Monthly Archives: August 2010

Kyoto in the Company of Teenagers

Beneath Kiyomizu Temple there is a corridor where only a single speck of light exists. The rest is bathed in utter darkness, as if a thick black curtain has descended and left you blind to the world. To navigate through this impenetrable night one must keep a hand running along a length of rope, beaded with wooden balls, skimming your fingers as you wade through step by step. This is Tenai-meguri and one’s journey into it is figuratively the journey into the womb of Daizuigu Bosatsu, the mother of Buddha who is said to be able to grant wishes. One might imagine such an experience to be vaguely spiritual. The immersion in utter darkness, the total loss of a sense one relies upon so greatly. This might be so. In the darkness I might have found tranquility, an inner peace or perhaps a touch of revelation…

“Aye! Where you gone? Oh you’re behind me… wait so who’s in front of me… what’s that? Wait is that my foot or your foot? … argh a wall!”

A blood curdling scream.

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah… turned out to be the curtain at the exit.”

You see I had foolishly attempted a Zen like experience in the company of ten Yorkshire teenagers.

Perhaps I should explain. A good friend of mine is a Girl Guide Leader back in gloriously green Yorkshire. Which roughly means that she attempts to control a horde of teenage Yorkshire lasses on a weekly basis. How she manages to do this and retain a semblance of sanity I do not know, as teenagers of any ilk, never mind northern lasses, are a hard bunch to look after. If it isn’t self evident, when I say ‘look after’ I actually mean, ‘protect the general public from.’ It was in this role that my friend had brought her young charges to Japan and invited me to catch up with them for a day of sightseeing.

Now despite what the above may say, I don’t want you to think unkindly of this bunch. I was actually thoroughly impressed with their efforts in Japan. Thinking of how I might have reacted to Japanese culture as a teenager brings a wince to my face, in contrast each of these girls threw themselves into the experience with gusto. Noodles were devoured at pace, okonomiyaki as if consumed through a straw (so I was informed) and the bitter, thick tea of a tea ceremony was drunk with a smile and a respect for the effort and tradition involved in its creation. They even managed to ask some very insightful questions about Japanese culture… once they had got over the initial shock of their guide leader running to hug me upon my arrival.

By the end of the afternoon, after a long day spent under the hot summer sun it was however, rather obvious that the poor girls were beginning to wane. I couldn’t blame them, jetlag, culture shock and endless sightseeing are exhausting individually and they had at one point or another in their journey gone through all of them. So, arriving at a food festival on the banks of the river they looked rather less interested than before. I on the other hand had turned into a demented toddler, bouncing and grinning like an idiot at the thought of an endless variety of Japanese food. One variety in particular had been on my mind all day as I was slowly steam cooked in the unabating humidity; kakigori (I admit to being a simple creature). Quickly I found a source for my fix of strawberry flavour and shaved ice. Smiling, with a cup of delicious kakigori in hand I turned to find myself surrounded. Funny how teenagers get a second wind when dessert is available.

Pedantic Paperwork

Paperwork. God damned Japanese, paper pushing, bureaucracy at its finest. One hour before I’m due to hop on a bus bound for Nagoya, followed by a train to the airport, I get a call from the Japanese post office. I get the gist of the call. They are calling about a money transfer to the UK I set up two whole days earlier. Meaning the pointlessly pedantic, picky, sodding forms I filled out two days ago have been lingering in the office for some time. As far as I can tell there’s a problem (they wouldn’t be calling otherwise) with the reason I’m sending my money. Having explained it clearly two days prior I ask the guy to call back in ten minutes when he can speak to my boss who will be able to discern the reason for the call far better than I can with my shoddy Japanese.

What turns out to be the problem? Apparently sending money to my account in England is an insufficient explanation for the transfer. So sending my money, to my account needs clarifying. ‘Fine’, I tell my boss, ‘tell him it’s for bills.’ ‘What bills?’ the man on the phone asks. ‘Plane ticket, tell him it’s the plane ticket.’ Apparently that’s enough justification. Just.

The post office in Japan is one of the finest examples of the excessive bureaucracy that allows Japan to maintain a fairly low unemployment rate. Whether this is the prime motivating factor for such excessive paperwork is debatable. Some part is certainly played by the ironic mistrust of modern technology that is all pervasive in Japanese government work.

Prime example in day-to-day life is the continued heavy use of fax machines. While an old man’s business card may have no email address in sight, the fax number will hold pride of place. I have never gotten my head around how a country which watches TV on its mobile phones insists on these ageing contraptions.

Another example was when I went to Nagano City to renew my visa, never mind that the place was fairly bereft of computerization in any form, but the lift with giant Lost in Space vacuum tube technology buttons, as big as a roll of fifty pence coins were a defiant swipe at the modernity that has swept through the rest of life here.

Yet, this ridiculous charade with the post office left me pondering something else aside from the creaking nature of change. If the specific use of my money is in question, must I consider bank transfers from the post office in Japan to have equivalent conditions to the ones my mother once imposed on birthday money? One may not transfer one’s own money outside of the Land of the Rising Sun unless you promise not to spend it all on sweets and strip clubs.

In addition, how much detail would have been too much detail? Bills wasn’t enough, plane ticket was. Yet, what if possessing not one dishonest bone in my body, but plenty of deviant kinky ones I revealed that it was to fund the spiraling costs of an expensively imported, inflatable harem that left my neighbour with a Japanese love pillow looking decidedly well adjusted.

In all likelihood he’d probably have just recommended a trip to Akihabara and that we not bother with the paperwork after all.

Slurpy Noodles and Hamburger Sushi

Food in Japan is a curious beast. It is at times a gloriously wonderful thing, beautifully, even artfully constructed from an array of ingredients while remaining remarkably simple. At other times it’s a cup noodle. But at least the Japanese have a clear idea of what Japanese cuisine is. From snack to fine dining there runs a thread that identifies the creation as Japanese through and through.

But that’s a lie, if I’m honest.  Generally it is far easier to identify something as being part of Japanese cuisine than to do the same with British food. It’s there in British food, I just think that it has become much more internationalized as immigration and empire has completely altered the make up of British cuisine. Japan, a considerably more homogenous nation than the UK perhaps has a more singular culinary identity, but it is by no means Japanese to the bone.

Japanese cuisine, like every other nation in the world is open to the effects of globalization. Their attempt at an Italian style pizza can be found in every supermarket and many restaurants. In most cases it doesn’t compare to the original, or in my mind the American variant but they love it nonetheless. I used to work in an Italian restaurant, scrubbing baked on lasagna off of pans, pizza dough from plastic trays and dodging flying frying pans flung haphazardly towards the sink with a trajectory that were I not quick on my feet would have taken them straight through the back of my head. Health and safety, which is to say, my health and safety were not always cared for, but one thing they made sure was right was the pizza oven; four hundred degrees plus, the required temperature for a true Italian pizza. Here in Japan, the oven sits at 220 degrees. It’s a somewhat soggier creation.

I recently discovered from an article by Paul Greenburg, that even tuna of all things is not in the least bit traditional fare in Japan. The fat tooth required to crave and devour such a fatty, muscular variety of fish flesh was acquired with the introduction of beef into the Japanese diet only some fifty or so years ago. So quickly have they cultivated this taste that the Bluefin Tuna is all but buggered, avoiding extinction wise. As such, even something as Japanese as sushi and sashimi is not spared from the whim and caprice of the global market place. Topping that rectangle of rice with a wedge of tuna flesh simply wouldn’t have occurred to the Japanese a hundred years ago, it would have been too heavy a dish. Now in Kappa Sushi they put a hamburger on top along with a healthy dollop of mayonnaise.

Then there is ramen. The slurpy noodle.  An incredibly popular dish in Japan that finds its origins in China. Ramen joints are a late night thing for me. Steaming bowls of noodles, meat, a few bits of veg and half an egg floating in a brothy mix while delicious at the right time (approximately just under one too many beers into a night out) hold slightly less appeal to me come the sober light of day. Though I’ll admit that this is in part a weather thing. In the stifling humidity of the Japanese summer a heavy dish like ramen doesn’t appeal all that much. But come winter, being huddled over the bowl will take on a whole new dimension of culinary pleasure. There is an additional benefit to this too. While at times I feel self conscious in Japan eating something as delicate as sushi while simultaneously trying to shove it in my mouth in one mouthful as the Japanese do, slurping noodles, face barely above the bowl while sat at a counter is about as relaxed and informal as Japan gets. It’s a welcome break.

I’ve had some weird and wonderful eating experiences in Japan. I’ve eaten intestines hot off the electrical griddle at a house warming party in Shizuoka city, Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki (see Hiroshima post for description of the wonderful dish) off of the teppan in a restaurant that was little more than an old ladies living room  and shabu shabu (cooking thinly sliced meat and vegetable in a boiling pan of water then dipping them in sauce) at a friend’s dining room table while sipping sake with her father.

One event that tends to come to mind though is the time I ate dinner at a small izakaya (bar/restaurant) in Shibuya, Tokyo. Having already eaten my friend and I tried to turn down the chef’s initial effort but to no avail. It was delicious, it was beautiful and beyond it being green and containing some tuna I couldn’t tell you what it was. I tried to tell the man I was full when the second dish arrived. I’m glad he didn’t believe me because it was tataki, slightly seared slices of tuna, and it is incredible. My mouth waters at the very thought of it. Finally he asked me whether I like tako (octopus). I nodded. This was a mistake. He reached into a blue plastic bag behind the counter and proceeded to pull out a live baby octopus that immediately wrapped its tentacles around his arm. Frantically I told him not to start cutting and blow torching the poor thing up in front of me. Not that I have a problem with eating meat in any way, I just don’t see why an animal should die when someone isn’t going to eat it. Fortunately, the chef put the poor little blighter back in his blue bag and bucket, slowly pulling the little suckers from his arm.

I had a slice of him later. Not bad. A little chewy if you must know.