Monday, 15 February 2010

Plastic Food

I remember many years ago when I worked in a kitchen, as I was preparing food for the guests the Head Chef always used to say, “Never forget, people eat with their eyes”. When I notice the care and attention to detail that the Japanese take in the presentation of even the simplest of dishes, I wonder if this may be more true of Japan than it is of anywhere else. The beauty in the presentation of food here can only be described as an art form as not only the arrangement of the food itself is considered but also the type, colour and texture of the ceramic plates and dishes is deemed of high importance.

A spin off of this seems to be the way in which customers here are lured into eating establishments by the displays of imitation food outside the restaurants and cafes. This is a never-ending source of delight and amusement for foreigners visiting in Japan as well as being an easy way of ordering when one cannot read the menu!

Models of food were first made out of wax as early as 1917 and made popular by a famous Tokyo department store in 1923 resulting in a big jump in revenue as it displayed its menu in wax imitations.

These days the food models are made from plastic rather than wax and almost every restaurant employs this method to attract customers.

The plastic food factory first obtains the real food prepared by the client and each piece is put into a molding box and silicone poured in to make a mold. When the mold has hardened the real food is removed and thrown away and liquid plastic poured in. The casting is then heated in an oven to harden it before being painstakingly painted by hand.

I think you will agree that the finished product looks as realistic and delicious as the real food itself!

In restaurants in other parts of the world I have sometimes ordered something from the menu only to think “This is not at all what I expected!” when it arrived at the table. With the display of funky plastic food outside the restaurants this almost never happens in Japan. Gotta love the foody culture of Japan!

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Valentine's Day in Japan

It’s valentine’s Day tomorrow and shoppers, or rather some shoppers are making some big purchases. I say some shoppers because in Japan Valentine’s Day is a day when women give chocolate to men and not the other way around. The men-to-women occasion is exactly one month later, on March 14th, and is called White Day.
In Japan women give usually chocolate, but sometimes
also cakes or cookies, not only to their boyfriends and
husbands but also to any male colleagues, teachers,
bosses, their fathers and any other men in their lives.
The non-romantic type is called ‘giri-choco’ which
means that it’s given out of duty rather than love. I think this is an example of an act of Japanese kindness; it means that the ugly guy in the office won't be the only one with no V-Day chocolate!
For Valentines gifts to be ‘heartfelt’ they have to be
hand-made and so many department stores and
supermarkets also sell ingredients and accessories
for making such items. Check out this picture of a
department store chocolate shop shopping frenzy-
and hardly a man to be seen!

And for men who don't like
chocolate, there's always
chocolate flavored potato-chips
or chocolate beer!

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Japanese Brain

I often wonder if we British are more similar to Japanese people than we are different. After all, we are both relatively small island nations, both have a long history and extensive cultural ancestry and both tend to value high manners, sometimes making us appear formal or stand-offish in the presence of people we don’t know- (that is we often don’t seem willing to confidently assert our personal opinions to strangers as North Americans seem able to do!) Notwithstanding these similarities however, I have to concede that there have been times over the years when I have been confused and sometimes frustrated at what has seemed to me to be the alien and unreasonable ways of Japanese thinking. Granted, these cases have usually occurred in the arena of interpersonal relationships where I have found myself thinking, “Oh why can’t He just see reason?!” so maybe that happens between all men and women, after all we are supposed to be from different planets. But recently I read a fascinating piece of research that made me think that maybe we are more different than I realise. The article was about the Japanese brain and how it is different from our Western brains in that it processes information largely in the right hemisphere rather than, as ours does, in the left. Apparently, it developed this way due to the vowel-heavy nature of the Japanese language, as it was found that foreigners whose first language was Japanese also share this trait. So what does this mean exactly? Well, it means that Japanese process information in the hemisphere associated with feelings rather than facts, with emotions rather than reason and have a holistic rather than a linear way of thinking. This explains why aesthetics and form play an equally as important role in Japan as functionality; a feature that can be seen in the extraordinary beauty of design of simple day-to-day items such as the ceramics, kimono, the paper sliding doors, room dividers and the traditional architecture. Interestingly, the Japanese brain also processes some sounds in a different hemisphere than a non-Japanese brain. The sounds of insects, for example, are processed by Westerners in the right brain, or ‘music sphere’, together with sounds of music, machinery and noise. In contrast, however, insect sounds are processed in Japanese people’s language sphere, meaning that they hear these sounds as ‘insect voices’. Isn’t that fascinating?! This might explain why some insects are held in such high esteem by the Japanese, who traditionally have collected and enjoyed the many types of crickets, for example. In fact, in the summer I was delighted to see that the main Post Office in the middle of Fukuoka city had cricket cages on the counters so that customers could enjoy the chirping of ‘bell-ringing’ crickets! Fantastic! The Japanese brain also processes other sounds in the left side, in the language sphere- the cries of animals, the sound of the wind, waves, the rain, running water and the music of Japanese musical instruments whereas the non-Japanese brain processes these in the right side and hears them not as language but as just noises. I stopped trying to get #1 to understand my version of logic a long time ago- actually it seems to be a good policy in general I think- Who knows which side of his brain I am grappling with and besides, I have to remind myself that it’s me who has the alien thinking here.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010


Japanese love to play with words and use double meanings for humorous effects and the cute little character goods, created by the marketing giant Dentsu, have a name that does just this. They are called ‘Mame-Shiba’ which at first glance it appears to be because they are beans, ‘mame’ in Japanese, with a dog’s face, ‘shiba’ which is a kind of Japanese dog. But there’s a bit more to it than this: The word ‘shiba’ originally meant kindling or the small twigs used to light a fire; over time this word itself came to mean ‘small’ which is the reason that shiba dogs were called this, they are the smallest breed of Japanese dog. And ‘mame’, does mean bean but also itself means small. Shiba dogs, the real ones that is, come in various sizes the smallest of which are called Mame-Shiba. Dentsu’s promotional team had the great idea of giving each of their Mame-shiba characters a different personality and each one has a different ‘mame-chishiki’, which means ‘small knowledge’ or piece of trivia. Some of them appear to be quite surreal but obviously people like them as sales of these goods reached US$ 30 million in 2008 and 2009!
Just in case you feel the urge to jump on the mameshiba band-wagon, my friend sells some of their goods on her website:
Here are three of my favourites:

Friday, 1 January 2010

Happy New Year!

January 1st is New Year or 'Shogatsu' and is one of the most important holidays celebrated in Japan. It's a time for people to stop working and return to their hometowns to spend time with family and, as traditionally a woman becomes a part of the husband's family after marriage, it's usually the husband's family. The home is given a big clean, kind of like the spring cleaning of some western countries, in preparation for the holidays. On the night of December 31st some people visit a temple to watch a Buddhist priest ring the huge temple bell 108 times. These days you can also watch it happen on TV as various temples from all over Japan are featured leading up to midnight. The 108 bongs on the bell represent the 108 defilements or torments that people are said to have in their mind and serve to repent for those sins so allowing us to start the New Year as innocents again.
On January 1st many Japanese get up early to watch the first sunrise and then during the day visit three Shinto Shrines to pray for health and prosperity in the coming year. Some of the popular shrines have thousands of people visiting them on this day; I like to go to smaller local shrines where there aren't so many people.

Today I went to Tashima Jinja which is the closest to my home, Sumiyoshi Jinja in the famous nearby town of Yanagawa and Oimatsu Jinja which is in the countryside near Number 1's family home and which is by far my favourite. The first two pictures are Tashima Jinja and you can see what a hive of local community it becomes at this time of year. People pray in front of the shrine by tossing a coin into the box, ringing a bell to wake up the Gods, bow twice, clap hands twice, say your prayer and then bow one more time. Amulets and good luck charms can be bought from the shrine, and on special occasions such as New Year, a cup of saki is given. There is a fire burning in the shrine grounds and traditionally a light is taken from here to light a fire in the home.

At Sumiyoshi Shrine there is a giant head of Fuku no Kami, the God of Happiness, that you can walk through. There's an old Japanese saying, "If you laugh, happiness comes" which I know to be true!

Oimatsu Shrine is in the middle of nowhere and is almost always deserted. Shrines are usually located in places of natural beauty since nature is an important part of Shinto beliefs as the Gods are thought to inhabit nature in an animistic way.
Here is the amulet I bought from Tashima Jinja. It will being me health and happiness in 2010. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Kagoshima trip

On Boxing Day, Number 1 (my J-b/f) and I drove the three and a half hours down the Kyushu expressway from Fukuoka to Kagoshima. The trip was duel purpose; surfing for him and seeing the 'cranes' resting place' for me. The surf place was a beach popular with locals in a place called Akune and was beautifully empty. I spent a peaceful few hours walking with the best dog in the world the full length of the beach in the warm sunshine, soaking up the atmosphere and listening to the surf crashing on the shore.
The next morning we got up before
sunrise and went to Izumi, where up to 20,000 cranes or Tsuru come
from Siberia to spend the winter every year. The noise was amazing as the sky was filled with waking birds flying in hundreds of V-shaped formations and about 13,000 cranes gathered to be fed on the fallow rice paddies.
We decided for the trip back not to go all the way on the highway but to take a ferry from Nagashima, an island in northern Kagoshima prefecture, to Amakusa. Amakusa is an archipelago of more than 120 islands lying off the southwestern coast and belonging to Kumamoto prefecture. In the Edo period (17th to 19th century) Amakusa was an early center of Japanese Christianity and when Christianity was banned and became illegal, Amakusa became a refuge for many practising Christians. These days the area is well-known for the beautiful scenery, pottery, fresh seafood and dolphin watching. The local economy is supported by vegetable and mandarin farming using the terrace system as the islands are like small mountains and pearl cultivation.

The Amakusa area is an incredibly beautiful place and just wonderful for sightseeing and taking in historic and local culture. I'll be returning there for sure and will keep you posted on whatever else I find.
I love Japan!

Lighten Up!

After more than a year of not blogging, I have decided that part of the problem is that I need to lighten up! The longer I live here in Japan the more I realise that I can only ever have an understanding of this beautiful and contradictory country from the outside and that my impressions are forever based in my foreignism. I so don't want to propagate misinformation due to my only surface-understandings of the people and the things I see around me and when the culture is so deep, rich and complex it seems as if I could only ever dip a toe into the surface of it while the depths range far below. So rather than worrying about not getting things right, I'll give my dipped-toe impressions of this place I love so much and hope that I'm not too far off the mark!