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tea ceremony

Frankly this is getting silly now.

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No sooner do I finish putting up my last Kit-Kat related post than my girlfriend Fran gets whisked away to Japan for family related business.

And she, of course, brought me back some Kit-Kats.

I don’t think I will ever escape Nestle’s evil clutches.

In fact looking at two of the entries this week I think Nestle has finally cottoned onto the existence of this blog and is making Kit-Kats just for me.

But lets start with the really weird stuff.

Anin Dofu

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Anin Dofu is something you’ve probably eaten if you’ve ever had dessert at a Dim Sum restaurant. But if you’re anything like me you had no idea what it was or what it was called. I’m talking about the white chunk of tofu like jelly, garnished with red berries and floating in sweet syrup. Turns out it is made from apricot kernels in a similar process to how actual tofu is made.

I don’t have strong feelings about anin dofu one way or the other. It’s the kind of thing I would eat if presented with but would never ever order for myself, I associate it with enkais i.e. work parties which were inevitably held in a posh Chinese restaurant and contained many dishes I had never seen in any Chinese restaurant in the U.K.

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The packet is one of the big souvenir boxes like the chilli, shinshu ringo, wasabi and strawberry cheesecake that usually ties it to a specific location in Japan. Since I wasn’t there to buy it I unfortunately have no idea what part of Japan its from. Maybe its from China?

It’s also the first Kit-Kat packet in Japan I can remember seeing that has the “have a break, have a kit-kat” slogan written on it. In English no less. Maybe its from Hong Kong?

The packet design is pretty good actually, we’ve got some nice individual elements all unified together and refreshingly uncluttered. The colouring ( red and gold) and the gold leaf pattern all tie this into China. The picture of the Anin Dofu is placed in the centre and tied into the rest of the design by the circular gold leaf pattern. This is a well balanced aesthetically pleasing design.

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The individual Kats, however, are kind of cluttered. We’ve got all the same elements, 2 colours, a picture of the dessert, gold leaf, Kit-Kat logo, calorie information and blurbs but on a much smaller surface area and laid out all in a line rather than in a balanced circle. Its not the worst mini Kit-Kat I’ve seen but it is a jumbled mess.

One thing the packet does do up front is warn me that its going to be coloured chocolate and thus not very nice. I appreciate that kind of honesty. What I don’t want in my Kit-Kat is an emotional roller coaster, the anticipatory high of wondering what it will be like followed by the crushing low of realising it will inevitably be awful and the slowing down dreary confirmation that it is. Mostly I just want a biscuit.

The Kit-Kat smells very almondy. I approve of this, I don’t really like almonds but I love the smell of almonds. Its how I got into glue sniffing in the first place.

It tastes, as expected, soapy milkshake-esque and just not very nice. It is pretty creamy, in fact much creamier than the coloured chocolate usually is. The almond notes are there but they’re subtle and the peachy/apricot notes are also subtly in the mix. The overall taste is just, creamy. Not even a strong milky cream but a bland one. Like the “cream” you get in a processed snack food such as a twinkie.

In fact it’s so bland it doesn’t really have an aftertaste. It kind of cleanses the palate for you. This would be perfect to eat with a curry, less so with a cup of tea.

Adult Sweetness Chocolate and Macha

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For years on this blog I have been moaning that Kit-Kats are far too sweet and the sugar they add kills off some of the flavour they’re supposedly advertising. Also that eating all this sugar is really sickly after a while and likely to make me ill but I don’t think other people routinely eat 6 or 7 different flavours in one sitting to review them. That might be a problem I have to re-examine my life to solve rather than get Nestle to fix it for me.

Anyway either I’m not the only person that finds Kit-Kats to be too sweet or Nestle are actually reading this blog and making Kit-Kats just for me because they have now produced adult sweetness flavour Kit-Kats, Kit-Kats that are less sweet to suit an adult palate. They also replace the wafer with proper crunchy biscuit so what we’ve got here is some kind of premium Kit-Kat. Frankly I’m excited,

But first, as ever, the packaging.

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The first thing to note about the packaging is that the two designs are very similar and share a lot of elements so we can largely deal with them as one design. The second is that this is actually a new way of packaging Kit-Kats entirely. Usually this size box contains 4 Kit-Kats, 2 packs of 2 fingers laid horizontally in the box. Instead we have 6 mini Kit-Kat fingers, 3 packs of 2 laid vertically. The design on the packet even stresses this as there is a cutaway at the top showing exactly how many fingers you get. It’s not the nicest design touch but it is good for the consumer since if one encountered this packet in the wild sans illustration one would presume you’d be getting 4 regular Kit-Kats and that could only lead to crushing disappointment. The suicide rate in Japan is high enough without Nestle toying with people’s emotions like that.

I feel that this is also another aspect of targeting it at adults as you can more easily regulate your Kit-Kat intake. Is 2 regular fingers too much for you? Well try just two mini ones instead. Are minis too small? Well have all 6 and its like eating an old school 4 finger pack. Adults like choice and are comfortable making these kinds of decisions whereas kids with their tiny underdeveloped minds would surely struggle.

The packet also opens at the top as well instead of, as is more usual, the side. And it doesn’t open with a straight line but a curvy line highlighted in gold. Pointless but kind of cool, it’s another adult and sophisticated touch.

A lot of design elements are shared by both flavours, we get the standard Kit-Kat logo although its smaller than usual. I approve of this as it looks gaudy and out of place on such an adult bit of packaging. We get the name of the flavour written in Japanese rather than English which just seems classier. A little description of the biscuit written vertically and then a swirl showing off the biscuit pieces and, as is standard a picture of the kat itself, although broken in half in a daring and provocative way. There’s no ability to post them but there is room on the back to write a message, presumably an in depth critique of the artistic statement the tea leaf makes perched, coquettishly against the kat as if to say, “I want you…come and get me.”

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Of the two the chocolate works better. For some reason the biscuit swirl is moved up on the macha flavour creating a split between it, the title and the logo and the picture underneath. On the chocolate the swirl creates a kind of linking effect, framing the edge of the picture and drawing the eye down from the logo and across to the picture. Its just smarter design. The colour is more striking too, a deep matte black, not shiny, not patterned but just black. Its very striking and actually stands out on the shelves since it isn’t the overly busy, overly colouful design most other confectionery is. The deep dark green used on the macha is quite handsome but not as striking.

Finally the chocolate packet uses gold lettering and we all know gold equals classy. The macha could have done this too as gold and dark green complement each other very effectively but oddly chose not to.

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I’m not going to discuss the designs on the individual kat wrappers since they’re basically just a copy of the box except that again the chocolate is better. Chocolate just has the name, Kit-Kat logo and a black background, macha adds the drawing and biscuit swirl again. Thus the macha has a more busy and cluttered design whereas, again, the chocolate is more simple, more elegant and more striking.

Well that’s enough waffling on about designs, how do they taste?

The chocolate smells lovely, like rich, dark “real” chocolate and its a lovely dark colour too. But it tastes, like a less sweet version of a regular Kit-Kat complete with the same terrible Nestle chocolate we’ve come to know and tolerate. Only weirdly gritty for some reason. It tricks you with the classy design, nice smell and lovely colour into thinking you’re eating real chocolate but it is all illusion, in reality its still the same old crap wrapped up in a new bow.

Although it is nicer than a regular chocolate Kit-Kat just by dint of being eveeeer so sliiiightly richer and a lot less sweet. I’d much rather eat this than a regular one any day of the week.

The wafer is not proper biscuit, it’s still wafer. However, bizarrely, it tastes like biscuit. Specifically like a digestive biscuit. It in no way has the texture of a digestive but the flavour is much closer to a proper biscuit than the bland tasteless wafers you usually get. I’m not usually a fan of digestives but this is nice actually. You start off with a chocolatey hit and then as you chew the digestive flavours really come through mixing with the chocolate for a nice mellow flavour. The after taste is all biscuit too and so you don’t get the sweet after taste kit-kats usually have.

Macha, for those who don’t know, is a kind of green tea. Specifically it’s in powder form, is very, very bitter and is always accompanied by a very sweet cake to offset the bitterness. I’ve never understood macha kit-kats since you need something sweet to counteract the bitter macha so naturally you have a kit-kat, but then making it macha flavoured means it doesn’t work for that purpose. Do you just eat them by themselves?

Of course we have coloured chocolate and so we know what that means. That’s right, soapy blandness! And what does the macha kit-kat provide? Soapy blandness! Yay! Only again, weirdly gritty as well so we can add “horribly textured” to our soapy blandness.

As you eat it a tiny, wee, infinitesimal green tea flavour is detectable but no sooner do you think you can taste it then BOOM digestive flavour kicks in and overpowers everything else. This does not taste of macha at all. You may as well put soap on a digestive biscuit and re-create the experience at home. Green soap if you want authenticity.

In its defence it isn’t sweet and it’s also weirdly refreshing. Whereas the chocolate left a strong digestive after taste that I had to wash down with tea the macha kind of cleansed the palate all by itself so 30 seconds after eating it was like I hadn’t at all.

Overall then the chocolate is slightly better than an original Kit-Kat but fairly dull and the macha is a complete non-entity.

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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.

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