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Train bento: A Japanese treat, with organic rice

Last weekend I went to Suwa in Nagano with Kobayashi sensei of Sinajina for the famous, once every six years onbashira festival.

Over two months, the residents of Suwa select enormous trees growing on top of the mountain ridge, cut them and transport them down the hills by dragging them with rope, race down a hill sitting on the logs, and eventually lift them up at several important shrines (while people stand on top of them, I guess, to make it more difficult, heavy and dangerous).

Onbashira is a very pleasant mix of animism, forestry and virility. More on the ceremony later.

But, first, the first joy of taking any trip in Japan is buying a bento at the station. There is an incredible variety, priced from about 500 yen to 1,500 yen. Each comes beautifully wrapped in a box, with fantastic graphic design. You can see some cool typography, artistic mountains and trains, a space shuttle, a pokemon, and cherry blossoms.

I chose the spring special, decorated with sakura petals. Inside I was delighted to find over twenty different foods, including takenoko (bamboo shoots).

Even more remarkable, my box came with a photo and description of the organic rice farmers.

And lastly here’s the purple-striped beauty that got us to the Suwa lake in just two hours from Shinjuku.

Mochi making parties

Mochi making parties are a winter community event. Above, a huge mochi party took place on Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day) on January 11 outside Nakano’s JR station. The event took place on the asphalt connecting the station with Sun Mall and normally occupied by smokers, taxis, buses, and pedestrians.

There were young girls playing taiko drums, men pounding rice, and women forming the rice into mochi balls. Did you know that a modern Japanese tradition for mochi eating is to keep a vaccuum cleaner nearby, in case the mochi gets stuck in elderly people’s throats?

Just before New Year, the ceramic studio where I practice pottery hosted a mochi making party for students, friends and relatives. Nearly thirty people attended, with many pounding the 18 kilos (40 lbs) of Niigata rice in the backyard, forming the sticky rice into balls, adding toppings, and sitting down to a huge feast. In fact, so much mochi was made that all the guests took some home for later.

Some more photos after the jump of what the finished mochi looks like with many different toppings, the huge lunch feast, and the beautiful hand-written menu.

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