March 31, 2011

Making Mochi Rice Cakes (Mochi tsuki)

Filed under: Cuisine, Events, Food, Interesting — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — myyearinjapan @ 7:58 am

It is hard to imagine Japan without Mochi, Japanese rice cakes. Anytime time of the year, but especially around new years, it is popular in many communities and families around Japan to pound rice and make mochi, a kind of rice cake. (I don’t particularly like defining mochi as rice cakes because rice cake can refer to many, many things, but I don’t know of a better definition.) Around new years, I was visiting an elementary school and explaining what new years in like in the states to them. While in Japan, there are particular children’s and games and food associated with New Years, a lot of the new years fun in the states is much more fun for adults, so I had difficulty conveying new years to them in an interesting way. When asked if there was special food for new years, I drew a blank. One kid asked me if we have mochi in the states and when I said no, he said, “good thing I was born in Japan.”

In the states, most people who know mochi probably know it in the form of mochi ice cream. Mochi ice cream was the first kind of mochi that I ever ate. In recent years, I’ve also seen small bite-sized pieces of mochi offered as toppings at some frozen yogurt chains.

To make mochi, glutinous rice is pounded down using a wooden pestle called a kine (pronounced key-neigh) and a mortar called an usu. As the rice is pounded, the individual grains cease to exist and it all becomes one sticky mass of rice. It is then shaped and eaten as is or put into a kind of soup. It can also be filled with red bean paste or sometimes with strawberries. For the lazy ones among us, there are now machines that pound the mochi for you, including ones small enough to have at home.

mochi tsuki

Preparing to strike.

mochi tsuki


in the mortar

In the mochi mortar. The mochi really sticks to the kine hammer.


In addition to plain, white mochi, we also pounded out some green mochi and pink mochi. This is yomogi (Japanese mugwort), the plant used to make the mochi turn green.


Preparing soem green mochi. We filled a lot of then with anko (red adzuki bean pastes). The anko is what you see on the left on the circular plate.


March 30, 2011

Inside the Matsue Castle

Filed under: Domestic, Interesting, Trips — Tags: , , , , , , , — myyearinjapan @ 11:02 pm

Pictures I took in Matsue castle of the exhibits inside. They have several pieces of samurai armor on display. Other pictures from this castle can be seen in my previous post here.


Admiring the armor


I thought this helmet was pretty funny with those silly ears.


Being able to see the face armor makes this a bit creepy, in my opinion.


They had quite a few helmets on display. Maybe about 20 of them.

March 29, 2011

Cherry Blossoms Part 1-Waiting

Cherry blossoms (Sakura桜) are a national obsession in Japan. This year, things are a little different due to the earthquake and the still tenuous situation with the nuclear reactor in Fukushima, but a massive natural disaster happening on the other side of the country does not stop the cherry blossoms from blooming and if people still want to do flower viewing (Hanami 花見), then they will. Usually, at this time of year, the news is filled with updates about where the flowers have bloomed and where they will bloom next. Tourists flock to popular cherry blossom viewing sites. Good luck getting a hotel in Kyoto during cherry blossom season. Of course, this year, the country has other things on it’s mind and updates on the disaster have replaced much of the cherry blossom fervor.

But you can still find plenty of information online. For example, Yahoo Japan, has a map of cherry blossom viewing spots around Japan and has organized the current state of the cherry blossoms into 7 categories: bud (tsubomi つぼみ), beginning to bloom (sakihajime 咲き始め), half bloomed (gobunsaki 5分咲き), 70 percent bloomed (nanabunsaki 7分咲き), full bloom (mankai 満開), beginning to fall (chirihajime 散り始め), and completely gone (hazakura 葉桜). Currently most of the country is still in the bud category.  (Although Yahoo also has a disclaimer on their site saying that they have yet to check on the situation of the cherry blossoms in the areas devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.)

Where I’m living, the cherry blossoms are a bit late this year because we had an unusually harsh winter. I’ve been told that we usually have blooms by this time of year. Also, the cherry blossom festival, one of the biggest events of the year from my city has been drastically scaled back in the wake of the disaster. The fireworks, various performances, and many of the food stalls have been canceled. They will still have limited food stalls and light the trees up at night, but that’s about it.

Here is what the trees look like as of yesterday:


This tree lined path goes along a river and it is where everyone will come for flower viewing once the flowers bloom.


The first buds on the trees.


These buds look a bit closer to opening.


A young couple walks along the tree lined path. Schools are currently on their spring break between semesters.


The sun sets behind the trees.


March 28, 2011


Filed under: Events, Interesting — Tags: , , , , , , — myyearinjapan @ 11:48 pm

You may have heard about the Supermoon on March 19th. A supermoon is a full moon that appears larger than normal from earth and it happens about once every 18 years. (According to NASA, the last supermoon was in 1993.) It didn’t look much bigger to me, but I still took the time to try and photograph it.


This is what happens when you go up against a SUPERMOON with no tripod.


Forget the colors of the wind. I could paint the sky with all the colors of the moon.

taken with tripod

A picture I got later when I went outside with a tripod.

tripod again

'nother picture I got using a tripod. Bright, bright moooon!

Does it look bigger and brighter and better than normal? Does it?

March 27, 2011

How We’re Helping in the West

Filed under: Events, Work — myyearinjapan @ 11:56 pm

It has been over 2 weeks since a devastating 9.0 earthquake shook Japan’s Northeastern coast and sent a tsunami that, in some places, was as high as 12 m (39 ft) to the coast. Several coastal towns were virtually washed away. In a matter of minutes, towns went from bustling hamlets to disaster zones with a third of the population missing from some towns. According to the National Police Agency, the confirmed dead are 10,804 and 16,244 people are officially missing (meaning their family has informed police that they cannot be found) as of March 27th. According to the national broadcasting service, NHK, the official numbers of the missing do not take into account the thousands or possibly ten of thousands of people missing from several places that were especially hard hit, where so much of the population is missing that there simply aren’t people who can call the police to inform them of who is unaccounted for. Additionally, there are currently 242,881 people living in shelters and, thanks to the people fleeing Fukushima because of the nuclear crisis, that number has not been decreasing very much. The nuclear crisis has also made it difficult to assess the numbers of missing and dead due to the earthquake-tsunami in Fukushima.

About a week ago, I wrote a post about how life is going on pretty much as before here. But, I should mention that we are doing what we can here. People have been donating money and blood. Also, my town started collecting a few select supplies from people and in 4 days they collected 733 blankets, 2,083 bath towels, 10,  259 face towels, and 10,482 hand warmers.  This is a town of 40,000 people, so that’s like every family coming in to drop off at least a face towel, if not more. But for about 2 weeks those supplies sat collecting dust. There was simply no place to send them because it was determined that the supplies were not needed at this time. Over the weekend that changed and now the supplies will be sent to a city in inland Fukushima. We are sending the 325 boxes of supplies not to a place devastated by the natural disaster, but rather to a place that has been inundated with refugees who are worried about nuclear fallout. We also planned on sending some city hall employees, but that has been postponed indefinitely because so many people have offered to volunteer from other places and we aren’t needed.

Additionally, with all the empty houses we have around town, we are offering to let people left homeless by the earthquake stay in some of those empty houses for one year for free. And it’s not just us. Almost every municipality in the prefecture is joining the free house party. The prefecture itself is even offering free housing in some buildings that it owns. Out of 635 homes available in the prefecture, 71 are being offered by my city. But my prefecture has been desperately trying to get people to live in all the empty homes since long before the earthquake. There are 3 people in my office who’s job it is to promote population growth in our town. UI turn fairs are held in Hiroshima, Osaka and Tokyo often. They want people who have left the area to come back (U-turn) and people who had never lived here to try out the relaxed rural lifestyle (I-turn).

The recovery is happening slowly but surely in hard-hit Iwate and Miyagi, but the nuclear situation in Fukushima is still tenuous. Many news organizations have talked about a phrase heard often in Japan, but especially now. That phrase is Sho ga nai (しょうがない), it can’t be helped. (I really heard them mangle the pronunciation of this phrase on the Sunday edition of the NBC Nightly News.  It sounded like they said “Shoku ga nai,” meaning “There’s no food.”) In any situation that you have no control over, the most you can do is say “sho ga nai” and just keep going on with your life as much as possible.

March 24, 2011

Sugaya Tatara Iron Town

Filed under: Domestic, Interesting, Iron, Trips — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — myyearinjapan @ 12:09 am

Back in January, I wrote a post about seeing Tatara Iron making. Turns out that the Tarara iron making I saw wasn’t the real deal. Well, some people don’t consider it the real deal. The furnace they used was considerably smaller than the furnaces they used to use for Tatara iron making. Real Tatara iron making didn’t take one day and one night, like the process I witnessed. The process took 3 days and 3 nights. It wasn’t until the 4th morning that the iron was ready. I visited the last extant iron furnace (I visited 3 times in the past month, actually), which was last used to make iron in 1921. It is located in Yoshida town in the Okuizumo area of the Chugoku mountains. The Iron town is called the Sugaya Tatara Iron Town.

I explained in my last iron post a little bit about how they make the iron, but here’s a quick refresher: Iron sand is taken from nearby rivers and local mountains. The iron sand, along with charcoal, was put into special furnaces made by layering sand and charcoal and heated to extreme temperatures. To build and use the furnace takes over a week. Special foot bellows were used to stoke the fire throughout the process. The iron produced with this method is supposedly of very high quality and is used to make Japanese swords, knives and other things. One important quality about this iron is that it can be manipulated at much lower temperatures then iron made by other processes.

As I mentioned before, this iron town was the basis for the iron town in the movie Princess Mononoke. In the movie, women work the foot bellows. When I visited the iron town, I asked if women ever worked the foot bellows here. The guide looked at me like I was crazy and said, No way, this was really hard labor!


Sugaya Tatara Iron Town


A street in the iron town. People still live here, just as they have for hundreds of years. It snows a lot in winter, so they essentially get cut off from the outside world for a few months a year.


This is where the magic happened, by which I mean they made the iron here. This building is called the Takadono (高殿).


This is the furnace used to make the iron. On either side are the bellows, which were once foot bellows and were later replaced with a water wheel system. The wooden planks in front of the furnace are covering underground tunnels. They would light a fire on one side of the tunnel and use the other side as a chimney to naturally dehumidify, so the furnace didn't explode.


This building is called the Odoba. After making the iron, and cooling it in a small pond (which I couldn't get a picture of because it was covered in snow), they took the meter long iron lump here. They would drop that big metal rod onto the iron to break it apart. Sounds pretty dangerous. I apologize that the picture is blurry. There was very little light.


The outside of the Odoba, where the big metal rod was used to break up the big iron lump.


The smaller pieces of iron are then brought to this building, called the motogoya. This building is where the big boss lives. He was in charge of administrating the operation and counting the money. Also, right across from him, in the same building, people sort the iron and prepare it for shipment. There were also blacksmiths who worked in a building next door, but that building no longer exists.


Tools used in the motogoya so sorting, packing, etc.


A little shrine dedicated to the god of iron. The Murage (村下) was the head of the factory, so to speak, and was in charge of the actual iron making, Before they started the iron making, the Murage would come to this shrine to pray.


The Murage would also purify himself in this river.

March 23, 2011

Local Waterfall

Filed under: Domestic, seikatsu, Trips — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — myyearinjapan @ 12:01 am

Not to far from where I live is a waterfall. I’ve been driving by the sign for the turn off to the waterfall for months and I finally went to check it out. Turns out that you need to drive for another 20 minutes or so past the sign for the turn off to get to the waterfall.

The trees in the real nature. The waterfalls aren't near anything.

River leading to the falls

30 meter waterfall.

Closer-up view of the falls. By the way, 30 m=98 ft.


March 22, 2011

More Snow

Filed under: seikatsu — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — myyearinjapan @ 12:01 am

I’m still waiting for the winter to end. March is more than half over and the snow is still falling. Now it tends to melt in the afternoon, but the snow keeps on falling at night.

Snowy trees

Snow snow snow

Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it snow.

Snowy bridge

Snowy train. Model train. It doesn't run. Just-for-show snowy train.

Snowy library

March 21, 2011

Another Ride on the Horikawa Pleasure Boats

Filed under: Domestic, Trips — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — myyearinjapan @ 12:01 am

Back in November, I wrote a post about the Horikawa pleasure boats. I went back again last month, but I didn’t want to post similar pictures again, so here are some new pictures from the moat boat tour. If you want a general idea what the boat tour is like, please look at my previous post about the Horikawa Boats.

Trees reflected in the river.


The shopkeeper was surprised to find me taking her picture through the window, but she gave me a nice smile.

One of the tunnels that the boat tour goes through.

Getting out of the boat. Can you see the table covered by a blanket in the empty boat? That's a kotatsu. It has an electric heater in it. Many people in Japan practically live underneath their kotatsu during the winter. Without the Kotatsu, the boat ride might be a bit uncomfortable.

Learn more about kotatsu here.

March 20, 2011

Lafcadio Hearn’s Former Residence

Lafcadio Hearn was born in Greece in 1850, the son of an Irish man and a Greek woman. He grew up in Dublin and moved to Ohio at the age of 19 and became a journalist. He worked in New Orleans and  Martinique before coming to Japan in 1890. He lived in Matsue, Kumamoto, and Tokyo before passing away in Tokyo in 1904. While in Japan, he married Koizumi Setsu, daughter of a samurai family and took on the name Koizumi Yakumo. Hearn wrote several books on Japan and helped shape the way the Western world viewed Japan over a hundred years ago, when the Western world still knew very little about the country that had been closed to most of the West until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

A statue of Mr. Lafcadio Hearn

Roof at Lafcadio's former residence. He only lived here for about a year.

Flowers in the entranceway.

Looking into Lafcadio's garden.

Alcove in the traditional Japanese room.

Garden path

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