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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sake brewery, Shiyunnouten, in Yamanashi

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

The river Fujikawa starts from Mt. Nokogiri in Yamanashi and Nagano.

This river eventually runs into Suruga Bay.

It contains a large volume of water and is one of three fastest-running rivers in Japan.

Long ago in the Edo era, many commodities, such as rice and salt, were carried by boat along this river between Shizuoka and Yamanashi.. Kajikazawa town ( currently called Fujikawa town ) was prosperous as a tradepost.

I happened to visit this town only by accident but felt a strong sense of de ja vu. I felt like walking around the town and happened to find this beautiful sake brewery. This brewery was called “ Yorozuya “ established in 1790. They changed its name “Shiyunnouten” later.

“ Shiyunnouten” is a famous piece of the court music of Japan. It means the voice of bush warblers. In 1933 Akiko Yosano , a famous poet, stayed at this house with her husband Tettukan Yosano since the owner of the brewery was a friend of them. Akiko wrote a poem. In the poem, she used the word “ Shiyunnouten”. Since then they called the place Shiyunnouten.”

 

I really like the building and of course the sake they make. You can taste sake or have some tea in the spacious café area. If you want to relax they have a large Japanese-style room too.

They ask a specialized farmer to grow rice for sake somewhere near their place.

The inside of the brewery can be visited in winter with advanced reservation and I am planning to do visit then.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Oyama, the spiritual mountain in Kanagawa

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

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I went to Oyama Afuri Shrine in Kanagawa. The nearest railway station is Isehara ( Odakyu Line ). Since it’s not far from the Tokyo area, many people visit it for worshiping the Oyama temple and Oyama Afuri Shirine. This shrine is said to be founded around B.C.97.

It also has nice trekking courses. I saw many young people going hiking with relatively comprehensive mountain climbing gear. We reached to the top by cable car. Only 6 minutes’ ride brings us to the top. We could see Sagami Bay and Enoshima from the top.

During the Edo era, people climbed this mountain to worship just like climbing Mt. Fuji. Some groups of people stayed at inns at the foot of the mountain.

Spiritual or religious leaders called Sendoushi worked as guides and teachers. Nowadays trains or cars enable us to make day trips and people don’t always stay at inns so some inns closed down ( too bad ! ).

   

 We stayed at an inn called “ Asada”. This is one of a few inns which is still providing accommodation for tourists. This inn is amazing. The room we stayed in was very nice. Tofu dishes are famous in Oyama and this inn also serves Tofu Kaiseki and Tofu breakfast. The food was all incredibly delicious.

They served many different kinds but let me show you three of them.

Here is the some served as relish. I really like the style and setting. We use this tray to serve offerings to gods. In Shinto, after offering food to gods, we share the food with gods. All tofu is fantastic but this soy milk and tofu was out of the world. We can make our own yuba or boiled soymilk skim as you drink hot sake. Tofu gratin and yuba rolls are worth trying, too.

 Good water from the mountain makes sake, tofu and konnyaku (devil’s tongue) great. Next time I’d like to visit here in autumn to view colored leaves. I also miss the tofu I enjoyed. I also have to pay a visit to  Oyama temple on the way to Oyama Afuri Shrine.

Green Tea Shizuoka Part 2

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

I also had a chance to see two businessmen from Seattle who took part in the tour organized by JETRO. They are from Choice Organic Teas. This tea company deals with only organic teas. They sell many different kinds of tea all over the world. Choice Organic Teas also seems to be a quite active concern. It was the second day in Shizuoka for them and they had already experienced a tea factory tour, tea ceremony and lectures about green tea in Shizuoka. They must have been really tired after going through their schedule but they were very energetic and eager to learn about Japan and Japanese tea. I was happy to hear how amazed they were to see beautiful Mt. Fuji. The person from Argo told me that he got a splendid view of the mountain from the plane while flying in from Kagoshima, too. Many tourists visit Shizuoka in Summer or late Spring can’t see Mt. Fuji because of the cloudy conditions so they are often disappointed and so am I. I strongly recommend that tourists visit Shizuoka in the cold and dry season so that they are more likely to see the peak. Shizuoka’s winter is not as cold as other areas in Japan and we have a lot of hot spring spas to get warm.

 

We went to an Izakaya or Japanese style pub for dinner. We were all eating, drinking and talking. The TV was on but I didn’t pay much attention. Suddenly, our guests who were facing the TV got excited to see the TV program. “ Holy cow ! “ I thought. The people sitting in front of us are on TV !

NHK news program covered the tour they had on that day. The camera moved quickly to show many people in the group so it was very difficult to take photos off the TV screen. However, the camera fixed on one of our guests for a relatively long time. He was having matcha green tea. He looked very serious, but in fact he is a very friendly and funny person. I couldn’t capture the photo of another guest, a friendly and gentle person. All of us laughed a lot and felt excited to see the TV program. It was a great timing. I heard they were on TV in Kagoshima,too.

 

 

 

 

 

While talking about tea, I was surprised to know that they know about Benifuuki tea. Benifuuki is said to be good for people who are suffering from hay fever. Many people in the US might want to try it. Benifuuki tastes like black tea and its taste is nostalgic to me because it tastes like the black tea grown in Japan long time ago.

 

When I was a child I had the same taste black tea. It’s a black tea but it tastes very different from English or Indian black tea. I think benifuuki tastes more straight, milder and simpler than other black tea. It’s hard to put, though. One of my friends served me fruit tea made with with benifuuki. She prepared a glass pot so we can see what’s inside. She put some slices of orange, apple, kiwi, and strawberries in the pot and poured hot benifuuki tea over it. A pair of fresh mint leaves were placed in our tea cups. The tea has a good taste and also a wonderful flavor. I also enjoyed eating the fruits in the pot, too. It was very luxurious tea.

 

I was very lucky to get to know the people from Choice Organic Teas and Argo tea.

Thank you for coming. I hope more people visit Japan to share wonderful tea and experiences. I also felt like traveling abroad, too.

 

Green Tea Shizuoka Part 1

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

I had a chance to see a businessman who works for an American tea enterprise called argo tea.

He took part in a tour organized by JETRO to know more about Japanese tea. Before arriving in Shizuoka, he visited Kagoshima which is also famous for its green tea. He managed to visit some tea factory in Shizuoka. He tried tea tasting in the factory’s blending room. I saw that when the blenders taste tea, they pour boiling water over it so that tea reveals its faults. However when we make tea, we have to adhere to the ideal temperature to make delicious tea. In this factory only contracted farmers bring their “ Aracha” or unfinished tea and the blender chooses the Aracha carefully and depending on their customers’ preference and ideal prices, they blend Aracha. Then in the factory, they refine the tea and blend it. After that, they pack the tea and send it to their customers. They also have a huge fridge to store the tea in perfect condition.

 

Argo tea operates many cafes all over the USA selling many kinds of tea such as Indian tea, Chinese tea and, of course, Japanese green tea. I was happy to know that Japanese green tea is getting popular. I was also surprised to know that some people put a little sugar in green tea. I haven’t tried that and can’t imagine what the taste is like. I usually don’t add any sugar when I drink black tea or coffee either. But when I stayed in Istanbul, I felt like adding some sugar. I wonder if it was because of the Turkish climate or the food I ate there.

 

Although I don’t add any sugar, I often eat something sweet along with tea just like we do at a tea ceremony. I also heard that green tea has substances called catechins that prevent our teeth from being decayed. I believe that the sugar I took before or during my tea time can be washed down by tea as it refreshes my mouth and prevents bad teeth.

 

Japanese people eat a lot of rice and that means our diet has a lot of carbohydrate: does that naturally make us stop taking sugar in our tea ?

Anyway even the same tea can be enjoyed in different ways to make people happy. We were all happy to see the business man from Agro tea and share wonderful time. Thank you for coming and hope see you soon !

Kaiseki in March

Friday, February 24th, 2012

 

We made some small dishes for Hinamatsuri, or the Doll Festival celebrated on March 3. For this festival, peach blossoms are featured so we used pink items for cooking such as pink radish, pink flower-shaped fu, or wheat gluten, and red rice for sushi rolls. Peaches are said to drive evil spirits away.

 

People display hina dolls along with peach blossoms. The dolls represent members of the ancient imperial court. Originally people prepared doll-shaped white paper and touch the surface of their bodies with the paper to remove bad things. Then the white paper was to thrown into the river. March is the month when people start the year’s agricultural work and people wished for a good harvest for the year.

 

On the lower left there are two kinds of sushi rolls. They are called hosomaki, or thin rolls. To make thin ones we used half-sized laver. We use full-size laver to make futomaki, or thick rolls.

 

On the right down, this is a dressed food called aemono. Boiled Brussels sprouts and boiled squid are mixed with miso, sugar, vinegar, soy source and mustard. I like the plate with Hina dolls on.

 

In the middle, you can see marinated red radish with kelp and yuzu.

 

On the upper left you see grilled salmon. Before grilling it, the salmon was marinated in sake lees for a day. Using sake lees for cooking is getting very popular recently. Sake lees make meat and fish tender and tasty.

 

On the upper right are wild vegetables called fuki, rolled with fried bean curd ones and simmered Shitake mushrooms.

Here is a cup-steamed egg custard decorated with flower-shaped fu. Just before serving, thick starchy sauce seasoned with ginger juice was added.

 

Kaiseki dishes always makes me aware of the change of seasons.

 

Itadakimasu !

A bonfire event after New Year’s Day

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

On our way to Hatsugama, or the first tea gathering of the year, we saw a bunch of local people who had got together and stopped over at this place.

This festival is called “ Donto Yaki “. People bring New Year’s decorations, wooden daruma dolls or the first calligraphy of the year to burn them.

 In Japanese, “Yaki“ means burn and “ Donto “ sounds like “ don’t “ in English. However we burn many things.

Here you can see some red dolls called “ daruma “. This doll represents Bodhidharma, the Zen founder born in India in 6th century. It is said that he sat in silent meditation for nine years, facing the wall of a room at the Shorinji Temple in China to attain enlightenment !

 Some people buy these daruma dolls. When they buy them, the dolls’ eyes aren’t painted but when the doll owner’s wishes came true, they paint in the eyes. In Fuji city, we have a daruma festival in the beginning of February called “ Bishamon festival “. At that festival, many kinds of daruma dolls are available. Every year some people buy new daruma dolls for their New Year’s resolution. To give thanks and to wish for another successful year, they burn the previous year’s dolls.

We have the proverb, “ If you fall down seven times, get up eight “ in Japanese “ nanakorobi yaoki”. That means never give up.

 Some people burn the first calligraphy of the year. If the calligraphy goes up

carried by the wind, the person’s calligraphy might improve.