Yakitori Shops: The Most Dangerous Places in Japan

A doorway filled with the charcoal-infused smoke of roasting animal bits. A six-person strong chorus welcoming you, each cook, server, and dishwasher shouting as loud as their lungs will allow. Cheap beer that only comes in 1.3 pint bottles, all the offal you were always curious about but never had the gumption to try, a crowd of people of varying ages and backgrounds all looking for the same thing; this is the yakitori shop, and it’s the most dangerous place in Japan.

A line of chefs works in unison, with one end seasoning the skewered vittles and the other cooking them over charcoal-fed pyres to crispy perfection.

A line of chefs works in unison, with one end seasoning the skewered vittles and the other cooking them over charcoal-fed pyres to crispy perfection.

The word “yakitori” tells you just about everything you need to know about these extremely common establishments that pock the Japanese landscape from Kyushu to Hokkaido. “Yaki” means grilled, and “tori” means bird or chicken. You no doubt get the picture; yakitori shops are where you can get some really killer bits of chicken, everything from the intestines to the skin, skewered and grilled over charcoal.  Continue reading →

You Mean, the Snow is Just Going to Stay There?

I have a long history with snow. Growing up in Western New York, it was something of a tradition to expect to mourn summer and fall in one go, as winter would often grab hold at the beginning of October. More often than not, the icicle shaped tendrils of the coldest season wouldn’t let go until March.

When I went to college, I moved into an area where the snowfall was even worse. The State University of New York at Fredonia was only a few short miles away from Lake Erie. When lake effect season rolled around, you could bet on weather cancellations or outright campus closures reliably each year. All this to belabor the point that I know winter well; I know snow, and I know how to deal with it. Hell, most of the time I love it.

Sabae's snow fall makes it feel like home.

Sabae’s snowfall makes it feel like home.

When I got word that I was assigned to Sabae in Japan’s Fukui prefecture for my 18-month tenure as an English teacher, my employer tried to stress that this wasn’t like most of the country. Winter in the Hokuriku region, an area west of Tokyo that encompasses Fukui, Ishikawa, Niigata, and Toyama prefectures, isn’t the sort that simply brings cold temperatures and a token snowfall. What I’ve learned very recently, in fact, is that this region receives the highest volume of snowfall of any inhabited and arable part of the world. That is, it’s a lot like home. Continue reading →

A New Year of a Different Sort

Music so loud your innards feel like they might explode. The stink of alcohol and cigarette smoke. The push to find someone to kiss or go home with by midnight. It’s New Year’s Eve in America.

A half day earlier and 10,000 miles away, an old man, lips curling dryly over toothless gums, piles kindling of pine and cedar on top of struggling embers. He bends low to the fire, using it to light a hand-rolled cigarette between his lips. It’s 20 minutes to midnight, and it’s his job to make sure the fledgling fire erupts into a true bonfire by the time the bells begin to bellow from the shrine in the New Year. The deluge, switching back and forth between rain and heavy snow, isn’t making the task any easier.

Shinmei Fire

“Another 15 minutes,” the shrine’s crier, stirring a vat of sweetened rice porridge beneath a dripping tent, shouts.

The news that 2015 is still so far off is greeted differently around the fire. The wet wood now spews thick, gray smoke that causes attendees to cough. The fire-starter, apparently given up on the notion of a tower of excited flames, mumbles something about 2014 having been a good year for his son. A small girl, no more than three feet tall, coughs her way through a rendition of “Ari no Mama De,” the Japanese version of “Let It Go” from the globally ubiquitous “Frozen.”

She’s been dancing as she sings beneath an umbrella adorned with Elsa and Anna, the sisters from Disney’s musical and commercial phenomenon. She decides to change one of the song’s most important parts: its ending. Usually sung as “the cold never bothered me, anyway,” she’s clearly had enough of the ceaseless shards of snow hitting her exposed cheek like subzero bee-stings. “The cold is bothering me, anyway,” she chants. Her creative license is met with giggles from the ring of spectators around the billowing logs.

Smoke fills the shrine grounds as visitors arrive for hatsumoude, the first prayer of the New Year.

Smoke fills the shrine grounds as visitors arrive for hatsumoude, the first prayer of the New Year.

Over the next 10 minutes, the sound of boots pushing into wet gravel intensifies, as the parking lot fills with cars. Greetings of “congratulations,” meant in a way that sounds suspiciously like “so glad you didn’t die this year” seem to bounce like pinballs from mouth to mouth, reveler to reveler.

Weirdly, I think, no one walks with a strange slouch in their gait. The rush to get the next drink, the next infusion of mind-numbing buzz, is replaced by that to wash hands, get in line, and offer a prayer for health, happiness, and success. The  warmth of huddling families takes the place of the grasping hands looking for the nearest mouth to kiss.

The single strike of an unseen drum cuts through any conversation. The hiss of wet wood and the irregular popping of hot stones beneath the dying fire serve as background music for the silent scene. The crier, having left the rice porridge to someone else, begins to count down from 10. Each new number brings a hollow beat from that same unseen drum at a more rapid pace.

The crier runs out of numbers, and the drum goes silent. The metallic ring of wooden mallet on bronze bell rumbles lowly from the small building across from the shrine itself, only slightly illuminated by the orange glow of a single hanging lantern. It’s 2015 in Japan.

A prayer, a small donation, and a blessing later, and most are on their way back home to get out of the cold. There, they’ll talk of their hopes for the new year, while osechi ryouri, a selection of dishes reserved for the holiday, is enjoyed a la carte. Hot tea, warm conversations, and clear minds help to set the intention, the tone of the annual reset. No blackout or awkward morning farewell required.