Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Celebrating Fish - Bonito Fish festival

It goes without saying that Japanese cuisine is incomplete without seafood. First thing that comes to the mind when we think of Japanese food is Sushi or Sashimi. Seafood in some or the other form is an essential part of every Japanese dish. Apart from the regular fish, crabs, shrimp etc, seaweed, sauces made from seafood all form an important part of Japanese cooking. Such is the importance of seafood that fish festivals are held in Japan in honour of certain fish.

We had the opportunity of attending one such fish festival in Japan. Early last summer we attended the Bonito fish festival at Iwaki city's Onahama port. My husband's colleague invited us to join his family to attend the event. We were curious to see what the festival was all about and joined them.

Bonito or skipjack tuna is known as "Katsu" in Japanese. It is fished extensively all over Japan and locally the name varies  from place to place. It is available from Spring to Autumn. It is one of the most versatile fish in Japan and can be eaten or served in various forms. It is eaten as sashimi (raw, with or without skin) or sushi (raw, with cooked rice) or even lightly grilled. It is sometimes also served as a topping over a bowl of cooked rice . Sometimes it is served with wasabi (grated horseradish) or grated ginger, soy sauce or with finely sliced garlic or leeks. One speciality of this fish is the way it is grilled. The fish is first grilled over charcoal or seared till the outside is cooked and then it is dunked in cold water to prevent it from cooking further, thus leaving the inside raw. It is then sliced and served as sashimi. The taste of the outer cooked layer and the inner raw layer is evident when eaten. Dried Bonito shavings or " Katsuobushi" are used in the dashi broth which is the stock in most Japanese soups. It is also used as a topping on rice, soba or okonomiyaki. 

At around 9 am on the day of the event, people had assembled at the Onahama port. There were stalls where various fish were being sold, Bonito being the celebrity of the day ! There was a touch pool where children could touch sea urchins, star fish etc. The event began with a small speech. It was then followed by a Taiko performance.

 Taiko is the traditional Japanese drum and the performance is an experience in itself. 

The attraction of this event was the sampling of the Bonito which was handed out to the spectators. Portions of Bonito sashimi and sushi were handed out (free of cost) and this was enjoyed by almost all present. 

Then we got to see the "roasting" of the Bonito. A large Bonito fish was wrapped in some hay and was thrust in a fire. 

In few minutes, it was taken off from the fire and buckets of cold water was poured on it to prevent further cooking. The fish was then cleaned and skinned and sliced into sashimi and offered to the spectators. 

In all it was an enjoyable experience. A must for sea food lovers. 

Onahama port was badly hit by the March 11th tsunami which devastated much of Tohoku's Pacific coast. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Japanese Wedding

Japanese culture is a unique blend of traditions and western trends, many a times tempting foreigners to call it a cocktail culture. It is amazing to see people follow traditional Japanese customs on certain occasions while daily life has a heavy influence of western trends. Weddings are no exception to this. It is common to see couples getting married in a traditional Shinto ceremony in the presence of their close family and following it up with a western style ceremony or party in the evening attended by their friends and other relatives.

The traditional Japanese wedding, known as “Tomesode” is a Shinto style ceremony held at a shrine. These days some hotels to have a shrine which serves this purpose, for couples willing to have a traditional wedding earlier in the day and a western style  “White Wedding” in the evening.

Traditional Wedding:

The traditional Japanese wedding ceremony is usually a private affair and attended by only the close family and friends of the bridal couple.

The bride wears a traditional white wedding kimono called “Shiro-muku” ( Shiro means white and Muku means Pure).The bride’s hair is styled in traditional style and is adorned with “ Kanzashi”, beautiful accessories, combs and accessories. Sometimes the bride wears a white veil over her hair.

The groom wears a formal black kimono called “Montsuki” with a kimono jacket called “Haori” and kimono pants called “Hakama”.

Before the wedding ceremony, when the bridal couple and their families arrive at the shrine, they are taken into separate rooms and informed of their duties or roles during the ceremony.

 Then the bridal couple and the families enter the shrine in a sort of procession led by a priest and shrine maidens. Traditional Japanese music consisting of flutes and drums is performed by artists.

The wedding rituals are conducted by the Shinto priest who is assisted by Shrine maidens, “miko-san” while performing the rituals. 

The bridal couple sits in front of a small table near the altar. The groom and brides parents stand near them. The priest makes a small speech and the purification ritual called “Shubatsu” begins. The priest waves a “ Haraigushi” , a wand of paper or branches of trees as part of the purification rite. Then, the Shinto priest recites “Norito”, or a Shinto ritual prayer in classical language, to celebrate the new beginning of the couple's life, and to ask for the Shinto god's grace. This is followed by an ancient wedding custom called “san san kudo” is performed. This is at times referred to as the main event of the wedding ceremony. The miko san offers some sake (rice wine) in small cups to both the bride and the groom.

 The groom drinks first, finishing it in three sips. The bride does the same. After this the sake is served to the parents of the groom and the bride. The sake glasses of the father’s of the bride and groom are exchanged. Everyone then greets the couple and each other with “Omedetou Gozaimasu”, which is the Japanese equivalent of “Congratulations”. The san san kudo custom symbolises the union of the couple and also their families.  

This is followed by the reading of the commitment by the groom. The bride only adds her name at the end. The miko-san then reads the wedding date and the names of the groom and bride.  After this the bride and groom offer “Tamagushi”, small branches of the sacred “sasaki” tree to the kami-sama of the shrine as offerings.  Everyone then bows twice, claps twice and bows again. This completes the ceremony.

Everyone greets the bridal couple. The formal wedding greeting is “ O-kekkon Omedetou Gozaimasu”.

The Shinto ceremony is a small one and lasts only about 30-40 minutes. There are no bridesmaids or best man. There is no giving away of the bride. Very often there is no exchanging of rings between the couple.  

During our outings to Kamakura and Kyoto, we did get to catch glimpses of the Shinto style wedding ceremony.

Western Style Wedding party:

Japanese weddings rituals are followed by a formal reception called "Kekkon Hiroen". These days however couples prefer to hold a western style party for their friends, colleagues and relatives. These parties are often called “White wedding” and these days it is common for young couples to opt for only a White wedding and skip the traditional ceremony.

The wedding party is usually attended to by 50-200 people. The party begins with the formal introduction of the bride and groom. The bride and groom prefer to wear western style clothes, with the bride wearing a white wedding gown while the groom wears a formal suit. Sometimes brides wear a colourful intricate kimono.

The wedding party consists of a sit down dinner and serving of drinks. The fathers of the bride and the groom make short speeches and sometimes few guests, or bosses of the couple and a few close friends give small speeches. Some friends may also choose to sing and perform for the couple.

These days, couples cut a wedding cake and this is then served to the guests. Also sometimes the couple exchange rings during the party.Sometimes the couple may choose to change over into various clothes during the party. This is however not common these days as wedding clothes are expensive and couples prefer to rent their wedding clothes.

At the end of the party, the couple thanks all the guests for attending their wedding party and this marks the end of the party. Sometimes guests are given gift bags containing wedding souvenirs while leaving. Wedding souvenirs are called “Hikidemono” and may often be items of tableware, small mementos or boxes of sweets.
While attending a Japanese wedding, guests are expected to carry a gift preferably money. Typical wedding gift begins from Yen 30000 and goes higher depending on the relationship with the bridal couple. A popular belief is that giving 3 currency notes of 10,000 yen makes it difficult to split between the couple as such symbolising their unison for life. The wedding gift money helps the couple bear their wedding expenses. Special paper envelopes with decorative motifs and knots are used for the wedding gift money.

These days it is popular in Japan for young couples to get married abroad, with Hawaii being the most preferred location. Some theme parks like Tokyo Disneyland are also popular among young couples to get married “Disney style” with Mickey and Minnie being the star guests !

Spring and Autumn are preferred months for weddings in Japan. Some particular days are considered especially auspicious for weddings. The 3rd Sunday of November is one such auspicious date for weddings. Some days are considered inauspicious and few wedding halls or hotels offer special discounts for weddings conducted on these days, but still finding few takers.