Japan Writers Conference 2014

October 29, 2014

I spent last weekend in Morioka at the Japan Writers Conference. It’s a free, English-language event held in a different part of Japan every autumn.

For the third year running, I interviewed a handful of the participants about what they write, what presentations they gave or attended, and what they would say to anyone who is thinking about coming next year.

Here’s what they told me:

You can see the JWC video from Kyoto in 2012 here and the video from Okinawa in 2013 here.

For details, visit japanwritersconference.org.

Japanese wordplay: A&W

August 25, 2014

In Okinawa last year, I had lunch at an A&W root beer and hamburger shop. The placemat on my tray gave a brief history of the company, which has its origins in California and is named for founder Roy Allen and early co-owner Frank Wright.

Okinawa got its first A&W in 1963, and in the 1970s the company ran a radio ad campaign with a little gag that could only work in Japanese.

AW 001

According to the placemat, the ads connected A&W with the phrase あなたとわたしのドライブイン (Anata to Watashi no doraibuin). As any beginning student of Japanese knows, “anata to watashi” means “you and me,” so あなたとわたしのドライブイン was “our drive-in.”

Tokyo: City of Azaleas

May 18, 2014
Near Tokyo Station

Near Tokyo Station

Azaleas are the most underappreciated flowers in Tokyo. For the past several weeks, they’ve been bursting out all over the city, but hardly anyone pays them any mind. Azaleas have a tough act to follow, as they come into bloom not long after the cherry blossom season has ended.

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

When the last of the sakura cherry petals have blown away, Tokyoites may think they are “done” with flowers for the year. Maybe they fail to notice the azaleas all around them because the flowers literally keep a low profile, growing mostly below eye level.

Komagome Station on the Yamanote Line, Toshima Ward

Komagome Station on the Yamanote Line, Toshima Ward

But for me, azaleas’ humility is part of their appeal. Cherry trees are aloof, appearing almost exclusively in parks or along riverbanks. Azaleas are more active participants in the everyday life of the city, crowding alongside major traffic arteries, wandering down little side streets and even pressing up against busy rail lines.

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Cherry blossoms are prized for their delicacy and fleetingness. But azaleas should be admired for their durability. Twice in the past few weeks there have been heavy rain storms that I thought must spell the end for this year’s blossoms. Although many have indeed wilted or been beaten to the ground, I keep stumbling across azalea bushes filled with flowers that look as fresh as ever.

Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward

Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward

Azaleas show that one can be both beautiful and strong. But even the hardiest flowers don’t last forever. The photos in this blog post range from three days old to three weeks, and I think the end of this year’s azalea season may be nearly upon us at last.

Shiba, Minato Ward

Shiba, Minato Ward

Cherry blossoms are iconic for Japan. But for more of its time and over most of its space, Tokyo is really a city of azaleas.

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Don’t miss them next year.

Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward

Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward

Equal facilities for working dogs

January 9, 2014

The Tokyo building where I worked for the last three years was also the workplace of hundreds of other people — plus a couple of guide dogs.

A building so full of living beings must make provisions for certain biological necessities. For the men, there were men’s rooms. For the ladies, there were ladies’ rooms. And for the dogs…

Dog Mark

… there was this eminently practical bit of canine infrastructure, discreetly tucked away in a corner of a third-floor utility balcony.

The notable Irishman and the famous American

January 2, 2014

Back in 2009, I had the honor of being invited to a Christmas party hosted by a notable Irishman who was living in Tokyo.

I had recently written an article about Irish coffee for the newspaper. When the topic came up, the notable Irishman very pleasantly opined that the concoction was a terrible waste of perfectly fine whiskey. Nonetheless, he immediately had his kitchen staff prepare a glass for me. That’s how gracious a host he was.

Here I am in 2009, a bit overdue for a haircut but right on time for a hot glass of Irish coffee.

Here I am in 2009, a bit overdue for a haircut but right on time for a hot glass of Irish coffee.

Irish coffee, by the way, is a cocktail consisting of strong hot coffee with sugar and whiskey, plus a layer of cream floating on top. It was apparently invented in the early 1940s to warm up transatlantic passengers landing at Shannon Airport. It was more of a treat for tourists than something the Irish drink regularly themselves.

As I drank the delicious glass he had arranged for me, the notable Irishman regaled me with a story from another party he had thrown some years earlier while living in the United States. One his guests that evening was a famous American who, when offered a glass of Irish coffee, requested that it be made with decaffeinated coffee and nonfat cream.

“Would you like it with alcohol-free whiskey, too?” the notable Irishman helpfully inquired.

“Sure!” the famous American beamed, before suspicion dawned. “Hey, wait a minute…”

Well, time marches on, and now Japanese technology has made a commercial reality out of the Irishman’s absurd joke. There is now nonalcoholic Irish coffee … in a can.

can marked

Japan has what is almost certainly the world’s most creative canned beverage industry. After enjoying such unlikely flavor triumphs as adzuki-bean Pepsi and canned pancake milkshakes, I was very much looking forward to their take on Irish coffee.

However, I was a bit crestfallen when I realized that there is no actual whiskey in this product. Instead, it is “whiskey-flavored.”

Somehow, it does give off some alcohol-like fumes, but the flavor is more like hazelnut syrup than whiskey. The cream and sugar flavors nearly overwhelm the coffee flavor, so the final result is like drinking a liquefied hazelnut bonbon.

I respect the Japanese beverage industry’s spirit of experimentation, but if I were to drink a toast to that spirit, I’d rather use real Irish coffee.

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?

Around Japan in 47 Curries: Mrs. Matsui’s Ishikawa Slugger Sauce

November 13, 2013

This is Part 16 of a 47-part series of occasional blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Ishikawa map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Ishikawa map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

For 500 years, “Maeda” was the most famous name in Ishikawa Prefecture. Nowadays, it’s “Matsui.” The Maeda were a daimyo family who ruled by the sword; Matsui was a baseball player who ruled with a bat.

Ishikawa is a broad swath of coastline on the Sea of Japan. Covering 4,185 square kilometers, it is about the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island. The Noto Peninsula accounts for about half of its land area.

The Maedas built a castle in the city of Kanazawa, in the mainland part of Ishikawa, in 1583. According to a prefectural website, they were one of the most powerful families in Japan, second only to the Tokugawas who ruled the nation from Edo.

AAAA castle

When I visited Kanazawa a few years ago, the wealth and power of the Maeda family remained evident not only in their sprawling castle, but also in Kenrokuen, the vast and magnificent garden they had built in the 1700s. One of its most fascinating features is Japan’s oldest fountain. Set in the center of a pond, it shoots a jet of water 3.5 meters into the air, powered simply by having its water supply piped in underground from a different pond at a higher elevation.

AAAA fountain

I thought I could see why the Maedas had been so prosperous. First, Tokyo (as Edo is called nowadays) is separated from Kanazawa by row after row of mountains, which would have made it difficult for the Maedas and the Tokugawas to molest one another militarily. Secondly, there was a lot of nice-looking farmland along the coast. And the coast itself – its length multiplied by the peninsula – means plenty of seafood is always nearby. The area seemed to have other natural resources as well: The name “Kanazawa” means “gold marsh,” and the manufacture of gold leaf is an old traditional industry there.

Your blogger, shopping for gold cake

Your blogger, shopping for gold cake

During my visit, I ate some spectacular multicourse seafood dinners at my hotel – including an unforgettable baked apple stuffed with crabmeat – and I bought some pound cake topped with gold leaf as omiyage to share with my coworkers back in Tokyo. This is not as extravagant as it sounds: With the gold leaf being just 0.0001 millimeters thick, it cost only slightly more than any other pound cake. Unfortunately, the leaf was so delicate, and the cake so moist, that most of the gold wound up smeared across the inside of the box by the time I got it to the office.

Such tourist fare is all well and good, but if you really want to understand a place, it helps to sample its home cooking. And that’s where Matsui comes in.

Hideki Matsui  Photo by Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons

Hideki Matsui
Photo by Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons

Professional baseball player Hideki Matsui was born in 1974 in the town of Negari,* now part of the city of Nomi, Ishikawa Prefecture. Most mothers want their sons to grow up to be big and strong, but few succeed as dramatically Mrs. Matsui did. As a kid, he was already such a powerful right-handed hitter that the other boys wouldn’t play with him unless he switched to batting left-handed. He did – and still went on to become one of the top batters in the world.

There must have been something in his mom’s cooking. Maybe it was her curry.

Matsui became a star while still a Kanazawa high school student, attracting national attention in 1992 with a record-tying seven RBIs in his first game at the Koshien national baseball tournament. Japan baseball authority Jim Allen** describes the repercussions in an article here. Matsui went on to become a star of the Yomiuri Giants and the New York Yankees before ending his career in 2012 with the Tampa Bay Rays. A Tokyo Dome ceremony to mark his retirement was attended by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Throughout his career, Matsui bore the nickname “Godzilla,” which most fans associated with the power he brought to the plate. (Allen reports that in earlier days the nickname referred to his “coarse complexion.”) At some games, the Blue Oyster Cult song “[Go Go] Godzilla” would play as Matsui stepped up to the plate. This was doubly appropriate since the number he played under, 55, can be pronounced “go-go” in Japanese.

Now that Godzilla is retired, he has taken to hawking a brand of curry called “Matsui-ke Hiden no Kare,” or the Matsui family’s secret curry. Dressed in a jacket and tie, Matsui is shown holding a bat on the front of the box, which bears the slogan, “The ‘Mom’ flavor Hideki Matsui was raised on, re-created.” On the back of the box, a more casually dressed Matsui holds a spoon and declares, “The flavor of this curry is exactly like my Mom’s flavor I was accustomed to when since back when I was a kid.” Further text on the back says the contents are “just like” the stuff that “the first World Series MVP from Asia” grew up on.

The wording makes it pretty clear that this is not really Matsui’s mother’s recipe, but just a reasonable commercial approximation. That makes me feel a little better about liking only one of the two varieties it comes in.

Matsui curry 001

In a clever bit of marketing, there is garlic-free “renshu-chu” curry for “during training” and also “shiai-mae” curry, which is loaded with garlic, for “before the game.”

Both come in a brown sauce so thick as to be almost pasty, not soaking into the rice at all. In that regard, these are the most typical Japanese curries I have tasted for this series. Both included soft potatoes, softer carrots, and a few random bits of meat sliced only a little thicker than gold leaf. Both are billed as “medium spicy,” but the training curry tasted pretty mild to me. It would have been right at home in an institutional cafeteria.

However, the sharp smell of the pre-game garlic curry told me it was going to be something special. And sure enough, it had a fantastically strong garlic flavor. It actually created a slight burning sensation on my tongue. I was very impressed.

Matsui hit 507 home runs in his pro career. I have hit only one home run in my life – and that was 20 years ago in a softball game. After eating Matsui’s curry, I doubt that my batting prowess has improved. But it did give me something in common with the original Godzilla: incredibly powerful breath.


*The mayor of Negari at that time was Shigeki Mori, who was in office from 1953 to 1989. Mori’s father had been the mayor before him, and his son Yoshiro Mori went on to become prime minister from 2000 to 2001. The Maedas may be gone, but dynastic politics is alive and well.

**If you like that, go listen to Japan Baseball Weekly, a podcast that Allen and fellow expert John E. Gibson produce together here.  Yes, that’s a plug. Go listen.

Voices from the 2013 Japan Writers Conference

November 10, 2013

Last weekend I flew down to Okinawa for the Japan Writers Conference. It’s a free annual event at which English-language writers from a variety of fields give presentations about the art, craft and business of writing. Over the next several weeks I plan to blog about some of the things I learned there, but for now I’ll let a few of the other participants speak for themselves through this video:

If you want to get in on the action, the next conference will be held in Iwate in the autumn of 2014.

Around Japan in 47 curries: Nagano souvenirs

October 28, 2013
Kamikochi: A cool, quiet retreat in Nagano Prefecture

Kamikochi: A cool, quiet retreat in Nagano Prefecture

This is Part 15 of a 47-part series of occasional blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Late October has been pleasantly cool in Tokyo this year. This comes as a relief after a scorching summer of record-breaking heat — including temperatures above 30 C (86 F) well into October.

In August, I dealt with this by doing what heat-averse Tokyoites have done for many years. I escaped to Nagano Prefecture for a weekend.

Nagano Prefecture map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Nagano Prefecture map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Though it is nearly on the same latitude as Tokyo, Nagano’s elevation is much higher, making it a natural summer retreat. It’s also known for skiing; the Winter Olympics were held there in 1998.

The most popular summer resort area is Karuizawa, where then Crown Prince Akihito first met his future wife, now Empress Michiko, while playing tennis in 1957. It’s also where John Lennon and Yoko Ono used to go to relax in the 1970s.

But on my own latest trip to Nagano, I visited a less crowded destination: the Kamikochi valley.

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

There is no rail service to Kamikochi, so getting there requires a long drive by bus or car from Tokyo to Matsumoto, a city famous for its “black crow” castle.

From there, you drive upstream along the Azusa River as it snakes ever higher into the mountains. Visitors pass several dams owned by TEPCO, even driving over the top of one of them, and go through more tunnels than I could count.

Finally, there comes a point at which you can drive no further. The road goes on, but private cars are prohibited. To preserve the beauty and tranquility of the valley, only buses and taxis are allowed to drive beyond a certain point, and there’s a long stretch of the valley even beyond that, which can only be accessed by hikers. There are a number of campgrounds and small hotels scattered along the river, most of them well hidden by the trees. Here’s what it looks like…

AAA rocks

AAA cloud

AAA forest light

AAA water

In addition to such soothing scenes, the air was clean and refreshing, and the place was nearly silent. Too cool for the shrilling cicadas that occupied Tokyo at the time, the valley had a low-key soundtrack dominated by the river gurgling over rocks and the susurration of the wind in the trees, punctuated only by the occasional quack of a river duck.

It also had a souvenir shop where I bought two different Nagano curries.

Nagano meat curries 001

Like neighboring Yamanashi, Nagano is a big producer of fruit. The prefecture is especially proud of its apples, which are often used (usually in pureed form) to sweeten curries. But instead of apple curry, I bought some beef curry made with the meat of apple-fed cows. While I was at it, I also got some curry made with yeast-fed Nagano pork.

curry NaganoThe beef curry came in a dark sauce with a ketchuppy demiglace flavor that was slightly spicy, slightly sweet and not terribly interesting. The pork curry was much better, although not spicy at all. It had a very umami flavor and a luscious creamy fatty mouthfeel. A big chunk of soft fat undoubtedly contributed to that effect, but there was only a little actual meat. In fact, there didn’t seem to be anything special about the meat in either of these curries. Still, of the two, the pork is the one I’d be happier to eat again.

By the way, if you’d like to see a little more of Kamikochi, check out the post about the valley’s Myojin-ike pond over at The Lobster Dance.