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December 27, 2007

"The Zen of Fish" by Trevor Corson (Best Non-Fiction)

This is an engaging book that reads like a page-turner, and on top of that it is also based also on solid research. Only the title The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket strikes the wrong note - it probably was tacked on by an editor who only knew two things about Japan, "Zen" and "Samurai" and who was too fond of alliteration. Zen cuisine is solely vegetarian, fish nor sushi have any place there (perhaps the title is meant to be read in the sense of Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," but even then...). Neither have the Samurai anything to do with sushi, they played out their role long before sushi was invented in Edo as a quick snack for the urban masses.

The author, Trevor Corson, observes the students of a sushi chef training academy in a Japanese restaurant in California during their three month course. (For good measure: in Japan, a sushi chef or itamae trains five years by daily working in a sushi restaurant, where the first year he will be doing only menial tasks and certainly not be allowed to appear in front of guests at the sushi counter!). Condor reports how the students learn to use their sharp knives to filet various kinds of fish in sushi size bites, deftly squeeze the rice, make California Rolls, etc. The reporting focuses on Kate, a twenty year old woman who at first seems singularly unfit to be a sushi chef (she almost feels sick when she has to gut and clean her first fish), but who struggles on and finally succeeds. Together with other sushi novices she has to learn "cooking without cooking," juggling the razor-sharp knives, and coping with Zoran, their demanding teacher, not to speak of fighting the prejudice against female chefs.

Still, this narrative framework is not the best part of the book, as the story looses itself all too frequently in "human interest" which is mostly rather trivial. Corson could have cut away some flab here. I am sorry for the humans, but the real heroes of the book are the fish.

Indeed, it was the bizarre behavior of the creatures that come on top of sushi that kept me glued to these pages. Corson, who earlier wrote a book called The Secret Life of Lobsters, delves into the mysteries of tuna and yellowtail, the biology of eel and squid, the natural history of sea bream and salmon.

He looks at the origins of sushi (a way of preserving fish, the rice was originally thrown away) and provides valuable suggestions for the best way of eating the bite-sized delicacy (without chopsticks and without soaking it in soy sauce!). And did you know that sashimi refers to any kind of raw meat, not only fish? Or how rare (and expensive) real, freshly grated wasabi is and that you usually are served a cheap and indifferently tasting mustard paste instead?

In addition, we get an inside report an the Aspergillus Oryzae, the mold used in making miso paste, but also for brewing Sake, as well as a lesson how to perfectly cook the short grained rice for sushi. We learn about parasites in mackerel, the role of amino acids in Japans fifth taste, umami, the mysterious mating of eels and the important role an English woman played for Japan's nori (laver) industry.

The natural history, related in an entertaining, dramatic way, and the culinary insights are the real strenghts of this book. It helps you bluff your way to connoisseurship next time you visit a sushi restaurant: sit down at the counter and ask the chef for an omakase meal. You will be served the best and freshest ingredients the chef has been able to procure that day, but first check the contents of your wallet, as an "omakase" in one of the sushi shops covered in the Michelin Guide to Tokyo will set you back hundreds of dollars per person! (This humble writer prefers the financial safety of conveyor-belt sushi...).
Trevor Corson's website has a lot of interesting background information.

Best Non-Fiction

Art

(Auto-) Biography

Culture
Food & Drink
Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson

History

Literature

Memoirs
The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig

Music

Philosophy

Religion
The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering
Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler

Science

Travel
The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.

December 21, 2007

Book Review: Michelin Guide Tokyo

The publishing of the first Michelin guide for Asia, dedicated to Tokyo restaurants, has set tongues wagging in Japan. The first printing sold out in no time, many of the establishments treated in the guide are fully booked until far into the new year. Michelin has awarded more stars to Tokyo than to any other city in the world (191 stars for 150 restaurants) and 60% of the restaurants included are Japanese cuisine. Eight restaurants received three stars, 25 two stars and the rest, 117 places, received one star - for the first time in history, Michelin has awarded stars to all restaurants that were included in the guide.

A big hurrah for Tokyo as the gourmet capital of the world! With his 82 years, sushi chef Ono Jiro became the oldest chef in the world to be awarded three stars. That was after his son had said publicly that he did not think Michelin could understand Japanese sushi culture, so this was a shrewd political move by the French.

And as usual the Japanese are caught between feelings of satisfaction that Michelin has awarded so many stars to Tokyo and the criticism that it is difficult for foreigners to understand Japanese food. There has been an outcry (in several cases justified) that certain famous chefs and restaurants were not included and as much surprise that others not on the monitor of Japanese food journalists received a prominent place in the guide (but isn't that the function of any good guide, to discover new places for us?).

Critical pundits claim that the inspectors looked too much with French eyes (although there were 3 French but also 2 Japanese inspectors) as places with a good (=French) wine list seem to have scored high... or in general with gaijin eyes as also kappo-restaurants with a wooden counter where you can see the chef at work did well. On the other hand, although Tokyo is first and for all a city with an international cuisine (the best Japanese food can be found in Kyoto!), only few Chinese, Italian, and other non-French/non-Japanese restaurants were included.

To these criticisms one could answer that Michelin has measured restaurants in central Tokyo along an international standard, and that in itself is a new and interesting endeavor. That the list of places Michelin admires is different from that in Japanese guides, is only refreshing and logical regarding the international standard used - although it is also logical that the Japanese are shocked that a guide with such a famous brandname refuses to recognize some of Tokyo's most famous branded chefs and restaurants.

But there is another question in my mind: who needs a guide like this? Who can burn 50,000 yen on a single, one-person sushi course? You have to an expat with a generous expense account, or a "parasite single" OL - although these ladies will of course opt for French food a la Joel Robuchon (with 6 new stars the great winner of Michelin). We ordinary mortals can only hope to visit these food temples on very special occasions, and even then... In that respect, a shortcoming of Michelin is that it only includes the creme de la creme, and not a broader selection, reason why the French themselves prefer the Gault Millau guide, which in addition has more detailed reviews.

A Japanese friend told me he did not need Michelin because as a gourmet he could rely on his own tongue to know which Japanese restaurants were good. I would like to put it in other words: what Michelin with its shower of stars has demonstrated is that the average level of restaurants in Japan is exceptionally high. It is difficult to go wrong in this country, and we can only be happy that for every restaurant selected by Michelin there are hundreds of others of more or less the same quality, which have not been hyped and where prices therefore are much lower. There is a whole food world out there to discover!

October 28, 2007

"Modern Japanese Cuisine" by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka (Best Non-Fiction)

With Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity Katarzyna J. Cwiertka has written the best book about Japanese food culture I know. It is much more than the title says: this essay is not only about modern cuisine, that is to say how the Japanese came to eat meat and other outlandish dishes, but much more importantly, it reveals how Japanese food as such was defined. Like many other “typically Japanese” cultural experiences, washoku, the “traditional” Japanese cuisine was only devised in the late 19th - 20th century, after Japan opened its gates to the world.

Take rice, which is still considered as an almost sacred, Ur-Japanese basic food: in pre-modern times rice was only eaten by a few percent of the population, the upperclasses, the rest – including those who cultivated it – could not afford it. Farmers paid their taxes in rice and only in very good years could they eat some of it, mixed with other grains and vegetables – and that was not the present-day white rice. White rice was introduced with a vengeance by the military in the Meiji-period: the boys who joined the ranks, had the privilege to eat nothing but white rice for the first time, and many of them lost their lives before they reached the battlefield, as a diet of only white rice causes beri-beri due to Vitamin B1 deficit, but that was not known yet in the early 20th c.

Meat for a vegetarian nation
Western food was introduced at state banquets during the early Meiji years, the period of "Civilization and Enlightenment," which included the lifting of the ban on meat which had been first issued in 675. Although the Japanese did eat seafood and some game, since the 16th c. the eating of meat of domesticated animals as cows was in fact taboo. That was not so much religious (Buddhist) but rather practical: draft animals were needed for food production, there was no space among the rice paddies that constituted the Japanese countryside (and were necessary for tax payments as we have seen) for even small-scale cattle husbandry. Meat was eaten seldom and then only for medicinal reasons.

Many Japanese thought those partaking of meat had a bad smell and that was undoubtedly the case with the British (who in the 19th c. ate nothing but meat, they conveniently believed vegetables were unhealthy) and other Westerners, who only on rare occasions took a bath in contrast to the clean Japanese. So it needed the authority of no one else than the Emperor to break the cultural ban: in 1872 it was officially declared that the Emperor was partaking of meat on a regular basis.

Treaty port recipes
It was still a long way to a sufficient supply of good meat and to multicultural gastronomy but here the Treaty Ports played an important part. The Westerners living in Japan of course kept their own cuisine as much as possible (they considered the “native food” as “inferior”) and taught their Japanese servants how to cook these. These cooks later set up their own restaurants, usually exclusive ones. Hotels catering to foreigners also started restaurants offering yoshoku, Western dishes, first cooked by foreign cooks, later by their Japanese apprentices. All this was rather expensive, but from the mid-twenties on large department stores as Mitsukoshi and Matsuya started setting up affordable Western-style restaurants, finally making multicultural menus available to the urban masses. Yoshoku was predominantly Anglo-Saxon, so we find beef, croquettes, rolled cabbage, omelet and of course curry rice – introduced by British expats who had served in India, but quickly made their own by the Japanese.

Military menus
The largest role not only in normalizing such multicultural dishes but also in defining the national cuisine was played by the military. After all, all Japanese males, half the population, had to serve as conscripts and eat what they were served. This experience shaped their future food preferences. The military introduced white rice as the centerpiece of the meal, as we saw, and added soy sauce as a crucial flavoring agent. They would also include miso soup. What set the military apart from the rest of the population was the inclusion of “multicultural” side dishes: popular were curries, croquettes and Chinese stir-fries. The reasons were practical: the men came from all over Japan and had different tastes where Japanese food was concerned but all liked the new, multicultural dishes. Moreover, these were easy to handle with a modern, military catering system.

Home cooking
In these years also the home meal was reformed. Women became devoted shufu, housewives of nuclear families, and they governed their katei, their home, as they were supposed to do for most of the 20th century. Not only were cooking schools established where housewives could learn modern home cooking, a host of women’s magazines also helped them on the way with recipes – there were even very popular recipe contests. But also home cooking was multicultural, it was wayo setchu ryori, “Japanese-Western fusion cuisine,” and thanks to the fact that they were eaten in the home many hybrid recipes of the early 20th c. are now nostalgically seen as the ultimate Japanese “mother’s cooking.” Also in the home, meals were structured on the traditional rice-soup-side dishes pattern, only the number of side dishes was enlarged and more variety was sought in their recipes.

Military nutrition again
The war and its aftermath of course changed everything again, with severe food shortages and rationing. It made not only the hinomaru bento popular, white rice with a red pickled plum in the middle, but also led to the acceptance of other staples than rice, notably bread and noodles. It also erased the difference in cuisine that still existed between city and countryside. Substitute foods were discovered, as the potato sandwich. The militarization of nutrition was continued after the war in civilian canteens (companies, universities) with their curries and other easy dishes and gradually became mainstream civilian culture.

Imperialist cuisine
Japanese imperialism during the first half of the 20th c. had another effect on food culture: the embracing of Chinese food as the third pillar of Japanese cuisine, together with Western and Japanese dishes. Ramen noodles already became popular in the thirties, although they differed from Japanese cuisine with their stock of chicken or pork broth instead of soups based on kelp or katsuo (bonito). It was the imperialist expansion into China that helped popularize Chinese food in Japan. And after the war this was reinforced by the fact that many now unemployed soldiers knew how to cook Chinese. They started making gyoza dumplings, a product of wheat flower which in contrast to rice was still available - moreover, dumplings can be filled with about anything, which also came in handy in that period of shortages.

Korean food, by the way, was a different matter. Kimch’i was only accepted in the nineties, during a Korea Boom due to the Seoul Olympics and later a popular television series. But already in the years of food shortage after the war, yakiniku, grilled meat, became popular (first as horumon-yaki, using tripe and offal). Koreans in fact played a large role in the popularization of meat in Japan – another fact is that in the early 20th c. most meat eaten in Japan was imported from Korea, another culinary consequence of imperialism.

Postwar Affluence
Affluence in the second half of the 20th century brought huge dietary changes of its own. Now Japan became the willing victim of American "cultural imperialism," a fascination which led to hamburgers, pizza and French fries, rice cookers and refrigerators, frozen foods and instant foods, McDonalds (so common in Japan that Japanese kids think it is native – it was introduced in 1971 by Fujita Den) and Starbucks. Bread was further popularized at school lunches, and milk and dairy products also became popular. Dining out became pastime number one and family restaurants as Denny's proliferated. Home cooking suffered, but was made infinitely easier by all pre-cooked products now becoming available. In the same period, Japan's cuisine, in the form of sushi and teppanyaki, gradually started going global.

The Construction of a National Cuisine
What Cwiertka so aptly shows us, is that Japanese cuisine “is a modern construct conceived in the midst of the 20th century's historical dynamics.” Washoku, while presented as something timeless and unchanging, is a modern invention - although resting upon traditional foundations. One such foundation is of course kaiseki, the meal taken during the tea ceremony that was reconstituted in the 20th c. by chefs as Yuki Teiichi into an extravagant “authentic Japanese” dining experience. The arrangement of foods on dishes in kaiseki even influenced Japanese home cooking in the first half of the 20th c.

What it all serves to demonstrate is that Japanese food culture is not exotic, unique or even traditional – Japanese national cuisine was devised and defined in the 20th century and Modern Japanese Cuisine unveils the story behind that process.

Best Non-Fiction

Art

(Auto-) Biography

Culture
Food & Drink
Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson

History

Literature

Memoirs
The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig

Music

Philosophy

Religion
The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering
Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler

Science

Travel
The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.

September 5, 2007

Clashing Cultures - A Review of Karin Muller's "Japanland"

Japanland contains the year-long Japan-experiences of Karin Muller, an American writer and documentary filmmaker who before starting on this adventure already had walked the Inca Road and hitchhiked through Vietnam. Thanks to the humor and vivid style, reading Japanland is a breeze - it is a most enjoyable book.

As a travel memoir this is of course non-fiction, but Muller sets up her story with a dramatic premise: from her long Judo practice she knows Japanese values as focus, inner strength and harmony, Wa, and she is especially hungry for that last quality as her own life (she tells) is sorely lacking in it. Although she realizes you can't just crack open Japan like a fortune coockie, she decides to give it a try - at the same time planning to perfect her Judo in its land of origin. Besides that, although it is not stressed, it is clear she is also going to take her camera along and make a long documentary film about Japan - it was shown after her stay as a four-hour public television series. Fortunately, via her Judo contacts she is introduced to sixth degree black belt Genji Tanaka, who offers her a room in his house in Fujisawa (near Tokyo).

Her host family consists not only of the genial Mr Tanaka, who in daily life is a corporate director, but also the impeccably proper Mrs. Tanaka (called Yukiko by Muller, although it is strange to call Japanese, especially those higher in status, by their first name), as well as unmarried daughter Junko who works in Tokyo and only comes home to sleep.

That this independent and adventurous woman is the last person to fit into a traditional Japanese household, becomes clear in the first part of the book, where we read about Muller's intercultural tribulations as she tries to adept to life with her Japanese host-family.

Living with a family is different from being a casual tourist, it really puts you with your nose on the values and unspoken assumptions that reign in other cultures. It is, in fact, the best way to really get to know a foreign culture. Muller struggles with the intricacies of Japanese etiquette, and with a liberal dose of wit and self-depreciation relates her triumphs and setbacks - more of the last, because her relation with Mrs Tanaka is inexorably on a downward slope. Indeed, no two people could be farther apart than the tomboyish and somewhat messy Muller, who is used to be very independent, and the rather exacting and conservative Mrs Tanaka. Unfortunately, in the end they fail to meet each other halfway on the cultural bridge.

To succesfully adopt to life in another culture, you do not need to become the other, but you need sensitivity, flexibility and understanding - and the ability not to offend.

The second half of the book consists of a whirlwind of anecdotes gathered during Muller's filmmaking. She now is living in a shared apartment in Osaka, but with another foreigner, not among Japanese anymore. Although she paints a colorful picture of Osaka's gaijin community, she is one step further removed from the 'real' Japan. Her filmmaking, too, is of the touristic, exotic sort: nothing but festivals, geisha and pilgrimages.

Released from the confines of her host family, she does tourist Japan with a vengeance. In the few months she still has, she not only manages to run the whole course of the Shikoku pilgrimage of 1400 kilmetres and 88 temples, but also joins the mountain monks for a ten day festival in the northern Dewa mountains, goes crab fishing, travels to a small northern town to see farmers play winter Kabuki, films the Gion and Jidai matsuri's in Kyoto, etc etc. Other people write whole books about the Shikoku pilgrimage alone - Muller is, one feels, too busy filming and traveling to find any spiritual relief on this important temple tour.

And the Japan she goes after when making her film is not the true Japan of today. It is, indeed, as the title of the book (ironically, but inadvertedly so) says, "Japanland," merely a Japanese Disneyworld for tourists. The real Japan is not a country of mountain monks or wild festivals, just as Spain is not a country of flamenco dances and bullfights. The real Japan is the country of the Tanakas, living in a suburban home near Tokyo, encapsulated in their network of human relations.

What about Wa, does Muller find it? At the end of the book she seems to suggest so, but it does not convince. Wa is not a private feeling in Japan (elsewhere in the book Muller demonstrates that she perfectly well knows this), Wa is the ability to be part of a group, to live harmoniously with others, and that is exactly where she failes. True Wa would have been living in harmony with the Tanakas...

August 21, 2007

Extreme Asia - Review of Galloway's "Asia Shock"

In another post, I have reviewed Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves, Patrick Galloway's riveting take on the samurai film. Now we have his Asia Shock, Horror and Dark Cinema from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand. Just like the earlier volume, this is both a book that is very well researched and at the same time easy to read (a difficult combination) - and on top of that again infused with Galloway's indomitable enthousiasm which almost makes you want to flip all those films immediately into your DVD player.

As in the book on samurai movies, here, too, Galloway has opted for a broad definition of his subject. In other words, this is not a book on "Asian Horror Cinema" (although there are plenty of creepy movies in it), but Galloway rather introduces about 50 films that are in some way or another "shocking" or "extreme."

There is more than enough of those elements in Asian films, as you will see when you start reading. Galloway sets the tone with his first review of Miike Takashi's Visitor Q (2001) which is a catalogue of all depravities one can imagine, brought to the screen with a liberating dosis of black humor. In the Korean film Island (Kim Ki-duk) the main person does various weird things with fish hooks in body openings, which is more excrutiatingly horrible than a real horror film. Or what about the tongue amputation in Ichi the Killer, kids playing soccer with a human head in Battle Royale or the girl shooting killer darts from her nether regions in Miike's Fudoh? Who would fancy the fetus dumplings from Three Extremes for dinner, or the live octopus consumed in OldBoy? And there could be no greater riproaring fun (albeit it rather politically incorrect) than exploitation flicks as Convent of the Sacred Beast or The Joy of Torture by the legendary Teruo Ishii. These titles speak for themselves.

You need a strong stomach and perhaps a thick skin - these films certainly are not for everybody. If you don't like these "extreme" cult films, don't throw away the Asian cinema baby with the bath water of shock: there is also a whole world of beauty out there with art house films by Koreeda Hirokazu, Kawase Naomi (winner of the Grand Prix of the Cannes film Festival 2007 with Mogari no Mori), Iwai Shinji, Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsia-hsien and Zhang Yimou - not to speak of Kim Ki-Duk's poetic Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring!

But back to Asia Shock. Of the 40 full reviews, 22 are dedicated to Japanese films, 9 to Hong Kong films, 8 to Korean ones and 3 to Thai cinema. The large number of Japanese films is fully justified, and Galloway aims at diversity here, but even so I missed some favorite directors. For example, Ishii Sogo (what about Burst City or the funny Crazy Family?), Ishii Takashi (Freeze me, or even better, the Angel Gut films he made early in his career - he wrote all of them and helmed two himself), Kitano Takeshi (Violent Cop or Sonatine, Kitano's violence is of a special order and there is nothing more shocking than the speed and naturalness with which he rams a pair of chopsticks into the eye of a yakuza in Sonatine). Tsukamoto Shinya is present with A Snake of June, indeed his most beautiful and poetic film, but not one which I would file under "Asia Shock" - earlier films as Tokyo Fist or Bullet Ballet and of course the Tetsuo movies would have been more fitting.

Korea is properly represented with famous directors as Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook, and Kim Jo-Woon, and I think Galloway gives a good idea of the shock and horror films of the Korean "Golden Age," which unfortunately already seems to be fading.

I am not very well at home in Thai cinema, so I gladly follow Galloway's lead here, but I do have a slight problem with the large number of Hong Kong films he includes. With a few exceptions, Hong Kong films are not shocking at all, but on the contrary often rather silly because of the slapstick elements Chinese directors mix in. Slapstick does not go well with horror, to say the least - especially the older films like We're going to eat you are only palatable when you are in an enormously silly mood yourself.

Why all the violence in these Asian films? Certainly not because Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and Thais are more violent, on the contrary, you don't have soccer hooligans in Asia. Society here is safe and well-ordered, with strict gun control, the people are often more well-mannered and polite than elsewhere. By the way, in China (different from Japan and Korea), violence and anger are even culturally taboo, and that is probably the reason you find it mixed with slapstick (to take the bite out of it) in the Hong Kong films I mentioned above.

But just because societies like the Japanese are so well-ordered, with intricate webs of social obligations, people need an escape valve now and then, and one such flight into virtuality is offered in the form of violent manga and films. And then other circumstances kick in, in the first place the political one of freedom of expression. Asian shock films are not produced where (self-) censorship exists, absolute freedom is a necessary first condition.

In addition, but just as important, we have cultural factors, such as the absence of taboos in Japan due to the fact that there is no puritanical or fundamental religion here that dominates society - the same can be said about most other countries discussed here. There is also no false "political correctness" - can you imagine kids killing each other in the most atrocious ways in a Hollywood film?

Although I have seen quite a lot of Asian films, Galloway's book still pointed me in the direction of several new adventures as Organ, Evil Dead Trap and Tell me something. But more than that, his reviews ar such fun to read that you automatically assume the films will be fun too, and before you know it you are off to Tower records or HMV, or searching on Amazon. His book inspired me to view quite a number of films for the second time.

In short, there are few film books that are so enjoyable as Asia Shock and I hope Galloway keeps writing about Asian cult films.
Asia Schock was published by Stonebridge Press (2006). Read Galloway's blog about the book.

August 20, 2007

Monster hair - Review of Sono Shion's "Exte"

Japanese horror films are all too famous for the female ghosts who swing their long, black hair in front of their faces. The classic example is Ringu, where the videotaped ghost - hair first - even comes creeping out of the TV for her last killing spree, but the tradition is as old as Asia - another famous example is the story Kurokami, "Black Hair" in Kobayashi Masaki's cult classic Kwaidan. With the J-Horror boom fading, a certain tiredness with all those ghouly black tresses has inevitably set in, so here comes cult helmer Sono Shion with a tongue-in-cheek take on the subject which neatly puts things on their head.

In Sono's latest film Ekusute ("Exte," "Hair Extensions") black hair growing uncontrollably is itself the ghostly killer. On top of that, a black-haired beauty in the form of Kuriyama Chiaki (the mace-wielding schoolgirl with the icy gaze from Kill Bill, now in a much sweeter role) takes center stage with such lustrous, long straight hair that she is almost a walking shampoo ad. That perfectly suits the film, because Exte is all about hair.


At the center stands the goofy, cross-dressing Yamazaki, a great role by Osugi Ren, who works in the city mortuary and stealthily collects the hair of the dead. Later in the film he even sings about his strange hobby in a terrible daft song that keeps ringing in your ears, "Hair, hair, my hair..." (The Japanese English word "hea" is used, instead of "kami no ke"). Mark Schilling calls him in this role "the Hannibal Lector of hair."

Custom officers have opened a container in the port and found it chock-full of black hair, not so surprising as Japan's newest female fad are "hair extensions" and domestic supply cannot keep up. The shock is that they also find a dead woman in the container, whose hair still seems to be growing. When Yamazaki notices that, later in the morgue, he elatedly carts her body off to his wooden shack. There he puts her in a hammock and to his ecstatic delight, the beautiful black hair indeed starts madly growing and sprouting, not only on the head, but from all parts of the dead girl's body, in wave after wave. It shoots up from her mouth, her eyeballs, from under her fingernails, and from the terrible gashes on her legs and arms. (In fact, as we see in flashbacks, the young woman was murdered in a gruesome way by organ harvesters...). It is not a movie to watch when you are eating something, your food will feel like a ball of hair and make you almost choke! The unruly hair in this film is like the slithering sand in Teshigahara's Women in the Dunes, an ominous presence dominating the whole film.

Yuko (Kuriyama Chiaki) is cheerfully working in a hair salon, how could it be otherwise in this hairy movie, that cynically is called "Gilles de Rais" after a notorious Medieval child murderer. As an apprentice practicing hard to become a full-fledged hairdresser soon, she happily cleans, clips and colors.

There is an important subplot concerning Mami, the daughter of Yuko's vampish elder sister Kiyomi (Tsugumi in a delightfully false role), who is abused by her mother and her mother's yakuza boyfriend. Kiyomi unceremoniously dumps Mami in Yuko's apartment when she wants to go partying. At first unhappy about having to take care of a child, by accident Yuko discovers the terrible bruises with which Mami is covered because of all the beatings she gets... and so unofficially adopts Mami and starts a fight with sister Kiyomi (who would probably be happy to be rid of the little girl, but opposes Yuko purely out of spite) about control of her little niece.

The struggle between the sisters over Mami runs parallel to the main story of the uncontrollably growing hair extensions and things heat up when both intersect. That happens when Yamazaki sells high-quality hair extensions made from the dead girl's locks to Yuko's salon. Now the vengeful spirit of the grisly murdered woman starts causing havoc and unsuspecting customers are being strangled by their hair extensions, which curl up into very efficient lassos and nooses. They also start spewing hair from the most unexpected places... Kiyomi steals a few such hair extensions from Yuko's apartment, with predictable but utterly satisfying results.

At the same time Yamazaki is drawn to Yuko's gorgeous, long straight hair (and that of the little niece, who resembles Yuko in this respect). And all the time the organ-harvested dead girl keeps spewing killer hair, whole rooms full of the black locks, like a nest made of hair... Even Yuko and Mami seem to be reborn as mother and daughter in that hairy womb, as a sort of "elemental tide of unleashed feminine power."

How could it be otherwise with all that gorgeous hair?

April 23, 2007

Sakura in Kyoto (Nishiyama)

Although late in the season, this weekend I visited the "Saigyo sakura" in what is called the "Cherryblossom Temple," Shojiji, in the hills west of Muko City.


[Bell tower and Saigyo sakura (already without blossoms) in Shojiji]

Officially, there is only one "Saigyo sakura" - a tree planted by the medieval priest and poet Saigyo after he shaved his head to become a priest here in Shojiji. It is a third-generation tree, it is said, but it was already covered in fresh green leaves. Fortunately, around it there were still some other trees in bloom, and the best ones were the magnificent shidare-zakura at the back of the temple. These were just in full bloom!


[Shidare-zakura in Shojiji]

Besides the cherry trees, the temple also has a great collection of Buddhist statues, beautiful in all seasons: a Kamakura-period Yakushi statue not only carrying the usual medicine pot in his right hand (he is after all the Buddha of Healing), but with his other hand making a gesture as if to take some pills from that pot! The temple also has a full set of the Yakushi's attendants, the Bodhisattva's Nikko and Gekko (symbolizing the Sun and the Moon) and the Twelve Generals in comical poses. Saigyo was also present, in a Kamakura-period statue showing him as a lean and ascetic priest. All these statues stand in the temple's Treasure House, to which also the Rikishi deities from the temple gate have been moved for protection.

[Old sakura tree in front of Shojiji's gate]

After Shojiji, I decided to visit nearby Shoboji, a temple new to me, and to my surprise, here, too, the cherry trees were in full bloom...

The Main Hall of this little known and quiet Shingon temple featured some interesting statues, such as the main image on the altar, a Thousand-armed Kannon with three faces - besides the central countenance, two extra faces look over the Kannon's shoulders in an original configuration. This statue is from the early Kamakura period. From the temple's founding (in the late Nara period, by a disciple of the Chinese priest Ganjin) dates a large Yakushi statue. Finally, I also encountered an interesting "running Daikoku" image.


[Modern guardian statue under blossom canopy in Shoboji]

The garden of Shoboji is modern and characterized by the various large rocks which are meant to represent all kinds of animals. Such almost childish figurative thinking is far from traditional garden art, but happily you can see the rocks as just abstract elements - the resemblances with elephants and tigers are rather forced, anyway.


[Blossoming sakura tree and shakkei garden, Shoboji]

What makes the garden interesting is the shakkei, the "borrowed scenery" of the far-away Eastern Hills (Higashiyama - we are to the south here, so you can mainly see the low hills on which the Fushimi Inari Shrine stands) and, on the horizon, the imposing mountains that form the border between Kyoto and Shiga. On one of these stands the great Daigoji Temple.

It was masterful of the garden designer to plant just one slender cherry tree right in the middle of this scenery, as a foreground to the borrowed landscape. The rocks then form a sort of intermediaries that lift the eyes above the low garden wall towards the distant mountain scenery. Both Shojiji and Shoboji were very quiet, making this the ideal place to enjoy cherry blossoms. In the end, it was difficult to tear myself away...
Access: From JR Mukomachi or Hankyu Higashi-Muko Station, take a bus to Minami-Kasugamachi and then walk 15 min. Or take a bus to Rakusaikokomae and walk 20 min. There is about one bus per hour.

Note: Shojiji is also known for its maple leaves. In the immediate vicinity are two more places of interest, Gantokuji (Hobodaiin) which displays a national treasure Bodhisattva image of almost sensual beauty, and Oharano Jinja, a shrine set up as a local branch of the Kasuga Shrine in Nara, when the capital was transferred to Nagaokakyo in the late 8th c.

April 9, 2007

Sakura in Kyoto (Arashiyama)

I had some doubts about Arashiyama as a hanami spot because I feared a terrible mass of people. In fact, it was not bad at all - masses do come to Arashiyama, about every weekend in season, but they tend to converge on a small area, the Togetsukyo Bridge and the street that runs in front of Tenryuji. Arashiyama and Sagano are so large and that even a large mass of people is spread thin here and few visit the more outlying temples. On top of that, not everyone has the energy to climb to the viewing platforms high up in Kameyama Park, which afford a great view of the Hozu River Gorge and the mountains clad in pinks and young greens.

[Mt Arashiyama decked out in clouds of sakura]

And the sakura were just great - especially on the mountain slopes, where they hung as clouds of pink brocade. Apparently, the trees were planted here at the order of the 9th c. Emperor Saga, who had them brought from the sacred groves in Yoshino.

[Clouds of sakura in the gorge]

Arashiyama (or Ranzan in Chinese-style reading, as found in the names of hotels and restaurants) means "Storm Mountain" so at first sight it would not seem one of the most scenic spots in Kyoto, but that is only the name of the 381 m. tall mountain that rises up steeply on the right bank of the Hozu River here. The beauty is in the valley with its steep wooded cliffs, the river with the flat-bottomed boats that carry tourists via the gorge from Kameoka, the old-fashioned Togetsukyo bridge that spans it, the temples and their gardens, and the quiet countryside behind it all.

[Boat on the Hozu River near Arashiyama]

It was already a favorite spot among the Heian nobility, and many poets and writers came here for inspiration, not in the last place Basho who stayed in the Rakushisha of his disciple Kyorai. It was not only famous for sakura, but also momiji, autumn leaves, as in my articles on Hogonin and Okochi Sanso. Arashiyama also figures in classical literature, from the Tale of Genji to the Essays of Idleness.

[The Togetsu Bridge ("Bridge to Ford to the Moon") has been here since Heian times. The pagoda on the opposite bank belongs to Horinji]

The temples are Horinji and Daihikaku on the west bank, and Tenryuji and Rinsenji on the east one. Tenryuji, of course, has one of the best classical landscape gardens in Kyoto, which borrows the scenery of Arashiyama.

[Once more the gorge seen from Kameyama Park. The temple hall high up on the bank to the left belongs to Daihikaku Temple]

In fact, Arashiyama is beautiful in all seasons, even in winter when light snow decks the hills and the trees stand bare and brooding. Summer finds it deeply green in light rain, the summits veiled in mist. There are also several festivals. The third Sunday in May the Mifune Matsuri is held here, when decorated boats with people dressed as Heian courtiers will drift down the stream. The second Sunday in November sees another boat procession for the Momiji Matsuri.
As buses tend to get stuck in the traffic jams - especially in weekends - the fastest approach to Arashiyama is by one of the three train lines that serve it: the JR Sagano line to Saga-Arashiyama St (20 min from Kyoto St), the Keifuku-Arashiyama line from Shijo-Omiya St, or - convenient if you come from Osaka or Kobe - the Hankyu-Arashiyama line which branches off from the main Hankyu line in Katsura St.

Kyo-yasai or “Kyoto vegetables” factsheet

List of Kyoto vegetables

Kyo takenoko (bamboo shoot)
A spring vegetable grown in Nishiyama, the Western Hills. The young shoots of bamboo (raised by farmers) are eaten after boiling, but Kyo takenoko is also eaten uncooked, just after being dug up, and dipped in vinegared miso. The taste is sweet, the flesh soft.

Kyo myoga (mioga, a kind of ginger)
Mioga is indigenous to Japan. Only the fragrant buds and stems are eaten, thinly sliced and used as a garnish in soups. Also made into vinegared pickles. Taste is not hot (as ginger), but rather herbal.

Hanana (or nanohana, rape shoots)
The immature stem of rape with their buds. Looks a bit like small broccoli and is a symbol for spring. Used in cooked salads (aemono) with mustard dressing but also eaten in pickled form. Grown in Fushimi. The taste is slightly bitter.

Kyo udo (a fragrant plant of which the white stalks and leaves are eaten – resembles asparagus)
Grown in the Momoyama area of Fushimi, SE Kyoto. Blanched by growing it in the dark, by heaping soil on the young stalks in mid-March. The Kyoto variety is very fragrant. Udo is both eaten raw and used in clear soups (suimono), vinegared salads (sunomono), cooked salads (aemono) and as soused greens (ohitashi).

Kamo nasu (eggplant)
A summer vegetable. Kamo eggplant is grown in Kamigamo, in the northern part of Kyoto. They have a distinct rounded shape, a deep purple color and weigh from 300 to 400 grams. Richly flavored, they are well-suited to be boiled and seasoned, or grilled with oil. A famous dish is Nasu Dengaku (nasu grilled on skewers and topped with a sweetened miso topping). Other famous eggplant varieties from Kyoto include Yamashina nasu, from the eastern suburb of Kyoto, a small (80 grams) and delicate variety of superb taste, and Mogi nasu, an even smaller variety also from Yamashina.

Fushimi togarashi (peppers)
Already mentioned in writings from the Edo-period. From the Fushimi area, these peppers are also called aoto. They are not hot at all and used in simmered dishes (nimono), with grilled foods (yakimono) and as tempura. Other peppers are Tanaka togarashi (from Tanaka in the Sakyo ward) and Manganji togarashi from Maizuru.

Katsura uri (melon)
Melon from the Katsura area in SW Kyoto. Also used in Nara-zuke, Nara pickles. The taste is sweet and fragrant.

Hiragino sasage (cowpea, long thin-podded beans)
From the Hiragino area in northern Kyoto. The stalks with the beans can be as long as 80 or 90 centimeters. The immature beans are used as a vegetable in simmered dishes (nimono) and as soused greens (ohitashi). The beans themselves can be used as an alternative to azuki beans. A summer vegetable that is used as an offer at the Buddhist Obon festival in August.

Tanba kurodaizu (black soybeans)
From the Tanba area in the western part of Kyoto prefecture. Big beans that even keep their form when boiled. Used in New Year dishes. Often called the “No 1 Bean of Japan.” Also eaten with beer or sake straight from the boiled pods (edamame). Can be the base for miso, tofu and various traditional sweets.

Kyoto dainagon azuki (azuki, little red beans)
“Dainagon” is the title for the Great Councilor at the Heian court. In contrast to a samurai, these officials did not commit harakiri (seppuku) and the same is true of these beans: even when boiled, the skin does not break! Kyoto dainagon azuki are from Kameoka, a town NW of Kyoto. They are large and shiny and usually used as the main ingredient for Kyogashi, the traditional sweets.

Shishigatani kabocha (pumpkin or squash)
Produced near Shishigadani in the Sakyo Ward of Kyoto, near the Philosopher's Path. The shape, like a gourd, is very characteristic, so it is used not only for cooking but also as a flower vase or ornament. Watery and not very sweet, in contrast to other pumpkin varieties. Plays an important role in “Kabocha Kuyo”, an annual ceremony held at Anrakuji Temple in July.

March 7, 2007