Thursday, April 24, 2014

16. 葭始生: "Water Reeds Come Up"

(BGM: "Born At The Right Time" by Paul Simon)

Water Reeds Coming Up at Okubiwako Sports Park (Nagahama, Shiga)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
晩春 Banshun: "Late Spring"
Season No. 6: 穀雨, Koku: 
"Grain Rain" 

The phrase "grain rain" comes from an old Chinese legend of how grain fell from the sky "like rain" the moment Cangjie invented the first kanji characters. (Kanji is the primary writing system used throughout China and Japan, with limited use in Korea). In the West, we have a similar expression: "April showers bring May flowers." Both describe the phenomenon of late spring rains that improve the fertility of the land. Rice farmers take these brief, fleeting rains as a cue from Mother Nature to turn the soil, the first step in preparation for planting.

A field of rotated soil, ready for flooding (Kojinyama Park, Hikone, Shiga).
Climate No. 16: 葭始生
Ashi Hajimete Shouzu: 
"Water Reeds Come Up"
(April 20 -April 24) 

Lining portions of the southeastern shores of Lake Biwa and the many rivers that feed into her, water reeds (葭 ashi, yoshi), sway and rustle with the slightest breeze in a gentle percussion like horse hair brushes on a cymbal. This stately species of grass is still plentiful here, where for centuries, it has provided thatch roofing material, protection from bank erosion and shelter for many species of fish, birds and insects unique to the region.

Rushing Past the Rushes of Lake Biwa (Ohmi Hachiman, Shiga)
The rustic Suigo District of Ohmi Hachiman (滋賀県近江八幡市), home of the world-famous Ohmi beef cattle, is also well-known for its water reeds. For several thousand yen, tourists can enjoy a leisurely boat cruise, gliding gracefully through honey-colored tunnels of this towering grass.

Suigo Meguri cruise boats resting in a canal littered with sakura blossoms (Ohmi Hachiman, Shiga).
Known as the Suigo Meguri (水郷めぐり), this famous tourist attraction of Ohmi Hachiman was a must on our to-do list the entire time we lived in Shiga. But we always seemed to miss the cruise company's open hours, so Hubby and I each settled for an unusual bowl of ashi noodles in one of Suigo's many old merchant buildings that had since been remodeled into cafes. The taste was pure starch and salt and very bland like copy paper, but nonetheless refreshingly light and enjoyable with the contrasting flavors of sharp, peppery grated ginger and warm, smokey katsuobushi bonito flakes. (Next time, though, I think I'll go for the beef).

Ashi Udon Noodles with Red Konnyaku and Miso Pickles (Suigo District, Ohmi Hachiman City, Shiga)
Taste Of The Season: お茶, Ocha, Tea

Hojicha Tea From Ibigawa, Gifu
 Late spring has come and the long wait for shincha (新茶, new tea) is over! Shincha (the first harvest of the year) is usually found in department store food sections, shopping mall tea shops and supermarkets in nearly every Japanese suburb. Shincha can take on as many forms as there are types of tea. But with the continuing cool weather, the comforting aroma of rich, roasting hojicha (ほうじ茶)tea is a treat for the senses, sweet and nutty with an unmistakably green top note. Whereas straight, green sencha tea has a slightly perfumed quality and is good for cooling an overheated constitution, hojicha is heavier, robust and warming, yet has a cleansing effect on the palate, which makes it the ideal choice for an after-meal tea.

I was a tea lover long before I arrived in Japan. My first exposure to whole-leaf, unsweetened green tea was via the Republic Of Tea company based out of Novato, California. In the corner of our favorite bookstore in Anchorage (no longer in existence), was a tiny "tea bar" that sold paper cups of scalding-hot Republic teas at ghastly prices. But sipping your way through a cup of hojicha or sencha somehow made life in Alaska less unsophisticated, and thus, my friend and I became instant addicts. Back when the Internet was just a baby, he and I spent hundreds of bucks on our first online shipping purchase: a crate full of fine tea blends. Being an owner of these fine teas was one of the major highlights of my Alaskan life. But little did I know that only a decade later, I'd have the chance to stroll around one of the world's most prominent green tea capitals: Uji, Kyoto.

A green banner advertises shincha for sale in Uji, Kyoto.
In Uji, the streets are lined with centuries-old tea shops still in business, bustling with tourists, tea fans and elderly women shuffling in brown and purple crepe and crochet. Little edens lie tucked away between the buildings, decorated with bamboo screens, plants and flowers, beckoning tea drinkers for a moment of repose. The gentle hum of a rotating tea roaster intrigues children and retro fans alike.

An inviting little tea grotto (Uji, Kyoto)
A gorgeous antique hojicha roaster in Uji, Kyoto.
"Sleep on horseback
  The far moon in a continuing dream
    Steam of roasting tea."   -Matsuo Basho

Kids watching a tea roaster at work (Bikan District, Kurashiki City, Okayama)
Ready for drinking! Kurashiki Hojicha Tea (Bikan District, Kurashiki, Okayama)
A piping hot cup of roasted tea is said to be especially delicious this time of year. But what if all you've got is just a boring pouch of green sencha tea leaves? You're in luck; there's an easy way to duplicate the sensual heaven of roasting hojicha right in your own home! (Purists will probably shake their heads at this technique, but who the heck cares). 

How To Make Fresh-Roasted Hojicha At Home:

You Will Need:
*A cup full of plain, unroasted sencha tea leaves
*A frying pan 
*A dry plate or ungreased cookie sheet for cooling

Warm the frying pan on medium heat. When the pan is nice and hot, pour in enough sencha tea leaves to cover the bottom of the pan and dry-fry it, flipping constantly, until the rich, nutty roasted aroma fills the air. As it starts to turn brownish, empty it onto your plate or cookie sheet to cool, being extra careful not to burn or blacken the tea.

Once the roasted tea is cool, boil some water and brew your homemade hojicha tea according to taste.

Store unused hojicha tea leaves in an air-tight jar, metal can with a tight-fitting lid or a plastic tea caddy (sold at finer Asian grocery stores).

Done. :-)

Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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