Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What a Doll

March 3 is Girls' Day or Hinamatsuri in Japan. Japanese households with female children display dolls on a crimson, tiered platform. The top level is reserved for the Emperor and Emperess and then descends to the ladies in waiting, court musicians, samurai and court furniture. Elaborate and expensive, families pass these heirlooms down to their daughters or sometimes to a son's wife. Special prayers are said for the protection and honor of all "princesses", young and old!

This week I was invited to a couple's house to celebrate. Pictured above in the blog title is the lunch they graciously served me. I almost couldn't eat it--it was so insanely kawaii (cute). Obviously, much care had been taken to prepare it. Nori, or seaweed, provides the Emperor's kimono. The Empress' kimono is actually a thin egg omelet. Their bodies are stuffed with rice and their diminutive heads are quail eggs--the charming faces and traditional hairstyles comprised of Nori as well.

I enjoyed these onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed) with some new friends in their house. This couple lives in a traditional Japanese home with only wood burning stoves to heat the space. They do not own a TV--only an old-fashioned cabinet radio. Weathered, antique wooden beams, taken from the original house, grace the vaulted ceilings.

Behind the sweet-faced onigiri, you might be able to view an ancient Japanese iron tea pot, supended on a long metal rod above a miniature fire pit. Every year, when the weather turns cold, the family rebuilds the fire area and the small table surrounding it. Some say that the best green tea is made from water heated in an iron pot above this sort of traditional fire.

As a beginner in this ancient culture, I can't say for sure whether this statement is true or not. But I can tell you one fact for certain--I have never been cozier in my life.

That's truth enough for me.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Noodle Museum Insights

What I learned at the Ramen Museum in Yokohama: Perhaps there is not enough to say about noodles to fill an entire museum.

For your viewing pleasure: Lily is reacting to the scintillatingly history of Cup O' Noodles behind her--the styrofoam packages lovingly encased in glass because of their obvious cultural preciosity. If you peer to the left of her and squint just so, you can view the life and times of instant Ramen packets, carefully stuck to the wall. In another 2X3 room, visitors are treated to a multitude of drawers, that when slid open, reveal real plastic replicas of Noodle Meals From Bygone Eras.

We finished this museum in under 5 minutes.

It took me a couple of months to post this "experience" because someone was an eensy bit cranky that his outing didn't wow the pants off of everyone. (A little emotional distance was called for. ) At the heart of this matter, Mr. LBS (low blood sugar) was starving and nobody else was hungry. A bit o' wounded pride mixed with an unreasonable mood swing made for a fabulous family outing.

However, in all fairness, he didn't make too much fun of me last summer after I insisted that everyone truck an hour out of Kyoto, on a metro and then a trolley bus (and then a small hike), to view the cormorant fishing along the Oi River. Cormorants, if you don't already know (because you somehow missed reading the children's classic Ping), are diving birds that have been fitted with rings around their slender necks. They can catch fish for their owners but not eat them.

Frommer's Japan declared that "there's no more romantic way to spend a summer's evening than drifting down the river in a wooden boat decorated with paper lanterns, watching the fishermen and their cormorants at work. It's simply magical."

I beg to differ.

But only because reality supplied a dose of, well...harsh reality: There were wooden boats--about 50 of them jammed together, packed to the gills with gullible tourists who had all shelled out 25 bucks each to watch "fishermen" on a canoe herd a gaggle of birds down one side of the strung-together boats and up the other. The dreamy smell of diesel filled the air--supplied by the outboard "snack boat" selling romantic offerings like beer and ice cream.

The fishermen made three passes by the lantern-lit boats--they looked like some ridiculous Greek god spurning on a tethered flock of choking, squawking, pencil-necked fowl, a giant torch leading the whole surreal procession. The torch light served the dual purpose of attracting the little fishies cormorants crave while also illuminating the bug-eyed splendor of the majestic cormorant "at work".

"It was simply...horrifying."--Nancy's Guide to Kyoto.

Then we had to hike back to the trolly, take the metro for another hour and schlep back to the hotel. I was glared at several times. Traveling/adventuring can be quite humbling. Sometimes you accidently blunder into off-the-beaten-path experiences that mesmerize you not only for a moment, but an entire lifetime.

And sometimes you follow a reputable guide right into a Cormorant Calamity/Noodle Hell on Earth.

That's life in a nutshell, if you ask me.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Demons Out...Luck In

The plum (ume) blossoms pictured above have arrived in Japan, heralding the start of spring. I know, it seems a bit early to be thinking of the end of winter...but February 3 is the official start of spring in Japan. I'm just a guest, so if the indigenous folk say winter is over...GREAT. It's done. Finished in my mind. I am sooo past that winter thing.

February 3 in Japan is Setsubun, a celebration that marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. People scatter roasted soybeans around houses, shrines and temples to bring good luck. They also pelt the Oni (red or blue devils) with the beans to get rid of the evil winter spirits. Traditionally, the male head of the household has the honor of mamemaki (bean scattering) but nowadays children oftentimes go to their grandparents' house to act out this ritual.

A family member wanders around the house saying, "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!"(Demons out! Luck in!), while somebody dressed as the Oni tries to evade the bean lashing. Of course, he fails miserably. Then each person has to eat the same number of beans as their age, PLUS one. (I guess we all could use a little extra luck.)

(Quiz time: Is this wacky tradition Shinto or Buddhist in origin? The first three correct answers will receive one free, slightly opened packet of roasted soybeans. Hurry while supplies last.)

Somewhere in this crazy ritual, a benevolent fat lady figures in as well as the need to eat giant sushi rolls (Maki sushi) while pointing towards this year's lucky compass direction. My class informed me that it's ENE this year. So for crying out loud, don't screw this up at home by pointing WSW...

My eyebrows must have asked, Huh?, because my class shrugged their shoulders, basically indicating, just cuz. Alrighty then. Just cuz works for me. I find, after all, that it's best not to subject shy ancient traditions to the bright, withering glare of logic. (Try explaining Groundhog Day to a foreigner. )

Afterall, a little mystery makes life so much more fun.

P.S. I knew I had a sleep number but I was completely unaware I might have a lucky compass direction. I think mine is NSW. Which explains everything.