Sunday, May 29, 2011

Zenzai is not a religion but, it could be!

Okinawa is known for its traditional sweet treats. I call them traditional but for most westerners, they are anything but. What makes them unique is the use of natural or “traditional” sweeteners.
For example, Beni-imo is a purple colored sweet potato that is often used for stuffing pastries. Sataandagi, sometimes known as Okinawan doughnuts are always a favorite. Then there’s the old standby cane sugar. This is often squeezed or milled to extract the juice and then cooked down to the raw sugar. It’s often used as a treat by itself or to sweeten other treats.
The last on my short list is the Azuki bean. This is a sweet red bean that is often cooked and used in the very popular dora-yaki. Dora-yaki is made when you make two small pancakes and stuff the sweet cooked Axuki beans, that have been mashed into a paste like substance, in-between them. Dora-yaki is so popular that Japan has a cartoon character named after them known as Doraemon!

There’s another popular Japanese sweet treat that makes use of the azuki bean called the zensai. This is made from cooked azuki beans and mochi. First the beans are soaked and soften then cooked. Mochi is rice that has been pounded and kneaded into a doughy consistency and then these too are cooked. The two are then served together in a dish.

In mainland Japan, this dish is usually served while it’s still hot. In Okinawa, it’s already plenty hot so what the locals do is let the concoction cool and then cover it with shaved ice. That my friends is how you cool off on a hot summer’s day, “Okinawan” style!

This is my submission for Travel Photo Thursday for June 2nd, 2011. To see all the great places, just follow the link!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Judgement Day: Back to the Garden

Another Saturday with too much time on my hands so I hooked up with Ryukyu Mike again to go out shooting pictures. "Rusty," Mike's newest faithful sidekick, guess that makes me a “has been” or “never was,” was able to get off work in time to tag along. As soon as he got in the door he mentioned to Mike that his fiancĂ© reminded him that some preacher back in the U.S. had predicted that today was supposed to be judgment day and that he should be nice to his wife and not cuss to much. I can’t repeat what Mike’s reply was without turning this post into something “X” rated.
We decided to head out to Izumi to check out the Hydrangea gardens. In last week's post I used pictures that were taken several years ago. Mike had never been there before and Rusty wasn’t sure how to get there so I led the way. Mike was cussing up a storm all the way there because he knew as soon as his wife saw him developing the pictures he took today she would want to go see it. I think he could have lived with that part no problem. It was the shopping ordeal that he knew she would drag him along on afterward that made him the most angry.

We were lucky this day. The deluge that hit us the night before assuaged and the sky broke open with a patch of blue sky just as we arrived. Mike and rusty just about fell over themselves to grab their gear to get as many low angle shots before the clouds rolled in again. We hadn’t even paid the modest entrance fee yet and they were already at it like little kids with a wad of change visiting a candy store for the first time in their lives.

It wasn’t long after we got in the gate that we went our separate ways. It only made sense since there were so many different paths to go down and so much to see. There were so many people there and the paths were so narrow anyway. I took the high road, they both took the low roads and none of us ended up in Scotland, thank God!
I was lucky enough to run into Mrs. Yohena, the little old lady who started the place and she was gracious enough to pose for a picture or two or three. I also talked to her son about the place too. Between my preschool level “nihongo” or Japanese and his equally bad "Engrish," I was able to find out that they are primarily “Mikan” or tangerine farmers but, more importantly, how proud they are of granny's flower garden.

Granny, Mrs. yohena, loves Hydrangeas or “Ajisai” so much that during the slow months, when they weren’t busy harvesting tangerines or maintaining the orchards, she just kept planting more Ajisai. It wasn’t very long before the whole hillside was covered with them. Granny is now 94 years young and surprizingly still quite spry. But, as she got older, it got a little harder for her to navigate the hillside. So, little by little, the family added walkways with steps and later some hand rails to help her get around the garden.

As people heard about the place, more and more visitors came to see Mrs. Yohena’s garden. So many that a few years back one of her sons got the bright idea to charge an entrance fee. The price of admission is still quite modest at 300 Yen for an adult, that’s about $3.60 U.S. They also built a little shack for folks to get out of the sun, or the rain for that matter and drink in the sights along with a cold drink two for their insides.
They’re still Mikan farmers by trade but, my guess is that with all the visitors coming to see it, they make just as much, if not more, from Mrs. Yohena’s Ajisai garden as they do from farming. And why not! They did all the back breaking work themselves and they are entitled to enjoy the “fruits” of their labor.

So what does all this have to do with judgment day? A couple of things! First, never put your trust in “Leaders!” It matters not whether they’re religious or political; they’ll let you down every time, even on the odd chance that they really do have “good intentions.” After all, isn’t that what they say that the road to hell is paved with!

About that preacher!? I really feel bad for all those folks he snookered. Most of them are probably decent hard working and honest people who, thanks to our political leaders, are just disillusioned with the way things are going to hell in a hand basket. I guess I feel sorry for them because I'm just old fashioned enough to still believe in God but, old enough that I don't believe in our glorious leaders any more than I believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny!

I think that it's far better to trust in yourself and your own hard work. The Yohena family didn’t wait for some government appointed Czar, Commissar or a message from on high to tell them to build a garden. They did it on their own. Now compare the results of what they did on their own to what our so called "leaders" are doing to all of us. For the latter, let me suggest using some KY Gel! Lets just say that the results speak for themselves. They say that "God helps those who help themselves" and these days, that's more true than ever before!

Secondly, All that day and for the next few to follow, I had this old Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tune "Woodstock" going through my head. In particular was the refrain that goes, "We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon, And we got to get ourselves back to the garden." Of course when CSN&Y talked about getting back to the garden it was through gallons of cheap wine and mass quantities of hallucinogenic substances. For the Yohena family, it's just another day at the office.
Lastly, if it just so happened that Saturday really had been judgment day, I couldn’t think of a better place to go to heaven from. This place is so beautiful that you wouldn't even know you slipped over to the other side. My bet is when that day comes and the pearly gates finally open for me to walk on through, I'll find that Mrs. Yohena will more than likely already be there but, better yet, she'll have been appointed by God himself to the justly deserved position of Head Gardener!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I know an Old Lady who lives in Izumi : Travel Photo Thursday 5/12/2011

As I'm sure you’re all well aware, farming is a seasonal business. In most cases, you plant in the spring and harvest in the fall with a lot of hard back breaking work in-between. Fruit trees can be both a blessing and at the same time problematic. They are planted once and relatively maintenance free. With a little tender loving care, you can reap the benefits for years to come. But what do you do in the mean time?
Another problem farmer’s face is that land is a premium commodity here on Okinawa. Tangerine or Mikan as they’re known locally, are largely relegated to the more mountainous areas of the island like the Motobu peninsula. The rugged topography doesn’t really make it easy to put down a second cash crop. The Mikan trees do provide a blessing in that normally un-tillable land can be utilized. The trees also provide stability and prevent landslides. But what do you do during the ten months or so that you’re not harvesting?
Fortunately the long growing season on Okinawa makes it excellent for growing flowers. Believe it or not, they're a main cash crop here. Farmers across Okinawa provide a steady supply of flora for the many flower shops throughout Japan. One thing that makes the Ajisai (Hydrangea) gardens of Izumi so special is that this farmer happened across a profitable enterprise and combined it with something they loved. That meant it didn't always seem like work.
The little old lady who started this garden is now in her mid 90's. Through the investment of a great deal of backbreaking work, time and a whole lot of love she and her family have turned these rugged hillsides into a work of art. Just one visit and the visitor gains an appreciation for the hard work and ingenuity of these intrepid people. The Ajisai gardens of Izumi are indeed a work of genius. Here you can enjoy a leisurely stroll through a work of art, take in the beauty, enjoy the fragrance and feel a sense of peace that only a masterpiece of art could produce.
This is my contribution to Travel Photo Thursday for May 12th, 2011.