Tango no sekku/ Boy’s day

In Japan, the 5th of May is a day of celebration for the health and growth of children, especially boys. There are quite a few traditions associated with the day itself, in particular the display of striking carp-shaped wind socks called “koinobori”. The carp is a traditional symbol of power and virility because of the way it fights its way up swift-running streams, and people have believed that this strength and determination is a metaphor for the stand that boys have to take in life.
From April, shops will start to sell “Kashiwa-mochi”, bean paste filled rice cakes wrapped in a leaf from a particular type of oak tree, to celebrate this children’s day. As the leaf of this particular tree, known as the Emperor Oak, stays on the tree until the branch has a new bud, it is seen as a metaphor for the idea that one’s line of descendants will continue on indefinitely. Although Tango no Sekku is mainly a day for boys, everyone can enjoy the cool spring breezes with a blue sky above – even here in England!

Chiyogami paper

Chiyogami paper is a type of traditional Japanese paper using very beautiful patterns. Its origins date back to the Heian period (710-794) when the aristocracy sent poems to friends or lovers to communicate to each other instead of sending plain letters. There was a fashion at that time for being much more imaginative, using poems much more often to express their intentions. Very romantic, but perhaps it was – and is – easier sometimes to express honest feelings through poems rather than normal letters.

In those days, as well as using poetry, they started to use pretty paper, or patterns. This is the start of the history of chiyogami paper. During the Edo period (1603-1868), chiyogami became quite common, and was used not only by the aristocracy, upper classes, but also by the merchant class. They used it also as a wrapping paper, put pieces of paper into their cosmetic boxes, jewellery boxes and letter cases, as well as using it to make all sorts of things like origami dolls.

The designs they used are definitely very much Japanese styles, though I can see some distinct similarities between these Japanese prints and Liberty prints, for example. I suppose they both use flowers and plants, and are inspired by nature.

As you might know, Japanese ukiyo-e (wood block prints) were very popular during the Edo period, these were greatly admired by many of the Impressionist painters. Chiyogami was also popular during the same period, and was produced using wood block prints. They became popular souvenirs for people visiting Tokyo from the countryside. Just as the ukiyo-e industry had artists, wooden block makers and print makers working together to produce artworks, the chiyogami industry also a circle of designers, wood block makers and print makers working together to develop new popular papers. You can imagine these two industries helping each other to develop craftsman-ship and innovative ideas, even though their target audiences might have been slightly different, chiyogami being more design oriented.

I have been a big fan of chiyogami since I was 5 or 6 years old, when my grandfather and parents used to give me small pieces of chiyogami paper to use as origami paper, but they were too pretty to fold so I just hung on to them. That started my collection, and I put them in a little tin box. I remember I used to exchange new interesting patterns with my friends. ‘I have two pieces of this pretty iris pattern, do you want to exchange it? Can I have your cherry blossom one instead?’ My friends and I were showing each other our new collections all the time. Some of them were not keen to swop their pieces, but I was always happy to see brand new collections. I thought they were amazingly beautiful – much more interesting than a Barbie doll.

It am still very found of chiyogami paper, it’s just makes me happy to see interesting combinations of patterns and colours, wood block’s gentle line is very charming too. It is also nostalgic, it reminds me my childhood memory.

Some important designs are kept as wooden block and still available as a piece of paper. I hope it will be conserved to next generations and generations. Following Japanese store is selling traditional chiyogai paper in Tokyo. Why not to visit them for your next Japan trip? It is an affordable craft or art!

http://en.japantravel.com/tokyo/isetatsu-paper-store-in-yanaka/5102  

New Year celebration menu

Happy New Year everyone! Some of you may feel all the fun festive times have gone! But in Japan, the New Year celebrations will continue until 7th January, and we still visit families and friends and have parties! The show must go on!

All recipes are created by very talented Japanese chef Naomi Ono from Salon Japon. Please visit following her site for more information!  http://www.salonjapon.com/AboutUs.html

After eating lots and lots of food during Christmas, let’s go for some easy, stylish and economical nibble recipes for January! It might suit eating with some bubbly wine or maybe with cold sake!

Assorted Canapés & Smoked Salmon with Japanese Namasu

ASSORTED CANAPES

Roast Beef

Thinly sliced roast beef – as rare as you like.

Add creamed horseradish sauce (if you like, mixed with thinly-chopped celery).

Thinly slice a baguette into bread circles, and spread thinly (see picture).

Tuna & Avocado

Drain a tin of tuna and mix with a tiny bit of mayo.

Dice a ripe avocado, mix with salt, pepper and finely chopped raw onion or shallot, and add to tuna and mayo.

Thinly slice a baguette into bread circles, and spread thinly (see picture).

Curry

Choose any curry you like, (it could even be left over from your favourite take-away). Heat up and cool it down, then mix with diced paneer, Indian cheese (available from a big supermarket).

Thinly slice a baguette into bread circles, and spread thinly (see picture).

SMOKED SALMON WITH JAPANESE NAMASU

The Japanese eat Namasu – rice vinegar pickled carrots and daikon (oriental white radish) at New Year. This red and white colour-combination represents happiness in Japan. Also the vinegar is especially good for you when you have been over-eating and drinking during the festive season.

You can serve Namasu with smoked salmon to make a perfect starter or some delicious party food.

To make Namasu

  1. Peel and cut carrots and daikon into a thin ribbon-like strips.
  1. Marinate strips in sushi rice-vinegar (this is slightly sweet rice-vinegar, normally available in the Japanese food section in a big supermarket, or Health shop). If sushi rice-vinegar is not available, you can make your own – simply mix rice-vinegar with a small amount of sugar and salt (rice-vinegar: 60ml, sugar: 1 tablespoon, and a pinch of salt).
  1. That’s it. Some people think that Japanese food is very complicated and not suitable for making at home. That can be the case, and it can be time-consuming to cook a full course of Japanese food. But you can also enjoy some exotic party food without an enormous effort, and all the ingredients are easy to get in your local big supermarket.
  1. Enjoy and Happy New Year to you all!

Kimonos – what to wear and how to wear them

Kimonos – what to wear and how to wear them

Kimonos are not only for the world of the Geishas, there are kimono lovers all over Japan – and beyond – including myself – who like to enjoy them, and their special seasonality. When it gets very hot in the summer in Japan, it can be quite a challenge to wear layered fashions like the kimono. So in summer we wear see-through layers, or linen or cotton kimonos instead of silk. People probably don’t realise how many changes of texture there can be, how many different kimono materials there are for each season, and different motifs and patterns. This isn’t done to show off to other people, but for kimono lovers themselves, for their own appreciation of seasonal flowers, plants, animals and weather, as seen through the imagery of the fabric. It is not really functional at all – more purely a combination of fashion and craftsmanship, and at the level of an elegant game, where we aim to wear what is right for a particular moment or occasion.

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-21-31-27Wherever you are in Japan, you will have the chance to see ladies wearing kimonos, in Kyoto or Tokyo or elsewhere. Some of these dressed up ladies will be working for expensive nightclubs – I saw a lot of these in Ginza in Tokyo in the evening when I was there recently, and they do wear their kimonos so elegantly. The ladies in the world of the Geisha wear their kimonos in a particular way, showing their necks and upper backs – it is a kind of sign. I remember when my school teacher used to wear a kimono occasionally, she definitely did not show her neck, wearing a turtle neck underneath (which is not so bad, though not very stylish). My mother always told me that we should wear our kimonos comfortably – with elegance, but never to show our upper backs! screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-21-32-00

When we wear a kimono, we also have some special hair accessories, which are called ‘Kanzashi’. In the Edo period (1603-1868), the kanzashi were indicators of social position as well as wealth. (We actually use some antique kanzashi parts for the Matsuyoi jewellery collection that’s available in the Keiko Uchida shop!) The kimono and kanzashi were something like the dress and jewellery of Western society at that time.screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-21-40-24

The way kimono culture developed over the centuries is very like the way we wear our clothes today. When I want to show myself as strong, I wear high heels and sharp colours; when I have to walk around a lot and be practical I wear flat shoes. It is all about matching the right clothes to the right occasion, and being confident about finding the right fashion. The same today as it was for the ladies of the 17th century. What is good today is that we don’t have to declare any social position through our clothes in the way they used to. And we can create our own identity through the way we look. Yes – we have a lot more choice now than in the 17th century!

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Memory of Geisha

I hadn’t seen the film ‘Memory of a Geisha’ until very recently. As a Japanese person it’s a subject that has a particular fascination for me, and the film itself is known to look at this strange world with a dark and detailed vision – not many girls would choose such a life these days.

Geisha culture existed quite extensively in a few areas of Japan – including in Kyoto and Tokyo – up until the Second World War, but has continued only in the Kyoto district since then. The name ‘Geisha’ literally means an ‘arts person’, and they are women who perform traditional Japanese dance, play special instruments, sing traditional songs, serve sake, and play the role of entertaining guests at parties. A young apprentice Geisha is called a Maiko.

They do not perform these roles in any normal place – a restaurant for example – but only present themselves in special party rooms, called ‘ochaya’. Although ochaya actually means ‘tea place’, the drink that is more usually served on these occasions is an expensive sake. The ochaya will comprise a number of party rooms, designed with traditional wooden Japanese architecture, but they do not have any professional kitchens and chefs. Instead, the ochaya will provide a bespoke party service, offering food and drinks to their customers.

This service obviously needs some management and a back office, to keep everything running smoothly etc, so there is another place where everything is based – the ‘okiya’ – which also acts as the boarding house for the Geishas. The landlady of the okiya is often a retired Geisha, who will have a good network to promote her team of Geishas. So, the combination of Geishas, okiya and ochaya works in unison, with the Geishas acting as celebrities, the okiya as the management company, and the ochaya as the party planner.

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Some girls chose to be a Geisha at a very young age – sometimes as young as 15 – often in the past the choice was made for them by the sheer difficulty of finding any kind of employment. Previously it has been the case that girls tended to leave the home at 15, as Japan’s compulsory education finishes at 15. It was at this age that some girls first arrived at the Geisha Okiya in Kyoto to be trained there, as it takes quite long time to learn ‘arts’ – the traditional Japanese dance being famously difficult to master.

Out of this triangular community, the ‘party planner’ ochaya is the most powerful player. Firstly, the ochaya have the customers. Customers book a room for a party at the ochaya, then the party planner finds out what sort of event is desired, for example what kind of members are to be involved, what favourite food, drinks and Geishas, music, games etc., and works out how to get everything right for the customers. The ochaya does not necessarily accept first time customers, and will only accept new customers who have been recommended by existing customers (as with a members club in the UK), getting recommendations from three or so other members and so on.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-20-26-53

Because most of the ochayas are traditionally not taking a deposit, or anything in advance, they have to order food and drinks – as well as booking the Geishas – all in advance. One of the reasons why they do not take first time customers without any recommendation. The landlady of the ochaya wears a kimono and looks very traditional, although is actually likely to be extremely business oriented, and will have a modern business plan well worked out. I have never been to an ochaya, as it is very expensive and it used to be very much a man’s world. Some big Japanese companies now invite their domestic and foreign clients to go these places, and entertain them, using this kind of environment to make a deal.screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-15-56-20

Actually, one of my women friends recently went to one with a group of ladies. She is a very successful business woman, and can afford such prices. Also she loves traditional kimonos, and wanted to see the best quality being worn. She was also curious to see what an ochaya was like, and to enjoy a good party there! Is this a healthy diversification of Japan’s society? It is a slightly strange forward development.

Japan is a famously male-oriented society, in which many Japanese women are fighting to get equal opportunities, and some new experience of a diverse society. Ironically, the Geisha tradition, with all its formalities, subjugation and servitude, may be providing an outlet for the modern Japanese woman for her to demonstrate her new-found go-anywhere power. After all, weren’t the Geishas always the ones in control anyway?

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Autumn leaves in Japanese gardens

Autumn is here, and it is getting cold. We are definitely heading for another winter here in London. Luckily I can still see a few flowers around, but it is nearly the end of the season for flowers in gardens and window boxes on the streets round here. That doesn’t mean the end of colour, however, as it is now these best time to see beautiful autumn leaves – especially in Japanese gardens!

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As you can see from the following images, it is not just the leaves on the trees, but fallen leaves on the ground that also provide important elements in the creation of Japanese gardens.screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-20-49-35

Another famous ingredient fundamental to Japanese gardens is moss. There is a well-known temple in Kyoto called ‘Koke-dera’, which means ‘Moss Temple’, which attracts huge numbers of visitors, and is actually listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It seems unusual that moss could be a main performer of the garden, but it creates a beautiful flavour and texture, as well as its amazing deep green colour, which reminds me of match green tea (which I have written about in my Japanese tea ceremony blog).screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-15-29-02

If you are interested in knowing more about Japanese gardens or planning to visit one, the following website is very useful.

http://www.japanesegardens.jp/gardens/famous/000001.php

There is another website that shows local recommendations of places to go to see yellow and red leaves in Kyoto. It is sadly only in Japanese, but you can see the names of temples and get a taste of the gardens from the pictures – and maybe to make a plan for a trip to Japan!

http://www.imamiya.jp/haruhanakyoko/colored/place.htm

I also like following photograph. Thatched roofs are not that rare in the countryside in Japan and the UK, but tastes are so different between the two countries, when you compare the Japanese house with its maple and English cottage with its clematis. Tastes in plants and gardening are so influential in creating landscapes around the world. I really welcome the idea of seeing an English garden in Japan or a Japanese garden in the England – when that happens it can be amazingly beautiful and graceful. But best of all I like to see a Japanese garden in Japan, surrounded by Japanese architecture, culture and life-style (and vice versa for an English garden), and I assume that plants are most comfortable their native place, where they have the appropriate weather and the conditions they were created and naturally evolved for.

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Perhaps, in that sense, the recent global warming that our planet is now suffering from, is confusing many of our plants, so that – when seasons now arrive in an unseasonable way – they might actually wish to move like migratory birds! Now there is less shade there was in summer, more wet in winter, more anxiety in the air.

I also love eclectic styles, using interesting exotic plants, creating new aesthetics, though not loosing the identity of an essential English garden or Japanese garden. I believe the key to the success of any eclectic style is in the understanding first of all of a particular identity or culture, and then placing the exotic flavor on top, as decoration, in a thin loose way (like icing on a cake), so that the identity of the garden remains solid, but the eclecticism of the style – some of its vocabulary if you like – is sprinkled on top.

Yes, it is autumn, and winter is coming, and now that I’ve been living as a Japanese person in London for 15 years, I am just about learning to adjust my body to the cold English weather. I now know how to survive in the cold climate!

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Izakaya Pub in Japan

At first it was quite a surprise to me that British people do not eat much when they go for a beer in a pub. In Japan, where pubs are called Izakaya, they serve a whole variety of food, something rather similar to tapas. With this food people are socializing, and drinking beer, sake, wine, shouchu, cold tea etc, in fact any type of drink, as well as sharing in the food – the very Japanese style food!

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The image below is of one of the menus for the food and drink in an Izakaya. The environment can be slightly old fashioned, and so the menus often are too, listing the amazing food and a whole variety of sake. Traditionally these pubs have the menus plastered all over their walls, so the customers can easily see what they want to order. So much more interesting than having menus with photos in a plastic cover, though it must be difficult for tourists to select dishes. But these are all sharing menu, so you can select quite a lot, and find out which is your favorite!

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I’m also very fond of the Japanese ‘keeping the bottle’ system, where you buy a bottle in a pub to keep behind the bar. This often works out a lot cheaper than ordering wine, whisky or sake by a glass. Most Japanese pubs will do this, and keep your bottle for your next visit, in fact until you finish the bottle. It may be a little bit expensive the first time, when you have to buy a lot of drink up front, but on your next visit you only have to pay for the food.

In Japan we write our name, or maybe even put an illustration on the bottle, so the barman can remember which one is ours. This was a very normal thing to do as I grew up in Japan – though now I feel there is an element of trust involved. Customers trust the pubs to keep their bottles safely (and not to take a drink from them secretly!) It is all part of the way the pub can build up a loyal customer base, so people will return again and again, and feel comfortable.

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In the UK it can also be very relaxed and sociable, drinking in a pub, perhaps returning to the same pub that’s near to work, with the same colleagues and friends. I do like that, and love to sit and chat with a drink. With English beer it might be difficult to put a whole barrel behind the bar with your name on it (or even a little drawing), and perhaps would be expensive too. But I might ask next time I go to my local.

Trip to Japan /bento & street food

We’ve just been on a sourcing trip to Japan. This time, it was to Fukuoka, in the south part of Japan, to Kobe, to Osaka in the western part, and to Tokyo. Japan is the country with the most Michelin stars, and people there are always keen to discover new tastes. Each area has different types of local food, so it can be a fantastic experience for tourists to taste local seasonal dishes.

Personally I always try and have the seasonal Shokado-bento in Aoyama Tokyo. The lacquer bento box has partitions, allowing each compartment to contain different tastes and different textured foods, without them mixing. So it is possible to enjoy sashimi, grilled, deep fried and boiled food all in the one box. I also think it looks beautiful. Quite a different idea from having one big plate dish.

shokado

 

 

 

Each area of Japan has distinctly different tastes in food. As I grew up in a suburb of Tokyo, my tastes are pretty much Tokyo-oriented. The northern part of Japan is very cold and, as they have a great deal of snow in winter time, they go in for more salty tastes. Historically, salt was an important ingredient to keep food during the winter time, as not much fresh food were available in those months, especially in isolated snow-covered villages. So their tastes for salt are related to preservation. Each family and each area inherits and develops their tastes locally.

Unfortunately I could not go to north Japan this time, but I did go south. Fukuoka is one of the main cities in the south part of Kyushu island. Fukuoka is very famous for street food – Ramen noodles being one of the best known. I have seen many Ramen noodle shops in London lately, as this is becoming trendy Japanese food. Ramen is a bowl of egg noodles and hot soup with some topping, such as boiled egg, spinach, sliced roast pork, spring onion etc.  Ramen noodles are real street food, and are regarded as cheap fast food, perhaps something the equivalent of burger and chips or fish and chips or sandwich for Japanese people. Some Japanese people love to have Ramen after couple of drinks. I do not think it is a good idea for diet to wear summer cloths though!

This time I had a bowl of Ramen noodle in the Hakata station, waiting for my Shinkansen (the bullet train) to go to Kobe. It coast less than £5.00, and a guy next to me asked a waiter to have a second helping of noodles (just the noodles), which cost only £0.80. He could even have had a third if he wanted! We have this service in Japan. Yes, Ramen is pretty much fast food in downtown Japanese cities, but as it is also the country with the most Michelin stars, these Ramen restaurants are also developing and improving their own soup every day, to keep it fresh and competitive. Customers are keen to discover new tastes, and new star Ramen shops, so each shop has to improve its skills and specialities. Some of them use pork stock, and some fish stock or beef stock or chicken stock. Some blend them too. Customers even hunt around to find which soup stock is their favourite! It is great fun to find your own favourite soup in Japan!

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Spring blossom / Spring Kimonos

Spring is my favourite time, and is very promising for me. I am an enormous fan of gardening, loving English gardens as well as Japanese gardens. In Japan we like to enjoy all four seasons, and in an echo of that we wear seasonal kimono to appreciate each season. In Spring the most famous Japanese flower is Sakura (the Cherry Blossom), and it is always wonderfully uplifting seeing the millions of cherry blossoms covering the branches from late March to early April. I also love the Ume (plum) flowers – these have a fantastic fragrance. My parents had a beautiful big Ume tree in our garden, which had lovely white flowers from February to March. As they have such a graceful fragrance, they attract Bush Warblers, which have such an elegant song. Hearing their song was the real start of my Spring time at home. I have not seen many Ume flowers here in England. The flower is quite small, and more modest than the cherry blossom – but it has true elegance. Historically, Ume flower patterns were used for all sorts of lifestyle products as well as in art. One of the most famous examples of Ume art is a 17th century screen created by Ogata Korin (see below), which is in the collection of the MOA Museum of Art in Atami in Japan.

ume korin

Below are examples of Ume and Sakura patterns used in kimono design. Houmongi is one of the most formal kimonos, which is worn for dinner parties, weddings etc. Houmongi has decorative patterns only on the bottom of the kimono and the sleeve, so the design has more impact – and meaning – than if the pattern was used everywhere. These patterns are also created by hand drawing, as well as in embroidery, and some of kimonos have inlaid mother–of–pearl, which add a further drama to the effect.

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(Photos: Kimono monyou zukan)

All Japanese people used to wear Kimonos as their every day clothes. However that is now no longer the case, as kimonos are less practical for modern life. Instead they wear kimonos for such events as tea ceremony parties, or they wear expensive kimonos for special occasions in the way that we wear expensive jewellry. Sadly, I do not wear a kimono in my London life either. I do wear a kimono dressing gown on a daily basis, though, which is a wonderful luxury for myself – a private link to an elegant world.

Mother’s Day 2016

As I am far from my native Japan I do not see my mother that often. She still works, as a kimono stylist, even though she is now in her mid 70s. It is an amazing achievement, especially in Japan, which has such a male dominated society. I am glad to say she is still very happy to be working with her beautiful Kimonos each day, and always says it is her ideal job.

The job I first dreamed of was being a cookery teacher, and I loved to watch any kind of cookery programme from a very early age. Most of my friends liked children’s television, but I preferred serious cookery to silly animations, even though I wasn’t allowed to use the gas cooker. At that time, there weren’t any great cookery heroes, like Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson. No glamorous celebrity chefs at all, just solid cookery teachers, with wonderfully talents. I thought it was magical creating such amazing dishes in just 20 minutes!

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It was my mother who properly started to teach me how to cook, when I was around 7. As I grew up in a traditional Japanese family, where there was rarely any Western inspired food, we made a huge variety of Japanese dishes at home. My favourites included homemade udon noodles (similar to home made pasta) and home made dumplings. I also learned at that age how to use and maintain kitchen knives, how to gut fish, and a hundred and one other useful tasks. I suppose my mother wanted to teach me mostly because I obviously loved cooking so much, and it gave us the chance to work together, with me pretending to be a sous chef, watching what sort of ingredients she used, and how long dishes spent cooking. When my mother was away, I made my sister’s lunch for nursery school. My own lunch box was home made, and (I have to say) slightly trendier than my mother’s. I still adore food and cooking, and hope to have my dream kitchen one day in London!

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Recently, I realised that my everyday cooking is similar to my mother’s food, or inspired by her recipes from my childhood, even though I cook a lot of Western food here in London. When I first came to England in 2001, I hardly missed Japanese food at all. Everything was new and exciting. But slowly I am missing authentic everyday Japanese food more and more. I suppose everybody’s taste has its roots in their childhood, and I believe my palette is totally Japanese. However, I do not like buying ingredients imported from Japan by air, which is not only expensive but also seems morally wrong. We should appreciate the seasonal fresh ingredients around us as much as we can. So my cooking has ended up being a kind of natural fusion of Japanese and European – a bit like myself.

Mother’s day is on the 6th March in the UK. It is a time for us to say a huge thank you to our much loved mothers, and to remember all the wonderful things they have inspired in us.