Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Goodbye Kanazawa,onto the next adventure!

Just a quick goodbye!

I'm flying to Fukuoka tomorrow, then down to Kumamoto for 10 days working at a wood workshop and finally Okinawa to do some serious de-thawing! Working on a bee farm down there. Yes BEES, bzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Lets hope I'm not allergic.... My friend translated the website and it reads "surrounded by deep forest, you can feel the nature breathing.... I can say our place "shasi kumar" is a "green uterus"...." Yep apparently he used the words "green uterus" Hmmm...should be interesting. Below is a video on their website, I think the girl is trying to find the source of the umeboshi (plum) When she's in the car she says "hito ga nai" meaning there's no people. Great, that's where I'm going. Eventually she finds the source of the umeboshi, it's honey umeboshi from the bee farm I'm going to (I think....!) Watch below

Will try and track progress on my brand spanking new blog Yep my alias will not be The Sow Tasty Gardener. Sow tasty will be all about growing your own veggies, gardening in general and of course experiences organic farming in Japan! Some places don't have internet I've been told BUT apparently I can use the neighbours PC. Oh wow, fun stories to come I'm sure.

Going to leave the blog up for anyone who wants to find things to do in and around Kanazawa. I'm off to wwoof for 6 weeks (and a trip to China and Mongolia in between!)

Thanks for reading, wish me luck!!


Thursday, March 25, 2010

The mighty sumo!

Staying in a temple with monks, check. Capsule hotel, check. Playing taiko drums, check. Sing karaoke badly, check. Sumo, oooh not yet!
Without further ado we bought tickets to the March leg of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai Grand Tournament in Osaka. Getting tickets is pretty easy in Japan if you speak Japanese but a bit of a challenge if you don't. The best way is to do what Maylee did to get ours. Turn up at a Circle C or other convenience store in Japan, point to thing that looks like a cash machine in the corner and say "Sumo, kippu hoshi onegai shimasu" and with any luck the lovely helpful people will come and press all the right buttons on the machine. We decided to spend a little extra on getting good tickets (arena S) at 8,500 yen, about £60 but worth it for the good view.

I had watched quite a few sumo matches on TV usually when I got home from work and loved them. They're crazy and only last a few seconds sometimes. To my surprise not all sumo wrestlers are actually Japanese, there's this white Estonian guy called Baruto who obviously stands out from the crowd and looks a bit odd wearing his mawashi (the silk padded g string looking thing that they all wear to hide their crown jewels)
Well what a FAB experience! We had really good seats considering its practically impossible to book them near the ringside (all reserved for VIPs) but we could see everything really well. The place had a great atmosphere, families and groups of friends who had booked the boxes (4 in a box) sat on floor cushions with bento boxes whilst waiters came along bringing them green tea.

We arrived around 3pm and watched a few juryo matches just to get us warmed up. Basically there's 2 professional ranks in sumo, the juryo (the lower) and the makuuchi (the top). We watched a few final juryo matches and then it was time for the Naka-iri which is basically the opening ceremony where all the wrestlers from the top league come on wearing these silk pieces that looked like aprons. (worth around £4k apparently) See photos above.
Next for the Yokozuna (横綱) ceremony, the yokozuna is the highest rank of sumo which I think is only held by one wrestler, currently its a fierce looking guy called Hakuhō Shō. The crowds went pretty wild when he came into the ring and he did this ritualistic dance accompanied with a sword bearer. See photo below.

Hakuho performing yokozuna ceremony

Next it was time for the makuuchi division matches. The rules are simple. The aim is to get your opponent either outside of the ring OR to touch any of the body parts (except for feet obviously) onto the floor inside the ring. The build up lasts longer than the actual battle but its just great!

They eye each other up, then split up and each throw salt into the ring (for purifying the area apparently) then re-position to stare each other out before they start. Then suddenly they charge, there's lots of skin slapping (or should I say fat slapping), shouts and clutching of the mawashis as they try and pull each other down.

Staring each other out

3,2,1 go!

....and the guy with the black mawashi wins!

Didn't have a clue where the scoring board was until we saw this tiny ancient looking hung up in the corner, yep this is the score board. The red dots are who won the match. Yep it took us a while especially nursing a hangover when everything takes just that little bit longer ; )

We did wonder how those mawashi stay on the wrestlers. The knot doesn't even look that tight at the back and sometimes they have so much front bottom fat hanging out that its amazing nothing else escapes...Oh and the non Japanese wrestlers were so hairy! Hairy backs, hair chests, hairy legs, yuk. Here is my fave wrestler, Baruto who is in the third highest rank, towering over the other wrestlers. He doesn't look like he belongs does he?

Once the matches were finished at 6pm they held a final bow ceremony took place but I felt pretty sorry for the rikishi wrestler who was perfoming it as everyone started to leave before he finished, how rude! The ceremony is centuries old, the bow represents the gratitude felt by the day's victors.

Time to go, thrilling afternoon, hangover cleared but not looking forward to the train ride back to Kanazawa! I filmed one below.

My first capsule hotel experience, Osaka

From one accommodation extreme to the next...Saturday night spent in a temple with monks in the mountains of the beautiful and serene Koyasan and Sunday night in a quirky capsule hotel smack bang in the middle of "America-town" in the bustling Osaka. You have to love Japan!

My bed, top floor

For anyone who has no idea what a capsule hotel is, its basically a type of hotel in Japan with extremely small rooms (aka capsules). They're usually men only but some have a ladies floor. They were initially designed for men too inebriated to travel home or to embarrassed to face their spouses. The best thing is that they're super cheap, like around £20 per night. Some people in Japan even rent them on a monthly basis as they're so cheap.

Once we entered our capsule ( we put our "outdoor" shoes into lockers and checked in no probs. I had initially expected some kind of unmanned reception with vending machines that spit out your keys (this is the case for some capsules) but there were actually humans there to check us in, wow! Locker keys in hand we went down to our ladies floor which we accessed via a key. Once inside, we went to find our capsules, all very exciting!

Home for the night, look like morgue chambers don't they?

They weren't half as small and claustrophobic as I thought they would be although it did look like we'd just walked into a scene from CSI, these morgue type chambers stacked up both sides, spooky!

Mine was at the top so I had a little ladder to help me get in.Once I crawled inside it really wasn't that small, I could sit up easily and mine had a built in TV inside, pretty darn cosy if you ask me! No doors of course, just a screen that you pull down for privacy.

I also thought it would be like a noisy hostel full of young drunken travellers running about everywhere but no. It was so quiet, everyone respects the need for peace and quiet. When we first saw our capsules though, we did get a bit over excited and started taking pictures of each other hanging out of our capsules remarking on "how lucky it was no-one was about". To our dismay, some girl shouted out in English "I am" Well that taught us! We didn't make a sound after that.

Kari and I squeezed into her capsule (silently of course!)

On the ladies floor there is was a locker area where you have to store all of your stuff. They even give you pyjamas, a yukata (summer kimono) and a towel! There was a relaxation room, a sauna and sento (small bath) room for freshening up and a huge vanity area. All you need really! We got ready for our night on the tiles in Osaka and went out wondering whether the ladder up to my capsule might turn into a challenge after a few drinks...

5am, 9 hours later...Crawled into our capsules amazingly managing not to fall up or down the ladder. Had a wonderfully peaceful sleep in my little capsule for the night!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Koyasan; the sacred mountain & staying with monks in a temple

Wow its amazing how much you can pack into a 3 day weekend! With 4 months left in Japan there's still so much I want to do here, eeek. So this weekend we decided to go for a "cram Japan" weekend starting at Koyasan (or Mount Koya), a sacred mountain and Shingon Buddhist temple complex and spending a night in temple lodging (known as shukubo), then hitting Osaka for a night in a capsule hotel and if that wasn't enough go see a sumo match! Soooo much to write about, I'll start with Koyasan.

So on Saturday morning at 6.50am we took the gruelling but cheap 5 hour bus bound for Osaka from Kanazawa (its the old age, I used to be able to handle long bus trips!) In fact it ended up being 7 hours as the traffic was so bad going into Osaka. From Osaka we caught the train and thought it was odd that the scenerey wasn't getting any more mountainous and pretty. It took us over an hour to realise that in fact we were en route to Kansai aiport, DOH! Mild panic setting in as the temple was serving dinner at 5.30pm and they wouldn't wait for anyone, it was now 4pm....

About 4 more train changes, a ropeway tram (see above) and a final bus we ended up in Koyasan, 11 1/2 hours later. Yep, we could have flown to London in that time!

The minute the bus entered the towering entrance gates and this huge stone Buddha appeared from nowhere in the trees we knew it was going to be worth the effort. Just some quick history for you about Koyasan, in 806 a monk named Kukai had travelled to China to study Buddhism. Some years later he returned and established a Shingon monastery on Koyasan, which then grew over the centuries. Kukai has become one of Japan's most famous religious figures and is revered as a Bodhisaattva, scholar and inventor of the Japanese kana.

Nowadays, the Shingon school of Buddhism has 10 million members and presides over nearly 4000 temples all over Japan. Today Koyasan enables tourists to stay alongside monks, eat their characteristic vegetarian cuisine (shojin-ryori), observe their prayer ceremonies and learn meditation techniques. We were to do all but the last.

Reception room at Shojosh-in temple, our home for a night

The temple we stayed at, called Shojoshin-in, blew our away. No reception desk, just a monk who comes and greets you and leads you to a beautiful tatami mat room (above) to check you in.

The main hall at Shojosh-in, where we stayed.

They gave Raquel our list of "rules", meal times, morning prayers time 6.30 and bath times (only between certain times in the evening and not available in the morning).

With no time to settle we went straight down for dinner (luckily they had agreed to still serve us despite being late) The food was so tasty. I honestly thought that we might go hungry what with the monks eating simple diet but no, we had 3 trays of food each! The monk who had been manning reception was now our waiter and was scurrying in and out with the food and hot green tea.

For the next hour we gorged on tempura veggies, pickles, fried tofu, daikon radish, rice, rolled omlette, ginger soup, miso, pickled chinese cabbage, fruit, it went on and on.... see above.
After dinner we drank a few glasses of wine in our room under the kotatsu (heated blanket surrounding a table) had a good ol chin wag and eventually passed out wondering what was in store for the next morning's service.

6.15am on the dot, a loud bell was rung a few times indicidating it was time to get up. We headed down to the prayer room a bit dreary eyed. Well, what an enchanting experience. Listening to the monks chant rythmically almost puts you into a trance like state and certainly took me back to my zazen experience in November.

After morning prayer which finished by 7am we had a huge breakfast and headed out to see Oku-No-In, a cemetary where Kukai rests in eternal meditation and the most sacred site at Koysan. Anyone who is anyone in Japan is buried here including former feudal lords, politicians and soldiers who served in WW2 are all buried in this huge cemetary (200,000 graves to be exact).

I'm no fan of graveyards here but there isn't a creepy tombstone in sight, just a quaint path that leads you through the cedar forest over quaint bridges, past monuments and towards Toro-Do (Lantern Hall) and Kukai's mausoleum.

En route we passed so many people cladded in white jackets and holding walking sticks. I initially thought they were tour guides (big faux pas jessie!) They were in fact "spiritual tourists" starting or ending their pilgrimages to the "88 sacred places of Shikoku", an impressive 1,100km trail.

I could go on about Koya and the wonderful places including Kongobu-ji and Garan (the temple complex), the golden pagodas but I'm running out of time and have a few more posts to write! Have a browse of the pics and you'll get a sense for the wonder of the place.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Making Japanese sweets (wagashi) in Kanazawa

Maylee and I, proudly showing off our masterpieces!

Running out of time and there's still so much I want to do whilst living in Kanazawa. The longer I'm here the less daunting it all seems to be (i.e I'm even calling people up and speaking in my broken Japanese, something I never thought possible when I arrived a year ago!)

So one thing I had read about in the list of things to do in Kanazawa is to make wagashi (和菓子), a traditional Japanese confectionary which is often served with tea and is almost considered an art form.

Of course all the information about doing this is in Japanese so it's a bit of a challenge to work out where, how much and what its all about. So having made a wobbly reservation on the phone, we went down to the Ishikawa Gifts and Souvenir centre on Saturday with the hope that they had actually understood me on the phone and to my amazement they did!*

We were ushered into a big hall with long tables, the last group were finishing off and then it was our turn. Each of us had our own set of wagashi mix, utensils, a sieve and some wet tissues.

The head chef, a big bloke who I think must teach the classes on rotation all day, put on his mic and began his presentation. We could see everything he was doing as he must have had a mini TV camera attached to a huge screen, unfortunately we didn't understand what he was saying but this is practical so it doesn't matter, just copy everyone else!

We started off by making the easiest wagashi that looked like a pink sugar mouse. There are tons of different types of Japanese wagashi depending on the ingrediants and style but as I'm sat here at school not even my teachers know the proper name for this pink one! You take the wagashi mixture (which feels like a soft play dough, it is in fact rice flour mixed with water), flatten it and then place the azuki bean paste (same consistency) inside.

You then carefully mould the edges of the outer layer around the inner and make a ball. Then you roll it in your hands until it forms an egg shape. To finish it you make two cross marks across the top with your wagashi utensils, see my video!

We then moved onto the next one, a green one with a marble type effect that bunched together at the top.

It looked near impossible to make but was actually not too hard. The secret was in getting a damp handkerchief, wrapping the wagashi inside, twisting it hard and then finaly pinching it with 2 fingertips....

Et voila!

The last looked like something I used to produce from my mop top hair shop when I was young (god remember those?) This time the wagashi mix goes through the sieve provided, watch us doing it in video below!

After, you must pick up the wagashi shreds using only chopsticks and cover the inner ball of azuki. OK this was a bit tough as I have zero patience and it just doesn't stick that well.

Once you've picked every shred of wagashi mix your'e done! The waitresses then give you a cute little box (recycled I hope) for your 3 pieces of art form (and they include an extra wrapped one in there) Here are my final masterpieces ; )

I might even try to make my own daifuku (a type of wagashi which I just LOVE!) if I have time this weekend (a nice leaving present for my teachers)

At the Ishikawa Gifts and Souvenir centre you can also decorate traditional Japanese dolls as well as paint on glass.

The sweet making cost ¥1200 and is available from 10am to 1pm on weekends and national holidays only.
*To be honest I'm not sure a reservation is really needed as there weren't that many people there. Turn up and I'm sure they can fit you in.

Map is at (third picture down, there's also a map in English of how to get there)

Warning, don't scoff all your wagashi sweets in one. I did....