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Day 1, dinner at Sasagin
Photo: Day 1, dinner at Sasagin, my tasting notes on the evening’s five featured sakes.

The John Gauntner Sake Professional Course experience: 70 sakes to taste over three days in the classroom, about 20 more to drink at dinners over four nights, and another 10 or so to try at four breweries and at the fifth and final dinner of the course. I tasted about 100 sakes in five days in Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto.

Day 3, classroom tasting, regionality in sake
Photo: Day 3, classroom tasting, regionality in sake.

In a hot room that was almost silent, I watched a brewer sprinkle mold over rice and toss it gently by hand to begin the process of converting starch to sugar. At another brewery, a deafeningly noisy machine steamed rice and then quickly cooled it on a conveyor belt. I watched a brewery worker with beet-red hands (from the cold water) wash 10 kilograms of rice, drain it, soak it in fresh water, and remove it—all completed with precision in exactly 6 minutes and 30 seconds. I learned about every step, every ingredient, and almost every exception to every rule about making sake. I met a great group of fellow sake lovers. It was a damn fine week.

Day 5, Daimon Shuzo
Photo: Day 5, Daimon-san of Daimon Shuzo takes the temperature of the rice and breaks up the clumps before applying the koji-kin (mold spores).

If you’ve read either Real Food by Nina Planck or The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, you are familiar with the grass-fed beef industry in the U.S. In both books, one reads that the grass-fed beef ranchers say they are “grass farmers” rather than beef ranchers—pointing out that keeping the environment of the pasture is their main challenge. The cows want to eat the grass; their bodies naturally know how to process it into flavorful and omega-3 rich beef. The point is to keep the cows happy and let them do the rest.

I was reminded of the ranchers last week when we visited four breweries in Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe on the last two days of the course. We talked with the brewers and had access to the intimate details of their work. Over and over it was impressed on us that the sake brewing process depends on the action of a mold (Aspergillus Oryzae) and a strain of yeast (depending on the brewery).

Day 4, Matsumoto Shuzo
Photo: Day 4, one tank of moromi (the fermenting mold, yeast, rice, and water) at Matsumoto Shuzo.

The two living entities know what to do with the rice and water provided to them. The brewer (part microbiologist, part Shinto priest) concentrates his or her energy on maintaining the proper environment for the mold and yeast to do the work of making sake. The mold starts the process by breaking down rice starch into sugars, then the yeast cells convert the sugars to alcohol. After the mold-covered rice is added to the tanks with the yeast, both organisms do their work in parallel, and after 18 to 30 days, the sake is ready to press.

Of course, the above is a gross oversimplification of sake brewing, and John’s course covers the intricacies and problems of: rice, what kinds and how to mill it, water, which is best for making sake, the many strains of molds and yeasts, the maintenance of the fermentation environment, and the pressing and pasteurization (or lack thereof). All of these steps are performed with endless variations among the approximately 1400 sake brewers in Japan.

Day 3, classroom lecture
Photo: Day 3, classroom lecture. John describes the sakes we will try in various tasting vessels.

We tasted a lot of sake. We learned about the state of the industry and the export market. But there’s something intangible that John’s course conveys: culture.

At the Matsumoto brewery in Kyoto, one of our group asked Matsumoto-san what distinguishes his sake from others. Perhaps the questioner wanted a technical answer: what kind of rice, what strain of yeast, dryness/sweetness, pasteurized/unpasteurized. Matsumoto-san gazed out on the gorgeous Japanese garden that his grandfather had created at the brewery, the same one that Matsumoto-san and his wife maintain in pristine condition as a way of showing the workers the health and cleanliness of spirit required of them as they work in the brewery. As he looked at the garden, he said (as translated by John), “I don’t consider myself a sake seller, but someone who conveys culture through sake.”

Day 2, dinner at Shinbashi Kohju
Photo: Day 2, dinner at Shinbashi Kohju, the nabe course.

John conveyed Japanese culture at the dinners each night at four izakaya and the last night at the restaurant at the Daimon brewery. We ate well from a range of Japanese food, including the memorable octopus dinner featuring moving tentacles and ink sacs that burst open in the mouth. We drank well, moving beyond the classroom into what is ultimately the great pleasure of sake, drinking it while eating and enjoying the company of fellow sake lovers.

Watching John transform himself during these dinners was a reflection of our own journey, the sake getting into our blood. Our teacher left behind the lecturer with an engineer’s precision and joined the epicure’s world of pleasure and delight in the drink. We all had a very, very good time.

If you are wondering whether to go to John’s course next year, if you wonder if it’s worth the price, the answer is yes. Go. As John says, “Ninety percent of sake gives excellent value for money.” In this case, John gives 100% value for money.

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Kamakura

Last Sunday, we enjoyed an exhibit of ukiyoe paintings at the Kamakura Museum (Katsushika Hokusai’s “Drunken Beauty” was only one of the many delights). Then after the temptations of the floating world, we walked from the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine to Kita-Kamakura station. Along the way—passing temples, bo-ho cafes, restaurants, tourist shops, and old homes—we were tantalized by the Japanese life that we glimpse but cannot touch.

Kita-Kamakura

We stopped at a ceramics shop in pursuit of more Japanese dishes that I do not need but very much desire. I saw some plates that were glazed an uneven off-white, with a hand-made, organically oval shape. When I exclaimed and picked up one to show Carlos, the shop’s owner said with satisfaction, “Oh, those were made by my friend.” I wanted to step ever so slightly inside, but didn’t know how. So, we bought the five plates and went home to our own private world.

Kita-Kamakura

A rich buttery soup is not better as such than a broth of wild herbs. In handling and preparing wild herbs, do so as you would the ingredients for a rich feast, wholeheartedly, sincerely, clearly. When you serve the monastic assembly, they and you should taste only the flavour of the Ocean of Reality, the Ocean of unobscured Awake Awareness, not whether or not the soup is creamy or made only of wild herbs.

—Dogen, Tenzo kyokun (Instructions for the Tenzo), translated by Yasuda Joshu Dainen roshi and Anzan Hoshin roshi


Photo:
Maneki-neko (beckoning cat) and (de)construction outside the Hida Folk Village in Takayama.

This was the scene just outside the Hida Folk Village on Christmas Day. The bright optimism of the cat beckoning customers to a now-defunct shop or restaurant in opposition to the sight and sound of crunching wood and metal. That sound carried into the “village”—a museum of old farmhouses that were taken apart, moved, and rebuilt in Takayama—and gave the whole experience a soundtrack of impermanence. The farmhouses had been threatened by neglect, by new dams that flooded their old villages, and by modernity itself. The sound of the machinery underlined how sad these farmhouses were, but it also made them seem profoundly beautiful.

I should have included that detail—the sound of destruction—in my post about our trip to Takayama, but I didn’t. I urged my husband to take the photo of the cat. Yet, somehow in the rush to tell our story, I left in the glowing sake reviews and the shots of cedar balls outside of breweries, and neglected to frame the town as I really remember it.

When I stuck to the anachronistic Edo-era buildings, I forgot to write about other retro appeal: having coffee in a local café. It wasn’t rebuilt retro, it was a smoky and faded place with avocado green seats and a collection of old molded glass ice cream sundae cups. The owner serves milk for coffee in tiny, thimble-sized pitchers, and not in plastic, disposable containers. This scene wasn’t part of the San-machi district, so I left it out.

Takayama isn’t all beauty. It’s a town in an industrialized nation. Takayama’s old central district delights the eye, but it’s artificial in that it cannot stand alone. It must be supported and surrounded by life as modern Japanese live it. The outskirts must provide the services that that gorgeous district cannot: gas stations, pachinko parlors, a few mini-malls, some inexpensive family restaurants with parking. We the tourist and the ex-pat bloggers tend to skim past these things as if they don’t exist.

This is not to say that the building demolition or the coffee shop constitute one Japanese reality and the San-machi district another. I can’t separate the details in my overall impression of Takayama. Although in my mind I do not filter out these details, somehow I find my blog posts do. This is a failure in my writing and editing. I was reminded of this when I read a post on “The Westerner’s Fear of the Neonsign” [ETA: the blog was killed off, but some archives remain], a bitter but funny analysis of ex-pat blogs about Japan. David wrote writes devastatingly insightful posts about Japan and the cultural filter through which Westerners (his word choice) look at Japan. It’s all layers of irony and I enjoyed reading it.

Still, I’ve been pondering how one tries to represent reality in words, and how the filter through which one sees is the only picture you can honestly represent. Of course, I read about and witness the exotic absurdities of Japanese culture and politics, but I have chosen to focus on a tighter view, to highlight food and sake and some general observations of what I think is beautiful and/or worth noticing. I have tried not to write too far afield for fear of having no idea what I am talking about. How easy we find it to blather on.

On the other hand, I could fall into the trap of fetishizing the ugly or banal. I think this also would be a mistake. As in the Dogen quote, I hope to handle everything with respect, trying not to judge an experience the greater or lesser ingredient, and to demonstrate my awareness of reality with the skill of my presentation of the final meal. After all, a writer/blogger is simply a person who takes the raw ingredients and plates them up according to one’s abilities and predilections. I see the world as essentially beautiful (essentially meaning its inherent qualities)—in spite of its horrors and humanity’s failures.

The lotus flower is a Buddhist symbol that represents the human mind transcending the mud of reality to bloom in the sunshine of enlightenment. Yet, transcending the mud doesn’t require one to ignore reality. The lotus root is a delicious treat, too. I hope to do better in 2008.

We joined an impromptu group of our neighbors in the park to see the 2008 hatsuhinode (first sunrise of the year).

Our picnic of hot chocolate, cheese, bread, and nuts.

More and more people arrived in the park—families with children, women and men in groups, people walking their dogs, men with bitchin’ cameras—until 6:56 a.m., when the sun finally peeked over the hill.

Happy New Year from the land of the rising sun.

It’s a chilly evening. I’m here drinking some Knob Creek bourbon and clicking around the electronic universe. I read Bob Lefsetz’s blog “The Lefsetz Letter” and found a post about Walt Wilkins. Lefsetz writes about the state of the music industry; I read his blog from time to time to see what’s happening (or not happening) with how music is sold and promoted. Most of the posts are interesting and entertaining, but I look for his music recommendations because I’ve discovered that when he says he likes some song or musician (and usually he doesn’t just like something that he writes about, he LOVES it), I usually like it too. He likes gritty things, funny things, songs that move you, and songs that just get you all funked or mellowed out. Good music. So, tonight I bought Walt Wilkins’s Mustang Island and I’m drinking bourbon and thinking about my day. The title of this post is from the song, “If It Weren’t for You” which is my new bestest friend. Walt Wilkins’s voice is all up in the bourbon, too. But I digress…

Today I went with my Japanese teacher and her shodo (calligraphy) students (friends of mine) to see another student perform chado (tea ceremony). All these “do”s (the kanji means “road” or “way”: the way of writing, the way of tea) imply that we are never finished with learning, one just takes to the road and sees where it leads. This is a Zen concept, getting on the road, not expecting perfection yet striving to the utmost to pursue it. All Walt Whitman and open road and shit. No, Whitman isn’t Zen, that’s the bourbon talking.

We all meet up at Kamiooka station and walk over to the hall, which turns out to be a local war memorial hall. There’s a small museum on the first floor with World War II tschotkes, flags and uniforms and coins and such. I think of Carlos with longing; he would be fascinated and tell me all about each display. But the crowd itself is distracting and amazing: kimono porn. Half of the women are wearing kimono, and I have never seen so many amateurs (non-performers, non-saleswomen) in kimono in one place. The colors are subdued, which seems appropriate for the age of the crowd (mostly 50+-year-old ladies) and for autumn. My friends tell me the kimonos aren’t very fancy because one should respect the idea of wabi (simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature) when attending a tea ceremony. Of course, most of the kimono look simple, but I know they are very expensive; they are the expression of tasteful excess, or excessive taste. Anyway, it’s always cool to be the only gaijin in a crowd of Japanese women in kimonos.

Yayoi studies chado, so this is a recital of sorts for her. We file into the room with tatami mats and a corner for making tea. There are about 30 people in the room, including we six who have come specifically to see Yayoi do her thing. She looks marvelous in her kimono (I’ve only ever seen her in Western clothes), and she is excited to see us all. Her youthful excitement makes me love her. Her teacher is there, and Yayoi points me out to her (as if I don’t stand out like a giant cold sore on the face of a supermodel). The teacher looks overjoyed to see me, and I wonder, as I often do, if the Japanese are actually pleased to have a clumsy foreigner learning about their culture in the room, or if they are the best actors on the face of the earth (or something in between).

I have seen the tea ceremony performed several times before, but it is the “be in the moment” aspect, the individual person doing the actions in as mindful, and yet effortless, a manner as possible that makes it magical. Yayoi is lovely and makes it look both elegant and easy, which it is not. There’s no mystery: she makes a cup of tea. But it’s all about how she does it, how every action is perfect, unfrivolous, and expert. Actually, with 30 people in the room, she only makes a few cups of tea; the rest of us are served by assistants who make more in the back. Each cup of tea takes too freaking long for one person to wait on 30 people.

First, we are all given a little sweet bean paste flower, a little piece of art that gets our mouth full of excess sweetness; we will then crave the balance of the bitterness of the powdered green tea. Just receiving and eating the sweet involves some bowing and placing it on pieces of expensive washi paper folded in half and used as a dish. I follow my friends’ leads.

I watch Yayoi do the ceremony, and the cups of tea start coming out from the back. One beautiful assistant kneels in front of me and places the cup on the tatami. We bow to each other. I pick up the cup, hold it in my left hand and use my right to turn the cup 90 degrees two times (I am positioning the front of the cup towards me), and then drink it down in two gulps. It’s thick and slightly bitter, tastes of grassy herbs, and shoots my brain with vigorous caffeine. Then, I turn the cup again (now the “front” is facing away from me, although it’s pretty difficult to see what makes it the front or back). I place it back on the tatami and do the little “admiring the cup” motions. My friends are giving me approving murmurs from each side. I’m a good mimic.

Suddenly, Yayoi’s teacher calls out loudly to me from across the room: “DID YOU LIKE IT?” My little Zen moment ends abuptly as I realize every single person is watching me, the big barbarian, lick my chops.

Yes, yes, I liked it. Thanks.

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