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Chinese woodblock print of orchids (postcard)

Hanakotoba is the language of flowers: emotions or messages are communicated through the symbolism of flowers. Since it turned summer on June 21st, I figured I’d tell you about the meaning of orchids.

Mahjong Guardian Stone Summer OrchidAs a mah jongg-player I thought it was THE flower of the season, orchid being the Summer Guardian Stone. But having looked into Japanese flower symbolism, I seem to be wrong! Yeah well, mah jongg is originally Chinese, so.. :) Never mind. As the game is being played in Japan as well, this post is still relevant as my submission for June’s Hello Japan! mini challenge about Flowers & Japanese Gardens. ;)

Mahjongg Card Summer OrchidStarting of with a haiku by Yosa Buson (1716 ~ 1783), translated by R.H. Blythe.

An evening orchid,
Hidden in its scent,
The flower’s whiteness
yoru no ran
ka ni kakurete ya
hana shiroshi

The orchid represents refinement. It is no common plant and it’s pleasures are reserved for the privileged few, so it is also a symbol of the rare and precious. The essence of refinement is an continual process of improvement until absolute perfection is reached.

In the art of fortune telling with mah jongg cards or stones, the Orchid Guardian protects young girls. If it appears in response to a question about a daughter or a younger female relative, it serves to allay any anxieties regarding their welfare.

I have a white orchid at home. It was a birthday gift from my aunt several years ago. White seems appropriate for a flower like this, since it indicates purity and cleanliness in traditional Japanese society, and is seen as a blessed colour because of its sacred nature: it’s the colour of the gods and therefore free of all ‘contamination’. But what is maybe best — if you’re into Zodiac signs that is (which I’m really not) — the white orchid belongs to my sign of Pisces.

White orchids

I’ll leave you with the Japanese version of a beautiful song about flowers by Einstürtzende Neubauten: Blume, sung by Etsuko Sakamaki-Haas. I invite you to listen to the English translation afterwards.

Hello Japan! is a monthly mini-challenge focusing on Japanese literature and culture. Each month there is a new task which relates to some aspect of life in Japan. June’s mission is ‘Flowers and Japanese Gardens’.

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Hello Japan! is a monthly mini-challenge focusing on Japanese literature and culture. Each month there is a new task relating to some aspect of life in Japan. This month’s mission is ‘Back to School‘: to learn something, anything, about Japan.

I’ve been getting reacquainted with origami. In my early teens it was one of my biggest hobbies that started when I discovered how to fold a butterfly on an Asian open air market. It was probably the first Japanese thing I really got into — not counting my father’s enthralling stories about his childhood in a World War 2 Japanese prison camp… :\

Somewhere along the line I lost interest in the art of paper folding, but I never stopped using my golden paper fir trees as Christmas decoration! Unfortunately I can’t show you ‘cause they’re stowed away in the basement. You’ll have to wait till X-mas time! ;) Or ask Mr Gnoe whether it’s true.

Now that I’m having some kind of burnout, I’ve been looking for activities that are less intense than computer stuff, reading or watching movies. Enter: cooking, ‘gardening’ (on our small balcony), hiking & my old pastime origami. My brain is SO hazy I can’t remember a thing, not even how to fold the butterfly that I must have made a thousand times. So I started from scratch again by buying second hand copies of the instruction books I owned back in the days. Of course I had hung on to my multiple cute papers! :)

I’ve been learning how to do some of the old fav figures, but I had to learn something new for this month’s Hello Japan! challenge. Since I’ve also been looking into origata, the (related) art of gift wrapping, I here present the combined result: a spring birthday present with origami flowers I’ve never made before.

Spring birthday gift with origami flowers

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Edited to add: there’s a post up on Graasland explaining how to make these fancy origami flowers!
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As the gift is a book (Crossroads, by Niccolò Ammaniti), I also taught myself how to fold a crane bookmark. In Japan cranes are a symbol of longevity.

The mark is made of gold & blue paper: both colours symbolizing wealth. The feminine blue also represents self-cultivation, calmness and purity and pale blue is specific for April. The warm gold & cold blue tint are in harmony (yin & yang).

A present: novel & origami bookmark

But that’s not the only thing I’ve been learning this month… I also set my mind to learning how to count to ten in Japanese. I already knew how to get to eight, but now I’m trying to recognize the characters, know the digits out of order and to sum up to ten. And yes, I’ve got some proof! Listen to this. :)

1 t/m 4 in Japanese

I hope you’ve also contributed to April’s Hello Japan!? For each and every participant our host Tanabata is donating $6 (¥500) to either the Japanese Red Cross or — even more up my alley — Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue Support (JEARS)! No need to have your own blog, commenting on the challenge post is fine too.

I’ve already donated to JEARS but their work is so important that I hereby pledge to follow Nat’s example with the equivalent of €4,- per person. So please join us if you’ve got a chance!

Here’s why.

After all those read-a-thon updates on Graasland it’s about high time I posted my latest bentos. And what better motivation than to find a mail from Hapa Bento telling me I had won the September B.O.M.B. challenge?!

*blush* I am so honoured!

Bento #116 served as dinner on my train journey to an evening about ‘Foodies, Foodporn & Foodblogs’ in The Hague on Wednesday September 22nd. That day it was mid-autumn and the Chinese were celebrating their Moon Festival. On Thursday the 23rd there would be a full moon — the brightest and most beautiful moon of the year according to Japanese people!

Tsukimi

Watching the full September moon is a special celebration in Japan, called Tsukimi (moon-viewing), tsuki being moon. It’s about honouring the moon and being thankful for the harvest. So, what could be more fun than to take an early Tsukimi Bento to the food event?

That meant I had to use seasonal produce (which is traditionally offered to the moon) and use ‘pampas grass’ for decoration. My organic CSA veggie bag came in handy! I really wanted to bring traditional foods, but no way I was having another attempt at making dango! I tried that on my first Holland Hanami (cherry blossom viewing, the spring counterpart of Tsukimi) and it made us gag! #fail

Thankfully I had recently bought some green tea mochi. But what am I doing, starting with dessert?

Tsukimi Bento (#116), 22-09-2010

Front tier

  • Buckwheat soba noodles (traditional) with leftover stir-fry of Swiss chard, silver onions, leek, carrot, corn kernels and chili pepper (all seasonal vegetables), braised in the soaking liquid of dried mushrooms.
  • Large shiitake mushroom (‘dark side of the moon’).
  • Slice of corn cob (‘full moon’).
  • Potato patty (no traditional sweet potato but hey, close enough).
  • Red pepper rabbits (tradition).
  • Fennel green ‘pampas grass’ for decoration, plastic sushi grass and flat leaf parsley for baran (dividers).
  • Slice of braised carrot, mini gherkins and pickled silver onions.
  • All on a bed of lettuce.

Background tier (which can be seen more clearly in another picture)

  • Edamame (traditional).
  • Apple – first local harvest!
  • Dried fruit: apricot & mango.
  • Green tea mochi (traditional).
  • Dollop of ketchup for potato patty.

But there’s more to it…

I didn’t get round to writing this blogpost because I wanted to tell you more of the thoughts behind bento #116.

In the Chinese Moon Fest round forms symbolize unity, completeness, togetherness. It reminds me of the circle of life, autumn being the season in which ‘the fruits’ get harvested. Of course the moon is round too. So I’ve used a lot of round foods in my round tsukimi bento :) Mix & match is what I say! ;) A lot of Chinese heritage became Japanese culture as well. Hey, I’m an European making bento, so what are we talking about anyway?

It’s interesting to know that the box that I used for this train bento is even officially called Tsukimi. The depiction of a moon-watching rabbit can be found in many Japanese decorations. All around the world people see things in the moon; here in Holland it’s a face and we’re calling it the Man of the Moon. Ancient Chinese saw a hare or rabbit pounding herbs for elixir, the Japanese believed it was pounding rice to make mochi. Making mochi is called mochitsuki (餅つき), which sounds similar to the word for full moon: mochitzuki (望月)!

Green tea mochiNow do you see the importance of my green tea mochi dessert? First flush (green) sencha tea is supposed to be best when kept till September, so that makes it even more appropriate.

Both moon and rabbit symbolize a long life. That probably originates from the Chinese life elixir myth — and the way rabbits know how to ensure eternal life through their offspring ;)

But there’s also a Buddhist story associated with this all, the story of Jade Rabbit. On a day of Uposatha — Buddhist Sabbath — an old man asked for food from a monkey, an otter, a jackal and a rabbit. The monkey collected fruits and offered them to the old man, the otter brought him a fish and the jackal a lizard. The rabbit didn’t have anything to bring, because the herbs constituting his food weren’t good for humans.
Then the rabbit decided to offer his own body and jumped into fire. Surprisingly his body did not burn, because the old man was the deity Sakra. And for people to remember the rabbit’s sacrifice, the old man drew the rabbit’s image over the moon.

If you look at Google images of ‘tsukimi rabbit‘ you’ll see the cutest rabbit-shaped sweets… I wish I could have had some! Still, I had so much fun making & eating this thematic bento! It’s wonderful it was awarded with a B.O.M.B. badge :)
Tsukimi Google logo 2009

Home-grown: red hot chilli peppers
Local & organic: Swiss chard, leek, carrots, corn, lettuce, potato, parsley, fennel, apple
Organic: sōmen, shiitake mushroom, egg, paprika, ketchup

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