Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri, 2010

For the fourth of fifth sixth time, I joined some friends at the Danjiri Matsuri in Kishiwada. The brother of one of my friends lives on a side street just around the corner from where his neighbourhood’s danjiri passes by on the way to the big parading area downtown. Occasionally, it stops at the corner and the people who pull the float/shrine take a break, tape up blistered fingers, re-tie head-bands and happi-coats, have a sports drink –  and a cigarette (this being Japan, after all). This gives one a chance to get a lot of action photos and  close-up shots that you don’t usually get at the crowded epicentre of the festival (although you have to be quick – which, you’ll notice, I am not – to take it before the inevitable peace sign shoots up).

Click here to see this year’s photos. Click on the dates to see the photos from 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2003.

Posted in Blogroll, culture, japan, Osaka, 大阪, 日本 | 1 Comment

Protection

Last month, while the cherry blossoms were still blooming in Osaka, Dave, Tom, John and I met for dinner at Chindonya, an izakaya (pub) in Nagai, my neighbourhood. I enjoy a get-together like this, partly because the food and atmosphere of the place are good (as noted earlier here) and also, poignantly, it’s one of the few situations anymore where I get to be the youngest person at the table.  We arrived early, at around six. The only other customers were two men, who looked to be about 70 (meaning they were probaby about 62). They were sitting at the largest table, which seats 6. It’s common in Japan for customers who come early to an empty shop to be seated at a larger table – it shows hospitality. Besides, most places don’t usually fill up until between seven and eight, and such early arrivals are usually long-gone by then. The men were dressed in the typical garb of retired men in Osaka: cotton bucket hats, earth-toned plaid shirts; one of the men wore a windbreaker, the other the type of zip-up, multi-pocketed vest favoured by photographers and park pond anglers of a certain age. They were quietly nursing a mug of beer apiece and a bowl of edamame. Probably two old co-workers taking time out from their daily retirement pachinko routine for a hike around the park and a little drink afterwards. You see them all the time in Nagai Park, and we thought little of it.

After an hour of eating and drinking and talking, one of us noticed that the two old guys had nodded off to sleep. Again, nothing odd about that: catnapping is one of the national sports in Japan, and I, a very light sleeper, often envy people’s ability to doze off anywhere.

It was only after one of the old guys woke up and quickly ducked out, leaving the other one sleeping at the table, and none of the staff made any effort to wake the remaining guy up, that we started to wonder what was going on. At around seven-thirty, a party of five came in and asked for a table. “Sorry,” the waitress had to tell them, “we don’t have any large tables right now.” A few of the group looked over at the large table with the sleeping man, but said nothing. They, and their money, walked out. By this time, the rest of the place had filled up. Still, no one made any effort to ask the old man to move along. Other groups came in and had to be turned away or were asked to wait until another table was free. And still he snored away. By the time we left, at about 9:30 (they loved us – we were easily their best customers of the night), he had sprawled out on the bench and had his cap over his face. And no one said a word. “Wow,” I said, “he must be the owner’s grandfather or something.”

The other day, I ran into Tom. In the course of our conversation, he told me that he had mentioned the curious old men to his partner Kazue, who is Japanese. She rolled her eyes immediately. “That’s one of the oldest tricks in the book,” she said. “Nagai is in south Osaka. They’re famous for it there.” Tom was mystified. She explained. The old men had probably been sent by the local yakuza, and had probably come back the following day, and the day after that. If the owner wanted them to go away, he had only to offer them protection money. But of course once he had, it would become a monthly payment, and God help him if he missed it. The men would probably become the collectors, and get a pathetic monthly commission from the gangsters (that someone would be so greedy or hard up for pocket money that he’d feign sleep in a bar all night is another story).

But why not just ask them to leave? After all, they were losing business for the shop. Ah, but then they could cause a scene, say they were paying customers who were being discriminated against by the greedy manager, and embarrass the other patrons into leaving. They would stand outside, if need be and warn people away from the premises for a few days. If that failed, a few more obviously thuggish yakuza would go to the shop and be drunk and raucous, frightening patrons away. By the time the owner agreed to pay up, the protection fee would have risen, and the shop would be known as a yakuza hangout – not a good reputation to have.

Wait a minute, you say: aren’t there any laws against this kind of thing? Oh, probably. But the owner has to prove he’s been extorted from. That sounds fair, but the laws are so ambiguously worded that, unless the incident more or less happens in front of a uniformed police officer, the owner is screwed (and would probably be threatened with a lawsuit for defamation of character). There are ways around it, but usually small bar owners just settle up. It was such a commonplace situation that Kazue was astonished that we hadn’t spotted it right away.

So, on a busy Friday night, the izakaya staff let the old git doze away, hoping that he might just give up, as they’d given him no reason to complain. The place was a going concern, and they were hoping to keep it that way. I hope they do – without ‘protection’.

Posted in bars, Blogroll, culture, japan, Links, Osaka, Uncategorized, 大阪, 日本 | 8 Comments

The Little Nabé That Could

My rice cooker died of old age last year. I got it secondhand ten years ago from a Japanese guy who was probably given it by his mother when she bought a new one of her own some time before that. The timers didn’t work and the digital clock, which couldn’t be reset, displayed in the dark of the night kitchen the correct time for, perhaps, Bucharest. It was big enough to hold the day’s meals for a Japanese family, but the measly cup of brown rice I threw in it now and then ended up, in the end, being chewy or mushy, although I used the same measures of rice and water every time. Desperate last summer to get rid of some unwanted furniture (which you have to pay a nominal sum for the city furniture/household appliance disposal dudes to haul away), I threw out four things:a small defunct clothes dryer (which was stolen not two hours later by someone who was probably unpleasantly surprised); a TV stand/VCR-DVD cabinet (which survived until the next morning); another, shabbier TV stand (don’t ask; I waited to see if anyone would take it before calling the collectors: nobody took it, but after the first rain it more or less fell apart and the regular garbagemen took away the pieces); and the lowly rice cooker – the only thing I actually had to pay (300 yen) to have carted away. Could have been worse.

So for six months or so, I was cookerless. Since I wasn’t raised to need rice with every meal (in fact, the Japanese word for cooked rice – gohan – and the casual word for meal –meshi – are different readings of the same character, 飯) , that wasn’t a problem at first. Besides, I eat quite enough of it when I eat out. There were times, however, when I’d have a craving for one dish or another, and realize I didn’t have the wherewithal to cook the required rice (I say rice, but at home, I tend to eat brown rice, or genmai – 玄米). I had no idea how to cook real rice in a pot. I grew up in a meat/fish-potato-two veg household (all very tasty), and rice, when used at all, tended to go into soups or with sauces (or rice pudding) and was of the Uncle Ben’s/Minute Rice variety (I’m proud to say, however, that I did convert my parents to basmati some years ago). I only really began eating rice in earnest in Japan, but even then, not every day. I inherited the rice cooker, and never gave the production of it another thought until it faltered and died. Wouldn’t it be hard to cook? Isn’t that why God and Toshiba made rice cookers?

I started pricing rice cookers (suihanki,炊飯器) at the big-box appliance stores in Namba. Now, Japanese rice cookers are brilliant things, and since my old one was manufactured, they’ve become more compact and convenient to use. Did I want to throw out 90 bucks or more, though, for an appliance I wouldn’t use every day? I couldn’t decide (God knows, I’ve wasted more on things I’ve used less over the years, but I’ve been trying to break myself of that wicked habit and utility is my new mantra). I pondered this one day while eating lunch in class with some of my students. They noticed my rice-free meal and the subject came up.  Several could not understand how I’d survived as long as I had without an immediate source of cooked rice within reach 24/7, but one woman, from Fukuoka, assured me that all I needed was a 100-yen donabe. Nabe (鍋) means cooking pot, in particular a traditional earthenware hotpot. Like casserole, the word nabe can refer to the pot itself or the meal cooked in it. To avoid abiguity – there’s enough of that in Japanese – one says donabe ( ‘earthen pot’, 土鍋), although with my pronunciation I tend to sound like Homer Simpson when I do.

The next day, the woman from Fukuoka gave me a printout from a Japanese cooking site on how to make good rice in a cheap clay pot (bought at the equivalent of The Dollar Store) without having it (and the pot) ending up all over your stove. I was dubious about my chances. I was especially dubious because the printed-out instructions, although illustrated, were completely in Japanese. Well, she’d gone to so much effort tht I felt obliged to at least try. So try I did.

First I had to buy the donabe. I already owned one, but it’s party-sized – great for cooking various nabes and oden in the winter, but I didn’t trust myself to adjust the recipe to its size. I went to the 100-yen shop in OCAT (another failed, half-empty monolith built by the Osaka government in the 90s), near Namba station and, lo and behold, $1 hotpots (incidentally, for all the periodic complaining about China in the Japanese media, most ordinary Japanese couldn’t manage without these shops, which feature cheap, mostly Chinese-made household goods).

The results were not unimpressive. I cheated a bit in mid-cooking, by finding a good recipe in English for brown rice. Of course, I was terrified that the rice would either boil over or dry up and burn and so I stood over it like a stage mother until I sensed it was ready, listening for just the right time when the sound of  bubbling water stopped. I then let it sit for half an hour, as per deciphered instructions (it was at this point that I found the English instructions and realized I was doing things correctly and needn’t have worried). The resulting pot of brown rice was light and fluffy and not at all sticky; if this were to happen to white rice, I think a Japanese cook would deem it a failure, because sticky short-grain rice is the ideal in Japanese cookery. I’m less fussy: it tasted great.

Here is what I made with it:

Mediterranean Yakimeshi (adapted from the Mediterranean Herbed Rice recipe in my well-worn copy of Lorna Sass’ Complete Vegetarian Kitchen, a cookbook I heartily recommend even though it’s so earnestly vegan that it doesn’t have any pictures).

Sauté a leek or large onion in a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan. When the leek/onion is soft, stir in 1 tsp sage (the original recipe calls for summer savoury; good luck finding that in Japan), 3/4 tsp dried rosemary, 1/2 tsp of dried oregano (actually, crazy-go-nuts with the herbs, if you like), and a drained can of chick peas (I didn’t happen to have any dried ones at hand; the original calls for 3/4 cup of dried chick peas, soaked and cooked). Take your 100 yen nabe-cooked brown rice (this 100-yen nabe method yields about 2.5 cups of rice) and add it to the mixture. Reduce the heat a bit. When it’s warmed through, add 1/3 cup of chopped, oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (and/or pitted olives; the original recipe specifies oil-cured black olives, but I’ve used chopped, canned green ones in the past with no regrets). Good as a main dish, on the side, or warmed up for lunch.

Posted in Blogroll, cooking, food, japan, Osaka, 大阪, 日本 | 5 Comments

Konohana-ku

A 60s bridge, the feeling of the 60s which ended when I was seven came back in all its cold steel starkness the minimalist stairs you could see below them the trucks zooming under you 20 feet 30 feet 40 feet below the anxiety attack of a seven-year-old oh I don’t want to be here I can’t go back take a breath (kid on bicycle zooms down side-ramp, unconcerned) get to the top and walk across the wobbly thing as cars zoom by on the right a section of the expressway to Kobe make it across by looking into the calm dark water people probably wondering if I’m going to jump in (no way – that water’s filthy – only pretty when it’s dark) the lights of some small tower in the distance (probably pachinko) reflected in the waters in colours like the 60s something in the hue of the blue and the yellow due more to the printing process of the time I guess that saturation which had me looking at a magazine for what seemed like all evening though I couldn’t half read it yet spellbound by the pretty rich colours and then the other side of the bridge where the steps are all concrete from the 70s perhaps and I bound down them easily because I can’t see what’s below and then some grass and a tree and an empty street and I don’t know where I am which is an odd thing to cross a scary bridge for

Posted in architecture, Blogroll, culture, design, japan, Osaka, walking, 大阪, 日本 | 3 Comments

Scenes From the Generation Gap in Osaka, 2010

Last Friday afternoon, the first teaching day of the year, I was sitting around chatting  with a few students about New Year Resolutions. I told them I’d decided to finally read War and Peace.

Student A: One Piece?

Me: No, War and Peace. By Tolstoy.

Student B: “Toy Story”?

Me: Tolstoy. Russian writer.

B: Oh.

Me: You know him? He used to be famous here (True; Russian writers used to be very popular in Japan, especially among university students)

A: I know the name. Maybe we read something short by him in school.

B: He wrote One Piece? That’s Japanese.

Me: No, War and Peace.

B: Not “Toy Story”.

Me: No. Definitely not.

A: “Toy Story” was good.

Me: Yes, I enjoyed it.

B: Gambatte with your book.

Me: Thanks.

Posted in Blogroll, books, culture, japan, language, media, Osaka, 大阪, 日本 | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Annual Health Check, 2009

One Saturday night in November, a few of us went to Spa World, a sort of hot-spring resort in downtown Osaka.  While there, I weighed myself and realized to my shock that I weighed more than I had ever weighed in my life. That I am not slim and have not been since late in the last century is no state secret, but this was a new low in high.

I was upset. I thought I had been doing my best to eat healthfully and remain active, but since my summer holidays in Canada (not a time of moderation), I had been gradually backsliding. The result was screaming at me from the scales.

By coincidence, a notice had been posted around the schools that week that reservations were being taken for the annual company health check (mandated by law here). There was no way I was going in there weighing 4 kgs more  than I had the year before (I checked 2008’s feedback report). I resolved to shape up as much as I could in the 6 weeks between then and the check-up (which I had requested for the 8th of December, but was reserved for the 15th – not one co-worker I mentioned this to got the the reservation time they’d requested, which made me wonder why they’d even bothered asking us).

Now, that didn’t mean going on a crash diet. I mentioned my predicament to some students, who immediately shouted out “Banana diet!” “Apple diet!” ” Natto diet!” (the last one would have been extreme because I would sooner fast, Gandhi-like,  for 6 weeks than eat natto). Fad diets are huge here, because in Japan, sadly, you can never be too thin. But I was trying not to go short-term. I simply cut back on bread and sweets, ate more vegetables and beans, walked more, and forced myself to go to the gym (which, whether I go to or not, I’m still paying for, after all). I didn’t do anything spectacular – I just went three or four times a week and did some machines, dumbells, sit-ups, elliptical, and (because I can barely swim) walking in the pool. I went in the late-afternoon/early evening, between 4:30 and 7 (this is the optimum time, because day-members of the gym are leaving and the office workers don’t start arriving till after six; there also seem to be fewer irritating people about). By the time the place is filled up with evening members, I’m either in the sauna or bathing or heading home for a light supper. My sleep improved, my back felt better because I wasn’t slouching as much, and yes, I could do up a few more collar buttons in a few more work shirts. I didn’t so much lose weight as displace it, but I felt, after six weeks, much better, and somewhat lighter (about 3 kgs down in six weeks).

So it was with uncharacteristic enthusiasm that I went to my annual health check. My stomach was growling because it was nearly 10 AM (I’d requested 9, but so what?) and I hadn’t been allowed to eat for 12 hours, but I didn’t mind. I went through the usual routine (already recounted here and here) with what I thought were flying colours – weight just below last year’s, so I at least broke even; 20/20 vision; hearing normal; blood pressure normal (and 0.4 cm  taller than last year!). The only thing left after the barium and stomach x-ray (the technician was particularly cranky this year, but it must be a pretty boring job) was to have the physician check my heart and lungs with a stethescope and off I’d go.

When I walked into his office (cubicle, really), the first thing he said (and not in a friendly way) was  “Wow! You’re too big!” This deflated me somewhat. I told him as best I could what I had been doing to shape up. He just shook his head and said several times,”Diet! Diet!” (pronounced “Daietto! Daietto!”). “What kind?” I asked, exasperated. “Daietto! Daietto!” he repeated. He was about 7o, scrawny, and looked like a Japanese doctor straight from Central Casting, horn-rimmed glasses and all. As he listened to my chest, I could smell the breakfast cigarettes on his breath, but it could also have been just Old Man Smell (they tend to occur together, though). This old git had the nerve to lecture me on healthy living!

I found out later that he said exactly the same thing to the next guy in line, an Australian who was stocky, but certainly lighter than me; I think this doctor was of the – happily dying off – All Gaijin Are Fat school of Japanese medicine. Well, he put a damper on my day.

But only briefly. I made my way to the traditional post-checkup Mosburger chow-down, and, that ritual over, I finally got into the Christmas mood. It’s amazing what you can make into a tradition, if you put your mind to it. If I’m lucky, staying healthy will become one of them.

Of course, I say that every year, too.

Posted in Blogroll, culture, health, japan, Osaka, 大阪, 日本 | 2 Comments

“You can never be too thin”

A Japanese acquaintance of mine, a gynaecologist in Osaka, told me something that happens at her clinic more and more often lately:

“A mother arrives with her teenage daughter, betwen 15 and 17 years old. The mother asks for a pregnancy test for the daughter, who has missed her period once or twice. I do the test, but I know just from looking at her that she’s not pregnant and couldn’t be. The test comes back negative, of course. The mother breathes a huge sigh of relief, and the girl  gets fidgety and waits to leave. Then I always ask the daughter what she eats for breakfast.

“They usually don’t eat breakfast, or much of anything else. I check her weight, and then explain to her that women are so evolved that they  stop ovulating if their bodies are too underweight or do not produce enough nutrients to sustain a fetus. If, in effect, the woman is malnourished. If you eat properly and get more nutrients, I tell her, you’ll start getting periods again.

“Some mothers and daughters are thankful for this information, but there are other mothers who nod impatiently as I’m speaking and then say, ‘So she’s definitely not pregnant?’ I tell her definitely not. On the contrary, her daughter couldn’t get pregnant now if she tried. ‘Well, thank you,’ the mother says, and she and her daughter leave, and rarely come back for a follow-up.

“So lately I’ve been dealing with mothers who are more worried about what the neighbours might think about a teen preganancy than they are about their daughter’s obvious eating disorder.”

With that anecdote in mind, my vote – in a crowded field – for the Stupidest Remark of 2009 goes to supermodel/bonehead Kate Moss’s “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” Skinny and healthy are not synonyms.

NB: (Click here for an article in The Japan Times for more about this)

Posted in Blogroll, culture, health, japan, Osaka, 大阪, 日本 | 4 Comments