Thursday, 25 November 2010

giving thanks

 Japan celebrated Labor Thanksgiving day last Tuesday, another public holiday with no discernible ceremonies attached to it. I was fortunate enough to spend the day in the company of these fine folks in an old ship factory in the outskirts of Osaka dressed like a mischief-maker out of Alice in Wonderland.

MY WAY: A fashion show/performance piece organized by my friend Yu (standing beside me --->) and her compatriots as part of an all-day event of art, performance and music under the auspices of ONDO, an experimental music group out of Osaka.

How does a mild-mannered American like myself end up at such an event? The tale is long, with a few twists and turns, but here's the short version: Yu, who I met last summer, recruited me to model the clothes of one of her friends at MY WAY. (A talented artist herself, Yu also made her own outfit complete with headdress)

The venue

Alas, I didn't have much time for photographs during the event itself, but suffice to say that it involved purpose-made techno music, a large number of water-filled plastic bags, live painting, toilet paper-tossing, skipping, dancing, and general mayhem. I followed my instructions ("hmmm..... act like a dandy!"), honed over weeks of practice, by prancing around the scene and striking dramatic poses as if I were a 17th-century European princeling having my portrait taken.  

Needless to say, it was loads of fun. 

I witnessed many interesting/bizarre performances that day during lulls in preparation: A dance troupe flailing as if tossed about by a typhoon, a kimono-clad woman writhing on an oversized freshly painted scroll, a lively 3-piece punk band, and of course, the hosts themselves, ONDO. To their pulsing techno beats the lead singer added guttural chants and high pitched yelps, distributing drumsticks to the audience and inviting us to bash the cymbals strategically placed throughout the room to our hearts' content. Discordant, yes, but very, very danceable :)

As I write this, many of you in America are probably waking up to the real Thanksgiving. Christmas, with its potent blend of yuletide cheer and orgiastic consumerism, will always be king of the holidays. For me, though, Thanksgiving holds many of the warmest memories -  easy, chat-filled hours of vegetable cutting and pie-filling in my Uncle Roland's kitchen, the gut-busting gloriousness of the meal itself, the warm, pleasant stupor that follows. The idea of giving thanks, of appreciating the bounty of relationships as well as material wealth we are all blessed with, also appeals to me deeply despite my equally deep agnosticism. 

With that in mind, let me give thanks. For the fortunate accident of material bounty, yes, but far more so for the interpersonal wealth I've been blessed with all my life, For my large, loving, almost comically diverse family, of course. But also for friends and lovers met in far-flung places like Maryland and Massachusetts, Hawai'i and Japan. For those ties that endure through the years, and for the serendipity of bonds freshly formed. 

This last point brings me back to MY WAY, to my new friends who dressed me in tights and welcomed me with warmth and humor despite my clumsy Japanese and clumsier modeling gait.  Thanks to them, Tuesday became for me an occasion to marvel at the small mysteries of human togetherness. So has tonight :)

Sunday, 21 November 2010

From recent reading, apropos of nothing in particular:

"Reality can have metaphorical content; that does not make it less real."

 -Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

Saturday, 13 November 2010


I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, preparing, and eating food. Here are some pics: 

Mapo Dofu - great on cold days. In lieu of Szechuan peppper, I used Blair's After Death hot sauce, which imparts a surprisingly subtle flavor. Recipe here.

Oyako-don, which literally translates into "parent-child bowl," a name for the chicken and egg stew that might not appeal to American sensibilities. Still, warm and filling with brown rice on the bottom :)

Eringi mushrooms - yummy just sauteed with garlic in olive oil. I put this picture up because I like the mushroom mascot, who looks mildly peeved that he's about to be chopped up and eaten.

From a delightful beachside barbecue two months ago with my old host family in Tokushima: 

An oversized oyster, plucked from the water a few minutes earlier by my old host-dad.

 I harvested this guy myself. Fresh sea-urchin tastes like the sea in a very interesting and refreshing way - just suck out the orange goop! 

What a handsome lad! 

I ♡ Osaka

I've already lost count of the number of times made the trip up to Osaka from little Arida. Though Tokyo is bigger (largest city in the world, by some counts), and Kyoto is older and prettier, Osaka has a charm all its own. The city was flattened by Allied bombs sixty-five years ago, so its current incarnation contains little of interest to those seeking the photogenic Japan of ancient shrines and temples, atmospheric samurai haunts, zen rock gardens and the like. Indeed, Osaka seems animated by an entirely different ethos than such places of quiet contemplation - a famous mercantile spirit, loud, lively, and gregarious. It's embodied in the city's stereotypical greeting もうかりまっか? mo kari makka?("How's business?"), and most of all on the busy streets of neighborhoods like Namba and Shinsaibashi (above), where the nasal cries of shopkeepers rises above the hum of the flowing crowd.       

Kushi katsu - Fried meat on a stick a la japonaise 
Osaka's also been known as a food city ever since it was dubbed the "kitchen" of the old empire many hundreds of years ago. Okonomiyaki, a savory pancake made with eggs and cabbage, and tako-yaki, fried octopus balls,  are its most famous dishes - tasty and filling - but I always make a point of visiting one of the city's many ramen joints when I'm in town: 

"Full of Happiness Ramen" with extra pig :)
...twenty tasty minutes later
Last month in Shinsaibashi, I stumbled upon the grand opening of UniQlo's world flagship store. UniQlo, for those those of you who don't live in NYC or don't follow these trends, is Japan's answer to the Gap - (relatively) inexpensive clothing favored by youthful consumers/consumers wishing to look youthful.  The line stretched around a very long city block, but I had to see the interior for myself: 

It was somewhat terrifying.
The wall-to-wall mirrors made the very large crowd seem to stretch to infinity. On the second floor, I saw a large group of middle-aged women attacking a pile of sweaters marked for clearance as the staff looked on helplessly. I stood no chance.  Giving up any hope of finding winter wear, I fled for a crepe shop across the street. 
Nonsensical graffiti -  The Japanese translates as "so what?"
Osaka, then, is mecca of consumption of all types (the neon nightlife will get a post of its own once I get some photos). Like a fair number of recent college graduates, I have a love/hate relationship with capitalism - my Marx-Engels Reader made the trip across the Pacific with me - but I can't deny that I feel the allure of creative destruction when I walk the streets of Namba, that I hear something vital in the merchant's high-pitched cries outside their shops. Watching the crowd stream through Shinsaibashi's broad corridors, I sense a power much greater than myself, as if I stand in the presence of a giant, endless  serpent. And to join that crowd, to feel like a blood cell in one of the city's great arteries, can be exhilarating or infuriating depending on one's state of mind.
But that's enough for my attempts at figurative language. Blood cells don't sit around pondering the vastness of the circulatory system they're a part of. I ♡ Osaka for the same reason that anyone loves a place - because it's been the setting of some very good memories, and promises to give me many more.  

Monday, 1 November 2010

"The bar run by fishermen!" and the kindness of tipsy old men

This is my new favorite restaurant - "The izakaya (Japanese-style bar) run by fishermen" as the sign proudly proclaims in local dialect. My good friend T. and I first stepped in here last friday on a whim, drawn by its distinctive name and diminutive size (barely larger than my living room). The interior is warm and a little dark, the wooden walls adorned with pictures of fishing boats and their captains. Two men seated next to us recommended the managatsuo (butterfish) and maru-aji (horse mackerel) sashimi -  "we caught 'em this morning!" - before launching into an impassioned monologue on the wiliness of the maru-aji. This fish, apparently, does not reveal itself to just any fisherman, but moves from cave to cave with the tides, revealing itself only to those with the requisite intuition and good karma.  I'll spare you any overly pornographic description of the grub, but suffice it to say that the sashimi, and the fried octopus, and the stewed fish-tails, were awesome. Top it off with a warm cup of sake, and we have the stuff of dreams.

Feeling the pull of that warm sake on this cold autumn night, I returned to the izakaya run by fisherman a few hours ago. I'd be lying if I denied enjoying my minor celebrity status here in Arida, the locals' unabashed curiosity at my tall American presence in their midst, the inevitable compliments on how good my work-in-progress Japanese is. (This exoticness has its flip side, of course, but that's for another post.) Tonight I dined with the president of a local oil barrel manufacturer and his companion, both of whom showed an interest in America beyond the usual comments about how far away it is.

president: "It looks like Mr. Obama is in trouble in the upcoming election, eh?"

me: "I'm a big fan of his."

companion: "Me too! I feel bad for President Obama - he gets no credit for all the work he's done with his policies. And that Tea Party...."

president: "It's a gap between rhetoric and action. Mr. Obama seems stuck inside his own head and, unfortunately, he's going to pay for it."

My Obama-sympathizing companions left an hour later, but not before leaning over the counter and whispering to the bar's masuta ("master"), "Carter's dinner's on me!

The masuta's wife gave me a mischievous smile as the door closed behind them: "Well aren't you lucky?"

"Yes. Yes I am."