Friday, March 17, 2006

Thanks to Colin, who found this spiffing topographical map of Packwood, Lewis County, overlooked by the majestic Mt. Rainier.

Packwood - The Legend Lives On

These are exciting times for Packwoods everywhere. The lovely chap from Packwood Spirits and Mementoes got back to me with a quote for sending a Packwood T-shirt to Japan - it's all ready to go, I just have to work out how to get the money to him. I shall wear it with pride.

Then my Dad emailed me with a bit of research he'd done himself on the Packwood clan - it seems the name originated in Warwick, England, and in fact there's a stately home called Packwood House in the same area. I am DEFINITELY going there when I get back home, it's not often you find a house that's named after you, never mind one that boasts "notable topiary" and a "17th-century Yew Garden". It's also got a gift shop, so I'm hoping they'll sell Packwood pencils with rubber tips, and maybe even Packwood key rings. I could accessorise with my Packwood T-shirt (which I'll obviously be wearing on my visit).

Then Dad also put me onto a website that traces the Packwood geneology (it's amazing that all this stuff exists! God bless the internet!). That was pretty interesting - there's only 648 Packwoods in the whole of the UK, so it's not that common a name. Then I saw there was a Packwood mailing list on that site, so I just had to join it. I sent out an email to all the other Packwoods to see if they knew anything about the town of Packwood in Washington...

After a couple of days I got a charming and very helpful email from someone who claimed the founder of Packwood as their third great-grandfather, and he put me on to a really interesting newspaper article about William Packwood, the explorer.

William's great-grandfather came to America in 1745 (though I'm not sure from where). William was born in Virginia in 1813, and his family moved west in the 1840s. He had a fascinating life: he joined the gold rush to California in 1849, then moved back to Washington and became a ferryman. Later he got involved in the construction of a road through the mountains, and that's what got him interested in exploring. Eventually he had several places named after him, including a coal field which he discovered. And, of course, the town of Packwood.

(By the way, thanks to Caitlin's mom for leaving a comment about Packwood the other day - don't worry, I won't be disappointed with Packwood. How could I be? I'm also eager to find out what a "skoal tin" is - should I get one too for my visit?)

FUN FACT: Packwood is the 55,087th most common name in the United States (see here). I'd love to find out what the 55,086th most common name is...

One last thing, it's been pointed out to me that my blog has now reached 30,000 hits, which is an absolutely obscenely high number. so now's a good a time as any to say THANK YOU to everyone for reading. It's been a pleasure.

PS. I'm off to watch the sumo in Osaka tomorrow, then I'll be on holiday until the 6th April, so there'll be no new posts until then. Au revoir!

Here's a picture of William Packwood the explorer, the namesake of Packwood, Lewis County. Check out those sideburns - we obviously have something in common.

Packwood Lake - looks just like Fukui doesn't it? Without all the concrete landslide defences of course.

The distribution of Packwoods around Great Britain. In 2002 there were only 648 adults with the surname Packwood, so we're quite a rare breed...

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Verily, 'tis a mighty, mighty, plastic-wrapped giant of a midday meal.

The Lunch of Champions

Since I've been living in Japan I've become a big fan of soba - buckwheat noodles in English. Not only are they healthier than other noodles, they're also a damn sight tastier - think of the difference between wholemeal bread and bleached white economy bread and you'll get the idea.
They're also a lifesaver if you're a vegetarian, since many of the soba meal options available come without meat or fish, which is a rarity in this famously vegetarian-unfriendly country. [Speaking of which, on Sunday I ordered a Hawaiian pizza without meat and it arrived covered with bacon, which apparently doesn't count as meat in Japan. It's not the first time that's happened either...]
At lunchtime I often go to the local convenience store and buy a bowl of soba for my lunch, and there's usually a pretty good selection to choose from. Most of them have tare (a weak soy-sauce) as their base, and this is variously combined with wasabi, daikon (Japanese radish), crispy rice or spring onion.
However, when I was in SunKus the other day I stumbled across an absolute beast of a soba dish. For the princely sum of 430 yen this lunchtime delight, known as Tsukimi Tororo Soba, comes with everything, from wasabi to yams to partially-cooked egg. Just putting all the (individually-wrapped) ingredients together took up a good proportion of my lunch hour, but it was worth it.

STEP 1 - The giant is disassembled: ingredients to be added on the left; lovely, delicious, healthy soba on the right.

STEP 2 - The tororo paste goes on, which is made of mashed up yams. It actually tastes quite nice, despite having the texture of baby sick.

STEP 3 - Mmmmm, wasabi. Gosh darn I love wasabi. Whatever, you do though, don't put it in your eyes. Though I'm sure none of you were thinking about doing that anyway. But just in case you were, don't.

STEP 4 - Now the cucumber. Ah, cucumber, thou watery, no-taste vegetable! The filling of choice for vicars' sandwiches across the British Isles, yet in salad terms a perennial second place to the mighty tomato. I pity thee, cucumber.

STEP 5 - The negi (spring onion) is added. "But what about your onion breath?", I hear you cry. I say, "Have you smelt the pickled cabbage that the guy next to me is eating? His breath could fell a horse."

STEP 6 - The seaweed goes on next. It's not a proper Japanese dish if it doesn't feature seaweed in some way, shape or form.

STEP 7 - Time to pour on the soy sauce. There's enough here to drown a small bird.

STEP 8 - Crack open the cold, runny, partially- boiled egg: Edwina Currie please look away now. Salmonella-tastic I say.

Finally, after a quick stir, the preparation is complete. Behold the King of Lunchtime Convenience Food! And lo, he saw that it was good, and it did pleaseth him.

Of course, the down side to this behemoth of a lunch is the waste - all this packaging for just one bowl of soba; even the egg comes polythene-wrapped. How can something be so bad when it's so delicious...? I'm so confused.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Yep, that's right. It's buried again. NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

White Day

By the time I rose out of bed this morning I'd almost listened to the whole of "A Rush of Blood to the Head" by Coldplay, which meant I was late. If I'd got out of bed by track 5, "Clocks", I probably would have been alright, but my body stubbornly refused to move until track 11, "Amsterdam" - in terms of lateness, this meant I would have to fore go eating a bowl of muesli with my toast, and put off shaving until tomorrow. Depending on shower speed, it was also a possibility that I wouldn't have time to lace up my Converse boots, and would instead have to wear my Adidas slip-ons. I groggily stumbled onto the landing...
"F**king hell!!!" I exclaimed as I looked out of the window.
That's right ladies and gentlemen, the snow's back, and how. When I drove home from Sabae last night I got in at about 10pm, and there was no snow on the ground. Admittedly, there was a bit of snow in the air, but none of it was settling. Yet when I woke up this morning, I couldn't see my car. Forty centimetres of snow. Overnight. All plans to wear Converse boots were forgotten as I once again dug out my Wellington boots and reached for the shovel...
Appropriately enough, today is White Day in Japan (the words "pathetic" and "fallacy" spring to mind). White Day falls exactly a month after Valentine's, and today is when all the men who were given presents by women on Feb 14th repay the favour by giving boxes of chocolate to the object of their affection. Or their "unaffection", as the case may be - often employees will exchange chocolates with each other and with their bosses, even if they would rather see the receiver run over by a bus. Chocolate of this kind is called "giri-choco" ("obligation chocolate") - for that special moment when you just want to say, "I hate your guts but I'm giving you this chocolate anyway because everyone else in the office has given you some and I don't want to lose face. Please do me the favour of choking on it."
Interestingly, today is also "Black Day" in South Korea. The traditions of Valentine's Day and White Day are also celebrated in Korea, but there's an informal tradition on March 14th where single people who didn't receive any Valentine's or White Day gifts get together and eat jja-jang myeon (noodles with black bean sauce - hence "Black Day"). Then they moan about being single, presumably.
Anyway, back in Asahi the snow's still coming down, and, unbelievably, it looks like I will once again have to dig the entire road behind my house to move my car. Damn you Mother Nature! Why do you taunt me so?!? Spring? Remember that? HEL- LOW!!! Are you listening?!?

This is the gatepost by my porch - the ruler is 30 centimetres long (that's about a foot for all you imperial measurement fans), so you can see the snow is almost 40 centimetres deep. Remember, this is just one night's snowfall... (By the way the reason that all the photos are in black and white is because the camera was running out of battery and I didn't have time to adjust the settings. Also I was late.)

Driving: Treacherous.

Asahi is once again smothered in the white stuff. Check out the size of those snowflakes - they're like baby's fists.

Students struggling up the path to school this morning. It's a shame this photo's in black and white, because you can't see their pink umbrellas.

The road behind my house. Looks like I'm going to have to dig out the whole road. AGAIN.

Here's a shot of the park behind my house. I can't believe it's March...

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Democrats: 538, Republicans: 0

Packwood - The Excitement Builds

Regular readers may remember that way back in February of last year I Googled my own name (see "Snatched By Vanity" in the archives), and was delighted to discover the existence of a town in Washington state called Packwood, in , wait for it, Lewis county. Yes, that's right ladies and gentlemen, they finally named a town after me.
Ever since then I just can't stop thinking about Packwood (WA). I often find myself absent-mindedly surfing the net, looking at pictures of Packwood's shops and bars, along with eruption forecasts for nearby Mt. St. Helens and prices for snowmobile rental: I just can't get the place out of my head. There's only one thing for it - I'm gonna have to go to Packwood.
That's right folks, the prodigal son is returning home. Come August I will be setting foot on the hallowed soil of Lewis county. What will the locals make of me? Will I be shunned as just another eccentric travelling Englishman? Or will they receive me as their one true heir and crown me as the mighty King of Packwood? Who knows. But I can't bloody wait to find out.
Seriously, I am SO excited about visiting Packwood. I've just been having a look at it on Google maps. Guess what - Lewis Road runs straight through the middle of Packwood! How cool is that! The more I research things about Packwood, the more fascinating it becomes. I've just been checking out the website for the Inn of Packwood: I love their catchphrase:
Whatever your pleasure, INN OF PACKWOOD is the "in" place to stay while in the beautiful Cascade Foothills.
Classic. Then there's Packwood Spirits and Mementoes right next door, a shop selling traditional wood carvings and absorbant coasters, as well as "competitive priced cigarettes and adult beverages". Best of all though, they sell Packwood T-shirts (see below). I'm ordering one right now.
Man, I can't believe I'm actually going to see these places with my own eyes in a few months time!!!

The Inn of Packwood - proud bearer of a five star review on Yahoo Travel. One happy customer said: "We had travelled and stayed at several places in the past but never experienced such a clean and hospitable place to live." Book me a room, I'm on my way.

The Official Packwood T-shirt. I'm currently making enquiries about overseas delivery.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Doug silhouetted against the bonfire at the Omizuokuri festival.

Holy Burning Braziers Batman!!!

I witnessed a truly strange and fascinating spectacle last Thursday - the "Omizuokuri" ("Water-sending") festival in Obama, in southern Fukui. Probably the strangest part of the festival was watching men dressed in pointy white robes lead a procession of people carrying burning torches - I probably don't need to spell out what that reminded me of. Needless to say though, any similarity between this ancient Japanese festival and the infamous KKK is purely coincidental.
It still looked mighty weird though.
The history of the festival is even stranger: believed to be around 1,200 years old, the ritual dates back to a priest known as Jitchu Kasho. Here's a summary of the festival's history, taken from the Kansai Window website:
In the Nara period, the legend goes, Jitchu Kasho asked the gods from all parts of Japan to attend the shunie [rite] at Todaiji's Nigatsudo [a temple in Nara]. Onyu Myojin of Wakasa [now southern Fukui] arrived late for the gathering, however, because he had been busy fishing. Myojin deeply regretted his lateness and by way of apology promised to offer kozui (aromatic water) from Wakasa to Nigatsudo's principal image. With those words, a black and white cormorant (a black cormorant and a white cormorant) flew out of a rock in Nigatsudo and water began to pour forth from the rock: Wakasa water. Thus the name of the Wakasa well [in Todaiji temple] derives from this legend.
To commemorate the miraculous emergence of Wakasa water in Nara, every year the event is recreated by priests at Jinguji temple in Obama. The priests "send" the water to Nara by pouring it into the Onyu River at "Unose" (Cormorant Rapids), and 10 days later a sister festival is held at Nigatsudo, where the water is drawn up from the Wakasa Well. Obviously though, it's not the same water that was poured into the river in Obama. Or is it? Or IS it? OR IS IT?
Considering it's a water festival, it certainly featured an unhealthy amount of fire - we're talking giant bonfires and ten foot long braziers stuffed with kindling (though not the kind of braziers you're thinking of) along with hundreds and hundreds of people carrying lighted torches - think Bonfire Night, but with bigger sparklers. Luckily though, there were several men wearing helmets who were carrying batons with red, flashing lights, so I felt perfectly safe. Hooray for men in helmets with batons!

Strange noises begin eminating from the shrine, which is the signal that the ceremony has begun. After a little while you realise that the noises are in fact footsteps, caused by a man running from one side of the shrine to the other, pausing only to jump up and down in the doorway. It's quite spooky in a bizarre way. Then this priest dressed in red lights a huge torch INSIDE the shrine, and proceeds to drag it around INSIDE the shrine for several minutes, before emerging at the doorway. No wonder so many temples and shrines have burned down in Japan.

After the mysterious priest in red has finished attempting to burn down the shrine, the torch is carried past the crowd and used to light an enormous bonfire. As the torch is carried forwards, a dozen or so white-robed priests emerge, along with a sort of "band" who start blowing conch shells, and suddenly it all begins to feel a little tribal. The crowd then chants "Kill the pig, Spill its blood", and a rotund boy with glasses runs for his life. Maybe. Anyone read Lord of the Flies?

The first bonfire is lit. Now that's what I call a conflagration.

The crowd in front of the shrine surges forward to watch the rites taking place by the bonfire. I couldn't see very much, but there was plenty of sword waving going on, and at one point a priest shot an arrow into the crowd. I must say I was a little alarmed at that particular development, but I think the arrow was made of balsa wood or something since no-one called an ambulance.

Before the ceremony we bought this torch. The idea is to write a wish on it, along with your name, then if you're lucky the torch is cast onto the second bonfire by the river, and your wish will come true. We chose to wish for Sekai Heiwa (World Peace). In this photo "Team Peace" - consisting of Doug, Colin, Tina and myself - have just lit their torch of hope from the first bonfire by the shrine. Go Team Peace!

A procession of worshippers holding torches forms as everyone marches down to the river. This was an amazing sight - hundreds and hundreds of people making a ribbon of golden flames snaking across the dark countryside.

Eventually the procession reaches "Unose" ("Cormorant Rapids") about 2 km away from the shrine, and a second bonfire is lit. Here you can see the priests' pointed white costumes.

A circle of priests chant as offerings are thrown onto the bonfire, including many of the extinguished torches which have been carried to the river by the crowd. Did "World Peace" make it onto the fire? Who knows...

The festival reaches its climax when the head priest pours the sacred water into the raging torrent, as sparks from the burning torches "purify" the river. Ten days later the water is said to reach Nara, where the "Omizutori" ("Water-drawing") ceremony takes place. (This photo courtesy of Colin Johnston)

Thursday, March 02, 2006

"That's it, keep smiling, keep smiling, no funny business. This gun's loaded you know, and I've got it pointed right at your spleen - just look good for the camera or it's the last thing you'll ever see, Sonny Jim. Thought you could escape did you? You should know by now... THERE IS NO ESCAPING THE SOTSUGYOUSHIKI. Mwahahaha!!!"

The Annual Student Banishing

Today was a very special day at school. Since it's the end of the school year, all the students are herded into the school gymnasium for what's known in Japanese as the "Sotsugyoushiki" or "Punishment Ceremony". This yearly event is primarily designed to punish the entire school for everything they've done wrong in the past year, from running in corridors to falling asleep in class. Ironically, around 10% of the students actually fall asleep during the ceremony itself.

The ceremony is particularly hard on the third years. A list of their crimes is read out, after which each student must stand up and shout "Hai", (meaning "Yes, I did it"). Then, at the end of the ceremony, the third year students are summarily banished from the school forever, as the rest of the school and staff applaud them mockingly. Having experienced the Punishment Ceremony two times previously, many of them simply cannot take the gruelling ordeal for a third time, and throughout the proceedings individuals will spontaneously burst into tears for no reason. It's a harrowing sight.

After being forced to decorate the school in red and white (symbolising blood and sweat) the students are made to endure temperatures as low as 5 degrees for up to two hours, wearing nothing but a thin, nylon school uniform and sandals. Local dignitaries and teachers sit either side of the student body, chiefly to block their escape route. After the the List of Crimes is read out the students are numbed into submission by half a dozen or so brain-destroyingly dull speeches, designed to sap the listeners' will to live. Once the verbal bombardment is over with, the students' minds are once again malleable enough to endure another year of conditioning. I mean "education". For the unlucky third years though there is nothing left but the long walk of shame into Cursed Earth which lies beyond the school gates...

As for me, I was faced with a stark choice. As part of my role as prison guard I must also endure the intense cold, but how best to overcome it? The solution lies in something called "hokairo".

A long time ago Japanese heating inventors took an unorthodox path in the "making things warm" industry. Rather than choosing to make whole rooms warm (by using say, I don't know, "central heating" or something) they decided instead to leave the rooms cold and just make everything else warm. Hence the reason why we have heated tables ("kotatsu"), heated toilet seats and heated carpets, but no radiators. The most extreme development of this "let's heat everything except the room itself" policy is the hokairo, which consists of a pad filled with a gel-like substance which heats up the moment you remove it from the packet. The hokairo can then be stuck to any part of the body which needs a bit of heating.

These things saved my life during the Punishment Ceremony. I'd learned from my near-fatal freezing experience at last year's ceremony, and decided to stick six of the pads on my hands, feet and lower back, ensuring I was toasty-warm all throughout the castigation.

Well, my hands, feet and lower back were warm anyway, the rest of me was freezing. Hooray for hokairo!

May I present my "Tribute to Hokairo" - the unique body-part-specific heating system. Here you can see me modelling a pair of hokairo worn in the popular "lower back" position. Notice also the thermal vest - I'm no fool, I'm not just relying on magic gel-filled pads to keep me warm.

Then there's this delightful "pocket hokairo" which can be clutched tightly for warmth in those hard-to-reach extremities...

...and lastly we have the "kutsushita hokairo" for the feet. So my feet and hands were wonderfully warm as my ears froze and dropped off.

This was the "Punishment Lunch", given free to all teachers. As you can see, the meal consists almost entirely of meat and fish, which is my punishment for being a picky vegetarian. The cherry tomato was delicious though.