Saturday, August 27, 2011

Domo Matsumoto (Mr. Roboto?)

Tomorrow is my last day here in Matsumoto, Japan, and I must say I am eager for a change of scenery.   By the time we leave for China on Monday, I will have been here in the same town, with the same hotel room and same basic routine, for 18 days.  That's a long time by my touring standards, and it's been exacerbated (5 syllables, whaaat?) by the unfortunate fact that I'm here alone.   I REALLY wish I had been able to bring Kristi and Eli.   It was just too much after six weeks in America followed by two weeks in Salzburg.   Our little man needed some time at home with his normal routine, and it would've been torture on all of us to try living in a hotel room for 4 weeks in Japan.   As it turned out, they've been keeping busy with all sorts of fun stuff.

Though I don't think I ever want to commit to something this lengthy ever again (without my family accompanying me), there have been some great things about the experience, which I'd love to share with you.

First, a bit about Matsumoto itself.   It's not what I would consider a beautiful town, though I can't say I would consider any of the large cities of Japan to be particularly attractive.  I'm not a fan of the modern architecture, the crowded narrow buildings, or the whole industrial/business look of it all.  That said, there are some quite nice things about the town. 

There's no denying the surroundings are breathtaking.   It reminds me a lot of Upper Austria, with the lush rolling hills on the outskirts of town and the snow-capped mountains beyond that.  In fact, the whole atmosphere of the place is surprisingly similar to Salzburg, which is where I would be right now had I not come here.   Much like the Salzburger Festspiele, the Saito Kinen Festival takes over the city every summer.   Everywhere you look there are SKF banners, posters, or t-shirts, and I am frequently stopped all over town by music 'fans' when wearing my festival staff shirt.  
Looks a lot like Salzburg

There are SKF banners everywhere!
VPO bass trombonist Hans Ströcker has done this festival a lot, and he told me the food here was great.   Boy, was he right! And much to the detriment of my waistline!   Of course, no matter how good the restaurants are, I can't eat out every meal.  

Enter the wonder that is the Japanese Convenience Store!   It is amazing to me how well one can eat by just taking a visit to the corner market.   In the US, about the best you can do is a Slim Jim and a Yoohoo.  Here, there are many more fresh and somewhat healthy options.   My favorite is called onigiri, a triangle of rice wrapped in seaweed and filled with one of a few various substances (tuna, salmon, etc.).

An example of onigiri
You can also get really high-quality sandwiches and other prepared pastas, noodles, and sushi.   I have been eating about one meal a day from the convenience store just down from the hotel called Lawson Station.

'My' convenience store, with the Hotel Buena Vista in the background
One day this week we had two orchestra rehearsals back-to-back, which didn't leave much time to get lunch in between.   So the good SKF folks organized a "Soba Party"!

Soba noodles are served cold and dipped in a bowl of soy-based broth.   They are traditionally made from buckwheat (which is what the word 'soba' means), and supposedly the most famous soba area is just up the road in Nagano.    SKF invited several soba makers to come provide the noodles for our party.   They all lined up their big boiling kettles under the awning of the performance hall, and cooked MASSIVE quantities of noodles, which were then poured into colanders and rapidly cooled in a big vat of ice water.    Then each maker piled up their noodles on these big circular wicker mats and everyone gathered 'round the tables with their individual bowls of broth.

Cooling off the soba noodles
I was a little unsure of the 'procedure', but after watching some of the Japanese folks do it, I caught on.   I dug my chopsticks into a big pile of soba, grabbed a big chunk, and dipped it in my broth.    I enjoyed so much delicious buckwheat pasta that I nearly couldn't play in the afternoon rehearsal!

The whole vibe reminded me a lot of the huge company picnics I attended as a kid when my Dad worked for a Japanese company.   There was loud 90's American rock music, swimming pools filled with bottled drinks, and even a shaved ice stand in the corner (I had the blue flavor).  All that was missing was a dunking booth in the corner.   And besides the soba, there was fried rice, tempura, yakitori bbq skewers, and crepes.   Yes, crepes!    It was a great time.

The best part of the SKF by far has been the music and the people.   More on that in the next post!

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