Archive for April, 2010

Ikebana: Week 15

Another Shinputai arrangement – this one really looks like there’s a wind a’blowin, no?  Shyu: Baby’s Breath (1st); You: Nyursairan leaf (2nd); and Ashirai: Toruko Kikiyou (maybe Turkish something? 3rd in)

*In other news, I’m leaving tomorrow for Beijing and hiking the Great Wall during Japan’s “Golden Week” holiday.  Will be back with more news and fun tidbits after the break!


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See this month’s Travel Go Girl Post here!

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Ikebana: Week 14

Another Shinputai arrangement.  The Shyu: Gladiosa flowers (1st in); the You: Okurareruka stalk-like leaves (2nd in); and the Ashirai: Tamashida fern (last in).

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The Month of Brownies

Gift giving is an well-meaning, complicated, and rewarding obligation cultural practice here in Japan.  But just sometimes, it can get you into a spot of trouble.

A month or two ago, I brought a pan-full of Ghiradelli Brownie Mix brownies to share with my Ikebana class one night, which anyone who has tasted a Ghiradelli brownie knows, was a huge success.  It was/is particularly momentous for those individuals who are unaccustomed to the amazingness that is the quintessential American “brownie.”  When told how delicious they were, however, I made the mistake of playing off how easy they were to make, which, obviously, 2 eggs and a 1/2 cup of vegetable oil later, they were.  But, the more my ikebana ladies fawned, the more I knew I had dug myself into a deep hole.  A hole filled with butter and sugar and cocoa powder.  Weeks later, what had started as harmless requests for the recipe, soon turned into more forceful pleas for me to pick a date for them to come over to learn how to MAKE the brownies.  And thus commenced The Month of Brownies.

Like many people I know, up until a month ago, I had never made a batch of brownies from scratch.  I envisioned long recipes with fancy chocolate, thermometers, constant stirring and melting temperatures hovering just below burning.  But, not to be uncovered in my lie, I made it my goal to find the perfect, most delicious, home-made brownie recipe ever made, using the easiest of tactics.  (As a side note, I cook.  I don’t bake.  Baking generally requires a knowledge of math and ratios, which annoys me, and following recipes too exactly, which I shun on principle.)  However, four recipes and six pans of brownies later, I discovered a brownie so perfect, so moist and chocolaty dense on the inside, so crackly and crisp on the crust, so balanced between the sweetness in the sugar and the slight bitter earthiness of the cocoa that all other brownies pale in comparison.  I have found my signature brownie recipe.  And damn, it’s delicious.

And so it came to pass that this Saturday was Judgement Day.  My ikebana ladies arrived, or rather, descended upon me, hoisting far too much food (sweet, sticky rice with beans and chestnuts; hijiki seaweed salad; pork and sweet potato stew; whole marinated baby squid!) and proceeded to don their aprons and stand in my kitchen expectantly.  They took careful notes as I explained measurements (which I had calculated into metric grams for them) and the order of mixing.  They tasted and felt consistency and texture.  They asked me what the recipe would be without chocolate.  Well, it certainly wouldn’t be a Brownie, now, would it?

One of my goals for myself was to befriend the old(er) ladies in my town, and seeing them in my living room, I can say that I have been succesful in that endeavor.

In the end, I passed with flying colors, and am perhaps a better person knowing how to make Brownies from scratch.  So, to add to my list of mix CDs, homemade chili and cornbread, and girls who exercise for health (more on that in another post), I’m doing my job of internationalizing rural Japan one sweet, chocolate-filled day at a time.

The magic's in the metal pan

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Funori Tori

“Please come to school by 7:30 tomorrow.  And bring rain boots.  No, you don’t have rain boots? [Pause.] What did you do all winter? [Pause.] No, rain boots. They will get wet.  What size are your feet? Okay, we will arrange something. [Pause.]  Okay. See you tomorrow.  Goodbye.”

The phone rings again: “Oh yes, and bring gloves. Yes. Bring gloves, and dress like it’s winter.”

Everyone preparing to divide and conquer

Thus commenced my foray into the foraging of funori, a type of carageenan seaweed that is described as a “jelly seaweed” when googled.  It grows on rocks off the shore of northern Japan, and therefore is a specialty to this region.  As you can see from the photos, it varies in color from dark purplish brown to bright orange, and can be short and skinny or long and balloon-fat.  It’s particularly tasty added to a miso soup.

Lone little obaachan in the shallows

I arrived at school extra early on Thursday to get to the pickin’ site with the other teachers, and with enough time to set up a big fire barrel for the purposes of cooking our delicious ‘picnic’ lunch, and to wait for the students.  Every year, the elementary schools in my town have a funori tori (picking) day, where students and parents alike volunteer.  All the seaweed collected is cleaned and then either sold fresh or dried, with proceeds going to the school, typically raking in between $2-3,000.  Think bake sale, but not.

A close-up of some long, orange specimens

The day was cold.  In fact, it even snowed a bit.  (Hello? April?) But the weather here moves so quickly that we were able to enjoy a few moments of sunshine now and again as we tromped around the shallows, scraping the rocks bare with our gloved hands, and shoving fistfuls of funori into baskets or large sacks tied around our waists.

Look at this cool new friend I found!

Potato and pork stew on the beach for lunch

After a hearty and delicious, warm lunch, the kids and most of the parents were sent home, while the teachers and a select few of the funori tori veterans went on to the processing station at the port in my town.  There, we dumped in big cargo baskets of the funori into ice-cold water and washed it “clean” with rubber-gloved hands.  Post-soak and -strain, we picked through it manually looking for bits of other seaweed, trash, or errant snails.  In total, over the coarse of several hours, we harvest 350 kilograms of funori from the coasts of Kazamaura, destined for shops around the prefecture, and perhaps beyond.  If anyone fancies a taste, for a small fee, I have considered starting an exporting business to broaden the plump little reaches of funori fingers the world over!  And how delectable!

Washing/picking through the sea gifts

The end result

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We learned a new style of arrangement this week in class, called Shouka Shinputai, which literally means ‘a breath of fresh air.’  The arrangement, rather than based on height and width dimensions, is based on the following: shyu (lord), you (business), and ashirai (treatment).  The flowers are arranged in a row, so as to appear like they are “blowing in the wind” from the viewer’s stance.  Our materials were a single rose (the lord), two arekayashi – or areca palm fronds (the business), and petite yellow orchids (the treatment), of which we were only allowed to use one stalk.

Why yes, that is a small yellow orchid peaking out behind this arrangement that just happens to be blowing in the wind of my tatami room! How kind of you to notice.

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Even in the darkest hours of December, I thought to myself, There are way worse people with whom I could be stuck in the middle of nowhere Japan. And while I’ve made friends, missed friends, spent many an hour writing emails and talking on skype, in the end, it’s been me in this house on the hill overlooking Hokkaido.  Just me.

Recently, I caught the evening light just right on a deserted beach several hours south of my town.  Here, I welcomed the coming season with some warmer winds and my sights on the Pacific.  And on much more.  I’ve yet to internalize all that these past eight months have done to shape me as a person, a woman, a daughter, a friend; but the way I felt on this day, greeting Spring on the shores of Japan in excellent solo company, is a start.  On the eve of my twenty-fifth birthday, with brains in my head and feet in my shoes, I am steering myself in the direction I choose.   Happy Birthday to me.

The Beast has been a noble, if not slightly ghetto, adventuring companion

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