Mochi Day

For New Year’s, I’m staying in Matsumoto with one of my friends and her family. According to her mom, December 29th is supposed to be a lucky day. So, of course, that means we need to make mochi*!

Traditionally, making mochi involves pounding rice with a giant hammer, but we took a modern approach. A mochi-making machine! This machine takes about 40 minutes to make fresh mochi; 30 minutes to cook the rice, and then about nine or ten minutes to knead the rice. It reminded me a lot of a bread-making machine, and it was pretty fun to watch.

At first, the rice just sat in the machine in a pile like this:

 

But soon enough, it turned into this:

 

Once the mochi was in its cake form, all we had to do was scrape it out of the machine, roll pieces of it into balls, and cover it with one of two toppings; anko (sweet red bean paste) or kinako (roasted soybean powder). Kinako is my personal favorite. It tastes like peanut butter!

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We ate all the mochi covered in toppings today, but we also set aside a large portion of mochi to eat on New Year’s Day. Until then, there’s still a lot to do to prepare for the New Year, much of which includes food. I’ll makes posts about all of that later on!

 

 

*Mochi is made from mashing a certain variety of cooked rice together until it forms a sort of gooey cake. It can be eaten as a sweet or savory food, but is most often seen as a sweet.

 

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Destination: Izumo Quilt Museum

I didn’t expect the Quilt Museum to be as amazing as it was. I went here on a Saturday because I didn’t have anything else to do, and I’m interested in quilting. Little did I know, that this tiny museum is a hidden gem on par with any large art museum.

The Izumo Quilt Museum is tucked away in a traditional-style Japanese house in Hikawa. It’s surrounded by fields, vegetable gardens, and not-too-far-away mountains. When I got there, I accidentally passed it because aside from a small sign, the house didn’t appear much different from the other traditional-style houses around it. Once you find it, though, its unmistakable.

I was the only person visiting when I first arrived. One of the two ladies working at the museum met me just inside the door to take my admission fee and point out where to leave my shoes and put on indoor slippers. She pointed out where all the different displays were, and mentioned that all of the current exhibits were specially picked for the winter season (all the items on display change based on the current season). Then, she left me to wander at my own pace around the museum, only suggesting where I should go next after I finished each section.

My whole life, quilts have meant nine-patch square patterns and geometric designs. Each one of the quilts at this museum, however, reminded me more of paintings. Each display for the quilts was arranged so that the area just around the quilts complemented and enhanced each piece of work. In the first exhibition area, just inside the entrance, there was a quilt with a pattern of camellia blossoms hung above a bed of tiny white stones. Scattered around the stones, were fabric camellia blossoms that matched the ones in the quilt. As though the pattern wasn’t limited to the piece’s boarders! Another piece, which had a whole room to itself, was a massive quilt portrait of a mountain at sunset. While I was looking at it, I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a painting on canvas. Someone chose fabric, cut hundreds of tiny shapes of varying shades of colors, and then stitched them all together in meticulous order to get the right kinds of light, shadow, and texture into the picture. One of my favorite displays, though, was set up in an alcove next to the garden surrounding the museum. Two quilts were displayed in this room; one hanging from a stand, and another arranged over a low table. The quilts themselves were gorgeous, but because of how they were displayed, this whole alcove felt so cozy and lived in that I wanted to curl up under the quilt on the table (I didn’t, though).

Source: https://trc-leiden.nl/trc-needles/collections/asia/izumo-museum-of-quilt-art

In the spaces between each quilt display, there were flowers arrangements, which were also chosen especially for the winter season. I loved looking at these just as much as the quilts. If you don’t know much about traditional Japanese flower arrangements, I highly recommend looking up some pictures of them! The idea of these arrangements is to capture the essence of the same beauty you might find in nature. So rather than flowers arranged in a vase, the arrangements are more like sculptures made of flowers. For winter displays, the materials included whole branches that were bare except for some camellia blossoms, bunches of red berries, or some evergreen leaves. Imagine all the flowers and plants you might find if you took a walk next to a river in the winter, and that’s what the flower arrangements looked like during my visit.

Photos of The Izumo Museum of Quilt Art, Izumo

Source: http://www.kankou-shimane.com/en/?p=5194

There were also a few things that I never would have expected to find at a quilt museum. For example, in a little tiny room next to the one displaying the mountain quilt, there was a kite that stood about a couple of meters tall! This wasn’t just a diamond-shaped kite either. It was the face of a person you might find in a traditional woodblock print! It hung up against the wall with all of its strings stretched out, as though it were ready for you to take it outside to fly.

All of that, however, is not everything that the museum has to offer. Off to the side of the exhibits, there’s a small indoor and outdoor sitting area that acts as a cafe. Here, you can sit and have a drink along with small sweets. The matcha green tea set is especially popular. With this set, you get a bowl of matcha (the bowls change for the season) and a traditional Japanese sweet (which, you guessed it, also changes based on the season). The sweet they had when I got there was shaped to look like a budding white flower. The menu also includes cake sets, coffee, and a few other kinds of tea.

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The museum shop is next to the cafe, and this isn’t something to miss either. It’s full of small quilted items, jewelry, and pottery, all of which in handmade! You can also get postcards and books of pictures of different quilts that are or have been on display. I ended up taking a copy of one of the books home because you’re not allowed to take pictures of the displays, but I really wanted to remember the ones I saw! One thing I definitely want to come back later to get, is a quilting set. One set of shelves in the store is full of packages of all the fabric you need to make you own quilted craft like a wall hanging, coaster, or coin purse. And guess what? The patterns on the fabric of the craft packages also change for the season. Since New Year’s is coming up, a lot of the sets I saw had images of cranes. The patterns on the coin purse packages were especially interesting because, as one of the museum ladies explained to me, all of them have patterns based on different Japanese folktales.

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One of the museum ladies spoke very good English, so if your Japanese isn’t the best, it’s still possible for you to get around the museum all right. I think the museum offers English tours at certain times as well! If you’re interested in fiber arts, or even just arts in general, you shouldn’t miss this museum! It will probably be one of the most unique experiences you get in Izumo.

 

 

Destination: Marine Thalasso

This past weekend, the other Shimane JETs and I got together for a Christmas party. However, from what I’ve been told, this is the first year where the party included an activity aside from eating dinner. That activity was a visit to Marine Thalasso near Kirara Taki!

Related image

Source, around guides: https://aroundguides.com/es/ChIJb0SgZrVWVzURKRg9mJrI1ag

Marine Thalasso is about 20 minutes away from Izumo if you take route 9 towards Hamada. It’s an indoor heated saltwater pool that’s sort of like a gym/spa. Within the pool, there are different stations you can walk around to with water jets that massage different parts of your body. For example, there are several places you can sit that massage your back, an area that will massage you from your legs, all the way up to your shoulders, and (my personal favorite) lounge chairs with jets for massaging the bottoms of your feet! The lounge chairs are especially nice because Marine Thalasso is right next to the ocean and when you use this particular station, you get a foot massage while watching the waves!

Source, Pintrest: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/151574343680318698/

The area includes an outdoor pool, too, that puts you next to the ocean. However, when we went, it was closed due to high winds and cold weather. The rest of the pool was still wonderful, though!

If you’re tired of jet massages, the far end of the pool is reserved for swimming laps (make sure to ask the pool attendants for a bathing cap before you use this area, though). There’s also a sauna, which sometimes has special treatments during the day. When I went, there was an aromatherapy special in the sauna where an attendant poured mint-scented water over the heater and circulated the smell throughout the room. The best part was that you didn’t have to pay extra to experience this! You just had to show up and find a seat. If you manage to get in to one of these aromatherapy saunas, I recommend sitting next to the heater to get the most out of the aroma.

If you happen to get too warm in the pool or the sauna, there’s a small ice pool right outside the sauna doors. If you can manage to sit all the way down in the water, it really helps with waking you up and relaxing your muscles! Finally, if you just want to sit and watch the ocean, there are lounge chairs just outside the pool area and right before the dressing rooms where you can kick back and enjoy the view.

Also, if you’re looking for a place to stay or eat around Izumo, Marine Thalasso has hotel rooms and a restaurant! Both of these aren’t too expensive from what I can tell. It’s also possible to just use the pool. For adults, use of the pool comes out to just about 1,000 yen (about 10 USD). They have towel rentals for about 200 yen (about 2 USD) and sandals that are free to use outside of the pool (the floor can get pretty slippery).

Before the Christmas party, I had been feeling stiff and achy all week. The fact that it was cold outside wasn’t helping, either. Marine Thalasso was just the thing I needed! It’s also just a nice indoor/winter activity!

If you’re looking for an affordable spa-type place or just need something to do indoors, check out Marine Thalasso!

On Izumo Soba Noodles

I have a running list of reasons why more people outside of Japan should know about Izumo. On Sunday, soba noodles became the latest of those reasons.

A teacher from my smaller school invited me to a soba making class at a local elementary school on Sunday. The class was run by six older men who have each been making soba for about ten years. They even belong to an association of soba makers that includes professional chefs and people who make soba as a hobby.

One of the first things I heard about Izumo before I came here was that it was famous for soba noodles. Only now, though, do I understand what makes Izumo soba special. From my understanding, in Japan, soba is often divided into two categories; Shinshu soba, which is popular in eastern Japan, and Izumo soba, which is popular in western Japan. Think about that. If soba is divided into two general categories, Izumo soba is one of the main categories. In other words, Izumo soba isn’t just famous, it helps to define soba in western Japan.

If you’re like me, and you’ve always assumed that soba was just soba, you have it wrong. There are a few distinct differences between the two main types. The main difference between Shinshu soba and Izumo soba is the color of the noodles. Shunshu soba makes flour with husked grains. Izumo soba uses the whole grains. This causes Shinshu soba to be lighter in color while Izumo soba is darker. This seems to be a pretty well-known fact in Japan. At the class today, someone asked me if this was my first time eating soba. I explained that no, it wasn’t, and the last time I ate soba in Japan was in Nagano Prefecture. The person who asked me the question immediately said, “Oh! Shinshu noodles are different. They’re white.”

Another difference between Shinshu and Izumo soba is how they’re often served. In Izumo, it’s common to find soba served in three-tiered dished. You add toppings and sauce to the first tier, eat it, and then pour the leftover sauce onto the tier of soba below the first one, adding more toppings and sauce as needed. Shinshu soba is commonly served in three separate dishes.

At the class today, including me and my coworker, there were a few other adults and a group of about fifteen elementary school students learning the noodle making process. Overall, the process is simple. But it takes a lot of practice to develop a sense of how to really do it well.

You start with about one kilogram of flour and about 500 ml of water. After sifting the flour, you add the water to it a little at a time, mixing the flour with your fingers as you go (like “cat’s hands” as our teachers explained). Eventually, you knead the soba dough (so that the noodles are springy), and roll the dough into a square shape. The whole process of mixing the soba was so much fun to try and to watch because the more water you add to the flour, the more you can smell the soba. It smells a bit like rich bread dough.

When rolling out the soba, an even shape and thickness is key. Luckily, the soba teachers kept an eye on all of us in the class to make sure we were learning how to do it right. These men have been making soba for so long, that they know on sight if the flour needs more water and when it’s okay to stop kneading the dough. They can also tell how thick soba dough is when rolled out just by touching it.

When the dough has bee rolled out more than several times, it’s folded over itself carefully, and then the noodle cutting begins.

To cut soba noodles, you use this giant knife that’s shaped like the State of Oklahoma with an extra panhandle. You place a small wooden slab on top of the dough. With one hand on the knife and one hand on the wood slab, you inch the slab back with the knife, and slice noodles a bit at a time. You keep going like this until all the dough is cut. Ideally, you don’t want to slice the noodles thicker than the height of a 1 yen coin (about 1 mm). This is much easier said than done, but after a while, you can get a sense of how much to push the wood slab back before it’s okay to cut the noodles. At one point, when I was trying this, I asked one of the teachers if a slice I was about to make was too thick. He said that the person cutting the soba is the best person to know the answer to that question.

Once all the soba was cut, the teachers cooked the noodles we had all just made and we got to eat bowls of our soba then and there. There is nothing like fresh soba! And being able to think to yourself, “I helped make this,” while eating just makes everything that much better.

After finishing our soba, we drank the water it had been cooked in! I’ve heard of soba mixed with tea before, but I had no idea you could just drink the water the noodles were cooked in. Someone explained to me that soba water is just like a soup broth, and it especially tastes good if you add some of the leftover sauce to it. I actually liked it quite a bit. It was almost like drinking the smell of mixing the soba flour with water.

When I was drinking the soba water, I couldn’t help but remember a phrase I learned in Japanese not long after I came to Izumo; mottai nai. It basically means, “waste not.” It’s what parents or teachers tell young kids when the kids won’t finish their food. It’s the reason you recycle things. It’s why you eat every grain of rice in a bowl. It’s what you regretfully say when you’ve accidentally wasted your whole day or have to throw out a whole container of leftovers because they’ve gone bad in the fridge. It’s why you try not to accumulate meaningless things. It’s one of those sayings that people use so often, that it’s ingrained into their actions and character. At my schools, when there are leftover cartons of milk from lunch, my coworkers sometimes encourage me to take some of them home because mottai nai. Recently, I’ve convinced myself to save money by turning down little things like drinks from a vending machine because mottai nai. Every resource is important and the product of someone’s hard work; so out of respect for that hard work, mottai nai.

In the case of soba water, I thought mottai nai was a great spark of innovation. I would never think to drink water used to cook noodles like soup, but it’s being done. In a way, Izumo soba is an epitome of mottai nai. Izumo soba is served in three tiers, so you don’t waste sauce or toppings. It uses grain, husk, and all in making its flour. After making the soba, you can drink the water. Without ever expecting to learn something other than how to make soba, I also learned an example of why mottai nai is important and inspiring.

The next time you eat soba, see if you can tell what kind it is. So many regions have their own take on the dish, but if you can find it, Izumo soba is definitely worth experiencing.