Winter in Aizu

Last weekend about a metre of snow fell over two days. It was amazing, neither of us had ever experienced anything like it! Digging our way out from the front door to the road was tough, but just look how beautiful it is. We went totally snap-happy just in the area around our house, I've never felt like such a tourist in my whole life! Here are just two of the many shots, the first one taken at the shrine next door to our house, and the second one is of the shrine from the road looking all snuggly.

For a non-photographer like myself though, it's impossible to capture the scene and those special magical moments. I found these photos quite disappointing, and even going outside the next day was a let down. It was nothing compared to the way I'd remembered it in my head. I just kept thinking, surely it was so much more beautiful than this! I even started the think that I imagined it all, that it was just a big pile of frozen water and nothing to have been so excited about in the first place.

Today however, we happened to end up in an art gallery in the nearby town of Yanaizu, a gallery completely devoted to the work of a print maker called Kiyoshi Saito. He was born in Aizu Bange in 1907 but moved to Hokkaido when he was a still a small boy. Later on when he came back to visit his hometown, he was totally blown away by its beauty and began making a series of prints of Aizu. He was still making prints of Aizu in his late 80's - today we saw over 100 from the Winter in Aizu series. With these he was able to achieve what I was trying so unsuccessfully to do a few days ago in my shutterbug fever. He got it! He captured the magic! The prints are beautiful. But even better than that, they show the landscape looking just the way I felt that I had first seen it. On the hour or so in the car on the way home, the landscape around us transformed itself; the houses, mountains, trees and rivers becoming Kiyoshi Saito's Aizu, and again I was able to see everything that was beautiful about it. I'm so happy.

Winter in Aizu (100) Mishima 1992

Winter in Aizu (46) Oishida 1981


Gourmet Porridge Chef

Porridge is the greatest winter breakfast food ever. And gourmet porridge is even greater still! I find straight oats a bit tough going, so these days I usually add fruit along with a cinnamon stick and a few cloves. Apple is yummy and are bananas scrummy (heh!); actually most things have been fantastic. But by far and away the winning combination, newly discovered this winter, has been persimmon. I'm astounded by it's wonderful-ness! Cut it up and throw it in with the oats and by the time they've cooked, the persimmon has achieved optimum texture. It's not too soft, and it's not too hard. Just perfect. It's also an excellent baby breakfast! Have I impressed you yet? I hope so.



Check it out!!! It's been snowing a little bit every day since Monday, but it really got going last night. I've read in books and heard people talk about how quiet snow is, but it was kind of special to experience it for the first time. It's amazingly quiet, except for when a big pile of snow crashes down off the roof. It sounds just like an avalanche, very exciting as long as you're not standing underneath it at the time. Y. and I spent a lot of time shoveling snow today. It was fun because it was the first day, but I wonder how we'll feel after 3 months of it?

If you're wondering how the Matatabi's going, it's not at all. Y. was late at work, and our neighbour says he can't come over without a chaperon. After all, what would everyone think?!


Making things with Matatabi

This is the latest exciting thing in our lives. Not the gumboots, although they are quite exciting too, special ones for winter, please feel free to admire them! The really exciting thing though is the matatabi, actinidia polygama or silver vine propped up in the doorway. It grows in the mountains here, and is used for making baskets and all different types of colanders for vegetables and rice. Matatabi products are amazing to use because they're strong yet flexible, last forever and as an extra bonus are also very pretty.

Our 76 year old neighbour is forever telling me he can do anything. As much as I hate to admit it, he's actually not too far off it! He's one of the very few people around here who still knows how to make rope from a certain kind of tree bark. He makes beautiful traditional lanterns. And of course, he makes baskets and colanders with matatabi. He's been promising all year to teach us when winter came, and so here we are, matatabi step one!

I must admit rather sheepishly that so far I have done absolutely nothing to contribute to this project. Then again, seeing the state Y. was in after the trip into the forest to cut the vine, I'm a little bit glad I was stuck at home with the baby! He was a wreck after trying to keep up with our neighbour in the forest, even though at any other time he totters unsteadily about the place. We should never underestimate these mountain folk!

Anyway, the first step is to strip the bark off. These are just shavings, but I thought they were still relevant.

Next you cut it to size, and soak it in water for a few days.

We've still got a lot more of the vine to strip and cut, and the plan is that the three of us (the third being our neighbour, not the baby) will do as much as we can this evening. I'm really excited!


Autumn Festival and Goodbye to Kuimaru Primary School

Just when I thought all the eating parties were over, along comes the Flavours of Autumn Festival... not that I'm complaining! Far from it! So here we are with some more food photos - tochi mochi (horsechestnut mochi) being dished out by the lovely local lady here, and below with mushroom soup. And then jyaga mochi, made mostly from potato, looking mostly like a pair of fried eggs. Don't ask me how they did it! It was quite good although a little bit sweet, even for me. I didn't think I'd ever feel that way about anything, but then again life is full of surprises isn't it?

After the festival we went here, to the Kuimaru Primary School, soon to be demolished. It's such a great building and a beautiful spot that it's hard to believe it will be gone soon. The other half of the school will stay around long enough to be used as a set in a film and then it will be pulled down as well. Two local women are trying to start a community cafe called Kachi Kochi Cafe, and they were thinking this could be the perfect spot. But no, the local council decided it was a much better idea to destroy it. Hard to see the logic, and doubly heart-breaking because this was the second place they had found for the cafe only to be told it was going to be pulled down.

The Kachi Kochi Cafe girls decided to hold an event at the old school this afternoon to say goodbye. Quite a few families came along, and Mr T. (heh heh!) brought a whole lot of pumpkins to make jack o'lanterns! The kids drew the faces and he cut them out for them, lots of fun. There were kids everywhere running around, posing with their pumpkins, and checking out the campfire where sweet potatoes were being baked, nice to see. And yes, that's right, more food! Of course. And of course I totally overdid it! Oh well, all in the spirit of things I suppose.

I'm really hoping this cafe gets off the ground. It's exactly what we need around here. At the moment there's nowhere much to go in the village apart from the health centre and the public hall. There has to be a building somewhere around the place that's not about to be pulled down!!


Monkey Pear?

I never knew that kiwi fruit had family in Japan, but apparently they do! Our neighbour brought these around for us yesterday morning, they're called saru-nashi (monkey pear) ...and they have another name but I forgot it already...! They grow wild in the mountains, and I guess they're seasonal because I've never seen them before. Very yummy, a new favourite, they taste like a cross between kiwi fruit and fejoya. Highly recommended!

PS I just had a bit of a look around for more information, the Japanese name I'd forgotten was Kokuwa, and it's botanical name is Actinidia arguta. There's some more information on this site.


Tourist Town Central

A couple of years ago the village we live in topped Japan for having the fastest aging population in the country. Now it's slipped back a few places to 3rd or 4th place, but even still, 54% of people here are over 65 years old. The newsletter that comes from the village office monthly has a little section with births, deaths and numbers of people leaving and moving to the village. Every single month, except the month we moved here, the population has been decreasing. When our neighbour was a kid, there were 3000 people living here - now there are just under 1500. Only five babies were born here last year, and in the whole of the primary school there are just 46 students. With every second house uninhabited, the place feels so empty sometimes!

Anyway, I'm coming to the point of my story here. Y. had the day off today, so we went to visit a neighbouring village. There's an area where old houses have been preserved so tourists can see what life used to be like. It's just one street, mostly thatched roofs, with noodle shops and souvenirs places everywhere. I didn't realise until we got there how touristic it is - they have 1 million visitors a year! Quite unbelievable. We took this photo at the bottom of the street, can you see the tourists having a group photo taken?! It's gotten so big that locally produced souvenirs etc can't keep up with demand, so they've outsourced it all. Down the middle of the street there used to be the river, but they filled it in to be more tourist -friendly.

Apart from the tourist area, this village seemed so similar to our village that it was quite surreal. My first thought was that I'm so glad our village hasn't ended up like that. These people bus in with big tour companies from Tokyo, buy a whole lot of rubbish that's been trucked in from who knows where, take a couple of photos and then pile back on the bus to go home. But thinking again, I wonder what is to become of our village if things continue the way they are now. We have often been told that if they can't turn things around in the next five years, it's pretty much over. As it is, so many people seem to have already given up hope.

On the way back, we went through the main city of the area to pick some things up from the supermarket. A rare and exciting opportunity! Going home it's over an hour's winding drive - you can see where we're headed through the windscreen, right in the middle of all those mountains. What a place to live! After being here for four months or so, I can totally understand why people leave and never come back. But right now, there's nowhere else in Japan that I would happily live, and so I feel like we have a responsibility to help to make a future for this place. I guess that's what Y.'s job is all about, but I wonder what I can do? Hmmm, I'm sure I'll think of something!



There's nothing like a bit of dinogami in the evening to brighten up an otherwise average day! Well, today was my first attempt, but I'm very possibly totally hooked, and I'm predicting more dinogami evenings in the near future. Tonight I made Parasaurolophus, as I'm sure is obvious from the picture. As we all know, Parasaurolophus means 'crested lizard', and he/she was a herbivore from the Cretaceous period. This was the easiest thing in the book, apart from the prehistoric fern, and it wasn't all that easy! I'm setting my sights on Stegosaurus, although it could take me a little while to build up my technique, there are 9 whole pages of diagrams! Parasaurolophus was only 3...



Another Harvest Festival, today at the local primary school. This year for the first time the kids grew their own organic rice from scratch, doing everything from planting to harvesting. A representative from each year group read out a little piece they'd written about it all, and the year four kid, who lives in our street actually, wrote a whole speech complaining about how many weeds there were! Ha ha! Anyway, they made mochi with the rice, turned it into various dishes, and we all ate together. It was the first time I've seen mochi being made, and so the first time I'd eaten it this fresh. It was AMAZING!! I'm such a fan. All the kids had a go with the hammer, but it was mostly three of the adults that did the work. I wonder how many people get injured every year making mochi? It's the woman's job to push the rice back into a ball after it's been smashed with the hammer, looks rather hazardous! The lady today did a very good job!

Here's what we ate - this soup was so fantastically good! The white gooey blob is mochi....

Then anko mochi - mochi smothered in red bean paste....

And natto mochi - mochi rolled in stinky fermented beans with a special sauce....

Finally, our baby the superstar! I never knew how much little kids loved babies, and vice-versa....


Pickled Chrysanthemum Petals

I am so excited about this, pickled chrysanthemum petals. I saw them in a book I bought a little while ago and thought they looked amazing but had never had the chance to try them. Someone brought them along to the Harvest Celebration yesterday, and we were even lucky enough to score leftovers! They are pickled in vinegar, sugar and salt and only keep for two or three days. It took a little while to put my finger on what the taste reminds me of, but it turned out to be soap...! In the best possible way I guess. What a beautiful thing to take home. I wish I could take better photos.


Harvest Celebrations and Stuff.

Today was great, I had non-housework related things to do pretty much all day! There's a group in the village for people who have disabilities called Yotsuba no Kai (Four Leafed Clover Club). It just started this year so there are only three members so far. They meet up once a week to do all sorts of different productive type things, including a veggie patch and growing mushrooms. I went along with M. a couple of weeks ago, and it was lots of fun so we became volunteer members. Today was the harvest celebration, so we spent the morning in the kitchen cooking a big meal with a whole lot of the food they grew this year for everyone who's involved with the group - mums, dads, staff and friends. Maitake mushrooms (like in the post below, but we made soup and a rice dish with them), pumpkin, potato, corn, yams, daikon (giant radish) and cabbage. Very impressive! And very yummy! Nice eating lunch altogether too.

Later on at home post-nap, M. and I sat outside in the sun while I shelled the soybeans we grew this year. Quite amazing anything came of it all, they were probably the world's most neglected beans! Anyway, they've dried now, and I need to take them out of the pods so I can dry the beans themselves more. While we were out there, our neighbour came out to finish off for the year in his field that's directly in front of our house. He grows Korean Perilla there, called Egoma in Japanese and Jyuunen in the local dialect. Even though in English it's called Korean Perilla, it's been grown around here for very long time, and the seeds which are used in all types of cooking, sweet and savoury. Jyuunen means ten years in Japanese, and our neighbour says they call it that because if you eat lots of it, you'll live ten years longer! It smells fantastic too, an aniseed-y sesame-y smell. They also make oil by pressing the seeds. I've been told it's used in a similar way to sesame oil, but it's quite expensive so I've never tried it. In Korea they use the leaves for things like wrapping barbecued meat in. Yummy!

So anyway, this is our neighbour bashing the Egoma seeds out of the pods with a stick, and a cute baby watching. After bashing comes sifting, then washing with water, then ready for sale.

These are the empty seed pods, but they look pretty much the same when they're full.

This is what I was doing. Food for the winter time!

All in all it was a very pleasant afternoon, lots of birds around saying pretty things, and lots of insect traffic passing by in front of us to keep me entertained. There was a big fat orange caterpillar who stopped near me, raised its rear end in the air and started looking quite business-like, so I got quite excited because I thought maybe it was about to start making a cocoon. What a cool thing to see, I thought, watched its every move, waited patiently, .....until the caterpillar did a huge black poo and ran off! Quite disappointing, but still something I've never seen before. I guess I should be impressed really, this caterpillar did a poo the size of its own head! Better him than me!


Blue Casserole and Baby Mash

I never thought it would come to this, but I've become a fan of casseroles. Not so much because I'm in love with eating them, but because you can throw them in the oven and come back an hour later and dinner's ready! Well, pretty much anyway. I used to hate casseroles passionately, so this is quite an impressive turnaround. I made this for lunch a few days ago, following a recipe for a beef with red wine casserole, but had no beef or red wine or really any of the other ingredients except for flour and milk to make the dumplings. So I made it with lots of Maitake mushrooms, bacon, pumpkin, sweet potato and white wine instead. Endless variations, just make a stew with all the ingredients on the stove, then make the dumplings (2 cups of self raising flour, 50g butter, 3/4 cup milk and cheese/herbs to your liking), put them on top and into the oven for 20ish minutes at 200 degrees Celsius.

And...in the background can you see the orange splodgy-mush? It's destined for baby M! I'm feeling quite proud of myself for sometimes being able to coordinate parallel menus - he's got mashed veggies from the casserole before the wine and other non-baby-friendly things went in. I'm also very proud because one of my recipes is now on a baby food website! I was trying to win a book voucher, and very narrowly missed out. Oh well. My almost winning recipe and another one too is here at Homemade Baby Food Recipes. Hooray! I was really stressed out about feeding M. until I found this site. It's so nice to know that I can put garlic and turmeric in M's baby mash if I want to!



I had quite an exciting weekend! Well, at least an exciting Sunday morning - I went to help harvest rice in the rice field that Choma Club is renting for one of its projects. There were about 20 other people helping out too, including volunteers from Japan, Russia, Korea, America and Taiwan. I thought it sounded like a potentially terrifying combination, but it was actually a lovely day.

Most people now harvest and dry rice mechanically, but walking around the village you can still see quite a few field where the rice has been
harvested and bundled by hand, and hung up to dry in the same field that it had been growing in. That's what we did on Sunday, and it was really interesting being so up and close with rice while it's at this stage. Usually I just mea- sure it out of a bag and into the rice cook- er!

The top photo here is the rice after it's been cut, waiting to be tied into a bundle with a piece of straw. Once you get the hang of it, it's surprisingly easy to do. The rice is planted in little clumps, which are pretty much one handful. So you grab the clump of rice down low and cut it off with your scythe. With a bit of practice you can do it in just one movement of your arm and without exerting any pressure. It's not such amazingly hard work to do for an hour, but if you had to spend two or three days doing it, it would be a totally different story!

The rice is then hung up to dry as you can see in the next photo, and it stays there for a month. With a machine, the rice is dried overnight though. I'm not totally sure what comes next, but I'm sure I'll find out before too long!

The last photo is an ex-rice field. There is a lot of abandoned agricultural land in Showa Mura, and especially in this particular area of the village. The combination of an aging population, and the urban drift means that uncultivated fields are always increasing. When you think that these fields were continuously farmed for at least ten generations, it really is very sad. So maybe we'll try and grow rice ourselves next year! We're still thinking...


Mushroom Season

It's autumn! Which means mushrooms! Locals who know what they're doing can saunter into the forest and come back with sacks full of mushrooms if they want to, but we have to sit here and hope that someone will be kind enough to throw some our way. So far we've been very lucky! The old guy next door has offered to take Y. with him next time. People are highly secretive about their mushroom hunting spots, so we're quite excited. This particular mushroom is called Maitake (pronounced my-takeh) and seems to be the most common one. The -take part means mushroom, which is why it rhymes with Shiitake.

There are so many fantastic things to do with mushrooms, so it always adds an extra half hour on to the cooking time just trying to work out what to do. This time I ended up making pasta, and thought I'd post the recipe because I'm a big fan of Japanese style pasta. I wasn't quick thinking enough to take my own photo, so here's the photo that came with the recipe, from orangepage.net, a cooking magazine's website.

Maitake and Bacon Japanese Style Pasta

Ingredients (2 people)
160g spaghetti
100g maitake
80g bacon
1/4 bunch mizuna (rocket would be great though)
1/4 onion
1 clove of finely chopped garlic
2/3 tsp yuzu koshou (spicy citrus-y condiment, maybe chilli + lime would be good?)
2 tblsp olive oil
1 tblsp butter
1 tsp soy sauce

1. Cut up the mushroom, mizuna, onion and bacon the way you like them.
2. Get the pasta cooking. Halfway through take out half a cup of the water and reserve. Cook the pasta for 1 minute less than the packet instructions and drain.
3. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and add the garlic. When you smell the garlicky smell, add the onion and bacon. When the onion has softened, add the mushroom, stir briefly, then mix in the butter, soy sauce and yuzu koshou.
4. Add the pasta water. Bring to the boil, then add the cooked spaghetti, mixing it all together.
5. Serve topped with mizuna (or rocket).

Yummy yummy yummy!


Fishies! And learning to cook them.

I've always been a bit terrified of cooking fish that can't just be treated like a steak, like tuna and salmon. Which something I have been lamenting for quite some time, what with the supermarkets here seeming to have lots in common with aquariums. As in there are lots of exciting and potentially delicious things from the sea. Not that that's how I think about the seals and dolphins swimming around too...hmmm...anyway, I think you know what I mean!

We were given some of these little guys the other day, their English name is Saury, Sanma in Japanese. A kind neighbour who just happened to drop by rescued me, and showed me how to cook them. Eternal gratitude is heading her way! You just: Score them on each side with a knife. Sprinkle them with salt. Wait 5 or 10 minutes. Put under the grill for about 10 minutes each side, and all done! Maybe even easier than a steak! I highly recommend it. Just watch out for the bones!


Wasp Hunting

I battled it out with this wasp in our kitchen two nights ago. I should admit however that it wasn't really a fair fight - I just trapped it under a glass bowl and waited for it to die! At first the wasp was way up on me, because in my haste I accidentally trapped in under the bowl with another little bowl of food. I didn't notice until the next day that the wasp was seeming to quite enjoy himself; apparently they like banana and sweet potato?! So I waited for it to turn the other way, snatched the food out, and then all I had to do was wait for victory. Only problem being that another one came back tonight! Y. just got out the can of insect spray and it's all over already. Anyway, I just wanted to post the photo, because when they're not trying to attack you, these wasps are kind of pretty. Or maybe that's up to personal taste?


Oh, but I liked you so much....

When we moved here a few months ago, every few days we were given lots and lots of warabi, which is type of edible fern. It's one of the wild foods that grows around the place here and is in season for most of June it would seem. Once we worked out how to cook it we were so excited, it tastes fantastic! It's a bit of an effort, you need to soak it with wood ash and warm water for 5 hours and then wash it thoroughly before you can cook it, but totally worth it....or so we thought....! But, shock, shock, horror, it turns out that you shouldn't eat very much of it because it causes cancer! Hmmm. Maybe not smoking cigerettes makes up the difference? This is the last lot of warabi we were given a few months ago a couple of hours into the preparation process.


Welcome to Me! And a baby animal.

I've been thinking about starting a blog for a while...so this is it! I've done it! Not really sure what I'm going to write about, but figured looking and cooking, though not necessarily in that order, should cover it for now. If my current cooking obsession doesn't last then I'll just have to think up something a little more cryptic for the cooking part.

This morning our neighbour came to our house with lots of veggies. Hooray! Wonderful guy. And told us that he'd just caught a badger, so if we want to see it we could go to his house. When we got there, we saw this little guy, very cute and very scared hanging out in this cage. From what I can gather Japanese badgers are a bit different from European ones. Anyway, they apparently wander down from the mountains at night time in family groups to raid the veggie gardens. The traps aren't big enough to get adults, so they usually only catch the babies. It was so cute, I really wanted to keep it! But our neighbour said the only thing that can be done is to kill it. I haven't been living here long enough to have much of an idea of the issues involved in all this. However I definitely do feel like it's a pity that my first encounter with one of the cute furry things living in the mountains that I stare at through the kitchen window while I'm washing the dishes everyday had to end like this. Here's to a better ongoing relationship with the mountain dwellers!