asazuke

Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

Raw Beef 20 May, 2011

Filed under: food & drink,news — johnraff @ 2:54 pm
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The Tartars have a lot to answer for. I don’t know if you have “tartare steak” where you live, but minced raw beef, possibly mixed with onion, and topped with a raw egg is a standard menu item in many countries in Europe and America. The story is that the Tartars brought the dish to Europe as part of the Mongolian invasion. I don’t know whether the Tartars are supposed to have invented it themselves or got it from the Mongols, but it’s interesting to note that at the other end of the Mongolian sphere of influence, in East Asia, there are things like steak tartare too. Laos and Thailand have a dish called laap (or larp or laab) which is minced, sometimes raw, meat with herbs and spices, Bali has something called lawar, and Korea has yukhoe. This is definitely raw beef, and there are other elements in Korean culture to suggest Mongolian influences, so yukhoe could well be a Far Eastern version of Tartare steak.

Korean food is popular here in Japan too, especially grilled beef (pulgogi in Korea and yakiniku here) and recently yukke, the Japanese take on yukhoe, has been a very popular side dish. Of course Japan is the land of raw fish, so nobody gets too worried about raw beef – in fact I’ve had beef sashimi a few times and it’s quite good if the beef is of decent quality. That is, until a couple of weeks ago. The last two weeks the TV news has been full of reports about a spate of food poisoning cases at a yakiniku chain, where people had eaten the (very cheap at ¥280) yukke. A lot of people ended up in hospital, and four died. Food poisoning isn’t only about vomiting and diarrhoea.

 

Body chemistry or something 20 April, 2011

Filed under: food & drink,places — johnraff @ 1:54 am
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I’ve just got back from three weeks in the UK. It’s the place where I was born and grew up and I love it; the buildings that were intended – in contrast with earthquake-prone Japan – to last for years and years, the green green grass everywhere even in winter, the TV, the humour, the relaxed mixture of cultures you now enjoy, the warm beer, and, yes, even the food.

All that said, I’ve now been living in Japan for 35 years – more than half my life – and my body must have adapted in some way. Maybe it’s the air, maybe the water: I don’t know but this morning my breakfast – the same fruit + yogurt + muesli + pot of tea I was having while in Britain – just tasted so good.

 

Farmlog March 6th ~ 21st 2011 26 March, 2011

Filed under: countryside — johnraff @ 2:11 am
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“No time for trivia like this” you’re probably thinking and you’re right really, but these “farmlogs” are meant to be some kind of long-term record of what was happening in the countryside, as much for my own future reference as anything else, so please bear with me.

6th ~ 7th March

  • Some “ume” (plum?) blossom out near Nagoya, but the buds on the trees in front of our country place are still hard.
  • Called in at Kimble again. Quickly walked past a shelf-full of “hand shredders” next to the thai-speaking eggs, but came across a guitar: an Aria Pro 2 Magna for ¥7300 which didn’t seem too bad, and a possible improvement on the one I had, so took a chance and splashed out the cash. There was also a stack of cheap “third beer” type synthetic “happoshu” (look those up if you’re curious), so got a case for casual after-work drinks.
  • At the supermarket we picked up a nice bottle of wine for dinner – a dry but fruity Sauvignon Semillon white from Chile. 500ml PET bottle for ¥298! Actually it wasn’t bad.
  • Birds to welcome us. More than last time.
  • Monday was cold.
  • Min. temp. -5°C max. 11°C

20th ~ 21st March

  • Missed last week for a Daihachi Ryodan gig.
  • Sunday mild and wet; ume and peach blossom out around Nagoya.
  • Listening on the car radio to the latest about the unfolding nuclear drama at Fukushima. It seems to be under some sort of control, but we don’t really know… The tragedy in Tohoku is far away from here but the effects are starting to be felt all over the country. Petrol prices have already gone up, for example.
  • Hardly anything on sale at the hundred-yen stall. Are the animals getting it all? Are the people getting too old?
  • Will this rain stop in time for the local festival tomorrow?
  • Deer droppings are everywhere, along with bits of hair – Spring moulting?
  • A wasabi plant by our back door has put out some new leaves. A few fuki shoots have come up here and there too. We used to have lots, but maybe picked too many – or have the deer eaten them?
  • The festival on Monday was a bit subdued. Out of respect to the earthquake victims they kept the rituals down to a minimum.
  • Min. temp. -5°C, max. 14°C.
 

Questions 26 October, 2010

Filed under: incidents — johnraff @ 1:48 pm
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It’s quite natural to be curious about visitors from other countries – when I was in India many years ago people would often strike up a conversation and ask where I was from, what my religion was… Generally enjoyable, and if their English was up to it I’d be able to get in some questions of my own. The inquisitorial approach reached a peak one day on a local train in South India when some high school (or university?) students were in the same compartment, curious about me but couldn’t figure out how to ask what they wanted to know. Discussions followed, and eventually I was given a piece of paper with… a form to fill in! Name… Occupation… Address… I suppose they’d seen foreigners being made to fill in forms everywhere and thought that was the proper procedure.

So when I got to Japan and a young salary man came up on a train and asked if he could talk for a while I was really disappointed when after the standard “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” had been answered it was “Thank you very much.” and off he went! No actual conversation at all, just some questions he had learnt somewhere. I don’t know if he even understood my answers. I soon came to recognize this as a pretty normal encounter. These days many peoples’ English ability – and, I like to think, my Japanese – is quite up to a real exchange of ideas, but that kind of formalized interaction is still the norm I suppose.

A young student came into Raffles the other day, and because the place was pretty quiet at the time we got chatting. Turned out he’d spent 3 months in Manchester and because his English was pretty good we switched languages. Then comes “May I ask you a question?”. Expected “Can you use chopsticks?” or something but got “What is the purpose of your life?”.

 

A story 23 October, 2010

Filed under: incidents — johnraff @ 2:38 pm
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An old friend K was in Raffles the other day, and told us this story about a friend of hers. It dates back to 1976 (about the time I got here) but it’s true, and so ridiculous I thought I’d pass it on.

OK, K’s friend – let’s call her Jill – got back to her apartment somewhat late after a few drinks with friends; it’s a Japanese-style wooden apartment with rickety doors and primitive locks, as was the norm then. Gets into her futon, and…, and…, there’s this guy in it!! Of course she freaks out and starts screaming, like “What the f@$k’s going on!! Who are you?!! What are you doing in my futon?! Get the f&#k out of here!!” and presumably other stuff on similar lines…

So, the guy’s answer: “Speak more slowly please”.

 

Summer 22 September, 2010

Filed under: customs,seasons — johnraff @ 2:14 pm
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Finally it’s over – sort of. That sultry sticky sweltering sweaty squishy soggy humidity has dropped way down as the dry Autumn air from the continent takes over. Although we’re going over 30°C today and you wouldn’t call it cool exactly, the mornings and evenings are really pleasant and there’s a nice breeze even now, at 2 in the afternoon. It’s been a record-breaking long hot Summer this year – more than 500 people are reported to have died from heatstroke and the electricity companies are expecting to make record profits from all the carbon they burnt to keep our air conditioners running. (How are we going to escape this situation where the only way to make life tolerable is to contribute to making it worse? I’m reminded of the old, old Kevin Ayers song “Why are we sleeping?“) A lot of my friends teach at universities, get long Summer vacations and head right out of here for the month of August. Conversely, for old friends in Europe, August is the obvious holiday season and that is when they want to come over here to visit. I try to talk them out of it, explaining that they’ll likely find the heat intolerable, but they don’t really get it …till they arrive.

Even so, Summer in Japan is a special time. For a month or two we share the same air mass as Southeast Asia (apparently Hong Kong has Japan beaten for humidity) and it’s as if the whole country has taken off southwards. You don’t need more clothes than a T-shirt and pair of shorts, and even when working there’s a sort of holiday atmosphere. (I guess the suit-wearing salarymen might see it a bit differently…) The kids are all off school and along with the cicadas the heavy air carries the sounds of High School Baseball from a thousand open windows. And the evenings can be magical. The warmth just envelops you so that there’s no distinction between indoors and outdoors. Just take a walk around your neighbourhood, follow the smoke pouring out of a local yakitoriya for an ice-cold beer and some grilled chicken, or maybe even head to a beer garden… These are a different story really – while eating outside, maybe on the roof of a tall building, has an appeal, you’re usually obliged to go along with some kind of “all you can eat and drink” sort of deal, usually with a time limit. The foods not that great, there are hundreds of people and the effect is a bit like feeding time at the zoo.

Much better are the Summer festivals, especially out in the countryside. There’s dancing, more of that indispensible ice-cold beer and young people come back from the cities to revisit relatives. The young girls look really cute in their Summer kimonos and there are quite often fireworks too. Japanese fireworks are some of the best in the world, and the big displays draw millions of people. All this is really based on the “Obon” festival, when the spirits of dead ancestors return to their families and have to be entertained with Bon odori – traditional dancing. Fires are lit to help them find their way home, and later to send them off again. ( Could that be where the fireworks come from? )

This is also the time for ghost stories – some say it’s because they give you a delicious chill, but maybe it’s just that Obon connection again. There are some real ghosts too. Among the spirits who return for consolation are the nearly three million who died in World War 2. The anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the Pacific war come in quick succession at the beginning of August, and the ringing of temple bells joins the cicadas and baseball.

So it’s not all festivals and fun, and the Autumn just coming can be really beautiful, as can Spring, but I’d still say Summer is my favourite season.

 

Farmlog 12th September 2010 16 September, 2010

Filed under: countryside — johnraff @ 2:40 pm
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  • A small praying mantis in the kitchen as we’re getting ready to leave Nagoya. This “exotic” insect is quite common out in the country, but you don’t often see them in town.
  • Stopped off at the bank ( a different one from the bad karma bank ) and there were little piles of salt on each side of the entry to the ATM. Salt is a purifier, like the sake at festivals, and you sometimes see it outside a bar or restaurant intended to ward off bad spirits – either to improve business or because of some incident they want to expunge. I wonder what happened at this bank?
  • Lots of brown kids at the supermarket. It’s been a long hot Summer and Japanese have lots of melanin so they tan easily. T can get a tan in an afternoon that would take me a whole Summer! Being white is more cool these days but I’m old-fashioned and still a sucker for brown skin…
  • On Sunday evening or so The Front passed through and we switched from the humid Summer air to cool dry Autumn in a few hours, with some rain in between.
  • Now being very careful about what might be in clothes that are lying on the floor!
  • Working on the chillies and heard a lot of excited bird chatter. Eventually in a nearby cedar I saw a couple of tits, a small mejiro and what looked like a finch, maybe others, flying around……a snake. Some kind of small snake had climbed up the tree, looking for eggs or chicks I suppose, and the birds were co-operating in trying to scare it away.
  • Listened to the Sumo on the radio in the car driving back to Nagoya. Sumo’s been under a cloud lately with a whole succession of scandals: dope-smoking Russians, bad-behaving yokozuna Asashoryu, sadistic death of a young apprentice and yakuza connections… NHK punished them by not broadcasting live from the last tournament, which was in Nagoya as it happened.
  • Min temp 19°C max 30°C
 

Fast Booze 29 August, 2010

Filed under: city,food & drink — johnraff @ 1:55 am
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In contrast with the binge-drinking youth of Britain I’ve been reading about, young Japanese have been leaving beer and cars behind lately, much to the dispair of Kirin and Toyota among others. I don’t know what they’re spending their money on – the fact is they haven’t really got any money these days, with only crummy dead-end type jobs on offer when they graduate… When Japanese youngsters do go out for a drink these days it’s often sweet alco-pop things they drink, not the bitter ice-cold golden nectar that goes so well with the Summer heat here, and they’ll be drinking it in the cheapest places they can find.

Just lately there’s been an outbreak of chain establishments where everything is ¥280. Food, drinks, everything. Maybe with the yen at the ridiculous current rate of 85 or so to the US dollar that doesn’t sound too cheap to you but usually a beer is around ¥500 ( ¥550 at Raffles’ ) so ¥280 for a jug of draught beer (not happoshu ) is pretty good for a start. The food’s not disgusting either – food processing technology has been got down to a fine art – though nothing to write home about and not huge portions. With profit margins cut right down, they have to sell a lot of stuff to make the business viable so need to keep people coming in at a fast rate. The branch near us is usually pretty full, and pretty noisy.

More recently a rival has started up where everything is ¥250 – they cut their costs even further by having customers come to the counter to collect everything. The overall effect is pretty much like McDonalds, but if that’s your idea of an evening out…

Fast Booze – you saw it here first OK?

 

It’s started 7 August, 2010

Filed under: customs — johnraff @ 2:58 pm
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Along with the cicadas, baseball from a radio somewhere is one of the sounds of Summer here; it started today and there’s nothing else on the TV or radio all afternoon, for the next couple of weeks. I really don’t remember anyone paying the slightest attention to a rugby or cricket match between a couple of schools back in the UK (maybe you could compare the University Boat Race?) but here it’s a big event with elimination rounds all round the country and everyone avidly follows the later matches and gets quite emotional. The losing team (and sometimes the winners too) usually burst into tears at the end. T loves it.

 

A walk in the woods 16 June, 2010

Filed under: countryside — johnraff @ 3:00 pm
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A "Jizo" Buddha at the pass on many country roads.

Beautiful day in Golden Week, and we took the road above the house up the hill, past the “Jizo” at the pass, down a bit and took this little road off to the left. More a track really, with an almost obliterated sign pointing to a village we hadn’t heard of. About a 20-minute walk though cedar plantations later we arrived at this “village”: three buildings drowning in the forest. A few years ago people lived there, in these rather nice traditional wooden houses, growing rice in paddy fields nearby, now planted with cedars or spruce which have grown up all around.

...another couple of years...

These once-handsome buildings are slowly collapsing, disintegrating and returning to the hills they came from. Sad but inevitable I suppose. It’s not really on to expect to make any kind of living out in a place like this. Just after the war there was a building boom to replace the flattened cities and since wood was (and still is, really) the main construction material large areas of Japan’s wild forest was replaced with plantations of quick-growing cedar and spruce. The idea of many people was that 20 or 30 years down the road these trees could be sold off at a good price, so were regarded as an investment for their childrens’ future. Unfortunately cheap timber imports from countries like Canada have knocked the bottom out of that, so now the value of a tree is less than the cost of transporting it down the hill into the town…

A footpath, still usable, led up the side of the hill from those houses to, we calculated, the next village a kilometre or so away. Just above was a little shrine with a couple of Buddha statues, an empty sake bottle and some flowers which were still fresh, so someone must have visited in the last day or two. A bit further on, down a slope, and sure enough there was the village, basking in the Spring sunshine. An image of rustic tranquillity. Really, quite beautiful, but so quiet. There is only a handful of people living there now, all getting on in years. Children have moved out into the cities to get jobs in offices and factories, leaving their parents tending the ricefields and cows in this corner of paradise. As it happens, we know a couple of the people here. The couple who live at the top looked after our house – opening the windows to let the breeze though once in a while, bit of weeding etc – while we were in Thailand for a year. Further down the road we ran into Hashimoto san, who must be 70 or so by now; he keeps some cows and grows rice.

I wonder what it will be like in 10 or 15 years when most of these people have passed on? Will there be a u-turn from the city, a boom in eco-living… or will this idyllic village go the way of those houses in the woods?

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