Archive for the ‘Historical Japan’ 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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March 04, 2013: The Rules of Incense

March 4, 2013

Incense_ShadowLacadio Hearn2I have found an excellent guide to interpreting Japanese culture in Lafcadio Hearn. Who better than a half Irish-half Greek American writer, who loved Japan so much that he not only moved there, but married a Japanese woman, and even changed his name to a Japanese one, to interpret Japanese culture to me? Hearn’s “outsider looking in” voice I find to be very insightful to my Western sensibilities. It also helps that Hearn was writing to the West in the early 20thC. (a time period that I love in any culture) when Japan was quite unknown. His opinions were very fresh at the time and he was able to capture with his writings, a Japan that sadly exists no more in many respects. Writing to Westerners, Hearn used a very honest and most direct voice. You never question what Hearn thought about a Japanese custom, event, or story. If he thought it was stupid, he said so in his writings. I cringe to think how that directness might have gone over with the Japanese, but we can assume that he was a much better diplomat at the time and the place and left his unbridled opinions for the people of the West.

In Hearn’s’ book: “In Ghostly Japan” he writes about an activity that was popular at the time he lived in Japan that I had never heard about, that of Ko-kwai or “incense-game.” As Hearn writes, in the pre-Meiji era (1898-1912) young women of higher class were required to learn music, embroidery, poetry, and the three accomplishments of flower-arranging (ikébana) the tea ceremony (cha-no-yu) and the “way of incense” (kodo.) At the time Hearn was writing, the art of incense had been adapted to a more casual, social event of ko-kwai or “incense-parties.”

Japan Kodo CeremonySometimes, I find writers to be like old friends: you disagree with them, but love them anyway…sometimes because of these disagreements! Reading over Hearn’s description of the incense game, I had to suppress a giggle because for what seems so very important to him, seems like trivia to me and vice-versa. I suspected this difference when he describes the cha-no-yu ceremony as “dainty, but somewhat tedious” where I find it a magnificent display of simplicity in form and beauty. Hearn does spend a great deal of energy on the mechanics of the game (to the tune of nine pages of descriptions) which I blieve I can sum up pretty tidily:

1. As host, pick three kinds of incense. Have guests bring another.
2. In a closed, still room, burn each incense while stating its name, and let each player sample.
3. Burn each incense again and have everyone guess which it is. Score each player. Most right guesses=the winner. The winner gets a gift. Open a window.   Sake and rice all around.

This particular game is called Jitchu-ko. Like a card-party, there are a number of different incense-games. Kumi-ko, for instance, involves just one kind of incense and invites discussion on its attributes. Genji-ko, for another, involves five different censers of incense, some of which may be the same. Scores in this game are recorded to refer to certain sections of “The Tales of Genji” by the Lady Murasaka Shikibu, which are then read for entertainment.

Courtesan Chozan of Choji-ya burning incense on a hibachi; Library of Congress Prints

Courtesan Chozan of Choji-ya burning incense on a hibachi; Library of Congress Prints

What I found absolutely fascinating (and which Hearn dismisses with, “…this subject could interest few readers…”) about the whole event of the Ko-kwai were the rules surrounding the conditions of the game. What can I say? I guess Hearn was a bit country and I’m a bit rock and roll!

Incense parties were celebrated about the turn of the 20thC. in American cites that had some Japanese populations. In a June, 1902 New York Evening Post article, the rules of an incense party was laid out for attending New Yorkers:

“For the 24 hours preceding the party each guest must avoid the use of anything which can produce an odor whatsoever. Scented soaps, perfumes, odorous foods and even spices must be avoided. These prevent the user from smelling accurately and also interfere with other members of the party. When you dress be careful to put on no garment that has been kept in the neighborhood of camphor wood, tobacco, bouquets, blossoms or scented face powder. When you reach the house of your host enter as softly as you can and as slowly as possible. This is to prevent making a draught by the movement of your own body. Be equally  leisurely in opening and closing of doors, as a quick movement induces a rush of air”

Here is the online diary of Yoshiko Nakata, Kodo teacher, presenting the fundamentals of incense to Americans in Portland, Or. during Japan Week in 1992. Her observations of Americans (starting May 22nd) I found to be very interesting and sweet for an “insider looking out” perspective.

[A note about research here: I always try to consult at least three different sources for each article I write, particularly when the subject is something like an obscure and dated game like Ko-kwai from another culture. Thanks once more, to the Hudson Public Library for tracking down and obtaining the first (of I hope many) of Lafcadio Hearn’s books. After reading Hearn’s chapter on incense, I wanted to do further research on the Ko-kwai game online. I could find very little, although there was one article online that was very familiar, and was in fact the very Lafcadio Hearn article I had read from “In Ghostly Japan.”

Woman and Incense2So, Hearn’s work can be found online, but here is the “chicken and egg” question: If the HPL hadn’t graciously obtained the book in the first case, how would I ever have known about, let alone to think to look for, this obscure part of Japanese culture online? It is silly to discount any efficient tool at one’s disposal. Libraries are very much a value as a service for information as they ever were, and the knowledge of professionals who very business is to track down information should never be devalued.]

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February 17, 2013: Connections

February 17, 2013
Photo by Enami; Courtesy by Rob Oechsle

Women pick tea leaves. Circa: 1905-20. Photo by Enami; Courtesy: Rob Oechsle.

Photo by Enami; Courtesy by Rob Oechsle

Photo by Enami; Courtesy: Rob Oechsle

The wealth of information available to every person connected through the internet daily strikes me as a modern marvel. With a little time and patience, I can read, see, and hear information from histories and cultures worldwide, all from the comfort of my little kitchen table.

Photo by Enami; Courtesy by Rob Oechsle

Photo by Enami; Courtesy: Rob Oechsle

I got hooked onto these early-20thC. hand-colored photographs by Nobunkuni Enami, when I saw one on Facebook via my friend Miguel who teaches English in Tokyo. It took me a little bit of time to track them down to their sources, so let me credit each of them as it led to the ultimate source. First, thank you Miguel, for throwing the first image out there. I enjoy each and every one of your posts, but this one was just perfect! From Miguel, I was linked to “Deep Kyoto” Facebook page. Deep Kyoto seems to be run by a native-Englander who has since transplanted to Kyoto, Japan. This site is a wonderful collection of information and events going on and about  Kyoto. From Deep Kyoto, the connections led to the short article by Rebecca Baird-Remba at the Business Insider site about these spectacular photos by Nobunkuni Enami, who opened his photography studio in Yokohama in 1892. The images here and at the Business Insider are courtesy of Japanese photographic expert Rob Oechsle. There is a link at the Business Insider site to Oeschsle’s Flickr page to see more of Enami’s images.

Photo by Enami; Courtesy by Rob Oechsle

Two people visit a family rural tomb. Photo by Enami; Courtesy: Rob Oechsle.

Photo by Enami; Courtesy by Rob Oechsle

An umbrella maker paints one of his pieces. Photo by Enami; Courtesy: Rob Oechsle

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