Japan 2014, Part 11.

Before we get started today, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite desserts that I discovered accidentally. I bought it one day at a coffee shop near our hotel in Kyoto and I made The Moomins go back there every morning for three days afterwards to get it (it wasn’t really a sacrifice for The Moomins, the coffee shop had good hot black tea which she loved, everyone wins). I didn’t know what it was but I like light green so I figured how bad could it be?

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OMG GUYS. It was a soft bread like challah covered with a layer of honeydew melon royal icing and filled with cantaloupe custard. Ohhhhhh, so good. I love melon-flavored anything, especially honeydew, so I was in total heaven. I’ve never seen anything like it here in the states and I fear I may only dream of this delicious treat from now on. It’s okay, I’ll temper my grief with honeydew bubble tea. I’ll get through this. But if anyone sees it at like, a Japanese bakery, could you let me know? I needs mah melon bun.

I ended up with a real Pavlovian situation because all the desserts in Japan are beautiful, often imitating delicate natural elements. When I was in the plum garden I found myself wanting to pull the flowers off the branches and stuff them in my mouth because my brain had now made the connection between pretty pink flowers and sweet delicious treats. Japan gave me pica.


While we were staying at the Hotel New Akao we went to a neighboring village to see some waterfalls.


The waterfalls were not crazy-spectacular, but was was cool was seeing how the lava had flowed a gazillion years ago when this area was formed.


At one point I turned around and grabbed The Moomins’ arm. “What?” she said, thinking something had happened. I said, “Look at those rocks. Those are basalt columns. I’ve always wanted to see hexagonal rock columns. This is SO EXCITING.” She was substantially less excited, but I think she thought it was cute how I was fawning over some stone pillars so she feigned some glee for me.


Here’s a screengrab I got off of Google Images to give you an idea of how cool they look when they cooled at the just the right speed and there’s no vegetation. I think you have to go to Iceland or Russia to see perfect examples, but I was thoroughly delighted to see these imperfect ones.


Off to the side of the waterfall was a little nook in the rock where people could go and sit in the healing waters.


In order to raise money for the waterfalls to be maintained, the park rangers collect the water-smoothed stones and set up this wishing-well-type-thing on top of this boulder. For 300 yen you could get a small stone and try to toss it into the ring of rocks.


And here is one of the waterfalls.


Big old Buddha! That’s not an expletive, I got to go see one in Kamakura, one of the cutest villages I’ve ever been to. He’s made of bronze and they think he’s from 1252, but they’re not really sure. This is from Wikipedia:

That wooden statue version was damaged by a storm in 1248, and the hall containing it was destroyed. The hall was destroyed again by a storm in 1334, was rebuilt, and was damaged by yet another storm in 1369, and was rebuilt yet again. The last building housing the statue was washed away in the tsunami of September 20, 1498, during the Muromachi period. Since then, the Great Buddha has stood in the open air.

Oh, that’s nice. Instead of fire, the temple was destroyed repeatedly by water. Living on the Pacific Rim is rough. At one point in history the Buddha was covered in gold leaf, and there’s a bit left near his ears, but otherwise he’s just bronze. And, not surprisingly, because this is Japan, both the Buddha and everything around him is very photogenic.


Here’s a picture of the Buddha with the incense-holder in front of him.


And here’s a view through the incense holder to the Buddha-sized slippers mounted on the far-away wall off to the right.


You could go inside the Buddha. I have never been inside a diety before, so it was extremely exciting for me. He has windows in his back to let the light in.

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There was a detailed explanation of how the artisans layered the bronze.


Off to the left of the former temple site was a wall of sake and miso. According to our guide Kimi-San companies that make sake, plum wine and miso donate big barrels of their product to various temples for their ceremonies, and the temples display those barrels so the companies get credit for their good deed.


I kept seeing small wooden fences covered with little paper strips. I learned that inside was a box filled with numbered cubes. You shake the box until a cube came out and in front of you is a corresponding bureau with numbered drawers. You take the fortune out of the drawer with the number of your cube and if it’s good you keep it and if it’s bad you tie it to the fence. Kind of like religious Yahtzee (I am so going to hell).


One of the things Kamakura is known for are cookies shaped like pigeons. They don’t taste like anything special, they’re just a crunchy butter cookie, but they’re a big deal. I found a description on this site:

Also popular with Japanese travelers to Kamakura are the crunchy dove-shaped butter cookies known as hato sabure, which have been a popular Kamakura specialty since a local shopkeeper started making his own interpretations of European biscuits in the Meiji era (1868-1912). The name comes from the French word sablé, which in the Japanese pronunciation sounds somewhat similar to the common boy’s name Saburo. The dove motif was inspired by the plaque above the main prayer hall at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, where the character for “Hachi” is shaped to look like a dove.

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If I go back to Japan I will spend an entire day in Kamakura walking around. It looked absolutely charming. In the brief time I was there, I saw this:


The owners were this sweet elderly Japanese couple who had never been anywhere near Pennsylvania, but really dug the whole Amish thing. I honestly was curious what their interpretation of Amish cuisine was, and it was… cheesecake. And apple cake. And tea. So it was a regular tea house. But I appreciated the earnestness of it.

After Kamakura we went to the Gingko Temple, which is called Tsurugaoka Hachimangu I believe. It’s a tough name to say. It was built around a 1,000 ginkgo tree that sadly was uprooted in 2010 during a storm, but there’s a bit of stump left. It’s guarded by two grinning stone statues.


It is both a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple. See? Friendly religions. Lots of sharing. It never gets old.

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As with almost every other temple, you could buy a placard and write your hopes and wishes on it with a Sharpie. After a certain amount of time all the placards are burned in a big bonfire sending your written statements into the sky. At this temple they were gingko-leaf-shaped.

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I heard a rhythmic clanging down the long path to the street, so I thought something relevant or religious was going on. When I finally arrived at the source of the noise, I saw a woman roasting gingko nuts and the sound was her metal spoon banging against the side of the wok, constantly moving the ginkgo nuts so they didn’t burn.


I have eaten some gingko nuts in my life (they resemble chestnuts flavor-wise) but never roasted, so I bought a small bag. They came in the shell:


Which you had to crack open to reveal the edible part within.


I think they could have been roasted a while longer because they still had a bit of a bitter taste, but they were still a nice warm filling snack.

Once again, the kids in Japan are so freakin’ cute. I had to take a picture of this girl engrossed in the guide book while at the temple with her class. So earnest.


Some additional photos.

One of my favorite signs. It’s for a homeopathic pharmacy.


A supported tree. I love how they care about the trees in winter.


A crane on a roof.


A dove on a fence.


Two signs for a “Girl’s Bar.” I saw these signs all over. I assumed that they were strip clubs or something of that nature, but I forgot how reserved the Japanese are. Check it out: It means that there’s a girl bartender who is possibly wearing a tight shirt. Or, as we call it in New York, “every bar ever.”

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Next up – Yokohama and Tokyo.

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