Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Valentine's Day

February 14

Happy Valentine's Day!

It's been a busy week or 2. Last Friday was Harikuyou, a memorial for needles. We should stick our sewing needles into a block of tofu or konnyaku to give them a rest from all that hard sewing for a day, and give a prayer of thanks for their efforts and also pray for our sewing skills to improve. Since few people still sew, it's probably not a huge occasion, but I wouldn't be surprised if some fashion designers here followed the tradition. Some shrines like Egara Tenjin in Kamakura hold thanksgiving services for needles.

The Harikuyou service at Egara Tenjin... a giant block of tofu acts as a pin cushion.

Monday was a national holiday (National Foundation Day) and today is Valentine's Day, so this is a great week for the average salaryman: a day off, and hopefully, a lot of chocolate. Not so much fun for the average housewife though: an extra day of cooking 3 meals and making 'honmei choco'.

The macaron craze continues - Muji has make-your-own macaron kits for 'honmei choco'

Got these beautiful silicon chocolate moulds at Muji, to make 'wagashi' shaped chocs and cookies.

My own efforts weren't so photo ready. White chocolate is NOT chocolate!
They're only as good as the chocolate you use.

Every year though, it seems fewer women are buying 'giri choco' - those chocolates one feels socially obligated to buy for male co-workers and sempai - and more are buying 'tomo choco', chocolates for their female friends. This year's commercials for Meiji chocolate shows a typical high school girl making chocolates for her friends at school, intercut with her and her friends laughing and hanging out. Boys don't get a look-in. Even Arashi's Matsujun, who is magically 'supervising' her cooking, misses out on the chocolates.

Here's Matsujun looking more like someone's grandpa for Meiji

And he finds out the high school girl didn't make him any chocolates.

As a result, the packaging is getting girlier every year. I still saw sake flavour and even Tabasco flavour chocolates, aimed at men, and a lot of novelty packaging (chocolates wrapped to look like dried abalone, dried sardines, etc was popular with the high school boys I saw at Loft).

In case you forgot the date, Plaza stores will wrap your gift in bold arrows.

Some of my hubby's haul (the Ghana will be made into Gundam-shaped chocolates today). I really hope the 'dried fish' ones don't taste like fish!

Chocolate Nano blocks to build a 'beer' nanoblock. "Love for Boy"' sounds a bit too much like "boy love" , but anyway...

Popular stores like Loft, Tokyu Hands and Plaza also give out free instructional magazines full of recipes and decorating ideas.

I'm not sure what message this breath mint cocktail sends to the man in your life, but there are a lot of old dudes on the rush hour trains who could do with a few strong mints.

This shopping bag will proclaim your feelings to the world.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013



Spring is coming! It doesn't feel like it today (and it snowed again yesterday) but last weekend, the weather teased us with a few balmy sunny days, up to 17 degrees. Sunday 3rd was setsubun, marking the transition to spring or risshun.

The camellia tree on our street, lightly frosted.

Originally, setsubun was celebrated just before New Year – when Japan followed the Chinese calendar. It kind of made sense to chase out the bad luck of last year, so that we can start afresh. 

You can pick up the oni masks for free when you buy the soy beans to throw.

We should throw beans to chase away evil spirits before we start the new year. Think of it as spiritual spring cleaning. I wrote about it here, last year. 

At the station last Saturday, they were having an Akita promotion, complete with guys dressed up as Namahage – the local oni, who traditionally go house to house at New Year to scare naughty children. No one was scared of them this time – kids were happily posing.

Does this kid look scared? Not at all.

We sat in this year’s direction - SSE to eat a whole sushi roll without stopping or speaking. One of my friends told me that growing up, ehomaki was only a Kansai tradition, and Tokyo people thought it was weird and funny, but now everyone does it. I just bought ehomaki at the convenience store for lunch on Sunday, but when I went to the supermarket later in the afternoon, they had about 6 metres of refrigerator cabinet dedicated to ehomaki, and the crowds were crazy.  For people who don’t eat sushi, a lot of stores are selling roll cakes done up as ehomaki:  a long roll of sponge cake filled with cream and strawberries and wrapped in a chocolate crepe to mimic the nori. Delicious!

We had a roll cake "ehomaki".

Liza Dalby describes the many setsubun traditions celebrated in Kyoto in her book Geisha.
If you live in Kyoto, you can also visit 4 shrines in the 4 directions (this is called Shiho mairi), a tradition that many geisha still follow. Stalls sell shougazake – ginger sake – basically the milky sweet sake, with grated ginger. It's nice and warming at this time of year, but I’d rather drink Stone’s Ginger Wine, or just add ginger to regular sake.

The four shrines are: Yoshida shrine to the East; Kitano tenmangu to the west  which has gorgeous plum blossoms and a famous flea market on the 25th of each month; Akiba Jinja (to the north) and Mibu temple near the centre of Kyoto (just south of Nijo castle). 

And if you want to see geisha at setsubun, your best bet is Yasaka shrine in Gion, where, if you’re lucky, you might catch a little package of beans and sweets thrown by local maiko. 

Setsubun celebrations at Yasaka shrine, courtesy of kyotoguide.

Monday, January 14, 2013

seijin no hi 成人の日

January 14

Coming of age and the coming of snow

Long time, no see. We escaped to Australia for a warm Christmas and New Year. How I missed fresh, cheap mangoes, warm nights and dry, sunny days. But we're back to Tokyo, and the cold.

Yesterday was "Seijin no hi", or Coming of Age Day, when everyone turning 20 this year, has an official celebration. It was also the worst snow in the Tokyo area for about 17 years. Cue scenes of girls in elaborate furisode (long-sleeved kimono worn by unmarried women), complete with platform zori shoes and little socks, shrieking as they plunged ankle-deep through the snow.

Cold feet!

I teach part-time at a university, and a lot of my students were looking forward to Seijin no hi, which for the girls, involved getting up around 4am for hair and makeup and dressing (you can get a package including kimono rental, hair etc and studio photos, but it books up early - like a year in advance). Some of my more traditional, "ojousama" girls were going to wear their mother's kimono. The girls from AKB48 wore quite retro kimono this year, and it seems to be a bit of a trend to wear an old-school design.

One of the AKB48 girls - don't ask me who - with a very retro pattern.

The serious fashion girls are more into taisho and early showa styles, with very simple hair. I think they look particularly gorgeous, but they're in the minority. Most girls go for very fluffy, cutesy styles with extra frills, diamantes and over-the-top hair.

Aoi Yu in the drama "Osen", playing a hard drinking restrauteur with a taste for taisho-style kimono

A nice example of "taisho chic" with bold prints and simple accessories.

Most guys wear suits, though a few go for traditional hakama styles. There were some "yankee" guys (badly bleached hair, inexplicably shaved eyebrows, etc) in very colourful hakama.

So what's it all about? It's a way to mark the official transition to adulthood - at age 20, they are free to marry who they please, vote and drink. Actually, most 19 year olds already drink. Local councils hold official ceremonies for the year's 20 year olds, where they get small presents and stirring speeches. Some councils had collected and kept letters that the kids (sorry, I'm old - anyone under 25 is a kid to me!) wrote to themselves at age 10.  One of the biggest celebrations is at the Yokohama Arena with thousands of kimono clad young adults, but those lucky enough to live in Urayasu, Chiba, can go to Disneyland and be welcomed by Mickey. Those in Shibuya met another new 20 year old, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, who lived up to her zany reputation with a modern kimono decorated with flying horses.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

Some of the Shibuya gals - fashion's adventurers - went for the "Oiran" look this year, modelled on Edo-era courtesans. Although with their bared shoulders, they were more like Anna Tsuchiya in "Sakuran" than traditional oiran.

Anna Tsuchiya in Sakuran

Apparently, Seijin no Hi has been around since AD 714, when a young prince decided to dress up to celebrate becoming an adult, but it's been widely popular since 1876, when the official age of adulthood was set at 20.

And so, that snow. Around 10.30am, it started to snow. And snow. It snowed for about 7 hours, stopping trains, airplanes and cars and closing down the highways.

It started innocently enough...

And didn't stop.

Our gate with little snow caps.

One of our neighbours started shovelling snow around midday, but he was losing the battle. Finally, around 5pm, the snow turned to light rain and we all headed outside to make a path. We live in a quiet cul-de-sac, so we're responsible for our own road. While it was light and fluffy, shovelling was pretty easy, but the fear was it would freeze into hard lumps overnight. It's certainly a good workout! With the neighbours working together, it was actually quite cheerful. That's one of the things I like about living here - everyone pulls together. They were disappointed that it wasn't "my first snow sighting", though. Within an hour, we had a walkable path down to the main road, and everyone had a safe driveway.

Digging a path

Our "road".

Through the night, as the snow thudded off our roof, I had to remind myself that it was just snow, not people jumping on my head. This morning, I looked out and I could see treacherous ice. Kind of scary. The TV is warning everyone to be careful not to slip. I'll be stomping like a crazy woman in my heavy boots. Not at all elegant, or fashionable, but I won't be the one with a wet backside! Keep safe, everyone!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Asakusa Hagoita ichi 浅草羽子板市

December 18th

Just a very quick post - yesterday I, along with hundreds of others, crowded into the grounds of Sensoji temple in Asakusa, for the annual Hagoita (Battledore) fair. Hagoita are paddles for playing a kind of badminton-type game, called hanetsuki. The hagoita on sale are strictly ornamental, though. They're believed to bring good luck for the new year, and are usually decorated with kabuki actors, but popular actors, sportspeople and anime characters are common too. They cost upwards of 2,000 although you can get painted ones for a little less.

To be honest, there were very few people buying (a friend tells me it's a true marker of consumer confidence - if no one is buying hagoita, it's a bad year generally, for retailers). There were hundreds of middle aged and old folks with expensive cameras snapping away, and the stall holders didn't seem to mind. When someone does buy a hagoita, you'll know, because the sellers and buyers (and the crowd around them) all do the special Edo style 3-3-3-1 clap. You'll hear it at rakugo performances too. It's called ippon tejime. The 'leader' calls "iyoo" and everyone responds with sets of 3 and then 1 clap. 3 x 3 adds up to 9 (see, I paid attention in maths class!) which in Japanese is ku. It also sounds like "pain" or "stress". The kanji for ku or kyu is 九. A single clap, 'da' is like an extra stroke added to the kanji, turning ku to maru 丸 or in other words, stress and pain is finished. Phew, sorry that was a clunky explanation, but I hope you get the idea!

The guys at the hagoita stalls are remarkably patient as everyone snaps away.

I think these were decorated by a local art school. There were some great and bizarre designs.

This one was based on the famous Hiroshige ukiyo-e. It would make a great, though pricey, souvenir of Asakusa.

Asakusa is always a jolly place to hang out, but when these Edo-era fairs are on, you can expect to see lots of folks in happi coats, local geisha posing and strolling shamisen players. I avoid the place on weekends, but the back streets are always nice and feel quite local. It's not just a tourist area; I go there to pick up accessories and sheet music for my shamisen, and when I wanted a yukata, I got one made to fit in Asakusa (quite an experience, as the store owner, in her 90's, barely reached my hip. Getting measured was a challenge!). The back streets and arcades are also full of retro Showa-era cafes and cheap restaurants. It has a real, downtown, working class feel.

Geisha photo op.

You'll find the real Showa spirit around here. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Yuzu and touji ゆず&冬至

As we hurtle towards Christmas with the stress of bonenkai (end of year parties), presents to buy and nengajo (New Year’s cards) to send, not to mention the stress of Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas” on endless repeat, it’s no surprise that we’ve entered flu season. I’ve managed to avoid a cold up till now this year, but the cold, dry weather, plus the sardine can atmosphere (in crowdedness and sometimes in smell) of the commuter trains, means I finally succumbed last week.

When I first visited Japan and saw people in paper surgical masks, I thought it was bizarre. Then, when I noticed that people with colds basically contained those coughs and sneezes inside their masks, I started to appreciate them. Now, if someone starts hacking up a lung on the subway without a mask, I tend to give them the evil eye, along with the rest of the passengers (coughing quietly into your hanky is borderline acceptable). But I swore I’d never use one. Even when the whole country was freaking out about swine flu, I refused to wear one. Then I got a bad cold and my husband urged me to wear a mask – when sleeping. Crazy! It felt hot and uncomfortable and with a stuffy nose, it seemed even harder to breathe. A doctor friend explained that cold viruses thrive in cold, dry places – which is why they live long and prosper on metal grab bars and plastic handles in trains and buses. By wearing a mask, you keep your nose and throat warm and moist, and inhospitable for cold bugs. This year I’ve become a convert. And I’ve noticed I cough less, as my throat doesn’t get so dry and scratchy. It also keeps your face warm on a frosty day, and lazy friends tell me its a great way to cover up if you couldn’t be bothered with makeup or have a cold sore or....shhhh... pash rash. So now I look like a freaky Halloween nurse. Laugh all you want, but I beat this cold in 4 days.

Unicharm's latest commercial for face masks.

Another weapon against colds is yuzu. It’s a rather rough and lumpy looking citrus fruit, that’s become quite trendy around the world. You might know it from such hit products as 'ponzu'. It tastes like something between what we’d call a bush lemon in Australia, a grapefruit and a lime. A lot of yuzu trees only get fruit every other year, so it’s a bit expensive. It comes into its rich yellow colour at the end of autumn, so it tastes great right now. Like any citrus fruit, it has plenty of vitamin C. It tastes a bit milder than lemon, so it’s great in sore-throat drinks and a popular flavour for "nodo ame" or throat lozenges. For a drink, mix yuzu juice and grated peel, ginger, honey and hot water. Or, use yuzu marmalade. I got a jar from a friend from Miyazaki; it’s a specialty of her hometown. She told me to stir a big teaspoonful into hot water or even black tea, to make a good throat soother. Of course, it's also nice on toast!

Ripe yuzu 

Delicious! Makes a great sweetener for tea.

Yuzurin is a mascot in Gifu-ken, which grows a lot of yuzu.

Yuzu is also used in the bath in winter, to ward off colds (and the smell of a bath full of yuzu is very uplifting). It’s traditional to make a yuzu bath on December 21st  (touji),  the longest day of the year (the bath is called touji yu). Most public baths and onsen offer a yuzu bath around this time. Of course, you can throw a few in the bathwater at home, or use one of the many yuzu-scented bath salts. It's also traditional to eat pumpkin on touji, for good luck, along with other vegetables with the letter 'n' (pumpkin - kabocha can also be written as nankin), like daikon and ninjin. A lot of people also eat azuki gayu, or rice porridge with azuki beans to protect them from evil spirits on touji. I think the bottom line is: take a nice hot bath and eat lots of healthy vegetables in winter! Sounds good to me. Now that I'm over my cold, I intend to enjoy other yuzu treats like yuzushu - yuzu liqueur! Since I can't get my hands on any of my grandma's homemade kumquat brandy over here, yuzushu is the next best thing. 

Yuzu yu at a public bath

I cheat and use bath salts

On the rocks, neat, or with soda - it's all good.

The other Yuzu - a popular Japanese band, who like to pun on their name.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Light up the night

December 1st

It's getting colder every day, and it feels like we're speeding towards the end of the year. It's the last chance to enjoy the autumn colours before the trees lose their leaves and the wind becomes icy and bitter (going to see the Christmas illuminations calls for heavy winter gear and a portable hot coffee or cocoa. How some of my friends manage the all night New Year's party at Disneyland is beyond me).

I'm often in Komagome for work, so last week I swung through Rikugien gardens on the way home. It's a lovely Edo period strolling garden with a man-made lake and tea houses dotted around. In Spring, it's popular for its beautiful shidare zakura, or weeping cherry blossom tree. In Autumn, it's full of red and orange maples. The park usually closes at 5pm (last entry at 4.30pm) but for a few weeks in Autumn and Spring, they do a "light-up", highlighting the beautiful trees, and staying open till 9pm.

There was a mix of camera enthusiasts with their tripods and couples going for a romantic after-work stroll. All the tea houses were open, offering seasonal sweets. On a weeknight, it was surprisingly uncrowded. It only costs 300 yen to enter (if you arrived around 4pm, you'd experience the sunset as well). I love Komagome  - it's a quiet, slightly expensive residential area, which means it has lots of lovely shops selling kimono, flowers or wagashi (check out Usagiya on the way to the park) and indigo-dyed goods. There are heaps of inviting little bistros for dinner, too.

The light-up at Rikugien is only on until December 9th - next Sunday. During the light-up period, the park gate nearest Komagome station is open. Usually, you have to walk around to the other side of the park (where there is an Anpan Man shop - which, if you have kids, might be a good thing or a bad thing). If you want to take good pictures, I'd recommend a tripod, because it is DARK. But, I managed these shots with my tiny digital camera, holding my breath.

You can see a live camera view of the park here - handy if you want to check the progress of autumn colours or cherry blossoms!