Sunday, January 29, 2006

 

More on Breakthrough Asian Stars

Since I was a kid, I always found it interesting how someone could be so famous in Japan, but not in the US. Now we have "Pan Asian" stars, meaning they are famous across Japan, Korea, Taiwan, etc, and not just in their home country. So when, I wonder, will someone break through to the US? Certainly many have tried, and just about as many have failed.

The New York Times (registration required) is reporting today on the Korean singer Rain, who is a "Pan Asian" performer and who is getting ready to put on two concerts at Madison Square Garden. To put Rain's music in context, the articles states:

At 23, Rain, who has been labeled the Korean Justin Timberlake and the Korean Usher, is a serious and driven performer (with washboard abs, winsome looks and a Gene Kelly-like ability to leap through puddles while performing his hit song, "It's Raining"). He wants nothing less than to break down barriers, build cultural bridges and become the first Asian pop star to succeed in America.


What I thought was also interesting about the article was this prescient point, which probably applies to many of Japundit's devoted readers;

Because of the "multidirectional flow of cultural goods around the world," there is a "new pop cosmopolitanism," according to Henry Jenkins, professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In an essay in "Globalization" (University of California Press, 2004), Professor Jenkins writes that "younger Americans are distinguishing themselves from their parents' culture through their consumption of Japanese anime and manga, Bollywood films and bhangra, and Hong Kong action movies."


So, there you go "younger Americans." Your ambassador may have arrived.

First posted over at Japundit.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

 

Too Cynical

I may regret this bit of honesty, but here goes.

Confession.

I was very uncomfortable in college during the PC years because I had great difficulty wholeheartedly embracing the concept of relativism. One the one hand, I think a certain degree of relative thinking is healthy. I’m the product of two cultures, and I naturally appreciate it when someone makes the effort to understand that not all cultural practices are the same. As someone once said to me: “Japan is completely different from the West. But it’s not the opposite of the West.” Different but not opposite. That’s a certain kind of relativism.

But I also have a conservative streak in me. I think that there are good things and that there are bad things – that there is such a thing as morality. I think that all people are human and are essentially motivated by similar desires. I don’t believe, for example, the nonsense that Westerners marry for love, and that Asians don’t care about love. I don’t believe that men don’t get depressed. I don’t believe that men are out to wage war against women. I don’t believe that women cannot learn to read maps. I don’t believe that the Japanese don’t feel guilt, or that Americans are all horrible ego-driven people. I don’t believe that spirituality and creativity should be reserved for the “talented tenth.” I think all humanity matters.

Despite all that, there are times when I think that living in New York with people who do admittedly think of themselves as the “talented tenth” has made me too cynical. Maybe that’s another way of saying that I have the potential to be cynical, and I’ve created an environment for myself where the cynicism can come out.

When the James Frey/Smoking Gun/Oprah story first broke, I responded like a lot of my friends. At a party with a number of writerly types, James Frey was very much the topic of conversation. Insiders gossiped about numerous “memoirs” which were known to have been half-fabricated. I won’t repeat the titles, but it was interesting to see how blasé everyone was. And I was blasé too. Publishing is so hard, everyone said. No surprise that Frey and others have stretched the truth to break in.

I even went so far as to say that Frey’s book was a perfect product for Oprah’s audience, which tends to like stories of personal perseverance and triumph.

Now I remember a time when I first came to New York as a college student. A New York Times reporter came to our dorm room floor to interview us about our TV watching habits. She wanted to learn how our habits differed from “Middle America.” It was the first time I’d heard the term “Middle America” and it offended me. My beloved grandmother lived in “Middle America.” Her world encouraged me to bake pie crusts from scratch and send thank you notes. Fast forward to the present and there I was, talking about James Frey taking a “superior to Middle America” attitude.

What I’m trying to say, is that there is often this sense that because we live in New York, we are sophisticated, and normal rules of what is “polite” or “correct” don’t matter. We can grasp subtleties that other people can’t. We are smart, and therefore it is okay to fabricate. To act in a relative world. And at the end of the day, I don’t think it is.

I have this awful feeling that the whole notion of truth is considered old-fashioned, and it shouldn’t be. I think about the incredible bending of truth that has gone on to continue to justify the war in Iraq, for example. Or the scripting of reality shows. Or the bizarre relationship people think they have with the private lives of celebrities.

Entering into a space that purely exists in the imagination is normal for people. It’s also healing. The Greeks knew this. I always loved Aristotle’s definition of catharsis. The shadow side of the imagination, of course, is that we can imagine things that are not real at all, and which are harmful, and attempt to justify our behavior.

And that, for me, is the trouble with all things in life being relative.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

 

Harumi's Japanese Cooking

Among the many thoughtful gifts I received this Christmas was a copy of Harumi's Japanese
Cooking
. It's a wonderful cookbook, filled with easy and tasty recipes -- the kind you might find in Orange Page or Lettuce Club.

While I love the recipes, I think it's too bad the publisher didn't include more pictures of raw ingredients. Most people, for example, don't know what myoga looks like.

Here, for example, is a picture of the finished "eggplant salad" that I made last week.



The recipe calls for sesame paste, suggesting you use peanut butter of tahini as a substitute. I have to say, actual sesame paste really does taste good, and I've included a picture of what it looks like in case you are interested in finding some for yourself.



If you know basic hiragana, then you might recognize "goma" which means sesame.

This post first appeared on Japundit.

Monday, January 23, 2006

 

My Mom's Sake-nog

I've been saddled with the flu for the past few weeks, and this has included a horrible and hacking dry cough. Fortunately, I have my mother's wisdom to help me with my symptoms! Around the time I turned 20, she sprang her secret "sake-nog" cure for the flu. It includes:

>A small cup of sake (think large Japanese tea-cup)
>one egg
>1/2 tablespoon honey or syrup

Mix all these ingredients in a cup. Then, place the cup in a pot of water. Make sure the water is low enough so the cup is not completely submerged. Bring the water to a boil. Use chopsticks to stir the sake-egg-syrup concoction. This will form curds.



Pull out the cup (using a hot pad) and enjoy! I usually start drinking with a spoon, then move on to taking actual sips. I swear, I love this stuff much better than Nyquil.



First published over at Japundit where you can read other comments.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

 

Birthday Party

The holidays are a wonderful distraction away from the fact that sunlight in December is at an all time low. But what to do in January when there are no holiday lights to distract use from plummeting temperatures?

Our solution used to be to celebrate our January birthdays jointly -- a tradition we restarted again. Only, this year, we tried to entertain our friends with our Taiko Drummaster set, which my cousin Brian very cheekily sent to me. The Taiko Drummaster, for those who don't know, is a vide-game-meets-drum-set, which requires players to "read" rhythmic cues. It's a clever game, and taps into people's innate sense of music. I personally think it's a great way to teach kids the basics of music and rhythm.



As you can see, people were very focused on the drum-set.



Very focused.



My friend Jillian also gave me this incredibly beautiful bouquet of flowers. Jillian always does everything with class!



And our dear friend Kurt brought us this cake. A third of the cake was gone by the time I got around to taking a picture, hence the fact that the cake seems to be missing its back.

Friday, January 20, 2006

 

Murasaki Shikibu

I’ve occasionally visited message boards under the handle “Murasaki” or “Lady Murasaki.” The real Lady Murasaki was a writer who lived in Japan circa 1000 AD and wrote “The Tale of Genji,” which is often considered to be the world’s first psychological novel.

There is a lovely plant in Japan that is called “Murasaki Shikibu” after the writer; the plant is one of the quintessential colors of fall. The word murasaki in Japanese means purple, and the plant has little purple flowers. I’d never seen it in the States before, but kept running into branches of Murasaki Shikibu for sale at the farmer’s market in New York. Here’s a picture for you to see what it looks like.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

 

Mythos and Logos

One of my very favorite writers is Karen Armstrong. Her book, A History of God, is a classic, and no doubt one I will read again; it isn’t a book you can absorb with just one reading.

One of the main points that Karen Armstrong makes over and over again in A History of God and her other books about religion, is the difference between mythos and logos. I’ve ended up exploring these ideas in the novel I am working on now, because I think the idea is so important and powerful.

Briefly: mythos is everything that is sacred. It is the intuitive, spiritual side of life and can only be expressed and experienced through ritual, meditation and art. Mythos anchored the ancient people and gave them a way to express joy, sadness and pain. But it didn’t try to explain the world literally, only how we are meant to perceive it.

Logos is everything that is causal and rational. You can think of grammar, science and analysis as coming from the world of logos. Any time you stop to smell the flowers, you are experiencing a moment in mythos. When you make shopping list, you are engaging logos.

Armstrong tells us that terrible things happen when mythos and logos are conflated, and indeed we see that now in our own world. The origin of the universe, for example, is the realm of logos not mythos, and yet there are people who want to find a “religious” explanation for everything. Any other approach to life is heretical. Similarly, there are those who want to find an explanation for all human experience through logos; anything else is sissy, anti-intellectual and deluded.

I tend to side with Armstrong. I will offer my humble opinion that the truth about “explaining everything” is far more complex than simply rejecting science or rejecting religion (or spirituality or whatever you want to call it to make the argument make sense to you). I can’t really think of an example in life where a complete disavowal of anything is ever an answer to a problem, though we would very much like it to be.

A professor of mine once argued that Aristotle’s Ethics was the most boring of Aristotle’s works because Aristotle said that we should all strive to live moderately. This professor said that “moderation” is a boring approach to life and that it is the extremes that are the most exciting. I can see his point. But I actually think that nothing is more challenging than trying to hold contradictions in your mind, or than picking through a difficult situation and weigh the conflicting pieces of information and emotion that come flying to us day after day gas we decide how to act. This is far more complex and subtle than simply choosing one, intolerant approach to living, come hell or high water.

This, I think, is what it means to live consciously with the difference between mythos and logos. For the record, I certainly don't hold myself up as an example of someone who has managed to do this!

Monday, January 16, 2006

 

Namazake

I was visiting my favorite yakitori when one of the (Japanese) waitresses, who is used to me, suggested rather meaningfully that I order a glass of namazake. There was a limited supply, and it was very tasty and she thought I would like it. We were all a little bit skeptical; one glass cost $8. But then, after ordering the namazake, which is a kind of unfiltered sake, our waitress filled the glass so full, it spilled into the specially designed coaster/bowl you see pictured below. Essentially, we had two glasses for the price of one! Hooray!



Funnily enough, my boyfriend switched to beer partway through the meal, while my talented-writer-friend Vanessa and I ordered more sake.



Later, the waitress told me that namazake is a somewhat feminine drink because it is so sweet. “Men usually switch to beer after the first cup,” she said.

Male or female, if you can get your taste-buds around some namazake, I suggest you try it. It’s a nice way to get through the cold winter months!

Friday, January 13, 2006

 

The Peat Inn

I’ve often said that the bookish American child often grows up with an incredibly romantic view of Great Britain. This is certainly true in my case. Books like Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and now the Harry Potter series (not to mention the Dark Materials Trilogy) enforce this idea that life in Britain is far more magical and complex than a childhood in America. If you at all feel like mainstream American culture doesn’t represent you particularly well, it’s very easy to feel that your life would be more fulfilled in the land of talking stuffed animals and magical, if somewhat stern, nannies.



One of my fantasies about Great Britain was eating a dinner that included so many forks and spoons that I would be confused. Many YA books include a scene in which a heroine, who is generally not noble born, sits down at a banquet with too much silverware and follows the lead of her hosts to determine which fork to use.



The truth, of course, is that silverware is confusing to everyone, and that what matters isn’t so much how much silverware is on the table, but how good the food and the conversation are. During the holidays, I was lucky enough to eat yet another meal at the delicious Peat Inn. I feel quite fortunate to have gone, as the wonderful chef is rumored to be retiring soon, and no one really does make a scallop quite like he does.



Lest anyone tell you that the Scots can’t cook, I’d definitely suggest going to the Peat Inn to try this lobster bisque. You’ll soon learn to think otherwise.



And what meal is not complete with out a spread of fine British and French cheeses?



I also loved the fact that we got to choose our desserts in the lounge area. It was snowing outside, but we were warm and toasty by the fire. Long live the Peat Inn.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

 

Hagoita Badminton

Once upon a time, the New Year in Japan was partly celebrated through badminton games. Of course, the actual rackets used were no ordinary badmintons! They were beautiful, festive things, called hagoita in Japanese.

Nowadays, people aren’t likely to go out and play badminton, though the rackets themselves are still a popular decoration. There are even whole exhibits dedicated to displaying the efforts of various artists or even the casual craftsperson. I literally have dozens of photos, but here are a few.

Here is everyone’s favorite – the geisha hagoita. She’s playing a small drum called a tsuzumi.



Since it’s the year of the dog, I thought I’d better include a small hagoita with a dog on it.



Like all traditions, that of the hagoita is constantly being reinterpreted. Someone has made a “belly dancer” hagoita for us all to enjoy. I’ll be looking for the Gwen Stefani hagoita next year!

Monday, January 09, 2006

 

Kobe Luminarie

Here are some pictures from the Kobe Luminarie matsuri, a modern day “festival.” These beautiful lights started in 1995 after the devastating Kobe-Awaji earthquake as a way to help uplift people’s spirits. Initially, Kobe Luminarie was intended to last only for a few years, but it has quite obviously continued due to popular demand. I think the effect is really beautiful. Take that, Rockefeller Center Christmas tree!





Photos courtesy of my good friend Nobata Katsunari.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

 

Illumination

I’ve always found it interesting that the Japanese use the word “illumination” to describe the lights that go up during the holidays. This term has a sort of sophistication and implication that the term “lights” just doesn’t have.

This was taken outside the Nagoya JR station, and shows some “Christmas” trees, along with celestial beings prancing across the Milky Way. It may not be standard holiday iconography, but I like the imaginative world that this display shows; how else do you really capture the quality of the celestial beings in any other medium? After all, the whole “illuminated Christmas tree” thing comes from the pagans anyway.


Friday, January 06, 2006

 

The Conflicted Nature of Scotland

Would you like an Innocent drink?



Or a Wicked sweetie?


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

 

First Dream of the Year

My (Japanese) mother always told me that the dream you have on January 1st is significant and will set the tone for the year. The very best dream is one featuring Mt. Fuji. I have never had such a dream. Anyway, we all go to sleep on January 1st a little bit timidly -- what if we have terrible dreams? This year I have a nasty cold and fevers aren't known to do nice things to dreamers.

But what wonderful dreams I had! Full of parties and travel and meeting people and adventure. I met an editor who also turned out to be a fairy godmother. Plus there were some cute outfits and nice accessories and a few magical elements I'm going to keep private in case they work their way into a short story. My boyfriend and I stumbled on a white, European style hotel. Later, we sat and sorted balls of yarn made from jewels.

My mother called me ecstatic that she too had had a wonderful dream in which she got to wear a beautiful red bow in her hair.

Anyone else remember their first night dream? It's a lovely custom, I think. It's a little bit superstitious, and brings just a little bit of subtle pressure into the act of sleeping. How Japanese!

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