Shojin ryori in Kamakura

If you’re ever in the Kanto region (that is, Tokyo-ish), I recommend visiting Kamakura. It’s less than 30 minutes by train from Yokohama station, so about an hour or less for us.

Kamakura was the seat of the shoguns who ruled Japan (having taken power from the emperor) from roughly 1190-1333, which thus is called the Kamakura period. The city is partially surrounded by step hills, so it was strategically protected, and consequently still very beautiful. Plus there are beaches! Kamakura was also important in the development of Japanese Buddhism, and so there are lots of historic temples and the famous Amida Buddha statue.

buddha

Anyway, I will write another post about Kamakura more generally, but for now, I want to write about a very special trip that we took to have shōjin ryōri.

Shōjin ryōri is the traditional cuisine of Japanese Buddhist monks and does not include any animal products. One description I read said that the monks do not eat anything “that flees when chased.” The food is based on seasonal vegetables and spices that nourish the body in accordance with the season (e.g., to warm, cool, fortify against cold). Some of the most characteristic staples include sesame oil, nuts, miso, kombu and wakame seaweeds, soy in various forms, kanten (agar-agar powder) and of course fresh veggies, although garlic and onions are not used. Here is a description in English from the restaurant that we went to. Another explanation from Kikkoman is also interesting.

So what did we eat? See below!

Descriptions in the order that the food was served

Top left photo

  • Left plate
    • Kinpira (thin veggies with sesame oil) with green peppers and konnyaku (in the bowl)
    • Juicy eggplant with miso
    • Sweetened black bean
    • “Loaf” of okara (powder from tofu making) with beans
    • Garnished with a stalk of ginger
  • Top right bowl
    • Kabocha (pumpkin), green beans, yomogi fu (mugwort), yuba (sheets from tofu making), fu (wheat gluten)
  • Bottom left bowl
    • Greens with sesame seeds
  • Middle bowl
    • Goma dofu (sort of like tofu, but actually made with smashed sesame seeds), garnished with ginger. Very smooth.
  • Front right bowl
    • Cucumber with tiny chopped nagaimo (sticky potato)
  • Across the way on Y’s side, you can see a small ball of rice with red beans: our special extra dish as we were celebrating our wedding anniversary (4+ months late)

All I can say about all of this is that it was gorgeous.

Top middle photo

  • Fried yuba, with soy sauce and a secret pouch with some delicious roasted veggies (not sure what they were). Yuba is a sheet of tofu that forms during the tofu making process. It’s very smooth and light, once called in the New York Times, tofu’s “sexy and elegant cousin.” Very tasty. I had never had fried yuba before, and although initially it was delicious, this portion was just a bit too much of a good thing.

Top right

  • This was the most delicate of the courses, with baby corn, myoga (similar to ginger), shiitake, asparagus and okra (hiding a bit in the photo), and grated nagaimo (those sticky potatoes again)

Bottom left

  • Back to bolder flavour again with a miso sauce and wakame seaweed, fuki (butterbur, looks like celery in the photo), a thin sheet of fried tofu, and the best part: lovely crunchy takenoko (bamboo shoots, sort of at the back of the photo).

Bottom middle

I was full by this point, but I managed most of the next course anyway:

  • Rice mixed with matcha (green tea) (front left)
  • Furikake, which is the generic name for rice seasoning. This particular one was made of wheat gluten and sesame seeds with a tangy, nutty flavour (top left)
  • Traditional pickles: daikon (radish) and plum leaves (sooo good) (small bowl in the middle)
  • Miso soup with myoga, greens (spinach or komatsuna, not sure) and maybe something else (front right)

Other types of Japanese food would rely on fish stock for many of these dishes, but shōjin ryōri uses stocks and seasonings made from mushroom and seaweed stock as well as soy sauce, sesame oil, etc.

Bottom right

  • Dessert! Fortunately it was very cool and gentle, and a perfect finish. Lightly lemon flavoured jelly (for lack of a better word) made of kanten (aka agar-agar powder), with grapefruit and pineapple.

I certainly can’t hope to replicate this at home, but I am now inspired to get out my shōjin ryōri cookbook, Enlightened Kitchen: Fresh Vegetable Dishes from the Temples of Japan (recommended!).

Trash

Yes, that’s right. I’m writing about trash. Rubbish. Garbage. It is in fact a complex topic for residents of Japan who want to sort their rubbish properly. Japan is a densely populated country with not much in the way of natural resources and extra space, but very much into consumption, so waste management is very important. There seems to be a pretty good civic effort into sorting trash for recycling and disposal, and naturally, there are many rules and procedures.

I picked up a handily bilingual city garbage guide so that I could do it properly. (Yes, there are cute characters to make it more fun.) As you can see, we are required to separate our trash by type at home, and since we live in an apartment complex, there are different sections in the trash collection area for our building where we can dump each type.

2016-05-10 21_16_24-Program Manager

If I get confused, I can also consult the garbage separation Mictionary

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It’s often difficult to find public trash bins. The most likely thing to find is bins for recycling bottles and cans near vending machines, but otherwise, public trash cans tend to be scarce. I’m not sure why this is (and frankly, I’m too lazy to look into it further, sorry). I’ve heard a theory that fewer public trash cans actually leads to less litter, while another possible explanation I’ve heard is that there is a fear of bombs in trash cans in public places. Anyway, when you do find them, there are separate bins for different types of trash. Below is the trash and recycling area at a university. (The flame sign is for burnable garbage as opposed to recycling.)

recycling

This wouldn’t be a proper post about trash collection in Japan if I didn’t mention that garbage trucks play music as they’re collecting. On hearing music in streets, I’ve asked Y more than once, oh, is that an ice cream truck? And of course he says, no, that’s a trash truck. Some tunes include When You Wish Upon a Star and Auld Lang Syne.

As for recycling: I probably need to write another post about plastic more specifically. Despite such earnest efforts at recycling, Japan is addicted to plastic packaging. So many bags, wrappers, food packs, etc. etc.! It’s interesting that it’s common to buy bottles of liquids like spray cleaners, shampoo, hand soap, etc. only once, and then buy refill bags for the same bottle that have much less packaging. However, sales clerks tend to be lightning fast with their bagging that often I can’t explain that I don’t need a plastic bag in time to stop them. I once bought a rice ball (onigiri) and drink at a convenience store and ended up with each item in a separate bag. Much of the produce in grocery stores is in plastic as well. Anyway, I’m getting carried away–will need another post.

To close, here is a recording of a truck driving around inviting people to bring out electronics, furniture, etc. that they no longer need. There are periodic collections of household rubbish by the city, but I think this is a private entity that will recycle or resell the stuff for profit. You often hear voices like this calling out in the streets, and it sounds rather eerie to me! (Sorry about the video…I just wanted to record the audio and can’t be bothered to do anything else with it! Or maybe it’s artistic or something.)

Masks

One cultural phenomenon that is immediately obvious to visitors or immigrants to Japan is the popularity of wearing surgical masks. You can see them everywhere, on all kinds of people (any gender, age, or status). I found it disorienting when I first visited, but by now, I don’t even really notice and wear a mask myself from time to time.

This article on Japan Today gives a bit of background and explanation. Apparently mask-wearing became extremely popular beginning in 2003 due to the promotion of new types of non-woven masks.

From articles I’ve read as well as my own observations and conversations, some of the reasons for wearing masks are thus:

  • Politeness toward others when sick and/or fear of becoming sick, which seems valid given the crowded nature of Japanese cities and especially public transit
  • Reducing hay fever symptoms (I can vouch for this; I think it helps)
  • Keeping your face warmer on cold days
  • Hiding one’s non-made-up face when running a quick errand (sheesh)
  • Sun protection, maybe? Japanese women are very much into protecting themselves from the sun
  • Pure aesthetics, e.g., for youth gang subcultures (!)
  • An attempt at social isolation (according to the article; I’m skeptical about how common this is)

Masks come in many different models and even different colours, although I rarely see any other than white. I particularly like one made for wearing at night when you have a cold, with moistened inserts that you put in the front to help with breathing.

Do masks actually prevent the spread of disease? Apparently the jury is out on that and at this point, it doesn’t really matter given the ingrained popularity.

Golden Week

I’m procrastinating on writing projects and studying Japanese because it’s Golden Week! Some readers may ask, “what is this Golden Week you speak of”? It is the fortuitous alignment of a bunch of public holidays in the first week of May, and people often take extra time off to make it a full week or more. The holidays are:

  • April 29: Shōwa Day (昭和の日), which is for the Shōwa period’s emperor (Hirohito). The date was picked because it used to be a different imperial holiday
  • May 3: Constitution Memorial Day (憲法記念日)
  • May 4: Greenery Day (みどりの日) (previously swapped around with the imperial day; it’s just a holiday to fall between the other two)
  • May 5: Children’s Day (こどもの日)

If any of these fall on a Sunday, the 30th or 6th is a public holiday instead.

Most offices and government agencies are closed on all of the holidays, and definitely industrial/manufacturing companies are closed during the whole time period. Retailers, on the other hand, are open and raking in the money. As you can imagine, many people travel overseas or within Japan and so trains out of Tokyo are extremely jam-packed. As for me, I’m happy to have Y at home for a few days and we’re catching up on householdy paperworky stuff. Might also catch a city parade at some point.

Of the holidays, Children’s Day is definitely the best. It was previously known as Boys’ Day, and it’s traditional to put out koinobori flags (carp) for each member of a family. Also, samurai helmets are displayed, and of course one must eat kashiwa-mochi (sweet red beans in sticky rice cakes, wrapped with kashiwa (oak) leaves). (You’re not supposed to eat the leaf!)

There’s a nice video and recipe on the Just One Cookbook site.

NB: you can buy your favourite samurai helmet on Amazon.

612sZP4AO1L 2016-05-01 17_07_51-Amazon.co.jp _ ダース・ベイダー 兜飾り STAR WARS スター・ウォーズ _ Toys 通販