Friday, February 29, 2008

Friday Flash...A Few More RiceBalls

A couple of variations on the riceball theme.The pink riceball in the foreground is a plum or ume flavoured onigiri(riceball) while in the rear there is a vegetable onigiri.
Priced at one hundred and five yen each they make a quick,filling snack.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Winter Peonies

Despite the overnight dusting of snow and the bitterly cold wind,I ventured down to Tokugawen,a local garden/museum yesterday morning.After a tour of the museum,of which more next week, I strolled over to see the winter peonies in the adjacent garden.
The plants,as you can see above,each have their own straw thatch/matting tent to protect them from the rigors of winter.The tent like-structures help the blooms defy the elements that would otherwise ravage and spoil them.Ive also noticed looking again at the photo above the abysmal state of the lawn.Brown and dried up it doesnt exactly enhance the area at this time of year.

Although most of the winter peonies or botan were past their best some of the blooms were splendid and retained their beauty.There are a number of different shades and shapes of peonies cultivated at Tokugawaen.From subtle salmon pinks to brassy reds and from tight compact flowers to the more exuberant ruffled styles.

Despite the inclement weather I was surprised by the number of people who were doing a tour of the garden.In fact,several buses disgorged their elderly contents while I was there.

I was pleased that I wasnt the only one taking photos of the peonies.One chap armed with a video camera was making a movie with his wife directing him to shoot what she considered suitable specimens.Im not sure what advantage a video camera would have over a digital one in this instance.Its not as though there is any action,apart from the odd gust of wind buffeting the blooms.

Apart from the peonies much of the garden seemed as bare and forlorn as the lawns.There were however small signs that Spring is on its way.Some of the early flowering plum trees had the odd flower out while the small birds which inhabit the gardens seemed to be scouting for real estate.I'll probably return in April or May to see what the now dormant iris beds look like in their prime.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Friday Flash...Todays Cheap Lunch

My co-workers and I recently discovered a cheap lunch alternative to Dorito chips and other saturated fat,high carbo foods just down the street from our place of servitude.The small shop,with an entrance barely wider than an average doorframe, offers a variety of rice balls including the spicy chicken riceball above.Within the generous serving of rice nestles a large chunk of delicious chicken.The seaweed or nori on the outside adds a balanced saltiness to the riceball.
Among others for sale I noticed tuna,salmon and plum riceballs also available.

As well as riceballs and small plastic containers of vegetables and salads there are also some fried croquettes or patties for purchase.The croquette above contains fried pumpkin and is liberally covered in a sweet savoury sauce.
Two riceballs and a croquette made for a filling and inexpensive lunch as I still had a little change from 500yen.Bargain!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Valentines Day 2008

Valentines Day seems to be becoming more and more popular if the number of promotions and acres of shelf space given over to hawking chocolate is anything to go by.
My suspicions were proved correct after reading several local newspaper articles.
In 2005,the latest year that figures are available,the Valentine season saw 53 billion yen in chocolate sales.Reportedly sales have never gone down and show a year on year increase of about 10 per cent.
This runs counter to what some people I spoke to this week were saying.They told me that their company had sent out a fax requesting that people refrain from the so-called obligation or "giri-chocolate" gift giving practice.Apparently the ban is due to the perceived financial burden it places on female workers who feel pressured to purchase items for their male co-workers.
What I also noticed this year among the imported chocolate brands such as Godiva were an increasing number of local Japanese sweet makers trying to cash in.I observed some heart-shaped senbei rice crackers and red bean jam or dorayaki filled cakes available for purchase.There were also heart shaped manju or bean heart shaped buns for sale.
Other Japanese firms were offering "wafu mochi chocolat",sticky rice balls covered in green tea powder in a variety of colours such as white and yellow to tempt the more tradtional taste buds of local residents.
Below is a small sample of the chocolate on sale for February 14th.Bring on White Day March 14th!

Over the Edge of The World.

Over the Edge of the World.HarperCollins Publishers.2003.Laurence Bergreen.410pages.Illustrations.Notes.Bibliography.

Subtitled "Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe" this is a no holds barred account of Magellans historic voyage.
The author starts the book near the end of the adventure as the 18 survivors of the 260 odd sailors and the remaining ship of the five that set out limp into port.
What follows is an exhaustive,highly detailed account of the Armada de Molucca.

The first 66 pages sketch out the religious,political and scientific background leading up to the fleets dispatch led by Magellan,a Portuguese nobleman and navigator in the service of Spain and its monarch.
The subsequent chapters deal with the voyage itself and the last third of the book describes the fallout after Magellan's death and sums up the significance of what the voyage achieved in terms of history and science.

Bergreen draws on many sources such as diaries,pilot logs,survivors and eye witness accounts including that of Antonia Pigafetta,an Italian scholar, who was on the voyage to flesh out and personalise the hardships endured.
"Water seeping into the hold stank despite efforts to disinfect it with vinegar and animals such as cows and pigs added to the reek as did the slowly roting food supply and the sickening smell of salted fish wafting from the hold"(pg 104).
Apart from the day to day sailing, there are also interesting asides about scurvy,weapons and the tribes,customs and languages encountered.
Theres also a fairly grim piece on the punishments dealt out to mutinous crew members such as drawing and quartering.

Indeed,I have to give credit to the writer for including so much information in some 400 pages yet still keeping it gripping and readable.I also noted during reading that while Bergreen obviously is a fan of Magellan this is an even handed account and that he is critical of some of his appointments and decisions.
If I had a gripe about the book it is a minor one that other readers have also stated.As a landlubber a diagram or plan of the ships and weapons for example would have aided my understanding as would a couple of maps.I found myself looking for an atlas at times trying to locate places mentioned.A map showing the progress of the fleet would have been useful but that said its a minor quibble.

All in all a great read.I knew nothing about Magellan except his name before reading this tome.I'll use the comprehensive bibliography in the back of the book to find out more about the man and the voyage.Recommended.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Hokusai Exhibition Nagoya City Art Museum

Hard on the heels of the ukiyo-e display currently underway at the Nagoya Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Kanayama is the Hokusai exhibition which opened on the 9th at the Nagoya City Art Museum.
Subtitled "Siebold and Hokusai and his Tradition" there are many examples of Hokusai's work on display.Some,apparently, are on show in Japan for the first time having been loaned from the Bibliotheque nationale de France and the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.
From the brief English language notes at the Museum and a little googling Ive been able to work out how Siebold fits into the scheme of things and gets to share the headlines with Hokusai.
Philipp F. von Seibold was a resident physician at Deshima,an island in Nagasaki harbour which was a Dutch trading post set up by the Japanese government of the day.He undertook extensive research into many areas including among other things the local geography,flora and fauna,botany,history and arts.His book "Nippon"which described his research remains a standard text.
He also amassed a huge ethnographic and plant collection including everyday household goods,tools and handmade items and crafts including woodblock prints.It is this collection which forms the basis of the Museum in Leiden and some of the works on display come from Siebolds initial accumulation.

As to Hokusai himself, he seems a fairly unusual character using around 26 different signatures on his work and moving home some 93 times in his lifetime.If the works on display are anything to go by he was not only hardworking but also skilled as a draughtsman,artist,painter,printmaker and book illustrator.

On display are prints from his "Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji" which includes the well known "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" print as well as examples from "A Tour of the WaterFalls of the Provinces" and others from "Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces".
There are also portraits of people such as actors and well placed ladies as well as everyday scenes such as markets,kabuki theatres or candle making shops which are the bread and butter subjects of ukiyo-e.
There are also some large impressive scrolls depicting various animals,seasons and activities.

But if there was one thing that struck me it was the collection of sketch books that were on display.Each page was full of small accurate sketches of people working and every day things such as tools or utensils.Obviously they were used as references for later work.Some of them can be seen in different scenes,for example, in a number of the carpenters and sawyers prints.
A webpage from the Smithsonian site suggests that Hokusai may have coined the term "manga".(Articulations January 16 2008 Hokusai manga were "whimsical pictures filled with sketches of every day life" rather than the popular comic form we associate with the word today.Yet gazing at some of his sketches and having seen what salarymen are reading on trains there is certainly a graphic link between them as far as my untrained,uneducated eye can see.

Finally then there was a lot of varied work to see so I didnt begrudge the 1,100 yen admission for adults.
I would suggest however that one goes on a midweek day.I went today Monday 11th a National Holiday so every woman and her pushchair was there.
It was crowded,noisy and took me about two hours to see all the exhibition while being jostled and elbowed by impatient fellow patrons and being irritated by ringing mobiles..which begs the question why bring a cellphone to an art gallery?And if you have to why not switch it off?
The exhibition runs till 23 March and is 1,100yen for adults at the door.


Snowed Saturday.Not long.Long enough to smother some of the grey ugliness of the city.Long enough to witness a bicycle rider narrowly avoid hitting pedestrians as she lost control of her steed in the slush.

About 11 to 13 centimeters fell late Saturday morning and continued until mid-afternoon.I couldnt recall having snow fall this late in Winter.Especially given that Spring started last week according to the old traditional lunar calendar.
I was told later however that snow isnt that unusual as late January to early February is apparently the coldest time of the year.

By the time I left work on Saturday the snow had stopped and had already begun to turn into slush.Melting drifts which had built up on lampposts and roofs periodically fell onto the footpath below causing passing pedestrians to cast a weary eye as they trod home.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Friday Flash..Pieces of Cake

It seems in the buildup to Valentines Day here local bakeries or patisseries as they advertise themselves make an all out assault on your taste buds and wallets.There appears to be a never-ending array of cakes and desserts to entice you into the shop and part with your hard earned yen.
The dessert above consists of four large strawberries balanced on a thick moist caramel flavoured biscuit.The space in the centre of the strawberries is filled with a thick cream filling.The strawberries themselves are bedecked with a thick creamy topping and are also covered in a shiny sweet sugar glace.

This second offering is a dense,moist slice of chocolate cake.As with the first dessert above,the cake has a thick creamy topping and also two thin strips of chocolate adding yet more calories.The cake also has a thick sprinkling of chocolate powder on its surface to give it a professional finish.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Maki zushi,Setsubun and MameMaki

Pictured above are three examples of maki zushi,special long uncut rolls of eho maki eaten during Setsubun the day before the start of Spring according to the old traditional calendar.This years Setsubun celebration fell yesterday and it seemed that nearly every convenience store,supermarket and sushi shop was touting their own versions of maki zushi.
Prices varied and so accordingly did the ingredients used.The cheapest ones I saw were selling at 400yen each while the more expensive ones were 800 yen and over.The more lavish rolls used crab and shrimp meat but all the rolls seemed to be around 18-20 cm in length.

As it was my day off yesterday,I walked down to Osu Kannon Temple to watch the ceremonies taking place.Prior to the mamemaki or bean throwing events there is a Parade of The Seven Gods of Good Luck who ride a treasure ship float around the shopping district.Their voyage ends in front of the Temple.While I just missed the Seven Gods arrival I did manage to catch their treasure ship as it was being hauled away.

Once the Parade had finished,various groups decorated in coats and costumes climbed onto the scaffolding erected in front of the Temple and took part in the mamemaki ceremony.Members of the public,families and friends also took the opportunity to participate.Each person is given a small wooden box filled with roasted soya beans which are then thrown over the waiting masses below to symbolically get rid of evil spirits.

The crowds below the elevated bean throwers try to catch some of the lucky beans while the bean throwers chant "Fuku wa ichi"which roughly translates as "Good Luck come here!" or something similar.The chant varies from the norm which in full includes the words "Oni wa soto"-"Evil spirits out" but isnt chanted at Osu.

As you can see from the assembled hordes the place was pretty crowded for such a cold day when snow was forecast but didnt arrive.There was also a fairly competitive spirit evident with people using all manner of containers to try and catch some of the beans that were pelting them.More than once,there were calls for people to stop using upturned umbrellas while feisty hunched old women packed down like rugby players attempting to snag the elusive lucky beans.It all made for an interesting and entertaining spectacle. An unusual way to bring in Spring which based on the low temperatures and chilly winds still seems weeks away.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Friday Flash..More Plum Bonsai

Due to the fact I had to change my current days off at short notice I didnt have much time today.My days off are now the same as the days my school is closed.While it means I no longer have to get up early on Sundays and work it does mean that I lose a fairly big allowance which went with working on Sundays.Swings and roundabouts really.

Anyway here are two more plum bonsai trees that were on display last weekend.As with the trees in the photos last Monday these ones had a highly concentrated scent probably due to their small size.A nice reminder on a cold wintry day that spring isnt far off.