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!

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Brain Training Japanese-style: Flash Arithmetic and the Soroban (Japanese abacus)

Local evacuation site in case of earthquake
We've had some pretty cold days and even some snow - unusual for Tokyo - since I last wrote, and temperatures are very much up and down at the moment. News-wise there's been a lot of sympathy for the victims of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, due both to Japan's own experience (the March 2011 Tohoku quake was the strongest in Japan's recorded history and the 4th biggest worldwide) and its close historical affinity with Turkey. Last month, the high court ruled that the Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) executives could not have predicted the massive tsunami that led to the Fukushima nuclear facility meltdown, even though a 2002 government report had actually estimated even higher waves. Government scientists tend to be very accurate with their numbers; the latest calculations give a 70% chance of a mega quake hitting Tokyo before 2050. 

Speaking of calculations, Japanese have long come near the top in mathematics in international rankings (PISA rankings here). For those wondering why countries like Japan, Korea, and China perform so well in maths, you need look no further than the humble abacus, called soroban (そろばん)in Japanese. Walking through the neighbourhood the other day, I spotted a sign board outside a house advertising soroban tutoring. The key sales pitch was the way abacus-style mental arithmetic (anzan=暗算, literally "dark calculation") promotes brain development and mental agility by stimulating both left (language) and right (visual) sides of the brain. Indeed, those proficient in the soroban become able to complete mental arithmetic remarkably quickly in the their head by visualising an imaginary abacus. There are even "flash" mental arithmetic competitions in which competitors instantly add, subtract, multiply, or divide numbers of 1 to 3 digits that flash on a screen (video here - check out the speed of the guy around the one minute mark!). It is no surprise that in the mental calculation world championship - held every two years in Germany - Japan has consistently featured in the top three. And these guys are fast: a famous contest between a Japanese soroban user and an American calculator user in 1946 resulted in the abacus scoring a "decisive victory" and beating the machine in both speed and accuracy in everything but multiplication.

Derived from the Chinese suanpan, the soroban has been used in Japanese schools for some 500 years, though with the spread of electronic calculators it is no longer a compulsory subject (it still remains common in elementary schools as a way to visualise and grasp basic mathematical concepts). As the picture shows, the modern soroban - which interestingly is the same as the roman abacus - has four "earth" beads below the "reckoning bar" (these are the "ones") and one "heavenly" bead above (the "fives"). Moving a bead towards the bar turns it "on", allowing each rod to represent a number from 0-9. The numbers of rods varies from 13 and 17 to 23 or even 27 (longer soroban enable more complicated calculations incorporating several different numbers at the same time). Below is a video of my wife, who was trained to use the soroban in a bank to confirm the day's transactions, adding the numbers from 1 to 10 (totaling 55) and then adding two 4-digit numbers. If you want to try it out yourself, no need to buy one: there are loads of drill books as well as various apps which allow you to practice on a phone or tablet (check out soroboard=そろボード in Japanese and Soroban Training in English - there is also a wonderful video of kids using sorotouch=そろタッチ here). A great way to keep the brain active - let me know what you think in the COMMENTS!

Sunday, 29 January 2023

Pounding Mochi, Hitting Wives, and Tossing Husbands: Violent New Year Traditions in Japan

Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます) - Happy New year - to my readers from a very chilly Japan! We're going through a once-in-a-decade cold spell  as I speak, so now may be a good time to take those New Year Decorations - which typically start coming down on January 7th - to the local shrine to be burned before a big bonfire. This is known as dondo-yaki (どんど焼き), a practice that supposedly "releases" the gods which the decorations have been housing over the new year period. Another common new year decoration, the ubiquitous kagami-mochi (two glutinous rice-cakes stacked on top of each other) are traditionally opened and eaten on January 11th in what is known as kagami-biraki (鏡開き). As you can see from the picture, these are typically topped with a tangerine, referred to as a daidai which is actually the colour orange in native Japanese (the repetition of the syllables supposedly points to the continuation of generations over the changing years).

As I explained in an earlier post, the name kagami-mochi comes from its shape: the copper mirrors or kagami used in the Muromachi period were round like a mochi. The kagami-mochi is thus two round lumps of rice cake (mochi) with the smaller one placed on top of the bigger one (representing the past year and the year to come). Kagami-biraki - literally "opening (breaking open) the mirror" - festivals are held all over Japan around January 11th, with the most famous being the annual New Year event held at the Nippon Budokan hall in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Here kagami-biraki involves donning Samurai armour (yoroi), the ritualistic breaking of large mochi offering (as featured on the poster), and taking to the battlefield. It also includes a ceremonial sake toast (sankon no gi) which is no surprise since kagami-biraki also refers to the traditional breaking of a sake casket at weddings.

While most people buy their New Year mochi decorations ready-made from the supermarket (made of plastic with a small rice-cake inside), some people do still make mochi themselves in a process which requires the glutinous rice to be strenuously kneaded. Traditionally, this is done in a wooden or stone mortar (usu) with a heavy wooden mallet in a process known as mochitsuki which is often carried out as a community or neighbourhood event. Pounding the mochi two hundred or so times gives it a smooth, shiny and whiter appearance. More importantly, it is soft enough to eat, though being rather bland itself it is usually consumed with toppings like natto (fermented soy beans), walnut paste, roasted soy-bean flour (kinako), and/or soy sauce (pictured).  

Koshōgatsu (Little New Year) on January 15th - a nod to the old lunar calendar - bookends the New Year period, and usually marks the last day for disposing of decorations. Although many Japanese are unfamiliar with Koshōgatsu, some rural communities still pray for a good harvest and eat azuki-bean rice porridge (小豆粥) on this day. One of the most disturbing Koshōgatsu traditions was that of hitting newly-wed brides on the backside with a sacred wooden pole or broom to ensure their fertility, a practice known variously as yome(no shiri)tataki (嫁[の尻]たたき) or yome-iwai (嫁祝い), literally "hitting the daughter-in-law's bottom" or "celebrating the daughter-in-law." Thankfully, this pretty awful "tradition" was banned in the post-war period, though a modern, ostensibly pain-free, version involving children gently "stroking" the newly-wed's bottom with small brooms is still going (see here). In contrast, one tradition that remains largely unchanged, at least in Niigata, is muko-nage (婿投げ) or "son-in-law throwing" in which a newly-wed groom is thrown down a snowy slope in the general direction of his new wife (see here). Not sure if that does much for fertility but with the plummeting birthrate, I suppose anything is worth a try. And on that note, let me ask you what your favourite (unorthodox) Japanese traditions or festivals are - answers in the COMMENTS please!