Friday, September 30, 2005


Gotta Love Doggie Yukata

Japan has undergone a "pet boom" in the past few years, with the mini-dauchshund and the chihuahua among the most popular dogs. I've had dinner with little dogs running around on tatami floors, which would have been unthinkable when I was a kid.

One photo which I regret not taking while in Japan was of dogs wearing yukata at the Gion matsuri. Fortunately, this seller on Ebay has a nice selection of dog kimonos and yukatas with some charming photos.

Thursday, September 29, 2005


Lettuce Club Dinners

I'm trying to spend an hour a day or so doing something that involves reading Japanese.

Lately, I've been reading recipies from Lettuce Club, which is a sort of home ec like magazine full of tips on how to be a far more efficient and tidy homemaker than I will ever have a prayer of being.

The latest effort involved lots of dishes with mushrooms. I made:

1. salmon with sauted peppers, onions and mushrooms
2. obligatory miso soup with shimeji
3. a salad with maitake, lotus, and bean sprouts
4. bean salad with white miso and walnut dressing
5. and of course rice.

It wasn't bad. I find that if you just learn some basic kanji (saute, mix, salt, sugar), then you can read most of these recipes. I'm thinking of picking up more cooking magazines.

On a related note, I've decided to read Banana Yoshimoto's book Kitchen in Japanese too.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


Obi Made Easy

This summer saw the return of the yukata, a traditional summer kimono. Everywhere you went, it seemed, young people were wearing yukata -- men and women.

When I told friends that intended to take my yukata to Japan for the Gion matsuri, their immediate reaction was concern: "Are you sure you know how to put it on?"

It's actually more complicated than it looks, and knowledge about how to wear a yukata and tie the obi has not exactly been transferred to the younger generation. Like many things Japanese, wearing any kind of kimono is an art; you can't just throw the thing on and hope for the best (well you can, but you'd look sort of silly).

Numerous magazines and websites popped up to give advice. But there was also one ingenious Japanese invention which made the whole thing much easier: the "hook on obi."

One side of the obi has a hook which attaches to the band that goes across your waist.

The other side of the obi is pre-tied into the bow, eliminating the need to wrangle the obi into a nice shape.

In my own case, I still required the help of a "professional." Someone padded my back with a towel so my yukata would fall in a nice line from my shoulders to my ankles. And we learned that men look better in yukata if they have a small beer belly; my friend's stomach was padded with a towl.

Once dressed, we got on the with the business of enjoying edamame, and working on the beer belly.

Monday, September 26, 2005


Maitake Salad

Here's the salad I made as a part of dinner.

First, I peeled the maitake strips off as you would an artichoke, then boiled the pieces.

Once they were cool, I made a vinaigrette.

Easy, simple and tasty!

Saturday, September 24, 2005


Matsutake Update

I was inspired by all the talk about matsutake mushrooms, and so decided to try to hunt for them here in NYC at the Farmer's Market in Union Square.

I spoke to one of my favorite mushroom sellers who had a beautiful supply of woodhen mushrooms (maitake in Japanese) for sale ($29 per pound), which, like matsutake cannot be cultivated.

He told me that he usually does have matsutake, and that he has one Japanese client who comes every year to buy the mushrooms from him, and take them back to Japan! Apparently this client likes to brag to Japanese friends how cheap the matsutake are in America.

Unfortunately, says the mushroom seller, the Northeast has been experiencing a drought, and the matsutake haven't been showing their little heads. The mushroom man was very nice about sharing how to find matsutake -- but wasn't about to divulge his secret picking location.

In the meantime, if you live in New York, you can wait until Hangawi has their annual matsutake feast posted on the menu again. I had the feast one year, and the chefs certainly do pull out all the stops to present matstutake in as many ways as they possibly can. Plus, the atmoshpere is wonderfully authentic in part because of all the wooden floors, and the remove-your-shoes-and-sit-on-the-floor style dining room.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


A Civilized Country

In a civilized country, beer can be bought from a vending machine.

Monday, September 19, 2005


Magical Mushrooms

A few years ago, Kim Jong Il gave Koizumi a box of mushrooms as a gift.

No, not those kind of 'shrooms.

Koizumi threw away the box, according to one news report, and talks between the countries were stalled. This was at the height of the abductee drama, and Koizumi wasn’t about to be pacified by a box of mushrooms.

But wait. About those mushrooms. Why on earth would Kim Jong Il even give a box of mushrooms as a gift in the first place? These were not ordinary mushrooms. They were matsutake, a delicacy that is now in season. I took this picture last year in Kyoto, and you can see how the store has displayed matsutake alongside chestnuts to indicate the changing season.

Many insist that matsutake have a unique and delicate flavor. If you mention matsutake to Japanese, they will most likely nod knowingly, then simultaneously lament the price tag. Here's the thing; matsutake cannot be cultivated. While it is possible to cultivate many kinds of mushrooms, like shiitake or enoki, the same cannot be said for matsutake. They tend to grow in the wild alongside red pine, the word matsu meaning "pine" in Japanese, and must be picked by those who know where the wild mushrooms grow.

However, matsutake do not only grow in Japan. They also grow in China and in Korea, and in recent years, more and more matsutake have made their way from the mainland to Japan. However, there are some people, who shall remain nameless, who have insisted to me that matsutake that come from Korea are not "real" matsutake, a ridiculous assumption as any, but one that apparently is very meaningful to some.

I took this picture in an Osaka food store, and you can see that the matsutake are carefully marked; some are from China, some are not. The price tag, if you look closely, ranges from around 50 to 80 bucks. That gives you an idea of the "value" of Kim Jong Il's gift.

I became friendly with a Japanese man now living in America who insists that matsutake also grow in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. He used to pick matsutake in Japan, and when he moved to California, made it his business to find where in the New World the matsutake grew. I did some research and learned that there is indeed a very active market for matsutake, with passionate pickers in Washington and Oregon. Some of these mushrooms are airlifted to Japan, though again I imagine there will be some customers who grumble that these matsutake are not "real," but eat them anyway.

This Japanese friend took me picking for mushrooms in California on New Year’s Day. It was a glorious morning, just three of us moving through the woods, sniffing the air for mushrooms. I wouldn't recommend that you do this at home, of course, as there are numerous reports of people mistakenly eating fatal mushrooms. In our case, we were with someone experienced and that made all the difference. As we walked back to the car with an 80 pound backpack filled with matsutake, I thought of how much it was worth were we to sell it, and how much matsutake pickers would like to know where we had just been.

But that would be telling.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


Trendwatching: Sun Parasols

When I was a kid, my grandmother wouldn't go out of the house in the summer without her little lavender sun parasol. This was too much demureness for me when I was eleven years old, but I went along with her, silently frustrated at how ladylike she was, and how even at eleven I was failing at being a properly feminine Japanese girl.

Fast forward to a few years ago when I became aware of "aging" and young Japanese girls rediscovered the sun parasol. Of course the sun parasol has become in again. In bad economic times, the fashion rule goes, women turn to accessories! Now, it seems, that that sun parasol has become a multi-generational object of worship.

I finally broke down and bought my own parasol this year. It has a fake meisen silk print -- meisen silk being another one of those things that has suddenly become "hot" again -- and came with a note guaranteeing to protect me from harmful UV rays.

All this makes me wonder if the sun parasol will catch on in certain parts of the US. I do see some eccentrics carrying them here in NYC. And certainly the trend seems to be toward large 70s style hats for fall and summer to protect girls from the sun. Perhaps practical American women will pick up an umbrella soon.

Friday, September 16, 2005


Behind Every Good Geisha . . .

If you read Memoirs of a Geisha, then you know that there a host of characters who help to create the whole mystery and allure of being a geisha.

Actually, the term geisha is a bit misused in the States. A taxi driver in Kyoto once berated me when I used the term, pointing out that in Kyoto, one must say geiko, which means something entirely different. A geiko, he insisted, is very clearly a practioner of the arts. The term geisha is unfortunately mixed up with lots of bizarre American stereotypes (his words).

Before a woman becomes a geiko, however, she is a maiko. The beautiful costumes and head-dresses that we all admire are actually the domain of maiko.

Last year when I was in Japan, I had the good fortune to visit a small, traditional family home where the wife and husband practice the traditional art of hand-embroidering the kinds of garments worn by maiko-san.

Here you can see a small sample of the brilliant silks used to embroider basic silk fabrics.

The stitching is all done by hand. You can see the pattern loosely sketched onto the fabric; the needle and thread bring the design to life.

Maybe they were pulling my leg, but they told me that this particular garment belongs to "The most beautiful maiko-san currently in Gion." Who knows if that is true (and if it is, I certainly hope she doesn't read the Interent, and will not notice yours truly wearing her clothes), but I appreciated the idea that being a maiko-san is very much a living art and that people still gossip about who is beautiful, who is smart and who is not.

One interesting note; the husband and wife team insisted to me that these days very cheap hand-embroidered fabrics are coming in from China. They pulled a pile of garments out of a chest and began to say to me; "This is from China. This is from Japan." They insisted that there was a visible difference as to the skill level.

I don't know what to say about this except that it shows to me how much of a greater awareness there is of China looming to the West, with hundreds of skilled workers. I'm not sure I buy the idea that Chinese hands are less capable than Japanese; in fact I don't. I will say that on my last trip to Japan I did see a number of new fans in the souvenir shops; the bright colors and unsual color combinations were definitely not a traditional Japanese aesthetic. All things -- and all cultures -- undergo change. Certainly the Japan of the early 1900s isn't the same as the Japan of today, and only part of this is due to industrialization. We will see how traditional arts like kimono embroidery adapt and change as China grows more powerful.

Monday, September 12, 2005


The Obligatory Square Watermelon

Here it is. The obligatory picture of the square watermelon. I found this at a fruit store in Shibuya (whose name escapes me at the moment). You can see that it is priced to around 100 bucks.

Back before the bubble burst, Japan was full of odd and interesting things to purchase. In my opinion, it still IS full of interesting things to purchase, but to hear the Japanese tell it, things really haven't been the same in the past 10 years. Now that Koizumi has won the election, and so many of his assassins won their spots, perhaps Japan's economy will rise again. Perhaps we will see many more melons in many more interesting shapes.

Either way, it always amazes me what the creative minds in Japan come up for people to consume.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


Japanese conformists, American rebels

That’s the stereotype, right? Americans like to think of themselves as uniquely gifted individuals, and to think of the Japanese and other Asians as participating in a collective culture so oppressive that it smoothes out any sharp edges of personality.

There is much to be said about this subject – including the fact that the Japanese on the other end view Americans with equally distasteful misinformation. But I recently read an interesting book that focused the discussion on one particularly fascinating aspect of both societies: teenagers.

The Material Child
The American sociologist Merry White has written an intriguing book called The Material Child, comparing teens in America to in Japan. Here is a salient quote:

"We (Americans) give confusing messages about sexuality, we teach children to obey and to rebel, and we say that learning and work are necessary evils. . . As a result, the hypocrisy of adult life is the source of great confusion and anger to American teenagers."

If you are an American, you probably know exactly what this quote means. You see it in movies like Rebel Without a Cause, The Dead Poets Society and Titanic and countless other works that capture the popular imagination. To rebel is normal and to be encouraged. Think, for example, how Americans take it for granted that kids at some point rebel against their parents.

Here's what White says about Japanese teens:

"Japanese support teen friendships and peer associations as a source of social and even hierarchical training for adult life . . . the family is the source of ongoing support and breaking away or leaving home is not a necessary step in maturation."

Now obviously there are difficulties with every generalization, but I found these and other statements interesting because in my own experience, I simply don't remember the same pressure in Japan to break with my parents, or to fight with peers and with society. There wasn't a cultural expectation that I would be unhappy with my parents. In fact, I was always really happy to be in Japan as a teenager and felt as if in general, people were excited to see me growing up and were curious to see what shape my life would take. This was very different in America where people liked to roll their eyes, and discuss how difficult their teenage years were. I found it confusing to talk to my American peers who complained about their parents; I genuinely liked and admired mine and wanted to get along with them. (I'd be curious to hear the opinions of others who have a foot in both cultures.)

White seems to agree when she says: "We (Americans) are suspicious, while Japanese adults do . . . not expect children to want to behave badly." I write this well aware that there are news stories circulating today in Japan about teens who are turning into bullies, or failing to socialize in ways that are expected. But I still think the insight is interesting if you look at the two cultures side by side.

I also find all of this interesting because it certainly helps set the stage for why some believe in the myth of American rebellion and the myth of Japanese conformity; our own cultural rules and impressions of ourselves are set up to reinforce these ideas and help us to believe in them at an early age. Americans want and like to see teens acting out; Japanese want and like to see teens getting along. And even if we look at Japan and see that its political system is stagnant, or that the American system frighteningly mercurial, I think these are observations we make about political structures, not about an individual’s capacity to be unique.

Predictable Conformity
I'd like to say here that I have always questioned the whole concept that all Americans are uniquely individual for a number of reasons. First, if you survived high school in the States, as I did, then you probably remember that there were a particular set of expected characteristics a so-called rebel was expected to do: drink, party, swear, ignore his parents, listen to "alternative" music, and smoke. In other words, teens are expected to rebel, but always in the same predictable way. But does doing any of this really make anyone all that unique?

I’m also suspicious of people who look at Japanese teens and see their group activities as evidence of "the hive." I think one reason Americans have difficulty "getting" the Japanese is because so many Americans don't actually speak the language. The only way to actually get to know someone is to converse with them, spend time getting to know their likes and dislikes, their talents, their interests and sense of humor. If you can’t do these basic things, then you are stuck on the outside looking in at a group of people who share a highly developed culture.

We would do well to remember this when we watch Japan from the outside and see nothing but interchangeable people acting in unison. We would do well to call this kind of attitude for what it is; pure and simple old-fashioned ignorance.

Thanks to the always awesome Japundit for first posting this little ditty. You can read it in the original form here and also check out people's comments. Thanks also to Global Voices for linking to the essay!

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Seasonal Nails

When I first moved to New York, I was stunned to discover that manicures and pedicures are de rigeur for young working women. I got into the habit, however, and showed up to work on Mondays with nicely polished nails.

Then I went to Tokyo one year and found that manicures had become popular there too -- but Japanese style. My friend Isao told me that Ayumi Hamasaki was in many ways responsible for the boom.

What's so different about a Japanese manicure? This picture should say it all. I had this done (yes, that's my thumb) in the Fall, and the artist painted a lovely scene of maple leaves, carefully blending red, yellow and green. She inlaid little pieces of shell, and gold beads. To top it all off, she dusted the edge of my nail with glitter.

I was really impressed. And of course, had to do one again when this one faded.

When I raved about the manicure to the artist, she looked surprised and said, "But I thought manicures were popular in America."

I told her this was true, but that we certainly don't have anything like the above in the States, and she looked surprised.

Here is an ad we found on the street displaying numerous styling options. It was breathtaking and the girl in me was salivating.

If anyone knows a place in NYC that offers such a lovely manicure, I'd love to know. I'd go in a heartbeat.

Thursday, September 01, 2005



I can't believe that snipers are shooting at helicopters attempting to land to help victims. I can't believe that we haven't asked for help from other countries since we haven't managed to mobilize our own forces. I can't believe this is my country. I don't remember New York breaking down to this degree on 9/11. I hate to see that our class differences have rendered chaos to this degree.


No Red for McDonald's

In 2001 the city of Kyoto passed a law banning "garish signs" on the street. This was part of an effort to renew and retain the beauty of this most traditional of cities. If you've been there, you know how special and unique a place it is.

So, what exactly is a "garish" street sign? Apparently city planners did not like the bright red color McDonald's generally uses to advertise itself. Go to Kyoto today and you will see that McD's has had to adapt to the color brown.

An interesting feature of this photo (aside from the not-so-flattering model) is the little advertisement in the background. You see a poster of a burger -- no surprise there. But you also see a cartoon moon with a rabbit leaping in front. The characters in the upper right hand corner announce that the poster is for Autumn.

So what's the deal with the rabbit? Autumn is moon viewing season in Japan. Go around Kyoto during that time and you will see little displays of rabbits dressed in kimonos, chasing the moon, sitting by the moon, or making rice cakes. Legend has it that if you look at the moon, you will see a rabbit. He lives there, pounding the surface of the moon to make mochi. Hence all the craters.

People love the seasons in Japan, as well they should. It's a beautiful country and the landscape responds profoundly to changes in temperature, and great attention is paid on the news to which flowers are blooming and where.

I know of no other place where it would make sense to advertise a burger and the moon in one poster.

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