Japan notes


You will rest under the vines of

the high stone walls of the castle that

no one deemed necessary to erect a concrete

facsimile of what was destroyed by the conflagrations of war

perhaps reflecting on the fitting words of Norinaga to the sound of cicadas

 

Having had your fill of a view of streets and houses laid out below

a cobweb of power lines cast over houses much the same

since samurai gathered taxes door to door with swords hung

unused by their sides, topknotted bureaucrats,

in the mode of salarimen today, you will

make your way down to the city

 

There the tender beef calmed with beer and soy will

sit on a plate before you and you’ll

hear Hibari Misora sing and

you’ll close your eyes

and sigh

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Today I’m housesitting at my sister’s, so I took the chance to watch her TV, since I haven’t got one at my place. Decided to watch some Japanese TV since she has cable. I realized I could barely pay attention to the plot. I also can’t finish reading “Wagahai wa Neko desu”. I started it in Japan, and since I got back I can’t read more than five pages of it. I also don’t study the language anymore, even though I promised I would keep on trying.

I realized today that doing these things triggers a flood of memories about Japan, and I also remember that I’m not there anymore and won’t be going back anytime in the foreseeable future. The memories, they’re wonderful but the wistfulness I feel… well, an English word is lacking, and I think the Portuguese term “saudade” fits best for what I’m feeling.

Today while shopping at Max Value, I found something I found eye catching. On the clearance shelf in the liquor section there was a small bottle of whisky marked down to 500 yen (around five bucks). Above the garish markdown label was the English phrase “17 years”.

Now I’ve only had serious whisky one other time in my life. One of those ones aged in sherry casks and a bit cloyingly sweet (relatively speaking) after a successful thesis defense. On seeing this little bottle, I figured it was worth the cost and picked it up.

The name is “Hibiki”, and it’s a 17 year old blend, but usually costs more than single malts (the distinction between blends and single malts and geographic distinctions is about the limit of my whiskey knowledge).

Here’s a website with a bit more information by people who actually know their stuff about such matters.

http://nonjatta.blogspot.com/2007/04/hibiki-17-years.html

When poured, it about only amounts to a finger and a half’s worth of alcohol. The bottle is pretty damn small, with the bottom looking a bit more volumous than it actually is. No matter, still a good deal.

The bouquet is amazing. If I was blindfolded, I would have guessed it was a Sercial Madeira with interesting hints of wood. I don’t see the floralness, it’s closer to candied fruits to me. The taste is slightly sweet on the tongue, but given my inexperience with whisky, I don’t know how it relates among other whiskys in that regard. Other than an initial toffee and fruit burst at the beginning, the taste is really woody, with the nose and finish being long and creamy. For some reason it’s evocative of hot cocoa in a roughly hewn Oregon wood cabin. I simply can’t describe the complexiety of the finish with any justice. You’d have to give it a shot yourself.

All in all, highly recommended.

Pics forthcoming when I actually get around to loading them. Yeah, I know, I’m lazy.

Living and working in Japan has made me deranged.

Y’all who saw my thing on facebook; do you seriously want to know what it is with the Japanese and ultra-cute stuff? Really?

When you stare into the eyes of Hello Kitty, sometimes the Abyss stares into you.

Didn’t get a contract renewal with the company I’m working for. Time to start looking for a new job. I ain’t going back to the states with the economy being what it is right now.

Most folks who work abroad here in Japan use the vacation time they get to travel around the area. For example, most of the group I came up with either went to Tokyo or Korea for the break. Not me. I’m not particularly big on traveling much, I find it rather exhausting (yes, I’m aware of the irony that I’m living in Japan right now, though my reasons have little to do with most people’s reason’s). Suffice to say, I thought I should get out a little bit from my apartment, and I decided to hit Nagoya and do some New Year’s sightseeing.

It wasn’t the best idea I had, but it also wasn’t my worst. I thought that the crowds at the shrines and temples would have thinned out some by the 2nd. No dice. When I got to Atsuta Shrine, I suddenly realized I was in a huge crowd. You know those pictures of masses of people being pushed into the Tokyo subway at rush hour? It was like that. It was impossible to turn around and leave, so I just kind of waited in the mad crush, jostling shoulder to shoulder with several thousand other people. I’m mildly claustrophobic, so it was very uncomfortable, especially when the guy next to me started talking about the “hen na gaijin” (weird foreigner) visiting the shrines. He wasn’t rude to me or anything. I just felt like I really stood out in the crush. Plus it’s rather disconcerting to have a couple of people talking about you, thinking that you don’t know that they’re talking about you.

After about 45 minutes in that stifling squeeze, I broke out when the police barricades lifted a minute on one side for those who didn’t want to wait another hour or so to actually pray at the shrine itself. Thank Kami for small favors, eh? Because it was so packed I wasn’t able to take any pics at all, but it’s not like anyone would have seen anything but a huge tightly packed crowd anyways.

I then caught the subway up to Osu Kannon temple. While the crowd there wasn’t nearly as dense, the line still went halfway around the block. I decided instead of actually visiting the shrines and temples, I would just hit the old-fashioned shopping arcade of open air stores around Osu Kannon. I had no idea how large and cool the place was. It was like a warren of tiny shops and resturants packed withpeople and interspersed with tiny old temples and shrines. There were shops for all the little subcultures there, complete with the devotees, The Military surplus clan, the Cowboy clan, the Gothic Lolitas, the Bosozoku bikers with their embroidered jackets, the manga otaku, the tech otaku. If I hadn’t been so completely overwhelmed by the sensory craziness of it all, I would have snapped a dozen photos. Also weirdly, I was approached not only for the first time, but for the second time in Japan by complete strangers, both of them old men. The first guy who talked to me asked me in English if I was a teacher since I dressed that way. It then lead to a long discussion of his retirement hobby of translating American news and editorials into Japanese. His manner of speaking was rather odd, mixing high level English vocabulary with Japanese grammar “…sore de wa Barack Obama’s inauguration totemo important historical moment desu ne, shikashi, subprime loan crisis no mondai…”. His website is http://www.aba.ne.jp/~sugita/rekishi5.htm The other guy asked me in Japanese if I was Italian and I said I was actually from Hawaii, and he said that he thought I was Italian because of my clothes. I wanted to tell him that he made my day just by that comment, but I withheld and continued on to tell me about his kid who was working in Detroit. It was all pretty interesting.

I hit a couple of shops where I went waaaaaay over my spending limit. The first shop was one selling really “Japanese pride” sort of stuff, wallscrolls, ukiyo-e reproductions and things like that. There was a white t-shirt with the old WWII-era military Rising Sun design on it and a slogan that roughly translates to “The Great Country of the Rising Sun” running down the middle of it. The owner didn’t seem to know what to make of a gaijin wanting to buy nationalistic apparel, but he was friendly enough to get me one in my size. I also bought a Hokusai t-shirt. If college freshmen can wear Che t-shirts, then I want to wear my own t-shirt celebrating the convergence of brutal geo-political regimes and aesthetically striking iconography.

The second shop I found going down a small side alley between a pachinko parlour and a manga art dealership. It was a store that specialized in Okinawan products. As I love Okinawan things, I was in like Flynn. The store had just about everything remotely Okinawan, from cans of Spam and Orion Beer, to antique Sanshin and Hebi-awamori. While the hebi-awamori (snake preserved in awamori liquor) certainly dominated the shelf, I was in the heaven that a fine liquor lover like myself rarely finds himself in. Basically every single brand of all 43 Awamori producers was in stock at this store. Even in Nagoya it’s rare to find more then five or six brands, but this place had even some of the most high end aged stuff going for around the equivalent of several hundred dollars.

Just a bit of a side note about Awamori, since it’s damn near impossible to get in the states. Awamori is the regional beverage of Okinawa, produced from rice. Unlike sake, Awamori is a distilled beverage made from thai Indica long-grained rice as opposed to Japonica short grained rice. The fermentation process also uses black koji mold as opposed to the Yellow koji mold of sake and white koji mold of Shochu. The best awamori is aged in a sort of graduated system of clay jars, somewhat similar to the aging method of sherry in oak casks, where the newest brew is placed in the largest jar and the oldest brew is in the smallest jar. When the oldest brew is used, the same measure gets taken out of the second oldest and put into the oldest, the second oldest, the third oldest, and so on. The flavor is also unlike the beverages brewed in Japan proper, having a certain sharpness and earthiness to them that makes even Imo-jochu (sweet potato shochu) seem mild. Aging takes the edge and bite off the awamori and rounds out the flavor while introducing more complexity. It’s also important to note that the best awamori is of a higher proof than most Japanese beverages, with 43% alcohol content being common versus the 16-18% of sake and the 20-25% of shochu.

Okay, so enough background. I had difficulty picking out a bottle to try. I eventually settled on one of the “export” (25% alcohol content for regular Japanese consumption) brands that had been aged for 10 years. I can’t really read the label characters, and even if I did, I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s actually an old Okinawan reading rather than modern Japanese. It was around the equivalent of 25 bucks American, kinda expensive, but not prohibitively so. Later when I tried it, I found it had a lot more flavor than even the most rustic shochu I had tried so far, but it went down remarkably smooth, as if it were a non-alcoholic beverage. The taste is earthy and strong, with a strong green tang to it. It has the weird feeling of being both sweet and dry, as it’s very sweet and a little bit ricey (thai sticky rice as opposed to Japanese rice) tasting on the tongue, but it clears quickly, leaving a dry herbal note in the finish. Adding boiling water to make it oyawari style tends to bring out the nose a lot more, while emphasizing the sweet aspects of the taste. All in all an 8 out of 10. I should have spent the extra thousand yen on getting the 43% content version.

Oh, and I also bought a CD of Seijin Noborikawa’s music. Japanese CDs are waaaaaaay overpriced, but it’s worth it for old style Okinawan folk music.

So all in all, it was a wonderful day, even if I did get caught in a crush and pulled by back out from carrying to much stuff on one side. I’m pretty loaded on awamori right now, so I guess I’ll end today’s post with a video of Seijin Noborikawa singing a humorous Okinawan song. Note that it’s subtitled in Japanese. Okinawan dialect is different enough from standard Japanese as to be nearly incomprehensible.

So, I’m watching the annual Red and White Song Contest on NHK, a tradition amongst most of the people here in Japan. Five hours of a mix of various genres of music with odes to what’s happened during the year.

I’m really enjoying the Enka parts as well as some of the rock groups. They had this Japanese-Brazilian group that did an interesting mix of J-Rock, Favela Funk and traditional Okinawan music. I’m realizing that my favorite trad music of Japan is Okinawan stuff on the sanshin. It’s just so lively and earthy as opposed to the somewhat detached and formal stuff for the koto, shamisen and shakuhachi. Another interesting performance was by Jero. Jero is a young black guy originally from Pittsburg who’s become famous in Japan for singing Enka. It’s somewhat like if a 21 year old guy from Tokyo moved to America and became a beloved Delta Blues or Country and Western singer. He’s damn good, though. He gets the Enka feeling and sound down pat. I should post some examples of the genre sometime later.

I’ve eaten some soba, as is the New Year’s tradition.

I guess the main thing I want to write about is the sake I’m drinking tonight. I went all out and bought a pretty expensive bottle, at around 30 dollars equivalent in price. Basically it’s of a type of sake that’s I’m possible to have in the states, namely koshu, or aged sake. The vast majority (around 99.5% of sake production) is released quickly after being made. Koshu, and and it’s relative kijoshu, is usually aged for several years minimum before being released. Aging changes the profile of premium sake from flowery and fruity to something much more heavier and sharp. It’s something of an aquired taste.

The bottle in question is jizake (a regional brew). It’s actually pretty hard to find non-regional premium brews outside of the main urban areas. Hence, that means it’s made and mostly sold in Mie Prefecture. The brewer is Hokosugi, which translates roughly to “Japanese Cypress”.

According to the label it’s aged 7 years, but without digging out my grammar dictionary I can’t tell if it’s aged in bottles or tanks. My guess is bottles due to the light profile and color. So how does koshu differ from your ginjo? Most premium and non-premium sakes are clear, or very lightly tinted. Koshu is usually a rich yellow to a reddish-brown. This particular example is almost a Chardonnay yellow. The nose is mixture of used bookstore and English leather. The flavor is what’s most interesting, as it shifts as the temperature rises. Just out of the fridge, it’s sharp, tasting of mushrooms, aromatic wood smoke, with a sweet honey finish. As it begins to warm, the sweeter aspects take over and and it feels less and less dry. It takes on the flavor of almost a cross between dark chocolate and single malt Scotch. Finally at near room temperature, a taste redolent of dates and raisins emerges.

In all an awesome and unique drinking experience. Which is impossible to have in the US, save outside of two import shops, one in San Fran and one in New York City. I highly recommend the type if you’ve ever in Japan. It’s actually pretty hard to find, even in Japan.

Oh, I almost forgot. New Year’s resolutions. I plan to finish that damn novel and write more poetry. My output is up, but it’s still far beneath what a serious writer should be churning out. Also I plan to buckle down on my Japanese. I need to get certified level 2 before I leave.

Well that’s all. Seeya.

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