Posts Tagged ‘Japanese Culture’


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:

[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.]


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.


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.]


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.


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.]


April 12, 2013: “Mujina”

April 12, 2013

Mugina Banner[There is something deliciously creepy about Japanese horror. I was reading the short story “Mujina” from Lafcadio Hearn’s book “Kwaiden” (1904) over my lunch break in a toasty, sun-dappled atrium while sitting in a comfortable chair having the look and feel of an oversized pleather marshmallow, and the story still gave me chills!

Playing his version of the Grimm brothers in Japan, Hearn collected and sketched these Japanese tales for us in the West in the early 20thC. I love the double-“gotcha” cut-to-black ending of “Mujina,” worthy of a Twilight Zone episode or as a campfire tale to scare the kids!]

On the Akasaka Road, in Tôkyô, there is a slope called Kii-no-kuni-zaka, — which means the Slope of the Province of Kii. I do not know why it is called the Slope of the province of Kii. On one side of this slope you see an ancient moat, deep and very wide, with high green banks rising up to some place of gardens; — and on the other side of the road extend the long and lofty walls of an imperial palace. Before the era of street-lamps and jinrikishas, [i.e. “rickshaw”] this neighborhood was very lonesome after dark; and belated pedestrians would go miles out of their way rather than mount the Kii-no-kuni-zaka, alone, after sunset. All because of a Mujina that used to walk there.

The last man who saw the Mujina was an old merchant of the Kyôbashi quarter, who died about thirty years ago. This is the story, as he told it :—

One night, at a late hour, he was hurrying up the Kii-no-kuni-zaka, when he perceived a woman crouching by the moat, all alone, and weeping bitterly. Fearing that she intended to drown herself, he stopped to offer her any assistance or consolation in his power. She appeared to be a slight and graceful person, handsomely dressed; and her hair was arranged like that of a young girl of good family. “O-jochû,” [“honorable damsel”] he exclaimed, approaching her,— “O-jochû, do not cry like that!… Tell me what the trouble is; and if there be any way to help you, I shall be glad to help you.” (He really meant what he said; for he was a very kind man.) But she continued to weep,— hiding her face from him with one of her long sleeves. “O-jochû,” he said again, as gently as he could,— “please, please listen to me! … This is no place for a young lady at night! Do not cry, I implore you!— only tell me how I may be of some help to you!” Slowly she rose up, but turned her back to him, and continued to moan and sob behind her sleeve. He laid his hand lightly upon her shoulder, and pleaded:— “O-jochû!— O-jochû!— O-jochû!… Listen to me, just for one little moment!… O-jochû!— O-jochû!”… Then that O-jochû turned round, and dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand;— and the man saw that she had no eyes or nose or mouth,— and he screamed and ran away.
Up Kii-no-kuni-zaka he ran and ran; and all was black and empty before him. On and on he ran, never daring to look back; and at last he saw a lantern, so far away that it looked like the gleam of a firefly; and he made for it. It proved to be only the lantern of an itinerant soba-seller, who had set down his stand by the road-side; but any light and any human companionship was good after that experience; and he flung himself down at the feet of the old soba-seller, crying out, “Aa!— aa!!— aa!!!“…
Kore! Kore!” roughly exclaimed the soba-man. “Here! what is the matter with you? Anybody hurt you?”
“No— nobody hurt me,” panted the other,— “only… Aa!— aa!“…
“— Only scared you?” queried the peddler, unsympathetically. “Robbers?”
“Not robbers,— not robbers,” gasped the terrified man… “I saw… I saw a woman— by the moat;— and she showed me… Aa! I cannot tell you what she showed me!”…
He! Was it anything like THIS that she showed you?” cried the soba-man, stroking his own face— which therewith became like unto an Egg… And, simultaneously, the light went out.

[Hearn is responsible for linking this particular “haunting” with the mujina (badger) one part of the Japanese animal shape-shifting trio of badger, fox and tanuki (raccoon-dog) who all seem to delight in playing mind games on humans. The true name of this uniquely Japanese haunting is Noppera-Bo or “Faceless Ghost.” Much thanks to the Hudson Public Library for ordering me a copy of “Kwaiden.”]


March 09, 2013: “Snow Falling on Cedars”

March 9, 2013

Snow Falling on Cedars_banner“Snow Falling on Cedars” (1999) has been on my film viewing list forever. After seeing it today, I feel it is a shame that I waited so long. Judging from reviews and how well it did at the box office, and knowing how Americans might see it as somewhat “messy” plot-wise, I can see why it hasn’t been given it’s due, but for me it was a near perfect cinematic experience.

snow-falling-on-cedars-poster“Snow Falling on Cedars” takes place on an island off the coast of Washington state, in the early 1950’s during a blizzard. A trial is about to take place for the murder of Carl, a local fisherman of Nordic-American descent, by another fisherman resident, Kazuo, of Japanese-American descent. The two men, although friends and fellow workers, were embroiled in a dispute over a tract of land that was deeded over to Carl’s family at the time that Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps at the start of WWII. Motive exists, but motive alone does not always guarantee guilt.

To add to the situation, Kazuo’s wife, Hatsue, has a history, since childhood, with a local small newspaper reporter, Ishmael, who is covering the trial. Carl has died under curious conditions by a blow to head, followed by drowning. A coroner has testified that a blow to Carl’s head was caused by a kendo strike. Kendo is Japanese sword fighting, practiced with wooden swords. This is circumstantial evidence against Kuzuo, who has been trained in kendo by his father. Kuzuo’s defender, Nels Gundmundsson attempts to fight the still rampant hatred against post-war Japanese-Americans to find justice for Kuzuo.

snowfallingcedars-0002Part of what makes “Snow Falling…” work so well is the inherent claustrophobia of the situation, from the outside-in: an island is isolated further by a snowstorm. Most of the drama of the present takes place in a courtroom, further narrowing the present-day story to a very select time and place. This frees the story to a series of  flashbacks from the past of each character to flesh out how each of them arrived to the present, presenting clues about each of their lives, as well as those pertinent to the trial. In these flashbacks, we discover the romance between Ishmael and Hatsue from early childhood in pre-war conditions. Hatsue’s mother is against a union between the two youths, and steers Hatsue towards a Japanese match, while Ishmael’s father, himself a newspaper reporter and publisher, advocates the rights of the Japanese-Americans. As war breaks out, Kuzuo’s father is forced to deed his land off before he and his family is forced into internment in California. At the internment camp, Hatsue meets Kuzuo and having told Ishmael that her love for him is impossible, she marries Kuzuo.

Now rivals, both Ishmael and Kuzuo go off to war, but to very different arenas: Ishmael to the Pacific, to (oddly) fight the Japanese, Kuzuo to  Europe (most likely in one of the Nisei units) to fight Germans. Both return wounded: Ishmael almost drowns and loses an arm as well as his heart with Hatsue’s rejection. Kuzuo is wounded by being haunted of having unjustly killed a young German soldier.

Normally, flashbacks in movies are a clumsy device, but “Snow Falling…” does it very well, using sounds and images that trigger the flashbacks of each person, and as such, the movie addresses the very nature of perceptions and memories, and how extremely important both are to witnesses in a trial of law. As Hatsue says, when being grilled by the District Attorney, “Trials aren’t only about truth, even though they should be…”

IshmaelOne reason “Snow Falling…” has not reached popular appeal is because it is hard to classify: is “Snow Falling…” a period piece, a love story, a courtroom drama, a mystery? It actually is all of these. There is also the untidy and unfamiliar character traits (to Hollywood-ized viewers) that the leads have: we want Hatsue to love the “right” man (Ishmael) but her love is in question and consequently she marries Kuzuo. We want Ishmael to follow in his father’s honorable footsteps, but this legacy is questioned even by Ishmael, himself. Even the innocence of Kuzuo is suspect when he admits he did want to kill Carl. In a lot of ways, “Snow Falling…” is most like “To Kill a Mockingbird” in tone and message. but while the “…Mockingbird” story is more distilled down, “Snow Falling on Cedars” is much better produced and much more interesting. Both films address doing the honorable deed for all the right reasons.

As far as courtroom dramas, “…Mockingbird” and “Snow Falling…” are neck and neck. Our courtrooms should be the arena where the best of our laws (and indeed the best of our very natures) should be most evident, yet sadly they are not always. This is shown when the District Attorney sums up his case against Kuzuo,

“Look clearly at the defendant. See the truth, self-evident in him…Consider his face. Ask yourself, each one of you: ‘What is my duty as a citizen of this community? Of this country? As an American?'”

As rebuttal, the defense lawyer, Gundmundsson (played wonderfully by Max von Sydow) tells the jury,

“‘Look at his face,’ the prosecutor said, presuming that you will see an enemy there…Now, our learned prosecutor will have you do your duty as Americans…You may think that this is a small trial, in a small place. Hmm? Well. It isn’t. Every once in a while, somewhere in the world, humanity goes on trial. And integrity. And decency. Every once in a while, ordinary people just like you, ladies and gentlemen, get called on to give the report card for the human race!”snow-falling-on-cedarspreview


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.]


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

%d bloggers like this: