Archive for June, 2010

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June 29, 2010: Soba Zushi

June 29, 2010

Today’s custom sushi from Okonomy is “Soba Zushi.” This dish hails from the Kyoto region and cleverly uses soba (buckwheat noodles) instead of rice to make a more unique kind of sushi. Shown above Soba Zushi with pickled carrot and radish.

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June 29, 2010: Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams”

June 29, 2010

While my muse Yoshio is away leading a group around Japan, I’ve had to come up with other inspirations to explore Japanese food and culture on my own. It occurs to me that I have not yet reviewed one of my favorite Japanese films, that of Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams”  from 1990. If a culture reveals itself through its stories, and a person reveals himself  through his dreams (really a story that one tells oneself) what better way to get a glimpse of a culture via a recounting of a person dreams, most particularly when that dreamer is one of the best film makers of not only a country but the world at large!

For that is exactly what “Dreams” is about: it is a retelling of dreams Kurosawa had, told chronologically, throughout his life. Kurosawa captures the flavor and the “language” of dreams: their pacing, weirdness, and use of symbol to try to make sense of our world (often through non-sense) and to reveal our concerns, fears, and ultimate wishes. Although I own this beautiful and telling film, I confess that I find I have to be in the mood for it, as it often moves slowly, capturing as it does the meditative effect that dreams have, rich in detail.

Sunshine Through the Rain: In this dream, Kurosawa is a boy who ventures out on a day that is raining, although the sun is shining. He is warned by his mother that he shouldn’t go out on such a day as the foxes celebrate their wedding ceremonies, and it is forbidden to view them. This only increases the boy’s desire to see such an event. Walking through a rainy and fog-filled redwood forest he finds a troop of magical “kitsune” or people-foxes parading through the forest in wedding procession. Trying to remain hidden, the boy is inevitably seen by the troop. Returning home, the boy is told by his mother that she was visited by a fox who told her that she cannot let him in. She then presents him with a blade and he is instructed to kill himself for his transgression. She tells him, they may forgive them, but he must find them first, where they live under a rainbow. This dream shows a childhood awe of magic, the fear of banishment from the hearth and home, and the lure of the unknown.

The Peach Orchard In this dream, Kurosawa is still a boy. He is serving his sister and her friends who are celebrating “Doll Festival.” He sees an “extra” girl who the others do not see. Following the girl outside, she leads him to the family’s destroyed peach orchard, where the “dolls” pictured earlier have come to life. The “dolls” say they are the spirits of the trees come back and admonish the boy for the orchard’s destruction. Kurosawa, as the boy, begins to cry and is further admonished by the ‘dolls” that he is crying because he will miss the peaches the grove supplied. When the boy says that he is crying because he will miss the orchard’s beauty at blossom time, the dolls grant him one last view of the orchard as he remembered it. When the vision subsides, he finds the “extra” girl has been turned into the only remaining tree left in the orchard. This dream explores themes of loss of childhood (and childhood memories), again the awe of magic, regeneration through our youth, and the mystic of the feminine world.

The Blizzard In this dream, Kurosawa is a young man, on a mountaineering trip through the Japanese Alps. The group of men are linked together and in dire straights: they are lost, fatigued, cold and desperate. Also, there is an approaching storm and if they cannot find their base, they are lost forever. To make things worse, in the middle of the storm, all his men fall asleep from exhaustion. Trying to revive them Kurosawa is confronted by a “snow fairy” who tries to lull him to sleep also, saying that ” The snow is warm. The ice is hot.” Shaking himself from her spell, the storm suddenly clears. In this dream, Kurosawa’s famous use of color is absent. There is only the blue of a cold world of ice and snow. He uses sound well in this story: for minutes at a time all that can be heard is the labored breathing of the men and the clank of equipment, followed by the roar of the storm that suddenly becomes quiet as the “snow fairy” sings. This dream explores man’s fear of nature as well as the “kami” (spirits) that inhabit it.

The Tunnel Kurosawa is an army commander returning home from the war. He comes upon a tunnel guarded by a fierce dog carrying hand grenades across it’s back (literally a “dog of war” or perhaps Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld.) Getting around the dog he passes through the tunnel. On the other side he hears a noise in the tunnel behind him and out steps the ghost of one of his former men. The ghost is trying to return home and as he cannot find his way, he pleads with his former commander to help him. The commander explains to the ghost that he has died and must return through he tunnel. The ghost reluctantly does, but soon returns with the rest of his platoon. The commander explains that it was through his error that the whole troop was annihilated,  begs their forgiveness, and persuades them to return. As they recede down the tunnel the snarling figure of the dog returns. This dream explores the longing for home, fear of death, honor, guilt, and the futility of war.

Crows In this dream, Kurosawa is still a young man, a painter (that Kurosawa was before he broke into movies) that is visiting a museum showing the works of Van Gogh. Able to enter the world of the paintings the man goes off in search of Van Gogh himself. This is probably the least favorite dream in the series for most people due to two things: the digital effects of the “painting world” seem a little dated to modern viewers,( but remember this film was made 1990, really the birth of digital cinematography.) Also, the person playing Van Gogh…well..I don’t want to give it away, but I found it more humorous than distracting. This dream explores the passion for art, the drive to excel, hero-worship and our desire to be inspired.

I confess, I usually skip over the next two as I find these the most depressing as they deal with the threat of nuclear annihilation in Mt Fuji in Red and it’s after effects in The Weeping Demon. They are both worth a watch for first time viewers, as some people say that these are their favorites.

Village of the Watermills is perhaps my favorite of the lot. Kurosawa enters a peaceful and beautiful village that has a stream running though it, powering a series of watermills. He meets a very old man who is repairing one of the watermills. The old man describes his life in the village. The village has no electricity, no modern conveniences of any sort, yet the people remain very happy and live a long, full life due to their natural existence. The dream ends with a burial of the old man’s former lover. Instead of a solemn occasion, the whole village comes out with a happy parade, celebrating the woman’s life. Of course this dream represents an ideal of the way of life that a lot of us would want to live: free from the trappings of modern life and the stresses our modern “solutions” really end up making our lives more (not less as they were designed) complicated. Yes, an ideal…but a very beautiful one.

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June 15, 2010: Kazari Zushi

June 15, 2010

Today’s specialized sushi dish from Okonomy is “Kazari Zushi” or decorative sushi. “Decorative” can mean many things. Chef Saito has created this dish, which is really a combination of the culinary and visual arts, in many forms. In the traditional style these are usually done in patterns of leaves or a flowers, but Chef Saito has made Kazari Zushi in the shapes of plums, pandas, people’s names…really,  the sky is the limit. Chef uses natural flavors to color the rice. In this one he used avocado for the green color and “denbu” (dried codfish) for the red. The “eyebrows are nori. It takes a good imagination, a master chef, time, and a good sense of humor!

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June 15, 2010: Hello…er..ummm…Hello Kitty!

June 15, 2010

Of course, I don’t exactly live under a rock, but I sometimes can be very out of touch with popular culture. I’ve managed to know of the popular Japanese character of Hello Kitty for an excess of 30 years but not to know much about her, despite having my good friend Lisa, who has been a big fan for as long as I have known her. But meeting my two new young friends, Nicole and Katie, last weekend, and finding that they were both HK fans as well, I thought it was way past time to find out a little bit more about the HK phenomena! Thank the world for Netflix. I ordered the most appealing HK title: “Hello Kitty Goes to the Movies” and the next day I was able to watch it.

If there could be anyone possibly less informed than I about Hello Kitty, she is a “manga” (print) and “anime” (moving image) cartoon character, drawn in a minimalistic style, first designed by Kuko Shimizu. She is portrayed as a young white cat with a red bow attached to her left ear and wears clothes. She is often drawn with no visible mouth. She lives with her mom and dad and her twin sister, Mimmy, who looks very much like HK but wears different clothes and has the bow on the right ear. In cartoons, HK sounds like a 4-5 year old girl. She appears to be adventuresome, kind, and thoughtful in personality In the cartoons she is shown having an extended family and a bevy of friends which she relates to and has adventures with. HK is supposed to be a Japanese bobtail cat. That’s a good choice for HK, as these cats are an active, inintelligent, and affectionate breed. Bobtails have soft voices and are said to “sing” as they are very “talkative” to their human owners (whom they have great affection for.) They learn tricks easily and are known to even “fetch” for their owners. They have soft, silky, medium-length hair. They can be any color, but tend to have a lot of white mixed with calico. Their most distinguishing characteristic is a short, “bobbed” tail, looking more like a rabbit’s tail than that of a cat. In rare cases, they can have different colored eyes (appearing in the more white cats, for some reason) one being blue (which the Japanese see as “silver”) and one being yellow (Japanese see as “gold”.) Kind of like a feline David Bowie. The bobtail, coincidentally, is also the auspicious symbol seen in a lot of Japanese businesses called the “maneki neko” (the “inviting cat.”)

I found “Hello Kitty Goes to the Movies” to be a good introduction to HK. In the series, she doesn’t so much as “go” to the movies as recreate famous movies in her “Furry Tail Theater” and as such making them more palatable to a younger audience. In “The Wizard of Paws” HK’s remake of “The Wizard of Oz” there was none of the trauma of the evil witch and the flying monkeys that still gives me shivers to this day. Her shows are full of punning “kitty-isms” like when she gets to Oz she says “I guess, I’m not in Catfish (Kansas) anymore!” I was surprised at a couple of phrases of well placed social commentary. One, is when HK and her family are playing aliens visiting Earth (the complexity of  a”show within a show” was interesting.) As HK is running off, her mom tells her “Watch out for the natives! They’re dangerous! I know…I’ve seen their TV shows!

So, I gave HK high marks for complexity and entertainment and being a part of the “kawaii” (cuteness) culture of Japan, she certainly is cute, but ultimately, I was very concerned about the merchandising of Hello Kitty as a product. This is nothing new, as any popular media figure is going to draw merchandising of some sort. Still, Sanrio Co. Ltd., who owns the rights to HK, generates $1 billion annually in licensing arrangements from everything from school supplies to fashion accessories!

I appreciate the chance to know a little bit more about modern culture, particularly as it gives me a chance (by proxy) to know my new young friends a little bit better, but I do hope that they are able to resist the temptation to fall into the draw of this merchandising, and resist the temptation to own things. I hope they will find cuteness and entertainment in all the manifestations of life, particularly the ones they find organically in friends, family, and nature.

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June 12, 2010: New Photo of Traditional Sushi

June 12, 2010

Today we have a new photograph of traditional sushi from Okonomy. From left to right: Suzuki (Sea Bass), Maguro (Tuna), Hamachi (Yellowtail from Japan), Otoro (Tuna), back: Tekka Maki (Tuna Roll), Unagi (Broiled Eel), back: Ika (Squid), Ebi (Shrimp), back: Tako (Octopus), Tamago (Egg).

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June 07, 2010: Nigiri Zushi

June 7, 2010

Today’s sushi dish from Okonomy is a variety of Nigiri Zushi. From back to front the orange is “saki” or salmon. The red is “maguro” or tuna. Behind that is “hamachi” (yellowtail imported from Japan) and “ika” (squid.)

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June 07, 2010: Aged and Strange Tastes

June 7, 2010

Visiting Yoshio last week, as we were setting up for a shot I noticed he had a carton of specially packed blue-speckled eggs on the counter. When I asked what they were, Yoshio kind of laughed and said “1000 year old eggs.” After we were done shooting for the day he offered some to me, to try.

First of all, the eggs are not really 1000 years old, more like 100 days, but they kinda look 1000 years old! These eggs are from a Chinese recipe of taking duck eggs and burying them in a mixture of ash, lime, black tea and salt and aging them for the 100 days. After, they are packed in rice hulls to keep them safe. Once you get behind the pretty, blue speckled exterior shell, you are in for a surprise. The ash-lime-tea mixture has turned the eggs black (right down to the yolk)! Yoshio served them cut in half with some slices of spring onions and soy sauce. The eggs have a slightly more sulphur taste than regular eggs and the black color is a little weird, but I thought the taste was much like a hard-boiled egg that had a bit more “kick” and the soy sauce and onion went very well indeed.

He also gave me a glass of Johnnie Walker Gold Scotch to have with the eggs. I know very little about scotch, but this one is an 18-year-old version of Johnnie Walker and this complimented the taste of the 1000 year old eggs very  well. I think I’ve never liked scotch before because I never had it this smooth. Once more, Yoshio has given me taste of the rare, unexpected, and (this time) downright bizarre!

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