Manzen Post: Unusual Textures

Wow, it's actually been quite some time since I posted a Manzen Post. It's ironic, considering that they were invented to get me to post more frequently. Oh well, the best laid plans of mice and men, eh? In case you don't remember what a Manzen Post is (I would be surprised if you did), it's a post about a random subject of Japanese food or culture, that is too short for a full Nihon Day post. For more information, read the first Manzen

A few days ago I was talking to a co-worker of mine about mochi. She was saying that she didn't like how squishy it was. The subject came up because I had shared a video about shāo máshū, a type of Taiwanese rice cake that is made of steamed sticky rice and coated in sweet peanut powder. Personally, I thought they looked delicious, but my co-worker thought the gelatinous slippery consistency looked like snot. This then led to her saying that she had recently tried mochi and didn't like the icky-stickiness of it. I conceded that the texture may be a little difficult for Americans, though I think it's a bit like a soft caramel or salt water taffy.

Then she asked me if I thought the Japanese had a higher tolerance for slimy things. I thought about it for a minute and realized that there are a number of Japanese foods that most Americans would consider far too, well, "snot-like". That is not to say that they shouldn't be eating them, or that they're weird for doing so, just that it's a difference in our food cultures. 

Natto_mixed.jpg

In particular, natto jumped to my mind. If you're unfamiliar with this dish, it is fermented soybeans. They're a traditional breakfast food, though not necessarily universally loved. Many Japanese people don't like them either because of their strong smell and flavor. My main objection to them is the fact that they look like baked beans mixed with rubber cement. Or, if you prefer to be rude, they look like something an giant insect might sneeze out. 

Another odd texture that is eaten by some people in Japan is the nagaimo yam, which I encountered when I tried making Osaka style okonomiyaki. I'll let myself explain it: 

"I should clarify that it’s not really a yam in the way that you might be thinking. It looks more like a cross between a potato and a daikon radish and when grated it immediately turns to sticky, frothy liquid. If I’m making it sound unpleasant, that’s more or less what I was going for. In Japan they sometimes eat this substance raw, something that I don’t think I could have forced myself to do..."
 
 If you'd like a visual aid, I found this picture on wikipedia. 

If you'd like a visual aid, I found this picture on wikipedia. 

 

Then, of course, there is the Japanese appreciation of the raw or partially raw egg. I imagine you might have seen videos of omu rice, a dish where they set a pouch of cooked egg on top of a mound of stir-fried rice, then they take a knife and slice across the top of the eggs. The pouch bursts open, sending semi-cooked goopy eggs over the rice, like an alien egg sack in a low budget movie. Of course, you can make omu rice with a fully cooked, crepe-like egg blanket that you lay over the stir-fry. I've made it, it's delicious. But, my point is, that there are lots of people out there who prefer their eggs slimy. 

When I was in Japan I ate several dishes that were traditionally supposed to be eaten with a raw egg mixed into them. Call me an American-weenie, but I couldn't quite bring myself to do this. Though in my defense, my stomach was suffering from jet lag at the time, and I didn't really want to anger it. 

And I can't write a blog post about odd textures without mentioning my nemesis, the sea urchin. In the last post I wrote I told you all about how much I hate these little abominations but in case you missed it, here's what I said:

I told her I was fine with everything, though, I really don't like sea urchin. This is perfectly true, I think it is the grossest thing on the planet, with the texture of cold butter blended with raw egg whites, and a flavor reminiscent of the fishiest fish you have ever eaten mixed with petroleum. Not to mention it looks like a slimy orange turd. So, yeah, not a fan. Needless to say, I was non-to-pleased to see this scourge of the ocean sitting on a plate next to me...
 Another visual aid.

Another visual aid.

In conclusion, dear co-worker, yes I think that there is a cultural difference that makes slimy foods more appealing to some people. 

If anybody has any foods they can't stand the texture of, please tell me about them in the comment section!

Until next time, remember, not everyone likes the same foods. 

Japan Trip Eleven: An Evening With the Hamaguchi Family Part Two

IMG_9728.jpg

This is the eleventh post in a multi-post series about my time on a Japanese television show. If you haven't read that which came before, I suggested you go back to the beginning. If you're caught up, forget I said anything and carry on. 

We got back into the van and drove out of Tomei, taking the road we had driven earlier that day and heading back to Fukue. I always sat in the same place in the van, the seat directly behind the driver, where I could look out the window at the passing scenery. Saori-San sat next to me and while I admired the view, we talked. She was impressed by how I was in front of the camera. "I've done a couple of these shows now," she said, "and as far as I can tell, the Americans are always the most comfortable in front of the camera."

She seemed to be including me in this group and I was surprised to hear that she thought I seemed comfortable. I had assumed that I looked like I had a severe toothache, considering how edgy the whole experience was making me. But, who was I to argue? At her bidding, I tried to think why it might be that Americans were more relaxed during filming. "Well, in America, we have a heavy culture of reality tv shows. Maybe it's just that people in America think there's a strong possibility that they might end up on tv at some point." Of course, I never had expected such a thing. 

I asked her where she had grown up and she told me that her hometown was at the foot of Mount Fuji. Her parents still lived there and she was planning on visiting them after filming was done. She described the town a little bit and I was enchanted. Then she told me that she had lived in Wales for three years, which is where she perfected her English. "Oh, I thought you must have learned somewhere in the UK," I said. When she looked surprised I clarified. "I could tell by your accent." This seemed to be news to her, apparently, she hadn't noticed her accent at all, which was very posh. I guess it's probably less easy to pick out regional accents when it isn't your first language.

IMG_9734.jpg

Once we were in town I noticed that we were taking a very familiar path. In fact, we ended up at the very same restaurant where we had eaten lunch. You-San gave me a satisfied look. "You can see how good of a restaurant this is if the locals pick it out of all the others to give you a welcome dinner." He said this in a way that told me he takes great pride in his ability to find the best meal in town. I was perfectly happy to be back but I would probably have been happy to eat literally anywhere in all of Japan, so I'm not sure we should go by my feelings. We entered the building and I heard the familiar gurgling sound of the fish tanks. Things looked much as they had when we had left hours before, only there were more people, sitting at the booths, enjoying their meals, and staring at the American girl followed by an entourage of camera-wielding professionals. 

I tried not to look excessively self-conscious and followed the owner of the restaurant towards the back of the room. This time, instead of sitting at a booth, we took a staircase to the second floor. It was quieter upstairs, with a dim hallway that connected several private dining rooms. Ours was the first room, where we found a long, low table lavishly adorned with plates and platters of fresh seafood. I was so overwhelmed by this bounty that I didn't take a single picture of it. You will just have to take my word for it, it was not unlike the scene in Spirited Away where No Face is having a private banquet. 

The brothers and Mrs. Hamaguchi had already arrived. The children were also there, eagerly anticipating the meal with the kind of energy only hungry little kids can. I took my seat on a thin cushion on the floor, sitting next to Mrs. Hamaguchi and across from the brothers. The children settled on the other side of Mrs. Hamaguchi, all squirming where they sat. As for the film crew, they gathered on the other side of the room, facing me. Dinner with a side of pressure. 

 This is actually from dinner on the second night but I wanted you to have a visual. 

This is actually from dinner on the second night but I wanted you to have a visual. 

The dishes in front of me where mostly sashimi, various types of raw fish, sliced paper thin and arranged decoratively on communal platters. There were also bowls of soup, small dishes of pickled vegetables, and several other types of fresh and cooked veggies. But these were mere sideshows. The sashimi was the show stopper. There were more types of fish represented than all the kinds I have eaten in my life put together. They were cut with loving precision and skill, garnished with seaweed, shiso leaves, and other fresh green herbs. The fishes' iridescent skin shimmered in the ambient lighting. It was a food blogger's dream. 

The Hamaguchi family was delighted with my wonder. Jiro-San pointed out one particular dish, which I recognized immediately. "Uni!" he said a huge grin on his face. I knew what he was getting at. When I had first been invited to Japan, Ayako-San had asked me if there was any food that I couldn't eat or didn't like, so she could pass the information on to my hosts. I told her I was fine with everything, though, I really don't like sea urchin. This is perfectly true, I think it is the grossest thing on the planet, with the texture of cold butter blended with raw egg whites, and a flavor reminiscent of the fishiest fish you have ever eaten mixed with petroleum. Not to mention it looks like a slimy orange turd. So, yeah, not a fan. Needless to say, I was non-to-pleased to see this scourge of the ocean sitting on a plate next to me. 

"We heard you don't like uni," said Saburo-San. Not wanting to be rude, I made a non-committal noise and said that I hadn't liked it when I had eaten it in the past. "But you've never had fresh Japanese uni?" I confirmed that this was true. The first time I had it I ate the uni in a restaurant in Bangor Maine. So, it was either an Atlantic sea urchin or something that had been frozen and transported god knows how far. Having moved from Alaska to Maine in my youth, I'm perfectly familiar with what the taste difference between Pacific and Atlantic can be. Thus, I was more willing to try the uni than I would have been at home.

It was clear that they all really wanted me to try the uni, especially You-San, who I could easily see, from the look of glee on his face, was the orchestrator of this culinary dare. Figuring I should get it over with, I took up my chopsticks and scooped a little of the slimy muck up to my mouth. Yeah, I still don't like uni. However, it was considerably better than the sample I had eaten in the past, but I still can't vouch for the texture.

My truthful statement seemed to satisfy them and I was directed to try some of the other fish, such as the flying fish or tobiuo that some of the kamaboko had been made out of. As I said, the sashimi was all on communal platters. Knowing a fair amount about Japanese etiquette, I turned my chopsticks backward and picked up a piece of fish, moved it to my own plate, then flipped them the right way to put the food in my mouth.

"How did you know to do that?" asked Jiro-San. I said that I had read about it somewhere and they were amazed that an American could find out something like that. Luckily for me, the internet is full of stuff like that for anybody who wants to know. Mrs. Hamaguchi then told me that in mixed company it was polite to use this method for communal dishes but inside of your family it was okay to ignore this. Then Jiro-San told me that I was free to consider myself a member of the family. I was very touched by this gesture and fully took advantage of my chopstick freedom for the rest of the meal. 

IMG_9730.jpg

From the start of dinner, I had noticed a number of plates that held a single dish. It was a whole fish, presented belly up, with it's interior acting as a bowl for a soupy, gravy-like substance. When they noticed me looking at it they told me that this was a specialty of the Goto Islands. The fugu fish is gutted and baked, with a mixture inside that is made of miso and the fish's liver. When you eat it you use a special wooden spoon to scrape the meat from the inside of the fish and mix it in with the miso and liver. It sounded very intriguing, so I tried it out, struggling to get the spoon to scrape anything. Jiro-San took over for me and expertly mixed the meat into the gravy. The flavor was packed with an amazing amount of umami. I've never eaten anything like it. 

I told them how much I liked it and in an offhand way Saburo-San said, "yes, fugu is the poisonous pufferfish." I nearly choked on my fugu liver gravy. 

If you've never heard about the poisonous pufferfish and its role in Japanese food, you clearly don't write a blog about Japanese food. People bring it up to me all the time. I'm pretty sure at least one person asked me if I would be eating some on my trip. They always want to know what I think about "the world's deadliest dish", sashimi made from pufferfish. My answer is always the same, I don't really know anything about it, it doesn't interest me. This might surprise you since I claim to be interested in everything to do with Japan. But, ever since I was a little kid and I accidentally ate false lily of the valley (a poisonous plant), I have been very keen to avoid any poisonous foods. I never had any plans to eat pufferfish. But, fate seemed to think it would be funnier if I did it without realizing it. 

"So," I said, trying to sound unconcerned, "this was once poisonous?" Jiro-San nodded and explained to me that when they make the dish they prepare it in such a way that there is no poison left. With fugu sashimi (fugu sashi), the chef, who must be specially certified, doesn't get rid of the poison totally. They leave a small amount, which won't kill anybody, but causes mild euphoria. With the Goto specialty, they leave no poison at all.

Now, since I've been back in the states I have read more about the fugu and I have only gotten more confused. They told me that the liver is what they made the miso sauce out of, but that is the most poisonous part of the pufferfish. Since I wasn't poisoned I can only assume that I misunderstood them. Not surprising, considering the vast language barrier. But, as I have no plans of attempting to make this dish myself, I guess it doesn't really matter. 

We talked a good bit while we ate but as the evening drew forward it became clear that my exhaustion was once again tapping me on the shoulder. Since I had to be up at the crack of dawn to go fishing the next morning, You-San arranged for Yuki-San and Mine-San to drive me to the hotel while the rest of the crew ate their own dinner. This sounded good to me since I was nearly falling asleep where I sat. I said goodnight to the Hamaguchi, thanked them for the dinner, and took my leave. 

In the next post, I will tell you about my morning net fishing with Kaisaki-San and his son. Exciting stuff! 

Until next time, always make sure you know what you're eating.

If you'd like to read about some NOT poisonous Japanese fish, you can check out this post, where I give my recipe for salmon teriyaki. 

Nihon Day Thirty Two: Why Japanese Bathrooms are Better Than Western Ones

 I found this in a bathroom in the Sendai train station. I was horrified to discover that all these years I needn't have been climbing onto the toilet seat. 

I found this in a bathroom in the Sendai train station. I was horrified to discover that all these years I needn't have been climbing onto the toilet seat. 

Really? A bathroom post?

Oh yes. Trust me, as a person who hates public bathrooms I was fascinated by the bathrooms in Japan. There were some very specific things that made them far better than Western bathrooms and I'm going to tell you about them. 

1. The Doorknobs

Let's start with the basics. I have a real problem with the way that people don't knock on public bathroom doors. You're just in there, doing your private business when someone grabs the knob and shakes it violently. And, of course, you know that they won't believe that there really is someone in there and will attempt to open it at least twice more. I always think "KNOCK DAMN IT, KNOCK!" But then, if they do knock, one never knows what to say. You could go with the formal "occupied" or the brusk, "I'm in here". "Just a minute" works well, but then you might feel like they're timing you. Or, you can be completely creepy and say "come in..."

IMG_0087.jpg

There is, of course, a simple solution to this, and in Japan they use it. This is the color-coded bathroom knob. It's a simple invention, one that we use in our most low tech toilet options (the porta-potty) but seem reluctant to use it in more high-class settings. If you don't know what I'm talking about, it is where when you turn the lock, a little opening in the knob outside turns to display a red dot and when you unlock it changes to green. This means that all someone has to do is look at the display to know whether or not someone is in there. I didn't see a single public bathroom in Japan that didn't have this simple design. I even saw it in one person's private home. 

2. The Soap Dispensers 

Though there are a variety of soap dispenser styles in American bathrooms, the most popular seems to be the push lever gravity feed and the automatic squirter (I have no idea what the technical names are, can you tell?). For both of these, they tend to use the foaming soap. In Japan, pretty much every bathroom has a soap dispenser that has a small metal bead on the bottom. You push the bead up with your fingers, allowing the liquid soap to escape and pool in your hand. You can do this with a quick tap and get as much as you need. Actually, I've seen these in maybe one or two American bathrooms but they are rare. The reason I like it is that the only place you're touching on the dispenser is the part that the soap comes out of. This makes it seem far more sanitary. "But what about the automatic dispensers? You don't have to touch them at all". Yeah, but they don't always work smoothly, meaning you have to wave your hand around like an idiot. I'd rather just tap it.

3. The baby seats

IMG_1240.jpg

I may not be a mother but I have taken my niece out on the town enough times to now that having to pee while carrying around a baby or young toddler is a nightmare. Where are you supposed to set them down? It's not exactly easy to hold onto them while trying to pull your pants down, and you're certainly not going to set them on the floor. That's just gross. 

In Japan, they have come up with a simple solution. Baby seats in the bathroom stalls. It's so brilliant, I can't believe it isn't a thing everywhere. 

4 The Traditional Toilet

I live fairly close to Bar Harbor, which is a very popular destination for tourists in Maine. Personally, I try to avoid it in the summer months, when the traffic is terrible, parking spaces are sparse, and cruise ships send boatloads of passengers on shore for a little shopping and ice cream consumption.

However, one day a friend of mine and I were hanging around Bar Harbor, waiting for her husband to get off work. I had to pee like a racehorse and decided to brave the single public bathroom hub in town, knowing perfectly well that it was likely to be disgusting. Boy, was I right. Every single toilet had urine all over the seats. And this was the women's section. I had to spend fifteen minutes cleaning up the toilet, while gagging and doing the pee-pee-dance, before I would sit down. 

I finally emerged, probably a delicate shade of green, and joined my friend. I told her about my harrowing experience and then said, "how do women even get pee on the seats?" She answered without a thought, "Oh, because obviously, you don't want to sit on the toilet, so you hover and pee." I blinked about a thousand times. Seriously? Clearly, other women are more coordinated than me. I would certainly get pee all over my leg if I tried that, or I would lose my balance and end up bashing my head off the toilet paper holder. 

   

  

So, what does this have to do with Japan? I mean, aside from the fact that most Japanese people would never leave a toilet seat with their pee on it. A lot of Japanese bathrooms have an option for a "traditional toilet", that is to say, one that is designed for people wearing kimono. In other words, you squat over it and relieve yourself, while holding up you kimono skirts. much easier than trying to hover over a western toilet. 

5 the mirror

This is something I didn't even know bothered me until I went to Japan and didn't have to deal with it. Stepping out of the shower on my first morning, I was amazed to see my own reflection in the mirror, despite the fact that the tiny room was full of steam. Upon closer examination I discovered that the mirror was actually heated, preventing the condensation from clouding the glass. This meant that I could do my hair and apply my makeup without having to wait for the steam to disperse. It's a small thing, but aren't those the things in life that make a difference?

IMG_0140.jpg

6 The Bath

In each of my hotel rooms, the bathrooms were very small. Well, the rooms, in general, were small but especially the bathrooms. And yet, they still manage to have nicer bathtubs than literally any I have ever seen in America. As a tall person, I am all too familiar with the eternal struggle of a so-called "relaxing bath". Sit up and soak your legs while your top half freezes, or lay back and stare at your uncovered knees while your legs come over with goosebumps? In Japan, they have solved this problem by simply raising the sides of the tub allowing you to be completely covered by the water. But, you don't need to feel like you're wasting water, as the tub is shorter. It means that you have to sit upright more than you might be used to, but who cares? You'll actually be soaking instead of freezing! Even though It was super hot when I was in Japan I still took the opportunity to try this miracle tub. I still dream about it. 

IMG_0142.jpg

Another thing I thought was nifty about the tub was that it actually shared a faucet with the sink. That's right, one knob for the sink, tub, and shower. All you had to do was swing the faucet to the right side for whichever water need you had. Only once did I accidentally spray the bathroom with the showerhead. 

7 the bidet

Okay, I know that some people are going to think this is crazy, taking into consideration most American's attitude about bidets. However, I'm guessing those people who most vehimently speak against bidets also haven't used one before. After all, they're very rare in the US. I myself had never come across one before I went to Japan, where pretty much every (non-traditional) toilet is equipt with one.

Unlike in France, these bidets are attached to the toilet itself, so you don't have to stand up and crab-walk over to the bidet. They are also electronic and have more fuctions than just the water jet. Now, it is a little intimidating to see mysterious buttons on the side of your toilet seat, especially with kanji instructions. However, if you simply calm down you will see English words too and pictures! Easy as pie. 

bidet-900x600.jpg

The buttons are for whether you want to spray your back bottom or your front bottom (if you're lucky enough to have a front bottom). They also have pressure and temperature adjusters so that you can spray to preference. Some even have a "flushing sound" volume, which I'm guessing is helpful for people who hate for others to know they were using the toilet at all. There is also occationally a "Powerful Deoterizer" which I'll admit I wasn't brave enough to try. 

Without getting too much into the gritty details, I think that every toilet should have this options. But, it is especially nice in the hot summer months. I'll let you imagine why that would be. But, if you're really against using a bidet, don't cancel your trip to Japan, they do have toilet paper as well.

 A public bathroom in Ueno, where you can clearly see directly into the men's side. Ummm, I should not be able to see a urinal from out here. 

A public bathroom in Ueno, where you can clearly see directly into the men's side. Ummm, I should not be able to see a urinal from out here. 

Anyway, this ends my lecture on Japanese bathrooms. I hope you enjoyed it. For more reading like this, you could try this post, where I talk about Japan's strange facination with poop. 

Until next time...

Japan Trip Ten: An Evening with the Hamaguchi family Part One

IMG_9721.jpg

This is the tenth post in a multi-part series covering my time on a Japanese tv show. If you haven't been following along, you should probably start at the beginning. Otherwise, welcome back, and enjoy!

When I finally got out of the air-conditioned van, feeling revived, if not one hundred percent oojah-cum-spiff, I found that a new member of the Hamaguchi family had arrived. She was the wife of the oldest brother, who you will remember was in Tokyo. I will call her Mrs. Hamaguchi since I only ever knew her as Hamaguchi-San. This was confusing because everybody was called Hamaguchi-San since San can mean either Mr. or Mrs. and most people go by their last names. At any rate, Mrs. Hamaguchi didn't speak a single word of English, and I think I've already demonstrated that my Japanese is extremely limited, but right away I felt that she and I would be good friends if it weren't for the language barrier.

She was very pretty, with chestnut brown hair, and a reassuring smile. Even though I knew that Mrs. Hamaguchi didn't understand what I was saying, she had a way of listening that made it feel like she did. Her eyes never sliding out of focus and her attention never drifting. It's always interesting how people listen to someone when they can't understand the language. Reacting to spoken words is such an ingrained thing in human society, that it feels really weird to be having a conversation with delays in the translation. I developed a mode of nodding as though I understood them, then doing the same thing again when Saori-San translated. I also found myself going "Mmm" a lot, which was something that everyone else did, and seems to be a cultural thing. I did wonder if I would keep doing it once I got back to the United States, but it melted away as fast as it had appeared. 

After introductions, You-San explained that even though I had opted to sleep at the hotel, they wanted to film me at the house, as though I was staying there. Just a little subterfuge for the sake of our "documentary". We loaded ourselves back into the van and followed the Hamaguchi family through the narrow streets of Tomie. Finally, we parked behind a very dingy looking building and a gravel-covered yard. It didn't look like anyone lived there, and even if it had, I couldn't imagine Mrs. Hamaguchi having such a shabby looking home. I looked at the house next door, which was tidier, with a large front yard and a very classically Japanese looking dog sitting on the porch. I thought this was a more likely candidate. 

We all got out of the car, and as usual, it took a little while for the crew to get organized. But, the wait didn't bother me, since there were only a small road and a stone wall between me and the ocean. Finally, we began to walk, heading away from the two buildings and mostly keeping to the roadway which traced the shore.

IMG_9727.jpg

I kept expecting every building that we reached to be the Hamaguchi home, but we kept going, turning up a few streets and then walking back down towards the ocean. After a few minutes of this strange course, I began to suspect that You-San was looking for a good place to stop and film. Finally, we reached a beautifully picturesque spot where an inlet broke into the town, framed by a concrete wall. The tide was high, so the water came almost up to the walkway. Many houses sat not too far away from here, their exteriors a brownish-red and their rooves a pleasing slate.

You-San asked Mrs. Hamaguchi and me to walk from one end of the inlet towards the camera on the other end. He encouraged us to chat as we walked, which was an odd request since we couldn't understand each other and our one language bridge, Saori-San, would be standing thirty feet away behind the camera. But, I was determined to do it right this time, and as with so many aspects of my social life, I was inspired by my one true love, cats. I spotted one of these wonderful creatures strolling along the opposite side of the inlet. I usually get excited when I see a cat but when I was already desperate to think of something to say I was even happier. 

I pointed to the cat and said, "Oh, neko!" ("Oh, cat!"). Her face lit up and she said "Hai, neko!" ("Yes, cat!"). I swelled with pride and we both giggled like old friends, stopping at the camera. "That was perfect!" said You-San, clearly relieved that I had shown a spark of personality. Then we were interrupted by George-San who tapped on his shoulder. He said something to You-San, who nodded and said something to Saori-San. "They want you to do it again," she told me. "Something went wrong." Seriously? Do you guys realize how hard this stuff is for me?

Mrs. Hamaguchi and I walked back to our previous starting point, her good-naturedly and me furiously wondering if I dared point out the cat again. Would she realize what I was doing or would she think I was a total idiot? Ah, the plight of the socially inept television star. On the whole, I decided I couldn't pull it off, and instead, we walked jauntily down the road in amiable silence. 

After this, we walked up a side street from there, then turned down another road and stopped in front of a beautiful stone wall that bordered someone's lawn. You-San stopped and asked Mrs. Hamaguchi a question. He seemed to like her response because the cameras were hoisted back onto George-San and Chan-San's shoulders and You-San asked me to ask her about the stones. "Say something like, 'how old is this stone wall?'"

IMG_9828.jpg

I parroted the question and waited for Mrs. Hamaguchi to finish her lengthy but unitellgiable (to me) reply. Saori-San then explained that the stones are volcanic and come from the island. The stone wall, and most of the others like it that I would see around Goto, have been standing since the days of Samurai rule. Very cool. 

We then turned around and walked back the way we came, stopping in front of a house we had litterally passed five minutes beforehand. We had finally reached Casa Hamaguchi. It was squeezed in a corner between another house and a storrage building of some sort. It was a traditional Japanese house, with a tiled slate roof, sliding doors, and carved fish on the ends of each ridge pole. I was enchanted and I began to fervently wish I was really staying there, even though I knew I needed to sleep well that night, which would be easier at the hotel. 

IMG_9725.jpg

We entered through a heavy sliding wooden door and I found myself standing in a small mud room. I took off my shoes and stepped up into the hallway, which led towards a kitchen in the back of the house. To the side was a large door which opened onto a living room which had a tatami mat floor. I can't describe to you how exciting this was for me. I'm such a nerd. 

The house was sparsely decorated and didn't have a particularly "lived in" feel. This was explained to me by You-San, who told me that the family had several houses in town and this one was sort of like a guest house. If I had been staying there, I would have had it all to myself. After they briefly showed me the living room and kitchen Mrs. Hamaguchi brought me up the staircase to the bedroom. As soon as we got halfway up the stairs I stopped feeling sad that I would be at the hotel that night. It was so hot upstairs that I felt like I couldn't breath. 

IMG_9716.jpg

That being said, the room was very cute, with tatami mats on the floor and curtains that hid a door to the balcony. The ceiling was very low, for someone of my substantial height, but the overall effect was pleasing. The only "furniture" in the room was a Japanese mattress on the floor. I complimented the room and was persuaded to try the bed.

I've always been very curious about these futons, never having seen an authentic one in person. As it turns out, anime and manga are very misleading on this point. They always look fluffy and snuggly as clouds in this medium, but in reality, my pampered American backside was having none of it. I'm sure I would have gotten used to it but not in the advanced state of exhaustion I had reached. 

I got back up and they pointed out a garment that was neatly folded and sitting next to the bed. "They have a yukata here," said Saori-San. "They want you to try it on." A yukata is a type of kimono that is worn in the summer. It is generally made out of cotton so that it is light and easy to wear in the heat. I have always wanted to try on a yukata but as usual, something kept me from being wholeheartedly excited. As anyone who is not of average proportion will know, it is not always easy for some people to just throw on garments of unknown sizes. Generally, one wishes to only do this when they are alone, in a changing room at a store, where no one can see their shame. Definitely not in a room full of people, two of whom are clutching cameras.

But, I'm a tough cookie and decided to roll with the punches. Mrs. Hamaguchi unfolded it and helped me into it, over my clothes. I tried not to wince as Saori-San unwrapped the narrow obi that would hold it closed. In my experience, this is where things usually go south, when I try out belts and their compatriots. To my utter amazement, Saroi-San was able to wrap it around me and fasten it closed. Oh, thank god! Crisis averted. I'm sure I would have gotten over it if it hadn't fit, lord knows I'm used to it. However, knowing how kind they all were, I knew they would have felt terrible if it hadn't fit me. 

IMG_9924.jpg

As it did fit me, they were able to spend the next five minutes telling me that I looked amazing in a yukata. They took pictures, filmed, and got me to sit on my shins on the mattress so I looked super authentic. I'm glad I don't blush noticeably because otherwise, I would have looked like a radish throughout the whole trip. 

Once I had taken it off and attempted to hand it back to Mrs. Hamaguchi they informed me that it was actually a gift from the crew. I was very touched. As we walked down the stairs Saori-San asked me if I liked it. "Yes, very much," I said. "The color is lovely." 

This seemed to please Yuki-San who was walking behind us. "He picked it out," said Saori-San at his prompting. I thanked him and he laughed, saying something else. "He said it was his grandfather's," said Saori-San. My eyebrows shot skyward. She laughed and slapped his arm. "He's joking," she said. 

"Oh," I said, also laughing but unsure as to whether or not this was true. If it is true, it would probably explain why I actually fit into it, I find it far more plausible that I'm a similar shape to Yuki-San's grandfather than any Japanese women I've met. 

We got downstairs and I was informed that we would be heading back to Fukue to have dinner with the Hamaguchi family. My stomach had just finally settled down and I had reached that stage of tiredness where you're not even aware of how tired you are. Not to mention, I was happy to spend another few hours with the family that was being so kind to me. We walked out of the house and found the Hamaguchi men outside, talking with an older gentleman and a young man. "Ah!" said You-San spotting them, "Kaisaki-San!" 

They bowed to each other and then You-San presented me to them. "Kipp-San desu," he said. I bowed and smiled and said, "nice to meet you." Then You-San informed me that they were the men who would be taking me fishing in the morning. "Oh," I said, "I'm really looking forward to it!" They beamed like I had just made their day, then took their leave, promising to see me bright and early. Ah, bright and early, my favorite time of day. 

We got back into the van and set off for dinner. 

Wow, I didn't think that it would take me so long to describe this part of the story. I guess I'll have to save my harrowing experience with the poisonous puffer fish until the next post. I do apologize. I promise it is worth the wait. 

Until next time, enjoy your sleep while you can.

Please remember to share this post on your social media of choice. If you want something else to read, you might enjoy this post about Japanese cats. Or you might like this one about parenting in Japan. 

Copycat Chicken Katsu Sandwich

Copycat Chicken Katsu Sandwich

As you may know, I've been mostly writing about my recent trip to Japan and time on the tv show Who Wants to Come to Japan. It's been a little while since I have posted something about food, which is silly since this is supposed to be a blog about food. However, while I've been writing about my trip, I keep having to describe all the delicious food I ate. This is a sort of torture because I can't eat the food. I want to eat the food. So, I've started recreating some of the dishes, to the best of my abilities. I started with the delicious sandwich I ate at the Haneda Airport, the morning after my arrival in Japan…

Japan Trip Nine: Hamaguchi Suisan

IMG_9710.jpg

This is the ninth part of a multi-post series about my time on a Japanese TV show. If you're just discovering this series, I suggest you go here, where it all began. Otherwise, forget I said anything, carry on. 

When we were done eating lunch, we left the restaurant, after thanking the owner for her kindness. Back in the van, we drove out of the town of Fukue and headed down the coast.  The road was long and ran both parallel to the island's beach and through some of the coastal mountains.

The most interesting thing about the beaches were the tetrapods, which I had never seen in real life. If you don't know what a tetrapod is, you're not alone. Basically, they are giant concrete blocks, with four arms, which look a bit like jacks from the children's game. There a common sight in Japan where they are used to protect the shores from the harsh waves of inclement weather, and I imagine help a fair bit with erosion. Some people think that tetrapods take away from the natural beauty of Japan, but I just thought they were amazing. It was like adding a geometric art piece to the natural beauty. Maybe I would feel different if I had to look at them everyday but seeing them for the first time just made me so excited to be in Japan. 

Our destination was Tomie, a smaller town on the southern tip of Fukue Island. The kamaboko company that we were going to was located on a piece of land that jutted off the coast, so the factory was surrounded by the ocean on three sides. It faced a beautiful view of coastal mountains across the grey water. When we parked and got out of the van, the breeze coming off of the ocean was refreshing, though the air was still thick with humidity and the sky was ominously grey. 

IMG_9709.jpg

The factory was a single story building, the front part brick, the back part white and nondescript. The entrance had a low, covered deck and a long, white noren hanging over it. This was Hamaguchi Suisan, the company where I would spend the next three days and finally learn some of the secrets of kamaboko.

The film crew seemed to have a real love for throwing me into situations without giving me much prep. Instead of meeting the family first, and then filming it, they just had me walk right in with another "Konichiwa!". You-San told me to try and talk as much Japanese with them as I could manage. I don't think he was expecting much from me, as I hadn't really said anything except "hello" and "thank you" in Japanese before this time. But, I had been hitting the books pretty hard before I left, or hitting the MP3s that is, and had memorized a little bit of dialog. 

I stepped inside and was glad to find the room was air-conditioned. Directly in front of the door was a room with a table and shelves covered in beautifully packaged kamaboko. The colorful papers and boxes jumped out from the monochromatic interior. Two coolers provided a muffled whirring noise. To the right were a modern looking kitchen space and a long table with chairs. No one was inside, but as the crew followed me in I said "Konichiwa?" with much more confidence than I had in the restaurant. I was adapting. 

IMG_9711.jpg

There was a door behind the long table and a moment later it slid open to reveal two men. They were both shorter than me, dressed entirely in black, and beaming. One had a round face that immediately put you at your ease. The other was handsome and wouldn't have looked out of place in a movie. They both bowed and I copied them saying "Kipp-San desu, I am from America!" Because that's not a weird way to introduce yourself. 

They introduced themselves as the Hamaguchi brothers. The round-faced one was the middle brother, we will call him Jiro, and the other was the youngest son, we'll call him Saburo. Their older brother, the president of the company, was in Tokyo for the week and therefore was unable to be there to meet me. These two men would be my teachers instead. 

They asked me if I spoke Japanese at all and I was finally able to show off my language skills. "Nihongo ga sukoshi wakarimasu," I rattled off, "demo mada jozu ja arimasen." "I understand Japanese a little, but I am not very skilled yet." This is a phrase that I have memorized for just such an occasion. The brothers smiled and said "Jozu desu!" which amazingly, I happened to know meant "You are good!" and I also happened to know that I should reply again with "ie, jozu ja arimasen." ("No, I'm not skilled.")  Then, because I could, I threw in "yoku wakarimasen" or "I don't understand well." This delighted them, which is good because it is about the only conversation I managed to pull off in Japanese. 

I glanced over my shoulder at the film crew and noted with amusement that they all looked very surprised. It seemed they were wondering if I had actually been able to understand more than I let on. Saori-San even said, "I had no idea you spoke so much Japanese." I shrugged and played it cool, then admitted that this was a fluke and I would probably remain silent for the rest of the trip. But, she made my day by telling me that my pronunciation was spot on, which was reassuring since the only people I had ever spoken Japanese to were my family members who obviously don't speak Japanese either. 

The Hamaguchi brothers were very excited that I had come all the way to Japan to learn about kamaboko. Hamaguchi Suisan was their family business and had been for about a hundred years. They made all different kinds of kamaboko, all from fish that was caught around their island the very same day. They had a shop in Tomiemachi and a shop in Tokyo, which Mine-San told me was where she bought her kamaboko. They brought me over to the coolers, where they had all of their different varieties on display. Saburo-San picked up each one in turn and explained about them to me.

 This is actually a picture from the gift shop at the Fukue airport. But you get the idea. 

This is actually a picture from the gift shop at the Fukue airport. But you get the idea. 

We started with the classic ita wasa kamaboko, which is the type I made at home. Of course, their's looked amazing and came in both the white and pink-rimmed varieties. I had been prepped by You-San during lunch and was able to impress them with my knowledge that the pink (or red) layer represents the rising sun. Then I blew them out of the water by referring to the obscure kamaboko trade phrase "ashi". This word means leg in Japanese, but in kamaboko circles, it is also a term to describe the ideal firmness or elasticity of kamaboko. In other words, it should feel like you're pressing your finger into the flesh of your leg. 

We ran through a brief description of the other kamaboko in the cooler, and I asked various questions at the behest of You-San. Once this was done, we sat down at the table and began a kamaboko tasting. I had at least eight different types of kamaboko to try and a group of excited people hovering over me, not to mention two cameras. No pressure. First I took a bite of the ita wasa kamaboko. It was delightful, with the perfect firmness, mild flavor, and elasticity. I praised it to the best of my abilities and everyone seemed satisfied.

Next, I tried the baramon, which is a square shaped kamaboko that is fried rather than steamed. There were two different baramon, one made of white fish and the other brown in color. They were talking about a lot of different types of fish, none of which I knew as they were all Japanese. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure the brown baramon were made of flying fish. The fried fish cakes were a little richer than the ita wasa and had a more springy texture. 

The one I had been most interested to try after our discussion at the cooler was the datemaki, which was a rolled kamaboko with a yellow color. As Saburo-San had told me, this was because it had egg yolk added to the surimi (fish paste). The flavor surprised me, as it was sweeter than the others. The texture was the same as the ita wasa but the flavor was strong and rich. 

We moved on to two small dumpling shaped kamaboko. These were tsumire, which are primarily used in soups to flavor the broth. They had a very firm texture and strong flavor. I would later try a broth made with tsumire, and I can tell you, they pack a punch! Second to last was Ryugan, a kamaboko that had a hard boiled egg encased inside it. Seeing as how I am not a fan of hard-boiled eggs, this one didn't really appeal to me. That being said, for what it was, it was pretty tasty. 

They had saved the best for last. This was their centerpiece, their signature kamaboko, the gotomaki roll. The log-shaped, steamed, roll holds a secret inside, which you discover when you slice it. A piece of fresh konbu seaweed, forming a four or five-pointed symbol, somewhat like a handprint. In fact, it is intended to be a hand or a crown. I bit into the kamaboko and was pleased by the contrast of the elastic fish and the firm, fresh seaweed. The salty konbu and the mild fish flavor mixed perfectly.

kamaboko.001.jpeg

When I was done eating the various kamaboko they asked me which had been my favorite. I thought about it for a moment and then truthfully answered that the gotomaki roll was the best. I even waxed poetically about the flavor and texture. This was apparently the answer they had been hoping for because they beamed and told me that the next day I would be making the gotomaki roll myself.

Also, they hoped that I would be willing to go fishing first thing in the morning with some locals, to catch the fish we would use to make kamaboko. Willing? I couldn't think of something I'd rather do in the whole world. Go fishing with Japanese fishermen? That's got to be something that few Americans get to experience. My dad was going to freak when I told him. 

The tasting portion done, I was allowed to take a break, sitting to the side and flipping through a few magazines they had out. They were mostly traveling guides for the islands and I was interested to find pictures of several Catholic churches. This stirred something in my memory and I suddenly remembered a piece of Japanese history that I had floating around in my brain. The Nagasaki area had been the destination of many Dutch traders and missionaries before the Edo period. There had been a degree of intermingling and some of the locals had been converted to Christianity. When the Tokugawa Shogunate took control of the country, they made the foreign religion illegal and many Japanese Christians were persecuted and had to go underground. The Goto Islands were home to many of these Christians and after the ban on the religion was lifted they built many Catholic churches.

I couldn't believe I had forgotten this, not only because I had read a fair bit about it at one time, but also I had watched a whole movie about it the very day I was invited to Japan. Silence starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver takes place on the coast of Kyushu and a whole portion of it takes place on Goto. I can't say I particularly enjoyed the movie, despite the fact that I have a bit of a crush on Adam Driver. It's super dark and depressing, but I had just watched it and couldn't believe I had forgotten its location already. I guess I had a lot on my mind. It still gets me that right after I was invited to Japan when I had no idea where in the country I would end up, I watched a movie located on the very island I would be visiting. 

While I marveled at this connection, You-San came and sat down next to me. He informed me that there were some children on their way there who really wanted to meet me. "Children?" I said, not without a little alarm. "Yes, some school children we met, who have never met an American." The way he said it made it sound like they were random children who they had bumped into on the street, but they were actually the children of the brothers. Between the three Hamaguchi brothers, there were seven children, but I would be meeting four of them that day. "They want to meet an American and ask you some questions, maybe speak a little English with you." "Okay, I can do that," I said. English is the one thing I'm good at here. 

It wasn't too long before they arrived. Two boys around ten, a girl around seven or eight, and another girl who was probably twelve. They were adorably shy, sneaking into the room and taking seats almost before I realized they were there. You-San had warned me that they were shy so I did my best to put them at their ease. They gave me curious looks but mostly stared at their feet. I myself am pretty shy when it comes to children in this age group, so we were well paired. They pointed the camera at us and with a lot of coaxing from You-San we started a conversation. 

I asked them questions about living on the island and about school. I asked them if they were learning any English and they said they were. But, they were too shy to say any of it. I asked them if I was the first American they had seen, which I knew I was. They nodded their heads and then one of the girls piped up and said that I was the first person they had ever seen who wasn't Japanese. Seeing as how I am a giant, with light hair, and green eyes, I imagine that I was very striking to them. 

Probably seeing that the conversation was lagging, You-San suggested that we go outside and play "Oni Gokko". You would have thought that he just said there was an ice cream truck outside, as those shy children jumped to their feet, eyes ablaze with excitement. Oh god, I thought, what the heck is Oni Gokko? I directed this question to Saori-San and she told me it is a game much like tag. "One kid is the oni, like a monster, and they count to ten, then chase the other children until they catch one and it becomes the oni." Chase? As in run? I am not a runner. I wasn't even a runner when I was their age. I am a scholar, I enjoy scholarly pursuits. Most of these involve me sitting on my butt. I can suck it up and run, but I had hoped to never have to do it both in front of strangers and on film. 

 The children in the back row were the ones I met the first day.

The children in the back row were the ones I met the first day.

We moved outside, where there was a large sports field behind the factory. One of the little boys said he would be oni to start and he stood in the middle of the field counting to ten. What followed were some of the hardest minutes of my life, fifteen of them to be precise. My legs were a lot longer than theirs, but I do not have the endless energy of a child, and I was suffering from jet lag, lack of sleep, and dehydration. Not to mention, I had a stomach full of kamaboko of various descriptions. By the end of the game, I was breathing like Darth Vader and felt like I was going to vomit out all of my internal organs. As we walked back to the building the children skipped along with me, their shyness evaporated. They even taught me how to say sky and ocean in Japanese (sora and kaiyo). 

Let me remind you that I had only had four hours of sleep in the past forty-eight hours. I must have looked like death warmed over because both Saori-San and Mine-San started fussing over me. They gave me an iced tea and made me sit in the air-conditioned van for about a half an hour. Then they asked me about any pre-existing medical conditions, which told me that I was not passing off my misery well. So, yeah, that was all pretty embarrassing but with hindsight, totally hilarious. 

But, the day wasn't over, as I had been invited to dinner with the Hamaguchi family, but would first be going over to see one of their houses. They had offered me a room at their own home while I was on the island, which I had gratefully accepted. However, after watching me nearly die of oni gokko, Mine-San and Saori-San talked me into staying at the hotel instead, where I would have air conditioning and privacy. But, You-San still wanted to film me seeing the house, so away we went.

And here is where I will once again leave you. In the next post I will tell you about the Japanese house I pretended to be staying at and how I was tricked into eating (no longer) poisonous puffer fish. 

Until next time, run like the wind!

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one, about the oldest Japanese companies. Or perhaps you would like to read this one about Pokemon. 

Please remember to like this post and share it on your social media of choice. My primary means of finding new readers is word of mouth and it really helps me when my reader share my posts! Also, I love hearing from you, so please feel free to comment below!

Japan Trip Eight: First Impressions of Goto Island

IMG_9681.JPG

This is the eighth installment of a multi-post series on my trip to Japan. If you haven't read those that came before, I recommend you go BACK TO THE BEGINNING! Otherwise, have at it! 

And so, I found myself on the Goto Islands. Technically, I was on Fukue, but the film crew always referred to it as Goto, so I shall as well. From where I stood at the airport, I could see tall hills covered in the most lush greenery. It was a very "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore" moment. Inside Tokyo I had been very aware that I wasn't in America anymore, but it was more about the language and the people around me. Now, it was very much about the landscape. It didn't look anything like where I've spent most of my life.

Did it look like the image of Japan that I had formed? In someways, but I've never spent a lot of time researching or looking at pictures of, the southern parts of Japan. Honshu and Hokkaido have always been my focus. What really threw me now was the presence of palm trees. And I wasn't alone. Saori-San told me that she rarely left Honshu, and it was really weird for her to see these subtropical plants. I myself hadn't seen them since I was ten and spent a week in South Carolina. 

  I took this panoramic at the airport. A car drove by while I was taking it, making it look like there's a stormtrooper ghost walking by.

I took this panoramic at the airport. A car drove by while I was taking it, making it look like there's a stormtrooper ghost walking by.

As for the climate that supported all this greenery and palm trees, it was damp and warm. We were actually there during the monsoon season, but amazingly, it only rained a little on the last day I was there. The skies, however, were overcast, and there was a certain level of mugginess that I just had to get used to. 

The equipment and luggage was loaded, the airport filming was done, and we all piled into the van. We had a new driver, who would later give me a sticker and a four leaf clover that he found. We drove away from the airport, and headed to the town of Fukue. My eyes roved across everything, taking in as much as I could. The town was up against the ocean, there were lots of boats and little harbors. I saw something to interest me everywhere, even in the most mundane things, like the shape of the buildings, the designs on the concrete walls, and the writing on the roadway. I'm sure most of the pictures I took on that first car ride would seem totally mundane to most Japanese people. But, I don't have to worry about that with you, dear reader, do I?

IMG_9674.JPG
IMG_9679.JPG
IMG_9677 (1).JPG
IMG_9695.JPG

At one intersection the van stopped and You-San directed my attention to a beautiful stone wall, surrounded by a mote. There was a bridge across this mote and a grand gateway. It looked like something out of a samurai tale. "That's the high school," said Saori-San, translating for You-San. "It used to be the castle." As if to give credence to this statement, two girls in the classic Japanese school uniform crossed the bridge and went inside. I was fascinated, and even more so when I saw a huge heron-like bird sitting on the wall. "Is that a real bird?" I said stupidly, and luckily, no one heard me. 

  Don't worry, I have better pictures from when I visited later.

Don't worry, I have better pictures from when I visited later.

After a short drive, the van pulled over on the side of the street and we got out. You-San wanted to film me walking across a bridge and looking around at the scenery. You would think this was a pretty straight forward affair, but of course it took a lot of explaining, directing, hand signals, and do-overs. I'm pretty sure that I must have been a very frustrating subject for You-San. 

IMG_9680.JPG
IMG_9689.JPG

When we were done, You-San told me that we were going to get some lunch, then head to kamaboko place. He told me that Goto was not a popular place for tourists, especially not foreign ones. There was a small amount of business men who liked to come to the island for fishing, but that was it. He had been there a lot, both in the past and in preparation for filming. 

We stoped the van in a modest looking alleyway, and I waited in the van while the crew conferred outside. Just another instance of me sitting around while others spoke in words I did not understand, definitely talking about me, and deciding my fate. It is a weird feeling, for sure. Finally, Saori-San came to get me and told me what You-San wanted. I was to walk down the street, take notice of the entry to the restaurant and say something like "this looks interesting!" and go inside. Pretty straight forward, but they went on. "When you get inside, say 'konichiwa' and the owner will come out and talk with you." Oh god, okay, I guess I can do that. "Just have a conversation with her, and we will see how it goes." Have a conversation? Sure, throw me in the deep end.

But, I didn't have to wait for this conversation to humiliate myself. I managed to walk right past the entryway to the restaurant without realizing that was where they had been talking about. "Stop, come back!" It was a real face palm moment for everyone. In my defense, there were two doorways, and the one they wanted me to go through looked a little bit less like a restaurant entry than the other, and was tucked into some greenery. 

Take two. This time I walked into the restaurant correctly, even remembering to pretend that I was making a new discovery on my own. Who knew that so much acting was involved in filming a documentary style show? Inside, I was prepared to say my lines and start the conversation, but had to pause while my eyes adjusted to the dim interior. The tv crew crowded in behind me. "Konichiwa?" I said tentatively. 

I was standing in the entry of a restaurant, which was dim owing to there being no windows. Around the corner I could see booths, partially hidden by hanging noren. There was a familiar running water sound, like the aquarium section of a pet store. Directly in front of me were a couple huge tanks of water, which housed some very big colorful fish. Not like in American Chinese buffets, where they have large koi tanks where you wait for your table. These were clearly ocean fish that had just been caught and were waiting to be butchered. 

A moment later, a woman came out of a doorway to the side, which lead to the kitchen. As with most of the women I met in Japan, she reached about to my chin. Her face was very kind, and her manner towards me was very welcoming. Before I could say anything more than hello and introduce myself, she lead the way around the corner and sat me down at one of the booths. The camera crew crowded into the corner and everyone focused on me. You-San told me to ask what their restaurant's specialty was. 

She told me that their signature dish was udon, with their own house made noodles. Goto is famous for their camellia flowers--those big, red, tropical flowers I had seen depicted in the airport. One of the things they do with those flowers is make camellia oil, which is used for several things, such as beauty products like shampoo and soaps. Another use, specific to the island, is for their udon noodles, which get coated in the oil after they are stretched into shape. This is partially for flavor, and partially to keep the noodles from breaking down in the broth. 

She explained all of this to me, and then added that their was one more ingredient that made their udon soup so special. That ingredient was kamaboko, made on their island, from fish out of their bay. I asked her to bring me a bowl, and away she went. While we waited, You-San and Saori-San sat down across from me. You-San told me that he had been to the island a lot recently, scouting out locations and communicating with the family that I would be working with. According to him, this was the best restaurant in town. 

"Now, when the soup comes," he said, clearly already realizing that I was a wet blanket in human form, "act very excited to see your first Japanese kamaboko." He mimed the sort of reaction he was looking for, throwing back his hands and gasping, a look of rapturous joy on his face. Yeah, that shouldn't be too difficult. Of course, when the bowl was set down in front of me I did what felt like exuberant acting to me, and was, in fact, probably half the level he was looking for. I was not born for television. 

As some of you may recall, the very first time I had kamaboko it was in a bowl of udon soup. That was in a Japanese-American restaurant, and though it was delicious, it was nothing compared to the real thing. Steam rose up from the bowl, carrying with it a most enticing smell. The topping was beautifully laid out, with some vegetables, and other trimmings, but I only had eyes for the kamaboko.

There it was, perched atop the broth and noodles, two small slices of the classic kamaboko. It was delicately sliced so that the face of it was ridged like a fan. I exuded as much delight as I could, grinning like an idiot and exclaiming with delight. "Wow, my first Japanese kamaboko!" This seemed to satisfy You-San, and I was able to move forward with the process of eating. I lightly gripped it between my chopsticks and lifted it to my mouth. It was divine. The texture, firmness, and most of all, flavor, were spot on. It was much better than the kamaboko I had eaten at Ichiban, and, of course, worlds apart from the "kamaboko" I had made at home. 

  I wasn't able to take a picture when it first came out, but I took one after I had eaten most of it.

I wasn't able to take a picture when it first came out, but I took one after I had eaten most of it.

After I had devoured the single morsel, and expressed my devotions, I tried the noodles and broth, which were also amazing. I spoke a little bit more to the owner, though unfortunately I don't really remember much of that conversation. Finally, the camera's moved away from me, and You-San gave the word that we were all done with this segment. I could now eat my lunch in peace.  

The film crew all moved into a separate booth to film another bowl of udon, while Saori-San, Mine-San, and I were left to our own devices. Saori-San opened up the menu, scanned it and pointed out different dishes to me. One of the items that she read off had the word eel in it. "I love eel," I said, which is true it's one of my very favorite types of meat. She told me that it wasn't really eel, the way that unadon is. Or that it was a different type. I asked if it tasted similar, and she said that it sort of did. I decided to order it and try for myself. 

While we waited for our food, I was able to look around me a bit. Running parallel to the booths was a long bar, with a line of empty stools. Behind this bar was the kitchen, open for the world to see. There were perhaps four cooks in there, though their lunch rush hadn't really started yet. They wore white chef jackets and black, Japanese style head scarves. In-between the bar counter and the kitchen was a row of open fishtanks, where most of the bubbling and pump sounds were coming from. In these waters swam a myriad of different fish, waiting to be selected by the patrons and sliced up into a variety of dishes, mostly sashimi. 

The sight was fascinating, but I got distracted by my meal's arrival. This eel, or eel like creature, was about the size of the jumbo shrimp they use for tempura, and it was in a similarly battered state. Two long, golden, crispy fillets were sitting on top of a small bowl of rice. They were decorated with perfectly browned onions and shiitake mushrooms, and finished off with a drizzle of rich brown sauce. Along with this dish was a small bowl of clear broth soup with enoki mushrooms and strips of fried tofu. Lastly, a little plate of pickled cucumber and another yellow vegetable I couldn't identify. It was so perfect I could have cried. 

IMG_9698 2.JPG
IMG_9701.JPG
IMG_9699.JPG

Do I even need to tell you that it was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten? The crispness of the batter, the mild flavor of the "eel", the perfectly prepared rice. (I'm making myself hungry just writing about it). The sauce was sweet, and there was just enough of it to accent the savory flavors of the rest. The soup had a wonderful savory, mushroom, earthiness to it, and the pickles were crisp and salty. I ate it all, and enjoyed every bite. 

We stayed there for a while, as the crew had to eat their lunches after the filming was done. I felt relaxed, sated and happy. Even the prospect of more filming that day was not enough to disturb my piece of mind. Of course, then my stomach decided to protest my delicious lunch. I have been cursed with a constitution that gives every affliction a stomach ache. Stressed? Stomachache. Headache? Stomachache. Nervous? Stomachache. Jet lag? Stomachache. Luckily, this time it wasn't very bad, but I did have reason to be annoyed with that organ. 

At last, it was time to leave the restaurant, and for me to start to think nervously about the next stage. It was time to go to the kamaboko company, where I would meet the masters who would teach me all about kamaboko. I was both exhilarated and apprehensive. And of course, this is where I must leave you until next time!

IMG_1610.JPG

I hope you've been enjoying my story. Please remember to like this post and share it on your social media preference. My blog is mostly run by word of mouth, and the best thing my readers can do for me is to help spread the word! Thank you so much for taking the time. And remember, I alway love reading your comments and answering any questions. 

Until next time, dream big!

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one, about an udon soup I made a while back.  Or, you might enjoy this one, which is a review of the Japanese restaurant where I first ate kamaboko. 

Japan Trip Seven: A Mysterious Destination

IMG_9642 2.JPG

Hello everyone! I hope you all are having a snuggly Christmas Eve. My gift to you this year? How about another installment of my adventure tale? A very Merry Christmas to you all!

This is the seventh part of a multi-post series about my time on a Japanese television show. If you haven't read them in order, please do go back to number one. If you're up to date, go for it!

So, there I was, back in my hotel room, late at night, after my first Japanese dinner. I had been awake for over twenty four hours, I had flown across the world, and now I had only five hours to sleep before it would be time to get up and catch another flight. Reasonable. 

I barely managed to get into my pajamas, and send a couple text messages to my family and friends back in the states. Everyone was very excited to hear from me, though a few pictures of my dinner and a text of "So much to tell, but so little time for sleep!" was about all I could manage. 

Still, as exhausted as I was, I had a fretful night. You would think that with all that provocation I would have slept like a log. Alas, one of my precious hours of sleep time was spent staring at the ceiling of my hotel from midnight to around one. When my alarm went off at three I dragged myself out of bed, took a shower, and made myself as pretty for the cameras as I could. 

Back in the hotel lobby I met Mine-San, who asked me if I had slept well, then led me outside to where the van waited. Tokyo in the dusk was beautiful. The streets were empty, and a light mist lingered, giving everything a soft tone. Unfortunately, Saori-San wasn't with us yet, so there was minimal talking. My luggage and I were loaded into the van, and away we went. 

On the way we stopped to pick up George-San, and a new member of the crew, an assistant cameraman, who I would later be introduced to. His name was Chan-San, and I would learn that he was Korean, or at least, from a Korean family. Driving through Tokyo, it started to rain, the silence of the sleepy van was supplemented with the sound of the windshield wipers and the tires rolling across the wet pavement. If I hadn't been so interested in my surroundings, I might have been lulled to sleep. 

This time, our destination was Haneda Airport, Tokyo's second and smaller airport. Until a few years ago, Haneda mostly did domestic flights, but in recent years, they have opened up to more international flights. I was told that they had done a lot of work to the airport, making it a much nicer place. Unlike Narita, it is inside the actual city, making for a shorter commute from my hotel. 

As we waited in line, Mine-San handed me my tickets. I looked them over, seeing that we would be flying to Fukuoka, and then to an airport called Goto Fukue. If I had had full use of my phone's internet, I would have googled this, and then I would have known that they had lied to me about our destination. But, as it was, I simple assumed that Goto Fukue was the name of Nagasaki's airport. 

Not long before we got to security, Saori-San joined us, giving me a little relief to the stress of not understanding anyone. While we walked to our gate, she told me that she doesn't usually do these tv shows, but that a friend of her's had asked her to do this once. She didn't know that I had already been filmed at my house, so while we walked I told her the story, which she found pretty amusing. 

IMG_9586.JPG

At the gate, we had about an hour and a half to wait for our flight. There was a Starbucks right next to us, so Saori-San, Youki-San, and I all went over and picked out food and coffees for everyone. I was highly amused by seeing that amongst the packaged sandwiches, scones, and muffins, there were "American Waffles". These plain waffles were wrapped in cello bags and sitting upright on the shelf, like a sandwich. I giggled and took a picture, which attracted Saori-San's attention. I had to explain that this was in no way the method of eating waffles in America. Still, this wasn't really that strange, considering that I would later come across corn on the cob in vacuum-sealed baggies, in a connivence store in Tokyo.  

While we waited in line, Saori-San and Youki-San talked, and she related some of the information to me. Youki-San was only nineteen, and in high school, he had been a judo champion for Western Japan. He still lived with his parents and his sisters. I never got a definitive number on these sisters, but I ended up with the impression that there were many of them. True cat lovers are clearly distinguishable across language barriers, as later he would show me a series of pictures he took of his family cat. 

The sandwich that I ended up getting, was probably the best I have ever had, and I am very surprised to discover I didn't take a picture of it. All it was was a chicken sandwich with tomato and pesto, but my god, they got every element just right. The chicken, was a fried katsu style cutlet, and unlike if you had gotten it in America, it was dark meat. I am a chicken snob, so I was gratified to find this. The pesto had good flavor, but it wasn't over powering. It was only half a sandwich, but it was very filling.

I also remember this fondly, because it was the last food I would eat for the next couple of days that wouldn't make me feel sick. This is embarrassing to admit, as a food writer. It had nothing to do with the food, which was all delicious and perfectly good. It had everything to do with my slow decent into jet lag caused nausea that would plague me throughout my first days of filming.

Pretty soon it was time to board the plane, and while Saori-San and I stood towards the back of the line, she pointed out someone all the way at the front. "See that man in the straw hat?" she asked me. I did. He looked young, wore a sort of boatrace-esque hat, a loose shirt and shorts, and a pair of geta sandals. I sort of think he was holding a ukulele case as well, but I might be embellishing my memory. "That's a famous actor," she said. So, I have no idea who it was, but I did see a Japanese celebrity. 

IMG_9588.JPG

On the plane, I sat apart from all of my crew, and instead found myself between two business men. I might have been upset that I wasn't in the window seat, but I was far too distracted by the magazine I found in the pouch. I discovered that you can buy creepily realistic dolls of the airline's flight attendants. There was an extensive article about how they made them, and a number of other dolls. There were also several articles about a festival somewhere in Japan where people dress in spectacular yellow onesies and terrifying masks. I looked through the whole magazine while we sat on the tarmac and took pictures of pretty much every page. Someday, I'll be able to read the text and find out what the heck is happening. 

Once the plane started rolling around the airstrip, I found another magnificent distraction. The tv screen in the back of the seat in front of me came on, and a film about airplane safety began to play. I have always had an issue with the way that most airlines give their safety instructions, with the flight attendants pointing and miming blowing into their life vests. Not because I think myself above such measures, but because I can never hear them. I don't think I've ever been in an airplane where the pilot wasn't either mumbling, or the speakers weren't crackling like a merry fire and drowning out all of the life saving information. Well, this video covered everything, and in the most amazing way possible. 

I tried to find this video on the internet, but was unsuccessful. However, I did find a blurb about it on the website of the company that came up with the concept, go figure. Apparently, this was the first in-flight safety video to leave the airplane behind, instead, moving the seats and the passengers into a jazz club. Yes, it was as amazing as it sounds. We learned all about how to inflate our life vests while the actors mimed being in the relaxing atmosphere of the jazz club. Unlike American safety talks, they also covered being respectful to your fellow passengers, which I thought was a nice touch. I am totally kicking myself for not filming it on my phone. Kicking myself though, not the back of a fellow passenger's seat. Now I know how inconsiderate that is. 

Finally, the plane started to take off, as we picked up speed I happened to glance out of the window. There was a row of about seven or eight men waving at the plane as it passed. At first I thought they were signaling somehow, but then, I noticed the guy on the end was flapping his hand the way little kids do when they're really excited to say goodbye. I'm pretty sure they were just wishing us a bon voyage. 

The flight itself was uneventful, I spent most of it making notes in my journal. Without these notes I don't think I would have remembered that Mine-San told me she had  a pet snail, which she found on a head of cabbage and has been feeding ever since. You're welcome. 

When we arrived in Fukuoka, I was fascinated to see how big of a city was spreading out under our plane. The airport was also impressively massive. When the plane landed and we started to depart, I realized we weren't at a gate, but were in fact, standing in the middle of the tarmac, very far away from any buildings. I haven't stood around on the tarmac of an airport since I was a child. It felt weird. There were several shuttles waiting to convey passengers and luckily for me, You-San had disembarked before me and was pointing to the right one. 

I was shortly joined by Saori-San, and took advantage of my English speaking companion to talk about how weird it was to be allowed on the tarmac. "We don't do this in America," I said. "Why not?" she asked in surprise. "Ummmmm...security."

The plane that was to take us to our next destination was very small. I felt like Tintin while I walked across the tarmac and up the stairway. Later, Saori-San and Mine-San would both tell me that they were really disconcerted to fly on such a small plane. But, heck, I grew up flying in bush planes, so an airplane that holds thirty was no problem for me. I was especially excited to find myself in a window seat, finally. Not that this did me a whole heck of a lot of good, since it was still overcast. However, I did catch a few glimpses of the ocean below us, and as we got closer to our destination, I saw islands. 

IMG_9635.JPG
IMG_9654.JPG
IMG_9649.JPG

Now, the ticket and the size of our plane should have tipped me off that we weren't going to the city of Nagasaki. But, what did I know? We were in a totally foreign country, and I didn't really know anything about Nagasaki. However, when I started seeing small islands with farm lands and small towns getting closer and closer as we prepared to land, I became suspicious. When we landed at the worlds smallest airport, I was pretty sure they had tricked me. I got off the plane and found myself on an island with luscious greenery and a number of palm trees.

It looked pretty familiar to me, though I couldn't quite put my finger on it. "It looks like the island in Jurassic Park, doesn't it?" said Saori-San. Oh yeah, there you go. I would not have been surprised to see a pack of velociraptors run out of the woods. 

IMG_9659.JPG

We walked into the small airport building, and I read a poster that was amazingly in English. "Welcome to Fukue Island". Definitely not Nagasaki then. While we waited for the carousel to bring us our luggage, I made a detour into the ladies room.

  If you're curious, you face the wall and squat. 

If you're curious, you face the wall and squat. 

This was my first experience with a Japanese public bathroom, and I almost had a hear attack when I pushed open the first stall. The toilet, was frankly alarming. It looked like someone had installed the toilet inside the floor, a sort of porcelain troff. I had never seen one of these, in all my research about traveling in Japan. I would later discover that these are traditional Japanese toilets, and make a lot of logistical sense if you're wearing a kimono. Thankfully, there was a "normal" toilet in the second stall. I'm especially glad, because later I saw a diagram of how you're supposed to use these toilets, and I one hundred percent would have used it backwards and peed all over my leg.  

After my harrowing bathroom experience, I joined the crew and headed for the exit. You-San wanted to film me leaving the airport, so I loitered in the lobby while they prepared on the other side of the automatic doors. There were a lot of red, tropical-looking flower decals stuck to the glass, and all over the walls. I figured they must have some significance on this island, and I was right. Finally, You-San waved at me and I rolled my suitcase through the doorway. It's so weird to think back on this, because it really was only the second time I had been filmed in Japan, but I've already forgotten how weird it felt.

While the van was loaded up with all the camera equipment and luggage, You-San beckoned me and Saori-San to follow him and George-San across the parking lot, so he could film me with a better background. With the camera pointed at the two of us he asked me if I knew where we were. "Um, well, there was a sign in there that said Fukue Island," I said. 

Goto Islands JPEG.jpg

You-San produced a magazine that he had picked up in the lobby. He opened to a particular page and showed me a map of Japan. He pointed to one part. "Tokyo," he said. He moved his finger in an arch over the map, then landed it some distance to the south. "Fukuoka," he said. Once again, he moved his finger, this time a shorter distance, to a group of islands off the coast of Kyushu. "Goto," he said. Then he indicated the ground below our feet. "Goto," he said again. "Goto," I repeated. He grinned and pointed out Nagasaki on the map, then pointed back to where we were. They had tricked me indeed. We were not going to Nagasaki, but instead, we were on the Goto Islands. Specifically, the largest island, Fukue. 

You-San told me that Goto was famous for its kamaboko, and that we would soon be making our way to a family company that made those delicious fish cakes. I was very excited, though also extremely nervous. 

However, I must bring this installment to a close. I'll write again soon, and tell you all about Goto Island and my first encounter with actual kamaboko masters. 

Until next time, Merry Christmas!

If you've enjoyed this post, you might like this one, about the island populated by rabbits. Or maybe this one, about Christmas cake. Heck, you might also like this one about how fried chicken is a Christmas tradition in Japan.  

Ramen Suzukiya: A Review

IMG_2282.JPG

As you may know, I have been spending the last couple of months telling you about my recent trip to Japan. I'm going to interrupt that flow right now, to tell you about something that happened to me just last week. Ever since I got back to the states, I have found myself missing a lot of things about Japan (Yes, I know I was only there for eleven days, but it was a profound eleven days). Of course, one of the things I miss most is the food. I've been so busy since I got home, I haven't really been able to cook any Japanese food. Another trouble is that there are so few Japanese restaurants around here that serve something other than sushi. I love sushi, but it's never been my favorite aspect of Japanese cuisine.

So, when my sister and I decided to spend a couple days in Portland, "the big city", I immediately went online to see about any good Japanese restaurants. Of course, Portland is the food capital of New England, and it well deserves that title. There are a lot of Japanese restaurants there, and I'm guessing most of them rock. But I wanted something special. I wanted ramen. Not the instant type, which you can buy for under a dollar. That stuff is tasty in one way, but not really anything like the authentic dish. 

I had ramen three times in Japan. Once in the Fukuoka airport, again in Ueno, and last in Asakusa. Each bowl had its own particular specialness, each one was enjoyed thoroughly, and I would give just about anything to be able to eat them now. I wanted to experience that again, so I googled "ramen Portland Maine". There are a number of eateries that serve ramen, but only one of them looked like the sort of place I wanted to go to. That is to say, a real ramen joint. Somewhere small, where they made everything from scratch, and focused on making ramen, the best way possible. I mean, that's what I was hoping I would get, since all I really had to go on was the picture google supplied, and a couple reviews. This restaurant was Ramen Suzukiya, and as it happened, it was right down the street from my sister Chelsea's apartment. 

IMG_2276.JPG

Ramen Suzukiya is a small place, run by a father and son. According to their website, Kei Suzukiya started the restaurant after retiring in Maine. The space is small, but cozy, with a very classic appearance. My sister and I sat on the counter that ran along the windows, staring out on a view of Congress Street. Our waiter, a very friendly young man, gave us the menu and I read it with hungry eyes. 

For those of you who do not know, there are several different types of ramen, with many different regional variations. Generally, ramen will either fall into the categories of Shoyu (soy sauce flavored), Miso (miso flavored), Shio (salt flavored), and Tonkotsu (pork bone broth). Ramen Suzukiya serves Shoyu, Miso, and Tonkotsu, as well as a few donburi dishes. Both my sister and I ordered the tonkotsu. While we waited for our food, we sipped on cold brewed green tea, which I was first introduced to in Sendai, and have now fallen in love with. 

IMG_2281.JPG
IMG_2278.JPG
IMG_2277.JPG

When the ramen dish was set on the table, a marvelous scent rose up and hugged me. It was like being back in Tokyo. Only this time I got to share it with my sister. First I dug my chopsticks into the noodles and pulled up a bite. Not too mushy, not too firm, they were well established in the goldilocks zone of ramen noodles. On top of the soup were several delightful additions, a soft boiled egg, a slice of chashu pork, nori seaweed, baby bok choy, shredded cabbage, and pickled ginger. Each component adding another layer of scent, texture, and flavor. I'm not exaggerating to say that it's the best thing I've eaten since I left Japan. 

IMG_2287 2.JPG

As soon as I can, I will be heading back to Portland to try some of the other varieties that Ramen Suzukiya has created. I give it five very enthusiastic stars. If you're looking for somewhere to go in Portland with amazing food at a very reasonable price, look no further. 

Until next time, ramen up, baby!

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one, about a restaurant in Bangor. Or perhaps this one, about another dish made with ramen noodles. 

Japan Trip Six: Arrival

IMG_9565.JPG

This is the sixth part of the multi part series. This post will cover my arrival in Japan, so I suppose you could start here if you wanted. The only trouble is, it might not make a lot of sense without the background information. Please back track to the first post, here. If you already faithfully read all that came before, I commend you, and you may proceed without confusion. 

As I stepped off the airplane and into the gate, it felt like I had been hit by a wall of humidity. After the freezing interior of the plane, where I had sat shivering for the past thirteen hours, it was like stepping into a warm bath. At first it was a relief, and then after walking for a few minutes it was becoming uncomfortable.

I would never dream of complaining, since my entire trip was paid for and it was a once in a life time opportunity...but I come from Alaska originally, and I have always hated hot summers. If I had been picking the time of my trip, I should never have settled on going to Honshu in the end of June. However, none of that mattered anyway, because I was in Japan. From the moment that the wheels had hit the tarmac, I had finally accomplished my greatest goal in life and found my way to Japan. 

My eyes roved from side to side taking in everything. So far, it wasn't much different from every other airport I had been to in America. Blank walls, long hallways, typical walk to the gate. The only real sign that I was in Japan were the signs, which were in both English and Japanese. Mostly they were written in hiragana, the phonetic alphabet, which I just so happen to be able to read. Not that I can understand what I'm reading, but hey, baby steps. I got a lot of joy out of being able to sound out those signs while I made my way to customs. 

Narita airport is a big place, and the busiest international airport in Japan. It took me a little while to figure my way out of it, but I finally I had my luggage, I had cleared customs and I was headed out of the doors. There was a throng outside the airport, people picking up friends, family, or clients. I barely had time to take in the crowd before I heard someone shouting "Kipp-San!" I turned to the left and saw three people beckoning to me. One of them was holding a large camera. Here we go again. I rolled my suitcase their way and put my show-face on. 

I had already been informed that Mari-San wouldn't be available to film the second part of my episode. None of these faces were familiar to me, but they all beamed and treated me like a long lost friend. The new director, a small man with dazzling orange tinted glasses, started talking to me immediately. The woman to his right, my new interpreter, started translating in flawless, British accented, English. 

"Welcome to Japan!" they said. I can remember very little of what was actually said during these first moments, I was so overwhelmed, and it took me a few minutes to adjust. They asked me what I thought about Japan so far, how the flight had been, and if I was excited to try kamaboko. I nodded and smiled and answered to the best of my abilities. They then asked me if I had heard of Nagasaki. When I said I had, they asked if I knew anything about it. I suddenly felt pretty awkward as an American. "Um, a little?" 

"Did you know that it's famous for it's kamaboko?" the director asked me. 

"Oh, no, I didn't," I said. 

"Oh, then how do you know about Nagasaki?" he asked. 

I hesitated to mention 1945. "It's one of the better known Japanese cities," I said hurriedly. 

"Well, that's where we will be going tomorrow," said the director with great excitement. After I had expressed my enthusiasm, the director spoke to the interpreter in a low voice. She turned to me and said, "Sorry, but he's going to ask you again if you know anything about Nagasaki. Could you just say that it's famous for its kamaboko?" This was my first introduction to the unreality of television. The director asked me again and I prattled for a few seconds about the cities incredible kamaboko. Satisfied, the director nodded his head to the cameraman, and the lens moved away from my face. The director shook my hand and welcomed me to Japan. I asked him what his name was and he paused. 

"He says he'll have to think about it," said the interpreter. "His name is too long, so he'll think of something you can call him." I tried not to laugh. 

"I'm Saori," said my interpreter, also shaking my hand. 

The unnamed director beckoned and we followed him out of the airport. Across the street, a van was waiting for us, as well as a small group of people. They immediately began opening the doors, taking my bags, and collecting up their gear. There were two young men, a woman, and an older man with long black hair and large gages. The woman bowed and welcomed me to Japan, speaking in English. I was glad that there were two people I would be able to speak to normally. 

Everyone piled into the van and slowly we pulled away from the airport. Narita is located about an hour outside of Tokyo, and is of course a complex of modern buildings, roadways, and parking lots. It was hard to really get a feel for being in Japan until we had passed these structures and got onto the highway. It was sometime around then that I realized that the man with the long hair and gages was driving, and that he was sitting on the right hand side of the van. And that meant, of course, that we were driving on the left side of the road. This was something that I had known about Japan, but it was singularly bizarre to experience it. 

I tried to look at the countryside as we drove, but it was hard to see, since there were tall concrete walls on either side of the highway. Before I could really take in that I was in another country, Saori-San started asking me about life in Maine. She asked if we had very harsh winters and I said, no, not really, not on the coast anyway. "Do you have summertime?" she asked. I was confused and must have looked it, because she continued.

"I don't know if you do it in America," she said, "but in Britain they change the time, during the summer, and then again in the winter." 

"Oh," I said, "yes, we have it, but we call it Daylight Savings Time. You don't do that here?"

"No," she said. "Why do they do it in America?"

"Well, they say that it's for farmers," I said, "but it's pretty universally hated in America." Of all the things that I would first talk about in Japan, I didn't think Daylight Savings Time would be one. 

We drove on for a while, me talking with Saori-San and sometimes the director. Suddenly, everyone got really excited, pointing out of the window and attracting my attention. I looked where they were indicating, but only saw a somewhat strange collection of colorful concrete buildings. "It's Disneyland," said Saori-San. "Oh," I said, looking again, but the buildings were passed. Someone else said something and everyone started laughing. For a minute I thought that they were laughing at me, in the self-conscious sort of way you do when everyone else is speaking a different language.

Saori-San smiled at me and explained. "I guess they were excited to show you Disneyland, but it turned out that was just a Disney hotel." "Oh," I said again. 

"I'm not really into that sort of thing," said Saori-San. I said I wasn't either, meaning theme parks. "I don't even really know what it's all about," she continued. "What is it? Mice?"

"Oh," I said. "Well, a mouse, Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse and Princesses."

Saori-San looked very confused. I had one of those weird out of body experiences when you see your familiar culture through someone else's eyes and realized how bat-poop-crazy it sounds. 

Once the conversation had died down a little, I rested my head against the window and watched the countryside fly by. I was exhausted. I hadn't slept in about twenty four hours, not to mention it was about four o'clock in the morning according to my internal clock. Before I realized what was happening, I nodded off. 

Fifteen minutes later I jerked awake, and quickly wiped the drool off my hand. We were just entering the city. I don't spend a lot of time in cities in general. Aside from the occasional visits to Portland, or passing through Boston on my way to Nantucket, I'm a country bumpkin. The last time I was in a city as impressive as Tokyo was the summer of my freshman year of high school, when my dad took me on a trip to New York. Tokyo was breathtaking. 

We drove over the Rainbow Bridge, and I was treated to a stunning view of Tokyo Tower, the iconic red lattice structure built in the 1950s. It was like a cross between the Eiffel Tower and the rocket ship that Tintin flew to the moon. Despite the fact that I had been asleep seconds before, I felt wide away, my eyes taking in everything. The tall buildings, the green trees, and Tokyo Bay. Unfortunately, I didn't think to take any pictures. 

  Since I didn't take any pictures, I've done a sketch.

Since I didn't take any pictures, I've done a sketch.

Saori-San told me that I would be staying in Shibuya that night. "I don't want to give you a heart attack or anything," she said, "but we have to be up at four tomorrow morning to catch your flight." My heart sank. I had been hoping that we would take the train to Nagasaki, not an airplane. But, I consoled myself and said that I could be up at four. 

"We are planning on taking you out for a little welcome dinner tonight," she continued. "We're going to the hotel first to check in and drop off your luggage. I know you're probably tired, but how long do you think you need to be ready to go out?" 

"An hour?" I said, tentatively. Saori-San held a brief conversation with the director and came back with fifteen minutes. Very well, but I was going to take a shower, damnit. 

We arrived at the hotel in Shibuya, an APA Hotel, which was the very chain that I had booked myself for the four days I was spending in Tokyo after filming. I mentioned this to the director and he told me that he has stayed in a lot of hotels over his life. These hotels had very small rooms, but they were always clean. They unloaded my luggage and I was escorted inside by Saori-San, the other woman, and one of the young men. 

The young man and woman checked in and then gave me my keycard. I was shepherded into the elevator. "We'll meet you down here in fifteen minutes," said Saori-San as the doors closed. I found my way to my room, 803, and resisted the urge to collapse onto the bed. Instead I speed showered, got into my nicest black dress and headed back downstairs. 

Saori-San and the other woman, who I still didn't know the name of, met me in the lobby. Outside, we joined the director and cameraman, the others had disappeared. The director smiled at me and gestured to the right, indicating the direction we would be walking. "It's just a short walk to the restaurant," Saori-San explained. 

Shibuya is one of the busiest wards in Tokyo. It's famous for its shopping, nightlife, and fashion. The iconic 109 department store, which I wrote about in my emoji post, was within walking distance of my hotel. Knowing these things about Shibuya, I was expecting it to be very busy, to be buffeted by crowds of pedestrians, and keep my eyes peeled for my party. However, it wasn't a busy night, the sidewalks housed a good number of people, but nothing I hadn't seen before. I felt at ease and was able to take in my surrounding. Despite the fact that I was experiencing the double culture shock of being in a big city and a foreign country, I felt wonderful. I could hardly believe I was there, but I loved it. 

Several blocks from the hotel, we turned down a side street. These are my favorite part of Tokyo, narrow roads that are always filled with people, not minding the sidewalks at all. If cars ever do have to drive down these little streets they must have to wait for people to move aside, like Moses parting the Red Sea. Shops, restaurants and night clubs line the road, their neon signs and music spilling out and welcoming in people from outside.

  I was walking while I took these, so they're a bit out of focus.

I was walking while I took these, so they're a bit out of focus.

 This is the side street where the restaurant was located.

This is the side street where the restaurant was located.

As we walked, Saori-San pointed out a certain American fast-food chain that serves mostly "Mexican" food. "That's American, right?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. 

"Here it's really popular," she told me. "Good quality."

"Really?" I said, surprised. "In America it's pretty much considered to be the lowest quality fast food." This surprised her greatly. Hmmm, maybe someone who was raised a liberal hippie isn't the best ambassador for American culture...

Finally, the director lead the way into the restaurant, which was basement level, and reached by a narrow staircase. I don't remember the name, but I do know that it had "Goma" in it, which is Japanese for sesame. It was dimly lit inside, with a long bar and a red decor. We followed a waiter around a wall and took a long booth style seat, big enough for at least ten people. I sat between the two ladies, facing the director and camera man. Menus were handed around and Saori-San helped me interpret them. 

This was the first time I was introduced to a popular dining out method for Japanese people. It was like ordering a selection of appetizers and sharing them with everyone. Everything on the menu had some sort of sesame aspect to it. Everyone picked a few items and placed their orders with the waiter.

A few minutes later he appeared with a giant bowl of steamed edamame beans still in the pod. I was given a plastic bag to place over my hand and given the honor of grabbing a fistful for our table. "Get a good amount for us to share," said the director, miming a massive portion with his own hand. I dug in and attempted to do as bid, but my hands are pretty small, and the beans were somewhat slippery. Our portion was pitiful but the waiter took pity on us and added his own handful to the bowl.

If you've ever been to a Japanese restaurant, you've probably seen people eating edamame beans like this. The trick is to put the whole pod in your mouth and gently bite down on the edge, then pull the pod out, pushing the beans into your mouth with your teeth. Boy, that sounds weird when you write it out. I don't know if I've just never had nice fresh edamame beans, which I'm sure these were, but I have always disliked them. Eating them here, in a real Japanese restaurant, surrounded by people enjoying them...damned if they weren't delicious. 

 
IMG_9566.JPG
 

Our dishes began to arrive, starting with raw eggplant with a miso sesame sauce. I would never have thought about eating eggplant raw, but it was amazing. It's such a bland vegetable, that usually gets paired with flavorful foods, that I never really realized what a delicate flavor of its own it has.

 
IMG_9567.JPG
 

Next was a salad made with thin crispy noodles and shredded cabbage. It had a ketchup like dressing, which made it taste like a french fry salad. Is that weird? Possibly, but it worked.

IMG_9571.JPG
IMG_9574.JPG

There was a sesame and beef lasagna, which sounds like an odd addition, but was actually really good. Also a delightfully fresh Chinese parsley salad with shrimp, which I could have eaten a giant bowl of. The grilled chicken with a thick sesame sauce was very tasty as well. I had to pace myself to not eat to much of everything. 

IMG_9575.JPG
IMG_9576.JPG

You know burdock? That stuff that you have to pull off of your dogs fur, and sticks to everything? Well, it's delicious, or rather, its roots are. I've had them in soup before, but the best way to eat them is definitely cut into strips and deep fried. They were like crispy carrot chips. Perhaps the oddest looking dish to arrive at our table was one of the tastiest. Chicken meat balls coated in sticky rice. The meat was so juicy and delectable, the rice was sticky and slightly sweet. I could have eaten my weight in them.

IMG_9568.JPG

But the acme of the meal, for me at least, was the plate of grilled oysters from Tokyo Bay. When I was a little kid, my family lived in the Alaskan bush where we grew oysters for the half shell market, so I'm always interested to try selections from different places. These oysters were fat, rich, and perfect. They were much more similar to my families harvest than any of the oysters I've had from Maine. The green stuff you see on there is a sauce made from shiso, my favorite Japanese herb. 

While we ate, they asked me a lot of questions about myself and my life in America. Saori-San translated for everyone, and also kept up a steady conversation with me herself. Any time that there was a word that she was unsure of she would type it into her phone to translate it. The other woman, spoke less English, but she did ask me if I played Pokemon Go. When I said I did she told me to make sure that I checked whenever I had wifi, because there were Pokemon all over the place in Tokyo. I noticed that she had the most amazing manicure I have ever seen, with tiny jewel studs embedded in the nail. If I had those, I know I would get caught on literally everything, but I thought they were beautiful. 

When the plates were cleared away, we were suddenly joined by the two young men from the airport. Saori-San told me that they had been preparing for the trip tomorrow, but that they wanted to do introductions before I went back to the hotel. Since I still only knew Saori-San's name, this was good news. They started with the director, who had settled on the name You-San (pronounced Yo). The cameraman wanted to be called George-San. The two young men, who were the assistant directors, were Youki-San and Sato-San. The woman, who was the assistant producer, was Mine-San. I repeated everyone's name, to make sure I was pronouncing them correctly. Saori-San very helpfully wrote them down on a piece of paper for me. 

With the introductions over, Saori-San and Mine-San walked me home, while the boys stayed behind for more beer and food. While we walked, the two woman talked to each other in Japanese and I took in the beauty of Tokyo at night. There was a cool breeze, relieving the humid air. I don't think I've ever felt more utterly exhausted and more content. 

In the next post, which might not be quite so long, I shall tell you about our flight to Nagasaki and the subterfuge that the crew was engaging in. 

If you enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends and family! This blog relies on word of mouth and you can really help boost the readership by simply sharing it. Thank you very much! Also, feel free to comment below. Seriously, I love hearing from you!

Until next time, goma forever!

Japan Trip Five: Kamaboko Rainbow!

IMG_9735.jpg

This is the fifth part of a multiple post series on my experience on a Japanese tv show. If you aren't up to date on what came before, start here! If you've read that already, please proceed.

When we got back to the house, it was time for me to begin making the kamaboko. It's actually a very easy process, for full details see my original post. What made it particularly strange, of course, was the fact that I had a film crew there. Not only a film crew, but a Japanese film crew, who were no doubt much more familiar with Japanese food than I, and had eaten a lot more kamaboko too. The pressure was on. 

IMG_9708.jpg

Everyone was very polite, asking me question about the process, how I had figured out how to make kamaboko in the first place, and how I thought this batch would come out. My mother and sister stood by in the doorway, glee shining in their eyes. The cameraman (who I have discovered was named Tetsu-San) kept having me stop so he could film close ups of the surimi (fish paste), or the bottle of sake. When I formed the kamaboko into it's traditional log shape, everyone admired my technique. Of course, later, when I was in Japan, I would learn how flawed it really was. But that's getting ahead of myself. I put the newly formed kamaboko into the bamboo steamer and set the timer for one hour. It was time to break for lunch. 

I had made a few things early that morning in anticipation of lunch. A basic miso soup, a pot of rice, and a batch of savory breakfast scones. Everything was very well received, which was gratifying, as you can imagine. They told me that they were very surprised that an American could make such good rice, but it's pretty hard to mess up rice if you're using an electric cooker. As for the scones, which are a recipe I made up myself, they went over really well. When Mari-San was informed that I had made them, she grinned broadly and pointed at her scone saying "like professional". I love getting compliments like that.

Not long after lunch was finished, the timer buzzed. With great anticipation we gathered around the stove. The cameraman gave me the thumbs up and I took the lid off dramatically. Steam poured into the air and everyone clapped as the perfect kamaboko was revealed. Or at least, perfect for what it was, an imitation, produced by someone who had only ever eaten real kamaboko once.

"So big!" said Mari-San. 

"It is?" I asked. 

Akane-San translated that in Japan kamaboko logs are usually half the size. Whoops. That's embarrassing. Sihaya jumped in with the perfect comment. "It's American sized." Everyone thought that was hilarious. 

  These aren't mine. I don't have a picture of mine. They did not look this nice. 

These aren't mine. I don't have a picture of mine. They did not look this nice. 

When I had spoken on the phone with Akane-San, she had suggested that I make two different types of kamaboko. In fact, she recommended I try making sasa kamaboko, a type that is made in Sendai. These kamaboko are made on skewers, shaped into bamboo leaves, and grilled over a fire. I had agreed, though I had a very hard time tracking down any information on how to make them. But, that didn't stop me. I didn't have the grill, I didn't have the right type of skewers, and I had no idea how to make them authentic. But damnit, they wanted sasakama, and I was going to make it. 

I had experimented a little bit the night before, and had settled on sort of frying them in a skillet. Getting the right shape was the hardest part, as my surimi was not particularly cooperative. But I managed to wrangle a semblance of sasa kamaboko. Mari-San and company, bless them, were very nice about it, although I now know first hand that they were really nothing like the real thing. 

IMG_9753.jpg

Once this was done, I cut the kamaboko and they plated them, making it all look very pretty. While they filmed the kamaboko from a million different angles, we retired to the living room for a short break. 

It had been raining on and off all day, which was unfortunate in some ways, but had now given us a gift. Sihaya was the first to notice it, and soon we had gotten the attention of the crew. In a matter of moments we stood in the backyard, looking up at a huge rainbow. With the camera's rolling, Sihaya, my mother, and I all looked up at the rainbow, held hands and commented on how it looked like the pink band on a kamaboko. It was very sweet, exceptionally cheesy, and the film crew loved it. 

It was now time for the last item on the days agenda. While making the arrangements for the day, Akane-San had asked me to invite a couple friends over to do a kamaboko tasting. They wanted people who had never had kamaboko before, and even better, hadn't heard of it. Organic American reactions were the order of the day. I said that it would be no problem, but then when I thought about it, I realized that pretty much all of my friends are either vegans or specifically don't like fish. The only friend who I knew would eat fish and willingly be filmed, lives in Alaska, and would definitely not be able to make it.

My only hope was Sarah, a friend from high school who I had recently reconnected with. I had sent her an SOS and luckily, she likes fish. But I still needed another person, and possibly a third, so I turned to Walter, my sister's friend, who I could easily pass off as my own. He was more than willing to help out, even though later I would find out that he had been painting his store all day, took two hours off to be filmed eating kamaboko, and then run back out the door to negotiate a lease. Needless to say, I brought him back a souvenir. 

As the hour of the tasting grew closer I got a text from my friend. Unfortunately, there had been a miscommunication with her ride and she was stranded a few hours away. Luckily, I had a back up. My mother had thoughtful gotten a friend of hers to be on call in case we needed a third guest. After a quick phone call, Pam was on her way. 

  Cat's Always have to get in the middle of things.

Cat's Always have to get in the middle of things.

At six o'clock pm, after one of the longest, not to mention oddest, days of my life, we set the table and greeted our guests. Both of them entered the house to find a camera pointed at them, and I'm sure experienced something similar to what I had that morning. But, they rallied impressively and were naturals. Mari-San had everyone but myself sit down at the table, while I hid in the kitchen with the kamaboko. 

Once everything was prepared, I carried out the kamaboko, and set it in the center of the table. Neither Walter or Pam had any idea what to expect, and I'm sure that there wasn't much to tip them off as to what they would be trying. After all, nothing about the appearance of kamaboko really says "fish" to the uninitiated. It almost looks more like a fancy French dessert. One at a time, with the lens slowly zooming in on their face, first Walter and then Pam took a bite. Gosh, I'm just so grateful that they were such naturals. They "oohed", they "aahed", they were very flattering. 

Finally, Mari-San hopped in front of the camera and picked up her chopsticks. I held my breath as she brought a large piece of kamaboko up to her lips. "Americano Kamaboko," she said before taking a bite. "Ah, oishi!" she said, which I knew meant "delicious!". And just like that, the camera was turned off, the days filming was done. My fate, as regards to any future filming, not to mention going to Japan, were in Mari-San's hands. It was she who would edit together the footage and make my appeal to the producers back in Japan. 

After hugs, thanks, and farewells, we were once again alone in the house. My cheeks were sore from smiling, my heart was still racing, and my hands trembled a little. I was thrilled that I wouldn't have to film any more, and couldn't even conceive of the notion that this all might lead to something even crazier. My sister summed up my state in this text to the family group chat. "Kipp is so tired, she just tried to stopper the bath with the tea pot lid by mistake!" 

  Buying more cod

Buying more cod

Of course, the next day I had to throw on the same clothes and meet them at the grocery store to film inside. It wasn't particularly eventful, or I guess I was just numbed at that point. We went into the store, I was stared at by the shoppers. I ordered the same fish from the seafood manager, who would later tell me that the whole experience made his day. While the camera man silently filmed a few filets of cod in the icy display, one of the deli attendants walked over. "What's happening over here?" she asked, a curious smile on her face. Akane-San explained, and the girl laughed. "Oh, I see," she said. "I was like 'wow, the cod is really popular today'!" 

It would be another few weeks before I would find out the results of my plight. I would love to tell you about how I was invited, but I promised Akane-San that I wouldn't give you the details, since it might ruin the surprise for other candidates. I would never want to spoil the joy that I too experienced, so I'll only say that a few weeks after filming, I was holding an invitation to Japan and would be setting out on my trip in only a month. 

  The cat was obviously thrilled too.

The cat was obviously thrilled too.

So, this is the end of the first section of my adventure. The part that takes place in America. In the next post, I'll be in Japan! Or at least, I'll be traveling there. I can't wait to tell you about it, and to, in some small way, relive those most wonderful days. 

Until next time, look out for Kamaboko rainbows!

Japan Trip Four: The Biggest Challenge

  A Screen Shot From My Episode

A Screen Shot From My Episode

This is the fourth part in a series of posts about my time on a Japanese television show. If you haven't read the first three, please do so! 

When one has committed to being on a television show, one is obviously aware that you will be asked to do things that might be a bit embarrassing. This is expected. Is it eagerly anticipated? It is not. Will you do it anyway? I guess it depends on what you're getting out of it. For me, it was all about potentially getting a chance to go to Japan. So when I was asked to run and smile and pump my fist in the air, all while talking with great enthusiasm and then speaking Japanese...well, I did it. 

  I took this picture moments ago to give you an example of how I look when I think I'm smiling. Notice how one side of my lips is higher than the other? Bam, smile. Brrr, is it cold in here?

I took this picture moments ago to give you an example of how I look when I think I'm smiling. Notice how one side of my lips is higher than the other? Bam, smile. Brrr, is it cold in here?

What're you, a robot? you might be thinking. What's so hard about showing a little enthusiasm? Clearly, we've never met. These are things that I may do in the privacy of my own home. If we've known each other for a few years, I might goof around with you. But when I've only just met you, and there's a camera, and it's going to be viewed by thousands? Yeah, it was a hurtle. 

Still, Japan was calling, like a siren that instead of making you steer your boat into jagged rocks, makes you make an ass of yourself in front of a camera. So, when Akane-San asked if there was a place where we could film this scene, I swallowed my inhibitions and recommended a place with nice scenery, where we could record my humiliation. (I may be exaggerating slightly). 

The spot I suggested is on the way to Blue Hill, where Walker's Pond comes right up to the road. There are cattails and lily pads, and some loverly views. A couple houses sit behind some trees, their roofs just visible. Anyone who lives in the area will immediately know what houses you're talking about if you say, "the seagull poop houses", because these roofs serve as the favorite perch/latrine for every gull in the area. That being said, those houses are easy to avoid with a camera. 

We parked our cars on the other side of the road and got out. Akane-San looked out over the scene and took council with Mari-San and the cameraman. She came back and told me that, though it was pretty, it might be hard to film there, since it was so close to the road. On the way to the grocery store, they had noticed a few places that might work, so we decided that I would follow them, and then we could pull over when they spotted a good location.

Before we left I pointed out a small dirty mound in the middle of the pond. "That's a beaver lodge, by the way," I said. "Oh really?" said Akane-San. She turned to Mari-San and translated. I have never seen someone more excited. She and the cameraman sprinted across the road and began taking pictures of the lodge. Akane-San told me that they had all been hoping to see some wildlife ever since they got here. I felt bad as I explained that the lodge was actually abandoned, and that I had never seen a beaver in this pond. 

We left the pond, no beaver in sight, and headed down the road. The spot that they settled on was a long dirt road, which goes down the side of a hill and over looks the ocean. While Mari-San and the cameraman scoped out their shots, Akane-San coached me on what I should say. We settled on "I want to go to Japan to see how kamaboko is actually made, and try all the different types!" It was something I could say pretty quickly, which didn't give too much away about where I might go in Japan, since the itinerary would be decided on only if I were invited. Then she told me to end with "Nippon ni ikitai" which translates to "I want to go to Japan". This is the formula they use in every episode. 

They set the camera up on a tripod and then made a line in the gravel a few feet in front of it. Several yards back they drew another line. "Start here, run up to the other mark. Say your lines, then shout 'Nippon ni ikitai!'," Akane-San translated. Once again, Mari-San demonstrated, putting a fist in the air and filling her whole countenance with more enthusiasm than I could possibly express. They had me do a run through, which went about as well as could be expected.

"Good," said Mari-San, politely. She spoke some to Akane-San, who turned to me. "Make sure you put all the enthusiasm you can into it. Mari-San knows how much you want to go to Japan, She knew it when she saw the map in your room. She wants you to know that this is your big opportunity to show the producers. There's another film crew in Europe right now, filming other candidates, so we have to show them that you really want to go. This is your big appeal."

With this encouragement, I walked back down to the starting line. I steeled myself, dug deep down into my core and mustered all the energy I could. My heart pounding, I ran up the hill looked into the camera with a wide grin and said my lines. "Nippon ni ikitai!" I shouted, putting my fist in the air like John Bender. Mari-San put both thumbs up and grinned at me. Nailed it. 

While they put away the camera equipment I sat in my car and texted my family, who had been receiving updates from Sihaya on a group chat. Here is a screenshot of what I wrote. 

 
Screen Shot 2017-08-25 at 12.03.25 PM.png
 

Of course, now I've seen the finished product, and it's not nearly as horrific as I was picturing. It's always important to remember, that no matter how ridiculous you feel, it's probably not all that bad. That being said, I hope I never have to do that again. 

The next post will be the last before we head to Japan, and it might be a little longer. I'll tell you all about making the kamaboko, the "kamaboko Rainbow", our tasting party and the friends I roped into being filmed, as well as the invitation. As always, please remember to like, share, and tell your peeps about my adventure! 

Until next time, remember nippon ni ikitai!

P.S. My exploits have made it onto the front page of the local newspaper. You can read the article here, and get a little preview of some topics these posts will be covering! 

Japan Trip Three: The Grocery Store

This is the third part of a many part series about my time on a Japanese tv show, and my trip to Japan. If you haven't read the preceding posts (one and two), I suggest you do so, or you might miss some important information. Also, I am hilarious, and I wouldn't want you to miss any of my witty pros. If you've already caught up, read on my good sirs and noble ladies!

I had been informed in the initial planning that they wanted to film me buying fish. This would be a big step for me. It's one thing to commit to being filmed at home, with only my family there to witness it, but it's entirely another matter to go to a public space with a film crew following me around.

The only reason why I was okay with all this was because it would only be airing in Japan, and therefore I wouldn't even know the thousands of viewers, so my self-conciousness could take some small comfort. I know people at the grocery store. I know the employees (they know me as the girl who's always buying those weird giant radishes). I don't think I've ever been in there and not seen a few people that know me, either because I've worked in town at so many different places, or because they know my various family members. In case you hadn't realized it by now, I'm pretty inhibited and self conscious. 

But hey, I didn't really have time to ponder all this. There was a small chance that going through all this madness was going to get me to Japan, so I was going to do it. Grocery store--smrocery store. 

So after the tour of the house was over, we had a meeting in the kitchen. Note that this is the first moment that the camera wasn't pointed at me. It was decided that Mari-San would get into my car and we would film us leaving, then I would turn around, come back and pick up the camera-man. He would then film me and Mari-San driving from inside the vehicle. After a few miles I could then stop and they would get into the car with Akane-San and film me driving from behind. Making tv shows is complicated. 

The first part went off without a hitch. Mari-San and I drove down to my neighbors, then I turned around, came back, and grabbed the camera-man (never did get his name). While we drove Mari-San and I chatted for the camera. This was a bit difficult, since Akane-San was driving in the van behind us, and she was the one who had been interpreting for us. As it happened, Mari-San did speak a little bit of English, at least, more than I spoke Japanese.

"Late winter, or early spring?" she asked indicating the outside. I said it was spring.

"You have deer?"

"Oh yes, lots of deer."

In broken English she explained that they had been looking for wildlife ever since they got off the plane, but they hadn't seen any. I said that the animals were around, but you didn't see them too often.

  Incidentally, this is a bear I saw the other day on my way to work. Can you see him?

Incidentally, this is a bear I saw the other day on my way to work. Can you see him?

"Foxes?" she asked.

"Some, but you only see them occasionally."

"Bear?"

"I've Seen a few."

"Moose?"

"Very rarely."

"Raccoons?"

"Lots of Raccoons!" I said, knowing this only too well since a group of the rascally raccoons had just caused havoc with our chickens. That was the end of the conversation since she indicated I should pull over for them to switch cars. 

Once I was alone in the car, all three of the crew following behind, I breathed a long held in sigh. My brain was still unable to really comprehend what was happening, but luckily my body seemed to have taken over, simply rolling with the punches. I turned on my audiobook (Half Blood Prince) and tried to relax while we drove the remaining twenty minutes. 

  Sargentville is technically part of Sedgwick, and therefore isn't on google. You also can't quite tell, but to get from my house to Penobscot, Brooklin, Deer Isle, and Blue Hill you drive through Sedgwick, it's a really weirdly shaped town. 

Sargentville is technically part of Sedgwick, and therefore isn't on google. You also can't quite tell, but to get from my house to Penobscot, Brooklin, Deer Isle, and Blue Hill you drive through Sedgwick, it's a really weirdly shaped town. 

For those of you who do not live in the Blue Hill area, let me explain the terrane. We live on Cape Rosier, a cape (no duh) that juts out from Brooksville, a small town. Around Brooksville are several other towns, and by towns I mean rural areas with various neighborhoods. There is Sedgwick, which manages to be in your way no matter what direction you drive in; Sargentville, where the Mexican restaurant is; Penobscot, where the nursing home is; Castine, known for its historical battle; Brooklin, where Wooden Boat Magazine is located; and the island communities of Little Deer Isle, Deer Isle, and Stongington, famous for their lobstering culture.

Each of these areas has a small town center, most with old general stores, some with larger hubs. But the largest town in the area, and the center of all these communities is Blue Hill. It's where most people work, attend high school (besides the islands which have their own school), and where a majority of people do their shopping. This means that a lot of the amenities in Blue Hill are much bigger than the population warrants, because they also service all the surrounding towns. When we arrived at Tradewinds, the grocery store in Blue Hill, everyone was thoroughly impressed by its size. 

We filmed Mari-San and I walking up to the store, but then we had to pause so that Akane-San could get permission to film inside. Once more, I was left with Mari-San and the camera-man with a giant language barrier in the way. Mari-San noticed a large display of potatoes and got very excited by the price. "Is it really $2.99?" she asked, pointing to the bags. "Umm, yes," I said. The two of them started looking at the produce with interest. "$3.99!" said Mari-San, pointing at the grapes. She turned to me and explained, "In Japan, maybe $10." The strawberries and blueberries received the same treatment. The watermelon was praised as well. Mari-San picked up a container of golden berries, a type of fruit that had only recently come to my own attention. "Berry or tomato?" she asked me, a valid question, since they look exactly like cherry tomatoes. "Berry," I confirmed.

Akane-San came back and told us that the manager wasn't in that day, so we wouldn't be able to film. Still, the fish had to be bought, so I went up to the counter and ordered two pounds of Icelandic cod. This is the fish that I had determined works best for kamaboko. I had wanted to procure some Alaskan pollock, but unfortunately, due to a warehouse fire, it was unavailable. So, cod it was. The person at the fish counter, not to mention many of the shoppers, gave me curious looks while I ordered. I might not have been actively being filmed, but I was in the company of three people speaking Japanese. The area I live in is pretty rural, and especially in the the off season, we don't get a lot of foreigners, so they were bound to stand out. Plus, one of them was carrying a large camera at his side, clearly there was a story here. Amazingly, I didn't see a single person I know, not even the employees I know. 

Outside they once again filmed. I took out the cod, and told them what I had purchased. "And this is what we will make kamaboko out of?" Mari-San asked. 

"Yes," I replied. 

While we walked to the cars Akane-San told me that she had gotten the email address for the manager, and that they would try to get filming permission for the next day. Could I come back and do this again? Oh boy, I thought, while saying "No problem!"

Mari-San said something to Akane-San and she turned to me. "Is there a place nearby that has a good view? We need to film something that we do for every episode. Just something you need to say." I opened my mouth to reply but was distracted by Mari-San who had suddenly made a lunging motion, putting both fists in the air and shouting "Nihon ni ikitai!"

I blinked a few times as it slowly dawned on me that this was a demonstration of what would be required of me. My god, the horror. But, I said I would do just about anything they wanted, if it meant I might get to go to Japan, so I sucked it up, and gave a suggestion for an area to film this, no doubt, exceedingly embarrassing moment. 

But, that is a story for the next post! 

Please, don't forget to comment, like, and share! With your help, I hope to get my story out wide and far! 

Until next time, if you ever see someone at a grocery store with a Japanese film crew, keep in mind that they're probably feeling pretty self conscious, so try not to point.

P.S. Sorry about the lack of pictures for this post. Since my sister didn't accompany us for this leg of the journey I didn't have a lot to work with. The opening photograph is from the second day of filming, which you'll hear about later. 

Japan Trip Two: Filming at My House

IMG_9715.jpg

Last week I told you about how I had gotten an email that would change my life. If you haven't read the first post, I would go and read that so you don't get lost. I also recommend reading my original post about Kamaboko, which is what caught the attention of the television program in the first place. 

All caught up? Good, let us proceed with this crazy tale. 

After the initial emails sent back and forth between myself and the representative of the program, I'll call her Akane-San, we spoke on the phone. I'm not a particularly confident phone speaker, always preferring emails and texts, so calling her was rather nerve-wracking. Thanks to this, when she answered the phone I totally butchered the pronunciation of her name (*face palm and internal groan*). But, I needn't have worried, because Akane-San was, of course, very friendly and polite enough to ignore my fumbles. 

We talked for around a half an hour, during which she asked me questions about my cooking, my interest in Japan, and my background. I in turn cleared up a few questions I had of my own, baring my one big question of "Is this really happening?". By the end of the conversation we had established that the film crew would be coming sometime in the next week. Not a whole lot of time to prepare, especially since I was house sitting that week, and wouldn't have a lot of time at home to practice making kamaboko. Because here is the thing, I hadn't made any kamaboko since the fall before, and I'd only made it a few more times than the initial attempt. I was confident that I had the recipe down, as far as my recipe went, but I wasn't about to make it off the cuff while being filmed. 

  Our kitchen before the finishing touches. Not too bad, but in need of a face lift before going on television. 

Our kitchen before the finishing touches. Not too bad, but in need of a face lift before going on television. 

Another problem, we were part way through a renovation of our kitchen, and it wasn't really ready to be filmed. Walls needed to be painted, a sink replaced, curtains had to be purchased, and did I mention the sink? Luckily, my mom busted her butt over the next few days, painting after work, hanging curtain rods, and fighting an epic battle with the old rusted faucet to replace it with one that--gasp-- actually worked. My sister spent the week buying all of those refining items, like new lampshades, and throw pillows. 

By the time that we had nailed down Tuesday as our filming day (only a week and one day after initial contact), the kitchen was looking better than it had since we bought the house twenty years ago. My mother and sister are rock stars.

My co-worker who used to work in television had this to contribute. "You're totally going to be a victim of over preparation. We used to go to people's houses to interview them and it would be obvious that they had spent the whole day getting the house ready. Then we'd only film them standing in one corner." "Actually," I informed him, "they specifically told me they wanted to film in my kitchen, living room, and bedroom." 

The house was ready, but I was not. On Sunday evening, I finally got a chance to practice making kamaboko. It did not go well. Something went wrong with the process, and the finished product was way too moist, and it split down the center like a badly executed cheesecake. I was devastated. 

"Make it again," my mom said. 

"I don't have any more fish," I moaned, "and I have to work tomorrow. They're coming in the afternoon to see the house and talk about the filming!" Luckily, before I had to get the paper bag out for hyperventilating, I was able to get an S.O.S out and get my shift covered. I love my co-workers. Bright and early the next day I went into town and bought fish. When I came home I made two kamaboko loaves and they came out perfect. Phew!

The crew's flight got in around three o'clock, and since the airport is an hour away from my house we expected them at four thirty. At about two thirty I started to feel ill. One of the unfortunate things about me is that whenever I am feeling nervous, it goes straight to my stomach. As the minutes ticked by, and my anticipation and anxiety increased, by stomach began to feel like I was on a roller coaster after eating fried cheesecake. At three thirty Akane-San texted me to tell me that they had left the airport and would be there in an hour. "Okay!" I replied, while my stomach preformed a backflip or two. Ten minutes later I got another text saying that one of the crew wasn't feeling well. Did I mind if they canceled this afternoon and just came for filming the next day. "No problem at all!" My stomach sat back down in it's easy-chair and breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, that meant that in the morning I was thrown directly into filming with no warm up whatsoever.

  Meredith was the first to notice. 

Meredith was the first to notice. 

They arrived at nine o'clock the next morning, confusingly, they did so on foot. One moment we were sitting in the dining room waiting for a car to pull up, and the next, we spotted a Japanese gentleman with a camera filming outside of our house. I leapt to my feet, slipped on my shoes, ran to the entryway, and tried to look calm as I opened the door. 

There were three of them, two women and the camera man. I barely had time to take this in, when the taller of the two women started speaking to me in rapid, and very enthusiastic, Japanese. Immediately every word of Japanese I know jumped ship and left me stranded. I mean, I couldn't have even remembered how to say good morning. That's a very easy word to remember because it sounds exactly like "Ohio". At that moment I probably would have said "Oklahoma" by accident. I deiced to stick to English. 

I don't know if you've ever been in a situation like this, dear reader, but I can attest that there's nothing quite like having a camera pointed at you while someone speaks incomprehensibly at you. Thank god Akane-San was there and quickly translated. "Hello Kipp-San," she said. "I have come all the way from Japan to meet you." I don't remember what I said in return, though it was probably something pretty asinine.  I did manage to introduce myself and invite them inside. 

  Pictures curtesy of my sister. From left to right, the cameraman, the director, Akane-San, myself, and my mother (Mama-San, as they called her). Doesn't the kitchen look better?  👌🏻👌🏻👌🏻

Pictures curtesy of my sister. From left to right, the cameraman, the director, Akane-San, myself, and my mother (Mama-San, as they called her). Doesn't the kitchen look better? 👌🏻👌🏻👌🏻

Introductions were made all around, though nobody ever mentioned the cameraman's name. The director was Mari-san, a very upbeat woman, wearing a Bangor Maine sweatshirt. They in turn were introduced to my mother and sister Sihaya, who had graciously agreed to be filmed, instead of running for the hills as I would have done in their place. Oh yes, and of course the camera was still rolling. There was no pause, they just catapulted me into the spotlight, asking for a tour of the house. 

Aside from the continuous filming, they really were the perfect guests, politely exclaiming  with admiration at every aspect of the house. Our family farm is very nice, built in the 1770s, disastrously remodeled in the 1970s, and painstakingly bought out of that era's cheesiness over the last twenty years by us. Recently we had repainted it from head to foot and knocked down a few walls, making in more light and welcoming. Actually, it was perfect that they were filming now, and not a year before, when we were renting out the big house and living in a small, cramped, mother-in-law cottage in the backyard. 

I brought them upstairs to my office, which is where I keep all my books on Japan, and most of my other Japanese belongings. This includes my modest manga collection, stack of wooden sake set boxes, and copious amounts of origami paper. Also, my map of Japan, which I have hung on the wall, a pin stuck in it for every place I hope to go one day. I would have thought this was fairly common, but apparently no one else they had ever interviewed had such a display. 

"You must really want to go to Japan," said Mari-San with wide eyes. 

"Oh yes," I assured her. 

Back in the kitchen, we finally got to the point. Kamaboko. Again, if you want to know what Kamaboko is, you'll have to go and read my original post about it, because I don't have time to tell you now. What I can say though, is that Mari-San was very impressed that I made it at home. This is virtually unheard of in Japan, though most people eat kamaboko often. The fact that I was a European-descended-American who had bothered to track down a recipe and refine it was apparently astounding. 

Without further delay, we got down to making kamaboko. Or at least, we would after we had done one tiny little thing. We had to go on a trip to my local grocery store and film me buying the fish. 

And that my dear reader, is a story for another post, which I promise to give you in a few days. 

In the meantime, please share this post! Much of the traffic to my blog comes from word of mouth, so please, if you enjoy my writing, tell your friends and family! Share my posts and sign up for the Newsletter! Every little bit helps! 

Until next time, Oklahoma! 

Japan Trip One: The Email

Okay, what? You went to Japan? And you didn't tell us? How could you?

These are some of the thoughts that might be going through your head right now. I know, I'm sorry, but I really wasn't allowed to tell anyone until this week. You see, not only did I go to Japan, but I went there to film an episode of Who Wants to Come to Japan?. I wasn't allowed to post anything on social media, or my blog, about the trip until the episode aired, which it has now done!

If you think this all sounds crazy, just imagine how I felt. 

It all started on a Monday, May first to be exact, when I received an email from a representative of the program. I was at work and about to take my break, waiting to use the punch-out machine, which was blocked by a restocking cart. While I waited, I took my phone out and saw that I had an email on my business account. I took a quick look and felt my eyes grow to the size of saucers. 

"...I work for a Japanese TV production company in New York. I am contacting you on behalf of the Japanese TV program..."

"Huh?" 

I quickly scanned the email, none of it making any sense to me in my rattled state. The restocking cart moved and I quickly punched out. Instead of eating my lunch I sat down in the cafe and read the email more slowly. It explained how this program, "Who Wants to Come to Japan", looks for foreigners who have a passion for Japan, but have never been before. Check and check. A film crew come to their house to do initial interviewing, and if the producers back in Japan like the footage, they invite that person to Japan to film an episode. 

Each episode focuses on whatever the particular interest of the person is. So if you are a foreigner who loves, for example, traditional Japanese clothing, they bring you to Japan and film an episode where you work with an expert in traditional clothing. You might sew some, or go and see how they dye the fabrics, and of course they will film you wearing a ton of traditional clothing. 

So what was my particular interest? I have so many, I don't think I would have been able to narrow it down. Luckily, the email told me what had brought me to their notice, and that my the post I had written last summer about kamaboko. They couldn't believe I had taken the trouble to make it at home, since practically no one in Japan does this, let alone someone outside Japan. They also really liked how I gave information about the history of Kamaboko. If I was interested, they said, they would like to come to my house and film me making kamaboko in one week! ONE WEEK.

I took a screen shot of the email and texted it to my sister with one simple comment: "What the actual &*#@?" 

My break was only fifteen minutes long, so I quickly read the email perhaps fifty times, then went back to work. While I sliced deli meat, my mind wandered. Was I really prepared to be on a Japanese television program? I don't even like having my picture taken. I'm not a particularly emotive person and I was born with a bad case of RBF. I've never had any ambitions to be on television, unless you count when I was a little kid and used to pretend I was on a cooking show while I made my lunch. I wouldn't call myself shy, but reserved is a very good way to describe me. Could I really pull off being on a tv show? 

My phone buzzed with a reply from my sister. "Wow, cool! Are you interested?" 

My brain didn't know what to think. The whole idea was so overwhelming. 

"I don't know. I think so." 

Needless to say, I sent an email that afternoon to the representative, and by the next day I had talked to her on the phone. In only one week I had a Japanese film crew in my house. In one month I was invited to Japan, and in two months I was walking out of Narita Airport with a camera following behind me. The whole thing has been a complete whirlwind, and I still can't quite believe that I spent eleven days in Japan. 

I wish that I could have spent the whole time writing about my adventure and sharing it with you, dear readers. However, I was forbidden to tell any but my family and close friends about the program until it aired. And so, that is why you are only hearing about it now. There is so much to tell, but for today, this is where I will leave you. In the next post I shall tell you all about the filming at my house, and my trip to the local grocery store with a Japanese film crew in toe! 

Until next time, remember, you never know what will happen in life next.

Nihon Day Thirty One: The Thirty One Cultural Pioneers of Japan

When I was a little kid, and I used to dream about the amazing country of Japan, I had a copy of Winnie The Pooh in Japanese. I obviously couldn't read it, but I used to copy out the kanji and kana onto pieces of stationary. This was partly because I've always loved the look of these foreign characters, but I had another reason for doing this. After writing out a whole page of kanji and kana I would fold it up, put it in an envelope, and write my address on it. Then I would draw a stamp on it, something that looked Japanese, and seal everything up. They were my very own letters from Japan. 

At the same time, me and my best friend, Nicole, were avid stamp collectors. Both of us got the stamp magazine and eagerly anticipated the new releases. We bought some stamps new from the post office, but mostly we cut them off of envelopes. There's a tricky technique where you soak them in a shallow dish of water with a little soap in it. After a few minutes you can carefully slide the stamp from the wet paper. Once dry, you have your very own used stamp, without any paper. 

It's been a while since I combed through the mail to find interesting stamps, but I still save anything from a foreign country. For example, a few years ago I bought some decorative paper from Australia. I saved the winter olympics stamps that were on the envelope. Obviously, Japanese stamps would have been the best, but everything I've had sent here from Japan has come in a bigger package, which has different postage than stamps. 

This is where ebay comes in. I discovered that Japan has Beatrix Potter stamps, and of course I needed them right away. Beatrix Potter is my personal hero and I collect the books, artwork, porcelain figures, and anything else I can find. Japanese Beatrix Potter stamps were a must. Plus, Japanese stamps don't just come in the rectangular shape we're used to seeing in America. The Beatrix Potter ones had round and oval stamps as well. Soon I found them on ebay for a reasonable price. 

Looking through the sellers page, I saw that he had hundreds of foreign stamps, mostly from France, but a lot from Japan too. I decided then and there that I must start a Japanese stamp collection. I didn't have a lot of money, but I had enough for one more batch. There were lots of interesting, beautiful, and artistic stamps, but I wanted something that I could use for a blog post. That was when I discovered the series of thirty one Cultural Pioneers. This was perfect, since I could learn history, find out about culture, and enjoy the stamps. 

I ordered my stamps, had them here within a week, and found them every bit as exciting as I had imagined. Now, the fun of the cultural pioneers was looking up who everyone was. Scientists, artist, poets, musicians, from every era, and walk of life. Now for the best part, telling you about them. 

I've split them into groups, so this will be a post with several parts. Without further ado, here are the first six. 

 

1. Katsushika Hokusai (October 31, 1760 – May 10, 1849)

We're starting out with one that should be known to most westerns, if only because he is the artist behind the most iconic Japanese print. It is commonly know as "The Wave" but is actually called "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa". His ukiyo-e prints were revolutionary in their time, focusing on landscapes and the every day lives of Japanese people, instead of courtesans and kabuki actors, the traditional subjects of the art form. 

Hokusai is believed to have been the son of a mirror maker, working for the Shogan. There is some speculation though, that since this man never made Hokusai his heir, his mother was perhaps a courtesan. Hokusai most likely learned to paint from his father, and after working first in a bookshop and then as a woodcarver's assistant, he moved to the studio of Katsukawa Shunsho, a skilled ukiyo-e artist. He was eighteen at this time, and did the typical kabuki and courtesan portraits. When Shunsho passed away, Hokusai began to explore other artistic styles, including some European examples. It must have been difficult for him to find these, since Japan was still closed off from the rest of the world, under penalty of death. 

Hokusai was eventually expelled from the studio by Shunsho's successor. Later in life, he would credit this humiliation with the development of his own style. After a brief stint in another ukiyo-e school, Hokusai set himself up as an independent artist.

 
 

As every successful artist will tell you, talent will only get you so far. Hokusai had the talent, but he also had a certain knack for self promotion. He would grow to be an artist of great renowned for his beautiful landscapes, nature scenes, and other innovations. Hokusai was the first person to publish manga, though they were rather different from their modern namesakes. This books of instruction and random drawing were highly popular in their time. 

In the 1820s, Hokusai had reached fame throughout the entire country. During this time he produced the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, including The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, which is famous worldwide today. In old age, his popularity faded somewhat, but he never stopped painting. On his deathbed at the ripe age of eighty eight he said "If only Heaven will give me just another ten years ... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter," showing the true spirit of an artist.  

2. Kitasato Shibasaburo (January 29, 1853 – June 13, 1931)

Moving on from the world famous artists Hokusai, we find someone working in a field with far less glamour, a bacteriologist. But, as much as I respect the arts (being an artist and all) I have to admit that Kitasato probably deserves a lot of praise for dedicating his life to the treatment of infectious diseases. 

Kitasato was educated at Tokyo Imperial University, but moved to Berlin in 1885 to study under Dr. Robert Koch. It was here that he became the first person to grow a pure culture of Tetanus bacillus, which was a big deal in bacteriology in the 1880s. Kitasato worked together with Emil Von Behring on antitoxins for tetanus, dypyheria, and anthrax. They were actually able to discover a diphtheria antitoxin serum. In 1901, the first year of the Nobel Prize, he was recognized for this work with a nomination. However, Emil Von Behring alone walked away with the award. 

After five years in Germany, Kitasato returned to Japan and founded The Institute for Study of Infectious Diseases. When Hong Kong had a breakout of the bubonic plague in 1894, the Japanese government sent Kitasato to see what he could do. It was at this time that he was able to identify the bacterium that causes the disease.

If you know anything about science history you might be scratching your head thinking I've mixed him up with the Swiss Bacteriologist, Alexandre Yersin. After all, the bacterium is called Yersinia pestis. Well, Yersin and Kitasato were both working on the same problem in Hong Kong, and they both isolated the bacterium individually. Kitasato discovered it several days earlier than his Swiss colleague, but because of his somewhat vague note taking habits, many historians give sole credit to Yersin. But this didn't discourage Kitasato, who would go on to isolate the bacterium responsible for dysentery four years later (with the help of his student Shiga Kiyoshi). 

His other achievements include founding the Kitasato Institute (later Kitasato University) and founding the Terumo Corperation, which is still manufacturing medical equipment today. He also served as the first Dean of Medicine at Keio University. In 1924 he was made a danshaku (baron) in recognition of his achievments. 

3. Uemura Shoen (April 23, 1875 – August 27, 1949) 

There are twenty six years between the death of Hokusai and our next pioneer's birth, but they were both influential artists. Indeed, when Shoen was a young girl she was inspired by the works of Hokusai. In a time when women were often constrained into rigid roles in society, Shoen was growing up in a household entirely made up of women. Her father had died when she was young, and now her mother ran the family and their tea business. 

Supported by her mother, Shoen studied Chinese style, Kano, and Sesshu painting at Kyoto Prefectural Painting School. She would move on to other styles and teachers, but also developed her own techniques. Her work is now remembered for her paintings of women, often inspired by Noh theatre. Her two most famous works are Jo-no-mai and Soshi-arai Komachi, painted in her fifties and sixties, which depict scenes from famous Noh plays. 

   Jo-no-mai

Jo-no-mai

  Soshi-arai Komachi

Soshi-arai Komachi

Shoen had two illegitimate children, a son and a daughter, who she raised independently, never revealing the father of either. This was certainly a big deal in the late 1800s, but Shoen appears to have been a trail blazer in more ways than one. Thanks to her amazing talents, Shoen became the first woman to be invited to join the Imperial Art Academy, and the first woman to be awarded the Order of Culture. Also, Jo-No-Mai was the first painting by a woman that the Agency of Cultural Affairs deemed an Important Cultural Property. 

4. Umetaro Suzuki (April 7, 1874 – September 20, 1943)

Back from the world of art to the world of science. Umetaro Suzuki was a Japanese scientist, and a contemporary of Kitasato Shibasaburo. However, his speciality was the as of yet undiscovered cause of beriberi.

If you're unfamiliar with this condition, it is caused by a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1), and used to be very common in Japan. This was because of the reliance on white rice as a dietary staple. But wait, you might be thinking, a few months ago you were telling us how great white rice is! Well, it is, because of all the reasons I spelled out in that post. However, you can easily get thiamine from other sources, like green peas, spinach, buckwheat, and even pork. Good news for those who do not want to get beriberi, which is something you don't want. I'm not entirely sure of the symptoms because I only got far enough into the wikipedia page to find out the is a "dry beriberi" and a "wet beriberi" and that was enough for me. 

As I say, Umetaro Suzuki discovered thiamine, after researching components of rice bran. No doubt, he had become curious as to why people who ate brown rice didn't get beriberi. This was early in the time of modern vitamin research, and that name was yet to be coined. Umetaro called his discovery aberic acid. Due to the fact that Umetaro's article was poorly translated into German, accidentally failing to note that it was a new discovery, Umetaro received no recognition for his discover worldwide. It was instead given to Kazimierz Funk, the Polish biochemist with an amazing name. He succeeded in isolating thiamine two years after Umetaro, and dubbed it a vitamine (vital amino). Jeez, what is it with Japanese scientists of this period not getting their proper credit?

Umetaro was a professor of agricultural chemistry at the University of Tokyo and was also the director of the Division of Chemistry at the research facility of RIKEN. 

5. Kazan Watanabe (October 20, 1793 – November 23, 1841)

There's a bit of a pattern here, for we are moving on to another artist, Kazan Watanabe. But, Kazan was a lot different from Hokusai and Uemura Shoen. For one thing, he was a member of the Samurai class, though from a poorer family. He was a sort of Edo Paradox, both a firm believer in the Confucian principles of Samurai and daimyo (lords) and an enthusiastic admirer of western artwork, science, and politics. 

His artistic style was influenced both by traditional Japanese techniques and western paintings. He painted both realistic portraits and beautiful natural images, such as birds and bamboo leaves. 

 
 A resistir portrait of Sato Issai by Kazan Watanabe 

A resistir portrait of Sato Issai by Kazan Watanabe 

The Watanabe family served the lord of Tahara Domain (persent-day Aichi Prefecture), and Kazan served their lord as a senior councilor. However, he wrote two essays, not intended for publication, that could have been interpreted as critical of the Shogan and pro-westernization. Those essays were discarded, but most unfortunately they were found. At this time, Japan was still closed, and it would be for another two decades. Kazan was exiled to Tahara for his opinions, which were never intended to be made public. 

There were conditions to his exile, one of which being that he must cease the sale of his paintings. However, being financially dependent on these sales, Kazan ignored this condition and continued to sell the paintings in secret. This lasted a little while, but he was once again discovered, and this time his punishment was house arrest. Kazan Watanabe was forty eight when he committed seppuku (ritual suicide) to atone for the political embarrassment he had caused his lord. Today he is remembered as a exemplary painter and scholar. 

6. Lafcadio Hearn (27 June 1850 – 26 September 1904) 

While I was sorting through the thirty one stamps, I was interested to find Lafcadio Hearn, mostly because that is clearly not a Japanese name. But also, it rang a sort of bell. A few minutes later, as I read his wiki page, I remembered where I had read about him before. It was during my research for the post about Kaidan, Japanese ghost stories. Lafcadio Hearn was a writer, best known for his books about Japan, and this collections of legends and kaidan. 

In this day and age, it is hard to imagine not knowing anything about Japan. Ever since the twentieth century our countries have been linked. First as allies, then as enemies, and finally in a friendship where we both borrow and evolve each others culture. I would make the argument that Japan has become one of the most well known countries to the youth in America today. But, it wasn't that way for a very long time. After all, Japan spent over two hundred years closed off from the rest of the world. It wasn't until the 1850s, when Commodore Mathew Perry forced Japan at gunpoint to trade with America, that the modern world really became aware of Japan.

Today, that sort of thing would have been covered by all the major networks, and it would only be a matter of days before you could learn as much as you wanted about the newly open country from the internet (disregarding the language barrier). But, information was far slower in the 1800s. To the average westerner, Japan was unimaginably exotic, and a complete mystery. However, Japan's beautiful esthetic began to make itself known in the west, notably at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, where they erected a Japanese pagoda. After that, people in the west were eager to learn more about this fashionable culture. Luckily, though there were still hardly any books about Japan available, they could rely on the works of Lafcadio Hearn. 

Lafcadio was born in the greek Ionian Islands, the son of a surgeon. The family immigrated to Ireland when he was two years old, where he was eventually abandoned by both his parents and left in the care of an aunt. He would remain there until age nineteen, when his uncle purchased him a one way ticket to America. With the instructions to make his way to Cincinnati, where he would receive help from his uncle's sister and her husband, Lafcadio once again immigrated to a foreign country. However, the only help he got from his American connection was a five dollar bill and a "good luck". 

Lafcadio was left to a life of menial labor on the streets of Cincinnati. Perhaps he would have been doomed to continue that life, if he hadn't befriended Henry Watkin, the owner of a printing business. Watkin was willing to give Lafcadio a job, giving him his first in on the publishing business. In 1872, four years into his life in America, he got his first job as a writer, working for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He would work there for three years, until his anti-religious writings would land him in hot water. He was fired by the Enquirer, who sited his illegal marriage to an African American woman as the reason. 

Skipping ahead some eighteen years, during which Lafcadio would divorce, move to New Orleans, work for several news papers and magazines, publish works on New Orleans' culture, and then spend two years in the West Indies and publish two books on the subject. In 1890, Lafcadio was hired to go to Japan as a correspondent reporter. Though the contract was terminated soon after his arrival, Lafcadio was enraptured by Japan. Soon he had a middle school teaching position in Matsue. In a little over a year, Lafcadio had fully committed to his new home, marrying the daughter of a Samurai family, changing his name to Koizumi Yakumo, and becoming a buddhist. 

  Lafcadio Hearn and his second wife, Koizumi Setsu

Lafcadio Hearn and his second wife, Koizumi Setsu

In 1891, Lafcadio obtained another teaching position and moved his new family to Tokyo. During this time he wrote "Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan", the first of fifteen books he would write over the next ten years. These books were for quite some time the only peak into the mysteries of Japan for curious westerners. In Tokyo he had four children with Setsu, became a teacher at the Tokyo Imperial University, and became the authority on Japanese folklore. 

Sadly, Lafcadio had only spent thirteen years in Japan, when in 1904 he died of heart failure at age fifty four. Today he is remembered in Japan for his collections of Japanese folktales and ghost stories. On the island of his birth there is a museum dedicated to his life, and in Ireland there is an extensive Japanese inspired garden planted in his memory. The fifteen books he wrote about Japan, a snap shot of preindustrial-Meiji era, are still considered important historical works today. 


I hope you enjoyed reading about these cultural pioneers. This blog post ended up being a lot longer than I had originally intended, and I'm not sure how often I will be able to post about the rest of the stamps in this collection. However, I will do my best to keep telling you about these amazing people, and their contributions to the history and culture of Japan!

Until next time, do your best to make the world a better place!

If you enjoyed this post, you will probably also enjoy this one, where I talk about how one man changed the candy industry in Japan. Or perhaps this one, where I tell the story of a Japanese company's rise to power. 

P.S. It's funny how sometimes things just work out. I have been planning this post for a while now, ever since I purchased these thirty one stamp. I had no idea that the post would end up being Nihon Day Thirty One until this very moment. So perfect! 

Nihon Day Thirty: Emoji Explained Part Two

As promised, here is the follow up to Emoji Explained Part One. If you haven't read that post, I suggest you go check it out, since it has a lot of info on the origin of emoji. It also has all the Japanese food emoji explained. In this post we will discuss the other emoji that have specifically Japanese origins. 

 

This one is pretty obvious, it is the Japanese archipelago! Did you know that the country of Japan is made up of 6,852 islands? The four main islands are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Below Kyushu stretch the Ryukyu islands: Osumi, Tokara, Amami, Okinawa, and the Sakishima Islands. 

Mountfujijapan-1.jpg
 

Another clear one, this is the iconic Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan. Though it hasn't erupted since 1708, it's actually an active volcano (a stratovolcano to be precise). For centuries, Mount Fuji has inspired countless artist, poets, and laypeople alike. 

Here we have a traditional Japanese Castle. These beautiful buildings were constructed of stone and wood, and were mighty fortresses as well as the homes of nobility. The photograph above is one of the most famous and iconic in Japan, Himeji Castle in Himeji, Hyogo. It was constructed in 1333 during the Muromachi period. 

This is titled "Shinto Shrine", but to be more specific it is the torii gate outside a shinto shrine. These gates represent the transition from the profane world outside, to the sacred world of the shrine. The word torii literally translates to "bird abode", which is just lovely.

This might look like a bell buoy, but it's actually the, much more impressive, Tokyo Tower. Built in 1958, during the post war boom, it is a red, lattice styled structure. It was inspired by the Eiffel Tower, but at 1,092 feet (332.9 metres) it beats that tower by 29 feet. Still, it is the second tallest structure in Japan, as the Tokyo Skytree outstripped it in 2011. The Skytree is 2,080 feet and is the second tallest structure in the world. 

PHOT000000000004F790_500_0.jpg
 

This is one of those emoji that I can't imagine is ever used outside of Japan. I'm not going to lie, this looks like a deodorant brand. 109 is actually a department store in Shibuya Tokyo. It's been around since 1979 and is apparently a great place for people who like to shop. The name comes from the operator Tokyu, and is a clever pun. You see, ten in Japanese is to and nine is kyu

The Nisshoki or Hinomaru is the flag of Japan. It's a simple design, but one that is embodied with much history and mythology. The red dot represents the rising sun, which is in itself a symbol of Japan, as compared to mainland China they are "the land of the rising sun". The sun is also important to Japan, since the imperial family is said to be descended from Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. There are emoji flags for just about every nation, but Japan is the only one represented twice, with the standard flag and the crossed flags. Though interestingly, on Samsung devises the crossed flags are South Korea's Taegukgi. 

banknote-with-yen-sign.png

This is a bundle of bank notes, specifically the Japanese 1,000 yen note. It might seem like a large amount of money, but this is the lowest bill of currency currently in circulation. At the writing of this post, 1,000 yen comes to about $8.76. Featured on the 1,000 yen note is Hideyo Noguchi, a bacteriologist, who is best known for discovering the cause of progressive paralytic disease, in 1911. This might seem like a strange person to put on your money, but I think it's cool that they chose a scientist. As a point of interest, Japan's 5,000 yen note has Ichiyo Higuchi on it, a female writer from the Meiji period, famous for her short stories. The 10,000 yen note shows the writer, and founder of Keio University, Fukuzawa Yukichi. 

Koinobori, or carp streamers, are a traditional wind sock, flown on May 5th, Tango no Sekku (Children's Day). They're thought to bring good luck to children, so they will grow healthy and strong. Generally the top two fish represent the father and mother, and then fish at the bottom are added for the number of children in the household. 

Though you might think that these are simply a man and a woman sitting side by side, they are actually hina-ningyo. These very beautiful Japanese ornamental dolls are dressed in the courtly fashions of the Heian period (794–1185). Once a year they are displayed for Hinamatsuri, the Doll Festival. This holiday is actually March 3rd, but the dolls are usually put out on display sometime in February and taken down directly after the festival. Their perch is a red carpet covered platform with several tiers. The top platform holds the emperor and empress, sitting before two golden screens. Below them are three court ladies, five musicians, two minstrels, and three warriors (or samurai).  

moon-viewing-ceremony.png
 

Here we have a scene from another festival, Tsukimi, or Moon Viewing. This holiday takes place on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the traditional Japanese calendar and again on the thirteenth of the ninth month. If you're a bit lost, just know that they generally happen sometime in September and October. Tsukimi has it's origins in the Heian period. Today some of the traditions include decorations made from Japanese pampas grass and eating rice dumplings called tsukimi dango. 

Another holiday that can trace it's origin back to the Heian period is Tanabata, or the Star Festival. Tanabata (7th of July through August) was adapted from the Chinese Qixi festival, and celebrates the legend of two star crossed lovers, literally. Orihime and Hikoboshi are two deities and also the stars Vega and Altair. They're separated by the milky way, but legend states that on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month they can meet again. During the festival, people write wishes on small pieces of paper called tanzaku,which are then hung on bamboo. 

 

Kadomatsu are special decorations used during New Years. They are made with bamboo for prosperity, pine for longetivy, and occasionally ume sprigs for steadfastness. Two kadomatsu are usually placed on either side of a gate or doorway and are intended to be temporary homes for kami. To learn more about kami, read this post

This is a beautiful, pink cherry blossom. I wrote extensively about Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing last year. There are countless cherry trees across Japan and they blossom in glorious beauty when spring's warm weather first comes. These trees are much beloved and admired. 

Kimono are the tradition clothing of Japan, originating in Muromachi period (1392–1573), and still common for formal or festive occasions today. The shape of the kimono is that of a T, and since the Edo period they have had quite long sleeves. They are paired with an obi across the waist, which is tied at the back in a pleasing fashion. Though today kimono are most often seen on women, they are a unisex garment. 

 

This is a martial arts uniform, also known as a gi. It's probably familiar to anybody who's ever seen The Karate Kid, where many of the characters sport karategi for the finale. They are also used in judo, where they are called judogi (notice a pattern?) and are made from a stiffer material. Point of interest, karate was developed on the Ryukyu islands during the 1300s. It was brought over from China during a time of diplomatic and cultural exchanges. Judo was developed in the early Meiji period (1868–1912), by Jigoro Kano, who started out learning jujutsu. Jujutsu was a martial art developed in the Muromachi period, around the same time as karate was starting in Ryukyu. Unlike Chinese martial arts and karate, jujutsu, and therefor judo, focuses on throwing and pinning rather than striking. The main reason for this is that jujutsu was intended for use on the battlefield where your opponent was likely wearing armor and therefore striking would be much harder. Jujutsu also uses techniques intended to be used against someone holding a long sword. Pretty neat. 

Remember when you were a kid and you got your homework back and found a shiny gold star sticker on it? Or maybe a thumbs up, or some other good job emblem? That's essentially what we have here, a stamp for excellent homework. The writing translates roughly to "Well Done". 

This is not chocolate ice cream. It is, in fact, a smiling pile of poop. Okay, Japan can be somewhat weird sometimes, it's one of the reason why I love learning about it. There has been a bit of a poop obsession in Japan for some time now. It seems to originate in a pun (Japan loves puns), as the word for poop, unko, makes the same oon sound as the word for luck (un). Golden poops are a popular luck charm in Japan. Dr. Slump, a manga by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama, did a lot for bringing poop into the humorous kawaii world. The manga often featured toilet humor and piles of poop abound through the pages. There was even an animate, pink hued, pile of poop with arms, legs, and a face. Side note, did you know that Japan has a whole museum dedicated to defecation? It's called Toilet!? Human Waste & Earth's Future. No, I'm not joking, that's really what it's called. 

There are two dog emoji available in the texticon, the dog face 🐶, and the dog standing in profile. Obviously dogs are not specific to Japan, but have you ever wondered precisely why the dog is a curly tailed spitz type dog? Well, that would be because the dog breeds of Japan generally are. You see, the basal breeds from that country, the Akita, Shiba Inu, Shikoku, Kai Ken, and Hokkaido (Ainu) are all descended from the Matagi-ken hunting dogs. These were the Jomon period working companions of the indigenous Ainu people of Japan. They were bred to hunt deer, boars, and even bears. They're characterized by their thick coats, pointed ears and muzzles, and curled up tails. The picture above is of a Shiba Inu.

Japanese dragons, or Ryu, are long and serpent like. Generally they're said to live in the oceans, clouds, or heavens, though Japanese dragons do not fly as often as the Chinese or Korean types. You can tell whether you're looking at a ryu or a long (China) or yong (Korea) because they have three digits to each foot, as apposed to five or four. Often they are shown with antlers and long whiskers. The emoji of the full dragon appears to be clutching a jewel in his three claws, which leads me to believe that he is Ryujin, the god of the ocean. He is in possession of the Tide Jewels, which he uses to control the tides. Ryujin is said to live in a palace made of red and white coral. The imperial family is descended from Ryujin by way of his daughter Otohime. 

Oni are a type of Japanese yokai or demon. They're usually translated as "ogre" or "troll", and they do have some similarities with those western folk beings. They have wild hair, sharp claws and teeth, horns, and red or blue skin. Generally you see them depicted in tiger skin loin cloths and carrying an iron club. This emoji is actually representing an oni mask, used in traditional Japanese theatre. 

 

The tengu is another type of red faced, humanoid character of Japanese folktales. They are both represented as yokai and kami, making them somewhat less malevolent. Tengu are related to great birds of prey and are often shown with wings or talons. Originally they had beaks, but over time they were softened into their classic long nosed human faces. Through still thought of as dangerous, tengu are now seen as protectors and spirits of the mountains and forests. Popular as characters in traditional Japanese theatre, the emoji depicts a tengu mask. 

Absolutely the most widely recognizable pieces of Japanese artwork, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa is the work of the master ukiyo-e artist, Katsushika Hokusai. It was published in the 1830s during the late Edo period, an era known for its artistic and cultural output. It was the first piece in Hokusai's Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji series (you can just see Fuji in the background). This series was groundbreaking because it often depicted scenes of common people going about their common business in foreground, with the majestic mountain in the background. This was unprecedented before Hokusai thought of it. Though many people take the wave to be a tsunami, it is more likely a rogue wave.

This looks a bit like wheat, but it is of course ears of rice. Rice was first brought to Kyushu from the Chinese mainland sometime in the third century BCE. It can be grown in areas that are swampy or mountainous, places that would usually be difficult to cultivate. Japan has an abundance of such land and it soon spread throughout the country becoming a dietary staple. The Japanese word for rice is gohan, and you can see it’s cultural and dietary importance in the words for breakfast (asagohan), lunch (hirugohan), and dinner (bangohan). Even Japan’s indigenous name for its self, mizu ho no kuni, roughly translates to “the land of the water stalk plant”, namely rice. It is still cultivated widely in Japan, where domestically grown rice is considered the best.

This is clearly a paper lantern, but it’s also a special type used at certain eateries. Most commonly you will see them outside izakaya (Japanese pubs), but they’re also used for sushi restaurants and takoyaki stands.

 

Furin are a traditional bell type wind chime, traditionally used in the summer. They’re hung from the eaves of the house and have a beautiful sound to complement the chirping crickets and buzzing cicada. The strip of paper hanging from the end, called a tanzaku, adds a pleasing flutter.

There are lots of differences between Japanese and western etiquette, but perhaps the most well known is the bow. Learned from infant-hood, thebow is a very important gesture to have. It can be informal (pretty much just bowing the head), formal (bowing at a thirty degree angle), or very formal (a deep bow). Either way, bows come from the hips, with a straight back, hands held at the side for boys and men, and clasped in the lap for girls and women. This emoji appears to be from the kneeling position, where the hands are put in front of the bowed head. There are many nuances to bows, depending on situation, or social status.

This was one that I thought was pretty interesting, since when you are typing thanks on an iPhone it suggests this emoji. I already knew this gesture from watching Japanese movies and reading manga, but I thought it must seem strange to some. “Why praying hands? Am I thanking god?” Well, here’s the deal, in Japan when you’re thanking someone for a meal, often you will clap your hands in front of your face. It’s also used if you’re asking for a favor or even asking to be forgiven for something. There are a lot of interesting etiquette and body language features in Japan. For more information, check out this guide from Tofugu. 

Well, that's more or less it for the emoji that are specific to Japan. I hope this has been a helpful and enlightening post. If there were any emoji that I missed, which you find confusing, feel free to comment below.

Until next time, 👋🏼🙏🏻❤️

If you enjoyed this post, you should check out this one about food emoji. Or you might like this one about the history of Nintendo. 

Fusion Cooking: Thai Curry with Japanese Chicken Tatsutaage

This meal started out the way most do. I opened the refrigerator and noticed that there were two packs of chicken hanging out, waiting to be cooked. Usually, I don't have much trouble coming up with things to do with chicken, it is my favorite type of meat. However, this was chicken tenders, which as you probably know are strips of breast meat. I'm pretty much a strictly dark meat person. I'll tolerate white meat, if it's in something, like chicken salad, or a burrito, but I never cook with it at home. I'm not even sure how I ended up with these two packs, since no body in my house likes white meat much. Anyhow, however it happened, I would have to figure out what to cook. 

No trouble, I just went on to Japanese Cooking 101 and went to their "chicken section". This is what I do a lot of the time when I'm feeling stumped on a meal. The very first thing I saw was perfect, Chicken Tatsutaage. This is a lot like karaage(fried chicken), only it's made with potato starch instead of flour. Now, if you skipped right over to that karaage post and read it in between that last sentence and this one (because you're very thorough), you might notice that I used potato starch then too. Well, apparently I was mistaken, and I was actually making tatsutaage, go figure. You learn something new everyday. 

Now I knew what I was going to do, but a plate of tatsutaage does not a meal make, So I still needed something to go with it. I could have gone strictly Japanese, but another idea popped into my head. My sister and her family live out on Nantucket, and I go there for visits pretty regularly. One of my favorite things to do there is to get the mango curry at Siam To Go, a Thai restaurant located inside the ice skating rink. The curry is delicious, but what I really like about it is that you can get it with "crispy chicken", which goes great with the soupy, sweet and spicy curry. I knew that I had stumbled across the right meal when I checked the cupboards and found that I had all of the ingredients to make a yellow Thai curry with mango. 

  Galangal

Galangal

I grew up eating Thai curry, thanks to my best friend's mother, and it's still one of my favorite foods. There are three basic types, green, red, and yellow, which you can buy in a paste form, or make from scratch. I like to use Thai Kitchen, because that's the brand I ate in childhood. Thai curry pastes are generally made with shrimp paste, chillies, onions or shallots, lemongrass, garlic, coriander, and galangal (a distant relative of ginger that is common in Thai and Lao cooking). The color of the curry depends on wether red or green chillies were used, yellow curry is red paste with turmeric added. 

Hang on, I didn't hear anything about curry powder in that description, you might be thinking. That's because curry is actually a word for dishes made with certain blends of spices, generally made in a sauce. There are hundreds of different types of curries from countries all over the world. Curry powder was invented in Britain to try and replicate the flavor of Indian curries. It's generally made with a combination of coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, and chili peppers. Sometimes it also has the leaf of the curry tree, but don't be confused, curry leaf isn't what makes it a curry. If you're really interested in curries, I suggest getting a good curry cookbook that gives you recipes for your own curry powers and pastes.

 Japanese Curry ❤️

Japanese Curry ❤️

For this meal, I used this recipe for my curry base, though I left out the extra chillies (because I'm a wimp), and added broccoli, fresh basil, and roasted cashews. It was sometime around now that I found out that my sister and her boyfriend were coming to dinner. It was also at this point that I realized I was out of basmati rice. I had Japanese rice, but even if the chicken was a Japanese recipe, I am very strict about matching the appropriate rice with curry. I'm actually known for it. If you ever come into my house and find me sitting in the corner weeping over a bowl of curry it's because I've been forced to use basmati with a Japanese curry (or, you know, I made the curry too spicy). I was seconds away from declaring the whole venture ruined when I realized I had a bag of sticky rice! 

If you're not familiar, sticky rice is a wonderful rice that is very sticky when cooked and tastes a little sweet. It’s grown and eaten throughout Southeast Asia, but it's also popular in Japan where it's called mochigome. You might also see it called sweet rice, glutenous rice, or (god forbid) waxy rice. I grew up eating sticky rice, and prefer it when it is made the traditional way, that is to say, steamed in a basket. However, since we moved, I have misplaced said basket, so for the first time ever, I followed these instructions, and cooked it on the stove top. I'm not in love with the results. It came out pretty wet, which is not the consistency I like to see in my rice. Next time, I'm not going to bother unless I find my basket. However, the flavor of sticky rice is still to die for! It went perfectly with the soupy curry and crisp chicken. 

I love putting something sweet and fresh in my curries, which truth be told, can be a bit rich. The mango in this curry was perfect, complimenting the yellow curry and creamy coconut base. I especially love how the broccoli absorbs the sauce into the bushy tops, biting into the broccoli sends a torrent of curry over the tongue. The tatsutaage is marinated in soy sauce and mirin before being rolled in potato starch and fried. This gives it a delicious but subtle flavor, that actually accompanied the sweet curry beautifully. Topping this all off, literally, were cashews, which I roasted myself. Their salty, nuttiness and crunch were the icing on the curry cake. This Japanese Thai fusion was a total success!

Until next time, FU-SION-HA! (Dragon Ball Z reference)

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one, about Japanese curry. Or perhaps this one, about a another type of Japanese curry. 

Nihon Day Twenty Nine: The Japanese Cat (Part One: Introduction)

It's no secret that I love cats. Head over to the Artwork page and you'll see that I spend a good portion of my time painting cats. I pretty much never miss an opportunity to talk about my own cats, like a super proud parent I can't help edging them into my conversations. My instagram account, though it is @WashokuDay, is ninety percent pictures of my three fur-babies. Emrys is a seventeen year old tabby siamese mix, Perine is a two year old calico, and Meredith (Mr. Merry) is an eleven month old ginger tabby. They're the light of my life, especially Emrys, who's been my constant companion since I was nine. Technically, Perine and Merry belong to my mother, but since we live in the same house, I just call them mine. Anyway, enough about my cats and how much I love them, which is a lot, if you didn't catch that. What I wanted to talk about today is cats in Japan. 

  Emrys  (Em-Riss): Named after Myddin Emrys (AKA Merlin), from The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. His long time companion and brother, Tybalt (2000-2016), was named after Tybalt "Prince of Cats" from Romeo and Juliet. 

Emrys (Em-Riss): Named after Myddin Emrys (AKA Merlin), from The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. His long time companion and brother, Tybalt (2000-2016), was named after Tybalt "Prince of Cats" from Romeo and Juliet. 

  Perine  (Purr-In): Named for an ancestor of my mom's that she discovered while doing genealogy. It's the French version of Petrina.

Perine (Purr-In): Named for an ancestor of my mom's that she discovered while doing genealogy. It's the French version of Petrina.

  Meredith   (Merry) Pumpkin-Butt Fuzzypants:  His first name comes from my mom's eye doctor, and yes, Meredith is a boys name too. His second and third names are self explanatory.

Meredith (Merry) Pumpkin-Butt Fuzzypants: His first name comes from my mom's eye doctor, and yes, Meredith is a boys name too. His second and third names are self explanatory.

Cats are currently the most popular pets in the world, out numbering "man's best friend" by around three to one (source: Cat Sense by John Bradshaw). But still, there hasn't been as much research into their history, genetics, and behaviors, as with dogs, since they are a lot harder to study. Only recently has there been some light shone on the mysterious creatures we share our homes with. The domestic cat evolved from wild cats (Felis silvestris), around 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Unlike dogs, there are not a seemingly endless array of breeds, and indeed, most cat breeds are pretty modern and a product of the cat show era. However, some cat breeds are older, coming from different parts of the world. Notably, the Asian cat breeds, like the Siamese, korat, and Japanese Bobtail.

It is believed that the Japanese bobtail came to Japan 1,000 years ago. These first cats were brought with a delegation from China as a gift to Emperor Ichijo. Their short tails were a byproduct of a genetic mutation, which was favored on the Asian continent. Soon cats were a beloved pet of the aristocracy and upper class. Cats in general had already found their way to Japan around 500 CE and were valued as protectors of Buddhist temples, keeping the rodent populations in check and thus preserving the sacred scrolls and books. 

Cats with the short bobtails were favored over regular cats. Though these cats can be born with just about any coloring or pattern, the most popular was the mi-ke (mee-kay), or three colored cats. These were white cats with splotches of black and "red" (ginger), artistically placed about their person. This is also called a white calico. This is still the classic Japanese bobtail pattern today.

We know that the cats in China at the time were a more utilitarian animal, since they're depictions in artwork are mostly hunting based. In contrast, the Japanese art work of this period has a lot more in common with my Instagram page. Cats seem to be living it up in high style, leashed, and sleeping on comfy pillows, clearly adored by their human companions. But because of their relative rarity they were too expensive for the common folk of Japan to get to know and love. But all that was about to change. 

As beloved as the cat was, in 1602 there was a wild shift in their fortunes. The government, worried about the vermin that were threatening the silkworms of the spinning trade, made an astounding decision. The cats of Japan were to be set free, kicked out of their sheltered and pampered existence. Owning, buying, or selling cats was suddenly illegal. This is not the only instance in history where the cat's social status has taken a bad turn. Most notably they had a very hard time in Europe during the witch craze. What makes this instance strange is that nobody was deciding that these cats were evil or vermin, but rather very useful and desirable pest control, and therefore they shouldn't be waisted as a snuggle-buddy. So cats were relocated to the streets and farm of Japan.

As anyone who has ever lived in an area with a feral cat population can tell you, cats are prolific breeders when left to their own devises. The misfortune of loosing their place of luxury actually contributed to their growing numbers. Natural selection brought the cats to a bigger and healthier standard. Now it was possible for more common people to get to know and appreciate the cat. Cats became popular characters of folktales and legends. The Bakaneko was a cat spirit that could transform into any form, and the nekomata was a demon cat with a split tail. (I'll write more on these folktales in another post.)

Cats were also believed to bring luck, the moneki-neko, or beckoning cat, became a symbol that is still popular today. This familiar white calico cat with upturned paw can be seen adorning the entrances of eateries and businesses, not only in Japan, but across Asia and worldwide. (Personally I have one on my art table in my studio). During the cultural renaissance of the Edo period, the now famous art form of ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) emerged. Cats were a popular subject, much as they are now the apple of the internet meme-craze's eye. 

 
 

For the life of me, I could not find any information on when the ban on owning cats expired. But, it did at some point, and in Japan today the cat in a beloved member of many hearts. There's even an entire island filled with a colony of cats, which outnumber the human residence by about six to one. Youtube and Instagram are bursting with videos from proud Japanese cat owners (my favorite is Maru the Scottish fold). Because many of the apartments in Japan will not allow pets, a new type of public space, which sounds like absolute paradise, has emerged. This is, the cat cafe, a place where feline lovers can come and sit with a bunch of happy cats and have a drink and maybe a light snack. 

There are many types of cats in Japan now, though the bobtail is still an iconic favorite. I've never had a Japanese Bobtail, but they sound like very lovable creatures. Some of their breed specific traits are quite compelling, such as the fact that most of them are rather intelligent. Some of them are easily trained to preform tricks, or play fetch (actually Perine loves to play fetch). Their generally very human oriented and are excellent family pets. Many cats dislike living with other members of their species, but Bobtails generally like to have a companion, though they might accept a dog in a pinch. A more vocal breed, the Japanese Bobtail is capable of generating a range of sounds, in fact they're sometimes described as singers. Apparently it is also easier to train them to walk on a lead, rather than with most cats who will simply collapse, letting you drag them for a while before you give in and pick them up. 

Though the Japanese Bobtail is obviously famous for, you know, being a bobtail, the mutation that causes this is actually a recessive gene. This means that if the parents of the kitten in question are both true bobtails, in all likeliness the kitten will have a short tail too. But if one of the parents has a long tail, it's far less likely to produce a bobtailed kitten. The mutation is not a disfigurement, like the Manx's short tail, but simply effects how many vertebrate the tail has. Generally a true bobtail must have no more than three inches of tail to be considered a "true bobtail". If you've ever known an animal with a cropped tail, or maybe one who lost it in an injury, you're probably picturing a little stump which feels weirdly boney, and is perhaps missing a little fur on the tip. The true bobtail is not like that, more like a rabbit's tail than anything. It truly is just a very short cat tail.

Another mutation that this breed is prone to is heterochromia, or having eyes of different colors. Only the Turkish Van is as susceptible to this phenomena, and it's more common in Bobtails with predominantly white coloring. The mutation causes one eye to be blue and one to be yellow, or silver and gold as it is called by breeders. This mutation is pretty neat, but when I look at a cat with it, I always start to feel a bit cross-eyed. 

This has turned into a longer sized post than I originally intended, but I still have more to say on the subject of Japanese cats. Therefore, I will write a few follow ups, focusing on cats in folktales and myths, cats in pop culture, and perhaps a few others. So, I hope you enjoy cats. For those of you who are more doggie people, I might write about some of the Japanese dog breeds in the future. 

Until next time, meeeoooow!

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one, about the island of rabbits. Or perhaps this one, about Japan's culture of cute. 

Kinoko Nabe: Mushroom Hot Pot

Here in Maine we are experiencing yet another mild winter. Since Christmas I think we've only seen about four inches of snow. This has been almost immediately melted by a combination of unseasonable warmth and rain. However, it's still the time of year that calls for hardy food.  Continuing on with my goal of filling this winter with delicious hot pots, my next recipe to tackle was Kinoko Nabe, or Mushroom Hot Pot. 

I decided on this hot pot because there has been an excellent selection of mushrooms at my local co-op. I was especially aware of this, since I work at the co-op and have been staring at the mushroom display for the last couple weeks. When I sat down with the book Japanese Hot Pots (by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat) to pick my next endeavor, my eye was caught by this simple dish. I ended up making it for my mom's birthday dinner. This meant that it was paired with salmon teriyaki (my mom's favorite) and cucumber sunomono. It all went together smashingly. 

Unfortunately, one of the mushroom variety called for, shimeji, eluded me. However, I replaced it with the king trumpet mushroom, which I had never had before. The other three mushrooms were enoki, oyster, and shiitake. The mushrooms were accompanied with napa cabbage, tofu, and spinach. You'll notice that non of those extras are particularly flavorful on their own. This means that kinoko nabe is all about the flavor of the mushrooms, set off perfectly by the dashi broth.

Each of these mushrooms has its own peculiar flavor and attributes. Enoki had a distinctly "mushroomy" tang and their delicate tendril-like stems make them almost like a noodle. Oyster mushrooms have a pleasantly earthy taste and a softer texture. The king trumpet has a firm, almost meaty texture and a full bodied flavor. And of course shiitake's distinct taste should be familiar to all. 

Since this is a hot pot, it was served right in its pot, in the middle of the table, though this time it was fully cooked when it was placed there. So everyone present could pull whatever they liked right out of the hot broth and chow down. It was great fun with the extra guests we had for our mother's birthday. One of them, my sister's boyfriend, is a budding mycologist (mushroom enthusiast and forager). The whole thing went over wonderfully. 

I've already made another hot pot, but you'll have to wait for a later post to hear about it. I'll just leave you with the teaser that it was my favorite so far. 

Until next time, long live the King Trumpet Mushroom!

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy this one, about sukiyaki (another hot pot). Or perhaps you would like this one, about a white miso nabe.