Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Japanese Tea Ceremony 8/31

While exploring and taking in the last signs of Fall at the Sankei-en Gardens in Yokohama, we were greeted by a tour guide.One of the many things I love about Japan is how friendly and welcoming the Japanese nationals are. The guide kindly asked where my friend and I were from and briefly shared a bit about himself. He offered his services to help share the history of this Japanese style garden. My friend has spend 7 years in Japan and was giving me a personal tour. The guide smiled and offered to get us into a traditional Japanese tea ceremony (Chanoyu) that was about to begin. My friend and I exchanged a look and quickly thanked the guide for his offer. 

He led us to an unassuming building to the right of a sprawling lake. When we entered, I got the feeling at that this was a meeting room area where large groups of people would meet for conferences or large gatherings. As I walked further in, I began to smell the familiar aroma of Matcha, powdered green tea. The guide led us around a corner and quickly exchanged words with a beautiful Japanese lady who ushered us to our seats.

The area was beautiful and yet simple at the same time. The furniture was a simpe black stained wood with a red tablecloth like fabric laid across the padded bench. We had a stunning view of the perfectly pruned garden out the window. A calm, serene environment to take in this event. 

I later read that the atmosphere of a tea ceremony is supposed to be simple with a focus on nature. The tea garden should be an extension of the ceremony. 

At the front of the room stood an older woman who was carefully tending to the tea. She carefully stirred and monitored the temperature and almost danced from one step to the next. A calmness settled over me just by watching her. She artfully mixed the tea until it was just perfect before skillfully pouring it into the cups, chawan. 

I watched the hostess,Teishu, serve the people that were waiting in front of us. She did not just place the items down but was intentional about how the items were presented to her guests. The napkin was placed first, followed by the sweet treats. Each treat was put on the napkin so that the design on top would be observed before eaten. Last came the tea. The chawan was gently placed on the table and then turned so the carefully selected design could be appreciated by the guest. This is an art form and one that is taken very seriously.I have learned that the Japanese pay close attention to detail in all that they do...from putting items into your purchased bag, to handing you change after paying, all the way to serving their guests. 

When our tea arrived, I couldn't help but take a moment to fully take in the careful presentation. Not only did the color of the sweet treats match the cup, but the pagoda temple that resides at this garden was represented on each. Both were prominently turned and displayed so we would take notice and appreciate this detail. 

Matcha tea is not the lightly flavored green tea that I am used to drinking. It has a thicker, grainier texture that is concentrated with almost a bitterness to it. I am beginning to like it more and more the more I drink it but it is definitely something different. I have read that the sweet treats are given with the tea to help balance that bitterness with the sweet. This particular sweet treat had a brown sugar like interior with an almost powdered sugar like coating. After getting my taste in, my daughter took care of the rest. The outside of the treat almost melted on my tongue while the inner most portion had an almost chewy like texture.

After savoring each mouthful and carefully taking in the calm atmosphere, we stood from our seats and thanked our host for the beautiful ceremony. I have heard that ceremonies vary from temples and shrines from season to season. I am hoping to experience many more so I can see the differences for myself. I'm looking forward to sharing this experience with my tea loving mom when she comes to visit. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Ramen 7/31

When I learned that we were moving to Japan, I was so excited to explore and truly immerse myself in the culture. I was so worried about the cultural differences and offending someone due to my ignorance. Before coming, I learned about taking off your shoes and how to place your shoes after they are removed. I read about rules for the train and to always have something small in your bag to gift if someone helps you. 

I also learned about eating food and to how use utensils properly. So I was ecstatic when I got to put all of these lessons to work. My husband and I had to go to a week long training class when we first arrived. Part of the class was a field trip into Kamakura, which is place I frequent often and love. For this trip, we were asked what kind of food we wanted to eat and the guide would take us to her local recommendation.  I like my food to be cooked fully so sushi was not something I was daring enough to try, which left the safe option of ramen. 

Our guide informed us that this was a traditional ramen restaurant and that there was no English on the menu. My heart began to pound as my fears of looking like a stupid American quickly surfaced. She must have seen my panic because we ushered our group to the front of the restaurant where there was a window filled with plastic food. This is very common in Japanese restaurants (and you can even purchase your own plastic food in Tokyo). The food that is served is displayed for their customers to see prior to entering the restaurant. Our guide told us that if you can't read the menu, then you can walk with your waitress to the window and show them what you would like. Ah, I breathed a sigh of relief and quickly studied the window while our guide pointed to the dishes and told us what they were. 

I ordered the spicy ramen and enjoyed chatting with my husband sans kids while we waited for our food to arrive. My husband and I rarely get time alone so I dressed up a bit for our field trip. I wore a cute little creme colored cami with a colorful cardigan (yes, this will be important soon). 

My ramen arrived and my mouth immediately began to water. I quickly smelled the spice from the seasonings and the rich broth. Before beginning to eat, I ran through the list of things I needed to remember while eating in Japan. 

* Never leave your chopsticks sticking up in your food. 

* Slurp your noodles, it's a compliment to the chef. This is probably the hardest thing for me to do. 

* If you want more water, make sure you don't serve yourself. 

* Make sure you eat all of your food or you may offend the chef. 

I was ready to begin. I carefully lifted up a small portion of noodles to my lips with the chopsticks provided. As I moved my face closer to the bowl to narrow the gap, I felt the steam from the broth blow across me like a humid beckoning call. I gave my noodles a quick blow to cool them down and savored the first bite. While I chewed, I couldn't help but scan the restaurant. The American guests were carefully eating as I was but the Japanese customers quickly slurped their noodles and broth. How in the world were they eating this so quickly...I think I may have burnt my lips from that first mouthful. It was extremely hot with a good amount of spice. Maybe my mouth needed to build up a tolerance to heat. 

As I dug back into my noodles, I consciously made an effort to try and slurp some of my noodles to show my approval of the meal. I can still remember the taste of this particular bowl of ramen 5 months later. The flavor has not been repeated elsewhere. It was a spicy batch though and as I went for a napkin, I realized there wasn't one. This is not uncommon either. Most restaurants do not have napkins but occasionally they will have a box of tissues for you to use. 

I politely excused myself to use the restroom so I could clean up. When I got to the mirror, I instantly saw that my face was as red as the broth from the bowl. No, not from splattering but because of the spice. I quickly wet my hands and tried to cool my face down. After the flush began to subside, I noticed that the red was not just on my face. The top of my white shirt was covered in red flecks. Literally red flags that I was a beginner in the world of ramen eating. I buttoned up my cardigan and headed back into the restaurant and balmy, warm summer weather. My husband questioned my buttoned up attire and giggled as I unbuttoned a few buttons and pointed out my novice slurping skills. 

Needless to say, we giggled about this the whole day as I wiped sweat from my forehead and refused to take off my sweater. I learned my lesson though and practiced eating ramen at home before trying out my next restaurant.

I have learned that each ramen restaurant has their own spin on how they serve their ramen. Most will use a pork base while a few will use beef or chicken. Some like putting in the skinny mushrooms, seaweed, green onions, and pork with back fat. 

While others get you started with their basic seaweed, pork, sprouts, and flat mushrooms. And then give you the option to add fixings like green onions, corn, ginger, or freshly crushed garlic. 

Whichever you prefer,there is always one to suite your fancy. I have tried several out and each one is unique and tasty in its own way. I am also learning that the broth itself is different. My family tends to go towards the miso route but there is also a salty broth and soy sauce style broth. I am excited to venture out and try new broths. 

There are also different kinds of noodles. The above pictured noodles are called udon noodles and they have a thicker, chewier consistency. They had a different feel but are just as tasty. 

So many foods to try and I am welcoming the challenge. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Complicated Kimonos 6/31

I was so excited to have the opportunity to participate in a Japanese celebration where we could learn Japanese children games, dress up like Samurai warriors, learn how to fold origami animals and boxes, and dress up in kimonos. 

The most exciting part was learning how to put on a kimono. They had several people there to help dress all of the guests who came to the event. J and A were so excited when it was their turn. Unfortunately J was in a different room so I was unable to watch the process of layering each of the important pieces in a boys kimono. I was lucky enough to watch A's process though. 

I had no idea that there were so many steps to putting on a kimono. It is truly a special experience. 

The first step to wearing a kimono is putting on the Nagajuban, or under layer. This is used to help reduce the amount of times you have to wash the kimono. It's basically the equivalent of an undershirt. I would have been happy if this was the only layer she wore. It was so pretty and had a gorgeous geometric pattern. This layer is only shown at the collar once the kimono is put on. 

As I watched the lady tie on the Datejime (Koshimhimo for boys), my eyes began to get a little wet. I was watching my two year turn into a little lady before my eyes. As the lady wrapped the sash around her Nagajuban, I had visions of someone helping her with her wedding dress. Yes, this will be WAY down the road but it quickly flashed before my eyes. 

The next step was putting on the kimono. A's kimono was very similar to her Nagajuban but it was made of silk and had a sturdier texture to it. Our Japanese lady took such care in making sure that each layer overlapped in the correct area. A watched her with pure contentment and the feeling was reciprocated. 

There is an order that must be followed when putting on a kimono correctly. Care and precision are used each step along the way. As the kimono was wrapped around A, I glanced around the room at all of the women and children that were being draped in these beautiful silk kimonos. It was like looking at a bright Asian inspired rainbow. The colors varied from reds and oranges to blues and greens. Each pattern was unique and completed each woman/girl perfectly. Tables were filled with different selections, waiting for their special match to walk through the door. 

The next step was to put on the obi, or outside wrap. A's obi was simple and more flexible than the woman's obi. This is a wide silk outer sash that helps hold the kimono together. It is also a decorative piece that is tied in a complicated knot/bow on the back of adult kimonos. This accessory pulls the piece together and truly makes it complete. 

With flowing sleeves and plenty of layers to keep her warm, A was ready to head over to the hair department. 

Not so fast.....almost done but not yet. 

The last step was reserved for her feet. First, A had to put on "funny socks" called Tabi. These socks were in the shape of a foot with a big toe hole and another wide hole for the rest of her toes. A was not sure what to think of these funny feeling socks. There is no elastic and the standard color is white. A quickly got used to the sock but struggled with the formal sandal, Zori, used with kimonos. She had a difficult time scooting along when walking and I ended up holding them for her most of the time. 

J wore the exact same layers but designed for boys. His shoes were called hakimono and looked very similar. His shoes had more of a bamboo feeling to them. 

On top of these 4 layers of clothes, J also had a hakama, skirt like layer, that helped polish off his look. My little guy looked so grown up. My eyes began to water again (don't judge, I'm a sappy mom). Inside his hakama was a fan that he couldn't help but show off whenever possible. 

Buddy, you look so grown up. Did you have fun? 

Mom, this thing is super hot and heavy....but it's kinda cool too. 

I can only imagine how warm they must have been. 4-5 layers of clothes and unique footwear....I'd be warm too. I later learned that there can be up to 20 layers in a kimono. The wedding ones are very detailed and have many layers of meaning. 

The very last step for A was getting her hair done. A is very good about sitting so I can braid her hair like Anna from Frozen but always complains when I brush. Not today...today, she sat like Mulan in that chair. She carefully watched as her beautician wrapped her hair around a wire mesh and put different colored and shaped accessories in her hair. Several flowers and chimes were put in and out of her hair until the perfect balance was met. 

 My sweet little maiko was ready to go strut through the hallways and get her picture taken. 

This was an amazing experience and one that I look forward to doing again as a complete family of five. We all learned so much about the pride, effort, and detail that goes into putting a traditional kimono on. 

To top off this unique experience, my children also got to get a picture with a Samurai. They were in true disbelief as he snuck up behind them...stealthy as a ninja. 

It was truly a day to remember and one for the books. Another memory logged into our Japan journals. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

First Position 5/31

I have never been a girlie girl. I was blessed with two amazing boys before my little girl arrived and it happened that way for a reason. I needed to get the dirt and rough and tumble play out of the way before I was blessed with a girl. That being said, my daughter is the best of both worlds. She is quick to wrestle with the boys but also loves her princess dresses. So when she was old enough to start ballet, we jumped in with two feet. When the package arrived with her ballet attire, I couldn't open it up fast enough. Her first lesson was a week later and we couldn't wait. 

A's was so eager to begin when we reached the building and quickly yanked off her sweater. 

Here mama, I don't need this anymore. I have my ballerina stuff on. 

Her chunky toddler legs skipped to join her teacher. Arms flapping to the sides like a butterfly just emerging from it's chrysalis. 

She watched as her teacher stretched and prepared the music to begin the lesson. It was only 30 minutes long which seemed like such a short amount of time. I had forgotten how short attention spans are for 2-3 year old girls. I was about to have a quick lesson in how attentive my daughter would be. 

The music came on as the little girls began to skip around the floor. My heart jumped a little and a perminent smile spread across my face. I'm sure that I could have been mistake for the Cheshire cat if someone had looked through the window. 

My little lady quickly worked to please her teacher and I couldn't help at marvel at how quickly the concentration on her face turned to adoration towards her teacher.

The upbeat classical music played while the girls listened to their teacher's instruction and looked to see what needed to happen next. A was having so much fun dancing and skipping around the room. 

Then the atmosphere changed....the sweet, skipping music lost it's carefree nature and became slower. 

The real work and learning were about to begin. 

The teacher's broken English counted out stretches while she moved from one little girl to the next, teaching them how to stretch their little bodies in ways they weren't normally used. 

I giggled as I watched A scrunch up her face while she pulled her chin to her knees and forehead to her toes. She was determined to copy her teacher exactly. 

After stretches were done, the bar was moved out to the middle of the room. A bounced on her toes in anticipation. She had watched enough cartoons to realize that this is when the fun stuff began. She bounded towards the bar with reckless abandonment. Her face a mixture curiosity and eagerness. 



A bounced up and down on her toes to the rhythm while the teacher gave directions. 

First Position! 

A watched as the teacher turned her toes outward. A moved one foot at a time, doing her best to copy the movements that were modeled. The teacher moved each girls toes with ease and a gentle touch. 

Second Position!

A moved her legs apart one at a time....being careful to make sure that her feet stayed in the same position that the teacher first put them in. 

I watched as the concentration and enjoyment turned to frustration. 

What are you doing? 

A released  the bar and ran towards me with full force. Quickly informing me that this was too hard for her and that she was ready to go home and have lunch. 

Oh sweetheart, you can't give up now. The really fun part is about to begin 

I glanced at my phone and saw that only 20 minutes had past. We still had another 10 minutes of dance left. How in the world was I going to keep my strong headed little lady focused. 

The music picked up again and the little girls skipped to the wall. A quickly swiveled her head to see what she was missing. She gave me a second glance and then skipped to join the group. 

Phew! Crisis averted. 

Everyone began to dance and skip around the room. The angry scowl that had covered my little girls face a moment ago was a long gone shadow. The twinkle in her eye returned and the focus and determination were back where they belonged. 

I let several giggles slip from my lips as I watched this little being of mine hop from one spot to the next. She had just been grabbing bugs off the sidewalk and was now a vision of the little lady she was to become. 

I marvel at her daily as I watch her balance the joys of being a girlie girl and the stubbornness of wanting to be tough like her brothers. She is perfection in my eyes and I am so happy to watch her blossom in both areas.  
After a grueling 30 minutes of dancing, concentrating, skipping and contorting her little body, we were finally home. She collapsed to the couch and closed her eyes for a moment. 

Did you have fun honey? 

Yes...but mama my body doesn't want to move like that. 

You will learn with time and practice. Do you want to practice right now with mama? 

Nope...I'm good!

Until another day...I'll keep these memories treasured as I'm sure we'll go through several different styles of dance throughout the years to come. But for now, it all began with 

First Position!

Friday, March 4, 2016

Ofuna Kannon 4/31

After missing my intended train station, I got off at Ofuna and went to change trains. I looked out towards the city to see if I wanted to stop back here another time and saw a white statue at the top of a hill. My curiosity got the best of me and I had to come back and check it out. 

Visions of Indiana Jones filled my head as I loaded up my daughter in the backpack to begin our search for the white statue. One of the many things I love about Japan is how easily accessible things are from the train stations. We have a train station a quick 10 minute walk away that we use almost daily. We have a card loaded with yen and off we go. The trains are clean and are so timely that you could set your watch by them. 

After getting off the train, we walked across a bridge towards the statue. A Japanese gentleman looked at my face full of concentration and helped direct me in the right direction. We followed a Japanese family up this steep walkway toward the temple. I am in awe of how well the elderly maneuver these steep and often narrow pathways. I am not in peak shape but I can hold my own on a good hike, but I must admit that I was a little winded by the time I reached the top. 

When we reached the peak, the grounded leveled off so we could pay for entrance into the temple (300 yen). The kind woman at the counter gave me an information sheet written in English to tell me about this important temple. 

Kannon is the Buddhist goddess of mercy. She stands 25 meters tall and was built as a prayer for world peace. Her construction began in 1929 but was put on hold due to war. 

After finally reaching the top of the staircase, we were rewarded for our efforts by seeing Kannon herself. It was a beautiful day and she seemed to glow against the blue landscape. Flowers rested on the bench in front of her and a signed stated that the bench next to it was for offerings to this god. 

My back felt like I was carrying an extra 40 pounds which was my cue that someone was resting after our walk. I gently nudged my daughter who was snuggled into the carrier. I didn't want her to miss this. As one eye slowly opened, I watched her expression change from sleep to fascination. 

"WOW! Beautiful!", came the groggy voice from my back. 

"Yes sweetheart, I feel the same way. She's pretty huh?" 

The wonderment was clearly evident as my daughter said, "Mama, she's gorgeous!"

I couldn't agree more. With all that I've seen in our short 5 months here, Ofuna Kannon is easily my favorite. 

After we circled the statue, A and I sat down to learn a little more about this beautiful structure. 

We learned that: 

* It took 31 years from start to finish to complete Kannon. 

* People seek out Kannon as a source of comfort during periods of solitude and homesickness. Which is actually kind of handy since a military housing facility is close by. 

* Every Autumn, there is a Yum-Kannon festival where people gather to sing, dance, and experience traditional stalls and vendors. 

I spent more time lingering at this temple then I normally do. With each angle, I noticed something different about this stunning structure. We also learned that stones were carried here from ground zero of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to remind people about the war and how important peace is. These stones are found in the garden below the structure. 

We also learned that there is a flame inside of this statue that forever burns. The flames were taken from the fire that ensued after the 1945 attack on Hiroshima. 

I tend to be a perfectionist and I hate when things go wrong in my plans. However, getting on the wrong train was a real blessing and I'm so thankful that I stumbled upon this breath taking temple and statue. I'm looking forward to making more mistakes that lead to surprises like this. 

Ofuna Kannon in Kamakura, Japan

Sakura 3/31

Sakura Cherry Blossom Season is here!

It is Sakura season here in Japan. Pink petals pop against the blue skies and crowds of people flock to look at streets lined with trees. 

The yellow flower is called a rapeseed. 

My children and I took advantage of a day off of school and hopped on the train towards Miurakaigan Station to see the first blooms of the season close to us. Sakura season is a big deal in Japan and they celebrate it with gusto. Even the trains are decorated with sakura blossoms. 

I have read that there are over 600 different species of cherry trees that bloom in Japan. On this particular trip, we were heading to look at a unique species called Kawazu-zakura. It is one of the earliest blooming trees in the Tokyo area. 

When we exited the train station, we were met with several venders selling sweet  treats with sakura blossoms in them. Trees were reaching out of the concrete and stretching towards the sky like an offering to be shared with everyone. Several cameras were perched in people hands eager to peck the best picture of the day. 

We meandered down streets and river banks, stopping to take in the beautiful sites and treasure this moment since it may be gone within a week. The Sakura flowers do not last long which is part of the appeal. Depending on the weather and wind, these flowers could only last a few days or a week. So it is important to get out and see them as soon as they buds begin to appear. 

As a newbie to Japan, I was curious to know what separated cherry blossom trees from plum trees. They both seem to bloom around the same time.I quickly noticed that the cherry blossoms don't normally have a strong scent and their petals are different. The cherry blossom petal has a little notch carved out of the petal and the blossoms tend to be a shade of pink (but they can be a white color as well). 

Plum trees on the other hand are very fragrant. I know the moment we are getting close to a plum tree because the scent travels along on the breeze like someone beckoning me to stop everything and follow the trail. The petals of a plum tree tend to be more rounded with no notches and look like cloud tufts to me. 

Pink petals are now beginning to pop up all over the place. My kids grumble now when they see these pink masterpieces because they know mom is going to stop for just one more pictures. 

Just one more guys...I'm almost finished...promise!

They patiently pause while my finger bounces off the button. But the trees are not the only time we see Sakura. The Japanese love their cherry blossoms and once the Sakura trees appear, you also see them on advertisements for food. McDonald's has Sakura soda with ice cream and Starbucks has Sakura flavored drinks and special mugs and cups that are limited addition and sell out in hours. There are candies and burgers, teas and body washes...all stamped with the sakura petal. 

We are enjoying our Sakura right now and are excited to try all of the yummy goodies while they are available. I am excited to see how many different species of Sakura trees we can find. So far I've only discovered 3 but the season is just beginning in my area. Let the search begin!

Slice of Life Challenge