Saturday 31 March 2018

Amazing Japanese Bakeries: English Bread, Bean Paste Bread, and Curry Bread

When once thinks of everyday food in Japan, rice is the first thing that comes to mind. However, bread is also hugely popular; indeed, your typical busy Japanese is probably just as likely to have toast and coffee for breakfast as rice! The Japanese have a traditional breakfast (rice, soup, fish, vegetables etc) about as often as a Brit enjoys a full English breakfast (i.e. not very often). The word for bread in Japanese is pan (パン), the same as Spanish, though the word itself reportedly came from Portuguese pão since it was the Portuguese who introduced bread in the 16th century. See here for a brief history of bread in Japan.
Today, bakeries are everywhere in Japan and the variety of bread products is mouth-watering. The system is help-yourself; on entering a bread shop you pick up a tray and a pair of tongs and pick out what you want. You then take the tray over to the cash register (reji =レジ) and they will put your selections into separate bags and total them up. In the UK it's more common to point out what you want to the shopkeeper who will then bag up your requests. Interestingly, there are some in hygiene-conscious who dislike the fact that everything is open to customer's whims (and their coughs and sneezes - just like oden) but most people don't seem to mind.

Tsubu-an doughnuts: all sold out
Two of my Japanese bakery favourites are an-pan (red bean paste or anko bread) and kare-pan (curry bread). The former is made from azuki beans (小豆) and comes in two kinds: tsubu-an (containing lumps - tsubu  or 粒 is the counter for small round objects) and koshi-an (smooth). Japanese tend to fall into one camp or the other and there is much argument over which is better. Different breads also appear in different seasons: because now is cherry blossom time, sakura (cherry) an-pan are on sale. As the picture shows, these have a real salt-pickled (shio-zuke =塩漬け) edible cherry petal on top and the bread has a pink tinge. Anpanman is also the name of one of Japan's most popular characters with a full bakery cast that includes Karepanman, Shokupanman, Melonpanna, Creampanda, and many more!

My second favourite bread is kare-pan, deep-fried pirozhki-style bread with curry sauce inside which first appeared in 1972. Sometimes they contain extra fillings as well as curry such as the ones pictured which have a soft-boiled coddled egg (hanjuku-tamago =半熟卵) inside. Delicious!

As a Brit, I was interested to discover the special kind of bread known as igirisu-pan  or "English bread" when I first arrived. This is basically a plain white "mountain-shaped" (yama-gata =山型) loaf which is usually sold not as a whole loaf but in packs of six or eight slices. This is distinguished from the cheaper shoku-pan (食パン) often sold in convenience stores which is less airy and more dense (kime ga araku =キメが粗く) and often contains butter and sugar (pictured). But despite "English bread" being a staple in both Japan and the UK, the types of sandwiches eaten are not always the same; Japanese are usually shocked by the traditional British chip "butty" (fried potato sandwich) while this Brit may has never got used to yaki-soba (fried noodle) pan and the stomach-churning Japanese fruit and whipped cream sandwich (pictured). Vive la difference!

Sunday 25 March 2018

Flying Visit to the Old Capital: Kyoto Travel Tips (Part 2)

Main sanctuary at Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto
Once you've arrived in Kyoto, found a place to stay, and rented a kimono, you're all set to begin sightseeing. If you rented kimono at the place I recommended in part 1 then you're well placed to walk to Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) a Shinto shrine famous for its thousands of bright vermillion torii gates (sen bon dorii =千本鳥居) - and also featured in the film Memoirs of a Geisha. Keen followers of this blog may remember that the Goddess Inari is one of the main kami of Shinto: look out for all the (very stylised) foxes, especially in pairs, said to be the messengers of the Goddess. At night (it's open 24 hours) you may even encounter a real fox! The torii gates lead you on various trails heading upwards through forest, passing small shrines. Interestingly, the gates themselves get smaller as you progress up the mountain - while the crowds only seem to get bigger!

If you did rent kimono, your zōri-clad feet will no doubt be killing you after the tough climb at Fushimi Inari Shrine, so why not experience a unique Japanese-style Starbucks? This is found at Ninenzaka (map here) a beautiful thoroughfare of traditional Japanese houses, restaurants, and shops between Yasaka (Gion) Shrine and the world heritage Kiyomizu Temple. The Starbucks is officially called Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya (二年坂ヤサカ茶屋) with chaya meaning "tea house" and has tatami flooring, shōji paper sliding doors, and even a little Japanese garden.

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If you have any energy left (I did say it was a flying visit!) a final recommendation would be the gold-leaf coated Kinkakuji (金閣寺=Golden Temple/Pavilion), though it is a lot further out and requires a thirty to forty-minute bus-ride from Kyoto Station. The temple was actually burned down in 1950 by a young monk and this incident is the basis of the story for Yukio Mishima's 1956 novel named after the temple (the monk was obsessed by its beauty in the book). The story is also included in the classic 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters co-written and directed by Paul Schrader with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas as executive producers. Mishima's central theme was the dichotomy between traditional Japanese values and the spiritual barrenness of contemporary life. See here for a fascinating interview with Mishima in English which covers a range of topics - including ritual suicide (seppuku) which was the cause of his death in 1970.

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Flying Visit to the Old Capital: Kyoto Travel Tips (Part 1)

While Tokyo has its fare share of attractions, Kyoto is the more popular tourist destination, and rightly so. As is commonly known, Kyoto or 京都 (made up of the characters for capital and seat of government) was the capital for over a thousand years, up until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Tokyo is the "new" capital which is reflected in the kanji characters 東 and 京 - "Eastern capital". Whereas in the UK we talk of a north/south divide, in Japan the division is East (kantō =関東) vs West (kansai =関西) and the culture and language are rather different. Top tip: if you want to sound like a local remember to pronounce the cities using two syllables - Tō + kyo and Kyo + to, not three syllables as is typical in the English speaking world (To-ki-o and Ki-yo-to).

Travel from Tokyo to Kyoto by bullet train (shinkansen) takes around two and a half hours, a little faster or slower depending on the type of train you take. The shinkansen is expensive even for Japanese though you'll save a little if you don't reserve a seat (trains are frequent and queueing efficient). If you're a tourist though the Japan Rail Pass, which allows unlimited travel for 7, 14, or 21 days, is an absolute bargain. Once you're on board, eating an eki-ben (駅弁 - literally station boxed lunch) is a must and you can buy these before or after you get on.

Once you arrive at Kyoto Station - a huge and futuristic building completed in 1997 after years of controversy over it not being "traditional" enough - you'll need to find a place to stay. One Japanese inn (ryokan =旅館) I've used a few times which is just a few minutes from the station is called Heianbo. It has Japanese style tatami rooms, yukata to put on after you go in the (Japanese-style) communal bath, and provides a (hefty) Japanese breakfast for a little extra.

Once you've dumped your bags and are ready to begin sightseeing, you need the right garb for visiting those historical temples, shrines, and gardens. One fun thing to do is to rent a kimono for the day - both male and female versions are available. Aiwafuku Fushimiinari has an English page with a lot of different plans available, including hair arrangement and ornaments plus accessories such as Japanese sandals or zōri (pictured). Be warned though, the plus-size tourist may struggle: male kimono go up to 185cm in height (taller men will have a shorter kimono!) while hips  (hippu=ヒップ) only up to 110cm/120cm for women/men are catered for. See part 2 for the next instalment: places to visit.

Saturday 17 March 2018

Japan as a Smoker's Paradise: Manners Maketh Man?

MHLW Passive Smoking Logo Mark
Preparations began last week to submit a bill to strengthen measures against passive smoking (jyudō kitsuen bōshi taisaku no kyōka =受動喫煙防止対策の強化). Jyudō means passive, while kitsuen - literally to consume smoke (=kemuri) - is the word for smoking. Japan is infamously lax in its "no-smoking" (kin'en =禁煙) regulations - it lies in the bottom of the WHO's four-stage scale for passive smoking - but with the Olympics rapidly approaching there has been pressure to tighten the rules. The final bill, however, although introducing fines for the first time, has been massively watered down, ostensibly due to pressure from the restaurant industry (video in Japanese here). In particular the "small-eatery exemption" (Japanese graphic here) was raised from 30㎡ to 150㎡ in the final proposal. This means that most small, independently run restaurants and bars will continue to allow smoking "at their discretion".

Even though smoking rates have dropped in recent years - from 27.7% in 2003 to 18.2% today - many visitors to Japan remain perplexed at Japanese ambivalent attitude towards smoking. The oft heard view is that smoking is a matter of manners and should not be regulated by the law. With this mantra in mind, smoking in the street has been banned by many cities, including around Tokyo, ironically forcing many smokers inside and encouraging the spread of "segregated" smoking corners, sections, and rooms (where more often than not the smoke simply wafts over to the "non-smoking" section). The fact that the government is trumpeting that the new bill will bring in a total ban on smoking on hospital and school premises, and inside public offices, shows just how far behind Japan remains in terms of international norms. I am reminded of this whenever I walk past my local school at weekends and see a cluster of baseball coaches puffing away just outside the school gate. The existence of the ubiquitous cigarette vending machines (pictured) is a further example.
Picture of a cigarette vending machine and small windows selling tobacco goods attached to a new house
A cigarette vending machine & "tobacco" kiosk attached to a house, providing income for the owners
A big change in smoking culture in Japan recently has been the huge popularity of IQOS heat-not-burn "smokeless" cigarettes. In 2014, Nagoya was the first place (together with Milan) where these type of cigarettes were released, and they became available nation-wide in 2016. Demand has apparently outstripped capacity and the conversion rate from regular cigarettes is said to be 72%. Coming out of Harajuku Station there is a small IQOS shop which boasted long lines when it first opened. The popularity of IQOS is reflected in the new law: whereas conventional cigarettes will only be allowed in closed spaces in larger restaurants, heat-not-burn cigarettes will be allowed in separate but open smoking sections - despite evidence that the fumes still contain cancer-causing chemicals.

UPDATE: Frustrated at the central government's weak legislation, Tokyo adopted a much stricter ordinance in June to crack down on secondhand smoke. Just how strict is highlighted by signs (pictured) recently popping up in parks and public spaces asking people to make efforts to prevent passive smoking in order to protect children.

Saturday 10 March 2018

Graduation Season: Farewells and Fireflies

March in Japan is a month of endings and goodbyes. Even the previous year itself is not properly finished until the end of the month: March 31st marks the end of the both the school year and the fiscal year, that is 2017 nendo (年度). One of the most visible manifestations of such endings are the graduation ceremonies or sotsugyō-shiki (卒業式) with sotsu meaning to finish (oeru / owaru) or to even to die (sossuru). More colloquially, sotsugyō suru also means to get over or lose interesting in something. Next week is the time for university graduation ceremonies while high-school graduation ceremonies were held the week before.

I don't remember anything special at all happening for my high-school graduation in the UK, but in Japan it's rather a splendid affair with lots of speeches and songs. First, second, and (graduating) third-grade students as well as parents and guardians (hogo-sha =保護者) sit facing the stage where various dignitaries are seated. Each student is called and they go up on stage in turn to get their graduation certificate (sotsugyō shōsho =卒業証書)from the headmaster. There is rather a strict protocol for receiving the certificate: bow once, receive the certificate with two hands (also the polite way to receive a business card), step back one step, and then bow one more time.

Graduation ceremonies almost always feature the singing of "Hotaru no Hikari" (蛍の光) or "Glow of a Firefly" first introduced in a collection for elementary school students in 1881. However, the melody is immediately familiar: Auld Lang Syne. The lyrics to this classic New Year's Eve song seem to match well: Auld Lang Syne starts with a call to remember long-standing friendships. However, the Japanese lyrics are rather different, focusing instead on a hard-working student reflecting on how the years have flown by studying "by the light of fireflies." But the song is not only heard in March: it is also played throughout the year at closing time in shops!

Sunday 4 March 2018

The Hinamatsuri Doll's Festival and Changing Tradition

For a country whose people have the reputation of being hard-workers, Japan has an awful lot of national holidays: currently 16, which is one of the highest in the world. England and Wales, by contrast has only 7 bank holidays as they are called in the UK. However, of these 16 holidays, only one, Boy's Day on May 5th (though it is officially called Children's Day), coincides with one of the five traditional seasonal festivals (go-sekku =五節句) that used to be celebrated at the Japanese imperial court. The others - Nanakusa no Sekku (January 7th), Girl's Day (March 3rd), Tanabata (July 7th), and Chrysanthemum Day or Kiku no Sekku (September 9th) are still celebrated but are not official holidays.
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Yesterday (March 3rd) was Hinamatsuri (雛祭), variously called Girl's Day, Doll's Day, or Peach Day in English: the kanji "hina", meaning a chick or infant, is not common and "hina" is usually written in hiragana. Around this time, in public places, such as hotels and department stores, one can often see elaborate displays of ornamental dolls arranged on multiple tiers on top of a red cloth. In the past, such displays were also brought out every year in families with young girls though with the increasing mobility of nuclear families together with the price - the full set pictured here is a snip at ¥580,000 or £4,000! - this is becoming rather rare. Often, only the seated emperor (obina =男雛) and empress (mebina= 女雛) dolls are displayed, though even this is becoming less and less common. For those families that do put them out, superstition says they must be cleared away the day after, or else their daughters will marry late if at all. Many of the original superstitions centering on purification - rubbing the dolls was said to transfer evil spirits or sickness - have been forgotten entirely.

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Like many other holidays and festivals, in recent years Girl's Day has become more and more commercialised and supermarkets put on elaborate displays of snacks - such as special rice-crackers (hina-arare) - and sashimi (raw fish). My local supermarket even put on a tuna-cutting performance (kaitai-shō =解体ショー) on the actual day! Chirashi-zushi - raw fish and vegetables sprinkled or "scattered" (chirasu =散らす) on top of a bowl of sushi rice - has always been a traditional food around Girl's Day but it has never been promoted as heavily as it is now. Like many families, we didn't display any dolls, but did go for the sushi - though we opted for temaki (hand-rolled) sushi rather than chirashi-zushi. So much for tradition...