POTATOES FOR ME

POTATOES FOR ME!

 The Japanese seem very interested in food – several TV channels are devoted exclusively to cooking.    Most of their food is delicious, and the presentation of even inexpensive meals is generally exquisite.   It is however very different to our own, and there is considerable room for misunderstanding.

 I should perhaps just mention here that at present (December 2010), Japan is prohibitively expensive for British visitors.   We were already cushioned by the fact that our wonderful accommodation was provided by Elisabeth and Rob; and we suspect our children tactfully used their local knowledge to find affordable restaurants etc.    The rise in prices seemed beyond what you would expect in the normal way, even allowing for the weakness of the pound.   For example, 4 years ago we bought Elisabeth a lacquer box about the size of a foolscap folder, with storks on it; the cost was £30.   This time the equivalent would have cost £300 (it may have been better quality of course, but even so…)    Two coffees and a cake cost about £20.

 Shopping for food in Japan (i.e. food to eat at Rob and Elisabeth’s home) was a deeply depressing experience.    The shop is stuffed full of wrapped goods.   They are all named entirely in Japanese.    You do not recognise what any of it is.   When you look closely at any item, you have never seen it before; you have no idea what role it performs in the diet;  left to your own devices you would regard it as inedible.   Eventually you realise you do recognise a few things – fruit juice, say.    But these are not like any you have eaten previously.    When you eat them, they do not taste quite as you expect.    (For example, eggs taste so sweet and peculiar you wonder what bird lays them?)    But finally you round up a few articles which might do.    They cost an exorbitant amount.

 Eating out also brought difficulties.   As each customer is found a place and crosses the threshold to go to their table, all the staff, waiting, kitchen, everyone, shouts.   Elisabeth thought it was something along the lines of, Let’s all welcome these people and enjoy our food together.   We of course did not respond very favourably to shouting as we entered and this then meant that the entire duration of your dining was punctuated by endless shouting.

 We had sushi in a restaurant in Ginza (Tokyo) where we were the only non Orientals.   In the middle of the floor was a large fish pool that the waitresses (in kimonos) had to step around.   One did hope that the fish which lay on our plate had not been swimming in that pool.   Sometimes it is better not to dwell on things too closely.   Although much of Japanese food is genuinely delicious, it is sometimes better just to close your eyes and eat.   Some things, if you allowed yourself to examine them in any detail, you would never be able to swallow.

 

Breakfast, Western style, was good enough, but it was never quite right.    I found it especially off-putting to see and smell our Japanese fellow diners tucking in to what appeared to me to be the same as they’d eaten the previous night.    In the meantime, we would start our breakfast with a dressed mixed salad,  then sausage, scrambled eggs, bacon etc but it never tasted quite right – too sweet.     One is surprisingly to being served chips, broccoli and carrots for breakfast.

 You get attractive ‘bento’ boxes of rice and cold dishes to eat on trains.  One hot day John bought 2 bottles which we thought contained apple juice – but in fact it was a hot Japanese tea in a bottle – quite good.   We also drank beer – good – and hot sake of which I could discern no taste, just a sensation of fiery alcohol.

In our ryokan in Miyajima we had very good European style meals, beautifully served.   When we left (tipping not being acceptable) I shook hands with the waiter and thanked him for his good care of us.   He took my hand, but he bowed his head completely over it.

One thing about Japanese style meals is the exquisite elegance of the presentation,   and sometimes I would sit, not particularly enamoured of rice – yet again – but coveting the ceramic dishes.   I guess we are as addicted to the potato as they are to rice.

Although I have discussed some minor difficulties, I should emphasise that Japan has a lively and healthy cuisine.    It is rare to see a fat person in Japan.

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THE KIMONO

THE KIMONO

Over the years, during my visits to Japan, I’ve purchased various kimonos.   These have been bought second hand and being made of silk and often very beautiful, they represent very good value for money, as the Japanese do not seem to care for ‘second hand’.   I have asked John to photograph one of mine to illustrate the points I am making. 

 

 

So far as I can see, Japanese ladies wear kimonos only for weddings, ceremonial occasions, and high days or holidays.   Sometimes at some shrine where a festival is taking place you will see an attractive family, the mother in an elegant kimono, the girls and boys in traditional dress – but the father in Western suit.   (Although the man’s version of traditional garb is a surprisingly masculine garment.)

Traditionally, under her kimono a lady would wear a piece of silk wrapped tightly round the body from waist to knee (this gives rise to a typical short stepped walk that Japanese women still seem to adopt even when not wearing the kimono.)   Over this, and its collar visible in wear, was worn a white silk chemise, which would be easier to launder and would protect the kimono.   On her feet would be silk socks with a division between the big toe and the smaller ones, and sandals with a wooden platform.

The kimono is constructed from very narrow lengths of silk.    There is only one size therefore and the construction of each kimono is exactly the same (apart from sleeve length).   Any adjustments for height etc are  made in the dressing, when material is tucked into the obi (wide belt.)    If the kimono were worn as a dressing-gown by us, it would fit a woman of 5’8 – 10” without needing adjustment.

As ever in Japan there are subtleties beyond my understanding.   I think the actual design placed on the kimono was probably intended for wear in one season of the year, so the photographed example with the exquisite hand painted maple or acer leaves would be intended for use in Autumn.    The length of the sleeves denoted marital status, with shorter sleeves being for married women.   The garment is worn the opposite way to what we are accustomed to (ie it is worn left side over right, as a man’s garment is); and to wear it the other way signifies death.

The obi, that wide belt that holds everything together, also gave information on marital status, number of children etc , depending on how it was tied. 

Other accessories could include a narrow rope cord, tied around the obi; hair ornaments of mother of pearl; pearls worn around the neck; and a very small handbag with handles.

Often, as in the example, the design on a kimono is asymmetrical.    The inside is lined with silk, beautifully finished, and often a wash of handpainted colour matching  the outside decoration is drawn along the inner edges.    In examining our kimonos, they appear to be entirely hand-stitched, although i find it hard to believe that some of the construction is not done on machine.    It is easy to see why a new kimono in Japan is a very costly affair, running into thousands of pounds.

 

I own two at present.    The one shown is, I think, a particularly fine example, made of heavy ivory silk with a faint design woven into the fabric, and with hand painted Autumn leaves in an asymmetrical design.     I bought it in Kyoto on my first visit to Japan.   My other one had been intended for less special occasions, but it is also of cream silk, with an overall grey pattern of fans.     I have decided I am going to bite the bullet and alter them for wear, and make silk pyjamas to match.   I also own two short silk coats, originally intended to be worn over the kimono, in cream with silver and gold embroidery, and purple shot through with silver, respectively.    Other kimonos owned by the women of our family are a subtle blue and gold one, of Joanna’s; and I have just brought her an oyster coloured silk with an abstract hand painted brown tree design on it.    Elisabeth had a pale green one with a design of cranes that she wore when in Oxford, and now a pale blueish design; plus a short red one given her by a friend of Rob’s as a thank you for being his hostess.    Sarah, Rory’s fiancée, has a cream silk kimono hand decorated with spring flowers.   When Kerri was with us on our first visit, she chose a lightweight green kimono.

If one owned a kimono but did not wish to adjust it for wear, it could also be used as a wall decoration.

From our various visits to Japan a few elegant ladies in their traditional garb stand out in our memories.   Kerri and I, in Tokyo, saw a young woman get out of a taxi wearing a kimono of plain emerald green.      She was of such exceptional beauty and looked so stunning in her outfit with her black hair, that she called forth murmurs of appreciation as she entered the building.    In Kyoto, at the Zen gardens, a group of matrons enjoying an outing together, one of whom wore an elegant plain kimono in a cream colour, topped by a navy short coat whose only decoration was that, woven into the fabric, were designs of swallows.    And finally, with Elisabeth in Tokyo, having brunch in The Park Hyatt Hotel (used for Lost in Translation), a lady in an austere navy kimono, but whose obi was folded in such a way that when she turned her back, a life size paradise duck beautifully hand painted or embroidered, was displayed.

While the kimono is not really a practical garment for use in the Western world, apart from in the privacy of one’s own home, it is sumptuous to wear and uplifting to put on, being so carefully crafted and of such wonderful natural material and exquisite design.

 

 

IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER

IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER

The recent spell  of cold weather had me wondering – what USE is winter, and whether it is like WASPS, whose only function appears to be to annoy us?   I am reminded of a little rhyme I read over 30 years ago in a Scottish newspaper, I think as part of a cartoon:

Winter’s came.

The snow has fell.

Wee Josie’s nose is froze as well.

Wee Josie’s frozen nose is skintit.

Winter’s diabolical, intit?   

But then of course I went on to think, it’s not just a plague upon us.   Despite having – and I don’t know quite when or why or how – morphed into an ‘old’ woman (or maybe even an old woman) who doesn’t like icy weather in case I fall and break my other hip – there are some wonderful things about winter.

I have lived in Sussex for 22 years, and in all that time, I do not think there has ever been a fall of snow so sudden and so deep as fell early  this December.

Some years ago, when our now departed cat  was quite small, she arrived unusually in my bedroom in the small hours.    She pounced on my stomach, licked my face, tickled my nose with her whiskers, and was clearly in a state of excitement, urgently anxious for me to get up and see to something – look, it was morning.   Dismissing her urgency as a mere desire for breakfast, I refused to budge, and eventually she settled down beside me, thawing out her frozen feet on my warm flesh.   It was only when I got up and looked out on the garden that I realised the cause of her astonishment.   There had been a fall of snow, which she had never encountered before.   So urgent that she was able to open doors normally closed to her, she had come cold foot to tell me that a white, freezing, powdery stuff had mysteriously arrived and had covered everything and she was sinking up to the tops of her legs in it in her own garden!   Meanwhile as I’m opening the back door to look out, the cat is marching beside me with a distinct I-told-you-so expression.

Although winters do seem to be getting colder again, they are as nothing compared to what I recollect from my childhood in Scotland.     Then I used to love the winter and remember my astonishment – rather like the cat’s – when I ventured out early to our outside toilet and discovered not only the whole word magically transformed into a beautiful snow-scape, but an enormous drift of snow blocking the door to the loo.

I loved how the snow fell thick, deep and silent and how if you turned your face up into the falling flakes they seemed to draw you in to an enchanted, dancing but dangerous  world, and you felt slightly dizzy and disoriented.   I loved how the world became silent and cut off, just you alone.   I have walked in Banffshire in freezing conditions from Macduff to Banff across the old bridge over the beautiful River Deveron, and the sea water in the bay was frozen at the edges.   Another cold year, people skated on the Forth and Clyde canal, and when eventually it broke up in the Spring, the ice was feet thick.

I loved how the snow told stories.    I could see where my father had walked off down the valley to work.    (The year before I was born, which had been a particularly severe winter, he had been working helping to clear the railway track, when the snow was so deep that, according to legend, they ‘hung their jackets on the tops of telegraph poles’;   and was caught in a white out blizzard while walking home – when the tendency is to walk in circles until you collapse from exhaustion, and if you stop in a blizzard you will die – but he remembered there was a wire fence on the road, so guided himself to safety by feeling his way along the fence posts.)   When we ventured out to feed the birds, my mother would point out to us how you could see by their tracks where they had been looking for food, and we could see how a fox had leapt the wall into our orchard, and made his way out through a tiny hole by the gate.

 

Perhaps because few houses were centrally heated, it seemed far colder within.  Often there would be ice on the inside of the windows, and you would with the heat from your finger and your breath make a little eye-hole to peep out on the frozen exterior.    Ice would form on water left in the sink.   Our mother would call us to bring our clothes and dress hurriedly before the fire.

Then my brother and I would build a snowman, or go sledging.   My father had hand built us a sledge – I cannot remember if my brother had a separate sledge, for I do remember we would ride with him in front of me while I held the steering rope, but this may just have been in a go-faster exercise.    This sledge was quite high off the ground, so we did not get too wet, and it had strips of metal on its runners which my father would wet in the evening so it was frozen and slippy by morning.    The sledge was heavy, and though I as the elder had the privilege of steering, I also had to tow it back up the hill, but its weight made it very speedy on the downward run.    There was a small stream to the side and at the bottom of our run, so it was imperative to be able to steer and stop.   When the snow eventually disappeared, for a long time afterwards the marks of our sledge runs could still be seen in the grass.   This was another of the many things about us that annoyed the red faced farmer.

When my children were small, occasionally I would deem it too icy to drive and we would walk to school with me pulling the two younger children on possibly the same sledge, while Joanna had the dog’s lead.   In the afternoon, I would make scones just before I left to collect them, and we would return to the house which would be warm and fragrant with baking.   The children would fall upon them and devour them, jam oozing out and staining their faces.

In my own early schooldays, we had a stove in our classroom and the teacher would put our wet mittens to dry, so the classroom would fill up with the smell of wet (and sometimes singed) wool.    She would thaw out our frozen milk near the stove, and as the day came to a close, we would huddle round its comforting warmth to listen to the story.   I do not recall school closing owing to bad weather much at all, and I can remember walking to school on the road because the snow plough had piled all the snow waist high on the pavements.   I suppose in those days more teachers walked to their school, and therefore there was not the present difficulty with driving in to work.

When the Spring came, my mother would sigh and say (with mild surprise),  We have survived the winter.    Now that I am older than my mother then was, I know what she meant!

And finally there was the magnificence, the awesome majesty of winter starry skies as infinite and dizzying as snowflakes themselves.    In one year only, sometime in the Fifties, we could see in Angus the terrible beauty of the Northern Lights, which was an uncommon sight so far south from the Arctic.     The beautiful constellation Orion would hunt the skies and the cloudy Milky Way would arch over all.   I would stand, my breath smoking, marvelling.   If I was lucky, a very large owl would glide past me, his huge eyes in his great round face registering my brief presence, as he silently went about his business of the night.   Although an outside toilet may be an inconvenience, there are wonderful things to be seen on the way, in the deep solitary darkness of night or the milky light of dawn.

And I after all am a Sagittarian, born on a winter’s day with the hunter Orion powering through the Northern sky.   I can hardly be a Winter Queen and not care for winter, can I?   So here’s to winter, that period of darkness and withdrawal where secret things rest and grow, to blossom in the spring. 

As Shelley said, If Winter come, can Spring be far behind?

The photo above is by my brother.   His photostream link is:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/7309715@NO8/ .

TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY?

TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY

 

The Christmas cards come rolling in.   This year, so far, they have all brought tidings of joy in the sense that they are not doom laden with news of death or impending divorce.   In some years, so much bad news about friends has arrived that you begin to feel anxious about opening envelopes.   But in 2010, everyone seems to have survived intact.

Then there are the mysteries, cards from people you’ve never heard of.    Who are Sylvia and Terence?    I ask my husband.   No idea.    We know a Sylvia and Robin.   Am I misreading it?   We both squint at the signature.   No, it clearly says, Terence; and what’s more it’s not ‘our’ Sylvia’s writing.      We look at the envelope.   Post stamp unreadable.   And our address in all its details  correct, down to the post code.      No letter, no return address.    Well, Terence and Sylvia, here’s to you, whoever you are.

Although I must admit I view the accusing boxes of unwritten Christmas cards with a sinking heart, I continue to send them because I myself enjoy receiving news of people.    I do get a little irritated when you receive a card from someone distant, of whom you’ve received no other news that year, which is simply inscribed, love, Mary and Bill.    Couldn’t Mary (or Bill) have scrawled, we are all well; or, we had a lovely party for Bill’s birthday – or something?    All that card tells you is they are alive, and can write, which I suppose is better than nothing.

People scorn the ‘round robin’ but I don’t mind them.   True, there are those whose life is one long round of glorious achievement, (rather like the Emperor Meiji) – people whose husband won the Nobel Prize that year, or whose son graduated from Medical School with marks so high that a special never-before-heard-of category of brilliance has had to be created to accommodate the heights of his intellect; who had holidays, sponsored by Croesus, where coffers of gold were shipped out beside them to cover their day to day expenses, or, conversely, they found in some artistic and exotic country some bargain, unbelievably rare and valuable, which they bought for a denarius.    Why are you surprised?   These people were like that before ever they put pen to paper.   Read and learn (and laugh).    Most people’s round robin is just an account of what they did that year.

Round robins can give fascinating insights into family dynamics.   One lady wrote a pages-long eulogy on her eldest son’s accomplishments (which were, it has to be said, fairly modest.)   Still, I thought – loving mother, why not?    I rifled among the pages for some news of the younger son.   I found it.   ‘Jeremy is also well.’     Jeremy is also well?    It’s the ‘also’ that would kill him if ever he reads it.    (Mind you, he will probably do the better in life, if only to prove his mother wrong.)

And there was the man whom I knew, in my youth, who wrote elegant, erudite accounts of their family life, in which his daughter, a high achieving professional, featured prominently.   I knew he’d had a son, the last I’d heard of whom was that he’d failed to get in to Eton.    Over the years, decades even, family news was given but no mention was ever made of his son.   By now I had forgotten his name, and I came to the conclusion he had died, and my correspondent found the matter too painful to mention.     Imagine my surprise when my distinguished acquaintance finally departed this life, and his daughter, dutiful as ever, wrote to me.   This was interesting on many levels.  Firstly she did not know who she was talking to or how well I had known him.   My name had been on a list of people he wanted her to inform.    So here she was, dutiful and diligent as ever, accepting his point of view, all the things that had made her Daddy’s darling, still doing what Daddy told her.    But the bombshell was that the brother was not only alive and doing well in a modern industry, but he had been able, with swift ease, to crack all the codes his secretive and paranoid father had put in to protect his documents .     The unmentionable son was evidently as clever as his father – just  not in ways that Daddy had approved of.    Certainly Daddy had never had the measure of me, but I only had to walk away from him.       The son’s self determination had obviously been harder to achieve.    I mentally toasted his success and I wrote the dutiful daughter a polite letter telling her how esteemed she had been in her father’s eyes, and I never told her who I was.

When all the Christmas cards are gathered in, and Christmas is over for another year, I shuffle the cards in my hands, and regarding them now as mere objects, amuse myself by deciding, on aesthetic grounds only, which card pleases me most that year.    I myself try to select neutral, abstract cards:  this year we had a silver star on a white card.    

Out of all the lovely cards we have received this year, there are three contenders for my Card of the Year prize in 2010.    There is a very beautiful one of cherry blossom on gold card, from Elisabeth in Japan.    But this one is so exotic and beautiful, and from such a distant provenance, and spring like, that I set it aside to keep near my desk and look at throughout the coming year.

My artistic friend, Moira, has a keen eye for beauty, and her card of Two Flycatchers on a scarlet Nanten Bush in Snow makes me pause.    I wonder why it appeals to me so much and then I notice it is done by my favourite Japanese artist, Koson Ohara (1877 – 1945) and what is more, it is one I have never seen before.   I make a mental note to pin it to my Notice Board.

 

But I’m going to select as my ‘card of the year’ a lovely little study of five fat sparrows.   They’re so cheerful and bouncy, such a symbol of the common man and his survival, so pretty in their greys and browns – I just love them.     A symbol of faith too – not one sparrow falls to earth but thy Father knoweth…     I hope the sparrow survives to prosper; and thank you to Eugene and Susan.

THE WEEK BETWEEN THE YEARS

THE WEEK BETWEEN THE YEARS

 This is the week between the years.    With Christmas over and New Year not yet upon us, I always feel trapped in a kind of limbo in which you lurk in your cave and look out, longing for the return of the light.    I am reminded of ancient peoples gathering in places like Maeshowe (Orkney) and watching to see if the life-giving sun would ever return.

 This year on the 27th, our central heating went down.    It is amazing how used you get to creature comforts, for even though we can have hot water by electricity, have gas to cook with, have hot air fan heaters belting out warmth and the Vladimir Putin fireplace (put in by us in case he switched off the gas supply) – so we are not exactly bereft of warmth – you do get used to central heating.   I miss its companionable noises;  how it comes on and goes off;  its squeaks and grumbles.   I don’t like the noise of the fan and the too dry air it produces, and although I do appreciate the fire it’s rather like the kind of pretty woman who is  very appealing when you first look at her, but requires too much attention.

This is also a time of over-eating.   The food is there, and you’ve nothing else to do.   So you loaf around eating, watching repeats on television, bored, lazy…   Elisabeth first introduced us to Mad Men in Tokyo, and Rory and Sarah have left us boxed sets, and though I enjoy them (love the clothes) they do contribute to the general air of decadence and depression.

As soon as Boxing Day is over I start to feel irritable towards the Christmas ‘tat’ – the decorations, the poinsettia with its dropping leaves, the cards falling off the walls, the red table runner that I embroidered 30 years ago, the Christmas tree looking like someone returning from a party rather the worse for wear.     I have to restrain myself from clearing it all away before New Year.

This is a time for reflection, for taking stock.   It’s when I sort out my diary of the year, printing it out and putting it away in its brown folder.   I thought I had written less this year because I had put time and effort into (private) blogs, but when I look at the stacked up pages, that doesn’t seem to be the case.    At this time I generally read the diary, before putting it away, rarely to be consulted again.   

I’m always surprised at the amount of things that have happened in any year.   This year we travelled to Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Japan and Scotland (twice.)        

You count the losses.   Not too many in 2010 – our gallant friend, Ulla, (may her journey be peaceful.)   Some gains – two of our children got engaged.    My cousin Sheena had a lovely daughter, Claire.   The children of our family and friends produced various lovely babies.

Having forgotten much of what I wrote, I laugh over some of my tales of events.   What a nasty tongue I sometimes have.   Unkind comments I have made in irritable exasperation at the time, while they draw a smile, make me shake my head over my irascibility.   That’s not my considered view.   Should I edit it out?     But I leave it in.   Diary, catty comments and all, must just stand.   I hope no-one ever reads it and is hurt.   But if they do, I am unlikely to be here.    The likelihood is these pages will all end up on some bonfire one day.    Well, I have enjoyed writing them.

The week between the years may be dull, but I think it’s beneficial.   We should all emerge from our mini-hibernation refreshed, ready to ride the turbulent dragon that the new year represents.    It’s rushing towards us, faster than we think.     Give us strength for the journey.