Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Kyoto, mochi and Northern Irish traybakes

Climbing the steps to Nanzen-ji Temple, Kyoto in the rain.

Dear all,
We have just returned from a wonderful weekend in Kyoto but unfortunately all but three of our pictures got erased from the camera so we have hardly any to post. Nevertheless, there was so much to see that it really was a feast for all the senses. The cherry blossom was in full bloom and looked magnificent dangling over all the little canals and narrow alleyways that weave their way around the city. We spotted a number of meikos (trainee geisha) who looked as if they had just arrived from another time, they wear fabulous kimonos, heavy white makeup and the most amazing wooden platform shoes I have ever seen, how they negotiate the cobbled streets and steep steps I don't know. Unfortunately we didn't see any geisha, they are very elusive and only really come out at night time when they are on their way to work. The food was delightful, there are hundreds of little cafes and restaurants where you can sit and watch the world go by over a cup of green tea and mochi. We had a splendid lunch on Saturday in Gion (the Geisha district) where I dined on raw chicken, I know it sounds very dangerous but it really was beautiful, so fresh and served in a really tasty marinade - obviously I wont be trying at home with Tesco value chicken or anything. It rained all day Sunday which wasn't so nice but somehow I think it suited the city and created a wonderful atmosphere around the temples (there are almost 3000 temples in Kyoto). There are many excellent craft shops to visit and the pottery was exquisite as was the price but I did buy a traditional red paper umbrella! All in all it was a great weekend and the Ryokan we stayed at was really lovely with all the usual treats - green tea and sweets on arrival, Japanese hot baths, rice pillows and sleeping on the tatami floor. I have just realised that rice pillows and sleeping on the floor may not sound like a treat but it really is and it is one of the few ways to sample a real taste of traditional Japan, I definitely recommend this if you ever come to visit - although the ability to speak some Japanese and eat weird food is essential!

PS. A couple of funny things happened at the weekend.

1. First of all you must understand that toilets in Japan are a little unconventional and not everything is where you expect it. Anyway, after we stepped off the bullet train I really had to use the toilet so I went to one in the station. When I went to flush there were so many buttons and so little knowledge of kanji (one of the THREE alphabets) in my head that I just pressed any old one. Unfortunately for me, this was the emergency alarm button and Martin was standing outside hearing all these sirens go off. In fear that they would break the door down I got out as fast as I could only to see security come running at ninety miles per hour and Martin having a great laugh.

2. On Saturday afternoon, Martin and I were walking along a really busy street behind two women wearing Kimono. It was very crowded and my eyes were closely on these ladies as I admired their kimono. Next thing I knew one of the ladies stopped, let out a little yelp and we all ground to a halt. Somehow, I have no idea how, but she managed to walk on top of a traffic cone - I mean it literally disappeared inside her kimomo. Anyway, between the two of them they managed to untangle her from the traffic cone and away they went giggling like little school girls.

We have been in Japan almost six months now and nearly everyday I still see, hear, taste or experience something that makes me smile!

Mochi - these are Japanese rice cakes often served with green tea. They are made by pounding the rice with wooden mallets and then pressed into shape. Sometimes they are filled with soybean paste or strawberries. Although they might look strange they actually taste pretty good with a cup of green tea. However, as they are so sticky they can be a little tricky to eat and several people die each year from choking on mochi.

I often think that mochi is similar to Northern Irish traybakes. They are both extremely sugary, great with a cup of tea but probably very bad for your teeth. Here are some caramel slices I whipped up yesterday, they are almost like caramel squares but instead of a shortbread base they have a coconut, oatmeal and flour base. My friend Ryoko was so enamoured that she asked for some to take home to her parents and wants to learn how to make them. Isn't it wonderful that traybakes have made it to Japan!! (As has my Limavady First Presbyterian cookbook, a great source of knowledge for all things traybake like and recipies containing condensed milk.)