Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Primeval Elegance


This is definitely my favourite food. Sashimi or raw fish. For me, nothing compares to it because of its pure and unadulterated taste. No spices. No oil except what is naturally secreted by the fish. Not steamed or fried or grilled or somehow altered from its natural state. Of course soy and wasabi accompany it as a dip, but I look at that as being optional.

There is also something primeval about it. I can imagine someone 70,000 years ago eating raw fish as she eyed Asia across the Horn of Africa before crossing Bab-el-Mandeb into Yemen. 

Yet there is something elegant about Sashimi too. Presentation is mostly minimalist and the portions are bite sized and convenient for chopsticks. Some fish is laid out flat while others are upright and some slanting: all part of the food presentation. There are different colours that make them visually attractive but everything is in harmony and focus is solely on the fish, the main and only ingredient. With different seasons come different fish with different textures, colours and taste. Just perfect!

However I also worry. What happens when 200 million Chinese discover the joys of Sashimi? Forget the price going through the stratosphere. Will there be enough fish? Will Tsukiji Market 築地市場, the biggest wholesale fish market in the world or its successor survive?  

Scary thought indeed.

Images: At the Tsukiji Market 築地市場 May 2013.
Top: Wasabi ready to be grated on the shark skin with soy in the black pot
Bottom: Assorted Sashimi

Friday, September 27, 2013

Simple Fare. Complex Connections


One does not associate vegetarian fare with Japan. Yet, should you have meal in a temple complex that is what you will get: simple and delicious vegetarian food surrounded by gardens that are hundreds of years old or even a thousand years plus. 

On a warm spring day at Hasedera Temple 長谷寺 in Kamakura 鎌倉 that was my fare. Perhaps it was the first time that I had had something to eat in a temple in Japan. Hasedera is one of the great temples of Kamakura and houses the famous wooden statue of Kannon and is part of the pilgrimage circuit to Goddess Benzaiten. 

Kannon of Japan is known as Guanyin in China and Avalokitesvara in Nepal, all in the Buddhist tradition. But here is the thing, svara in the name Avalokitesvara shows a strong connection to the Hindu tradition of Shiva.

Benzaiten is one of the seven lucky gods of Japan and is known in this part of the world at Saraswoti. In Japan she holds the Biwa (lute) instead of the Veena from this part of the world. To add to the complexity she has also been integrated into the Shinto tradition. 

One of my favourite teas is Tieguanin 鐵觀音 originating from Anxi 安溪縣 in Fujian province  福建 of China. That tea is named after Guanyin or Kannon or Avalokitesvara. Depending on the processing this tea is either flowery with a delicate aroma. Or if it has been roasted, it will have a strong nutty taste.

So it was entirely appropriate that I should be having a simple vegetarian lunch at a temple dedicated to Kannon / Guanyin to whom Tieguanin tea is dedicated in the tradition established by the person who grew up around my ancestral village in Lumbini, Nepal more than 2500 years ago.

Image: Vegetarian food at the restaurant in Hasedera Temple complex and the surrounding garden. (May 2013)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Trisuli & Tea

Just a short distance from Kathmandu is Trisuli. The place takes its name from Trisuli River which flows in a south west direction to meet Kali Gandaki to become Narayani in Chitwan. 

As a tea person Trisuli touches me through history. It was here at Trisuli at Betrawati, that The Treaty of Betrawati was signed by China and Nepal during the Qing 清朝 period (1644-1912).  

The Treaty of Betrawati ended the Sino Nepali wars (1788-1792). These wars are considered to be one of the Ten Great Campaigns of Qianlong Emperor 乾隆帝 (reign 1735 -1796). The upshot of the treaty was that about 70 years later in 1861 tea seeds from China, gifted by the Emperor of China, possibly Emperor Xianfeng 咸豐帝,  to Nepal literally seeded the tea industry in Nepal.

The surprising thing about the drive from Kathmandu to Trisuli is the amount of forest cover that is still intact despite the proximity to Kathmandu and its huge appetite for resources. After the love hotels near Tapoban and the dumping site at Okharpauwa, the drive becomes more relaxed despite the potholes. Rice fields give way to dense forest cover and the volume of water increases giving rise to a multitude of Rainbow Trout farms cum restaurants perched precariously to the hill sides. 

That is not to say that the terraced rice fields ever go away. Those terraces can make one emotional if one cherishes the centuries of toil of Nepalis: a metaphor of the hard work of our forebears to keep this country united and independent. Some of the terraces extend vertically perhaps 300 metres or more and all the way down to the Trisuli valley. 

Again on the valley floor one is met by the green rice fields reminiscent of the Kathmandu valley of yesteryear. The future of this emerald valley, hopefully will be better. Perhaps its connection to tea in Nepal will ensure that!

Images: (24 September 2013)
Top - Looking back to the hills of Kathmandu Valley with the clouds overflowing onto the next valley.
Second from Top - Rice fields well before Kakani
Middle & Second from Bottom - Rice terraces and dense (mostly Chestnut) forest cover after Ranipauwa
Bottom - Bidur ko phat - the valley floor at Trisuli

Monday, September 23, 2013

Feeling Small


When you're weary
Feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all

I'm on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

"Bridge over Troubled Water" - Simon & Garfunkel. Released on January 26, 1970.

While there is no bridge over these waters, surely one cannot but be moved by these stunning images of the Lake Districts UK in the autumn of 2003 captured by my brother, Bachan. One feels small. And the tears are perhaps tinged with a bit of autumnal bitter sweet melancholy to see nature at its best knowing fully that soon this beauty will give way to cold howling winds from the north.

Images: Around the Lake District, UK. (Autumn 2003) 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Autumn Night Thought



Night Thought

The bright moonlight
in front of the bed
appears like frost
on the ground I look up
at the Autumn moon, and
lowering my head
I think of home.

Li Bai 李白 (701-762) of Tang

It is now Mid Autumn Festival 中秋節. A time when people gaze at the moon, eat mooncakes and drink tea. It is a time of reunion and gathering of both family and crops. A time of thanksgiving for the harvest.

I like this Chinese festival for several reasons. Firstly our tea garden name is Jun Chiyabari and in Nepali Jun means moon or moonlight. So there is immediate connection. Then the other connection is with drinking tea and eating mooncakes. As a person involved with tea, what more can I say about drinking tea? Finally, last but not the least, I love autumn. Always have. I can't ask for more than a festival at the beginning of autumn with all its layers!

Image: Moonrise over Jun Chiyabari (2012) at Nigale, Hile-Dhankuta.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Creativity Uncaged


A far croonin' is pullin' me away
As take I wi' my cromack to the road.
The far Coolins are puttin' love on me
As step I wi' the sunlight for my load.

- "The Road to the Isles" - The famous traditional song from Scotland.

A firefly in a bamboo cage is brought to my table. The cage is lifted. Lo and behold! The firefly turns into the most delectable morsel of what Italians call Frutti di Mare. With the help of chopsticks it goes slowly into my mouth and I am transported into seventh heaven. Although a part of me wishes to have just admired this beautiful creation, cage and all for hours.

It is when I see such "Tongue-gasmic Food Porn" as CNN called the food scene in Tokyo that I remember the Scottish song taught to us in high school by my music teacher, Mrs. P Murray. Fond memories of Scotland lures the traveller back in the same manner that I am repeatedly lured back to the islands........

............."The blue islands are pullin' me away
Their laughter puts the leap upon the lame
The blue islands from the Skerries to the Lews
Wi' heather honey taste upon each name."

Images: At Chinzanso Tokyo 椿山荘 (May 2013)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Red Snow

For you,
I went out to the fields
to pick the first spring greens-
all the while on my sleeves
a light snow falling.
- Emperor Kōkō 光孝天皇 Kōkō-tennō (830 – August 26, 887) the 58th Emperor of Japan. From The Ogura Hyakunin Isshu 小倉百人一首.

In Nepal red is an auspicious colour. It is a the colour of life and vibrancy. Brides wear red when they get married and not the white like in the western tradition where it symbolises purity. We put red tika on our foreheads as a blessing. And women wear red during Teej festival rejoicing the joy of life. Yes, red is definitely my colour of choice.

In Japan I have seen red being used in a different way than I am used to. More sparingly and with that typical finesse that is so natural in Japanese culture. A bench with red blanket set in a sea of green. Red bridges over babbling brooks are more common, but I do not know why they are coloured so. Or a red mat under the zen-black of a tea ceremony set. I could go on and on. Nuanced use of red creates a dramatic effect. One is drawn not so much to the red per se but to the totality of the scene. That splash of red serves to focus the visual sensation of the looker but actually accentuates the scene.

I went into a dark forest of green and found splashes of red. Perhaps that is the light snow falling on me. I am thankful for that red snow.

Images: At Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo 椿山荘 (May 2013)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bridging the Stones


You would be forgiven if you thought that Kurume 久留米市 ,a small city in Kyushu, had nothing going for it. Till about a year ago, I had not even heard about it though, unwittingly, over the years I had been using its most famous product.

Recently I got an opportunity to visit Kurume. For such a small place its list of achievements is impressive indeed. Indigo dyed cloth called Kurume Kasuri, invented by a young girl named Inoue Den, is famous throughout Japan. As is ramen noodles and pork soup of Kurume.

Bridgestone tyre company was founded in Kurume. Over the years I had been using tyres from this company without any knowledge of where and how the company had been established.  The first Japanese American millionaire, George Shima, was born in Kurume. At one time he accounted for 85% of California's potato crop and was called the Potato King. Singer and actress Seiko Matsuda and TV personality Rena Tanaka are also from Kurume. And these are just a few....there are others.

Not bad for a small city of 300,000 people!

My visit was really short and in this short time I was taken by my friend to see ruins of Kurume castle of the Arima clan. There one can still see the walls built with massive stones and can get an idea of how extensive it must have been. Inside, only Sasayama Shrine remains. 

In between we managed to squeeze time for tea and ramen and a visit to the most friendly antique shop. At the end of the day, products made of Kurume Kasuri was in my bag too.

What makes Kurume tick? The university set in its midst? Or the working culture? Can do attitude? Its friendly people? I am not sure but I am pretty sure that it will continue to produce some fine people and products.

Top: Stained glass window at Kurume station
Second from top: Tea and sweets at a tea room in Kurume
Third from top: A traditional Japanese Torii 鳥居 at the Kurume castle leading to the shrine. 
(The gate is symbolic of the transition from the profane to the sacred in a Shinto shrine)
Bottom: Looking down from the castle rampart.
May 2013

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Tea Space-time


 間 is an interesting character in Japanese. Till writing this blogpost I thought it only meant a door or an entrance. Apparently it can also be used in conjunction with space, time, interval, pause, leisure, room, apartment amongst other words!

So when I was invited for a rendezvous over tea at Chacha-No-Ma 茶茶の間  I thought the meaning of the name of the tea room was a "Gateway to Tea", though I was confused why there were two characters for tea in the name, 茶茶.  

Chacha-No-Ma was a really pleasant experience and the company made it more pleasurable. The tea brewing master of the house, Kitagawa san 北川さん, was very much on top of the game and gave a skillful performance with the brew. One can produce the best tea in the world but if the brewing is incorrect then all the effort of the people in making that tea is really wasted: from the time the tea plant was in the nursery, to planting and taking care of the bush through the years and the efforts of the girls plucking the teas and the tea master and the helpers making that tea. Not to speak of the logistics.

For me, most serendipitous thing was when I asked him which teas he liked, he replied, without much hesitation, that he really liked teas from Jun Chiyabari.That was music to my ears!

After he found out that I was from Jun Chiyabari, he brewed various other interesting and delicious Japanese teas including Goishi-cha 碁石茶 or the so called Japanese style Pu-erh tea from Shikoku. And also a most delicious infusion of green tea with lavender, mint and other ingredients which I shall keep secret. But, as can be seen from the images, there is no secret that I also enjoyed the matcha ice cream. 

Perhaps the true meaning of Chacha-No-Ma 茶茶の間 is "The Wormhole to Tea Space-time continuum". And the double chacha 茶茶 in the name? Perhaps, like many things in astrophysics, we are destined never understand that either!

At the tea room, Chacha-No-Ma 茶茶の間 in Omotesando, Tokyo with Kitagawa san (May 2013)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ebony & Ivory


Ebony and ivory,
Live together in perfect harmony,
Side by side on my piano keyboard,
Oh, Lord, why don't we?
Lyrics: Paul McCartney 
Sung by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder.
Released March 1982

In Shizuoka 静岡県 I came across some really fascinating tea bushes. In a large field there were hundreds of different tea cultivars. Within that, one small section had some tea bushes with really dark leaves and another section had white / creamish / yellow leaves. In a sea of green it was easy to make out the cream coloured leaves from a distance. Just a few metres away was this patch with really dark leaves which was equally if not more impressive.

Surely they were different cultivars and both were really interesting for me. Unfortunately due to language difficulty I could not ask which variety these two were. Due to confidentiality issues I cannot reveal the exact location where these two grow in perfect harmony.
Just a small thank you to all those who made it possible for me to see Ebony and Ivory.

Images: Two different tea cultivars in Shizuoka, Japan. (May 2013)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Himalayan Evergreen 2012

Listening to the wind, to the rain,
the day of Qingming fleeing,
I try to write, like an earlier poet,
an ode to buried petals....

-Wu Wenying (ca. 1212 - ca. 1272) Wu was a poet during the Song dynasty.

Yesterday I tried Himalayan Evergreen from Jun Chiyabari. This particular one was from the 2012 spring harvest. Himalayan Evergreen is a tea that is really popular and well liked by customers all over the world. Even in a country like Japan where you get the best green teas, this tea is well liked.

The liquor was very light and very delicate. In the mouth it was almost sweet with no vegetal taste that is so common in green teas. The after taste left a lingering grape flavour which reminded me of a very special green tea that I had had near Mariko in Shizuoka in 2012.

Image: Himalayan Evergreen 2012 (April 2013)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Beitou 北投區, Taiwan


Now , the pavilion deserted,
there is no trace of her,
only the swallows twittering about bygones.
- Xin Qiji (28 May 1140–1207)
Xin was a Chinese poet, military leader, and statesman during the Song dynasty.

Beitou 北投區 is the famous hot springs district of Taipei. While it is always nice to spend a night or two at one of the hot spring hotels, the thing that really caught my eye was this aesthetically pleasing turn of the century red brick and wooden planks building. 

Beitou Hot Spring Museum was originally built as a public bathing house exactly 100 years ago in 1913 during the Japanese era in Taiwan. As a result it is a wonderful fusion of European and Japanese styles.

The ground floor is in European style complete with red bricks exterior and stained glass windows. The first floor is Japanese and has this big hall with tatami mats. Parts of the exterior of the first floor are covered in wooden planks.

I wonder if one of the stained glass is a depiction of Fuji-san 富士山. Or is that just my imagination?

Images: Exterior and interior of Beitou Hot Spring Museum. (January 2013)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Chitwan: Paradise & Opportunity Lost


In the mid 1980's we established a jungle lodge (Narayani Safari) at the outskirts of Royal Chitwan National Park. The lodge itself was located on a bluff overlooking Rapti River and the national park beyond. For many years till mid 2000's we operated this property till the political situation forced our hands.

When we started, we had been given the permission to operate our own elephants and conduct jungle activities inside the park after paying royalties and other fees like the other lodges inside the park. 

At that time, the explicit understanding between the government: Forestry Ministry, King Mahendra Trust et al and us was that it was to be a new model for the park and tourism. If successful this model was to be implemented on all existing properties inside the park. The time period for its implementation was to be the next 15-20 years. The idea was that LIMITED jungle activities including elephant rides were to be operated inside after paying royalties and fees but no hotel or lodge or private motorised vehicles were to operate inside the park itself. 

The Narayani Safari experiment succeeded beyond our wildest imaginations mating good environmental practices with high quality tourism.

In the mid 2000's we exited the hotel business and the property changed hands. Recently in March 2013 I went back to Narayani Safari for the first time since this change of ownership. While it was good to see the improvements in the lodge itself, the state of jungle activities has regressed much to the detriment of the country and the tourism industry due to political pressure from various groups, inability to act swiftly and decisively and the lack of political will to do the right but difficult thing. 

I doubt that the overall experience of the tourists would make them want to come back again to what was once the best wild life experience this side of East Africa. 

Images March 2013
Top: Narayani Safari outdoor dining area
 Elephant ride and viewing the wildlife (rhinos, rose ringed parakeets on kapok trees, peacock and spotted deer) in the community forest outside the national park

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Definitely Pre Qingming 清明節



Heavy raindrops fall like tears on Qingming;
The mourner's heart is breaking on his way.
When asked where could a tavern be found,
A cowherd points yonder to Xing Hua (Apricot flower) Village.    

- Du Mu 杜牧 (803–852)

In Nepal we do not celebrate Qingming festival 清明節.  However every tea lover worth his salt knows the importance of this Chinese festival in the world of tea. What that is, I leave it to you to find out! Along the way, please find out about Du Mu who wrote that poem above and Zhang Zeduan  張擇端 (1085-1145) who painted the famous Qingming scroll.

The festival itself is dedicated to the honour of ancestors. Families visit the burial grounds of their ancestors to pay their respects.

This blogpost and the images of tea from Jun Chiyabari's very first day of production is dedicated to all tea lovers worldwide and to our respected ones to guide us in the days ahead. 

A word of apology. The poem above had been posted in one of my earlier blogposts.

Images: Tea from the very first day of production. (March 2013)
Top: Dry tea leaves
Mid: The liquor after 5 minutes of brewing
Bottom: Infused leaves