Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Land of the Rising Rice Cake, and Beantown

I miss Japan. I'm all natsukashii (nostalgic) for the good ol' times in Kyoto. I spent all morning parallel processing -- working on a spreadsheet and also wracking my brain to see which part of my year abroad rocked the most. So many things instantly come to mind: the mouth-wateringly delicious yet simple food (takoyaki, onigiri, donburi); the social acceptance of youthful raging alcoholism; the hyaku-en (dollar) store where I bought the cute tupperware that still gets compliments to this day; the all-night karaoke joints; the free packets of tissue passed out in street corners; the giant manga stores... AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH SO WONDERFUL

It could be any and all of these things, but I think it's the intertwining of nature and food that featured so prominently during my stay there. Lemme 'splain.

We once trekked up a mountain during fall to visit three temples. I remember a certain someone having to be bribed with chocolate to make that first daunting ascent up a sixty-degree slope, I kid you not, we needed ladders for this hike. The sporty boys were bounding along like mountain goats, while Smoker Me (alas! I used to smoke ze cigarette, je suis désolée) wheezed my way up the "trail." Then we got to the top and the damn temples were waaaaay up a whole bunch of stairs, dagnabit! Fortunately, you could clearly see the temple gift shop from the bottom, so we raced up the steps to get our boxes of traditional fall chestnut buns.

Yours for only ¥3,300!

And then there was the time my host mommy took me to a bamboo forest near our home in the Ukyo-ku area. 'twas fabulous and breathtaking, and at no time did I feel like chopping down bamboo with my samurai sword, not that I had one at the time, how ironic. I ate freshly-pounded mochi afterwards, mochi being an all-season food choice (I'm guessing). Host mom also took me to tsukimi, or moon viewing, and we sat on a boat out on a lake and stared at the moon and ate moon dumplings.

Tsukimi dango: for your moon-viewing pleasure.

There was plenty of home cooked goodness, too, especially when winter came. As temporary adoptive foreign daughter, my job was to make the miso soup every night. After school, I would dutifully take miso paste and dissolve it in boiling water via chopstick. One night, I was told I didn't have to do that, and then they busted out this beauty:

Have you ever seen anything so glorious?

Nabe is a big ol' hot pot with tofu, chicken/beef/seafood, and fresh vegetables in a gently simmering soup stock. Ironically, the best nabe I've ever had was here in the US, but it was made by a Japanese government worker so it totally counts. And we drank sake with gold flakes! Such decadence!

Anyway, back in the land of the rising rice cake, come spring my host mom whisked me to see all the cherry blossoms and OMG THEY ARE SO BEAUTIFUL. Previously, I had been like, "Oh, I've seen this in Washington D.C., I'm sure it's the same in Japan." Readers, I was so very, very wrong. The beauty of the sakura enraptured me. There are a bunch of spots in the neighborhoods of Ukyo-ku with canals and narrow streets and all you see is a tunnel of sakura, their delicate leaves spiraling gently to the ground, quick, get me a calligraphy brush, I am about to compose a poem about beauty and transcendence.

It's traditional to eat sakuramochi during spring time, so we did that too, with a dash of tea ceremony included. I did not know tea could be foamy, but there you have it. It was, of course, delicious.

Basically, it boils down to this: the Japanese make it a point appreciate the turning of the seasons with season-specific foods. They prepare dishes that take advantage of whatever is plentiful that time of year. Brilliant!

Boston has a similar tradition, except with beer: Samuel Adams brews Summer Ale, OctoberFest, Winter Lager, and Noble Pils. Incidentally, did you know Boston is the sister city of Kyoto? I found out while having this convo with two instructors at the start of grad school:

Fragrant Elephant: 京都の同志社大学で日本語を勉強しました。(I studied Japanese at Doshisha University in Kyoto.)
Instructor: おお!京都はボストンの姉妹ですよね。(Oh! Kyoto is Boston's [unknown word], isn't it.)
Fragrant Elephant: (rictus smile) そーそうですね。(Y-yes, it is, isn't it.)
Then I completely spaced out of the conversation in a futile attempt to figure out what "shimai" means. But do not fear! I still placed into the Can Ask For Directions level of Japanese, which is a step up from Possibly Not A Total Moron, which in turn is an upgrade from I Declare War On Your Accent, hurray.

And so it is my pleasure and privilege to have lived/live in Kyoto and Boston, two cities that know what the hell they're doing when it comes to gastronomic delights. If they are indeed sisters, Kyoto would be the prettier older sister, demure and proper and slightly mysterious, and Boston is the younger sister who alternates between grouchy and overly friendly, but always, always welcomes another drink.