Saturday, 25 January 2014

Matsuri food

Japanese traditional events usually organized by a shrine or a temple, like the Daruma market I was telling you about last time, are typically referred to as "matsuri". This word translates into English as "festival", but, as you can easily imagine, this is not the type of festival we are used to in the West. In other words, it ain't no Glastonbury. And the only music you'll hear here will be of the traditional kind - usually taiko drumming, or an ohayashi orchestra.

But apart from all the drumming and worshipping of local gods, buying good luck charms and supporting your local community, you can't have a proper matsuri without matsuri food. And festival food is an institution in its own right.

Regardless of when a matsuri is being held, in winter or summer, some foods simply must be present. And no serious matsuri would be complete without a choco banana on a stick.

This is an ubiquitous matsuri sight - at least several different stands will have chocolate covered bananas, with or without sprinkles. Odd, considering that bananas are not native to Japan. And they are quite expensive to buy at a supermarket.

This shows you the first rule of matsuri food - it should be on a stick. And what can you stick on a stick? Apparently anything! From waffles to fish.

These waffles were delicious… yummy…. Candy on a stick? Yep, we got it.

Such candy can get quite interesting, depending on what type of festival it is being sold at. There is a fertility festival in Kawasaki city, held the first weekend of April, where the candy is in the shape, well, you know… reproductive organs, both male and female. Luckily, with the recent popularity of Nameko, they are frequently confused with mushroom-shaped lollipops.

You can also have a lot less risque stick-snacks, like for example this miso flavored manju.

Hmmm… which one should I choose? How about this one?

And what if you are really hungry and in the mood for a more substantial snack? No worries, any self-respecting matsuri will have you covered. How about takoyaki? "Tako" means octopus, "yaki" is fried. And this is exactly what it sounds like - bits of chopped octopus formed into a ball and fried. Delicious!!!

Ever since I tried okonomiyaki (I will tell you about that amazing adventure another time), I've been a huge fan of this "fry what you want" dish. At any matsuri you can find a simple version like this.

What amazed me the most was that even when cooking outside in sub-zero temperatures, the staff still managed to make every single okonomiyaki perfectly uniform and literally exactly the same. Only in Japan!

All this eating can make you really thirsty. At summer matsuris people usually drink copious amounts of beer. But in winter? In winter they have another, very traditional, drink.

It's called amazake, and even though there is "sake" in the name, this drink has little, or no alcohol at all. Like all sakes, it is also made from fermented rice. Personally, I am not a fan. The texture, smell and sweetness did not appeal to me at all. But it is believed to be a cure-all in Japan, good for everything from hangovers to stomach aches.

* * *

I really enjoyed my stay stay in Japan. Actually, the plan was to see (and to taste) even more but the month I have planned to spend here passed so quickly! It is time to go home now. But I have already agreed with my hosts that the next time that I come to Asia I will visit them again. So watch out for some new stories from Japan. And some more food for sure!

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Annual Daruma Market

Do you remember when I have told you that daruma dolls are an important symbol of the New Year? I do not know if you have ever heard of them before but to be honest, until I came to Japan I had no idea what a daruma was. Luckily, recently my hosts took me to the annual daruma doll market at the Shorinzan temple in Takasaki so I was able to find out more about them.

Although it is called a "doll", it's not really a toy at all. Rather, it's a symbol of good luck, good fortune and perseverance. That's why a properly made daruma is a tumbler-doll. When you push it over, it will right itself up, similar to a Russian vanka-vstanka. If you talk to a Japanese person about darumas, you will most likely hear the phrase "nanakorobi yaoki", which is traditionally translated as "seven times down, eight times up". Now you see where the symbol of perseverance comes from - you should always get up, just like your daruma doll.

The origin of daruma is a bit complicated. Have you heard of the Zen school of Buddhism? That branch of Buddhism was founded by a guy known as Bodhidharma back in the 5th or 6th century. He was usually depicted as a wide-eyed barbarian with a massive beard. You can see the obvious similarities in the faces of daruma dolls, right?

But how had a long-dead, ill-tempered Buddhist monk become a Japanese symbol of good luck? It all started at the Shorinzan temple, also known as "Daruma-dera" (daruma temple) in Takasaki city, in what is now Gunma prefecture.

You see, the Japanese are a superstitious bunch and proud of it. And the belief in talismans and good luck charms is still going strong now, in the 21st century. So you can only imagine how important such magical charms were back in the ancient times. Every year you needed a new charm to keep you lucky and strong that year, and the priests at Shorinzan saw in this an amazing business opportunity.

And the business opportunity continues to this very day. Every year, on January 6th and 7th, the temple, known as the "daruma temple" all over Japan, holds the largest daruma market in the country. And because even to this day, the majority of Japanese daruma dolls are produced in the city of Takasaki (where the temple is located), you can easily imagine, that this market is a super big and super important event.

This year, it was estimated that around 400 000 people visited the market to buy new daruma dolls, and dispose of the old ones. And, of course, I was there, as well.

The market is held at night. Which in winter can be a very trying experience. We bundled up, parked the car about 2 km away from the temple (the area around the temple is closed to traffic during the market) and started a long walk in the freezing night.

Reaching the temple was only the first part of the journey. The second part was getting in line and patiently waiting your turn. Because the temple is located on a hill, the only way to get there is by a multitude of stone steps. And crowds, even as well-behaved as Japanese crowds, and steps don't mix. Luckily, the police were at hand very efficiently dividing the waiting masses into groups of about 100 people and letting them go up.

What could you do during the waiting time? Dispose of your old daruma doll! A special tent was set up along the road to the temple, where you could leave your old doll. Later, those old dolls will be burned in a special, ritual fire.

After about an hour of waiting, we finally got close to the temple gate.

You can just about see the steps leading up - that's our destination.  Don't lose your footing going up - there are about a hundred people marching along with you on those narrow, steep stone steps. If you slow down or slip, it's going to have quite unpleasant consequences.

After the first batch of steps, guess what you see? Yes! You got it! More steps. When we finally got to the main temple building we were out of breath and sweating.

First, we prayed. I've already learned how to pray the shinto way, but I had no idea how to do it Buddhist style.

Turns out I didn't need to worry. You just get up close to the collection box, toss some money, and wish for whatever's in your heart. Easy! With our spiritual duties completed, we could finally explore what the market had to offer.

And it offered darumas. More and more darumas.

And even more darumas!

Some of these darumas are ridiculously expensive, they can cost up to the equivalent of almost 400 dollars! Can you believe it? Spending 400 dollars on a good luck charm? I'd say you already have plenty of luck, if you can afford it.

So what was the difference between all the different darumas we saw? As I learned that night, different manufacturers have their own signature designs. The basic shape, of course, is the same. The difference is in the face.

And guess what? All those darumas as still made and painted by hand! You can also see that they are not painted completely - the eyes are left blank. The tradition is that you fill in one eye when you get your daruma and decide on a task you want to accomplish, and the other eye - when the task is completed.

All your purchases had to be wrapped properly, and some shops even had their own signature daruma bags.

After the evening filled with shopping and food, it was time to brave the steps again. This time it was easy - we were going down.

All this climbing has made me hungry. Luckily my hosts have told me it is time to investigate some Japanese festive food. I could not agree more!

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The strange flavors of Japan

Today I will introduce you to some of the strange flavors of Japan. Or maybe not so strange? I guess it all depends on where you are in the world. What might be strange to you, could be quite common on the other side of the globe. Like, for example, purple sweet potato (murasaki imo) flavored snacks in Japan. It's on the left, you can see the words "murasaki imo" on the package.

Sounds quite unusual, but, in reality, it's a very usual seasonal flavor here. Every autumn the stores are full of purple sweet potato chocolates, cookies, chips and candies.

If you live in the West, I bet every so often you hear about some bizarre flavor of something or the other they supposedly eat in Japan. However, what you don't hear about is that those "bizarre" flavors are most likely either seasonal (like the sweet potato in autumn), or regional (like zunda in Sendai), or simply released as one-time novelty gimmicks for promotional purposes (like all the weird Pepsi flavors a few years back, my hosts say that strawberry milk Pepsi was delicious).

Wait a minute! What's zunda?

Do you know what edamame is? It's green soybean. Zunda is ground edamame and in Miyagi prefecture (Tohoku region, north of Tokyo), it's used to flavor cakes, cookies, mochi, and even milk. Yes, milk! That's what you see on the left in the photo above - zunda flavored milk drink. My hosts make zunda flavored bread, and let me tell you, it's delicious.

And just like Tohoku with its zunda, every region of Japan has its own unique speciality. The easiest way to find out what they are is to look at all the different regional KitKat varieties at Narita Airport.

Can you believe it? Wasabi KitKats, chili KitKats, apple Kitkats, green tea and cherry blossoms KitKats, rum raisin Kitkats, purple sweet potato KitKats, strawberry cheesecake KitKats, and the list goes on … However, most of these flavors are not available in typical supermarkets. If you want to buy these unusual KitKats, you need to look for them in places frequented by tourists. Such as Narita Airport, for example.

What you can get in typical supermarkets is a myriad of Hello Kitty branded sweets. Sweet Kitty-chan is perfect for sweet sweets. Especially if those sweets are apple flavored. Because, as any child can tell you, miss Kitty is as heavy as 3 apples.

And now, if you excuse me, I have a cheese flavored cake (not to be confused with cheesecake) to eat. Because Nasu in Tochigi prefecture is famous for its milk, dairy products and cheeses. Yes, Japan and cheese - who would have thought!

And what shall I drink with my cake? Green tea of course!!! I prefer my green tea cold. It's simple and it's delicious.

And what to do if you don't have a sweet tooth? You can always munch on a more traditional (and a lot more healthy) snack.

Yes, dried fish. Trust me, it's quite tasty! Bon apetite!

PS. And if you are on a diet and don't like fish, you can always go shopping for anime costumes. They tell me that visitors to Japan like to do that a lot. Because, really, kimonos are so last season!

I'd look great in that wig. Sadly, they didn't have it in my size.

Saturday, 4 January 2014


Hatsumode, in plain English, is the first visit to a shinto shrine in the new year. Some people choose to visit a buddhist temple, but my hosts followed the shinto tradition, so off to a shrine we went.

Here's something interesting about hatsumode. In the West, on new year's eve people dance and party all night long. In Japan, instead of drinking and partying, people gather at shrines and temples and wait to ring in the new year there, on holy ground. At midnight the bells at buddhist temples ring 108 times. Why 108 exactly? Because according to the buddhist belief, that's how many earthly sins those weak humans have.

Some of those weak humans don't want to fight the crowds at shrines and temples on new year's day, so they delay their first visit until the second or even the third day of January. That's what my lazy hosts did.

There are many famous shrines in Japan, and every town and village have their own main shrine in the district. We didn't go to such a shrine. Instead, we visited a local shrine dedicated to those who died serving Japan during the times of war. There are many such war shrines throughout Japan, and the most famous is, without a doubt, Yasukuni Jinja in Tokyo.

Picture taken on 15th August, anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II

It's the controversial shrine where some of Japan's World War 2 criminals are enshrined along with millions of other people (both soldiers and civilians) who died fighting for their country. Whenever a high ranking government official visits Yasukuni, Korea and China get very upset.

No, we didn't go to Yasukuni. We went to a local shrine serving the same purpose. This one is called Tochigi Gokoku Shrine and is located in the city of Utsunomiya.

Before we reached the main shrine building, we needed to prepare ourselves properly. You can do that at temizuya - a small structure with a water basin and ladles. At some shrines you get to see fancy dragon statues spewing water into the basin, but not at this Gokoku.

So what do you do at temizuya? You fill the ladle with water and wash your left hand first, then your right hand, and then your mouth. And boom, you're purified now. You can enter the temple grounds and go and pray.

How do you pray in the shinto tradition? Here, I can tell you. First you approach the main shrine building. You toss a coin into the collection box out front. You ring the bell.

Then you bow twice, you clap your hands twice, you lower your head, close your eyes and think whatever it is you want the gods to hear. When you are finished, you bow one more time, and that's it. You're good to go.

During the first 3 days of January you can also get a ritual drink of sake. Ha! That's one ritual I am sure that many people love to follow.

You can also buy your omikuji (fortune telling paper) for the year, and if the fortune is not so lucky, you can simply leave at the shrine hoping that in this way you can leave your bad luck behind. You can also leave your omikuji even if your fortune is good, as thanks to the gods.

The wooden tablets with the images of horses are called ema.

You write your wishes on them and then hang them at the shrine, offering your prayers to the gods. Where do you get all those things from? Do you make them yourself at home? Of course not. You buy them at a special shop at the shrine. It's probably the busiest time of the year for them.

After we prayed, read our fortunes and tied them to a tree, wrote our prayers on ema tablets, we felt a strange sense of purpose. The feeling you get when you follow an ancient tradition even without fully understanding its ancient meaning.

And then it was done. With our hatsumode completed, we still had some time left to explore the shrine grounds. There were many more minor worship points dedicated to the fallen soldiers of Japan. But not only soldiers. Look what I have found!

A special place honoring the horses who served their country during the time of war. I must admit I was very touched and very grateful. Thank you, the people of Japan , for not forgetting about us.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy New Year of the Horse!!!

Yes, horse! How awesome is that?! I feel so important and so appreciated right now. I'm almost famous, after all ...

If by some chance you forget that 2014 is the year of the horse, shop owners are quick to remind you. Images of horses are literally everywhere. Starting with the New Year's cards, of course. While in the West we usually send Christmas (or more generically - Holiday) greetings to our friends and relatives, in Japan there is no such custom. Instead, the tradition here is to send New Year's cards, not only to friends and relatives, but to anyone we deem important enough to receive one. In some cases that number can go into hundreds.

Sometimes though, in very special circumstances, it is not appropriate to send someone a New Year's card. This is usually the situation when that someone had a death in the family during the year.

I love to look at Japanese New Year's cards. Some of them can be quite inventive. Oh look, a horse on a bicycle! How cool is that?

But how come the year of the horse is marked in Japan? Isn't it a Chinese tradition? Yes, it is. But while the Chinese stick to the lunar calendar and their year of the horse will begin on January 31st 2014, the Japanese went the easy way and celebrate it according to the western calendar. And thus, the year of the horse begins on January 1st in Japan.

New Year is a huge holiday in Japan. Probably the most important family occasion in the whole year. This is the day that everyone wants to spend with their family. People travel hundreds of kilometers to be with their loved ones, eat traditional New Year foods, visit shrines (shinto) or temples (buddhism) and ask higher powers for a good and prosperous year.

The homes are decorated as well. You can find kagami mochi almost everywhere you look. This decoration consists of two flat round rice cakes placed on top of each other, topped off with a bitter orange. It's supposed to bring good health and good luck. And we all could use more of that, right?

Here, you can see them with a miniature daruma doll on top. Daruma doll is also a very important symbol for the New Year.

On doors and entrances you can see shimekazari, a twisted rope and rice straw decoration. It is believed to ward off evil spirits and it marks the dwelling as a sacred place.

There are many other Japanese New Year traditions, like for example - a huge year end house cleaning, but who wants to hear about that? Cleaning? Not me, for sure!

My New Year's cards are all written and posted, the house I'm staying at is beautifully decorated (whether it's been cleaned top to bottom, well let's keep it a secret) and I am horsing around the table trying all sorts of yummy foods.

Happy New Year everyone! Of the Horse! Of course!