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After that epic (seriously that last post was more than 8 pages long in word, my essays at University were shorter than that) we’re back to what Mummyboon does best.

And that’s reviewing kit-kats.

I can feel the excitement being transmitted down the net tubes.

First up is an autumnal offering that is no longer available but that I’ve been saving for when I finally finished that Kyushu write up.

Sweet Potato Kit-Kat

Sweet potatoes are huge in Japan. They come in tons of different varieties such as ; purple inside, purple outside but yellow inside, long and thing, flat and wide, round like a potato and lots more.

What’s more, being potatoes, they are really versatile and are used in a wide selection of dishes. They can be a savoury accompaniment to a meal, they can be salted and eaten as chips, they can be made into ice-cream (which is my favourite ice-cream in the whole world) they can be covered in syrup and eaten as pudding and they can be added to Japanese curry.

They are most commonly eaten though just baked and maybe with a little bit of butter. Whilst this might sound a bit boring it is anything but. Baked sweet potatoes are so good they could talk a suicidal man from the ledge. They are evidence of a benevolent and wonderful universe. More realistically they are lovely and fluffy, buttery and with a wonderfully complex sweetness. Not the sweetness of sugar that is simple and gone straight away but that of caramel which you can roll around the tongue. A rich sweetness. A sweetness for grown ups.

There are in fact little wagons that traditionally roam the streets of Japanese cities in autumn baking sweet potatoes and making little puffs of sweet smelling steam as they trundle along. Yaki-imo (baked sweet potato) the vendors cry as their little carts trundle along causing flocks of sweets crazed Japanese ladies to flock behind.

And one of these wagons is depicted on the packaging along with some puffs of inviting steam. In fact that steam has been co-opted into the design of the packet. I love that! In the same way that the real steam seems to say “look yummy sweet potatoes,” so too does the packet say “yaki-imo.” That’s brilliant theme-ing in the design there. And they added a picture of a yaki-imo looking fluffy and moist and oh so delicious. Plus it’s a sort of golden yellow, which is officially the best colour a biscuit can be (see custard creams and gold bars for reference).

The design of the individual kit-kat is nothing special, although I note that they’re including the calorie content on the smaller packets now. Apparently the sweet potato ones are 2 kcal’s more per serving than a standard chocolate one.

Considering what they taste like though that is totally worth it.

The taste, oh how can I describe the taste?! Well it tastes like sweet potato to start with but it is so much more than that. It tastes of dreams. It tastes of ambrosia. It tastes of honey and caramel and nectar and Elysium. It tastes of victory. It tastes of loves first bloom. This, my friends, may very well be the perfect kit-kat. This is the platonic biscuit from which all others are mere imperfect reflections. This is a biscuit fit for a deity.

Actually it tastes a bit like caramac only nicer. Does anyone remember caramac? I think you can still get them at newsagents.

Sadly nestle have stopped making them which may be the worst biscuit related news I have ever heard. In fact it is the worst biscuit related news I have ever heard and it’s worse than quite a few bits of non-biscuit related news I have heard. I would go so far as to say that it is much sadder than hearing that someone else’s hamster has died but maybe not as sad as your own dying.

Wow that got morbid. Ahem, excuse me whilst I mourn the loss of the perfect biscuit.

Better now, next one.

Extra Cocoa

Like a normal kit-kat but with nicer chocolate. Considering that kit-kats have crap chocolate these can only be an improvement.

And a whole 4 kcals more per serving, ooh la la, extravagant. Ambassador, with these nice kit-kats you are really spoiling us.

The box is pretty dull, although it does have a sort of festive snow thing going on. What’s more interesting for me is that it is in a box at all. Kit-Kat have fairly standard packaging formats on the whole. There are the 4 bars in a box, small multipacks, chunky, premiums, minis and one or two odd outliers but a square box with 5 double wafers is a new one.

And yes, I just realised that I said I was “interested” in a new box. I think that makes me the world’s only kit-kat nerd.

The packaging on the bar itself is much better. For starters it’s brown, which is the colour of chocolate. It’s as if it is saying “come, see how chocolately I am. I am the chocolateiest kit-kat, I scoff at the red ones, and I fart in its general direction.”

Snooty kit-kat then. And it maintains the winter wonderland theme but it works much better because we aren’t distracted from the snow pattern by a massive picture of some chocolate.

How does it taste?

It tastes like a kit-kat with nicer chocolate.

I don’t really know what to say. We all know how chocolate tastes, well like that. I mean, it isn’t amazing chocolate but it is good for a biscuit and amazing for a kit-kat.

It isn’t as sweet as a normal one and the after taste is actually pleasant rather than that horrible soapy taste you’d get with a regular one. I rate them highly but ultimately it’s nothing more exciting than a chocolate biscuit.

Royal Milk Tea

I despise Royal Milk Tea.

Tea, as every properly civilised person knows, should be black leaves, made in a pot with some, but not too much milk. I will leave the sugar debate open except to say that I drink my tea with sugar. My excuse is that I was abandoned on a building site as an infant and raised by a pack of wild builders who taught me everything I know about drinking tea, turning up late and wolf whistling at ladies.

Alright, that isn’t true, but what is true is that I was raised in Yorkshire, where the general rule of thumb is that tea should be stewed so long and have so much sugar in it that a spoon will stand upright if left in it.

In contrast the barbarians in Japan seem to think that tea should use green leaves, should be mildly infused and should have no milk. What’s worse is that they assert that this is the correct way to do it. They even have some kind of bizarre ceremony to demonstrate the “correct” way to drink it. Whilst there is neither excuse nor explanation for this abhorrent behaviour I have had to learn to live with it and I take solace that proper can still often be purchased.

Proper tea is known as kocha and sometimes as milk tea. Being English I will often ask for a cup of kocha or milk tea if seated in a Japanese café. Usually this will result in me getting a nice pot of tea. Sometimes it will result in me getting Royal Milk Tea.

Royal Milk Tea is not tea. It is some kind of disgusting powder consisting of powdered milk and something brown. When hot water is added it creates a deceptive and evil drink which looks like tea, smells sort of like tea and appears for the entire world to be tea until you drink it and realise that it is in fact the juice from Satan’s nipples.

It is, to be blunt, horrible. It is worse than vending machine tea.

And the worst thing about it, the way it pretends to be English. From the use of the word “royal” down to the packaging it tries to sidle up to England and borrow some of the country’s association with tea in order to pass itself off as something authentically British.

It makes me sick.

So I am not predisposed to be a fan of Royal Milk Tea Kit-Kat.

To start with the packaging is literally enraging. Not only are we calling it Royal Milk Tea but the package is bloody tartan! Tartan!! You don’t get more cosily British than tartan and Royal Milk Tea is the very antithesis of British values. Shortbread comes in tartan packets and Kit-Kats are no shortbread!

And then to make it worse the edge has little caricatures of the palace guard. The palace guard! Complete with bearskins! Does the Queen know about this? Can she sue? This is blatant false advertising, there is nothing royal about Royal Milk Tea but it not only has it in its name but has started adding palace guards!

Frankly this package makes me sick. I am revolted.

I will give it this though, the inside of the bag smells more like a cup of tea than any cop of Royal Milk Tea has ever done.

How does it taste?

It tastes of betrayal and lies.

No, actually it doesn’t really taste of anything. The first few bites are astonishingly bland. They’re a bit creamy and sweet, but pleasingly not too sweet but they taste nothing like a cup of tea or Royal Milk Tea.

In the after taste some tannins start come through (those are the sour notes in tea) that are surprisingly bitter for a kit-kat. But frankly I don’t know if I’m tasting them or smelling my mouth. The smell of these things is really strong but the flavour is aggressively bland. It’s almost as if the flavour was hiding from me in case it made me angry.

I cannot stress how tasteless this biscuit is and that puzzled me for a while until a thought struck me. I often ponder what the purpose of these tea flavoured kit-kats is when surely a kit-kat is designed to be dunked into tea. Perhaps what we have here is a biscuit that is designed to be dunked and absorb the flavour of the tea it is dunked into.

So I made a cup of tea and tried it out.

The difference is astonishing. It went straight from bland to one of the strongest tasting kit-kats I have ever eaten. The tea flavours and tannins come hard and fast and almost knock you out. And it’s nice too. Not too sweet with a lovely rich tea taste. Unfortunately it does have the weird soapy aftertaste that a lot of kit-kat’s have.

So I summary without tea it is boring and crap. With tea it makes a great companion but has a nasty aftertaste. Either way it didn’t make in vomit in rage and revulsion so it is a massive step up from the product it is named after.

Our last day in Nagasaki and the hottest day yet. It was a real scorcher and we could feel ourselves burn with every step we went. Considering every other day of the holiday had veered wildly between muggy and humid and torrential rain it was at least nice to know we wouldn’t be rained on.

Hot, dusty and sweaty we went for a walk and decided to tour the Peace Park, a series of monuments dedicated to peace and in memory of the damage the atomic bomb did to the city.

Now I haven’t mentioned the atomic bombing of Nagasaki much in my write up of this trip and that’s because it nowhere near pervades the feeling of the city as much as it does in Hiroshima. Hiroshima was practically wiped out; the city centre was just gone in an instant destroying much of the historical character of the city along with many lives. In rebuilding it Hiroshima developed a feeling that is almost unique in Japan, very modern and almost European with wide roads and street cafes.

Nagasaki suffered a lot of damage too and almost as much loss of life but the area affected was not the city centre because, well because it doesn’t really have one. There is the port and the train station but beyond that everything is built up the side of a mountain. Nagasaki is more a city of small distinct areas almost falling into the sea.

Consequently much of the old historical areas are intact, the old Dutch settlement, the Chinatown, many of the temples, Glover Garden. Different parts of Nagasaki are like different windows into history. Wandering through the city is like time travelling through some corridor; behind every door a different century and a new story.

But whilst the city has minimised the impact of the bomb to some extent it did still leave a big gash in the place and in its place they have erected a park.

The park is frankly not very nice and not a patch on the one in Hiroshima. It is too wide, flat and featureless with few trees, few flower beds and little to break up the vista (or offer protection from a scorching sun).

What it does have is a series of statues donated by various countries from around the world and all on the theme of peace.

Being themed around peace this consequently meant that there were quite a lot of women, babies and women holding babies upwards in gestures of hope and new life. Some of these were quite well done but there are only so many variations on the theme of women holding babies that I can look at before your eyes want to leap out your head and go do something less boring.

There were a few oddball ones though like this abstract piece that represents the destruction of the city.

This piece demonstrates the 7 continents as people interconnected. I like this a lot, I like symbolic art and this has some wonderful symbolism to it as well as well constructed human figures.

This work, riffing on the idea of the human shadows left behind in the bomb blast, was especially good.

Brazil didn’t seem to get what the theme of the park was.

“Hey we need to submit a sculpture suggesting peace”

“How about a bird?”

“Fantastic but how will they know we have sent them it?”

“The bird will be standing on a massive stone map of Brazil”

“I love it! Nothing says peace like a giant stone map of Brazil”

“And a bird”

“Oh yes right, the bird”

This is the Dutch entry. No idea, do you have any ideas? Because I have no idea.

The centrepiece of the whole park was this enormous and highly symbolic statue. Apparently his left arm is pointing to where the bomb blast occurred whilst his right is gesturing upwards wishing for peace. He is powerful to help the needy but has a kind face. He is sitting relaxed and comfortable but with a leg on the floor ready to spring into action. And he’s massive and blue and frankly doesn’t appear to have been sculpted very well. Now I certainly can’t sculpt for toffee and don’t claim to be an expert on sculpture but something about that face just seems terribly off to me. There’s something not right about it; right? It’s not just me is it?

and he reminds me of Dr. Manhattan, which is not apprpriate for a statue in the Peace Park.

We didn’t go to the Atomic Bomb Museum as we figured it would be more of the same that we saw in Hiroshima but we did go to the hut and accompanying museum of Dr. Nagai Takashi.

Nagai Takashi was a scientist and doctor researching the effects of radiation on the human body, particularly with regards to leukaemia. In this capacity he took part in important medical research that ultimately would help save many lives. In his capacity as a regular surgeon during the war he directly saved the lives of many wounded Japanese soldiers and civilians alike.

In a cruelly ironic twist Dr. Nagai eventually contracted leukaemia, a known risk for someone in his line of work as he necessarily exposed himself to radiation on a daily basis. He was diagnosed in 1945 aged 37 just a few short months before the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Both Nagai and his wife were deeply committed Christians and though they sought comfort in God this was obviously difficult for both of them. Nagai began to face up to the fact that he was dying and his wife prepared herself to raise their children alone and live a life without her husband.

When the bomb was dropped Nagai was working in a University hospital. Despite suffering an injury from broken glass that severed his temporal artery he stayed behind to assist and help deal with the flood of patients seeking treatment there.

That evening he returned to the ruins of his house to find most of it burnt to the ground. Of his wife all that remained were ashes and a twisted and melted rosary. Having steeled himself for his own death the time he had remaining with his wife was also cruelly snatched away from him.

Although now having every right to sink into bitterness and despair Nagai continued to work with patients until he himself was eventually bedridden later that year. Initially he stayed in a small hut he had built from the remains of his house, along with his two children, mother in law and two other relatives.

Although bedridden, Nagai continued teaching and began to write. This writing was prolific and often profound musing upon god, war, sickness and death but always returning to a message of hope and optimism. Often he contemplated the future that lay ahead for his children with a mixture of sadness but always with a positive feeling that after the brutality of the Second World War peace was surely not far. Nagai wrote around 15 books and all were bestsellers in Japan earning Nagai enough money to see for his children’s future. However much of his earnings were donated to local charities and once famously to plant cherry trees where they had been destroyed by the bomb.

This synbolic act, bringing beauty and serenity back to a city that had known horrible destruction speaks more about the character of Nagai than any other to me.

Nagai used very little money from his earnings at all to improve his own circumstances. Indeed when a Christian charity offered to build him a new house he asked for them to build a slight extension for the 6 tatami hut he was living in for his brother’s family and to be moved into a new hut that was merely 2 tatami in size. To put that in some perspective lie down. His hut was approaximately as long as you are now lying down and maybe 2 or 3 times wider.

This hut, which he styled Nyoko-do (based on the Japanese translation of Jesus’ expression “love your neighbour as yourself”) was where he lived the rest of his days until he died in 1951.

And this is that hut.

It is one of the most profoundly, sad, humble and inspiring images I have ever seen. I freely admit to crying as I walked round the museum and thinking about Nagai’s story again as I write this I find myself almost crying now.

The Peace Park and Nyoko-do lie a short distance away from the actual epicentre of the blast which, oddly, was above a Christian cathedral. The epicentre has been marked by this monolith which looks vaguely like something out of 2001 a space odyssey. I will admit to humming “Thus Spoke Zarathrusta” and pretending to be a monkey as we walked past it.

The remains of the cathedral can also be viewed along with this statue of a suspiciously Japanese looking Jesus.

Our final atomic bomb themed point of interest is the famous “one legged torii”. Torii are arched gates at the entrance to Japanese temples and shrines. As well as being a handsome architectural feature they are also spiritually important and signify entry into the purified place of the shrine.
This gate had one of its legs knocked down by the atomic blast leaving the other standing. Read whatever values into that symbol that you choose. Is it Japan defiantly standing up to the bomb? Is it peace and purity conquering war? Or did the blast just come from that way? Either way it was cool looking so I took a photo.

Right, enough sadness and bombs now. Fran and I were horribly depressed, hot, tired and sweaty. However we still had one sight left to see, the Confucian Shrine.

Before we got there though we had to ride a tram, along with 3 German tourists. 2 of them were perfectly fine backpacker types if a bit old and flabby for your average back packer. However the third was one of the most enormous men I have ever seen in my entire life. And I have been to Florida. He was obscenely huge, like a cartoon fat man. I expected oom pam pah music to follow him everywhere he went. He literally took up two seats on the tram, and not a little spilling either. Each cheek got one seat with a little bit extra at that meaning he probably took up 4 spaces in total. And you know how I mentioned that it was hot, and sweaty? Well he was obviously having a difficult time of it because he stank to high heaven. And he had a rubbish ginger neck beard. Watching the impassive faces of the Japanese struggle not to curl into grimaces of horror would have been hilarious had I not been suffocating on the stench of fat German too.

Ugh, horrible.

Anyway.

Confucian Shrine.

We all know who Confucius is right? Well short version, Chinese philosopher who developed a world view that prized hierarchy, patriarchy and the pursuit of self improvement through becoming a rounded person and seeking excellence in everything one does. He basically influenced all Chinese aesthetic, political, moral, social and cultural thought for, well until Mao showed up really. And since Japan just nicked all their culture from China (with the greatest possible respect for Japan whilst that was a facetious exaggeration there is some truth to it) he influenced Japanese culture too.

Yet nobody in Japan has heard of him it seems, at least judging by my students and the teachers I work with.

So great was Confucius’ influence and in such respect was he held that a whole religion sprang up around him, Confucianism. Well I say religion, it’s more of a moral philosophy and lacking in the metaphysics one would expect from a religion. But then of course some bright spark married the moral philosophy of Confucianism with the metaphysics of Buddhism (which at its core is all metaphysics and no morals) and hey presto we have Buddhism as it is practiced over much of East Asia.

So Confucianism has shrines to Confucius and their basically the same as Buddhist temples or Japanese shrines to Kami since they were copying the Confucian ones. Except the Confucian ones are just so much more incredible.

Admittedly I have only seen one but if it’s anything to go by then Confucian Shrines everywhere must be absolutely spectacular. Not an inch of this place wasn’t covered in some kind of ornate carving. Ceilings, floors, doors, bars, the gate around a flower bed, the edges of tiles, pillars, beams literally everything had some kind of magnificent carving.

And the colours! The colours were everywhere, incredibly vibrant and of a vast array of hues. The shrine looks like the kind of palace a 5 year old kid dreams about, all flash and sensation everywhere.

It was visually overwhelming. Everywhere you looked there was something new to see, some animal or painting or statue.

It was absolutely amazing, I was rendered literally speechless.

The most interesting feature for me were the human statues that surrounded the main shrine of Confucius. Apparently these are also shrines. Within the main building are Confucius and the 12 primary philosophers of Confucianism. Outside the building are statues of Confucius’ students, all who possess different skills and abilities a man must strive in to make the world a better place.

Interestingly the land that the shrine was built on is not actually Japan. Technically it is owned by the Chinese embassy and so we had taken a little mini trip to China. Historically this is because the shrine was built in front of a Confucian school (as all Confucian shrines were) teaching the children of Chinese expats. The school has long since been moved but the arrangement still stands and this is Chinese soil.

The shrine is the only one built to proper standards in Japan (although technically, I guess it isn’t since it’s in China). There are a few others but none are said to be as impressive as this one.

Nowadays the school has become a museum which had many wonderfully decorated china pots I was forbidden to take photos of. There was also some video called “China in space” which sounded a bit scary but turned out to be some kind of travelogue thing that was intensely dull.

Confucian shrine all finished with we swung by our hotel, grabbed our bags and made for the bus and our final stop, Fukuoka.

We arrived there late at night and made for a very cheap and very lovely hotel the Hotel New Simple. It was a bit of a bugger to find though even if it was close to the station.

Exhausted, hot and hungry we made out to do the main thing I had come to Fukuoka for.

Eat Ramen!

Fukuoka, as any Japanese person will tell you, is very famous for Ramen. Ramen, for the uninitiated, is thin Chinese noodles in a soup or broth with some meat or vegetables added to it.

It may not sound like much but it is a magical food. Indeed it may be my favourite food in the world. Perfectly filling, amazingly tasty, a breadth of textures, quick and above all dirt cheap. There are tastier foods but no food is as simply perfect as ramen. I love it and I eat it every chance that I get. Indeed if it is offered to me no matter how hungry I am or am not I feel compelled to eat it.

Fukuoka is famous for its own particular variety of ramen, tonkotsu ramen, which is made from pork bones and is white. Eager to try this delectable delicacy we willed our tiring limbs over to Fukuoka’s main attraction, Canal City, a massive shopping centre and onto the floor they call…

Ramen Stadium.

A whole floor containing nothing but ramen restaurants.

Truly if heaven is a place on earth, this is it.

And how was my ramen? Why it was salty, creamy, thick, spicy, gooey, warm, delicious and utterly sublime thank you for asking.

Full and profoundly satisfied we left Ramen Stadium and had a wander around the
shopping centre.

Canal City is a pretty cool place. The layout is very innovative with a river running through the middle of it and a sort of a three-dimensional amphitheatre in the middle i.e. rather than an ever expanding bowl it was a sphere of balconies overlooking a stage. There was also a regularly timed musical fountain display and this thing.

A curtain of water using a computer and some hoses to create shapes in mid air. This was mesmerising and we sat watching it, and digesting ramen, for a good 20 minutes until we were sure we had seen every display.

At which point it began to rain. And it was so sunny in Nagasaki too.

Yeah, it rained quite a lot. At first we tried to shelter it out but it was quickly apparent that it wasn’t going to let up fast. Having learned our lesson in Nagasaki we did not try and walk back the way we came but hailed a cab and were soon in bed happily sleeping and dreaming of more Ramen.

Fukuoka Day 2, Kyushu Day 7

We got up bright and early and took a train out of Fukuoka to the nearby village of Kyudai Gakuentoshi, which was a little odd as I live in Gakuentoshi in Kobe. We were looking forward to visiting a restored folk village and witnessing some traditional crafts. I shall quite from Lonely Planet Japan 2008 .

This history theme village gathers over 30 working potters, weavers and paper
makers, plus a souvenir shop to sell their wares.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Well turns out it has been shut for two years.

We arrived at the station, went outside, realised we had no idea where we were or where the village was, went back inside for a sign or a brochure or something and eventually asked the man in the ticket gates if he knew how to get there. At which point he puts up a hand written sign in English that says the place has been shut for two years.

I suspect he got asked the question a lot and had a friend help him write it because otherwise he spoke no English.

I was not best pleased Lonely Planet!

Ah but here is that recurring theme of Kyushu, nice old people. The guy in the ticket booth felt bad that we had come all this way only to go home again so he offered to call his friend to take us up to go look at the village anyway even if it was closed. And by offered I mean kind of insisted in a manner that made it impossible to refuse even though I didn’t especially want to go.

So before we knew it we were soon whisked away in a stranger’s car to go bouncing up a mountain to a mysterious village.

It turns out that since closing down the history theme village has been bought by a load of antique merchants. The restored buildings are still there (and they’re very lovely) but now they are all full of old junk mixed in with a few genuinely gorgeous antiques.

There was also going to be an auction that afternoon but we couldn’t stay to watch it because there are no public auctions in Japan, you have to be invited. This was news to me and after I expressed my surprise the man who told me proceeded to give me a history lesson which I did not understand a word of.

The village and many of the wares were properly strange and the whole place had a faintly creepy vibe to it. It didn’t help that we were the only people there not running a shop and that the old fashioned style of the buildings made it feel vaguely like some kind of ghost story.

Ah yes, and the first thing we saw when we got there was a horrifying dummy of a man with a face that is pure nightmare fuel.

Amongst the stranger things we saw were;

This unidentified animal head (we couldn’t decide if it was wolf or pig).

A tanuki made of straw.

The most racist statue I have ever seen.

As the creepiness grew and grew and was soon only matched by our boredom we decided to leave and after a short but terrifying search for our ride (we couldn’t find him and feared we were stranded) we got back to civilisation in one piece.

Next stop Hawks Town, another shopping centre but one with a giant indoor jungle.

Ah, or not, turns out that place is shut too. Lonely Planet was getting on my nerves by this stage. Still we did some shopping and had more ramen (it was delicious, as ramen always is) before going back to Canal City. For more shopping, and a beer.

And that was it really. Fukuoaka in summary, everything interesting is shut but they have a very nice shopping centre.

And that, bar a train ride home, was our vacation.

Overall Kyushu was easily the best trip I have done in Japan. With the possible exception of Fukuoaka everything about it just clicked. From the lovely relaxing onsen in Beppu to the fantastic food in Fukuoka to the quirky temples of Nagasaki, everything was exactly what we expected and often surpassed those expectations. Nothing disappointed and often things surprised us, like the quirky café in Nagasaki or the taxi driver leading us to the private onsen in Beppu.

What will stay with me about Kyushu most of all though is how friendly everyone was to us. I have never been treated so nicely by perfect strangers in my life. Whether it was giving of their time and expertise or giving us a free cab ride people put themselves out for us for no reward. It was humbling but very much appreciated. I don’t think Fran and I will ever forget it.

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