Grilled as you like it

Uji Afternoon March 6, 2010

Filed under: Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 6:39 pm
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The next stop on our trip was to Uji. We went to watch a traditional cormorant fishing demonstration. The fisherwomen wear this same type of costume: a black cap and grass skirt. I couldn’t resist getting a shot of this adorable guy by the ticket sales booth though.

First we visited Byodoin, the temple on the 10 yen coin. It’s beautiful. The old fading paint seems proper and historical, but surely it won’t last long–it stands in sharp contrast to the fresh bright orange paint on the bridge.

Uji is a famous tea growing area, so many of the shops along the traditional streets near the temple invite customers with matcha soft-serve ice cream and matcha parfaits.

We walked along the river in the afternoon, and as evening descended we boarded one of these boats. After a brief explanation (in Japanese) about the history of cormorant fishing, the demonstration began. The birds have a ring around their necks, so they can swallow only the smallest fish, while the rest are for the fisherwoman. Of course the birds get to eat plenty of fish after the show’s over.

To begin, the logs in the basket are lit aflame. The fish are drawn to the surface, thinking the light is from the moon. The fisherwoman sings out in an unearthly voice. The boatman raps on the side of the boat with his oar. The chanting and wooden thuds weave an eerie tune. The fisherwoman feeds slack line to the birds as they chase after the fish, flipping over and diving under the water, and just as suddenly bobbing back to the surface. She sees a bird lift its head, trying to swallow the fish. She skillfully tugs him to the boat and scoops him out of the water while letting the rest of the fish continue their hunt. She coaxes the fish out of his mouth, and it falls to the boats floor. Then she tosses the bird back to the water where he rushes back to hunt again.

Finally, the birds are fed, the boats are empty, and the water is still, except for lone fishermen working their rods from the shore. A peaceful night in Uji, and now we’re hoping to be fed too.

See more from Uji and Kyoto at Alex’s photoblog


Tea Ceremony August 28, 2008

tea ceremony implements: bamboo whisk, bamboo scoop, and enameled tea canister with seasonal gold leaf motif

At our recent orientation for new JETs my landlady was kind enough to host a tea ceremony demonstration for us. She was assisted by her daughter and a friend. The tea ceremony is not just about drinking tea, but also for enjoying the atmosphere of your surroundings and the companionship with the other guests. She told us, “one reason that I enjoy the tea ceremony is that even though you speak English and I speak Japanese, we can enjoy communication without words: appreciating the season, enjoying the atmosphere, and listening to the peaceful sound of the water kettle.”

In a more formal tea ceremony, we would be served both a thick matcha tea (koicha) and a thin matcha tea (usucha), but in this introductory demonstration we had just the thin tea.

wagashi: Japanese sweets for tea ceremony | matcha | usagi hana wagashi

Everyone took their seats and we began with a sweet. The sweetness helps to mellow the bitter flavor of the tea. The sweets chosen also reflect the season. One type looked like colorful cubes of ice. This image was intended to help us feel refreshed from the hot and muggy weather. The other was a small, pressed sugar flower called usagi hana, or rabbit flower. August is the moon viewing season, and the Japanese see a rabbit in the moon (where Americans might say that there is a man in the moon), so the usagi hana reflects the season. The motifs on the tea bowls and tea canister are also seasonal, and there is a seasonal haiku inscribed on the tea scoop.

presenting the tea | mixing the tea

Next, we each enjoyed a bowl of tea. First, after accepting the tea, we would say to the person on our left, “excuse me for drinking before you.” Then we would thank our host for the tea. Before drinking, you lift the bowl with your right hand and rest it on your left hand. Then rotate it 180 degrees and drink the tea. When finished, rotate the bowl back and place it back on the tatami in front of you.

After we enjoyed the tea, some of the new ALTs also got a chance to ask questions and to mix their own tea with the bamboo whisk.

water kettle and bamboo ladle

copyright 2008 LMS


Matcha Cookies July 16, 2008

Since the new school year began in April, I have been joining my school’s cooking club after school on Wednesday afternoons. Their favorite dishes to cook are sweets and spaghetti. In preparation for School Festival they were baking cookies almost every week. I am looking forward to trying some new recipes with the club soon. However, summer vacation starts next week, so cooking club will probably be on break until late August.

One cookie recipe that we tried that I really liked was “Matcha Balls.” The cookies remind me of Mexican wedding cookies, but less sweet, and with matcha and almonds instead of cinnamon and pecans. They have a lovely pale green color, which contrasts nicely with a dusting of powdered sugar. The recipe is really small so that you can fit the whole batch in a tiny Japanese oven, which is just slightly larger than a toaster oven, but with two shelves instead of just one. Following the original recipe, the cookies weren’t very sweet, so I increased the amount of sugar from 20 grams to 30 grams (that’s just shy of a quarter cup). If you have an American-sized oven, you could probably comfortably double or even triple this recipe. One note, make sure to bake the cookies for the full 20 minutes. Although they shouldn’t brown at all, they should be dry all the way through. If they are undercooked the texture will be a bit pasty in the center.

The recipe calls for hakurikiko, or weak flour that is available in Japan. This is probably similar to cake flour in the US. The cooking club actually uses all-purpose flour and the cookies are fine that way too. The cooking club also tried a version that omits the almond dice, and those are delicious as well.

Matcha Cookies
makes about 20 small cookies
Adapted from いつでもクッキー、どこでもクッキー

60 grams butter, softened at room temperature
30 grams powdered sugar, sifted
1/2 teaspoon matcha
90 grams hakurikiko (low-protein flour, weak flour), sifted
30 grams almond dice (or chopped almonds)
additional powdered sugar for sprinkling

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 160° C (320° F).

In a bowl, mix butter and sugar with a whisk. Use a small strainer to sift the matcha into the mixture. Mix until the matcha is evenly distributed.

Stir in the almond dice. Then stir in the flour. Use a rubber spatula to gather the dough together.

Roll the dough into 2 centimeter balls. Place the balls on the baking sheet about 1 to 2 centimeters apart.

Bake for 20 minutes. Remove cookies from the oven and cool.

When cooled, sprinkle with powdered sugar.