Cooking with strange vegetables, the sequel

I really miss summer squash. And winter squash–any kind of squash that the lovely soils of America produce. Here in Japan my squash options are pretty limited. There was what seemed to be an inexplicably short zucchini season last month (doesn’t zucchini season in the States seem to last for years?), and I can get Mexican-grown spaghetti squash at the base commissary, but then I feel guilty about my gargantuan carbon footprint. Otherwise, my squash options at my local grocery store are usually limited to this:

Behold the Kabocha.

I think that I remember seeing Kabocha squash in the States, but I certainly didn’t pay any attention to them, distracted as I was by the bounty of familiar squash options. I bought this here for Chip because, no matter the species, he still loves squash puree. I’ll steam it and mash it for him, and sometimes I’ll mix it with applesauce and a little cinnamon. He loves that so much that he usually ends up rubbing it all over his face, as if he’s trying to absorb it as many ways as he possibly can. I’ve also had Kabocha in a tempura version–anything tempura deep-fried is pretty good–but I’ve never made it for myself/forced it on Rob before.

I was so desperate for squash the other day that I decided to use the Kabocha in one of my favorite recipes that usually calls for butternut squash. I think the Kabocha is starchier and a little sweeter than butternut squash, but it was still good. Should butternut squash vanish from the U.S. of A., and should you find yourself without an oven, you should try this recipe. It is very easy and it has a nice autumnal feel which I welcomed as August seems to stretch on interminably over here. Is is this slow in the States, too?

(I can’t remember where I found this recipe–I’ve had it forever–so I apologize if I am infringing your copyright.)

Linguine with Squash, Bacon, and Feta

4 slices bacon
1 lb. Kabocha (or butternut) squash
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. chicken broth
1 tsp. coarse salt
2-4 oz. feta, crumbled
8 oz. linguine
1 tbsp. olive oil
Black pepper

Cook linguine in a large pot, drain it, and return to pot. Cook bacon till crisp, drain, and crumble. In 1 tbsp. of the bacon drippings, saute squash and garlic 3-5 minutes. Stir in broth and salt, cover and simmer 15-20 min. until squash is softened. Add half of the feta and stir well to combine. Add the sauce to the cooked linguine and toss to combine. Dish out servings, drizzle with olive oil, and top with bacon, remaining feta, and black pepper. Serves 2-4.

Itadakimasu!

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Nikko, or how to bury a warlord

On Saturday, Rob and I decided we were sufficiently motivated to wake up before 4 am and make a 4-hour trip with a 14-month-old to Nee-ko. Nikko, way north of Tokyo, is famous for being the burial site of the first Tokugawa shogun and a place of great scenic beauty. We went on a navy tourism office-sponsored tour that included a cozy bus ride, which to me beat a three-hour train ride with lots of transfers even if it meant catching the bus a 04:45 (the navy does not mess around, even with “fun”). The bus stopped at a Japanese highway rest stop for breakfast, which was awesome. It had clean bathrooms, all these automated coffee machines where one could get a steaming hot cup of fresh-brewed coffee if one could figure out the buttons, and wasabi-flavored Kit Kats.

Anyway, Chip mostly slept peacefully as the bus rumbled north under the rising sun and, due to summer vacation traffic, we were in Nikko by about 9:30. Getting off the bus was like disembarking in the Pacific Northwest. The shrine is set in a forest of giant cypress trees, and stone surfaces are covered with a layer of moss and ferns. The air was clear and it was warm in the sun and cool in the shade with a nice breeze, which is definitely not how I would describe the Yokosuka environs right now.

Chip discovers moss.

The Toshogu Shrine, another World Heritage site (check!), was built in the 17th century by the grandson of the first Tokugawa shogun to honor his grandfather. The Tokogawa shogunate was the last shogun dynasty of Japan, and ruled until the 19th century. The lavishly ornate shrine took two years to build and, as my guidebook says, contains “everything a 17th-century warlord considered beautiful.” Add 1-year-olds to the list. Chip was entranced by the carvings of peacocks, lions, leopards, tigers, golden elephants, unicorn/lion/dog-hybrid things, ducks, and monkeys.

Gate of the Toshogu shrine.

This is one of the first visual representations of "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."

This was actually my favorite part. Here is a brass candelabra that the Dutch gave to the shrine in the 1600s, which reminded me of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I could just picture Jacob tallying the candelabra in the account books, even though it predates him and he is, of course, fake. I don’t think it would look out-of-place in some Baroque church in Amsterdam. The preservationist in me wonders if it should be left outside in all the Chinese acid rain, but it seems to be fine.

After the shrine we got to go see lots of nearby waterfalls. They were very impressive, and it was lovely to stand in the cool mist of them. The Nikko area used to be a summer retreat for 19th-century expats. They were on to something. I’m sorry our quasi-imperial lifestyle no longer allows for summer retreats in cool places. Or servants.

Kegon Falls, 320 feet. This is apparently Japan's most famous waterfall.

Yudaki Falls. I'm not sure how many feet exactly.

Ahhh, the great outdoors. And a cigarette.

This was a beautiful meadow in the national park where, if I understood our guide correctly, a battle between the mountains took place.

Both waterfalls are located in Japanese national parks. Seeing them, and Hakone last month, makes me so grateful for American national parks. Thank you, National Park Service, for not boring elevators into pristine cliffs so that I can more easily reach the 4-tiered observation deck/souvenir shop overlooking the Yosemite Falls. Thank you, National Park Service, for not building ropeway gondolas over the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park. Thank you, National Park Service, for not putting noodle shops on the floor of the Grand Canyon.

After the waterfalls we headed home. Except for a brief crying bout that earned us only one annoyed look on the bus, Chip was a champ. He slept until we stopped for dinner (ramen noodles at a highway rest stop!) and then slept again until we got home around 9:30. Totally worth the long day for the warlords and the waterfalls.

I'm Chip Watts. Nowhere is off limits.

Bon Odori

Last Sunday Rob and I had a date night and, as we often seem to do here, we inadvertently stumbled on a fantastic cultural experience. Unbeknownst to us, it was the festival of Bon Odori. We had gone to the beach to have a cocktail before going to the Royal Parasol Indian Restaurant (guess whose turn it was to pick the dinner location). There we ran into some beach friends who told us about the festival, and the fact that there was going to be a very “Hayama-style” party for it on the beach. One of my beach friends explained the festival to me. Apparently all last week the ancestors of all the Japanese could come back home to visit. Then on Sunday, they had to go back to wherever they live now, so everyone throws a party to send them off. (She also told me that her husband is a Buddhist monk, which I think is so cool and makes total sense because he has always looked really serene.) Anyway, farther down Morito Beach a stage was set up, strung with paper lanterns and surrounded by bamboo trees. People were streaming down to the beach in their summer kimonos and doing festive things like smashing watermelons with baseball bats.

All dressed up to dance.

Good clean Bon Odori fun.

Once it got dark, lots of people came to talk ceremoniously on stage and then they motioned us to take several big steps back. Rob and I had no idea what was going on, and out came about twelve diminutive older ladies in matching kimonos. They stood in a circle all around the stage and when the music began, they began to lead us in a dance around the stage! I love communal dancing, so I was thrilled. After a few minutes of just taking in the incredible spectacle of hundreds of Japanese singing and dancing under the lanterns in the warm night, Rob and I jumped in. The dances were simple and elegant, lots of pretty hand motions. The group-movement effect, and especially craning my neck to watch someone who knew what they were doing, reminded me of country line dancing. We saw lots of our neighbors in the dancing circle, nobody pointed at us for being the silly white people dancing (as far as I could tell anyway), and I really felt like a part of Hayama. I’m not sure if any of my ancestors had managed to visit in the past week, but we sure gave them a send-off just in case.

The band warming up. Missing from the picture was the guy playing the traditional Japanese instrument, the Sapporo bottle.

Everybody dance now.

And much to Rob’s relief, we still made it to dinner. Curry and naan were enjoyed by all.

Rankin Taxi

So last weekend Rob, Chip, and I inadvertently stumbled upon the Reggae King of Japan, Rankin Taxi. I’m not sure if that is his real name.

Taxi-san. Note the mosh pit.

We had been at our favorite Hayama beach bar, LAH, ¬†having cocktails (they have margaritas! Real frozen ones with straws!) when a very friendly fellow named Tosh (like Peter) told us we had to get to another bar, Oasis, to see the king of Japanese reggae. I didn’t even know there was a Japanese reggae scene, much less a king of it. It was closing in on Chip’s bedtime, but I felt we couldn’t pass up this cross-cultural opportunity. Oasis was packed and Rankin Taxi was worth the visit. He is definitely the first Japanese man I have ever seen wear a paper crown. Chip was mesmerized. Rankin Taxi sang in Japanese except for the refrain to one song which was “Catch…and release!” What a natural resources management term has to do with reggae I might never understand, but the music was really catchy. Taxi-san was accompanied only by a guitarist, and it made for a lovely, mellow sound. Sometimes reggae is a little apocalyptic for me, but I really enjoyed this. Rob took a video, which you can see here (or on his flickr page).

Rob did some research when we got home and found this article on Japanese reggae, too, which is very informative. It makes it sounds like the dancehall variety of reggae is more popular in Japan. Rankin Taxi was definitely more sway-along than dancehall. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, globalization never ceases to amaze me.

(Really) Little Pink Houses

This is a really neat story about “micro-houses” in Japan. Silly me, I had thought all the houses in Japan were micro-houses! I certainly feel that way as I hunch over the sink in my galley kitchen and wash my dishes at thigh-level, or try to make do with only closets for storage space (did I mention we don’t have a garage/attic/basement/shed/crawlspace).

Actually, these make my 900 sq. ft. look palatial but, also, not very cool. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a paper lantern?

Festivities

As far as I can tell, it is the brief summer vacation in Japan. There are not nearly as many schoolchildren in their smart uniforms walking around all day (Rob and I joke that the Japanese don’t actually spend all that much time in school, they just spend all their time walking there), the beach is packed daily, and there are lots of festive things going on.

Last week was the Hayama hanabi, or fireworks. Apparently one doesn’t need an independence day to shoot off fireworks; every beach town around here has a fireworks display at some point in the summer. Thousands of people came, many of them dressed up in their summer kimonos. As I should have expected from the Japanese, the fireworks were impressive. The show lasted almost an hour, and featured lots of cute novelty fireworks like stars, hearts, and smiley faces. They also somehow shot fireworks into the water, from which they exploded. I tried to capture it on my cell phone camera, but the effect might be diminished.

Fireworks reflected in Sagami Bay

If you squint, you can see how there are fireworks shooting from the water beneath the one in the sky.

There are also matsuri festivals going on in all the neighborhoods. Paper lanterns are strung along the streets, and men don very very short kimonos (I tried not to see whether or not they wear anything underneath) and carry shrines noisily through the streets.

Sadly, I only got a picture of the men in the longer kimonos

I’m not sure what it all means, but it’s very picturesque.

Of course, as soon as Japan starts taking some time off, Rob goes back to the grind. The idyllic shipyard period is over, and the sailor is back to sea. I try very hard not to complain publicly and in writing about being married to the navy, but this part really stinks. I know it’s his job, but it doesn’t make being without him, and being a single parent, any easier.

Fortunately Chip is particularly delightful lately. He has learned all sorts of new tricks: pointing (which I think is considered very rude in Japan), waving hello and goodbye, looking alarmed and pulling his hand away when I say “hot!”, kissing (although the finer mechanics elude him; he just kind of lunges at one with his mouth open and his tongue out), nodding his head very non-rhythmically to music, “swimming” in the ocean, ¬†and doing the downward dog yoga pose (I have NO idea where he learned that and I am trying to get a picture of it). He also seems to be increasingly ticklish.