Mochitsuki

One of the really fun things that happen around New Year is mochitsuki – literally: beating of the mochi – where lots of people pull together and help making mochi.

Mochi are ricecakes, made out of a very sticky rice, that is first boiled and then put into a large mortar (usu) and beaten with large wooden hammers (kine). Once the mochi is finished, the individual rice grains have been broken up, and the whole thing takes on a sticky consistency. This large piece of mochi is then broken up and divided among the participants of the mochitsuki to take home or eat rightaway.

MochitsukiYesterday, there was Seijin-no-hi, the national holiday “Coming of Age Day”. And for some reason that I have not quite figured out, the guys at the large construction site in the neighborhood had organised a mochitsuki. They stopped working in the early afternoon to set everything up, and everybody who wanted was invited to come in and help beating the mochi.

Of course, adventurous me had to try that! I went there and immediately got a wooden hammer (for lack of a better word) put in my hands. It was surprisingly heavy, which makes sense because it is supposed to do some damage after all. And then, me and one of the guys from the construction company were beating away alternatingly. It was not very difficult and I can see that if you manage to find the right rhythm, you can probably go quite a long time. If you are trained, that is, which I am not… but it was fun nevertheless, and I did get some 10 or 15 beats in – which earned me great respect among the guys.

Afterwards, I was invited to soup and mochi, of course. The freshly produced mochi were served with daikon radish and soy sauce, and, as a sweet option that is apparently eaten only during New Year’s, with kinako soy flour, which was surprisingly sweet. And finally, I could take home a whole pack of mochi, which I still have because I have to ask if I could technically put it into soup as well.

Anyway, I had fun – and free lunch – and this was the closest I could get to the construction site. By now, they finished the basement and are now on ground floor level, and about a quarter of the building has already the steel beams completed. It will be interesting to see them grow further, if I remember correctly, they want to be finished by the end of the year.

Making a Katana

This here is a really interesting video about how to make a katana, a traditional Japanese sword. The guys from “Man at Arms” start out with getting and melting the iron ore, and then show all the steps necessary to forge a katana. I’ll leave it to you to discover the intricacies, I surely learned something new!

Don’t be put off by the Kill Bill reference, I guess they just needed an interesting hook for the video. 😉 The video is 18:40 long and safe for work. Enjoy!

Emperor Meiji’s Tomb

The Meiji EmperorJapan’s Meiji Emperor reigned over the country in one of its most turbulent eras. When he was born, in 1852, the Shoguns of the Tokugawa dynasty had ruled a secluded country for around 250 years. When he ascended to the throne, in 1868, Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu had abdicated, both under pressure from Japanese uprisings as well as threats of foreign power. And when Emperor Meiji died in 1912, he had ushered in an era of rapid technological modernisation, cultural renewal, state reform, and governmental participation – penning the first constitution of Japan and in Asia as a whole.

A great man like this is often revered beyond his death, and emperors in Japan usually get a special honour upon their demise: They become one of Japan’s many kami. The Meiji Shrine is located in Tokyo at a place he liked to visit during his lifetime, and it is a very popular spot for hatsumode in the few days after New Year’s Day. However, his tomb is where he was born, in Kyoto, and it is quite spectacular, even when taking into account that the Meiji emperor was still seen as a true descendant of the gods.

The tomb of the Meiji Emperor is located in the southern part of Kyoto, but very easy to find. From Fushimi Momoyama (Keihan) or Momoyama (Kintetsu Nara Line) simply follow the road uphill until it takes a sharp turn to the right. Straight ahead, a broad gravel road starts, leading further uphill. It is lined with beautiful, large cedar trees that are impressive even now, although the forest has suffered quite a bit during typhoon Jebi in September 2018. After a while of gentle ascent on the softly curving road, the top is reached, opening up to the view below.

Entrance to the Tomb of the Meiji EmperorTo the right, there are a few modern buildings that are not very interesting, but moving further along, a large square opens up, and to the left is finally the tomb of the Meiji Emperor.

Tomb of the Meiji EmperorIts dimensions are hard to gauge from this picture, but the first torii is about five to six metres high. The dome-shaped tumulus, probably 25 metres at the back, holds at its base the emperor’s remains. In fact, this type of tomb is very old and can be found in Korea as well. Turning around, there is a steep staircase leading up to the plateau, and from this height, there is a nice view over the southern part of Kyoto, even though it is a bit obscured by more trees.

View from the Tomb of the Meiji EmperorA small but quite steep road leads further on, where a smaller version of Meiji’s tomb can be found. There, his wife, Empress Shoken is buried. There is no view at all from her tomb, since it lies lower on the hill and the spot is completely surrounded by trees.

The Tomb of Empress ShokenThe whole complex is enormous, and apparently it was very expensive to build. So much so, in fact, that Meiji’s successor, the Taisho emperor, had to promise to build himself a much more humble abode for his afterlife. Since he lived only until 1925, and was much less popular among the Japanese people, this request was perfectly justified in the end.

Beauty and Sadness

Beauty and Sadness
Yasunari Kawabata

Cover of Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari KawabataIt is New Year’s Eve and Toshio Oki is on his way to Kyoto to hear the temple bells ring in the New Year. He is also about to meet his mistress of 24 years ago, Otoko Ueno, whom he hadn’t seen since he left her. Otoko, now a famous painter, unsure about his intentions, comes to the meeting with her young protegé Keiko.

While Otoko has forgiven Toshio all the pain he caused so long ago, Keiko, knowing the story behind the old lovers, is furious about it and is ready to take revenge on him and his family in Otoko’s name. So, Keiko sets out, using her beauty and cunning to ensnare both Toshio and his son Taichiro in her dangerous web. In the end, her plans prove to be deadly effective…

In this novel four completely different characters meet and eventually clash: Oki, whose affair with the only 15-year-old Otoko was the basis of his literary career, and who wants to reminiscence on the past without giving up his present. Otoko, however, who had to start over in Kyoto after he had left her, is content where she is now and prefers to look forward. Keiko, in love with Otoko, is ready to do anything to get the revenge she thinks Otoko wants and deserves. And Taichiro is fascinated by Keiko, but is unsure how to proceed. In the end, only Keiko’s determination is strong enough to get her what she wants – and the others can only stand in awe at the distruction her strong will causes.

Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was a Japanese writer, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. This is his last published novel.

This is the perfect book to read over New Year, with Kyoto’s temple bells ringing in the background! Even if you’re not in Kyoto, you can still get in the mood by getting this book from amazon.

Kyoto Sake Experience

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity (through What’s up in Kyoto) to take part in a sake tasting in Fushimi, a southern part of Kyoto. The experience is well worth sharing – and recommending! – so here are the details:

I had made an appointment with Kotaro, founder and CEO of Kyoto Sake Experience, who conducts most of the sake tastings himself. We met near Fushimi Momoyama station, and first talked briefly about what I could expect – and about Kotaro himself. He grew up in Fushimi and spent a few years in Australia, so his English is excellent. He is very passionate about sake and was happy to answer, and could sometimes even preempt, my questions. In fact, he recommends taking a sake class as the very first thing to do in Japan, so people have time to find out what type of sake they like best and to be able to fully enjoy it on their visit – and take a few bottles of their favourite back home in the end!

Saketour - Gekkeikan Sake Brewery MuseumAnyway, after our brief talk, we headed to the Gekkeikan Sake Brewery, one of the largest and oldest sake breweries of Japan. They have a sake museum, and Kotaro uses its exhibits to explain the intricacies of sake, starting out with the rice. Rice meant for sake is different from rice meant for eating; it has longer stalks and contains more starch, both of which makes it about twice as expensive as food rice.

Once the rice is harvested, it is polished, and since the flavour lies in the hull of the rice, the smaller the remaining grain (i.e., the higher the polishing rate), the more pure starch is there, and the better (that is, sweeter and more fruity) the resulting sake. The highest grade for sake, daiginjo, has a polishing rate of 50% or more.Different grades of polished rice

As first step the rice is steamed and cooled down to 30 degrees before adding koji mold. This mold is meant to break down the starch into sugar, and many breweries have their own type of carefully guarded koji. Only very little is needed to start the procedure, but since the koji is very temperature-sensitive, it must be checked every couple of hours. After two days, the procedure is finished and we have kome koji, mouldy rice.

Now it is time to make moto, a mixture of kome koji, fresh steamed rice, water and yeast. There are about 30 different yeast cultures that are shared property of all sake breweries, and each culture gives a certain flavour in the end. Making the moto takes about two weeks, this is essentially the starter culture for the final fermentation that starts afterwards.

To the finished moto is again added more kome koji, fresh steamed rice, and water, and now the fermentation can begin in earnest and in very large barrels. In this step, the koji continues to produce sugar so there is constant supply of food for the yeast that turns the sugar into alcohol. However, after 27 days when the alcohol content is 22% (genshu sake), this process comes to a natural end and the sake is finished.

Busily fermenting sakeTechnically, that is, because now the raw sake is pressed, filtered, pasteurised, and diluted in a series of different steps. Special types of sake are taken out of this process early, for example namazake is not pasteurised. However, the sake that is usually available at stores or restaurants underwent the whole process. It has a final alcohol percentage of around 15% and is divided into several types, according to the original polishing rate of the rice.Pressing the sake.

We have for example daiginjo with a polishing rate of 50% or more, or ginjo with 50-60% of the grain remaining. Daiginjo often has a fruity taste, which is enhanced by adding distilled alcohol. Pure rice sake, consisting only of rice, water, yeast, and koji, has a somewhat stronger taste and gets the prefix junmai.

That was already an enormous amount of information, and my head was spinning before the very first cup! But now the sake tasting started, back at the place where we started. There were 7 different types of sake waiting for our return, three special ones and four standard ones, for two rounds of tasting.

In the first round I was to drink the sake pure, and my favourite turned out to be the daiginjo with a very fruity taste, and, unfortunately, it is the most expensive one. Remember that the polishing rate is highest, so there is more sake rice needed to produce it. I also liked nigori, a type of sake that is not fully filtered (it reminds me of Austrian Sturm, another story).

Seven types of Sake during the testingIn the second round, the same sake was paired with different types of food, and here it shows that Kotaro had been working as a chef. This time, the winner was much less clear. Like with European wine, it is important to balance food and drink, so that they are either balanced in strength of taste (daiginjo with soy beans has a very delicate taste) or strongly complementary (a 5-year-old sake together with cream cheese led to a taste explosion). The difference in the taste of sake together with the food compared to without it was phenomenal, and even though I am not a gourmet, it was obvious.

Kotaro inspecting the almost done sakeAltogether, I spent three hours with Kotaro and his sake, and I found it a very intoxicating experience in all respects, and I cannot recommend it too highly. The only complaint I have is that the name is not well-chosen: this was not just any standard sake experience, it was a master class! I now know exactly what to look for when buying sake (for myself and others) and I feel like the only way I could learn more about sake would be by making it myself (which is not on the agenda. For now.)

If you are coming to Kyoto and want to know more about sake, and especially if you want to find the right sake for you, do take Kotaro’s Sake Master Class. I promise, you will never need another sake tasting again!

Disclaimer: I received a free sake experience in return for an honest review. A much shorter version of this will be posted on What’s up in Kyoto as well.

Shiso Sparkling

Shiso SparklingShiso is the Japanese name for perilla, a plant of the mint variety with a strong and distinctive taste. The leaves are about the size of a palm and green. Usually, shiso is served raw with sushi and sashimi, and also used in other dishes. There is also a red variety of shiso leaves, but they are not usually eaten, but used as ingredients in making umeboshi, for example, mainly for the flavour and colour.

Recently, I came across Shiso Sparkling, an alcoholic drink made with (of?) red shiso leaves, and of course, I had to try this. It does have a refreshing minty taste, but it is not overwhelming, and the extra bubbles make this very quaffable. It’s nice to drink on the rocks, so more of a summer drink, and for those who want to go the extra mile, maybe top it off with a mint leaf?

Tokyo Family

Cover of Tokyo FamilyTomiko and Shukichi Hirayama, living on a small island on the Inland Sea, decide to visit their children who all live in Tokyo. Their eldest son Koichi, with whom they stay, is a doctor running a small clinic; their daughter Shigeko is very busy with running both her family and a beauty salon; only their youngest son Shuji, who works as a freelance stage hand, seems to be content with his life. He is most happy to see his mother, and tells her – as the only one in the family – about his girlfriend. Koichi and Shigeko mean well when they treat their parents to a few nights in a fancy hotel, but Tomiko and Shukichi feel isolated and rejected instead, as they expected to spend time with their children. The well-established routine comes to a full stop when Tomiko unexpectedly dies because of an accident and the one person holding the family together suddenly disappears. How will Shukichi fare, once he must return to his home on the island?

Tokyo Family (Tokyo Kazoku), 2013, 146 minutes
Director: Yoji Yamada
Cast: Isa Hashizume (Shukichi Hirayama), Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Tomiko Hirayama), Masahiko NIshimura (Koichi), Tomoko Nakajima (Shigeko), Satoschi Tsumabuki (Shoji)

This film is a remake of Tokyo Story from 1953. It is a very slow film without much of an exciting plot. It depicts life as it is in Japan; the tiny spaces and minimal pockets of private time that need to be carefully carved out from obligations towards others. Probably the best glimpse into busy Japanese city life I have yet seen.

A Japanese version with English subtitles is available from amazon.

The Key

The Key
Junichiro Tanizaki

Cover of "The Key" by Junichiro TanizakiIn our diaries, we may write our most intimate thoughts and desires, safe in the knowledge that no eyes other than ours will ever read them.

This is not the case for an elderly professor and his attractive young wife. Their married life has become dull and although they would never openly admit this to each other, they cannot suppress their desires for ever. So, each of them starts a diary to write about the things they cannot say openly. Although they carefully hide the books, they do expect the other to find and read it. The diaries, mutually read, soon provide the key to spice up their marriage, but things become rather complicated when Kimura, a young colleague of the professor’s arrives on the scene and arouses not only the daughter of the house but also the wife.

We read the entries of both diaries and follow the story of love and jealousy, sexual desires and their fulfillment. Both partners play their respective games, innocent in their talking, but highly dangerous in their writings. In the end the fire of their lust is all-consuming – was this what they wanted all along?

An interesting book, almost a psychological study. If you know something about your partner you shouldn’t know – how do you deal with it? Confront him openly? Get what you want – or what he wants – by sly manipulations? The end of the book comes with a shocking confession and nothing is what it seems…

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965), born in Tokyo, was one of the most popular modern writers of Japan. He began his literary career in 1909, and only a year later, he was well-known in literary circles. Many of his writings have sexuality and desire as their focus. In 1923, when he moved to Kyoto after the great Kanto Earthquake that destroyed great parts of Tokyo and Yokohama, his career was boosted to new heights, and after WWII, he was regarded as Japan’s greatest contemporary author. In 1949, he won the Asahi Prize and was awarded the Japanese Order of Culture, and in 1964, he was elected as honorary member in the merican Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, as the first Japanese writer. He died of a heart attack shortly before his 79th birthday.

Interested in spicing up your own marriage? Well, have a look what Tanizaki is doing here and get the book from amazon!

Fluffies

It finally happened, it’s getting cold again, and I broke down… The Japanese have a fantastic array of special clothing for winter: From special high-tech underwear called “heat tech” to thin down jackets for indoors to fluffy and very kawaii onesies for kids and adults, all of this is designed to keep you warm when you must leave the one and only heated area of the house. And yes, after five years in Japan, I finally bought myself one of these things to keep me warm.

Fluffy boots in pinkIn case you were hoping for a picture of me in one of those pink onesies with bunny-eared hoodie, I have to disappoint you: I didn’t go quite that far. I did go pink though and bought a pair of … let’s call them boots, to keep my feet warm which is really important because I am feeling very uncomfortable – to the point of getting cranky – when I have cold feet (or a cold back, by the way). I agree, these things are not quite as cute as I had hoped for, but as they are made of glorified plastic, aka polyester, they do what I expected of them – keeping my tootsies warm.

I am feeling very Japanese now! Not like a particularly elegant one, mind you, but it is a start!

The Gardens of Jonan-gu

Jonan-gu is a shrine in the south of Kyoto, near Takeda station. It is said to date back to the establishment of Kyoto as Japan’s capital in the 8th century, but written history talks about it from the 11th century, when retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa built the so-called Jonan Rikyu villa around the shrine. The gardens of the villa were extensive and became a popular watering hole for the aristocrats of the time. Even nowadays, the gardens of Jonan-gu are its most impressive feature, especially since the shrine buildings had to be replaced after a fire in the 1970s.

The Rakusuien Gardens of Jonan-gu measure an enormous 30.000 square metres. They were designed by famous garden architect Nakane Kinsaku in the 1960s, and comprise five different garden architectures that each mirror a popular garden design of a historic era. Altogether, the garden is home to about 150 plum trees, 300 camellia bushes, and 100 maples, which give the gardens a beautiful and changing atmosphere throughout the seasons. Furthermore, all the 80 plants that are explicitly mentioned in The Tale of Genji can be found in Rakusuien, and strolling through it gives the impression of taking a long walk through time.

When entering through the gate at the west side of the shrine precincts, at first there is  Spring Mountain, which boasts many beautiful pink plum trees in April, but is not quite so impressive during the other seasons.

Jonan-gu spring mountainWalk behind the honden – the main shrine building – into the eastern part of Rakusuien, the Heian Garden, which is dominated by water: With a pond, a waterfall, and a little stream winding through, these types of gardens were popular among aristocrats of the Heian period.Jonan-gu Heian GardenFurther along the path, you must cross the main road of the shrine and enter the southern part of Rakusuien, which boasts three different garden styles. First, there is the Muromachi Garden, where majestic stones surrounding a large pond dominate the scene. There is meaning throughout: the quiet Medaki waterfall in the foreground is considered female, the big one in the back – Odaki – is male. Horaijima island – the island of the immortal hermit – features pine trees as symbols of longevity. And the three large rocks on the other shore are meant to be Buddha and two Bosatsu, residing in the ideal Buddhist World. This part of the garden is especially beautiful during the autumn colours and in April and May, when wisteria and azaleas bloom.

Jonan-gu Muromachi gardenThe second garden you will encounter is the Momoyama Garden, whose large open lawn is meant to reference the Pacific Ocean. The trees at the back represent Japan’s mountains, and the black rocks within it the Japanese islands off the coast. Look for the pine that looks like a ship at the back right. This symbolises a European ship coming to Japan – Japan’s Momoyama era indeed saw the first Western people arrive from Europe.Jonan-gu Momoyama Garden in Winter

Take your time admiring both Muromachi and Momoyama Gardens from the Rakusuiken Tea House that lies right between them. Enjoy the view from there with a cup of green tea and a seasonal wagashi sweet. When you are ready to move on, have a look at the small Suisekitei gallery, where exhibits pertaining to the history of Jonan-gu are on display.

On your way towards the exit, you will see Jonan Rikyu, the third and last of the southern gardens. Again, this is a karesansui garden without water. This garden is meant to depict the time when Jonan Rikyu dominated the area, and again, there is a lot of hidden meaning in the design: The stones represent the river Kamo, the white pebbles the pond of the imperial villa, and the big rocks in the garden are supposed to be the old buildings.Jonan Rikyu Garden in Jonan-gu Shrine

The Rakusuien gardens of Jonan-gu are worth taking the trip down south at any time of the year. And because the shrine is a bit off the beaten tracks, there are rarely enough visitors to make it feel crowded. I have only been to Jonan-gu in November and January, but I have seen stunning pictures of Spring Mountain, well, in spring. The one on top is not mine and by far not the best one out there! I guess I will have to take the trip down again next year!