3rd January 2002
Year of the horse!
Well, my week's
break is over now, but what a great holiday it's been! I tell
you, mother's are just the best hosts in the world. Myself and
my girlfriend, Kae, took the five hour train trip west to her
hometown of Toyohashi. Essentially, we spent all day every day
eating - I am now 3kg heavier than I was this time last week.
We did occasionally venture out, either to the local Mister Donut
or when driven to Kae's Grandparent's houses 15km away for more
food. Oh,we also saw the Harry Potter film which has been a huge
hit in Japan - I personally think the attempt to transfer the
book to the big screen should not have been made, although it
is doing a good job of promoting British English which is a rare
thing over here.
As in the
UK, New Year traditions are centred around eating, drinking and
watching television. This suited me down to the ground - I really
cannot recall the last time that I simply vegeed out without a
care in the world and not a responsibility in sight. Much of our
time was spent huddled around the Kotatsu
(heated table) watching New Year specials, whilst drinking
beer and eating all sorts of snacks.
Eve itself was really lovely. At about 10.30pm we forced ourselves
up from around the Kotatsu
and made our way over to Granny's house for Ramen and Soba (they
look like spagetti, but are not made of pasta - I forget what
it is they are made of). Then, once the NHK (Japan's BBC equivalent)
special had finished at 11.50pm, Kae, Kae's mother, her aunt and
I trundled off to a local temple, from where we could hear the
low pitched "dong" of a huge bell (see picture below).
We were lucky, the bell, usually strictly out of bounds to the
public, was open for us to swing the rope-suspended log into the
side of it. In Buddhism, it is believed that there are 108 desires
regarding sense, feeling, and time in every person. In order to
erase these desires, the bells are rung 108 times to dispell them
and their bad effects.
a fried cricket or crunchy crab?
huge bells rung 108 times at all temples on New Years Eve.
After a warming
drink of Amazake (a hot, sweet wine and rice mixture) offered
to us by the wife of the priest who was chanting inside, we moved
onto a shrine. No bells here, but instead, seven traditionally
dressed drum and flute players. They were adding to the great
atmosphere created by the large crowd of locals who were enjoying
the fires, Sake (rice wine), and general superb atmosphere of
happiness, love and celebration. That's how my Year of the Horse
began, and may it continue for everyone with the same feeling
of positivity and joy.
day, Kae's mother had taken us for a "traditional country
style meal", which consisted of about fifteen seperate dishes
(each). Two of the most notable ingredients were whole freshwater
crabs and fried crickets (see above). It was also my first time
to eat raw fish and raw egg. I must admit that I hesitated initially,
but heah, you'll never learn anything if you always shy away from
the unknown. The crabs, although small, still looked vicious,
and I really wasn't sure whether my teeth were strong enough to
grind their pincers sufficiently so that I could swallow them.
No problems on that score though, it turned out that they were
just like Pringles. The crickets, with their pin sized legs sticking
out were even more off putting, but once again were quite delicious.
To work off
the weight we'd put on during the feast, Kae and I decided to
hike up the local mountain by climbing 1,425 steps that date back
to 708AD. If anyone knows of a staircase anywhere in the world
with more impressive statistics do let me know! At regular intervals
were many little Buddhas wearing knitted hats (such as the one
below), which served to encourage us to continue our marathon
trek, as did the coke machine halfway up. One of them even had
a green Parker jacket; it quite suited his moss-covered figure.
On the way back it was time for the long-awaited return of hitchhiking
to my life. The freezing temperatures (much of Japan is now covered
in snow) ensured that we were picked up after a mere 10 minites
of trying. I was delighted in that I understood the basics of
much of the small talk en-route.
Years Day breakfast took the form of "Mochi". Perhaps
Japan's most famous traditional food other than Sushi, Mochi is
a sticky rice mixture. The making of it is quite a spectacle (click
here for photo), involving two people, a scooped out
log and a huge wooden mallet with a metre-long handle. I have
never come across any other food like it. It comes in many flavours,
both sweet and savoury, but always has that unique cosistency.
Unfortunately, it is responsible for quite a few deaths every
year, elderly people being particularly at risk as if it is not
broken down enough in the mouth it can easily block the throat.
The government this year has publicly endorsed the use of vacuum
cleaners should a mochi-emergency case arise. Fortunately I survived
my encounter being well-aware of the dangers.
from the Japan
Today Website (4th January 2002)
20 treated at hospitals for choking on rice
cakes Friday, January 4, 2002 at 17:30 JST TOKYO
- Twenty people in Tokyo, mostly the elderly, received treatment
at hospitals from Sunday to Thursday after choking on Japanese
rice cakes, traditionally eaten during the New Year holiday season,
the Tokyo Fire Department said Friday. The fire department called
on the public to exercise caution in eating rice cakes, which
are made by pounding sweet rice and are very dense and chewy.
Fifteen of the 20 people hospitalized are 65 years or older, the
department said. (Kyodo News)
back to work for me now. I better prepare a big space in the corner
of the room for all my cards and presents that I know will be
arriving soon for my 24th birthday on January 13th. (Januaryu
13th I said).
wherever you are.
the traditional New Year dish
wee little Buddha with a warm head
24th December 2001
Eve", or so it says in my British diary... You'd certainly
know it was Christmas if you walked past any department store
in Tokyo - there's women dressed up in Father Christmas, oh, sorry,
Santa Claus outfits all over the place trying to sell tiny
Christmas cakes at £10 a shot! However, once you enter a
typical Japanese home you will not find a single sign of the Christian
festival. Much to the horror of a couple of my western friends
over here, I am not feeling too upset about the lack of a day
off work. I must admit, in England I always loved Christmas, family
get-togethers, Herefordshire Cider and all, I still think it's
very important, but it's a kind of "what the eye doesn't
see, the heart doesn't grieve over" situation here. The only
three retailers I do regularly visit are the local Supermarket,
the 7-11 convenience store and the fruit and veg shop on the corner.
There's not much of Christmas to be seen in those places, oh,
except for the fruit and veg shop where they have shipped in half-metre
long Korean Carrots (no exaggeration)! I don't follow any kind
of media, and thinking about it, as there is no queen to broadcast
to the nation at 3pm the TV networks would just get stuck for
schedule content on the big day!
New Year on
the other hand is a HUGE affair, with much celebration and tradition.
2002 is Year of The Horse, so you can't move for street vendors
selling new year postcards plastered with the four-legged creatures.
If you write "New Years Card" on your envelopes, the
post office will hold them for you, and deliver them all together
on the day - another fantastic example of the effeciency of the
Japanese service industry!
I am going
to be diving headfirst into the tradition, by joining my girlfriend
at her parents home 5 hours west of Tokyo. Having already met
her father I am really looking forward to the holiday - he's a
very funny man and makes just the same kind of jokes as my dad...hmmm!!
Kae's mother (having had a good report from her husband following
his recent visit to Tokyotv) has been phoning up to ask what kind
of tea, bread and everything else under the sun I like so that
she can get everything ready for us. Oh help, what am I letting
myself in for?!!! I shall be using my Japanese language skills
to the full I hope. Oh yes, whilst on that subject, today I made
quite a breakthrough on that score - I managed to read my first
advertisement on the Subway. Well, first bit of an ad written
in Japanese. (It was the government health warning printed at
the bottom of a cigarette ad!). I have almost mastered th first
alphabet (Hiragana) and will shortly be moving on to Katakana.
The kanji (chinease characters adopted by the Japanese) can wait!
has been great fun. Saturday night we walked over to Soh's house
for dinner and a few bottles of wine and champagne (with a couple
of beers beforehand). Soh is a fantastic Italian cook (having
lived in Firenze for almost a year): he, Kurichan and Aya are
all studying Italian in Tokyo at the same university as Kaechan.
The food was just the best, but the hangover was the worst I think
I've had this year.
Sunday I met
up with Yuko, whom I haven't seen since I left Switzerland in
September. She makes me laugh so much... So good to see her again.
And that brings
us to today:
Oh yes Sweety,
lovie darling, it really was quite exquisite... today saw my return
to the theatre after a break of a good few years. No, not to act,
but to spectate from the lofty heights of the back row of THE
most famous theatre in Japan, Kabuki-za,
in Ginza, central Tokyo.
performance begins at 11am, and runs right through until approximately
7pm. A prime seat for the entire performance will set you back
about £90 ($130), although we managed to get tickets for
back-row standing spots - a bargain at £5! There is a break
between each act that enables folks like us to just watch an hour
or so of the performance, whilst those who are there for the day
bring o-bento (packed lunches) to help them through the hours.
has a great history, dating back to around the year 1600. It was
created by Okuni, a shrine maiden from the Izumo Shrine. Her performances
in the dry river beds of the ancient capital of Kyoto caused a
sensation and soon their scale increased and a number of rival
companies arose. Early Kabuki was much different from what is
seen today and was comprised mostly of large ensemble dances performed
by women. Most of these women acted as prostitutes offstage and
finally the government banned women from the stage in an effort
to protect public morales. This ban on women, though, has often
been seen as a good move because it necessitated the importance
of skill over beauty and put more stress on drama than dance,
putting Kabuki on the path to become a dramatic art form. Another
development was the appearance of "onnagata" female
role specialists, men who played women."
there is not a woman to be seen on stage, and the actors are the
most female men I've ever seen! It is not possible to simply "become"
a Kabuki actor. You must be born into a "Kabuki Family"
- from the age of about three you will be taught the art of your
father and brothers.
couldn't understand a word of what was said, I really enjoyed
it. The timing of the subtle movements of the actors was fantastic.
Perfectly in tune with the twang-twang music (from a Shamisen
- guitar like instrument) and the singing of the musicians. The
musicians take a very active role, at times uttering the words
of the characters as they dance, or shouting cries to emphasise
most startling element of the performance is the audience participation.
At strategic points people will shout out the names of the actors
in support of them. If I hadn't read about this custom before
going in I really would have felt that something was horribly
All in all,
it was a great experience. Certainly different from the last performance
I saw by the Royal Shakespeare Society!
and my best wishes for the New Year of The Horse, 2002.
and a big smile on my face that is 100% genuine,
18th December 2001
The Japanese beer has been flowing very well for the past week
as the End of Year / Christmas / New Year season swings into action.
Last week saw it kick off with a night of attempted seduction
by a couple of Japanese colleagues on a mad night of endless cocktails
in a Shinjuku bar. The effects are still being felt... My English
lessons on Wednesday and Thursday night were crazy with educational
plans being swallowed up and replaced by a couple of hours and
talk on the things in life that really matter... With videos only
60p for a week's rental, a stack of Woody Allen and Trainspotting-style
yarns ensured that dreams were bizarre and lucid... Milk was the
destination for an all-nighter on Friday, but the beats were so
hardcore we headed home on the last train - boy do we love sleep!
A Saturday afternoon visit to the peaceful botanical gardens of
Shinjuku Gyoen was followed on the Sunday by our return to a local
karaoke box where I graced the airwaves with my sweet tones of
"Your Song", "Champagne Supernova" and "Puff
the Magic Dragon" (captured on videotape for future release).
Lisa "Daft Northern Bint" (affectionate title only)
from Cumbria and the recently-singled Rebecca (Australia) are
my vital sidekicks at the office - together we made it heroically
through today's Monday with much hysteria and hung-over antics.
Lisa's the kind of classy lady who whiles away her freetime by
painting her nails (with a red biro used for marking essays),
whilst sweeping the board at the oscars for lovliest northerner
I've ever known... What would I do without them? Tonight saw a
visit by kae (my girlfriend) and I to a Yokonomiyaki restaurant,
one of my favourite types of Japanese food - you are given the
raw ingredients such as egg, cabbage, prawns, bean- sprouts, cheese
and so on, and you cook it yourselves on a the gas fired cooker-table
you're sitting cross-legged at... it's great, but be careful you
don't burn the tongue as I did when eating it with the mini-metal
spatulas that double as cooking implements (at least it took my
attention away from my ulcer)
are in the world, I hope you are having a good day, just don't
forget to live for the day...