Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Santa wants your blood

December 24, 2013

Santa blood

I ran into him the other day outside a Japan Red Cross clinic in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture. The sign he is holding says “kenketsu.” It means “blood donation.”

Tokyo snapshot

November 17, 2013

Ghost bike marked

Is this a piece of accidental artwork? Is it a cleverly engineered illusion? Or is there really a ghost on a bicycle riding across the front of a small building full of bars in Roppongi?

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.”

box pic 001

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.

feet 001

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

tintaosaurus

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.

plant_eater

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.

What’s scarier than vampires? Plankton.

June 7, 2013

Hideyuki Kikuchi is a Japanese novelist best known for his character D, who wanders a desolate far-future landscape, hunting vampires. The cultural threads from which D’s world is woven include Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name and H.P. Lovecraft’s nameless horrors. No wonder D himself only goes by a single initial.

VAPWhen I read the first novel in the D series, one small detail that stuck with me was a peculiar form of entertainment that Kikuchi’s high-tech vampires had devised. They genetically engineered plankton into “huge ravenous monsters that could take a school of seven-foot tuna right down to the bone.”

Countless movies have tapped into the horror of giant insects, but giant plankton is a grotesque variation that I have never seen anywhere else.

Kikuchi’s vampires, as bloodthirsty as ancient Roman Coloseum-goers, enjoyed ocean excursions in sturdy but transparent bubble-like craft from which they could observe the gruesome struggles of these giant creatures up close.

As it happens, Kikuchi was born in 1949 in Choshi, a Chiba Prefecture town where fishing is a major pillar of the local economy. Perhaps he glimpsed something ominous in the sea…

You can read a little more about Choshi in tomorrow’s post on this blog.

Meanwhile, you can read a 2008 interview article I wrote about Kikuchi HERE.

17 Oscar-nominated movies you can see in Japan tonight

January 30, 2013

The Academy Awards ceremony will be held on Sunday, Feb. 24, in Los Angeles (which means Monday morning here in Japan). As usual, not all of the films have come to Japan yet. But there are 17 that you can see right now, including two that are legitimately available online for free.

I’ve put together a list by cross-referencing the official Oscar site, IMDB, Metropolis magazine, Tsutaya, YouTube and other sources. Click on the titles to see Japanese trailers.

Argo

This film has been nominated for:
Best Picture
Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin)
Best Film Editing
Best Original Score
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Adapted Screenplay

Metropolis magazine lists Kanto area theaters showing this film here. (Also, it’ll be out on disc here in March.)

Brave

This film has been nominated for:
Best Animated Feature

You can rent this one at the video store now. See its Tsutaya listing here.

Frankenweenie

This film has been nominated for:
Best Animated Feature

Metropolis magazine lists Kanto area theaters showing this film here.

Fresh Guacamole

This film has been nominated for:
Best Animated Short.

Watch the whole thing now:

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

This film has been nominated for:
Best Makeup and Hair Styling
Best Production Design
Best Visual Effects

Metropolis magazine lists Kanto area theaters showing this film here.

Les Miserables

This film has been nominated for:
Best Picture
Best Actor (Hugh Jackman)
Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway)
Best Costume Design
Best Makeup and Hair Styling
Best Original Song
Best Production Design
Best Sound Mixing

Metropolis magazine lists Kanto area theaters showing this film here.

Life of Pi

This film has been nominated for:
Best Picture
Best Cinematography
Best Director (Ang Lee)
Best Film Editing
Best Original Score
Best Original Song
Best Production Design
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Visual Effects
Best Adapted Screenplay

Metropolis lists Kanto area theaters showing this film here.

Marvel’s The Avengers

This film has been nominated for:
Best Visual Effects

You can rent this one at the video store now. See its Tsutaya listing here.

Mirror, Mirror

This film has been nominated for:
Best Costume Design

Note: Costume designer Eiko Ishioka appears to be the only Japanese nominee in this year’s Academy Awards. If she wins, it will be a posthumous honor, as she died in January 2012. She previously won an Oscar for “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992).

You can rent “Mirror, Mirror” at the video store now. See its Tsutaya listing here.

Moonrise Kingdom

This film has been nominated for:
Best Original Screenplay

The Warner Mycal cinema chain has some showtime and venue information in Japanese, starting here.

Paperman

This film has been nominated for:
Best Animated Short

Watch the whole thing now:

Prometheus

This film has been nominated for:
Best Visual Effects

You can rent this one at the video store now. See its Tsutaya listing here.

Silver Linings Playbook

This film has been nominated for:
Best Picture
Best Actor (Bradley Cooper)
Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence)
Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro)
Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver)
Best Director (David O. Russell)
Best Film Editing
Best Adapted Screenplay

The Warner Mycal cinema chain has some showtime and venue information in Japanese, starting here.

Skyfall

This film has been nominated for:
Best Cinematography
Best Original Score
Best Original Song
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing

Metropolis lists Kanto area theaters showing this film here.

Snow White and the Huntsman

This film has been nominated for:
Best Costume Design
Best Visual Effects

You can rent this one at the video store now. See its Tsutaya listing here.

Ted

This film has been nominated for:
Best Original Song

Metropolis lists Kanto area theaters showing this film here.

Zero Dark Thirty

This film has been nominated for:
Best Picture
Best Actress (Jessica Chastain)
Best Film Editing
Best Sound Editing
Best Original Screenplay

The Warner Mycal cinema chain has some showtime and venue information in Japanese, starting here.

12 zodiac animals in 12 seconds, Kitamura edition

January 2, 2013

The Year of the Dragon has just ended, and the Year of the Snake has just begun.

To mark the occasion, I have made a very quick video guide to the next 12 years of zodiac animals.

The sculptures shown in this video are by Seibo Kitamura (1884-1987), a native of Nagasaki whose most famous work is the Peace statue in that city. It’s one of the few artworks I’ve ever seen that personifies peace in male form, rather than as a goddess. The blog “Nagasaki Perspectives” has photos, plus critical comments.

Meanwhile, to see my “12 zodiac animals in 12 seconds” from a year ago, go here.

Cephalopod surprise

November 9, 2012

Having arrived in Kyoto today for this weekend’s Japan Writers Conference, I spent an the afternoon wandering around town, with a particular focus on the always enjoyable Nishiki Market. I treated myself to various goodies, including this boiled octopus on a stick. If you think this looks good simply as an octopus, wait till you see what happens when you bite into its head…

There’s a boiled quail egg inside!

This is every bit as delicious as it looks.

2012 Japan Writers Conference animation

October 30, 2012

Did you know that Tom Baker is stylish British animator?

It’s true – but I’m not that Tom Baker. (His website is here. )

The Tom Baker whose blog you are reading now is neither stylish nor British, but I can lay claim to a half-evening-long career as an animator. The following video contains all 65 seconds of my entire body of work:

The point of this video is to promote the 6th annual Japan Writers Conference. I’ve been to the past three JWCs, and I highly recommend them to anyone in Japan who is interested in writing in English.

This year’s event will be held Nov. 10-11 at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto.

For all the details, visit http://www.japanwritersconference.org