Friday, June 24, 2005


This is a bit late but A.'s mum looked after G. on my birthday on Monday, so A. and I were able to have a day out together. We went to Tokyo, where A.'s dad treated us to some fantastic tempura at the Prince Hotel. Very swish indeed. We arrived just after lunch so the tempura chef was cooking just for us. It came straight from his pan onto our plates. Yum!

In the evening, after a bit of shopping for E. and H.'s wedding present, we returned to Hiratsuka and A. and I had an evening out together. We were so full up we decided to drop the restaurant plan and went to an isakaya (the nearest Japanese equivalent to a pub) instead. Aya was kind enough to order swordfish wings (see pic above) to go with my beer. An acquired taste, but I think I acquired it eventually. The isakaya was called "Yururi", which has a connotation of taking it easy. It was pretty funky. We went there with E. during the World Cup. You get a little private room to yourself. We were in one suspended from the ceiling in the far corner. The place was buzzing with drunken conversation but we were in this little sequestered spot munching our swordfish wings.

On Tuesday, just to make sure that belly of mine didn't get too small, we went to a ramen shop called Ichiryu with G. and A.'s mum and dad. Delicious.

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I can't resist a little addition to my recent ramen rant. The sign in the picture above says "Hokkaido ramen", a reference to Japan's northern island. From my limited exposure, it seems there are often references to Hokkaido in Japanese ramen restaurant signs. Hokkaido ramen is a type of ramen, using miso, but Hokkaido is more generally associated with revolutionising the eating of ramen in the 60s or 70s. Hokkaido ramen added all kinds of funny ingredients, like butter and sweetcorn, to the more "traditional" and staid ramen types. A.'s says her dad remembers a wave of popularity for this new fangled ramen when he was young. It is Japanese ramen's free and transgressive use of all sorts of ingredients that is part of its appeal in China right now.

It would be interesting to look at representations of Hokkaido in Japanese culture more generally. Hokkaido itself might be seen a bit like America is to Europe: it was essentially a colony where the native population were annihilated and where all kinds of people from all over Japan mixed. Lots of mixed up and exciting things came out of the mixture. In Wild Sheep Chase, Haruki Murakami's Hokkaido is very "other".

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Wish I had waited a day for the kanji post

I'm sorry if I am a bit obsessed with kanji at the moment but that is the way it has to be. If only I had postponed yesterday's post a day. This morning I stumbled across a classic piece of "visual poetry" (read the post below to find out what I am on about).

The word "boku" in Japanese is one of the many ways of saying "I". It has a very laddish tone and I have never had the guts to use it. Anyway, I was studying its character today:

Now, this wasn't very helpful to my memorisation, but apparently this character used to be written like this (totally unrecognisable if you ask me!):

The textbook's explanation goes like this: "Once written clearly showing a slave (person with tail/testicles , to indicate a male, and a tattooist's needle , to indicate slave status) carrying a container with bits in it . This container is taken by some authoritative Japanese scholars to be specifically a chamber-pot and turds. In any event, the pictograph clearly depicts a slave performing a menial task. Slave/manservant then came to mean servant in general and was also used as a humble reference to oneself ...."

The textbook then explains how these elements have been stylised and transformed into the modern form. Not very useful for memorisation but I'll never look at someone referring to themselves as "Boku" in the same way again. Anyway, I promise no more kanji posts for a while.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The multifarious meanings of kanji

There are many horrible things about kanji. There are far too many of them for a start! But there are also compensations for the kanji toiler and, for me, the biggest compensation is all the visual poetry that these characters carry with them.

Unlike in English, the writing system itself holds meanings, rather than being simply a vessel for those of the language. These meanings are often not reflected in the spoken word at all. Indeed, many native Japanese words have totally different roots from the Chinese characters that have been assigned to them. However, the meanings persist and create a kind of visual poetry hovering like a ghost over the written language. This pictorial and symbolic meaning traces a long and often complex history back to the character system which emerged in the Yellow River region of China between 3,500 and 4,000 years ago.

What I mean by "visual poetry" is difficult to explain without examples. Two of my favourites from my most recent batch of kanji are the characters for green (midori) and colour (iro). First, green:

The character has two elements. If you chopped it down the middle, the bit to the left depicts a thread. The bit to the right depicts liquid (the bottom part looks very much like the symbol for water) and may derive from the depiction of wine falling from a basket used as a crude wine press. This element came to have an association with "oozing" or "exuding" and, more specifically, through its use in another kanji linking it to the element for metal, with the green rust that oozes out of copper. Thus, green threads and, now, green in general. In my mind, I have an image of a thread of green rust trailing down a copper inscription deep in China's interior.

The next one is a bit easier and a bit cruder. Colour or "iro":

The little fin thing at the top is a stylised representation of a person bending. The bit below (the two boxes and the tail) originally depicted a person kneeling but also came to indicate a person bending. Thus, one person bending over another. A reference to sex! Saucy!

The word still has strong sexual connotations. But how did it come to mean colour? According to my textbook: "Many scholars feel that it was used to refer to sexual partner, expecially from a male perspective, and that it then came to mean sexually attractive, leading in tiem to attractive/pretty in a general sense and then by association to colourful." Tenuous but it added colour to a long kanji learning day.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Lame duck

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I was sitting in my ofuro this morning, thinking important thoughts, but became rather distracted by the wonkiness of my duck.

I own two rubber ducks (or rather G. does). The big mother duck has always been a fine upstanding bird and has never caused even a moment's bother. Her offspring, however, has been a constant source of worry. Every time you put the little fella in the water, he immediately keeled over. I'm afraid I had rather written him off as a having a congenital defect: a head far too big for his little body.

But, this morning, sitting in my ofuro, I made an amazing discovery. If you filled him almost full of water, with only a bit of air in his head, he was perfectly steady... floating under the water's surface. He was a submariner!

I jumped out of my ofuro much cheered at having a full duck force after all!

The question is, after only a month and a half in Japan, has the tipping point been reached?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Ueno Park rockers

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Another one of my very substandard videos here. In my opinion, these chaps are one of Tokyo's classic sights. The best time and place to see them is in Yoyogi park on a Sunday. But, obviously, there is an Ueno Park subchapter of the Tokyo rocker fraternity. They were strutting their stuff near the gallery where we went to see A.'s dad's picture. They looked exactly the same as they did ten years ago, when I saw hoardes of these rockers in Yoyogi. They can't be the same people though because they all look quite young. It must be a thriving scene.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Bubble wrap

Few things can be more fun that reading this blog. If you can draw yourself away, however, this site recreates one of the classic entertainments. (Link courtesy of et's blog)

The Inoue hangover

I haven't posted for a few days because of the "Inoue hangover". But more of that later.

On Sunday, A., G. and I took a trip into Tokyo to see A.'s dad's painting. A couple of years ago, A. and her sisters bought him an oil painting set for his retirement pressie. They were under the impression that he had been quite an avid painter as a young man. Apparently, this was a wrong impression but A.'s dad has got seriously into it anyway.

In fact, he is currently having one of his paintings exhibited at the "Shinkozosha Ten", one of the oldest Western style art exhibitions in Japan. It is half made up of professional work and half amateur and takes over most of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum in Ueno Park.

A.'s dad was just made an associate member of the society (which translates as the New Structuralist Society, but seems to include everything from photography to abstract work). It seems to have been considered a very rapid promotion. He is one of those annoyingly talented people. Here is G. appraising his grandfather's work:

After our trip to Tokyo, A. and I were expecting a quiet night in but, when we got to our street, we found our neighbours had set up an impromptu street party. Actually, that probably gives the wrong impression. It was really more of a private party that had taken over the street. They were all sitting around a barbeque in the middle of the road. These people are the Inoues and the best way of describing them to English readers is that they have a slight touch of the Boswells from the situation comedy Bread about them. I don't have a picture of the Inoues, so you will just have to do a bit of cross-cultural translation:

They are a fun loving family who are known around here as the godfathers of the local matsuri (festival). I found them to be very friendly. They plied us with beer and shochu (the Japanese equivalent of vodka) all night. It was not very clear what the reason for the party was (A. seemed to be under the impression that this was quite a regular occurence) but their daughter had just had a child. Everybody was cooing. The daughter's husband was a really nice bloke who tried very hard to make me feel at home sitting on a cushion in the middle of the road at the end of my street.

Anyway, I had a stonking hangover on Monday and didn't really feel up to posting. Yobu has a new post up as well, for those Yobuites among you.

Friday, June 10, 2005

What's in a name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet" - Shakespeare

My sister-in-law K. has just put up a post on her blog about about her "Starbucks name". She is living in Mexico where she says Starbucks are springing up all over the place at the moment. They make her feel at home.

The Mexican Starbucks system has it that anyone ordering coffee must give their name to the barrista. It is then written on the cup and passed down the production line. K.'s problem is that her name seems to be completely incomprehensible to the Mexican Starbucks people (I am starting to realise this post doesn't really work without providing real names). Among many corruptions she has seen written on her cup was "chi", which probably meant "chinita" or "Chinese Woman". Anyway, she eventually gave in and started giving herself "Starbucks names", names that the barrista could actually understand. Her two favourites were "Chiyo" and "Nori", both names that worked in Japanese and Spanish.

She was a little ashamed of her compromise with the Starbucks machine but eventually confided her dirty secret to her Japanese expatriate friends, whereupon every one of them also admitted that they had a "Starbucks name". They were rather scathing, however, of K.'s lack of gusto. If you had to give yourself a Mexican name, why not really go for it? They all had chosen far more Mexican names like "Magdalena" or "Dulcinea"?

It is interesting how names work. They are simply labels for social interaction but also holders of meaning and identity. Chinese people seem to have no compunction about adopting English names when coming to English speaking countries. A Japanese person or an English person would be much more reluctant. I suppose G.'s name is a bit "Chiyo-ish".

Asashoryu's undies

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A.'s campaign against Asashoryu's pressie continues relentlessly. Last night's gambit was to tell me that to refer to it as a piece of the Yokozuna's "belt" was a euphemism. It was in fact part of the Yokozuna's undies. Worse, it was used underwear and my interest was rather unhealthy!

Thursday, June 09, 2005


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First, an introduction to the world of Japanese noodles. There are three main types: fat, medium and thin. The distinction is much more complicated really, but that is how I remember it. Big, fat and gloopy is "udon" (right). Medium is "soba" (centre). Thin and wriggly is "ramen" (left).

This is a post about ramen. One of A.'s students, who is Chinese, is writing an essay about a rather curious cross-cultural phenomenon associated with this particular type of noodle: it is stateless! In Japan it is seen as Chinese. But in China it is Japanese.

Ramen is relatively new to Japanese cuisine. It only became widely known in the late 19th century, after Japan opened itself to modernisation. Though also originally from China, udon and soba had been around for hundreds of years. "Ramen" is generally thought to be a Japanised version of a Chinese phrase "la mian", meaning hand pulled noodles and, in the early years of modernisation, was called shina-soba or "Chinese soba" (incidentally "shina" is now politically incorrect in Japan because of its associations with the pre-war colonial period). Chinese immigrants used to sell it from carts in the big cities and it was a popular dish in Yokohama's Chinatown.

However, it was never a truly mass market food. It was not until after the war and a combination of cheap imported US flour and the return of tens of thousands of Japanese from China that it began to establish itself. The real turning point was in 1958 when instant noodles were invented. Ramen hit the big time.

That, then, is the Japanese side of the story. As you can see, Ramen is seen as new fangled and is closely associated with its Chinese roots.

But A.'s student says that "Ramen" is now being reimported into China as a quintessentially Japanese product. This may be a specifically southern Chinese perception, because they know their noodles better in the North, but she says people are prepared to pay three or four times the price for "Japanese Ramen" than native noodles. This is rather strange because a noodle restaurant in China would normally make noodles fresh for the customer while "Japanese Ramen" are really just fast food. I suppose it is just another version of the "McDonalds" phenomenon. Here is a Chinese English language newspaper review of a "Japanese Ramen" restaurant. And a media story, reposted on a blog, about a ramen restaurant keeping a low profile during the recent anti-Japanese protests in China.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The rice fields

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The paddies or "tanbo" have just been filled with water. What were empty brown expanses are now clad in silver and pinstriped with thin green lines of rice plants. It is quite beautiful.

A. and I went for a late night walk through the fields and the frogs' chorus was deafening. Here is a very poor recording done with my mobile phone. By "very poor" I mean possibly the worst recording of anything you are ever likely to hear. It will take bloody ages to download and you will be very disappointed when it eventually opens. Don't say you haven't been warned! It does give some idea of the level of the noise out there,though.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Between the Devil and the U.H.T

You can get nice milk here (box on the left) but you can't get it skimmed. You can get skimmed (box on the right) but it seems always to be U.H.T. Quite a dilemma.

Revised mountain

My second box of kanji cards arrived today. Here, then, is the revised mountain picture. The total in this shot is 1,000 kanji. Double the pile on the left and add a few more and you have the true scale of the task. Scary.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Shall we dance?

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We watched a DVD called "Shall we dance" over the weekend. It is a Japanese movie about ballroom dancing. Or is it about mid-life crises? Or an innocent love affair?

It has recently been remade by Hollywood with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez in the lead roles but this was the original, perfectly poised Japanese film, released in 1996. It is a feel-good comedy and a really charming story.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Doryo San

Yesterday, A., G., A.'s dad and I all went to Doryo San, a big mountainside temple near Hiratsuka. It is in a cedar forest and the weather was perfect for the visit: mists rising after the rain. I have been there before with E., during our World Cup excursion, and even in July it was very humid. It seems to have its own micro climate. The mosses on the cedar trees and the memorials are beautiful.

Just like in England, though, they have a terrible problem with discarded chewing gum. The younger monks, I think!?

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Saturday, June 04, 2005

Manga mania

I think A. thinks I don't know where her secret stash of manga is. Every day she comes home with a little plastic bag full of her little vice and hides it away in this cupboard. She reads them somewhat quicker than I do. I am still on my first volume of Oishinbo but A. seems to knock off about five in a train ride. It is not such a bad vice though: about £1.50 per volume. In England, translated volumes of Japanese manga cost between £7.50 and £15, which rather changes the whole feel of the thing.

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Friday, June 03, 2005

A mountain to climb

I've been studying my japanese characters ("kanji") today. Someone once said that trying to learn Japanese was rather like climbing Mount Fuji. Unlike some other languages, the gradient gets steeper the further into the climb you get. I hope it doesn't get too much more severe!

To extend the metaphor, I am just setting off on foot from Hiratsuka on my climb of Mount Fuji. I've got a hell of a lot of hills to climb before I even get to the main mountain but already I'm feeling pretty exhausted. The pic above shows two piles totalling 440 basic kanji cards. The pile to the left shows the number I have covered so far. Of course, the more I learn, the more difficult it gets to hold them in my head. In total, there are more than 2,000 kanji plus the 90 odd characters in the two alphabets to master if you want a basic ability to read a newspaper. (You could spend your whole life learning kanji. There are many more than 2,000 out there.)

By the way, when I say I've "covered" these kanji, I don't mean I have learned them. If I was asked to write some of the characters in the left pile I would have real problems. I am trying to learn how to write them as I go along, because I don't want to climb this mountain twice, but it is tough to recall the stroke orders. Also, each kanji has numerous pronunciations and compounds which allow it to spell out words.

What I mean by "covered" is that I have learned one of each kanji's usages and could recognise it if I saw it in some text. The pic to the right shows the two kanji cards for the characters which make up the word "kanji".

Some Kanji are complete nightmares. Like this one, for instance:

A. kindly picked it for the first kanji in G.'s name. Arrggggh!

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