Today was a humbling object lesson in the adage "No matter how bad you think you've got it, somebody, somewhere has it worse":
I was at my favorite hole-in-the wall eatery in Ikebukuro, Tokyo's busiest northwestern hub, enjoying jumbo gyoza - pan-fried dumplings. I struck up a conversation with the bustling mid-40s waiter, who was pretty effortlessly covering the entire floor by himself.
"Hitori de hataraitte imasu ka?" I asked.
(一人で働いていますか are you working alone then?)
"Hai, so desu,"
(はい、そです Yes, I am) he replied with a friendly smile - from the corners of which leaked a nearly overwhelming pain. A lifetime of hard work has made him sinewy and tough-looking, giving his skin the look of tanned leather.
"Ikebukeru de sunde imasu ka?"
(池袋ですんでいますか Do you live in Ikebukuro?） I asked, to fill the space, as his station was right in front of my table.
"Iie - Saitama de," he replies.
(いいえ、埼玉で。 No; I live in Saitama) This is the suburb, about a 45-minute commute from the sprawling metropolis.
"Ah," I answer, "chotto shizuka desu ne. Sore no ho ga ii desu yo ne."
(ああ、一寸静かですよね。それの方がいいですよね。Oh, it's a little quieter, isn't it. That's better, wouldn't you agree?)
"Ee,: he replied, "demo..."
(ええ、でも。。。。 Yes, but...)
and he swallowed, his eyes growing moist.
"Juu go nenn mae, watashi no ie ha kaji de moechatta...."
(十五年前, 私の家は、火事で燃えちゃった 15 years ago, my house burned down in a fire....）
"Kazuko wa, minna, nakunarimashita."
(家族は、皆、亡くなりました My entire family perished.)
"Mainichi, seikatsu ha, hataraitte irun dake ni narimashita"
(毎日、生活は、働いているんだけになりました My life has turned into nothing but work, day in and day out).
The Japanese have an ancient proverb, which reads 愛と笑いの生活 - (Ai to warai no seikatsu - "Live with love and laughter"). Choose to be happy with the time one is given, because one never knows what fate has in store.
Monday, April 22, 2013
Our first travel book on Tokyo - The Seven Gods of Fortune - is finished and will now go to the publisher, Mr. Hisashi Arai, a senior editor of the Nikkei Times. We are printing 2000 in the first run. If anyone would like to order signed first editions, please send us a message.
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Sampo Nikki 1 is now being prepared for publication as a bilingual paperback by Nikkei editor Hisashi Arai at Sporiq Publishing: http://www.soriq.jp/
Each right-hand page features a very special Edo-era design, with the most fascinating of stories behind it. From the afterward:
A note on the backgrounds:
The backgrounds you see on the right-hand pages are authentic Edo kimono designs, reprinted with permission from Edo no Dento Monyo (江戸の伝統文様 - traditional Edo patterns), MdN Books.
The diversity of beautiful designs are a traditional Edo-era style called Edo-Komon (江戸小紋). The patterns carry a repeating motif of important plants, birds, animals, and other natural scenes. Each carries an auspicious meaning. including bamboo, pines and japanese plums, flowers such as plum and cherry blossoms, birds such as sparrows, herons and cranes, insects such as grasshoppers, dragonflies and butterflies.
Each item carries a special significance, a kind of "code" known among art aficionados, signifying, for example, longevity or prosperity. Samurai in particular loved the mark of the dragonfly, as it personified dauntless forward progress.
Because the Edo era was relatively peaceful and stable, culture flourished across the country.
These patterns were produced by the period's most skillful artisans. From a distance, Edo-komon designs are cleverly disguised as the plainest textiles. This has a connection to the Shogun - Edo-komon was initially derived from the formal dress of the samurai. The formal dress of the bushido was an indication of wealth and status, and the Shogun formally strictly regulated clothing. Luxuries such as colored textiles were forbidden among commoners, who were only permitted to wear browns, greys and blacks.
Since the motifs in the textiles were so tiny, from a distance they appeared quite 地味 (jimi - plain), but up close, they were quite elaborately-crafted and beautiful. It was forbidden for those of the peasant class to approach those of higher rank, so the apparent plainness of design cleverly concealed the beauty of the designs. Eventually, the use of these patterns spread everywhere among the working class. This was the reason craftspeople of the time used 48 different browns and 100 different grays.
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms, and more cherry blossoms; it's a sea of cherry blossoms everywhere you look in japan this season. Sakura (桜 - cherry blossoms) have already bloomed in Tokyo, opening 12 days earlier than average. Now the trend is heading north.
Cherry blossoms bloom in a progression up the islands of Japan from south to north. We call it the cherry blossom front, or sakura zensen (前線), and it's a big event, reported as part of the special weather forecast. The forecasts inform Japanese citizens of the where and the when of the blooming, with regular updates about the percentage of blossoms opening.
Hordes of Japanese make travel plans to drink in the magnificent splendor at temples, mountains, public parks and castles. The progress of the zensen from south to north takes a month, so it's even possible to take a road trip to follow the blooms if time allows.
For those unable to make a major journey however, there are neighborhood parks for enjoying hanami (花見) - flower viewing - among friends and family. Many corporations make the occasion a company event, and it is the most junior employee's task to arrive as much as six hours in advance and stake out a bit of territory on the grass with a sheet of blue plastic tarpaulin. There's a real competition to get the "best spot" under the trees, where the drinking and feasting can commence!
Preparations include special obento and sake. Obento (お弁当) are handmade boxed lunches. Mimi's favorite is Makunouchi bento, which contains rice, fish or kara age (空揚げ - fried chicken), tamago yaki (卵焼き - rolled sweetened egg) and cooked vegetables like kinpira gobo (きんぴらごぼう - vinegar-soaked burdock root, which araiguma loves). Obento is such an interesting subject, it deserves a posting of its own!
Araiguma tells of when he first arrived in Japan, and spoke not a word of the language. Still, he was befriended by his neighbor Mr. Kawada, and invited to a hanami party where nobody spoke a word of English. A pretty Japanese housewife smiled and took him by the arm, then seated him among her family, where he was treated to a wonderful feast, including fuguzake (河豚酒- sake infused with the fins of the fugu blowfish). He says it is very bitter. By the end of the afternoon, he was humming along arm in arm with very drunken family members, as they sang songs in Japanese, of which he understood not a word!
Typically, many cherry trees line the city canals and riversides, lit by paper lanterns. Food stalls are erected offering the most delicious snack foods, such as takoyaki (蛸焼 - fried octopus), yakisoba (焼きそば - fried sweet noodles), okonomiyaki (お好み焼き - omelettes) and the like. Those who haven't prepared obento can enjoy these wonderful Japanese festival dishes.
Mimi says she loves to see the beautiful sakura, but the noisy drunken people sometimes block the path and disturb the beauty. Her favorite way to enjoy the sakura is by walking or jogging along the trees in the morning or in the night illumination. Since the blossoms have such short lifespans, we should enjoy every moment of them.
Sakura trees go to sleep in the fall, and the cold keeps them dormant until the warmth of spring awakes them into blooming. Since this February was terribly cold in Japan, the change in temperature was dramatic and led to an early bloom.
Please enjoy our sakura!
Thursday, March 7, 2013
This is sakura-mochi with green tea. It's one of Mimi and Araiguma's favorite Japanese confections. Today, we're going to guide you through the world of the sakura-mochi!
Before getting down to business, we must apologize for our long hiatus, and thank you for your patience.
So what's sakura-mochi? You can see the pink-colored pillbox-style stuff. It's made with rice flour, with sweet bean paste inside a sakura leaf pickled with salt. You can eat them together, or of course you can pull off the leaf, if you prefer. But Mimi's recommendation is that you eat them together. The taste is a mixture of the sweet and the salty, with a gentle flavor and a lovely fragrance….
Sakura-mochi is a Japanese confectionery 和菓子(Wagashi), available in the spring, from February to the end of April. In Japan, it's customary to celebrate the seasons, and that has heavily influenced food and entertaiment. Each season has its own special wagashi, and sakura-mochi is a seasonal, limited-edition flavor in spring.
What you see in the picture is Kanto 関東(Eastern Japan) style sakura-mochi, the choe-meeyo-jee (長命寺) style. Kansai (関西 Western Japan) style is doe-myoe-jee (道明寺) style, and they're both completely different. Occasionally, one encounters local varieties as well. A recipe for choe-meeyo-jee sakura-mochi is included in our first Sampo Nikki guidebook, so if you're interested, please read it.
We must apologize because we're unable to give you a real sakura-mochi, cause it's very delicious, but we hope you enjoy the picture, and try to eat it here in Japan someday! You're sure to love it.
Saturday, February 16, 2013
Mimi suddenly shrieks: “Namake-mono wa ine ga? Naguko wa ine ga? (怠けものはいねが？泣ぐ子はいねが？– Are there any lazy people around? Any crying kids?)” She’s wearing the mask of an Oni (demon).
”Kowai!” says a startled Ariaguma (怖い – Eek!), as Mimi bursts into laughter.
Mimi explains that she heard from a friend about an annual spring event in Slovenia related to our last blog posting about bean-tossing (mame-maki). In a more rational voice, she explains, “Have you ever heard of Kurentovanje? It's a very interesting carnival, I once saw on a TV documentary.
Participants dressed in sheep furs and masks hang bells around their belts, which ring loudly as they walk about. The ringing of these bells is said to drive away evil spirits and to announce the coming of spring.
Mimi thinks the creatures look like rather friendly big birds, however.
The Tschaggatta festival in Lotchental Swizerland is also similar. Villagers from remote valleys wear hideous wooden spirit masks, dress in shaggy furs, and carry heavy bells. These
Tschaggatta are said to possess special powers.
One hundred years ago, hordes of Tschagatta stormed through the villages, punishing community ne’er-do-wells. It was said they had magical powers to scare away winter and death, allowing spring to be reborn.
Tschaggata masks are scarier than those of Kurentovanje, although both are meant to scare children out of misbehavior. It's fascinating how the essence of these events seems so similar among such widely divergent cultures.
Mimi says hearing about these customs reminds her of the Akita winter festival called Namahage. That’s why she was trying to scare Araiguma.
Namahage is an annual event held the last day of the year. Namahage are creatures (seen above), said to be messengers of the gods. They visit local houses to admonish the wicked, to drive away evil spirits, and to bring happiness and good fortunes.
Villagers don wooden masks and straw-filled keramino clothes while brandishing giant knives. They wander about, shouting “Namake-mono wa inega? Naguko wa inega?” (Are there any lazy people around? Any crying kids?) in gruff voices. Their manner is quite aggressive, and particularly terrifying to children, as they look like Oni.
There are basically two types of namahage masks, one blue and one red, each with similar expressions. In this respect, they differ from Tschagatta masks, which come in a great variety.
The red namahage carries a tool in his right hand called a Nuki, a religious tool priests swing in the air above their heads to drive away evil spirits.
The literal translation of namahage is to remove a low-temperature burn. Such burn injuries come from idling too long by the fireside, which is thus a metaphor for laziness. Eventually this meaning was transferred to the name of the mythic creatures.
The blue-masked namahage carries a knife to slice off these superficial burns, and catch them in his wooden bucket.
Today, one can meet them annually at the Namahage festival, held Friday through Sunday, the second week of February in Akita’s Oga Peninsula.
For three nights 50 torch-wielding namahages descend from the mountains, thereafter engaging in traditional folk dancing and music.
Since Akita is located in northern Japan, it sees a lot of snow, and is quite cold, but the festival is well worth a visit, as one feels as if she’s traveled back in time.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Mimi says: "Spring has come to Japan. I need to start exercising to slim down so I can fit into my summer clothes!"
Araiguma replies. "What you are talking about? It’s far too early! It's too cold and the weather forecast says it might even snow again this week!"
They wish to thank you for your interest in their books and this blog, and are excited for readers to enjoy them. While they’re just on the starting line, the number of fans is small, but growing daily.
When Mimi says “Spring has come to Japan”, she isn't nuts; spring has actually arrived on the calendar. Japanese express this as Koyomi no ue de haru ga kita (暦の上で春が来た – Spring has arrived on the calendar). Koyomi (暦) is Japanese for the Gregorian calender, accepted into use in 1873. Prior to this, Japanese had followed a lunar-solar calendar since the dawn of the history.
Japanese love nature, with every season bringing a rich life of new beauty, so they have divided the Koyomi year to 24 groups, 6 groups per season. February 4th is the first day of the first group of the first quarter, called Rishun (立春 – spring’s appearance). With the arrival of spring comes strong sunlight, lengthening daylight hours, and Japanese plum blossoms begin to bloom. Ancient Japanese noted these slight seasonal changes and named the day in hopes of the coming of spring.
On Rishun eve, Japanese celebrate with a traditional custom called mame maki (豆まき – bean-tossing). They throw roasted soy beans out the entrance or windows, shouting Oni wa soto! (鬼は外 – Out with the trolls!), and then throw beans backward into the house, shouting Fuku wa uchi! (福は内 – In with Good Fortune!)
Oni were creatures from Japanese folklore, with horned faces resembling the mask seen in the picture above. They were huge, and carried great clubs called Kanabo (金棒 – golden clubs). These creatures symbolized evil, scary forces, and were said to appear with the changing of seasons.
By throwing beans at the invisible oni, Japanese ward off bad luck, and by throwing beans back into the house, they welcome happiness and wealth into their lives.
Many shrines or temples hold local festivals, and the most famous invite celebrities and sumo wrestlers to participate. There are also subtle differences in what is shouted. In local areas where people love the oni, they say Oni mo uchi ( 鬼も内 – Oni are also welcome inside!) or simply fuku wa uchi. In such areas, the oni are a symbol of respected strength.
Afterward, celebrants eat roasted soy beans – one for every year of their age, with one added for an upcoming year of health and happiness.
Araiguma says, “so when Mimi turns 100, she has to eat 101 soybeans? Yikes!!”
Mimi says, “I don't want to think about eating more than 50 at a time! They’re delicious and healthy, but they dry out your mouth. Add a little water, and the stomach gets pretty full. 50 is already enough for me.