Friday, January 9, 2015

The SSEAYP Diaries: Soba x sukiyaki (Day 3)

Being a part of the program left us all stranded in an entirely new experience. I spent my eight-hour flight to Tokyo studying as much Japanese as possible and I still felt extremely lost. I guess I should be thankful that I understand part of their language. Just a little bit. “Language-o-phobia” is the new word.

I was lucky enough to be roomates or homestay mates with a Vietnamese girl, Mai, during my first stint in Shimane. Our host mother was so Japanese, and I mean completely Japanese, she could not speak English at all. The first time we met her, it was ridiculously hard to make any form of small talk. All Mai and I could do was stare at each other and shuffle our feet uncomfortably basically.

Oh, just f.y.i, homestay mates and families are randomly selected by the Japanese government and committees involved so we don’t have a say in any of it.

The first night home, we discussed our favourite food with our host mother (okasan) in the car, and we made full use of my Japanese app dictionary thing; asking her about her occupation and her daily lifestyle and such. She brought us grocery shopping and Mai and I were so amazed at the variety of produce the store offered.
We got distracted by green tea kit-kat though.

Home was high up in the cool mountains. It was a traditional home; quaint, with futons as beds and a gorgeous view that went on for miles. We had our own indoor slippers (which were too small for my feet) and everything was neat and proper. The best part (aside from the heated toilet seat), was melting into the soft pile of blankets and burying myself deep into their comfy depths from head to toe.

Obviously I’m not a fan of the cold.

We settled down to bed pretty late but got up darn early for breakfast at 8am sharp. No later or our okasan would have dragged us out of bed.

I never had such a healthy breakfast in all my life. It was simple. Soft, fluffy bread with a sunny side up egg and a side of salad with a fruit, accompanied by fruit juice.

Let me just say, the bread is so darn amazing. If bread could melt, I think that one did.
Oh, and I almost mistook vinegar for salad dressing. I think subtitles should make its way onto bottles and produce as well. Just a suggestion.

After breakfast, we brought our dog, Solar, out for a walk in the fields. The air was refreshing, but I was freezing. It rained the night before which made it even colder in addition to the winter temperatures.

It’s a real quiet town. Just the simple life. Small little shops hidden in alcoves of buildings were scattered around the area, a kindergarten nearby and everywhere else was wide open spaces covered in clover fields.

We saw fruit and veg plantations, squealed and ran as tiny frogs chased us and took mandatory jump shots with the mountain silhouette behind us. The walk did me good. It’s not everyday you live in the countryside. Oh wait, Singapore has no side anyway.

After the short walk, okasan took us to Matsue Castle. As its name states, it’s an old castle that’s now been turned into a museum. Every prefecture has at least one castle, and the museum walls were filled with pictures and documentation of the various types of castles around.

The trek up to the castle was a scenic one. The paths were covered in yellow, orange and red hues and the trees were slowly changing colour to suit the season. Never took so many pictures of trees in all my life.

Tourists pay a discounted fee to enter the castle, which is nice. And you can opt for an English volunteer guide at the ticketing booth before you enter the castle- at your own risk.

The English speaking guide we had wasn’t of much help to us which was quite sad. I was looking forward to dissecting the various exhibits and learning more about the prefecture, but she couldn’t understand me well enough to answer my questions. I need my own personal Jarvis I think.

The view at the top was worth it amidst the cloudy skies.

Looking at the landscapes, you can tell how different it is from Singapore. We’re both modernized (somewhat), but there’s still an aura of culture that really I can’t explain. It’s just timeless.

We headed home after the museum visit to join our foster-sister and her son at the Arts Festival/food-fair. It’s similar to a flea market back in Singapore, but everything there is home-grown and organic or completely handmade. With folk music adding to the jolly atmosphere, even the ankle-deep wet and muddy ground couldn’t dampen my spirits.

(Rocking the man bun before it was in trend, mmhmm)

Had a hearty vegetable curry for lunch, with a side of the most amazing grilled chicken. Perfect hot food for a cold winter day. 

(All that charred goodness.......)

We walked on to another part of the festival where they were showcasing children’s story-telling using puppets. The entire room was filled with kids, and we had to stand outside the windows and peep in because it was so full.

Ended up just entertaining ourselves with our shadows on the ground, and getting creeped out by a kid who caught a praying mantis and was playing with it……..

Since we didn't have the car, we waited for a shuttle bus to take us back close to home (before our foster dad picked us up). We waited for a pretty long time, and I felt like I was turning into an icicle just ready to be dangled in a cave somewhere.

We had a few hours to ourselves before dinner. Dinner was awesome because Mai and I got hands on, all chef-y in the kitchen learning how to make soba noodles. From scratch. So much love.

Had to grate this vegetable looking thing. It looked similar to daikon or a form of radish or white tapioca. All that into a mixture of flour and eggs. 

Everything was done by hand. Prep, mixing, rolling out the dough, folding it (because no such thing as pasta machines) and finally cutting it into tiny soba-specific strips and putting them into the broth.

Broth was lots of vegetables all chopped up in boiling water, with simple seasoning. 

End result?

I know it doesn't look like those soba noodles that come from packets and all that, but it's authentic....... plus I think our cutting wasn't chef-y enough. Our noodles were accompanied by hotpot and sukiyaki, cause oh my god. 

The whole family turned up to dinner that night. And we were made to change to our cultural outfits. All dolled up in a cheongsam and eating sukiyaki messily for dinner. It's a first and last for me.

(Our sister's husband)

After dinner, okasan made us try on the kimono. It took about half an hour just for one person to put it on, and despite the air-conditioning in the room, I almost melted from the heat! The kimono’s layers never seem to end. Everytime I think that we’re getting closer to being done with the donning of the kimono, another layer materializes.

In exchange, I drew henna art for my dad. He desperately wanted a peacock for god knows what reason, and he was extremely happy about the end result, which made me even happier.

Three days is simply too short a time to be able to learn everything there is to know about a family, let alone a country or a place. When we finally had to pack to leave for the airport the next morning, Mai and I were quiet all the way in the car. 

We didn’t leave before our final pit-stop by the peak.

Like did someone photoshop those clouds?!?!?!

Our foster mom sent us to the airport, and then we walked around getting a few souvenirs and such. I got so many souvenirs of their mascot - a cat. Obviously i would. It's called Shimaneko for anyone who's curious.

She didn't wait for us to walk in to board, so I was basically wailing before we even left.

Thankfully, I wasn't the only one with eyeliner rolling down my cheeks.
So much for waterproof, Sephora. 

Hiro and the other local youths were there to send us off too. And we exchanged addresses (yes I wrote to him already).

See you soon, Shimane. 


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