A Japanese Picnic Fit for the gods

Last Sunday was one of the first hot days of summer, and despite it being the rainy season, it was a beautiful clear day. You know it’s the summer season in Japan when almost all the women start carrying parasols and wearing arm-length gloves, hats and visors to protect their skin from the sun. They must think it’s strange that a California girl like me wears short-sleaved shirts in hopes of getting a tan. Pale skin is prized more in Japan than it is in the U.S.

On the grass in front of the entrance to a Shinto shrine, we enjoyed a Japanese-style picnic that was fit for the gods. Opposed to the usual Shinto faith, which believes in many deities, this monotheistic Shinto sect, Benten, worships only the female goddess of Luck.

When you’re picnicking Japanese style, your blanket is treated as any indoor space. So we removed our shoes and left them on the edge before sitting down. Then our two students started unpacking various sizes of boxes, revealing both intriguing and familiar-looking foods:

We ate rice balls called Onigiri wrapped in two kinds of seaweed – recognizable nori used for sushi, and tororokonbu that reminded me of either algae or light green spun sugar. I couldn’t decide which. The onigiri had a small surprise in the middle: pieces of ume-boshi or picked plums that tasted like a salty version of dried apricots.

In a small foil package we had our first encounter with wheat gluten (called fu, a popular meat substitute in Japanese cooking) in two shapes — small blocks, and little green maple leaves. Because gluten turns an unappealing grey color when steamed, the Japanese often dye it different colors and form it into cute shapes that you can buy at department stores. The fu was a little chewy and had a very light taste. In the supermarket you can also find dry-baked fu that resembles large croutons or breadsticks, and is sometimes used in soups.

Next to the gluten maple leaf was a steamed bean curd cake with vegetables. And a cucumber salad with ground sesame seeds was a refreshing accompaniment.

Then something familiar: Teriyaki chicken and leeks served room temperature. It was perfect.

We washed down our feast with cold tea. Later, at a nearby sports park we ate homemade apple pies made with puff pastry, and ume (plum) juice while we watched children (and Dustin) play on a giant roller slide!

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