Sunday, January 31, 2010

Beach-Combing in January

There's a 12-year old American girl here who reminds me more than a bit of Katie at that age: blonde, bespectacled, and bookishly quiet. She heard there is a beach across the Miura Peninsula from us where glass shards and pottery sherds (thanks, Kate) wash up on the tide.

I'd been to this beach a couple of years back so I agreed to try to find it for her and her mom. This is how I came to spend the better part of Saturday driving up and down narrow little lanes, backing slowly out of dead-end beach access roads, and being excruciatingly careful to keep my wheels aligned on rusty metal planks strewn precariously across muddy culverts. "Allow me to demonstrate a Y-turn, my dear."

The tide was in by the time we finally found the sheltered cove in question but there were still a few yards of beach to comb so we did not come home empty-handed (see left). The correct route is now etched in my memory so I hope someone else will want to collect shards and sherds soon. In the meantime, I think I'll try my hand at creating a mosaic something-or-other.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

And They Probably Refer to it as St. Foj

The Ancient Mariner steamed away from Yokosuka yesterday morning after spending most of his weekend chopping celery and slicing sausage. As the USS Blue Ridge slipped away from the pier, half the population of Japan heard the sailor's plaintive cry. "Save some gumbo for me!"

He is embarked on what the Navy refers to as Sea Trials and what we Navy spouses refer to as "Whoa, I foresee a lengthy deployment in the near future!"

Sea Trials are when the ship's crew drills, drills, and then drills some more. Athletes call it practice, actors call it rehearsal. Because the Navy cannot bear to use expressions easily understood by the general population, they have established a Special Task Force on Obfuscating Jargon with a staff of 938 which meets in Hawaii four times a year to coin new expressions for some of the world's oldest and most basic concepts. They got this idea from the computer industry.

Just kidding (at least about the size of the staff).

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When the Saints Came Marching In

The good times rolled, skipped, and sprang a few cartwheels in Yokosuka today when the Japanese and American Wives celebrated Mardi Gras. Valerie's jester's cap identifies her as one of the four party coordinators. Matt was very excited when he found out I get to keep my cap. He was less excited when I mentioned wearing it to his graduation come June.

Strings of beads were presented to each guest as she arrived. The guests were assigned to teams according to bead color (and there you have fifty percent of my contribution to the party planning effort).

We sipped chickory coffee from Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. It tasted better than I remembered but that might have more to do with youthful indiscretion (ie, hangovers) than the coffee itself.

We gorged on beignets Valerie baked from a mix provided by -- you guessed it -- Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. "How are they eaten, Kathy-san?" "Oh, let me show you. Mmmmm. Did I eat that one too fast? Allow me to illustrate the beignet-eating procedure for you a second time."

"Let's decorate masks for our Mardi Gras parade." The Japanese ladies take these craft assignments very, very seriously. If you enjoy planning birthday parties for five-year olds, planning a JAW party could be your nirvana.

The completed masks were positioned on a radiator to hasten the glue-drying process. Please place your right ear on your right shoulder to see this lovely work of art. Can you scroll down a little without moving your head?

The pompoms add a note of frivolity, n'est-ce pas?

Okay, you can straighten your neck now.

This is my other contribution to the party, the Pass the Beads Without Using Your Hands Relay.

Japanese women get pretty darn competitive when they hear the magic words, "Prizes will be awarded to the winning team." You can see why I like them much.

There were one or two other games but I didn't get to see how they played out because I had to slip over to my house and add shrimp to the jambalaya, ice to the non-alcoholic hurricanes, and rice to the gumbo bowls. Gosh, I was acting so mature I barely recognized myself.

I was frantically searching for one more tablecloth when I spotted the Mardi Gras parade marching up my front sidewalk. Eek! Naturally, I popped a couple of mushroom-shaped cookies into my mouth and calmed down immediately.

Look who's bringing up the rear! Hi, Mimi! Thanks for loaning me your rice cooker.

Aren't Yuko and Anne cute? The person who comes closest to guessing the ages of Yuko's three children on or before February 1 will win a prize. This is a hidden puzzle, a reward for loyal family members and friends (the contest is also open to total strangers) who have endured this monologue thus far.

After a leisurely lunch, we sent our guests on their way with gold doubloons, moon pies, and a description of Mardi Gras traditions.
And their masks, of course.

The hugs were unexpected, effusive, unrelated to nationality (American women I barely know were clinging to me like Matt on his first day of kindergarten), and I must confess I gulped down 10 ounces of punch the minute the last guest departed because it crossed my mind someone might have spiked the hurricanes.

No such luck.

Now We're Cooking . . .

Literally. Showtime's in three hours and ten minutes. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Chinese Theater Comes to Ikebana

Ikebana meets on the third Thursday of the month except in January when the most special program of the year is held on a Saturday, making it easier for us to bring our children, spouses, and friends. My family members were otherwise occupied this morning, so I contented myself with escorting the guests of other Ikebana members from the base to the Daibutsu priest's residence in Kamakura.

Today's program was a presentation on a form of Chinese theater called Kunqu Opera (which appears in a different color here because I've provided a link for my sister-in-law Sandy and our mutual friend Ann who are the only people I know who might want to know more about this art form than I am prepared to share).

Kunqu has been around for 600 years but had nearly disappeared by the early twentieth century and barely survived the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s when there were deliberate attempts to suppress it.

Today there are seven professional Kunqu troupes performing in Mainland China and Taipei. It was listed as one of the "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO in 2001. (Maybe I should try to get a job with UNESCO. I wonder how much they pay people to come up with fancy titles like that one.)

This was all explained to us in Japanese by the actor Lu (pronounced 'Lee') Hairong (33) and then translated into English by a young Australian who had to wrestle that microphone out of his hands to do her job.

Lu entered the Shanghai Academy of Performing Arts, a boarding school, at the age of 10. Students there are selected to learn and perform one of the five Kunqu roles when they are 11 years old or are sent home to (presumably) live out their days working in the rice paddies. Lu spent the next seven years, until he was 18, training for martial arts roles. He was allowed to visit his family only once a week during all those years. When he was 26, he moved to Japan where he currently attends Keio University.

We were then treated to a PowerPoint presentation about the five basic Kunqu roles and variations thereof. I will spare you the details since (a) the balding Russian lady sitting between me and the screen ruined most of my shots, and (b) my attention started wandering about 10 seconds after the overhead lights were dimmed.

The lady sitting in front of me, for instance, was wearing an interesting sweater, or perhaps it was a detachable belt . . .

. . . and the lady on her right had a net thing on her head, the likes of which I haven't seen since the mid-60s when my mother sometimes splurged on custom-designed Easter bonnets . . .

. . . and then there was the Chinese mask dangling from the rafter over my head.

"Perhaps if I attach a little camera to my makeup mirror and project a live image of myself on the screen I can recapture the attention of that gaijin in the third row," schemed Lu. We watched him apply his makeup. This normally takes 90 minutes. We breathed a collective sigh of relief when Lu said he was going to do a quick version for today's performance. (Sighs of relief are apparently universal as they sound the same in Japanese and English.)

His fellow actor, Kong Fanqi (29), helped Lu into his costume. That polka dot ball off to the side of Kong's head signifies he is playing the role of a hero (assuming the translator understood Lu correctly and assuming I heard the translator correctly, so you might not want to quote me on this one).

Lu's outfit was pretty cool and featured lots of cranes in flight. Kong's outfit was all about butterflies. I couldn't help wondering if anyone helped poor Kong get dressed.

Oh, look! Lu's playing a hero, too!

They performed a farce for us, in which two best friends mistake each other for mortal enemies in the dark and narrowly miss killing each other. It was really quite funny, and the American children in the audience were squealing in delight which made all the adults break out in laughter.

The ladies mobbed the stage at the end of the performance. The blonde kneeling in front of Kong is the Russian ambassador's wife.
Next month we're going to learn a Japanese handicraft technique called kimekome so we can make something called a goten-mari ball. I am definitely going to have to drag a guest or two along to that one. Probably not Mimi.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Pack Up All Your Cares and Woes, Head On Up To Tokyo

Sometime between now and Tuesday I need to find a recipe for Seafood Jambalaya and make enough to feed 40 people. Oh, and I vaguely recall volunteering to make mass quantities of gumbo and salad as well. Heh, heh.

Fortunately the book I was reading last night, which should have been a cookbook but was not, offered a new technique for dealing with worries: visualize a matchbox, slide it open, tuck your worries inside, and then slide it shut. Imagining a matchbox was a snap because I happened to snag several at the Ramen Museum just last month. Do I lead a serendipitous life or what?

With my worries safely nestled inside a JFK matchbox, I set off for the Tokyo Dome this morning with Kim, Sherri, and a fully charged cell phone which enabled us to hook up with Jane, Valerie, Hiroko, and Kasayo at the indigo exhibit where we watched an elderly gentleman swish fabric in a kettle of blue (presumably indigo) dye.

We bought bento box lunches -- mine, of course, was light on vegetables and heavy on dumplings and rice -- and then we admired the fabulous quilts and wandered through dozens of stalls where vendors were hawking fabric, notions, quilting kits, and scores of other items not remotely related to quilting.

Those vendors saw me coming. Once I solve the Jambalaya/Gumbo problem, and finish knitting the ribbed scarf Stanley started, and work my way through Ulysses, I will hand Matt the five quilt kits I lugged home from Tokyo today and see if I can bribe him into translating the directions into a language I can comprehend.

Let's hope he won't have left for college by then. Hey! That would be a perfect worry for the Che Guevara matchbox!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sayonara, Stanley

It's time to wrap up Stanley's adventures and announce a contest winner.

There's a new arrival from Chicago who needs an escort for the next few days/weeks until I can match her up with appropriate playmates. Her husband is a reservist re-called to active duty with the Seventh Fleet. She is totally new to military life. Let's hope she's a Jimmy Buffett fan because I like to kick off my Quick Immersion Course for Middle-Aged Career Women with a chorus of "If we couldn't laugh we would all go insane."

Stanley spent his last day in Japan touring the USS Blue Ridge.

The lady who administers the H1N1 shots asked Stanley to help distract the Fleet Surgeon. "Aye-aye, ma'am," said Stanley. "Whoa, Uncle Mike! You should see the BIG NEEDLE she's sticking into your arm."

Eating lunch in the Flag Mess was a special treat for Stanley. "Fresh flowers! How fancy! I can't wait to see the look on Aunt Kathy's face when she sees this picture." "Yes, I'm sure the flowers will make her feel a whole lot better about my monthly Mess bill."

"You have a great staff, Uncle Mike. Why are the officers wearing pajamas?"

"Heck if I know. I had to wear my Dress Blues today because I'm going to the Japanese Navy base to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of cooperation between our navies."

"I had fun spending the day with you, Uncle Mike."

"It was my pleasure, Stanley. I hope you had fun in Japan and that you will come again soon. Please give Kristen and her sisters big hugs from us when you get back to Michigan."

Taiko drum roll, please. The winner of the 6-word biography contest is Kate for "What? I can't hear you. What?" A special prize will be awarded for the Most Blatantly Self-Serving entry, "Note to self: send Deuce beer," as soon as someone can tell me whether 'anonymous' is Sandy or Dave.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Flat Stanley at the Yamato Flea Market

Judy, Sheryl, and Valerie arrived in Japan this past summer. They wanted to experience a shrine sale so Flat Stanley and I set our alarm for 5:45 am before we went to bed Friday night. We were on the road by 6:35 am Saturday, bound for the flea market at the Yamato train station. I drove and they paid the tolls, about $11 each way.

"I'm freezing, Aunt Kathy. Will you buy me this jacket and pants?"
"Sorry, Stanley, but I think that outfit is too small for you. Why don't you warm yourself up by running to the other end of the flea market and back? Keep an eye out for flat-bottomed wooden bowls while you're at it."

"I didn't see any flat-bottomed bowls, Aunt Kathy, but I did find these amazing giant albino carrots."
"Ha ha, Stanley. I think those might be Daikon radishes but don't quote me on that."
"Okay. I know how much you hate to be wrong."

"Hello Kitty! What's she doing in Japan?"
"She was born here, silly. Lots of American children are surprised to learn that Sanrio is a Japanese company. Hello Kitty has been making children all around the world smile for at least 40 years."
"Gosh, it's a small world after all"
"Maybe I ought to start calling you Flat Walt."

"Front row seats at the free concert next to the train station! You rock, Aunt Kathy! That boy sure has a great voice."
"I wonder where I can get a tie like that."

"Thanks for buying me this bun shaped like a bear."
"Just don't tell your Aunt Suzi I let you play with your food or she'll want to do the same when she visits and that would be excruciatingly embarrassing."
"Do you think there's a 'surprise' inside the bun?"
"Probably. That's why we're going to 'let' Uncle Mike take the first bite."

"Oh, it's custard. That looks really yummy . . . hey, wait Uncle Mike . . . let me have a bi-. . .No fair! He ate the whole thing."

"Aunt Kathy, I'm sorry I was too cold to wait for the man selling Peko-chan cups to come back to his stall so you could buy some."
"That's okay, honey, I didn't really need those cups. I liked this ceramic Peko-chan better."
"But did you really need this bank, Aunt Kathy? Don't you already have at least six Peko-chan and Poko-chan banks?"
"Yes, but they are plastic and this one is ceramic. Besides, I need lots of banks to store all the wealth I'll be accumulating this year from eating that golden Chestnut and Sweet Potato Paste with the Shonan Ladies the other day."
"Oh, yeah. But why aren't you posting a picture of that gaudy gold candy dish shaped like a crown you bought for the JAW Mardi Gras party next week?"
"Because, Big Mouth, I was thinking it would make an excellent Christmas gift for your Aunt Betsy or Aunt Jane."
"Oops. Sorry."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Healthy Cooking with the Shonan Ladies

After Aunt Kathy scrounged up an apron Friday morning, we met the American Shonan Ladies at the Daiei Gate and hiked about half a mile to a community center behind the JR train station. A bell started clanging just after Aunt Kathy and I crossed the train tracks. "Hurry up, Mimi-san, a train is coming!"

"Aunt Kathy, isn't that Takako the Artist?" "Yes, Flatty. She organized today's class. Our Japanese friends are going to show us how to prepare a traditional Japanese New Year's meal."

The cooking classroom is on the fifth floor of the community center. There are five work stations, each featuring a sink, stove, oven, and work surface. We found cooking utensils, pots, pans, and a chopping board in the cupboards and drawers under our work station. Serving dishes were stored in a big cupboard on the long wall of the classroom.

"This is really neat, Aunt Kathy. Are there classrooms like this in community centers back home?"

"I'm not sure, Flatty, but you're going to have to be quiet now so I can listen to the instructions. I'm going to tuck you into my apron bib so you can watch the ladies work."

Aunt Kathy said Mineko and Misa must have drawn the short straw today. We were assigned to their work station. Mary Beth and Corey were the other American ladies in our group.

Misa is mixing rice and black beans in a flat wooden bowl. She is using a wooden spatula, the essential utensil in every Japanese kitchen.

One Japanese New Year's tradition is to eat one black bean for every year of your age. "I don't think there are enough black beans for you, Aunt Kathy." "Hush, Flatty, or I will zip you into my purse."

We boiled sweet potatoes to make Chestnut and Sweet Potato Paste. Mineko and Misa boiled a marigold seed along with the potatoes to turn them a rich golden color. "So you will enjoy wealth in the New Year," they explained.

"If it works," Aunt Kathy decided, "I'm going to use some of that wealth to buy one of those flat wooden bowls for mixing rice. I can think of all sorts of practical uses for a flat wooden bowl." "Maybe you should buy more than one, Aunt Kathy." "For a kid with a flat brain, Stan, you sure are a smarty pants."

When the potatoes were soft, we grated them by pushing them through fine horsehair mesh with our wooden spatula. Why is Mimi using a metal spoon instead of a wooden spatula? This is not the proper way to grate a Japanese sweet potato.

We put the grated potatoes back into the saucepan and beat them with the wooden spatula (Mimi probably used a spoon). We added some of the liquid from the canned chestnuts, like you would add milk or cream to mashed potatoes, until the sweet potatoes were creamy. Finally, we gently stirred in the chestnuts. Aunt Kathy thought it looked like lumpy yellow mashed potatoes.

Mineko spooned the paste into five bowls and covered them with saran wrap. "We will garnish them later," she decided. "Let's make sesame tofu with greens next."

Misa poured about two cups of sesame seeds into a huge bowl. "Why are there ridges on the inside of the bowl, Aunt Kathy?" "Heck if I know, Stan, but I've seen these sorts of bowls at pottery shops all around Japan."

Misa told us the bowl is a mortar. She handed us a wooden bat that looked like a lopsided rolling pin. "This is a pestle," she explained. She showed us how to use the pestle to grind the sesame seeds into a creamy paste.

Aunt Kathy, Corey, and Mary Beth took turns grinding the seeds. The seeds started looking and smelling like peanut butter after about 30 minutes. After 45 minutes Misa let them add two bricks of tofu to the bowl. "Oh, boy!" said Corey and Mary Beth. "Ugh," said Aunt Kathy.

While Aunt Kathy pounded every tiny lump out of that tofu, Misa boiled these greens. Then she squeezed the water out of them and chopped them into little pieces. Aunt Kathy stirred the chopped greens into the sesame tofu.

Mary Beth couldn't wait to taste the Sesame Tofu with Greens so Mineko decided to let everyone have a little taste. Aunt Kathy is very polite so she took the teeniest tiniest taste possible.

Mary Beth smacked her lips and sighed, "Mmmmm, this would make a wonderful dip."

If anyone reading today's post would like to taste Sesame Tofu with Greens, Aunt Kathy can refer you to Mary Beth. Something tells me Aunt Kathy will not be whipping up a batch anytime soon as much as she is longing for an excuse to buy a mortar and pestle.

On to the dumplings! This mixture that looks like raw meatloaf is the filling: minced pork, coarsely grated onions, and two tablespoons of ginger juice.

Mary Beth grated ginger for quite a while to extract those two tablespoons of juice. Aunt Kathy was a little worried about the size of the onion chunks -- she prefers her onions minced so tiny you need a microscope to see them -- but she couldn't even taste the onions once the dumplings were cooked.

We used store-bought dumpling pastry. It comes in a plastic bag and looks like thinly-sliced mozzarella cheese. Mineko told us to make an OK sign with our thumb and index finger, turn our wrist to make the O parallel to the ground, drape a pastry square over the hole, scoop a tablespoon of meat filling into the center of the square, and then pat the edges in place. She covered the bottom of a steamer pot with lettuce and then Mary Beth arranged all the dumplings on top of the lettuce.

While the dumplings were steaming, everyone shaped a scoop of the black beans and rice into a triangle.

Well, everyone except Aunt Kathy, who tried to make an Anpanman face.

Takako made rice with scallops for everyone to try. Misa used that wooden spatula to scoop our portions into a little metal mold that gave a pretty shape to the rice.

At last, time to eat!

Aunt Kathy was very happy when Misa said, "Oh, Kathy-san, you must be so full. Please don't feel you have to finish the Sesame Tofu with Greens." Aunt Kathy was so happy, in fact, that she brought some dumplings home to share with Uncle Mike.


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