Organic Yuzu

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Yuzu is my favorite fruit. The flavor and scent of this citrus fascinates many people. It can be used for many kinds of cooking. For example its ground or chopped peel can be added to soup, grilled fish. Or its juice makes a great dressing for salad when combined with other seasonings. We also put whole yuzu in the bath to enjoy its smell while hoping the essence of yuzu will make our body beautiful and keep our body warm. It is said that if you eat snacks made by pumpkin and azuki beans and take a bath with yuzu on the winter solstice day, you won’t catch a cold.

I visited Fujikawa town in Yamanashi the other day and discovered organic yuzu. They are free from chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or disinfectants last 30 years.

Yuzu sometimes taste bitter but these are not bitter at all. Growing them organically must be difficult and the price of this kind is much more expensive, though. I also learned that yuzu is good food for the people who are suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure and gout.

   

 

I heard that the town harvests a lot of good yuzu every year. The town has an old temple (probably more than 700 years old) and the priests at the temple planted yuzu to use it for shoujin cooking. The history of yuzu in this area is very old. Like many other country towns, this town doesn’t have young people to take care of agricultural production, so they ask people outside of town to help with harvesting or taking care of trees etc as volunteers. Or they invite people to gain ownership of yuzu trees. Once I wanted to plant yuzu in my garden but got discouraged having heard that it takes 18 years to harvest the first yuzu. It takes many years to get it started and once we quit doing it, it can get out of hand or wither very quickly. We have to do all we can do to keep the land free from any kind of contamination and maintaining the right style of agriculture. I’m always amazed to learn the contributions of temples in olden time. The person who introduced tea first was a priest and in this area it was a priest who started to grow this wonderful fruit. Of course the lords of areas encouraged him to keep going, too. Temples have been and should continue to be centers of culture.

Agriculture is a long lasting investment. We also enjoyed viewing beautiful colored maple leaves. This year’s autumn leaves are very beautiful. I heard this years’ are the best in the last ten years.

 

Tea ceremony in November

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

November is a special season for tea ceremony. They start to use a kind of fireplace used charcoal called “ Ro “. From November to April, they use “ Ro “ to supply hot water to make tea. Demonstrating how to handle charcoal is a kind of important skill of tea ceremony. For the host of the tea gathering, sharing the same fire with their guests as they surround the hearth is very meaningful thing to do. Probably that’s because fire is a significant thing for human beings. It’s a very nice thing to hear the sound of water boiling in the iron pot in the quiet tea room. People say it’s like listening to the murmuring of pine trees along the windy beach.

It’s kind of sad but reminds me of the beginning of my favorite season. As for the tea itself, they open a new tea caddy since this is the best time to taste it.

 

We also have seasonal confectionery called “ inokomochi “. “ Inoko “ means baby wild boars. Since wild boars are fertile, people wish for the prosperity of families. Inokomochi doesn’t look colorful but it tastes much better than it looks. Sweet sesame paste is covered with rice cake and soybean flour. This persimmon one is another seasonal pleasure. 

Here is a real persimmon and it is said that it contains a lot of vitamin C to make your skin beautiful and prevent you from catching cold and hangover. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 November is my birthday month and it should be a beautiful time but many things are happening these days. As I watch BBC World News, it covers major events happening in the Middle East whereas NHK News covers only domestic political issues. In reality, the Japanese economy is affected by the world and now we have a lot of relationships internationally through so called globalism. We can’t go without knowing what’s happening in the world. People might think that Japanese are indifferent to the issues or simply stupid. I hope the quality of mass media in Japan goes up. I also wish the people who are fighting would stop one time to have tea and talk.  

Green Tea and Japanese confectionery YOKAN

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

   

After long hot summer days, it finally got much cooler – sometimes quite cold, even. Now I think it’s time to enjoy hot green tea with Yokan.

 

This is my favorite Yokan made by Shintsuru in Suwa ( Nagano ).This shop was founded more than 130 years ago and since then they have been making Yokan by hand without compromising on anything. They still burn Japanese oak wood to cook the azuki beans. I heard Japanese oak keeps a perfect temperature for cooking beans. They make many kinds of confectionery but this shio-yokan is the most famous. Yokan basically contains beans, sugar and agar. And salt is added for this shio-yokan. These days we have a lot of variation with sesame, green tea or chestnuts etc.

 

The idea of yokan is originally from China. If I break down the two Chinese character “ yo” and “ kan”. “ Yo” means sheep and “ kan” means soup. In China, people had sheep soup and Japanese priests brought back the idea

However priests were vegetarians so they changed the ingredients and made something completely different. Instead of meat, they used cooked beans.

 

I also think the combination of green tea and yokan is the best. They help each other to enhance their taste. Some people add some sugar to green tea but I can’t imagine the taste. I heard taking liquid with sugar is very bad for teeth. But after eating something sweet and taking green tea is a very good combination.

 

Or the people who want to lose weight can simply drink green tea. I don’t know if the substance of the green tea helps you lose weight but drinking tea when you are hungry makes your stomach full and it makes you lose weight.

All in all, thinking about green tea and confectionery is very interesting.

Kitakata, local delicacy

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Kitakata is also famous for its ramen noodles. Kitakata’s population is 55,000 and the city has more than 100 ramen shops !

Many people from other parts of Japan visit Kitakata to enjoy ramen noodles. From morning to evening, I saw people line up in front of the popular shops.

I heard some people speak in western dialect. I thought many of them who are lining up are tourists. “ Asa rah “ is getting popular. It means eating ramen for breakfast. “ Asa” means morning and “ rah” is short for ramen.I guess some people from different cultures might have some psychological barrier to trying this. In fact, a friend of mine told me that having something salty for breakfast is strange, let alone noodles. But he can eat noodles for lunch or dinner. The landlord of the inn insisted that I should try “asa rah” since many ramen shops are only a few minutes away from the inn. I heard that some people stay at the inn to get good access to ramen shops. On top, in the morning, it’s less crowded. So I went to the one near the inn around 7:15 AM to find a relatively long line ! I was also surprised to find out that many of them are local people. The line moved quickly and I didn’t have to wait for long. I was satisfied with this ramen. The noodles are rather thick and the broth tastes good.

 

 I also tried local delicacies for dinner:tofu topped with soy bean paste, salad with grilled chicken etc. They all go well with local sake. We could enjoy drinking and eating in an old fashioned room. The service is good and price is also reasonable. One of the good points of Kitakata city is that one can walk around and see many places. The size is right for walking but the day I visited was too hot.October or November might be a good season to walk around. 

  

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

Shoju-an, Zen temple in Iiyama, Nagano

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

I have always wanted to visit Shoju-an in Iiyama since reading the book on Hakuin( Wild Ivy), the famous Edo era Zen priest. Hakuin was born in Hara (Shizuoka) about more than 300 years ago. He trained in many temples in Japan. One day he visited Shoju-an to see the head priest Etan. That time Hakuin was kind of conceited and the old sharp priest at Shoju-an saw through Hakuin’s mind. The old priest was very hard on him but Hakuin somehow came to respect him. However the old priest didn’t accept Hakuin as his pupil. Eventually Hakuin was allowed to stay at the temple and he learned a lot from the old priest.  

   This uphill path to the temple is called “ Hakuin keotoshi no saka “.

“ Keotoshi” means to kick one down and “saka “ means slope. It is said that Etan, a son of the lord of Matsushiro (Nagano) kicked Hakuin down the slope. Etan ( the old priest at Shojyu-an)  went through a lot of harsh training, he became a distinguished priest and was offered many good positions and donations but he kept turning down many kind offers. He was happy to be at Shoju-an, which is small and located in country.

 

 

 The night before I visited Shoju-an, I had dinner at an Izakaya style restaurant. I had a chance to talk with the owner of the restaurant. He told me a lot about Iiyama City and Shoju-an.

   He was an alpine skier himself and he has been a coach for Olympic competitions. One of the famous skiers who he has coached is Aiko Uemura.  According to him, Iiyama has been famous for manufacturing skis. The ski firms Ogasaka and Imura are from Iiyama. They were originally manufacturing furniture. The owner also knows a lot about Zen.

  His story about the present priest of Shoju-an was very interesting to me. This area was affected by a big earthquake a few years ago. One day a person offered some amount of money to repair the building of Shoju-an but the present priest turned down this kind offer. Everybody asked him why he didn’t accept the donation. He said that the money would help him and the temple only temporarily and he shouldn’t grow to always expect that kind of money. He is far from greedy. For example, he grows vegetables at the temple and he often gives them away to the supporters of the temple. He probably takes after Etan’s spirit. Shoju-an is not big but it is a very pleasant temple.

   I really enjoyed listening to the owner’s story. The food they serve is very delicious. I also like the wide line up of their sake. The quality of the food and drink are good but the price is very reasonable. I strongly recommend the people who visit Iiyama should go to this restaurant called “ Rokubei “.

 

 

 Another interesting thing I found in Iiyama is this golden lavatory.

I asked why they applied gold on a lavatory. Iiyama is also famous for making family Buddhist altars and the interiors of these expensive altars’ inside are covered with gold. I was just amazed to see it and I felt kind of guilty about using the toilet. I just viewed and took some photos of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going back to Minami Soma

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Minami Soma in Fukushima is my hometown. Before 3.11 in 2011, it was not as well-known as now. Now whenever I say I’m from Minami Soma, people look rather puzzled or even astonished. I sometimes feel kind of uncomfortable and tell myself “ I shouldn’t have said that.”

 

Minami Soma and Soma city have a very old festival called “ Soma Nomaoi “.

It’s at least 1,000 years old. Last year, it was a big issue for the whether to hold the festival or not. But this year the festival recovered up to 80 % with 400 horses. Many people and horses left Minami Soma last year but they came back. I’m really happy for that.

 

I came back to Minami Soma to attend a memorial service for my relatives; it was just a co-incidence. I wanted to get a ticket to see the festival but all tickets were sold out in June. This festival is usually around 23rd of July but they decided to have it on 28th, 29th and 30th  of July this year. This weekend schedule enabled more people to visit Minami Soma more easily. Some families living separated could be reunited and people who came to know this festival visited Minami Soma for the first time. In fact, as I was walking on the street some people from different areas of Japan asked me for directions.

 

Tradition is important but being flexible is also important. I wish this festival were held sometime in autumn so that more people could enjoy the festival in better weather ( it’s too hot at the end of July ). Also tourists can visit nearby hot spring while admiring autumn leaves.

 

My parents and relatives who have been living in Minami Soma are all fine.

According to my parents, moving into different and unfamiliar places is more harmful for older people since they feel tremendous stress.

   

After the memorial service, we had meal at a restaurant in a hotel. I was very surprised with the quality of food and skills of its chef. I didn’t expect this good meal in the affected Minami Soma area. All dishes were great but I liked fresh sea urchin ( from Sanriku ) and other dishes cooked in good stock.

 

 

The one big problem was transportation. We had to drive to Fukushima City to take the Shinkansen. From Minami Soma to Fukushima, it usually takes one hour and half but it took about twice as long. Joban Highway and some part of railway aren’t functioning so people have to go to Fukushima City. We also had to give priority to homecoming horses. When horses are on the road, cars have to wait. More people visited Minami Soma for the weekend and the city doesn’t have enough accommodation and many people stayed in hotels in Fukushima while taking the bus to visit Minami Soma.

 

We still have many difficult problems to overcome but I’m sure we can do it.

 

 

 

 

Weeding in paddy field in Kobuchizawa in July

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

We visited paddy field to experience weeding. This field is organized by people who would like to grow rice or vegetables in as friendly a way as posisble to the earth. That means weeding is one of the most important tasks to do in summer. Mr. Tobe who is famous as a rice maestro helps them grow organic rice. According to him the yield or quality of the rice depends on how much you tend to the paddy during this time of the year. In August we shouldn’t go into the paddy field since it may interfere and reduce the yield.

 

The weather on the day in Kobuchizawa was cloudy and cool. It was much easier for us to weed. They showed us how to weed. With two bare hands, we grasp the weed with mud and twist them to remove the weed’s roots, after which we bury the whole weed in the mud immediately after. I was worried about damaging the roots of rice plants while twisting the weeds around, but they said paddy is very strong and it recovers. I don’t know other methods of weeding but I think this is a very clever way to do. Because: 1. We can work more speedily and effectively. 2. The weed dies in the mud but at the same time they can help grow rice as fertilizer. This field is free from harmful chemicals so people can touch the mud directly.

 

It was a cool day but as I kept working, I was sweating a lot. It was a great exercise for me. Unless you have problems in your back or knees, it’s worth trying.

 

After work, we went to a hot spring called “ the hot spring of the Fossa Magna”. The hot spring is located at the place where The North American plate and The Eurasia plate meet. This hot spring is rich in alkali. After soaking our body in this good warm hot spring, we enjoyed drinking cold beer.

When I take a trip I often eat too much without doing enough exercise.

But the experience of practical work will bring you more enjoyment from hot spring, food and drink. Above all, meeting and making friends with the new people is the most enjoyable and precious thing. This could be a new style of tourism.  I hope my British friend who experienced this agrees with me.

Eels

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

This year 27th of July is called Doyo Ushinohi. Many people eat grilled eels at this time. Eels are said to contain a lot of vitamin A and B which can be a source of energy to overcome the harsh summer climate. So many people feel like eating this at this time of the year.?Also many restaurants advertise eels to encourage people to visit their places, and supermarkets offer pre-cooked ones. However I heard eels are said to be less nutritious in summer. A better time to eat is when it is cooler.

I haven’t had eel for more than three years. I have some reasons for this.

1.    Eels are too expensive.

2.    I couldn’t find any good eel restaurants I feel are worth visiting.

3.    Eels are said to be in danger.

But I went to an eel restaurant deep in the mountain. It’s a small restaurant.

They open the shop at 11:00 AM and when the eels of the day are finished, they close the shop. I arrived at the restaurant about 10:45 to find three people came waiting ahead of us I don’t like to stand in line for food since it looks like being greedy, but in fact I was very greedy that time. I skipped breakfast and got active before going to the restaurant. My mouth watered when I smelled eels being grilled on charcoal.

The eel served for us was very savory and tender. The sauce was just right for me.

The skin of the eel was lightly charred and crisp. We were all satisfied.

I don’t know what it takes to be a chef to cook eels. It must be hard to learn the skills.

Now some people are planning to put eels on the list of restricted imports. I think we have to take measures to preserve eels but I disagree with the idea of controlling eels by the Washington Pact.

Once it is ratified, things get less flexible. Poaching or smuggling will be prevalent. Some people try to make a lot of money doing it.

Eating eels and the skills to cook them are part of Japanese culture. We have to reduce the pace at which we eat them for a few years and we can make Kabayaki using different fish. The TV program said that catfish can be a substitute.

I know many people from abroad enjoy eating eel Kabayaki. I do hope eel restaurants and eel cooking skills are kept in Japan.

Kaiseki for June

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

We have rainy season in June and July. It is usually humid and steamy. I sometimes feel depressed in this season, although the seasonal appearance of my favorite flower, the hydrangea, makes me happy. And this year it’s cooler than usual year so far in my area. I heard northern part of Japan is much hotter than usual though. I went a Kaiseki lesson at the end of June to learn how to make “ Minazuki no Tenshin”. “Minazuki” means June in the solar calendar but in the lunar calendar it is July. It’s so confusing to me. The Chinese character “ minazuki “ means “ a month without water “ Some people say that’s because in lunar calendar it is July and in that month rainy season is over and they have already applied plenty of water in paddy field. 

“ Tenshin “ is a small refreshment served before taking thick green tea. Thick green tea contains a lot of things to benefit your health but taking green tea on an empty stomach can be too strong. On the other hand, if you have a big meal before having green tea, you can’t appreciate the green tea. I guess this volume is suitable one for the occasion.

 1.    The bowl (front left) contains sushi. Minced myoga, beefsteak plant, shallot bulbs and sesame seeds are mixed and dried laver seaweed are the toppings.

2.    The bowl (front right) contains eggplant salad seasoned by stock, soy souce and lemon juice and topped with dried bonito.

3.    The green pudding like one in the middle is tofu made from green soy beans and kudzu vine. Sauce made from stock, soy sauce, sweet rice wine for cooking, salt and fresh ground wasabi is applied before eating.

4.    On the rectangular plate (left) is fried chicken topped with sour plum (umeboshi) sauce. Sour plum is strained and mixed with vinegar, sugar, rice wine and stock. The green item is pickled cucumber. And conger eel rolled with Japanese omelet.

5.    It’s not included in this photo but we also made a bowl of soup.

6.    Dessert called “ minazuki “. 

 With one teacher and five students, this took about two hours to make. I think we worked very quickly, thanks to the efficient teacher and hard-working class mates.

 

 

 

 

 

Rice Planting at Lake Kawaguchi

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

I learn how to grow rice in Kawaguchiko town in Yamanashi. Mr. Hirata organizes the study meetings and he instructs us on how to grow it.

Rice has been the staple food of Japan but many people haven’t had experience growing it. In fact it was my first experience to plant paddy in my life. It was such an exciting one. Walking in the mud was more difficult than I expected and the touch of the mud was amazing. Working in the paddy field is very good exercise. It can build up the muscles of our legs, back and hip.

As I was doing the job, I concentrated on it as I did Zazen. It was hard but I couldn’t stop it. Completing the job, I finally realized how much I was exhausted.

Nowadays many farmers use machines to plow, transplant and harvest etc., but that day Mr.Tobe who grows some of the most delicious and expensive rice without depending on these machines came to show us how he plants and grows rice. Originally, he started to grow rice in order to provide his children with safe and decent food but this ended up in him producing some of the most delicious rice in Japan. I hate to mention the price but the rice costs 3,000 JPY per one kilo! You can buy it at a department store in Tokyo.

He uses the rake he made by himself to mark where to plant. He did his job very accurately, efficiently and smoothly. When we plant seedlings, we put only one or two so that each seedling has enough space to grow and eventually we can harvest bigger grains of rice. Now each seedling looks a little helpless but soon they grow thicker and bigger. Mr.Tobe emphasized that growing rice isn’t difficult. He doesn’t use any machines but he can make more than enough rice for his family. 

 My image of farmers’ lives is very hard but he said that his family and he work from 5AM to 7AM in the morning and one or two hours in the late afternoon. That’s it. It seems like that before he gets started, he plans things very carefully and think how to save energy. Once he gets started, he works very fast. Sometimes his family members compete with each other in speed. It sounds like fun.

Many people in our group are worried about the food shortage and aging farmers in Japan. According to Mr.Tobe, the energy problem is more serious than food problem. I’m going to visit his place in Niigata in August to learn more about his policy and life style.