty ugly. The rings should be completely round.

This region of Japan also has some traditional activities, mostly centered around the rice harvest. In the Japanese culture, there is a "god of everything," Mike said with a smile. There is a god of the rice fields, which, once the harvest is in, the people thank the god and invite him to "go back to the mountain." The rope drum below is raised and lowered by 8 people at a time and a chant of thanks and goodbye is sung while the stone is lifted and dropped on to the mat. The Americans were slightly confused by this at first because the purpose of the exercise was not immediately explained. Several, including my children, thought it was a tug-of-war competition and were dismayed to find older Japanese on the opposite side of the stone. "That kid's like 17!" Will remarked, outraged. I had to explain that this was a collective, cooperative effort, not a competitive one. Once the "team" mindset was instilled, the drum rhythm got a lot better.

Next up was pounding rice in to submission. The American men in the group were invited by the Japanese men in the group to pound the rice first. After the 10-minute testosterone show I'm sure you can imagine, the kids had a chance. Here is Will's turn at hammering rice:

This rice pounding with heavy wooden mallets is also ceremonial, and a chant goes along with it to. In this process, the rice has been mixed with steamy water and turns in to a play-doh-like mush. This mush is then made in to tasty rice cakes. We tried three in all: One with a sweet soy sauce, another with peanut oil that reminded the kids and I of Honey Nut Cheerios, and a third that had sweet bean paste in the center. While I thought all of them were palatable, the soy one was my least favorite (I am not a fan of soy sauce to begin with) and my most favorite was the sweet bean one (I usually dislike beans, but have come to enjoy this sweet bean.)

One of our hosts making the Honey Nut Cheerios rice cakes

Enjoying the Honey Nut Cheerio rice cakes with Nozomi and the kids

Xan gave up on the chopsticks.

Will tried his hands at rolling rice cakes

One of our hosts preparing the soy sauce rice cakes.
Nozomi was one of for students who played a sort of Japanese harp. It was very pretty and we were able to listen to the concert while our hosts shared American favorites with us: popcorn and cotton candy.

The students also shared some of the history of their city. Tzusu has about 6,000 people and is known for the Tzusu river and what is considered one of the most beautiful wells in Japan. It also has a rich samurai history. The students gave the presentation in Japanese, which was translated by Mike.

Now that we are back home, I have hung my (ugly) shimekazari by the door of my apartment, hoping that the design and construction aren't representative of the kind of year I am going to have in 2013. The kids seemed to have learned a lot and especially enjoyed the food (of course!). I enjoyed learning how to make the shimekazari, but want another crack at it. Maybe next year...

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