Saturday 27 July 2019

Discovering Japan in the UK: Selfish Noodles, Ridiculous Rice-balls, and Manga at the British Museum

The British Museum, London
Just got back from the UK before the latest heatwave hit: Thursday saw the hottest July day on record and the second hottest day ever (38.5℃ in 2003). But even before then everyone was complaining about the heat despite being pleasantly mild compared to Japanese standards (UK houses typically don't have air-conditioning). Here in Japan, July has been unusually cloudy and cool - it experienced an historic low of only 50 hours of sunlight that month - but soon after my return we had the first tropical night (nettai-ya =熱帯夜), a sticky, sultry night in which the temperature doesn't fall below 25℃ (see here for a previous post). And next weekend will likely see the end of the rainy season (tsuyu-ake =梅雨明け);  thereafter, we'll no doubt have to endure a long hot summer of sweltering days and sleepless nights, inter sped only by the odd typhoon or two - probably until mid-September-ish. Compared to this, the summer in the UK - "heatwave" or not - is nothing!

Normal service about everyday life in Japan will be resumed shortly, but for now I thought I'd write a little about the visibility of Japan in the UK. The first thing to note is how ubiquitous Japanese food is. One of the most famous chains is Wagamama, 'Japan-inspired' (but actually very Chinese tasting) Asian cuisine famous for its ramen noodles; most Brits are surprised to learn that the name means selfish or self-centred in Japanese! More generally, sushi is a common lunch choice (below far left) though it is almost always overly-chilled, making the rice dry and hard. In contrast, Japanese convenience stores are careful not to refrigerate rice products, keeping them separate from sandwiches and the like at between 20℃ and 25℃. I also spotted an ad for an onigiri rice ball (below second left) which with its pumpkin topping (not filling) would be enough to make most Japanese recoil in shock! Other Japanese names on chocolates and wine (below right) recall the recent controversy over Kim Kardashian trying to trademark the name kimono for her line of underwear.

© Murakami Takashi
Japanese culture in general is also hugely popular. The British Museum in London (pictured at the top of the page) - which still has free entry - has a permanent gallery sponsored by Mitsubishi which includes a replica of Kudara Kannon, the famous Buddhist statue from Horyu-ji Temple in Nara, a splendid suit of samurai armour, and a 2009 painting by the artist famous for the 'superflat' postmodern art movement, Takashi Murakami, featuring eight members of girl-band AKB48 in manga princess style. There is also a temporary exhibition entitled simply Manga running until August 26th; on the day I visited, the £20 (¥2,700) tickets were already sold out for the day hinting at its enormous popularity. Many reviews have been critical, however: Timeout calls it a "taster" while the Guardian describes it as rather flat. In sum, despite the interest in Japan in the UK, neither food nor comics are as genuine as locals assume; to experience the 'real' Japan, it would seem you have no choice but to actually go there!