Friday, August 22, 2008

"Amai, shoppai, amai..."

Day thirty-two:
Left: Kurumi mochi
Motsu-ji teahouse, ¥400
Right: Amazake
Chuson-ji teahouse, ¥450

Waking in Tōno to blue skies and a black-and-blue arm, I decided not to venture too far. I took the train a little south to Hiraizumi, another tiny town with two formidible tourist attractions.

My first stop was the Motsu-ji temple, where the relatively modern buildings take a backseat to the Jōdo-teien, the country's best- (or only, depending on your guidebook) preserved Heian-period garden. In the millineum since the complex was first constructed, all of the original buildings surrounding the lovely ornamental lake have burnt or fallen, granting the strolling visitor uninterrupted views of its sculpted islands and scrolling shoreline. The recent discovery and restoration of an original, pebble-lined "feeder" stream stretching down from the surrounding hills has allowed for the reinstatement of another Heian legacy; once a year participants in Heian dress seat themselves on the lawn and compose spontaneous haiku poems while drinking sake floated down the stream in tiny lacquer cups.

I ended my stroll by the teahouse, where a group of middle-aged ladies were rather racuously digging in to a range of unfamiliar treats. I searched the menu board for something identifiable and asked for kurumi mochi; with a name like "walnut rice paste" I was pretty sure I knew what I would be eating, but I had no idea what form these versatile ingredients would take. I was presented with a lacquer bowl containing three large balls of (remarkably tenacious!) rice paste blanketed by a paste of creamed walnuts and sugar, alongside a cup of tea and a tiny dish of utterly confounding white goo. I was just about to dump the goo into the mochi when the woman across the table stopped me; it turns out that the pickled daikon (radish) paste should be eaten alternately with the mochi, enhancing the sweet creaminess of the walnuts. My savior mimed eating out of first one dish, then the other, chanting, "Amai, shoppai, amai..." ("Sweet, salty, sweet...").

On the other side of town, I hiked up a steep and heavily wooded ridge to see the Chuson-ji complex's stunning centerpiece, the Konjiki-do. This ancient (1124), small-scale (15-20 feet wide) temple is filled with beautifully carved deities and coated inside and out with gold foil so thick you could use it to wrap chocolate bars. I was still seeing stars when I spotted a banner advertising amazake, a hot, sweet drink that I find even more comforting that cocoa. Making amazake can be as complicated as infecting cooked rice with a particular mold to create fuzzy/lumpy koji, mixing it with water and heating the mix for 12-24 hours before sweetening and serving, or as simple as adding hot water to a packet of dehydrated sake lees. The resulting beverages aren't really the same at all, but both are creamy in color and texture, sweet, lightly perfumed, and slightly chewy (heads up, bubble tea lovers!).

I'm no expert, but I'd guess that this amazake was made by the more painstaking of the two methods. Again the "main course" was accompanied by tea and a dish of pickles, which were a mixture of finely diced cucumber and the tiny buds of a bracing, aromatic herb called shiso. And again, the constrast of flavors and textures was a delight.

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