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!

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Growing Rice in the Paddy Fields: Frogs, Ducks, and Dragonflies

While Europe swelters, Japan remains stuck in the rainy season, though truth be told we haven't actually had that much rain to date. But once the rainy season ends it will be day upon day of hot humid days and sticky tropical nights, so I'm going to take a short break to escape the fierce Japanese summer. With this in mind, this will be the last blog post until the end of July, so I thought I'd write about something typically Japanese - rice! I was inspired after a recent walk through the countryside; it was impressive to see the young rice plants (nae =苗)growing in lines in the flooded paddy fields (tan-bo =田んぼ) - Japan grows rice using the wet cultivation method.
The rice growing calendar generally begins in April (though this varies depending on the latitude of the region). Since this coincides with the start of the school year, many students will learn how to plant and cultivate rice. This starts with "waking up" the fields - preparing a field for planting by flooding it and tilling the soil - something which is known as shiro-kaki (代掻き). The picture above shows children at one school walking through the muddy field bare-foot and hand-in-hand to loosen up the soil and make it easy for the water to filter through. The key is to keep moving or else you'll sink!

The next step is to actually plant the young 4 to 5 inch rice seedlings, known as ta-ue (田植え), which the students do by hand using a string pulled across the field as a rough guideline. Farmers of course do this with machinery!

As the rice grows, water management is key, and most farms will have an elaborate system of irrigation. Because the water level naturally drops, an eye needs to be kept on the field which has to be topped up periodically. Pest control against weeds and bugs is also necessary. Frogs help to keep the pests under control; interestingly, catching tadpoles in the fields is a typical Japanese summer after-school activity for local kids. Another organic way to keep the bugs off the crop is the use of aigamo (合鴨), a cross between a mallard and a domestic duck. Known as the aigamo method, this unique Japanese invention involves releasing ducklings into the field who not only eat weeds and insects but also oxygenate the field as they stir up the soil with their feet! Dragonflies are another paddy field staple; to sit and watch the colourful flyers dart around the field as the breeze makes a gentle sara-sara sound as it caresses the rice-plants is rather incredibly soothing.

Finally, come September or October it's time for ine-kari (稲刈り) or harvesting. This involves draining the last of the water, cutting the stalks, and taking the grain from the rice head - threshing - which is known as dakkoku (脱穀)in Japanese where da(tsu) is to take off and koku means grain. Again, this is usually done in the traditional fashion at school using simple threshing devices such as that pictured. The whole process is extremely labour intensive, so when the new rice (shin-mai =新米) - an official term designated by the Ministry of Agriculture - hits the shops in Autumn, it something of a special event to be celebrated and enjoyed. Itadakimasu!