Category Archives: cultural differences

Making of Juban, kimono’s undergarment

For the past three years, I have been taking an advanced kimono course to deepen my understanding of Japanese kimono culture. People always ask me why and what I learn there for so long. I’ve been asking myself the same question over and over, but the more I learn, the more curious I become, and the curiosity led me to where I am now.

The other day, I put my foot into an impossible mission – making a “Juban,” kimono’s undergarment by hand, on my own. I can’t even make a tiny bag for my little daughter without my mum’s help. Will I ever finish it…?

To start with, I needed to iron this 5m long cotton garment called “Sarashi“. It took almost two hours to iron the entire roll, and my super functional iron left quite a few golden brown spots…

After five hours of measuring, marking, cutting and sawing, this is how it look like now.

Looks like I am on the right track.

Gyoza party with Japanese mammas

When I lived in Italy years ago for my post graduate studies, I had an opportunity to visit a couple of Italian families, one in Piemonte and another one in Puglia. My Italian was very bad (and still is), and I don’t know how I even communicated with them. Fortunately however, I do remember this amazingly tasty meals they served for me. From what I understood, at both families, they didn’t prepare anything special but something they would eat on a daily basis. Still, it blew my mind and made a strong impression on me. I loved watching the Italian mammas cooking at their cozy kitchens, infused in this delicious aroma from the food in the making. They tried to explain every little detail to me, who was vigorously taking pictures and taking notes, but I probably got less than half of what they tried to convey. Nevertheless, I remember the scenes very fondly and the warmth I felt. I often use the mamma’s recipes to this date, feeling grateful how incredibly lucky I was to have an experience like that.

Fast forward to the present Tokyo, my daughter and I were visiting our dear friends’ house for a play date one Sunday afternoon. The lovely host suggested that we make Gyōza, Japanese-adapted Chinese dumplings, together for early dinner. There was another family and a newly arrived au pair from England who was kind of forced into our cooking spree. While the kids were playing and minding their own business, we began to make the dumplings, each of us spontaneously taking a different task to work in a highly efficient manner. We enthusiastically chatted and laughed as we moved about, chopping cabbage in high speed and mixing ground meat with our bare hands. The room started to get filled with the complex aroma of garlic, shiitake mushrooms and freshly cooked rice, with the kitchen counter and floor covered in white flour. All of us gave Gyōza cooking tips to the humble, seemingly overwhelmed au pair, encouraging her to join us for the Japanese cooking routine.

After nearly two decades since my encounter with the sweet & lovely Italian mammas, I seem to have become one myself too, but the Japanese version of it. At that time in Italy I never knew, that being a “mamma” is such a special thing: being surrounded by the people you love, who appreciate the food you cook.

 

Photos by courtesy of A.C. & M.T.

Sports Day

Last Saturday, our daughter’s primary school held “Undōkai” at their school ground, which is an annual Sports event organized by the school and students. The entire school (1st to 6th graders) are divided into two teams, White and Red, and compete. It is quite serious and formal – in a way it looks like a mini Olympic, with a proper opening ceremony with speeches & singing of the national anthem, followed by numerous games including cute dance performances and the exciting relay race, and completed with an impressive award ceremony.

It was the first time for our little girl as well as for her Dutch father to participate in the Japanese Undōkai. She just took it as it was, but my husband seemed to have gotten a little taken aback, describing it as a “military inspired parade”. I think he was exaggerating a bit, but maybe it could be a bit overwhelming if you’d never seen it before as an adult.

Anyway, at Undokai, traditionally everyone eats (usually homemade) bento for lunch on a picnic mat. I didn’t make anything special for the occasion but simple onigiri and some leftover side dishes. Still, we all enjoyed it together with all our friends.

To our surprise, our daughter ended up last in her group for the 40m dash. We always thought she was very athletic, but this proved us to be super biased about our own child. Instead, she performed superbly for the dance performances, showing us all the sweetest dance moves. Perhaps she could be a future performing artist…? … I know, I know, I shouldn’t pressure her into anything…

Win or lose, it was a great, memorable Undōkai, and we are very proud of her.

When you’re not 100%…

… have a bowl of Zōsui.

Zōsui is rice porridge cooked in broth. I mixed in a bit of miso paste to taste. It’s very light and easy to digest, which I needed desperately today.

Beside me my husband was eating bread for lunch (we both work from home). In our household, it is quite common to eat completely different types of food at the same time, especially for lunch. Perhaps it is one of the most important, unspoken rules we have at home in our international marriage – leave each other alone when eating your comfort food.

Off, she went (Tuesday 9/Apr/19)

Our daughter’s elementary school started on Monday, and it was her first day today to go to school without us (this is the norm in Japan). There is a group of children in our neighborhood walking together to school, so technically she is not totally alone.

She didn’t even look back. Even insisted on coming home alone. I find myself totally at a loss of my daughter’s independent set of mind, and realised that I am the one who need to get used to the new phase of her life.

Off you go, my little girl.

Kindergarten bento – Start of the new year (10/Jan/19)

It is our daughter’s first day back at school in Tokyo after our wonderful Christmas/New Year holiday in Europe. We had a magical time, spending time with our family and close & new friends, away from home, making yet another unforgettable memories.

On our way home from the airport yesterday, we stopped at our local supermarket to replenish our empty fridge. It was incredible to see our daughter getting excited at the traditional Japanese ingredients she hadn’t eaten for the past two plus weeks. Despite her flexible palate, she must have craved for the taste from home.

For her first bento for the year, I packed shirasu, baby sardines, over freshly cooked rice, one of the very Japanese ingredients she eagerly requested.

Kindergarten bento – Behind the scenes (18/Sep/18)

Today’s bento: Hamburger steak, Tomato omelet, Simmered carrot, Boiled broccoli, Shirasu (baby sardine) rice, Apple for dessert.  

I love my daughter’s kindergarten. It is a great school inside out, with kind and highly competent teachers, thoughtful educational philosophy focusing on Japanese culture and seasonality, and it even comes with the beautiful garden with a lot of green and soil on the ground instead of concrete (very rare for Central Tokyo). Apparently the bento is also part of their education, so that the kids would spend their important first few years of their lives, always eating healthy home-cooked meals prepared with love.

But there is no such thing as a perfect school, is there? Out of all the positive aspects of my daughter’s school, there is one characteristic that I just cannot overlook: they do not encourage women to go back to the workforce. They wouldn’t stop you from working (they can’t), but the head teacher publicly made the statement that they provide childcare, not for mothers to go back to work, but for the well-being of our children. They believe the physical participation of the parents (and in this context usually targeting mothers) is crucial during school hours, involving various events and activities organised by the Parents Association. Want to work full-time? Oh, it would be difficult if you want to send your kids to this kindergarten… etc., etc. How backward, my super liberal Dutch husband would lament. We knew this before enrolling our daughter, but both of us had this wishful thinking that this might change, or perhaps we could make a change…

What makes it difficult to do so, I came to realise, is that some fellow mothers are totally against working mothers as if to say working is a vice. Some mums voiced that “work” cannot be an excuse to miss school commitment, that there would be no special treatment, because kindergarten in general is not for people who wish to work.

In good old Japan we had a common understanding that women should protect the household and spend time with their children. Poor kids if mothers have to work. This is slowly changing but is still followed by the great part of the society. With my semi-international background I always have a slight sense of guilt for not working full-time, but now I have another layer in my guilt for working at all. Work, or not work, it surely isn’t an easy place for a person like me, and this, reflects the modern but undeveloped Japanese cultural state in my opinion.

Yet, I still love my daughter’s kindergarten. I can’t think of a better place for her to be despite the struggle. A part of me wants to make a difference and fight it, while the Japanese part in me just wants to conform or escape. I go back to my daily bento making, daydreaming that one day, some miracle happens to change people’s mindset for the better.