Archive for March, 2010

One Photograph a Day: Day 1

So I was sitting in bed a couple nights ago, unable to sleep, and said to myself, “I’m in Japan! Why am I not taking pictures?” and I promised myself I would try and take at least one picture each day.

So! I really am going to try this – no editing, just a picture.

Kanji (Chinese writing) on one of the streets on my way to school.

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Furoshiki and Bento

(image from here.)

After coming back from Kitano Tenmagu Shrine, we visited the Karakusaya Furoshiki store, which I found through this site.Furoshiki is a traditional method of wrapping items and transporting them in cloth, and is often used in modern days to transport bento (lunchboxes.) I had seen these before and thought they were cool, but didn’t really understand it. (I now know what the “handkerchiefs” were that our Japanese exchange student kept bringing as gifts.)

It took us a while to find it, but the store was fascinating. The staff was friendly and helpful, showing Katie and I how to wrap certain items. It’s very difficult to do neatly! I really enjoyed learning how to make a shoulder bag out of a single piece of cloth!

(video from here.)

I bought a couple different kinds of furoshiki – a size to wrap bento boxes in, and a size to make an “eco” bag like in the video. It’s quite popular because it is easy to carry groceries home in.

IMG_3351 This is the large “eco-bag”  size. It can be used to carry bento for picnics, and double sided so that it can be used as a picnic cloth. (And yes, that’s my tatami floor.)

IMG_3354

This is a furoshiki I got later at a “ninja shop.” It’s the next size down, and still good for carrying things.

IMG_3382 These are the bento size. You’ll see my wrapping below.

IMG_3355 And I’ll bet you can’t guess what that one is. I got it at the “ninja shop” as well. Watch the video to find out.

I guess it’s not really furoshiki, since it’s sewed and tied, but I consider it similarly. This could also hold the plastic-chopstick-holders, as well as a chopstick rest.

We then went to Loft, where I managed to lay my hands on some bento boxes. A bento box is pretty much a lunchbox, but there is a specific method of using it that started in Japan, I believe, and is spreading rapidly across the internet.

Bento boxes are fairly small and compact (depending on the size you get), and are carefully packed to the brim with compartmentalized food.

(This is a very basic bento from Wikimedia Commons.)

If you type bento into Flickr, you’ll find excellent examples. vingt_deuxhas some excellent ones. I got myself a couple boxes, which I show off below.

You don’t have to get them special, but these are very nice boxes. If you’re interested in trying to make bento, any Tupperware/Gladware container will do. I just like the ones offered here.

These can be easily wrapped and taken places in furoshiki. One of my first attempts:

IMG_3346

I hope I get better with practice. I plan to take bento with me for picnics under the cherry blossoms, as we hurtle into hanami, or flower-viewing season.

After these places, we went to a Mexican restaurant; my post on it is here.

Furoshiki sites:

My first introduction: http://kyotofoodie.com/kyoto-furoshiki-karakusaya/

A good set of visual instructions: http://www.env.go.jp/en/focus/attach/060403-5.html

Bento sites:

vingt_deux’s amazing bento diary, with excellent ideas – http://www.flickr.com/photos/photoschizo/sets/72157604742960594/

Here’s a great site for investigating bento and getting started: http://justbento.com/

Ume (Plum) Blossoms

Well, Hirakata went through what could be called a winter (it got pretty chilly, but didn’t really snow), and now, in February and March, things are beginning to warm up. Even though there were bushes that blossomed and didn’t lose their leaves over winter, the trees are waking up and budding again. This is rather strange to a person used to living in Maine.

However, at the end of February and the beginning of March begins the fruit blossom season, when the plum and cherry blossoms begin to bud and open. The cherry blossom season is well known in Japan, and the hanami begins in April, but the plum blossom season, which begins in February, is somewhat lesser known. I didn’t know about it until I read a post on the bulletin board downstairs in the dorm and in a post on the OpenKyoto blog. A friend and I decided to go on February 25th to Kitano Tenmagu shrine, which has over 2,000 plum trees.

It turned out to be a breathtakingly beautiful day. I was worried because it rained for two days beforehand, but the 25th dawned bright and sunny, one of those gorgeous warm springy days with a breeze. Perfect.

We took the trains into Kyoto station, then took the bus up to the shrine/temple. (Shrines are supposed to be for the Shinto religion, and temples for Buddhist. This place had both.)

The entrance was bustling with people, including Japanese tourist buses. The walk from the torii to the front gate was lined with food vendors, lending a festive atmosphere to the blossom-viewing.

Inside the gates, the grounds of the temple were interesting enough (being from the Heian period, they have a different style of architecture than other shrines I’ve seen), but throughout the grounds, plum trees showed their bright presence with blossoms of white and pink. It was fairly crowded, with many people taking pictures of the blossoms, but it didn’t attract from the atmosphere at all.

We went into one of the buildings, which turned out to be a museum. There were several interesting artifacts, including a mirror that had a map of feudal Japan on the back, samurai armor and swords, and several Heian religious scrolls. There were also paintings depicting the person I think might have been the founder, surrounded by sprays of plum blossoms.

The plum blossoms were just so beautiful, though. Their scent was heavenly, and simply walking around, seeing the blossoms, made me very happy. I was content.

There was a long line to pray at the shrine, so we didn’t participate in that activity, but I did purchase something I had thought about getting when I did my New Year’s stay in Tokyo – a New Year’s arrow. For some reason, this shrine was still selling them. This arrow was particularly special because it had gilded plum blossoms. You can also see that there is a charm and a prayer-board, similar to the ones at the shrine. This one is decorated with tigers, since this year is a Year of the Tiger.

This shrine is frequented often by students praying about their exams – the patron of the shrine was a scholar, and so students pray for knowledge. They write their prayers and wishes on wooden boards and leave them at the shrine. The rainbow strings are thousands of origami paper cranes, which are also supposed to grant a wish.

We went down to a creek, where there was a lovely red bridge.

Then we went on to the plum orchard, which was stunning. It was like walking through clouds of brilliant blossoms – sky above, with the wind wafting their scent.

There was a pavilion that was filled with people – my friend Katie and I didn’t really understand what was going on. Then Katie noticed that people were handing in their tickets (which we purchased to get into the orchard) and receiving packets of tea and crackers. We did so, and I ate the crackers (but didn’t have any tea – I don’t like green tea.) They were interesting – a mad mixture of salty, sweet, and sour.

The circles are representative of plum blossoms, a motif that was present throughout the shrine, even on the ends of the roofs:

After this beautiful time, we went into Kyoto for more activities, to be continued in a later post. 🙂

Vicuna in Kyoto.

This is rather out of order, but until I can post further on events, I’m posting the post I made for my blog for school. You can find that blog here.

If you wander into Sanjo in Kyoto, you might stumble upon a certain restaurant tucked in an alleyway. I was first taken there by a group of Ristumeikan University students, but I managed to find it a second time. I desperately sought it out after having one of the most enjoyable nights of my life, eating a delicious array of Japanese-Mexican fusion food. The restaurant has a fascinating story behind it, one that permeates its atmosphere, food, and conversation. The name of this restaurant is Vicuna (ビクーニャ), and its logo is a painting that hangs up on its wall – a sumi-e painting resembling the famous Picasso painting “The Old Guitarist,” but bringing a fresher, more vivacious take. The restaurant walls are covered in vibrant murals, and souvenirs from Central and South America enliven the space. (from Vicuna’s website, http://www.spicy-kyoto.com/pics/mise01.gif) Our meal started off with real tortilla chips, salsa, and drinks. The restaurant on its website boasts over 30 different kinds of tequila – a friend of mine who tried some enjoyed it greatly. Vicuna offers a wide variety of delicious foods – in particular we enjoyed a spicy chili with overtones of nutmeg, tacos, quesadillas, and a smoked bacon omelet, all of which were delicious in their own right. One of the Ritsumeikan students commented that it was the “most authentic Mexican food” he’d ever had since living in America near the border. A warning though – all the food really is spicy, and without a soother like milk it can easily become overwhelming! There are more Japanese twists – taco rice, for example – in the menu, and all the food is cooked in an open kitchen, so that you can see the owner bustling around, coming out to the bar to shake drinks, or, during slow times, to come out and talk with his guests. His name is Pancho F., an open, congenial man with a fascinating story. It was difficult to get the full of it, because I don’t speak Japanese (or Spanish) easily. Around 32 years ago (1978), Pancho left Japan to travel the world. He spent around 5 years travelling around Central and South America, but also traveled across North America and Europe extensively, living for two more years around San Fransisco. He pulled out his laptop and showed us pictures he had scanned into his computer – brilliantly captured photographs from around the world, showing breathtaking landscapes and portraits of daily life in South America. When I asked him why he decided to pick up and leave, he answered with “music.” His love of Latin music compelled him to go and study it, and he learned much while travelling. It used to be that every night Pancho would play for his guests, but nowadays the business of the restaurant and his health mean fewer performances. However, on the first late night I went to the restaurant, my friends and I were the only patrons as the night wound slowly down. When we were almost finished with our satisfying, hearty meal, he came out from the kitchen, picked up his guitar, and plugged in the microphone. Then he sang. There are no words to describe this man’s talent. It wasn’t just the brilliance of his music, but also the emotion in his voice – clear, raw, and sad. He wasn’t over-emoting for the music, but using it as a means of expression, something I have rarely seen in a performance. It was moving. A note of interest – even though Pancho’s music contained some Spanish, many of his lyrics were also in Japanese. Pancho’s restaurant, music, and way of life show the way he mixes cultures together to make a more enriching, vivacious experience. The second time I came to his restaurant to interview him, and bought one of his cds. His music is just as powerful. I wish I had the language ability to be able to learn more from such a fascinating individual. He encouraged me to read his blog, in which he recalls much of his world travels. I submit to you a sample, translated through the rough Google engine. Even though it isn’t clear, what he has to say is interesting and descriptive. I enclose the link to his blog below.

“Since the first Latin country to Marseille and – France, the French remained there truly was the most impressive cake, chocolate cake that’s delicious and reminiscent. Latin America seemed to be more patient Hachikireta Katta of sweets. Ate in the United Kingdom, I was more impressed by the delicious chocolate mousse in a convenience store. Next I went to Nice. The beach here is amazing sight met. There are lot of topless women on a beach next to the road through town is full of nice, you do not drive, never is a sight not seen in Japan, I can not forget the feeling of doubt and ashamed knows. Were also impressed with the delicious French bread. Butter is also delicious, the sandwich is also delicious, I think France was brought to this. Travel in Europe because of course, poverty, and restaurants, did not feel bitter because they have a very good cook, but we are glad to have something delicious to eat in cheaper bread. Kingdom of Monaco, the impression left here is more than I expected so I stopped at a shake. Very good and the Doll Museum, Casino, are also memorable for the delicious onion soup that I ate in the back. Overnight train to Venice, because it was bought in Europe, the Eurail Pass in the United States, Because the train is unlimited rail travel in first class and express all that was very comfortable ride.” (from http://blog.livedoor.jp/vicuna/ ) (entry: 1/25/2010)

I can only hope to become as much of a traveler in my future, and be able to blend cultures together in my life to create a richer whole.