Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My British cookery lesson debut!

Looking the professional chef as ever

Last month my Japanese teacher Yoko somehow roped me into agreeing to teach at one of her monthly cookery classes. Each month they cover a different nationality and she decided it was time for a British one. Cue lots of panic, sweat and gooogling "traditional British food" and before you think "fish and chips" don't, I'm not going to be blamed for reinforcing that stereotype!

I was lucky enough to be going home for Christmas so just thought I'd get a ton of practice in for my actual lesson scheduled for 24th Jan. I'd originally decided to make beef and ale pie, a proper British dish but after a failed attempt at home (the meat was so dry it was like chewing cardboard..) I decided on a more festive option; mince pies, brandy butter and mulled wine. OK not exactly great for January but it'd do.

So the day before I hopped on a flight back, my sis in law Hels, nieces and me squeezed in some last minute practice making mince pies for the first time using this really handy pre-rolled frozen pastry. They turned out really well although mine looked ready for the pig trough and Hels' looked liked Delias ; )

Anyway, back in Japan and I'm brimming with confidence. The day before my cookery lesson I set out with a shopping list as long as my arm. I found a lot ingredients with no hiccups but where are the cake tins? I went to every cookery department in Kanazawa slowly realising that the Japanese just don't use them! Ahh of course not because they don't bake. Why? Because they don't have ovens!

So my friend Ayako, bless her, ran around another part of town looking for anything that looked remotely like a cake tin taking pics of on her phone and sending them to me for checking. In the meantime, I was sending her pics on my phone of foods like sugar bags and flour for her to read the Kanji for me and check that I wasn't buying salt when I needed sugar. You see, things are twice the challenge sometimes in Japan!

I also discovered on my `rapidly turning stressful` shopping trip that the Japanese don't sell icing sugar, that raisins are considered a semi luxury item in Japan (a small fancy looking bag will cost ¥780, about £5) and the worst news of all, they don't sell that really handy pre-rolled frozen shortcrust pastry, agggggh.

Sunday came. I was soo worried. Having lugged a dead body weight of a rucksack full of ingredients to the cookery school, I hurriedly prepped everything up and it was time to start. About 15 people showed up, all women apart from Nori my helper at school, thank god it wasn't 40 like she had at Christmas.

Some of the cookery school gals

The lesson kicked off with Yoko telling everyone what we were about to make and I gave out my wonderfully prepared handouts with some history of eating mince pies & drinking mulled wine. Good start. Next though was pastry making. I can hand on heart say reveal that this was the first time I'd ever made pastry. I somehow managed to convince them I knew what I was doing as each group would ask me to check the consistency of their pastry was right and I authoritatively would tell them they needed more flour/water etc. Hahahahaha

Once the pastry was all in the fridge they were all asking what next at which point I'd check my step by step recipe guides hidden away on a side table.

Rock n Roll-preparing to roll my rock hard pastry... (note look of horror on ladies face)

I thought the worst was over but oh how I was so wrong! When the pastry was ready for rolling, Yoko thought it'd be best for everyone to watch a pastry rolling and cutting demonstration from me first. So in front of 15 keen and eager cooks huddled round a cooking station, I picked up the pastry (which was now rock hard, eeek?!) and tried to pretend I knew what I was doing. Well the minute I rolled it out it fell apart. It almost blew my cover but then behaved itself enough for me to cut out 2 round shapes for the top and bottom of the mince pie. Typical my luck, the pastry cutters were too small. What a pavala.

My class then went back to their stations and it was like police academy meets cookery school. Flour was everywhere, gooey dough sticking to the hands and then on the opposite scale dough that was falling apart at a touch. Somehow everyone managed to line their tins with pastry (although some poor buggers had to use muffin tins)

In comparison to the pastry, making the mincemeat was a dream. I think the Japanese ladies were a bit shocked at how much booze I poured into the mincemeat mixture, although I did note a few gleeful looks amongst them too.

I had used suet bought from the UK for the mincemeat (I'd at least had some sense that the Japanese wouldn't sell suet) but I hadn't anticipated them asking me on the spot what they could use as an alternative! Errrrrr....maybe cornflour I said?

The mincemeat worked out perfectly and I had a lot of "iee yo ne's" (smells good) and caught a few of them dishing out spoonfuls of the stuff to taste.

Next was the mulled wine, nothing too stressy here. They did find sticking the cloves into the orange halves quite fascinating and akin to poking a voodoo doll. I also made a non-alcoholic mulled wine with grape juice which didn't taste too bad (In Japan you can't even drink a sniff and drive)

I honestly didn't realise how tricky it is to line pastry tins. I cleverly decided against doing my own "show pies" during the lesson knowing they'd turn out like a dogs dinner. Awwww that wonderful fresh baing smell filling the kitchen and the mince pies were finally ready.

What do you think? OK they don't really look like mince pies but I didn't think we did too badly for a first attempt. Three and half hours later we were ready to sit and eat our freshly made pies and drink mulled wine.

Such a fab day full of laughs. I think everyone enjoyed themselves by the looks on their faces!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

An evening with geisha (yes real geisha!) in Kanazawa

I'm so excited to be writing about this post but it's hard to put my overloaded cultural geisha experience into one coherent write up but I'll give it a go. (Geisha by the way are traditional Japanese female entertainers famously known for their white painted faces, elaborate kimonos and hairstyles)

On Friday night my friends Ayako, Maylee and myself went along to an "ozashiki asobi" evening in our very own city of Kanazawa. "Ozashiki-Asobi" literally means Japanese traditional entertainment with Geisha in a tatami mat room.

As soon as I hear about the evening facilitated by the fantastic team at the Kanazawa Ryokan & Hotel Cooperative Association (they also coordinated my Zazen meditation day) I jumped at the chance. Sometimes it is sooo difficult to find out about cultural activities and events in Kanazawa and these folk make these types of things accessible to foreigners living in Kanazawa (like myself) as well as tourists.

So after work I met the girls at the Matsumoto Ryokan (Ryokan is a Japanese style hotel/B&B), a deceptively big place, and were greeted by a super friendly guy from the Kanazawa Ryokan Association who ushered us up 3 flights of stairs (hard to master in slippy indoor slippers) and to a bustling tatami mat room housing guests around those low Japanese dinner tables (called chabudai)

I have to admit I was expecting a room full of businessmen and although the majority of guests were in fact men there was a few women in there including another table of gaijins (foreigners) so we thankfully didn't stand out too much.

True to the Japanese' "on time" reputation the evening started bang on 6.30pm with the "house master" introducing us to our hostesses for the evening, 2 white faced younger geishas and 3 older non painted faced geisha. It took me straight back to a very hot day in Kyoto when mum and I spotted two maikos (training geisha) scurrying down the street with me on their tail trying to look at them. It was the same starstruck type awe I had then that I had at the moment these geishas walked in the room. WOW!

Trying my best to look comfortable sat next to a geisha

After a brief introduction, the geishas split up and each came to our tables. I was in such shock I couldn't stop staring at them for the first few minutes in disbelief that I was in such proximity to a real geisha. Whilst busy trying to get a grip of myself the geisha had come over to sit next to us, aggh asking Ayako where we were from etc. At first I sat there in petrified silence but then was totally put at ease when I realised she was so genki, down to earth and friendly that I joined in after a while. I guess I had a preconceived idea (and I'm not the only one) that geishas would be so quiet and submissive but this must be a complete Western misconception.

Geishas moving from table to table pouring drinks

The geishas moved from table to table pouring us beer and confidently chatting away. I tried so hard not to be the stereotypical tourist pointing a camera lens in their faces at every opportunity but they surprisingly welcomed photos. We were really intrigued to ask questions about their lives as geisha so had Ayako ask a few questions on our behalf.

Are there real geishas in Kanazawa? We'd all been to the old chaya districts in Kanazawa and the geisha house/museum but we were never really sure whether geishas still practiced in Kanazawa. Well the answer is yes! These geishas worked for a small geisha chaya operation in Nishi Chaya district. I even got given their business cards. They are generally hired to attend hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally at tea houses (茶屋) or at traditional Japanese restaurants.

She also pointed out that in this area (as well as the whole west coast of Japan) they are better known as "geikos"(芸子) . I've just discovered that "geiko" is the Kyoto dialect of the word geisha and "geisha" is the Tokyo dialect of the word. I'll refer to them as geikos in this post from now on.

We also wondered why two of them had their faces painted white and the other ladies' aren't?We immediately presumed this had something to do with their ages and level of training, perhaps the younger trainees (maikos) are the ones have to have painted faces. I think this is true for the Kyoto based geikos where maikos have to wear the heavy make up constantly but we were told that here it was just because the younger girls were dancing and the make up is seen as part of the dancing attire.

After a lot of chatting we tucked into our beautifully prepared starter (the best I have seen in Japan to date) which consisted of petite kamaboko pieces (like a steamed fishcake) and other fish pieces.

Next came these huge steaming pots of Nabemono (see my other post on Nabe dishes), full of meat balls, fish and veggies. What a wonderful winter warmer and no doubt the best I've tasted to date.

After dinner it was time for the performances.

First one of the older geikos played a beautiful high pitched tune with a tiny wooden flute which apprently takes years of training to master. Then the two white faced geikos danced whilst the other two ladies played the shamisen (a banjo type Japanese instrument) and sang.

We sat there in a silent awe. There was something so mesmorising about their performance as they flipping their fans in perfect unison and moved gracefully to the music, as though they were practicing tai chi. Each dance apparently tells a story and each dance move dictates it exactly.

One of the geikos then performed on two small taiko drums. I'll let the video performance and photos speak for themselves.

After it was our turn! The geikos wanted volunteers and of course I was straight up there. It was so much fun (although I was crap) especially when they all tried to sing along to my missed beats, see the video.

Next they introduced the rock, paper, scissors (Janken in Japanese) game and boy I thanked my lucky stars that I'd already had my stage debut and didn't have to go up again. Basically you played janken in time to the beat. If you lost you had to turn around and if you won you had to beat the drum. If you won 3 times in a row you're the winner and move onto the next geiko. Sounds easy? Errrrr no! Everyone struggled to get it.

I volunteered my friend Ayako (much to her dismay) and she played like a pro beating all the geikos until it was the final showdown with the head geiko and yep you've got it, she won!

It was so funny to watch especially when she had all the geikos on their knees bowing at her with respect. See the video above.

Now for the last bit of fun for the evening. We were each given a paper bowl (o-chawan) and a plate (sara) each leaving us a bit puzzled as to what this was all leading to. The master then started singing "O-chawan sara" to the tune of "Oh when the saints go marching in". "O-chawan" sounding like "Oh when" (sort of...) and "sara" sounding like "saints" (not really...) Very funny and he had us all up from our seats beating our plates and bowls in time to the words.

Alas our night was drawing to an close. One night in a lifetime evening with our geikos. I didn't want it to end. We had some pictures taken (yes again!), see below.

Our new best friend, the master of the house, then booked us a taxi and waited outside with us like a true gentleman.

An evening with geikos in Kanazawa can be organised through Kanazawa Ryokan & Hotel Cooperative Association The cost is ¥10,000 (about ₤65) which includes dinner and a drink. Definitely worth every penny and a must do if you're in Kanazawa.

Signing off!

A Japanese sniffle, sniffle, snort, snort

Anyone who has spent any time in Japan over the winter months will hopefully sympathise with me here. The Japanese don't blow their bloody noses in public! Now I can't speak for the entire Japanese nation here but from what I've seen in Kanazawa it just doesn't seem to happen.

Go on mate, give it a good ol blow!

This morning (and bear it in mind that this is peak time for sniffly colds) I had to move seats twice in one 20 min journey to avoid having to listen to interminable sniffles and snorting. To be more precise the first guy actually snorted like a pig consistently every 2 mins or so. Surely one short blow of the nose would sort this out and put me out of my misery? Even more frustrating is that he just didn't seem to realise how annoying he was being. They never do!

The second offender I tried to film (see above), you can just about hear it at the end but it still doesn't paint the true picture of sheer annoyance!

It doesn't just seem to be men in Japan. One of my 3rd grade teachers is a lovely lady but also has a habit of snorting like a pig which still, after 10 months living here, leaves me shocked and looking around the room to see if anyone else recoils with disgust (and yep no-one does)

So why don't the Japanese blow their noses in public? Well apparently its considered slightly bad manners so the majority of people would prefer to continue sniffing than to cause offense by blowing their nose. Surely there's a cultural middle ground though where if your cold is that bad, a polite turn of the back and quick but quiet blow would suffice?

Who knows but for me, I'm going to invest in a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones for the winter period, a wise investment for anyone with a daily commute on public transport in Japan!

Handkerchief for nose blowing or a hand drier?

Whilst we're on the subject of nose blowing. I may have properly disgusted my Japanese colleagues the other day when I pulled out my hanky as normal to blow my nose. Handkerchiefs, as I was so politely told, are not used for blowing the nose in Japan. They're used for drying hands (public toilets sometimes don't have hand driers) and to pat the excessive sweat off the face and neck during the very humid summers.

Pilsen: Lashings of German beer but not a lederhosen in sight

When the rest of the Japanese nation are probably hibernating under their Kotatsus, Kari I hit a little German restaurant in Kanazawa called Pilsen. We tried to get into before Christmas but it was packed. Always a good sign...

Kanazawa, despite being really out in sticks (not on the Shinkansen line), has such a great choice of International restaurants. It's great too if you can't bear to look at one more piece of sushi or bowl of noodles (believe me it does happen and I'm a sushi fanatic...)

This little German joint looks a bit like a beer hall (just minus red faced, pot bellied beer swilling guys) downstairs where you can eat at the bar. Upstairs is a restaurant. I can hand on heart say its probably the only place in Kanazawa where you can buy a huge pitcher of beer and sink your teeth into a proper sausage!

Pilsen has a huge choice of yummy sausages including white sausage, garlic and pepper sausage, peppery hot sausage, hard sausage. If you're really feeling piggy (excuse the pun) you can opt for the 5 kinds of sausage platter. For the non-sausage fans they also serve chicken, pork and beef stews as well as pizzas and taste-tastic salads.

Kari and I ordered the garlic sausage, a pizza and a salad (the salads are surprisingly big for Japanese standards) Two sausages arrived on a plate with a dollop of sauerkraut and a pot of mustard, small but neatly presented as I'm beginning to become accustomed to in Japan (sorry forgot to take pics). They were delicious though and despite the pizza being the size of my palm it was also really good. As my nan would say "an elegancy of efficiency"

English menus available at this restaurant (cue hooray!)

Food ranges from ¥600 to ¥1680 for the 5 sausage platter.

Map below, enjoy!

View Untitled in a larger map

Snow, snow glorious snow and those clever little sprinklers

Wow, sashi buri ne? (long time, no see!) I arrived back last Sunday and within a few days so did the snow.

Car near my house in Kanazawa, poor owner!

Having just come back from a snow laden UK which caused thousands of schools to shut, brought public transport to a standstill and a tirade of weather forecasters' "only travel in exceptional circumstances" warnings I was wondering how the Japanese handle snowy conditions?

My walk home in the snow, Kanazawa

Well they handle the snow doing only what the Japanese know best- calm, ease and technological sophistication! OK so we're at a slight disadvantage as we're just not used to it in the UK but they do truly put us to shame. The Sea of Japan side of Honshu where I live sees a LOT of snow. I can now totally understand why they spend weeks prepping up their precious trees and branches last month (see my yukitsuri post).

My little bus stop near Oyabe that I couldn't get to on Monday!

When I say it's been snowing I mean a proper DUMPING of snow to the point that I actually started to feel claustrophobic sitting in the school staff room because it had piled so high up against the windows and didn't seem intent on stopping. (at time of writing its stopped....but we're due another spurt tomorrow)

My huge Canadian 4 x 4's (snow boots) have even bent under the pressure and I've resorted to buying wellies, the only fail safe option when the snow is over the knees . No gritters in sight here.

Japanese "snow clearing" sprinkler systems

The Japanese have developed a very sophisticated snow clearing system for the roads here. As soon as it starts snowing these mini water sprinklers which are set in the middle of the road start spraying the road with warm ground water. Despite getting over a metre of snow these little things just about manage to clear the roads although leaving an unbelievable amount of slush. Wellies, you see now, are a must!

Railway tracks covered in snow but my train was STILL on time!

I've only been delayed twice since the snow arrived (once by 4 minutes) despite treacherous conditions, no-one has missed a minute of school and life continues as normal.

The downside is that the frequency of snow in Japan makes it less of a novelty and more of a nuisance so whilst the entire adult population back in the UK regressed to being kids again sledging, chucking snowballs and building snowmen the Japanese set out on little ant type missions equipped with snow shovels to clear the snow (sometimes as early as 2.45am, I can personally vouch for that....) and the kids get roped in to dig out the snow too, poor little devils!

NB Despite me thinking the Japanese handle the snow better than we English do, according to my friend from Canada (where it also snows heaps) they're half as efficient as the Canadians.
Well let me know what you think!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Need a doctor Kanazawa?

Hi folks,

Thought I'd drop a boring but hopefully useful note to say if anyone is desperate for a doctor in Kanazawa then I can recommend the one at Kanazawa station called "Kanazawa Medical Station". If you go to Caffe Arco inside the station and take the escalators to the 4th floor you'll find it right in front of you.

You don't have to book an appointment so just show up and wait (if its your first time you'll need to register but they will all help you complete the form) Unlike in the UK where we'd be assigned one family doctor for all problems in Japan they go to different doctors according to the nature of the problem. This medical surgery is a rareity though as it deals with different issues under one roof. Oh and its sooo nice, like a 1st class departure lounge full of plasma, thick piled carpets and glamorous looking nurses donning matching dresses! Such a far cry from nothing like the heroin junkie one in Bedders, Brizzle.


According to my patient card (given when joining) this surgery can deal with the following issues;
  • Internal problems
  • Surgery
  • Checking bones
  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Skin problems
  • Womens problems
  • Health checks - ears, nose, throat.
Yesterday I was in and out within half an hour with no appointment (have sinusitus). The doctor speaks English (and if they don't the young female assistants always seem to) The best way to describe your ailment is to write your problem into google and print out the kanji description. If you're not sure what is wrong you can just translate your symptoms into google and take along with you. Its a start!

Make sure you have medical insurance as my recent visit to get antibiotics cost me just short of ¥5000 (about £35) inclusive of the visit and the drugs.

Signing off....