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Archive for the ‘Japan 2018’ Category

Those of you who are familiar with Japanese cuisine  would recognize the name of a popular conveyance for a mid-day meal.  Plastic or wood, lacquered or enamelled, to call them just a “lunch box”, is like calling tango just a dance:  it may fit in the same genre, but the underlying meaning might be very different. 

A Bento Box is an expression of a mother’s care, a wife’s devotion (or indifference) and a single persons defiant independence.  Like a Bento Box, Tokyo is incredibly clean, the city (or Box) divided into neighbourhoods which are discrete entities, and the city is clever or beautiful or charming in design by turn.  And much more green than than we expected:  there are many public parks for walking through, preferably in a Zen state of mindfulness, or just for admiring from a distance ( like the huge ones for the personal use of the Emperor and family).

In totality, the city is unfailingly neat. Precise.  As are most of its inhabitants. 

 

An unexpected and welcome feature of our visit to Tokyo was the attention paid to personal hygiene.  Unlike in Beijing, where you must “mouth breathe” to survive in the crowded subway cars, nothing to do with bodily functions and odors is left to chance here:  most Japanese bath once a day, and some women bath twice.  The toilets themselves made me giggle, and when was the last time you laughed out loud while on the toilet?  There are buttons which control the pressure of the spray of water up your nether regions, fast or slow, front or back, and then will deodorize and clean the bowl after you go. When Artifical Intelligence is applied to bodily functions, the Japanese will be the first to apply “deep learning” algorithms to the lower intestine.  

Another completely inexplicable (to us)  passion of the Japanese was Kabuki Theatre.  These highly stylized and formal plays were created  around the time of Shakespeare.  Of course Shakespeare’s plays are now performed by both men and women, but the Kabuki tradition is still male.  (And that is just one of the ways in which a favorable bias toward males is displayed in Japan:  this is not a culture that has embraced gender equality.) The audience was very engaged, clapping enthusiastically at points in the action or dialogue that meant nothing to Ben and I.  Apparently, the play we saw has been “wildly popular”  for 400 years! So we returned our simulcast displays and snuck out during intermission.  

We spent some time in 2 art major galleries:  the beautiful Nezu was full of Japanese treasures from the Bronze Age and gorgeous grounds, some captured in my photos. The National Arts Museum had a special exhibit of Impressionist paintings, collected  in the 19th & early 20th century by a wealthy European businessman and art lover.  That exhibit was packed, with people 3 deep,  proceeding silently in an orderly fashion from painting to painting.  I asked our guide why it was so popular and she said well, it’s a national holiday but also, the Japanese will revere anything that is also revered in the West.  Hence all of the Prada skirts and Louis Vuitton bags I presume. 

I don’t pretend to understand or be able to communicate the nuances of Japanese culture:  the movie “Lost in Translation” actually made sense after only a day here.  For example, Ben called the incessant bowing, “Death by a Thousand Thank -Yous”.   Now, we are staying in one of the city’s  top hotels, so sure, a little “bowing and scraping” might be expected.  But they do tend to fall over each other.  Their smiles actually became broader when they learned that we are Canadians.  

How could I forget another mystery to Western eyes, Sumo Wrestling!  We went to a small “sumo stable”, one that had been prominent in its time but no longer.    What surprised me was the obvious dedication and physical effort these young men (the oldest was 37) put into their daily morning routines. ( I thought the “sport” was just 2 obese guys noisily pushing each other around).  About 30 minutes into the practice, they were sweating, red with exertion and from being slapped, pushed and pummelled by the other fellows.  Two men lined up across from each other in a small circle of  sand , crouched down on all fours, ape like, staring each other down.  When one made his move, they smashed into the other, trying to get purchase on a chest, an arm or the piece of cloth wrapped around the loins (and no, there were no wardrobe malfunctions, and given the pimply state of some exposed bums, it would not have been a thrill. There was one cute one though)   The objective was to push the other either on his back or out of the ring, and the bouts were fast and furious.  They practice daily for only 6 competitions a year  that take place in major cities on raised platforms surrounded by a least a thousand fans. As a national sport, it is diminishing in popularity, being replaced by more lucrative spectator sports like basketball and baseball.

 

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Very little gets me out of bed early in the morning.  The aroma of coffee perhaps.  The sound of the Sunday newspaper hitting the front door.  The prospect of heading out predawn to a fish market, could only happen in Tokyo.

My destination is Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world, and the source of fish and seafood for chefs, specialty fish and grocery stores all over the globe. There are high end sushi chefs  in New York that design their evening menus around what is fresh and best at Tsukiji this morning.

Since I chose to put this market visit  on our Tokyo itinerary (and dragged poor Ben along) I made a sincere effort to be, if not alert, at least not comatose.  In ill fitting rubber boots and neon bright vests, we met our attractive young guide at the hotel at 4:20am and the handsome sushi chef just outside the market. (He does not have a restaurant:  he is a chef who is great demand by a global, celebrity filled clientele.  If you had to choose between say, David Chang of Momofuku restaurant fame, and this fellow, I know who I would pick 🙂 We were warned repeatedly about getting in the way of the small one man forklifts that buzz around the stalls like determined hornets at a picnic.

The normal, almost excessive, politeness of Japanese culture does not apply here.   This is a place of business, most of which happens between the hours of 4 and 5.  In the words of my Finn friend, “You Snooze, You Lose”.

Our chef host for the morning was a good customer of the wholesaler who provided our passage into the market.  (The public is allowed in at 10, after the real commercial action is over. ) After the shrimp and tuna auctions, we walked carefully to their stall  to watch the process of breaking down a large fresh tuna, dodging forklifts, trucks, and splashing in puddles tinged with blood. But absolutely no fishy smell, anywhere!

Even at wholesale prices, these fish are expensive:  the one in my photo was $6,000 USD.  (Whole tuna prices have exceeed half a milllion!) First, the carcass is carefully partitioned into quarters along the length and then sliced through with an extremely long specialized knife:  it was at least 10’! The  man was incredibly focused as he sliced into that tough shimmery grey skin, looking for just the right angle to separate out the precious loin.

Next, an expert butcher carefully sliced off large portions for sale to high end sushi restaurants.  For a watchful restaurant customer, (she had already taken photos of her chosen piece, presumably to email back to the chef) he cut and packaged up a sizeable chunk like it was a delicate piece of Japanese porcelain.  Our guide told us that sushi of this grade is reserved for special occasions, perhaps seen on a family table only a couple of times a year.

The details are still being finalized, but soon the 82 year old market will be moved to a new location outside of the city.   It is showing its age, with its rusted girders, bare bulb lights hanging down and ramshackle stalls. Only 2/3 of the stalls here will move with it and a lot of traditional family businesses like this wholesaler will disappear.

 

 

 

 

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