Here’s my Monday morning, pretty much every week: I go to aikido at the kids’ school, then stop by my favorite grocery store called Hiruma to pick up something for that night’s dinner. My friend Karol also practices aikido, and I often bump into her at Hiruma right after class. Today as we headed out to the store she asked me, “So what’s for dinner tonight? I need new ideas!”. I quickly realized that we almost always have the same dinner on Monday: donburi, or [something] over rice in one bowl.
Donburi isn’t a recipe in itself, but rather a type of dish with cooked rice on the bottom and something layered on top. It sounds odd that [something] over rice gets its own name. After all, isn’t pretty much all Japanese food served with rice? It is, but typically the rice gets its own bowl, and you eat the rice plain. The first appearance of [something] over rice in the same bowl caused quite a stir when it was first introduced in Japan during the 18th or 19th century. That something can be tonkatsu fried pork cutlet (katsudon), tempura fish or veggies (tendon), or simply raw fish–raw slices of tuna make it tekkadon, a Tokyo specialty. In our family donburi always means one thing: equal parts diced avocado and raw, sushi-grade fish.
We started eating donburi back in DC, and it quickly became a family favorite. I would always prepare it after I had visited a store with sufficiently fresh fish, such as Wegmans grocery store or the giant H-Mart Korean markets way out in the ‘burbs. Here in Japan every grocery store carries some sushi-grade fish, so now pulling together donburi takes no forethought.
My recipe is barely a recipe, and changes. Starting in the bottom of the bowl and working up, I layer the following:
-Rice -Fish: diced bluefin tuna, salmon, ikura (salmon roe), or whatever else looks good
-Diced avocado, roughly equal to the fish -Garnish: julienned fresh shiso leaves, furikake rice seasoning, freshly grated ginger, or a splash of soy sauce
Traditionally a donburi is served with a bowl of miso soup and some Japanese-style pickles; I usually do a green salad instead. My current letttuce-y obsession is mizuna, a spiky looking salad green that resembled arugula (also called rocket, depending on where you’re from). Its flavor is much milder, though. I used to use mostly the mizuna leaves and not so much the stems, but now I chop a whole bunch without picking out the stems. The stems have no bitter taste, and they are pleasantly crispy without the bitterness of some greens.
The history of donburi came from Japanese Soul Cooking by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat. Which is an awesome cookbook, BTW.
Two weeks ago Mark and I had the honor of attending a Japanese wedding. The groom (also named Mark) and I play on a field hockey team together at our club, Yokohama Country & Athletic Club. When Groom Mark invited the team to his wedding I was honored and eager to attend, knowing that I probably will not have another opportunity while we are here in Japan. Groom Mark was happy that we could make it and gave this sage advice: “There are some rules about Japanese weddings, like no open-toed shoes. Look it up and you’ll be fine!”.
My excitement quickly turned to panic as the Google illuminated the many ways to run afoul of How It’s Done at a Japanese wedding. No open-toed shoes, no bare shoulders, no dresses shorter than knee length, no white. I followed these guidelines, and added one of my own: no bright colors. I briefly considered a lovely fitted jacket in really bright red, then put it back and settled on an embroidered brown velvet coat with matching dress.
The wedding gift comes with another set of rules. Never mind toasters or gift registries! In Japan cash is king, especially at weddings–but not just any wad of cash or card will do. It’s considered unlucky to give an even amount of money because it would be easy to split the money in half, and an odd number reflects the unbreakable union of the newlyweds. So using these rules, 20,000 yen (about $184 U.S.) is an unlucky amount but 30,000 yen (about $277) is considered an odd number and lucky. We’ll ignore the actual math here since clearly anything ending in a zero is an even number, but you get the idea. For the same reason the bills should be an odd number. So that 30,000 yen gift should come in three 10,000 yen bills, and not six 5000 yen notes. The bills also need to be brand new and unfolded. Once I settled on a gift amount I tasked Husband Mark with procuring flat, crisp bills from the bank. Check!
Next came the envelope itself. Celebratory envelopes are easy to find, and even 100 yen stores carry them. I knew enough to distinguish happy envelopes (red) from condolence envelopes for a funeral (black), but the many varieties of red envelopes stumped me. At one point I read that there are even different celebratory envelopes depending on how much you plan to give, and different kinds of knots, and colors of knots. The procedure is so complicated that stationery store sell books (in Japanese) on the proper selection, completion and folding of congratulatory envelopes. When I read about the procedure for filling out the envelope’s different flaps with your info, and how to fold it, and how to tie the knot on the outside….I just gave up and bought a nice American wedding card on base. I simply didn’t want to take the chance of screwing up.
So with The Stuff To Prepare Before the Wedding completed, it was time for the big day itself!
On a lovely Saturday morning with sakura (cherry blossoms) in full bloom, Husband Mark and I headed down to the ceremony at Yokohama Kaigan Church, the oldest Protestant church for Japanese worshippers (an interesting qualifier, I think). Groom Mark has lived in Japan for several years but hails from Singapore, and his bride Megumi is Japanese. So not surprisingly, the ceremony was completely in Japanese. The bride wore a Western style gown complete with veil, long train, flower girl, and the works. Unlike a Catholic wedding Mass with responses from the congregation and readers of scripture other than the priest, the Protestant service had the minister doing all the talking. I later learned that he read the traditional Paul/Corinthians letter that we all know (“Love is patient, love is kind” etc.) in addition to giving a sermon. The congregation sang several hymns, and that actually worked out for Husband Mark and I. We both can read the phonetic Japanese script called hiragana veeeery slooooowly…which was totally a singing pace! Of course we had no idea of what we were actually singing, but I was delighted to take part.
I wanted to snap a picture of the bride but waited to see if anyone else did. As soon as the bride headed down the aisle everyone whipped out their phones and cameras, so I did too. Unfortunately I was in the very middle of the pew, so I only got this cramped shot. If you zoom in and squint you can see the teeny mouse bride and groom on top of her bouquet. So kawaii!!
A quick glance at the female guests’ attire confirmed my no-bright-colors idea, and the Interwebs proved correct as well. Pearls and pastels ruled, and most of the women wore sparkly shawls and closed-toe pumps–though I did see a few slightly-shorter-than-knee length dresses.
After the ceremony we gathered for the reception at the Hotel Continental across the street. We found our table and met our table-mates for the next several hours: LaToya, the only other American guest and a friend of the groom’s from their study abroad days; two friends of the groom’s from Singapore; a co-worker of the groom’s; and Hiro, a fellow field hockey teammate. Hiro was born in Japan but moved to the U.K. as a child, and I felt very fortunate to sit next to him. Since he’s Japanese he knows the traditions and customs, and since he lived in England for so long I didn’t feel self-conscious asking my many questions. Any fears of awkward chitchat were quickly set aside as we all settled in and enjoyed each other’s company. The groom’s friends and co-workers were lovely, and conversation flowed easily.
I had heard that Japanese wedding involve lots of costume changes, and Mark and Megumi did not disappoint! Megumi traded her Western-style wedding gown from the ceremony for a lovely white and pink kimono covered in a sakura cherry blossom print to reflect the season. Groom Mark also changed out of his tuxedo and into a black kimono.
The reception got underway with plenty of speeches and short movies about Mark and Megumi’s courtship. Unlike the Japanese-only church ceremony, the reception’s entertainment included English translations. Delicious food and free-flowing beer and wine accompanied the formalities. Husband Mark told me about a custom when dining out with friends: you should never pour your own glass. I really enjoyed this tradition, and the idea of all of us keeping each other liquored up. Kidding! But seriously, it made us all mini-hosts, ensuring that our neighbors were taken care of.
I learned one interesting nugget about the wedding cake at Japanese weddings: it’s usually not a real cake. The cake cutting ceremony is a fairly new addition to the Japanese wedding reception, and the cake is typically a prop with a section for a single slice for the bride and groom.
After three hours of lovely food, drink, and company, it was time to go. Each wedding guest or couple received a gift bag from the bride and groom to thank us for helping them celebrate their special day. I assumed that the green box held chocolates or cookies, but it was actually a gift catalog with everything from housewares to sporting goods to children’s items. I pretty much stopped looking at the knife page, since I have a well-known kitchen knife problem in that I can’t stop getting more knives. We’ll see if Husband Mark sees it my way.
Many thanks to Mark and Megumi for inviting us to celebrate their special day, and for the chance to write about the experience. Congratulations, Sto Lat, Mazel Tov, and Go Kekkon Omedetougozaimasu!
Japan has so many o-hanami (cherry blossom viewing) opportunities! One great variation is nighttime o-hanami, which I dragged the family to this past weekend. We visited Sankeien Garden right here in Yokohama, a beautiful park filled with historic buildings brought it from all over Japan. The ponds and gardens exemplify the beauty of Japanese landscaping, and featured exhibits change with the seasons.
I really enjoyed the chance to take some photos at night, something I haven’t done much of in the past. The lighting made for instantly gorgeous photos, and the shadows hid the crowds on the ground. Win-win!
Food stalls around the garden fed the hungry masses, though we decided to leave the Garden for a less crowded dinner elsewhere.
My home town of Washington, DC is famous for its cherry blossoms, a gift from Japan in the early twentieth century. Living in Washington prepared me somewhat for the frenzy of sakura (cherry blossom) season, though here in Japan the excitement extends nationwide. There’s even a word for viewing sakura: o-hanami. While jaded Washingtonians don’t necessarily trek down to the Tidal Basin to check out the blossoms, absolutely everyone in Japan takes part in o-hanami. Parks known for their sakura bring in reinforcements to direct cars, herd people, and answer questions, all with polite smiles.
The kids’ school organizes activities for parents including fitness classes, cultural demonstrations, and seasonal outings. There are so many events that a paid school staff member works full time to manage them all. On Friday I headed out with a group of moms on one such outing to visit Chidori-Ga-Fuchi Park, a spot famous for its waterfront sakura. The park sits on the edge of the Imperial Palace grounds, and its pond was originally a moat built for the palace. Our guide was Emi, a mom whose kids have already graduated from the school but still stays active in the St. Maur community. Emi speaks fluent Japanese and expertly herded us onto the right trains, then guided us through the park.
This scene pictured below happened over and over. A crowd gathers in one spot, so everyone thinks it must be a great view and queues up. Several moms inched their way to the front and scored front row spots–only to wonder why everyone waited for such a lackluster view. Relatively speaking, anyway.
After an hour of so of picture-taking we headed for an early lunch at a tiny Indian restaurant. Emi was smart to get us in early; we arrived to an empty restaurant, but by the time we left a queue of diners stretched up the stairs.
After lunch we headed over to Yasukuni Shrine, a famous if somewhat controversial shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead between 1867 and 1951. I’ll let you read more about it here, but these sentences sum it all up pretty well: “Of the 2,466,532 people contained in the shrine’s Book of Souls, 1,068 were convicted of war crimes by a post World War II court. Of those, 14 are convicted Class A war criminals(‘crimes against peace’).” So understandably citizens from Japan and abroad get somewhat testy when, say, the prime minister and other elected officials go there to pray.
Checkered past notwithstanding, the shrine really shines during sakura season. We strolled past a line of food stalls and plant sales, snapped a few more photos, then headed home.