Archive for the ‘cultural understanding’ Category




This field is normally not for parking

Our Own Urbana Matsuri

I wrote about our local Matsuri last year (see here https://ourvisitstojapan.wordpress.com/2018/09/12/matsuri-in-our-home-town/). It was such a success that it was repeated this year, on September 8, 2019. I have a lot of photos, so please scroll through and enjoy!


People were fascinated by this entertainer


Get a tattoo, some calligraphy, or your face painted

As I said before, our Japan House is within easy walking distance of our house, which is great as so many cars need to park in the large field usually used for impromptu soccer and frisbee games. Plus, part of the main avenue in front of Japan House is actually blocked to traffic. Most people are quite happy with this, but one of the volunteers directing traffic told me that a few people get mad as they have to backtrack and take a small detour! It had rained in the night and early that morning, but luckily the weather cleared enough—still a bit cloudy but no rain.

A Matsuri is a fall festival, celebrated in slightly different ways in Japan, depending on the town. Our Matsuri seems perfectly adapted to our local community, with many food stalls set up by local eating places, some Asian but many not, but much of the food had a Japanese-sounding name.


I wonder what that tasted like?


I was happy to see that my favorite natural foods store, Common Ground, was there plus a local brewery called Triptych.



Different community or university groups have stalls too, from Yukata (summer cotton kimonos) stalls, to ikebana, to master gardeners, to a tattoo stall.



You approach the Japan House from the parking area and walk along a path lined with cherry trees, now strung with colorful lanterns and huge red origami paper cranes.



Japan House overlooks a small lake, roughly in a figure-of-8, around which a path winds. A bridge also crosses the lake at the narrow central point. Most of the stalls, seating area with tables and chairs, and stage, are set up on the far side of the lake, under the plentiful trees.



Kampai means Cheers! in Japanese

As I walked across the field, with throngs of other people, the throbbing sound of drums got louder as I approached the stage. It was a group called Ho Etsu Taiko,a Chicago-based Japanese drum ensemble, who were doing a great job and the crowd loved them.



A little later another group took the stage, a local Martial Arts Group called Kobudokan Dojo. They were demonstrating Kobudoand Iaido, different moves with swords—fascinating.




Going into Japan House. Many women wore a yukata that day

From the Opening Remarks at 12 noon, until close at 9pm the stage hosted all kinds of different groups, all free. For the food and drink stalls, and for the other outside activities (face-painting, bubbles, try ikebana etc) you need to buy tickets (cash only) from one of the many volunteers walking around.

Items for sale (clothes, wall hangings, bonsai plants etc) were handled by each stall.

Inside the Japan House itself people could attend a tea ceremony (a fee), or just wander around the rooms, browsing for some pretty knick-knack, or wall hanging, or real kimono, or lovely ceramics.


It’s all a lot of fun, noisy, cheerful, and very well-attended. I commend all the volunteers and the organizers: so many details, like the decorating and setting up all the tents, tables and chairs, extra lights etc; manning the stalls; directing traffic; driving golf carts around for those who need a bit of help; not forgetting all the hundreds of posters advertising the Matsuri that were put up a couple of weeks beforehand (which they will now need to go round a take samuraidown!).

We are really lucky to have a great resource like the Japan House, and all the cultural interactions and activities that it brings to our community. It makes us all richer.

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Kev and Rod braai in the Cape


If you’re ever in southern Africa this is one of the traditions you don’t want to miss. A “braaivleis”, affectionately called “braai” for short, (in Afrikaans language, braai= cook over fire, vleis= meat) is very special, a talkative, communal event, evoking feelings of camaraderie and stirring memories of togetherness at “braais” past.Whenever we visit South Africa, one of the first things we ask our families is, “When are we going to have a braai?” It doesn’t really matter what the season or the weather is.


Our family gather for a braai in East London


and it was great!


We braii in Hibberdene

“Having a braai” is more than just cooking food outside, it’s an event. Sipping drinks under a wide African sky, filled with stars that seem somehow clearer and nearer…the delectable smell of meat or fish on the coals drifting over the scene…cicadas “chirping” in the trees around. All this gets South Africans nostalgic.

The fusion of flame and meat, the sitting round an open fire or a grill, these are a way of life and popular around the country, regardless of race, language, creed or province. In fact, some say that while most countries have a national dish, South Africa has a national cooking method. But “braaivleis” is also not just a technique for cooking meat over an open fire: it’s a way of life, a national pastime that unifies an otherwise sometimes divided country. There’s a National Braai Day, on September 24th, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the patron. This is South Africa’s Heritage Day too; See here http://braai4heritage.co.za/. As Archbishop Tutu says, “We have 11 official languages in South Africa, but only one word for this wonderful institution. It’s braai in isiXhosa, braai in Afrikaans, braaii n English…it has fantastic potential to bind us together because all it calls for is that you come with your friends, your family, have a little fire and braai”.


Kev prepares the marinade for the meat


Mike mans the braai in East London


Kev and Rod braai in the rain at Umfolozi National Park

For many South Africans a braaivleis is a much anticipated weekend event. If folks can also have one during the week, that’s even better. In the summer, the braai will probably be in the evening, after sundown, the heat of the day a pleasant warm glow. But, in the winter it’ll likely be at midday, under the bright winter sun and a big blue sky. And South Africans are so crazy about having a braai that they will even do it if it’s raining—but then, of course, the eating will be inside!

The ritual begins… The hosts light up the charcoal, or wood, grill, perhaps next to the pool if they have one, with table and chairs on the grass or patio. They spread a bright cloth on the table, and bring out plenty of good South African beer (try Castle) and great South African wine, a dry fruity white to sip first, then a hearty red with the meal. And plenty of fresh fruit juices for the non-drinkers.



We set the table


Braai-ing in Kokstad

And what a meal it’ll be. If you’re really lucky you’ll have “the works”—lamb chops, beef ribs, and the absolute “must”:boerewors (in Afrikaans, boere= farmer, wors=sausage). ‘Wors’comes from the butcher in a long strip, which is coiled carefully on the fire without cutting. This unique sausage has more beef in it, a coarser texture and less fat than most, and a distinct flavor dominated by coriander. It’s wonderful, and South Africans out of the country say they dream about having worsagain. As part of the ritual the guests all make comments on the cooking process, as they discuss their lives and country politics.

Traditionally, the meat is served with “putu” (thick maize meal porridge cooked with salt and a little butter) with hot, homemade tomato and onion sauce spooned over it; a green salad; and garlic bread—very garlicky. Many families also put fresh whole vegetables on the fire, in addition to serving a green salad. Fruit salad, based on paw-paw (papaya), with cream is a good dessert, or perhaps chunks of sweet watermelon.




Cooking the vegs first

In some parts of the country people make “roosterkoek” (fire-baked bread), or grill snoek fish basted with apricot jam. Sosatiesare also very popular. These are pieces of marinated meat on a skewer. In Pretoria (my old home town) lamb and dried apricot sosatiesare common, but in the Cape the Malay people make great sosatieswith lamb in curry marinade. In Soweto “chisanyama” with a spicy “chakalaka” sauce are popular. Chisanyamais isiXhoasa slang for grilled meats, and usually includes chops, ribs, wors,and steak.

Of course, the braai-ers often disagree about some elements of the braai: what types of meats and in what combination; what types of wood or coal, and whether to use Blitz (firelighters); what types of braaicontraptions, from shiny new Webers to old tin drums (but, the almost 100% consensus is: NO GAS!); what marinades, if any. BUT, beyond these differences is still a passion for sitting around a fire, drinking and chatting for hours, while kids run around and play.


Wors and other sausages


Wors in a coil

Many people believe that this passion is greater in South Africa than other countries. But why? We may never be able to explain this entirely. It may be related to the great climate in South Africa, but it’s not just climate related, because otherwise Australians and Californians would also braai as much, and they don’t. South Africans of all races prefer to have ‘real’ fires (not gas), which take longer and encourage one to stand around and drink beer, poke at the coals, and discuss politics and the rugby team or other sports events. South Africans also tend to eat outside, not just cook outside and then retire inside to eat. The actual braai-ing is usually done by men (although that is changing), who have learned from their male family members. Immigrants to South Africa learn from their (usually) male South Africa friends, or even attend a special braaiclass (although there are not many of those).

What do you think?

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International Stereotypes of a Different Kind

The image that people have of a certain country or culture is often very stereotypical, and many people have ideas about a place even if they have never been there.

We found this really interesting T-shirt in Ljubljana, Slovenia. One of Slovenia’s tourist marketing tools is using the word “love” embedded in the country’s name. This T-shirt design has taken the heart and used it to create an image for the other countries depicted on it. A very clever idea.

Neither South Africa nor Zimbabwe is there, but Africa in general is, and that heart is probably fairly accurate for the indigenous people. The USA has a cowboy—what do you think of that?

Look at the other countries—we thought many were actually quite true at capturing what people imagine when they think of that country. For example, a koala for Australia, a sheep for New Zealand, a panda for China, or a bull for Spain. Some are not quite so obvious (to me anyway).

Is your country there? What do you think?



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A hamsa

The Hamsa and the Evil Eye

I’ve just returned from St Louis where I was for 6 weeks to help my daughter with a new baby. While there I remembered that we had bought her a hamsa from a shop in Old Jaffa (www.adinaplastelina.com ) while we were in Israel last year. It’s very pretty—a pendant on a ribbon—and I started reading up more on what its significance is.

These days, with so much strife and discord around the world, especially in the Middle East, it seems to me that it would be a really good thing for people to find similarities between groups, rather than differences. It seems the hamsa could be one such agreement.


Hamsa pendant


Typical Turkish-style “Evil Eye”

According to the leaflet that came with my daughter’s hamsa: “Known in Islamic societies as the Hand of Fatima, and in Jewish lore as the Hand of Miriam, the hamsa serves as an ancient talismanic way of averting the evil eye or, more generally, of providing a “protecting hand” or “Hand of God”. Some sources link the significance of the five fingers to the five books of the Torah, or to the five pillars of Islam. In recent years some activists for Middle East peace have chosen to wear a hamsa as a symbol of the similarities of origins and tradition between the Islamic and Jewish faiths.”

This idea of protection from “the evil eye” is common in many countries in the Middle East, especially in Turkey and countries where the Ottoman Empire ruled, such as Bosnia in the former Yugoslavia. The concept is the same—wearing, or having, some talisman that will protect against bad things, or ward off evil—but the actual amulet is very different. The typical Turkish one is a flattish bright blue circular bead with light blue and white inner circles and a darker blue center, like an ‘eye’. They are made into jewelry, or into beads that hang in cars, over doorways etc. People have them in kitchens, on baby strollers, on motorbikes etc. We have bought quite a number over the years, in Turkey and more recently in Bosnia.


This kitchen is protected by a Mexican folk skull and a Turkish evil eye


This kitchen also has an evil eye

Here’s a short discussion about the Turkish evil eye:


For a more extensive history and meaning of the evil eye, see here:


How can we all rally, and have some kind of hamsa, or evil eye, or other protection from the evil in this world? A symbol that would bind people together? I’m just being idealistic, I know, but it doesn’t hurt to dream!




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Danny Hermann shows the group an inscription that mentions Pontius Pilate

Danny Hermann shows the group an inscription that mentions Pontius Pilate

Touring in Israel

Recently we were in Israel for a week and our hosts arranged a number of wonderful day trips. One was to Caesarea, the port city on the coast north of Tel Aviv that was largely built by King Herod the Great.

Our guide for our day trip to Caesarea was Danny Hermann, who calls himself Danny the Digger, as he is an archeologist. He started a PhD in archeology but didn’t finish as he got into guiding, and now he also teaches a course on tour guiding at a university.

Danny was a really good guide. He has an amazing amount of knowledge to impart and is passionate about his subject—the history and archeology of this land. He is Jewish, but talks equally easily about Christianity and the Islamic faith. He says he talks about biblical archeology, which is where you move from fiction to fact. We were very impressed as he handled a biggish group well; he stopped and waited for most people, spoke slowly and clearly and didn’t seem to be in a hurry. We would definitely recommend him.

Danny Hermann, info@DannyTheDigger.com, www.DannyTheDigger.com

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A fairytale-looking castle

A fairytale-looking castle

This is a castle they will never forget

Scotland has at least 300 castles, many of them in Aberdeenshire in the northeast of the country and many incorporated into the famous Castle Trail. About half have a ghostly reputation, or some ghost story associated with them.

At each castle we visited on recent trips to the area I asked about the ghosts. In the other castles, the guides gave the information, laughing and rather dismissive—but in Crathes Castle the guide was more cautious. She stated seriously that, “Even I’m not sure if it’s true”. I believed her sincerity.

Crathes castle, just 16 miles west of Aberdeen, with its round towers, gargoyles, and overhanging turrets, is evocative of our idealized image of a castle, complete with maidens in distress, dragons, and perhaps dark secrets and ghosts.

You can see the solid tower block very clearly

You can see the solid tower block very clearly

We entered through the new wing, rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1966, and passed into the original tower section, behind a small group of Japanese visitors. We toured the castle in a set sequence, and each room has a room guide, who gives much information about life in the old castle and the present Burnett family.

The land on which Crathes now stands was gifted to the Burnett family by the legendary Robert the Bruce in 1323 in return for their loyalty. Their badge of office, the finely carved ivory Horn of Leys, still hangs above the fireplace in the High Hall, the first big room we reached upstairs. The family continues to live on the estate, after deeding it, plus the castle, to the National Trust of Scotland. The present laird (lord) still comes in to update the family records and add to the photo albums. It’s an amazing thought that the castle has been in the same family all these years.

The tower is the original living section, compact, with thick walls and small windows, so it’s never very light. At the entrance are special double iron-grill gates, before a huge wooden door for added protection. Remember, this was built in the 16th century—a turbulent time. Steep spiral stone stairs in the corner turrets connect the floors, and we sensed that it wasn’t easy to get in and out of this place. Some of the rooms still have beautiful tapestries on the walls, some have oak panel walls and the original wooden ceilings and friezes, gorgeously painted with mythical scenes. Small lamps, which burned animal fat, were used, so living here must have been smelly, smoky and rather dark and stuffy.

The first ghost story is linked to the Green Lady’s Bedroom, one of the top bedrooms. The story goes that a young girl was a ward of the laird, and was made pregnant, supposedly by a servant. The laird ordered the baby removed. The baby died and the girl also died of a broken heart. Later, during remodeling, the hearthstone was lifted in her bedroom and a baby skeleton was found. Since then, people have seen the ghost of the girl, dressed in green, carrying her baby and crying. But, the room guide hastened to assure the group that this ghost hasn’t been seen for ages. I asked more questions and noticed the Japanese looking around a little apprehensively.

Crathes Castle's pretty gardens from one of the tower windows

Crathes Castle’s pretty gardens from one of the tower windows

A couple more rooms and we got to the Gallery on the top floor of the castle. The room guide told us that this is where there’s a second ghost in residence. Sometimes there are sounds of running and footsteps, even when there is definitely no-one up there. She smiled, “Even I’m not sure, maybe even I half believe”.

We were about to move on when there was a series of loud clanking noises, which reverberated through the room. I turned in surprise at the unexpectedness of the sound, but didn’t have any more time to consider my reaction. The Japanese all gasped and jumped, and when the noise came again, some screamed. There was mild pandemonium, as two of them shouted “the ghost, the ghost” and they all prepared to run, to scramble out of the Hall.

The room guide, visibly disturbed by the strong reaction, tried to calm them. “It’s okay. It’s okay. Please. It’s not the ghost, that’s water in the pipes. The pipes are old, and they do this sometimes”. The tension was palpable. We smiled, as it was obvious that the noises weren’t the sound of running footsteps, but I wasn’t sure the Japanese were convinced. They left, chattering excitedly, and I have no doubt that this is how the ghost story is perpetuated.

It is easier to believe in ghosts if you’re in an old castle, full of history and legends, dark passageways, and strange nooks and crannies.

This is the power of suggestion at work: how easily the group created a panic attack among themselves. This is definitely a castle they will never forget.



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We sign into the Burns Supper

We sign into the Burns Supper


The piper and his bagpipes make the evening really special

The piper and his bagpipes make the evening really special







All the tables are beautifully set

All the tables are beautifully set








The piper pipes in the haggis, carried by Roy C

The piper pipes in the haggis, carried by Roy C

Celebrating the Life and Poetry of Robert Burns (25 January 1759-21 July 1796)

No matter how far away you are from Scotland, you have a good chance of finding a Burns Supper. According to a Scottish friend, anywhere you find Scots, you’ll find a Burns Supper, from all over the UK and as far away as Zambia. There is a strong tradition of Burns suppers in New Zealand, as Thomas Burns, Robbie Burns’ nephew, was a founding father there. Canada has many Burns Suppers too, for example in Bracebridge, ON. Many places in the USA will host a Burns supper. Here in Illinois, the Illinois Saint Andrew Society usually plans two Burns supper, at the Oak Lawn Hilton and the Deerpath Inn in Lake Forest.

Burns Supper in Urbana

Here in Urbana, our Wine Lovers’ Group had its very own Burns Supper too, which we were lucky enough to attend. A lot of fun.

What is all the fuss about and just what is this? A Burns Supper is a celebration of the life and poetry of Robert Burns, a

Ann C recites The Address to a Haggis, and plunges the knife in to cut it

Ann C recites The Address to a Haggis, and plunges the knife in to cut it

famous Scottish poet. They are usually held on, or close to, the poet’s birthday on January 25th, although the first one was held on January 29, 1802, as his friends mistakenly thought that was his birthday. His birthday is also often known as Robert Burns Day or Rabbie Burns Day.

These dinners may be formal or informal, but will all include haggis. Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish that was celebrated by Burns in one of his poems, Address to a Haggis. All dinners also involve Scotch whisky and the reciting of some of Burns’ poems.

The more formal dinners are fun as they follow a set format, which gives us a good window into Scottish traditions. Our dinner was strictly formal, and gave us a better understanding of how revered Robbie Burns is to Scots people..

Cheese course with oatcakes

Cheese course with oatcakes

At the beginning guests mingle informally over snacks as a piper pipes them in. The hosts welcome everyone and the guests are seated with the reciting of the Selkirk Grace. This thanksgiving wasn’t written by Burns, but gained its name after Burns delivered it at a dinner hosted by the Earl of Selkirk.

Then comes the Soup Course, usually Scotch Broth and/or Cock-a-Leekie, followed by the Haggis. The piper pipes in the haggis, carried in by the cook and after it’s placed on the table, someone recites the Address to a Haggis. At certain lines towards the end of the poem the speaker picks up a knife, sharpens it, and plunges it into the haggis—a highlight of the evening. All rather dramatic.

Someone proposes a Scotch whisky toast to the haggis and then dinner is served: haggis with tatties (mashed potatoes) and neeps (mashed rutabagas). Dessert might be cranachen or Tipsy Laird (whisky trifle), and oatcakes with various cheeses. All washed down with copious amounts of Scotch whisky and/or wine.

Wally M recites

Wally M recites

There will be various speeches and toasts—to the Immortal Memory of Burns, to the Lads, to the Lassies—and perhaps singing of some Burns songs, and even dancing.

We had it all (except the dancing) and it was a wonderful evening.

Thanks go to many people for organizing the event and helping with it, but especially to Ann and Roy Campbell, and to Wally and Jane Myers for opening up their home as the venue.



Steve L recites a very amusing poem about what is a haggis and how you catch it!

Steve L recites a very amusing poem about what is a haggis and how you catch it!

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