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Panda-full summer

29 Jun

Pandas have been popping up with great frequency this summer. First, the boast that the greatest number of pandas outside China lives in the southwest of Japan, in Wakayama prefecture. Then, Lady Gaga’s very poised appearance showcased a Japanese designer’s dress, and panda-modoki makeup.

(note to self: I wonder if she knows pandas are Chinese?)

Then in a talk in a local restaurant my friend Yoshiko runs, the Yushima shokudō, the speaker, FUNAKOSHI Atsuhiro, mentioned the panda’s diet. The context was a laid-back sort of charismatic but jokey lecture about foods to keep you healthy, especially as illustrated by people who didn’t get sick after their genbaku (atomic radiation/bomb) experience in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He mentioned the panda’s herbivore diet, and how the chubby panda contradicted the image of the gaunt and slightly edgy stereotype of the health nut.  Funakoshi himself first settled on his own angle of cuisine–wara cooking–after talking to the ‘father of macrobiotic cooking,’ SAKURAZAWA Yukikazu, aka George Osawa. Wara uses fresh vegetables, and is a kind of slow cooking that uses a technique called kasane-ni (重ね煮), or layering of things to cook them slowly. Anyway, the panda seemed to illustrate how one could thrive and even seem a bit decadent even on an herbivore diet.

This is a meat-based dish, Pork Loin and Cabbage Layered Stew, but is one example of how kasani-ne has been adopted for everyday cooking. The result is a bit like the tenderness and mingling of flavors you get with a slow cooker. I also post it because it is pretty salty, and in Tokyo these days, salt is making a comeback with anti-radiation echoes. But that is another story…


23 Jun


I got to Tokyo yesterday, and wanted to post a couple of links to things I ran across, that touch on issues from class. Also, a food photo. I am staying in Kameari, way across the river, in true shitamachi-land. It’s the setting for the longest-running manga in Japanese print culture, Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari kōen-mae hashutsujo (こちら葛飾区亀有公園前派出所, literally, “This is the police station in front of Kameari Park in Katsushika-ku”). Here’s the Wiki entry. And here is a new rāmen place, that specializes in tantan-men, and like many delicious Tokyo restaurants, seats about 15 people, tops.

Tantan-men and beer at Kamezou ramen

Here’s a really good, local food blog. The writer translates and adapts recipes for katei ryōri from all over the place, including NHK’s morning show, Asaichi (=朝市 or morning market, used for Sunday markets and farmer’s markets, too). Her latest entry features the many faces of kyūri…

And a short piece on more asaichi that take place on regular Sundays in the city.

On a more sober note, a couple of things…

First, a Japan Times article about the spiking suicide rate in Tōhoku. Japan already has the highest suicide rate of any “developed” country. The tsunami/quake/radiation and resulting dispossessions have upped this even further. Clearly, the oft-trotted out line about Japan’s historical stoicism is really off the mark–or does not account for why resources are not reaching people to such an extent that they feel there is no way out or up. Then, in a related turn, celebrities such as Lady Gaga are visiting Japan under the umbrella of the US government. According to CNN,

Japan’s tourism has been hammered by the March 11th earthquake, tsunami and ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, tourism began to plunge on March 12th. Tourism fell 73% as compared to March 2010.

In April, tourism dropped 62.5% as compared to April the year before. In May, the tourism organization reported tourism was still down 50.4% as compared to May 2010.

U.S. ambassador to Japan, John Roos, appeared gaga over Lady Gaga, beaming as he stood by her side. The ambassador, who has personally championed the return of tourists to Japan, said the singer will help spread this message around the world.

“This morning I had breakfast with some think tank experts, U.S.-Japan experts, who said to me, Mr. Ambassador, ‘What can we do in order to strengthen the strategic, economic and people to people relations between Japan and the United States?’ And I had one answer, Lady Gaga,” said Roos.

It’s great that she wants to lend her glamour to the cause, but what troubles me is that there is a disconnect between the promotion and the money trail.

The Japanese Red Cross (JRC) is the designated recipient of the money she is drumming up, and was the go-to site for many from the US, especially in the early days. Donations, though, seem to happen on auto-pilot via branding, rather than any assessment of how effective the organization is, and whether it is the most efficient at direct services to people in stricken areas. Locally, in Japan, many suggest that the JRC has been slow in channeling funds. The Mainichi, for instance, writes that, “Of the 281.7 billion yen, 45.4 billion yen or 16 percent has so far actually been allotted to victims, arousing criticism as being too late.” Of course, this wording does not clarify who is doing the criticizing, or what “actually allotted to victims” concretely means. But it does underscore how many choices about gaiatsu-related donation–admin cost, local embeddedness, transparency, priorities, etc.–can be glossed over when celebrities just snap to a certain brand, without doing on-the-ground comparisons. To be continued, I am sure…


Next, more on the Slow Life movement in Tokyo…

Fukuoka makes seed balls

14 Jun

Here’s a YouTube video from 1997, in which he shows the method. He’s already about 90 years old…

Fukuoka meets fusion–“lasagna gardening”

13 Jun

In the US, a woman named Patricia Lanza has made popular Fukuoka Masanobu’s techniques of “do-nothing” farming–she followed, in turn, the earlier work of a woman named Ruth Stout.

Her concept selects and adapts particular features of FM’s work, and is known as “lasagna gardening.” It’s called this because it starts off with sheet mulching and wild mulching–laying sheets of cardboard over grass to tame it and get rid of weeds, and using plant matter on the spot for compost, letting it have its unruly way, rather than putting it in a tidy (“”) pile in a corner to gestate. It’s a kind of translated version of do-nothing farming that still involves some of the processes (sheet mulching, notably, and lack of interest in tilling). But it also drops some key features, such as the compelling autobio, the relation to a general critique of modernity, and questions about the role of the local vis-à-vis spiritual/mystical/Romantic/poetic histories.

Cover of Lanza's Fukuoka adaptation/localization

See what you think, by paging through it at Amazon

Is anything added? Anything lost? How does she imagine the task of adapting, localizing, translating? And what does “culture” (i.e. from cultivare, the word meaning ‘to grow’) mean to her, do you think?

Digression: Japan Times reviews my book

22 May

Hi all,

this is a bit off topic, but I was quite delighted/surprised to see that the Japan Times reviewed, and liked, my book today. It was especially swoon-y about the cover design, which took ages and many many 微妙な手紙 to finalize。もしよかったら、目を通してください! It actually uses the idea of fieldwork a lot, even though it is not food-related…

Cover of Nakagami, Japan

Bentō and the new school year

21 May

An interesting story in the Japan Times about starting the new year at school in Tōhoku, disrupted by the earthquake/tsunami/radiation, but plugging on with the everyday creative acts of life.

As kids enjoy their first few days of school in Japan, moms — and sometimes dads, too — beef up their culinary skills to give their kids a little bit of bento-boxed love

Children at Shin Yoshida Kindergarten give thanks before saying the Japanese phrase "itadakimasu!" and tucking into their bento, which are packed with foods (as pictured below) lovingly prepared by their parents. MAKIKO ITOH. Source: Japan Times

“Despite the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami in the northeastern part of Honshu, in most of Japan, life has to go on as usual.

News photo
A bento is a packed lunch, usually arranged in a special box and including various small dishes and rice.

April marks the start of the new school year, which means that parents all over the country are cranking up their morning lunch-making routines. In Japan a packed lunch is always called a “bento” (literally meaning “box”) or “obento” to be more polite, whether it’s stored in the quintessential lunchbox or not.”

Sayonara, Hashima

16 Nov

A bit more info on Gunkanjima (the slang name for Hashima island). The mine closed in 1974, when demand for coal petered out (and prices stabilized after the big “oil shock” OPEC oil embargo of 1973). A nice article in the nifty magazine Cabinet has some testimony from a Korean guy who was mobilized to work there, and explains how it was a “company town” for Mitsubishi.

The mine was deep under the sea, the workers reaching it by elevator down a long narrow shaft. The coal was carried out from a spacious underground chamber, but the digging places were so small that we had to crouch down to work. It was excruciating, exhausting labor. Gas collected in the tunnels, and the rock ceilings and walls threatened to collapse at any minute. I was convinced that I would never leave the island alive.

Schoolchildren spelling out "Sayonara Hashima" in the schoolyard in 1974.

The writer of the article gives some specs, too:

Indeed, Mitsubishi owned the island and everything on it, running a kind of benevolent dictatorship that guaranteed job security and doled out free housing, electricity and water but demanded that residents take turns in the cleaning and maintenance of public facilities. Thus the people of Hashima huddled together, all under the wing of “The Company” and all bent on a common purpose.

But coal is not edible. The community depended completely on the outside world for food, clothing and other staples. Even fresh water had to be carried to the island until pipes along the sea floor connected it to mainland reservoirs in 1957. Any storm that prevented the passage of ships for more than a day spelled fear and austerity for Hashima.

The most notable feature of the island was the complete absence of soil and indigenous vegetation. Hashima, after all, was nothing more than a rim of coal slag packed around the circumference of a bare rock. A movie shot there by Shochiku Co. Ltd. in 1949 was aptly entitled Midori Naki Shima (The Greenless Island).

Trailer for Hiroki film of “Vibrator”

16 Nov

It’s in Japanese, but still very watchable…

And here is a link to a Midnight Eye review.

Boldly confronting one of the most fundamental social problems in post-industrial society (and not only that of Japan), he has delivered one of the bravest and most important films this year has seen. Adapted from Mari Akasaka’s novel, Vibrator‘s wobbly lynchpin is Rei (stage actress Terashima, magnificent), a young woman so lost that the only sensation she feels is the vibration of the mobile phone in her pocket. A single freelance writer (a shaky job if ever there was one), she is consumed by her own thoughts and the voices she imagines hearing inside her head. The real voices of those around her, however, rarely penetrate her shell.

…to be continued.

Article in Washington paper on Sonoko & Akila

25 Oct

It turns out that Akila is in the States not only to teach a round of classes, but is looking for a more local supplier of buckwheat to use in making his soba here. This Washington State paper published an article today about some of their journey, and conversations with WA farmers.


Exciting soba news–and new syllabus!

25 Sep

OK, so we are finally set–and the results are that we are getting two soba chefs, instead of one! Sonoko Sakai and Akila Inouye will join us October 7. He runs the Tsukiji Soba Academy, and will be visiting LA for a short time.

As you probably guessed, this does have consequences for the timing of assignments. Here is a summary–

–paper due Oct 7: you are always welcome to turn it in early;

–class in Office of Religious Life Oct 7 (map to follow);

–assignment for Sept 28=read the Miyazawa Kenji story and the Kajii Motojirō story, and think about magic, referring back to our Tanizaki discussion. Write the blog entry on “magic” and post, using CATEGORIES NOT TAGS “magic”and “blog 3” and whatever tags you want.


I have also added a small section titled “a few words on participation,” so you will have a clear understanding of what that refers to, and how I understand it in the context of interactions in the classroom.

What about the plants, you ask? Good question, since we did not finish transplanting (plants were not ready, yet). We should discuss this on Tuesday–the heat wave is likely to last all week, and when it abates, I think we can transplant in small groups. But given that some time will have passed, and only a couple did this hands-on before, a refresher on how to do it is probably a good idea…