A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Friday, January 27, 2006

Fishing For Gaijin - A Sushi Story

The rare gaijin fish can often be found feeding in the warm waters of the Sushi-Ya, Katsuyama, Fukui, Japan.

Dear funkydrummer readers, it’s time to step out of the cold snow and into the welcoming warmth of my local sushi restaurant for a while. As my time in Japan quickly slips away, I realise there are still many aspects of life here that I am yet to document.

One such tale that must be told takes place at my favourite sushi restaurant in the neighbouring town of Katsuyama. It is here, that many of the expat (gaijin) community often gather to gorge on various types of raw fish and green tea that float by on the belt.

Many sushi restaurants use the “kaiten” system to serve their customers. A simple, yet brilliant concept, patrons sit around a circular conveyor belt that brings dishes past for you perusal. When you see something you like, you simply pluck it from the belt and devour it at your table.

Each plate has an electronic chip imbedded within, so that upon eating your fill, the waitress simply scans your stack to calculate the bill. It’s an excellent and efficient system, especially for foreigners who might have problems reading the menu, because there’s no need to order anything.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that many of the dishes that make laps of the restaurant have a western twist thrown in. Alongside the traditional slices of maguro (tuna) and unagi (eel), more modern tastes exist. One such of these is the beef “sushi”. A slice of lightly browned beef, sprinkled with salt, sitting atop a cuboid of rice, it is a divine taste to behold.

Now, the smiley faced manager of the restaurant knows that when it comes to his beef sushi, us gaijin are powerless to refuse its melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. He knows, that no matter how many beef sushi he makes, the gaijin will eat them all.

Like an seasoned salmon fisherman might tie a fly, he carefully prepares the bait with his expert blade. Once the gaijin have settled into their seats, he casts his irresistible lure onto the conveyor belt, so that it lands just a little upstream from our lair. He waits patiently and watches as the succulent beef trots downstream towards the shoal of gaijin, like a juicy worm to a fat trout. He knows he will catch a whopper tonight.

Upon spying his beef, the gaijin go into a feeding frenzy. Hands shoot out into the slow flowing current of food and grab the bait, greedily devouring it with haste. Natto, and ikura are ignored, but four, five, six, plates of beef sushi are gone in an instant. The master fisherman quietly smiles to himself. He’s hooked a big one, profits will be up tonight.

Occasionally however, the piranha-like gaijin can cause problems for this fisherman. You see, when another patron of the restaurant orders the beef sushi, he cannot allow it to flow past us - it would never make it through. Instead, he must go to the trouble of placing it downstream of the shoal, out of striking distance from the ravenous gaijin species.

However, this is but a small inconvenience for the master fishermen. As the gaijin fork out their wads of yen at the till, he waves a friendly good night, safe in the knowledge that the shoal will be back in his waters soon.

It may not look like much - but this beef "sushi" is da shizz nizzle.

Unagi (eel) and Tamago (egg) head down the line.

Top dollar for this dish - maguro or tuna served on a wooden slat.

Fish eggs, rice and a slice of lemon float by on the belt.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Snow Dump

Keep on truckin'; A lone lorry heads for the hills with its snowy load. Ono, Fukui, Japan.

Once again the snow is coming on strong here in Ono. I recently discovered where the town disposes of its white waste. Snow removal teams work the city, milling the snow with combine harvester like machines, known to Americans as “snow blowers”.

These contraptions, which range in size from metal giants of the road, to pedestrian pushed snow mowers, cut up the compacted snow, which then spurts from the top of the machine into trucks, which then ferry it away to the snow dump, situated by the Kuzuryu river. It is here that load upon load is piled high to sit until spring, where the sun will eventually melt this artificial mountain.

Our parking area was recently cleared of snow. It took two days using mechanical diggers to free us from our white prison which had closed in around us, and it seems it was just in time – the forecast for the next few days is heavy snow.

A truck unloads its cold cargo onto the snow dump. In the distance, you can make out one of the runs of Ski Jam resort (top right).

An artificial mountain made purely of snow. This is where it all ends up.

Diggers, trucks and tractors bully the waste snow into place in the shadow of Ono's mountains.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Best Powder Day, Ever

Late lines on deserted slopes; Branvan cuts it clean at Rokuroshi ski area, Fukui, Japan.

Following a month of almost continuous snow storms that buried west Japan, the weather has given way to some welcome sunshine, and not so welcome rain.

I’ve been making the most of the powderous conditions, hitting local ski resorts whilst the going was good. Thus, I come to tell you of my best powder day, ever.

The scene is set in Shiramine, a small yet fun ski area lying just over the boarder into neighbouring prefecture, Ishikawa. Using my lingering jetlag to my advantage, I was up early and on the road by 8am. As I powered along the white roads in four wheel drive, the tall snow banks dwarfed my car.

It was a solo mission. My normal posse had been unable to make it, but not wanting to waste such great conditions, I decided to go it alone. I arrived within a hour, and pulled into the car park, surprised to see just 30 other vehicles. It seemed the snow storm had persuaded most people to stay at home.

I bought a day ticket and walked straight on to the lift. The place was ridiculously empty despite it being a Saturday, and I did not wait in line once the whole day. Japan is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, but I rarely see evidence of it.

Goggled, gloved and hooded, barley a square inch of skin was exposed as I surveyed the terrain from the lift. The snow was so deep that my board dragged on the surface at times on the way up.

All I could hear was the soothing sound of snowflakes falling on my hood, like rain on a tent. I watched two figures emerge from the whiteness, sweeping past in the thigh deep crystals, snow streaming from their bodies like a jet’s vapour trail, before they disappeared back into the mist. It was going to be a good day.

At the top of the lift, the snow was coming down so fast that it took me a while to get my bearings. Despite visiting Shiramine several times last season, the stormy conditions were disorientating. I eventually realised my position, and headed for a run I’d remembered being pretty sweet last year.

And how sweet it was. The snow was so light and powdery, every turn was a rooster tail. I headed for the side of the run, but forgot to lean back on my board. The nose dug in and catapulted me into bottomless yuki. I lay there laughing for a while, trying to dig myself out and get back to the shallower snow of the piste. My efforts were futile. The snow was too deep. I had to detach from my plank and swim through the pow to make it back to safety.

As the day went on my confidence grew, and with it my speed. I began taking on drops, dipping into the trunks, slashing snow banks and plumping powder pillows, leaving a tracer of fine flakes spurting from my exhaust.

Sometimes I’d fall, leading to temporary imprisonment in the deep drifts. Other times I’d launch from a pillow and explode into the powder below, my board a bomb, then ride away with a racing heart and a big smile on my face.

Several short breaks in the wooded slope side restaurants saw me through the day. Recharging on hot chocolate, yaki-soba (fried noodles) and curry mahn, I was able to enjoy the awesome conditions all day long.

And so it continued – endless lines in bottomless snow - until the incident. Riding fast under the lifts, buzzing from the shouts of “sugoi!” as I dodged dangling skis, I hit a submerged tree trunk, which took me straight out, and left me lying on my back, gasping in pain. After a few minutes, I assessed the damage – fortunately no breaks, just some bruises, and the decision to call it a day.

And there it is. As I was alone, no pictures were taken, and those who know the joys of powder will understand the difficulties in translating the experience to text. Balls deep, face shots, champagne snow - there’s only so many words you can use to describe such a day and most of them have been heavily over used already.

I’ll finish by saying that I feel lucky to have had such a great day, and lucky to have escaped major injury. After all, due to that tree trunk, this could have been the “worst powder day, ever” but that’s a story I hope I’ll never write.

I'm on a road to snow where; (sorry) high walls of snow line the route to Shiramine.

A lone tree at the top of Ski Jam. Branvan gets ready to roll.

Throwing up a spray at Kastuyama Ski Jam. Branvan destroys the pow with his weapon of mass destruction. USA! USA!

To infinity and beyond? Ski Jam Katsuyama claim this to be the longest rail in Japan. At 55m, it's certainly a beast, but I'll give it a crack at some point this season.

Incoming; Branvan shreds the fluff round the backside of Rokuroshi ski area.

Branvan and Sam san hike out after line of powder at Rokuroshi ski area.

Setting sun; the last run of the day at Rokuroshi.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Back from Blighty; snow change in Japan

A trip to the Antarctic? No - just a walk on the white side; snow shoeing over the rice paddies behind my appartment, Ono, Fukui, Japan.

Funkydrummer fans will be overjoyed to hear that I did make it back to the motherland after a tentative start, but I am now back in Japan. I had a great time in England, visiting friends, and spending Christmas with my family, enjoying some delicious home cookin’ and fine English ales.

Back in J-land – the battle with the ever growing snow drifts continues. Since my return a week ago, not a day has passed when it hasn’t snowed. Our little prefecture of Fukui, famous for nothing, and largely unknown to the majority of Japanese has not only made national, but international headlines after receiving record breaking volumes of snow.

Yasu, my Japanese friend and man of the mountains tells me that not since 1981 has Fukui received this much snow, and before that, it was 1963. So, we are now experiencing a winter of truly epic proportions, the like of which has not been seen in these parts for 25 years! Though I know many of my co-workers would disagree with me, I feel very lucky to be experiencing this rare phenomenon.

A sun loving friend of mine once said that a snowy, mountainous landscape was his idea of hell. To each their own, for this is my idea of paradise.

Yet this overwhelming snow does not come without it perils. Part of the reason Fukui has made world news is because of the number of deaths the snow has caused. A train was derailed after hitting a snow drift, car accidents have quadrupled, people have been killed falling from their roofs whilst shovelling snow, and entire buildings have been crushed by the weight of snow.

In fact, on my way to work today, I saw a building that had been completely flattened by snow, something that’s hard to believe without seeing it. Sam, Lewis and I were also involved in a minor road accident. Whilst driving out to a ski resort, the car went into a spin, Sam lost control and we slammed into a wall of solid ice, crumpling the wing of the car, but leaving us thankfully unscathed. Though the car was making some unhealthy noises after that, we decided it best to carry on to the resort and enjoyed an afternoon’s snowboarding in deep off-piste snow for our troubles.

There is now a real possibility that I could get trapped in my apartment building by snow. Outside my entrance some 2 meters of white stuff is piled up, and it gradually creeps in like a glacier, meaning I have to frequently cut steps into it, to prevent entrapment.

Our car park has closed in around us, and there is barley enough space to fit us all in. Several people have given up and left their cars under the snow, waiting for the temperatures to rise before they attempt a rescue.

And rise they probably will – the forecast for the next few days is rain.

Is this the end of Ono’s never ending snow storm?

Coming soon on the funkydrummer – the best powder day in the world, and Japan’s longest rail.

My road, lined by high walls of snow. Note the neighbour shovelling snow from his roof, a dangerous activity that has lead to several deaths in the last few weeks.

Breaking Point; this was someone's house yesterday. Today it's a pile of splintered wood. There's only so much snow a house can take.

I want to ride my bicycle; whatever the weather, the bikes keep rolling. I stand in the background on a snowbank, making me an equal height to the road signs.

I stand tall on the snow bank that lines the road to my apparto.

The entrance to my appartment block is under threat from the ever advancing glacier.

Pavements aren't for people; a local sticks to the road whilst his dog walks on the snow.

Neighbour Lucas attemps the rescue of his buried car. Yes, that's the roof his hand's on.

Snow shoes to the rescue; taking a stroll on the snow covered rice paddies behind my appartment.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Write Lines for White Lines

Snowboarding fans may want to check out the latest issue (Jan 2006) of the UK's leading snowboard magazine - Whitelines. You will find two articles written by yours truly - "Japan's Micro Resorts", detailing how Sushi Land's love for miniturisation includes many of its ski areas, and "Turns and Conditions" a guide to making the most of your snowboarding trip when the bluebird powder day has gone a.w.o.l.

Check it.

More snow stories coming to the blog soon.