Friday 30 December 2022

Love in the Time of Corona: The Best Japanese City for Romance

Local temple with pair of kadomatsu New Year decorations out front

The year is drawing to close, and Japanese people are typically wishing each other all the best for the coming year using the phrase yoi otoshi o (よいお年を). Post-Christmas, people have been hanging New Year decorations (such as that pictured) on their doors and pairs of pine and bamboo kadomatsu decorations are often placed either side of gates and entrances. While pandemic-wise things are slowly returning to normal in Japan - masks remain practically obligatory though outside the home - other events have made this a tough year for many, not least financially as many families struggle with rising food and utility prices. With this in mind, I thought I would focus on something we definitely need more of in this topsy-turvy world - love.

Earlier in the year, I had the chance to spend time in Osaka for a conference and visited a couple of spots which suggest that Japan's second city - OK by population actually third - is actually the best place in Japan for romance. This may seem a stretch to those that live there: Osaka is undoubtedly a friendly place with great food and entertainment, and (astonishingly) came in 2nd place in the 2021 Global Liveability Index, but even locals would hesitate to call it a love hot-spot. So let me introduce two places that persuaded me otherwise.

The first is the Umeda Sky Building  (梅田スカイビル) located in the north part of the city, a short walk from both Osaka and Umeda Stations. While not particularly tall, it is the architecture that makes it stand out, two separate buildings connected on the 40th floor with a circular "floating garden" observation deck (Kūchū Teien Observatory=空中庭園展望台) and joined with two aerial escalators that seem to hang in the air (don't look down!). Umeda Sky Building was actually chosen as one of the top 20 buildings around the world in a 2008 article in The Times (PDF here). In terms of romance, the sparkling cityscape itself is mesmerising and at night is packed with couples; you can even buy a heart-shaped padlock, engrave your names, and fix it to the "Fence of Vows" where it will apparently stay forever!

The second reason for nominating Osaka as the city of love is the delightful Tsuyu no Tenjinja (露の天神社) Shrine popularly called Ohatsu Tenjin (お初天神). The popular name refers to the geisha Ohatsu who apparently committed a double suicide with her lover Tokubei at the shrine in 1703, a story which was popularised in the bunraku puppet play The Love Suicides of Sonezaki  (曾根崎心中). The play was so popular that it sparked a spate of love suicides and was eventually banned by the bakufu; today, however, the shrine has become a "sacred place for lovers" (恋人の聖地) where couples visit to pray for eternal love and also where singles can pray for romance to come their way. Heart-shaped ema (絵馬), small wooden plaques on which wishes are written, are hung up all over the shrine, which also features manga-style and stone life-size images of Ohatsu and Tokubei, fortune papers (omikuji) tied to giant hearts, a tunnel decorated with wind-chimes, and a large multi-coloured frog (?). Check out the video below and see if you can spot all these things - and perhaps add a COMMENT about your favourite shrine or temple in Japan. In the meantime, it only remains for me to wish you yoi o toshi o and pray that 2023 brings you - and people all over the world - lots of love!

Tuesday 29 November 2022

Japanese Autumn Sunsets, Falling Foliage, and Red Dragonflies

I have to apologise in advance - university entrance exams and student theses have combined to bury me in work so a short post this month! Anyway, after a cold spell a couple of weeks back, the nice autumn weather has returned. We've still rarely had to put the heating on: the sun being lower in the sky heats up the apartment in the daytime! It really is a lovely season with gloriously coloured leaves falling like confetti, spectacular sunsets (pictured), and delicious fruit: we received a box of La France pears from Yamagata last week and persimmon (kaki) the week before, known as the Queen of Fruits and the Divine Fruit of Autumn respectively.

The other morning, while standing on the balcony, a red dragonfly (tombo or, in old Japanese, akitsu) - a symbol of strength, good fortune, and happiness - landed on the railing right beside me. Whereas in England the dragonfly is often dismissed as just another insect, here in Japan it has a special place in Japanese hearts; Japanese are very fond of the critter with its large compound eyes and two pairs of beautifully latticed transparent wings and children even try to catch them using various clever techniques. As a fast predatory insect that apparently never gives up it is also known as katsumushi (winning insect) and appeared on samurai armour as a symbol of determinedness and victory. In fact, Japan itself was even once called Dragonfly Island (Akitsu-shima) because of its shape! The insect has inspired generations of poets: in haiku poetry, the dragonfly is a season keyword (kigo=季語) for autumn, capturing the essence of the season, as seen in the following stanza by Scott King: "The red dragonfly; a small amount of sunset; trapped in its wings"

As mentioned earlier, another spectacular feature of the season are the changing colour of the leaves, fondly known as kōyō (紅葉) in Japanese which includes both the red/orange Japanese maple and the yellow Ginkgo trees. Much like cherry blossom-viewing, Japanese take this very seriously and will travel for miles to visit a nice spot. One of the most popular places in Tokyo central in both spring and autumn has traditionally been the Imperial Palace grounds and a few days ago (November 26th) Inui Street was opened to the public for autumn foliage viewing through December 4th (here). I don't have time to even travel that far at the moment, but fortunately my university has some spectacular maples and other trees in magnificent shades of red, orange, and green. Almost makes it worth going into work - almost! What does autumn mean to you? Let us know in the COMMENTS!

Thank-you to David for the amazing pictures!

Sunday 30 October 2022

Visiting Yokohama (2): Red Shoes and Red Flags in Chinatown

This week temperatures have suddenly plummeted to something like mid-November to early December levels and the pleasant autumn weather I wrote about in the last post has turned unseasonably chilly, though the skies remain royally blue. The leaves too are beginning to change colour, what the Japanese call kōyō (紅葉). In Yokohama Chinatown - which I mention at the end of this post - Chinese lanterns are being set up shaped like dragons and mystical phoenix-like "fenghuang" birds to celebrate the Chinese new year from Tuesday through to February (see here). 2022 is most definitely edging towards its end.

View of Yokohama Bay from Yamashita Park, with Osanbashi Hall on the right and the sail-shaped Intercontinental Yokohama Grand Hotel in the background, just beyond the famous red-brick warehouses (covered in the previous post)

One of the things I like about living in abroad is the way it fosters a sense of curiosity about your surroundings, an inquisitiveness about things around you that often disappears in your home country when you grow up. Interestingly, curiosity is the foundation of mindfulness: observing, being non-judgemental, and, most importantly, slowing down. Perhaps living in a foreign country is good for your mental health?!? A good example of Japan piquing my curiosity came during my recent trip to Yokohama when, walking towards Yamashita Park, I noticed images of red shoes on the pavement slabs. Arriving at the park, I then discovered a statue called "The Girl with Red Shoes". What on earth was this all about?

The base of the statue reads "A Little Girl with Red Shoes on" (赤い靴はいてた女の子) and the shoes themselves shine after being rubbed (for luck?) by countless numbers of passers-by. Next to the statue are the words to a children's nursery rhyme, set in the Port of Yokohama, which it says was first performed in 1921:

A Young Girl Wearing Red Shoes was taken away by a foreigner (ijin=異人)

She rode on a ship from Yokohama Port, taken away by the foreigner

I suppose her eyes have now turned blue living in that foreigner's country

Every time I see red shoes, I think of her; everytime I encounter (au=逢う)a foreigner, I think of her

This is all rather disturbing as it seems to depict a young girl being kidnapped by a foreigner! The word ijin, literally "different person", was used up to the end of the Meiji Period to describe those from outside Japan. Further digging reveals it may have been based on a (partially) true story, the story of a girl, Kimi, whose parents asked an American missionary to adopt her and take her to America but who actually died of tuberculosis in an orphanage before she could go. However, others argue that most of the story is a fabrication and that the poem/song was in fact a metaphor for the demise of socialism in Japan (see here for a rather lengthy discussion). This got me thinking about the symbolism of red shoes: as a child of the 80's my first thought was of David Bowie's "Let's Dance" which uses red shoes as a symbol of western civilization and colonial control. Indeed, Louis XIV was said to have used fashion - the wearing of red heels - as a form of social control, the colour representing absolute power. Then again there is Hans Christian Andersen's 1845 fairytale "The Red Shoes" about temptation. But I digress. The point is that small observations can trigger an exciting chain of thought!

This post was supposed to be about Yokohama's Chinatown, the 160-year-old 500㎡ district crowded with some 250 Chinese restaurants and shops, including second-hand clothes shops and kitchen stores, but it looks like I've run out of time and space! Needless to say, it's definitely somewhere you should visit, if only for the incredible food; right now, Taiwanese fried chicken and Beijing-style candied strawberries seem to be the big thing. As I mentioned last time, this year China and Japan are celebrating 50 years since the start of diplomatic relations in 1972 and given the poor state of relations it was encouraging to see both Japanese and Chinese flags being waved together during the recent October 1st celebrations to mark the National Day of China. Check out the lion and dragon dances in the video below and, as always, don't forget to add a COMMENT if anything in this month's blog has piqued your interest!

Sunday 2 October 2022

Visiting Yokohama (1) : Autumn in Japan's Most Cosmopolitan Port City

Autumn approaches and temperatures vary wildly here in Japan. A couple of weeks ago a cool front made things decidedly chilly, but this weekend has been a perfect 29℃, with a nice autumn breeze and none of the horrible summer humidity. This unseasonal heat doesn't match the calendar: today (October 1st) is traditionally called koromo-gae, the day for changing your wardrobe from summer to winter clothing! Typhoons have hit almost weekly recently, bringing torrential rains and much damage down south. It is the season of crickets (suzumushi) chirping quietly (replacing the intense buzz of the summer cicadas) and also the period when the stunning Red Spider Lily (higanbana) blooms briefly. The change in the season is also reflected in the food available - Japanese are much more conscious about seasonal foods than the British - and the supermarket is full of autumn staples: matsutake mushrooms, chestnuts (kuri), Pacific saury (sanma =秋刀魚 - the fish name itself contains the kanji for autumn!), sweet potato, pumpkin, and persimmons (kaki), the "divine fruit" of autumn. 

In the university at least, autumn is also the season of non-stop work, known evocatively as jitensha-sōgyō (自転車操業), literally "bicycle operations" based on the analogy that if one stops pedaling (working) even for a minute you'll fall off! But on the other hand, it is a beautiful season to be out and about and a little rest is definitely needed so at the risk of falling irrevocably behind on the work I took a short one-night break in Yokohama. Yokohama is Japan's second largest city - bigger than Osaka - and is found just south of Tokyo, on Tokyo Bay. The cosmopolitan port city is a tourist mecca, an economic, cultural, and high-tech industrial hub famous for its Chinatown, museums, (amusement) parks, and shopping. The most visible landmark is undoubtedly the Cosmo Clock 21 100m high Ferris wheel in Yokohama Cosmoworld which even boasts two transparent "see-through" gondolas (and a view of Mount Fuji if you're lucky!). The night-time illuminations are not to be missed!

We decided to try out the Intercontinental Yokohama Grand, located on a pier and famous for its spectacular views over the bay. The hotel itself is shaped like a sleek yacht under sail (or a segment of a tangerine?) and is a short walk from Minato Mirai Station. The cosmopolitan feel and sense of history are everywhere, no surprise given that Yokohama was the first gateway to trade with the west: Commodore Perry landed here, with a fleet of warships, in 1854 to present US demands for a trade agreement, persuading the Japanese government to end its national seclusion policy and sign what were known as the "unequal treaties". Still wanting to limit contact between Japanese and Western "barbarians", the new port was built near the tiny isolated then-village of Yokohama. The original trading port was a two-pier wharf known as Zō-no-hana (elephant's trunk), named so because of its shape, and the wharf remains to this day. Later, state-of-the-art warehouses built from red brick sprang up, the red-brick (hardly ever used to construct houses in Japan) a symbol of the international nature of Yokohama. Red brick is synonymous with the "foreign"; indeed, I remember visiting an elementary school in rural Japan once and the first question I was asked was whether I lived in a red-brick house!

One of the famous red-brick warehouses (赤レンガ倉庫) with the Yokohama Landmark Tower, the 2nd tallest building in Japan, visible in the background

There's so much more to write about Yokohama, so I'm going to leave it here for now and continue next time. In particular, I'm going to focus on Chinatown, perfect timing give the two countries are now celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations! In the meantime, why not leave a COMMENT - which would you prefer, a mountain view (Mount Fuji) or a sea view (Tokyo Bay)?

Sunday 28 August 2022

Bullet Train: Burapi, Ekiben, and the Seven Minute Miracle

After almost four rather lovely weeks in the UK, BritishProf was back "home" - after holding my breath to see whether the PCR test, the requirement for re-entry, would be negative. Landing at Narita was like jumping into some kind of time-slip: while the UK has very much forgotten about COVID-19, here in Japan it was the worst it has ever been and I had to quickly get back into mask-mode. For example, breakfast in my Narita hotel involved temperature taking, hand-sanitising, surgical gloves (!), and a Perspex screen. Signs implored guests to avoid talking during breakfast, a rule which most of the Japanese (but few of the non-Japanese) followed as far as I could observe. After almost a month of living as if Corona no longer existed, it was very much down to earth with a bang.

During my time in England, I used the train a lot and was pleasantly surprised at how much things had improved with e-tickets, platform markings, and even trains arriving and leaving (more or less) on time! On the down side, there were a series of train strikes, unheard of in Japan, which I managed to work around. While regular trains were greatly improved, there is still nothing in the UK like the ultra-punctual high-speed Japanese bullet-train (shinkansen in Japanese) which has the remarkable record of never having had a single fatality or injury in over 50 years of running. Indeed, the excellent novel by Kotaro Isaka called Maria Beetle (マリアビートル) is set on the bullet train and the plot relies very much on exact arrival and departure times at stations!

In fact, Isaka's book has now become a (mediocre) Hollywood extravaganza called "Bullet Train" starring Brad Pitt which is due to open on September 1st here in Japan. Burapi (as he is affectionately known in Japanese!) was here last week to promote the film and after participating in a yakuyoke (厄除) traditional ceremony to ward off bad luck, rode a special red-carpet decorated shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto with the cast and director (see here for more). Since I was heading to Osaka to speak at a conference - and had been given tickets to ride the (hopefully assassin free) shinkansen - I thought it would be timely and topical to do a post about the train. My trip was to be a short two-and-a-half-hour trip from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka on the fastest train (called Nozomi which means hope or desire) but the shinkansen tracks run all the way from Hokkaido to Kagoshima in Kyushu (see here for a report by someone who did the full 11.5 hour almost 2100km/1300m journey in a single day!).

Before getting on the bullet-train one thing you absolutely have to do is to buy an ekiben (駅弁), a very reasonably price boxed lunch (bentō=弁当)bought at a station (eki=駅) which contains a variety of small local delicacies. The Japanese take their ekiben very seriously - there is even an ekiben Grand Prix Contest held every year (see here for the most recent winner). So armed with my ekiben and two tickets - as well as the usual jōshaken (basic fare ticket) you also need a special tokkyūken (express ticket) to ride the shinkansen - I queued up in the designated spot to grab my unreserved seat (reserved seats are available but you have to pay more - personally, I've never needed to book except at the busiest times like New Year).

Inside the shinkansen is spacious, with plenty of leg-room, free Wi-Fi, and trolley service (though you should definitely buy your ekiben and drinks in the station - much cheaper with a lot more choice). Top-tip - if you're travelling from Tokyo to Osaka sit on the right and if the weather is good, you might be lucky enough to see Mount Fuji in all its glory - a quite breathtaking sight! The journey is remarkably smooth and bump-free, quite incredible considering the Nozomi's top speed is 285kmh (178mph)! Unfortunately, tourists using the Japan Rail Pass cannot use the Nozomi - instead you'll have to settle for the slower Hikari or the much slower Kodama. Another plus - the bullet train apparently has the lowest emissions per passenger of any mode of transport (apart from walking or cycling)! One final notable thing about the bullet-train is its cleanliness - the cleaners are famous for jumping on and cleaning in only seven minutes meaning train turnover is very quick (see here for a video on the "seven-minute miracle"). I'll finish with my own short video of the Nozomi leaving Tokyo Station and then a clip of it leaving Shin-Osaka Station after changing drivers - note the previous driver staying to check that it departs safely. COMMENTS, as always, are very welcome!

Thursday 28 July 2022

ABritishProfinJapan - in Britain! FIVE Differences between the UK and Japan

Summer holidays have arrived and after three years of staying in Japan during the pandemic I was more than ready for a trip back home to the UK. Tokyo had been incredibly hot in June - we had the shortest rainy season ever - and with the prospect of another scorching Japanese summer I was looking forward to escaping the heat in Blighty. Unfortunately, my plans were scuppered by a UK heatwave which saw temperatures exceed 40℃ for the first time ever. Which leads to difference number ONE: most houses in the UK have no aircon - the same word is used in Japanese too! - and train services become patchy as the tracks buckle. In contrast, everyone has an aircon (エアコン) in Japan and train services remain unaffected!

A SECOND difference is obviously the COVID-19 situation. My British friends were amazed when I said I'd never done a lateral flow (antigen) test before (another difference: these test kits were given out free in the UK, though in the latest 7th wave the Tokyo government has finally started distributing kits for free). When I left Japan on July 12th, the 7th wave was just beginning and by July 22nd new cases had almost hit 200,000. Compare that to the UK which had a minuscule 738 new cases on the same day! Of course, this can be partly explained by the fact that most people in the UK have already caught COVID - the Guardian estimated that only 15% of people in the UK have never had COVID (compared to less than 10% in Japan who HAVE had COVID!). Basically, the UK has returned to normal and despite posters on public transport advising that "face coverings should be worn", BritishProf was the only person masking up! Well, me and the odd Asian tourist anyway.

Staying on the subject of public transport, both London (Oyster) and Tokyo (Pasmo/Suica) have contactless IC travel cards that can be used on trains and buses. The THIRD difference, however, is that the scope and span of the cards are quite different: whereas Pasmo/Suica can be used throughout Japan (Japan has a very centralised government), the Oyster card is limited to London only, with different regions using different cards (my favourite is the aptly named Mussel card in Cornwall). Pasmo can also be used in convenience stores, coin lockers, and even to buy drinks from vending machines. Super convenient! Conversely, the UK is far more advanced in terms of contactless (wireless) payment. Indeed, in contrast to Japan, where cash remains king, London was almost cashless in many places - even the ice-cream vans didn't accept my cash!

Moving onto something completely different, as an avid dog-walker, I enjoyed taking my friends' dogs to the park in the UK - and noticing some of the differences with Japan (now we get to number FOUR). In the first place, given that most Japanese live in small apartments without a garden, dogs tend to be small and light (our apartment building insists we carry our dog when within the building grounds and sets the max weight at 10kg). It comes as no surprise then that the most popular dog breeds in Japan are the Toy Poodle and the Chihuahua compared with the Labrador Retriever in the UK. In fact, dogs are treated more like children in Japan, and are dressed up and groomed to within an inch of their life. This means that many dog owners in Japan don't even take their dogs out for a walk and even those that do never let them off the lead (only a few areas in fact allow this, mainly enclosed "dog-runs" which you have to pay for). I've been so long in Japan, that it's always a shock to see that dogs are let free to run in parks and forests in the UK (except for areas where dogs must be kept on a short lead). I was also surprised at the £1000 (¥165,000) fine for not cleaning up after your dog - as well as the fact that it's OK to deposit the poop in a bin before going home (in Japan poop has to be brought back home and flushed down the loo).

Finally, talking of dog walkers, having a dog is an excuse in both countries to chat with strangers. However, whereas in England it is quite common for walkers to greet strangers with a friendly hello and comment about the weather, Japanese typically don't greet or make small talk with strangers. This (FIFTH) difference is most visible in shops. In the UK, customers will almost always greet cashiers and shop staff and chat while paying for their shopping. In contrast, in Japan there is a clear hierarchical gap between customer and staff and the words used by shopkeepers are strictly scripted and painfully polite (stores will often have manuals containing set phrases). For example, walking into a shop you will invariably be greeted with the phrase irrashaimase ( ) which means "welcome" but demands no response. Indeed, it is perfectly normal - and not considered at all rude - for a customer to shop without saying a word. BritishProf's early attempts to say konnichiwa, "how are you" (genki desuka), and "this please" only served to traumatise every shopkeeper he encountered.

Well that's my FIVE differences, but there are surely many more - let me know what you think in the COMMENTS! In the meantime, while looking at differences can be entertaining it is important to note that there are also plenty of similarities between the two island-nations: one of those is the stunning beauty of the natural environment, especially the coastlines.

Sunday 26 June 2022

Katsu Curry, the Katsu Curry Police, and Tonkatsu Heaven

When asked to name Britain's national dish, most Japanese would probably cite fish and chips, gravy, or roast beef. Afternoon tea - scones, cakes, and cucumber sandwiches - is also seen as quintessentially British (there is now a Japanese version of the Great British Bakeoff!). Consequently, most Japanese are taken aback when I say that, in terms of how much is actually eaten and the number of restaurants, curry has a good claim to be the national dish. Indeed, in 2001 then foreign secretary Robin Cook called Chicken Tikka Masala (invented in Glasgow!) the nation's favourite dish and there is even a national curry week in October. However, in recent years one dish has emerged - on restaurant menus, workplace canteens, and supermarket shelves - that seems to be giving Chicken Tikka a run for its money: Japanese-style katsu curry.

Katsu curry in the UK: Cauliflower katsu curry, Wagamama’s take-out chicken katsu curry, and roasted vegetable katsu curry
The problem is that British-style katsu curry is not the katsu curry found in Japan. Indeed, a #katsucurrypolice have emerged on social media desperately trying to point out to anyone who will listen that #itsnotkatsucurry. Even the Japanese Embassy in the UK got into the act, creating a video to correct the misconception. As the video points out, katsu is an abbreviation of katsuretsu
which was how the Japanese heard "cutlet" when the European-style breaded and fried meat arrived in Japan at the end of the 19th century (ironically, curry itself was introduced by the British around the same time!). In typical Japanese style, this is shortened to katsu and is usually preceded by the kind of meat (ton or pork katsu being the most common). Tonkatsu sandwiches (pictured) are a convenience store staple, for example, and these slabs of pork are distinctly curry-free! Katsudon is another staple - a pork cutlet with egg and vegetables on a bed of rice - while katsu burgers abound (check out this KFC chicken fillet and minced meat=menchi katsu mountain). If you want to talk about the mild light brown vegetable-filled curry sauce on rice, the Japanese simply call this curry rice or karē raisu. As the most popular meal for kids and even, reportedly, the Japanese emperor's favourite, following the example of Chicken Tikka in the UK it would not be a stretch to call it Japan's national dish!

I visited the tonkatsu specialty chain Wako (和幸) the other day and enjoyed the full Japanese katsu experience. The dinner menu is full of katsu in all shapes, sizes, and fillings but the key decision is whether to go for the hirekatsu (a tender high quality pork fillet low in fat) or the rōsukatsu (slightly cheaper pork loin). The katsu all come with rice, pickles (tsukemono), miso soup, and grated cabbage with a dollop of mustard on the side. There are a variety of sauces to put on the tonkatsu, with a fruity Bulldog sauce style sauce being the standard but with tangy Yuzu dressing also an option. The juicy tonkatsu covered in fruity sauce, dipped in mustard, and eaten with cabbage and rice is a winning combination! In fact, the Japanese often eat katsu the day before an important test, match, or interview to bring luck since the word katsu (勝つ) is also a verb which means to win or be victorious!

For those of you in the UK who want a genuine katsu curry experience, Curry House Coco Ichibanya recently opened branches in Bond Street and Leicester Square and is highly recommended (simple Coco inspired recipe here). However, even this esteemed Japanese institution has not escaped the jaws of Britishification: they are currently offering, for a limited period, Mac & Cheese Curry, a culinary monstrosity that is surely enough to make the #katsucurrypolice engage in ritual disembowelment. Much better is my friend L's original Coco inspired half and half katsu curry - perhaps one to add to the menu, Coco? Do please share your katsu curry thoughts and experiences in the COMMENTS below!

Saturday 21 May 2022

To Die for: Japanese Tatami Straw Mats

Near the end of the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die, 007 confronts the villain in a Japanese-style room (washitsu =和室). The first thing I noticed was that Rami Mallek was sitting in traditional seiza style (kneeling while sitting on the heels), a rather uncomfortable posture common at the tea ceremony and posh restaurants that guarantees cramps and pins and needles after any length of time (this page refers to it as "the foreigner's nightmare"!). The rest of the world though seemed to focus on the tatami flooring, Japanese straw mats which it turns out were made by a small three-man shop, Morita Tatami, in Tokyo. Orders apparently poured in after the film was released. 

So what is tatami? Japanese language learners may recognise the verb tatamu (to fold) reflecting the fact that tatami was originally a thin mat that could be folded up after use. Modern tatami though is much thicker (typically 3-5cm), the standard size being a 180cm by 90cm rectangle. The base or "core" is usually rice straw or (more cheaply) woodchip/fibreboard. This is covered with rather lovely smelling rushes (specifically igusa soft/common rushes =い草)or Japanese paper. The long-sides are usually edged with brocade or cloth as in the picture. Morita Tatami has a informative page in English with a figure explaining the different choices and sizes available (sizes and thicknesses differ regionally - Okinawa, for example, has square tatami!). Many houses in Japan have at least one washitsu Japanese-style room, which is typically used for (formally) receiving guests and may also host the Butsudan (Buddhist household altar) if they have one. Note to visitors: always remove slippers when entering a tatami room!

Most neighbourhoods boast a small tatami artisan workshop, like Morita Tatami, with machines such as those in the picture for crafting tatami. They typically do a brisk trade, since tatami don't age well and fraying tatami is a very bad look (scattering small pieces of straw all over the house!). If you visit a traditional Japanese-style inn (ryokan=旅館) your room will often be a Japanese one with futons in the closet to be brought out at night when you are ready to sleep and then put away in the morning. At home, this custom is not only an excellent way to save space but also encourages you to air bedding regularly. Moreover, sleeping on firm tatami in a futon directly on the floor is much better for your back (alignment of the spine); furthermore, sleeping near the ground is cooler since you are near the airflow, especially important during the hot Japanese summer. Personally speaking, I'm now so used to sleeping on a futon that I tend to find western style mattresses much too soft! Incidentally, tatami is not limited to flooring - tatami slippers, bags, dinner mats, and other accessories are also available!

Despite Japanese-style tatami rooms becoming less common in new houses, real estate plans in Japan still give room sizes - regardless of whether the room is western or Japanese-style - in terms of tatami size! For example, the picture shows an ad for a 3LDK house, meaning 3 bedrooms (in this case one Japanese and two western-style rooms) plus an all-in-one Living Dining Kitchen space (=LDK). While it is unsurprising to see the Japanese-style room (middle-right) described as 6 (帖) meaning 6 tatami mats (roughly 10㎡), it is more surprising to see the two western-style rooms at the top also given in tatami terms ("about" 4.5 for the one on the left and "about" 6.3 for the one on the right). Even the LDK is described in such terms - in this case "about" 16.6 ! Japanese seem to find it much easier to visualise room sizes when described in such terms; indeed, when buying an air-conditioner or such, they are usually recommended for rooms of a certain . Mysteriously though, overall house size is always given in square metres, in this case a rather tiny 75.99㎡ - probably about the same size as the room Bond met his nemesis! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts in the COMMENTS section.

Friday 29 April 2022

Getting Away from it all: 5 Days in the Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa (Part 2: Identity and Food)

In the last post, I detailed my spring trip to the Yaeyama Islands. This time I'm going to focus on the delicious edibles found in Okinawa; food posts also seem to be the most popular so I'm hoping for a few more comments this time! Previously, I hinted at the unique culture found in Okinawa but didn't really explain the historical background. Very briefly, Okinawa was an an independent kingdom before it was invaded by the Satsuma clan in 1609 and finally annexed by the Meiji State in 1879. Perhaps the nearest analogy in UK terms is Wales, a region with a separate language and culture which was annexed in 1536. Both Wales and Okinawa suffered from discrimination and assimilationist policies of the central government: Okinawans - also known as Ryūkyū or Uchinanchū - just like the Welsh, have a complex relationship with the "mainland" (hondo=本土 in Japanese) and the ethnically different Yamato people. 

Source: Welsh data from BBC Cymru Wales annual St David's Day poll 2019 (here) and Okinawan data from research by Shunsuke Tanabe 2021 (PDF here)

As the poll data above shows, while the majority of Okinawans (and Welsh) feel both Okinawan and Japanese (Welsh and British), significant numbers feel Okinawan not Japanese (Welsh not British) or more Okinawan than Japanese (more Welsh than British). A few feel just Japanese (or British). The fact that Okinawa suffered disproportionately during World War II further complicates the relationship, as did the ensuing 27 years of U.S. "occupation" (1945-1972); in fact, next month (May) marks the 50th anniversary of the return of Okinawa to Japan (though even today around 75% of US bases in Japan are in Okinawa, taking up almost 18% of the main island).

Okinawa Fair at the local 7-11 promoting goods containing Okinawan brown sugar (kokutō)
Like Wales, Okinawa has many unique foods which make travelling there a delight. Two of the most common staples are goya champurū and Okinawan soba noodles. Champurū shares the same linguistic roots as the common Japanese word champon, which means to mix different things - usually food, especially noodles (as in the famous Nagasaki dish), but also drink, as in drinking a variety of different alcoholic drinks in one night! It is no surprise then that goya champurū is a stir fry of goya ("bitter melon", a super-healthy bumpy green cucumber-like vegetable), pork, tofu, and eggs. Okinawan soba noodles on the other hand consists of thick white noodles made from wheat flour (as opposed to the usual buckwheat) and is typically served with slices of pork on top. Indeed, pork is ubiquitous in Okinawa, and as well as the delicious melt-in-your-mouth fatty pork belly (rafutē) marinated in the local awamori sake, you will also find pig's feet, ears (mimigā), and even faces on many menus - Okinawans say that every part of the pig can be eaten except for its trotters and oink!

For those with a sweet tooth, Okinawa won't disappoint either. Here, I'm going to introduce three classics (from left right in the picture): Sātāandagī (サーターアンダギー) doughnuts, Chinsukō biscuits, and Blue Seal ice-cream. First, Sātāandagī - Sātā means sugar and andagī means deep-fried in the local lingo - are basically deep-fried dough balls with a crispy outside and fluffy inside which, despite their simplicity, enjoy a cult following. Second, Chinsukō are shortbread-like biscuits with a long history which are hugely popular souvenirs. In contrast, our final sweet treat, Blue Seal ice-cream, has a much shorter history, being a post-war US military invention created to give American soldiers in Okinawa a taste of home. Restricted to bases only until 1963, they are now available everywhere; you can enjoy some  unique local flavours such as the number one seller Okinawan salt-cookies (in other words Chinsukō!), beni-imo (purple sweet potato), and shīquasā ( = flat lemon) sherbet. I also seem to remember hearing about a goya flavour at some point, but it's not listed on the company homepage - too bitter?!?

All in all, the Okinawan diet, low in sugar and high in grains, fish, and seafood, is thought to be the main reason for the islander's longevity - Okinawa ties with Sardinia as the region with the highest ratio of centenarians in the world! But while the purple sweet potatoes, goya, and tofu/soy are without doubt the key to their long life, today the move towards fattier foods has seen life expectancy plummet. One of the worst offenders is Spam, introduced by the US navy and now an integral part of the local cuisine (popular in onigiri rice balls and sometimes even replacing pork in the famous goya champurū described above). Maybe it's time for a Japanese version of the famous Monty Python sketch, though, unlike the British public, Okinawans show no signs of becoming tired with the canned pork concoction! Share your thoughts on spam and regional foods/identity in the comments below.

Sunday 27 March 2022

Getting Away from it all: 5 Days in the Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa (Part 1: Sightseeing)

With the quasi-state of emergency (manbō) now over and new COVID cases decreasing it seemed like a good time to take a spring holiday break and recharge the batteries. While international travel still poses various challenges (not the least of which are Japan's stringent regulations for getting back in), domestic travel is picking up again and I decided to visit a place as far away from Tokyo as possible, one which I always wanted to visit: the Yaeyama Islands (八重山諸島) in Okinawa Prefecture.

The Yaeyama Islands are located some 400km from the Okinawan mainland and over 1900km from Tokyo accessible via a 4-hour flight to Ishigaki, the political centre. Despite the name ( 八, read as hachi or ya(tsu), is the kanji for eight), there are actually 12 inhabited islands in the archipelago plus a number of uninhabited islands (including the disputed Senkaku Islands as well as the most southern and most western points in Japan - Yonaguni Island is only a hundred kilometres or so from Taiwan!). 

(Map used under the under the Creative Commons licence as detailed here)

The islands are full of beautiful beaches, clear turquoise waters, mangrove forests, sugarcane fields, pineapples, and orange terracotta roofs. The tropical, almost aloha Hawaiian, vibe is supremely relaxing and the temperatures were comfortable mid-twenties (at the same time Tokyo was hit by a snow flurry resulting in a gap of 20℃ on one particular day!). Speaking of terracotta, traditional pairs of red clay guardian lion shīsā (シーサー) are everywhere, typically guarding the entrances to houses, businesses, and even bridges (covered here in a previous post). Chinese influenced lion masks also feature in local festivals revealing the strong Chinese influences underlining Ryukyuan culture. 

We stayed on Kohama, a small island 25 minutes by ferry from Ishigaki with a population of 600 - there seemed to be more goats than people - and only a single shop. The snorkeling was a particular highlight - amazing to lose yourself in a pristine underwater world of fish and coral. Kohama is also famous for the granny group KBG84 (a play on the teen idol group AKB48), evidence perhaps of the healthy Okinawan diet (the staple food on the island is the purple-fleshed yam or sweet potato - beni'imo - rather than rice). Talking of food, there is so much that is unique or different in Okinawa that I'm going to save it for part 2. In the meantime, I'd love to hear about your favourite places in Japan as well as the dream destinations you'd love to travel to. I've covered a number of spots around Japan so far - Tokyo, Hakone, Dazaifu, Shizuoka, Zushi, Enoshima, Kamakura, Karuizawa, Kyoto (part 1 and part 2), and Mount Fuji - but if you'd like me to cover somewhere else do please let me know. Click HERE to comment!

Friday 25 February 2022

Remembering and Forgetting the War: A Visit to the old Hitachi Aircraft Electric Substation

While the UK has heralded the end of COVID restrictions, I struggle to remember what life was like before the pandemic in a Japan that shows little sign of re-opening and returning to "normal". Dwelling on the past is never a particularly healthy way of living; on the other hand, forgetting it entirely risks repeating the same mistakes. Today, I thought I'd take a serious turn and talk a little bit about Japan's complex relationship with history, as a country in the unique position of being both victimiser and victim in WWII.

In order not to get too abstract I'm going to introduce a local building damaged in WWII which was officially scheduled to be demolished but after a campaign by local citizens became a designated cultural property (文化財=bunkazai) in 1995, opening as a fully-fledged museum in 2021 after expensive repair work. Located in a Higashiyamato South Park, the building is officially titled the Electric Substation of the old Hitachi Aircraft Co. Ltd Tachikawa Factory (旧日立航空機株式会社立川工場変電所). Built in 1938, it transformed and supplied electricity to the nearby Hitachi aircraft plant but became a target for US air raids towards the end of the war. As the picture shows, the building is covered in bullet marks and damage caused by the shrapnel.

When I visited, I was lucky to meet Shigeya Narazaki, one of the official guides and also a certified English interpreter. He told me how he had visited the US National Archives to get copies of the some of the "damage assessment" pictures taken by the US Military (apparently such information is generally not publicly available in Japan). He described the three separate days of attacks: bombing and strafing by over 50 Navy Grumman F6F Hellcats, Curtiss SB2C Helldivers, and GM TBM Avengers on February 17; strafing by P51 Mustangs on April 19th; and bombing by B29 bombers on April 24th (one of the 500 pound bombs is pictured above). Among the 111 casualties were mobilised student workers (学徒勤労動員=gakuto kinrōdōin), including girls from the university I currently work at.

The clear message, as in many similarly preserved WWII buildings around Japan, is not to forget the horrors of war and to strive for world peace. The most famous of these building is probably the Hiroshima Peace Memorial or Atomic Bomb Dome (原爆ドーム)which was kept as a memorial to those who died in the atomic bombing (the bomb exploded directly above the dome). While the Dome was recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1996, it was not without controversy: the US abstained, expressing concern that the context behind the bombing would be lost, while China argued that it would take attention away from Japan's victims. Certainly, anyone who has seen the Dome cannot but be moved by the physical evidence before their eyes - the absolute horror of a city of civilians being nuked; but on the other hand, it can generate a sense of victim consciousness that leads to a collective amnesia as to the reasons why they became victims. In sum, if the purpose of such "relics" is truly to prevent a recurrence of war, just showing WHAT happened is not enough; it is also necessary to provide explanations, from multiple perspectives, as to WHY it happened and WHO was responsible. What do you think about preserving historical monuments for future generations? How is the history of war handled in your own country? Let us know in the COMMENTS below.