Archive for the ‘East meets West’ Category

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December 01, 2015: “Rice Noodle Fish”

December 1, 2015

RNF_Cover_smOne of the joys I have these days is the occasional contact from some of my students from my old job that choose to stay in touch with me. Not only is it a pleasure to see these fine people as they progress through life, but it makes me think that I just may have done a few things right in my old position.

Sometimes it’s fielding Facebook posts from Sarah on her career as one of the finest wedding photographers in New England. Once and a while I’ll get a very entertaining Twitter from Regan’s son, Mason…or perhaps a spirited comment here from her mom. Sweet Emma will chime in on FB, from time-to-time, with news of weird weather patterns, and even weirder wildlife from “the land down-under.” True to form, Isaac may suddenly show up out of nowhere to “kidnap” me to go see a movie, or like his last contact: a phone call to announce the birth of his son!

A couple of weeks ago, Regan sent me a link to an article on okonomiyaki (the comfort food that Yoshio has published a book about, and where this blog gets its name) that she thought I would like…and she hit the proverbial nail on the head! The story was about everything I try to write about in the blog: making good Japanese food in the most authentic way possible, while trying to explore Japanese culture as best a Westerner may. RNF_insert_sm

The story was about a Guatemalan chef who emigrates to Hiroshima to make okonomiyaki…something almost unheard of, as the Japanese can be wary of gaijin (foreigners) and almost never would accept a gaijin cooking what is considered to be Japans’ most hallowed comfort food! The first thing I noticed was the article was very well written: a story/tapestry of  history, Japanese food, travel, cooking techniques, the pursuit of excellence, all wound around a personal story of daring and success! Needless to say, I loved the article, but towards the end of it, I had one of those, “Hey! Wait a minute!” feelings.

Back up to a week and a half before. I’m at my local library, checking out films and asking for help with research on a piece I’m working on. I’m striding to the checkout desk with my usual brisk pace, when a book practically leaps out from the shelf at me!

This has happened a few times in my life, and it always has served me well to follow the instinct: one time, it was a rare book from a former teacher of mine that did the “leaping” and I still cherish that book to this day. So, whenever this happens, I just roll with it.

The leaping book was “Rice Noodle Fish” (Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture) by Matt Goulding. “RNF” is published through Roads and Kingdoms (an independent journal of food, politics, travel, and culture.) The book seems to be strongly attached to Anthony Bourdain, who I gather is some sort of celebrity chef of some sort. I could not be less impressed by this part of it, but if this attachment got the book published… fine, but the writing (and some of the photography) is Matt’s.

My “Waitaminute!” moment was one of perfect synchronicity: Regan’s article to me was from a part of “Rice Noodle Fish” that I hadn’t gotten to read just yet. RNF Food Groups_smWhenever I pick up a new book, I look to the dedication. To my mind this sets the tone of the book, and Matt Goulding has nailed the right tone (and my interest and trust) with his:

“To the shokunin (artisans) of Japan, pursuers of perfection, for showing us the true meaning of devotion.”

With this measure of respect, one can continue, and the rest of the book is just pure fun: it is part travelogue (Matt divides the book into the separate regions of Japan); part etiquette book; and part history book. But the main focus is on the variety of the people and food of Japan. Best of all (for us) Matt’s perspective is from a Westerner, but one who is thoroughly open to Japan’s people and food. Like most of us, Matt freely admits he will never completely understand the myriad of subtleties of Japanese culture, but offers a handful of guidelines, tips, directions, and even some language, to smooth the road for the open adventurer who is looking for a taste of the unfamiliar.

Roads and Kingdoms have made portions of the book available online. It also offers some tips for those traveling to Japan: roadsandkingdoms.com/japan

[Much thanks to the Randall Library of Stow, Ma. for having stocked such wonderful leaping books and for my extension on my loan to complete my article.]

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June 07, 2015: Japanese Dinner for the Family

June 7, 2015

Family @ Sushi BarStory is king.

As an part-time chef and storyteller, it is not unusual for me to use food as yet another medium (to try, at least) to connect to my fellow-man, to make a bridge between thought and reality.

What experience should have taught me is that be it photography, literature, film, or food, you gotta play to the right crowd.

JoanneI have been known (sadly) to talk endlessly about how Joyce is sentence-by-sentence, the best writer of the last century…how Thoreau the most important and original. I can go on forever about my reasons for photographing the dolmens and burial tombs of Ireland…of how the interplay of light in nature may move me to almost ectasy…and how Japanese food is challenging, time-consuming and complex…and yet, at it’s very essence…simplicity and subtlety personified. I have to remind myself, that ‘tho I’m very passionate about all of these, it often means very little to your average person.

Jonathon

A couple of weeks ago, I got a birthday party invitation from my niece, Bryna’s 40th birthday. I haven’t cooked a big meal in a while so I offered to make a Japanese meal for the family as a gift. I knew this to be a substantial challenge as, my family would have little (if any) connection to Japanese food. However, I have been making dishes for the blog for a few years now, so I felt pretty sure of my limitations, as well as my strengths. I also had my ace-in-the-hole: Yoshio, and no one is better than bridging the East-meets-West cultures than him.

So, I dug in and created a menu that I thought would show Japanese food at its best, while catering (as best I could) to the Central New York palette.

Japanese Meal for the Family

Yoshio’s Salmon Ribbon:  a piece of salmon, wrapped around a shiso leaf (sesame leaf) a little lemon zest, fresh dill, salt and white pepper. This is all wrapped in a won-ton noodle,which is then fried and covered in a raspberry jam/lemon juice/Grand Marnier sauce and topped with fresh raspberries.

Sliced Cucumbers: Small English cucumbers sliced thin with a dressing of mirin, rice vinegar, and sesame oil.

Broccoli and Lime-Mayo: Blanched and chilled broccoli crowns in a mayo, yoghurt, mirin, and lime sauce with fresh dill weed.

Tamago Roll: an egg omelette sweetened with mirin, fried, rolled and topped with chopped scallion.

Age Dashi Dofu: Tofu, dusted in corn starch and fried, in a broth of wakame and shiitake mushroom, topped with shredded scallion, daikon, and carrot.

Kushi Katu: small pieces of salmon, shrimp, chicken, beef, sweet potato, crimini mushrooms, onion and asparagus, on a stick, covered in a batter of panko and fried.

Temaki Roll: a cone of nori wrapped around sushi rice, with matchsticked carrot, scallion, daikon, crab meat, and cucumber.

Temari Zushi: a ball of sushi rice, covered with strips of avocado. Topped with grated carrot, daikon and toasted sesame seeds.

Macha Ice Cream: vanilla ice cream, slightly melted and mixed with powdered macha green tea and re-frozen.

Yoshio's Mikan Cocktail: Plum Wine, Champagne and Cherry+Mandarian Orange

Yoshio’s Mikan Cocktail: Plum Wine, Champagne and Cherry+Mandarian Orange

The salmon ribbon was the appetizer, served with Yoshio’s “Mikan Cocktail” (champagne with a little plum-wine, garnished with a cherry and a slice of mikan [Mandarin orange.] ) We also had sake and green tea as well as a Japanese beer, rice crackers, and edamamae.

I had brought authentic Japanese music and my brother-in-law, Steve was kind enough to set it up on his music system. Both Steve and my sister, Mary Lou went halfsies with me on the meal, as a gift to Bryna and both did considerable prep-work for all the dishes.

A week before the meal, I met with Yoshio to concur with him on the menu. He approved and fine-tuned the dishes with good advice and a demonstration or two, to improve my technique. During my stay, he made a few dishes for me, one of which was a cold, silken tofu, garnished in shaved ginger on a bed of sauce that he made up on the spot. This dish was everything I wanted my family to experience: fresh, simple, unique and delicious.

Yet, I knew there going to be problems reconciling the Japanese diet with that of your average CNYorkers: for instance, the delicious silken tofu dish Yoshio made, would never fly with my folks. In fact, tofu was completely off the menu, until my niece told me that she loves tofu, so I included the age dashi dish (which only Bryna and I enjoyed, as the rest of the folks finding the idea of tofu repellent.)

Age Dashi DofuI also knew that I had not the training for, nor would the folks find appetizing, raw fish for the sushi. I actually brought a tube of wasabi, but as soon as I started serving food, I knew that wasabi would only detract from the experience.

I had a few surprises of tastes that I now take for granted that I should have considered to be rather foreign to my family: green tea, for instance. No takers on that one (except, once again, my niece.) Sake, also was rather strange to them. A few people tried the warm rice wine and expressed surprise that it only had only the alcoholic content of wine (they all thought it was a liquor.) Any form of seaweed was right out: my sister tasted a seaweed rice cracker and pretty much retched at the taste. Anything wrapped in nori was not eaten.

Tamaki IngredientsA big surprise was the disappointing response I got to my macha ice cream. I have made this a few times before and have gotten a favorable reactions from those that had never had it before: it’s only slightly sweet, but balanced by the slight bitter of he pulverized green tea mixed in. I caught my sister making a face after one spoonful, then she proceeded to lather the raspberry sauce from the salmon ribbon over the ice cream. In her defense, she is used to her very rich and sweet desserts she makes every Christmas, to great effect with her guests…so it stands to reason the subtleties of a Japanese dessert (which are invariably not as sweet) are lost on her.

Nicky & TysonMy own mistakes did not help at all: I have forgotten that even ‘tho I’ve made all these dishes to perfection before, these Japanese dishes take practice! Although the taste was perfect, the shape and presentation of some of the sushi rolls could have been much better. I also could have done a better job with mastering my sister’s stove top (a technology I am not used to) better. The oil temperature was way too high.

Still…bless their hearts, my family showed up and took a leap and could very much appreciate the work involved in such a meal. Perhaps I should be most surprised that some of my dishes were tasted and appreciated! Sadly, those that were appreciated were mostly the creations of others (all of Yoshio’s recipes were liked, as well as Baba’s Temari Roll.)

Temari ZushiThe world is an ocean of wonderful tastes, some from strange and foreign lands, just waiting for the stout sailor to brave the new horizons of culinary experience.

Thanks to my family for attempting this brief journey with me for an afternoon’s mini-adventure! I’ll be back with more delicious food (albeit more traditional fare) the next visit!

[One of the best things about a big meal like this is that I always end up relying on the contributions and input from others. Thanks to Steve and Mary Lou Swasey for being perfect hosts: their time, effort, remarkable prep-work skills…down to their ornamental china, which was perfect. Thanks to Steve for the photos of the day. Thanks also to Chris & Sara for their gift of the *best* sesame oil from the Saratoga Olive oil Co. and to Regan for the gift of dried shiitake mushrooms, and especially to Yoshio, for his recipes, good ideas, guidance, and for providing the rare supplies for the meal.]

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June 15, 2014: “Green Brain” Sushi

June 15, 2014

%22Green Brain%22 SushiTwo weeks ago I helped Yoshio cook for his daughter’s wedding. Yoshio had a tough job as he had all the responsibilities of a father of the bride plus he was also food designer and had to make sure his creations were made to his specification…all this for close to 100 people! It was also a tough job for the wedding couple, Katrina and Jonah, also to whittle down Yoshio’s immense list of food options to what they wanted. They did a fantastic job choosing dishes that were personal, as well as visually pleasing and delicious!

My job was to help organize the food and do as much prep work as possible. The true star of the food crew, ‘tho was Baba Takashi. A friend of the family, Baba was imported from Japan by Yoshio as a sushi chef for the reception. Yoshio had ordered all the sushi supplies, including the fresh fish, which arrived on ice just before Baba himself arrived from Japan.

Baba and I worked together for almost eight hours, the day before the reception. I can’t tell you how hard it was to work with a master sushi chef in the room! All I wanted to do was to watch every move he made, and it was only my dedication to Yoshio, the wedded couple, and to my obligations, that kept me from doing just that! The great part of working with a sushi-master (and a kind and generous one at that) was being offered a few of his creations as the evening progressed. Every once in a while, Baba would come over with one of his unique (vegetarian) sushi variations. Not only was each piece visually stunning, but absolutely delicious!

One of my favorites of Baba’s sushi I nicknamed “Green Brain” sushi.This was thinly sliced avocado wrapped around sushi rice. Simplicity itself…right?

Not so simple when I tried to make it for myself. Remember what I said about wanting to watch Baba? Well, I never got to see how he created “Green Brain” sushi. It took me several trials to get the thickness of the avocado right. Then, when I formed it, it was a decent effort, but not even in the ballpark of correct.

I got to catch up with Yoshio this weekend. We were so busy working the weekend of the wedding, we never got to visit. Between sips of a very good bourbon, delicious cheeses and  frites  truffe (truffled french fries…made the correct way by Yoshio) he was able tweak what I had done wrong and to shorten the road to my making Baba’s sushi better. My second effort came closer to what I wanted….not perfect, mind you, but better…thanks to Yoshio’s input.

The day of the reception, I was very busy, but I occasionally caught glimpses of Baba’s work: Every one of his creations a masterpiece! The queue of guests waiting to partake of his sushi was wrapped all around the yard! At one point, just about every guest was chanting his name! If any sushi chef ever came close to rock-star status, it was Baba!

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I only wish I was able to flatter Baba more. I only hope that sometime in the future I can get the chance to see Baba (my new rock-star friend) in action again!

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December 08, 2013: Sushi Class and Flamenco

December 8, 2013

Yoshio Teaches Sushi LCHCEarly this week, it was my honor and pleasure to once again don the uniform of a “Okonomy” sous-chef. “Okonomy” is Master Chef Yoshio Saito’s catering restaurant and is what this blog is named after. This week, it was to assist Chef Saito in teaching a sushi class at the Lowell Community Health Center in an effort to promote healthier options for diet. There were two classes scheduled with an expected 60 people per class, so we had our work cut out for us!

There is a saying in the East: “Give a man a fish, and he will stave off hunger for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will stave off hunger for a lifetime.” My experience with Yoshio and Okonomy, up to now, has been more of “giving of a fish” (literally and figuratively) to patrons. This time, it was a “teaching to fish” kind of affair. Okonomy was to provide all the materials ready to make temaki roll. This is sushi in a cone wrap of nori (seaweed sheets.) Yoshio would teach history, techniques and procedure to allow the health center administrators to learn the hows and whys of making sushi and then (best of all) teach them to make their own delicious combinations!

Considerable preparation was needed to buy, cut, package, and store all the separate elements of the temaki roll Yoshio was teaching. Those items were:

Nori Wraps             Toasted Sesame Seeds               Trefoil (or Beefsteak) leaves
Cucumber               Brown & White Sushi Rice         Shoyu (soy sauce)
Natto (fermented soybean)      Pickled Ginger         Daikon (Japanese Radish)
Fried Tofu Sheets          Scallions              Wasabi (Japanese Horseradish)
Imitation Crab             Avocado

Yoshios Sushi Rice

Brown Sushi Rice from Rice Cooker Photo: Y. Saito

Most troublesome to Chef Saito was the huge quantity of rice (we ended up with close to eighty pounds, between the white and brown) and most important, to keep such a huge quantity consistently warm until serving. Yoshio came up with  very clever technique of putting the rice batches in huge sealed bags and keeping them in a large thermos with hot water bottles. Yoshio flavored the rice with his special mixture of seasoning, stirring each batch under a fan to cool the rice to the proper temperature.

Chef Saito also made his home-made wasabi, which is much more hot (as well as more flavorful) than store-bought brands. [I observed more than one patron with watery eyes after applying just a tad too much!] Yoshio tempered such heat in the temaki rolls with the cool, bright, and tangy trefoil leaves, as well as the slightly sweet daikon and pickled ginger. He rounded out his temaki with the nutty toasted sesame seeds and salty shoyu.

The most delicious cucumber soup ever!

The most delicious cucumber soup ever! Photo: Y. Saito

Cooking with Yoshio is always such a positive experience in so many ways: not only is the work a lot of fun, but I learn so much every time just by being around a master and asking questions (which Yoshio is always pleased to answer.) It certainly helps to work for a master chef around break time. For dinner, he took the leavings from the cucumbers I was working on and whipped up a wonderful cucumber soup on the fly! He combined the cucumber with stock and milk and topped it of with white truffle oil, finely chopped trefoil, and crumbled feta cheese. I can honestly say it was one of the most spectacular soups I’ve ever had!

During an earlier break, Yoshio played a flamenco piece on his guitar (something I didn’t know he was training for) to perfection, but I was curious, “Why flamenco?” Actually, this style of playing from Southern Spain has more schools in Japan than Spain! It seems the flamenco style is hard on guitars and that guitar makers consider a flamenco guitar as “disposable!” After prepping was all done, Yoshio treated me to my favorite bourbon as we watched “Toast” which I was happy to find that Yoshio and his wife Dorcas liked as well as I.

Temaki by Mark; Photo: M.Raymond

Temaki by Mark; Photo: M.Raymond

As not as many people showed up as expected to both classes, Yoshio sent me home with a few leftovers. As I had lost a day at work, I thought it only fair to share the sushi fixings with those at work. The guys at work were making perfect tamaki rolls by their third go-around and we enjoyed a varied, healthy, tasty lunch, while taking pride in developing our make-it-yourself  skills!

Preparing Sushi; Photo: M.Raymond

Preparing Sushi; Photo: M.Raymond

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November 03, 2013: A Quality of Mercy

November 3, 2013

Twilight-Zone-animate-copyTo my mind, television writing/production/acting will never surpass the original 60’s “The Twilight Zone” series. As we were approaching Halloween last week, I thought it  appropriate to revisit some of the stories that I risked not only parental wrath, but also my own personal fears, to watch in my early youth.

“The Twilight Zone” had a number of never-to-be-repeated graces that allowed it to succeed. First, it was television when it was still  AOK to borrow heavily from theater, but add production techniques of early television. Secondly, as a new-ish (and potentially profitable) medium, it attracted the best writers, actors, producers, and directors of that generation. Thirdly, it was still an age when it was OK to tug on heartstrings. Younger viewers would most likely find TZ as schmaltzy and saccharine (and they would be right.) Oddly, this is what I find most attractive in the series. There also seemed to be a trust in, and freedom provided, the artists in the 60’s that does not seem so prevalent today. Last, the premise of the show was that anything may happen in the Twilight Zone.

I was able (through the help of my local library) to get ahold of Season #3 and it held not only the gems that I remembered, but also those that I had never seen. Here are my favorites:

[Here follow spoilers….so if you have never seen Season #3 of the Twilight Zone, I invite you to STOP reading now and revisit the blog when you have. In a pre-M. Night Shamala world, the “twists’ of TZ are its strength. I would not want to deprive you of these.]

“Little Girl Lost” Episode 91-March 16, 1962:  A young girl has inexplicably slipped into another dimension located just behind her bed, leaving her parents the sole choice to locate her in the otherworld and rescue her.  It’s like “Poltergeist” only better and much shorter.

“The Gift” Episode 97-April 27, 1962: An alien crash lands in village full of hostile humans, except a boy that he befriends and gives a gift. Ok…can anyone say “ET?”… Anyone?…Anyone? Mr. Spielberg???

“To Serve Man” Episode 89-March 02, 1962 Earth is visited by scary 9-foot aliens called Kanamits. Despite their appearance, they seem all helpful and even carry around a book called “To Serve Man”…only it’s a COOKBOOK!!!! OK, this as the one that after watching, I was so terrified, that my parents forbade me watch TZ. This didn’t stop me, however. I just continued to watch the show hiding behind the couch (much to the amusement of my older siblings.)

“Nothing In the Dark” Episode 81-January 05, 1962: An old woman afraid of the specter of Death is visited by him nonetheless, but in the form of a young and strikingly handsome Robert Redford. This Death is warm, intelligent, compassionate, caring, and patient…gently taking us only when we fully understand the inevitable.

The Changing of the Guard Episode 102-June 01, 1962: An educator, prematurely dismissed from the job and the students that he loves, considers that he has wasted his life. At his last moment he is visited by ghosts of his former pupils who assure him that his lessons of courage, loyalty, honesty and ethics have not been in vain. It’s like “It’s a Wonderful Life” only specifically for educators.

…and last…the one most pertinent to the blog:DS-American

A Quality of Mercy Episode 80-December 29, 1961: During the last days of WWII an American platoon is besieging a cave on a Philippines island occupied by starved and defeated Japanese soldiers. A hard-nosed, by-the-book lieutenant  (Dean Stockwell) shows up to stir the platoon into an assault on the cave to finally destroy the Japanese. The exhausted platoon resists the unnecessary loss of life on either side. In an inexplicable moment (common in TZ) the lieutenant is not only transported back in time to May 4, 1942 but has now become a Japanese lieutenant besieging the same cave occupied by Americans! He gains the insight that all armies would train out of every soldier if they were able: the sympathy that the “enemy” is just another human deserving of mercy.

3qualityofThe show nails its point by quoting Shakespeare from “The Merchant of Venice”

“The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

[Much thanks to the Hudson Public Library for procuring “The Twilight Zone, Season 3 and extending the loan in order to write this article.-SV]

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August 26, 2013: Irish-American Cuisine at Showa

August 27, 2013

Showa 08.26.13Today was the third presentation of Irish-American food for Japanese students at the Showa Institute of Boston. Yoshio and I created a range of foods that show the assortment of influences on Irish-American cuisine.

I made a translation problem for Yoshio by spontaneously using the word “goofy” to describe St. Patrick’s Day celebration by Americans, compared to the Irish tradition of climbing Crough Patrick…barefoot, to honor the saint.

As in previous years, Yoshio made his wonderful Corned Beef and Cabbage. This year he omitted any additional salt and just let the corned beef  season the stew of potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and onions. Tasting the veggies and broth, this was just perfect!

I made Irish Soda Bread and substituted craisins for the normal raisins for the New England touch. I also made Coddling Cream with Gala apples stewed in port. My Colcannon (mashed potatoes, leeks, and kale) was a little less smooth this year as my big mixer was broken, and was too tough for my hand mixer.

Some students surprised me by actually liking the taste of buttermilk that I usually have leftover from the soda bread recipe.

Our original recipes can be found here.

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May 23, 2013: Homo Narrans

May 23, 2013
"Bru na boinne" or Newgrange by SE Vedder

“Bru na boinne” or Newgrange by SE Vedder

A few weeks ago I was reading the short story by Lafcadio Hearn “Horai” in his book Kwaiden (1904.) “Horai” is a story Hearn wrote inspired by a silk print in his house depicting the utopia otherworld influenced by a Chinese myth from 2100 years ago. As i was reading the story, I realized that I had read Hearn’s description of Horai before…but it was from a land, people, and culture half a world away from Japan and China!

I have never been completely comfortable with the name we choose to call ourselves: “homo sapiens” or “wise-man.” Partly because it sounds like we are pretty full of ourselves, but mostly it is, where I allow an occasional wise action taken by a single man, and I have met a few rare truly enlightened individuals,  “homo sapiens” implies that we are altogether, and consistently wise. If we were honest, we would have to admit this is blatantly false. A more accurate moniker for humankind would be rather “homo narrans” or “story-telling man.”

Our stories are the most constant and important part of who we are as a creature. Our stories reflect our wishes, desires, fears, hatreds, loves and hopes. Better..our stories are told and universally understood (properly translated, of course) by almost every human on the planet, regardless of political boundary, economic condition, culture and even over the expanse of time. As long as we have been telling stories, they have reflected our very souls.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell

The idea that our collective unconscious is represented in the themes of our stories is not an original one. Much as been said by sundry experts of psychology and sociology, not the least of which is Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell (most especially in his “Hero of a Thousand Faces.) I only offer the Horai story as a new one as an example that I, at least, hadn’t heard before.

Penglai_Island

Mt. Penglai

The story of Horai is that of a mystical land on an island that has a mountain. The original Chinese tale is associated with Mt. Penglai in the Shandong province. One theory states that migrants from the Shandong region might have brought the story with them to Japan in the late stone age. This theory connects similarities of prehistoric tomb styles in both Japan and the Shandong region. Since then, Japanese have adopted the tale, changed its name to “Horai” and even named a mountain in Japan after it.Hearn describes Horai as such:

Mt Horai_sm“In Horai there is neither death nor pain; and there is no winter. The flowers in that place never fade, and the fruits never fail; and if a man taste of those fruits even but once, he can never again feel thirst or hunger. In Horai grow the enchanted plants So-rin-shi, and Riku-go-aoi, and Ban-kon-to, which heal all manner of sickness;–and there grows also the magical grass Yo-shin-shi, that quickens the dead; and the magical grass is watered by a fairy water of which a single drink confers perpetual youth. The people of Horai eat their rice out of very, very small bowls; but the rice never diminishes within those bowls,–however much of it be eaten,–until the eater desires no more. And the people of Horai drink their wine out of very, very small cups; but no man can empty one of those cups,–however stoutly he may drink,–until there comes upon him the pleasant drowsiness of intoxication.”

When I said I had read this before, I am referring the descriptions of Tir na nOg, the Irish otherworld “land of youth and beauty.” Ti na nOg is described thusly:

Tir Na Nog-V“It is the most delightful land of all that are under the sun; the trees are stooping down with fruit and with leaves and with blossom. Honey and wine are plentiful there; no wasting will come to you with the wasting of time; you will never see death or lessening. You will get feasts, playing and drinking; you will get sweet music on the strings; you will get silver and gold and many jewels. You will get everything I said…and gifts beyond them which I have no means to tell of.”
-description of Ti na nOg by Niamh of the Golden Hair to Oisin

Curiously, both these collective utopias originated in the late stone age by cultures that never could never have had any contact with one another, yet each description is almost a perfect facsimile of one another. Theses wishes for perpetual youth and health, mild weather, plentiful food and drink are natural enough ones for a hunter/gatherer society, but have human wishes changed that much in all those years? Isn’t our Christian idea of heaven very close to either Horai or Tir na nOg?

tir-na-nog by Robert HughesThere seem to be a few “rules” regarding humans entering the otherworld, whatever the culture:
1. The otherworld is ruled by faerie, magical creatures with preternatural abilities.
2. Unless invited, the otherworld will be difficult to reach for the human.
3. The human is almost always required to achieve a quest of some kind, for which he is richly rewarded by the faerie.
4. Once leaving the otherworld, “all bets are off” for the human. Gold turns to acorns; his youth instantly disappears; his faerie love remains in the otherworld.

As to being hard to reach, otherworld is often on an island (often a disappearing island,) through mist, under lakes, in a cave, and even within burial chambers (in Ireland, one word for a burial mound is bruidhen, a word that means “hostel” as in a place of sanctuary and comfort!)

Perhaps as a reflection of human imagination, or just a further extension of our wishes, the otherworld seems to adopt a kind of metaphysical silly-putty: seasons merge as trees bear both Spring buds and Autumn leaves; space expands as rolling fields are contained in a “faerie mound;” and in a kind of Einsteinian-relative-elasticity, time stand still in otherworld. Most amazing is that the otherworld seems to adapt to the attitude of the human entering: a fighter seeking conquest is met with arcane foes and weapons, while a peaceful man invited within is treated to superlative food, drink, and entertainment of magical proportions.

 

Our tales express us, bind us, hold us. Our stories, with words, sculpt not only who we are, but who we wish we could be. The idea that such similar stories could originate completely independent of one another, shows that whatever our nation, our culture, our beliefs…we are more alike than different.

Throughout the world, and through his stories, homo narrans continues to speak out his deeds, thoughts, and desires, linking us all in a legacy that celebrates our collective imagination.

 

[Special thanks once again, to the staff of the Hudson Public Library (most especially April) that provided valuable sources  for this article.]

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