Sunday, 28 October 2018

Halloween in Japan: It's all about the Costume

When I first came to Japan, Halloween was pretty non-existent and nobody really knew what it was. This was in 1992, when a Japanese exchange student in the US was accidentally shot to death after going to the wrong house for a Halloween Party (and failing to understand the word "freeze"). For most Japanese, it was probably the first time to hear about Halloween and newspapers at the time had to explain the "foreign" custom. Today, it couldn't be more different. As with other imported festivals like Christmas Eve and Valentine's Day, Halloween has become big business with every kind of shop you can imagine using the occasion to sell its products from September onwards (pictured is a flyer from my local dry cleaners - note the special Halloween font used to write the Chinese characters!).

But despite sweets and candy being heavily promoted in supermarkets and department stores, one big difference between Halloween in the UK/US and Japan is the absence of trick or treat. One explanation for the lack of kids knocking on doors and collecting goodies is the Japanese "golden rule" never to bother, trouble, or be a nuisance to others known as meiwaku (迷惑). Personally, I think it's more that Japanese parents don't want their kids wandering around the neighbourhood and knocking on stranger's doors - but in the case of "exotic" Japan especially a cultural explanation is always favored over one based on simple common sense. Whatever the reason, Halloween in Japan is definitely more for young adults and the focus on the festivities is firmly on the costumes.

And how amazing the costumes are. For the last three or four years, the Halloween period has reportedly seen up to a million (!) young people, dressed up as anything from zombies and Wally to superheroes and nurses, descend on the Shibuya crossing area for a giant street-party, creating total mayhem and gridlock in the area (the downside is lots of rubbish and not a little bad behaviour - on Sunday there were 5 arrests and a small-truck was over-turned, while on the day itself there were 13 arrests, including for sex crimes, theft, and indecent exposure). Many buy costumes at stores like Don Quijote (known as Donki), the biggest discount store in Japan, change in local toilets after work, and apply make-up on the street. The costumes, as hinted at above, are by no means limited to horror and any kind of character goes. Certainly, Halloween feeds into Japanese people's love of costume play known as cosplay (コスプレ) though real cosplayers, who take great pride in recreating every detail of their favourite manga or anime character, look down their noses at all the generic amateurs out on Halloween. See here for a video of some of the revellers in Shibuya from a few years back (crowds have grown since); for a list of other 2018 Halloween events, including Tokyo Disney Resort celebrations and official parades, see here. Since last year, multilingual police and automated voice guidance have been in operation - not to mention the famed "DJ Police" who control the crowds with a mixture of humour and parental concern.

One final mystery - despite the ubiquitous image of the orange pumpkin, Japanese pumpkins (at least the ones they sell in the supermarket) are actually green. They are also as hard as rock and eminently unsuitable for carving - another custom that nobody in Japan seems to be aware of. As the title says, it's all about the costume - everything else is white (or orange?) noise. Happy Halloween!

Friday, 19 October 2018

The World's First Instant Noodles: Chicken Ramen's 60th anniversary

August was the 60th anniversary of the world's first ever-instant noodles: Chicken Ramen produced by Nissin Food Products Co. in Japan. The word "instant" in Japanese is sokuseki (即席) - also meaning impromptu or improvised - so if we add the character for noodles (men=麺) we get sokuseki-men (instant noodles). Today, they apparently sell 100 billion (1000 oku =億) packs a year in over 80 countries, with China being the big market at just under 40 billion a year.

The anniversary packs (pictured) carried a picture of and a thank-you to Mr Ando who invented (hatsumei =発明) the noodles together with the little yellow chick character mark (Hiyoko-chan) who has a whole store dedicated to it (and noodles) in Tokyo Character Street. Actually, NHKs traditional morning drama (known as asa-dora) which broadcasts at 8:15 each day without fail is currently a semi-fictionalised account about Mr Ando and his wife (with more focus on the latter apparently) called Manpuku (full stomach!). Back to the present day, in recent years, as consumers have become more health conscious, half-calorie and low salt products have become popular. Supermarkets generally have one whole aisle dedicated to cup (カップ)and packet (ふくろ) noodles and convenience stores are also crammed full of the stuff (with hot water on tap for those who want to eat on the go).

Ramen (Chinese style noodles) - whether instant or freshly prepared - is typically eaten with various toppings. Chicken Ramen suggests eating with a shirotama (literally "white-ball") egg on top and the packet contains exact instructions about how to do this. The official homepage contains step-by-step instructions, including a video! My own attempt is pictured below:
My local ramen store menu
At your local ramen shop, more conventional toppings typically include sliced pork (chāshū), boiled egg (yude-tamago), bean-sprouts (moyashi), kimchee (kimuchi), sliced bamboo shoots (menma), spring onion (negi), corn, and butter. But before you decide on toppings you have to decide the type of broth you want: generally soy-sauce (shōyu), miso, or salt (shio). My personal favourite, though, is pork-bone (ton-kotsu) which reflects the time I spent in Fukuoka where it is immensely popular (one of my fondest memories of Hakata is eating bowls of ton-kotsu ramen at the street stalls or yatai after a night out). Certainly, ramen (as with most food in Japan) is strongly regionalised and different regions (chimei =地名) will have local varieties and toppings. Luckily, it will be possible to taste many of these without leaving Tokyo from October 25th at the Tokyo Ramen Show which boasts 18 different varieties from all over Japan (including Fukuoka!) - plus a host of talk-show events and live bands. Just go careful on those calories...

Friday, 12 October 2018

Terrifying Typhoons: Resilience and Respect for Nature

September saw more than its fair share of natural disasters, including the  most powerful typhoon to hit the country for twenty five years closely followed by the Hokkaido earthquake a few days later. And that was not the end of it. Typhoon Trami (number 24 or nijū-yon gō in Japanese - yes, it was the 24th this year!) resulted in 200 injuries and 3 deaths as it barrelled through the mainland on the evening and throughout the night of September 30th (Sunday). In this post I thought I'd write about the effects of such a typhoon on everyday life in Japan and describe how it feels to sleep (or try to sleep!) through one.

Before the winds and rain started to be felt in Tokyo the trains stopped early (around 8:00pm), something for which the train companies received a great deal of praise since it forced commuters to return home early, probably saving lives. The next day, safety checks delayed the re-start of many lines as trees and other objects had to be cleared off tracks resulting in further delays and absolute chaos at big stations like Shinjuku. All but two of my students were unable to reach school on time and in the end I had to cancel class; we were told not to penalise students who were absent or late for that day. The fact that classes went ahead at all was due to the university's policy of relying on the weather warnings (kishōkeihō =気象警報) issued by the meteorological agency: if the warning is lifted (kaijo =解除) by 6:00am classes are supposed to go ahead (a classic example of the Japanese tendency to go by the rule book rather than be flexible and adapt to actual circumstances).

Although we were lucky to avoid power outages (450,000 households in the Tokyo area were not so lucky) the winds were incredibly strong, despite the typhoon not hitting the capital head-on, and speeds of up to 164kph were recorded in the nearby city of Hachioji, western Tokyo, in the early hours of Monday. We made sure all the windows were firmly shut in our 8th floor apartment and that there was nothing left on the balcony. At bedtime the wind was picking up and it had started to rain quite hard; by the time I should have been nodding off it was rattling the windows in rather frightening fashion. Needless to say it took me hours to fall asleep.
Waking up on the Monday morning, it was quite a shock to see the sheer quantity of foliage and branches that had fallen off the bushes and trees surrounding the apartment block. One of the apartments had actually had a tree crash into it; see the emergency notice (kinkyū kokuchi =緊急告知) on the apartment noticeboard informing residents of the need for emergency cutting (bassai =伐採). Walking (or trying to walk) the dog that morning along the the Green Road, a popular 21km tree-lined walking path which rings the city, was easier said than done. Some parts were simply impassable as the picture shows.

A few days later, after the clean-up, signs warning to be careful of broken branches falling (ore-eda rakka=折れ枝落下) dotted the Green Road with some areas cordoned off entirely. Typhoon season - which typically runs from May to October, peaking in August/September - is almost over, but with three months of the year remaining and 25 typhoons so far this year promises to exceed 30 which is rather unusual. Some may point to global warming, but the record was actually set in 1967, which saw an incredible 39 super storms batter the country: a reminder of the kind of resilience - and respect for nature - needed to live life in everyday Japan.

UPDATE:  A post-typhoon survey by Prof. Seiki Takatsuki along a 30km stretch found 111 trees (including large cherry and hinoki cypress trees) had been felled by the wind, particularly in the Eastern part, with most of the trees falling in a northerly direction suggesting the winds blew from south to north.