In the Darkness of the Night

"White Prunus Korin" by English: Ogata Korin (1658 - 1716) - WA-KAN-MEIGA-SEN(Japanese and Chinese old masterpece paintings anthology ) published by KOKKA-sha in 1904, Tokyo, Japan. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Above the clear water,

The scent of plum blossom

Wafts in the darkness of the night.

A boat carrying a group of noblemen drifts across a pond—their assignment is to return with a poem to present to the lord hosting the night’s banquet. A short distance away, along the edge of the pond, there stands a grove of plum trees whose boughs stretch out across the limpid water. Myriad plum flowers glow softly in the moonlit night.

On Friday, I visited the Tokyo National Museum to see its Treasured Masterpieces from National Palace Museum, Taipei exhibition. I went with a view to enjoying Chinese celadon masterworks, but instead ended up getting knocked out by the beautiful collection of calligraphy works. One such work contained a couplet from Lin Bu’s poem, “Little Plum Blossom of Hill Garden” (疎影横斜水清浅、暗香浮動月黄昏). My rendition is not totally accurate—it is actually a translation of a shortened form of the poem that was given in Japanese on the exhibition label (清らかな水の上に、梅の香りは闇に漂う). I think the image still works nicely. The accompanying narrative is for my own amusement.

Photo is from Wikimedia (Left-hand screen of Red and White Plum Blossoms by Ogata Korin (1658 – 1716) – WA-KAN-MEIGA-SEN published by KOKKA-sha in 1904, Tokyo, Japan.)

Posted in Culture, Seasons, Ume plums | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Pickled plums: Umeboshi making

Nanko-ume, suitable for making pickled plums

The nagging rain of the tsuyu season isn’t quite so intolerable when the home is filled with the floral scent of crisp ume plums. Hard to imagine from this oozing sweet scent the full-bodied tang their flesh possesses. A word of warning to those curious daredevils: never consume an unripe plum unless you’re willing to writhe in agony. Processed plums are said to be medicinal, but untreated plums are indubitably potent in that they will induce cyanide poisoning.

This is my third year of plum-pickle making, and I am as willing as ever to toil away in joyful exuberance. The tactile pleasure of fondling the velvety plums is almost as entrancing as kissing the cheek of a delicious newborn. Besides, good quality plum pickles are so hard to come by these days that it makes sense to make them myself. Sure, I can find stacks of pickled plums sold in the supermarkets, but most of them are adulterated—tasteless phonies with chock-full of additives.

The plums arrived only this morning, and I have spread them out across a tray for them to ripen a little longer. In a day or two, they will be salted and be left in a container to pickle in their own brine; to be forgotten until the scorching sunshine of late July. By then, the plums will have become as soft as my love handles, and will be ready to endure three days of basking in intense heat. Some recipes tell you to leave the plums outdoors for three whole days, but that’s just insane. We’re not trying to make dried-up fruit here. The key to making supple pickled plums is to let the plums dry out during daytime for three consecutive days, but always remembering to dip them back in the brine each evening. Following that, leave them outdoors for the next three nights to absorb plenty of night dew for them to become tender.

I will try and update you on my progress.

Plum cordial and Plum liqueur  were made earlier this month using less ripened plums

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If you want a breather, follow this link!

Just a short post for today.


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The Problem with Everyone’s Faces

DSC01551BELLA. We made a pumpkin pie with whipped cream and an apple pie with vanilla ice cream.
BEN. Those look great! Good job, Bella.
BELLA. Thanks! I love baking. I like seeing everyone’s happy faces.
…………………………………………………………..(NHK Kiso Eigo 2, Lesson 112)

 The problem with “everyone’s happy faces” is that, unless you’re friends with a bunch of Buddhas with multiple faces, the implication is pretty bizarre. And yet, this was exactly what I heard, together with my kid, when listening in on NHK Radio’s English Learning Course broadcast.

I had one heck of a hard time trying to convince my kid that the expression was actually grammatically skewed. After all, it was my word against theirs–NHK’s team of experts comprised of a university professor with years of teaching experience, a bilingual actor, and an American university graduate who studied creative writing in her mother tongue. And it wasn’t just my son who couldn’t believe that they had made a mistake. A friend of mine, an English teacher at school, was fooled too: “Well, since ‘everyone’ does refer to all people, it conveys the right meaning within this context, doesn’t it?”

Yeah, right. They’re people hired by NHK; how could they possibly screw up like you and me.

But you know what? I have the supreme authority at hand to back me up: Fowler’s Modern English Usage. So nyah!

I wish that NHK would make corrections when they find mistakes in their own English courses, because the ramifications are far from negligible. Thousands of Japanese junior-high-school kids have now been imprinted with the wrong notion that the word “everyone” acts as a plural pronoun. When they realize later on that this is in fact not so, they are going to be stupefied.

In our language, words do not carry the sense of quantity in the same way that the English words do. Getting to grips with the notion of quantity in nouns and verbs and then constructing sentences with the correct subject-verb agreement is a thing of a nightmare for the many of us. If the kids encounter too many unexplained anomalies that abrogate perfectly sensible grammar during their course of learning, then some will turn their back entirely on tedious grammar and instead resort to hassle-free rote learning. I mean seriously, does the world really need yet more of our gift-wielding “parrot people”?

But hey, perhaps I am being too captious. NHK has a long history of providing its listeners with well-thought-out language programmes that are filled with wit and charm. A few boo-boos here and there would not set off a catastrophe. Sure, I’m just a disgruntled Babel fish on a zero-hours contract, venting her frustration through this petty act of nit-picking. Even so, I doubt if any one of you will deny the fact that had the program’s team acknowledged this daft mistake, they would have sent out the best message possible for the listeners to get to hear.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. See? Native speakers get it wrong all the time!

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We all know who’s going to win

Ohwaku-dani Hot Spring, Hakone

Seasons’ senseless game:
A tug of war. O relent!
You foolish summer.

Summer is obstinate and I feel nauseous from the aestival heat–thirty degrees centigrade to be exact. Look! Even the earth is fuming. What a punishing regime the elements delight in putting us through.

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How to live frugally in the world’s most expensive city

SardinesAccording to the Economist, Tokyo has yet again claimed its place as the world’s most expensive city this year. Shame on you Zurich, for your self-effacing act of foisting this prestige upon us when our economy is on the brink of imploding! We have already seen an exodus of foreign residents immediately following the Fukushima disaster; why give those few happy souls remaining sound reason to leave? What we need is a good PR, aka public reassurance, that despite the hiking energy prices and the soon-to-be-sky-rocketing consumer tax, you don’t have to survive on mist to live in Tokyo. All you have to do, dear foreign residents, is learn how to survive on dregs.

okara Living frugally in any part of Japan is pretty much a doddle, if you only know how. We have a variety of authentic waste products that can be cooked up to bowl over the most ruthless of connoisseurs. Take okara for example. If you go visit your local tofu shop, the chances are you will get a bagful of it for free. Okara, the humble remains of soybeans after the milk is wrung out, gets produced in heaps when making tofu, and is considered as something of a nuisance by tofu makers. But don’t be fooled by its bland, mushy appearance. With its rich content of insoluble nutrients, this low fat, high fibre mash can actually be regarded as a superfood. The most popular recipe for okara is this. Sauté the okara with diced chicken and julienned veggies, then pour in a generous quantity of dried-mushroom stock, and let the mixture simmer for a while. And there you have it, unohana, a dish our forebears called, bouquet of deutzia flowers. It is a hearty, savoury side dish that you can tuck into to your heart’s content and still feel your body lighten the day after.

Prepared sea breamThere are plenty more of budget foods like this available in Japan. Let me give you another example. Maintaining a rather low profile at the corner of the fish section in your local supermarket you will find a range of ara, the carcasses of various types of fish whose flesh has been filleted. The heads and bones of fish make an ideal stock full of umami flavour, and cooking the head of, say, sea bream with Japanese radish will make a refined side dish that is fit to be served at Nobu Restaurant. Did you know that the now famous shottsuru hotpotCooked sea bream with Japanese radish of Akita was originally a pauper’s feast? Because the people of Akita could not afford soy sauce, they made a sauce out of fermenting fish heads and used that to season the pots. Go travel around this archipelago, and you are certain to find a rich array of time-honoured budget recipes that has been refined to perfection.

So please, don’t grieve if you can’t afford to munch away sushi every day of your life. You can still survive quite happily by feasting over our plebeian cuisine, so rich in flavour, and so abound with untold stories of our forebears’ culinary endeavour.

fried tofuJapanese hotpotyakitori - ready for eating

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Mount Takao on Children’s Day

The day-to-day living in the passively pungent suburbia had worn me down so much that I felt like crying. I needed an escape, to a place where the air was unsullied, where the terrain was overwhelmed by giant cedars, and where the sound was clear but for the trill of birds.
So what did I do? Go mountain hiking!

However, when I got to the cable car station at the base of Mount Takao, this was what I found.

Takao Cable Car Station

Never mind, we intended to walk from the base anyway.
But even though we chose to go by the most treacherous trail, I still found it jammed with an irksome boodle of amateur hikers, just like me.

the one with the red bag pack is my son, the other with the green bag pack is my dad.

Naturally, the summit too was chaotic.

the summit

Mount Takao, being so accessible from Tokyo, has always been a popular hiking spot for the Tokyoites, but ever since it was introduced by the Michelin, the congestion has soared so ridiculously to render what was once a freshening experience into one that is utterly worthless.

It’s a beautiful mountain with a lovely shrine close to the summit, but with the way it is now, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Here are some more pictures. Do enjoy!DSC01400DSC01402DSC01401DSC01406grilled rice cake, skewed.grilled fish, skewed.

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