Monday, 1 September 2014

Dazaifu and Umegaemochi

Recently I noticed that one of GenkiJACS' many events would include a half-day trip to Dazaifu. I'd heard quite a bit about the place, and was always intending to visit, but hadn't made particular plans. The trip offered some company, a bit of guiding around the place, and most importantly, a chance to try making 梅ヶ枝餅 (umegaemochi)! These are a kind of rice-dough cake filled with sweet bean paste, a local speciality said to help ward off illness. You had me at "cake".

It was only a few quid for the trip, and considering this would include travel costs and the umegaemochi lesson, it was a steal.

As usual, there wasn't a huge amount of detail available on the signup sheet, so these outings all have an exciting edge of the mystery tour about them. We congregated at 8.30am on Sunday last weekend at the school. Here I learned the first new thing, which was that this trip was not a GenkiJACS-student thing, but arranged by one of the school's apparently innumerable cultural partners. To my shame, I can't actually remember what organisation it was. Rather than ten foreigners meandering around Dazaifu, we would be ten foreigners and six Japanese members of the partner organisation, making it a combined cultural trip and conversation exchange. It was a little intimidating at first, as it always takes a little while to tune my ear in to a new conversation partner, but after some rather nervous group introductions we seemed to get on okay.

In practice, some of the GenjiJACS students didn't turn up (I assume oversleeping was the culprit) so we were evenly matched. The trip proved a pretty good mixing-ground because there were several points where we ended up naturally changing conversation partners: one leg to the station (my first trip on an actual train in Japan), two short train journeys, and wandering around town for a short while before we went for our cooking lesson. I got to talk to several different very interesting people, all of whom spoke admirable English. One nice thing was that most of them are currently working, whereas a lot of events are arranged by local undergraduates; this put them in a similar position to me and made me feel less old, frankly.

One for Andrew

The organiser of the expedition, whose name I unfortunately don't know, kept everyone together and had bought tickets in advance for the GenkiJACS group, so we didn't have to brave the ticket office.

Sadly, the weather was a bit grim, which meant the town itself was not especially preposessing. We were also a bit tied down by our schedule, so we spend about fifteen minutes splitting into pairs or threes for a quick wander around the immediate vicinity of the town hall, where our lesson would be. A very high proportion of the shops here are food shops. I visited a specialist rice cracker shop, where I bought one fine rice cracker and tried a couple of free samples.

A little further down, my guides were shocked that I hadn't tried the local speciality 辛子明太子 (mentaiko). I couldn't remember exactly which foodstuff it was, and was persuaded into a shop which had bowls of red stuff and a heap of rice. Ah, yes. Mentaiko is basically a sort of caviar, and around Fukuoka it's generally spicy, apparently. I had a little scoop on a little pile of rice - it tasted like some vaguely fishy spicy stuff on rice. It was fine, but not life-changing.

It was soon time for class, so we scurried back to the town hall and headed inside, past some interesting models of the temple complex.

Inside, a very nice lady instructed us on making umegaemochi, with some translation from our guide. She had pre-prepared the mochi paste, which is apparently quite hard work, so we were essentially turning this into a flat pad to fill with adzuki bean paste, then sealing it. It was basically a Japanese equivalent of a sad cake* although I have to say the mochi dough was rather harder to work with, being very sticky. It reminded me of making Chinese dumplings, also.

*for any non-Lancastrians in the audience, it's like a Chorley cake.

Our guide was very confident!

Once the cake was ready in a paste-filled ball, we placed it into special greased lidded pans. These are like one of those four-compartment bun tins, combined with a pair of pliers; there are two long handles which let you open and close the lid, but you have to be careful here as you also flip the pan repeatedly to ensure both sides of the cake are properly grilled over the open flame.

The resulting cake was very tasty indeed. Because some students hadn't come, we ended up with excess supplies and I was persuaded to make extra. We all ate at least one cake on the spot, and some people finished all theirs. Having three, I decided to bring two home with me to eat later (how moderate! how unlike me!), and we got cellophane sheets and paper bags to wrap them in. This actually turned out not to be the best idea, because the second one was merely nice by the Monday, and the third was extremely chewy by Tuesday. I heartily recommend eating these as soon as possible.

It was a lot of fun, and I'm really glad I went. The following picture isn't mine - our guide kindly took group photos with everyone's camera, and my one happened to come out with various closed eyes and so on, so I have half-inched this one of Chiara's.

With delicious cake made and safely packed away, we headed up to the actual shrine complex, still in the rain. The Japanese members of our group pointed out things of interest and we had a bit of cultural discussion about what we saw. It was the most extensive shrine I've seen so far, with numerous side-shrines and pools.

They seemed interested in the lack of paper fortunes in Western culture - shrines here offer a sort of tombola where for a donation you can draw a pre-written fortune ticket. If it predicts bad luck, you knot it to a special frame to keep the bad luck away (as far as I understood it). As far as I'm aware, Western fortune-telling is exclusively spoken and ephemeral.

On the way out, I heard a strange piping noise and tried to ask our guide what it was. This ended up with us all taking a detour to watch a brief performance with a sort of clown or entertainer, who'd been touting for business. I'm not quite sure what his status is; he had a covered area with seats to perform in, so he clearly isn't just a street performer. Does the shrine retain an official clown?

He did various neat bits of legerdemain, turning a sushi mat (or something similar) into various shapes with quick flicks, or making a wooden fish jump from one string to another in some what I couldn't work out. It was just a few minutes, but that was about the right length, and we all dropped a few coins for him on the way out. It seemed like a reasonable rate, presumably he gets a few audiences an hour and makes a few quid that way. He spoke some English and was able to announce his tricks to us, which was a nice bonus.

On the way out, we were shown a 500-year old tree. So far I haven't had the energy to translate the rest of the sign! I was pleased to have been able to pick out the age so easily, which is basically thanks to years of Chinese. This kind of formal writing is very heavy on Chinese words and characters, which ironically makes it easier for me to pick out a few bits of information (I recognise certain characters), but harder to understand overall (because I haven't learned the actual Japanese used, which seems pretty difficult and quite specialised).

This was a very enjoyable trip, and was all over pretty quickly to boot. One disadvantage of both the weather and the group visit was not really seeing much of the area; when you're part of a big group, you can't really wander round that much. Normally in a place like this I'd spend a while just ambling around soaking up the atmosphere and watching people, and being so close I think this calls for a return visit, maybe if one of my friends visits later this year. We can wander round some more of the shops as well.

For any future students, if the opportunity comes up again, I would definitely recommend this trip. I suspect that Dazaifu just on its own might be a little short on entertainment for some people considering the amount of travel, especially if you don't have interesting new friends to talk to and to point things out, or have been to a number of shrines before. The combination of a cooking lesson, the conversation practice and the shrine visit added a lot more and felt like a good mix.

I'll leave you with another cow statue picture, because I really like it. It bodes. That is a serious cow.


  1. Sounds like a perfect day, you had, except for the weather. Beautiful park, a bit of culture and a cooking lesson with sampling! Brilliant! V.

  2. How did you feel about riding japanese trains, are they crowded at all?

    I liked your saving cake story, I can not believe you eked out the cakes for 3 days:P

    what fortune ticket(s) did you get?

    Did you manage to speak Japanese through out the whole trip? if so, that was very impressive!