A tribute to the Momiji

Winter has made itself at home in Minoh. The trees – once painted all kinds of yellows and reds and oranges – are brown now, bare and grim. As I make my way around the city, biking to the grocery store or lugging my dirty clothes to the laundromat, I can’t help but feel a bit somber at the sight of all the brown, leaf-less maple trees. So once in a while, I’ll look back at pictures that I took during a hike up the path towards Minoh’s waterfall in mid-November, just as the maple leaves were turning red. I’ve walked that path several times, but it was especially beautiful that day. I thought I’d dedicate a post to the photos from that hike, in honor of the momiji、or maple leaves.

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Little stalls and shops selling souvenirs and Momiji tempura line the street.
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A humble foot bath for weary travelers.

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For access to the Minoh waterfall, here’s the link to the website.

My fascination with wrinkly persimmons

It’s 柿 season in Japan!

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柿, pronounced “kaki” is the Japanese word for persimmons. If you’ve never seen one before, they’re perfectly round, the color of pumpkins, and have cute clover-shaped stems. Persimmons aren’t very common where I’m from in the States. I rarely saw persimmons in my local supermarket, and if I did, they were either expensive or of mediocre quality, or both. But in Japan, persimmons are everywhere – literally! Not only is there a section in every grocery store dedicated to persimmons, there are also persimmon trees in nearly every backyard and all along the streets, which means that there are persimmons on the ground sometimes too.

At first, I was shocked by the sudden explosion in persimmons. As I’d make my way through the produce section during my weekly trip to the grocery store and come face to face with yet another persimmon display, I found myself questioning the appeal. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the taste of persimmons, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to purchase a pack of six.

But everything changed when I tried my first 干し柿、or hoshigaki – dried Hachiya persimmons:

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I know what you’re thinking – ew, right? I know, I know. That’s what I thought too the first time I saw one. In comparison to their fresh counterparts, hoshigaki are shriveled and wrinkly and much less appealing in appearance. But what they lack in presentation, they make up for 10 fold in taste.

As dramatic as it sounds, when I say that my first bite of a hoshigaki was life-changing, I’m not exaggerating! It was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. The insides were nothing like a fruit at all – they were more the texture of softened jelly. The chewiness of the outer skin, in addition to the jelly-like insides, provided a unique and wholly satisfying bite. The hoshigaki itself was also incredibly sweet, like sucking on a spoonful of pure honey.

Unfortunately, hoshigaki are twice the price of regular persimmons – about $8 or $9 for four. Desperate for another succulent dried persimmon, but unwilling to choke up nearly 1000 yen, I wondered if I’d be able to make my own instead. I mean, leaving something out to dry can’t be too difficult, right?

Well, it turned out to be much harder and a lot more intensive than I thought – making hoshigaki requires care, effort, attention, and quite a bit of time. In fact, the process is so detailed and so intricate that I’d go as far to say that the act of making hoshigaki is an art.

Other articles online do a much better job at explaining the process than I can; I highly recommend reading this one if you’re interested in learning more. But in short, hoshigaki are made by hanging peeled Hachiya persimmons for about two weeks until they’ve shriveled and formed a white coating on the surface from natural sugars.

HoshigakioutsideMost hoshigaki are made on farms, where they can be mass produced by the hundreds, but occasionally, I’ll find some hanging outside of someone’s home. Here’s a picture of a balcony I pass on the way to work every morning:

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Once I realized how difficult it is to make hoshigaki from scratch, I gave up on trying to attempt it myself. Splurging every so often on a pack at the store is much simpler than hanging them by a string on a bamboo rod from my balcony.

I have a strong feeling that hoshigaki won’t be available in stores when I return to the States, so I very well may end up needing to try drying persimmons from scratch in the future! For now, though, I’ll let the experienced farmers do the hard work for me.

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Mochi-tsuki in Minoh

When it comes to preparing for the new year, I think it’s safe to say that Japan does a pretty good job. For weeks leading up to New Year’s, and on the day itself of course, Japan has lots of festivals, events, and traditions that have long been a part of the country’s history and culture, and which just about every family in Japan faithfully participates in – like cooking traditional New Year’s food called O-sechi, or decorating the house with a statue made of rice cakes and a tangerine.

But out of the many traditions in Japan meant to start off the New Year on the right foot, one in particular has always stood out to me – mochi-tsuki. After first hearing about this country-wide event, I knew that my year in Japan would not be complete if I didn’t attend a mochi-tsuki.

Mochi-tsuki is an important traditional event where friends and families gather together to pound rice to make mochi, or rice cakes. It’s usually performed at the end of the year around December 25th to 28th. Historically, mochi became a popular food to make for New Year’s since it keeps for a fairly long time at room temperature and is also a convenient, portable food. Japanese people eat homemade mochi at the start of the year, usually grilled and flavored with soy sauce.

Though there are quite a few mochi-tsuki festivals throughout Osaka meant to attract large crowds, the closest temple hosting a mochi-tsuki was at least two hours away from me, and would’ve require multiple train rides to get there. Luckily, though, I happened to find out about a smaller mochi-tsuki event happening in Minoh!

So on the morning of December 28th, I took a short bus ride to the address where the event was set to take place, and ended up stumbling upon a small gathering of a few families, several young adults, and a handful of children and elderly people in the middle of a neighborhood. When I arrived, I could tell that everyone was surprised to see me there, but they were very polite and welcoming. One of the attendees even took the time to explain the mochi-making process – which is super simple, actually.

First, a special type of sticky rice that’s been soaked in water overnight is steamed in metal crates until the rice is cooked through and soft.

IMG_8174Once the rice is ready for pounding, it’s placed in an usu, or a large bowl made of wood or stone. The one at the event I went to was made of stone. IMG_8141A heavy, hammer-like mallet made of wood is used to pound the rice into paste. IMG_8140Once the steamed rice is placed in the usu, the pounding begins!

IMG_E8144IMG_E8145Pounding requires a two person effort – while one person pounds the rice with the mallet, another shifts the rice in the usu to ensure evenness and prevent the mochi from sticking to the sides.

The steamed rice is shaped and pounded until it becomes a large, sticky mass, which usually takes about 10-15 minutes. Once the desired consistency is reached, it’s ready for shaping.

The pounders transferred the sticky heap into a wooden crate and brought the crate to an elderly lady who began shaping it into bite-sized cakes.

IMG_E8191The process continued for a few more hours after that until all of the steamed rice was pounded and formed into hundreds of bite-sized mochi cakes, and then set aside to be stored until New Year’s. It was a fascinating and memorable experience overall, and I’m grateful that the small gathering of locals who put on the event were quick to welcome me into their group this year.

I’m happy to say that I can officially cross “attend a mochi-tsuki” off my Japan bucket list. 🙂