Saturday 30 September 2017

The Biggest Fish Market in the World: Tsukiji

Friday saw a night out in in Tsukiji, the area containing the largest wholesale fish market in the world. Currently located in central Tokyo, just a stone's throw from Ginza (a short walk from the famous kabuki theatre), the market is due to be relocated to a new site in autumn 2018. The market itself is a popular tourist attraction, though if you want to see the early morning auction - starting at 5:25am - you'll have to start queueing for one of the limited places early, maybe just after 3:00am when the market opens! After the auction, the market springs to life with some of the freshest fish you'll ever see on sale, particularly different cuts of tuna which increase in price as the fat content increases: the most common cuts are red fin meat known as akami (赤身); slightly more fatty chūtoro (中とろ) from the middle belly; and super fatty ōtoro (大トロ) from the lower belly. You might even be lucky enough to see a tuna being carved up (top right). The market also boasts some of the most delicious sushi and sashimi restaurants (though be warned, they are not cheap). How about a kaisendon (海鮮丼) - assorted seafood on rice - for breakfast? See here for a great video showing the auction followed by a little shopping afterwards.
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I was lucky enough to know a couple who run a sashimi (raw fish) bar just down the street from the market called Kashigashira. The husband had worked as a middle man buying and selling fish in the past, a job which involved sleeping in the afternoon and getting up late to catch the last train to the market to work from the early hours. With good contacts, the decision to open a restaurant - bringing slightly more "normal" working hours - was a logical next step. Needless to say the food was amazing (note the menu changes daily depending on the day's catch). For example, the plate of sashimi pictured left contained beautifully marbled Oma (大間) in the centre, a tuna named after a small town in Aomori, northern Japan, which is a real delicacy (my Japanese wife said she had never eaten it!). It also included adult amberjack which is called buri in Japanese (in contrast, young amberjack is called hamachi, reflecting the fact that, in Japan, fish are called different names as they grow older (known as shusse-uo =出世魚). Another dish which appeared as part of a long three-hour course grilled salted maguro. The picture below shows the jaw (ago) of the giant tuna. Gochisō-sama deshita!

Wednesday 27 September 2017

Japanese Pampas Grass and Moon-watching

Japanese pampus grass or susuki reaching out over a small stream
Japanese pampas grass or susuki
Japanese pampas grass - otherwise called (Chinese) silver grass, zebra grass, or porcupine grass - is found throughout East Asia and is a common sight at this time of year. In Japanese, it is called susuki - not to be confused with the most popular Japanese name Suzuki! - and is written with the kanji 薄 meaning thin or weak (usui =薄い).

In the calendar, it is most commonly associated with jyūgoya (十五夜) or the night of the full moon, that is the night of the 15th day of the 8th lunar month​ in the old calendar (equivalent to October in the modern calendar - October 4th this year). On this day, some people display susuki - said to bring a year's good health - together with dango (rice-dumplings) and engage in "moon watching" (tsuki-mi =月見), the celebration and honouring of the autumn full-moon which goes back centuries. Other seasonal foods such as sweet potatoes (satsuma-imo) and chestnuts (kuri) are also commonly used as an offering to the harvest moon (chūshū no meigetsu = 中秋の名月). See here for more on the history of tsuki-mi and the legend of "The Rabbit in the Moon" (in Japanese folk-lore the markings on the moon's surface are said to resemble a rabbit pounding mochi or rice-cake!). The Japanese attachment to the moon can be seen in the plethora of words available to describe the moon in different aspects and situations, such as u-getsu (rain moon - when the full moon is hidden by clouds). There is also a whole lexicon of gorgeously poetic words to describe the various stages of a waxing and waning moon, such as  nemachi-zuki (literally "moon which appears while you are sleeping" which refers to the waning gibbous moon).

Sunday 24 September 2017

Kimono vs Yukata: Tea Ceremony at the School Festival

Reception tent and assorted culture festival posters
Culture Festival (bunka-sai) reception with class posters
Autumn is a busy time at Japanese schools with two major events to prepare: the culture festival (bunka-sai =文化祭) and sports day (undō-kai =運動会) - though in recent years, many schools have been moving the latter to spring due to lingering high temperatures and typhoons. This weekend I attended the former - bunka-sai - at a local school which was full of the usual food stalls, performances, attractions, presentations, English debates, displays, and club activities one finds at such festivals. A new event this time round though was tea ceremony (sadō = 茶道) which, like at many schools, is now an elective subject for third-year high-school students (judo has also become part of P.E. classes). The emphasis on learning "traditional culture" reflects the reform of the Fundamental Law of Education (Kyōiku Kihon Hō=教育基本法) in 2006 which for the first time introduced "fostering the value of respect for tradition and culture and love of the country" as an objective of education (English here; Japanese here).

At the culture festival, students made and served tea to guests while the teacher gave an explanation of the finer points of manners and etiquette. The students - both male and female - were traditionally dressed in yukata (浴衣) - pictured left and right. The yukata is a light cotton "kimono" a common sight at the many summer firework displays. The first kanji means to take a bath(abiru =浴びる) which reflects the fact that it is also used as a bathrobe (hotels with hot springs will usually supply a simple yukata for guests).

A common question relates to the difference between a yukata and a kimono (着物) proper (here I focus on the female versions). Apart from the material (typically light cotton vs heavier silk), a key difference is that the hanging "wing" sleeves are longer in a kimono, at least for single women (the sode or sleeves of married women are shorter, similar to the yukata). Another difference, is the time it takes to put on: whereas a yukata can be put on in 10 minutes or so, a kimono is complex and without taking classes - or at least a little help - is pretty much impossible to put on by yourself. An inner layer or layers of underclothing is also worn with a kimono. Finally, the belt or sash (obi =帯) is tied differently: the yukata obi is a simple bow which is tied at the front first (or sometimes comes pre-tied) and then slid around (video here); in contrast, the kimono obi is much broader and longer (and tighter!) and there are various ways of tying it (see one example here). Below are some pictures of the students serving tea at the festival, though the snaps don't do justice to the grace, refinement - and nervousness - of the student participants!
Four pictures from left to right showing scenes from the tea ceremony at a school festival
A male student prepares the tea as female students carry more in for guests. Note the cast iron kettle (tetsubin)

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Kimi no Na wa (Your Name) : Contrasts and Diversity in Contemporary Japan

DVDs of Kimi no Na wa lined up in a local video store for one week rental
DVDs on display in a local Tsutaya video rental store
Your Name (Kimi no Na wa =君の名は), the animated movie (anime) directed by the "New Miyazaki" Makoto Shinkai (who wrote the book of the same name), has been breaking a lot of records. Earlier in the year, it became the highest grossing anime film ever (worldwide), overtaking Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kami-kakushi =千と千尋の神隠し), and is currently the fourth highest grossing film of all time in Japan (behind Spirited Away, Titanic, and Frozen). The story is centred on a teenage boy from Tokyo and teenage girl from a small village in rural Gifu who come to occupy the other's body. The plot itself is not terribly original and the chronology (and mysticism) is a bit confusing but it is so beautifully illustrated and full of both humour and human feeling that it draws you in. For the Japan lover, the scenes of everyday life are so intricately drawn - from subway train signs to classroom furniture - that you can't but be amazed at the attention to detail. On top of that, the two key themes of (1) urban rural vs urban Japan - the different language and value systems - and (2) male vs female - especially the differences in language, such as pronouns - are skilfully interwoven into the story, highlighting the huge range of diversity in a country which is too often described using simple keywords, bland stereotypes, and sweeping generalisations. The English trailer is available here.

Books written by Kimi no Na wa director Makoto Shinkai, including the 2013 Garden of Words (言の葉の庭)
For older Japanese, Kimi no Na wa may bring back memories of the 1953 black-and-white movie of the same name (left). The film is translated a little differently though as "What's your name?", and indeed in the Showa period this was a common (casual) way to ask someone's name. Today, the phrase sounds both old-fashioned (namae - 名前 - not na is the norm today) and self-important (kimi would only be used by someone in a position of power, say a boss speaking to a subordinate or a senior speaking to a junior member of a club). The only time 名 tends to be used today is on official forms where it refers specifically to your given name and is pronounced mei not na (this makes a pair with family name which is written 姓 and pronounced sei). However, in everyday speech shita no namae (下の名前) is the term used to refer to given name and myōji (名字) for family name. Most Japanese give their name in family name/given name order, so asking for their "first name" would be confusing (indeed, as the term shita no namae implies, the given name is considered "below" or second to the family name).

Sunday 17 September 2017

Red Spider Lily (Higanbana): A Symbol of Autumn...and Death?

A ground level view of bright red spider lilies
Red Spider Lilies (Higanbana) in bloom
The weather remains quite warm here in Japan but a sure sign that autumn is finally here - apart from more typhoons - is the appearance of the red spider lily known as higan-bana (彼岸花), also called manjushage (曼珠沙華). In nearby Tachikawa Showa Kinen Park, more than 20,000 are in bloom and the best time for seeing (migoro =見頃) what is described as a "bright-red carpet" (真っ赤なじゅうだん) is apparently this weekend. A bit further away, Kinchakuda (Hidaka City) boasts 5 million (!) (500万) of the plants spread over 5.2 hectares through early October (see poster right).

The name of the flower itself - higan - comes from the fact that they bloom around autumn equinoctial week which is called aki no o higan (秋のお彼岸) in Japanese. The middle day of equinoctial week comes on the day of the autumn equinox known as shūbun no hi = 秋分の日 (a national holiday that falls on September 23rd this year) so the week itself comprises the three days before and after that day. Higan alone refers to the Buddhist holiday celebrated in Japan during both the spring and autumn quinox and means "the other side of the river" the state of enlightment without worldly desires - in other words, Nirvana. During this period, much like Obon, Japanese sometimes visit their ancestor's graves and hold a memorial service for them or simply offer sticky-rice-filled sweets covered in thick red-bean paste (tsubuan) - or sometimes sweet soy flour (kinako) - at the household Buddhist altar (butsudan =仏壇). These sweets are known as o-hagi (御萩) in autumn and botamochi (牡丹餅) in the spring, though they are actually a common sight in supermarkets all-year round (pictured).
Buddhism is of course closely related to death in Japan - funerals are Buddhist and graveyards are found in temples - so it is no surprise that the lily is also known as the flower of death. This image is strengthened by its presence in graveyards and at funerals. Being poisonous to small animals they used to be planted around graveyards in Japan's pre-cremation days to stop the dead bodies being eaten (today, of course, cremation is obligatory in Japan). And their appearance at funerals is said to due to their bright colour thought to help guide departing souls to the afterlife. But whatever deathly connotations they may have, they are a beautiful sight and a welcome symbol of cooler days to come.

Wednesday 13 September 2017

Sumo Tournaments and Tokyo's Kokugikan Sumo Hall

Statue showing two sumo wrestlers at the entrance to Ryogoku Station
Sumo statue outside Ryogoku Station
Walking out of Ryogoku Station in Sumida, Tokyo, you get an immediate hint as to what the main attraction of the area is in the form of the statue on the right: the plaque reads chikara-zumō (力相撲) - literally "power sumo," meaning sumo wrestling using strength instead of technique. Close by is the Ryogoku Kokugikan (国技館) Sumo Stadium/Hall (pictured below) which hosts three of six annual professional sumo tournaments known as honbasho (本場所) in January, May, and, September (the latter starting just a few days ago on Sunday 10th). It will also host the boxing at the 2020 Olympics apparently!

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Sumo went through something of a slump a few years back, due to a series of scandals, but has definitely bounced back today and advanced tickets were completely sold out this time round, something my sumo-loving friends tell me hasn't happened in quite a while. The presence of "once in a lifetime" grand champion yokozuna (横綱), Mongolian Hakuho, who recently broke the all-time wins record, is certainly a key factor. Unfortunately, Hakuho has skipped this tournament - together with two other yokozuna - due to injury, leaving only one grand champion.

The stairs leading up to the green-roofed Kokugikan sumo hall with the Skytree visible far left
Kokugikan (r): Skytree is visible far left

Kokugikan starting to fill up with the ring (dohyō) centre
With regard to tickets, even if you couldn't get an advanced ticket, some tickets are also available on the day - though you will have to queue up very early to have a chance to get one. General admission tickets are available at ¥2,200 in this way but the way to really see sumo is to get a box-seat (masu-seki) - an enclosed tatami square with zabuton cushions to sit on - with three or five of your friends (don't forget to take your shoes off!). Plan on spending the whole day there (bring lunch) - doors open at 8:00am and you can enjoy all sorts of entertainment and see the wrestlers up close; main matches start from 2:00-ish leading up to the key bouts later in the afternoon. The fun finishes at 6:00pm. For more details see the excellent English site here. I couldn't make it this time round - I'm keeping my fingers crossed for January - but here's a couple of pictures from one of my friends who attended on Tuesday. Very jealous (urayamashii = 羨ましい)!

Sunday 10 September 2017

Showa-style Alleys, Cheap Eats, and Hoppy

A good night out with some new friends - five of us standing in Hamonica Alley
Una buena noche con nuevos amigos
Friday saw a night out in Kichijoji, consistently voted the place most people want to live (sunde-mitai machi =住んでみたい街)in Tokyo. One of the biggest draws is the lovely Inokashira Park, but another top attraction is the Harmonica Alley (Yokochō) =ハモニカ横丁, a narrow, lantern-lined Showa era-style downtown back-street full of cheap sit-down and stand-up bars and food joints (pictured right). A similar area exists in Shinjuku to the west of the JR Station - known as Memory (Omoide) -Yokochō (思い出横丁) - but the Kichijoji street has far fewer tourists and is much more "local." Both areas have increased in popularity in recent years amid a nostalgia boom for the "old Tokyo."

Pictures of two kinds of Hoppy beer-flavoured drink lined up in a local supermarket
White and black Hoppy on sale: only ¥115 a bottle
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Despite having been in Japan - on and off - for some twenty-five years, I discovered a new drink I had not encountered before known as Hoppy (ホッピー), something of an institution in the Kanto region apparently. It was created in 1948 - as the picture left shows, 2013 was the drink's 65th birthday - at a time when beer was a luxury drink out of the reach of most ordinary people. Thus, Hoppy is a tax-exempt beer-flavoured drink of only 0.8% alcohol that when mixed with shōchū (a Japanese distilled spirit made from rice or potatoes) creates a "blue-collar beer" that is remarkably similar to but much cheaper (and less carbonated) than regular beer. Aside from price, it also has the advantage of low calories and sugar and contains no gout-causing purines (a growing problem for older Japanese men). The pouring of Hoppy seems to be something of an art form: when you order you get a bottle of Hoppy (white or black), a glass of shōchū, and an empty beer glass (all chilled). You then add a shot of shōchū to the beer glass and quickly pour in five parts Hoppy to mix it and give it a foamy head (see here for more details). The taste verdict? Not terrible, but not a patch on regular draft beer (nama-bīru =生ビール).

Wednesday 6 September 2017

Japan's National Dish: Curry Rice?

A pyramind of curry rū (roux) piled up in a local supermmarket
Supermarket display of curry (roux)
Curry may be the national dish of Britain, but it's practically a national dish in Japan too - albeit one introduced by the British. A 2008 survey found that 20% of men ate "curry rice" (カレーライス) - basically curry on top of rice - once or more a week with 92% of all respondents saying they liked it. For children, it consistently comes in at number one in lists of favourite dishes: since 1945 it has remained the top choice for elementary schoolers. Interestingly number 2 and 3 in the ranking has become a lot more luxurious in recent years: whereas omu-raisu (rice inside an omelette) and hamburgers made up the top three for post-war kids, today sushi and fried-chicken occupy those spots! Other everyday curry staples include karē-udon (curry on top of thick noodles), karē-pan (deep-fried pastry filled with curry), and even curry pizzas!

Perhaps one of the reasons for the popularity of curry-rice is that it is very easy to cook - but at the time relatively healthy. Japanese typically use curry blocks known as karē-(roux) to make the sauce - the picture above shows them piled up on display in a local supermarket. Onions, potatoes, carrots, and meat (chicken or beef) are the standard ingredients, but other popular additions include garlic (nin-niku), aubergine/eggplant (nasu), honey (hachimitsu), chocolate, and even coffee! The sauce itself tends to be rather mild and sweet - apple and honey is a popular roux flavour - and rather different from Indian curry which is also popular in Japan. In terms of toppings, cheese, egg, and especially katsu - deep-fried pork or other cutlets - are common. My simple five-step recipe is pictured below: no potatoes (because my wife doesn't like them in curry!) but I add green pepper (pīman) and brown-beech mushrooms (buna-shimeji) together with quail eggs (uzura no tamago) topped off with a giant pork cutlet and a sprinkling of cheese. The picture shows the final result: tasty even if I say so myself!
5 pictures showing the key steps in making curry-rice using a curry roux block
Left to Right: (1) Fry garlic and caramelise onions (2) add vegetables and keep frying  (3) add 850ml water; simmer for 15 minutes while removing aku (scum) (4) stop heat and add roux; simmer on low heat for 10 minutes (5) done!
As a final aside, many speciality shops offer a giant katsu-karē which if eaten in a fixed time comes at no charge! For example, I recently read about a restaurant called Takeharu in Fuefuki, Yamanashi, which offers a huge pork cutlet curry dish weighing 4kg for ¥3,600: if you can finish within 15 minutes you apparently get a ¥10,000 prize!

Saturday 2 September 2017

Radio Calisthenics: The Secret to a Slim, Healthy, Early-rising Population?

A morning walk with the dog (I really should do a post on pets soon!) brings me across a group of elderly people exercising in the park (right and video below). This is known as taisō, meaning calisthenics or gymnastics, ​and is written with the characters for body (体) and operate/manipulate (操). Taisō has rather a broad meaning and covers everything from professional gymnastics to everyday work-outs. However, it most commonly refers to the regular light-stretching exercises, especially in the early morning. The word is also used to refer to warm-ups at the start of school P.E. lessons and usually features at the beginning of sports days (undō-kai =運動会): the sight of hundreds of students stretching in unison and in sync is very impressive - though also a touch militaristic-looking...

Radio taisō is particularly popular and a programme is broadcast on NHK every day from 6:30-6:40 (!) which many groups make use of. It is said that around 20% of Japanese participate in some regular form of taisō which this blog claims explains why Japanese are generally slimmer and healthier than their Western counterparts! For some elementary school kids it is even part of summer homework during the holidays, with stamp cards to confirm attendance (my apartment building has a special kid's morning taisō during July before it gets really hot). This 2015 survey found that 55% of elementary schoolers participated during the summer holidays with the key benefit (?) cited as "I can get up early." This "benefit" extends to anyone within ear-shot of the workout space: I remember being rudely awakened by the sound of the radio blaring out instructions in the park behind my house very early in the morning when I first came to Japan. These days the volume seems to have been reduced in consideration of neighbours (or maybe my hearing is just getting worse?).