Archive

Monthly Archives: February 2009

Most people who come to Japan list “experiencing the culture” as one of the major reasons that they made the trip, be it a holiday or a longer stay. For the vast majority of cultural tourists all this amounts to is eating the food, watching a dance/traditional theatrical performance and touring the temples of Kyoto.

Truly immersing yourself into Japanese culture is an incredibly difficult goal. Numerous obstacles stand in the way of the foreigner who wants to understand some Japanese art. Value and ideological differences, language barriers and the major problem of simply finding out where and how one can learn these things all prove a barrier to the eager student of Japanese culture.

Put simply, it takes a lot of effort to try and learn and take part in tea ceremony, calligraphy, etc and frankly most of the time I can’t be arsed.

However, this weekend I indulged in my most intensive session of cultural tourism yet as I attended a festival of Japanese culture in Kyoto.

My opening diatribe aside this wasn’t really an opportunity to truly immerse myself into a Japanese art form; rather it was a sampler session. Lots of stalls were set up to give we gaijin a chance to try out calligraphy, tea ceremony, ikebana, etc for a few minutes and see if we had any interest. It was to cultural tourism what a free sample in a supermarket is to a gourmet meal. The speed dating of Japanese culture. Still I had a great time, whiling away a few hours playing games and having fun and I figured I’d relate my hastily-formed opinions of what I did.

Shodo

Shodo is Japanese calligraphy, the art of drawing kanji (Chinese characters) in ink with brushes so that they look astonishingly beautiful.

If I may I’d like to go into a tangent about Kanji.

For those who don’t know Japanese uses three written alphabets. Hiragana あいうえお、 Katakana アイウエオ and Kanji, which are incredibly elaborate pictograms. Whilst the first two function similarly to our alphabet so that a ka sound is always か and か always means ka Kanji works so that symbols mean words. Thus the kanji 来 can be pronounced both rai or ashi depending on the other Kanji around it and the context it is used.

The usefulness and importance of Kanji is currently undergoing something of a debate in Japan in part because the present Prime Minister can barely read it and increasingly young Japanese people cannot use Kanji as effectively as their parents. This is almost universally regarded as an immense shame as the Japanese take huge pride in their culture and how their culture has been maintained throughout the years.

Critics of Kanji site more practical objections to it. It is enormously difficult to learn, both for native speakers and for foreigners trying to learn the language. The difficulty in using it lowers literacy levels amongst Japanese. The changing meaning of certain characters can cause confusion and misunderstanding. It is slow to adapt to the changing world (nearly all modern inventions are rendered into Japanese using katakana, the alphabet reserved for foreign loan words, and so have no appropriate Kanji). Finally it makes using dictionaries very difficult and until recently typing impossible.

Defenders have to fall back on more ephemeral but no less compelling reasons for maintaining Kanji. It looks beautiful. It provides a link to Japan’s proud cultural history. It is crucial to Japanese literature. It provides for layers of meaning and subtlety that more plain spoken language cannot; including the creation of all kinds of puns that the Japanese love so much. And the fact that it is difficult and requires thought and study is sometimes perceived as a good thing. The thinking is that if writing is to have any value at all it must be worth expending effort upon.

And both sides are right. For all that it is difficult and ill-conceived Kanji is beautiful, subtle and deep. I am currently trying to learn Kanji and whilst I am constantly frustrated by it I am equally as rewarded.

So shodo then. Shodo demonstrates the sheer respect and reverence that the Japanese have for their language, and for art in general. Shodo is the correct way to write a kanji, on a sheet of beautiful paper, with a brush and ink. The Japanese love a “correct” way to do something and shodo is so respected that it is even taught as a subject in schools.

My attempt at it was not quite the graceful and poetic painting I had imagined. I sat myself down at the desk, selected a kanji I wished to write (love 愛) and attempted to replicate it on the paper in front of me. Now, I perhaps naively assumed that what I did with my brush would in some way resemble what had been drawn on the paper in front of me forgetting for a moment that I lack even the most rudimentary of artistic skills. I can’t even hold a pencil correctly, let alone use it to try and capture the world. My special skill with drawing appears to be completely misjudging the proportions and distances of objects and producing people with differently sized eyes and noses far too small for their heads. Considering shodo, and kanji in general, is mostly about the correct positions of strokes and lines in relation to each other I was probably being a bit optimistic to think that I would have any talent at this whatsoever.

The instructor obviously agreed and decided to come over, teach me how to hold the brush (you keep your wrist straight and move only your arm apparently) and then manually force my arm around the picture. He seemed to think I would be happy with this but I wanted to try and do it on my own. So I had another go and produced something that in no way matched the order or directions of the strokes he did and looked rubbish. After some discussion I finally got him to write the direction and stroke order down so I had something to work with. I then tried again and again and again to produce something that vaguely resembled love and eventually ended up with this.

Hmmmm, I think I have a lot of work to do.

During all this a very nice woman drew my own name in Kanji. This doesn’t strictly speaking work for foreign names as the syllables don’t translate but she had a crack at doing a-da-mu (アダム) and came up with this.

Which apparently means love, realize, dream.

Although I was crap at it I really enjoyed the shodo. It was relaxing to just try and focus on achieving something so exact. There was a kind of meditative quality to the act.

Ikebana

Fran’s mother teaches ikebana. Being a man I gave traditional Japanese flower arranging a miss but Fran had a go. She reported that it all felt a bit rushed but she managed to make this.

I do like ikebana actually. I prefer the more minimalist Japanese style of home decoration and gardening to the overblown stuff that is more western.

Wearing Kimonos

I’ve worn Yukata before and this seemed to be identical to that but with a proper obi (belt). I think the girls enjoyed it much more than I did.

The Fan Game

Throwing fans at a small target on a pedestal.

Although there were dozens of ways to move the target and thus score points all of them were dependant on you actually hitting the target; something that I saw not one single person do. I managed to hit the pedestal a few times but no luck.

Tea Ceremony

I mentioned above that the Japanese people love a correct way to do something. A formalized order for an activity, but drinking tea?

The Tea Ceremony is probably one of the more famous examples of Japanese art since it seems so bizarre. It is easy for us to grasp how drawing or flower arranging can be construed as an art but the drinking of tea seems a little stranger. Surely you just drink it?

Well no. Instead you prepare it and drink it in a manner which is so incredibly formalized that it becomes a kind of seated dance. The woman running the stall, clad in a gorgeous kimono, served the tea and so did most of the work but even we gaijin had a role to do.

The exact steps were very fiddly and I can’t remember them all but it basically boiled down to this:

. pour hot water into cup
. use tea brush to whisk it round
. empty cup and wipe with a cloth
. spoon matcha powder into cup
. add hot water
. use tea brush to mix the powder and hot water into a lather
. hand to first drinker
. drinker turns the bowl three time so that the front is not facing them
. drinker takes at least 3 sips and downs their cup
. drinker turns it three times the opposite direction and then gives the cup back to the host

However it was much, much more intricate than that. The woman serving was very careful with the position of the scoop for hot water, lids, cups and other paraphernalia which all had to be in a set place at every stage. She also had an incredibly complicated way of folding a cloth over to hold each item before she picked it up.

The matcha itself was much nicer than any I have had before. Much weaker and less bitter. As is customary we enjoyed our tea with a Japanese sweet, a daifuku.

The formalisation and pattern is intended to promote focus. The tea ceremony should be done in a natural setting and is usually accompanied by attempts at composing haiku. Effectively it serves as another form of meditation. Providing mental focus to help enhance the appreciation of the natural scenery; this then can be channelled into a creative activity like haiku or shodo, themselves both simply ways of meditating nature.

Incense Game

Finally we had a go at a smelling game. The leader of this stall prepared three traditional incense scents; moon, flower and snow. We each smelled them and held them in the traditionally accepted fashion (again there is a formal pattern to even how one is meant to smell incense. The holder then gave us a small mystery pouch containing one of the scents and we had to identify which one it was. Sadly nobody playing at the same time as me successfully identified what the scent was, oops.

Although I take solace in the fact that the woman running it described me as a “cool type.”

There were various other stalls there too but frankly these were the only ones that really were worth mentioning.

In conclusion I don’t know if I gained any new startling insights into Japanese culture but I did while away a few hours happily, and frankly that’ll do.

100 posts everyone.

I could have whipped up some kind of impressive new banner or some sort of retrospective on the nearly 2 years that Mummyboon has been up and running but i thought that would have been boring and self congratulatory.

Instead let’s talk about the one thing that really defines this site.

KIT-KATS!!!

3 new flavours to discuss today.

Tiramisu flavour

Picked up in Kyoto at the weekend as part of a trip that will definitely make it to this site eventually. Probably on Thursday.

The packaging is unusual in that it is a single regular sized finger. Usually when nestle makes a single fingered kit-kat it is slightly thicker than a regular finger. Frankly I feel that something has gone very, deeply wrong with the world of kit-kats when a regular sized single finger is considered an acceptable product. We need to be very careful here people. Give em an inch and they’ll take a mile. First it was the special flavours but soon all kit-kats will be sold purely as single fingers and then civilization as we now it will collapse in an apocalypse fueled by insufficient quantities of biscuit.

…. I may have drifted a bit there.

Anyway, not been a big fan of tiramisu in general and coffee flavoured chocolate even less so I was not really looking forward to sampling the new tiramisu kit kat.

And it tastes…

Actually it tastes kind of bland at first. The initial bites are pretty tasteless, sweet but with no definite flavours. The after taste has a very strong coffee note that is very pleasant and surprisingly complex. I would even go so far as to say that it tastes of tiramisu. But it is overpowered by the sweetness. In fact this may be the sweetest kit-kat I have ever eaten.

I understand why it is packaged as a single finger now. It is so sweet that I am struggling to finish even one finger. 2 fingers would be such concentrated sweetness that it may prevent my tongue from ever tasting anything ever again.

Maccha Tiramisu

Matcha (spelled Maccha for some reason on this packet) is the strongest and bitterest of all Japanese green teas. It is never served as leaves but rather made into a powder of such an emerald hue that it calls to mind the mutagenetic ooze that turned the teenage mutant ninja turtles from ordinary reptiles into fighting ninja teens.

It is also bloody awful. Well that isn’t really fair but it is terribly, terribly bitter. Much bitterer than the strongest espresso I have ever had. For this reason the Japanese usually eat a very sweet tasting snack with the tea to cut the strong flavour. Traditionally this was a daifuku, dango or wagashi but nowadays it commonly can be a kit-kat. A matcha flavoured kit-kat then completely defeats the purpose of a kit-kat.

And it is also another example of this appalling new packaging strategy. Blegh!

So, how does it taste…?

Well, like the other tiramisu offering the first bite is pretty bland and the real flavour is in the after taste. Again the after taste is nicely complex and really evokes the flavour it is meant to. Pleasantly it is significantly milder than the other tiramisu and nowhere near as sweet. Whether this is because it has less sugar or because the matcha flavour somehow cuts the sweet notes I do not know but overall I’d say this is one of nestle’s better efforts.

Still annoyed about the packaging though.

Cookie Kit-Kat

One of the odder new varieties to burst onto the scene recently is the cookie kit-kat.

Whilst most varieties only change the chocolate coating and leave the wafer intact the cookie kit-kat has a different strategy. It inserts a layer of oreo like biscuit between the top layer of wafer and the chocolate.

The result…?

Pure bliss.

The oreo-esque biscuit has a much richer and bitterer chocolate flavour than the cheap nestle chocolate on the outside (or an oreo for that matter). The clash of the three different textures and the two different chocolate flavours is exciting, interesting (for your tongue at least, which needs stimulation y’know) and pure joyful chocolate ecstasy.

It’s a subtle one. It’s charms are not obvious but it is a massive improvement on the standard model without any of the usual drawbacks.

AND… it is one of the more common “premium” line that are slightly thicker than a regular finger and thus not an abomination unto the chocolately god “avabrew” like these horrible single finger efforts.


Kobe is known throughout Japan for being an international city, translation, people here don’t freak out when they see a white person.

Actually that’s a bit unfair on Kobe. The city has excellent facilities for promoting internationalization. From the perspective of foreigners it provides facilities such as free Japanese lessons, the translation of all important civic information into English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean, free counseling facilities for culture shock, a variety of religious centres, etc, etc. On the reverse side Kobe has a vast amount of foreign restaurants for a Japanese city and one of the best examples of the JET programme. It also has a decently sized and prominent China Town. A place I never actually go to, and seeing as it was Chinese New Year last weekend I thought I would head down and check out the festivities.

By the way, I must apologise for these photos. I left my memory card at home and so had to take these photos on my cameraphone. Sorry.

China Town in Motomachi, Kobe is pretty much like any other China Town anywhere else. Which I guess makes sense since, theoretically at least, they’re all meant to be a recreation of China. For New Years somebody had hung Chinese lanterns across the street and dozens of flags in bright red and gold. Two colours which dominated the view everywhere one looked. It was all very bright and festive and, unfortunately, rammed full of people wandering aimlessly through too thin streets.

Chinese and Japanese culture nowadays are very different but originally almost everything Japan considers to be high culture was taken from China. Even now the two cultures share a lot of touchstones. Chinese New Year is generally dissimilar to the Japanese shogatsu but there are a few similarities. A focus on families eating meals together and the eating of foods with auspicious names.

But, not being Chinese, I wasn’t partaking of the family meal but rather te distinctly un-shogatsu-like public party that precedes it. However, whilst this part is not much like anything that happens around shogatsu it is pretty much exactly like a standard Japanese matsuri. And that means eating and then watching someone perform something.

The eating part was more than covered. Sannomiya is dense with restaurants but it has nothing on China Town. It is hard to comprehend more places to eat possibly being crammed in there. It seemed like no matter where you looked the eye was greeted by some kind of tasty Chinese dish. In fact bugger seemed, this was literally true. Without looking straight up into the sky it was impossible not to be lookign at some kind of food.

And the smell! The clashing smells of sweets, meats, breads, sauces and people was intoxicating. It was like walking though some kind of sweetly fragranced river drowning in food smells.

Needless to say we ate a lot of food. All you can eat dim sum (yum), nikumanju (pork buns) and a black nikumanju flavoured with squid ink, prawn balls, roast duck, etc, etc.

The black nikuman was particularly good. The filling was the best I have ever had in a pork bun, not too salty, really fresh with really fresh cabbage and even some little prawns enlivening the mixture. I bought it from a stall that a friend of mine works at and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone visiting Kobe China Town.

Fran had an unusual concoction called a “moffle”. A mochi-waffle. Mochi is a kind of Japanese rice cake and in the “moffle” a filling was placed between two sheets of rice cake and then cooked in a waffle iron. It was ooey, goeey, sticky, sweet, crunchy and basically everything a dessert should be.

In-between stuffing ourselves Fran and I took in the stage displays in open jawed amazement.

First up was a lion dance done by students from the Hyogo Commercial High School. A friend of mine works there and had always raved about how amazing her kids were. She was right. The drummer was ferocious, really primal, almost frightening even. The dance was well co-ordinated and with exceptional acrobatics from such young kids. I’m not usually one for dances (I tire of them quickly and start thinking about other things, like where the music is coming from, what I’m having for tea or who actually does enjoy watching dances) but I was spellbound by this one.

They followed it up with a dragon dance. Basically a paper dragon on poles was manipulated by the dancers in time to music on taiko, gong, tambourine and other percussion instruments. This too was spellbinding and some of the tricks the kids managed to pull off with the dragon puppet were brilliant. The dragon flowed and danced and came alive for a short moment.

The students finished up and were treated to a pair of drummers doing comedy skits and playing elaborate and complex rhythms. Their drumming was impressive but it lacked the primal power of the taiko. It was kind of fiddly. Still it was incredible to listen to and played excellently.

The performances started to veer into the repetitive shortly after this, with another lion dance (nowhere near as impressive as the first but admittedly with better acrobatics) and then a repeat performance from the drummers. About this time the cold and boredom began to settle in and Fran and I made our own fun by wandering around and laughing at the hilarious things we found in souvenir shops.

We came back to watch the lion bless our friend’s stall. This consisted of yet another dance and by now my enthusiasm for watching two men in a costume jump up and down had long since deserted me and every second I had to spend with the sodding lion was beginning to get on my nerves, just a touch. Still, the look on my friend’s face when the lion seemed to attack him was priceless and well worth waiting for.

All in all Chinese New Year was alright for a cheap Sunday out but nothing particularly special.

Now that nikuman though, that was special.

Too tired for a proper post right now faithful readers so it is odds and ends time again.


Beginning with yet more fabulous Engrish from my students.

This weeks offerings are statements written from memory that my students said to me during their interview tests.

 

“I am my grandmother”

 

“I helped cook my mother.”


“I exerted a cultural festival.”

 

And finally

 

“It was doog.”


Holy Balls of Fire Batman the Earth is Exploding

For those of you who don&t follow the news in Japan (and why should you really) a Volcano has just exploded in the Nagano Prefecture.

There is a video at the link with more details.

And this is a time lapse video of the actual eruption.

I was bitterly jealous that I was missing out on Britain’s worst snowstorm for 30 years but now I am excited again! I live in a country with active volcanoes.

Oh Crap.

I LIVE IN A COUNTRY WITH ACTIVE VOLCANOES!!!

(but seriously no damage whatsoever has been reported. Japanese people seem naively trusting of natural disasters but even here people tend to avoid mountains that hurl things at you periodically)

Shameless Shilling




A friend of mine living in Japan has recently launched a blog.

I’m adding it to the links roll. Go check it out if you’re bored at work, some of it is funny stuff.

Would you like to see a brain in a jar?

I seem to be posting a lot of links today but here is one more about haikyo, or derelict sites in Japan. Apparently this person found a derelict doctor’s surgery complete with medical instruments and a preserved brain in a jar in the middle of nowhere.

I can’t decide if this is the most frightening or the most awesome thing I have ever heard. I am however intrigued by this haikyo thing and I aim to do a bit more reading up on it.

In fact whilst I’m at it here is another haikyo in a hotel.

It’s fascinating that in a country with such a premium on space that this can happen.

Tomorrow; forget it baby, it’s China Town.

%d bloggers like this: