Tatsuno Fireflies

July 8th, 2010 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Report

Fireflies, which for many like myself are a mystical insect absent from childhood memories, are naturally abundent in different regions of Nagano in the peak of Japan’s summer months. Last year, a neighbor took me to the stream near her house to show me the native fireflies that gather every year and make the rice fields and river sparkle with speckles of light.

The dozens of fireflies my neighbor showed me, however, pale in quantitative comparison to the hundreds which prosper in Tatsuno city of South Central Nagano.

Tatsuno is famed for their fireflies and actively advertise the annual gathering in their tourism materials, website, and even road signs. With a three hundred yen ticket, families, couples, and firefly enthusiasts stroll around the large teared park which the fireflies light up in pulsating glows.

And…the sight is utterly spectacular and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. However, Tatsuno has also gained National media attention for its introduction of a non-native firefly species back in the 1960s which has actually wiped out the native population said to date back to the 1920s. In 2008, many National Japanese papers covered the story because according to a journal article and wikipedia (yes, there is a wikipedia article about it) – Tatsuno city has continued to fuel the non-native fireflies.

If you are not so bothered about the ethical practice of impinging on natural habitats, experiencing Tatsuno’s fireflies today is nothing short of magical. In fact, even knowing the slightly sketchy history of Tatsuno’s firefly population – it was hard not to be in awe and enjoyment of a moon filled night lazily strolling through Tatsuno’s firefly studded park.

But if you are opposed to paying to see wild fireflies, want to avoid crowds, or take a bio-ethical stand: keep your eyes peeled and ask locals about firefly hideaways and you are sure to find a batch somewhere in the prefecture.

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Kamikochi in Nagano’s Rainy Season: The Zen of Mist and Colors of Jumpsuits

July 4th, 2010 by
Category: Events, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities

If you have come to Nagano for hiking during the summer months’ rainy season you are in store for some of the lushest green vegetation and mistiest peaks of the year. So don’t let potentially in climate weather stop you from lacing up your hiking boots.

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In late July, fellow Go Nagano Blogger Tom Jones led me and friends around some of Kamikochi National Park’s day trip treasures. Both Saturday and Sunday were spent under light rain showers which meant no crowds, heightened colors, and forests of sound.
Read the rest of this entry »

Edible Mountain Vegetables and Hakuba’s Hills in Summer

July 4th, 2010 by
Category: Cuisine
Tsukaike Ski Hill, Hakuba

Tsukaike Ski Hill, Hakuba

In addition to Hakuba’s winter popularity for snow sports, many locals know that Hakuba’s ski mountains make picturesque hiking and mountain biking trails throughout summer and early fall.

Some also know that the ski hills have some of the tastiest mountain vegetables and plants in summer.

On a small walk in June, friends and I ran into two Nagano locals picking the mountain vegetable (sansai) huki, or Japanese butterbur on Tsugaike mountain.

Huki or Fuki

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Huki, of Japanese Buttebur on Tsugaike Mountain

Coincidentally, later that day a friend brought huki to our music practice in my town.

Like the couple picking huki in Tsugaike, my friend had discarded the elephant ear like leaf in favor of huki’s long, thin stems.

The stems are often diced, cooked in a soy sauce type sauce, and resemble a taste similar to other Japanese pickled vegetables.

Huki can seem fairly easy to pick and eat and can easily be found in gardens, hills, and mountain side’s throughout Nagano.

Though ! I wouldn’t recommend picking and digesting wild mountain vegetables without a local’s supervision and guidance.

Eating Sansai Mountain Vegetables in Nagano

For those without time or access to picking their own sansai, or mountain vegetables, any soba

A Nagano couple picking Huki mountain vegetables on Hakuba's Tsugaike mountain

A Nagano couple picking Huki mountain vegetables on Hakuba's Tsugaike mountain

restaurant throughout the prefecture should most likely have sansai on their menu.

Sansai are commonly served with udon or soba noodles and occassionally as tempura.

In Hakuba, Zen Soba House, for example, is known for their soba and sansai and conveniently located just across from the 7-11 at the bottom of Happo One village.

A portrait of Nagano’s Martial Ways at the 3rd Annual Budo Festival

June 24th, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Onsens (Hot Springs)

The 3rd Annual Omachi Budō Festival:

A bento of Martial Arts

Will Habbington, co-organizer of the Omachi Budo Festival, during this year's Iado session

Will Habington, co-organizer of the Omachi Budo Festival, during this year's Iado session

This past Sunday, William Habington and Tammy Crichton organized the third annual Omachi Budō Festival near Lake Kizakiko. William and Tammy have, respectively, been living in Nagano and practicing budo for over five years. For the last three years, they have organized the Omachi Budō Festival as a sampling of martial arts and a gathering of community. This year, teachers and students volunteered their time to teach classes and do demonstrations in Kendo, Judo, Jodo, Naginata, and Iado.

Tammy Cricheron, co-organizer of the Omachi Budo Festival, during the Naginata sessions

Tammy Crichton, co-organizer of the Omachi Budo Festival, during the Naginata sessions

Taking off Kendo gear after the last session of the day

Taking off Kendo gear after the last session of the day

In popular media, particularly film, Japan’s martial arts can portray an exoticized image of Japan’s castle and samurai guarded history. Today, however, in addition to higher competitive levels, budō thrives in school activities and community past times. Removed from a context of warring necessity, the goal of budō today may seem like heightened athleticism and competition. However, the Japanese Budo Association understands the “study of budō (to) encourage courteous behavior, advance technical proficiency, strengthen the body, and perfect the mind.”

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According to the Association:

Budō is:

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"the Japanese martial ways, (that) have their origins in the age-old martial spirit of Japan. Through centuries of historical and social change, these forms of traditional culture evolved from combat techniques (jutsu) into ways of self-development (do)."

Getting Involved in Nagano Budō

As a tourist visiting Nagano, it is not quite as easy to participate in budō study which Habbington says he usually associates with longer term residents. However, viewing practices or hands on experiences in some of the art can be arranged.

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Tyler Lynch , of Uniquely Nagano, is working towards organizing more English language resources for inbound tourists eager to experience different parts of Nagano’s culture. Currently, experiences in ninjistsu are available through Togakushi schools. Contact: omotenashi(at)kamesei.jp for more details.

曲水の宴 Kyokusui no utage Poetry and Tea Ceremony at Manns Winery in Komoro City

June 11th, 2010 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Events
My koto teacher, Masaki Hara, in the outdoor tea ceremony area

My koto teacher, Masaki Hara, in the outdoor tea ceremony area

This past Saturday, Manns Winery in Komoro city opened its traditional Japanese garden to tea ceremony and the Heian period poetry game kyoku sui no utage. I was invited by my koto teacher who played the accompanying music for the festivities. But it wasn’t until yesterday that we exchanged notes on the ornate and relatively rare Heian game which can be difficult to fully understand even for locals like my teacher who took part in the ceremony.

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For me, with limited Japanese and even less context to Saturday’s events before arriving, wandering into the winery’s expansive green lawn felt like Japanese historical reenactment meets Sunday brunch and polo game. Kimono clad guests shaded themselves with lace parasols and colorful umbrellas while peering into the landscaped lower garden. Below, honorary participants were seated under lacquer red parasols in decadent deep purple and orange robes, gleaning with silver and gold threads. Attendants with long platted hair circled around the camera men, journalists, and participants in a reserved, but constant motion.

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Hein period costumes are used in kyoku sui no utage because it is originally a Heian period game for nobles, particularly of the imperial court. Saturday’s version was a combination of formal ceremony for nobles and informal community gathering with tea.

tea_walkingAfter the Heian processional played kyoku sui no utage and received tea, hundreds of guests strolled the garden and struck up conversation. One woman and I discovered that we live in neighboring villages. Later she wrangled her grandson over, one of my elementary school students, to practice his English which was sticky but proudly spot on despite his ice cream lined lips and ruffled energy which comes from summer play.

曲水の宴 Kyoku sui no utage: The Hein Poetry Game:

Heian period robes were worn during the festivities for Kyoku Sui no Utage, a Heian period poetry game.

Heian period robes were worn during the festivities for Kyoku Sui no Utage, a Heian period poetry game.

As the koto music played, announcements were read, and dancers danced, the honorary few, in robes and make-up, wrote wakas, or Japanese poems. Kyoku sui no utage is basically a game where participants compose a poem and use a sprout of bamboo to catch a small saucer of sake floated down stream to them. In this instance, assistants brought the sake to those composing the poems, I assume because they were enacting the role of nobility, but after the formal ceremony finished, all of the guests were invited to partake. Seated on straw mats that felt like lily pads, guests leaned over the garden’s small stream reaching for the multi-colored ducks carrying sake in sip sized red saucers.

Three women try to catch sake floatd down stream to them as part of kyoku sui no utage, the Heian period game

Three women try to catch sake floatd down stream to them as part of kyoku sui no utage, the Heian period game

tea_streamOnce the enacting imperial court and corresponding formality had finished, kyoku sui no utage really felt more like a game. The sweets, drink, and playfully novel objective of catching your sake with  the bamboo stick (which was easily floated by at hands reach) was all pleasantries: a characteristic you might suspect from a 12th century game for nobles. Also, many of Saturday’s poems were simple and sweet without much verbose language or ambiguity. Even my poem, written in bad Japanese, reading “today gave me many good feelings. I love summer. Thank you!” seemed to fit in alongside the other guests’ poetry who also thanked the organizers for the fun day or depicted summer drawings.

野点Nodate Outdoor Tea Ceremony

A lace hankerchief used to guard against spilling the day's bento (lunch) down the kimono front.

A lace hankerchief used to guard against spilling the day's bento (lunch) down the kimono front.

After kyoku sui no utage, guests strolled around the gardens and reserved seats to receive tea. Because only twelve or so people could be served at a time, we experienced a two hour wait for our tea. However, after coffee in the winery restaurant and a bento of oden, rice, and seafoods  (shrimp, scallop, and battered squishy maybe octopus piece), the time passed quickly before we were seated at the nodate outdoor tea ceremony.

nodate-outdoor-teaIn traditional tea ceremony style, every detail of setting, utensils, and decorations were taken into consideration by the host for the guest’s delight and enjoyment. During this event, ikebana, fresh flower arrangements were designed and trimmed for each set of guests seated. A small scroll with seasonally appropriate poetry was hung upon the guest of honor’s red parasol. And the utensils used to prepare the tea were of course chosen for the occasion and displayed after use for the guests to admire as they left.

Sweets are always served before recieving tea. The man in the background is striking up conversation as he is sitting in the honorary guest position.

Sweets are always served before recieving tea. The man in the background is striking up conversation as he is sitting in the honorary guest position.

Before receiving tea, it is customary to eat a small sweet to enhance or balance the green tea which can sometimes be bitter. Saturday’s nodate served a skillfully chosen sweet in the shape of a fish and water, which were both seasonally and setting appropriate as guests were seated to the side of a flowing waterfall and pond.

More traditional tea in the indoor tea house was also served with ikebana flower arrangement, scroll, and delicious flower shaped sweets.

All of this at a winery…in Komoro…in Nagano prefecture…

kimono_pocketIt may seem like an event like this, shrouded in Hein costumes and entrenched in traditional ritual, should take place in Kyoto, Japan’s capital for traditional arts and culture. However, the local and community feel at the winery was all Nagano. The fact that it was held at a winery, a seemingly counterintuitive location for a traditional Japanese ceremony, reflects the creative confluence and contemporary practice of traditional culture in day to day Nagano life. Reporters and ice cream stained elementary schoolers are perfect reminders that traditional arts in Japan are thriving without being romanticized freeze frames unrelated to normal life.

Access to Manns Winery:

384-0043 375
0267-22-6341
From 9:00 am to 5:00 pm
komoro@manns.co.jp
http://www.mannswine-shop.com/winery/komoro/access.htm


Shiohara Keichi’s Famous Yakitori Salting Technique: Half In His Hat & Half On Your Chicken

May 26th, 2010 by
Category: Cuisine
shintori_yakitori_matsumoto

If you live in Matsumoto city you’ve probably heard of the yakitori bar Tori Shin. Getting to the local favorite, however, isn’t as easy. The grilled chicken den is only a three minute walk from JR Matsumoto station but spontaneously (or intentionally) finding its sliding door, tucked at the end of a very unappealing looking hallway, can be a challenge. If you do, however, you will find the hole in the wall yakitori bar that has attracted Matsumoto locals and yaki tori purists for the past 25 years.

The Menu shintori_yakitori_matsumoto_chicken

Tori Shin’s menu is traditional yaki tori without bells, whistles, or many side dishes and alternatives. If it is part of a chicken though, Tori Shin has probably salted and skewered it for your dining pleasure. Wasabi dabbed raw chicken, chicken cartilage, skin, liver, heart, wing, ground meatballs, intestines, neck meat with green onion, and of course white meat are the bulk of the menu.

The bar

Every diner is served shredded daikon (japanese raddish) as an appetizer and a large colander of cabbage to snack on throughout the meal. The hustling staff have to maneuver around customers backs in the half meter wide walking space between the bar stools and walls. Bags and coats are often stacked upon kegs, crates, or wherever there is space. And the décor is a balance between beer advertisements and decorative trinkets like artificial roses displayed in empty whisky bottles. In the center of the horseshoe shaped bar it is easy to pick out Shin Tori’s superstar: owner and master Shiohara Keichi who calmly mans the very busy charcoal grill every night.

In response to Denny’s

shintori_yakitori_matsumoto_Shiohara opened Tori Shin twenty-five years ago in reaction to the surge of family restaurants, like Gusto and Dennys, spreading across Matsumoto city in the 1980s. After nine years working in a Japanese restaurant, nine years in a French restaurant, and a brief tenure in a local family restaurant Shiohara set his sights on yakitori.

The famed salting technique

Twenty-five years later, the now yakitori master is known for his famed local yakitori hotspot and distinctive salting technique. The mesmerizing and entertaining technique is controlled with a meditative flare, always the same motion executed with his pinky out. By holding the salt above his head and the skewers at hip level, he pours the salt with a very tempered and deliberate shake while rotating the skewers. His gaze is focused downwards, leaving the cusp of his hat open to catch the cascading salt as it is poured. The result is a thin and steady flow of salt sprinkled across the chicken without clumping or shintori_yakitori_matsumoto_yakitori-copyuneven distribution. In other words…Shiohara has reached salting perfection and it is noticeable with every bite.

Shiohara is not the only yakitori master in Japan to use this salting method, but his flawless and experienced execution of the technique borders on mastery. If you are not careful, the unassuming and casual Shin Tori can run you a bill larger than your wallet had anticipated. But as each skewer averages around 190yen it is easy to stay affordable if you can avert your focus from the salt shaking hypnotist and keep track of your order.

Access: 3 min. walk in front of Matsumoto sta.

From Matsumoto station cross the street and go the street not left of the McDonalds but the small alleyway street to the left after that. Then take the first right hand hallway and walk to the end of the hallway where there is a light up sign in front of a small doorway with lanterns above it. This is Tori Shin!

The High Art of Nagano’s Yashouma Offering

May 26th, 2010 by
Category: Cuisine, Onsens (Hot Springs), Seasonal Topics
yashouma

If you ask most Japanese people about yashouma you will probably receive a resounding “ehhh??” and quizzical look. The Shinshu specialty is not even unanimously known within Nagano, its home prefecture. However, the rice flour (komenko) treat is a fascinating imbalance between ornate, neon design and plain mochi (rice cake) flavor.

From Yashoumaizo “It’s so delicious!”…in a way

yashouma_packingOne story surrounding the name’s origin comes from yashoumaizo which means “it’s so delicious!” However, as yashouma is seemingly flavorless, it brings to light a scope of flavor which includes plain like a color scale that may include white. Also, flavor, particularly in traditional Japanese cuisine, is highly influenced by presentation, colors, and season, aspects of which yashouma excel. Traditionally, as an offering (osonae) to the Buddha Oshakasam, yashouma’s design, skillfully inlaid in the center of the hockey puck shaped mochi, has always taken precedent over the taste.

An offering to Oshakasama

yashouma_happyToday, in honor of Oshakasama’s annual return from the afterworld (ohigan), yashouma is made and eaten every year on March 15h, the day the Buddha Oshakasama died. In Oshakasama’s honor, Yashouma is most popular in February and March, but it is available all year long.
Sakakita village, North of Matsumoto City in Nagano prefecture, is famous locally for yashouma. Despite hours of watching Yashouma made in Sakakita, and even participating, my surprise never lessens each time the final picture is revealed. This could more likely reflect my intellect than the nature of yashouma- but regardless, for me yashouma borders on a mini culinary and artistic miracle.
I am also not the only one foreign to yashouma’s inner workings. Sakakita’s annual demonstration attracts paparazzi like attention from locals much more attuned to Japanese cuisne. At Sakakita’s weekend demo, cell phones and cameras snap photos of the different steps while pens and pencils fervently take notes amidst nods of discussion and comprehension over the hour long process necessary to make one roll.

The art and mystery of making Yashouma

yashouma_colorsYashouma could be considered a ceramic art just as much as a culinary trade because the intricate process required to construct the inlaid picture is comparable to clay work. The design is made by rolling snake like strands of mochi and stacking them to make a composite picture. The dough and taste of yashouma is not like the round white mochi balls common at New Years because it is based from flour (komenoko) instead of pure rice.
To make the mochi-like material, sugar, salt, and rice flour are mixed with boiling water and then steamed. After kneading the dough, coloring is added resulting in what looks like edible primary colored clay. The colored mochi are mixed and matched as desired to make the softer pinks of cherry blossoms or greens of leaves for the central picture which is usually a representation of spring.

Where to get Yashouma in Nagano?

yashouma_rollcutYashouma is a local specialty and can be difficult to find in restaurants or shops outside of Nagano prefecture. Within Nagano, Sakai and Chikuhoku (about 30 minutes North of Matsumoto city) sell locally made yashouma.
Access:
Chikuhoku Access (JR Stops: Nishijo, Sakakita, Hijirikogen; I.C. Exit: Omi)

Preparing after purchase

yashouma_heartsTo prepare yashouma after purchasing it just add a little bit of soy sauce and sugar after heating it up on the stove.