Sunday, 10 August 2014

Making Boso Peninsula's Futomaki Matsuri-Zushi

"The most beautiful expressions 
of the culinary art"
Futomaki matsuri-zushi
 

Beautiful treats that are the result of over 100 years of culinary refinement.

If you have heard of "futomaki matsuri-zushi", you are a real sushi connoisseur! The Chiba Kun Ambassadors recently was given a cooking class. Yes, being an ambassador for Chiba Kun is not limited to only introducing the tourist spots in Chiba prefecture, because we gotta attend cooking class once in a while as well hahaha! So, this time we were given the opportunity to learn how to make one of Japanese most well-known food - sushi.

This time, we would be making "futomaki matsuri-zushi" (太巻き祭り寿司), literally "thick-rolled festival sushi". Futomaki matsuri-zushi is common in the Chiba Prefecture of Japan and is considered as another form of traditional culture that is passed down through the ages. These unique and colorful sushi rolls are rolled with intricate patterns and commonly made for special occasions and festivals since old times. They transform your traditional California roll and turn it into the linkness of a panda, flower, or even a pop culture icon.


The sushi masters were there since early in the morning in preparing the ingredients. Here they are making tamago-yaki (Japanese omelet) (photo credit: Madoka Usui).


The three sushi chefs plus a visiting student from a local university, who would teach us the way to make futomaki-sushi.

Futomaki-zushi is a type of rolled sushi that is distinguished for its large size and careful balance of ingredients. Most people, especially the non-Japanese probably have the image of sushi as rice cubes topped with raw fish. However, they might be surprised by the care and artistry that goes into these rolls of futomaki. They are usually filled with different coloured vegetables and may not even contain fish at all. Chef design futomaki to be both delicious and pleasing to the eye, and they often choose ingredients for how well they balance with each other in taste and looks.

The word "futomaki" (太巻き) is Japanese for "fat roll", and this name could not be more appropriate. Futomaki rolls are usually 4 centimeters in diameter if not larger, and are made up of three main parts. The outside "casing" or "shell" of the roll is traditionally a thin sheet of nori seaweed, which is basically seaweed that has been pressed and dried into a thin but flexible rectangle. Soy paper or thin cooked egg can be used in rare instances. The inside is made up of both sushi rice and chosen fillings.


A recipe book written by Eiko Ryuzaki-sensei (龍﨑英子), in her efforts to aspire and promote the art and techniques of futomaki-making not only to the younger generations in Japan, but also to foreigners. For more information about the recipes, you can take a look from this link (Japanese only).


Minegishi sensei, showing us the packet of Susshi (すっし〜), which is used to make the rice pink in colour.
 

Sushi mat is made up of bamboo slats woven together into a flexible surface. There are two kinds of sushi mat prepared for us,
one the normal size and the other a slightly bigger one.

Sushi rice is a special variety of short-grained, sticky rice. When it is used in rolls, it is usually seasoned with a bit of mirin, a rice vinegar, and may also be salted in order to help it stick together and adhere to the other ingredients. These "other ingredients" are where the sushi chefs have the most flexibility. Vegetables are common choices, particularly cucumber, carrot, and mushroom; cooked seafood such as crab or eel may also be used. Some rolls feature raw fish, but not often.

This time, the Chiba Kun Ambassadors were so lucky to have the opportunity to be taught by a group of three members from Chiba Traditional Regional Cuisine Research Group (千葉伝統郷土料理研究会), who had experience giving classes of sushi-making in many countries abroad, to show us how to make futomaki. The Chiba Kun Ambassadors were divided into two groups and we were given two motifs to choose from - rose or peach flower. Since I had made the peach flower motif one a year ago, I went to rose this time. The basic rolling process can take some time to master, but is not particularly difficult.


Minegishi sensei started the demonstration of making rose-motif futomaki-zushi. Pink rice and sweetened red capsicums were used for the petals part.


Thin eggs complete the petal part, which thinly sliced cucumber were used for the stalk.


And here is the final result - rose petal futomaki-zushi.
 

Next up is making the peach flower futomaki-zushi.
 

Adding in the final portion of sushi rice to complete the masterpiece.

The first step usually involves putting the nori directly on the mat, and will then cover nearly the entire surface with prepared sushi rice. The other ingredients, cut into thin strips, are placed on top of the rice. Most of the time, these ingredients are stacked in the center and do not take up the entire surface area.

When everything is in place, the chef will create the roll by slowly folding the bamboo mat inwards. This movement causes the nori to fold over onto itself from one edge to the next. The end result is a thick log that should hold itself together. Chefs sometimes present the futomaki as a single whole like this, but more commonly will slice it into individual rounds. Each round contains a small taste of all of the ingredients that were stacked on top of the rice.



The rose group is ready to rock sushi and roll (photo credit: Madoka Usui).


This is one of the ingredients for the rose petal - sweetened red capsicums.


Minegishi sensei reminding us the correct method of using the bamboo mat (photo credit: Madoka Usui).


And we started to create the petal with pink rice, capsicums and tamago-yaki (photo credit: Madoka Usui).


Pickled celery is used as the stalk of the rose.


The rose futomaki-zushi, by yours truly.


Taking a photo with the sensei and the sushi I made.


And the rest of the Chiba Kun Ambassadors in the rose group (photo credit: Madoka Usui).

Sushi is well-known the world over as a popular part of Japanese cuisine; however, in some countries, including Malaysia, eating raw fish is not common practice. Therefore, in these locations, they prefer to have unique makizushi (巻き寿司) rolls made with local ingredients. One of the many types of makizushi is futomaki matsuri-zushi, a type of sushi that contains no raw fish.

These makizushi rolls look like splendid works of art. However, in actual fact, there are very few sushi masters who know how to make them, so futomaki matsuri-zushi is not very well known even in Japan. This is because these rolls are the brainchild not of sushi chefs, but of local farmers from the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture.


Exchanged half of my sushi with the other group, and here are some of the peach flower futomaki-zushi.


A splendid work of arts made by the amazing chefs.


A group photo with the sushi chef and the Chiba Kun Ambassadors. Yes, I was the only guy there lol! (photo credit: Ayako Uchiyama)
 
This is the traditional way for the locals to eat sushi. Farmers know better than anyone else the hard work involved in growing rice, and they wish for people to experience happiness when they eat their carefully grown produce. They take vegetables, eggs, as well as dried local ingredients that are easily preserved, and roll them up into a sushi roll. The beautiful patterns crafted within each roll show a spirit of welcome toward the recipient. For that reason, they are must-haves at weddings, festivals, celebrations, and other special days.

Locals have cherished futomaki matsuri-zushi for many years, a sushi that is only available in the Boso Peninsula, and where recipes have been handed down through many generations. Every year, design contests have given birth to new works of art. Incidentally, the Boso Peninsula refers to Chiba Prefecture, where Narita International Airport can be found. If you head out there, not only can you buy some futomaki matsuri-zushi yourself, but you will also be able to stop by workshops that let you roll your own. Why not go and visit the area and enjoy the rich variety of designs, and the classic, simple flavors on offer.


Chiba is waiting for you!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Dashi Kaikan And The Great Float Festival Of Sawara

"A great passion for 
the splendid festival of floats."
Sawara's Great Float Festival




 
The entrance to the Suigo Sawara Dashi Kaikan (Float Hall).
 
Sawara, a town of canal by the Toner River, is a vibrant community known for its summer and autumn festivals. The dynamism of these festivals can be experienced at "Dashi Kaikan", where 2 of the 24 floats are shown up close. "Dashi" is generally a float pulled on the streets at festival time, decorated with a figure of a mountain fish, doll, bird, animal, or plant. The word "dashi" (山車) was derived from the word describing the targeted location where God descents down.

The wooden floats are mostly made of zelkova tree. They are surrounded on all four sides by ornamental handrails and are decorated with twisted fresh straw ropes as well as gorgeous canopies. This is because the "dashi" is considered a symbolisation of the throne. Big dolls of 4-meter high or other kind of symbols are set on the top of the floats. Towards the end of the Edo era, luxurious dolls were made by experienced craftsmen of Edo.


Visitors will get the chance to see the floats from close-up at the Float Hall.

 
The front view of the 8-meter tall float.
 
 
 To be honest some were a little intimidating, but they were still pretty impressive.

 
A close-up view of the one of the two floats figure.

An anecdote says that in the age when Sawara was well-known as a village that produced good rice wine (sake) and soy sauce, there lived a lot of sake masters and young workers at every brewery. On festival days, they were smart "chonai-banten" (workman's livery coat with the initial letter on the back) and draw carts fully loaded with his first products of the year to dedicate them to the shrines. These carts were beautifully decorated with sacred tree branches with green leaves and pendant strips of cut paper, which prompted the villagers to call these carts "dashi" or "heidai". 

Back then, after the festival ended, any decoration on the top floor of the "dashi" was thrown into the fire and  villagers will rebuild a new one in the following year. However, the same decoration are used every year at present day. In the olden days when there were no electric lines over the sky, the figures on the top floor of "dashi" were so huge, that people in nearby village is said to be able to see the upper parts of the figures from distance away across the field.


The artful engravings and beautiful embroidery around the float may make you feel as if you were on the day of the festival.


A mikoshi which is a divine palanquin. Shinto followers believe that it serves as the vehicle to transport a deity in Japan
while moving between main shrine and temporary shrine during a festival.


Small paper lamps which is carried by the people who accompany the float procession during the grand festival.


The floats seen from the second floor of the Float Hall.

As times went by, these "dashi" become more and more beautiful, bigger and taller in size as the brewers began to compete with each others in terms of their decorations and the claim superiority in its size. The brewers also kept in touch with people in other parts of Japan and adopted different culture from every part of Japan. This made Sawara Festival to become more and more gorgeous every year. Today, Sawara Grand Festival (佐原の大祭) which has a tradition of about 300 years, is called one of the three major float festivals in Kanto region (for some reason, in Japan they always list top things in threes). This festival is held twice a year - in the summer festival, 10 floats are operated on Onogawa's east side region; while 14 floats are operated in Onogawa's west side region in autumn.

The summer festival is called "Honjuku Yasaka Shrine's Festival" held for three days on the second or third weekend in July, and the  autumn festival is called "Shinjuku Suwa Shrine's Festival", also held for three days on the second weekend in October. Sawara is divided into two parts - Honjuku on the eastern part and Shinjuku on the western part, by a river called Onogawa river.


A panoramic photo of the grand festival, taken during the special anniversary year, which featured all 24 floats.


Some of the materials on Sawara's float festival, which has been designated as an Important Intangible Folk-Cultural Property.


Musical ornaments such as drums and pipes as well as wooden float sculptures are on display.


There are various dolls, skillfully carved by a group of craftsmen that decorate the top of the floats.
 These dolls, usually measuring about 4 to 5 meter-tall, were derived from the folk tales in the olden days.

 
Black-and-white photos of the "dashi" taken during the festivals in the olden days. 

The town area called Honjuku, which supports the summer festival includes, Honhashimoto, Kaminakacho, Shimonakacho, Yokaichiba, Tajuku, Terajuku, Niijuku, Hamajuku, Araku, Honcho, Konkawagishi, and Funado. The other area called Shinjuku, which supports the autumn festival, includes, Shinhashimoto, Wakamatsucho, Minamiyokojuku, Shimowake, Kamishinmachi, Shinmoshinmachi, Kitayokojuku, Nishisekido, Higashisekido, Shinuwagashi, Nakakawagishi, Shitagashi, Tanaka, and Yokokawagishi. Each of these blocks owns its proudest festival float.

On festival days, town people pull the floats not only through broad streets but even narrow lanes that could allow it to go through. The floats are all decorated with elaborate carvings on four sides and with a set of tall figure on the top floor. The amazing feature of the festival is the festival music - "Sawara Bayashi", played by music players firmly sitting on the rails of the float. This music, said to date from 400 years ago, is now designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Asset. There is also a dancing team called "Tekomai", performed by young girls drawing the ropes attached to the float, which is a spectacular view worth watching.


 A huge Japanese carp or "koi", made of straw, which will decorate the top of one of the float from Yokaichiba (八日市場) area.

After dark, the best view of the festival is enjoyed on both sides of the Onogawa River. The lit-up floats and figures reflected in the river will be seen swaying on the surface of the water. In the years of good harvest, people are likely to adopt ingenious programs in addition to the ones of the usual year.

There is no written record about the origin of this festival. However, according to "The History of Sawara City", Shinjuku Shrine's festival is believed to have started in 1721. It says that Uno Gonnojo, the 4th head of village (called "nanushi"), took responsibility to organise every procedure with the festival in that year. Unfortunately, any documents about Honjuku Yasaka Shrine's Festival is said to have been lost in a fire. The whole procedure to administer the festival is traditionally decided by a meeting on July 1st (known as "shochokaigi") on the Honjuku side, and on September 1st (known as "hassakusankai") on the Shinjuku side.

Make sure you catch this unique festival, considered the highlight of the year in Sawara.

※ INFORMATION ※
Suigō Sawara Dashi Kaikan (Float Hall) (水郷佐原山車会館)
Address: 3368 Sawara-I, Katori City, Chiba Prefecture, Japan (within the proximity of Yasaka Shrine grounds) (千葉県香取市佐原イ3368) (八坂神社境内)
Opening Hours: 09:00 - 16:30 (09:00 - 20:30 during the summer festival season)
Closed: Every Monday and Year End and New Year holidays (open every day during the Iris Festival and national holiday)
Admission Fee: 400 yen (adult), 200 yen (elementary and junior high school students) (special discounts for group more than 15 people and set tickets).
Website: http://www.city.katori.lg.jp/dashikaikan/index.html (Japanese only)
Tel: 0478-52-4104
Parking: Available
Access: From JR Sawara Station (JR Narita Line) (about 90  minutes from JR Tokyo Station), walk for 15 minutes; Car: 10 minutes from Higashi-Kanto Expressway Interchange・Sawara Katori IC
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