Wednesday 27 December 2023

Sunshine and Rakugo in Asakusa

Skytree and Hozomon Gate, Asakusa
End-of year greetings to my loyal readers - and apologies for skipping a month. For universities, like many workplaces in Japan, end of year (nenmatsu=年末)is a busy time and this year it seemed particularly hectic (catching a cold didn't help but I fear the real reason is that I'm just getting older!). Anyway, with graduation theses done, some of the many entrance-exam interviews finished, and nengajo new year cards written, I've finally got to some to write the next blog. And what a better way to finish 2023 by introducing Japanese rakugo sit-down comedy!

I covered Japanese humour back in 2018 (here), and explained that Japanese comedy or owarai (お笑い) - from the Japanese verb to laugh - consists primarily of rakugo (落語), a sit-down show by a single kimono clad performer based on a long shaggy-dog-style story, and manzai (漫才), a more modern two-person comedy act based on fast-paced dialogue. The former, rakugo, draws from a stock of fixed stories featuring a number of characters that the performer personalises by adding his or her own gestures, timing, expressions, voices, and mannerisms. Rakugo (落語) is called so because rakugo narratives typically end with a punch line known as the ochi - literally "the fall" - which can also be read as raku. In that previous blog post, I introduced a video of an English rakugo performance (here) by a Canadian trained in Japan by the name of Katsura Sunshine (桂 三輝). Recently, I was lucky enough to see Sunshine live in Asakusa. 

The famous Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) at Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa

Katsura Sunshine - formerly Gregory Robic - is a Toronto native who was accepted as an apprentice (deshi=弟子) to the rakugo storytelling master Katsura Bunshi VI (then named Katsura Sanshi) in 2008. He became only the second ever Western rakugo-ka in history. The adoption of the master's family name is a rakugo tradition and Sunshine also adopted the first syllable of his master's first name which, accompanied with "shine" created Sunshine (a pun within itself)! Sunshine often talks about how strict the apprenticeship was in his shows and in interviews - he notes, for example that the first thing his master told him was "don't talk"! Indeed, the apprenticeship, three years of going every morning to his master's house and doing mundane household chores as he watched and learned is described on his official homepage as "nearing indentured servitude"! Today, Sunshine performs all over the world in English, including shows in London's West End and on Broadway (he is actually based in New York), though he can also perform in Japanese (the last ten minutes of the show I saw was done in fluent Japanese, with impressive Kansai dialect thrown in for good measure!).

Suehirotei (末廣亭), the famous vaudeville theater in Shinjuku

When most Japanese think of rakugo, they probably think of Suehirotei (末廣亭), a famous vaudeville theater in Shinjuku which hosts various comedy events (pictured above). However, the show I went to see was held at a much smaller venue in Asakusa called Mokubatei (木馬亭), a tiny 300-seat theatre which, since it opened in 1970, has been the only traditional rōkyoku theatre in Tokyo. Rōkyoku (浪曲), also called naniwabushi (浪花節), is a two-person narrative singing/musical storytelling performance characterised by a long, sad, melancholic story very popular during the first half of the 20th century. The singer-narrator of naniwabushi is called the rōkyoku-shi, and the shamisen player is known as the kyoku-shi. From Asakusa Station, I walked by the famous Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) at Senso-ji Temple with its massive 700kg lantern (pictured earlier) and then headed north through the delightful Okuyama Omairimachi (奥山おまいり町) shopping street with its outdoor restaurants (map here) before arriving at the beautiful Mokubatei theatre (pictured below).

Walking onto the stage in his kimono and holding the obligatory folding fan and small towels (all used as props during the performance), Sunshine knelt seiza-style on a zabuton (square Japanese cushion) on a raised platform behind a small wooden desk. The performance starts with a warm-up monologue composed of the storyteller's own material, known as the pillow (makura) since it allows the rakugoka to guage the audience and also readies them for entry into the "dream world" - one of the traditional stories that have been passed down from master to apprentice. In other words, unlike Western comedy, where new, original material and surprise is integral to the act, in rakugo most of the audience have already heard the story and punchline before. Thus, the attraction of rakugo is the unique individual way the performer uses gestures, props, tone, and slight head movements to create the scene and dialogue between different characters. The story I heard was one of the most widely known of the many classical rakugo stories called "Time Noodles" (Toki Soba=時そば), apparently based on a story from a 1726 book - read here for a full English translation! The performance was indeed captivating, particularly the use of the folding fan for chopsticks and the realistic slurping noises to imitate eating noodles (apparently the slurping sound for eating soba - buckwheat noodles - and udon - thicker wheat noodles - is different!).

As part of his show, Sunshine talked about the long Bermuda-shorts style underpants known as suteteko which rakugo performers traditionally wear under their kimonos. In fact, these are not just a dying tradition: fast fashion store Uniqlo introduced a modern roomwear version under the "airism" range which has been a best-seller! Plus ça change...

Check out Katsura Sunshine's official homepage at (also on Instagram)

Finally, for those interested in watching more rakugo, the comedy programme Shōten (笑点) is a Sunday evening TV staple (on before Sazae-san!) and also the second longest running variety TV show in Japan. The format is simple - the host poses questions to six storytellers who try to answer in a witty manner: if successful they receive an extra cushion (zabuton) to sit on but if judged unfunny, a cushion is taken away. The sight of a perfomer sitting on a pile - ten is the maximum - is in itself quite funny! For those of you learning Japanese, why not try the phrase, "One zabuton!" (座布団一枚!)to praise someone who has said something particularly amusing? For the rest of you, let me know in the COMMENTS if you have any thoughts on humour - Japanese or otherwise! Which just leaves me to wish you all a very happy new year - or as the Japanese say at this time of year, yoi o toshi o (よいお年を)!

Sunday night "Shoten" © Nippon Television Network Corporation (URL here)

P.S. For the sake of comparison, I went to see some Japanese rakugo in my local community hall (poster right). There were five acts, from newcomer (Katsura Nanshi=桂 南海) to veteran Katsura Yonesuke=米助) - with a manzai duo thrown in for good measure. The first act - Nanshi (nice kanji joke there) - is one of few women in the rakugo world. Compared to Sunshine, the audience was small and mostly elderly. But the techniques were the same: the opening makura followed by a traditional long story, with lots of gestures, facial expressions, and clever dialogue. My favourite was probably the story of the thief breaking into a house and hiding while the couple had an argument - incredibly fast-paced dialogue!

Tuesday 31 October 2023

High Skies, Sardine Clouds, Reading Week, and Margheritas: Autumn has Come!


We're almost into November, but pleasant days (and short-sleeves) continue, perhaps not surprising given we had the hottest summer on record. At the same time, the sky tells us that autumn (aki=秋)has well and truly arrived. The Japanese have a lovely saying for this season, sora ga takai (空が高い) - literally, "the sky is high." Indeed, a famous (originally Chinese) proverb reads 天高馬肥秋 (ten takaku uma koyuru aki), literally "autumn, the sky is high and the horse fat" (the latter part pointing to a successful harvest). Even my weather app comments on the sky being high: the attached picture notes that, "today the clear autumn sky (akibare=秋晴れ) feels to be high." Although this expression is not found in English it is true that the sky is more blue at this time of the year, due to the humidity level dropping off leaving less moisture in the air. Cirrocumulus autumn clouds are also described as resembling fish scales (uroko-gumo=うろこ雲) - sometimes called sardine (iwashi-gumo) or mackerel (saba-gumo) clouds -  just like the English expression "mackerel sky" referring to rows of clouds displaying an "undulating, rippling pattern similar in appearance to fish scales."

While season words (kigo=季語) are a staple in Japanese poetry, surprisingly clouds don't figure so much. The only one I found was this by Basho, though unusually the season is clearly identified: この秋は 何で年寄る 雲に鳥 (In this autumn/why do I get old?/ birds in clouds). Much more common are references to the moon, which in contrast to the "high" sky, often appears to sit low to the horizon, as well as being brighter, at this time of year (moon-watching or tsukimi used to be a popular group activity in autumn in Japan). Autumn in Japan is also associated with a number of other activities. One is reading, as expressed in the phrase dokusho no aki (読書の秋) and a special reading week (dokusho shūkan=読書週間) started on October 27th (though it actually runs for two weeks!). Thought to be a post-war phenomenon perhaps inspired by US Children's Book Week, others trace the phrase back to Natsume Soseki quoting an old Chinese poem about "reading by lamplight." Autumn is also promoted as a time to engage in sport and outdoor activity, probably due to the fact that schools typically hold their sports day (undō kai=運動会) during this season. Indeed, the national holiday held on the second Monday in October is called Sports Day (スポーツの日), a holiday originally established to commemorate the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. 

Nevertheless, the most common refrain one hears about autumn is the phrase shokuyoku no aki (食欲の秋) - literally autumn, the season of good appetite! While foods such as saury (sanma), matsutake mushrooms, persimmons (kaki), and pears (nashi) deserve an honorable mention, the holy trinity is probably sweet potatoes (satsuma-imo), pumpkin (kabocha), and chestnuts (kuri) - see here for a simple video on how to make aromatic chestnut rice (kuri-gohan), an autumn staple. Given the popularity of Japanese food worldwide, you might expect that Japanese people would favour eating out in Japanese restaurants but in fact Italian food is first choice for many Japanese for a nice meal out - and there are so many great options. For those of you in Tokyo, Fukuoka, or Yokohama, you have to try L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele, founded in Naples in 1870 and boasting possibly the best Margherita in Japan! And on that note, let me wish all my readers a belt-busting autumn - and do let me know in the COMMENTS what the season means to you, culinary or otherwise!

Saturday 30 September 2023

Taking Steps to Deal with Suicide in Japan

September can be an especially stressful time for many in Japan, with school and work re-starting, and that is reflected in the fact that this and the following month are typically the worse months for suicide. This is not only in Japan of course - September 10th was World Suicide Prevention Day - but it is true that Japan, for a long time, had the highest suicide rate among the G7 countries, though it was overtaken by the US in 2017. Actually, after peaking in 2003, the rate in Japan fell dramatically in the last 15 years, including ten straight years of decline from 2009 to 2019; unfortunately, the pandemic hit many especially hard in Japan, and suicides - particularly among young women - have risen in the past three years. Below is a comparison of suicides in the UK and Japan comparing 2003 and 2022:

2003 data from WHO Global Health Observatory (here); suicide rate=number of suicides per 100,000

To raise awareness of this alarming trend, Tokoyo English Lifeline (TELL), a Tokyo-based organisation providing mental health support and counseling services to Japan’s international community, held a campaign called Move for Mental Health which consisted of a Step Up Challenge (running from September 10th to October 10th) encouraging individuals and teams to take 21,881 steps in one day, the number of Japanese who committed suicide last year, and culminating in a Tokyo Tower Climb on October 14th.

Wanting to do our bit, we got a team together and early one Saturday morning we arrived at Ome Station in Western Tokyo, planning to walk 12km to Takimoto cable car at the bottom of Mount Mitake(御岳山), a sacred mountain that has been worshipped since ancient times (the protective deity O-inu sama or Sacred Wolf attracts many dog owners too!). Ome is one of the stations along the Ome-Line in Western Tokyo which runs from urban Tachikawa to Okutama, a tiny town located in the Okutama Mountains which is actually the largest municipality in Tokyo! The route took us along the beautiful Tama River (多摩川), upstream of the Tamagawa Aqueduct which I have written about before. The line drips in nostalgia for a time gone, and indeed Ome-Station itself promotes a deliberate "Showa" vibe as the images show.

The walk along the river is truly breathtaking, white-water rapids popular with canoeists and rafters, cool clean air, incredible greenery, birdsong, families enjoying barbecues on the river bank - and even people panning for gold (video here)! But amidst the lovely scenery we also took time to remember why exactly we were walking and what each step represented. Walking along the Tama River made this all the more poignant since one of Japan's most famous writers, Osamu Dazai, committed suicide, drowning himself together with his lover in the rain swollen Tamagawa Aqueduct in 1948 just before his 39th birthday. 

The cable car at the foot of Mount Mitake - dogs welcome! - took us up to Mitakesan Station (831m), and from there was a short 1.2km climb to the summit (929m) where we found the Musashi-Mitake Shrine (武蔵御嶽神社). More interesting for me was Ubuyasu-sha (産安社) or "safe birth" shrine, a power spot featuring ancient cedar trees that when touched would bring luck in finding a partner, getting pregnant, and giving birth safely - as well as promising longevity (chōju=長寿). Given the purpose of our walk, this seemed particularly apt, and a long life is something I wish for everyone, especially those thinking of killing themselves - I pray that you can find the strength and courage to reach out to and confide in someone close to you - or to a lifeline counsellor - and take that first brave step in moving forward.

For a summary of our climb, there's a lovely video here by Diya, an English speaking therapist supporting expats, nomads, and internationals - both inside and outside Japan. For those inside Japan - whether Japanese or non-Japanese - who are struggling and need help in English, contact TELL on 03-5774-0992 or via chat (see here for hours). You are not alone. Finally, for those worried about someone but not sure what to say and do, this page has some hints, including the best way to listen and offer support, as well as how to make a safety plan together. COMMENTS are, as always, very welcome.

Tuesday 29 August 2023

Japan's Ubiquitous Animal Cafes: "Fureai" as a Cure for Loneliness and Isolation

After a (chilly) time in the UK and a (scorching) time in Sicily, BritishProf is finally back in Japan to prepare for the start of the new university term. Although Southern European temperatures reached into the forties, the dry heat was surprisingly bearable compared to the high humidity here in Japan (which is still stifling). Japan had the hottest July in 125 years (here) and though we're almost into September, there is still no respite from the fiercely hot days and tropical nights. While in the UK, I spotted a poster advertising an exhibition by 94-year-old contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama, currently partnering with Louis Vuitton. Perhaps Japan's most successful living artist, Kusama lives in a mental health facility and creates art to keep her anxiety and fear at bay. A key theme of her work is the feeling of losing the boundary between the self and the other and the motif "self-obliteration" - look out for a future post on my visit to the Kusama museum in Tokyo.

A "fureai" experience with Harry

For now, let's go a little low brow and take a look at Japan's cafe culture. While cosplay influenced maid cafes (enjoyed by both men and women) and butler cafes (mainly for women) have captured the attention of the media, even more popular are the ubiquitous animal cafes where one can enjoy a drink and snack while petting a wide variety of cute animals. While cat and dog cafes were the trailblazers, today, in Tokyo at least, there is probably a cafe for almost any kind of small animal you can imagine - capybara, snakes, lizards, owls, hedgehogs, miniature pigs, lovebirds, penguins, sloths, and otters to name but a few. Now BritishProf is not a big fan of animals kept in captivity for the purpose of human entertainment - I have written before about Japan's lax animal welfare rules - but I was lucky enough to come across a newly opened dog cafe that trains therapy dogs for work in hospitals: a cafe called Florence in Adachi City, Tokyo.

Florence, which opened in May this year, is billed as a "first-rate healing space where you can interact with your favourite dog" (好きなワンちゃんと触れ合える極上の癒し空間). The cafe and the dogs are separated by acrylic barriers, so it is quite possible to enjoy a coffee and a snack while just watching the dogs. Most customers though will opt for the hands-on "fureai" experience: fureai (触れ合い) is a Japanese word made up of the characters for touch and join/fit/match and usually describes some sort of emotional and/or physical connection, contact, or interaction between people, animals, or even nature. A public square, for example may be called a fureai hiroba (ふれあい広場). Close in meaning to the unique Japanese term "skinship" (スキンシップ), one survey found that during the pandemic over 40% of Japanese suffered from a lack of "heart-to-heart contact" (kokoro no fureai=心のふれあい), affecting their mental well-being. Even now, with more and more people engaging in telework, using social media, and living in single-person households, opportunities for face-to-face contact and communication seem less than before, to the extent that Japanese - particularly Japanese men - have been described as the loneliest, most isolated in the world (PDF here). In this context, a visit to this kind of space where one can interact with dogs of all sizes and also their handlers/trainers is truly miso soup for the soul. Why not share some of your own fureai tips in the COMMENTS?

Saturday 15 July 2023

Big in Japan: Saunas, Glamping, and The Beatles

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I recently had the opportunity to meet someone from the Finnish Embassy to talk about Japan's immigration policy (or lack of); afterwards, the conversation turned to the current sauna boom in Japan. While the first sauna in Japan is typically traced back to 1957 in a bathhouse in Ginza, it was the Finnish athletes at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics bringing sauna equipment that triggered the first sauna boom here. During the 1970s and 1980s saunas combined with public baths and massage parlours to create a second boom, though the sauna remained something of an old guy thing. Today, though, young people of both sexes are enjoying saunas - taking sauna trips (satabi), enjoying special food (sameshi), and basking in totonou (整う): the refreshed, euphoric feeling when you jump between a sauna and a cold bath (see here for a nice graphic in Japanese). Sauna related manga have also exploded - indeed, "Sado" (way of the sauna), a six-set manga series which started in 2016, is said to have sparked the current third boom. 

Glamping in the gorgeous Nasu wilds - but watch out for bears!

One possibly unique feature of saunas in Japan is the use of tent saunas which can be set up wherever you like. And talking of tents, there is another boom going on at the moment in Japan: glamping or glamorous camping! As regular readers will know, the Japanese summer is scorching which makes an air-conditioned tent the perfect (guilty) summer pleasure. We visited Hamiru's Forest Glamping Resort and Terrace in Nasu, a small town in Tochigi, northeast of Tokyo, famous for its beautiful hot springs, mountains, forests, rivers, and hiking trails - no wonder the Imperial Villa, where the emperor stays in August and September, is located here!

Panoramic shot inside the tent - complete with hammock, aircon, and fridge!

The resort was rather wonderful, 21 dome shaped tents, each with a separate hut for barbecuing, a dog run, a camp fire area (with marshmallows and sticks for purchase), and a shared shower/bath which could be booked for your preferred time slot. As well as hiking trails and hot springs, there are loads of small cafes and shops selling ice-cream, cheese, and various dairy-themed snacks (like "Butter's Cousin"=バターのいとこ). In short, Nasu is the perfect destination for an urban de-tox!

There was one more attraction that the Brit in me couldn't resist, the Penny Lane Beatles cafe/restaurant/shop set in a beautiful English-style brick building with comfortable leather armchairs and sofas and crammed full of Beatles memorabilia, such as photos, posters, guitars, classic albums, and original drawings - all with a Beatles soundtrack in the background of course. This book argues that the Beatles 1966 tour to Japan was something of a turning point in Japan’s postwar cultural development, marking the start of a deepening relationship with the West and even contributed to the construction of a new Japanese identity! Whether you believe that or not, the cafe is highly recommended; in fact, while we were there, there was a nice reminder of our rural location when a wild monkey raided the cafe only to be chased off with a staff member brandishing a cap gun! Maybe a reference to The Beatles song nobody knows, "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and my Monkey"?? Whether you're a Beatles, sauna, or glamping fan, do please drop me a COMMENT!

Thursday 29 June 2023

The Biggest Harry Potter Studio Tour in the World - and the Quidditch Japan Squad

Rainy season in Japan (covered here and here in previous posts) began in earnest on June 8th in Tokyo. While tsuyu (梅雨)has a number of downsides - such as high humidity, mouldy futons, and washing that never dries - there is also one big upside: the flowering of beautiful hydrangeas (ajisai)! As the pictures below show, the deep, varied colours and intricate petals are really something.

Visiting indoor museums and exhibitions is one popular activity during these damp, sticky weeks, and Tokyo has a new attraction on offer: June 16th saw the opening of Warner Bros. Studio Tour Tokyo - The Making of Harry Potter, only the second park of its kind after the original location in the UK, and touted as Asia's first world-class Studio Tour. Located in the northwestern edge of Tokyo, the studio is built on the site of the old Toshimaen amusement park, and the area has fully embraced the change, with flags all over Nerima-Ward and a refurbished Toshimaen Station with trains featuring the main characters. 


How popular is Harry Potter in Japan? Extremely I would say, with Japan ranked as the third best area for Harry Potter fandom (after the UK and US). The stats back that up: apparently, the films have grossed more than US$893m and been seen by more than 78 million people here, while the Philosopher’s Stone remains the country’s sixth highest-grossing film of all time. On top of that, there is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter which comprises a whole section of the Universal Studios Theme Park in Osaka. And don't forget the famous Harry Potter cafe in Akasaka! In terms of content, the studio itself is identical to the UK one (I should know - I've been there twice!), with the addition of a full-scale Ministry of Magic set (replete with floo-network fireplaces!) unique to Japan. The only downside is the pricing: while the tickets themselves are not too bad (¥6,300/£35 for adults), souvenirs and snacks are shockingly expensive. The food hall, for example, boasts a selection of food "with a British twist" which made me embarrassed to be British, including a microscopic all day breakfast for ¥2,200/£12 and the saddest looking roast beef and Yorkshire pudding you'll ever see for ¥3,200/£17.50 (pictures here). And don't get me started on the Hedwig cake for ¥1500/£8 and the sludge pretending to be butter beer at ¥1,100/£6 a pop.

But this is Harry Potter, and even corporate greed cannot sully the charm and magic of the story - indeed the magic has become reality in the form of Quidditch (a fictional sport from the Harry Potter world which is now played for real!). In Japan, the sport boasts a diverse and inclusive community, and there are now eight Quidditch (now called Quadball) teams. Moreover, the Japan Quadball Association (JQA) selected national team (nicknamed "Japan Broomstars”) is currently preparing for the 5th IQA World Cup in Richmond, Virginia on July 15th and 16th. One of the team, an American working in a small town in Mie Prefecture, was recently the subject of a short segment on NHK news. Unfortunately, Japanese players going to the US, many who are students, have to fund themselves so a crowd-funding site opened up on June 12th - if you can spare a few Galleons do please support the "Broom Stars Japan" here (unfortuntely Japanese only). And as always, let me know what you think in the COMMENTS!

The Japan team uniform (left) features a comet, which is hōkiboshi in Japanese - literally broom star!

Sunday 28 May 2023

Samurai Japan and Japan's Most Popular Sport: Baseball!

The start of May featured the Golden Week holiday - a series of consecutive holidays giving Japanese the rare chance to take a block of time off to travel or return to one's hometown - and the weather was absolutely gorgeous! Many Japanese enjoy cycling and hiking during Golden Week - the picture shows a stunning view of Mount Fuji from Oyama, Kanagawa, a sacred mountain not too far from Tokyo billed as one of the great spots to hike in eastern Japan. Resting at home afterwards - I like to put a hammock out on the balcony - there is one sound during the months of March to October that personifies the Japanese summer, perhaps even more then the buzzing cicadas - the crack of bat hitting ball. Indeed, a key and eagerly watched event of the summer is the National High School Baseball Championships (Natsu Koshien=甲子園) the largest scale amateur sport event in Japan which culminates in a two-week final tournament in August.

As a Brit I'm pretty clueless about baseball - I didn't even realise there was a UK team until recently - but I did attend one game in Japan (in Fukuoka) and was quite taken aback by all the organised chanting and dancing. There was also a mass release of rocket ballons at some point in the game - and beer sellers wandering around with giant kegs on their back! My American friends tell me that Japanese baseball actually differs from the US version, with a smaller ball, playing field, and strike zone plus a twelve or fifteen inning limit in which draws are allowed - though that doesn't mean a whole lot to this baseball ignorant Brit to be honest! Although a relatively new sport, it has become a part of the Japanese psyche and is pretty much the unofficial national pastime in terms of popularity. It was introduced in 1872 by an American and the professional league was establised in 1936; today there are two leagues of six teams. The picture shows the monument of the birth of baseball in Japan at Gakushi Kaikan, Tokyo.

While baseball remains the most popular sport both to watch live or on TV (see here), in terms of participation the number of people in Japan playing soccer (7.5m) recently edged above the baseball playing population (7.3m). This may change following "Samurai" Japan's recent victory in the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in March which saw Japan become world number one with a dramatic 3-2 victory over America in the final. In Japan, this game recorded 42.4% household viewership rating (視聴率), astonishing given that the game started at 8am on Wednesday here! The quarter-final between Japan and Italy was actually the highest-rated game in WBC history at an incredible 48.7%, meaning the game was watched by almost half the population. The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (野球殿堂博物館) at Tokyo Dome is currently holding a special exhibition to mark Japan's triumph and soccer-loving BritishProf went to check it out. The sacrifices one makes as a blog writer!

The museum is rather small but packed full of mementos of previous WBC games, including signed baseballs, winner's medals, and Ohtani's jersey from this year's victory (pictured). Unfortunately, the actual trophy was doing the rounds of Japan's baseball grounds when I visited. There is also a lot of information on the birth and development of baseball in Japan and of course a huge room featuring all those who have been elevated to the hall of fame (including quite a number of non-Japanese).

And so back to the hammock - and the hypnotising thump of bat on ball and cheers of the crowd carrying on the wind. It's incredible I can hear the chants and songs from so far away; below is a video clip from a National High School Baseball Championship game showing just how frenzied a Japanese baseball crowd can get! In the meantime, if there are any sports lovers among you, especially baseball enthusiasts, do please drop me a note in the COMMENTS! (Used under Creative Commons Attribution license. Credit to @chibasportsouendan, direct video link here.)

Sunday 30 April 2023

Japan's Hidden Fish Paradise - with Fantastic Views of Mount Fuji to Boot!

Japan does not generally feature much in the UK media, and if it does the focus is typically on something exotic or wacky, but recently the UK papers have been full of articles on "Sushi Terrorism" following online videos of customers at conveyor belt (kaiten) sushi chains engaging in various unhygienic behaviour such as licking communal soy sauce bottles. While labelling it "terrorism" seems a bit of a stretch - the Japanese media generally used the word itazura meaning mischievous, naughty, or engaging in practical jokes - the behaviour did cause shockwaves in a country which prides itself on cleanliness and also loves its fish. On that note, I thought I'd focus this month's post on the subject of seafood.

What fish are eaten in Japan and UK? Brits tend to be rather conservative when it comes to fish, and 80% of all seafood eaten in the UK is one of the "Big five":  cod, salmon, haddock, tuna, and prawns. On the other hand, the most popular fish in Japan were salmon (sake/shake), tuna (maguro), pacific saury (sanma), mackerel (saba), and yellowtail (buri). As hinted at before, Japanese eat a broader variety of fish - there is a strong awarness of what fish are currently in season - and eat it at different times of day too, prepared in different ways (grilled salmon at breakfast for example). 84.3% of Japanese say they eat fish at least once a week, with only 1.9% saying they do not eat seafood at all. In contrast, only a third of Brits eat fish weekly, with 12% saying they never eat it - with the younger generation even less likely to eat fish. Who said Fish and Chips was the national dish?!?

For tourists looking to get a taste of a Japanese fish market, the typical destination is Tsukiji (see also my blog post here), though this (partly) relocated to Toyosu in 2018, including the famous early morning tuna auction (you can view this from the observation deck - if you're lucky enough to get a ticket through the lottery system!). However, if you want a more tourist-free local spot - and a chance to see a real live fish market without any ticket lottery - I'd recommend Numazu Port, located at the northwestern end of the Izu Peninsula (about an hour's drive from Atami covered in last month's blog!). Numazu is full of restaurants offering kaisendon (海鮮丼) or fish bowl, various kinds of raw fish (sashimi) piled on a bed of rice - a mountain of DHA delight!

Aside from fish there are a number of other interesting things to see and do in Numazu, not least great views of Mount Fuji on clear days. At the top of Numazu Port Observatory Watergate (沼津港大型展望水門), which also functions as an anti-tsunami barrier, there is a great observation deck and I was lucky enough to catch some good views of Fuji-san, which show the snow beginning to melt. The guide in the tower also allowed me to use a picture she had taken in November on a particularly clear day - thank-you! There is a also a rather interesting statue in the park, a memorial to Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara who issued visas to save Polish Jews fleeing from the Nazi's in 1940. It has been estimated that around 100,000 people are alive today as a consequence of Chiune's actions.

Two views of Mount Fuji (March left and November right) taken from the observation deck at Numazu

Click to see on amazon

Finally, let me introduce my favourite snack - eel bones! Loyal blog followers may already know that eel or unagi is one of my favourite dishes: as I wrote here, unagi is a stamina-boosting food that is a particularly popular way to beat summer heat fatigue. Whereas the bones on unagi are always removed before serving in restaurants, the bones themselves can be deep-fried and flavoured (typically with soy sauce, wasabi, or just salt) and make a super moreish crunchy snack, one that is full of calcium and vitamins A, B2, D, and E! Definitely recommended, especially as tsumami (side-dish) with beer or sake or as a heathy oyatsu (snack) for children. If you can't get hold of eel bones where you are, then you'll just have to make do with salivating over the all-you-can-eat sashimi restaurant "Osakana [fish] Paradise" captured in the video below. Enjoy - and do let me know about your fish eating habits, preferences, and recommendations in the COMMENTS!

Wednesday 29 March 2023

Atami: Japan Seaside Resort and Hot-Spring Mecca

Temperatures are rising and it feels like spring has come at last - with Tokyo cherry blossoms officially reaching full bloom on the 22nd, change is definitely in the air. Speaking of change, on the 13th, Japan belatedly eased its long-standing recommendation to wear a mask and is now officially leaving it up to personal choice (kojin handan=個人判断). Nevertheless, most people are still taking a wait-and-see approach and continue to wear masks while checking out what others are doing - a nice illustration of how peer pressure still rules in Japanese society. 

The seasonal and social change makes it a good time to travel, and I took the chance to visit the popular tourist spot of Atami on the Izu Peninsula, a seaside (and, in the past, honeymoon) resort less than an hour west of Tokyo on the bullet train. Atami (熱海)literally means "hot sea" which refers to the famous onsen hot-spring baths dotted in the many ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) in the surrounding volcanic hills. Living up to its name, the weary traveller is greeted with a public hot spring footbath (ashiyu=足湯) on leaving the station, somewhat oddly named the "Ieyasu Hot Water Footbath" to mark 400 years since Tokugawa Ieyasu - first shōgun and one of the great unifiers of Japan - visited Atami.

Truth be told, there's not actually much to see or do in Atami apart from soak in the hot springs and eat seafood - in fact, Atami is now more of a commuter hub for Tokyo than a tourist spot. However, we did take a trip to tiny Hatsushima Island (see video from the 30-minute ferry ride below) which ironically has a lot more to do! There is one notable monument in Atami though, located by a pine tree overlooking the artificial beach, and that is a statue of a man, wearing traditional wooden geta sandals, kicking a Japanese woman on the ground, who is holding her arm up in self-defence.

Apparently, the statue depicts a scene, set on Atami Sun Beach, from a serialized novel called Konjiki Yasha (The Golden Demon=金色夜叉) written by Koyo Ozaki, a leading literary figure of the Meiji Era. The novel's themes are the loss of humanity, social responsibility, and love in the face of money. The scene depicts a "climatic farewell", in which the heroine, O-Miya, has just revealed to her lover, the student Kan'ichi, that she has accepted a proposal of marriage from a rich banker's son, swayed by the gift of a diamond ring. No doubt aware of the problematic nature of the image, the plaque justifies it as follows: "The statue, which depicts the most symbolic scene full of love and sorrow of the two who have grown apart, faithfully reflects the original story. In no way does it condone or promote acts of violence. We would be very pleased if you could read through the novel and consider the pair's emotions, as well as the social conditions of the time." Nevertheless, in these days of statues being torn down, and after a pandemic which saw domestic violence consultations reach record levels and female suicide spike in Japan, one can only wonder about the kind of message that such a statue sends to all those visiting this "honeymoon" resort. Do put your thoughts on this and recommendations for your favourite travel spots in the COMMENTS please!