39 posts categorized "Japan"

Foodzilla II. Frytening.

LONGREAD
Where is he gay today? Osaka Soemoncho, Sannomiya and Kobe Harbour. 

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The story so far: Dazzled by the dining options of the Dotonbori, Osaka's restaurant district, my husband and I set out to find a doofus food joint.

Don't you hate Westerners who won't shut up about Japanese food? It's so light! It 's so natural!  It's so pure so special so cleansing so spiritual so harmony with nature so blah blah blah blah wank wank wank! 

Here's what you should do with these people. Get them to shut their eyes, dip a piece of avocado in wasabi and soy, and tell them it's high grade tuna.  They won't know the difference. 

Truth is, not even the Japanese can live on raw fish and vinegary rice at every meal.  

First of all, it's expensive.  There's an old Japanese saying: I used to be rich, but I ate sushi.  And we're in Osaka, which is cheapskate central. Here's an old Kansai saying: I'd rather lose a finger than a yen.

Furthermore, Japanese people like to drink. 

Unless you're quaffing champagne with caviar, raw fish is extremely poor drinking food. Insubstantial, unabsorbent of alcohol, and frankly, a little bland.

That may be OK among the social and corporate elites of Tokyo.  But Kansajin have zero patience for bullshit.  Ain't got no time for twelve courses of exquisitely arranged kaiseki.  Your average Osakan would be gnawing off his limbs before dessert.  

If a Kansaijin starts gnawing off his limbs, that shows his stomach is empty.  Japanese people hate drinking on an empty stomach, because—how can I put this nicely?—the ability to hold one's liquor is not exactly a national trait. 

Daikichi. Total alcoeats. 

My husband is a Kansai lad, so he knows this district very well indeed.  "Follow me," he said with a glimmer of nostalgia in his eye. "I'll take you to a place where Oscar and I would eat after drinking on the gay scene."

This remark predicted a night of heavy turpentine.  Oscar is my husband's gay BFF; a brilliant Kansai native, who reads his namesake Wilde in the original English, and speaks it with a perfect—and perfectly gay—Oxbridge accent.  My fondest recollection of Oscar is his taste for gin and tonic, and his sneer if you pour too much of the latter. 

If this restaurant has the Oscar Seal of Approval, it will serve drinking food. Decision Accomplished. 

Thus did we find ourselves at the venerable Daikichi, or 大吉.  The kanji translate as great run of luck or on a roll.  (We didn't find fugu on the menu, so a run of good luck isn't critical.)

A thirty-seat izakaya, Daikichi cultivates a reputation as an insider secret. The celebrity autographs reminded me of a hole-in-the-wall trattoria in Naples or Brooklyn, whose owner is proud of the luminaries who sought out his special skills. Like its Italian counterparts, I suspect that Daikichi has let the odd mafioso park his legs under a table.  Tattoos, such as those in the picture of actor Ken Takakura, are widely believed to be a sign of a yakuza.  

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In Japanese, the kanji for izakaya (居酒屋) literally mean a liquor store you can stay and drink at.  So dishes tend toward bar food, small and sharable, like tapas.  Management has plastered its menu on the wall, revealing prices between 90¢ and $3.50 (USD)

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Daikichi provides an English menu for its foreign guests. Though the word English  may be a tad generous. 

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A whelk is a species of sea snail. You're whelcome.
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I wasn't game to try the fried hormone.  
It sounded too much like a description of me in college. 

My husband needed neither menu nor wall; he ordered from memory. His youthful evenings always kicked off with octopus, and a fine choice it is.

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Pitch a tentacle

More fast food followed, keeping us content while our main meal was prepared.  The tofu soup and grilled sardines made a small gesture to healthy dining.  We quickly undid these health benefits with two rounds of Asahi Super Dry.  

(An aside: when I lived in Japan, I always wanted to get into English language voice-overs.  Many commercials end with an English tag-line, and I imagined it to be a pretty good racket.  Most famous was the abundantly-advertised Asahi Super Dry beer, whose royalty-rich TV spots concluded with its name delivered in a perfect be-afraid-be-very-afraid blockbuster American movie voice, which I can do in a dawdle.  Alas, the only gig I could score was Have a Break, Have a Kit Kat.)

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While we drank and nibbled, the TV on the wall caught our eye.  An Osaka talk show.

In Japan, the words "Osaka" and "Talk Show" add up to an oxymoron.  Osaka has talk-everything.   Nobody ever shuts up.  (The stereotype of shy Japanese folk comes from Tokyo, where government bureaucrats and corporate cogs waste oxygen in silent, organisation-man presenteeism.) 

The Osaka dialect reminds an Anglophone listener of outer-borough New Yorkese; fast, impatient, and the natural language of comedy.  There's no better example of this than Sanma Akashiya—Sanma for short.  A titan of mirth, he's been clocked as Japan's fastest speaker.  (Click this link to hear how fast he talks while interviewing hapless heartthrob Takuya Kimura, a Tokyo native and ex-member of Japan's most popular boy-band of the early twenty-first century, SMAP.  The limp-personalitied Kimura stands no chance against smart-aleck Sanma. Even Beyonce totally pwned Kimura.)  

But that night on Osaka TV, Sanma encountered someone who could give it as well as take it.  Hailing from Chiba (Tokyo's New Jersey) the sumo-sized cross-dresser Matsuko Deluxe furnishes bitchy wisecracks to talk shows across the nation.  She started her career as a writer for Japan's pioneering gay magazine, Buddy, before hitting the big time. 

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Just in case you were unsure, Sanma is the one on the right.

Choosing the politically-correct English pronoun for Deluxe is no easy matter, since Japanese pronouns have no gender.  Her drag-name, Matsuko, is clearly female.  Ko means small, and as a suffix, it might be translated as -ette.

To assign the right pronoun, we must listen to her speech patterns.  Deluxe uses the grammatically proper watashi to refer to herself, equivalent to the English I or me.  When speaking casually, most women will continue to use watashi or atashi, whereas men will adopt manly slang like boku or ore.  It causes many a snicker when men who have learned Japanese as a second language continue to use watashi, no matter what the context.  Lookin' at you, millennial American gamers. 

This show combined two Osaka obsessions, talk and food.  A rather large panel of talkative celebs watched evergreen A-lister tarento Nozomi Tsuji prepare a meal, to crack wise at her attempts.   Displaying no gender ambiguity whatsoever, we caught the former starlet preparing a seaweed garnish for miso soup. 

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Sanma and Deluxe traded gags, while a noted doctor (also on the panel) touted the digestive virtues of having miso soup with your rice.  We listened closely.  We could use a few urgent health tips, since main course was on its way. 

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Many westerners look at Japanese people, and clock very few fatsos—sumo wrestlers and Matsuko Deluxe notwithstanding.   World Health Organisation data published in 2017 ranks Japan 185th out of 191 countries in obesity, with a mere 4% of citizens officially classed as tubby.  The average Japanese body Mass Index lobs in at a svelte 23.  Thus, many conclude that a Japanese diet keeps one trim, and that all Japanese food is low-fat, nutrient rich, and good for you.  As I mentioned above, that assumption is false.  Because this: 

Fried deliciousness
clockwise from top left: shu mai, tofu, beef, chicken, eggplant, shrimp and...um, dunno.

What lardy magnificence!  It's an Osaka specialty known as kushikatsu (串カツ).  If one prefers to avoid katsu, the borrowed French word for cutlet, one can also say kushiage (串揚げ).  Literally: fried stuff on a stick.  The Japanese character for skewer, kushi (串), is a nice bit of visual onomatopoeia.  

Now this is goddamn drinking food, amirite?  Beats your hard-to-eat wings and nachos.  And please, don't tell me that everything looks like a corn dog, because they just ain't in the same league. 

In olden times, restaurants charged the same price for every stick. Customers would present a glass with their empty sticks to the cashier, who counted them up and thus settled the bill. One gets a proper check nowadays, but the tradition of collecting your skewers in a beer glass remains. 

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I took in this glorious scene, and grilled my husband. 

"An Osaka specialty, you say?"

"Yes."

"So, other restaurants in Kansai serve this?"

"Everywhere. Western Japan loves fried food."

"That means we don't have to live on sushi and ramen for the whole of this week, right?"

My husband scoffed.  "Of course not. Kansaijin aren't stupid."

Our vacation was looking up. 

Suika KYK, Sannomiya.  Pig out.

The next night, we set off in search of the crumbiest dinner we could find. We made it just in time.  Restaurant KYK closed permanently not long after we visited.  Clearly, we were the ultimate in alpha-customers.  Management gave up.  Future patrons could never beat our gluttony.

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Thrifty Kansai fellow that he is, the numerous set-menu options in the window attracted my husband's attention.  Frittered food makes an ideal Japanese restaurant window display; the crumbs are very easy to duplicate in acrylic, and lose none of their appetite appeal.  Oddly, many restaurants cover these fake plastic dishes in cling-film overnight. Not to preserve the food, but simply because the plastic models are a pain in the ass to dust.

One of the plastic window models
Not exactly Surf 'n' Turf.  Pig 'n' Prawn, maybe?  Fruit of Sea and Swill?

Digesting such mountains of  fried food makes even the sturdiest bowel wince.  Osaka custom demands side-dishes of fibrous cabbage, rice for ballast, and miso soup as a digestif.  In unlimited quantities, to do battle with the giant gut-clogging cutlets for which KYK was famous. 

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Look at the pork cutlets below, and look at my husband's hand for scale.  KYK served up a mess o'pig.  Fried to perfection, these thick slabs of pork stayed juicy, with just the barest wisp of pink in the middle. 

Crumbed prawns (or for you Americans, breaded shrimp) came with the set.  The decadence of deep-fried oysters was entirely my husband's touch.  Note the plentiful dipping sauces and sinus-scorching Chinese mustard.

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We tucked in so heartily that the server rushed over with emergency cabbage, almost instantly. She repeated this several times. 

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I had never experienced a food coma in Japan.  But this meal caused our eyelids to droop, and both of us to yawn with satisfaction.  We lounged around for about half an hour, picking our teeth with a Proo. 

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Teppanyaki Grill Tajima, Portopia Hotel, Minatojima Kobe

We took my husband's parents to dinner in Kobe the following evening, which pushed us upmarket.  Could we keep up our fry-happy lifestyle?  Teppanyaki gave us the perfect solution.

The Restaurant Tajima sits in a hotel on a man-made island in Kobe Harbour.  I use the phrase "man-made" because when I called it a fake island, my husband objected. "It's not a fake island.  I personally saw the many tonnes of dirt they trucked into the harbour to make it.  It's a true island from top to bottom."  

(Hmmm...surely, islands don't have bottoms.  That's how you can tell them apart from a boat.)

When in Kobe, beef it up.  And since Kobe is a port city, do seafood too.  The lanced prawns were still alive and wriggling as the chef presented them to us.  

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Ordinarily, I wouldn't include pricey teppanyaki in a piece about comfort food.  But here are four reasons: 

  1. It's fried. 
  2. Look at the fat in the Kobe Beef above. I'd say the fat/protein ratio in that cow ran at 50/50.  This pushes it well into state fair concession territory, and maybe even rivals French food.
  3. Look at the picture below. The chef topped the scallop dish with a pillow of fried cheese.
  4. Let me repeat: fried cheese 

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Kagurashokudoukushiyamonogatari, Kobe Harbour City

On the Kobe waterfront, we hit a motherlode of oil and crumbs.

Kagurashokudoukushiyamonogatari takes up a perch in a mall of restaurants facing the Kobe waterfront.  The name is almost as long as one of those pesky German words.  It's so long, I haven't attempted to type it; readers may assure themselves that every mention of the restaurant's name has been cut and pasted from its Yelp entry.  

As best I can figure out from the kanji (神楽食堂 串家物語), the name means The Story of the Gods' Temple of Easy Meals.  

"Here's the deal," explained my husband. "At (ctrl+V) Kagurashokudoukushiyamonogatari, ¥2000 (USD $18, €15) gets you all you can eat. Another ¥1000 ($9, €7.50) gets you all the beer you can drink."  He paused for a moment, trying to contain his enthusiasm. "I think we'll get our money's worth."

"What's on the menu here at (ctrl+V) Kagurashokudoukushiyamonogatari," I asked?

"Fried stuff on a stick." His eyes went dreamy. "Fried stuff on a stick, forever. There's a catch, though.  Like Korean barbeque, you gotta cook it it yourself."  

One starts at the buffet of pre-stabbed edibles. Patrons choose among meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, tofu, and other items of indeterminate provenance. 

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Lotus root and okra
For the vegetable course, lotus root and okra

A diner-cum-chef carries his selection to the table, where a modest friteuse awaits, dangerously hot.  (The grillwork on all four sides is an exhaust fan, by the way.)

One coats the food with a slurry of water and cornstarch, which allows the breadcrumbs to adhere.  You rest the coated stick inside hot oil, and when done, slather it with dipping sauce.   At this link, you can watch two young women show how it's done.

First course
First course: crab, shrimp, tofu, mushroom, potato, beef, pork, chicken, champignon, fish balls and...um, something else we couldn't identify.  Appetiser: beer. 

The sticks emerge crisp, ready for a good dipping. 

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We tasted the first lot, and maybe went a little overboard.

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The place was packed with teenagers, and no wonder.  Not only does the food suit an immature palate, it thrives on a teenager's underdeveloped impulse control. 

The two teen girls at the next table had packed away a brace of kushi, and moved onto dessert.  I did a double take when I saw them eating soft-serve ice cream cones with a spoon. 

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In Japanese culture, opening your mouth too wide is kind of vulgar; a little too intimate.  Women feel particularly sensitive about it, and will often cover their mouths when they laugh or eat.  Ice cream poses a special problem; licking is icky. 

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As with everything else, the ice cream was self-service, and so was the dessert bar.  Their English skills rivalled Daikichi.

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Keeping with the stuff-on-a-stick schtick, a chocolate fountain drenches your stabbed morsel of choice in brown goo.  You can even dip french fries in it.  Finish the evening with coffee-flavoured Jello, which you garnish with non-dairy creamer from those little sealed cup-things.  Because your body is a temple. 

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My husband insisted I take the picture below, as proof that we nailed this whole skewer business.  We couldn't count the number of sticks demolished, because we got excellent value out of the ¥1000 bottomless beer.  My beloved topped it off with an ice cream cone, which he licked, because he's a real man who laughs at all this prissy business of covering your mouth.  You could see his tongue. It was very erotic. 

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No doubt, you readers have noticed that I've been typing this slowly.  The memory of that dinner (and the next, since we returned the following evening) has put me into a food fog and beer haze.  We got wasted, and waisted.  We left the restaurant totally full, ready for a stroll along Kobe waterfront, and onward to a highly necessary evening's sleep.  Barely made it.  Goodnight, and sayonara.  I gotta go burp. 

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Foodzilla

LONGREAD
Where is he gay, today?
Dotonbori, Osaka
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Some days, Facebook looks like a cookbook.  Posting your dinner to Instagram feels like the modern equivalent of saying grace. I often give my friends a serve over how eagerly they share their food on the social media. I get it, though. Food is more than fuel. It’s culture—especially in Japan.  

The entire nation obsesses about food.  What shall we eat?  Where shall we eat it?  What does it mean?  Locavores are not necessarily hipsters; long-standing tradition demands that when visiting a far-off city, one consumes its fare. If you haven’t eaten the local specialty, you haven’t really been there.  

In fact, Japanese food is more than culture.  Food is history, literature, geography, and pornography.  

No place more so than in Osaka. Notorious for rough manners and a most un-Japanese impatience, Osaka does nothing in moderation—including eat. 

So, on our first night in western Japan on a visit to my husband’s family, we took our appetites out for a spanking on the Dotonbori.  Osaka’s nightlife district, it caters to hungers of every kind.

Dotonboristas generally start at Shinsiabashi, where the covered shopping streets give way to this well-known Osaka scene. 

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Since 1935, the Glico Running Man hawked caramels so perfect, that a single piece could replenish you after running a marathon.  With modern sports drinks and energy bars, his pitch is no longer so relevant.  But like the Sanyo sign in Piccadilly Circus or the Skipping Girl sign in Melbourne, the icon proves indestructible.

Note, though, how Japanese folk wisdom deals with sweets.  They don’t give you a boost of energy, but rather restore it after it’s expended.  Feeling tired is noble; a state of grace that tells you you’ve achieved something. The standard way to fare a colleague well as he leaves the office is otsukare samadeshita, or “you must be tired”.  The Glico Running Man doesn’t look tired, though.  As a mascot—and every Japanese business needs one—the Running Man embodies the spirit of health and energy.

IMG_6547 (2)Not so that other icon of Osaka, a mechanical clown named Kuidaore Taro.  His first name recalls a Japanese word for which we have no direct translation in English; kuidaore is a weakness of character which comes from overindulgence in food. From 1950 to 2008, the beloved Taro stood outside a namesake restaurant, popular with sumo wrestlers who weakened their characters under his watchful, bespectacled eye. Since the restaurant closed, he now poses for pictures outside a shop in which he mainly sells souvenirs of himself. He must be tired. 

Turn left down the banks of the Yodoyogawa, and the buzz picks up.  You’ve arrived at peak Dotonbori, where restaurants shout unsubtly of the deliciousness within.  

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The most unsubtle is this giant crab, whose mechanical claws, legs and eyes flap about like he was just plucked from a tank. That’s Kani Doraku, built in 1960, molded from a then-newfangled material called fibreglass.  Many believe the sign to be haunted.  Just inside the front door, real crabs wait on death row.

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Sayonara, baby!

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of crab.  Crab is just too hard to eat.  My husband, on the other hand, will patiently wield that ice-pickish bit of cutlery which extracts every morsel of (supposedly) sweet, succulent meat from the crab's leg.  

This strikes me as the gustatory equivalent of performing a backward four-and-a-half somersault—beautiful to watch, but the degree of difficulty is far too high for a recreational diner.  For me, even a KFC thigh pushes the boundaries of Not Worth the Trouble.  Anything harder to eat than an oyster doesn’t deserve to see the inside of my stomach.  Crab needs to be  made into a ball, and fried on the end of a claw, Chinese-style.

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Speaking of hard-to-eat things fried into a ball, let’s talk takoyaki.  Small pieces of octopus tentacle hide in a spherical fritter of rice-flour, garnished with barbeque sauce and flakes of dry tuna, which you eat by stabbing with a stick. This dish can be quite tricky to make, and requires a deft hand to rotate the spheres 180 degrees in mid-fry.  These gents are clearly gifted.

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Tricky to make, and tricky to eat.  Takoyaki present the same problem as biting into a potato in a stew; the tentacle inside is much hotter than the outside, but there's no way of knowing how much hotter until you've bitten into one.  You'll clock plenty of people on the Dotonbori sucking air heavily through open mouths.  

Kani Doraku started a trend.  Giant, mutant food bursts through the front wall of almost every restaurant. Here’s a rather striking scallop, which might perch equally comfortably atop a Shell station. 

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Go Well

Those quaint models which sit outside restaurants in Japan—so that no diner will get a nasty surprise when a dish arrives—look puny in comparison. You'll find almost none along the Dotombori. Fittingly, one of the few places which needed to explain the perplexing nature of its dishes was the American Diner.

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Do they expect to sell actual food with this stuff?    Let me speak as a professional adman.  In the course of my career, I spent more intelligence than I care to admit learning the secrets of appetite appeal.  

Food is tricky. It needs to be photographed (or Photoshopped) with care.   You've got to get close, so you can see the texture.  It should be cut into a bite size, and angled to suggest that the bite is on its way to your mouth.  Appetising food must steam, splash or crumble.  

None of that happens in images of Dotombori food, nor in its unchewable acrylic models.  One wonders if the culture of lifeless, too-perfect plastic fakery has given the Japanese foodie low standards of edible allure. This Korean BBQ can make even steak look blah.  Let me repeat: steak.  

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A prominent chain of ramen restaurants gave up on the giant ingredient schtick. Since an enormous noodle would look as appetising as a radiator hose, Kinryu Ramen opted for a dragon—in deference, one assumes, to the Chinese origin of the dish. 

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But the dragon symbol works on another level, too.  The dragon is manly.  And real men who get real drunk need noodles. 

In Japan, ramen serves as the ultimate drinking food.  Water to rehydrate you, oil to line your stomach, and carbs to soak up the next beer. Kinryu has perfected the art of drunk-wrangling; they serve their customers on the street, where the lads can happily puke, smoke, and text their impatient, stood-up girlfriends.  

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These guys were so busy texting and talking they failed to notice their food was ready.
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At a slightly more upmarket ramen joint, drinkers enjoy a peaceful Tampopo moment

The Dotombori feels fast, loud and chaotic.  Precisely the sort of place you don't want to eat a dish that requires the chef's utmost concentration, lest it kill you.  That's the deadly puffer-fish of the genus Takifugu, or river pig—better known simply as fugu.  

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Puffery

On the Dotonbori, fast-fugu joints abound.  This McFugu restaurant is called Zuboraya, identified by its beloved fishy mascot Ronald McRespiratoryparalysis.  

Thrillseekers maintain fugu is best enjoyed as sashimi—thinly sliced raw pieces served with wasabi and soy—in such quantities that your lips feel dead, but your lungs still work.  Brave foodblogger Chinito found that his visit to Zuboraya left him with a working tongue, but shaky legs which recovered in time for dessert.  Personally, I prefer getting shaky legs via beer—the safe alternative

This Osaka institution has been numbing customers since 1920, so I guess their attrition rate remains acceptable. In the local Osaka dialect, zuboraya means loose, casual, or sloppy.  Never had a hankering to try the deadly delicacy, but if I did, I assure you it would be in a restaurant that looked nervous, uptight, and expensive.  

Sensing that I was a little overwhelmed by the food-circus, my husband led us into the most ancient part of the Dotombori.  The ruckus gave way to peaceful, metre-wide streets.  

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The bars and restaurants, though busy, were smaller and more exclusive. Such small restaurants in Japan often cater to a select, regular clientele; one really needs to be introduced by a standing patron to earn a full welcome  There's a word in Japanese for a first-time restaurant visitor: Ichigen.  The word smells of gauche. 

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A different Taro

Religious artefacts began to appear.  It suggested we were approaching a shrine. 

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As one might expect at a shrine, maneki neko (beckoning cats) promised good luck.  In this neighbourhood, the cats  had a bad case of kuidaore

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The maze of alleys opened to a small square, with an open pavilion at its centre.  This modest building is the Hosenji Shrine, which the Japan National Tourist Organisation describes as "newer", dating back to 1637.  (They should write New York apartment ads)     

Hosenji houses the god Fudomyoo, a fierce scrapper who can kick the ass of evil spirits with a few not-quite-kosher MMA moves.  If you need heavy duty good luck, you must splash him with water.  The many Dotombori waitstaff, chefs, barkeeps and tipsy revellers do this often; it's given him a coat of moss that recalls Oscar the Grouch.  As kids, didn't we all have days where we prayed for an intercession from Oscar the Grouch?

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One assumes that jittery diners can stop by for a pre-fugu pray.  Handily, Osaka's most exclusive fugu specialist sits just across the street. The Asakusa Hosenji restaurant presents a discreet front, exuding an air of calm that many diners would find comforting should—Fudomyoo forbid!—they dine themselves into the afterlife.   

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Mercifully, one needn't risk an agonising death to eat here.  They have a second, much safer specialty.  It's turtle.  

I suggested perhaps this might be a nice delicacy on which to feast (as long as the restaurant practiced strict separation of crockery).  I mused that some nice turtle sashimi might be just the ticket for two hungry gents.  

My husband sneered, in the way that spouses reserve for each other when one of them has committed a faux pas that is just a little too much in character.  After executing a monster eye-roll, the size of which I'd never seen before on a human being, he scolded me for knowing absolutely nothing about turtle!   Turtle, apparently, is far to gummy to eat raw; you need to soupify it for hours.  A pointless discussion about the merits of turtle for our evening meal followed, brought to a close by a look at the prices on the menu.  

Wasn't there someplace here in Osaka that made food really cheap and easy, for gaijin dolts like me, I asked?  

And with that question, my fine husband knew exactly where to go.  

What did we eat?  To find out, you'll have to wait for Part Two.  Hint: the picture at the top of this post is a clue. 

 

Notes from Godzilla Week

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"I'm totally old-school Godzilla," snorted Master Right.  "It's gotta be a guy in a suit.  None of this computer animation bullshit. That's cheating."

It's Godzilla Week across the Fatherland on Channel Five, and my husband is pumped. 

I learned he was a Godzilla snob early in our relationship.  Having just moved to Tokyo, and wanting to immerse myself in Japanese culture, I gathered some classics of the Japanese cinema on the still-novel medium of DVD.  Among them was Destroy All Monsters (1968), which many fans consider the consummate Godzilla flick. 

"You know," he recalled as he picked the box from the shelf, "this was the very first movie I was ever allowed to attend at the cinema in Kobe, on my own."  Unthinkable nowadays, my future husband would have been five years old.  

He took his discovery as a sign that we were Meant To Be.  For two blokes, things like this amount to a romantic moment.  I can't recall being so misty-eyed since he bought me an orbital sander. 

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Americans first encountered Godzilla in a 1956 release called Godzilla, King of the Monsters.  (Trailer here) But that was a poor reflection of the original Godzilla from 1954. (Trailer here)

In the original, US H-Bomb testing in the Pacific arouses a sleepy sea monster, Gojira.  Japanese speakers hear echoes of two words in his name; the English gorilla, and kujira, meaning "whale".  For centuries, natives of a nearby island kept him out of their hair with the odd virgin sacrifice, but all this nuclear tomfoolery has messed the guy up.  He now has atomic-breath, indestructible skin, and a bad attitude. 

His attitude is a bit hard to figure out, sometimes.  Godzilla helps and protects mankind from time to time, and equally often he just tromples buildings and eats trains.  You don't know what he's going to do.  Dude is out of control. That's the scary part.

Neither good nor bad, but powerful and dangerous—many have written that Godzilla is a metaphor for nuclear power.  Some have suggested that Godzilla, an impulsive leviathan, embodies the United States.  Both make sense, when we think about the tenor of the time, and what fate had befallen the nation less than a decade before.

The parallels were so stark, that American distributors edited the film heavily before its stateside release.  They even went  so far as to shoot an extra twenty minutes of footage, casting Raymond Burr as the young reporter Steve Martin (no relation) who explains events into a dictaphone for posterity, reminding us how serious it all is.  The performance calls to mind his later work as Perry Mason, but without, like, the acting.

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Master Right is a child of the late Showa period, so he's in it strictly for the camp value.  The overacting, preposterous plots, and obvious terror devices earn an ironic—but amused—roll of his eyes. 

One of the most obvious terror devices, employed everywhere, is creepy familiarity.  We see icons that we know and love, bite the dust.  That's why every disaster movie set in New York shows the Statue of Liberty, right?

Few viewers from across the world realise exactly how familiar—and accurate—were the models that Godzilla crushed and torched.   In Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla pops up in New York and flattens the newly-constructed UN Building as a warm-up on his way to Tokyo for the main event.  If he had nuked the Empire State Building instead, that would be rubbing King Kong's nose in it, I fear. 

I once lived in that very Manhattan neighbourhood, and can vouch for the model's authenticity.  To the left, the big chap eyeballs a tasty-looking Tudor City, and on the right, the delicious Beekman Tower.  

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Master Right and I can vouch for his Tokyo exploits, too.  We lived in a small two-chome neighbourhood not far from the centre of the city, nestled among the louche gaijin of Roppongi, liquored-up civil servants faking overtime in Akasaka, pompous leaders doing deals in Kasumigaseki (Tokyo's Whitehall or Manuka), salarymen copping a feel at the hostess bars of Shimbashi, and the Emperor himself at the palace.  In the course of several movies, Godzilla would play merry hell with all our neighbours. 

The original film shows him attacking the Diet (Parliament).  Mostly, though, he headed for the mid-rise skyskraper district where our apartment perched.  Destroy All Monsters might confuse the casual visitor, but locals reckon Godzilla beached up around Hamamatsucho, slap-bang in our neighbourhood.  There's even a statue of Godzilla in nearby Hibiya Park, since it is—if you'll pardon the expression—his old stomping ground.

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Given the events of the 21st century so far, such casual depiction of mass destruction in the name of entertainment makes me feel a little uneasy.  Do individuals, or even nations, who have suffered lose their taste for stories of further tragedy?  Godzilla suggests not.   Does it actually help people process horror they otherwise cannot comprehend?  That, perhaps, would go too far.

Tonight, as we sit in front of the Fernseher, watching Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah (2003), we laugh as an unsuspecting band of camera-wielding Japanese tourists are caught unaware by history's most beloved radioactive dinosaur.   Hey, Shark Week is for wimps.

 Images are taken from trailers for the 1954 and 1956 Godzilla movies, and the 1968 Destroy All Monsters.  I believe that the reproduction of all images and content conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism. If you use these images, similar conditions apply.


Photo Friday: Walk

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This week's Photo Friday theme is Walk, but in truth, the pictures sort of show a march.  We arrived in Hakone on a festival day in the summer of 2003.  The mountain town celebrated with a parade.  Her streets, though, are barely wide enough for a single car to pass: bands could march, at the most, three abreast.  And spectators got up close and personal with the musicians.

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Our Neighbour, the Cross-Dressing National Treasure

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Nakamura Jakuemon IV. (Photo Steve Ferrier)

Movers hated the tricky corner by the elevator; someone's couch or shoji screen might wedge there for several hours until its owner worked out how to dislodge it.  Walk too hastily, and neighbours would collide head-on, unleashing a torrent of sumimasens and embarassed bowing.  But space in Tokyo is tight, and the Elbow (as we called it) was just one more quirk of living in a quirky city.

As I arrived home late one afternoon, it came as no surprise to see some lads making a clumsy job of getting a long object through the corridor.   Closer inspection revealed that they were paramedics, and the apparatus they had tilted on its end was a stretcher.

Behind them stood a slightly-built chap, wearing a blazer and Bing Crosby hat.  Though clearly a senior citizen, it was hard to pick his age.  His skin looked incredibly smooth and taut, but didn't bear any of the hallmarks of a facelift.  I would learn later that he had just turned eighty.

Recognising me as a neighbour, he bowed curtly and smiled, before he leapt up on to the righted stretcher.  That took some impressive athletics, since he scarcely reached five feet tall, and the stretcher rose a good distance from the floor.  He declined the offer of a footstool to help him up, but allowed the ambulancemen to remove his shoes, before he strapped himself in for the elevator ride to the ground.

A Brush with Fame

Thus went my first enounter with Japan's most famous kabuki actor, Nakamura Jakuemon IV, better known as 中村雀右衛門.    He was the theatre's foremost onnagata, a male who specialised in female roles.   By all accounts, his technique astounded audiences; a few deft gestures would seduce any observer into the belief that they were, indeed, watching a woman.  In 1991, the Japanese government declared him a Living National Treasure.

Living National Treasures get treasured awfully well.  According to my Japanese colleagues, the deal includes an ambulance to whisk you off for your annual check up.  Probably necessary for most of the elderly writers and artists who made up the legion of NTs, but not for a gent who still lifted weights in the gym from time to time.  It helped him bear those monstrously heavy kabuki robes and headpieces.

Master Right made another point.  Even if Jakuemon had needed an ambulance for an emergency, most men of his generation and stature would feel ashamed to be wheeled about in front of all and sundry.  While he didn't seem frail, it concerned us a little, in a neighbourly kind of way.

An Unhealthy Trade

Older kabuki troupers sometimes succumb to poison.  The first commerical versions of doran (the white foundation used by geisha and kabuki actors alike) contained lots of lead, zinc and mercury.  To remove it, traditionalists would use—I kid you not—nightingale droppings, which had the extra benefit of bleaching the skin underneath.  That can't be good for a fellow's system, and it certainly showed in his complexion.

Our concern heightened when a truck arrived to cart away the master's elaborate collection of costumes.  Had he packed it in?  Was the ambulance trip a harbinger of something serious? 

His housekeeper, who also must have been around eighty, seemed to stay cheerful.  (She took to giving me language lessons in the lift; it was a slow lift, you see.)  When I asked after her boss, she haltingly explained that she had dusted off the costumes and sent them to the theatre.  Jakuemon would reprise a classic role, Princess Yaegaki in the drama Jusshukô, for the 75th anniversary memorial service of his "father", Jakuemon III.   

I put the word "father" in quotes for a reason.  Jakuemon had a biological father, who was also a well known kabuki actor.  But he was "adopted" into another family as a young adult.

The Family Business

The power of identity looms large in Japanese culture—where you fit, to whom you belong, to whom you owe duty and from whom you expect reciprocation.   Names don't just represent individuals—they represent these many connections, and take on an importance beyond just saying who's who.   Business cards carry a mystique.   In such a culture, imagine the symbolism of a stage name

In the west, if we discount the artful concoctions of drag queens, stage names often serve a mundane, practical purpose.  Equity rules stipulate that no two actors share the same working name.   Michael Keaton, for example, was born Michael Douglas, but admired the actress Diane Keaton, who in turn was born Diane Hall, the name of an existing Equity member.  Michael York (nee Johnson) chose his nom de scene because "York" was already tested  in the marketplace, as a popular brand of cigarette

In Japan, stage names act a little like family names, and stage "families" construct a lineage based on a cocktail of blood-relations, relations-by-marriage, teacher/student pairs and honorifics. 

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In his movie-star days

Nakamura Jakuemon IV started life as Hirotaro Otani, heir to the stage name Ôtani Tomoemon VII.   In a brief flirtation with movie acting, he actually earned a couple of credits under his real name.

He became close friends with the young man who was the blood-heir to the title of Jakuemon IV.  When his friend was killed in the war, the young man's mother asked if Otani would accept the honour of adoption, so that he may carry on the Nakamura family stage-name.  Since (I understand) Otani had brothers in the family business to carry on the Tomoemon stage-name, he saw it as an appropriate way to honour the family of his friend. 

Like so many other young men, war was a defining experience for the man who would become Jakuemon.  He learned to be a mechanic, and toyed with the idea of becoming one on his return to civilian life.  He enjoyed being high, driving a truck or riding a horse, and even considered joining the maintenance team at the newly constructed Tokyo Tower.

A Comforting View

When I read that fact online, it brought me up with a sharp jolt.  Our apartments were on the fourteenth floor of a building that looked out over what was once the highest point in Tokyo.   Ours looked north on a drab cityscape; as they say on the Gold Coast, we had the Hinterland View.  But Jakuemon's featured perhaps the city's best view of Tokyo Tower.

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Tokyo Tower from our building
Why was I online, googling our former neighbour?   Alas, to confirm reports that he had passed away.  He died of pneumonia on February 23, at 91—an impressive age, even by long-lived Japanese standards.  He performed well into his 80s, treading the boards for the last time in 2010, when his frailty began to show.
Two of his sons are also kabuki actors.  One will use the Tomoemon stage name, and the other, a fellow onnagata, will carry on the Nakamura line.

"Another memory of our Tokyo days is gone," remarked Master Right.  Jakuemon's passing reminds us not just to honour living treasures while we can.  But to treasure life itself.

All photos link to source.


Photo Friday: Blaze

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An odd photo for this week's Photo Friday theme: Blaze.  But anyone who's lived in Japan will know why it answers the theme.

The long sticks are ofuda, talismans bought from Shinto shrine which contain good luck messages or fortunes.  The two heads are daruma dolls; when one embarks on a major project, one blackens an eye of the doll, and one blackens the other when the project is complete. 

The first week of the new year is the most popular time to buy these—their power lasts a full twelve months.  But as the following year turns, the talismans must be replaced, and the old ones burned.  The smoke from all these burning wishes gets up the nose of the gods, and they will sneeze some luck your way.

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Shrines conduct regular bonfires throughout the first weeks of the new year; these spent charms met their fate at our neighbourhood Shrine, the Atagojinja, in early 2001.  Appropriate to the theme, since the shrine is on a hill that used to serve as a fire lookout, and the main totem worshipped here is Homusubi no Mikoto, a god of fire.

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Photo Friday: Ugged

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This week's Photo Friday theme is rugged.  Since I am an effete homosexual, I have nothing rugged to share.  We can do almost rugged, though.   These fancy leopard-skin boots are Ugged, with sheepskin on the inside.  And pirate ugg boots wil keep a buccaneer's feet warm during a casual pillage.
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Where can you get them?  That favourite Tokyo fashion hotspot, Shibuya 109.  Kawaii!

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