Archive for August, 2013

Voices from the 6th Japan Writers Conference

August 21, 2013

The Japan Writers Conference is an English-language event held in a different part of Japan every year. There are usually about 30 presentations by writers in different fields on a variety of topics.

At the sixth annual conference, last fall in Kyoto, I did some quick micro-interviews with a few of the presenters. I asked them what they had spoken about, what other presentations they had enjoyed, and what advice they might have for anyone thinking about going next time. You can see some of their answers in the video above.

The seventh annual conference is coming up in November in Okinawa. You can find details on the official website here. More information will be added as the event comes closer.

By the way, I once gave a presentation at the Japan Writers Conference myself. It was about how to interview creative subjects for feature articles, and you can see highlights of it here. You can also read my descriptions of some other writers’ past presentations here and here.


One person who does not appear in this video is John Gribble, the main organizer of the event. But you can read a recent Japan Times article about him by Kris Kosaka here.

And now for the meat-eaters

August 17, 2013

Dino 1

Last week, I visited a group of plant-eating dinosaurs that are on display at the Oazo Building next to Tokyo Station. Yesterday, I went to the Marunouchi area again to see the carnivores on display at the nearby Maru Biru. If you’d like to see them yourself, you’d better act fast. This is the last weekend they’ll be on display. Sunday, Aug. 18 is the final day.

Dino 2

Around Japan in 47 curries: Gunma factory girls’ lunch

August 15, 2013

This is Part 12 of a 47-part series of almost-weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

b1 001


Japan is one of the richest countries on earth, and it got that way through international trade. But 150 years ago, Japan was neither rich nor international.

After having been sealed off from the world by the Tokugawa shoguns for most of the 1603-1868 Edo period, Japan began to fully engage with other nations during the latter half of the 19th century.

To successfully participate in world trade, Japan needed a product it could sell in great quantities. But it wasn’t an agricultural power, and when the 1968-1912 Meiji era began it had no large-scale manufacturing. However, it did have a comparative advantage when it came to silk.

Edward S. Miller writes, “Exports of raw silk commenced in the 1860s to France and Italy, where a worm disease had ravaged sericulture until Dr. Louis Pasteur found a cure.”

Miller is the author of a book called “Bankrupting the Enemy” (U.S. Naval Institute Press) which describes U.S. financial moves against Japan in the years before Pearl Harbor. In setting the scene, he provides a detailed description of Japan’s economy at the time, including a fascinating history of the silk industry:

“As the Japanese entered world trade they planted more and more land in fast-growing mulberry trees. Meiji authorities encouraged scientific sericulture. They recruited former samurai as commercial managers. From 1890, when good statistics were first available, to 1929, mulberry acreage rose 157 percent to 1.5 million acres, covering a remarkable 10 percent of the arable land… In the countryside, hundreds of filature plants housed young women in dormitories, toiling to earn for their families and, as legend has it, for marriage dowries. At work they dropped cocoons into basins of hot water to loosen the natural sericin glue and unwound three, six, or more cocoons simultaneously, twisting the strands onto reels to form the multifilament yarn known as raw silk… Soon reels powered by water wheels and engines replaced hand-turned reels.”

Gunma map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Gunma map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

The Tomioka Silk Mill in Gunma Prefecture was the very model of a modern silk reeling factory. Set up by French businessman Paul Brunat under the auspices of the Meiji government, the plant began operations in 1872. According to the plant’s official website, Brunat chose the location, about 100 kilometers northwest of Tokyo, in part because it was well supplied with coal, fresh water, and land suitable for growing mulberry trees.

The plant eventually had an all-Japanese workforce, but at first there were a number of French men working there as engineers, along with a French doctor and some French women who taught Japanese women how to operate the machinery. The unfamiliar presence of foreigners led to a recruiting problem, according to the site. Some women were reluctant to take jobs at the mill because “it was rumored that the French drank blood. The Japanese had seen the French drinking red wine, and had mistaken this for blood. The government tried to deny this rumor…”

This detail is a reminder that the extreme transformation of Japan at that time was like a real-life science-fiction story. Even red brick buildings, now considered synonymous with Meiji architecture, were then a startling novelty. One mill worker, a samurai’s daughter named Ei Wada, wrote in her memoir, “I was so surprised to see the main gate of Tomioka Silk Mill, feeling as if [I were] dreaming. It’s no wonder I should do so, because I had never actually seen a brick building, other than rarely in a picture.”

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The women worked eight hours a day with Sundays off, apparently good conditions for the time.

Miller writes that Japan’s silk industry peaked in 1929, when it provided a livelihood to 2.2 million rural households. Its biggest customer was the United States:

“Japan’s success was due to an equally phenomenal growth of silk textile manufacturing in the United States, where wealthy and middle-class women hankered for stylish clothing. Before World War I the nation purchased 80 percent of Japan’s silk exports, during the war 90 percent, and in the late 1920s 95 percent. Raw silk was never subjected to tariffs because sericulture failed in the United States for lack of peasant labor.”

The Tomioka Silk Mill remained active until 1987. It is now maintained as a historic site.

And now for the curry connection.

I bought a 700-yen package of “Tomioka Silk Mill Curry” this week at the Gunma Prefecture antenna shop in Ginza, Tokyo. The product’s full Japanese name literally translates as “Curry loved by the factory girls at the Tomioka Silk Mill.” There are two individual servings in a box adorned with historical pictures. One of them shows women walking across the factory’s brick floor in thick-soled wooden geta – an image combing ancient and modern aspects of Japan in the Meiji equivalent of today’s geisha-with-a-smartphone cliché.

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In a whimsical touch, the box claims to be the exact size and shape of one of the factory’s bricks.

As delightful as the packaging may be, I found the curry rather ordinary. It was very thick and dense, with a consistency similar to that of whipped potatoes. It was moderately hot, but there was no particular complexity to its spiciness. The first listed ingredient is pork, but there were only three bite-sized squares of dry, stiff meat in one of the servings, and three in the other.

Tomioka curry marked

The next seven ingredients are onions, brown roux, curry powder, vegetable oil, sugar, flour and salt. Coffee appears further down this list. This would have been an exotic ingredient in 1872, but less so in 1987. However, no date for the recipe is given.

The curry was not served at the factory itself, but at a nearby restaurant called Takata Shokudo that is said to have been popular among the workers. A Japanese food blogger who visited the restaurant has posted photos of the curry that look a lot more appealing that what I ate. (See them here.) There appear to be bigger pieces of meat, and there are also big chunks of onion. The onion in the version I sampled had been boiled or pureed beyond recognition. I suppose that like most restaurant food, this curry is best when eaten in situ.

Dinosaurs in Marunouchi

August 10, 2013


On a quick lunchtime visit to the Oazu Building near Tokyo Station the other day, I ran into some dinosaurs.

There were three complete skeletons set up in the building’s atrium, including an eight-meter-long Tsintaosuarus (above), which can best be described as a duck-billed unicorn. The periscope-like projection from the top of its head is so bizarre that when the first one was discovered some scientists thought the skull had been broken and deformed in the process of fossilization. But later they found another specimen that fit the same pattern. Weird as it looks, it’s real.

There was also a cute little skeleton belonging to a juvenile Apatosaurus. This is the creature formerly known as bronotsaurus, so by “little” I mean it was the size of a Great Dane. According to explanatory signage in both Japanese and English, it is very rare to find such a complete skeleton. In fact, even this “complete” skeleton was found without a head, so the skull is a reconstruction.


Probactrosaurus visits a cafe at the Oazo Building. Judging by his plant-eater’s teeth, he probably ordered a salad.

The dinosaurs I saw at the Oazo Building were all plant-eaters, but a collection of meat-eaters is also on display at the nearby Maru Biru. These include a 10-meter-long Baryonyx, which resembles a T. rex with powerful claws and a crocodile’s head. It apparently specialized in catching fish.

The skeletons, on loan from the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum, also include Japan’s very own Fukuiraptor.

I didn’t have time to visit the meat-eaters and see the Fukuiraptor for myself, but I plan to drop by soon. The display runs through Aug. 18.

See official details in Japanese here.

Work-life balance

August 4, 2013

work life balance

Last night I passed a shuttered restaurant with the above sign posted out front. It reads: “I am extremely sorry but today we are temporarily closed to go watch fireworks. [signed] The proprietor.”

This is the exact equivalent of the classic American “Gone fishing” sign – which is something I have never seen in real life.

The establishment is called Sora Dining. It’s a tiny little bar and eatery that appears to have no website, but it is easy to find just half a block north of Kawaguchi Motogou subway station.

I ate there once a long time ago and always meant to go back. Now I’ll really have to make a point of it.

Footnote: In romaji, the sign reads: “Moshiwake gozaimasen ga honjitsu, hanabi no tame rinji kyuugyou shimasu. Tenshu.”

Around Japan in 47 curries: Kumamoto horse meat

August 3, 2013

This is Part 11 of a 47-part series of almost-weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

So hungry you could eat a horse? Then you should visit Kumamoto Prefecture, where horse meat is a well-known feature of the local culture.

This makes Kumamoto distinctive, since meat of any kind has played only a small role in the history of Japanese cuisine. In fact, eating it was usually taboo.

If you squint just right, this horse looks kind of like a cow. (JD Lamb photo via Wikimedia Commons)

If you squint just right, this horse looks kind of like a cow. (JD Lamb photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In her fascinating book “Modern Japanese Cuisine,” historian Katarzyna J. Cwiertka writes, “The first decree prohibiting meat eating in Japan was issued in AD 675.” Today it is commonly believed that such rules were based on Buddhist beliefs, but Cwiertka argues that the real purpose was to protect big livestock – horses and cattle – needed for plowing and transportation. Once the ban was in place, Buddhism may have reinforced it, but it seems to have applied mainly to domestic animals rather than wild game.

But even game carried a whiff of the unsavory. During the Edo period (1603-1868), there were “beast restaurants” that served meat for “medicinal” purposes. Cwiertka writes, “The fact that euphemisms were used when referring to various types of meat indicates that the aura of defilement was associated with the game stew served there. Sakura (cherry) signified horsemeat, momiji (maple) venison and botan (peony) wild boar, the last also being known as ‘mountain whale’ (yamakujira).”

Kumamoto map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Kumamoto map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

How, when and why eating horse meat took particular root in Kumamoto is unclear, but one theory (described in an article by Jesse Veverka) holds that Kato Kiyomasa, daimyo of what is now Kumamoto prefecture, on the southwestern island of Kyushu, sanctioned it in response to a war-induced famine in the 1590s.

Nowadays, horse accounts for almost exactly one percent of Japan’s annual meat production. Of approximately 500,000 tons of meat produced domestically each year since 2009, about 5,000 tons comes from horses. Japan imports horse meat, too – roughly 1,360 tons in the first four months of 2013, compared to about 45,800 tons of beef imported in the same period, according to agriculture ministry statistics.

That’s a lot of meat, and there are a lot of ways to serve it.

In her handy reference book and dining guide “Food Sake Tokyo,” Yukari Sakamoto writes about horse meat, “The lean meat of the neck is eaten braised or ground; the tender parts like the fillet are eaten rare; the back leg, rich in fat and collagen, is slow-cooked for a long time so that it becomes tender. The liver, sliced thinly, is sometimes eaten raw.” She goes on to describe additional preparations, such as sashimi-style raw horse (basashi), grilled horse and a shabu-shabu-style hot pot dish called hari hari nabe.

I’ve eaten basashi at izakayas a few times over the years, dipping slices of the meat in soy sauce with grated ginger. Perhaps I haven’t gone to the right places, but I’ve found the meat to be overly chewy and not memorably flavorful. It’s not at all unpleasant, but it struck me as being in the category of things one eats just to say one has eaten them.

Kumamoto horse curry marked

However, the horse meat curry I tried a few days ago was much nicer than that. It included chunks of what I would consider good stew meat – soft and just slightly stringy, easy to break up with the edge of a spoon. Some of the meat had little bits of tendon attached, with the collagen softened by long cooking. (I was content with the quantitiy of meat I got, but it was nothing like the generous mountain shown in the photo on the box.)

It was a rather mild curry, but the spiciness was dialed down without being replaced by the overt sweetness that often characterizes mild curries in Japan. The sauce reminded me of what you might get if you made a standard brown gravy with meat drippings, thickened it with more than the usual amount of flour and then added just a dash or two of cayenne pepper or chili powder.

Horse curry box 001When I checked the ingredient list, sugar was more prominent than I had expected. But then, sugar is in everything these days. Otherwise, the main ingredients bore out my first impressions. The top nine were horse meat, fat (beef and pork), flour, sugar, starch, salt, curry powder, fond de veau (veal stock), and sautéed onions.

In addition to the main meat, there were a several other umami ingredients such as tomato sauce, cheese and pork bouillon. There were also a few surprise items such as banana, honey, peanut butter and cocoa.

This was a nice curry. I enjoyed it without finding it particularly exciting. I think my timing may have been off. If I had eaten this horse meat curry on a cold winter night instead of a hot summer day, I’m sure I would have found it immensely satisfying.