Japanese Books

Every time I am at a Kinokuniya bookstore, I deeply regret not being able to read Japanese.

Why does this book have two covers – with Hippie Bill and with Presidential Bill?

This book is amazing. I still regret not being able to part with $30 to get it, not only for the cover with the Twin Towers, but for the hand-drawn illustrations inside.

Yume

The walls in my apartment are mostly bare. The only hanging pictures I have right now are posters from the Transit Museum store. These are pretty cool, but having the same art in my home and my train is a little depressing.

I was browsing through eBay, looking for — what else — Japanese prints to replace the posters. Since I was little, I wanted to own a real Japanese woodblock print. Not a reproduction. A real print.

When I was working as a porter in a Manhattan building, I once had to help an old lady move a piece of furniture. On her walls hung several small woodblock prints, which to me, looked exactly like the Utamaro reproductions that I’ve seen in a book. They definitely looked old. I asked the old lady about them, and she mentiontioned that she bought them many years ago in an auction for next to nothing.

Now I understand that I overestimated the value of the prints. Ukiyo-e prints were made by tens of thousands even during the lifetime of the authors, not counting the contemporary bootleg copies. The publishers retained the woodblocks and made even more prints later. They still continue to do so today.

It’s true that the museum-quality prints of famous printmakers can cost into hundreds of thousands. But luckily for people like me, collectors of Japanese prints are very similar to the stamp and coin collectors: they put a lot of premium on the condition of the print and its rarity, leaving a wide spectrum of less than perfect, but much more affordable material, which is still impressive as hell. For instance, my research shows that an early edition of a print by a household-name artist like Hokusai or Hiroshige in an average condition can cost as little as a cheap digital SLR camera. With the worsening of the condition the pricing moves into digital point-and-shoot camera price range. But unlike the camera, a real Hiroshige is not likely to diminish in value or become obsolete. Later editions and reprints can be had for the price of a restaurant lunch.

I need to do a lot more research before I’ll buy some prints, probably from an offline dealer, but meanwhile I came upon something interesting on eBay. A hanging calligraphy scroll, the type for hanging in a tokonoma, caught my eye. It had a single kanji, Yume. Yume literally means “dream.” The kanji representing it looked like a person leaping in dance to me. I did not win a bid on it, and went looking for another one like that. To my surprise, the second calligrapher’s “dream” looked like a spooky bird. I did not win that auction either, but I wonder what a whole collection of these would look like on a wall…

I particularly like the brush streaks.

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part VIb : My Three Favorite Meals in Japan

I’ve had three exceptional meals in Japan. The first, and probably my favorite was in a little restaurant located on the grounds of Ryōan-ji, the famous temple with the rock garden. The restaurant is sitting in the middle of a gorgeous garden that is open only to the restaurant patrons. They serve beer and yudofu, a vegetarian stew with tofu and seven herbs.

I am not a fan of vegetarian dishes, but this one completely blew me away by it’s simplicity and clean flavor. I can see how the monks could spend their entire life eating like that.

You eat sitting down on tatami, the traditional way.

We ordered a yudofu set that came with numerous side dishes, of which this is one. It wasn’t cheap at about $60, but was totally worth it. Maybe seeing the rock garden prior to eating this had something to do with it, but this was my favorite meal in Japan.

My second favorite meal was in a little restaurant in Ryogoku, Tokyo’s sumo district. They serve chankonabe, stew traditionally eaten by sumo wrestlers. That was probably one of the most filling and healthiest meals that I’ve ever eaten in Japan – it was mostly protein.

The restaurant was filled with trochees, memorabilia and pictures of sumo wrestlers, many in the restaurant itself and together with their families.

Chankonabe is a meat, seafood and vegetable hot pot. It was prepared right in front of us.

It’s eaten piping hot. I need to cook this at home more often.

Our last meal in Japan happened in a rather famous place, the Sapporo Lion Beer Hall in Ginza. It’s the oldest Japanese beer hall that opened its doors in 1899.

The interior has huge vaulted ceilings, Art Deco and Gothic decor. There’s a huge mosaic over the bar depicting a harvest scene.

The selection of beer is as good as can be expected in a place like this. My favorite was Yebisu Black, which I sadly can’t locate here in the US.

The selection of appetizers was huge too, and we tried several, including this awesome sashimi appetizer. Sadly, despite my advice, my wife ordered a chorizo(!) appetizer (it was the only thing that I did not have that night) and got a bad case of upset stomach later that evening. I was fine, so I guess a historic Japanese beer hall is not a great place for chorizo.

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part VIa : Japanese Food

You know that a have a japonophiliac streak in me, but I can’t honestly say that Japanese cuisine is my favorite. In fact it holds a shaky fourth position, after Vietnamese, Korean and Thai cuisines (in that order). Sushi, sashimi and kushiyaki (stuff on skewers) are great comfort food, and not many things achive the perfection of high quality sashimi (especially if I caught the fish) and fried smelt is probably one of my top 10 favorite foods. But overall, I think Japanese cuisine is all that great, but I still like it better than French and Italian.

Let’s start at the base of Japanese food pyramid. The fast food. I am not going to get into details about Japanese McDonalds and the like. Calling it Macdonurado and making the clown hot and female does not change it much.

Let’s start with the first meal that you might encounter – the bento, the boxed lunch. The sell these in most trains and train stations. The variety of bento is amazing, almost always reflecting the season and featuring fresh local produce. It’s probably the perfect and the best fast food in the world. Sadly, obentos are not popular in the US, which I think might change in the future. The thing that most resembles the bento, the tv dinner, is terrible and thankfully extinct.

Here’s a group of Japanese businessmen enjoying their bentos in a shinkansen. One of my favorite features of Mainichi Daily News is a special feature about bentos written by Shinobu Kobayashi. A bento usually cost about $10. My favorite part of bentos is the little exotic pickles, from lotus root to stuff I can’t even identify. They are like a little surprise – you never know how they’ll taste.

A whole separate category should be devoted to festival junk food. Think the Japanese version of American county fair food.

First, there’s takoyaki, which should be familiar to all I Love Katamari players. Takoyaki are greasy balls of fried batter, filled with chunks of octopus and drenched in mayo, served searing hot. Unhealthy as hell, but great with beer.

Okonomiyaki is sort of Japanese take on pizza. They are also hot and greasy beyond belief, and again, a great drinking food.


Grilled squid on a stick is a popular festival food.

Mitarashi dango are sticky rice flour dumplings on a stick. They are very filling, but not particularly tasty. I liked mochi a bit more.

Fried foods are very popular in Japan, and the idea of deep frying was introduced by Portuguese missionaries. I always thought that it were the Dutch and the word “tempura” refered to “temperature,” but Wikipedia article tells me that it’s from “”ad tempora quadragesimae”, meaning “in the time of Lent””. In any case, tempura is only good when it’s made in front of you, and even then too greasy for my taste. I had a good tempura meal in a moderately expensive tempura place (it set me back something like $50) and I am still underwhelmed. Tempura here in New York is outright horrible.

Japanese cuisine is at its worst when it tries to emulate western food. There’s this class of meals called yoshoku, which means western-style japanese food, and it’s usually horrible. What it reminds me of the most is medieval artists trying to depict elephants and rhinos having for reference only pictures made by other medieval artists who also haven’t seen the real thing. Here’s an gratin of some sort that my wife had:

The variety of convenience store food boggled my mind. Even the most basic student staples like ramen soup are exotic there: here’s one that has real clams in it’s fixin’ package:

While junk food overlows and is dirt cheap, fruit and vegetables generally are very expensive. To make up for enormous prices, they are often local, hand picked, meticulously packaged (sometimes with an autographed photo of the farmer), and of great quality. Here’s a moderately cheap grocery store – those tiny little watermelons are $20 each.

For all the corruption of the west, traditional meals are great. I already covered the phenomenon of the “morning set” in a previous post, so here’s a photo of a traditional Japanese breakfast that I had in a ryokan. It consted of fried salmon, rice, miso soup, seeweed salad, pickles and interestingly shaped egg omlet.

Traditional dinner at ryokan was also great – sashimi, two kinds of seafood salad, pickled shrimp, miso soup, rice and sake. The little pink flower-like thingy is a slice of a special boiled fish cake (I think).

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part V: Japanese Architecture

Pilot: Welcome to Japan, folks. The local time is…tomorrow.
The Simpsons, Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo

If you want to know what Japan is like architecturally, go watch Samurai Jack cartoons. The future world created by Genndy Tartakovsky looks a lot like present day Japan.

I picked some photos of buildings to give you a general idea of what I have seen. Here’s a Habitrails-inspired otaku-infested electronics shop in Akihabara.

Here’s a very elegant Stalinist-style skyscraper somewhere in Tokyo.

Philippe Starck blemished Tokyo skyline with a giant golden turd on the top of Asahi Beer Hall. It’s supposed to symbolize a flame that in turn is supposed to symbolize the company spirit of Asahi. Giggling tourists take a lot of pictures with creative shot framing. By the way, I’ve tried a lot of different beers that Asahi makes, and they all taste like, uh, flame. I, personally like Sapporo much better.

The Japanese society is highly stratified. For instance, in the hotel complex where I was staying there were at least 5 different classes of buildings (each of a different prestige level) and the ANA plane in which I travelled also had 4 or 5 types of seating. On this picture you can see two layers of Japanese society: well-designed plastic huts built by homeless with a backdrop of what I’m told is company-provided employee dorms.

Here’s an amazingly eclectic little building (I think it’s a firehouse). It combines elements of Art Deco, Modernism and traditional Japanese architecture.

And this building is pretty typical of modern designs. I love the huge wrap-around windows, the dna-like staircase and the efficient use of space.

I was most shocked by architecture in Kyoto’s Gion, the geisha district. Near all-traditional Japanese buildings there was a number of super-futuristic mostly metal buildings that looked like spaceships. I think they were nightclubs of some sort. I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere else.

Many building tops had antenna clusters, one more cyber-punkey than the other.

As we all know, land is pretty tight in Japan. Here’s a pretty typical small house somewhere in Kamakura (I think).

What makes construction in such tight quarters possible is this marvel of technology: a cute pocket-sized excavator.

People of Japan in 25 Pictures

A policeman in his booth.

Rikshaw and his passengers in Arashiyama.

Outdoor eatery – Japanese really use a lot of space heaters.

Ryokan owner in Kyoto.

Snack vendors. The surgical masks are worn mostly by allergy sufferers – which due to a high number of pollen-producing Sugi trees planted are about 1 in 5.

Some take pictures of the cherry blossoms, others take a more traditional approach.

Riding on the Shinkansen.

Kids visiting Zeniarai Benten temple.

In a museum.

Akihabara girl handing out promotional packs of napkins – kind of like a booth bunny without a booth.

On a JR train.


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Consulting a fortuneteller.

I was rather surprised at home many people wear kimonos. I noticed that a lot of shopkeepers wear traditional clothing, it must help with projecting the traditional image

Another snack vendor.

Shinkansen driver. Don’t the white gloves make you feel safer somehow?

Squid on a stick vendor

Celebrating Hina Matsuri – Girl’s Day.

Cloth painter. My wife bough a shopping bag with sakura blossom design.

Fishermen.

Lumber vendor in his shop.

Restaurant worker.

On bikes.

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part IVc : Day of the Tentacle

Of course, seafood is not the only thing that’s sold in this gigantic market.

You can buy just about everything seafood related around there, rubber boots, for instance.

There are a lot of knife merchants around that sell mostly Japanese-style knives. I already have a decent set of Japanese Deba Hocho knives, but I just had to buy a souvenir gaff, a miniature version of a hook that everybody in the market used to grab boxes and fish (they are on the right of this display box.

Here’s a merchant sharpening a knife on a waterstone. I have one of those too. Because of their single-sided concave edge, Japanese-style knives are significantly sharper and easier to sharpen than Western knives. Still, getting a really sharp edge is a bit of an art.

There are numerous food stalls around the market. Here’s one of the cooler ones, with a giant steaming pot of something and a dude with a yakuza-like pompadour haircut. This was one of those few places in Japan that refused to serve us, gaijin.

Instead, we went to a sushi place with slightly disturbing decoration: a doomed fish in an aquarium that watches you as you eat. The sushi was very fresh and reasonably priced, but not significantly better than what I am used to in New York.

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part IVb : Day of the Tentacle

The variety of smaller sea creatures sold in the Tsukiji market is mind boggling. Here’s a small sampling of the pictures that I took.

First of all, there are many, many different tentacled monstrocities.

These seem to be destined for sashimi.

Live tiger shrimp.

Deep red color occures more in fish here more frequently than I am used to.

I think this is some kind of sea robin.

This seems to be Alfonsino.

All kinds of unfamiliar bivalves.

There’s stuff that I can’t even identify.

And then, there’s stuff that I, sadly, can identify. This is whale meat. The price tag, if I read it correctly says 3800 yen per kilo. That’s about $20/lb.

Japanese whailing is a highly controvercial practice, and I highly disapprove of it. Having said that, I have to mention that I’ve had whale meat a few times. In the Soviet times whale meat was sometimes sold in stores. People bought it not because it was particularly tasty (it wasn’t), but because regular meat was not available. Fried, it was very tough in texture, and in taste it was like a mix of pork and beef, yet with a fishy aftertaste.

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part IVa : Day of the Tentacle

Tokyo has an awesome tourist attraction for those suffering from jet lag – Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market aka Tsukiji fish market. New York’s Fulton Fish Market used to be a similar tourist attraction, but now it moved to South Bronx, and I am not even sure if it’s still open to the public.

Basically Tsukiji is a labyrinth of hangar-sized buildings and outside stalls surrounded by a sea of traffic.

You are surrounded by running people, zipping bikes, scooters, trucks, forklifts and funny little vehicles propelled by a gas-burning engine of some sort.

Some prefere a more old-fashioned method of transport.

The heart of the market is the famous tuna auction, where buyers bid on giant frozen tuna carcasses. We arrived after it was already over. Sadly, the auctions were closed to the public in 2005, so it seems I missed my chance to see it.

I did get to see the aftermath of the auction – floor littered with 300-500 pound frozen fish that fetch about $20/lb (wholesale). I guess there’s a few hundred thousand dollars worth of sashimi in this picture here.

The fish get picked up by dealers

and taken to be cut up. They are frozen solid, so they can use woodworking saws to cut them up into blocks.

Once thawed, tuna looks much more appetizing.

In fact, big chunks look like giant rubies.

Even the smaller pieces get special treatment.

Nippon on Hudson

What is the the first ever sister city to be twinned with NYC? That’s right, Tokyo, Japan. And nowhere it’s more apparent than in Brooklyn, at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival (aka Sakura Matsuri) that is held at the awesome Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

You know that word that the Naked Chef likes to say a lot? “Pukka”? It turns out to be a Hindi word meaning “authentic” and “first class.” Well, on the minus side many Japanese things in Brooklyn Botanic are not pukka at all.

For instance, the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden is a masterpiece of true Japanese garden design. But the house and the Shinto shrine are empty shells and not authentic at all. If you want to see a real Japanese house you have to go to Philly to see Shofuso. I don’t even know where the closest real Shinto shrine is.

Also, would it kill them to have a decent bento? They always sell the worst bentos ever at Sakura Matsuri. They should totally get in touch with Shinobu Kobayashi, Mainichi Daily News bento specialist.

These are all minor gripes though. I love Sakura Matsuri at Brooklyn Botanic. I especially love the distinctly Brooklyn flavor that it acquires.

How awesome is this lady’s kimono? My wife wore a vintage Haori that we bought in a second hand store in Arashiyama.

Those without cromulent attire can compensate with appropriate coiffure.

Brooklyn badass samurai, wearing dark sunglasses

and cutoff kimonos.

There’s some meditatin’ going on.

And mingling of food.

In the end, you can appreciate the cherry blossoms amongst the throngs of people, just like in Japan. It’s that just that the cops won’t let you get drunk under the cherry trees, like they do in Japan.