Saturday, February 26, 2011

Spring Skiing in Saga-ken

Yesterday, I went with a small school trip to a ski center in nearby Saga-ken, the next prefecture over from Fukuoka. There wasn't much snow, but frankly, I was surprised to find any snow in late February at ~33°N (roughly on a level with Atlanta, if you're keeping track back home).

The geography of Japan is interesting that way: the rugged, mountainous interiors of the main islands make for some strange weather patterns. For each of the main islands, the northern and western coasts are much colder in the winter than the southern and eastern coasts at the same latitude, because the mountains shield the southern and eastern coasts from the frigid winds blowing down from Siberia. In addition, the mountains are much colder than the cities, most of which lie at or near sea level on one of Japan's coasts.

We could actually see this phenomenon in action on our bike ride home: while the temperatures in Fukuoka hovered just around freezing for most of the winter, with little or no accumulation, we could see snow on the mountains to the south pretty much constantly since December.

This week, however, the weather definitely turned, and we were lucky to get to the mountain when we did. (I wouldn't be surprised if they were closed today--the slope was beginning to wear thin by yesterday afternoon.)

So what was it like, spring skiing in Saga-ken? First, the ski area was tiny. They were running only one lift, a two-seater, that serviced a gentle green a few hundred yards long.

Despite the small size of the place, however, there were many highlights to the day. First and foremost, the students had a blast, to the point that they're asking me to start a club for next year. The fact that the slope was so beginner-friendly was probably a major factor.

Second, the day was just breathtakingly beautiful. The first truly warm day since fall, and the sky clear and bright for the duration.

Third, the place had a goofy snow-making system of the likes I had never seen in the almost-quarter-century I've been skiing. Sure, they had the traditional hoses and water jets lining the slope, for use only when the weather was cold enough. But in addition, they had these huge ice-making machines at intervals along the run, which seemed to be making gobs of ice, chopping them up, and scooting them to the ski surface through noisy vacuum tubes.

It can't have been cheap to run them . . . and if the video below is any indication, they can't have been doing much to keep the place open.
video
So that's skiing in Saga-ken. Consider it a teaser for our upcoming spring break trip to Hokkaido!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Pounding Mochi at Japan Day

Mochi are Japanese rice cakes, similar to the Korean tteok. Daifuku is the most popular variety: an oblong disk of rice dough with some sweet filling, usually red bean paste. They can be a bit on the chewy side, but overall they're really tasty--great little snacks, and also great little deserts.

This past week, our school hosted a Japan Day, and one of the events was a big outdoor mochi party. We got to see mochi making firsthand, then to eat a bunch of fresh mochi topped with red bean paste and a delicious brown powder made of dried, crushed soybeans and sugar.

It turns out that the majority of the mochi making process involves whacking a pile of warm, sticky rice dough with a mallet. Fun for the whole family!
video

Obviously, my technique is lacking. After studying some game film, it turns out the pros use their hips and their bottom arm to lift the mallet straight up, then let gravity do most of the work. This is undoubtedly better than my "Heck, I don't really need that arm this week, do I?" approach, which left me sore after only a few minutes of work. Don't worry, coach, I'll do better next time!

(Full disclosure: Nana and I actually learned a bit about making tteok in Korea, and the process is pretty similar to making mochi. I guess there aren't a lot of different ways to hit rice goop with a hammer.)

The rest of Japan Day was a lot of fun, too--I made a little origami blow-up ball, and got to watch some really cool Japanese performances. The highlight was probably the taiko show: the only thing better than a drum so big and deep it can make your chest shake is ten drums so big they can make your chest shake.