Posts Tagged With: sushi

Poke Your Eyes Out

That’s “po-keh”, which sort of rhymes with “okay”, as opposed to “poke” that rhymes with “croak”. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We are back on the Big Island, comfortably ensconced in our beautiful annual rental house for the next month or so, and enjoying our view of the blue, blue Pacific while all our East Coast friends and family gnash their teeth in envy. Feel free to gnash along: it’s gorgeous here. Photos in later posts.

Our first order of business upon arrival was picking up our rental car, which was, um, shall we say, more “expansive” than anticipated. Expecting a midsize SUV or large Jeep, we were presented with a Lincoln Navigator, a Brobdingnagian exercise in libertarian consumerism of such exuberant eco-criminality that Greenpeace now has a price on my head. A technology-laden behemoth, it is the size of a full-grown bull elephant and has a fuel economy measured in “crushed dinosaurs per mile”. At speeds above 60 mph, or whenever in four-wheel-drive mode, it requires its own convoy of refueling tankers. But it is roomy, quiet, and comfortable, so we’ll live with it. At least until I have to parallel park somewhere.

But mostly I wanted to talk about food, that being one of the sybaritic mainstays of our annual sojourns here. As you may know, the de facto state food of Hawaii is…. Ha! You were going to guess poi, weren’t you? But no. Poi is indeed a traditional staple here, but for historic reasons dating from World War II rationing, the go-to food in these parts is pig parts in a can, i.e. this stuff:

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Hawaiians eat more Spam than any cohort in the known universe, or at least the U.S., an average of 5 cans per year for every man, woman, and child in the state. And as you can see from the photo, it comes in a wide variety of disguises flavors to suit every taste. That is, every taste except ours, since we never touch the stuff.

What we do eat a lot of here, is poke, which is a genuinely traditional Hawaiian food that has gone mainstream. Poke (remember, it is pronounced po-keh) can take many forms but is most commonly served as marinated ahi, i.e. raw yellowfin tuna. The word itself is Hawaiian for “sliced”.

Japanese cuisine has a strong influence on poke’s preparation, Japanese being the second largest ethnic group in the state, slightly behind Filipino. For one thing, poke is prepared with an enormous variety of marinades that include both Japanese and Hawaiian influences, such as soy sauce. And for another, at even the most hole-in-the-wall poke restaurants, it is presented with a certain symmetric Japanese aesthetic, as you can see from this photo of my lunch a few hours ago:

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We had this little masterpiece at “Da Poke Shack”, just down the road from our house; it is possibly the mostly-aptly named restaurant in existence. That’s seaweed salad in sesame oil at the upper right, white rice with dried seaweed and sesame seeds at lower left, and two flavors of ahi poke in the other two diagonal corners. It is a little bit of culinary heaven that has now made its way to the mainland US with varying and usually dubious degrees of authenticity. I can assert from personal experience that if you are eating it anywhere outside of Hawaii with fish more than 10 hours old, you are not experiencing the good stuff.

Having thus officially alerted our digestive systems to our arrival in Kona, we moved on to the largest local farmer’s market, a frequent stop of ours. We bask for a while among the tropical fruits, a spectral riot lilikoi (a.k.a. passion fruit), rambutans, soursops, mangoes, tiny “apple bananas”, carambolas (= star fruit), and of course pineapples. The faces there are comfortingly familiar: we see the same multi-ethnic smiles at the stalls every year.

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(This picture dates from three years ago, and we bought lilikoi from the same woman today. I showed her this photo on my phone; she gave Alice a big hug and asked me to email it to her.) We loaded up with a few bags of fruit, our eyes ever larger than our stomachs, before moving on somewhat reluctantly to the more conventional and cringingly expensive grocery shopping at the Kona Safeway. We will be entertaining a lot of visitors during this year’s stay; there will be many such trips to the farmer’s market, the Safeway, and to the KTA, a local family-owned grocery chain.

So in summary, we’re here, happily nestled into our house in the delightfully-named area of Kahalu’u-Keauhou. More posts later as this year’s adventures unfold.

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Instant Zen, and Rolling Your Own Sushi

We began the day with no little trepidation, occasioned by the proximity of the mysteriously-named Typhoon #18. We knew that we would be climbing a hillside in the town of Arashiyama to visit with Obayashi-san, the resident monk at Senkoji temple, and Mariko had hinted darkly at the ardors of ascending 200 steps to do so. The prospect of negotiating 200 stone steps in the rain did not appeal.

But the weather held, more or less, and the trek (such as it was) began with a more leisurely and scenic amble along the river at the foot of the mountain.

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Feeling serene yet?

The 200 steps turned out to be not such a big deal, sufficiently well spaced out along the few hundred foot ascent to avoid the feeling of an endless trudge. There was even a small shrine or two along the way to remind us of our goal (which was of course enlightenment, or at least the top of the damn hill).

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When we reached the temple our immediate gratification was a large temple bell, which we were allowed to ring.

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It produced a deep, sonorous, and very Asian GONNNNNGGGGGG, just like you’d hope. I was enjoying this, and had already rung the thing about six times when the attendant courteously informed me that you’re only supposed to ring it thrice. So now I’ve probably gone and summoned some polycephalic demon from whatever passes for Hell in Buddhism. (Which would explain the weather that befell us about nine hours later.)

The temple is occupied by the aforementioned monk Obayashi, who lives there with his family (Japanese monks are not celibate). Our gathering place was a typically spartan tatami room, albeit one with a spectacular panoramic view of the valley and town. The decor included samurai armor.

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Monk Obayashi was friendly and talkative, and with Mariko translating gave us an exposition and answered questions about Zen Buddhism and in particular the role of meditation in it. He opened the session with a lengthy chant, punctuated by a drumbeat that he tapped out while chanting. But we were to get into the act too: before beginning he handed out a phonetic cheat sheet so that we could chant along. It starts like this:

KAN JI ZAI BO SA GYO JIN HAN NYA HA RA MI

…and goes on like that for 26 more lines. I believe it is a blessing for our safe travels, but I am not actually certain of this.

He then gave us a quick lesson in how to meditate — how to breathe, empty your thoughts, etc. — and instructed us to begin doing so when he rang a bell. We would meditate, he informed us, for only five minutes or so.

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Now at this point in the narrative I should observe to those readers who do not know me personally that the readers who do know me personally have already collapsed in convulsive hysterical laughter at the prospect of me attempting Zen meditation. The only way I am going to empty my mind of thoughts is by physically removing my brain from my cranium, and my personal record for sitting motionless in quiet contemplation of nothingness is approximately 9 seconds. So let us leave the topic by conceding that I am not cut out to be a Buddhist monk, a revelation that surprises exactly none of my family or friends.

Having failed to achieve nirvana but at least enjoyed the monk’s well-meaning attempt at getting us there, we headed back down the mountain towards our next stop, which was lunch at the Heki residence in the nearby town of Kameoka. But not just any lunch: we received a sushi-making lesson and ate the product of our labors. The process started with our hosts producing big bowls of freshly-made hot rice, which we had to cool by stirring and waving fans.

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We were then instructed how to form it into little plum-sized balls and shown how to embed the various ingredients and toppings into them.

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It was a hoot, and as you can see we also got to dress like altar boys for some unexplained reason. This particular style of sushi — little balls instead of the familiar log-like rolls — is called temari, and was no doubt chosen for us because it is particularly simple to make. It was great fun, and if we can find the ingredients at home (difficult, but almost certainly not impossible) it will make a great novelty dinner party.

Later in the afternoon we visited yet another residence for a demonstration of traditional Japanese music. This was quite a treat, a husband and wife couple who are both local experts (and teachers) in three traditional instruments. Those are the koto…

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…the three-stringed shamisen…

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…and the shakuhachi (bamboo flute)…

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The gentleman playing the shakuhachi has not just arrived from a wild party, nor is he painfully shy. In a private setting it is not in fact required to wear a wicker basket on one’s head whilst playing the instrument; he was demonstrating how he plays in public when soliciting donations for his Buddhist temple. The wooden box on his front is the equivalent of a busker’s hat, for collecting alms for the temple; he will walk the streets and play, and the hat — which he can see through — represents the boundary between the secular and spiritual worlds. It separates him from mundane reality while he is playing for the gods. It’s also a big hit at parties.

The music was haunting and beautifully played. Afterwards, we all got the opportunity to play the instruments, with pretty much zero success as you’d expect. With one exception: here is Alice — and I swear this is true — successfully picking out “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” on the shamisen, which may well be some kind of first.

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“….”E-I-E-I-OOOOOO…”

Dinner this evening was in Kyoto’s Gion distract, a.k.a. the geisha district. In Kyoto, geishas are known as geikos — no insurance company jokes, please — and their apprentices are called maikos. You see quite a few of them out and about in the Gion, complete with white makeup — or rather, you do when you are not in the middle of a typhoon. We saw a few in the street en route to dinner, when the rain was just beginning — my bell-ringing transgression of earlier in the day having finally caught up with me — but an hour or two later this was the scene when we left the restaurant:

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Full-bore torrential downpour. With luck the storm will pass tonight so that we will have decent weather tomorrow, which is our last day here. Alice will be going on a garden walk (weather permitting), but I have few plans beyond some last minute gift shopping so there may not be much to report in a final post. We’ll be home in roughly 48 hours. This has been another great trip.

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Alternating Religions

And the score after today’s outing is tied at Buddhism 2, Shinto 2! By which I mean that we visited two Buddhist temples and two Shinto shrines.(Buddhist temple names all end in -ji; Shinto shrines don’t, and the shrines themselves almost have a torii gates of larger or smaller size somewhere in the vicinity. (More on those later.) Also, please note that Buddhist places of worship are “temples” whereas Shinto places are “shrines”. Anyway, let’s begin:

Our first stop today was the Todaiji temple, home to another one of those giant Buddhas of which the Japanese seem very fond. It’s large, impressive, and very old. Here’s an outside view.
inari-001The great hall was built in the 8th century to house the giant Buddha, i.e. this guy.

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He’s made of bronze and stands — or more accurately sits — nearly 50 ft (15 m) tall; his eyes alone are a hair over a meter across. In fact his nostrils are 20 inches across, a fact made much of by the locals. In one corner of the temple interior stands a wooden column with a 20-inch diameter hole through it at floor level, and the tongue-in-cheek legend is that if you make a wish and successfully crawl through the hole, your wish will be granted. (Sure beats jumping off a five-story platform, doesn’t it?) There were many schoolchildren visiting today, and more than a few tried their luck, with varying degrees of success, getting through the hole. I would only have attempted it had my secret wish been to be cut out of a wooden hole by a Japanese fire department.

Buddha is flanked by two other large deities, carved from wood and covered in gold leaf. This shot gives a slightly better sense of scale of the effigies.

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The other thing that Todaiji is known for is deer, about 1200 of them in fact. They roam the grounds unfettered, variously ignoring or accosting visitors. You can buy bags of feed for them (some sort of cracker), so needless to say they’re pretty brazen. Their attentions are not always appreciated, for example by this guy:

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…although some people take full advantage of this situation, such as this girl taking the first “deer selfie” I have ever seen.

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The deer seemed pretty unimpressed.

Alternating religions, we moved on from the Todaiji temple to the Kasugataisha shrine, whose claim to fame is stone lanterns. Lots of stone lanterns.

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We were told there were about a thousand of them, mostly standing about 6 feet tall. They are maintained in part via donations, and so in addition to the lanterns themselves there is also a wall full of names (in Japanese script, of course) listing the donors on wooden slats. (It reminded me a great deal of the ranks of little brass plaques on synagogue walls. I  wondered if one of the slats translated as “Stone lantern donated by the Goldfarbs in loving memory of Isador and Sadie.”)

Kasugataisha also includes a shrine to Shinto’s god of love, whose name I cannot seem to unearth. Both locals and visitors pay homage by hanging little wooden prayer boards at the shrine. These are common at every Shinto shrine, but the distinction here is that they look like valentines:

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There are thousands of them, not all written in Japanese. My favorite was one in English whose prayer read, in its entirety, “May you have a short, explosive wedding and a long, peaceful marriage.”

Then it was back to Buddhism, as we drove a short distance into the picturesque town of Nara to eat lunch, walk around some side streets, and of course visit a temple. Here’s an old traditional Japanese pharmacy, peddling all sorts of traditional herbal remedies that can increase virility, cure eczema, and possibly make your ears fall off.

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Those red balls hanging on a string are a good luck charm and are very common in this area. Their shape is actually a very stylized curled up monkey, whose presence apparently wards off evil.

Then there’s the temple, another big one. Kofukuji is famous for this five story pagoda.

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I confess that the structure on top looks to me suspiciously like a cell phone tower. But since the temple is over 1300 years old, this seems unlikely. Kokufuji is quite well known;it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of about two dozen in the Kyoto area. Its fame stems from both its size and its history of moving around. It was built in the year 669, but elsewhere near Kyoto, then dismantled and moved in 672, then dismantled and moved again in 710. Hopefully it’ll stay put this time.

Our final stop of the day, in keeping with our “alternating religions” theme, was the most spectacular Shinto shrine of all: Fushimi Inari. Inari is definitely one of the heavyweight Shinto goddesses, being in charge of rice, tea, and sake, not to mention fertility and worldly success. With a portfolio like that she gets a lot of attention. She uses foxes as her earthly messengers — foxes eat birds who are trying to eat the rice from the fields — and so her shrines have a lot of fox statues around them. (Foxes get a lot of respect in Japan.) In addition, for reasons that were not explained to us, the shrine is a mecca for students who are prying to pass their exams. The legend is, that if you fold 1000 origami cranes, you will have luck in your exams. And so here are the colorful paper products of dozens of not hundreds of supplicatory students, each folding a thousand paper cranes :

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Pardon my cynicism, students, but wouldn’t you have a better chance of passing your exams by studying instead of spending countless hours folding paper birds? Seriously.

Fushimi Inari is marked by the typical torii gates found at every Shinto shrine, e.g.

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The distinction here is that Fushimi Inari has five thousand of them, dating back to the year 711. You walk a path that is a mile or two long, up the side of a low mountain, and pass through countless of these things.

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You might be wondering about the writing on the columns (usually on the downhill side, as it happens). And the answer is (you’re gonna love this): corporate sponsorships. Yep, even a multi-portfolio’d goddess like Inari needs corporate lucre to keep her shrine in good order. Every now and then, as you trek up the mountainside through the arch after arch, you will encounter one whose writing is partly in Western characters. And when that happens, you will see that it reads something like MIYAZAKI LLC www.miyazaki.co.jp. No, I am not kidding.

Anyway, it is quite a sight, and also quite a hike uphill on a hot and humid day. But is an extraordinary and impressive installation that attracts an enormous numbers of visitors (and makes it difficult to get a photo that is not crowded with people). The town below the shrine has something of a carnival atmosphere as a result, with food stands and souvenir vendors lining the main street. There is a sea of people, and many dress for the occasion: there is a liberal smattering of both men and women in traditional garb, such as these young women in kimonos.

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We returned to our hotel exhausted and sweaty. We forewent dinner with our tour group since we had come to feel that in our 2 1/2 weeks in Japan to date we had consumed an inadequate amount of sushi. Mirako recommended a nearby sushi restaurant, so we took advantage of that. Tomorrow is another early start and long day.

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Sailor Moon Vs the Dancing Corpse

I’ll bet that title got your attention. All in good time….

Because the weather was drizzly (and would get a whole lot worse, though we didn’t know that yet), we decided that seeing Tokyo from indoors would be our best starting point. And so with little difficulty we Metro’ed our way to one of the city’s best-known museums, the Edo-Tokyo Museum. “Edo” refers to the so-called Tokugawa Shogunate era, when the shoguns ruled the land for over two centuries and provided enough material to script generations of TV mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain. The nominal start of the Edo era was in 1603 when 260 samurai pledged their fealty to the shoguns and basically started keeping everybody in line. It was a period of significant economic prosperity and extreme isolation from the rest of the world: no foreign influences of any sort were allowed, including books and people. Things started to falter economically in the 1800’s and the system was already tottering when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with a fleet of gunships in 1853 and announced that he had heard so much about the place and really, really wanted to pay a visit. And so the negotiations went along the lines of:

Shoguns: “Sorry, we just closed an hour ago. No one is allowed in. Ever.”

Perry: “Please re-check your reservation list. It’s under the name “gunboats”.

Shoguns: “Ah, um, yes, we see. Please come in and make yourself loud and intrusive.”

And that was the end of the Edo era. It is remembered as a time of great cultural richness, driven in part by a great expansion of education. The Edo-Tokyo Museum is a large blocky structure with most of the exhibits on two large floors divided into open galleries. There is some summary signage in English, enough to actually learn something without being overwhelmed by detail, of which there is a great deal in Japanese: the walls are covered with all sorts of graphs and charts, showing things like the change in life expectancy correlated with the size of the rice harvest, as well as assorted block diagrams and organization charts showing how the local governments functioned. I was secretly grateful not to be able to read any of it.

But the highlights of the museums are the artifacts and the many really cool models of villages and royal compounds, huge (20 x 30 feet) platforms at waist height populated by wonderfully detailed buildings surrounded by hundreds of miniature people going about their business. Each model has a few sets of binoculars around the perimeter so you can scan the setup as though you were spying on a real village.

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At the risk of compromising historical accuracy, these things definitely need little electric trains running around them.

Besides the models and the pie charts, there are the expected assortment of beautiful artifacts: samurai armor, tapestries, that sort of thing. Some are interactive: models of water buckets and peddler sample boxes that you can pick up (all ridiculously heavy), and a palanquin (sedan chair) that you can climb into as you wait for your underlings to carry you around.

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I couldn’t find any volunteers to carry her around, so she’s still there.

We spent an enjoyable couple of hours at the museum, then decided to head over to Akihabara, the electronic district, to ogle the consumer goods and find some lunch. Akihabara is legendary, and rightly so. It is an area about four blocks on a side, and it all looks like this:

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The thing that you have to understand is that nearly every single one of those establishments is selling electronics of one sort or another. Some are in a well-lit, upscale department store setting; others are literally back-alley vendor stalls, and it is these that are particularly fascinating. You duck into a storefront and are instantly in a 21st century Japanese version of an Arab souk: dimly lit passageways lined with stall after stall of vendors selling the most ridiculously specialized electronic goods. This one sells only network cables; that one only connectors; another one only power bricks. It goes on and on, and you have to wonder how this sales model is economically viable. I mean, how many feet of CAT-5 ethernet cable do you have to sell every day to pay the rent? And yet, somehow it works, and has worked for quite a while: when I was here 20 years ago the same vendors were no less specialized, this one selling resistors, that one capacitors.

It is not strictly correct to say that every building is an electronics store. There are some restaurants as well, but the remaining retail establishments fall into two categories: pachinko parlors and manga action figure stores. Both are weird enough to merit discussion.

You may have heard the word, but in case you have never seen the device, a pachinko machine is a cross between a slot machine and a pinball machine. It is about the size of a slot machine and stands vertically. You sit in front of it and feed a large number of ball bearings into the top; these bounce around inside, eventually landing in slots that reward you with…..more ball bearings. You do this until you either die of smoke inhalation (these places are not smoke free), go deaf (each machine pounds out techno music at Who concert decibel levels, and there are hundreds of machines), or redeem your accumulated collection of ball bearings for dubiously-valuable prizes. In other words, it’s like Chuck E. Cheese for grownups, but much less subtle.

When I was hear twenty years ago, pachinko parlors were noisy, smoky, dirty, somewhat primitive and (to me) sad places. Now they are noisy, smoky, clean, digital, and still sad. Which is to say that they are better lit than twenty years ago, and now each machine has an animated digital display in the center showing a variously writhing or kiss-blowing nymphet. Progress!

Which brings us to the manga action figures. I am not quite sure how to begin because the concept is so uniquely Japanese that the weirdness quotient is astronomical. So let me begin with this photo of one of the display cases:

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Each case is jammed with an assortment of plastic homages to every anime character in existence, a large fraction with more than a passing nod to the uniquely Japanese take on what we might call crypto-pedophila, e.g.:

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Sailor Moon, call your office. And Child Protective Services.

Now I need you to imagine not just a small store full of these things, but a multi-story emporium. The particular one that we were in was at least three stories high. And the items are not cheap. The very smallest ones, perhaps 5 inches tall with minimal detail, start at $20 or so. The prices goes up rapidly in proportion to the size of the figure — the size of her boobs in particular — and in inverse proportion to how much clothing she is wearing. The almost-pornographic ones cost hundreds of dollars. Who buys these things? This guy, for one:

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“Don’t tell Mom I shop here or she’ll kick me out of the basement.”

I am being a little unfair here, of course. (Hey, that guy can write his own blog.) But only a little. These models are very big business here, and they are not all semi-naked schoolgirls with 50-inch breasts. Those are only about 65% of the inventory. The rest are determinedly-scowling muscly guys with flames instead of hair, and variations on Godzilla. I feel much better now.

After leaving the manga store and hosing ourselves down, we ate lunch at another uniquely Japanese establishment, which I have come to call the Vertical Food Court. This is a great concept that I would love to see back home. Typically, such a place is a several-story building, each floor of which houses one or two regular sit-down restaurants. At the entrance to the building is a display showing photos of each restaurant and offering a sample menu. You then step into the elevator and pick your floor/restaurant. Since the information was all in Japanese we chose essentially at random — we picked floor 8 out of a possible 9 — and ended up at a good Korean restaurant. (We didn’t know it was Korean until we sat down and were given English-language versions of the menu. Who knew?)

Our penultimate stop of the day — it was now getting on towards about 4 PM and the wind and rain were worsening — was a kabuki performance. A kabuki play and a sumo match have both been on my bucket list — no remarks about having an odd bucket list, please — so I was finally going to check one off. (And we’ll see the sumo match this afternoon!) Kabuki, as you may know, is a very traditional formal style of Japanese drama; there is a well-known kabuki theater in Tokyo and tickets are much sought-after. The thing is, full kabuki performances are 4-5 hours long, and so the theater wisely caters to tourists by offering single-act tickets in the nosebleed seats, available very cheaply on a first-come basis at the box office on the day of the performance. We opted for the second act, which would take 45 minutes to perform. We figured that since we were there mainly for the atmosphere, we would not bother paying for one of the handheld translation devices. I’m not sure whether this was a good idea or not, since we had almost no idea what the hell what was going on.

The theater was large and beautifully architected in wood. The stage was very wide and the set simple and elegant, a Japanese house a la “Teahouse of the August Moon”. There were about five actors, apparently well-known judging from the applause with which each was greeted upon walking on. The plot was incomprehensible, but I will quote for you the English summary sheet that we were given for our particular act:

“A petty gang member called Rakuda has died after eating blowfish. Hanji, one of his evil companions, wants to hold a wake but has no money, and the neighbors will not contribute. Hanji threatens Kyuroku, the waste paper collector, to go to the landlord’s house to collect some money, but the landlord turns down the request. Hanji forces Kyuroku to break into the landlord’s house again, this time carrying Rakuda’s body and make it look like it’s dancing. The plan works, and they buy some sake. They start drinking together but as they become drunk the hapless Kyoroku becomes surprisingly aggressive.”

That’s it. The play ends with everybody drunk and dancing with the corpse. This is a comedy. (Yes, really.) Dancing with a corpse is apparently a particular laugh riot in these parts, judging from the audience reaction.

Well. That was different. The acting was rather broad, the actors sort of barking their lines in that Japanese way, as all the while a shamisen – that tradition Japanese stringed instrument — goes plink-plink-plink in the background. Particularly important moments are underlined by clopping wooden blocks.

We were glad we went. We were also glad that it was only 45 minutes.

By the time we left the theater, Tropical Storm Godzilla (I have renamed it) was in full cry. Driving rain, howling wind, peoples’ umbrellas being turned inside out, the works. But we still needed dinner, and Alice had identified a particular shabu-shabu restaurant in the area that she wanted to try. Unfortunately we couldn’t find the place, and after passing about a half dozen inviting-looking sushi bars, all the while being pummeled by the weather, we realized that we were being, well, stupid. So we gave up and popped in to one of those sushi bars, where we had an excellent meal. We rolled the dice and went with the “chef’s choice”, which worked out well: there was only one completely unidentifiable object, and it tasted OK. And I only humiliated us once by dropping a piece of sushi onto the counter when my chopsticks slipped. (Unusual for me, actually, as I am normally gratifyingly adept with them.) I offered to kill myself but they said not to bother. My family will simply have to live with the shame instead, but they’re used to that.

This afternoon: sumo match. Stay tuned.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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