Tuesday, May 31, 2005

One view of Mount Fuji

Caught my first view of Mount Fuji today. I had been told that you could see Fuji from the top of the hill and so had made it a regular stop on my little walks with G.. Until now I had seen nothing and had begun to suspect I was having my leg pulled. Then, on my way up the hill, I glanced to my right and there Fuji was, looming large beside the setting sun. The rain must have cleared the air.

Fuji is huge. She is about 30 miles away from here but looked about the same size as the mountain across the valley (called Oyama or "big mountain"). Once I had seen her, I couldn't quite work out how she had been hiding herself.

This pic doesn't really do the scene justice. It was taken with the little camera on my mobile phone,which was most definitely not up the task. In reality, the mountain loomed ashen grey against a salmon pink sky. The snap approximates to my first glimpse though. Only 45 more views to go to match Hokusai. Poor bloke had to get all his views carved out in wood! I can just snap them on my mobile and whack them on the web! Not sure the results are quite as crisp, however.

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The rainy season started yesterday. It usually approximates to the month of June.

Last night, the amado were banging and the rain was rat-a-tat-tatting on the roof tiles. It sounded as if we were in the middle of a typhoon or something. I worried for the lemon tree's safety, only to find this morning that it had only been a minor shower. The tree is still standing and it never had any leaves anyway.

I think it gets a bit more hot and humid later in the rainy season but it is really quite like a mild English rainy day today. I had my jumper on earlier.

Monday, May 30, 2005

A walk in the country

A., G., A.'s Dad and I went for a walk in the hills behind us yesterday. We are living in quite a built up area but it only took about 5 minutes walk for us to get to the woods.

I was a little disconcerted by this sign, which warned of poisonous snakes:

But all we came across were these fellas (second pic is of an army of ants trudging up the logs):

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Yobu has a pic (nicked from A's blog) from this little expedition as well.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Do the Japanese understand Englishness better than the English?

Tonight we watched an animated film called "Steamboy", directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. It was pretty good.

At first sight, Steamboy is a rip-roaring action movie full of elaborate chases, bangs and whizzes. It also has a few subtexts, some of which I am sure I did not pick up because I was watching it in Japanese. Its broadest theme is an opposition between science as a servant of mankind and science as something that will challenge and change mankind. It is particularly interesting because it does not fully resolve that conflict. Although, broadly speaking, the baddies are those who see science as something that should challenge and change us and the goodies are those who want to tame it, the plot is contrived to leave the question hanging. It is thought provoking for that reason.

But what really struck me about the film was its portrayal of England. This isn't really its main theme for a Japanese audience - it just happens to be set in Victorian England at the time of the Great Exhibition - but, for the English viewer used to Hollywood ridicule and English self-parody, the portrayal is fascinating because it is so uncringeworthy.

"Steamboy" is not alone in this. It is set in Manchester and London in the industrial revolution but it reminded me a lot of "Laputa", an animated film by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki set in the mining villages of South Wales. The first thing to say is these films do tend to do their research. Given that they are largely written for a far east Asian market, it is amazing how few clangers are dropped. For viewers used to Hollywood's carelessness with Englishness, it is refreshing to catch a fleeting glimpse in Steamboy's first Manchester scenes of the "Rovers Return" pub.

It goes a bit deeper than that. Though it sounds funny to say it, a subgenre of Japanese anime film seems to have found a popular idiom for depicting English history that is a hell of a lot more interesting than American movies obsessed with stiff upper lip and the medieval or British flicks preoccupied with class and frilly costumes. Both Laputa and Steamboy locate the really internationally significant point of British history as being the industrial revolution and enthusiastically immerse their plots in hisses of steam, oily cogs and the exhilaration of technology. The appeal of this to a particular generation of Japanese man probably has nothing to do with a deep appreciation of British industrial history, but it is nice to be squinting rather than wincing when your country is the subject of a foreign film.

It features a technologically fixated megalomanic baddy called "Eddie". Here is a trailer.

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Shokoshu (or Shaoxing) wine

Yesterday, A.'s mum and dad had a barbeque. Halfway through the proceedings, which featured a lesson in how to barbeque clams, A.'s dad hauled out a large white urn from the house. The top was completely covered in hard white plaster and we took turns trying to smash it off.

Eventually, after about ten minutes of chipping away, the mouth of the urn was revealed, covered by bamboo bark and a lower layer of large leaves. Aya's dad told us it was full of Shokoshu, or Shaoxing wine. I have tried Shaoxing a few times in Chinese restaurants in England. It is a dark rice wine from the Chinese city Shaoxing and, in my experience, much harsher and stronger than sake. You often have to take brown sugar with it to soften it out (A. tells me that is for second rate bottles only).

This stuff, once it had made its dramatic entrance, was far more mellow than anything I had drunk before. It had been sent in its traditional packaging direct from Shaoxing and was 15 years old. The wine was delicious and a perfect complement to the clams. If you hurry, there is still half an urn left.

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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Asashoryu's pressie

I have acquired this little item. A. thinks it is absolutely naff but I am quite pleased with it. It turns out that A.'s dad is on quite chummy terms with the "heya" of the aforementioned sumo wrestler Asashoryu. A "heya" is usually translated into English as a "stable" and is like a horse racing stable in that each wrestler is trained from a young age in it and represents it in competition. A.'s dad went to Asashoryu's wedding.

Anyway, this box was sent as a gift from Asashoryu when he was made Yokozuna, or grand champion. The white thing on the stand is a piece of the rope that Yokozuna wear around their waists to mark their rank. There is a ceremony, when wrestlers first become Yokozuna, in which all the members of their heya collectively wind the white rope for them.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Signal problems

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Today, the trains from Hiratsuka to Tokyo were stopped by "signal problems". This, of course, is a common occurence in the UK, but is rare enough in Japan for A. to say there was "exhilaration" among the passengers at the station when it was announced. She said: "There were all these people who get to work at the same time every day looking at the blue sky."

We are in the car taking her to Tokyo now.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Green continued

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Today, I added a little more green to the garden. The lemon tree is still on life support.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Green fingers?

This, believe it or not, is a record of some progress. The garden used to be full of weeds. It now has a rather zen like simplicity: a study in brown. The lemon tree, which was supposed to be the first life, has turned out to be the first casualty. If you look closely, you might be able to make out its leaves on the ground.

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Sunday, May 22, 2005

14th day of the sumo

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I had forgotten what a fantastic televised sport sumo is. During a big tournament, the main matches are live on the telly here from 5pm to 6pm. It goes very well with an ice cold beer and a plate of peanuts.

The skill and explosiveness of the wrestlers is quite awesome and it is engrossing once you get over the fact that they seem to be big men wearing nappies. But the reason it is so good as a televised event is that the confrontations are concentrated into such a short periods of time. It is possible between 5pm and 6pm to see all the main wrestlers fight. Each tournament takes 15 consecutive days to reach its conclusion. In that time all the best sumo wrestlers all match up against each other. Imagine being able to watch every contender in the entire heavyweight boxing division fight each other over a 15 day period!

Asashoryu, a Mongolian wrestler (pictured above, standing), won the summer sumo tournament today with a day to spare. He has won 14 and lost none of his matches. Although by no means the biggest fighter, he seems to have extraordinary power and wrestling nous. At the moment, he is the only Yokozuna, or grand champion, in the sport. This was his win on the third day.

My favourite wrestler, though, is another Mongolian called Ama. He is small but nippy. This victory was against a big lig called Buyuzan.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The Daily Yamazaki bread test

Daily Yamazaki is our local convenience store. Today, I decided to test the surprisingness of Mr Yamazaki's bread.

Japanese bread prides itself on its surprisingness, in fact surprisingness is its most important quality. To my taste, the bread itself is usually a little bit sweet. The crust is usually not crusty enough. The dough is often too doughy. But that, of course, is not the point. The Japanese baker aims for something higher, something deeper. He deals not in flours or yeasts, but in ideas and philosophies. Whereas the English baker might concern himself with what heat the loaf should put in the oven or how much air should be in the dough, the Japanese baker is focused on lightness of thought, on the unexpected turn of mind, on the ironic twist. Surprisingness is always the aim.

So, George and I went to Mr Yamazaki's to test whether his bread came up to scratch.

We bought a random selection of breads from Mr Yamazaki's counter (see below). They included a dubious looking doughnut like thing, an unsightly yellowy/greenish roll, a more reliable looking sesame topped bun, a plain roll, and a baguette.

We returned home and the tests began. First, I tried the dubious doughnut. It looked as if it might have a surprise in store....

... and it did not disappoint. Sliced down the middle, a hidden stash of curry was found in its innards. A spicy surprise indeed! Mr Yamazaki would have been proud.

Next, the unsightly yellow thing.

Sliced in half, you might have been forgiven for concluding that the baker of this morsel had been having an off day. No slab of curry presented itself. On very close inspection, however, I eventually discovered a narrow seam of something white and gloopy hidden in the white flesh of the bread. Ah ha! A bite of the bun and the conclusion became inescapable. It was Meron Pan (melon bread), a completely melon tasting roll with a seam of melon butter to complete its ambush on the tastebuds.

The two more suspicious looking breads were out of the way. The others looked more normal. However, I couldn't help feeling a sense of foreboding as I moved on to the sesame topped bun. An altogether more stout and reliable fellow, this one. Or was he?

No he most definitely was not. His was that most classic of Japanese bread surprises: the anpan assault. An, for the ininitiated, is a very sweet paste made of crushed beans with a very singular texture:

Yummy! Next, the completely plain bun that was not so completely plain inside: a little parcel of strawberry conserve awaited the unwary:

And, finally, the baguette, that most iconic of breads.

Feast your eyes:

That's five out of five for Mr Yamazaki in the surpringness stakes, plus a bonus point for the chocolate filled baguette. A masterpiece!

I suppose that is a very long winded way of explaining why A. and I have bought a bread maker.

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Thursday, May 19, 2005

More on Waseda students

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In my previous post about Waseda University, I noted its lively extracurricular life. A. sends me this link to the "Waseda University Banzai Society", established in 1976, which is devoted to inventing new kinds of banzai (cheers of enthusiasm or triumph). So far, they have developed 768. You can see some their most popular banzais here.

And some of you lucky people, if you have the Quicktime plugin for your computer's video player, can view this society's rather curious antics in movie format here. All I can say is that I wish I'd thought of setting up "The Oxford University Tally-Ho Society". What larks we would have had! Although, of course, girlfriends would have been made unlikely.

Cliché day

This a view from the top of our road down over part of Hiratsuka city. If you look closely, you can see a bullet train rattling past. They whizz down there every three or four minutes. Below is a picture of the hills behind us. On a clear day, apparently, you can see Fuji from the spot I took this picture (off to the left of these hills, as you look at it) but, sadly, the clouds prevented a brace of Japanese clichés for this posting.

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