Saturday 28 April 2018

Enoshima for Lunch: The Perfect Golden Week Day-Trip

As mentioned in an earlier post, despite "hard-working" (kinben =勤勉) being the dominant image of the Japanese, both inside and outside Japan, the Japanese actually enjoy more national holidays than many other countries. Now "Golden Week" (ゴールデンウィーク) is upon us, a cluster of holidays that provide a "golden" opportunity to take consecutive days off. The holidays consist of Showa Day (昭和の日) on April 29th (moved to Monday 30th this year) through to Constitution Memorial Day (Kenpō ki'nen-bi=憲法記念日), Greenery Day (Midori no hi=みどりの日), and Children's Day (Kodomo no hi=こどもの日) on May 3rd, 4th, and 5th respectively. In practice, however, Golden Week is crowded and travel (especially flights) exorbitantly expensive, so many Japanese choose to stay home and recharge their batteries - or take a day-trip.

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A perfect destination for a day-trip from Tokyo is Enoshima (江の島), a small off-shore island just over an hour south-west of Tokyo that is joined to the mainland by a 600m bridge. You can arrive either at Enoshima Station (on the Enoshima electric railway or enoden) or Katase-Enoshima Station (pictured) which is modelled on the Dragon Palace in the famous Japanese folk-tale Urashima Taro. The story, which sees the fisherman protagonist spend three days in the underwater palace only to find that three-hundred years have passed when he returns to his village, is used by Japanese to refer to people who have returned from abroad after a lengthy absence to find that many things have changed.

Like many tourist sites in Japan, Enoshima has a "must-eat" speciality or meibutsu (名物) associated with it, and in this case it is shirasu (白子) which is an almost transparent boiled whitebait/whitefish. These are the tiny young fry of sardines, anchovy, or herring - much smaller than the UK equivalent - which are full of calcium and DHA. They are typically sprinkled on top of white rice to make what is known as a shirasu-don, an abbreviation of donburi (丼) which refers to any bowl of rice with food on top (see here for a post on the popular fast food gyūdon or beef bowl). The picture shows a bowl of rice with whitebait, salted salmon roe (ikura), and fatty tuna minced with spring onion (negitoro) - with a blob of wasabi in the centre. This is kind of a kaisen-don (海鮮丼) or seafood-bowl though a kaisen-don proper would also have lots of sashimi on top too. Needless to say it is ridiculously good! Happy Golden Week everyone!!

Sunday 22 April 2018

Guardian Lion-dogs: The Beginning and End of all Things

Komainu pair with torii gate and fox pair in background
One of the ideas behind the blog is to observe the everyday, to stroll the streets of the metropolis noticing the little things that are missed by most and examine them with a view to gaining a deeper understanding of Japanese society (in this sense, I am very much influenced by the notion of the flâneur or flâneuse). A good example are the tiny red torii gates (discussed here) strategically placed to deter passers-by from urinating or dumping rubbish.

Left komainu (mouth closed) at Yamagata Gokoku-jinja
Today's object of interest are komainu (狛犬) or lion-dogs, pairs of wooden, stone, or metal animals typically guarding and protecting the entrance to a shrine or sometimes temple. In this sense, they are similar to the pairs of foxes (introduced in a previous post) which are a common sight at temples and shrines dedicated to the Goddess Inari across Japan (including the most famous of all, Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto). Sometimes these komainu can be enormous. In Yamagata City, a new pair of komainu made from metal were unveiled to guard the Shrine for the War Dead (Gokoku-jinja=護国神社) produced using a local cast/mould technique in the aptly named Dō-machi (literally "Bronze neighbourhood"). It is said they will last "18,000 years."

A small pair of komainu on the gate of a house
Shīsā in Okinawa
Unlike foxes, komainu are also seen (in miniature) at the entrance to regular houses and even rooftops, especially in Okinawa where they are called shīsā (シーサー) and are found all over the place (often made of red clay). One interesting feature of these beast pairs is that the lion-dog on the left typically has its mouth closed while the one on the right has its mouth open. The open mouth is said to be pronouncing the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet (a) while the closed mouth one is pronouncing the final letter (um/n), giving the sacred sound "Aum/n" (sometimes written Om) which is said to represent the beginning and end of all things. In everyday conversation, this has a positive meaning: if a couple or group perform an action together seamlessly, almost telepathically, for example in sport, it is refered to as aun no kokyū (あうん[阿吽]の呼吸).

Unfortunately, the word Aum has a different, darker connotation for most Japanese: Aum Shinrikyō (オウム真理教) is the name of the doomsday cult which carried out the 1995 sarin Tokyo subway attack which killed 12 and injured nearly 1000. 23 years on, speculation is rife that preparations are now being made to execute the 13 members who were found guilty of the crime, including blind guru Asahara (yes, Japan still has the death penalty). What was particularly shocking for Japanese was that many of the perpetrators were young elite post-graduates from Japan's top universities. There was much soul-searching over why this was and reasons posited included the post-war spiritual vacuum, alienation from an overly-materialist society, and loneliness/lack of community due to rapid urbanisation.

Saturday 14 April 2018

Disneyland, Kawaii Culture, and the Rejection of Adulthood

This Sunday (April 15th) marks the 35th anniversary of the opening of Tokyo Disneyland in 1983. The popularity of Disneyland (and DisneySea which opened in 2001) in Japan is phenomenal: the number of visitors to the two parks over the past 35 years totals about 720 million. In fiscal 2017 alone there were 30.1 million visitors to the two, around a quarter of the Japanese population! That is not to say that 1 in 4 Japanese have visited though; as well as non-Japanese visitors there are a solid core of repeaters, particularly high-school girls, who buy the annual passport and go as often as once a week!

Many of these teenage (and older) fans will go with groups of friends all dressed up the same, known as "matching coordination" (osoro kōde =おそろコーデ): a recent trend is to all wear the same school uniform (seifuku dizunī =制服ディズニー) a kind of cosplay (complete with Mickey Mouse ears) that even high-school graduates enjoy. This trend reflects the high social capital enjoyed by the female high-school (joshi-kōsei =女子高生) or JK brand whose members have a high degree of pride in their identity as a "JK."

While visiting Disneyland, visitors young and old alike will stock up on cute Disney goods (it is de riguer to have a cute character - usually just one - hanging off your bag in high-school - or even university - see picture). Thus, the whole cute character boom lasts far longer in Japan age-wise and Japanese young adults can strike their Western counterparts as immature and even childish. This is indeed the essential meaning of the Japanese word kawaii which though usually translated as "cute" is rather different from its English equivalent. Sharon Kinsella, in a superb chapter entitled "Cuties in Japan" (1995), defines kawaii as "sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak, and inexperienced." For her, the Japanese kawaii movement represents a rebellion against or escape from the responsibilities and obligations of adulthood, immersion in a pre-social world that is nothing less than a rejection of Japanese society itself.

The word kawaii first emerged in the 1970s but only reached what Kinsella calls its"peak of saccharine intensity" in the early 1980s - exactly when Disneyland opened. On reflection, Disney is the perfect match for Japanese with its emphasis on (a) cute and (b) customer service. Since Steam Boat Willy in 1928, Disney films have been adored in Japan, perhaps even more so than in America (though as Kinsella points out "Disney cute" tends to romanticise an ideal rural pre-industrial society rather than childhood per se). In fact Japanese comics (manga) - which are read by young and old alike - drew inspiration from Disney: Osamu Tezuka, the "god" of Japanese manga and the father of the cute big-eyed style characteristic of many manga today was strongly influenced by Walt Disney.

In recent years though, competition has emerged for Disneyland, competition which suggests that cute (Minions and Hello Kitty aside) is no longer indispensable for attracting a Japanese audience. Universal Studios Japan (USJ) opened in Osaka in 2001 and topped 100 million visitors by 2012, even before the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2014. A look at the Global Attractions Attendance Report for 2016 shows USJ catching up fast and now sitting at number 4 in the worldwide ranking with an annual attendance of 13.9 million, sandwiched between Tokyo Disneyland at number 3 (16 million annual visitors) and Tokyo DisneySea (13.6 million). Is kawaii culture fading? Are Japanese youth ready to re-embrace adulthood? If the queen of kawaii, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, is anything to go by, the answer is yes: Kyary recently dyed her hair black and started wearing natural make-up leaving fans asking whether she had grown up and journalists speculating that the era of Harajuku kawaii Lolita fashion was finally over.

Sunday 8 April 2018

Octopus Balls Bridging the East/West Divide

Takoyaki Pringles - only in Kansai
In a previous post I mentioned that in contrast to the UK north/south divide, in Japan the division is East (Kantō =関東) vs West (Kansai =関西) particularly with regard to culture and language. For example, in contrast to the national stereotype of Japanese as quiet, indirect, and polite, people from Kansai (especially Osaka) are said to be blunt and direct (verging on rude), but also quirky and humour-loving (as well as careful with their money). Even escalator etiquette is different between Tokyo and Osaka: the former stand on the left and the latter on the right, apparently a remnant of the dominant samurai vs merchant populations.

One of the biggest differences between Kanto and Kansai though is the food. Dashi stock tastes and is made differently, with Tokyoites favouring stronger more pungent tastes (stinky natto fermented soya beans are much more popular in the East than the West!). A well-known food which originated in Osaka - "invented" in 1935 by a street vendor who drew inspiration from akashiyaki - are octopus balls known as takoyaki. These are small round dumplings made from batter with pieces of octopus in the middle usually covered with a Worcestershire type brown sauce, mayonnaise, and dried bonito shavings (which wriggle around on top due to the heat as if they were alive!). Tako (タコ - the kanji is not widely known) means octopus and yaki comes from yaku (焼く) meaning to cook, fry, or grill: many Japanese foods contain this word (such as as yaki-tori, okonomi-yaki, or yaki-soba).
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Although originating in Osaka, takoyaki are common all over Japan today, from supermarkets to convenience stores. People also make these at home using a cast iron electric takoyaki pan like the one pictured. It takes quite a bit of skill to do this well though as the balls have to be turned with a pick in the semi-spherical mould so that all the batter is cooked thoroughly and a ball shape is created. Watching a professional turn hundreds of octopus balls in lightning fast fashion is quite a sight to behold!

In Tokyo takoyaki is definitely a snack food, something one might pick up on the way home after a night out drinking. The picture shows our local takoyaki truck which parks itself in front of the station at night to entice intoxicated office workers, in the fashion of the British burger or kebab van. In Osaka, though, takoyaki is eaten as a main dish with rice, something which never fails to surprise Tokyoites.