Makizushi and Ohagi for Ohigan

In celebration of the Vernal Equinox (Ohigan) I visited Oda with a fellow teacher to learn the simple art of making makizushi and ohagi. Makizushi is the sandwich of Japan – a sushi roll filled with any variety of ingredients and eaten as the main course of a meal. Ohagi are mochi rice balls covered in sweet azuki bean paste. Both are quite simple to make – but sometimes that’s the best reason to learn from a seasoned professional; to make something simple into something elegant and brilliantly delicious.

Makizushi (Rolled Sushi)

1. Prepare fillings:

  • Nimono (vegetables boiled in shouyu, dashi and sugar)
  • Sprouts
  • Sashimi w. Wasabi

2. Prepare a sufficient amount of Japanese rice to fill the number of tummies you’ll be dining with. (You can use a rice cooker or a nabe (recommended)).

3. Prepare the vinegar mix:

  • Rice Vinegar
  • Sugar
  • Salt

Amounts are to your own taste. Bring all of the ingredients to a dissolvable temperature in a saucepan.

3. Mix the steaming hot rice with the vinegar mixture and fan to cool.

4. Place a sheet of nori (seaweed) on a bamboo rolling mat.

5. Spread a thin layer of rice onto the nori – being careful to leave some space along the edges and at the far end for keeping ingredients inside the roll.

6. Make a shallow indent in the rice about 1/3 of the way from the near edge of the nori.

7. Place a small pile of ingredients along the indent. (We used one length of goubou, one carrot, two shiitake, a couple of sprouts, and a piece of aburage (fried tofu)).

8. Roll! Be careful to ensure the ingredients are sufficiently tucked into the center of the roll. Don’t push too hard as you’ll alter the texture of the rice inside the roll. Light and airy is best for flavor and chewability.

9. A successful makizushi – ready to be cut into rounds:


1. Pre-soak and steam enough mochi rice to accommodate the appetite of your guests.

2. Prepare tsubuan (sweet azuki bean paste) by pre-soaking and boiling azuki beans. Add sugar to taste, and a dash of salt to create some delicious friction of flavors.

3. Using light pressure, create balls of mochi rice in your palms.

4. Roll the mochi balls in a bowl of prepared tsubuan. Use your fingers to ensure the mochi ball is evenly covered in a thin layer of tsubuan.

Setting the table in preparation for a lunchtime feast. We ate in a beautifully naturally-lit room overlooking the family’s garden.

Our Ohigan Lunch:

  • Nimono (tofu, konnyaku (devil’s tongue), and winter squash)
  • Horenso (spinach) and sesame salad.
  • Makizushi
  • Ohagi
  • Sashimi
  • Sumono (thinly-sliced vegetables dressed in vinegar)
  • Misoshiru

After over-eating at lunch, we went for a brief stroll through the house to search for old and interesting goods. We found plenty, including a 100-year old wooden box for keeping rice warm before meals. When we returned to the dining area we found preparations for a hirune (afternoon nap) awaiting us: futon, pillows, blanket and strawberries.

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Tezukuri Zouri

In my pursuit of all things old and handmade in Japan, I’ve come across an abundance of opportunities to learn the knowledge and skills of the oba-chans and oji-chans (grandmothers and grandfathers) in this area.

Making handmade Japanese sandals (tezukuri zouri) was one such opportunity. I was gifted with three offers to experience the making of this old style of footwear.

The first person I met who knew how to make zouri was a beginner. She had recently learned from a friend and was keen on making nuno zouri from old kimonos and futon covers. I invited her over to my apartment and we spent a morning making nuno zouri from cotton strips she had brought from home. The process was simple and straight-forward; it only took about 2 hours to make a pair of zouri. Unfortunately, I gave the first pair I made to a friend before I remembered to take a photo…

One tool that made the final stages of zouri creation a breeze was the tate – a piece of bamboo split on one end and sharpened on the other – perfect for pulling those last few strips of cotton through the woven sandal.

If you’re interested in trying to make your own nuno zouri – here’s the instructions we used. Even if you can’t read Japanese, the pictures are quite clear, and with a bit of fiddling I’m sure you can figure it out.

My second opportutunity to make zouri came through a friend that lives in a remote village about an hour from Kawamoto.  Her neighbour is an 80+ year old oba-san that has been making zouri for as long as she can remember. She told us that she used to make waraji (rice straw sandals) every day. A pair of waraji would typically fall apart after a day’s use – so they were being made constantly, and those that had the skill could make a pair in no time at all.

The first step in making waraji is to soften a bundle of dried rice straw (wara) by pounding and twisting it.

After the wara is sufficiently flexible, it is worked into nawa (rope). The rope is wrapped around your toes in the shape of a pretzel. Additional strands of wara are woven into this pretzel formation progressively. Eventually straps are added by creating another nawa and working it into the woven sole of the waraji.

The waraji can be made to suit any size or shape of foot. Width, length, strength and thickness are all controlled by the maker.

My third experience with zouri making occured during an unexpected visit to the home of an old man in a friend’s neighbourhood. Upon arriving, we found the oji-chan snuggled under his warm kotatsu, weaving the smallest pair of zouri imaginable – about 1cm long. Upon request, he took out his entire collection of miniature zouri – about 100 pairs in all. He said that he sold miniature zouri at one time due to pressure from a local store owner, but has since recognized that he derives more joy from making and gifting the zouri than having them sold to people he’ll never meet.

Although each experience making zouri was fascinating, I’m most inspired by waraji – due to their simplicity and practicality. My hope is that as summer returns to these mountains I’ll have enough pairs of waraji made so as to be able to wear them every day. My only limitation is the availability of wara – as farmers have moved from harvesting rice by hand to using machines, the amount of workable wara has decreased due to the rice harvesting machine’s tendency to crush the straw and render it too short to utilize in zouri production.

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I was lucky enough recently to be invited by a friend to visit a member of her community that maintains the practice of making tofu by hand. The tools are simple, the process is a bit time-consuming, and the results are delicious. We spent a morning helping to prepare the tofu, and ate much of the final product for lunch.

The first step in making homemade tofu is procuring the right beans, which in Japan are known as daizu. The daizu are soaked in water for 2 days (winter) or 12 days (summer). The soaked beans are then crushed into a slurry (go). A large basin, two stones (ishi-usu) and a wooden handle comprise the grinding system.

The ishi-usu were carved so that the beans would be carried into the heart of the grinding mechanism and squeezed out the sides as they were crushed. A small cloth-wrapped peg was used to hold the center of the stones together.

The next step was heating the go. We brought the crushed beans outside and poured them into a large nabe (iron pot) resting on a burn barrel. A bit of water was added and a bamboo fire was built below the nabe. Bamboo is preferred because it burns hot and fast.

As the heat increased and the surface of the go began to bubble we added rice hulls (komenuka) to keep the foam down.

We stoked the fire and occasionally stirred the go until a volcanic surface started to form. When the volcano erupted (not as dramatically as you might be imagining), we ladled the go into a cheesecloth resting on bamboo over a shallow pan. The hot liquid quickly seeped through, while the cloth filled with okara. Okara is the collected remnant hulls of the crushed beans. Okara is used in many dishes – from salads to cookies, and is (for some) an incredibly healthy and fiber-rich addition to the Japanese diet.

To ensure a complete removal of all excess liquid from the okara, the bamboo was wrapped around the cheesecloth and pressed repeatedly by rotating pairs.

Next, to the hot liquid we added nigari – the by-product of salt production. The nigari was slowly stirred into the liquid and caused the formation of tofu curds. The first of these curds was ladled off and eaten fresh (called aborodofu).

The remaining curds were poured into a tofu mold lined with a finely woven cloth. A weight was placed on top of the curds and allowed to push the liquid from the curds for about an hour.

Once removed from the mold, the tofu held it’s shape as a massive, white block of homemade goodness.

We ate the tofu with grated ginger and shouyu alongside a meal of nikujaga (meat and potatoes), yamaimo (a slimy root that is ground into a paste),  gohan (cooked rice) and okara salad.

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Yakami Sotsugyō Shiki

During a particularly low-key day at Yakami High School last week I ventured into the school’s greenhouses to help the agriculture-track students with seeding eggplant. I was amazed to find the greenhouses full of hundreds of flats of flowers in full bloom.

The flowers were started last Autumn and grown in preparation for last week’s graduation ceremony. The school was covered in a blanket of flowers for the event. The forty-year-old matsu bonsai even made an appearance next to kouchousensei (school principal) on the main stage.

I took the opportunity to ask the names of all the flowers. I didn’t write them down and I’m disappointed to share that I don’t remember the Japanese names now.  There were an abundance of petunias, pansies and violas, but the others had obscure and difficult-to-pronounce titles. If you’re particularly interested in knowing the name of a particular flower please consult your local botanist.

The official graduation ceremony (sotsugyō shiki) took place last Thursday at all prefectural high schools throughout Shimane. The ceremony was long, chilly and full of tears. The proceedings were not much different from high school graduations I have attended in the States. There were 103 students who graduated from Yakami High School this year. I had fourteen of them in Oral Communication class.

Although most of the teachers, staff and parents were wearing black business attire, there were about ten women wearing traditional Japanese formal wear – a kimono with hakama (the same bottoms worn in kendo):

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Suwa Jinja – Ohnan-cho, Shimane

I have been hesitating to post these photos because I have been hoping to acquire more information as to the background of this amazing shrine. However, after a conversation with the shrine caretaker I’ve realized that my Japanese vocabulary is going to need to grow significantly before I am able to understand the details of the Suwa Jinja. What I can share, then, is my own experience with this amazing site.

One day as I was wandering around the grounds of Yakami High School I came up a small path leading up a hill covered in massive Japanese cedar trees. I followed the little path as it wound around the up the hill until it joined with a set of stone steps leading down to a sort of courtyard lined with varying sizes and styles of shrines. I was immediately enchanted.

Since that day, I have visited the site every time I teach at Yakami High School. Sometimes I eat my lunch there, other times I simply sit with my back against the trunk of one of the trees and watch the branches sway in the wind.

I met the caretakers of the shrine on one occasion only. I was given an information pamphlet and told that the trees on site are more than 1,000 years old. Apparently last year several of the trees blew down in a storm and a local carpenter took them to his shop in Hinui. I later received a bowl made from the trunk of one of these salvaged trees.

I have been told that an elderly woman visits the shrine every morning at 5:00am to clean the grounds. I hope to join her someday when the weather warms up a bit.

I will update this post as my knowledge of the Suwa Jinja grows. For the time being, I am less concerned about the details of the shrine’s existence than appeased by its magical presence.

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Abandoned Explorations I

I heard from a local gaijin that one in eight homes in Japan are abandoned.

Another friend told me she had heard of people who adventured into abandoned homes and buildings as a sort of hobby.

I live in a rural area of a sparsely-populated prefecture.  I am surrounded by abandoned structures. Why not explore?

This abandoned group of buildings is just a few hundred metres from my apartment. I couldn’t determine if it was a school or a factory before being abandoned, but it certainly contained it’s share of curious goods.

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Kadō through the New Year

In Japan, the school year begins in the Spring – following the seasons rather than the current calendar. The Shimane Chuo Kadō Club, therefore, will start anew this Spring, hopefully with more enthusiastic student participation than the past year. My last kadō lesson for this year was last week, and although I can’t say I’m any better at preparing my own flower arrangements, I still love interacting with the sensei and feeling the kimochi of a beautiful combination of flowers.

Since my initial kadō lesson I have participated in seven subsequent gatherings. Here’s a photo update on what I’ve been creating:

7 December 2011

(…itoenikego, kenitou, kuroton)

14 December 2011

(tsutsuji karoe, asuparameri, desofyare)

This arrangement utilizes a special vase called a maagaretto no gaki.

25 January 2012

(azukiyanagi, suitopii, ansuryumu no happa)

The off-center kenzan in this arrangement is called ouyo.

The branches of the azukiyanagi are so called because their buds look like azuki beans.

8 February 2012

(kuromeyanagi, kaaneeshiyon, monsutera)

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