Saturday, January 26, 2008

Is rice still the "Soul of Japan?"

Is rice still the soul of Japan? Perhaps not so strongly anymore when you see the advance of hamburgers, pasta en steaks.

But various things still remind me of the fact that this tropical marshland plant has shaped Japanese civilization as we know it. Rice and the Japanese share a long and deep relationship. Rice cultivation caused the rise of extended families, of sophisticated water control and of communal cooperation. It made Japan into the "interdependent" society it still is today.

It also shaped religion as rice cultivation itself was seen as a religious act - the God of the Paddies (or the Mountain God) would be welcomed to the fields in spring and be sent off again in autumn. This in turn gave rise to annual observances, festivals (matsuri) and folk performing arts. These rituals were also connected with ceremonies in the Imperial House.

But that is not all. I find it interesting that rice was also money. Besides being the staple food, rice functioned as salary - samurai's stipends were measured and paid in rice - and as tax money. Both were measured in koku, usually translated as bushels, although the Japanese bushel at 180 liters was more than 5 times the U.S. bushel. One koku was the total amount of rice eaten in a year by one person.

Traditional Japan truly was a rice economy. Was there ever a bread or potato economy in Europe? I have not heard of it!

The type of rice eaten in Japan is called Japonica and characterized by greater stickiness than Chinese or Indian rice. Besides normal glutinous rice, there is even a more stickier type that is used for making the dreaded mochi rice cakes and the okowa (sticky, steamed rice) you can buy on the food floors of department stores. A third variety with long, starchy kernels is used exclusively as rice for brewing sake.

There are thousands of varieties of rice in Japan, many of them bred in the 20th century for improved productivity and resistance to disease and cold weather. The most famous types such as Koshihikari and Sasanishiki are brand names in their own right and demand higher prices than ordinary rice where different types have been mixed.

That rice is the basis of the Japanese menu, is demonstrated by an expression as ichiju ichisai : "one soup" (miso) and "one vegetable dish" (pickles) - a bowl of rice is also included, but so obvious that it is not even mentioned!

Besides being eaten as white rice (after polishing the brown hull away), rice is used for rice cakes, Japanese sweets, rice crackers, and to make sake, vinegar, miso, mirin (sweet cooking sake) and koji (malt). There are various rice dishes, such as onigiri, takikomi gohan (rice cooked together with various ingredients), donburi (white rice with a topping as eel, fried pork etc), Chinese-style fried rice (chahan) - and of course pilaff.

In a traditional society, nothing is thrown away, so rice straw was used for making rope, straw sandals, straw mats (goza), tatami padding, straw rice bags and straw rain coats (mino).

By the number of expressions and nuances for it in a given language, you can see whether something is important in that culture. Not surprisingly, there are many words for rice in Japanese. The Japanese make a difference between rice in the fields (ine), harvested rice (kome) and cooked rice (gohan). Gohan is also the general term for "food." When rice is eaten from a plate instead of from a bowl, it is not Japanese anymore and is therefore called by the English term "raisu."

Finally, some "rice etiquette":
- when serving rice, do not fill the rice bowl to the brim but only lightly put two or three scoops of rice in the bowl with the rice paddle;
- never put other food on top of the rice or mix it with other food in the ricebowl (of course, except when some pickles as a dried plum are already on top);
- do not add flavorings such as soy sauce or red pepper to the white rice, this looks very barbarian!
- when eating the rice, pick up the bowl in one hand and bring it close to your mouth (do the same with the miso soup); however, never pick up the plate when rice is served on a plate.
- when starting the meal say "itadakimasu!" ("I receive") and when finished "gochisosama!" ("Thank you for the feast").

If you don't like rice, be assured that it will grow on you the longer you stay in Japan. At least, that is my experience. When I was just in Japan, I could at most eat half a bowl, but after a couple of years I found myself increasingly asking for "okawari" (a second helping)!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Black food is healthy in Japan

Food crazes come and go in Japan, one after the other, sometimes many simultaneously, but the fervor for "black foods" is remarkably steady – it has already been with us for almost ten years. And indeed, black is better, as black foods often contain more anthocyanin (a type of polyphenol found in high concentrations in blueberries and raspberries), isoflavones and minerals and have additional health benefits such as antioxidants to battle those free radicals. Anthocyanins make blueberries blue, cherries red and blackberries black. The darker the color, the more anthocyanins a food contains.

Most black foods have actually been long known in Japan, but were dropped out of the modern diet or are only eaten on special occasions, such as the black soybean – by many Japanese this is consumed only once a year in Osechi Ryori, the traditional New Year dish.

In fact, black soy beans were used in Chinese medicine to clear toxins from the body. Black beans are high in protein, fiber and anthocyanins and may be helpful for lowering cholesterol levels. Years ago a method was developed for roasting the beans, making it possible to eat the beans as a snack - or make black soybean tea by soaking the roasted beans in hot water. The resulting tea has the aroma of roasted beans and tastes slightly sweet. You can even eat the beans left over at the bottom of your cup as a snack!

Black soy beans have found their way into various food products as well. House Foods has brought a new type of cocoa drink to the market, “Black Bean Cocoa”, to which black soybeans from the Tanba region in Western Japan have been added. This has been a hit, adding the polyphenols of the cocoa to the anthocyanins of the black soybeans.

Kobe-based food manufacturer Fujicco has developed Black Beans Tea, there is Black Bean Coffee, and black beans are even added to soymilk drinks. There is also Black Beans Natto (if you can stomach that).

Another black ingredient are Black Sesame Seeds, which are a source of calcium and seem to be good for the kidney and liver. They also have high amounts of protein, iron, and magnesium. Black sesame seeds too, are added to all kinds of foods and drinks – there is also a soymilk drink with black sesame seeds, not to speak of black sesame biscuits and cereals.

Black Vinegar Drinks or “Kurosu” have also been around for some time now on the health foods market. Black vinegar is aged vinegar made from rice, barley and sometimes brown rice. It is aged for 3 months to a year in ceramic pots. The dark liquid is rich in citric acid, vitamins and minerals. It is said to help lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, among other benefits. This, too, is a huge market. Most manufacturers come from Kagoshima in southern Kyushu, such a Sakamoto Breweries that has 70% of the market.

Black Rice or Kurokome is so rare and high in nutrition that in China only the imperial house was allowed to eat it - it was therefore also called "forbidden rice." It is again rich in anthocyanins. It is not very common in Japan and you will probably have to to visit a health store to get it. The best way to eat it is to mix a spoonful through your "ordinary" rice.

Blueberries have for some time been a popular ingredient in for example yogurt as they are believed to improve eyesight. That may be a myth, but these deeply hued berries are indeed high in antioxidants.

Black mushrooms such as shiitake are often eaten in Japan and also thought to be good for fighting loose radicals. Shiitake do not go well with Western food, but can be eaten separately, just grilled or as tempura. In Japan, you find them often in stews and soups.

Finally, we have Chinese Black Tea or Puaru (Pu-erh) tea that has also boomed in Japan. Chinese black tea is of the green tea family, but has undergone a fermenting process of many, many years – sometimes as long as twenty years (although three is more normal!). This leads to a very rich aroma. The tea is thought to possess detoxification and antibacterial properties. It also helps to slim down.

In short, black is healthy. The market for black foods in Japan is huge – it is estimated to easily surpass the $500 million mark. Of course these foods are not a cure-all and some health claims are rather based on folklore than on solid scientific research. But being high in proteins and other nutrients, they will never be bad for you!

Book review: "A Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo" by Sumiko Enbutsu

Tokyo and flowers - that may not be the first association springing up in your mind when thinking about the Japanese metropolis. The metropolitan government seems to be in the race to cover every square inch of the city with concrete before, say, the year 2010. In some places, the houses and flats have been packed so close together that not even a single blade of grass would fit between them, let alone a tree with peonies!

That is the stereotype - now the reality. Although there is no large "Central Park," even in the central parts of Tokyo you will in fact find some nice greenery. The city boasts many small parks, which often originated in the gardens of Edo-period daimyo. It seems that in the Edo-period Tokyo even was a veritable green garden city. In addition, in the last century, new parks have been laid out in the (then) less populated western part of Tokyo. And surrounding areas, as Kamakura, are still very green, so it is not too difficult to escape all that gray solidity.

If you want to know where to find the best flowers / in the best gardens / right in season, there could be no better guide than Sumiko Enbutsu's A Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo. Ms. Enbutsu has already written four other guidebooks about Tokyo (and one about Chichibu) and is an expert in the various cultural and historical aspects of the city.

A Flower Lover's Guide contains 40 walks in Tokyo and places around the city. They have been organized under the headings of fifteen flowers and trees, starting with cherry blossoms in late March - early April and ending a year later with the camellia. The journey in between takes us along the azalea, tree peony, wisteria, iris, lily, lotus, morning glory, bush clover, chrysanthemum, maple, pine, narcissus and plum blossom.

Every chapter starts with an introduction about that particular flower, its history in Japan, and its associations in literature and art. These are the most interesting parts of the book and Ms. Enbutsu has unearthed many fascinating facts and episodes.

The walks take us to famous places, as Chidorigafuchi in Tokyo for cherry blossoms, or the Ueno Toshogu Shrine for peonies, but also thankfully to lesser known spots, so even for people who have been rambling around Tokyo's parks already, there is still enough to discover with this book in hand.

Take for example the plum blossom: I have written posts about the Yoshino Baigo in Ome (Tokyo) and the Atami Baien in Saitama, but Mrs Enbutsu suggests the Keio Mogusa-en Garden and the Ikegami Plum Garden, which are both new to me. When I visited the Sakitama Fudoki no Oka Park with its ancient tumuli in Gyoda, I didn't know there was also an "Ancient Lotus Village Park" nearby (in this case it did not matter, as I went there in deepest winter!). And although I was familiar with the trumpet-shaped morning glories sold at the famous summer fair in Iriya, the henka or "changed" morning glories grown as a game by dilettantes in Edo and now still on view annually in the garden of the National Museum of Japanese History in Sakura, were a revelation to me! And so on...

What is more, this guide book has been most beautifully edited: it has been lavishly illustrated with all-color photography by Michiru Unae, decorated with chiyogami floral designs and on all 40 walks you will have the support of large and clear maps and "getting there" indications.

In short, this is a perfect book that should grace the book shelf of every flower lover in Japan. And who doesn't love flowers?

A Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo by Sumiko Enbutsu (Kodansha International, 2007)

P.S. As Kyoto and Nara are real flower paradises, much more than Tokyo, I am looking forward to a volume in the same format on the Kansai as well!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Sushi shop slang

When you want to show off in a sushi restaurant as THE connoisseur, you can of course order an omakase course and let the sushi chef, the Itamae-san, serve you the best delicacies he has been able to find at Tsukiji that day.

That may however be dangerous for your wallet. Sushi chefs have a rather obscure way of setting prices and omakases are always expensive.

Luckily, there is another way to boast your way to sushi stardom: use the special sushi shop slang to demonstrate you know your way around.

Here are a few examples of "itamae-nese":

otemoto - chopsticks, normal would be ohashi. "Otemoto" means literally "at the base of your hands."

murasaki - soy sauce, normal would be shoyu. Murasaki means "purple" and so refers to the color of the sauce.

agari - the term used in sushi restaurants to mean a large cup of green tea, usually had at the end of the meal. Agari means "to complete." There is no charge for this tea and you may drink as much as you like.

["Agari" tea is also sold in cans from vending machines]

gari - thinly sliced ginger pickled in vinegar. "gari-gari ni yaseta" means "rattlebones," but I am not sure that is related!

ichinin-mae - a serving for one person, usually referring to the thick, sweet omelet eaten at the end of the course. Literally, "in front of one person."

odori-ebi, "dancing shrimp," a shrimp that is still alive.

hikari-mono, "shiny things," fish with the skin still attached as aji, horse mackerel.

shari, vinegared sushi rice. This is my favorite one: cooked rice normally is gohan. Shari refers to the Buddha's ashes, which were considered an important relic in Buddhism. When people are cremated in Japan, the body is not wholly reduced to ashes, but brittle bones are left. Small pieces of bone resemble rice grains, as they are white and shiny. The term is not meant to be unpleasant, but rather an honorific. In fact, as very few pieces of Buddha bones made it all the way to Japan, in medieval reliquaries often grains of rice were used as a substitute!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Seven Deities of Good Fortune in Yanaka

The Yanaka Tour of the Seven Lucky Deities, set up by literati sometime in the Edo-period and running from Ueno via Yanaka to Nippori, is one of the oldest in Tokyo. But it was abolished in WWII and only revived after other rounds of the lucky gods had become popular, and at that time the temples visited seem to have been changed, so it is not the classical tour anymore. Still, it is one of the best in Tokyo, as it brings you to some temples that are normally overlooked, despite being interesting, and also because there are some good statues on view (Hotei, Daikoku).

[Shinobazu Pond - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

The tour can only be done from Jan. 1 to 7 - at other times most of the temples are not open and it will be impossible to collect the stamps or see the statues. There is another advantage of doing the tour in early January: the stream of visitors will help you find the temples. Although you will get a map at the first temple, you will find out that Yanaka is a warren of small streets and that it is not easy to find all deities - but on New Year's Day, you can just go with the flow.

[Bentendo - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Benzaiten in Shinobazuike Bentendo
We start conveniently in Ueno, with the Benten Temple that stands in the Shinobazu Pond. In the gray past, Shinobazu Pond was an inlet in the bay of Tokyo. Later it dwindled into a pond and received the name "Pond without Endurance" to contrast with the neighboring hill that was named Shinobu-ga-oka, "Hill of Endurance." After Abbot Tenkai had founded Kan'eiji on that hill in the early 17th c., he looked down on the pond and was reminded of the sight of the famous Lake Biwa near Kyoto (well, with a lot of imagination...). That lake is famous for Chikubushima Island featuring a Benten Temple and so Shinobazu Pond also got its small island and Benten Hall.

In the late 17th c. the causeway was built conveniently linking the hall to the shore. The Hall burned down in WWII but was rebuilt and again features the statue of the Goddess of the Arts and Music - the statue, supposedly carved by 9th c. Tendai-monk Ennin, apparently survived the bombs. In August, the pond is covered with a dense vegetation of lotus flowers.

[Gokokuji - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Daikoku in Gokokuji
Rare in Tokyo, Gokokuji sports a main hall that has survived intact from Edo times, 1724 to be precise. The small temple was founded in the 17th c. by a disciple of the above mentioned Tenkai and served as a subsidiary hall of Kan'eiji. The main position at the altar is taken up by a fine Daikoku statue - he even stands in front of the main image, a Shaka Nyorai. That this temple has some affinity with Shinto as well is shown by the presence of a Kagura Hall, a stage for dances to the gods in the precincts.

[Tennoji  - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Bishamon in Tennoji
Tennoji used to be one of Edo's busiest temples, as it was one of the three religious establishments in Edo licensed to hold lotteries (tomikuji). Although established in the 13th c. by Nichiren, in 1699 it was placed under the jurisdiction of neighbouring Kan'eiji. Most buildings were destroyed in the last stand of the Tokugawa loyalists in 1868. A famous pagoda survived, the subject of a novella by Meiji author Koda Rohan, but this structure was unfortunately destroyed in a double lover's suicide in 1957. Now only the foundation stones are left. The temple itself is not more than a handful of small buildings in the corner of Yanaka cemetery. Most halls have been newly rebuilt in modern style - the only historical element is a large bronze Buddha dating from 1690, who sits in the open air. Bishamon, whom we visit here, has a small hall all his own.

[Choanji - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Jorujin in Choanji
There is not much to say about Choanji, which is so small you would not normally notice it in Yanaka's labyrint. It has a small statue of Jurojin, but except receiving your stamp and casting a glance at this statue, there is nothing to keep you here.

[Shusho-in - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Hotei in Shusho-in
The Nichiren temple Shusho-in was founded in 1573 and about a century later moved to the present location. It has quite an impressive Hotei, housed in its own room in the basement of the modern temple building, where you also get your stamp.

[Seiunji - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Ebisu in Seiunji
Sei'unji, a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect, is also known as Hanamidera, "Flower Viewing Temple", because of the cherry trees and azaleas that were planted in its grounds in the 18th c. It was therefore the pride of what once was "the village of Nippori" - now the only green in this part of the city are the trees and plants in the temple garden.

[Tokakuji - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Fukurokuju in Tokakuji
The two Nio standing outside Tokakuji are known as Red-Paper Nio, after the countless red paper strips glued on them by believers. If you have a physical problem, you have to stick a strip of red paper on the same part of the Nio statue. There seem to be a lot of people with problems, as the statues are completely covered in red papers. Tokakuji is a pleasant temple, with a small garden at the back where you will find stone statues of the Seven Deities as well. It is a fitting goal for the Yanaka Tour.

Hatsumode 2008 (Kamigamo Shrine, Kyoto)

Last year it was the Shimogamo Shrine we selected for our Hatsumode, this year we opted for its "sibling", the Kamigamo Shrine in northern Kyoto. January 1 was a dark and overcast day, with some sleet raining down, but New Year's day would not be complete without a shrine visit.

The Kamigamo Shrine is dedicated to Kamo-wake-ikazuchi, the son of Tamayori-hime, a princess who together with her father Kamo-taketsunemi-no-mikoto is enshrined in the Shimogamo Shrine. The deity was miraculously conceived after a red arrow touched the princess between her legs. Both shrines were tutelary shrines of the Kamo clan who ruled this area before Kyoto (Heiankyo) was established here as the new capital in 794.

Before being adopted by the Kamo clan, and "humanised," these deities were sheer natural forces. The Shimogamo shrine stands downstream, where the Kamo and Takano rivers flow together and was a sort of river god to whom prayers were said to guard against floods. The Kamigamo Shrine stands farther north, at the foot of Koyama Hill, where the deity first was called down to an iwakura, a rock formation at the top. He was most probably a thunder god to whom prayers were said for rain and good harvests.

This is the Romon, a two-storied gate that gives entrance to the inner part of the shrine. It dates from the 1620s. In front flows the Omonoi stream which is crossed by the red Tama bridge. Like Shimogamo, also this shrine has clear streams which were used for purification ceremonies and stands in a patch of forest. Although the surroundings are more natural, the buildings are slightly smaller than those of the Shimogamo Shrine.

These two mysterious conical heaps of sand (Tate-suna) probably originated in a gardener's device to have fresh sand at hand, but now are believed to be imizuna, "purifying sand" or "exorcising sand" that is scattered at impure spots and in unlucky directions as the northeastern "Demon's Gate." It is even sold in small bags to take home.

Like the Usa Shine in Kyushu, Kamigamo keeps a sacred horse as mount for the deity. The shrine is also famous for the annual horse races (Kurabe-uma) on May 5, held continously since 1093. The purpose of the ceremony is to pray for a good harvest and for peace. Next to the Aoi Matsuri held jointly with the Shimogamo Shrine on May 15, this is the most popular ceremony of the shrine and many people come to watch.

This is the entrance to the Honden, the Main Sanctuary, and Gonden (temporary sanctuary on the left of the Honden), a sort of Holy of Holies where no pictures are allowed. The buidings are National Treasures and date from 1863. They are representative examples of the "Nagare-zukuri" style of Shinto architecture: the front of the gabled roof has been extended forward, the building is three bays wide and roofed with cypress bark. Inside, nothing but the sound of clapping hands and clinking coins.

In front of the shrine, this shop selling local pickles was open even on January 1. Their specialty are Suguki, a kind of turnip (belonging to the famous branded category of Kyo-yasai, Kyoto vegetables), well-fermented and with an acidic flavor. It is one of the typical "winter pickles" of Kyoto.

The Kamo River with as background Kyoto's northern hills. It is barely visible, but one of them, Mt Funayama, has been encrusted with the shape of the ship that is lighted with bonfires during the Obon Festival on August 16. It carries the souls of the dead towards the Pure Land of the Buddha. The Kamigamo Shrine stands just to the right. Walking here, you would not think you are in a large city, it rather feels like free nature.

Another Kyoto winter scene: yurikamome, black-headed gulls, gathering on and near the Kamo River.