Tag Archives: food

see no evil… only lots of beautiful shrines and temples

11 Dec

ImageLast weekend, friend CT came to visit me, and she likes visiting temples and historical sites just as much as me, and so we headed out to one of the most popular tourist destinations in eastern Japan, which just happens to be about two hours by train away from me, Nikko.  Nikko is the temple/shrine/mausoleum where Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who unified Japan and started the Edo period of peace and prosperity in 1603, is enshrined as a Buddhist diety in the form of a Shinto kami… in other words, it’s a great example of the historical co-existence of Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan, as well as a beautiful place for sightseeing, as both the mountains and nature around Nikko are stunning.  The view off the mountains going to and from the Nikko shrine/temple site is really breathtaking, and while I didn’t get a chance to go, there’s also a famous waterfall at Nikko.  The buildings themselves host visually stunning relief sculptures in amazing detail, as well as beautiful colours and use of gold foil, and also is the home of two iconic images in Japanese culture, the three wise monkeys and the sleeping cat.

ImageEven most Americans have heard of the three wise monkeys whose poses teach us to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” but a much fewer amount of people are aware of their origin.  While the moral involved was not completely new at the construction of Nikko, the use of monkeys (a play on words: in 1600s Japanese, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” was said, “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru” and “saru” or “zaru” means “monkey”!) was popularized by the sculpture at Nikko.  The three wise monkeys are part of a longer relief sculpture that goes around the top of the building, and each monkey represents an idea or stage of life, but for some reason, only those three monkeys got popular!  In the photo, the monkeys are the second panel from the left; click on the photo to enlarge it.

ImageUnlike the three wise monkeys, the sleeping cat is less popular in the West, possibly because it has less moral significance, but… come on, who doesn’t like a cute sleeping cat?  The carving of the sleeping cat (nemuri neko in Japanese) is a little hard to spot, in a rather obscure ledge over a doorway, but it’s one of the most popular sights at the temple.  It was carved by legendary Edo period artist Hidari Jingoro, who loved cats and whose work influenced the depiction of animals in Japanese sculpture at the time.  No one is exactly sure if the cat has a specific symbolic meaning, but I’ve heard it hypothesized that it might have been meant to represent the Tokugawa regime; peaceful (as shown by the sleeping) but ready to strike at any time (you can’t see it in the picture, but the cats front paws are tense).  Perhaps this isn’t the real meaning, but either way, Japanese tourists and foreign tourists alike seem to love this cute cat~

After our visit to the temples and shrines, we headed back into town and got a snack at the famous Meiji no Yakata coffee shop!  Meiji no Yakata is a famous historical restaurant located very close to Nikko’s Rinnoji temple, housed in a Western-style mansion that was formerly a vacation home for an American diplomat.  It’s famous enough for its cakes and pastries, however, that it also has another location, a small coffee shop with cheesecake, scones, and other treats right by Tobu Nikko Station.  Their cheesecake was really delicious, covered in a thin layer of what seemed to be lemon meringue, and the coffee also lived up to the store’s reputation!  It was a bit pricy, but well worth it for the scenic location and delicious food.

All in all, I had a great time at Nikko, but there was still a lot that I didn’t get to see, so I predict that I’ll be back sometime in the near future!


A festive(al) occasion

7 Aug

ImageDespite spending the end of the JET-contract-year doing essentially nothing, it’s come to be that time of the year again for Kiryu’s annual Kiryu Yagibushi Matsuri! I wrote about this once before on my blog, but just as I thought, it was much more enjoyable this year, now that I’m familiar with my town, my students and the other JETs in my area. Also, this year was the 50th anniversary of the matsuri, so it was especially festive and crowded!  I saw tons of my students, got to eat tons of delicious fried foods, spent time with my fellow ALTs, and even tried a little dancing!

ImageI don’t think I explained this before, but the main focus of Kiryu’s annual matsuri (festival) is the local traditional
dance.  While the stalls lining the streets offering foods and games for kids such as fish-catching and target-shooting, the people dressed in yukata (Japanese cotton summer kimono), and the lanterns lining the streets are common practice for matsuri, the special element of Kiryu’s matsuri is the groups of people doing the Yagibushi dance together in the main square.  ImageAround town, there are large platforms decorated with lanterns on which musicians and singers stand make music, and many of these feature various forms of trained traditional dancers or performers.  However, in the main square, the musicians are there to provide musical accompaniment for the main attraction.  Volunteers dressed up for the matsuri (including, this year, my hairdresser!) stay and do the Yagibushi dance around this main platform, but the majority of the dancers are not trained performers but regular visitors to the matsuri who join in the yagibushi dance.
Last year, I was brand new to Kiryu, still in a daze of jetlag, completely unaware of my surroundings, and generally lost in the crowd and excitement of the matsuri. This year, however, I was much better prepared.  Decked out in my yukata, I was ready to take on the matsuri after a year of getting to know Kiryu and its inhabitants, and so when many of the other ALTs decided to try dancing, I decided to be adventurous went along.  After 18 years of classical ballet training, I’m pretty good at picking up dance steps on the fly, and so after a few fumbling attempts, I began to get the hang of the dance. I’m sure I did it like a ballerina and not at all like I knew the correct form, but half the people around me were drunk, so I don’t think I stood out too much!  It was really great to participate in a tradition unique to my town after a year of settling in.
ImageI did enjoy some of the things I had enjoyed last year, as well, however.  The decorations this year seemed even more extravagant and colorful this year than they did last year, and I was impressed by how much work seemed to have gone into preparing them.  Additionally, I highly enjoyed the wide variety of unhealthy foods for sale, and indulged in karaage (small bits of fried chicken), kakigoori (crushed ice with flavored syrup), french fries, and nikumaki onigiri, a delicious invention that I discovered last year which is essentially a ball of rice wrapped in bacon and covered in sauce and a topping of  choice (options included cheese, Japanese chives, sesame seeds, and kimchi).  I tried some of my friends’ foods, as well, and even got handed a free chocobanana (banana dipped in chocolate) at the end of the night by someone trying to get rid of the food they had left over!
ImageThere were also a variety of performances throughout the evening, though sadly, since I didn’t know when and where things were happening, I missed most of them.  Apparently, there’s always a big fancy parade on Sunday afternoon, so I hope to check that out next year! There were also dance performances by various groups, including a group of workers from city hall (where I go for my monthly  meetings and such; I’m technically employed by the city), classes from a local culture center, and more!  Now that I know how many performances there are to see, next year, hopefully I can try to catch more of them next year!
However, despite all the sights and foods, the matsuri ended on a bit of a sad note for me. Since ALTs change in the summer, any ALTs from the previous year who had decided not to renew their contracts were leaving after the matsuri ended. I’m happy that I got to spend time with them at the matsuri, but it’s sad to know that we only had one short year together, and now they’re leaving. I’m going to miss them, but I’m wishing them well in all their future endeavors! Two of the four leaving JETs have gotten jobs in Tokyo, so I hope that this isn’t goodbye.
And the matsuri wasn’t all about partings. Three of the new ALTs came as well, so I got a first chance to meet the new people with whom I’ll be working for the next year. I’m looking forward to getting to know them better. Additionally, I ran into various of my students, many of whom greeted me happily and excitedly. It was really great to see them and to know they were happy to see me, and some of them even complimented my yukata! I hope that next year’s matsuri will bring as many smiling faces as this one.

Let’s go west~

13 Apr

ImageOver my spring break, along with S and CT, I visited the Kansai region, namely to do some sightseeing in two of most popular tourist destinations in Japan: Osaka and Kyoto.  Being an art history nerd, I was very excited to visit the various temples that can be found around the region, but we also planned to check out Osaka’s famous Kaiyuukan aquarium, a woodblock print museum, and,of course, the shopping scene in Nanba!  I was also personally looking forward to one of my favourite treats, matcha and vanilla swirl soft-serve!  While it’s possible to get it in the Kanto region where I live, it’s way more common in Kansai, and since I love anything matcha or Japanese green tea flavored, I was really looking forward to it!

ImageAfter spending our first night in Osaka shopping, looking around the area, and taking the chance to sing karaoke together, we headed out the next day to Kyoto to see some historical sites.  Our first stop was Kinkakuji, a very famous and popular destination for both Japanese and foreign tourists.  Kinkakuji was originally a villa owned by Muromachi period shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and, after his death, it was converted into a Zen temple, as per his wishes.  Architecturally, the building is interesting and complex because its three floors are each designed in a different style: the first floor is in the old Kyoto court style used to create buildings for the aristocracy in the Heian period, the second floor is built in the style of samurai buildings, and the third floor is built in traditional Chinese Chan (or Zen) Buddhist style.  The garden around the building also contains plenty of visual interest; it contains various illusions to Japanese literature (a common aesthetic choice in Japanese garden design) and as a whole is based on descriptions of the Western Heaven on Zen Buddhism.  Additionally, Kinkakuji is the famous titular temple described in Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which is based on real events that took place when a monk burned down the temple in 1950.  All in all, Kinkakuji is full of visual and historical interest, and though I had been once before, I was happy to go again!

ImageAfter Kinkakuji, our next stop was Maruyama Park, where we planned to do hanami.  While Japanese culture is highly fond of all four seasons and the plants and nature that go along with them, the most celebrate flower of all is the cherry blossom or sakura, which only blooms in Japan for about two weeks.  Because the briefness of the beautiful sakura blossoms echoes the impermanence of life as taught by Buddhism, it’s been the subject of many poems and works of art throughout Japanese history, and even today, hanami is a must-do for many people during the sakura season.  It’s hard to define hanami in just one word, but it’s comprised of the characters for “look” and “flower,” so I guess “flower-watching” is one way to put it.  Typically, doing hanami means going to a park or somewhere with sakura trees in bloom and having a picnic or meal, drinking alcohol, and talking with friends, all the while admiring and enjoying the scenery of cherry blossoms.  Since Kyoto is a scenic and picturesque place, it seemed like a great choice for hanami, and luckily for us, the weather was perfect, and our timing was just right to catch the cherry blossoms in full bloom!

ImageAfter our hanami, we headed to our next temple destination: Kiyomizudera!  Kiyomizudera is a temple comissioned by Tokugawa Iemitsu, one of the important political figures of the Edo period in Japanse history (the period famous for isolationism, samurai, and kabuki).  It is set into a steep hill in Kyoto, and thus is a very popular tourist destination for its great views… however, this also makes it a pain to get to because you have to walk so far uphill!  But it’s well worth it, and seeing it surrounded by cherry blossoms was quite the sight, even if the place was packed with tourist.  Actually, some of the Japanese tourists provided an interesting addition to the temple itself; while I’ve never seen this in Tokyo or Gunma or anywhere else in Japan, there were many Japanese (and some Chinese, actually) tourists dressed in traditional Japanese kimono, and I enjoyed admiring them as well as the scenery.

ImageWalking around Kiyomizudera is quite the undertaking because the path leads around the side of the mountain and back again, but it really does give a beautiful view of the temple and its surroundings, as well as of the city of Kyoto on the horizon.  Especially with all of the sakura in full bloom, I was happy to get a chance to see the sights.  There are a lot of sub-buildings (and even an entire separate temple sort of off to the side) around the grounds, as well, so I was happy for the opportunity to get to check them all out!

ImageAfter Kiyomizudera, we headed back to Osaka for the night, and then, the next morning, we headed out to the Kaiyukan Aquarium!  While it’s nothing that special, it’s a large aquarium with lots of different species and even some aquatic-related mammals, like the recently-popular capybara! After the aquarium, we headed to Shitennouji temple, for which I was quite excited!  One reason, embarrassingly, is that one of the schools featured in the popular manga and anime series Prince of Tennis is based off of Shitennouji, or, to be exact, the attached middle school there.  But mostly, I was excited to see their five-story pagoda!  Many Buddhist temples in Japan have five-story pagodas, but the special feature of Shitennouji’s is that tourists are allowed to ascend to the top!  Most temples only allow tourists in on the entry level or not at all, and so I was excited to go inside.  While what was inside was actually not that interesting (the interior had obviously been redone since it was build, with linoleum floors and all), the view from the top, as well as the basic architectural elements were really beautiful!

ImageAfter Shitennouji, we headed back to the Namba area to check out a woodblock print museum, and then grabbed dinner before catching our train back to Mie.  The past night, we had been too tired for an extravagant dinner, but on our last day, we decided to get a regional specialty,
okonomiyaki!  I had okonomiyaki once in Gunma with my coworkers, but since its origin is in the Kansai region, we had to try some here, too!  It’s often described as “Japanese pizza”… but I don’t really understand why.  It’s usually a cake-type item made of a batter of flour, some sort of potato, cabbage, and egg, as well as whatever meats and vegetables are desired.  In the past, I haven’t liked it very much (it often contains ginger, which I really dislike), but I had to admit, these Kansai okonomiyaki were very delicious!

And with that, we headed back to Mie, full, tired, and happy.  It was a great spring break, and I hope I can do more traveling with CT in the future!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

14 Feb

ImageIt’s Valentine’s Day in Japan!  Unlike in America, where boys are expected to get flowers/make date plans/buy gifts for their girlfriends (in the most heteronormative, gender-stereotyped version of the tradition, anyway), this means that all the girls in my school are going crazy with the thought of giving out chocolates to the boys they like.  That’s right, in Japan, on Valentine’s day, only girls are expected to make gestures of appreciation or affection to boys, usually through giving them expensive or homemade chocolate.  

ImageOr rather, there are two varieties of chocolate: “giri choco” (literally “obligation chocolate) and “honmei choco” (literally “true feeling chocolate”).  Girls and women give giri choco, usually inexpensive chocolate often bought in bulk, to their casual male acquaintances, coworkers, and friends as a gesture of appreciation for their help/friendship/etc.  However, they give honmei choco as a romantic gesture to their significant other, or to the boy for whom they have feelings.  The media has a field day with Valentine’s Day, and often advertises it as a chance for one to confess one’s true feelings for someone… of course, by buying the right expensive brand of chocolate or a variety of ingredients to make the perfect gift.  Yes, despite cultural differences, Valentine’s Day is by and large a consumer holiday in Japan, too.  

ImageBut, you might be thinking, it’s totally unfair that the girls have to do all this with no reward.  Luckily, in Japan, there’s White Day, one month after Valentine’s Day.  On March 14th, men give women cookies, other sweets, or small gifts to repay them for the chocolate they received on Valentine’s Day.  

As for me, however, I was not getting mixed up in all of that chocolate-giving without any idea what is or isn’t appropriate for my work setting and what have you.  However, I really wanted to make chocolate, so I decided to throw a little party for my close (female) friends, instead.  I’m sure a rulebreaker, I know.  However, I got to make the cutest chocolates ever thanks to everything in Japan being absolutely adorable, and my friends seemed to enjoy them, so that’s what matters, right?  

Turning over a new leaf (or something)

18 Jan

New Year, or お正月 (oshogatsu) in Japanese, is basically the biggest holiday in the Japanese year.  New Year’s is a time when people spend time with their families, eat traditional New Year’s foods like ozoni and play traditional New Year’s games like karuta, and go to temples for the special New Year’s visit, or hatsumode. New Year’s is the only time that I simply get time off from school without having to take paid leave or else sit in the school building despite not teaching any classes.  All of my coworkers spent the time busily cleaning their houses, writing and sending the all-important nengajo or New Year’s cards, and preparing for relatives to visit.  I spent the time relaxing and enjoying the time off from work.

ImageThat’s not completely true actually; I spent the time cleaning and preparing for my little sister to visit, so in essence, I did some of the same things.  But unfortunately, when it comes to
hatsumode, and nengajo, I don’t know where to start, so we spent New Year’s the American way, eating, drinking, and being merry on New Year’s eve, and sleeping it off the next day.  We watched the Japanese New Year’s broadcast, Kohaku, a music show where popular artists compete on the red or white (New Year’s colours) teams and at the end of the show, audience vote determines the winner, as well as a countdown right at midnight produced by Johnny’s, and thus was mostly idols singing and prancing around with a countdown to midnight.  All in all, it might not have been very Japanese, but it was fun.

ImageI was very excited that my little sister was coming to visit me in Japan for New Year’s; it was her first time to Japan, and we hadn’t seen one another in a long time.  Because I was so excited, I planned a big New Year’s dinner– S made latkes, and I tried to recreate some delicious fried sausage dumplings I had had at an izakaya once, as well as making pork, mushroom, and  onion gyoza.  My sister helped, and this made us feel very in touch with our Chinese heritage!

ImageThe meal was delicious, and afterwards, we had more cake and sparkling wine!  We bought two bottles, so that we could drink one while watching Kohaku and use another to toast at midnight.  It was still fairly cheap stuff, but it wouldn’t be New Year’s eve without sparkling wine!  For the roll cakes, we got one white cake with strawberries that I though would be like strawberry shortcake but turned out to be a bit too sweet for me, and a matcha cake.  I really love matcha, and I was excited to introduce my sister to the flavor!  I was afraid she might not like it, because she can sometimes be a bit picky, but luckily, she did, and so a good time was had all around… even if my sister was so jet lagged that she ended up taking a nap around 9 pm so that she could stay up until midnight!

ImageNext year, I would like to find someone who will take me to hatsumode, and perhaps let me wear a kimono or something of the like.  But I was really glad that my sister came to visit me this year, and I had a really good time with her, too.  Part of being a foreigner is mixing a little bit of your own traditions with the traditions of where you’re staying, right?  Still, hopefully next year I’ll be able to have a little more Japanese in my oshogatsu.

(Belated) Christmas post!

18 Jan

I’m so sorry for how long it’s been since my last post.  Perhaps it’s because of the new environment or perhaps being around small kids all day doesn’t agree with me, but for whatever reason, I’ve been sick a lot this winter.  I came down with a bad virus that kept me in bed with a 39.4º C fever and intense vertigo, so I’ve been basically trapped in bed laying completely horizontal for a while now.  But now I’m finally back at work, attempting to catch up on things like my blog.  I apologize for the long break!

While it was almost a month ago, I’ve been meaning to write here about my Christmas in Japan! In Japan, Christmas essentially has two varieties: a celebration with kids and parents where the family eats fried chicken from KFC together and the kids get presents from their parents and from “Santa Claus,” and a romantic date night for couples to go to fancy restaurants and see illuminations together.  Since Japan is one of the few countries where Christianity never caught on despite the best efforts of European missionaries, and so Christmas has sort of come in parts through foreigners living in Japan, and today’s Christmas in Japan in the result.

ImageWhile I consider myself areligious, my mother’s family has always celebrated Christmas with the
tradition, so I enjoy doing Christmas festivities on December 24th, and while I’m not a someone who’s obsessively in love with Christmas, I enjoy the opportunity to make fancy food, dress up, and consider the day a “special occasion.”  So, since December 24th was a national holiday this year (December 23rd is the emperor’s birthday, but since that was a Sunday this year, the holiday was moved to Monday), S and I decided to have our own small Christmas celebration.

ImageWhile we weren’t planning on going to see illuminations and hadn’t bought gifts for one another, we decided one thing we needed to do to make it a Japanese Christmas was eat chicken!  Unfortunately, S forgot to reserve KFC for that day (yes, people make reservations to have KFC ready to be picked up on Christmas), so we were forced to eat chicken from a different place.  It was still delicious, however, and to round out the meal, I made a pasta salad and hors d’oeuvre crackers with garlic cream cheese and tomato and cucumber.

ImageWe also got Christmas cake!  Another food Japanese people associate with Christmas is cake, and since the Japanese take pastries and baked goods very seriously, there are some very beautifully decorated cakes available for Christmas.  But… seeing as our Christmas was already sort of thrown together, we settled with roll cake and slices of cake from the convenience store.  Still, they were quite delicious, and we finished off with some sparkling wine, which, cheap as it was, was a nice way to end a nice evening.

Perhaps next year, we’ll get our act together and actually get KFC and order a real cake from a bakery.  Maybe I’ll even have a party rather than just a quiet evening with my bff.  But this year was fun, too, so maybe, next year, we’ll do it the same, after all.


6 Dec

ImageFirst of all, if my count is correct, this is my 50th post!  Hurray!  Thank you to everyone who has been following my blog.  I know my life isn’t that exciting, but I do have fun writing about it.  So I hope that I can make the next 50 posts interesting, also!

On to the subject of this post… on Monday, my coworkers at Showa Elementary School took me out for monjayaki for my birthday!  I really love everyone at Showa Elementary… they’re all wonderful teachers and very kind people who have been nothing but helpful, friendly, and understanding to me.  I asked two of the teachers if they wanted to get dinner for my birthday… and they proceeded to invite half the school!  I was surprised, but I had a lot of fun, and they taught me how to make monjayaki!

ImageMonjayaki is a type of Japanese food that I believe originated in the Kansai region of Japan (the area around Osaka and Kyoto). I’m a little unclear as to what all the ingredients are, but there’s some sort of watery batter-type thing, cabbage, small shrimp, and then other flavorings and ingredients– for example, we had one with kimchee, one with curry, and one with fried noodles.  Like other popular Japanese pancake-esque foods such as okonomiyakimonjayaki is cooked on a flat grill at the table by the diners.  One first uses metal spatulas to cut down the solid ingredients into small pieces, then adds the liquid and cooks it all together.    It’s then eaten while still incredibly hot with the diner’s own personal tiny metal spatula thing. This lends itself quite easily to the diner burning her mouth while eating, but it’s also quite delicious!  Apparently, the name of monjayaki comes from the fact that making it is sort of like writing a character (moji is Japanese for written character, eg a kanji, a katakana, an alphabet letter, a greek letter, etc), and somehow the name morphed to monja over time? And then yaki means to fry/cook in any way that isn’t boiling, basically.  

We also had okonomiyaki, but while konomu means “to like,” no one I’ve asked so far has been quite certain as to where the name came from.  I suppose the person who invented it really liked okonomiyaki.