Sunday, January 30, 2011

Rental Box Shop

In recent years the Internet has spawned a wild increase in cottage industrialists. Working out of their homes, many of these folks buy their supplies and sell their finished wares through the net. But in Japan, they also have the option of the rental box shop where, for about Y5000 per month according to my friend, they can borrow a cube of space and market their goods. For many a hobbyist or closet crafts person this is the perfect, no-chocolate-mess solution.

Out of curiosity, I ventured into a rental box shop the other day in Kichijoji. A narrow slot of space with the manager/cashier's desk at the far end, it was lined on either side with little cubbies measuring about 1-foot square. Decorated by their individual proprietors, each box was like a mini-store and contained different, mostly handmade, merchandise, such as cell phone charms, cloth covered barrettes, painted paperweights etc. I wonder how scarves authored by a foreign knitter would fare ... Not likely to go that route but it is always an option.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Gunma Brown Rice

On our way home from Minakami on Sunday, we made a quick pit stop at the farmers' market in Showa. The goal was to stock our Tokyo larder with some local produce and home grown brown rice -- neighboring Niigata is one of Japan's most prolific rice producing prefectures. After surveying the bounty, we rounded up the usual suspects: baby broccoli, young asparagus, sweet potatoes, hot peppers for Francia and then headed to the rice bar where we had a number of different options. Surprisingly, the saleswoman steered us not towards the more expensive, Niigata Koshihikari (considered the best of the best by many connoisseurs) but towards rice grown in the nearby fields. Plus, as Abby observed, the level in that bin was the lowest. When in Rome, it is definitely a good idea to do as the Romans do.

After we placed our order for five kilos, the clerk measured the rice. I suspect that most rice in Japan is slightly processed before it reaches shops, even the Showa farmers' market. Had we wanted pure, white rice, she would have poured our purchase into the polisher to remove the rest of the bran. Instead, she deposited our rice into a plastic bag and sealed it shut.

The following evening, the Gunma rice made its debut at our dinner table. Reader, it is out of this world. Fresh and fluffy, this rice is so full of flavor. The usual supermarket fare just can't compare. Sprinkled in and among the light brown kernels is the occasional crunchy brown grain. Some pick them out but they are welcome in my rice bowl anytime.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ghost Trees

This is by far among the weirdest sights I have encountered in a long time. Beneath the black sheets are leafy trees. I suppose the wrappings are intended to protect the trees from harsh winter weather but I found the image rather disturbing. Something beautiful has temporarily turned into something eerie.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


This is my latest mini-food find: micro tomatoes. No bigger than a blueberry, each deep red morsel is packed with intense tomato flavor. The miracles of modern science.

Abby and I spotted these little gems at Mediya super market while shopping for Sunday dinner, a recreation of the maguro poke (a cured tuna dish with southwestern flair) we learned to make during our recent trip to Arizona. I would have helped with the preparation but, in keeping with my recently publicized aversion to raw fish, I traded knives for knitting needles and left Abby to it. For cooking consultations, I remained on the premises where I sampled the delicious dressing, a coriander, scallion and lemon juice concoction pureed in the blender. A more detailed description on the poke should appear on our shared, but neglected, blog, Whip it Good: A Mother and Daughter hit the Kitchen ( We are trying to turn over a new leaf. Please egg us on by visiting the site every now and again.

Anyhow, we thought the tiny tomatoes would make a nice garnish so into the shopping cart they went. But, by the looks of the photo, I think we forgot to use them!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Icing Artistry

The other day, as the temperatures outside barely hovered above freezing, we were toasty and warm inside where the aroma of baking cupcakes filled our kitchen. Inspired by a newly purchased cupcake decorating book, we decided to try our hand at icing artistry. Though the corn-on-cob trio of mini-cakes looked fairly convincing, the yellow lab cupcake was the star of our show. Turns out Abby has an amazing ability to wield a rolling pin and turn Tootsie Rolls into doggy ears! The pink jelly bean tongue is another nice detail. The chocolate labs came out pretty well too.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ake Ome, Koto Yoro

Recited while bowing, the standard New Year's greeting in Japan is "Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu, Kotoshi Mo Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu (or Onegai Itashimasu for situations calling for uber-politeness)". My rough translation is "congratulations for the opening of the new year, please look upon me favorably this year too." Though kind of charming, this string is a bit of a mouthful. Starting from January 1, people exchange this greeting when meeting for the first time in the new year. By the middle of the month, the new year feels launched and the time for reciting this special greeting is over. But we are not quite there yet.

Yesterday, at the Apple Store in Ginza, I overheard two people greet each other with "Ake Ome, Koto Yoro" instead. Hip and happening, this version simply lops the final syllables from each traditional word. When the girls came home from school, I excitedly reported on my new find. While old hat to some, these mildly irreverent and informal words sound so fresh and clever to me. Though not suitable for all social situations, I like the way this slangy, abbreviated version just rolls off the tip of the tongue.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mediya's Mini-Sushi

The other day I went to Mediya to pick up a few groceries. At the edge of their produce section, the market always has a featured food, often a local delicacy from some other part of Japan. While I rarely bat an eye at the pickled crickets and sea urchin paste, the mini-sushi on offer this time stopped me in my tracks. They were so cute!

Before I go any further, I think this would be a good time to confess that I do not really like sushi. Borrowing from the words of my sister, I have to like the idea of what I am eating. And raw fish does not fit that criterion. Though David has given up on turning me into a maguro maven, he seems to be faring better with the girls. We do frequent a sushi bar nearby where the girls are getting increasingly daring and I am very happy with the various vegetable versions and cooked items on the menu.

But I digress. When I saw the doll-sized sushi I knew I could not leave the store without them. Instead of the variety pack, I opted for the tamagoyaki or Japanese-style omelette that suits my palette. Normally, the slabs of slightly sweetened, scrambled egg are a little longer than a business card. But these tasty tidbits were less than half the size of the industry standard. Measuring no more than three or four centimeters, they were consumed easily in a bite or two. The photo with the chopsticks gives some sense of scale. Even Pippi was riveted.

New Year's Decorations in My Neighborhood

I always enjoy returning from the US after New Year's or Oshogatsu in time to see all of the special holiday decorations. Usually, by the end of the first week of January they start to disappear. When we came back from the airport, we were greeted by the Kadomatsu ornament pictured above that, along with its mate, flanked the front entrance to our building until a couple of days ago when it was quietly whisked away. It always makes me a little sad to see the spent ornaments standing by the side of the road, waiting for the garbage trucks, and marking the real end of the extended holiday period. I do not know the fate of our ornaments.

Oshogatsu is a big deal in Japan and lasts for several days when the whole country basically shuts down and many people travel either back to their hometowns or abroad. In preparation for the arrival of the new year, people in Japan have a number of customs including bonenkai parties to say good-bye to the old year, the giving of seasonal gifts (such as boxed cookies or canned fruit), and Osoji, the thorough cleaning of shops, offices and homes. Intended to start the new year off fresh, this custom may have more secular overtones today but stems from the ritual purification required prior to a visit from the Toshigami deities thought to drop in this time of year.

Once the premises are spic and span, many people adorn their home or work place with one or more decorations. There are three main types: Kadomatsu, Shimekazari and Kagamimochi. The following is a round up of adornments I spotted in and around my neighborhood.

KADOMATSU. Made of pine sprigs, bamboo, strips of zig-zag shaped, folded white paper called shide, and other decorative elements, this ornament (or pair of ornaments) stands beside the front gate or doorway to a building, residential or otherwise. Symbolizing longevity, vitality and good fortune, Kadomatsu are often free-standing but I have also seen them attached to the outer walls or gateposts.

SHIMEKAZARI. Sometimes shaped like chains or wreaths, these ornaments are attached to or above the exterior door. They usually consist of ropes of straw, dangling strips of white paper shide and other decorations that all have symbolic meaning I am sure. Apparently, the original purpose of Shimekazari was to welcome in the Toshigami deities and keep evil spirits out. Some people attach Shimekazari to the front of their car for traffic safety but I have not seen any examples this year.

KAGAMIMOCHI. Resembling a sumo wrestler in his preparatory squat, this is a two-tiered cake, the bigger layer below and the smaller one on top, made of pounded rice or mochi crowned by an orange. Recalling (sort of) the round mirrors that are a sacred objects in Shintoism (kagami = mirror, hence the name), the cakes sit on a special stand called a sampo that is placed in the household altar as an offering to the Toshigami. While some people go the whole nine yards by pounding mochi of their own, ready-made Kagamimochi is easily obtained at most supremarkets. Plastic versions also abound. The more elaborate Kagamimochi (like the giant version pictured below) are augmented with kelp, dried persimmon, lobster and other delicacies laden with symbolism. On January 11, or Kagami Biraki, kagamimochi may be opened and eaten.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Frank Lloyd Wright's Favorite Color

Having grown up just a stone's throw from Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, I am generally partial to the architect's earlier, Prairie Style works. But last week's visit to Taliesin West, Wright's home-studio at the edge of Scottsdale, Arizona, made an unexpectedly deep impression on me. I was truly awestruck by the blending of the architecture and the arid, cacti-studded landscape. The architect's later work has a strength and bold beauty of its own that, like all works of architecture, needs to be seen in person for full appreciation.

Conceived as walled terraces covered with canvas tarps, the structures were literally born of the earth. Made of local sand concrete and dessert rocks unearthed by his apprentices, these semi-outdoor rooms turned into bona fide buildings after several years of use when Wright conceded to cover them permanently and fill in the clerestory wall openings with glass. Horizontally stratified -- a central tenet of his Prairie Style works -- the buildings hover over the ground plane. While gentle steps here and there mediate floor level shifts, splayed walls and asymmetrically sloped roofs speak to the mountains rimming the property's rolling plane and express in section the triangulated geometry now very much present in plan.

We were fortunate to tour the property with Paula, a very knowledgeable docent whose Wright fascination began with a childhood visit to Taliesin West alongside her father. Paula regaled us with a steady stream of anecdotes that practically brought Wright and his entourage back to life. She explained how the students and their mentor divided the year between Wright's home-studios in Arizona and Spring Green, Wisconsin, literally pulling up stakes twice a year to travel between the two campuses -- a tradition preserved today. Like their predecessors, the students still live in tents when in Arizona but are no longer as engaged in the running of Taliesin that Wright considered essential, practical training for budding architects. The early apprentices handled food cultivation and preparation, theatrical performances and, of course, all matters pertaining to building construction or maintenance. Only by working in a kitchen could one truly acquire the skills to design one. Additionally, Paula provided plenty of entertaining lore about Ogilvanna, Wright's raven-haired, third wife and a creative presence in her own right.

Near the end of our tour, Paula highlighted Wright's love of the color red. Visible from the auditorium's red, upholstered chairs, the many red ornaments and details around the room clearly illustrated her statement. Despite her aversion to the hue, Mrs. Kaufman of Fallingwater fame was not exempt from Wright's passion for red. Blatantly disregarding his client's dislike, Wright encased each window with a red frame and then persuaded Mrs. Kaufman that they would only add to her spectacular home's wooded views. And a good thing too, since the Fallingwater fee substantially financed the purchase of the Arizona acreage for Taliesin West.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy New Year 2011

Happy New Year! Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu! I am back in Tokyo after two weeks in the US. Stay tuned. More posts soon. Have a great Year of the Rabbit!