Monthly Archives

June 2012

Japan Tea Education

Sweet Japanese Wagashi

Last Thursday, Yasuno sensei took our Cultural Anthropology class to visit a Japanese confectionary shop around the corner from Yamaguchi Prefectural University. There we learned all about wagashi. These amaimono (sweet things) are a traditional go-along with green tea in Japan.

wagashi closeup

There is so much artistry in created wagashi. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

These starchy, delicious confections dissolve on your tongue. They’re made with different combinations of azuki beans, mochi and sometimes fruit.  Then, they’re crafted into delicate shapes, usually to show seasonal trends.

The one I tried was ‘botan’ (peony), which are currently blooming in Japan. Summer treats are often semi-transparent. The effort to make the wagashi transparent is so that they have a ‘cooling’ effect, to combat the hot summer weather.

How to eat wagashi

Using the little wooden spear you’re given to eat the wagashi,  you’re meant to quarter the mochi, and then eat each piece slowly, savouring your green tea in between.

wagashi cut into quarters

Wagashi, quartered! (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

The maker who served us our sweets and tea was very knowledgeable. He studied for 20 years in Kyoto before opening up his little off-the-main-road confectionary here.

For those of you who don’t know Japan, streets are often a little more convoluted than I’m used to in North America. Off-the-road literally means sort of hidden among a bunch of regular houses with a small bike-path-type trail leading to it.

We asked him how he got any business being so far off the main road, and he said mostly word-of-mouth. People tend to value each others’ opinions very highly in Japan, so it’s no surprise he’s able to keep a fully stocked shop so hidden away.

There was also an adorable cigarette disposal bin shaped like a cat. I couldn’t resist. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

Wagashi store address

The name of the place is 涼の郷, which I think translates to ‘Ryō no Go’.

2 Chome-7-25 Sakurabatake, Yamaguchi-shi, Yamaguchi-ken 753-0021, Japan

Japanese vocabulary

Japanese sweet — wagashi, わがし, 和菓子

Sweet stuff — amaimono, あまいもの, 甘いもの

Peony — botan, ぼたん, 牡丹

Destinations Japan

Finding Homes for Community Cats

Finally, back to the important things… cats!

A few days ago we had a pair of stray, identical kittens show up on campus, wandering around the cafeteria. These little guys are just about the size that Taters was when I got her, so chances are they’re just old enough to be without their mum. I had some fun, feeding them ground up chicken with chopsticks, and then some firmer chicken breast the day after that. They generally hung around the cafeteria deck and got lots of loving “kawaii neko!” attention from the university students.

However… it was rainy pretty hard today, and the kittens had nowhere to go but under the porch, where I found them mewling at lunch time when I brought a can of tuna for them. Originally, some of the other exchange students and I were planning to find a shelter to bring them to today. We figure the kittens are either begotten by one of the many stray cats around here, or were abandoned. The chance of them being somebody’s lost pets seems unlikely as after the first day the entire school knew about it, to the point where the administration even put up a sign saying, “don’t feed the cats, please” (a bit harsh, don’t you think?). Anyway, nobody stepped forward to claim the kittens as lost.

But, as fate would have it, when we went looking for the kittens at lunch time, as part of little ‘kitten rescue project’ turns out, someone else was looking for them too. A student here named Mako decided she was going to adopt them. Great! This means I can still check in on the cute buggers from time to time. We helped her carry them home and get them all set up in her little university loft flat. Mako was adorable, she wasn’t sure what the kittens needed, ate, or drank, but you could tell her heart was in the right place. At one point she was lying out some blankets on the floor so the kittens little claws wouldn’t scratch the floor. The longtime pet owner in me was like: “Good luck keeping that up”. She’s definitely got a lot to learn, but I think she’ll love them and take care of them, and that’s all that really matters. They have been tentatively named ‘Meru’ and ‘Maru’; mel in katakana, and the popular boys’ name suffix. Written, they look like: “メル” and ”マル”. Plus, it’s fun to say: merumarumerumarumerumaru.

Here’s a photo of one of the kittens sleeping on the deck at the cafeteria.

Fun Fact! In order to curtail its growing population of stray cats in urban centre, some cities in Japan have started spay-neuter release programs to create “community cats”. As the name suggests, they take feral cats, spay or netuer them, treat them for parasites, and then release them back into the wild. They also set up cat feeding stations, and shelters for inclement weather. Cats that go through this program are called ‘chiiki neko’ which literally means ‘community cat’.

(I like that it sounds like cheeky neko…which many of them are).


One Man Trains in Japan

Fun fact about Japan’s Train Systems: For smaller, short-haul stations (like mine, Miyano 宮野), JR Railways uses ‘One Man’ trains (ワンマン phonetically: wanman). You can see the katakana in the upper right window of the train. One man trains are basically one or two car trains operated usually by just one conductor. You especially see them late at night, or during less-popular commute times. You can tell which train is only a ワンマン one by looking at the train schedule. Usually they’ll have the katakana written beside the trains arrival time, or on the easier-to-read, more adorable train schedules they have a little picture of one conductor’s face beside the arrival times.


Firefly Festival (Hotaru Matsuri) in Japan

boy hops over a fence to meet his friend and win some goldfish at a game stall during the Firefly Festival in Yamaguchi, Japan.


Right now it’s Firefly season in Japan. Fireflies in Japanese are called hotaru 蛍.

Yamaguchi’s hotaru matsuri (festival) just ended yesterday. On Saturday some friends and I went firefly viewing, but I didn’t bring my tripod with me so I couldn’t do any long exposure shots. So, I decided to get some tonight; this picture is from the river a couple minutes’ bike ride from my house, right near where I buy my groceries. There weren’t as many condensed hotaru in one place as there were at Ichinosakagawa on Saturday during the festival (photos to come), but there were still a decent amount, and it was nice to go out at night and take some shots. If you’ve never gone out late at night, or early in the morning to walk around and take some pictures, I highly recommend it. It always feels great, and when no one is around you can really relax and just enjoy the light, and take as much time as you like.

Fun Fact: Although officially hotaru is written using kanji, a few trendy festival posters I’ve seen use the phonetic ホタル katakana spelling of the name.  Katakana is used mainly for foreign-borrowed words, so it’s sort of catchy and grabs your attention. I’ve seen quite a few shops where people have katakana-ized their names which would traditionally be spelled using regular Japanese kanji or hiragana.