Monday, October 8, 2012

Higanbana 彼岸花


Finally, last week I got to see the amazing red flowers, "higanbana" out at Kinchakuda, a park in Hidaka, Saitama. I'd been worried that the flowers would be decimated by several typhoons that came roaring up the coast last week, but they were still going strong. In fact, there were a lot of new buds, so I think the flowers will still look amazing this week.

Getting there is a bit of a chore. It really is easiest to go via the Seibu Ikebukuro line from Ikebukuro. Although I live in Saitama, it took several changes to finally get to Koma, the station nearest the park. I didn't need to worry about directions. There was a booth outside the station, decked out in red (higanbana red is "the" colour of Hidaka city), with free maps. But I just followed the genki oldies with their cameras. I swear, the over-60 crowd are singularly responsible for the continued welfare of Canon. The amount of expensive gear was amazing. About 85% of the crowd were probably retired, but there was a strange subset of Akihabara types - a few cosplayers, some gothic-cute kids and a guy taking pro-style shots of his doll. When I googled higanbana-themed animations, it seems "Higanbana no Saku Yoru ni", with ghosts and a lot of higanbana imagery, is very popular. But I could be wrong. Given the flower's association with graves (it blooms around "higan", when you visit ancestor's graves, so it often grows around graves) and tales of star crossed lovers, it really is quite a "goth" flower. And it's red. And it looks a bit like a spider.

It's an easy stroll from the station, and the route through little back lanes is lined with local stalls, selling home made jams, plants, chestnuts and branches of bright red things which I found out were "red eggplants". I didn't believe it at first, since they look like a tomato crossed with a chilli. But Google says they're real. I decided to leave the stalls till my return to the station, not wanting to carry an armload of autumn produce all over the park.

Red eggplants for sale.

Just follow the crowds

One of the local stalls

These handy markers show you the way

The approach to the park, through veggie patches.

Scarecrows guarding the rice

The air was heavy with the scent of kinmokusei (sweet osmanthus) which I love - it's a tiny orange flower, so well hidden in its trees and shrubs that you smell it but can't see it. It has a lovely sweet, sharp smell, not unlike freesia or daphne. Unfortunately, it was popular in the 80's as a toilet spray fragrance, so for a lot of Japanese of a certain age, it has those associations. I have the same feeling about hyacinths - a gorgeous flower with a really fresh, springtime scent, but when I was a kid, it was a popular, cheap smell in public toilets. I just can't wear the fragrance or smell the flowers without thinking "hmm... toilet".

This is a huge kinmokusei 'tree'. Intoxicating.

The higanbana at Kinchakuda are like a red carpet under the trees, next to a river. People were enjoying picnics, painting, taking thousands of photos and - this being Japan - shopping! There was a rest area with food stalls and local craft stalls. I got sucked in to buying some local sake, after trying a few. oops.

Way too many photos of flowers coming up...

Painting by the river

Hello dolly


The sake shop.

On my way back to the station, I strolled through the cosmos field. It was lovely and wild. Cosmos tends to just range across the ground like a beautiful weed. People were gathering armfuls while red dragonflies darted around overhead. Perhaps it was all the flowers, or the unseasonably warm, yet comfortable weather, but everyone was in such a good mood. I completely forgot the hassle of getting there, and it felt a million miles from the concrete and crowds of Tokyo. Japanese friends often talk about the need for "green therapy" - getting out into the trees to refresh their senses. I think I understand, now.


Blending in

Kinchakuda costs a measly 200 yen (but if you're really cheap, you can look over the fence for free. The cosmos field is also free). The easiest way to get there is from Ikebukuro Station. Take the Seibu Ikebukuro express to Hanno station and change to a local train to Koma (you want to be going in the direction of Chichibu). It costs 510 yen each way and takes an hour. I went via Kawagoe and finished the afternoon with a stroll through the Kawagoe "koedo" historic area.

I was cajoled into buying an "autumn basket" from one of the local ladies, filled with cute little corn, a marrow of some kind, a chestnut still in its spiky cover, those red eggplants and some red chillies. She also threw in a few higanbana so, not a bad deal, really.

Monday, October 1, 2012

otsukimi お月見

September 30

So, Sunday night was supposed to be "tsukimi", or moon viewing - essentially a harvest festival, when people enjoy the full moon and give thanks for a good harvest. Being a moon viewing, round things are very popular. One of the traditional offerings is a pile of 15 shiratama: little white mochi balls. On the old lunar calendar, the night is called "juugo ya" or 15th (it was August 15th on the old calendar), hence the 15 balls, I guess. Sweet potatoes, round fruits like nashi and persimmon and moon cakes are also popular offerings (of course, you can eat everything after you've "offered" them to the gods).

Sweet potatoes, boiled and dressed with a little lemon juice and sugar.

I tried to make "moons" from pickled turnip, "kabu". The orange things are carrot "ginko leaves".

I decided to make shiratama with our dinner, which was much easier than I expected. You can buy shiratama flour, which is made from mochi rice and maybe some cornstarch or similar. Add enough water to make something resembling bead dough, roll little balls (quickly, and with dry hands, or you'll get a sticky mess), then drop them into boiling water. When they float to the surface after a minute or so, they're done. Drop them into icy cold water to firm them up, and keep them in the water until you're ready to use them. I made shiruko, a good wintery dessert. It's a kind of sweet red bean soup. I didn't have time for soaking azuki beans overnight, so I bought a can of readymade, sweetened beans, added a little water and a pinch of salt and heated them. When you're ready to eat, you just drop a few shiratama into the soup. The beans are quite sweet and the shiratama are bland and a little chewy, and somehow the combination works really well. If you put three shiratama on a wooden skewer and cover them in sticky, sweet soy, you'll have traditional dango.

Drop the balls into boiling water. 

Add them to your shiruko.

The rest of our dinner was very simple. I had some tuna which had been simmered in soy sauce to use as a rice topping and I made a small dish of namerou - a fish version of steak tartare. You need finely chopped raw fish (aji (horse mackerel) is good, but I used iwashi -(sardine)), mixed with a little miso paste, grated ginger, finely chopped shallot, some finely shredded shiso leaves and a little squeeze of lemon juice. It's sooo delicious! I heard it was traditionally made by fisherman around the coast of Chiba, and it's called namerou - from nameru - to lick - because you'll want to lick your plate clean! No pictures, because we ate it before I remembered to take a photo. It's THAT good!

Ok, so back to the moon. The classic view of the full moon in autumn is through susuki, or pampas grass. It's a popular decoration for tsukimi and the supermarket had nice arrangements of susuki with yellow pom pom-shaped flowers, which I guess were dahlias. You often see round dahlias (denjikubotan) used in very traditional Japanese arrangements (they're often mimicked in hair decorations); they have such impact. So did I buy these gorgeous flowers? No; I was hurrying home with my groceries before the typhoon hit.

This is what I wanted to buy / make. Maybe next time! Courtesy of Kanko Flower School, in Osaka.

The cute label from our moon cakes.

A rabbit shaped moon cake, with sake.

And so, visually, this month's tsukimi was a wash out, literally. Around 7pm, the typhoon hit Tokyo, and the howling winds and hard, horizontal rain made seeing the moon impossible.  We did toast the moon with some sake and very cute moon cakes, in the shape of rabbits. Why rabbits? Chinese and Japanese legends say a rabbit lives on the moon, pounding mochi in Japan or pounding herbs to make medicine in China. You'll find a lot of traditional fabric prints and plates decorated with rabbits, transfixed by the full moon.
These lovely hair pins are from

You can get a lot of furashiki cloths like this at shops like Loft; use them for decoration or to wrap your bento.

Monday was incredibly hot, as it usually is after a typhoon, but all the clouds had been blown away, so we could see a just-past-full moon last night. Next month, there's another full moon, called "Jusan ya", so we have another chance to drink under the moon beams.

I cheated - this is a shot from last night, after the typhoon.