Midsummer festivities: How to Open a Watermelon

As I have posted before, Midsummer or Summer Soltice is one of Finland’s biggest celebrations. Last year in New York I missed all the traditions: summer cottage, new potatoes, dunk people and whatnot, so this year was my opportunity to take it all back!

Guess what? I decided to stay in the city. Apparently I was not the only one, since there was (still is) a rather big city festival in Pyynikki. No summer cottage (though we do live next to a forest and have a nice view of the lake, which to me is the point of the whole thing), and no new potatoes with fish, but a lot of drunk people at the festival. It all evens out, right? The sun was shining, I even managed to  burn my back on the beach(!), and it was almost full moon, though still light outside at midnight. I “forgot” to collect 7 different flowers to dream of my future husband or the love of my life, nor did I do any other magic tricks and hocus pocus that is traditional to this feast ofthe inevitable: the days are getting shorter, and the winter is coming.

Midsummer midnight swim. Not me, though.
Midsummer midnight swim. Not me, though

With this long intro to the whole deal, I will now reveal to you how to deal with the uncomfortable situation of making a watermelon edible without a knife. A fast youtube search suggested banging your head to the fruit, which I was not that keen on trying (wonder why…) As smashing it to the ground would not have been cost-efficient, I wanted to find an alternative solution.

Battle of strenght
Battle of strength

At this point, you already have the solution. It is suggested to start off with the equipment.

The most beautiful melon
The most beautiful melon

To open a melon without a knife, you need a friend -or someone random- who just happens to carry around some nail scissors or a sewing kit. Just poke holes and cut around the whole damn thing, then start pulling with a friend. Or use karate moves on the cut line, which ever you fancy. The result is much greater than the boring triangles you get with cutting with a knife!

Getting at it
Getting at it

And as a bonus, after scooping the flesh out with your plastic forks and spoons (reserve few extra cause if you’re like me, you’re gonna break at least 4), there’s juice left for making punch drinking.

Sweet juice
Sweet juice

An idea: the left over bowls can be used as helmets, or hats.

So…that was yesterday, there still is today of everything-being-closed-and-drunk-people-wandering, we’ll see if I’ll get the courage to get out of the house and to the city! So far, I have just been devouring on chocolate sauce I made because I didn’t have enough patience to make actual chocolate. Recipe would be coming up in another post, but it’s ridiculously simple and I have no pictures of it besides my chocolatey mouth, so here goes: basically just mix melted coconut oil with cocoa powder and (raw chocolate) honey, then add some lechitin and toco (/other “superfood stuff” or just skip the powders, they’ll add creaminess and vitamins and stuff but who needs those, anyways) and bee pollen to the mix. No need to freeze, scoop it up (with sliced apple, for example) and smile!

The winter is coming, but who cares – it’s summer now!

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Traditional oshougatsu and osechi ryori

Back in Beppu, I now can only dream of the holiday season which was filled with good company and cooking exiting foods that have a long history and each represent something important. This year was my first new years’ eve to miss fireworks and it was all in all quite unlike any other; in a good way to say the least. In addition to eating toshikoshi (New Year’s) soba and other treats at midnight, I added a small Finnish twist to the holiday: sparkling wine at the turn of the year.

Cozy way to welcome the New year
Cozy way to welcome the New year

The traditional Japanese way to spend the New Year includes going to a shrine, but since it was cold and I was tired from all the cooking, we decided to watch the New Years’ show on tv. Good decision! I also missed the first sunrise of the year, which is another popular tradition. On the first few days of the year, millions of Japanese pilgrimage to temples to wish luck for the new year.

Jubako filled with home-made onishime, traditional osechi ryori
Jubako filled with home-made onishime, traditional osechi ryori

After getting lost in the super market with all the last-minute osechi grocery shoppers, we started cooking for some of the various Japanese osechi ryori. In our table, there was for example the pictured nishime to represent good foresight, and many other dishes for other purposes.

Sashimi and various osechi ryori in the jubakos
Sashimi and various osechi ryori in the jubakos

Kuromame (simmered black beans) to work hard; “mame mame shiku hataraku”
Kazunoko (salted and marinated herring roe) for fertility
Kuri kinton (mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts), the golden color of which is a wish for wealth and good fortune
Tai (sea bream) to bring luck due to its’ name, which resembles medetai: auspicious and joyous
Kamaboko (fish paste cakes) also ward off evil, and cleanse the spirit
Tazukuri (tiny crunchy fish) for abundant harvest

We also had a version of the ozoni soup, which varies from region to region.
I was in charge of making few dozen not so traditional harumaki (Vietnamese fresh spring rolls), which turned out quite well! For dinner we had oden made from scratch, which was definitely better and healthier than any oden I can imagine: in stead of the deep fried fish paste, the stars of this dish were daikon radish, shirataki noodles, fresh tako (octopus) and boiled eggs, among other less-processed ingredients.

Oden, onishime and buri shabu shabu
Oden, onishime and other “left overs”

In a way, this holiday resembles Finnish way f celebrating Christmas: it’s all about family and food. This food was thousand times better, though! I was constantly told that I could be Japanese, which for a foodie like me is of course a big compliment. After eating this well for a week, it might be a “slight” shock to come back to the dorm life…

More travel treats to come, there are loads!

Old fashion (Oshogatsu) activities

In the good old days, long before people got occupied and carried away with anime and manga, people had fun activities and spent time together rather than with machines! Other than making mochi together (without the magic machine, it takes one to pour water while another pounds the rice), Japanese people played card games, for example. The following examples used to be popular during Japanese New Year’s.

Hanetsuki bats
Hanetsuki hagoitas

Hanetsuki is a game similar to badminton though it doesn’t have a web. The wooden paddle is called hagoita and there is also brightly colored shuttlecock.

Fukuwarai “Lucky Laugh” is the Japanese equivalent of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, which is usually played by children. In Fukuwarai, blindfolded players pin different face parts onto a blank face, making funny results.

Iroha-garuta and other games
Iroha-garuta and other games

Iroha-garuta is a card game that requires only the ability to read hiragana. One person reads a proverb, while the others try to find the corresponding card.

Origami made by someone other than me
Origami made by someone other than me

Last but not least, the mother of all things Japanese: origami, traditional art of paper folding. I had true masters, the Japanese obaasan instructing me on making boxes from old advertisements and newspapers. Of course we also made the famous crane, 1000 of which are called senbazuru. One who folds 1000 cranes is granted a wish, such as long life and recovery from illness and injury. (I am 995 cranes short!)
The crane is a symbol of long life in Japan, and they are presented as offerings to a shrine or temple.
The thousand origami cranes also symbolises world peace, since a girl radiated in Hiroshima atom bombing believed that creating thousand cranes would cure her leukemia.

Skilled sensei
Skilled sensei

I have admit, that my results in origami was only thanks to the great instructor. I doubt I could make them again. Previously I have looked some instructions online and in books, but it is definitely different to have someone guide you through it, even in a foreign language!

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?

Kimono

Kawaii kimono style

I was lucky to experience some more traditional Japanese culture – Kimono in Kitsuki city!

Picking the perfect style from various choices of kimono and obi-belts

Wearing a kimono is not just a matter of putting on two-toed white socks, wrapping into a robe and finishing it all off with an obi-belt. The kimono consists of white robe that goes under the kimono, few tight fabric belts to make sure the posture is right, then the kimono that is tightly wrapped, plus the belt and some strings to tie it up. I am sure I missed some parts. Altogether, it took about 20 minutes to get the whole deal on.

Partially the beauty of kimonos is in the combination of the obi and the garment style

After taking a picture in the kimono, I had 3 hours to wander around the historical Kitsuki city and see its’ Samurai houses (which I did not go into, because I wasn’t aware of the free admission for kimonos).

Japanese style harmony

The walking was rather painful in the too small shoes, I might confess. Those Geishas probably didn’t run anywhere, but they sure had good posture!

Say chiizu!

It was fun to wear a kimono – I definitely felt like being someone else. Everyone was saying hello, smiling and complementing me, which never feels too shabby. I was also glad to get the dress off. I would really like to wear a kimono again, if it means that I just have to stand while someone is dressing me like a doll!