Friday, April 15, 2005

Four four K's that my prefecture is famous for, and all about pollen in Japan

Last week a woman looked out her window and saw smoke rising in some nearby mountains. She promptly called the fire department, who went up to fight the fire, only to find that it hadn't been smoke that the lady had seen, but massive sheets of pollen kicked up by the Spring winds. Yes, Japan can be a nightmare for people with allergies, with many pollen-producing plants that torment allergy sufferers at various times of the year. One of the worst offenders are sugi trees, Japanese cedars that pump pollen into the air from January to April. I'm sometimes asked why Japanese wear those white face masks which became prevalent throughout Asia during the SARS scare. The masks help protect others from a person's germs, and also hopefully reduce the amount of allergens breathed into the body.

If you ever travel around Japan, you'll quickly pick up on how each region of Japan promotes certain things that it's supposedly famous for, called meibutsu (lit. "famous things"), which are often types of food. Nagoya is famous for curry upon, fat noodles in a curry soup, and if you go to Osaka, be sure to eat takoyaki, balls of batter with octopus meat inside, and sauce and sliced bonito flakes on top. Kyushu is known for tonkotsu ramen, with a white pork-based soup, and our own Gunma Prefecture is famous for "four K's": katsudon (pork cutlet cooked in a delicious sauce), konyaku (a firm, gelatinous food known as Devil's Tongue in English), kara-kaze (the cold, biting wind that blows in the winter) and kakaa-denka (strong-willed women who run their households with an iron fist). Gunma is famous for another reason: the plane carrying singer Kyu Sakamoto crashed here in 1985 in a terrible accident that claimed 520 lives. Kyu was the singer of the Sukiyaki Song, known as Ue O Mite Aruko (I Look Up When I Walk), which became the #1 song in the U.S. in 1963. He also sang the popular song Ashita ga Aru Sa (There is a Tomorrow), which became the unofficial theme song of the Japanese economic recession.

Do you have a cat's tongue? If so, it means that you can't eat hot food or drink hot drinks, just like a cat. The Japanese say that anyone who avoids hot food has a cat's tongue (neko jita). What is you have a lazy eye? If so, then you are "rom-pari" which is Japanese for "Rome, Paris" -- i.e. one eye is looking at Rome and the other is looking at Paris. If you're thinning on top, you might have "bar code hair." And if you sneeze, the Japanese say that someone must be gossiping about you -- one sneeze means someone is saying something good about you, two means they're saying something bad, and three sneezes means you've caught a cold. Or something like that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Weird Japanese food, and my collected wisdom from living in Japan

Japanese food is famous for containing things not usually eaten by Westerners, something which I was reminded of when my mother and nephew were staying with us. The Japanese eat a lot of raw fish in the form of sushi (raw fish on rice) and sashimi (cut raw fish eaten by itself), and such delicacies from the sea as ika (squid), tako (octopus) and ikura (salmon roe) are not on the menus in most American homes. Another interesting food the Japanese eat is natto, fermented soybeans, which are very good for you -- my kids know I hate it, so they come and breathe natto breath on me as a joke. Although not common, I've eaten basashi (raw horse meat), a delicacy from Kyushu, and I've also had deer, turtle and alligator at exotic Chinese restaurants, too. Some people also enjoy inago (cooked locusts) and hachinoko (bee larvae, ugh). My wife loves to eat miso soup with whole crab inside, and she scrapes the kanimiso or crab's brains out so that it mixes with the soup. Perhaps the most bizarre food in Japan is shiokara, the intestines of squid, sometimes pickled in saltwater. If you ever come to Japan, don't worry about these odd foods -- there are plenty of normal alternatives for you to eat instead.

During my time in Japan I've picked up various knowledge, some of it pretty useless. Totoro is originally based on the troll from Billy Goats Gruff, and Mei and Satsuki are both born in the month of May (Satsuki is the old Japanese name for the fifth month of the year, and Mei's name comes from the English word May). Alien Baltan, the crab-like creature that Ultraman battles, gets his name from the homeworld of Mr. Spock, since Vulcan and Baltan sound very similar in Japanese, and Godzilla's many-headed nemisis King Ghidorah's name comes from the fact that "Hydra" in Japanese is pronounced "hee-dora." Char's Counterattack, the film in which the two heroes of the Gundam universe have their final battle, should really be called Char Strikes Back, since its title in Japanese sounds similar to the Japanese title of the Empire Strikes Back. Spielber's film E.T. is almost certainly based on a Japanese fairy tale called Taketori Monogatari (Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), about a couple who find a baby in a bamboo forest which turns out to be a princess from the moon. And although I didn't know it at the time, the small hibachi we used to cook hamburgers on our apartment balcony when I was a child is a Japanese word -- but in Japan, a hibachi is a great hearth found in homes dating back a hundred years or more.

The most famous dog in the history of Tokyo is Hachiko, an Akita dog who was owned by a university professor in the 1920's. Every day, Hachiko accompanied the professor to Shibuya Station, and in the evenings, the man would come back to find the dog waiting faithfully at the station, a happy expression on his face. This continued for years, until one day, the man died suddenly. Loyal Hachiko waited for his master to return for ten years, wagging his tail in front of the station every day until he, too, died. Tokyo residents have erected a bronze statue in Hachiko's memory, which you can see at the Hachiko exit of the station if you're ever in Tokyo. It's so famous, it's very useful as a meeting point for friends -- "Meet me at Hachiko."

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Season of the Sakura in Japan, and all about motorcycling across Japan

It's sakura time in Japan right now, as cherry blossoms around the country explode in beautiful fireworks of pink. This year was very rare: because it was so cold last month, the cherry blossoms were at least two weeks late in opening. A few days ago the weather turned very warm, and the sakura bloomed with a vengeance, attaining zenkai (when the flowers are fully opened) in less than a day. Cherry trees are very common in Japan, and virtually every city has parks and avenues with beautifully landscaped sakura trees. In addition to weather forecasts, the TV news issues "sakura reports" that give information on the state of cherry blossoms in every prefecture, and over the weekend Japan was clogged with happy people doing hanami, or flower-viewing, basically an excuse to spread out a blanket and have a party with friends while enjoying the beauty of the flowers all around you. Although she's just eight, my daughter is a very spiritual person, and she remarked that there are a lot of sakura trees near the small graveyards that dot rural areas in Japan. It was good, she said, that the "hotoke-sama" (a word that describes both Buddha and the spirits of one's dead ancestors) can enjoy the beautiful flowers and be happy. Unfortunately the season of the sakura is all too short: already the flower petals are starting to fall, and in a week they'll be gone.

Japan has a lot to offer foreigners who come to live here, with something different for everyone. Some might experience the country through its martial arts, or submerge themselves in the study of its language. Some fall in love with the famous works of Japanese literature by Souseki Natsume or Yasunari Kawabata, while those with an otaku bent can enjoy a dream life here, surrounding themselves with the icons of their compulsions. And then again, there are the foreigners who experience Japan through motorcycles, cruising around the country and exploring the open road, and I have gaijin friends who find great satisfaction in putting thousands of kilometers on their Harleys or their Kawasakis, trekking to the tops of volcanic mountains to find naturally occurring hot springs and attending festivals in the mountains of far-off Hokkaido. If you'd like to see the travels of some free-spirited foreigners I know, check out this page.

Japan can be a very strange place when it wants to be, as J-List readers are well aware. Now we've gotten in one of the most bizarre ever: a sexy "Girlfriend Knee Pillow" (hiza makura) made of soft injected foam, a perfect replica of a mini-skirted pair of legs for you to lay your head on when you need some care and understanding.