Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thunder Run: Hit the Slopes in Summer

Over the past few decades, attendance at ski resorts in Japan has steadily decreased. To maximize profits, creative ways were sought to generate profits in the off season. Hokkaido's Rusutsu Resort built an 8 roller coaster strong amusement park. In Aomori, local favorite Moya Hills introduced their 'Green Season.' While nothing more than a scattering of playgrounds and tennis courts, they have something unique to offer.

"What goes up..."
 Hermann Maier said, "Ski racing, especially downhill, is a dangerous activity and there are many accidents. It would be really too bad to lose everything because of a crash." Now imagine plummeting down the slopes, but instead of blanketing snow beneath your feet, there's asphault.

Say こんいちは (konnichiwa / hello) to Moya Hill's ヒルズサンダー (Hills Thunder). Built in 1998, riders manually steer 3-wheeled carts down a 1,546 meter (.96 miles) long paved path from atop the chair lift all the way to the bottom at the club house.

The Course
All riders must first climb the hill in a trusty chair lift. Once your helmet is securely fastened, you unsecurely place yourself in the cart of your choice. Then you are instructed in Japanese, which for those who don't understand, it provides a great opportunity for photos. Basically you're told to pull back to brake, and to never never never put the cart in neutral (unless you want to fly). Then it's up to gravity to push you down.

The open air and single seat car provides the ideal thrill. Though, I'm not sure this would be legal in the states, for it's a lawsuit waiting to happen. While generally safe, it's not uncommon for beginners or speed demonds to run off course or flip over.

Hills Thunder is based off of a Roller Luge built in 1986 in New Zealand that boasted 600,000 riders in 1996 and in the following year received a "New Zealand Tourism Award." (Credit: Moya Hill's website). Obviously, Moya Hills wanted to emulate their success. Whether they were successful or not is up to their bank accounts, but judging how Hills Thunder has continues to remain in operation for 13 years, I'd put a check in the win column. Though the true victor are those who get to thunder 117 meters (384 feet) down the hill!

Adults: 1 time - 500円, 3 times - 1400円, 6 times - 2600 円
Elementary Students / Seniors / Disabled: 1 time - 400円, 3 times - 1000円, 6 times - 1800 円
1 Adult w/ a child under 140cm (55 inches): 1 time - 700円, 3 times - 1800円
*円=Japanese Yen (as of 06/09/11: $1 = 80円)

Daily: 10:00 - 17:00
*HillsThunder is closed in the case of rain.
*Opening/Closing date depends on the weather. Typically it will open to the public after all the snow has melted in May.

Unless you have a car, your only viable option is to take a bus. A taxi would cost more than 5000円, and walking would take around 3 hours. Click here for Moya's bus schedule in addition to a map showing the location in relation to Aomori station. (日本語/Japanese only). Please note that bus times are infrequent, so plan accordingly. If you don't speak Japanese, simply print out the bus schedule and at Aomori Station's Visitor Center / Bus Terminal. They should be able to steer you to the right bus. Don't worry about the return trek as there's only one bus to take and it will end up at Aomori Station.

For more pictures and information in Japanese please consult the official website.

It's such a funny comfort to see Japanese businesses make the effort to provide English.
By the way, is HillsThunder soon to be an Olympic sport?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

百物語: Hyaku-Monogatori

"An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself." - Charles Dickens

The power of strange and scary stories are epitomized in Japan's 百物語 (ひゃくものがとり) / 100 Stories. During the 江戸時代Edo period (1603-1868), Japanese people partook in this parlor game by lighting 100 candles. Participants took turns sharing scary stories and after each one extinguish one of the candles. As the night progressed, the room became darker. Finally, when the last candle was put out, it was believed that a paranormal event would occur or the room would be visited by a 溶解(yokai), a strange monster from folklore and pop culture.

Candle-Lit Ghost Stories
Copyright Kay Design Room
 Participants would marvel in this game by trading stories, often hoping to hear something even stranger or mor horrific than before. Perhaps this was the arena where many of Japan's famed yokai (kappa, tanuki, kitsune (fox), and tengu) left their own territories and ventured into the imaginations across the country. Eventually, these oral tales were written down into various collections of ghost stories, and are the precursors of Japan's notorious style of horror.

Truth be told, this ancient custom is not commonly practiced today. In fact, most Japanese people won't have a clue with what you're talking about or won't be able to offer any additional beyond what you already know. Consequently, while my 日本語/Japanese is lacking, my love for yokai (strange monster) is helping me to educate locals. While my job description states I am to bring over my own culture, I'm also reminding teachers and students of their own.

For those interested in a highly-engrossing academic analysis of Japanese monster culture, I recommend Michael Dylan Hoffer's "Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai." But those looking for an easy way out, just venture over to wikipedia for the incomplete story.

Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai. University of California Press: 2009 

Noodling: The Soba Workshop

If you ever dined in Japan, outside of McDonalds, then you've eaten そば (soba), which are thin Japanese noodles made from buckwheat flour. While soba is easy to find at the supermarket, few people today make their own noodles. For more on そば / Soba, I'll let google and wikipedia do the dirty work.

Thankfully in the off season, Aomori's local ski resort Moya Hills offers classes in Soba making. The best part being the results are edible, whether they're delicious is subject to skill and opinion.

I was fortunate to join fellow Japan-blogger Tesia, local hero Makoto, and a lovely Korean lady for this all important task. I must say it was a complete team effort. They did the work, and I watched. It's worth it to see how simple yet time consuming it is to make soba noodles by hand and to appreciate the old ways. If you ever get the chance to dine on Soba, make sure to make some of your own to better appreciate this ancient Japanese culinary custom.

You know you wanna...

"Let's get ready to noodle!"

Mr. Happy Dough

The Cutting Floor

Class Exam: Eating

Thursday, June 9, 2011

SUSHI LINK: Kantaro and the 100 Plates

Unless your diet consists soley of termites, you've encountered sushi. While more Americans are ignoring the raw fish stigma and dining on this Japanese treat, how much of it is authentic?

If you would like a taste of what a sushi restaurant truly offers in Japan then look further than "Kantaro and the 100 Plates", a comprehensive blog detailing one American's journey of sampling every dish on the menu. The location of the expedition is none other than Kantaro, a conveyer belt sushi restaurant, in Aomori, Japan. While conveyer belt sushi restaurants can sometimes offer lower-quality, machine made sushi, Kantaro is at the high end of the spectrum offering a variety of properly prepared dishes.

'100 Plates' not only describes each dish in English but also provides photos, prices, and ratings. Hungry for sushi? Then study up by feasting your eyes on Tesia Smith's personal 'made in Japan' feeding frenzy.

Extinct: Aomori's Fallen Amusement Park

It's hard to believe rural, snow-crippled 青森/Aomori played host to an amusement park. Though for over two decades, 浅虫ワンダーランド/Asamushi Wonderland thrilled locals over-looking scenic Mutsu Bay. In 2005, the park closed its gates, and now only a menegarie of abandoned infrastructure remains. For more on Asamushi Wonderland click here.

Abandoned Amusement

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Wooden Fish

You haven't eaten Japanese cuisine until you've swallowed 'dancing fish flakes.' If you're not aware of what I'm referring too check out this video.

Thankfully these yummy fish flakes are everywhere! You'll find them quivering on top of okonomiyaki, takoyaki, soba and they're even known to hang out in bento (lunch boxes).

I was aware that they were tuna shavings, but really hadn't thought about how they ended up on my plate. One day while under the tutelage of Ukei Sensei, my well-respected pottery teacher and Japanese culture guru, I found out the truth!

These 'fish-flakes' known as 鰹節 (katsuobushi) or ぼにと(bonito) are wooden...or made from what looks to be a block of wood. Either that or a mummified fish carcus.

A man and his wooden fish.

You could literally beat someone to death with this 'fish' and then shave off some pieces to devour your victim. I have a feeling katsuobushi is popular among angry cannibals.

A hunk of this stuff doesn't come cheap and sells for well over 1000円 ($12), though if shaven finely enough it will yield you plenty of fish flakes to last your tummy well into obesity. While anyone can shave at home, it's often left to the cooks, while the 'woodifying' process is best left to the professionals.

So how does a tuna fish become a deadly yet tastey block of wood? Instead of copying and pasting, I'll just now direct you over to wikipedia.

Happy wood eating everyone!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Say What? - "You poor cute bastard"

If you happen to encounter a tasty looking morsel and would like to express yourself in 日本語/Japanese then simply say おいしいそう (oishii sou), meaning "that looks delicious." Breaking it down おいしい (oishii) is an adjective meaning delicious, and そう has multiple meanings/uses but in this case translates into English as 'looks like.' In the polite culture of Japan, this expression is heard all too often. You could plop a plate of burnt tator tots in front of a guest and they would immediately gasp "おいしいそう" pretending to faint with anticipation.

I began to notice this formula repeated when colleagues responded to my charming smile with "元気そう" (genki sou), meaning "you look happy / full of life." While not a master of Japanese, I thought the time came to hone my skills and apply 'adjective + そう' to other situations.

But before I could, I heard it again, "かわいいそう"(kawaii sou). かわいい, not to be confused with こわい (kowai / scary), means 'cute.' I would go on to hear "kawaii sou" several times, and eventually came to the conclusion "everyone thinks I'm cute." Boy was I wrong.

かわいいそう can actually be translated as "You poor thing," or "I'm sorry to hear about that," and is used as a reaction to hearing of another's trouble or peril. I received the memo too late. Even with a math degree I wouldn't be able to count the number of people I said "かわいいそう" too. Oh well, at least I and now you know not to apply the formula to any other adjective.

Though...if I encounter a sad faced gorgeous gal, I may just have to say "かわいい かわいいそう," which using my own rules of language would translate into "You poor cute bastard."