Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

November 21, 2015

Judge Dee novels

In 1949, the Dutch Sinologue and diplomat Robert van Gulik translated an 18th century, anonymous Chinese crime novel under the title Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. He found the original novel in a second-hand bookshop in Tokyo and hoped it would teach Japanese and Chinese authors of detective fiction something about their own rich tradition. When nobody took notice, Van Gulik started to write such detective novels himself, basing his character on the Judge Dee of the novel he had translated. (What Van Gulik perhaps didn't know was that there in fact already existed such a "homegrown" historical detective in modern Japanese fiction. Okamoto Kido had between 1917 and 1937 written a long series of stories featuring Japan's first detective, a trusted old Edo-period sleuth called Hanshichi, who because of the historical setting is comparable to Judge Dee. See my post about Hanshichi.)

Judge Dee (Di Renjie) was a real-life magistrate and statesman of the Tang court, who lived from 630 to 700. He was not a detective (detectives are a modern invention!), but the magistrate of a district, the smallest unit in the Chinese local bureaucracy, which forced him to execute many different duties in own person: head of the administration, head of police, and judge, to name a few (as you see, our modern "separation of powers" didn't exist in ancient China).

Between 1950 and 1968 Van Gulik would write 16 Judge Dee novels. Van Gulik wrote in English, but had the first novel (The Chinese Maze Murders) translated in Japanese by a Japanese friend, and made himself a Chinese translation. The Japanese translation is still available in Japanese bookstores, but as it proved difficult to inspire local detective authors to write about their country's historical heroes, Van Gulik finally resigned himself to writing for an international public in English. That was a good idea. Soon catching on in popularity, the novels were translated into many languages, including Van Gulik's native Dutch (partly by himself).

The first Judge Dee novel I read (a long time ago) was The Chinese Bell Murders, the second one Van Gulik wrote. I was immediately hooked and in high tempo read all the Judge Dee novels the local library had available. After that, I started collecting the missing volumes from second hand bookstores, both in Dutch and in English (at that time, they were out of print in the Netherlands; happily, later new editions appeared).

I was then still in high school, and had already made my decision to study Chinese and Japanese at university. The Judge Dee novels very much strengthened me in that resolve. Reading the novels almost felt as if living in a traditional Chinese city, visiting the market and the temples, the red light district and the Confucius Hall. The books have an original and authentic atmosphere, as nobody knew China better than Van Gulik, who lived there for long periods, was fluent in the language and also wrote many scholarly studies about Chinese culture. In the staunch Confucian Judge Dee, Van Gulik also tried to make us see what the values of educated people in traditional China were, and how their mind worked. We also get fascinating insights into China's material culture, law and punishment, and in human nature in general.

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee was not translated in full by Van Gulik. He only took the first part, in which Judge Dee solves three cases when he was a local magistrate. And indeed, as a crime novel, that part can stand on its own. In reality, the Chinese original was not a crime novel at all, but a record describing the life of Judge Dee on two levels, first as a loyal servant of the Throne in the provinces, and in the untranslated second part at a high position in the capital, at Court, as a solver of various palace intrigues.

The original Judge Dee novel had one aspect Van Gulik borrowed in most of his own stories: the fact that Judge Dee has to solve several different crimes at the same time, usually three, which Van Gulik considered as more true to life than the single story line in the Western crime novel. But not all aspects of Chinese crime stories were fit for borrowing. Van Gulik rightly skipped such things as that the suspect is known from the start (the emphasis for the Chinese was on crime and retribution, not on suspense and detection) and that the truth is often revealed by supernatural means.

Van Gulik did copy the descriptions of the cruelty of the Chinese police apparatus, where suspects were exposed to severe torture to make them confess (and everyone who entered the magistrate's court was already more or less considered as guilty), although Judge Dee often showed his compassionate side. Van Gulik also included the in China mandatory description of the execution in his own novels (at least in the first five or so). This is also a grisly part (cutting criminals slowly in pieces and things like that), but was necessary in the Chinese context as the stories were after all meant as moralistic admonitions. Happily, there is nothing moralistic about Van Gulik's Judge Dee novels, which are only good fun...

If you have not read Judge Dee yet, I can warmly recommend these novels (both the ones Van Gulik wrote himself and the translation of Celebrated Cases). But be warned, they can be addictive...
Robert van Gulik, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dover Publications)

Wikipedia article with all titles of the Judge Dee novels.

November 13, 2015

Sake from Nagano Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Nagano Prefecture is landlocked and mountainous - nine of the twelve highest mountains of Japan can be found here. On the south side of the prefecture lie the Southern Alps, and on the north side the Northern Alps. One-fifth of Nagano consists of national parks. The prefecture is a popular destination for mountain climbers and skiers.

The capital Nagano is known for its famous pilgrimage temple, Zenkoji. In Suwa stands one of the oldest shrines of Japan, Suwa Taisha, with its boisterous Onbashira festival, and Matsumoto boasts one of the few original castles of the country.

The prefecture has many electric and optical industries. Agricultural products consist of fruits and vegetables and - beside sake - also miso and wine.

There are 81 sake breweries in Nagano Prefecture (2015), quite a high number. They vary in size from large to small and are mainly distributed in the Saku, Nagano, Suwa and Matsumoto areas. Due to the natural environment, the local market is rather fragmented.

Although small in number (about 50 persons in total), Nagano has its own brewers guilds: the Suwa, Otari and Iiyama toji.

The prefecture has developed its own sake rice called Miyama Nishiki. On the market since 1978, this has become the third popular sake rice in Japan, after Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku. It is suitable for mountainous areas.

The prefecture has also developed its own yeast for fragrant ginjo sake, called "Alps Yeast."

Usually, sake from Nagano has a full taste, with a plump sweetness to match the relatively salty local food. But recent ginjo sake from the prefecture has a lighter and dryer taste. All the same, sake from Nagano forms a great contrast to that from the neighboring prefecture, Niigata.

Some major breweries:
  • Chikumanishiki (Chikumanishiki Co., Ltd., Saku). "Brocade of Chikuma (name of the largest river in Nagano Prefecture)." Est. 1681. Uses four wells fed by subsoil water of the Chikuma River, soft with no iron content. Their Kizan sake (all junmai, since 1997) is full-bodied with a high acidity, even for the ginjo types. Uses Miyama Nishiki sake rice. Also makes a low alcohol (7%-8%) sake called Riz Vin 7. Brewery tours upon advance reservation. 15 min walk from Asama-guchi exit of Sakudaira St. on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. 
  • Hokko (Kadoguchi Sake Brewery, Iiyama). "Northern Light." Est. 1869, in the cold northern part of the prefecture where the Iiyama Toji hail from. Makes a dry Junmai sake and a sturdy genshu, to give two examples. English website.
  • Kikuhide (Kitsukura Shuzo, Saku). Est. 1675. Uses Alps yeast to produce highly fruity sake, which also has a rich flavor. Uses the local rice for its Junmai products and strives to bring out the umami of the rice. Also makes shochu under the brand name Mine, with Nagano grown buckwheat. Brewery tours possible upon advance reservation. Operates antenna shop for tasting etc. next to the brewery.
  • Kikusui (Kikusui Shuzo Co., Ltd., Iida). "Joy-Long-Water." One of the largest producers in Nagano, set up in 1946 through the mergers of 37 (!) smaller breweries. Uses famous water called "Sarugura no Izumi, "Spring of the Monkey Warehouse." Uses Alps Yeast to make smart ginjo sake. Large line-up, including a seven-year old Daiginjo Koshu. Also makes shochu and cider.  Operates showroom Suishokan (closed June-Sept.) where tasting is possible.
  • Masuichi (Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery, Obuse). "Square One." Set up in 1755 by the Ichimura family, owners of the confectionery shop Obusedo. Iiyama toji. Brewery features a "teppa" counter where sake is sold by the measure (now for tasting). Also store and restaurant. Obuse is a magical town with several interesting museums. The company has revived the Edo-period custom of "Oke-brewing" in wooden vats, which leads to sake with a deeper and more complex taste. English website.
  • Masumi (Miyasaka Brewing Co., Ltd., Suwa). "Truth." Est. 1662. The company that developed the popular Association Yeast No. 7 ("Nanago") in 1946, at that time led by master brewer Kubota Chisato. One of the largest breweries in Nagano. Brews graceful sake and uses special sake rice even for regular sake. Its Daiginjo is called Sanka, "Mountain Flower." Active in exports. Extensive English and French website. Has opened a shop, Cella Masumi, next door to the brewery. Operates two breweries, the traditional one in Suwa, and a new facility at the foot of Mt Yatsugatake (Fushimi kura). 
  • Nanawarai (Nanawarai Shuzo, Kiso-Fukushima). "Seven Laughs." Est. 1892. Makes deep tasting sake, fit for its mountain location in the Kiso-Komagatake Highland, with much umami. Also well-known for its ginjo sakes (made with Alps Yeast), which are neither dry nor sweet and which have a pleasing acidity. Became well-known during the early Jizake boom.
  • Reijin (Reijin Shuzo, Suwa). "Beauty." Est. 1789. Offers a wide and unique range of koshu. Rather dry taste for Nagano sake. Daiginjo is called Nozomi, "Hope," made with Alps Yeast. Started selling daiginjo at early date of 1976. Pioneer also in junmai, which it started brewing in 1957. Individualistic brewery.
  • Shinanonishiki (Miyajima Brewery Co., Ina). "Brocade of Shinano (old name for Nagano Pref.)." Est 1911. Specializes in junmai sake and other premium products, pays special attention to the rice, much of which is organic (65%). All Miyama Nishiki variety. Soft subterranean water leads to mellow sake. 
  • Shuho Kikuzakari (Shinshu Meijo, Ueda). "Eminent Peak." Set up in late Edo period, after WWII joined with three more breweries to form new company. Makes excellent ginjo sake. Has interesting junmai made with extremely soft water called Kokuyo, "Obsidian." Employs toji from the small Otari guild.
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation.
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.