autumn in izu: falling in love all over again.

i would apologize for the pun in the title, but i’m not really that sorry.  i like puns.

as summer draws to a close, fall is starting to descend upon us here on the glorious izu peninsula.  the weather is getting a little chillier, the wind is starting to pick up, and nature is beginning to throw yet another astounding seasonal bounty in our direction.

spring in japan in beautiful.  summer in japan is beautiful.  even winter in japan is beautiful.  but fall makes them all pale in comparison.  the color of the mountains, the golden waving fields of plump rice, and the harvest moon all seem to invite even the most lowly foreigner (i.e. me) to get out and see japan in all of its natural glory.

needless to say, i accepted the invitation.  this last weekend, i went out to the bamboo forest, and between drinking and barbecuing and eating tasty treats, we all found the time to wander across some okazawa-san’s land and see what mama nature had to offer.

the highlights?  a whole boatload of chestnuts, a few bulbs of myoga, a hitch-hiking female mantis, and a beautiful lady who (despite being a little hungover from the prior night of partying) saw fit to grace me with her company.  all in all, a superb day.

have any fellow fall lovers caught wind of autumn in other parts of the world?  throw me a story or two in the comment section below whenever you get the chance.

“itadakimasu.”

don’t worry.  this isn’t a post about the japanese language.  i do my best to avoid writing those because they are, on the whole, excruciatingly boring for anybody who isn’t a devoted student of the japanese language.

this is a post about japan and its attitude towards food.   while it would be so easy to slam you over the head with one anecdote after another in an attempt to illustrate all kinds of taboos and mores, i am of the opinion that a single word might actually accomplish a deeper understanding of the lesson i want to convey.

when translated literally, itadakimasu means something along the lines of “i will partake.”  the phrase is beautifully vague and pretty darn confusing due to the omission of any discernible object which would undertake the verb “partake.”

japanese children say it before they dig into school lunch every day.  eighty year old japanese men say it before chomping down on a beautiful piece of sushi between bottles upon bottles of japanese sake.  itadakimasu is a word which transcends age in a highly ageist society.  it is used without thought in nearly every situation involving food or drink in modern japanese society, regardless of time of day, formality, or company.

when i ask the children i teach why they say itadakimasu and what exactly they are “partaking” in, they almost always give me the same reply: “we are giving our thanks to the nice old ladies that made our lunches from scratch.”  they aren’t wrong.  most people in japan use itadakimasu to mean something along the lines of “thank you for making this beautiful meal, i’m going to dig in now.”  based on such an explanation, the japanese stigma behind wasting food starts to make sense.  it is almost common sense that you should never waste any part of a meal that someone worked hard to prepare just for you.  in other words, it is bad to waste because it is bad to be rude.

they aren’t wrong, but they aren’t quite right, either.  i fell in love with this word when it was explained to me by a weekend farmer and fellow teacher.  when i asked him what exactly he “partakes” in, his answer was simple:

a life.

he explained to me that every living thing in this world has a life, and in order to consume it, we have to end that life.  cooking is, in a way, a manner of manipulating the life force of this world.

he told me that this is the reason why japanese cuisine has valued the integrity of its ingredients for so long.  traditional japanese cuisine augments its ingredients, it doesn’t cover them.  some japanese people joke that the only spices they use are soy sauce, mirin, japanese sake, dried fish, and hot water.  and most of them, especially the elderly folks, know that there is more than an element of truth to such a joke.

when he explained all this to me, the real reason for the japanese stigma behind wasting food made sense to me all of the sudden.  it isn’t a waste to end the life of a living thing, make it into food, and then not consume that food.  it is a tragedy.  by cooking, we shape the life force we harvest from nature, and by eating, we give the action meaning.

if you have read this whole long-winded post so far, i have a quick favor to ask of you.  i’m not some weirdo who is going to demand that you start saying itadakimasu before every meal.  i’m not going to force you go out and become a vegan.  i won’t even tell you you should try to eat more japanese food.

all i ask is that every time you buy groceries, cook a meal, or eat at a restaurant, take a split-second to appreciate each and every one of the myriad ingredients.  because they are giving their beautiful lives to you in an effort to help you appreciate the beauty of yours.

the little things.

snail

we could all learn a lesson or two from our good friend the snail.

last weekend, while i looking after two grills, my friend reiko was washing dishes and found this little dude hanging out in the sink.  she hates snails, so she freaked out and called me over to take him off of the pot he was clinging to.

but let’s be honesty, here.  snails don’t hurt anybody.  they don’t have stress in their lives.  they don’t even understand the concept of stress.  they just chug along from one place to the next without a care in the world.  and if they happen to get caught in a place they shouldn’t be and flung into the woods or a nearby bush, they don’t hold any grudges.

i think sometimes we get so wrapped in the big, grand schemes in life that we forget to live it up.  don’t ever let yourself become a victim of your own humdrum, hard-and-fast routine.  take some time out every day to appreciate the little things (like this snail i felt the insatiable need to photograph) and they will provide you with a much needed breath of fresh air.

and don’t forget to go adventuring as often as you can.  even if it is the comfort of your own home, do something new every day.  if you feel like clinging to the bottom of a pot you don’t own in a sink you have never been to before, go ahead and cling.

happy cooking, and have a great (see: tiny, adventurous) day.

tanabata: festival of stars (and barbecue, apparently).

for most people in japan, tanabata is a time to go to festivals, eat food that comes on sticks, and drink beer or other refreshing beverages.  for my friends, however, it is a time to go out in the middle of the nature, fire up the shichirins, and cook so much food that we could feed the russian army twice over.

everybody brought a little something to the party, and while we all thought what we brought was humdrum and average, somehow the sum of all of our dishes made for one of the most elegant and refined meals i have had in a long time.  the following is a list, in order, of what we cooked.

Continue reading

an ode to okazawa-san.

DSCN3804

every once in a while, you meet someone rare.  and when i say rare, i don’t mean a person who stands out in a crowd because they make an effort to stand out.  and i don’t mean the kind of person who stands out in a crowd naturally.  i mean the kind of person who doesn’t stand out in a crowd at all.  which is to say, the kind of person who doesn’t stand out in the crowd because they never even set foot near the crowd.  they don’t even know where the crowd is.  and most likely, they don’t care, because they have their own amazing thing going on.

okazawa-san is that man.  i’ve known him for almost a year now, and i know almost nothing about him.  i don’t know where he lives.  i don’t know if he is married.  i think he might have mentioned that he had a daughter one time, but i’m not sure.   if i asked him about any of that stuff, he would tell me.  but i don’t push, because if he wants to tell me all that stuff, he can.  if he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter to me.

what does matter is that he has potentially the sweetest set-up i could ever imagine.  he spends his days farming on a small plot of land next to a river and a bamboo forest.  between growing some of the greatest vegetables, herbs, and fruits i have ever had the pleasure of eating, he tends to the bamboo forest.  bamboo grows fast, and when it gets too thick, it can actually strangle itself and inhibit the growth of its own root structures.  he therefore takes it upon himself to keep the forest at a healthy thickness.  he keeps the strongest bamboo alive so it can put out shoots, and he culls the weak or inhibited bamboo.

but nothing goes to waste.  the weaker bamboo is carried up the steep incline to his homemade earthen kilns, chopped into segments, and split.  the split pieces are cleaned, and are then roasted in the super hot kilns over a long period of time to create charcoal.  and the charcoal has so many uses it will make your head spin.  i’ll save those for another post.

twice a month on saturday morning, okazawa-san gives me and a small group of like-minded people a bunch of alcohol, whatever local natural produce harvested that day, two grills to cook fresh fish and meats, all the bamboo charcoal we could ever want, and a spacious homemade gazebo to hang out in.  and in exchange, we give him a helping hand with whatever he needs done.  the most lopsided deal of all time?  maybe.  a boat load of fun for free?  you bet your butt it is.

he is a man who does not mince words.  if you don’t say anything and just sit on your butt drinking beer, he won’t bother you.  if you ask him what needs to be done, he’ll tell you and expect you to do it.  if you tell him you don’t know how to do the thing you just promised you’d do, he’ll teach you.  he is diligent and competent.  he is easy-going and mild-mannered.

okazawa-san is my botany teacher, my biology teacher, my local farmer, my drinking buddy, my host, and my friend.  and i can’t ask for any more than that.

here’s to you, good sir.  keep up the good work, and i’ll see you soon for some good eats and back-breaking hard labor.