It is difficult to convey, visually or verbally, the utter magic of the Japanese cherry blossom season. Although the blooms signal the arrival of warmth, their appearance can evoke both melancholy and joy. In their brief yet exuberant existence, sakura express spring’s inherent duality: it is both the most longed-for and short-lived season of all, imbued with promise but often tempered by the realization that another year has passed so quickly, and with so little awareness.
January 7 has come and gone, but I’m still enjoying leftover nanakusa gayu for breakfast. Mixed with some lightly beaten egg, it’s hearty, filling, and perfect fuel for a blustery bike commute on a winter morning.
In other porridge-y news, Google Japan featured nanakusa gayu in their January 7 “Google Doodle“:
See how the family is gathered around an opening in the floor, with the rice pot suspended from above? This is a representation (albeit a rather abstract one) of a traditional Japanese hearth, or irori. Nice work, Google!
P.S. Congrats to Margaret (aka Megsie) Siple, winner of the Humble Bean Cookbook Giveaway! If you have a chance, please be sure to check out her wonderful blog over at fishpondfever.wordpress.com
Nagano prefecture is known throughout Japan for its buckwheat, which finds its way into much of the region’s cuisine, from the famed Shinshū soba (more on which here, here, and here) to soba manju (sweet red bean paste wrapped in a thin buckwheat skin) and soba cha, a mellow, caffeine-free tea made from buckwheat kernels. The buckwheat harvest, which takes place in the late fall after October’s rice harvest, is hard and laborious work. Preparing the buckwheat for cooking is no easier: after harvesting, the buckwheat grains are threshed and sorted. Traditionally, stone mills are used to grind the grains into flour. Freshly milled buckwheat flour has the most delicate flavor, and so soba made immediately after the fall harvest is held in high regard.
When you think of Japan, what are the first things that come to mind? Politeness, sushi, Tokyo, temples, cleanliness, Mt. Fuji — yes, all accurate. But what about delicious street food, throngs of revelers, and costumed people singing and dancing in the streets for hours? Not your image of Japan? Let me explain…
It’s true that life in Japan is quite contained, both physically (in offices, trains, and tiny apartments) and psychologically (in a fairly rigid set of customs and hierarchies). In my experience, most raucousness occurs in the guise of office parties or gatherings at karaoke bars and smoky izakayas.
However, this all changes when the weather warms. Summer in Japan is the season of matsuri, or festivals. These can take many forms, from elaborate processions of portable shrines to gorgeous fireworks displays and taiko drumming performances. Sometimes, mountainsides are set on fire, as in Kyoto’s famous Gozan no Okuribi, and boats are hauled over long distances by festival participants, as in Suwa’s amazing O-fune (boat) matsuri. Japanese festivals are lively, ebullient, and often awe-inspiring events. As it happens, they’re also great places to eat.
When I first moved to Japan, I initially struggled with what to eat for breakfast. Having visited once before on vacation, I knew of the elaborate multi-plate breakfasts served at ryokan, but I had no clue what the average person fueled herself with every morning.
Wandering down the aisles of a Japanese grocery store for the first time, I realized my choices would be limited if I wanted to eat familiar foods first thing in the morning. Cereals and the like were few and far between, not to mention woefully expensive. At the time, the choice seemed obvious: toast! Most stores carried several varieties of super-soft, thickly sliced white bread along with a variety of jams, spreads, and flavored “creams.”
Yet it soon became apparent that this option was simply not satisfying – it was January in the Japanese alps, and I craved something warm, something to soothe the ache of being far from home. Oatmeal was, to the best of my knowledge, unattainable, so I bought the next best thing. Thus began the winter of barley and bananas. Let me spare you the details. It was bleak.
Summer in Japan is, to put it bluntly, brutal. This is particularly true where I live, in Saitama prefecture, just outside Tokyo. Thanks to Saitama’s geography – it’s essentially a giant, flat plain – the residual heat and smog of the city get trapped in its valleys and lowlands, with no promise of relief from the cooling ocean breezes that reach Chiba prefecture to the east.
This year, with everyone doing their best to conserve electricity after the accident at Fukushima, the need to stay cool is more pressing than ever.
In his remarkable essay “In Praise of Shadows” (1933), Jun’ichirō Tanizaki expounds on his appreciation for the imperfections, tarnishes, and subtleties – shadows, broadly writ – that permeate and define everyday life in Japan. In discursive, flowing prose, Tanizaki discusses the patina objects acquire with repeated use, the subtle glow emitted by paper lanterns, the darkening and softening of wood over time, the fluidity and softness afforded by calligraphy brushes and paper. Over the course of these discussions, Tanizaki reveals what appears (at least in the context of the essay) to be a fundamental cultural divide. Where Western culture values illumination, clarity, and logic, Japanese aesthetic sensibilities place a premium on subtlety, haziness and ambiguity – that is, on the border between light and dark, on shadows.
After all that talk of winter and being cold, the temperature in Saitama prefecture was over 10°C! Ah well. This is somewhat fitting, however, because
today is yesterday was setsubun (節分) in Japan. This holiday, which usually falls on February 3rd, literally means “seasonal division” and commemorates the beginning of spring. Although it’s still very much winter for most of the country, it’s certainly fun to imagine that warmer temperatures are just around the corner.
Outside Japan, setsubun is perhaps best known as “the bean-throwing festival.” This practice, known as mamemaki, involves throwing roasted soy beans out the front door or at a demon-masked individual while shouting, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Demons out, good fortune in!”) Following this ceremony, one is supposed to consume the number of beans that correspond to one’s age. According to my Japanese coworkers, other activities associated with setsubun include hanging a fresh iwashi (sardine) head from a holly leaf in the doorway (I suppose the smell further frightens the demons) and consuming ehōmaki, an oversized, uncut form of rolled sushi. The ehōmaki are to be consumed silently while facing the year’s auspicious direction. (This year’s direction is south-southeast.
though I must admit I’m not entirely sure why. A good explanation can be found here.)
Prompted by this fantastic documentary, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the future holds for Japan. It is well known that the country’s economic prosperity and survival lies in solving its population crisis. In order to combat this, the government has set its sights on increasing immigration and, to a lesser extent, encouraging domestic growth.
Over the past several years, Japan has made some attempts to ease restrictions on immigration. This summer a number of reforms concerning visas, foreign resident registration, and re-entry permits were passed. Though the reforms were fairly minor, that immigration is even being addressed is noteworthy for a country that has long held foreigners at arm’s length. Although this attitude is changing, Japan still remains a fairly insular culture. For example, a person of Korean descent born in Japan must hold an Alien Registration Card unless she is willing to give up her Korean name in exchange for Japanese civil rights (for more on this, see the aforementioned documentary). Yet simply altering a few laws and allowing more unskilled, cheap labor into the country will not necessarily bring the desired results. Continued prejudice against foreigners will almost certainly hinder Japan’s attempts to create a truly thriving economy and socially equitable society.
My mom and I always call this time of year the “shoulder season,” when the last rush of summer produce tumbles in and people begin to set their sights on the soups and warm comforts of the coming months. Those of you in the States are probably already donning your fall jackets, scarves, and other cool weather accoutrements, as have many of us in Japan. I, for one, have never been so happy to wear pants, long sleeves, and boots! Autumn is indeed a very special time here, in part because people are eager to bid farewell to the hot and humid Japanese summer.