Archive for February, 2010

Check out my Niseko post over at Go Girl Magazine!


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On Sunday on travelgogirl.com, you’ll hear about the second part of my sojourn north to Hokkaido (a little ski resort called Niseko), but the impetus for the trek was the Sapporo Snow Festival, famous throughout Japan and also…the world!

While I can see Hokkaido from my little town, I had never yet set foot there.  But after an hour and a half ferry ride across the Tsugaru Strait, there I was, blowing caution to the wind, diving headfirst into the un-chartered territories of the wild and grizzly North, snowshoeing and bushwacking my way towards Sapporo.  Well, actually – hopping in Paul’s sweet Trail-X and watching snowboard DVDs on the dashboard console and munching on snacks.

After the super tough four-hour car ride, we arrived in Sapporo to catch the last two days of the week-long Yuki Matsuri.  Sapporo, in completely unclassic Japanese fashion, is a city organized on a straightforward grid pattern – imagine! In central Sapporo, on a street called “Odori” there is a long park-like avenue, which is where most of the Matsuri action was happening.  Gigantic three-story or more snow sculptures lined the park, block after block.  One block even showcased an “urban ski jump,” where skiers and snowboarders tested their mettle on sheer icepack.  To accommodate the sheer number of tourists in town for the festival, the pedestrian walkways on either side of the sculptures were both one-way, a fact I did not realize until I found myself swimming like a salmon upstream.

Jungle Animals

A smaller scuplture of a Japanese temple

Chibi Maruko-chan - a kid's cartoon character. The Dora of Japan.

I have yet to (and suspect I never will) understand Japanese humour. This man is a comedian, yet his act consisted of dancing around in below freezing temperatures, stripping to his rose-covered drawars, and singing in a cabaret type fashion. Not really that funny. Kindof depressing actually.

Across town, the other venue for the Yuki Matsuri was being held on a street in the “entertainment” district.  This is where the ice sculptures were showcased.  Blocks of ice intricately carved and sculpted into a variety of forms, lit up at night.  One personal favorite was the Ice Bar, an entire bar (stools and all) formed out of ice.  The dragon (below) wasn’t unimpressive, either.  All the walking around in the cold looking at snow worked up an appetite, however, and for dinner we participated in an all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink menu at the Sapporo Bier Garten.  Consuming all that beer (Sapporo lager, ale, or mix) and food (Genghis Khan yaki-niku – mutton and vegetables grilled on a pan that looks like Ghengis Khan’s helmet) was one way of fending off the cold, and it worked wonders to rally everyone for a late night karaoke session.  Which could only mean one thing: trouble.  The following day, nursing our beer and mutton hangovers, we stumbled to Sapporo’s quaint and clean (compared to Tokyo’s Tsukiji) fish market.  Wandering the aisles, sampling bits of crab, salmon roe, and sea urchin, I had a strong desire to live one day in a town with a fish market, picking up that evening’s fresh filets before the morning rush.  Does it get more romantic than that?  (Well – maybe if I also had access to locally grown fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat!)

Ice Dragon

Sapporo Bier Garten - where all the magic happens

Hokkaido is known for its King Crabs. Yes, this is a 15,800 yen crab. That's approximately $180

In the end, there’s only so much ice and snow you can see.  (I think I’m good for at least another year, thanks.) So, on Friday, we all piled into the two cars and caravanned south to get some epic skiing in.  Niseko-ho!

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Ikebana: Week 7

My Sensei has a funny way of teaching.  She more or less hands me the flowers I’m working with that night, and then sits there and watches as I fumble.  Often, she’ll let me get all the way through an arrangement, and then when I onegaishimasu her (indicating I’m done and I’d like her appraisal) she comes in and rearranges the parts of my work that she’d like see improved.  Then I take note of how and why that is different and better than my original, and take it all apart and start over.

This week, for example, the ball game changed completely.  I used a new vase.  This one, as you can see, is round, wide, and short.  Meaning, the rules for an attractive arrangement also change.  (Not that she informed me of this before I began.)  Now, I must consider ratios and proportions in height, relative to the width of the vase, and relative to the other branches.  In some ways, ikebana is like an aesthetically pleasing math problem, with widely fickle variables.

Last night’s arrangement consisted of Momo no hana (peach blossoms) for the upcoming Girls’ Day, Na no hana (Canola flowers, whose leaves look a little bit like lettuce), and Sweet Pea, the smell of which is heady and delicate at the same time.

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Ikebana: Week 6

In this week’s class we used shima-haran, similar to the broad leaf from last class, yuki-yanagi, a tree branch we’ve also used before dotted with small white flowers, and poppies (Turkish), hands down my favorite flower.  We also learned how to use wires to shape the leaves in our desired way.  In this case, I taped a size 24 wire along the back vein of the shima-haran leaf, and molded and bent it to look like waves.  The focus today was men or dealing with the “lines” of an arrangement.

Also, here is a recent video from Reuters about how ikebana is becoming more popular in Japan, specifically for stressed “salary men.”  While the video touches upon a different school of ikebana, Sogetsu, than mine, Ikenobo, the gist is largely the same.  Click here for the full article.

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Happy Valentine’s Day!  A day behind schedule in Japan time, this post will still be relevant for at least 3 or 4 more hours in parts of the US.  Although it’s similar to America’s version of Valentine’s Day in the sense that it’s just as commercialized and involves copious amounts of chocolate, Japanese Valentine’s day differs in the sense that there’s little exchange of gifts going on.  In Japan, Valentine’s Day is a time for women to give gifts of chocolate to the men in their lives.  This could be in the form of giri-choco (obligation chocolate – given to male coworkers or supervisors) or honmei-choco (from the heart chocolate – often home-made and given to sweeties or to-be sweeeties.)

A month later, on White Day (a completely commercially fabricated holiday in Japan), men are expected to return gifts to those women that gifted on Valentine’s Day.  On White Day, however, the value of the present is meant to be at least 2 or 3 times more expensive than the original.  This theoretically shows the appreciation on the part of the man towards the lady.  If no gift is returned or the gift is of the same mediocre value, this means that the relationship is being ended or there’s no future.  Harsh.  (Sidenote: A friend of mine has also received a break-up gift from a Japanese guy she dated in her tenure here.  While we’re not sure if this is a wide-spread phenomenom, it most certainly seems in-line with some other Japanese cultural characteristics I’ve noticed.) Per the name “White Day,” gifts are supposed to be made out of white chocolate, to signify purity.  And, as one last ditch effort on the part of the Candy and Confectionery Industry of Japan, I have also heard rumour that a day 6 months later is meant for couples celebrating their  getting-together as a result of Valentine’s Day.  Just talk about romantic!

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Obento Mama

This blog is not a food site.  Neither is it an obento site.  I’ll leave that to the many, many other blogs out there on the interweb.  However, being in Japan, and loving food as I do, it’s nigh impossible to spend a year without mentioning the glory-praise-on-high that is the Japanese obento.  While Japanese food in and of itself is pretty dericious, the obento is a great example of Japanese cooking gone right…or at least can be.

A traditional Japanese obento is made for lunch, and probably was conceived at 5am by the overworked and under-appreciated matriarch of the household.  They sell cute little obento sets everywhere, but mainly they are comprised of two sections: a starch section (read: rice) and an okazu section (read: sides).  The stress is not only on the food inside, but on the placement and aesthetic of the food.  Portions are small – pretty much sample size – and almost exclusively placed in little mini cupcake wrappers to separate them from one another.  The outside package is also subjected to scrutiny, wrapped in furoshiki, Japanese all-purpose cloths, or in obento specific bags.  Online, there are numerous web sites devoted to the obento, and in Japan, there are cooking shows on TV, as well as cookbooks and cookbook authors who focus solely on this portable lunch meal.

I, the heathen American that I am, rarely bring my lunch in such cute obento forms.  I prefer the previous night’s meal in a tupperware or a sandwich when truly lazy.  However, the lucky heathen that I am, at one of my schools I have somehow managed to work my way into the heart of the school nurse, who has become my “Obento Mama.”  She says that it’s because her son is all grown up and it’s lonely to make obento for one, but I personally think that she enjoys seeing if I’ll eat some of the “weird” Japanese stuff she puts in. Regardless of the reasoning, I will graciously take and happily eat any food she sends my way!

On my desk in the morning....hmmm....what's this?

Oh look, another cute wrapping!

The Obento Box - the epitome of Japanesey with bunnies and cherry blossoms

Cha-ching! What you see here: below, Rice topped with funori (a form of seaweed that is special to Northern Japan), above, from left to right: sweet pinto beans, gobo (burdock root in a spicy, sesame sauce), strawberries, croquets, squid, and an egg salad

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Ikebana: Week 5

Aomoji, Asahi Baran, and Teppo Yuri (Easter Lily)

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