Thursday, October 27, 2005

 

The Continuing Food Obsession

Just to show you how wide the world of Japanese food is,

 

Everyone Should Have a Japanese Mother

Naomi MoriyamaThis spring's bestseller French Women Don't Get Fat has a new challenger. Writer Naomi Moriyama will soon publish her book Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat, and it looks like a great read!

As the story goes, Moriyama spent two years in Japan and promptly lost 25 pounds. I have to say, every time I go to Japan, I feel this incredible collective pressure to lose weight -- everyone is so lithe and energetic, so I'm excited that someone has written a book on this subject.

The book is very timely for the US, where a full 34 percent of American women are obese. Japanese women weight in at a teeny tiny 2.9%. This is quite intriguing when you consider what a food obsessed culture Japan really is. And yet, the emphasis is on small portions, healthy ingredients, and very little cream or butter.

One of the things that I love about Moriyama's book is that it is subtitled: Secrets of My Mother's Tokyo Kitchen. This, of course, is one of the secrets to the Japanese diet -- to have a Japanese mother in the first place.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

 

Trendwatching: Meisen Silk

Okay, my fashionista girlfriends. Here is a new possible trend for you.

A few years ago I used to be able to go to the Kuwano Textile Gallery in Tokyo near Omotesando and pick up a nice meisen kimono for around 20 to 30 bucks. The times have changed. I visited the store this year, and there was nary a meisen garment for under 80 dollars.



Young women have rediscovered the kimono, and you can see them out in Harajuku on the Sunday fashion parade. There's even a term for these girls -- not surprisingly they are called "kimono girls." There are even some nice books documenting the trend.

The meisen kimono in particular has become very popular. These kimono were made in the first half of the twentieth century, and were characterized by a glossy sheen, and brilliant patterns. There is often a sort of "blurry" quality to the silks, as you can see from this photo.



For a long time, anything meisen was considered to be not-so-nice. It was definitely out of style and even a little bit embarassing, sort of like bell bottoms were regarded for a time in the US. I personally happen to love the prints, and have quite happily found a new, much cheaper source (which of course I don't want to reveal). The bright colors have also caught the attention of today's young people.

A few days ago I walked by Bergdorf's in New York, and stopped in my tracks when I saw a Marc Jacobs skirt on display. The silk he had used was very definitely meisen.



Could it be the start of a new trend?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

 

JACL Interview

The good folks at Pacific Citizen, published by the JACL, contacted Japundit about a post I did regarding Fresh's Geisha Makeup line. You can read the resulting interview, conducted by Lynda Lin through email. I'll post the full questions and answers below so you can read them if you want to.

I did want to make the following point about the JACL. When I was growing up as a kid, my family used to go the Buddhist temple in Monterey. This was a wonderful chance for us to be close to Japanese culture, and I have wonderful memories of the potluck dinners, teriyaki chicken, and the glamorous Obon festival. For a long time, my father and my friend Debbie's father were the only to "gai-jin," or as they used to say, "hakujin," in the temple. Times have changed.

One of the great injustices of the 20th century was the internment of the Japanese Americans, often referred to as an evacuation. I never really knew about this growing up, and certainly did not learn about it in high school. Over time, I heard people at the Temple say things like, "Well, when I was at camp . . . " or "We met at camp." I strongly recommend you read When the Emperor Was Divine which expresses the subject just beautifully, without being sentimental, depressing or cloy.

The JACL has done much to document these injustices, and to remain vigilant on behalf of the many Japanese Americans. I remember seeing their newspaper at the houses of friends -- the wonderful Shiz Torabayashi, for example. I'm glad I was able to participate in one of their projects in a small way.

Questions and Answers

1. In your blog you mention that the Japanese would giggle at the "Memoirs" make-up line. Could you explain why?

I think we have to keep in mind that when something from one culture is used by another culture. it is necessarily reinterpreted. Pizza in Tokyo won’t be like the pizza we are accustomed to seeing in the States, and this often strikes Americans traveling abroad as funny. Similarly, these “Memoirs of a Geisha” products don’t really look Japanese and don’t have a concrete relationship to anything from the geisha world. I made the point on Japundit that geisha lipstick, for example, is a very specific product in Japan. It is paint found inside a shell and applied with a brush. The items sold by Fresh don’t look at all like anything that a true geisha would use. So, like an out-of-place-pizza, I imagine these products, with their displaced appearance, would strike some Japanese as funny. Others, who are younger, more traveled and more open-minded, might find them sort of interesting, in the same way that young Americans like to wear Engrish T-shirts as a form of personal expression.

2. The beauty product is well presented - the packaging is pretty and the ingredients sound pleasant and soothing - but "sake" bubble bath and rice face wash? What is your personal opinion of the marketing?

I’ve been to many spas in Japan and don’t remember ever bathing in anything containing sake. Most of the spas I’ve been to are very keen to explain to you which minerals or which herbs are contained in their waters (and which particular ailments these waters will cure), and you can certainly buy bath salts from most any drugstore to use at home. Certainly Japanese people use different beauty products than we do; one face scrub that I have used in Japan, for example contains charcoal.

But the Fresh products are clearly created less to bring to light certain Japanese beauty secrets, than to capture what are perceived to be quintessentially Japanese things. On the one hand, I find this sort of disappointing. The products were created without much cultural context, and for a public that isn’t really going to know the difference. This becomes even more interesting when we consider that we live in a world where numerous sushi restaurants airlift in fresh ingredients from Tsukiji to make sushi here in America; we are clearly lopsided we are in our understanding of other cultures.

On the other hand, we are only talking about makeup, and perhaps I should lighten up!

3. There are many lines of makeup that is geared towards modern minorities, but I think this is among the few that uses a cultural archetype. Why is the geisha image so attractive to westerners? Why don't we see more of other of other cultural archetypes from (ie) Latin or African American cultures?

Why don’t we see “Latin Temptress” products for example? ;-) It’s a good question. I think there are several points to be made here.

Scholars and the geisha community itself insist that the geisha is not a prostitute, and yet there is the lingering suspicion among Americans that she actually is and that the Japanese aren’t telling the truth. This isn’t helped by the fact that the geisha community is very possessive of its secrets (which is their right, of course). The publication of “Memoirs of a Geisha” fueled this debate because the heroine of the book, Sayuri, endured a mizuage -- the selling off of her virginity. It’s unclear how realistic this portion of the novel truly is; certainly Mineko Iwasaki, the real life geisha whom Arthur Golden named as a source of inspiration, was less than impressed and sued Golden in a case that I believe is till pending. I went to the “Maiko Café” in Kyoto to see a young maiko dance; the only other Western person in the audience cornered me and asked me if “she was a prostitute,” which I strongly denied. A certain portion of our society perversely enjoys associating Asian women with wanton sex; witness the disgusting sex trips some men take to Southeast Asia. So, there’s one reason for the ongoing fascination with the geisha and all that she represents; some look at the geisha and immediately think of sex which, as we all know, sells.

An article in the New York Times a few weeks ago discussed the growing number of registered “Native Americans” and pointed out how many people feel dissatisfied simply being “Caucasian.” They want to have some sort of “ethnic” identity. So, clearly, people hunger not only to experience the “other” but to actually be the “other” because it makes them feel more alive, more colorful. I imagine that the Fresh products, like the tiered skirts and embroidered blouses for sale in Urban Outfitters, speak to this desire. Don’t forget, however, that people also immigrate to the US – my own mother is an example – and who immediately feel at home, as though they were “meant to live here.” So, it isn’t just Americans who long to be in another culture; there are others who long to be in ours. It’s worth thinking about what it is in our current world that is fueling this desire or illusion.

A less uncomfortable explanation to your question is that the geisha lives in the ultimate dress-up, aesthetically pleasing world. No wonder George Lucas ripped off the concept to create costumes for Natalie Portman. If you have seen a geisha in real life, it’s quite astounding to look at her carefully coiffed hairdo, her makeup, her rich robes, her skills, etc. Even the Japanese are fascinated by her. If you go to Kyoto today, you will see young Japanese girls pay for the chance to “dress up” as geisha, and to parade around for an hour or two and have their photos taken. It isn’t just the West who finds the geisha mysterious and compelling.

Ultimately, I find the geisha an alluring figure because, from the outside perspective, her role seems to be to master all the high feminine arts – beauty, poise, conversation, sensuality – and there are few defined roles for women within any culture which celebrate all these skills all at once. Stereotypes generally dictate that if a woman is smart, she can’t be beautiful (or is too sensible to worry about beauty); if she is beautiful, she will probably not be smart. The ultimate geisha gets to get away with being all these things – and she earns money in the process. How cool is that?

4. Some critics say the beauty products are examples that orientalism and Asian fetishcism still exists today. What is your response?

I think it is always going to be difficult to have any thoughtful conversation about beauty, beauty products and beauty standards without feeling like we are fetishizing or objectifying women – and this is true across all cultures. I remember being deeply frustrated as a young woman when I looked at magazines and only saw white faces portrayed as the “standard of beauty.” But I’m also skeptical when I hear men say, “I love Asian women.” What does that mean? That we are all the same and equally lovable?

I saw an article recently which talked about how finally Asian women are starting to show up in fashion shoots and on the runway. But is this really progress? On the one hand, as a woman, I’m glad to see Asian women alongside other colors. On the other hand, I’m not over 5 foot 9 and never will be, and most likely will never weight under 110 pounds, so I’m not exactly sure how the runway model Hye Park is doing me any good!

Then again, there are women, and I am one of them, who love beauty products and fashion as a form of personal expression. I wouldn’t want to live in a color-blind world. In our recent history, communists were all forced to wear the same clothing and were pretty happy to give it up. I think to completely cut ourselves off from all sensuality would be sad – it would rob us of a human element. I think my answers also shows how challenging it can be to live as a modern woman in this world; there are no hard and fast rules to make us happy, or to make us feel accepted.

Friday, October 21, 2005

 

First Interview

Regular Japundit contributor and journalist Danny Bloom, who lives in Taiwan, interviewed me via email. Japundit ran the interview, and you can read it here. Thanks so much to Danny for giving me a chance to talk a little bit about my work!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

 

More Aburiya Kinnosuke

I thought I'd round out my description of Aburiya Kinnosuke by showing a few more final dishes (until I go back for more).

Take a look at this tasty ume-sour, made of an umeboshi and shochu.



Here is a wonderful sea-bass dish cooked on a robata grill. Notice how finely the green onions are cut, and how the sea bass is nestled on a bed of miso. Mmm. And, because the restaurant doesn't do a lot of meat grilling, the air doesn't smell heavy and oily; you can really taste the fish.



This dish has 5 different vegetables: carrots, gobou (burdock root), bamboo shoots, lotus root . . . and one other I can't remember off the top of my head.



Sesame pudding for dessert. Very rich, sort of like vanilla, but with a more complex flavor. It's great to discover that there are still new twists on classic types of dessert.



I'm looking forwrad to going back and eating more, and highly recommend that others try out this unique New York restaurant.

 

Moon Viewing Rabbits



It's still moon viewing season in Japan.



If you were in Japan, you'd see window displays, or seasonal ads that combine these elements: rabbits, rice cakes and the moon.

Where is the rabbit in the moon, and what is the deal with the rice cakes? These pictures should help clarify the origin of the story.


Tuesday, October 18, 2005

 

Katamari Daisuki


I love video games.

I am astonished at the amount of creativity, care and thought that goes into creating certain classic titles. In another life, I would love to work in the gaming industry.

Now there is word the Stephen Spielberg is developing 3 games with EA. And the Sunday NY Times did a spread about Rockstar's new game. (I just love the fact that the Times considers video games an art; I mean they are an art). This is a growth industry if I ever saw one.

In movies we are often passive, watching actors work out a plot. Novels are mystical -- the scenes all take place in your imagination. But in a really good video game, you are an actor, experiencing all that happens around you.



Last year I went to the Tokyo Video Game show and saw the new PSP. I missed this year's; it would have been fun to see the XBOX360. But I did get to look at Halo 2 last year, and at Bioware's Jade Empire (both of which are great games by the way).



This year I did make it a point to go to the Sony Center in the Ginza to check out Katamari Damacy 2 (I think that "katamari" comes from katamaru which means to gather into a ball). Essentially, "you" are a little prince with a sticky ball which you must roll around, gathering up increasingly larger pieces until you have a super-sized ball that can be cast into the sky to replace missing stars.



(Who's the better gamer here in the Sony Center?)

Katamari Damacy is a completely original video game. It reminds me a little bit of Tetris where you start to look at objects in the "real" world and imagine how they would fit into the Katamari world. However, the Katamari world is definitely 3-dimensional -- you can roll the ball all over the place with no real preset path. In other words, the designers have given you a complete world to explore. There is no fighting, so you don't mash buttons trying to kill some kind of enemy. The words most often associated with Katamari Damacy are "strange," "original" and "fun." I think that sort of sums it up. I also look at Katamari and think that it is a very Japanese game; it shows you what happens when a basic form of entertainment is interpreted slightly differently in another culture.

My copy of Katamari Damacy 2 is on its way. I'm looking forward to getting started.

Monday, October 17, 2005

 

Toro Season

A little more on the wonderful restaurant Aburiya Kinnosuke.

I also ordered some sashimi, including some wonderful chu-o-toro. That's fatty tuna.



My friend Isao, whom I consult on almost everything Japanese and gastronomic, told me that toro is best in the Winter because the water becomes cold, and the tuna, to combat the cold, becomes even fattier. So good toro season starts now!


(Here's Isao doing what he does best -- cooking. In this case, he had invented some sort of complex and delicious dessert.)

I can report that the toro sashimi at Aburiya Kinnosuke was like butter which is exactly as it should be. What's more it was very fresh. I was so impressed with the quality of their meat.

One thing to remember, too, about Aburiya Kinnosuke. A really good Japanese restaurant that cooks fish and sashimi like this isn't going to have a lot of meat on its menu. That's because the oily smell of meat is considered disruptive to the delicacy of fish. So, if you are craving meat Japanese style and live in New York, try Yakitori Totto. For fish, I'd definitely go to Aburiya Kinnosuke. It just goes to show you how carefully the owners have considered these two establishments.

I also mentioned that they do a kaiseki dinner; I said this based on the fact that they have two prix fixe menus, one for $45 and the other for $60. I only saw photographs of these, but they looked fantastic. I imagine I'll be going back to find out for certain.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

 

Found: Matsutake!

I have a new favorite restaurant.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the sister restaurant to another favorite, Yakitori Totto. This new restaurant is called Aburiya Kinnosuke; it is fantastic and very, very authentic.

People sometimes ask me which restaurant in New York is my favorite for Japanese food. I usually say that Yakitori Totto is my favorite yakitori, then list a few others for comfort food, ramen and sushi. But I think that Aburiya Kinnosuke might just be my favorite for "real" Japanese dining. New Yorkers have yet to learn what true kaiseki is. I know that there are other restaurants out there billing themselves as kaiseki, but to be honest, they've really underwhelmed me. If New Yorkers adjust to Aburiya Kinnosuke, they just might learn!

We ate a variety of things on Thursday night, but I wanted to point out two matsutake dishes -- matsutake being a gourmet item I've talked about a little while ago.



The first is matsutake tempura, which was just superb. Not oily at all. We ate it with the tastiest salt you can imagine (no sauce for dipping). Who knew that the kind of salt you eat can make such a difference in a dish?



We also had matsutake on a robata grill, which a little sauce. We topped this off with a Japanese lime, which is not at all like your standard lime (of course).

I asked the waitress -- who I happened to know from the dance studio -- where the matsutake had come from. She hesitated, then told me the mushrooms came from Washington State. I made a comment about how these matsutake were perhaps not quite the same as the Japanese version. She very confidently told me that these matsutake were perhaps not quite Japanese, but certainly smelled better than the Chinese version. There are just so many ways to interpret that statement.

For purists out there, you might note that we made the mistake of grilling the matsutake on a houba leaf. Rest assured, we corrected this error, removed the leaf, and at the matsutake hot off the grill itself.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

 

Robert Thurman at the AAWW

I went to the Asian American Writer's Workshop last night to listen to Professor Robert Thurman speak on Buddhism. The talk was billed as a discussion of Buddhism as a "new threat" to other religions, but instead Professor Thurman gave a basic talk about the Buddha, and the four basic principles. He also stayed around to sign copies of his new book.

I used to study with Professor Ryuichi Abe, whose office was next door to Thurman's. Even then students would go in and out of Thurman's office; he definitely has star power and charisma. He's also clearly passionate about Tibet and its particular brand of Buddhism; I know a lot less about this, having focused more on Buddhism in Japan.

There were a couple of loonies in the audience. One wanted to talk about how we are all possessed by aliens, to which Professor Thurman emphatically replied, "No, no. You are a free man. I can tell." Another wanted to know if the Dalai Lama, Richard Gere, Tibet House and Thurman himself were actually CIA agents. (Can you say paranoia?) The same guy wanted to know how Thurman could rectify being the father of Uma Thurman, a wealthy, glamorous and successful movie star, with being an authority on one of the world's great spiritual traditions. Thurman handled this beautifully as well, which tells me that it is not the first time he's come up against crazies.

I always rather liked the fact that the Buddha said it made no sense to completely divorce yourself from a material life -- to deprive yourself. As Sting said, "we are spirits in a material world."

Friday, October 07, 2005

 

You Too Can Be Otaku



It's always interesting to learn what American friends think of Japan and Japanese culture -- especially when they have never been to Japan. People make comments about panties in vending machines (which is so ovah, by the way), and cartoon pornography (which is still around).

My favorite guidebook to Japan makes the point that while many Americans might be fascinated by manga and anime, these things are not really part of mainstream culture. The authors make it very clear that while we in the States might find these things interesting, it is not the best idea to try to using anime as an overture to friendship. I guess it would sort of be like a Japanese person coming to America and assuming that everyone here loves Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or something like that.

This is not to say that there aren't people in Japan who love anime. There is in fact a term for the mainly-boys who adore action figures, games, cartoons, etc. They are called otaku, and a brief history of the term helps explains mainstream Japan's ambivalence toward these young people. (If you click on the hot-linked word otaku, you'll get Wikipedia's excellent definition.) Basically, a serial killer named Tsutomu Miyazaki, who killed several young girls, was found to have an obsession with games, and the pre-teen girls who dominate manga and anime. He was considered an otaku, and after that, anything otaku had creepy connotations.



Since then, however, otaku are getting a second look. A book, TV series and movie have all been written around the supposed real-life experiences of an otaku, who rescued a beautiful girl from the advances of a drunken man on a train. The otaku posted about his experiences on a popular Japanese message board, under the handle "train man." I've been completely hooked on the TV series, which is called Densha Otoko (Trainman). The acting is good, the story is fun and the opening song by ELO is absolutely killer. Part of the drama in the story comes from the man (Yamada-san) coming clean about his otaku identity, and the girl (Aoyama-san) accepting it. Every Japanese girl I talk to tells me how much she loves this show, and, if she is single, how very much she would like to find a nice man like the "train man."

The term otaku has also started to enter the English language, where, among hipsters, it has far more positive connotations. I recently found a guidebook titled "Cruising the Anime City: An Otaku Guide to Tokyo."



So, now English speakers can go to Tokyo and find all the places and shops where Japanese otaku hang.

Last year, I also went to the Tokyo Video Game Show, which, not surprisingly, has its fair share of otaku participants. There are even special tours organized to help Americans travel to Tokyo to get the maximum "otakuness" possible out of that modern city.



So, what does all of this mean? I think it's interesting to see how culture is flowing between our two countries. It used to be the case that we all laughed at the Engrish T-shirts and signs that the Japanese created. But when I told my Japanese friends about the Otaku Guidebook, they were stunned, and found that truly bizarre. Ditto for the tendency among some Americans to get Chinese characters tattooed on their bodies with the characters for "crazy diarrhea."



Cheap airfare has narrowed the distance between our two countries, and I imagine we'll see more and more of this kind of cultural borrowing and reinterpretation.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

 

Memoirs of a Geisha Beauty Products on Sale

You knew it was coming.

The upscale beauty product line Fresh has released a new line of cosmetics that tie in with the movie Memoirs of a Geisha.



I snapped this photo of the Fresh boutique window on Bleeker Street in New York.



Products include "Flower Petal Mask, Shimmer Powder with Crushed Pearls and a Beauty Palette featuring Premier Rose Satin Luster."



I know that we often like to giggle at the Engrish T-shirts for sale in Japan. But I think quite a few Japanese would giggle at the "Memoirs of a Geisha" beauty kit.

That said, I did see "geiko lipstick" for sale in tourist shops in Kyoto this summer. It was essentially red paint inside a shell, and came with a little brush. It wasn't exactly authentic, but approximated the traditional stuff that real geiko use.


It might have been nice if the Fresh product packaging had mirrored the authentic packaging. But oh well. Movies are about selling a fantasy, not necessarily documenting reality.


Sunday, October 02, 2005

 

Higanbana

It's that time of year in Japan when higanbana, eerie red lilies are seen blooming in the wild. They are called higanbana because of their tendency to bloom during the Autumn ohigan, which is the Buddhist term for the seven day period that coincides with the Spring and Autumn equinox. During ohigan, people travel home to visit their ancestors' graves, and to go to the temple.



However, because the higanbana always bloom during ohigan, they tend to give many Japanese people the willies.

A tip; don't pick a bouquet for your Japanese sweetie. Not going to go over so well.

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