A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan – Tacorice in Multicultural Okinawa Prefecture

Sun, sea, nature, culture… Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture in Japan, and our destination this month as we continue our Food Lover’s Tour of Japan!

Comprised of 160 islands, 49 of which are inhabited, Okinawa was the ancestral home of the Ryukyu Kingdom and is a modern epicenter of Japanese tourism, trade and arts. Okinawa has been at the crossroads of trade with China, mainland Japan and other parts of Southeast Asia since the 15th century. From that time until the 19th century, Okinawa was known as the independent Kingdom of Ryukyu, where arts, crafts, architecture, food, culture and trade flourished.

Okinawa Prefecture consists of large islands and smaller archipelagos, including the largest and main island called Okinawa, the Yaeyama Archipelago, the Miyako Archipelago, Kerama Island and the closest inhabited islands surrounding the main island of Okinawa.

Shuri Castle in Naha City

Naha City is the largest city in Okinawa, and is located in the southern part of the main island. This city is where the ancient seat of the Kingdom of Ryukyu was based at Shuri Castle. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shuri Castle, along with Shikina-en, the residence of the royal family, the Enkaku-ji Temple and Tamaudon, the royal mausoleum, are well worth visiting. Today, Naha City is the economic, political and transportation hub of Okinawa, and tourists can enjoy visiting the cultural sites as well as Kokusai Street. Considered “the kitchen of Okinawa”, Kokusai Street is a bustling place full of shops and restaurants and the Makishi Public Market, where grandmothers called “obaa” work at the food stalls. Naha City is also the port town from where one can travel to other parts of the prefecture.

For those wishing to stay on the main island, the northern and northwestern parts of the island offer numerous and varied experiences. In the far north, the famous Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium displays abundant marine life, like whale sharks, tropical fish, rays and corals in some of the largest tanks in the world. The aquarium works to protect endangered species and cultivates approximately 800 colonies of coral from nearby waters. The waters themselves are crystalline blue, and beaches stretching from the north all the way down the western coast are home to luxurious resorts and deep sea water spas. Hiking trails that frequently run within streams along mountains and fruit plantations are also abundant in this area.

Okinawa’s famous Churaumi AquariumThe southern part of Okinawa Island lends itself to agriculture, especially the cultivation of sugarcane, and to cave exploration, especially in the Gyokusendo Caves. In ancient times, this area was the religious center of the Ryukyu Kingdom and in present time, is home to peace memorial parks and museums dedicated to those who lost their lives during World War II. The Cornerstone of Peace, located at the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Park, lists the names of all who were lost, regardless of nationality and age, in the hopes that today’s generations work to prevent war.

The central part of Okinawa Island is the most multicultural of all. The United States still maintains military bases there, and trade with China and Southeast Asia continues in the region. The culture here is “chanpuru” or mixed, and the cities showcase shops, restaurants, movie theaters and entertainment complexes with signs in English as well as in Japanese. Central Okinawa is also said to be the birthplace of karate, and many martial arts dojos are open for extensive training. Eisa dancing, sanshin music, and traditional architecture also flourish in this part of the island. One of the most unique things about Okinawa, especially in this region is its signature dish–taco rice.

Zojirushi’s Taco Rice Bowl

Legend has it that taco rice was invented for American military men when restaurants in Okinawa didn’t have the wherewithal to make taco shells. They sautéed ground beef with taco seasonings and piled it on top of cooked Japanese white rice. Toppings such as cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and rarely salsa, completed the dish. Matsuzo Gibo is credited with the invention of the dish, and founded two restaurants–King Taco and Parlor Senri–both of which claim ownership of the dish. Original taco rice may be hard to find in the US, but our recipe of preparing it at home is easy. Check out the simple way to make a Taco Rice Bowl, Zojirushi-style. All you need is ground beef, seasonings, rice and toppings!

We hope you enjoyed reading about Okinawa Prefecture and as always, share your comments and photos below!

Delicate Customs: ?Japanese Gardens

Japanese gardens are some of the most beautiful and tranquil spaces in the world. Imparting a sense of unspoiled beauty, Japanese gardens are stylized, yet natural, representations of nature… idealized versions of landscapes that evoke serenity, meditation, harmony and grace.

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From the smallest backyard to the largest park, Japanese garden traditions revolve around six aesthetic principles, including point of view (or perspective), miniaturization, concealment, ‘borrowed’ scenery, asymmetry and artistic form. The earliest documentation of these principles can be found in the Sakuteiki (or Notes on Gardening) written during the Heian period of Japan’s history, from approximately 794-1185 CE. According to these principles, the Japanese garden is a miniaturized and often, abstract, version of a larger natural landscape, where fine sand or gravel can represent water or large rocks represent islands. The designed landscape is meant to be viewed from a particular perspective, whether a seated position, such as in traditional meditation gardens, or from elevated platforms, such as in pleasure gardens. These perspectives inform the scale of the garden, along with the types of flora, fauna, water and rock elements used in it. In this landscape design tradition, plants, animals and hardscape are deliberately chosen to tell a subtle story, sometimes of mythological or religious beings, and sometimes of the passage of seasons in an area fondly remembered. To that end, Japanese gardens are not constrained to a grid of a symmetrical design axis, like the formal Western flower gardens at Versailles. Elements flow in natural patterns, often placed according to Buddhist geomancy principles.

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Ryoan-ji Hojo rock garden

Traditional Japanese gardens have survived the many periods of Japan’s history, beginning in the Heian and Muromachi periods, then experiencing a resurgence during the Edo and Meiji periods and again in current, modern times. Today, large-scale urban parks incorporate the main styles of Japanese gardens into their landscapes, including the tsukiyama, karesansui and chaniwa styles. The tsukiyama style focuses on showing nature in miniature, using small-scale trees, rocks, waterfalls, streams and ponds. The karesansui, or “dry”, style uses sand and gravel to represent flowing water, and is most often seen in zen or meditation gardens because of the simple elegance of the garden. Chaniwa-style gardens are adjacent to a teahouse, and are designed to be utterly natural and simple, while at the same time meant to prepare a guest for entering the teahouse for the chanoyu or tea ceremony. A garden path denoted by tobi-ishi, or stepping stones, guides guests to the teahouse, along with stone lanterns called ishidoro. Small round stone bundles bound with straw are placed along the paths so that guests will know where they are not to step. A tsukubai, or stone basin and ladle, are placed at the end of the garden path, and water from an elevated bamboo pipe, or kakei, is poured into it so that guests may wash their hands and mouths prior to entering the teahouse.

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These three styles of traditional gardens are seen in spectacular public spaces, and one particular garden not to be missed is the Ryoan-ji Hojo Temple Garden in Kyoto.

Japanese gardens are now famously available to people all over the world, and even if you don’t live close to one, designing your own garden space, however large or small, can be a beautiful, artistic and fulfilling endeavor.

Good Taste: Gin-nan (Ginkgo Nuts)

Gin-nan or ginkgo nuts ripen in autumn, and this month, fans around the world will be picking them straight from the trees to bring them to their tables.

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Patience is required to prepare ginkgo nuts. Fresh nuts are encased in three layers – a?pulpy, yellowish outer covering; a hard, smooth white nut case; and a thin, brownish inner?skin. And that’s not the only protection around the nuts! The pulpy outer covering is extremely pungent, likened to durian fruit in intensity and odor. Avid enthusiasts undertake the challenge of removing the smelly outer covering, cracking open the nut case and then scrubbing the inner skins off while the nuts are soaked in hot water to get to the nut within. (The not-so-avid can definitely find fresh, hulled nuts at Asian markets around the world.) The inexperienced novice will certainly come away with skin peeling from their hands and an overfull stomach, as only 4-5 nuts should be eaten at a time (unfortunately, ginkgo poisoning is a thing).

ginnan02Gin-nan grow on female ginkgo biloba trees, which are prized not only for their fruit but for their beautiful and unique foliage. In Tokyo, ginkgo trees turn a splendid shade of gold during the fall season, and locals and tourists alike visit the “Ginkgo Avenue” or Icho Namiki near the Aoyama-Itchome Station and in Showa Memorial Park. Each location is planted with four rows of ginkgo trees, forming broad avenues overhung by leafy branches dappling shade. A ginkgo tree is also at Sensoji Shrine in Asakusa, the oldest temple in Tokyo.

The raw nuts, once harvested from the trees and deskinned, are white in color but turn pale green when cooked. In Japan, the nuts are skewered and grilled, kushiyaki-style and more commonly found in chawanmushi,?a savory egg custard appetizer. The true connoisseur loves these nuts simply roasted, warm and fragrant on an autumn day.

Delicate Customs: ?The Art of Bonsai

 

bonsai03When people first learn about bonsai, they are often surprised that it is considered a form of art, rather than gardening. Bonsai, for many, is an object, a tiny potted tree, one that is cared for just like any other potted plant. But true bonsai is an activity, one that is undertaken for many years, with patience, sensitivity and nurturing.

Bonsai trees are not stunted or pruned into an artificial shape. Just as a painter works on a canvas or a sculptor works with bronze, bonsai artists work with the living structure of a tree, cultivating and coaxing it into its final beautiful form. Bonsai artists respect the dignity of each living organism, working with it over the years to help focus its growth and character.

Depending on the artist’s vision, the trees can grow to be a few feet tall or be shaped into the tiniest miniatures, and be cultivated into balanced, natural, shapes. The most popular varieties of trees and shrubs used in bonsai are pines, whose leaves are evergreen, maples, whose leaves change color in autumn, flowering cherry or plum trees, and fruit-bearing trees, like the quince and persimmon. Regardless of the tree chosen, a beautiful and well-suited container is always considered part of the entire piece.bonsai02

Bonsai cultivation has a large global following. While originally a Japanese art, the World Bonsai Friendship Federation has done much to promote the exchange of ideas, designs and culture across the globe. Every few years, they host a World Bonsai Convention, with the next one to be held in April 2017 in Japan, at the traditional birthplace of bonsai, in Saitama City at the Omiya Bonsai Village.

Bonsai has an interesting history. It was originally a hobby for aristocrats and priests during the 14th century. As bonsai art spread into mainstream Japanese culture, more bonsai01people began creating these small trees, and, in the early 19th century, when Japan opened its doors to the world, many visitors from Western countries began growing bonsai. After World War II, the art of bonsai spread even more, as large-scale exhibits were staged and the trees were given as gifts between nations.

In modern times, creating bonsai doesn’t require a visit to Japan. There are many resources for growing your own tree from seeds, learning how to develop the best environment for the plant with the proper mesh screens, how to reveal the trees’ most beautiful shape through pruning and wiring, and how to enhance its growth through watering, feeding and fertilizing. Bonsai clubs are a great place to start!

Do you have a bonsai that you love? Are you part of its creation, or was it handed down to you, generation to generation?