Monday, February 28, 2011

Enduring Memories: More Reflections on the Tokyo Quilt Show

The more I think about it, that quilt that captured the biggest chunk of my time, attention, and heart at the Tenth Annual Tokyo Quilt Show was not a baby quilt but a scrapbook quilt.

I've had lots of time to think about it, too, while culling through the hundreds of photographs my friends and I snapped at the Tokyo Dome that day. No one but me seems to have taken a picture of that quilt and, alas, I found the details so attractive and compelling that apparently I forgot to step back for a second and capture the entirety of the piece.

The best I show you in a single glance is roughly a quarter of the quilt.

Masako Wakayama calls her creation "My Quilt Journeys".  Right away we see she's been to Paris, New York, and India (those elephants on the left).  The messages on those muslin postcards are written in English.  Although I'd be hard-pressed to say exactly why, I have the sense the postcards are addressed to her children.

The colors Wakayama used are the same shades I used in the family room of our Rockbridge Avenue house in Norfolk. Maybe that's why the quilt caught my eye.

A second wave of nostalgia washed over me when I read "People travel to search for what they want and return home to find it."  I hope that turns out to be the case for me.  But wait!  Wakayama reminds me I want to visit Shanghai and Russia first.

This week my friends and I plan to visit Nippori Textile Town in Tokyo. Maybe I should stock up on more fabric with an eye toward creating a scrapbook quilt to help me remember my years in Japan.

The Ancient Mariner is handier with a needle and thread than I will ever be. Perhaps I can just design the quilt and convince him to do the actual work . . .

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Japanese Snacks: February's Top Finds

A few weeks ago I bemoaned my inability to knit and read simultaneously. Today, as the shortest month of the year gallops toward the finish line, I'm celebrating the fact that I can snack and read at the same time. A glass half empty is also a glass half full. It's all a matter of perspective and mine is pretty sweet these days.

My reading challenge for 2011 is to read 108 books, nine a month. The brevity of February makes it the biggest hurdle of the year but this time I sailed over that hurdle two days early. A number of factors contributed to my success, but most of the credit goes to the Meiji Corporation, Beard Papa's, and Weather Explorer. They provided a steady supply of sweet treats and all I had to do was pop a cookie or cream puff in my mouth whenever I turned a page.

Weather found these apple-flavored mushroom-shaped cookies when she was looking for snow monkeys last week. (I seem to be the only American in Japan not keen on chasing after these critters.) We found smaller packages of this flavor when we went to Mito. I cleared out an entire convenience store shelf, ripped a few open on the bullet train ride home, and made the interesting discovery that the apple taste is authentic enough to give you the same sort of bellyache you get from eating too many green apples.

I promptly mailed all the excess cookies to my children. What a nice mom.

Earlier in the month Weather went on a ski trip and found these Almond and Macadamia mushroom-shaped cookies. This was shortly before the Ancient Mariner deployed. He was quite concerned that he would have to ship out before tasting this flavor. "Are you planning to open those cookies?" "Boy, those cookies sure look good!" I finally broke down and let him try one of each flavor the night before he sailed and then took this picture for you before hiding the cookies in the laundry room so they wouldn't 'accidentally' wind up in his sea bag.

I wonder what other flavors are scattered across Japan. Maybe it's time to schedule a road trip.

Beard Papa's cream puffs this month were marbled chocolate shells packed with chocolate cream. Tiny little chocolate chips were scatter in the cream. What flavor do you suppose they'll introduce in March? My heart is set on plum but I'm flexible.

Here's the embarrassing part, which is why I've buried it at the bottom of the post. Meiji's Galbo cookies captured my taste buds this month but I was so preoccupied with scarfing them down I didn't pause to take a picture. You'll have to click here if you want to see what they look like.  They were introduced in August 2009 so I'm 18 months behind the curve.  Don't worry, though, as I'm doing my level best to catch up.

P.S.  I'm counting Takano Fruit Parfaits as a major food group rather than a snack.  In case you wondered.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Tokyo National Museum: Why Did I Wait So Long?

The Yokosuka Officer Spouse Club organized a trip to Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park the other day. There were eight or nine of us and we split up once we entered the museum so I did not have to feel guilty about lollygagging in some galleries and breezing through others.

Ancient artifacts never fail to arrest me.  How is it that thousands of years before Christ walked on earth people in South America, Egypt, China, and Japan fashioned tools and shaped statues and developed burial rituals that resemble each other so much?  Dr. T has noticed the similarities as well and that makes me feel more confident about my observations.

My pace quickens once I enter the main building (there are four or five buildings in total).  The swords and samurai armor and pottery look an awful lot like the swords, samurai armor, and pottery the Ancient Mariner, College Boy, and I have seen in museums throughout Japan.  Then I turn a corner and enter the Kuroda Gallery.

Kuroda Seiki is the pseudonym adopted by Kuroda Kiyoteru, a Japanese artist who trained in France in the late nineteenth century.  Kuroda went to France to study law when he was 20 but decided to be a painter instead.  When he returned to Japan ten years later, he brought Western techniques with him and shocked the Japanese art world with his penchant for nude models.   

"A Maiko Girl" 1893

Kuroda had lived one-third of his life outside Japan by the time he began painting Japanese subjects. The critics said Kuroda seemed to be looking at his countrymen through the eyes of a foreigner. Maybe that's why his art appeals to me.

Other than "A Maiko Girl", the gallery walls are lined with studies for "Talk on Ancient Romance". As I study his sketches of a young girl in a kimono leaning on a man's shoulder, I notice she is wearing an elaborate kimono in one picture and a much plainer kimono in the next. This is like looking at pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I can hardly wait to reach the end of the gallery where I expect to see how all these pieces came together in what must be an enormous masterpiece. But I force myself to inch along and I learn a few things about composition in the process.

"Talk on Ancient Romance" was commissioned by the Sumitomo family and completed in 1896. The Sumitomo family is to Japan what the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Astor families were to the United States in the late nineteenth century. They were, and still are, industrialists and bankers.

When I eventually reach the end of the gallery I learn that "Talk on Ancient Romance" did not survive World War II. The Sumitomo villa in which it was displayed was bombed. The ensuing fire destroyed the villa's contents.

War is so devastating. How long will it take us to figure this out?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Random Mito Stuff: And Therein Lies a Tail

There is lots more to Mito than gardens and black swans. While my friends were snapping artsy nature pictures with their 50-pound, professional calibre cameras, I pointed the remnants of my little pocket Nikon at little vignettes I found amusing. I am easily amused.

Rabble Rouser pitches in at a mochi booth

And we thought Mel was spoiled . . .

The Three Stooges: Fearless, Weather, and Rabble Rouser

I can personally vouch for the plum flavor (pink)

The Plum Blossom Princesses

Where do you suppose she found that tail?  I know a few young ladies who could use one.

I would really like to show you what my pocket Nikon looks like these days but I can't take a picture of it with my newer and fancier little Nikon because the shutter refuses to open. Apparently I dribbled plum-flavored ice cream on it . . .

Thursday, February 24, 2011

More Plum Blossoms and a Dash of History

This is Kairakuen from the perspective of Lake Senba. The plum orchard is hidden behind a grove of very tall cedars and there's a serene bamboo forest off to the left. That building near the top of the hill is the Kobuntei, Tokugawa Nariaki's private quarters. Writers and artists and some of his other clever subjects were invited to parties here. They composed poetry to entertain the elderly guests. (Note to great-nieces and -nephews: Sharpen your pencils. Aunt Kathy will be expecting continuous entertainment in her dotage.)

According to the garden guide, Kobun is another word for Japanese plum and originated in China. The Kobuntei completely burned down as a result of an aerial attack on August 2, 1945 and took three years to rebuild starting in 1955.

This is the last plum blossom picture you'll see this year, but not the last picture you'll see from the Mito adventure.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Some Ruffled Feathers in Mito

The guidebooks say Kairakuen is fifteen minutes by bus or a thirty-minute walk from the Mito train station. What the guidebooks fail to mention is that most of that walk is along the scenic shore of Lake Senba.  Getting there was half the fun.  It didn't feel like thirty minutes.  It felt like we were there already.

There were a remarkable number of swans floating on Lake Senba, and most of those swans were black.

Swan babies are called chicks (I looked it up). Your guess is as good as mine as to whether the three fuzzy creatures pictured above are chicks, ducklings, or goslings.

Birdman was feeding a few hundred pigeons and a few swans when he kindly allowed me to take his picture. The tiny squeal of delight that burst from my mouth when I spotted a pigeon diving for Birdman's shoulder apparently translates to "Fire Drill!" in pigeonspeak. A few hundred pigeons took to the air and vanished in an instant. It will be a cold day in Mito, I suspect, before Birdman again allows a gaijin to take his picture.

Of interest, those three swans were totally impervious to my squeal of delight. Perhaps they are deaf.

The swan boats were more cooperative subjects than those pigeons. This would be a nice place to visit in the summer.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Plum Blossoms at Kai-raku-en

High on a hill overlooking the town of Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture, one hundred kilometers northwest of Tokyo, there's a plum orchard shouting, "Do not despair!  Spring will soon be here!"

More than 3,000 ume (plum) trees have been planted here since 1841.  Kairakuen, one of the three most acclaimed gardens in Japan, was the brainchild of Tokugawa Nariaki, the ninth Lord of Mito.  Kairaku means "to share pleasure with people" and one of the significant aspects of this garden is that it was always meant to be shared with the common folk rather than reserved for the nobility's enjoyment.

We meant to visit Kairakuen on February 15 but a dusting of snow that morning scotched that idea. Thank God for that snowfall since postponing our adventure for a week landed us in Mito during the annual Plum Festival.

Where there's a festival, there is always festival food.  The paths leading to the garden were littered with vendors offering all sorts of tasty treats. Alas, there were not any potatornadoes to be found, but a fried beef cutlet and plum-flavored ice cream consoled my taste buds. 

Steel yourself. You'll be seeing at least three more posts somehow related to Kairakuen.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Making Tortillas with the Shonan Ladies

Today we're taking a Green Car to Tokyo then riding a bullet train to Mito to experience the Plum Blossom Festival at Kairakuen, one of the top three landscape gardens in Japan. Since I'm up at the crack of dawn with ten minutes to kill before Artistic and Weather pull up at the curb, I'm sharing a few pictures from Shonan's "Cinco de Mayo in February" party.

The Ancient Mariner will be doing the Mexican Hat Dance when he hears that Lydia taught us how to make tortillas. Lydia was born in Texas; her father is from Venezuela and her mother is from Mexico. Home-made tortillas are delicious and amazingly simple. I hope I don't forget the recipe before my favorite sailor gets back to Japan . . .

Shonan thanks and flanks Lydia (in red)

The cooking lesson was just part of the fun. The Shonan senoritas made paper flowers to wear in our hair and danced the Macarena. My paper flower was a total bust but I was a good sport about doing the Macarena (for what I pray is the last time in my life).

The Japanese ladies took turns batting pinatas but I was too busy positioning myself to dive for the chocolates to take pictures of that.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Virtue Is Its Own Reward But I'm Not Returning the Purse

Artistic and her family went to China a while back, November I think. Visiting China means jumping through enough bureaucratic hoops to boggle my mind (ie, more than one) but details don't faze people as artistic as Artistic. Or so I've noticed.


They arrived at Haneda Airport at the crack of dawn and discovered they were lacking the proper passport for one of her 15-year old twins (so many of my friends here have twins that I'd look like quite the maternal weenie if I didn't have James's birth weight to bandy about).

My telephone rang at approximately two minutes after the crack of dawn. Incredibly, I actually (1) heard the telephone ring and (2) deigned to pick up the receiver. Relief washed over me when I realized the caller was not an emergency physician in Texas or Virginia. How relieved was I to know that one of my children had not been involved in a terrible car accident? Relieved enough to consent to carry a passport from Yokosuka to Haneda while wearing a fedora because there was no time to shower. Not relieved enough to face down Artistic's huge canine while retrieving the passport from her house. I immediately nominated Weather for that portion of the assignment. Pretty quick thinking for someone who had not yet sipped any caffeine, n'est-ce pas?

Tossing that passport to Artistic just as the plane was boarding made me feel warm and fuzzy, probably the way you feel when you volunteer at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. And just like you don't expect a reward for ladling out minestrone to the homeless, I was content to earn a few desperately-needed pennies in heaven for my good deed. And maybe a cell phone charm from China. But that didn't happen so I went back to savoring my little stack of celestial pennies.

A tatami mat with blue edging
A few weeks ago Artistic handed Weather and me gift bags. Inside were purses she had made for us out of the fabric used to edge Japanese tatami mats. That fabric bears a distinct resemblance to the webbing that left patterns on my chubby thighs when I sat in folding aluminum lawn chairs back in the 1960s and 1970s.

This purse is way cooler than a cell phone charm from China or anywhere else. I just hope my gleeful acceptance of this treasured gift won't require me to spend extra time in Purgatory.
My cool purse

Saturday, February 19, 2011

I Should Have Had a V-8, But I'm Glad I Didn't

My Japanese friends who recommended Takano Fruit Parlor in the Kamiooka train station warned me the parfaits are pricey. Takano's is a special occasion sort of destination, the kind of place I can imagine taking my future grandchildren as a birthday treat just like my Grandma Crippen took me and my siblings to Loud & Jackson Dairy on our birthdays. This annual event was as anticipated as Santa Claus coming down the chimney, at least by two of her nine local grandchildren.

So, after my initial visit to Takano Fruit Parlor with the Ancient Mariner, I managed to wait all of eight days before returning there with Fearless and her winsome 12-year old twins in tow. For a few seconds I felt slightly guilty and gluttonous. Then it dawned on me: Grandma visited Loud & Jackson Dairy at least nine times a year and surely reprised this excursion with my out-of-town cousins whenever they visited Jackson.  I am honored to have inherited her sweet tooth. 

Fearless and I ordered the special Valentine's parfaits. The twins opted for the only non-fruit items on the menu, chocolate parfaits, even though I fretted that the cubes in the picture might be tofu rolled in chocolate.

Now I will shut up and show you what the waitress placed in front of us.

Pink mousse heart with red gelatin core front a brownie heart

Rear View: flaky frosted cookie and scoop of vanilla ice cream laced with strawberry sherbet

Whipped cream, strawberry pudding, vanilla soft serve, and strawberry (real) shaved ice

Monica's chocolate parfait.  The cubes are "Melty" chocolates.

I (barely) restrained myself from licking the bowl.

The special Valentine's parfait cost 1450 yen (about $18) and the price included tea or coffee.

With the money I saved by not having my Kamakura-bori lacquered, I figure I can visit Takano Fruit Parlor three more times.

Kamakura-Bori: Don't Try This at Home

Every February the Ikebana ladies converge on Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura to learn a craft. Last year we made kimekomi balls, this year we took a stab (a carefully chosen word, that) at carving cherry blossoms on wooden plates. This carving craft is called Kamakura-bori and there are shops all along Kamakura's main streets where carved plates fetch lots of yen.  Those plates don't look anything like the one I made.

After receiving a blessing from the head priest, watching a shrine maiden dance, and tossing down a shot of sake, we confronted our tools (above). Carbon paper, a pencil stub, a pointy blade, a flat blade, and a disk of paulownia wood to which a paper cherry blossom pattern was taped. (The paulownia link is for the benefit of David Peck and my readers in the Netherlands).

A few of us brought supplies of our own. It's true that great minds think alike. A savvy lady at the table behind me sported fingerless gloves with thick padding between her thumb and forefinger. I brought a box of band-aids which - miracle of miracles - I did not have to open.

We traced the pattern onto the plate using the pencil stub and carbon paper.

We levered the pointy blade against our thumb to etch the pattern into the wood. The older teacher (there were two) stopped by to correct our technique. A little while later he wandered over to correct our technique again.

We then used the flat blade to carve out a trench along the lines of the pattern. The technique for holding the flat blade involved both hands to guard against inadvertently amputating a thumb. After correcting my technique several times, the older teacher was able to communicate "tsk, tsk" to me from across the room simply by wiggling his eyebrows.

This is the Kamakura-bori plate that my children are all praying will go to Aunt Cathy or Aunt Sandy come Christmastime. Those are the raffle tickets that brought me three lovely necklaces and a CD of Dragonball Z symphonic music. Any takers?

Ishii and my other friends invested an additional 6500 yen (roughly $80) to have their plates lacquered, a process that takes three months. This is how their finished plates will look.

Tune in tomorrow (or later today, depending on your location) to see how I intend to spend the money I saved by not having my plate lacquered.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Something New to Chew On

Inoyuke-san recently presented me with this delightful cardboard box. We haven't known each other very long but she has already figured out that I have a soft spot for Peko-chan.

She told me to put the box in my refrigerator. She left the premises about 45 seconds later at which point I made a beeline for the the kitchen and rescued that box. Deferred gratification is highly over-rated.

Oh, how cute! I mean, Oh, how kawaii! It's a half dozen little cakes in the shape of Peko-chan's face. What's the significance of the different colored bows? Probably they signify the flavor of each filling. If anything will motivate me to learn to read Japanese, it will definitely be something like this.

Eeuuww. Peko-chan isn't quite as cute in flour and sugar as she is in plastic, is she? In fact, she bears a strong resemblance to that horror movie kid, Chuckie. That's probably for the best. I feel less like a cannibal this way.

The brown bow did not signify chocolate. I really need to learn to read Japanese.


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