Spring Forward

In the UK today the clocks have gone forward by an hour, and British Summer time has begun. In reality of course spring has only just ‘sprung’. Spring time in Japan is synonymous with Cherry Blossoms or ‘Sakura’. I visited in September last year, so missed out on this spectacle. I hope to go back in the near future to see the fantastic displays myself. In the meantime, I have sought out the blossoms in London.

Holland Park in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea is home to the Kyoto Garden. Other than Kew Gardens, I believe this is the only public Japanese Garden in London. The garden was donated by the Chamber of Commerce of Kyoto in 1991, to celebrate the Japanese festival in London in 1992.

Whilst it is a small area, unlike Kew’s efforts, it is a beautiful space with a cascading waterfall in to a large pond. Spend a few moments on the stone bridge and the koi carp will soon appear. The colours of these sacred fish are so varied. Most of the carp I saw in Tokyo and Kyoto were a dark grey/brown. The water is full of copper coins that visitors have thrown in for good luck.

There are some other small water features, gravel paths, stone sculptures and even a resident peacock. The park is free to visit and is open from 07:30 am to thirty minutes before dusk. It is often quite popular, so I suggest arriving early and making the most of the peace and quiet.

I visited specifically in search of some of England’s spring blossoms. My morning walk to work passes under a Magnolia tree, and the smell is nothing short of divine. It has been a daily reminder to get to the park. Unfortunately, due to the unusual heat in December/January a lot of the blossoms came to early and were killed off. However, I did manage to find a few stunning examples.

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The white (plum) blossoms were in the main area of the park outside of the garden. However the pink (cherry) blooms were by the pond and looked lovely against the contrast of the blue skies. The trick to spotting the difference is to look at the shape of the petals and the buds. Plum blossoms have round petals with circular buds. Cherry, blooms a little later in the year, with a notch in the petals and oval buds.

In England, one of our symbols of spring is the daffodil. There was a large area in the park full of bunches of this iconic yellow flower. I couldn’t resist snapping a picture.

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It is perhaps still a little too soon for the best blossom displays. I will wait for a few more weeks before making a trip to Kew and the large Japanese garden there. I don’t think I could ever tire of walking under the blankets of blossoms and enjoying the fragrant smell. No wonder the bees are such a fan!

 

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Whatever you like…grilled

Whilst I was in Tokyo, one of the first foods recommended to me was Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き). The literal translation of the Japanese is ‘grilled as you like’. It is a savoury pancake consisting of a batter, eggs and cabbage. The rest, as the title suggests, is up to you.

There are two different types of Okonomiyaki, Osaka and Hiroshima. Osaka has the cabbage mixed with the egg and batter to create a large pancake. Hiroshima style is more like a folded omelette with the cabbage and other fillings inside. I was lucky enough to try both in Japan, and I have to say, it was tough picking a favourite.

The first okonomiyaki I had was at Aqua City shopping centre in Odaiba, Tokyo. The restaurant was called Tsuruhashi Fugetsu. It was so good that we went multiple times. In fact, so frequently that the waiters recognised us.

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Osaka style Okonomiyaki

On one of many occasions we shared the above. The beef mix with a fried egg and spring onion, pork yaki-soba inside an omelette, and the pork, prawn and squid mix. Both Okonomiyaki were covered in the traditional bonito (fish) flakes, Japanese mayonnaise and sweet/smokey Okonomiyaki sauce. All of this, plus a glass of delicious plum wine, cost the three of us around £8 each.

A Japanese friend also recommended a great place in Kyoto, Issen Yosyoku (壹錢洋食), to try the Hiroshima style. It wins the title for quirkiest restaurant I have ever been to. Inside you’ll find Geisha mannequins, supposedly to trick drunken men in, and risqué wooden plaques on the walls.

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Amazing display outside Issen Yosyoku
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Quirky interior, complete with Geisha mannequins and slightly risqué decor

The restaurant name can be translated as the equivalent of 1 US cent (Issen) Western food (Yosyoku).  The menu could not have been simpler. A large picture of okonomiyaki and the price. The only question from the waitress ‘how many?’ Some people were sharing it as a snack, but we went for one each and an Asahi (Japanese beer widely available in the UK). Although it was not as cheap as 1 cent, it still came to just under £5. It was delicious, even if we could not name all of the ingredients inside.

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Variation of Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki

Having tried each variety of this Japanese snack, I loved both. Hence, naturally, I have been on the lookout for it in London. The first few times, I cooked my own. I’ll cover this in more detail in a later post, along with some recipes. However after a little research I found Abeno. I insisted my boyfriend come along, and we arrived to a quiet restaurant on a Saturday lunchtime.

Not far from the British Museum, Abeno is very inconspicuous from the outside. My hopes soon picked up when I saw the hot plate in the middle of each table.  I really liked the blue and white plates, and was pleased to see the traditional (very useful) spade-like tool for cutting Okonomiyaki.

We ordered a large Tokyo mix okonomiyaki (prawn, squid, and pork) costing £14.95, and pork Omu-soba to share (£12.95). Omu-soba is Yaki-soba noodles wrapped in an omelette and drizzled with ketchup and mayonnaise. This may be controversial, but for me an Omu-soba beats an English fry up any day! It’s a shame that Japanese food in the UK is so much more expensive. Still it’s cheaper than flying out for it!

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Pork, Prawn and Squid Okonomiyaki with bonito flakes, powdered seaweed and those incredible sauces.

To my delight, just as in Tokyo, the food was all prepared at our table. The raw ingredients were brought over, mixed and grilled on the hot plate. To try and help with the temptation to eat it early, the pancake was covered with a saucepan lid. This also has the practical element of steaming the pancake, keeping it light. In Japan there was no such lid. Instead there was a fun back and forth with the waiter. Can we eat it yet?!

The Omu-soba was cooked separately in the kitchen. I would have preferred the noodles to be put on the hot plate. This way they become slightly crispy. Despite this, everything was delicious. It was almost as good as restaurant in Tokyo.

I will continue to look for a restaurant serving the Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki. In the meantime, I have found a few more recipes to try out at home!

One Fold after Another

As promised in my previous post, it’s time to show you some of my mid-week creations. I spent an hour or so in the evening making these. Providing you have the patience, it can be a very therapeutic process. They also make great decorations for around the house.  These were all made from the origami paper purchased at the Japan Centre.

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My two favourite designs are the lily and crane. Both are very traditional, with no scissors or glue involved!

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Here are some tips I find useful:

  • Work on a hard flat surface (I use an old sketchbook on my lap). This will help create the precise folds.
  • Spend some time getting the base folds correct. If you have a good starting point, it will make further folds/inversions easier.
  • If you have never done a design before, and want some practice, grab an A4 piece of paper and create a square by bringing one corner to the other side. You will get a larger square than the standard origami paper. This should make things easier.
  • Don’t worry if you make a mistake. Just unfold either completely, or a few stages and try again. Try to resist the temptation to scrunch it into a ball and throw it in the bin (kind of ruins the calm feeling).
  • If a set of instructions becomes confusing, just search for some alternatives. I often find that some steps are clearer when photographed in stages.

The origami crane 折鶴 (Orizuru) is one of the most famous designs. A Japanese legend states that by folding no less than one thousand, you are granted a wish by a crane. Cranes are holy creatures in Japan, said to live 1000 years. So that’s one folded crane for every year of its’ life. The thousand origami cranes 千羽鶴 (Senbazuru) are strung together and often given as gifts at weddings or the birth of a child. The crane is probably the design I saw most whilst in Japan. I even own a pair of Orizuru earrings!

Other designs I tried out were the koi carp, butterfly, heart and an 8-pointed vase. The butterfly was straight forward and I would like to find a more intricate design. Initially, I was hesitant about the 3D heart, however with the right paper it can look quite effective. Finally, the ‘vase’ (more like a very small bowl) needs some work. I will try this again with a larger piece of paper.

The koi is good fun to make, if a little fiddly. ニシキゴイ(Koi) are symbols of love and friendship in Japan, they quickly gather at the surface of a pond when anyone comes close. I took the photo at the top of the page in Tokyo at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The Koi popped up hopefully within 30 seconds of me standing there. The Heian Shrine in Kyoto has a beautiful garden with an iconic bridge across it’s lake (more on this to come). Here you can buy fish food for the Koi. I watched happily as some Japanese school children, scattered the flakes in to the water. In moments it changed from a tranquil mirror-like surface, to a lively thrashing of fish.

I still have plenty of sheets of paper left, so I will be on the look out for more designs to try. Part of me is also itching to attempt the Thousand Crane challenge. To complete it within the year I would need to do 2-3 (2.74 precisely) a day. Not sure what I would do either with the 25 strings of 40 cranes! So, what do people think? Worth the effort for a single wish?