Monday, March 05, 2007

Cocooned Buildings & Yakiniku

There's so much to write about, and so little time! I can't believe we've been in Japan for over a year now. The time is just flying! Here's a mish-mash of observations and interesting (to me at least!) little things...sort of a collage of a post. (As always, click on the images for slightly larger versions.)

Spring is trembling on the cusp of exploding here. The cherry blossoms are about to burst into bloom, and the days are alternating between sunny warmth and grey chill. Kyushu is an incredibly green island, which I tend to forget while driving around in the grey and tan city. Last spring, Miyuki and two other friends and I took a drive up into the mountains for a "hydrangea viewing". Certain roads are lined on both sides with unbroken walls of hydrangea, and they're covered in heavy, nodding flower bundles in pink and lavendar and blue. I'm hoping to go again this year, with my camera fully charged. Last time was astonishing, and I was heartbroken that my camera battery died after only a couple of shots. Here is a rather poor image of smiling H, where you can see the hydrangea peering in the car windows. Here is the view from the spa where we stopped for lunch, and where I hope to return. The mountains and rice paddies look so lush and beautiful! Even during the winter, flowers have surprised me here. They spill from alleyways, fill terracotta pots jumbled around the front doors of houses, and cascade down grey stone walls. The colors are all the more striking for being surrounded by so much grey and beige and rust.

Nature in general is very highly regarded here, of course. One funny example of this is the "Engritch" slogans on the wheelcovers of the little jeep-like 4WD cars here. I can't always snap a shot of them, but I'm going to try to collect more. The Rasheen wheel cover says "Listen to the murmuring of a stream. Run after wild birds. Rest in the bosom of the woods." I guess one does all of this AFTER one has driven crashing into the forest? Another wheelcover shows a diver cavorting in silhouette with a dolphin, superimposed on the planet Earth. The slogan: "Save our nature!" Guess they mean to save it from stuff other than car exhaust?

I'm also amused by the branding of cars here. The little blue one in the photo is a model named "Carol" with the slogan "Me Lady" painted on the side. I LOVED that car, but somehow, Fearless Husband wasn't as into it as I was. Go figure! Cars here have odd names to American ears, such as the "Move", the "Today", the "Cube", the "Life" and (most surprising to me) "La Puta". That last one means "the prostitute" in Spanish, Tagalog and Portugese!!!

Then, just as we have celebrity-branded vehicles (such as the Eddie Bauer edition Ford Explorer), so do the Japanese -- the "Hello Kitty" edition Daihatsu Move. No, I'm not kidding! The Japanese tend to dress in dark or neutral, black, brown, rust, olive green, cream, tan, etc. But they seem to enjoy more vivid colors in other areas. There are plenty of cars in pink, purple, lavendar and apple green. My car is a pretty vivid teal. And heavy construction machinery is in a rainbow of colors, unlike the American "caution yellow". Here, you will find teal cranes, purple bulldozers, turquoise and green backhoes...they almost look as if Fisher Price built them!

When construction is being done anywhere, a scaffolding is erected around whatever is being worked on (house, high-rise, street sign, support column for the new highway) and fabric is draped all over the scaffolding very neatly, like a big package. I've been told part of that is safety, so pieces of the construction process and/or paint droplets are contained away from passing cars and people. The fabric (which is a loose enough weave to be very slightly translucent in some situations) might also help protect whatever is being built or renovated from the weather. But it looks like a cocoon to me, from which the new sign/bridge pillar/apartment building emerges, clean and finished and pretty, like a butterfly. In this land of jumbled houses, rust-streaked sheds and dilapidated roofs, it's almost as if it's perfectly fine to look at the young and beautiful or the old and dilapidated, but never appropriate to see any building unfinished or in the midst of if it's in a state of undress. Here is a photo of the big torii gate in front of the base draped in green cheesecloth-like stuff when it was being repainted, with the shadowy figures of workers barely seen inside the tent-like folds. I'll have to see if I can get a shot of a similarly-draped high-rise. Yes, it's raining. Yes, the workers are still working. Construction workers seem to work in all weather, at all hours. It's common to see much road construction happening late at night, when traffic is light, and even on the worst rainy days I pass construction in action.

Can't think of a good transition, so imagine your own here. Many of the restaurants in Japan involve the diner in the meal more than just as a consumer of food. At the tonkatsu place, for example, each diner is given a little bowl with unglazed ridges gouged into the bottom, and a round-ended wooden stick. One is expected to ladle out a spoonful of sesame seeds into the bowl, and then grind however much or little one wants. Then tonkatsu sauce is added (one is spicy and one is sweet, supposedly, but I don't taste much difference) and one stirs it up to make a paste or sauce as thin or thick as one wishes. The pouring sauce is fruit-based, and tastes a little like our A-1 sauce...but the fragrance of the crushed sesame seeds is really wonderful, and the two flavors go together really beautifully. Then one dips the insanely tender slices of panko-crusted pork cutlet into the sauce...delicious!

Another favorite restaurant is the yakiniku place. Yaki means "cook" and niku means "meat". Pretty self-explanatory! Diners are shown to a table (low and Japanese style or American-style booth) with a grill embedded in the center of the table. The yakiniku I went to in Okinawa was heated with cylinders of charcoal, but the one I frequent in Sasebo has a gas flame heating a crysanthemum-shaped metal burner beneath the grill grid. One orders a platter of meat, sometimes sauced, sometimes not. Some platters have a variety of different beef cuts, some have beef, chicken and seafood. Each platter comes with several leaves of cabbage, a thick slice of carrot, some thick rings of onion, a slab of bell pepper, and a slab of eggplant. Sometimes, Japanese pumpkin (winter squash) is included. Everything arrives raw, even the meat, and each diner then cooks his or her own meats and vegetables to a preferred doneness. A segmented dish is provided for various dipping things -- pureed garlic, some sort of sweet pepper puree, soy sauce (of course), a mix of coarsely-ground salt and black pepper -- and each piece of meat or vegetable can be dipped in one or a succession of condiments, "bounced" on one's bowl of rice, and then eaten. The rice is seasoned with meat juices, garlic, salt, etc. from this "bouncing", and is eaten bit by bit throughout the meal, so each layer of the bowl of rice is seasoned. Meat is very expensive in Japan, and the meat at a yakiniku is usually of a VERY high quality (I've had Kobe beef, as well as several other kinds, named for the area from which each comes). The diner is not given a ton of meat, compared to an American steak dinner, and the meal is not cheap...but it's exactly enough. By the time one has cooked, seasoned and eaten, the belly is full and a good, long, pleasant time has passed in conversation and the action of cooking. Pauses have to be taken as various bits are being cooked, so there's time for conversation. I love the yakiniku place!

Last fall, I went to the Navy Ball with my friend L. The ball itself was fun, but nothing special...people dressed up, there was plenty to eat and drink, the music was loud. However, I met some interesting people and that was fun. One woman named Michiko was dressed in her formal kimono, in elegant juxtaposition to all the red sheaths and sequins and black gowns with plunging necklines. I got an interesting photo of her having a cigarette outside and watching the dancing through the glass doors. With the cigarette and the kimono, she made me think of something out of a late 1940s movie. Afterwards, a group of us "sea widows" went out to a karaoke bar, which I hadn't done before. It was fascinating! The bar was called The Westerner, and it was the smallest bar I think I've ever been in. There was a single low table to one side, and a U-shaped bar with perhaps 12 barstools. Other than a shelf of liquor bottles, two karaoke tv screens and the chaotic jumble of "Western memorabilia" on the walls (including an all-but-topless 1960s painting of a redhead in a cowboy hat leaning on a saddle), that was it. Both the "barmaids" were Japanese women in their late 50s, with heavy makeup, cowboy hats, leather mini-skirts, and their American nicknames burned into the leather of their belts. "Kay" happily served us drinks, and offered the karaoke menu. One could sing songs in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean, for 200 yen (about $1.80) per song. The drinks were small, and VERY expensive -- but a very skinny and very tipsy Japanese man insisted on buying drinks for all of us, as long as we'd sing "Country Roads" and "Grandma's Feather Bed" with him...loudly. (Turned out he was a cardiologist on vacation in Sasebo and this was his idea of a fantastic night, singing American songs with American Navy wives. His own wife watched and smiled tolerantly as she sipped her cocktail.) This gentleman crooning with overdressed American women was highly amusing to a couple at the end of the bar, near the painting of the redhead. For some reason, the barmaids drew mustaches on several patrons using eyebrow pencil. I'm not sure quite why, but it went along with the loan of a battered straw cowboy hat, so maybe the Dick Dastardly mustache was part of being an American cowboy? Later in the evening, the woman pictured here had a mustache drawn on, too! She's flashing the peace sign in the photo, which seems to be The Thing to Do when having your photo taken in Japan.

I've attached two more photos, just because I like them. One is a a silly picture I took of the little bitty clams I used in miso soup. Miyuki and her mother helped me pick out good miso and dried wakame for the soup, and insisted that it would be best to have these little shellfish. The shellfish were delicious in the soup, but I enjoyed the discarded shells even more. I love the color variation on them -- some look like miniature landscapes! The other shot I took out of the car window, of some washcloths drying in the sun. I just liked the yellow of the cloths, the dingy turquoise of the awning, the coral of the haidresser's cape, and the terracotta of the wall.

There you have it...a little disjointed, but still, things I wanted to share. I love it here...more soon!


mean_lady said...

The new Ford Puta with crushed red velvet interior.

Hello Kitty Cars? That's sad.

Purple backhoes? Get a picture of them up.

Karaoke and peace signs, our Japanese friends at liesure.

Girlplustwo said...

it's so obvious you love it. it shines through with every gorgeous picture.

living vicariously...

Carolie said...

Thanks for stopping by! Jen #1 (Glick), yes, that's the mental image I got with the La Puta, even though it's a pastel jellybean of a car. I'll see if i can snap a shot of a purple backhoe for you. Did you click on the Hello Kitty car photo?? I was flabbergasted!

Jen #2, thanks so much for stopping by, and for the kind words! Please do visit again...and if you're ever on this side of the Pacific, let me know!

Amy said...

Hi Carolie. I read your blog occasionally but have never commented.

My husband was stationed in Japan for a while before we were married, and then for 8 months afterward. I visited twice, and neither visit was long enough! I'm almost living vicariously through you because I so wanted to go out and see everything I could while I was there. It's such a beautiful, fascinating country!

I had to laugh about the cars. They were also a fascination for me. Then the Honda Element came out in the states, and it was just a larger version of the Cube to me. lol

Carolie said...

Amy, thanks so much for stopping by and for commenting. I know it's silly, but it made me feel all happy to hear you've been reading my blog. Thanks for the kind words, and I hope you keep visiting! Feel free to e-mail me at carolie(AT)wordmagix(DOT)com anytime.

Trucker Pete said...

My mouth is watering after reading about the food! Sounds wonderful!

Carolie said...

Thanks for stopping by, TP! Glad you liked the description. Eating it is even more fun!

Namito said...

The food, the food!

I need to learn to cook Japanese some dishes. There aren't many places to get authentic Japanese food here in Boston (although there is a yummy ramen shop at the Super 88 in Allston).

Even figuring out the ratio of sticky rice to sushi vinegar for onigiri would be a start!

Anonymous said...

Followed your link from Kimchi Mamas. I enjoyed this post! I've always been confounded by English-language prose found on random products, like my rice cooker, pencil box, drinkable yogurt ... I can't believe there's a Hello Kitty edition car either!!

Carolie said...

RtC, glad you came by! Yes, the food is NOT helping me lose weight! I'll find that vinegar proportion for you...but here, I believe one just uses wet, lightly salted hands to form warm, medium or short grain steamed rice into onigiri -- no vinegar, which is used only for sushi rice. I'll do some research though!

Carol, thanks for stopping by...hope you'll visit again! Sometimes the stilted, odd English here just confuses me...sometimes, on t-shirts especially, it shocks me, other times, I love the awkward beauty of the phrasing -- things like "beauty serene for your life partner wellness" on a drink bottle. I meant to post a photo of a child's height measuring thing...a wooden frame shaped like a frog, with a measuring stick and a frame for a photo. The paper insert in the frame says (and I kid you not!): "Let's get naked and have some fun!"

Namito said...

Thanks for the tip, Carolie. I'll undoubtedly have better luck with the whole onigiri thing now.

Miz BoheMia said...

Oh how I love reading up on your adventures in Japan! I have missed you amiga mia and it is oh so nice to be back!

Hello Kitty? Oooh! My little girl would go bonkers over that car!

And puta means whore... a tad worse than prostitute! Dios mio on that as a name for a car although, he, he, heee... it would be the one I would be tempted to get! Ha, ha, haaaa!

Hope all is well with you my friend! Besos!

Mary Witzl said...

You have made me homesick for Japan once again. I miss those hydrangeas, and I even miss all those naff sayings in Engritch... As for Hello Kitty cars, I am told that there are also Anne of Green Gables HOUSES. It is one thing to have a car named after a cartoon character (of sorts). But imagine purchasing an Anne of Green Gables HOUSE!

Only the Japanese could come up with the name 'Puta' for a car. There is a marvelous movie by the animator Miyazaki about a fantasy land in the clouds called 'Laputa.' Just seeing that in print never fails to crack me up.

You've probably learned this by now, but the best way to shape onigiri is by using cling film. Sprinkle a little salt and roasted black sesame seeds on a flat piece big enough to wrap a sandwich in, gather it all up into a ball, and squeeze, creating whatever shape you like. Don't let anyone tell you this is cheating: everybody does it, and it works fine and saves you a lot of clean-up and hassle!

Oh, how I wish I could have tonkatsu and yakiniku now. And I hardly even eat meat!

Anonymous said...

So many people thinks Yakiniku is Japanese when it's actually Korean originated.... sad people

Carolie said...

Dear Anonymous,

I have since learned that yes, yakiniku (a Japanese word which means "cook meat") is a Korean dining style, and the Japanese, when going to eat at a yakiniku restaurant often say to each other "want to go eat Korean tonight?" meaning yakiniku.

I have also now eaten in Korea, at a table grill, and it was really fantastic. It was completely different from what I'd had in Japan. I've also had meat grilled by my father on a charcoal grill in the US. That's pretty good stuff, too.

When we eat Japanese curry, it is obviously Japanese-style curry, not Indian curry. Do I need to say "but this food originated in India?" It's quite different from Indian curries, but yes, its roots are in India. We eat popcorn at the movies. Do I need to say "but this food originated with Native Americans?" They didn't put butter and salt on it the way we do...but it did indeed originate with them. When I eat rice in Korea, do I need to say "but rice was first cultivated by the Chinese?"

This is just one woman's journal (mine). When I wrote this, I had not been in Japan very long at all. Rather than commenting anonymously in a snotty way, it would have been much kinder if you had decided to educate me (and my readers) gently. We would have learned something we didn't know before, and perhaps we would have both made a friend.

Posting a negative comment anonymously is cowardly and rude.

Anonymous said...

what the heck are you talking about carolie? you don't say 'japanese curry' you just say curry just as in indian word 'curry' For example Americans call pizza, linguini, fetuccini, just as how Italians say in their native tongue, they don't go out and call them something else like how Japanese call 'Korean BBQ' as 'yakiniku' Not trying to argue and say that you are ignorant but most people are....

Carolie said...

Ahhhh...I get it. I thought you were angry that I didn't give credit to the Korean origins of the dish.

You're right...we call lasagne by its Italian name, and lutefisk by its Norwegian name. I guess I thought of it in the same vein as us calling a dish "sweet and sour pork" and not by the Chinese name (though maybe that dish is just an American perversion of a Chinese dish! :)

I was indeed ignorant of the origins of yakiniku. I didn't find out that the Japanese call it "the Korean restaurant" until long after I wrote this journal entry. I still don't know the Korean name for the dining style. Should it be called "Korean BBQ"? As someone from the southern US, BBQ means a specific pork dish, not a cooking style. And lots of Americans argue a LOT about what BBQ means and what is "real BBQ". It's actually pretty funny, if you get a Texan, a Tennessean and a North Carolinian in one room...they might fight about what BBQ really is! :)

I did feel attacked by your first comment. I have had anonymous commenters in the past who have just said something mean or dismissive about something I wrote two and a half years ago, when I was brand new to Japan and as ignorant as can be (I'm still pretty ignorant, but I'm learning!)

Thanks for coming back and replying.