2006/12/29

Train Station Illumination Sensation

Recently, the Moody Minstrel's internal photometer was pegged to the limit by the Christmas lighting display at Kashima Station. He thought the light display was overdone. On his blog, Life in the Land of the Rising Sun, he offered as evidence several pics which he snapped from his BLUE RAV 4 as he made tracks away from the glare and toward streets with more subdued lighting. K and I decided to check it out for ourselves. Here's our take on the scene...

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The island turnaround in front of Kashima Train/Bus Station


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Light murals along the taxi stand


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Bicycle atop the information center. I want to light up my bike like that next year and ride it around town!


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Brick lane leading from the station to Kashima Jingu shrine.


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Along the brick road is a statue of one of Japan's most famous swordsmen, barely visible here among the lights.




Here is the statue in daylight. Bokuden Tsukahara (1489-1571), was the founder of "Kashima Shinto-ryu" style of fencing. His father was a Shinto priest at Kashima Jingu. They didn't do Christmas lights. And nobody messed with this guy either.










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Among the lights below the statue I also found this image of Tinkerbell. Oh, wait, that's K.


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Finally, here's a view from across the street. Too much? Maybe a little.

Personally, I didn't think the lights were that bad. One man's holiday illumination is another man's "Photon Torpedo" attack I guess. My idea of overkill is "Candy Cane Lane" in Woodland Hills, California. It's a neighborhood near my high school where people since 1952 have been seeing just how many lights and (sometimes obnoxious) decorations they can fit on their house and yard without bringing the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power to its knees.


Candy Cane Lane - now THAT'S over done.

For some truly great displays, I suggest everyone who hasn't done so go check out the Berlin, Germany Christmas lights and decorations which NZM has posted at M and J Adventures. Oooooh, Aaaaaaah.

2006/12/27

Pound for Pound

Mochi Rice Cakes for the New Year
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One of the traditions that Japanese immigrants brought to Hawaii a century ago is that of pounding of mochi rice into cakes for the new year. Mochi is a type of glutinous sweet rice. It is a traditional feature of Japanese New Year's displays in the home called Kagami Mochi. Two cakes, one smaller than the other, are stacked with a mikan (tangerine) on top as an offering to the gods. Kagami Mochi are displayed on the home Shinto altar or, as in our case, in the tokonoma (alcove). On January 11, the cakes, which by then have become brittle, are broken up and toasted or put into soup. In Shinto, sharing the offering to the gods invites divine blessings.

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The pounding process is a bit of work, so large batches are made at one time. Rice is steamed in stacked trays. When ready it is placed into a strong bucket or stone bowl that has been warmed with hot water. Two or three people with large mallets made of hardwood (in Hawaii we used guava) circle the bowl and mash the rice together. When it is well mixed, the "fun" begins.

Hopefully, there are several people at hand to take a turn at the pounding and give each other a rest. While one person hits the rice with a mallet, another - the bravest in the group - turns the rice between each stroke and adds water as needed. A third person sings or calls out a rhythm to keep the pace steady. The finished product is thick and sticky and can be cut and shaped.

Meanwhile, someone should be in the kitchen readying a large kettle of soup called "zoni", (or ozoni - the o being honorific). Ozoni, which originated in Samurai quisine, is made with a clear stock flavored with soy sauce and bonito flakes to which veggies such as sliced carrots and spinach and herbs are added and of course, mochi rice cake. In western Japan they use miso soup as a base. Either way, it really hits the spot on a cold December day.

In addition to being used in ozoni, mochi cakes can be broiled or toasted. I like it wrapped in nori (thin sheets of seaweed) and served with soy sauce. Beware - mochi is very, very chewy. Take a big bite and you'll be working on it for a long time!

These days you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in Japan actually pounding mochi by hand as most rice cakes are made in factories and purchased at the supermarket. Those who still do make their own at home use electric machines to do the work. But in Hawaii, (and here and there in Japan), you can still find some families and Buddhist temples carrying on the tradition the old fashioned way.

A popular mochi based desert in Hawaii is "chichi dango" - coconut mochi dumpling. It is something I like to make at year's end that most everyone seems to enjoy. It's sweet, soft, chewy, and "coco-nutty". Here is my recipe so you can give it a try. Don't worry, no pounding involved.

Baked mochi with miso:
You'll need 2 small packages of mochiko rice flour (four cups).
In the USA, you'll find it in your supermarket in the asian foods section.
Kinako (soy bean powder) or Katakuriko (potato starch)
2 1/4 cups cane sugar
1 tablespoon white miso (my trade secret!)
1 12 oz can of coconut milk
2 cups of water
red or green food coloring

Combine mochi flour and sugar in a large bowl. make a well in the center. Combine milk and water and add to the dry ingredients. Add miso and mix well using a wire whip. Add food coloring if desired. Mix.

Pour mixture into a well-greased 9 x 13 inch pan. Cover pan completely with aluminium foil. Bake at 350 degrees F for one hour and 10 minutes.
IMPORTANT: Cool mochi for at least 10 to 12 hours. Cut into strips and gently pull out of pan. Slice into desired shapes. Roll in kinako or katakuriko (shown in picture).

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Chichi Dango

The Kinako (soy bean powder) adds a nice nutty taste. Katakuriko doesn't really have a taste. The main idea of both is that they look nice and keep your fingers from sticking to the chichi dango as you eat it!

Enjoy.


2006/12/19

Autumn Focus

On the way home from Ryujinkyo Bridge, K wanted to stop and check the colors of the leaves at a place we've visited twice before, but which I have yet to write a post about. "Seizan-so" was the villa of Tokugawa Mitukuni (1628-1700), the second Lord of Mito, who was responsible for the publication of the "Dai Nihon Shi" or "Great History of Japan". I will write more about him and the villa in another post.

Seizan-so was rebuilt and is now open to the public as a National Historic Landmark and park. We stopped just long enough to determine that the trees were past their autumn prime there as well.

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Gardens at entrance to the Seizan-so park.


Not far from Seizan-so is a sign for a temple and as it was just a kilometer or two off our route, K decided see what it was. That turned out to be a good call, for what we found was not only beautiful, but of great interest to me as its history connects to the subject of my next post - a discovery I made in Kashima City that goes back 1400 years.

The temple is called Satake-ji and is listed as a National Important Cultural Property. In 1177, a local warlord, Satake, donated the land and made the temple the official place for his warriors to pray. The temple burned down in 1543 and took fifteen years to rebuild. That is still the temple building one sees today. In 1590 it was Satake Yoshinobu who unified Hitachi - what is now called Ibaraki Prefecture. No doubt a descendant of the Satake who patronized this temple.

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Gate of Satake-ji


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Ancient guardians are still on duty at the gate, though the gate itself was rebuilt in the 20th century (Showa Era).

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Satake-ji has a beautiful thatched roof.


There were momiji at the temple offering lots of color as well as a large leafed maple with leaves that were deep red. The grounds were carpeted with the golden leaves of an old ginkgo tree. I'd been having trouble with my camera all day and many of my pictures were out of focus, so I don't have many to share here. I later discovered that I had inadvertantly set the camera for manual focus.



A wall surrounds garden in front of the priest's residence.


The sect represented here is Shingon which seems dominant in Ibaraki. There is a statue of Kannon, Bodhisattva of mercy, inside the temple.

One of the famous Buddhist pilgrimages in Japan is called the "Bando Pilgrimage" started by the monk Tokudo in 718. Bando means "Kanto" or the Eastern Provinces, which center on Tokyo. The pilgrims visited 33 holy sites related to Kannon Bohisattva. This was forgotten for a time, but rediscovered in 988 AD by Emperor Kazan (aka Emperor Hanayama, 968-1008 AD). The story is that Kannon Bosatsu appeared to Emperor Kazan in a dream, saying "I have divided into 33 bodies throughout the eight provinces of the Bando area, and a pilgrimage to these 33 sites will bring release from suffering."

Satake-ji is the 22nd stop in the Bando pilgrimage. This temple also has an interesting connection to the story I will tell in my next post.

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As we approached Mito, the sunset was spectacular. A paraglider was somehow finding lift along a river bed and no doubt had the "best seat in the house".

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Crossing Naka River - Mito City skyline.


The spiraling tower ahead is Art Tower Mito which is covered in triangular titanium panels and rises to 100 meters (328 feet). It was built in 1989 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mito officially being a city.

From Mito, home is only an hour away, where Momo the Wonder Dog was waiting patiently for her dinner.

2006/12/16

Fall from a Bridge

December 3rd, we took our second trip up to the northern Ibaraki city of Hitachi Ota to its village of Suifu in hopes of viewing autumnal tints from Ryujinkyo (god of the dragon or celestial dragon) bridge, the longest suspension foot bridge in Japan - thus the title, "fall" from a bridge.


Our previous trip to the bridge was in May of last year to see it decorated with huge koinobori (carp streamers) in honor of Children's Day. I wrote about it in A Bridge Too Far. You can see pictures from that trip HERE.

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Ginkgo leaves carpet an old dry moat in Mity City contrasting a red momiji (maple) tree.

Our route paralleled the Pacific coast until we reached the port of Oarai where we turned inland to Mito City. After a quick stop for a lunch of onigiri - rice balls wrapped in nori (seaweed) with a pickled plum or a bit of fish in the center - we crossed the Naka River and continued north.

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The air was so clear, we could see the mountains twenty miles or more away.


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Getting closer.


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View of the valley from the parking lot of Ryujinkyu Bridge

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The last kilometer of road to the bridge was lined with Japanese maples.

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The bridge is over 1000 feet long and stretches over a reservoir 300 feet below.

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View of the gorge from the bridge.

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From the far side of the bridge, one looks back at the giftshop and restaurant.

K was a bit disappointed as it seemed that we were a week or two late for seeing the fall leaves. Many of the trees had already dropped them. The views were still beautiful though and well worth the trip. The weather was so fine that the vistas of the surrounding mountains lived up to the area's nickname - "nature's treasure chest".

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On the way out of the valley, we stopped to admire this old water well under a momiji tree in full autumn glory.

Though we were headed for home, there were a couple of other places we would stop along the way, but I'll save those for next post.

2006/12/14

Memoirs...

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Time travellers dressed for the late Edo or early Meiji era. K is dressed as a Maiko.

In March and April of 2003 we spent a few weeks visiting Kyoto and Nagoya. In the Gion district, one can occassionally see a Geisha (Geiko in the Kyoto dialect) or Maiko (Geisha apprentice) coming to or from an appointment - often just a glimpse as she leaves a restaurant and steps into a car to be whisked away. Sometimes people rent the costumes and walk through the souvenir shop lined streets around Yasaka Shrine or up to Kiyomizudera temple as if reliving an earlier time.

There are differences in the appearance of Geisha and Maiko. For Maiko ("dancing girl"), the kimono and obi (sash) are more colorful and patterned, have longer sleeves, and the obi is tied so that the material hangs down the back. Her hair is decorated with flowers, beads and ornaments. Her face has full white makeup with red lips. A red collar contrasts her white makeup. Her feet are covered by white tabi and she wears Oboko - very high platformed sandals.

A Geisha ("person of the arts"), being more mature, wears a more subtle kimono, with shorter sleeves and a white collar. The obi is tied in a bow in the back. Her hair has fewer decorations and her makeup may not include the full white face of the Maiko. On her feet are Zori (no, not the rubber kind worn to beach) - but flat, lacquered sandals. Her appearance is very beautiful and colorful, but more refined or understated than the Maiko.

K made an appointment to have our photo taken in costume. This is a popular thing to do, particularly with young women like K ;^) and as with any photo studio, one needs to make arrangements some time in advance. When that time came, we had been out sightseeing and caught a bus to get to the studio. The buses were jam packed and the streets clogged with cars. Our bus driver was alternately stomping on the brakes and then the accelerator, causing the standing passengers to slosh back and forth like so many socks in a washing machine. After just a few stops I'd had enough and announced that I was getting off. In Japan, one boards the bus in the middle and exits through the front, paying as you leave. Working with the motion of the bus, we oozed our way forward and got off. It was actually faster to walk, and a whole lot more comfortable.

The studio was down a narrow alley. In a small waiting room, we were served green tea and sweets. There were lots of magazines and even a television set with a selection of videos to keep those in wait occupied. K was presented with sample pictures and all the options were explained to her.

Most of the pictures taken were of just K, of course. There is a lot of waiting done by the men while a team dress the women with makeup, wig, and kimono. When she was almost ready, they called me up stairs to measure me for my outfit. Getting me dressed only took a few minutes (some things never change). In the picture, I am wearing a formal man's kimono with a haori coat and black tabi (a cotton sock which has fasteners up the back and is split at the toe to accomodate the thong of a sandal). The black "thingy" above my belt is actually a decorative knot on the braided cord that closes the haori. The belt is called kaku obi.

I wasn't crazy about the idea at the time, but now I am glad we had the pictures taken. I've worn hapi coats and yukata (summer kimono) to Bon Odori (Buddhist dances) for many years, but this was quite different. Clothing is an important element of any culture and, like trying to do some of the arts, listening to its music, or eating the food, putting on clothes of another culture or period can help to add a little more depth to one's understanding of it.

Edo-era Geisha with shamisen and biwa photographed by Felice Beato

The Hair Poem by George Carlin

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George Carlin - post hair!

I'm aware some stare at my hair.
In fact, to be fair,
Some really despair of my hair.
But I don't care,
Cause they're not aware,
Nor are they debonair.
In fact, they're just square.

They see hair down to there,
Say, "Beware" and go off on a tear!
I say, "No fair!"
A head that's bare is really nowhere.
So be like a bear, be fair with your hair!
Show it you care.
Wear it to there.
Or to there.
Or to there, if you dare!

My wife bought some hair at a fair, to use as a spare.
Did I care?
Au contraire!
Spare hair is fair!
In fact, hair can be rare.
Fred Astaire got no hair,
Nor does a chair,
Nor a chocolate eclair,
And where is the hair on a pear?
Nowhere, mon frere!

So now that I've shared this affair of the hair,
I'm going to repair to my lair and use Nair, do you care?

2006/12/11

Preview: Seijin Shiki (Coming of Age Day)

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Sunday at Kashima Jingu Shrine


In the comments of my post about Culture Day I promised pictures of K's niece, Asami, on Coming of Age Day which occurs on the second Monday in January for those turning twenty that year. Twenty is the age of majority in Japan and local governments put on a ceremony for those who are becoming adults, sort of like a graduation.

At this time, girls may inherit (or be gifted new) a special kimono called "furisode". Of course, some people will rent a kimono for a special occasion like this (more commonly for a wedding). Furisode have very long sleeves and are a way of announcing that the young woman is available for marriage. She will wear it at special occassions. Should she marry, she will likely be given a new kimono by the groom, with shorter sleeves that indicate her marital status, which she will keep through adult life.

Asami was given a new kimono which she, her mother, and grandmother, chose. Such kimono are not inexpensive (thousands of dollars in US terms). Kimono are layered and have many pieces to wrap and tie into place, so it requires knowledgable help to get dressed in one. The usual practice is to visit a hair salon which will do the woman's hair as well as dress her, so just wearing one involves time and expense.

Sunday, Asami had her portrait taken at a studio in her new kimono for her Coming of Age celebration. Afterward she visited Kashima Jingu, the major Shinto shrine here, where we met up with her. Happily, the weather cooperated and we had a sunny day for taking pictures. We met up at the entrance while her mom was taking pics.

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Walking toward the gate with her grandmother, mom, and Aunt K

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At the gate. Someone get this girl to smile.


From the gate we went to the Hondo, or main hall, and gave offerings and prayers. Asami posed for more pics, this time of the back of her kimono and with her Aunt K. Asami is studying to be a nurse at a college a couple of hours away, so was just home for the weekend. My oldest daughter (I have two terrific daughters if you don't know), Emily, is a registered nurse, so I think it is great that Asami aspires to the same noble profession.

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My personal favorite


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Hello...yes, I'm taking a picture..over here...


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Kimono were obviously not designed for jogging.


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With "Uncle" Pandabonium - is that a hint of a smile?


Ah well, smiles or no, Asami was beautiful in her new kimono. But I promise to get an unmistakable smile from her when I take her picture again next month.

Oh, That Calvin

from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson


To get your favorite comic strip in your email daily for free, visit GoComics.com and start your day with a smile.

-Momo the Wonder Dog

2006/12/10

"Meda Dau Doka" (God Bless Fiji)

Fiji is in turmoil right now. If you are unaware of that fact, just check the Fiji blogs linked here for information and various opinions. Opinions differ, as one should expect. As a land owner and part time resident of Fiji, I do have my own thoughts on the matter. You can email me for my personal views. I choose not to make this blog a forum for debate and won't editorialize in my posts. Instead, I offer the following video to everyone as a gesture of my hope for a lasting and just outcome for Fiji as well as our entire world. This video is based on the Fiji national anthem.



ENGLISH LYRICS

Blessing grant oh God of nations on the isles of Fiji
As we stand united under noble banner blue
And we honour and defend the cause of freedom ever
Onward march together God bless Fiji

CHORUS:
For Fiji, ever Fiji, let our voices ring with pride.
For Fiji ever Fiji her name hail far and wide,
A land of freedom , hope and glory to endure what ever befall.
May God bless Fiji
Forever more!

Blessing grant oh God of nations on the isles of Fiji
Shores of golden sand and sunshine, happiness and song
Stand united , we of Fiji, fame and glory ever
Onward march together God bless Fiji.

---
FIJIAN LYRICS

Meda dau doka ka vinakata na vanua
E ra sa dau tiko kina na savasava
Rawa tu na gauna ni sautu na veilomani
Biu na i tovo tawa savasava

CHORUS:
Me bula ga ko Viti
Ka me toro ga ki liu
Me ra turaga vinaka ko ira na i liuliu
Me ra liutaki na tamata
E na veika vinaka
Me oti kina na i tovo ca

Me da dau doka ka vinakata na vanua
E ra sa dau tiko kina na savasava
Rawa tu na gauna ni sautu na veilomani
Me sa biu na i tovo tawa yaga

Bale ga vei kemuni na cauravou e Viti
Ni yavala me savasava na vanua
Ni kakua ni vosota na dukadukali
Ka me da sa qai biuta vakadua

2006/12/07

Peace Coming Soon

I hope you know better than to expect peace between nations soon.

What this post is about is peace in my neighborhood. Sunday is an election day for the local assembly here. There are two candidates (thankfully only two) running this time around. On our trip up north last Sunday, we saw some areas around Mito City where there were six candidates listed. Signs are posted around the neighborhood so we can all recognize the culprits candidates, even if we have no clue as to their source of graft platform - as if that matters.

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The annoying part of campaigns in Japan is that there are vans (buses for higher offices) with LOUD SPEAKERS on them which patrol the neighborhoods "thanking" supporters in a non-stop banter. How loud are they? The other day I was down by lake Kitura and could hear one on the other side of the lake about two miles away. Campaign workers and sometimes the candidates themselves occupy the van and wave to everyone in sight.

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I can't vote here, but if I could, I'd vote for the candidate who promised to ban vehicles with loudspeakers from our streets. The least they could do is hand out ear plugs.

With the election will come peace, at least until the next election.