I. In Praise of Shadows  by Junichiro Tanizaki
This persuasive essay by Japanese author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki illuminates the darkest corners of cultural and aesthetic Japan, explaining the country’s traditional preference for imperfection. Tanizaki says that there is an eerie beauty to be distilled from things that at first seem “dark”, “small” or “imperfect” (such as special charm emanating from lacquerware illuminated by candles). Those who are open to experience the imperfect and not afraid to crouch in the dark, will find that special delight. It now appears to me that Tanizaki might have also been influenced by the writings of Yoshida Kenkō, a Buddhist monk.
II. Another Kyoto  by Alex Kerr & Kathy Arlyn Sokol
In this book, Alex Kerr and Kathy Sokol capture and explain the nuances of the Japanese culture by focusing on seemingly mundane objects of the Japanese society, such as walls, gates, tatami mats and screens, opening to us a whole new way of perceiving these attributes of the Japanese culture. In Kerr and Sokol’s book, Kyoto never felt as intimate nor its most distinguishing features better explained.
III. The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives  by Christopher Harding
I thought this was an exciting read, presenting Japanese history through the lives of twenty distinguished citizens, from mythical Princess Himiko (“Shaman Queen”), who lived in the year 200, to Empress Owada Masako (1963-), an intelligent, well-educated woman, but once a very unlikely contender to the title. It is possible that Harding based his book on Gen Itasaka’s 100 Japanese (People) You Should Know, and those who want to read a more linear history of Japan, can pick up Andrew Gordon’s A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present .
Continue reading “10 Books to Read to Understand Japan”
I have recently visited a number of Japan-related sights and places in London, UK, and I thought I would share on this blog my itinerary and highlights. I apologise in advance for my sparse and inadequate photos, but I hope the post is still informative and interesting. 🎌
My first stop was the Japan Centre at 35 Panton Street, close to Leicester Square. I just love this place for all things Japanese. The shop offers not only a variety of Japanese food for sale, but also some gifts and souvenirs, including Japanese books, magazines and postcards. There is also a café inside where one can indulge in all kinds of Japanese food, from rice and ramen to matcha ice-cream. Another much bigger Japan Centre is located at the Westfield shopping centre in London and that shop is called Ichiba (市場), meaning “market” in Japanese. It also has a restaurant-café inside and plenty of Japanese merchandise. 🥢
Continue reading “A Purely Japanese Outing in London”
Since I am currently learning Japanese, as well as participating in the Japanese Literature Challenge, I thought I would talk more about Japan, and its culture and tradition. Below, I will briefly and very generally highlight 3 aspects of the traditional culture of Japan which I find fascinating.
I. Inari Shrines
Inari is a deity (a Shinto God) associated with foxes, rice, prosperity and household-wellbeing. There are many Inari shrines in Japan (close to 3000!) since this deity is much respected in the country (rice, as well as its protection, is very important). The origin of this worshipping goes back to ancient times, and both Shinto and Buddhist traditions have this deity in their ranks. Inari’s messenger and guardian is a fox or kitsune (a fox in Japanese) – probably because foxes were traditionally seen as rodent-eating creatures who help to preserve rice. Thus, often, you can find small kitsune statues near the shrines, under which one can leave their offering to the spirit in the form of cooked rice soaked in rice liquor (inari-zushi). No statue of kitsune resembles any other, and there is a great variety of them. It is said that Inari shrines even have symbolic holes somewhere so that spirit foxes may have an ease of access to the shrine. There is also a special festival called Motomiya-sai (“Main Shrine Festival”) held during the summer at Fushimi Inari-taisha or the head shrine of Inari in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto to celebrate this kami (or a spirit in Japanese). Continue reading “3 Aspects of Japanese Culture and Tradition”
“If there is one sure thing about food, it is that it is never just food [in books]. Like the post-structuralist text, food is endlessly interpretable, as gift, threat, poison, recompense, barter, seduction, solidarity, suffocation” (Terry Eagleton). Below is the list of 10 fiction books that include food as part of their narrative/descriptions or revolve around food/its preparation. Food can play different roles in a book, such as emphasise the character’s belonging to a particular culture or simply be there to stress the coming of people together, such as at a dinner table, where they can form or cement their relationships.
I. Sweet Bean Paste  by Durian Sukegawa
Food/its preparation is everywhere in this heart-warming novel by Japanese author Durian Sukegawa. In this case, it is delicious home-made dorayaki (Japanese red-bean pancakes), which the main character decides to cook at his street stall and employs an elderly woman with a secret to help him. Both subtle and powerful, this short novel stresses the love for good food, as well as the importance of friendship and the fight against societal discrimination.
II. Chocolat  by Joanne Harris
This book is about Vianne Rocher, a single mother who arrives to one provincial French town and opens there a chocolaterie. The novel explores such themes as the mother-daughter relationship, discrimination and hypocrisy, and all in the background of sumptuous chocolate and chocolate-making descriptions. The film of 2000 with Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp and Judi Dench is a perfect companion to this book. Continue reading “10 Fiction Books Featuring Food”
HYPER JAPAN is a festival held in London, UK twice a year to celebrate Japanese culture and all things related to Japan: from manga and Japanese video-games to traditional arts and crafts, and Japanese food. I attended this festival for the first time on Sunday 14th July, and below is the summary of my experience (apart from the official poster for HYPEP JAPAN, all pictures in this post are mine). Continue reading “HYPER JAPAN Festival 2019”
Sweet Bean Paste [2013/2017] – ★★★★★
“The aroma seemed to leap up at him, as if it were alive, racing through his nose to the back of his head. Unlike the ready-made paste, this was the smell of fresh, living beans. It had depth. It had life. A mellow, sweet taste unfurled inside Sentaro’s mouth” [Sukegawa/Watts, 2013: 33].
This book, translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts (see also the film trailer here), tells a story of Sentaro, a middle-aged man who spends his time unenthusiastically selling dorayaki, a kind of pancake filled with sweet bean paste, to customers at the Doraharu shop, while consuming alcoholic drinks in his spare time. When an elderly woman Tokue approaches his shop and asks to work there, Sentaro first thinks it is a joke. However, Sentaro also tastes the bean paste cooked by Tokue and he is amazed by the flavours she can produce. What follows is a touching human story filled with the passion for food and the importance of appreciating small pleasures in life. Sweet Bean Paste is also so much more than a book about Japanese culinary delights and culture. It is a quietly beautiful book with the message of coming to terms with history, accepting people and recognising their talents no matter how small they may appear. Each person can contribute something to this world if others are willing to listen, learn and accept.
Continue reading “Review: Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa”