White socked and wonderful

A special tea ceremony to remember. This post is dedicated to my beautiful Grandmother who taught me to enjoy tea and the finer things in life. RIP Jan Staley 1937 – 2015.

I started to write this post on a tiny local train, heading south down from the mountains and into Okayama city finally finishing it weeks later, back at home after another jam packed month.

I’m on my way to visit a friend who lives in a picturesque little town on the other side of Okayama city called Kurashiki. I’ve stationed myself in a seat opposite a man wearing an extremely bright pair of checked trousers and hair that’s much better kept than my own. It’s ok to steal the odd glance at him though, as like many of the  people on this train, he’s slumped over in what looks like a neck crippling position, ‘sleeping’. I’ve also noted an elderly couple working their way through thick sudoku puzzle books which has made me smile. Many Japanese people I’ve talked to about sudoku when they’ve caught me puzzling have never heard of it!

I know I won’t get to finish this and physically post this until I’m home next week but wanted to enjoy the free hour or so the journey has given me to focus. I’m finding it hard to make the time to share all of my exciting adventures. Something wonderful happens and I think ‘I must write about this ASAP!’ Then time runs away with me and before too long I’ve witnessed another fascinating occurrence or eaten another amazing looking and tasting meal and another moment gets added to the list of things to share with you. Anyway, on with this post…

When I was in Japan last year I was fortunate enough to attend a tea ceremony, not far from where I’m living again, in a small traditional style building, purpose built for such occasions. Back then I marked the afternoon down as one of my most favourite experiences in Japan and treasured every minute of  it. I didn’t know it at the time but I was to return to this tranquil place and be part of a ceremony even more special than the last, feeling much more a part of it this time and not at all like a tourist marvelling and taking sneaky photos.

I’m lucky to know a wonderful person called Mariko. As well as her increasingly rare ability of knowing the ins and outs of wearing a Kimono correctly, Mariko is learning and practicing the traditional art of Japanese tea ceremony. Last night’s ceremony was a very special and intimate one, one which only our host’s most closet acquaintances were invited to. Me being eager to learn everything there is to learn, Mariko, who played a crucial role in the evenings proceedings, invited Toyomi and I along.

Unfortunately Mariko wasn’t able to help Toyomi and I into our complex Kimonos that afternoon but after a few hours of sweating, wrapping, unwrapping and then wrapping again we were in! I wore my new Kimono (purchased at a bargain price too good to resist) along with, two under garments, two securing tie belts, one waist cincher, one stiff waist board, a very long decorative waist belt called an Obi, one back pad, one decorative scarf, another decorative belt, one pair of white socks called Tabi and a few safety pins to stop me flashing my ill fitting under garments through my sleeves. Once my hair was pinned up and I’d applied a little bit of make-up, I was ready! We were very behind schedule due to our struggles but arrived only a few minutes late in the end. My wide western feet were too big to squeeze into the tiny shoes Toyomi lent me to wear so I made do with something a little less traditional. It was my first occasion to wear a proper Kimono, other than the practice lesson from Mariko the week before (when I was too exhausted to pay much attention to how to get Toyomi in to hers, oops) and it felt wonderful. Learning from Mariko how to move with grace and behave modestly when wearing a Kimono made me feel a lot less like a fraud and much more like a Japanese lady, honoured to be playing a part in keeping a tradition alive.

There were 12 of us in total for the ceremony, the first part was performed in a very simple (but very beautiful) room with a tatami mat floor and a specially selected wall hanging and flower arrangement for the occasion. The ceremony marked the coming of the full September moon, arguably the most beautiful of the year. We left our shoes at the door, as is customary in all Japanese homes, and gathered first in an adjacent room, making our way in one by one to the main room. Kneeling at the doorway and bowing to the ground before standing again, we all entered delicately in, sliding our feet along in our crisp white socks. I’d been practicing how to get into a kneeling position, bow and get up again with as much grace as possible, when bending at the middle is difficult and when having knees which are in no way accustomed to such a position is a curse. I was very nervous and a little embarrassed but I didn’t slip or stagger upon heaving myself up again so I think it went ok! Once we were all in and introductions had been made the ceremony began.

The ceremony was in three parts. Starting inside we each had a beautiful Wagashi sweet shaped like an autumnal chestnut. It was squidgy motchi filled with sweetened chestnut purée, it was delicious! I seem to remember they were made by Mariko, she’s so clever!! We then shared a bowl of whisked, super strong green called matcha. I’ve had matcha before and have become accustomed to the strong bitter taste, quite unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. It’s used to flavour many things in Japan, ice cream, sweets, chocolate, cakes etc. I noticed before I left the UK that it was starting to become quite fashionable to drink matcha, with the western world praising the wonderful health benefits of matcha, which the Japanese have been taking advantage of for years. The cups we were sharing were made much stronger than normal so I found drinking it a little difficult. I just about managed my customary 3 sips before passing it to my neighbour, trying to subtly lick my lips to remove the green moustache I could feel stuck to my top  lip. The texture was how it might be to drink powdered charcoal or chalk mixed with a little warm water…

Wall hanging and floral arrangement

Inside the ceremony room

First part of the ceremony

The super strong matcha

Keeling and sitting back on my feet for a minute or two was manageable but as the ceremony went on I’m sorry to say, the pain became too much to bear. Our host was very kind and recognised that I was finding the keeling part difficult so said it was ok to shift my position every now and then.  I just needed to make sure I kept the bottom of my kimono perfectly closed and not flash my undergarments! Slid to one side though it was hard to bow straight and hold the correct pose. There are lots of ‘rules’ if you like, for wearing a kimono and how things are done at a tea ceremony so I really wanted to make a good impression. I was then offered a stool but I didn’t want to be up higher then everyone else so managed in the end with a small raised rest which I slid between my ankles and rested my bottom on! The rest itself was so tiny it looked like an ironing board that might belong to Miss Tiggywinkle. The blood flew more easily to my legs after that and the pain eased but it wasn’t long before my bottom half was totally numb! The numbness I could bear so I was a lot more comfortable… It may not sound very enjoyable so far, but other than this small issue, it really was!

Next out came the most glorious trays. Food isn’t often served at tea ceremonies so I felt especially lucky as I feasted my eyes and my tastebuds upon the tray that was set before me. Our host had prepared each item to reflect the season and the full moon for which we were gathering. The trays were left on the floor and my Japanese eating etiquette put to the ultimate test. I broke off and lifted up each piece with so much care and attention not to drop it I forgot to breathe at times. I think passing out may have been more acceptable than dropping my soup bowl or letting my sweet moon shaped, sugar soaked chestnut role across the tatami floor. I soon relaxed into it as conversation began to flow. The ladies who I remembered seeing at the ceremony I attended last year remembered me too and were curious to know what I was up to now. They were very complimentary of my new kimono and made me immensely proud when they remarked how natural my movement and behaviours were, and commented that I could have been a Japanese lady in a past life! I blushed heavily and soon forgot the numbness in the lower part of my body.

Our full moon themed meal

Miso soup, rice, salmon, grape, egg, sweet potato and sweetened chestnut were amongst the tray’s delights

Enjoying the meal

For the third and final part of the ceremony (after some stretching and heavy breathing from me coming up the rear) we slipped our socked feet back into our shoes and shuffled outside to the garden just after sunset. A low platform had been erected and wooden frames with thick paper tacked to their sides had candles burning inside them. We were ushered to sit on benches around the platform were Mariko was to perform the last part of the ceremony. Being under the night sky with only the light of the candles was truly magical. The setting made me overcome with emotion, the sight of Mariko kneeling and expertly making the next rounds of tea, her every movement with beauty and purpose. Only the sounds of the evening insects chirruping, the sleeves of her Kimono moving and hot water being poured could be heard. I tried hard to capture it on film but gave up on my attempts and settled in to enjoy every wonderous moment, composing myself so not to shed a tear. Writing this I’m not doing so well on the crying front, brimming with the beautiful memories, often overwhelming realisation of where I am and the memory of my Grandmother who passed away last week, who I know would have enjoyed it and loved it just as much as I did.

Mariko whisking tea

image

image

We enjoyed two more beautiful wagashi sweets and a further two cups of delicious matcha tea. Each one presented, thanked and enjoyed with poise and delight. We sat a while longer and then bid each other goodbye, taking our presents of more sweets and pausing for some photos back inside before it was time to head home and unwrap ourselves from our silk cocoons. Unfortunately that big moon didn’t make an appearance that night as we were a little early and the clouds decided to come out to play. It didn’t matter though, I marvelled at the biggest moon I think I’ve ever seen a few days later and remembered with warmth the magical evening that further cemented my love for the Japan that’s still clinging on in there.

Mariko and I

Mariko, Me and Toyomi

Advertisements

Wonderful Wagashi – Kingyoku kan

As a girl with a very sweet tooth and an eagerness to create sweet treats as soon as I was old enough to drag a chair through to the kitchen to be up beside my Mum, I’ve marvelled for years at the glorious works of art the confectionary masters of Japan create. Sweets far too beautiful to eat, they look like they belong in a glass display cabinet rather than eaten. Sweets that reflect the season’s natural beauty in which they are created and enjoyed. There is a key word in the Japanese language that I leant in my first week here – ‘mottainai’ – a word used to convey a sense of regret when something is wasted or is too beautiful or precious to be destroyed. Many special traditional Japanese sweets, collectively know as ‘wagashi’, can be considered embodiments of monttainai and require a photo from every angle before guiltily being enjoyed. They also often require a secondary photo shoot once they have been sliced into as a contrasting centre is revealed to the lucky recipient.

One of my many reasons to come back to Japan was to delve into the world of Japanese wagashi and learn how to make as many sorts as possible. Today was great progress on that objective as I learnt how to make a wagashi called ‘Kingyoku kan’. A molded transparent jelly with ingredients such fruit and/or nerikiri (a kneaded white bean paste) suspended in it. Kingyoku kan is a pretty, cool and refreshing treat so is popular during the summer months.

A lovely cookery teacher acquaintance of Toyomi’s came over for the afternoon today to teach the two of us the art of kingyoku kan. In exchange I taught her how to make macaroons. With a few fails under my belt getting used to different ingredients and a different oven, they didn’t turn out so bad. Not up to my normal standard, but close!

The key ingredient in our kingyoku kan was called ‘kanten’. Kanten is a jelling agent made from a type of edible seaweed. When activated in a solution of water and sugar (in this case) it firms up quickly and forms a semi-transparent jelly. It’s still preferred over modern gelatine due to having zero animal by products in it, having no taste or smell, setting firmer then gelatine and miraculously setting at room temperature. No agonising chill time before we were able to enjoy our creations. After all, traditional Japanese kitchens would not have had fridges!

Inside we used tiny orange segments, grape pieces and a kneaded sweetened white bean paste called ‘nerikiri’ which we shaped into tiny objects such as hearts, cat heads (not so traditional!), flowers and fish. The nerikiri is often coloured with vegetable pigments, along with the jelly, to create miniature nature scenes but we kept ours simple today.

The molds didn’t have bottoms to them so we placed them in a metal tray which we sat in a larger tray full of iced water. The intense chill of the base of the tray was enough to instantly set the liquid when we poured it into the molds. There was no time to rearrange our fruit and nerikiri creations so we had to make sure they were perfect just before pouring. Chopsticks proved invaluable in this task!

Click on my gallery images below to see some of the stages. I didn’t manage a shot of the water and sugar solution creation as I was far too busy stirring and counting crucial seconds! It’s the texture as well as its pretty appearance of this wagashi that makes it. A firm jelly with a subtle hint of lemon and a real bite to it, hugging a bright juicy orange segment perfectly complemented by a creamy, powdery sweet bean nerikiri piece. Marvellous.

For our next cooking exchange I will learn how to make the nerikiri from scratch so I’ll be all set to recreate without the expert eye of my sensei – eep!  。・°°・(>_<)・°°・。

“When I am an old women I shall wear purple”

In Japan there is an occasion in September to celebrate ‘Elderly People’s Day’, a bit like you might celebrate Mother’s Day or Father’s Day in the UK. I think it’s a wonderful tradition to honour the elderly people in society. Japan as a country commands a much higher respect for the wise, elderly generation than many western countries. The population of Japan is classed as an ageing one, with people working and staying healthier for longer and birth rates dropping.  Evidence of this is all around me, the home I am living in used to be a primary school until it was shut downdue to lack of pupils. In Japan, care in the home for elderly people is very important, particularly in rural communities, where they are often far from their families, who have left for work opportunities in cities.

Every year on this occassion a group of the villagers volunteer to host a lunch for the elderly people of the village at the local hall. This year I went along with Toyomi and Yasu to help. We have two volunteers staying with us at the moment, a lovely English couple called Jacob and Laura, they also came along to lend a hand and marvel with me at another heart warming tradition. Initiatives such as this lunch are invaluable in keeping up connections and to visit those unable to phsically attend. Although many of the people who came along have officially retrired, many of them continue to work, tending their rice fields and neat vegetable plots. In rural communiteis you’ll often see elderly people whose bodies are permenantly bent over from years of hard work bending over to farm the land. Last year I was wowed by such an eldely lady who flew past me on her mobility scooter and down to her rice field where she hopped off and joined in the rice harvest with the rest of her family. I looked on in sheer wonder and respect at her determination to keep mobile and busy.

The day’s preparations were divided, with the men firing up the ‘BBQ’ and the women preparing the soup and sushi in the kitchen. I use the term BBQ loosely as it was a very different looking device to what I’m used to. It looked like a concrete gully and was filled with charcoal and wood, with the grill laid on the top (no photo, sorry). When Jacob, Laura and I arrived the grilling was already in full swing with small bamboo skewers packed tightly with chunks of chicken and thin white leek, called Yakitori, sizzling away. In Japan, Yakitori is typically served from food stands or in bars and small restruarnats and is gobbled up along with beer or shōchū. It’s a wonderful alternative to overpriced crisps and pork scratchings!

I was stationed in the kitchen preparing the sushi boxes and washing up. The mountains of rice had been cooked earlier in the morning and were poured into large shallow wooden dishes with a rice wine vinegar and sugar solution added to give it flavour. Our first job was to frantically fan it and turn it over to cool it down ready to form the base of the sushi boxes. I was entrusted with thinly slicing the egg topping which had been beaten and fried into super thin crepes. I tightly rolled up a few rounds at a time and sliced it as thin as I could – the width is very important I was told, “it’s the Japanese way!” The toppings were ready, a mix of shitake mushrooms and lotus root were stired through the rice and then our assembly began!

First a bed of rice and then toppings of egg, prawn, fish, shiso leaf, carrot, lotus root and mushroom were arranged on the top to form a very pretty looking meal. The type of sushi we made is called ‘chirashi zushi.’ Chirashi means ‘scattered’, describing the way the finished thing looks with the toppings laid on top. The boxes were then wrapped in a celebratory paper called ‘noshi gami’, and secured with an elastic band ready for serving. Traditionally the decorative noshi gami would have a handmade a paper decoration on and be tied with red and white string. These days printed ones are easy to come by for convenience.

image

Assembly line

image

image
There was also musical entertainment in the form of Bessho-san on percusion and guitar and Hiraoka-san on guitar. They performed a marvellous rendition of Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes which went down well with everyone joining in. Even at 28 I still fail to alway clap at the corect time! Before lunch was served a group photo was taken with our elderly guests lined up in two rows. Their smiling furrowed faces all showing they have really lived life. Here they are just before the official photograph was taken:

image

We then served lunch along with beer, sake and cold earthy tasting tea. The tastes and different textures of the chirashi zushi were wonderful. They were so pretty to look at and it was great to see everyone enjoying their individual boxes, catching up with friends on their farming accomplishments and family tales. Some of the more frail or immobile residents who were unable to attend had their boxes deliverd to them so no one missed out on the treat.

I took note of the fact they were all wearing similar colours and asked Toyomi why. She told me that as they are older they feel they should wear quiet colours, often grey. This news made me feel a little sad and I thought about Jenny Joseph’s poem Warning, which is about all the radical things she would do when she became old, including wearing purple. If there is any nation of elderly people that can pull off purple, I feel it’s the Japanese.

 

SHINRIN-YOKU 森林浴 “forest bathing” – a visit to the forest for relaxation and to improve ones health. 

This post is shamefully rather late… So much has happened in the two months I’ve been here. I’ve been busy getting my weave on, finding my catering for the masses feet, getting into yoga (managed a headstand during lesson 2, whoop!), trying my hand at teaching English, hitting new highs at karaoke (my go to time off treat), teaching how to make Cornish pasties and blowing Japanese minds with bananas on the BBQ and good old fashioned trifle!

I managed to just catch the end of spring here in Japan. Although I missed the Sakura blossom, I enjoyed the cherry tree’s last pickings, making delicious sorbet and sweet sauces from the tiny red fruit. The damp, mould proliferating rainy season has swept over me too, leaving me roasting in a record breaking summer heat.

With the severe increase in temperature, my understanding of Japanese fashion has somewhat increased. Browsing everything Japanese department stores have to offer, I’d become used to seeing displays of designer flannels and towels. They are so pretty I thought, “a Paul & Joe mini towel, how cute!” Not a purchase I need to make though… But welcome the Japanese summer in and a pretty towel is the must have accessory! Tied around your head or draped around your neck, ready to mop your sweaty brow, it’s a necessity (also necessary for drying your hands in public bathrooms that don’t always have paper towels or hand dryers).

Yasan sporting his signature Japanese towel

Yasan sporting his signature Japanese towel

Writing this thankfully I’ve confined myself to the air conditioned café where I spend most of my time here. Suitably chilled, half deafened by the cicadas chorus outside and facing an evening free from guests I’m finally focusing…

My home here for the next year is nestled high in the Okayama mountains. In Japanese ‘yama 山’ means mountain so the prefecture is very hilly to say the least. Look out of any window here at home and your eye can only see as far as a thick impenetrable wall of forest. A mix of towering pine trees and thick bamboo that waves to you in the breeze. The title of this post is Shinrin-Yoku, which literally means ‘forest bathing’, making contact with and taking in the tranquil environment of a forest. Studies conducted in Japan concluded that spending time in forests can lower your blood pressure and relax the body, therefore the perfect respite from the stressful cities. Makes perfect sense so I’m here topping up on 28 years worth of shinrin-yoku.

Here are some pictures as promised:

Heading out to the city along the river

Heading out to the city along the river

 

Winding up the mountain to get home

Winding up the mountain to get home

Arts & Crafts Village.  Was an old Primary School until 1992.

Home – Arts & Crafts Village.
Was an old Primary School until 1992 when Toyomi & Yasau converted it into weaving and woodwork workshops

 

image

image

Filling up the water tanks at the mountain water source

Filling up the water tanks at the mountain water source

I’ve been fortunate enough to be welcomed into the home of a woman with boundless energy, generosity, humour and an innate care for the earth and its people. Every day is different, full of new faces and the familiar ones of people I’m proud to call my friends. Every week varies with weaving workshops, music weekends, exhibitions and customers calling in for an iced coffee or a homemade plum juice. It’s also a great place for guests to spend a few nights, swapping the loud bustle of the city for the sounds of the rushing river, calls of insects and the very special morning wake up from Pipi-chan our angry rooster.

I’ll tell you more about all of that in my next posts, which I’m going to try to make more regular now I’ve got my self settled and sorted. Arigato x

 

Don’t wait. Life goes faster than you think.

So, here goes, my first post on my rather empy lookig blog… I’ve made it back to Japan…!

After spending three months here in 2014 and after not much deliberation, I decided to return to Japan and the people that made my time in this amazing country so wonderful. I didn’t feel ready to go back to my life in the UK and leave behind the families and friends I was only just starting to get to know and a place I felt I’d only really scratched the surface of. Plus, being all that closer to the ripe age of 30 (working holiday visas aren’t avalible to over 30’s (´・_・`) ), I figured it was best to crack stright on before life gets too serious. 

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my life, my job, my flat and the group of wonderful people that became my family in Nottingham but last year I got a taste of what else is out there in the big wide world and realised that life is simply too short not to live it exactly as you please. So I’m taking advantage of that whilst I’m still in a position to. I’ve been welcomed back to my second Workaway position at a beautiful place nestled high in the Okayama mountains. If you’re thinking about seeing a bit more of the world and want to do it inexpensively and most importantly get a true sense of what it’s like to live in a country Workaway is a brilliant solution. It’s a site that’s been set up to promote fair exchange between budget travellers, language learners or culture seekers and families, individulas or organisations who are looking for help with all sorts of activities. 

My first Workaway position in Japan was with a wonderful couple, Yoshimi, Katsutaka and their little daughter Amika. I stayed there for six weeks during grape season. Picking, sorting, washing, packing, cutting, drying and selling the most beautiful big black grapes you’ve ever seen, called Pione. They have a stall at the local Farmer’s Market which we manned most days, selling products made with the dried grapes. It was a brilliant way to throw myself in at the deep end, trying out my Japanese, getting to know the locals and a vast aray of werid and wonderful seasonal produce.

Pione

Selling at the Farmer’s market

It was here that I fell in love with the Japanese countryside. I’ve always been a county mouse at heart and felt instantly at home. Not only that but truly at peace. A defining moment for me was at my second host home (where I am now) standing on a bridge in my apron and wellies (my everyday attire), the sun beaming down on my face, the icy mountin water rushing beneath my feet, crows screeching high up in the trees and my arms full of fresh salad I’d just picked. It was in that tranquil moment that I realised there is so much more to life,  I was happy I’d found the courage to go out and experience something out of the norm. It may not sound particulary exciting, but for me, it was heaven. Clean, uncomplicated, simplicity.

So, I’m back in Japan after a quick six month stay in the UK, re-fuelling funds and catching up with family and friends. Thanks agan to everyone who welcomed me home and supported me during my stay. You are very special people to me, you know who you are and I miss you already!

I’m now living and working at the Arts & Crafts Village, my second Workaway host home, with Toyomi, her husband Yasu, 6 cats, 5 chickens and a very angry rooster called Pipi-chan. People come to visit the cafe and to attend workshops. Toyomi teaches weaving and natural dying and Yasu teaches wood work. We also have guest teachers for yoga, acupuncture, Ukulele, all sorts! It’s all very tranquil and stress free.

The house used to be an old school so it has lots of character and is by no means a traditional Japanese home. The kitchen and cafe, where I spend most of my time, used to be the chemistry lab. The stove is plumbed into the old gas taps and storage is the old glass equipment cabinets. I sleep in a class room upstairs with a huge blackboard dominating the room. I must write up two of the alphabets so I have no excuse not to learn them…

I’ll write about the house more later I think. Feel I should get this up first as I’ve been here 5 days already! My pictures of the place are all from last year so I’ll take some new ones too.

Thanks for reading ヾ(@⌒ー⌒@)ノ