Apr 042016


On this date every year the Ose Matsuri (Fishermen’s Festival) takes place at Uchiura fishing port, Numazu City, in Shizuoka Prefecture Japan. Fishing boats come from a wide area around Numazu City to take part in the festival. The boats are festooned with flags, streamers and other decorations. But what makes the event unique is that all the rough and tough fishermen dress in women’s clothes and dance aboard the boats. The event is said to ensure good catches and safe trips at sea for the coming year. It is not certain when the festival began or why, but local folklore has it that it originated when the wife of a fisherman gave her husband a kimono to ensure he was safe on his voyage. Take that for what it is worth.


Festivals of gender inversion are quite common worldwide and have been studied extensively by anthropologists. Naturally there is often an element of humor, as at the Ose Matsuri – tough men acting in effeminate ways. But inversion of roles and categories can also be very powerful culturally.  They highlight traditional roles, and may involve men appropriating the power that conventionally belongs to women.


I have not been to this festival but I have attended other fishermen’s festivals in Japan. They are raucous affairs that are very well attended and enjoyed by the public. There is always music, drumming ,and dancing. There is also a wealth of festival food.

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Food on a stick is very common because it’s easy to eat as you walk around. There’s the usual grilled offerings, but you can also get pickles or fruit on skewers. There’s also fish-shaped pastries made in molds that are closed around a dough and grilled.


Mar 282016


The renowned Japanese tea ceremony master, Sen no Rikyū (千利休, 1522 – 1591), also known simply as Rikyū, is celebrated by tea schools on several different days, including today. Rikyū is considered the historical figure with the most profound influence on chanoyu, the Japanese “Way of Tea”, particularly the tradition of wabi-cha. He was also the first to emphasize several key aspects of the ceremony, including rustic simplicity, directness of approach and honesty of self. Originating from the Sengoku period and the Azuchi–Momoyama period, these aspects of the tea ceremony persist.

There are three iemoto (sōke), or “head houses”, of the Japanese Way of Tea, that are directly descended from Rikyū: the Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushakōjisenke, all three of which are dedicated to passing forward the teachings of their mutual family founder, Rikyū.

Rikyū was born in Sakai, present-day Osaka prefecture. His father was a warehouse owner named Tanaka Yohei (田中与兵衛), who later in life also used the family name Sen, and his mother was Gesshin Myōchin (月岑妙珎). His childhood name was Yoshiro. As a young man, Rikyū studied tea under a townsman (chōnin) of Sakai named Kitamuki Dōchin (1504–62), and at the age of 19, through Dōchin’s introduction, he began to study tea under Takeno Jōō, who is also associated with the development of the wabi aesthetic in tea ceremony. He is believed to have received the Buddhist name Sōeki (宗易) from the Rinzai Zen priest Dairin Sōtō (1480–1568) of Nanshūji temple in Sakai.He married a woman known as Hōshin Myōju around when he was twenty-one. Rikyū also underwent Zen training at Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto. Not much is known about his middle years.


In 1579, at the age of 58, Rikyū became a tea master for Oda Nobunaga and, following Nobunaga’s death in 1582, he was a tea master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi. His relationship with Hideyoshi quickly deepened, and he entered Hideyoshi’s circle of confidants, effectively becoming the most influential figure in the world of chanoyu. In 1585, in order that he could help at a tea gathering that would be given by Hideyoshi for Emperor Ōgimachi and held at the Imperial Palace, the emperor bestowed upon him the Buddhist lay name and title “Rikyū Koji” (利休居士). Another major chanoyu event of Hideyoshi’s that Rikyū played a central role in was the Kitano Ōchanoyu, the grand tea gathering held by Hideyoshi at the Kitano Tenman-gū in 1587.


It was during his later years that Rikyū began to use very tiny, rustic tea rooms referred as sōan (lit., “grass hermitage”), such as the two-tatami mat tea room named Taian, which can be seen today at Myōkian temple in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto, and which is credited to his design. This tea room has been designated as a National Treasure. He also developed many implements for tea ceremony, including flower containers, tea scoops, and lid rests made of bamboo, and also used everyday objects for tea ceremony, often in novel ways.


Classic raku teabowls were developed through his collaboration with a tile-maker named Raku Chōjirō. Rikyū had a preference for simple, rustic items made in Japan, rather than the expensive Chinese-made items that were fashionable at the time. Though not the inventor of the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in the very simple, Rikyū is among those most responsible for popularizing it, developing it, and incorporating it into tea ceremony. He created a new form of tea ceremony using very simple instruments and surroundings. This and his other beliefs and teachings came to be known as sōan-cha (the grass-thatched hermitage style of chanoyu), or more generally, wabi-cha. Typical sayings:

Though you wipe your hands and brush off the dust and dirt from the vessels, what is the use of all this fuss if the heart is still impure?

Though many people drink tea,
if you do not know the Way of Tea,
tea will drink you up.

The Way of Tea is naught but this:
first you boil water,
then you make the tea and drink it.


The general philosophy of chanoyu that his descendants and followers carried on became known as the Senke-ryū (千家流, “school of the house of Sen”).Two of his primary disciples were Nanbō Sōkei (南坊宗啓; dates unknown), a somewhat legendary Zen priest, and Yamanoue Sōji (1544–90), a townsman of Sakai. Nanbō is credited as the original author of the Nanpō roku (南方録), a record of Rikyū’s teachings. Yamanoue’s chronicle, the Yamanoue Sōji ki (山上宗二記), gives commentary about Rikyū’s teachings and the state of chanoyu at the time of its writing.

Rikyū had a number of children, including a son known in history as Sen Dōan, and daughter known as Okame. This daughter became the wife of Rikyū’s second wife’s son by a previous marriage, known in history as Sen Shōan. Due to many complex circumstances, Sen Shōan, rather than Rikyū’s legitimate heir, Dōan, became the person counted as the 2nd generation in the Sen-family’s tradition of chanoyu (“san-Senke” school).

Although Rikyū had been one of Hideyoshi’s closest confidants, because of crucial differences of opinion and other reasons which remain uncertain, Hideyoshi ordered him to commit ritual suicide. While Hideyoshi’s reason may never be known for certain, it is known that Rikyū committed seppuku at his residence within Hideyoshi’s Jurakudai villa in Kyoto in 1591 on the 28th day of the 2nd month (of the traditional Japanese lunar calendar; or April 21 when calculated according to the modern Gregorian calendar), at the age of seventy.


According to Okakura Kakuzo in The Book of Tea, Rikyū’s last act was to hold an exquisite tea ceremony. After serving all his guests, he presented each piece of the tea equipment for their inspection, along with an exquisite kakemono, which Okakura described as “a wonderful writing by an ancient monk dealing with the evanescence of all things.” Rikyū presented each of his guests with a piece of the equipment as a souvenir, with the exception of the bowl, which he shattered, uttering “Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by a man.” As the guests departed, one remained to serve as witness to Rikyū’s death. Rikyū’s last words, which he wrote down as a death poem, were in verse, addressed to the dagger with which he took his own life:

Welcome to thee,
O sword of eternity!
Through Buddha
And through Daruma alike
Thou hast cleft thy way.

When Hideyoshi was building his lavish residence at Fushimi the following year, he remarked that he wished its construction and decoration to be pleasing to Rikyū. He was known for his temper, and is said to have expressed regret at his treatment of Rikyū.

Rikyū’s grave is located at Jukōin temple in the Daitoku-ji compound in Kyoto; his posthumous Buddhist name is Fushin’an Rikyū Sōeki Koji.

Memorials for Rikyū are observed annually by many schools of Japanese tea ceremony. The Omotesenke school’s annual memorial takes place at the family’s headquarters each year on March 27, and the Urasenke school’s takes place at its own family’s headquarters each year on March 28. The three Sen families (Omotesenke, Urasenke, Mushakōjisenke) take turns holding a memorial service on the 28th of every month, at their mutual family temple, the subsidiary temple Jukōin at Daitoku-ji temple.

To celebrate Rikyū you could go several ways.  One would be to use matcha in a recipe. It’s become a very trendy item in the West because it has antioxidant properties. This site’s not bad:



Another tack would be to make a traditional tea ceremony dish. The tea ceremony can be just about serving tea, or it can involve an elaborate (yet simple) meal. The essence of the meal is that it must delight the eye and palate.

sen6 sen5

Each guest is served a meal, called chakaiseki, served on a tray with fresh cedar chopsticks. The meal consists of three courses (or items). The dishes are served with cooked white rice in a ceramic bowl and miso soup which is served in covered lacquer bowls with raw fish, plain or pickled, or pickled vegetables in a ceramic dish.

The first course/dish is called hashiarai (rinsing the chopsticks): nimono (foods simmered in broth) in separate covered lacquer dishes and yakimono (grilled foods) are served in individual portions on ceramic plates. The palate is then cleared with kosuimono, a simple clear broth served in covered lacquer bowls.

The next course derives its name from the Shinto reverence of nature. It is called hassun which is also the name for the simple wooden tray that is used to serve this course. This course consists of uminomono and yamanomono (seafood and mountain food respectively) which signify the abundance of the sea and land. The position of server is considered a higher position and, to insure equality of all in the tea room, each acts as host if only momentarily.

Konomono (fragrant things) are served in small ceramic bowls, and browned rice is served in salted water in a lacquer pitcher, representing the last of the rice. Each guest cleans the utensils they have used with soft paper which they bring. An omogashi (principal sweet) is served to conclude the meal. The host then invites his guests to retire to the garden or waiting room while he prepares for tea.

I have given some basic Japanese recipes on this site in the past – miso soup, tofu, noodles, etc. If you search for “dashi” you will easily find them. As with Chinese cooking, it’s very difficult to replicate authentic Japanese cooking at home.  Even the Japanese do not do it (except for some simple home-cooked items).  Restaurant chefs have developed particular skills over decades, and there is no way to rival them. If you’re curious, go to Japan.

Apr 102015


Today is the birthday (1794) of Matthew Calbraith Perry), a commodore of the United States Navy and commander of a number of ships. He served in several wars, most notably in the Mexican–American War and the War of 1812. He played a leading role in the opening of Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854.

Matthew Perry was the son of Sarah Wallace (Alexander) and Navy Captain Christopher R. Perry, and the younger brother of Oliver Hazard Perry. Perry received a midshipman’s commission in the U.S.Navy in 1809, and was initially assigned to the USS Revenge, under the command of his elder brother. Under his brother’s command, Matthew was a combatant in The Battle of Lake Erie aboard the flagship Lawrence and the replacement flagship, the brig Niagara.

Perry’s early career saw him assigned to several ships, including the USS President (where he served as an aid to Commodore John Rodgers (1772–1838)) which had been in a victorious engagement over a British vessel, HMS Little Belt, shortly before the War of 1812 was officially declared. He continued in this capacity during the War of 1812. Perry was also aboard the President when it engaged HMS Belvidera when Rodgers himself fired the first shot of the war at this vessel with a following shot that resulted in a cannon bursting, wounding Rodgers and Perry and killing and wounding others. Perry transferred to the USS United States, and saw little fighting in the war after that, since the ship was trapped in port at New London, Connecticut. Following the signing of the Treaty of Ghent which ended the conflict, he served on various vessels in the Mediterranean. Perry served under Commodore William Bainbridge during the Second Barbary War. He then served in African waters aboard USS Cyane during its patrol off Liberia from 1819–1820. After that cruise, Perry was sent to suppress piracy and the slave trade in the West Indies. Later during this period, while in port in Russia, Perry was offered a commission in the Imperial Russian Navy, which he declined.


Perry commanded the USS Shark, a schooner with 12 guns, in 1821–1825. In 1763, when Britain possessed Florida, the Spanish contended that the Florida Keys were part of Cuba and North Havana. Certain elements within the United States felt that Key West (which was then named Cayo Hueso, meaning “Bone Key”) could potentially be the “Gibraltar of the West” because it guarded the northern edge of the 90 mile (145 km) wide Straits of Florida—the deep water route between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1815 the Spanish governor in Havana deeded the island of Key West to Juan Pablo Salas of Saint Augustine. After Florida was transferred to the United States, Salas sold Key West to U.S. businessman John W. Simonton for $2,000 in 1821. Simonton lobbied the U.S. Government to establish a naval base on Key West, both to take advantage of its strategic location and to bring law and order to the area. On March 25, 1822, Perry sailed the Shark to Key West and planted the U.S. flag, physically claiming the Keys as United States property. Perry renamed Cayo Hueso “Thompson’s Island” for the Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson and the harbor “Port Rodgers” for the president of the Board of Navy Commissioners. Neither name stuck.

From 1826 to 1827 Perry acted as fleet captain for Commodore Rodgers. Perry returned to Charleston, South Carolina for shore duty in 1828, and in 1830 took command of a sloop-of-war, the USS Concord. He spent the years 1833–1837 as second officer of the New York Navy Yard (later the Brooklyn Navy Yard), gaining promotion to captain at the end of this tour.

Perry had an ardent interest and saw the need for the naval education, supporting an apprentice system to train new seamen, and helped establish the curriculum for the United States Naval Academy. He was a vocal proponent of modernizing the Navy. Once promoted to captain, he oversaw construction of the Navy’s second steam frigate the USS Fulton, which he commanded after its completion. He was called “The Father of the Steam Navy,” and he organized America’s first corps of naval engineers, and conducted the first U.S. naval gunnery school while commanding Fulton in 1839–1841 off Sandy Hook on the coast of New Jersey.

Perry received the title of Commodore in June 1840, when the Secretary of the Navy appointed him commandant of New York Navy Yard. The United States Navy did not have ranks higher than captain until 1862, so the title of commodore carried considerable importance. Officially, an officer would revert to his permanent rank after the squadron command assignment had ended, although in practice officers who received the title of commodore retained the title for life, and Perry was no exception.

During his tenure in Brooklyn, he lived in Quarters A in Vinegar Hill, a building which still stands today. In 1843, Perry took command of the African Squadron, whose duty was to interdict the slave trade under the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, and continued in this endeavor through 1844.

In 1845, Commodore David Conner’s length of service in command of the Home Squadron had come to an end. However, the coming of the Mexican-American War persuaded the authorities not to change commanders in the face of the war. Perry, who would eventually succeed Conner, was made second-in-command and captained the USS Mississippi. Perry captured the Mexican city of Frontera, demonstrated against Tabasco and took part in the capture of Tampico. On November 14, 1846. He had to return to Norfolk, Virginia to make repairs and was still there when the amphibious landings at Veracruz took place. His return to the U.S. gave his superiors the chance to finally give him orders to succeed Commodore Conner in command of the Home Squadron. Perry returned to the fleet during the siege of Veracruz and his ship supported the siege from the sea. After the fall of Veracruz, Winfield Scott moved inland and Perry moved against the remaining Mexican port cities. Perry assembled the Mosquito Fleet and captured Tuxpan in April, 1847. In July 1847 he attacked Tabasco personally, leading a 1,173-man landing force ashore and attacking the city of San Juan Bautista (Villahermosa today) from land.

In advance of his voyage to the Far East, Commodore Perry read widely among available books about Tokugawa-era Japan. His research even included consultation with the increasingly well-known German Japanologist Philipp Franz von Siebold, who had lived in Japan at the Dutch trading post of Dejima for eight years before retiring to Leiden in the Netherlands.

Perry’s expedition to Japan was preceded by several naval expeditions by American ships:

  • From 1797 to 1809, several American ships traded in Nagasaki under the Dutch flag, upon the request of the Dutch, who were not able to send their own ships because of their conflict against Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Japan limited foreign trade to the Dutch and Chinese at that time, under the policy of sakoku (closed country).
  • In 1837, an American businessman in Canton named Charles W. King saw an opportunity to close trade by trying to return to Japan three Japanese sailors (among them, Otokichi) who had been shipwrecked a few years before on the coast of Washington. He went to Uraga Channel, near Edo, with Morrison, an unarmed American merchant ship. The ship was attacked several times, and sailed back without completing its mission.
  • In 1846, Commander James Biddle, sent by the United States Government to open trade, anchored in Edo Bay with two ships, including one warship armed with 72 cannons, but his requests for a trade agreement remained unsuccessful.
  • In 1849, Captain James Glynn sailed to Nagasaki, leading at last to a successful negotiation by an American with “Closed Country” Japan. James Glynn recommended to the United States Congress that negotiations to open Japan be backed up by a demonstration of force, thus paving the way for Perry’s expedition.


In 1852, Perry embarked from Norfolk, Virginia for Japan, in command of the East India Squadron in pursuit of a Japanese trade treaty. Aboard a black-hulled steam frigate, he ported Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna at Uraga Harbor near Edo (early Tokyo) on July 8, 1853. His actions at this crucial juncture were informed by a careful study of Japan’s previous contacts with Western ships and what could be known about the Japanese hierarchical culture. He was met by representatives of the Tokugawa Shogunate who told him to proceed to Nagasaki, the only Japanese port open to foreigners at that time where there was limited trade with the Netherlands.


As he arrived, Perry ordered his ships to steam past Japanese lines towards the capital of Edo, and turn their guns towards the town of Uraga. Perry refused Japanese demands to leave. He then demanded permission to present a letter from President Millard Fillmore, and threatened to use force if the Japanese boats around the American squadron did not disperse.


Perry attempted to intimidate the Japanese by presenting them a white flag and a letter which told them that in case they chose to fight, the Americans would destroy them. Perry ordered some buildings in the harbor shelled. Perry’s ships were equipped with new Paixhans shell guns, cannons capable of wreaking great explosive destruction with every shell. In Japan, the term “Black Ships,” used for centuries to refer to foreign trade vessels, would later come to symbolize a threat imposed by Western technology.


After the Japanese agreed to receive the letter from the American President, Perry landed at Kurihama (in modern-day Yokosuka) on July 14, 1853, presented the letter to attending delegates, and left for the Chinese coast, promising to return for a reply. After Perry’s departure, fortifications were built on Tokyo Bay at Odaiba in order to protect Edo from possible future American naval incursion.


Perry returned in February 1854 with twice as many ships, to find that the Japanese had prepared a treaty accepting virtually all the demands in Fillmore’s letter. Perry signed the Convention of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854, and departed, mistakenly believing the agreement had been made with imperial representatives. The agreement was made with the Shogun, the de facto ruler of Japan.

On his way to Japan, Perry anchored off Keelung in Formosa (modern day Taiwan), for ten days. Perry and crew members landed on Formosa and investigated the potential of mining the coal deposits in that area. He emphasized in his reports that Formosa provided a convenient mid-way trade location. Formosa was also very defensible. It could serve as a base for exploration as Cuba had done for the Spanish in the Americas. Occupying Formosa could help the US to counter European monopolization of major trade routes. President Franklin Pierce declined the suggestion, remarking such a remote possession would be an unnecessary drain of resources and that he would be unlikely to receive the consent of Congress.

When Perry returned to the United States in 1855, Congress voted to grant him a reward of $20,000 (US$ 506,000 in 2015) in appreciation of his work in Japan. Perry used part of this money to prepare and publish a report on the expedition in three volumes, titled Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan. He was also promoted to the grade of rear-admiral on the retired list (when his health began to fail) as a reward for his service in the Far East. Perry was known to have suffered severe arthritis that left him in frequent pain, and on occasion precluded him from his duties.

Perry spent his last years preparing for publication his account of the Japan expedition, announcing its completion on December 28, 1857. Two days later he was detached from his last post, an assignment to the Naval Efficiency Board. He died awaiting further orders on March 4, 1858, in New York City, of rheumatism that had spread to the heart, compounded by complications of gout and alcoholism.

Initially interred in a vault on the grounds of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, in New York City, his remains were moved to the Island Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island on March 21, 1866, along with those of his daughter, Anna, who died in 1839. In 1873, an elaborate monument was placed by his widow over his grave in Newport.

perry9 perry8  perry6

After Japan was opened to the West, a style of cooking developed called yōshoku (essentially Western cuisine with a Japanese slant). Common examples are curry and rice, fried meat cutlet, and hayashi rice (a rich beef stew with rice) – all made possible by the prohibition on red meat being lifted under the Meiji restoration following Perry’s visit. I don’t care that much for yōshoku, partly because when I am in Japan I am not interested in fake Western food. But the Japanese love it. They are popular dishes whether cooked at home or found in western style diners. Children, in particular, enjoy it as family/comfort food, and it is often featured in okosama-ranchi or kids’ meals. I have had a few of these dishes and do like omurice at a pinch.


Omurice is said to have originated around the turn of the 20th century at a western style restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district called Renga-tei, inspired by chakin-zushi. The dish typically consists of chikin raisu (chicken rice: rice pan-fried with ketchup and chicken) wrapped in a thin sheet of fried egg. The ingredients flavoring the rice vary. Often, the rice is fried with various meats (but typically chicken) and/or vegetables, and can be flavored with beef stock, ketchup, demi-glace, white sauce or simply salt and pepper. Sometimes, rice is replaced with fried noodles (yakisoba) to make omusoba. A variant in Okinawa is omutako, consisting of an omelet over taco rice. Fried hotdog and Spam are also two popular meats to include in the dish courtesy of the U.S. occupation.

Here is a simple recipe; at the end I have appended a link to a very good video.


1 cup cooked rice
½ small onion, finely chopped
½ cup chicken breast cut into small pieces
ketchup (in a squeeze bottle)
2 large eggs
salt and pepper


Sauté the chopped onion in butter over medium-high heat until transparent. Add the chicken and sauté until barely done. Add the rice and toss over high heat until heated through. Add about 2 tablespoons of ketchup and toss rapidly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm.

Make an omelet in the usual way, that is, whisk up the eggs, melt a little butter in an omelet pain over medium heat, pour the eggs in gently stir then until they begin to set, and then let settle, perhaps still slightly runny on top.

Add the rice mix in the middle and fold the omelet around it. Turn it out on a plate seam side down.

Shape into a package and squirt ketchup on top. Add some salad greens if you wish.

Variations are cook’s choice. For example, use demi-glace instead of ketchup, use different meats etc. This video is very helpful:


As you may know, many Japanese restaurants advertize their menus with plastic replicas of their dishes in the window — very lifelike.  Here’s a restaurant that specializes in omurice showing an array of varieties.


Jan 072015


Today is the Festival of Seven Herbs or Nanakusa no sekku (Japanese: 七草の節句), the long-standing Japanese custom of eating seven-herb rice porridge (nanakusa-gayu) on January 7 (Jinjitsu). “Herbs” in this context means greens, some of which are regular green vegetables and some of which are herbs in the West. This reminds me of the fact that until relatively recently all greens were called “herbs” in England. So a salad could be made of lettuce, spinach, sage, thyme, and so forth, and they were all “herbs.” The greens would then be dressed with oil and vinegar. The notion of using greens in the salad and then dressing with a vinaigrette with the herbs in it is a modern idea. You should try using lettuce, spinach, fresh basil, fresh mint, and so forth in the salad bowl and then adding oil and vinegar. It is much fresher than the conventional salad.

The nanakusa are the seven edible wild herbs of spring. Traditionally, they are

Japanese parsley (Oenanthe javanica)


Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)

7 herbs4

Cudweed (Gnaphalium affine)


Chickweed (Stellaria media)


Nipplewort (Lapsana apogonoides)


Turnip greens (Brassica rapa)


Daikon greens (Raphanus sativus)


But there is considerable variation in the precise ingredients, with common local herbs often being substituted.

On the morning of January 7, or the night before, people place the nanakusa, rice scoop, and/or wooden pestle on the cutting board and, facing the good-luck direction, chant  — “Before the birds of the continent (China) fly to Japan, let’s get nanakusa” while cutting the herbs into pieces. The chant may vary.

The seventh of the first month has been an important Japanese festival since ancient times. The custom of eating nanakusa-gayu on this day, to bring longevity and health, developed in Japan from a similar ancient Chinese custom, intended to ward off evil. Since there is little green at that time of the year, the young green herbs bring color to the table and eating them suits the spirit of the New Year.


Nanakusa-gayu, and rice porridge in general, is not to my taste. It is quite common in China but not especially where I live. I find it too bland. I’ll eat it if given to me, but won’t eat it by choice. Preparation is simple. First you make a stock. For nanakusa-gayu make it by steeping konbu in water overnight. Konbu is a seaweed easily obtainable from Asian stores. Discard the seaweed and add some steamed Japanese rice to the broth. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook until the grains are really soft. Then add your chopped greens and cook for 5 minutes or so, and serve in bowls. For Westerners it would not be terribly sacrilegious to use whatever greens you can get hold of. But you should use some kind of fish or seaweed stock.

Feb 032014


Today is Setsubun (節分 Bean-Throwing Festival or Bean-Throwing Ceremony) the day before the beginning of spring in Japan. The name literally means “seasonal division,” but usually the term refers to the spring Setsubun, properly called Risshun (立春) celebrated yearly on February 3 as part of the Spring Festival (春祭 haru matsuri). In its association with the Lunar New Year, spring Setsubun can be and was previously thought of as a sort of New Year’s Eve, and so was accompanied by a special ritual to cleanse away all the evil of the former year and drive away disease-bringing evil spirits for the year to come. This special ritual is called mamemaki (豆撒き) (literally “bean throwing”). Setsubun has its origins in tsuina (追儺), a Chinese custom introduced to Japan in the eighth century.


The custom of mamemaki first appeared in the Muromachi period (c. 1337 to 1573). It is usually performed by the toshiotoko (年男) of the household (the male who was born in the corresponding animal year of the Chinese zodiac), or else the male head of the household. Roasted soybeans (called “fortune beans” 福豆) are thrown either out the door or at a member of the family wearing an Oni (demon or ogre) mask, while the people say “Demons out! Luck in!” (鬼は外! 福は内! Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!) and then slam the door.

This is still common practice in households but many people will attend a shrine’s or temple’s spring festival where this is done. The beans are thought to symbolically purify the home by driving away the evil spirits that bring misfortune and bad health with them. Then, as part of bringing luck in, it is customary to eat roasted soybeans, one for each year of one’s life, and in some areas, one for each year of one’s life plus one more for bringing good luck for the year to come.


At Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines all over the country, there are celebrations for Setsubun. Priests and invited guests will throw roasted soy beans (some wrapped in gold or silver foil), small envelopes with money, sweets, candies and other prizes. In some bigger shrines, even celebrities and sumo wrestlers will be invited; these events are televised nationally.

It is customary in Kansai area to eat uncut makizushi called eho-maki (恵方巻) (lit. “lucky direction roll”) in silence on Setsubun while facing the year’s lucky compass direction, determined by the zodiac symbol of that year. This custom started in Osaka, but in recent years eho-maki can be purchased at stores in the Kanto area and it is getting more universal as a part of Setsubun tradition.

sets2  sets3

Horoscope charts are published and occasionally packaged with uncut makizushi during February. Some families put up small decorations of sardine heads and holly leaves (柊鰯 hiragi iwashi) on their house entrances so that bad spirits will not enter. Ginger sake is customarily drunk at Setsubun.


Historically, the new year was felt to be a time when the spirit world came close to the physical world, thus the need to perform mamemaki to drive away any wandering spirits that might get too close to one’s home. Other customs during this time included religious dance, fasting, and bringing tools inside the house that might normally be left outside, to prevent the spirits from harming them.

Because Setsubun was also considered to be apart from normal time, people might also practice role reversal. Such customs included young girls doing their hair in the styles of older women and vice versa, wearing disguises, and cross-dressing. This custom is still practiced among geisha and their clients when entertaining on Setsubun.


Traveling entertainers (旅芸人), who were normally shunned during the year because they were considered vagrants, were welcomed on Setsubun to perform morality plays. Their vagrancy worked to their advantage in these cases because they could take the spirits with them when they departed.

While the practice of eating makizushi on Setsubun is historically only associated with the Kansai area of Japan, the practice has become popular nationwide due largely to marketing efforts by grocery and convenience stores. In the Tohoku area of Japan, the head of the household (traditionally the father) would take roasted beans in his hand, pray at the family shrine, and then toss the sanctified beans out the door. Nowadays peanuts (either raw or coated in a sweet, crunchy batter) are sometimes used in place of soybeans.

There are many variations on the famous Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi chant. For example, in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, people chant “鬼の目玉ぶっつぶせ!” (Oni no medama buttsubuse!), lit. “Blind the demons’ eyes!”

I have spent decades eating and cooking Japanese food.  In 1972 I went to the only Japanese restaurant in London with my girlfriend (of sorts) to celebrate my 21st birthday, as the culmination of a fabulous day.  It was completely brand new to me in those days when few people in the West had ever tried Japanese cuisine.  We were the only Westerners in the place, and the servers, dressed as geishas, barely spoke English.  All the other diners were Japanese men in suits. I left spell bound, determined to learn more; I was hooked. I was glad that by the late 70’s Japanese restaurants were blossoming in New York and I went every time I could, even though the menus tended to be limited to the basics: sushi, sashimi, teriyaki and such (and the majority still are). Nowadays I can make certain dishes reasonably well, including sushi and sashimi, but I will never remotely be a threat to classically trained Japanese chefs.  Tramping all over Japan was an eye opener – such an amazing experience. So many great meals even when eating in cheap noodle joints in hidden places. Here’s a pic of me with my son and a friend in a sushi/sashimi joint in the famed Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo plus my lunch dish. Yum.

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I could walk you through the steps to make eho-make; it’s really not that difficult (although getting the rice right takes a bit of practice, and you must use Japanese sushi rice). Instead I give you this video because it is much easier to see it done than to describe it.  Two things to note.  First, eho-make must be made with seven ingredients – a lucky number.  Second, it is eaten whole, not cut up. This is not easy because the nori (black seaweed) wrapping is quite tough to bite. The bamboo rolling mat is more or less essential, but before I bought mine I used a place mat that was similarly articulated. You also need practice to get the roll nice and round.  But even a lumpy one tastes good.  Trust me on that.

Now it’s your turn.  I’m off to barrio chino to get the ingredients.  Not going to find them in my local supermarket in Buenos Aires.  You can find nori sheets and sushi rice in most oriental markets worldwide. You’ll also need sushi rice seasoning or Japanese sushi vinegar. Here’s a professional chef making the rice:


Jun 212013

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Today is the birthday (1730) of Motoori Norinaga (本居 宣長) often considered the most influential scholar of Kokugaku (Japanese Studies) in the Edo period (1603 – 1868) when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns.  The Edo period was a time of political stability, national isolation, economic expansion, rigid social control, and artistic development.  What many Westerners think of as “typically Japanese” culture evolved in the Edo period.  The contemporary version of sushi, for example, was created at this time.

Norinaga was born in what is now Matsusaka in Ise Province into a wealthy merchant family.  With the death of his father and elder brother, Norinaga became the head of the family’s merchant house and was expected to run the business.  But he was more inclined to intellectual pursuits and showed little aptitude for business.  So, at age 22, his mother sent him to Kyoto to study medicine which was more suited to his temperament. Although medicine was less prestigious than the life of a merchant, it gave Norinaga time to read and absorb classic literature (as well as partying more than a little, as evidenced by a stern note from his mother advising him to cut back on the sake).  At this time Japanese intellectual life was dominated by Chinese ideologies, and ancient Japanese literature was poorly understood because changes over time in Japanese language had made the classics hard to read.  They needed detailed commentary and careful study to be properly interpreted.  Alongside his medical studies Norinaga was a student of several renowned Kokugaku scholars whilst in Kyoto.

At age 28 Norinaga returned to Matsusaka to practice pediatrics (which he did until 10 days before his death). Although having to devote much of his time to his patients, he was able to read and absorb the Japanese classics on his own.  He had a small study on the second floor of his house which had once been a tea room. Because of his love of bells he called the room, Suzu-no-ya (Room of Bells). He always pulled up the ladder to Suzu-no-ya so that he could study without interruption.

Norinaga was greatly inspired by the works of Kamo no Mabuchi and in 1763 was able to meet him in person for one night – now known romantically as “the night in Matsusaka” because they reputedly talked all night. The two never met again but corresponded frequently. Mabuchi supervised what was to become Norinaga’s greatest work, his annotations of the classic Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters). Norinaga took the view that the heritage of ancient Japan, to be admired and emulated, was one of natural spontaneity in feelings and spirit, and that imported Confucianism ran counter to such natural feelings. For Norinaga true Japanese consciousness was embodied in the concept of mono no aware Mono means “things” and aware means “deep feeling.” For Norinaga poetry and literature had no other purpose than to evoke deep feelings (not to instill moral, or religious or intellectual values).

Norinaga’s life work was to strip Japanese culture of outside influences, notably Chinese, and return to what he considered to be a uniquely Japanese way of living.  As such he wrote in the ancient Japanese poetic style known as waka (as opposed to the up and coming haiku form).  He wrote over 10,000 waka, hundreds of which were devoted to cherry trees, his passion.  He brushed the following on a self portrait (pictured).

Shikishima no
Yamato gokoro wo
Hito towaba
Asahi ni niou

Asked about the soul of Japan,
I would say
That it is
Like wild cherry blossoms
Glowing in the morning sun.

Norinaga died on September 29, 1801 at the age of seventy-one. Publication of his 44 volume commentary on Kojiki had begun 16 years earlier, and took another 21 to complete. It is an unrivalled masterpiece. He was buried on top of Mt. Yamamuro, eight kilometers from the center of Matsusaka, in accordance with the will he had written the year before. Also in the will he requested a Buddhist funeral, but a Shintoist grave. “The grave should be seven shaku (2.1 meters) square. Make a mound slightly behind the center of the square, and plant a cherry tree on top of it.”

There are many sweet confections sold in Matsusaka in honor of Norinaga, some, such as Yamazakura and Suzu Monaka (pictured), in the shape of the bells he loved.  These, however, are best left to professionals.  Instead my recipe for the memory of Norinaga is a simple dish of fried tofu in broth, agedashi tofu, which comes from a cookbook of the Edo period (modified for the modern kitchen). The broth is traditionally made of three parts dashi (made from seaweed and bonito flakes), one part mirin (sweet rice wine), and one part Japanese soy sauce.  You can get all the necessary ingredients in Japanese markets or online.  If you are not up for making dashi, an instant (powdered) version is an acceptable and quick substitute.  Most times when you get agedashi tofu in Japanese restaurants in the U.S. and Europe the “broth” has been thickened with sugar and cornstarch.  This recipe is more loyal to Edo period style.

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Agedashi tofu


1 block firm tofu
corn starch for dredging
flavorless oil for deep frying
daikon (Japanese white radish) shavings
green onion chopped
1 cup (2.4 dl) dashi
2 tbsp (30 ml) soy sauce
2 tbsp (30 ml) mirin


Heat the dashi, soy sauce, and mirin in a small saucepan to just below the boiling point and keep warm.

Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 350°F (175°C).

Drain the tofu and pat it dry with paper towels.  Cut it into bite sized cubes.

Put the cornstarch in a shallow bowl and thoroughly coat all sides of the tofu cubes.

Deep fry the tofu a few at a time until they are golden.  Drain on wire racks.

Divide the broth among 4 bowls and then place 4 to 6 tofu pieces in each.

Top with daikon shavings and chopped green onion.

Serves 4

Ichiban Dashi
(Measurements here are deliberately approximate and can be varied according to taste.)


4 cups (9.6 dl) water
1 strip kombu (dried kelp)
1 handful of loosely packed katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)


Place the water and the kombu in a pot and let the kombu soak for about 15 minutes.

After soaking, heat the water and kombu over medium heat until just below boiling.

Remove the pot from the heat and add the katsuobushi, scattering it over the surface of the water loosely.

When the katsuobushi sinks (3 to 4 minutes) strain the broth using a coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth to be sure the resultant liquid is clear.

The dashi can be used immediately or stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.