Archive for February, 2012

Elizabeth Andoh’s Tohoku cookbook

February 28, 2012

When devastating earthquakes struck Japan in 1995 and 2011, Elizabeth Andoh helped the nation recover in the best way she could. By cooking.

Andoh is an American who has lived in Japan for more than 40 years. In that time, she has run a cooking school, written several cookbooks, and arguably become the world’s leading English-language authority on Japanese food.

When the Great Hanshin Earthquake destroyed much of Kobe in 1995, killing more than 6,000 people and leaving many others suddenly homeless, Andoh went to work in a takidashi soup kitchen to help feed the survivors.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake was followed by tsunami that ravaged the Pacific coast of the Tohoku region, she set about researching and writing a cookbook of traditional Tohoku recipes to raise money to help with recovery efforts. Today (Feb. 28) is the release date for the book, titled “Kibo: Brimming with Hope.” (See details on buying it here.)

Earlier in the month, she held a promotional event for the book, which I attended. I tasted the sample of Tohoku treats photographed below (and also sipped a few different types of Tohoku sake) while listening to Andoh explain her project.

Tastes of Tohoku, from left: Salmon rice topped with salmon roe, kamaboko fish sausage with a tiny bottle of soy sauce, walnut-miso shiso leaf rolls, fall fruits in pine nut tofu sauce, vinegared chrysanthemum and enoki mushroom salad

“What I remember most from [my Kobe] experience was not the first few weeks, not even the first few months,” she said. “It was five years later, it was 10 years later, and there was still so much that hadn’t come together. And for me, [considering] the enormity of what had happened in March [2011], I knew that the world would respond, Japan would respond, to emergency needs and that if I were going to do anything it was going to be more long-term.”

“When the reality of the nuclear accident became real, I knew that for longer than my lifetime we were going to have huge segments of the population permanently displaced. And then what would happen to Tohoku culture? It would all disappear; it would get morphed … into something possibly unrecognizable … I was concerned about someone getting in there and preserving the food culture,” she said.

In Kibo, Andoh set out to “chronicle, if you will, and preserve, put on the record, what Tohoku food culture was.” The $3.99 e-book contains 20 recipes that she hopes will enable readers to “recreate Tohoku food outside of the region,” using ingredients that are locally available wherever they happen to live.

Andoh is receiving no money for her work, and most of the proceeds of the book will be channelled through an online charity clearinghouse called Global Giving to a project called Michinoku Shigoto, which you can read about in English here or in Japanese here.

“What they do is they sponsor fellows, young people with skills and enthusiasm and energy to go up into the Tohoku and make business. It’s less about trying to salvage something that existed prior to the disaster than it is all about start-ups and things that make sense now,” Andoh said.

But enough nuts and bolts. How is the food?

Some of it, such as the salmon rice, is stick-to-your ribs country cooking, as you’d expect from a region known mainly for farming and fishing. And some of it is more self-evidently gourmet, such as the exquisite little dabs of walnut miso wrapped in shiso leaves and pan-toasted on sesame oil. Also toward that end of the spectrum is the fall fruit in pine nut tofu sauce, which the book suggests serving in a hollowed-out persimmon.

Having test-driven two of the recipes at home so far, I can report that the instructions are clear and easy to follow, and the results have been excellent. One dish I at which I tried my hand was the pork soup with “pinched noodles” that reminded me of the dumplings that are sometimes boiled with chicken in southern U.S. cooking. The photo below shows how it came out for me:

The other dish I made seemed like a bit more of a gamble, but it paid off. This was kamaboko fish sausage, something I have often eaten in Japan but never imagined I would be able to make at home.

The main ingredient is of course fish (I used cod), and the recipe calls for only five more items: salt, sugar, sake, cornstarch (I used katakuriko) and an egg white. All you have to do is combine them in a food processor – albeit in a very particular order – and then shape the resulting substance into little patties and grill them.

Andoh said in her presentation, “The amount of salt that’s added is a little alarming, and the timing of it is bizarre. Trust me on it, it’s got to be [done] exactly as it’s written…and the reason why when you look on the labels [of commercially prepared kamaboko] you see so much sugar in the fish sausage is to counteract the amount of salt. It’s 2 percent by weight, salt that you need to get a certain kind of chemical reaction to take place [with the protein of the fish] … There’s an instant when all of a sudden it comes together and it’s suddenly kamaboko.”

And sure enough, when I was blending the fish with the salt, there suddenly came a point when – in the space of about one second – the mixture transformed from a gloopy paste spread around the sides of the container into a smooth foam gathered in the center.

This foam is grilled in the “Kibo” recipe, but it has various uses in Japanese cuisine and can also be boiled or fried. I cooked mine in two batches, one in a toaster oven and one in the fish-grilling drawer of my Japanese stove. As you can see from the photo, my results were not beautiful…

…but they did taste good, and they had what Andoh describes in the book as “a certain degree of danryoku, or springiness, a texture that remains largely unappreciated in Western food culture.” If you’re not already familiar with kamaboko, think of each piece as a chewy bite of fish meringue pie. (I mean that as a good thing.)

The recipes (many with photos, including illustrations of techniques) take up just over half of the book. The rest is filled out with extensive notes on ingredients, a chapter on Tohoku sakes by Yukari Sakamoto, a chapter on a Miyagi Prefecture family getting their restaurant up and running again by Hiroko Sasaki, and a chapter on displaced Fukushima farmers by my coworker Jane Kitagawa.

These writers did all their work for a good cause, but Andoh admitted, “In the meanwhile, very selfishly, I discovered all sorts of wonderful things to eat, and people doing interesting things.”

Pinhole photography in Ginza

February 24, 2012

Take a box. Put some photographic film in it. Punch a tiny hole in the side of the box opposite the film. Wait.

That’s the essence of pinhole photography. The light coming through the tiny hole projects an image of whatever is outside the box onto the film. The principle is the same as the one behind watching a solar eclipse with a shoebox viewer.

I’ve been aware of the concept of pinhole photography for a long time, but I never gave it much thought until yesterday, when I went to Edward Levinson’s pinhole photography show in Ginza.

Edward Levinson is a pinhole photography genius.

The exhibition, titled “Mind Games, Vol. 2,” is in a small gallery on the second floor of the Ginza showroom of the Eizo color monitor company, but the first works one sees are displayed on the landing of the staircase leading up to it. These are horizontal color prints about meter wide, and each is an arresting composite image that Levinson created with a “Pinhole Blender.” It’s a cylindrical box the size and shape of a cookie tin with not one but three pinholes, which project images onto different but overlapping areas of a single curved piece of film.

The results are bizarre and amazing.

The first photo is titled “Coffee High.” The central image is of a man drinking coffee, blended into images on either side of him that show a wavy decorative pattern on the glass of the coffee shop. Because of the curved film, the side images are slightly distorted in such a way that the wavy pattern almost forcibly focuses the viewer’s attention on the man drinking coffee. It’s actually difficult to move your eyes to any other part of the picture. You get kind of woozy just looking at it.

(You may or may not feel that effect looking at the image at the top of this post, but trust me — it works when you’re standing in front of a meter-wide print. Incidentally, you can click on any of the images here for a slightly larger view.)

Next to that is a photo called “Dharma Watching” in which the central image is a close-up of the grotesque face of a rather ugly-looking metallic Daruma doll. The other two images, both of which are lower down in photo, show the tops of some mountains (in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, where Levinson lives), making it look as if the Daruma is looming in the sky.

In the main room of the gallery there are many more blended pinhole photos, some of which look at one subject from multiple angles, while others juxtapose different subjects in interesting ways. All are in color.

In addition to the photos hanging on the walls, there are three Eizo monitors set up on a table, continuously running slideshows of Levinson’s previous work. And there are copies of his books laid out.

I should disclose that Levinson is an artist to whom I have a slight connection. Long ago, he and I were fellow members of a writing workshop that met in Chiba City. When I used the Golden Week holidays in 1991 to ride my bicycle all the way around the Boso Peninsula, Levinson and his wife kindly let me sleep in their barn when I passed through Kamogawa. But soon after that, I returned to the United States, and we fell out of contact for 20 years – during which he took up pinhole photography, in 1993. We ran into each other again totally by chance at the 2011 Japan Writers Conference in Kobe, and he encouraged me to come to his show.

With that history, I admit that I was inclined to think positively of his work. But I must say with equal candor that I was far more impressed than I expected to be.

In addition to his amazing “Pinhole Blender” work, I was stunned by the black-and-white photos in his book “Timescapes Japan: A Pinhole Journey,” which I sat down and leafed through at the show.

In pinhole photography, according to Wikipedia, a smaller hole in the box leads to a more sharply focused image, but since a smaller hole admits less light it also requires a longer exposure time. This can range from seconds to hours. When photographing buildings or landscapes, this is fine, but it poses a challenge when photographing things that move – like people.

In “Timescapes Japan,” Levinson found multiple ways to turn this challenging aspect of pinhole photography into a tremendous advantage. For example, two of his photos show monks standing on busy city streets with their begging bowls. In each photo, the monk appears to be alone. But then you gradually notice wispy, ghostly figures of other people passing by. The monks remained motionless long enough to appear solid and real in the pinhole view, while it is the laypeople flitting about on their daily business who appear ethereal and unreal.

In another photo, taken from a tall building and looking down at the Sumidagawa river in Tokyo, a boat caught in the act of turning around is blurred into a crescent shape that calls to mind a fat koi wallowing in a small pond. But a photo of actual koi on another page makes the white fish in their muddy water look like calligraphers’ brush strokes drawn in milk on slate.

“Timescapes” is a fitting title, not only because the passage of time can be seen in each photo, but also because at least one of them has taken on a layer of irony that only the further passage of time could supply. Called “Growing up,” the 1997 photo shows a boy standing beside a body of water while a high-rise building looms in the background. The building is recognizable as the Akasaka Prince Hotel, a Tokyo landmark. It looks as solid and as permanent as can be. The boy is not recognizable because he couldn’t hold still the way the building could, and thus is blurred and semitransparent. He looks fleeting and insubstantial.

Today, 15 years later, we can reasonably assume that the boy has grown up and is now a man.

The hotel is slated for demolition.

Practical details

“Mind Games, Vol. 2” will run at the Eizo Galleria Ginza, at 3-10-6 Ginza on Showa-dori avenue just north of Higashi Ginza subway station, through March 3, 2012. Levinson will give a talk there, mostly in Japanese, from 2-3 p.m. on Feb. 25. Admission is free.

Levinson’s website:
Eizo Galleria Ginza site:

Photographer Mao Ishikawa on the Japanese flag

February 6, 2012

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

Mao Ishikawa has been taking photos of people with the Japanese flag at least since 1993, but her current show of some of those photos at the Zen Foto Gallery is especially timely now.

The Hinomaru flag, a white banner framing a large red circle that represents the sun, and the Kimigayo national anthem, a hymn to the Emperor, are both at the center of some very current but also deep-rooted political disputes.

Last month (January 2012), Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that punishing teachers who refused to stand and sing the Kimigayo during school ceremonies by suspending them or cutting their pay was “too harsh,” although the court also found that such teachers could be reprimanded. This ruling did not sit well with recently elected Osaka city Mayor and former Osaka prefectural Governor Toru Hashimoto. Hashimoto, the firebrand leader of a rising new political party called Osaka Ishin no Kai, wants to fire teachers who refuse to join in singing the Kimigayo more than twice. He has indicated that he still intends to fire such teachers despite the Supreme Court ruling. (News items here and here.)

A few days later, Hashimoto made more waves by ordering local officials to bow to the Hinomaru flag in the municipal assembly whenever the assembly opens or reconvenes, whenever they step onto the assembly’s platform and whenever they respond to a question. (News item here.)

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

In December 2007, Kim Koon Hee, a traditional Korean artist who lives in Osaka, placed a Hinomaru flag on the ground and stamped on it in a pair of white poson slippers, traditional Korean footwear with pointy, upturned toes. “Many Korean people died under the Rising-Sun flag,” she said. Presumably she is not a Hashimoto supporter. Ishikawa’s photo of her is part of the current show.

Photographer Mao Ishikawa speaks at the Zen Foto gallery in Tokyo on Feb. 5.

Ishikawa was born in Okinawa in 1953 when the islands, which even now host the majority of U.S. military bases in Japan, were still under complete U.S. control. Before Okinawa’s official reversion to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, Ishikawa says, any U.S. military personnel who committed crimes against local people simply disappeared to America without facing local justice. She wondered how the Japanese government could allow this to happen, and this led her to the deeper question of, “Are Okinawans Japanese?”

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

That question grew into a project in which she photographed a variety of Okinawans – and members of other minority groups, such as Ainu, burakumin and zainichi Koreans – posing with the Hinomaru flag in ways meant to show what the flag means to them. In some cases, such as the artist with the poson slippers or the group of right-wing political activists seen immediately above this paragraph, the answer is relatively clear. In others, it is more ambiguous, such as with Okinawan drama student Wakana Oshiro, seen at the very top of this blog post, who said, “I feel easy and relaxed in the ocean for some unknown reason.”

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

Some of the photos have a warm and cheerful feel, such as one in which beaming young parents display their newborn baby on a Hinomaru blanket. Others are shocking and harsh, such as one in which a physically disabled performance artist creates a splattery Hinomaru on a sheet with what appears to be blood from a chicken whose head she appears to just have bitten off. In one portrait, of a fashionable teenage girl, I had trouble spotting the flag at all – until I saw that it was painted on her fingernails.

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

Ishikawa took some of these photos from 1993 to 1999, the latter of which is the year that the Hinomaru and Kimigayo, until then only Japan’s de facto flag and anthem, officially became such through enactment of the National Flag and Anthem Law. From 2007 to 2011 she took more photos with the aim of making them into a book.

The book, which contains 100 of her flag portraits, is available through Amazon’s Japanese site, and it can also be purchased at Zen Foto, where the show of 16 large prints of photos from the book runs through Feb. 26, 2012. The photos are accompanied by brief statements from the subjects, in both Japanese and English. Admission is free.

A red circle on a white background is a simple design, but Ishikawa shows that no two people who gaze at the Hinomaru flag see exactly the same thing.

Links for futher details

Zen Foto site, with access information, here.

Ishikawa’s official blog here.

Ishikawa on Amazon in Japan here.

Ishikawa on Amazon in the U.S. here.

Review of an earlier Ishikawa book here.

Article on an earlier version of this show here.