Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Henro Experience

The Henro Experience

Japan is beautiful. Very few people I've met here would contest that with anything but modesty. The Henro Experience reveals something beyond the beauty, which is, yes, you've guessed it, beautiful too.

The weekend trip started with rushing, as all my journeys seem to. Having overslept to the extreme, my friend Stephanie and I cycled to Takamatsu station and caught a train to Zentsuji. Well, actually, I'm not going to be hugely helpful on the directions or the locations of where most of this trip took place, but those are details, I'm giving you an impression. Like my paintings, I focus on the colour, not the lines (or at least that's my excuse for it looking a bit blurry). There were other Henroers (as they shall hence forth be known) on the train too and we sat near them, though they were both bald (or lacking in hair) so naturally I kept my distance (this is my humour, I know, I know, it needs some work)

At Zentsuji (I think) station, we grabbed some food and met the rest of the Henroers, including the lovely organisers/leaders/people-who-later-translated-a-lot Lindsey and Chris.
Then we hopped onto a bus and caught it to the top of a mountain, where there was a reconstructed ancient burial tomb, where a pair were buried. It's not known as to whether the pair were a couple or a mother and son or a leader and their second in command or...
The views were spectacular and the weather was perfect for seeing our next destination a hill/mountain away (does Japan really have hills? or are they all mountains?)
We caught the bus back and had a little history lesson in a very elaborate building, which resembled a state home in Europe. (I wish I had my notes at hand, but I unfortunately don't, so the name and history shall be a mystery to you, one worth exploring perhaps with a Henro Experience)
Then we were given our outfits. The tradional pilgrimage attire. Something I'd been looking forward to quite a bit. Everything was novel and fun, the hats (my favourite bit) the sticks, the white gown-like tops, the bells and the little purple sash. They've all beautiful Japanese names, which we were told and given handouts about, so for those that wanted to, there was plenty of opportunity to learn each garment's name, but I was too busy wanting to get into the spirit of things and march off into the distance, all dressed up.

We visited many temples, trekking between them, just far enough to feel you've done some work, but not so far as to feel exhausted (well, maybe a little exhausted). Their names and their histories were beautiful and I'm glad I was given handouts about them as well as the oral translations from our guide as my memory is like a sieve. There was a museum full of ridiculously old treasures, all beautifully encased in glass, viewable for free.

We stayed the night, the Henroers (about thirty of us, give or take) in the temple, Zentsuji. There was a lovely Onsen, a really elaborate meal, with about 12 separate dishes used (I would not want to be doing the washing up afterwards) all vegetarian and meant to purify the soul/body. The Onsen was incredibly relaxing and refreshing. The evening was a chance to unwind after all the walking and to get to know the other internationals on the Henro, which was lovely as I made quite a few friends and a heck of a lot of laughs. Then we went to our dorms and slept, at nine. Uncharacteristically early. Because we had to be up at 5am for the Sūtra readings. It was hard to wake up that early, but it was worth it. That morning was probably the highlight of it for me. It's hard to compare such a variety of good experiences, but chanting with Buddhist monks at 5.30am is not something you get to do often and it was very relaxing and moving. There was definitely something in it that lifted the spirit.  Then came the best experience of all.

It was terrifying and it was strange. It made me giggle and it made me shudder. We were led under the temple into the underground tunnels beneath. There the two at the front were told, and then told everyone else, to put their left hands on the wall and to follow it, into the darkness. The tunnel wall was hard and smooth and soon vanished from sight as the darkness wrapped around us. I shuffled my feet along, nervous,  but excited. It was amazing. Something so simple and yet so delightful. I cannot recommend it enough.

Also, as a little end note, Japanese people are incredibly generous, especially to those who are on a Henro. We received a lovely little statue of a monk with (perhaps) a prayer inside and also a beautiful cloth that can be hung like a tapestry (and mine is doing just that, over the archway of my door and looking brilliantly Japanese). We had a chance to light incense in one of the last temples as well. Stephanie and I also received a gift from two ladies at a stall in a market we visited. Charcoal bamboo shoots, good for uneasy stomachs and fertilising plants. I may use some for the tomatoes and courgettes I'm trying to grow.

Here's my poor attempt at a Haiku to capture the feeling of listening to the monks and joining in on the chanting (sorry it's a bit feeble):

Zentsuji sutra
Words settle like sakura
Petals in our hearts

and another

Under Zentsuji
Left hands stroke dark ancient walls
Close your eyes and walk

and one final one, a little cryptically about a game some of the Henroers played at the temple:

Games in Zentsuji
Lynching and lying are rife
Try to save your life

Thank you.

Gosh my life is full of beautiful verbs

Haruka and Henro

I’ve started writing again and boy do I have a lot to write about now. I actually feel a bit guilty for how long it’s been since I wrote in my blog (in, on, for, a?!)

It’s been so long since I’ve mentioned what I’ve been up to. Here’s a list of things I've done, in no particular order, perhaps I will elaborate on each, or, as is more likely knowing me, I’ll pick one that’s not on the list and go off on a tangent that ends me up in some god forsaken place (Hmm sounds like my driving. Oh here we go…) :

  • Temples, shrines, temples shrines, templesshrines,templeshrines, templrines,temrines,trines,TRIES!

  • Onsen – which included one comically timed personal question and some inappropriate use of a hairdryer (not by myself of course)

  • Maffia x 3. Narrating is SO fun, especially as I essentially narrate my life every day with all these blogs and journals I’ve got flying around.

  • Welsh cakes and cooking class in a temple. Maybe next time it'll be lasagne I'm giving the recipe to...

  • Shodoshima grown strawberry jam and homemade dessert, such a lovely gift. A more poetic man would describe their gratitude more eloquently.

  • A postcard from my hairdresser with such a nice note on it.  "thank you for your comming a store!
    Moreover, lets's speak variously"

  • Aforementioned haircut and prior refusal for a haircut, due to...?

  • Haruka’s fleshing out nicely, soon she’ll be ready to manifest. After watching Chronicle last night, I feel like she’s a bit like the main character Andrew in that, but perhaps she is redeemable. Perhaps.

  • Reversing a long way along a narrow road, up hill. Doh. Which made me late for the first time to work. Eeks.

  • Hysterical questions about what happens if you pass wind in a class and the children hear – avec Liz and Lorianne.

  • Three observations of other teachers – all very different styles, all very interesting to watch.

  • The internet is looming closer, actual internet. Diablo 3 playable internet.

  • Waking up at 5am for sutra readings, chanting, a sort of rite of passage through a dark tunnel under the temple, one hand on the wall, the other half praying the darkness isn’t holding any sharp objects and slowly realising the wall is shifting around a corner. A dark, unseeable corner.

  • The realisation that when living alone, tidying’s more of a chore than you’d expect, but cooking is an indulgence worth pushing out the boat for.

  • A mental to do list which primarily consists of getting to bed by an early hour and being creative with my every waking hour. Read. Write. Paint. Pastel. Bake. Teach. Gosh my life is full of beautiful verbs.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Baking A little Wales into Japan

So previously I made Lemon Meringue Pie and just this second I've finished making Welshcakes.

And it wasn't a disaster. Woohoo. Something worthy of celebrating with a glass of wine and maybe a cake... a welsh cake even.

So there was lots of preparation but it went smoothly, but I deviated from the recipe on quite a few fronts.

Here is the original recipe. I've not tried it before, but I left my recipe book at home so I was in need of a recipe and bbcgoodfood's usually fair to its namesake. I omitted the baking powder and the mixed spice as I have neither and finding the flour was hard enough, not to mention the sugar and the first thing I bought thinking it was margarine... well that's another story, which relates very much to an earlier blog.

I also added a large number of mixed nuts (which included almonds, macadamia and walnuts and a few msyterious ones)

Firstly I only started taking photos when I'd already made the dough, but that bits easy.

There was mixing.

And then my Umeshu Bottle was used to roll out the dough. Shame the lid wasn't entirely on, but, hey, a little plum wine can never ruin a cake.

Pretty cutters aka upside down glasses.

YES, Welsh cakes are fried.

That definitely isn't caster sugar, but it tastes like sugar (always a plus) and it went into the mix without turning green or exploding (unlike what Neville Longbottom would manage in Potions, aka Cooking for magical folk)

The final result, a box of sugared welsh cakes. I've already had four. Well that's my evenings sorted for a month, a stone a day I say.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Mouth - the start of a story

As Haruka tiptoed further into the tunnel, tiny bones crunched underfoot. The sound made her smile, there was something oddly satisfying about it, but she tried not to let it distract her from her goal.  She still had a way to go yet.

She was already shivering, not because of the cold, but because she was excited and nervous.

This place, like no other, made her feel at home. Like a home, she knew it well. She knew when to stoop as the ceiling closed in and she recognised the dank smell that told her when to feel for the crack in the wall to slip through. She also knew not to wear a belt, not after the first time when it had gotten her stuck for about an hour. And like a home, she knew when something was amiss. From all around, the rhythmic dripping, as rapid as her heartbeat, could not soothe her unease as she traced her fingers around another bend in the rock. There were grazes along the tunnel wall; it had been damaged. Others had been here.

She could smell them and taste their sweat in the air. It made her gag. They would have to be punished for intruding, but not now.

She glanced down at her watch, doing her best to hold her quarry still, and pressed the light. She pre-emptively squinted, but was still dazzled by the bright digits. It was half one. She only had ten minutes left.
Haruka had never really thought much about the gods. She had written tiny prayers with hearts and kisses on New Year’s Day and posted them in the walls of temples, hung them on the branches of sacred trees and scattered them in the holy flames, but she had never really thought about who she was writing to. Now, as she hurried through the dark cave, doing her best not to fall and praying she had enough time, she knew exactly to who she was praying. They were expecting her and she knew they would not forgive her if she was late. She wouldn’t forgive herself either. So, clutching the boy’s hand, she dragged her quarry onward. She would tear his hand off him if it ensured they made it.

She should have found him sooner, the bait should have been chosen more wisely. 

Friday, 11 May 2012

Japanese Baking Numero 1

Inspired by Mr Mattox's baking blogs, here's my own zesty zany zumbunkious attempt. Yes they are words. Now at least.

I've discovered (the word discovered makes it sound like I did it, I can be misleading like that) that my (also misleading) microwave oven is able to be an actual oven, when it feels like it, from time to time. A nifty trick I'd say. So I'm going to bake. Oh god the microwave just made a really weird noise, does that mean the food's done or I've only got a few seconds left to run before it explodes? (I'm having Lasagne before I start, I've forgotten eggs anyway so this isn't going to be an early successful baking experience, more like a slaving until the early hours and then giving up sort of thing I expect. (Little did I know...)) The tune the micro oven (as it shall hence forth be known) makes is so merry, tis adorable.

Okay, let's do lots of photos like the pros do (Mattox

The new utensils needed to make this, each one was 105円 which felt like a bargain especially for the measuring scales and the glass lemon squeezer thingymabob:

The ingredients (sadly not so cheap. The cornflower was about 300円):


First I added the flour to the margarine and a pinch of salt and made them into bread crumbs.

So far so good.

Slowly but surely I added cooled water to the mix until a dough formed and then used an Umeshu (recall: 梅酒) bottle to roll out the pastry. It was remarkably neat and not as messy as feared and the pastry was perfect almost straight away. Oh little did I know how things would soon take a turn for the worse.

While the pastry was in the oven, baking blind, though I didn't have any baking beans sadly, I could have tried using rice, but I was feeling lazy and I don't think it would have saved my pie, I went about making the filling, which involved lemons and their zest. When grating lemons try not to grate your thumb, it's easier done than said.

and juice

Then it came to adding the cornflour, sugar and zest to a pan and mixing, while off the heat. Then the lemon juice was added and stirring commenced.

Oh and there was a secret ingredient:

Stir until sauce thickens.... then add the butter

There was a slight disaster when it came to add the butter to the filling only to find I didn't have enough. I needed 85g, but only had about 60g. Well it wasn't as liquidy (or fatty!) as it should have been, but I ploughed on, stirring away then leaving it to cool while I split the eggs, which is a beautifully messy task. I even split the yolk of one with my fingers, that trick they always show on cooking programs with Deliah and the delectable Nigella, letting the white slip between your fingers while the yolk dances around, trying to get away as it is de-robed... that sound a little disgusting to anyone?

and thickens...

Then one urine sample look alike was taken and stirred indefinitely until both arms ached: Oh the optical illusion of that tatami place mat's not fun.

There was also the matter of the failure to rise of the meringue. 

Well it rose, 

but once the sugar was added the whole thing flopped and became a glooplike consistency. Not ideal. So I tried to make another batch of it, after already having added the failed meringue to the top. I thought maybe using the granulated sugar was wrong (which it was) but I still don't know what the other type of sugar is. Its a lot less flowy than the other one that's for sure. When I opened this one, it clung to the bag, whereas the granulated slid down the moment the air pressure changed from opening it and then rolled around like dry grains of sand. The mysterious sugar was almost sticky. I did have a terrifying moment with the filling when I was adding the aforementioned sugar when I thought it might be icing sugar, but I'm PRETTY sure it's not. Not entirely mind.

Irrespective of obsticles faced, I persevered and put the pie in the oven, setting it for the recommended 18 minutes (well 20 but figuring out 18 was a little too much and based on how little the base seemed to bake I had a feeling the times would have to be stretched a bit and sure enough they did)

 My microwave oven seems to have its own little national anthem at the end of each task, it plays the tune proudly and triumphantly like a dog smiling and wagging its tail when it returns a stick you threw. Poor dumb dog.

Here's the final result. Well it's not pretty and it was a bit chewy and it didn't taste all too great either but..., wait shouldn't there be a silver lining? I had fun? No, don't think that was really fun, it was tiring and an effort, but not wholly fun, ahh it wasn't unfun!

Dean certainly has a lot of patience writing all the details down. And boy did it not taste good or turn out that well! Next time I'm looking for a recipe that is aimed for microwave ovens or just microwaves!

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Painting in Pants

So I've just finished painting "Angel Road" and I'm pretty sleepy, but I've not blogged in a while.

I went to Osaka and Kyoto the weekend before last, with Anthony on the train and it was pretty awesome :) We met up with one man and one woman and they showed us the fruits of the garden. A little temptation was thrown in too. Kyoto is a beautiful city, but chockablock full of tourists, it was Golden Week though, so it's to be expected. The temples and traditional streets combined with the umbrella shop and the kimono-garnered gals made for some great photos and a fun time. Our own personal tour guide, Kazumi, showed us the Peace Musuem, Osaka Castle, how to get onto trains and where to get off and Namba (I think that's what it was called, the Japanese Time Square/Piccidily Circus) We capsuled it for the weekend, a totemo expensive weekend (right after an Enkai too,) but it was well worth it.

Where to next? Anthony asked. Where to indeed.

The weekend just gone, which was a four day weekend due to the other half of Golden Week, Stephanie and David came to Shodoshima and I drove them around the island, we found a beach where the water was still enough for about eight skims/skips/skimmers before splashing into the clear depths and before that we explored Nishi no Taki (I hope I spelt that right) Lorianne's recommended and favourite temple/place on the island. I can see why she likes it. It's on a mountain, it's beautiful (even if the road up there isn't quite so grand) and it's very quiet and there was a friendly old lady willing us to explore and come in, a cave/tunnel and a piece of rock with a ladder up it that was begging to be climbed. The evening consisted of umeshu, red wine and lager, not to mention a little stumble into the supermarket to refill and a teency bit of a drawing session at David's expense. Who knew drawing one to thirty on someone wouldn't wake them.

The next day we popped to Angel Road almost making them miss their ferry.

Sunday, the afternoon came around and I felt like exploring some more and I followed the coast until I found a carparking space and then got out and explored. I stumbled across a steep drop and almost absailed down/fell off. I glimpsed a beach through the thick undergrowth and managed to find my way to it, through a small park which looked awfully like private property, but a thankfully-biliingual sign told me otherwise and that I was welcome. Passing a large group of elderly people, trying to smile/bow appropriately, I headed for the sound of crashing waves. Yes there were waves! It's quickly approaching my bed time so I better type faster and make less sense... Finding my way down to the beach was tricky as the path was overgrown. When I found my way through the steps of wild flowers onto the little beach, I must have exclaimed a few dieties names. I couldn't help it. It was beautiful and so very homely and also completely desserted. I should go back this weekend. It was warm, soothing and lovely, like any beach should be. I found a hat there too. One which apparently says something about not catching small fish as they will one day become parents and we need parents to get more fish. Simple, but true. (Like Manisha)

I found another beach and explored along the rocks, spoke to a middle aged couple, the husband of which had been to America (or was it London? Oh all these Western countries are the same to me) and took an indecent number of photos and found several deserted buildings. Tom would have loved it. It felt like if I fell and hurt myself I'd have been doomed, which added a certain thrill that spurred me on (madness.)

After that I ended up driving along a narrow coastal road between the sea and a canal, passing an old man who nodded when I gestured asking whether it was drivable. I changed my mind a few metres in and painstakingly slowly reversed, the old man watching all the while with his indiscernible expression. Battery is dying. I survived. Then a beach party/bbq with Lorianne's islander friends, all of which were lovely and there was freshly caught red sea breem (I think that was it's name) raw and it was delicious and strawberries and rice and yum yum yum. Okay, here are two pictures:

Angel Road painting

The lovely beach

Friday, 4 May 2012

Osaka and Kyoto

I went to Osaka and Kyoto. Oh there's more to this story, but for now, I'll leave it at that.