Swedish Christmas in Japan

Christmas just isn’t the same without certain things. Here up in the mountains, I have been isolated from all of the Christmas hassle that is going on in the stores and around the “civilization” (pun intended), which has maybe been a good thing. Good thing because the Japanese way of (not) spending Christmas is so very different from what I am used to, look forward to and love.

Gift game after dinner: I got socks!
Gift game after dinner: I got socks!

 

Luckily, the Swedish girls who are also exchange students are big fans of Christmas, and their way of celebrating the best holiday of the year is pretty similar to ours back home. So, I got a chance to have a small, sort-of Christmas after all this year!

What's Christmas without a tree?
What’s Christmas without a tree?

 

Eating anything and everything with chopsticks comes quite naturally now, and it didn’t even feel weird. The Swedish Christmas food was surprisingly different from the ones we have in Finland: it was more like something we would eat other times of the year (or on a Swedish cruise!). Something both countries have in common: mandarines, glögi/glögg (glühwein) and chocolate, last two of which are pretty good quality here in Nippon, too!

Essential for Christmas: overdose on chocolate (because you have to try as many different kinds as possible!)
Essential for Christmas: overdose on chocolate (because you have to try as many different kinds as possible!)

Japanese confectionery selection: highly approved. In stead pineapple, the staple in the Finnish boxes, there was mango. Other options included salty caramel, green tea, darjeeling tea, marron, bitter (my favorite, surprise surprise!) and espresso. Plus about 20 other flavors.

Hostess cooking self-made köttbullar (meatballs), pile or mandarines and self-decorated mugs
Hostess cooking self-made köttbullar (meatballs), pile or mandarines and self-decorated mugs

We sang songs (both in Swedish and English), played a gift game, and enjoyed the jolly atmosphere for 6 hours. As everyone was stuffed when leaving the table, the Christmas feeling was just as it’s supposed to be.

Christmas spirit all around
Christmas spirit all around

Who needs snow anyways?

Sado, way of the tea

Third post is a charm? After being a complete rookie and out of place in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony 2 times I can now proudly say that the secrets are beginning to unravel!
I have now studied the “Japanese Traditional Arts” aka tea ceremony for a few weeks, and let me tell you: it’s not as easy and simple as one could expect. Midterm is coming up next week, and there is still a lot to memorize! There is a certain manner when entering the room, certain amount of steps to take to the tokonoma (alcove) to view the scroll and the flower, specific number of bows at certain points, and so much more. One does not simply grab and munch the okashi (sweet) and wash it down with matcha – there are semiformal and formal positions, bows and phrases that need to be remembered. It is a must to apologize to the next guest for eating and drinking before them, and of course the previous guest has to know that you will join them with your treats. And of course one has to be thankful for the tea and the treats, express thanks and admire the cup from many different angles. No chit-chatting involved.

Tokonoma and eager students waiting for tea
Tokonoma and eager students waiting for tea

Wa kei sei jaku – harmony, respect, purity and tranquility are the key terms. Respectful I am, but tranquility is far when trying to remember to wipe the empty cup from right to left, and leaning on your knees to view the inside of the cup. Our group is quite big, and the atmosphere is more like in kindergarten than in a hut of peace (which is the name of the space where the classes are held). Besides the atmosphere and the challenge of memorizing everything, the ceremony is extremely interesting! And each time we get to eat an okashi, traditional Japanese sweet treat (that’s why we paid for the course). There are unbelievably many creations one can make from bean paste and rice! I think it might deserve a blog post of its’ own.

Ichigo ichie – One opportunity, one encounter. I hope that’s not the case when it comes to the test!

Matcha, ready to be served and the cups to be observed
Matcha, ready to be served and the cups to be observed

Mo’ mochi

It seems like I can’t get enough of experiencing what I call the “art of the rice cake”. I didn’t post about my trip to the (Korean rice cake) Tteok museum in Seoul, but yeah, I went there and discovered some of the differences and similarities the two countries and their rice treats have.

Back to Japan and mochi: After making mochi in Kurume in September, I have heard several times that one simply cannot make mochi with the rice flour that I bought from the store. “We don’t do it” they say, meaning that it would probably result in some kind of disaster if ever I attempted. Therefore, I went to see how mochi is really made.

Mochi making for dummies, sensei-obaasan (plus 6 more)
Mochi making for dummies, sensei-obaasan (plus 6 other ladies)

I attended an exchange event in Hiji, a small town next to Beppu. In addition to the mochi we did some other activities, but another post about that. This one is just for the sticky rice cake that plays a key role in the Japanese cuisine, specially around New Year.

The green mochi get their color from mugwort that is hand-picked from the mountain!
Mochi filled with anko. The green ones get their color from yomogi (mugwort) that is hand-picked from the mountain!

To make mochi, you need:
Glutinous rice (no, normal rice doesn’t work)
Anko (red bean paste) or possibly other filling such as jagaimo (sweet potato)
Yomogi (mugwort for coloring, optional)
Rice starch to prevent the mochi from sticking to everything

In the old days, mochi was made by putting mochigome (boiled sticky rice) into a wooden barrel container. The rice was patted with water while pounding it with a mallet. When mashing long enough, the dough became sticky dough. Nowadays, there’s no exercising involved: a rice cooker-like machine steams and shakes and takes care of the rice “dumplinging”.

Obaasan and the magic mochi machine
Obaasan and the magic mochi machine, anko balls in the front

Traditionally, mochi was pounded before New Year’s day and eaten during the beginning of January. Due to its’ sticky texture, there is a number of unfortunate choking deaths every year, which is ironic since the New Year’s version of mochi represents “several generations”.

Master at work, dividing the mochi rice dough into small balls
Master at work, dividing the mochi rice dough into small balls

Simple and fast once you know how to do it and since you want to avoid burning your hands with the hot dough: divide the rice to small balls, make round cakes, fill them with anko and make sure to cover the anko with the dough and voila! The starch keeps the cakes from not sticking to everything.

Not everyone is that perfect
Not everyone is that perfect

If the mochi has no filling, it is usually used for soups like zanzen, puffed in the toaster, or even eaten as pizza! The mochi dries quickly, but it softens back to its’ sticky self just as fast. Wrapped in the fridge, mochi lasts few weeks.

These ladies are clearly not rookies
These ladies are clearly not rookies

Specially now around New Years, dry mochi is displayed in all supermarkets. Here in the Southern part of Japan the cakes are usually round, while as in the East they are rectangular. To me, eating mochi isn’t that awesome. I guess the appeal is in the fact that mochi is something staple in Japan but exotic for me, plain like bread and very variable. I will definitely keep on working on trying all the different possible mochi I can, such as in ozoni (New year’s soup) if I only get the chance.

The exchange was not a bad way to spend a Saturday, or one’s birthday! You never stop learning from the elderly. And their style (check out the hats), whoa! We also wore super-cool aprons (mine said something about sweet flowers, my friend had “it wishes international peace”).

Happy student with self-made treats
Happy student with self-made treats

More about the traditions and other activities with the seniors coming up soon(er or later)!

APU Life

Few months in the culture, I have had time to adapt to the Japanese up-in-the-mountain way of life. Here are some characteristics I have gotten more or less familiar with.

Some of the Happy R3 residents
There can never be too many pictures. Some of the Happy R3 residents

When you are tired, you sleep. No matter if you’re in a train, in the cafeteria, or in class. The library is open until midnight, and people often stay up until the wee hours of morning. In APU, the classes can last until 7.30 pm. No wonder students doze off – usually sleeping is very obvious and not even tried to hide.

Modest nap in class
Modest nap in class

Birthdays are celebrated at midnight, when the birthday is beginning, rather than bringing breakfast in bed like sometimes in Finland.

Tatsuro got his piece of the cake
Tatsuro got his piece of the cake

The word “party” usually making dinner with more than 2 people, rather than going drinking and/or dancing. Parties may also include games, activities etc. This came as a surprise to some of the exchange students in the beginning of the semester.

Floor party: Japanese winter food Nabe.
Floor party: Japanese winter food Nabe.

Other things I’ve noticed in APU:

Unlike in Europe, where perm is equivalent to the hottest of hot 80’s style, in Japan getting a perm is popular. At least in APU, that is.

The Japanese never say no. When they mean no, they can say maybe, a little… or even yes – in a special tone that is supposed to give the hint. Sometimes this can be a bit challenging/frustrating or even annoying. Or maybe I should learn to not say no?

The myth of the healthy Japanese diet has nothing to do with the substances people consume here. And by substances I mean the more or less processes products people fill themselves with throughout the day. Besides the polished rice, pasta is a big hit!

Guess who is about to be eaten?
Look who is about to be eaten!

For most people, there is rarely such leisure as free time. If not in lectures, students go to their circles activities, do homework or prepare presentations etc. Also, the AP house residents are not that keen on leaving the house.

Stairway to campus
Stairway to campus from Ap House

Japanistic Korea, take 2

I mentioned earlier about similarities between Korea and Japan. Oh yes, there definitely are some!

Both like the cutesy stuff, not just in toys.

So cute it almost makes me want to puke
So cute it almost makes me want to puke

Weird establishments. Need I say more?

Some things just cannot/should not be translated
Some things just cannot/should not be translated

Both countries appreciate weird flavors. Wasabi is pretty self-explanatory: the only surprise was the mildness. Blue on the other hand remained as a mystery besides the bright color.

Blue taste as like the Greek sea?
Blue taste: like the Greek sea?

Both adopt the Western consumerism and traditions: Christmas is the season to be consuming!

Save money by buying
Save money by buying

Genki seniors. Who said Korean elderly are not healthy? They should work out after all the barbecue and rice cakes…

The numerous public work out areas are mainly used by the elderly
The numerous public work out areas are mainly used by senior citizens

Oh, yes. The language and signs were different and the streets looked different, but strangely it all felt very familiar to me. Thank you Seoul for the entertainment.

Åland is next to Finland, Korea is next to Japan: we're all pretty close after all!
Åland is next to Finland, Korea is next to Japan: we’re all pretty close after all!