Thursday, 16 February 2012

Saint who? Valentine's Day in Japan

Valentine’s Day in Japan has little to do with the western idea that it is a celebration of romantic love between individuals who hold romantic feelings for one another. Instead, in Japan women – and only women – are expected to buy chocolate – and only chocolate – for all of the blokes in their life, relatives, lovers, friends and colleagues.

This, of course, has suited me down to the ground and I received a good haul of sweeties. Indeed, I got more on Valentine’s Day than I did at Christmas.

However, this is all part of the Japanese system of obligation. I’ve received quite a lot of choccie, but I have to give it all back (if not slightly more) on March 14th, which is called “White Day” (incidentally, the “tradition’ is to give white chocolate back to the ladies). The Japanese are perfectly cognisant of the fact that it’s all a big ploy by the chocolate companies, but still they do it. They are far from cognisant, however, of the Christian roots of St. Valentine’s Day. They didn’t even know it was a person’s name, when I asked. Still, for all of the expense, I think it’s quite pleasant, especially when you got a small present you weren’t expecting.

A late “Happy Valentine’s Day!” to you all.

Kakiyaki: "a bit of shrapnel never hurt anyone"

There are a lot of jokes you could make about the title of this post. But don’t, because I, like the Japanese, take food very seriously. The title of this post could also have been, as Henry-sama suggested, “the Eikster does it again” because it was Eiko-san who provided us with this gastronomical, sunny Sunday.

Kakiyaki” is Japanese for grilled oysters, and the northern Kyushu coast is famous (and I use the word in the Japanese sense, of everywhere being famous for something) for them. In winter, greenhouse-like tents spring up along the seashore where the very freshest in sea life can be roasted alive and devoured. Last weekend, a group of around eight of us –Ina-chan, Henry-sama, Eiko-san and a few students – drove up to Itoshima, west of Fukuoka, in glorious sunshine, to try it out. In advance, Henry-sama and I had already bought some questionable white wine to accompany the shellfish.
When we arrived, the tent was already crowded, but Eiko being Eiko, everything was already arranged, and we were led to the back of the tent to sit around a gently purring barbecue. We were soon presented with a three or four buckets full of snapping, wriggling shells: oysters, scallops and turban-shells. We whacked them on the heat and watched the life writhe out of them.
Soon, however, they got their revenge. The gang of drunk of Japanese people at the next table was withstanding a blitz of exploding crustaceans, shell-shrapnel and accompanying scolding liquid. We were next. Fortunately I was wearing glasses, but a couple of the chans bore the brunt of some serious exoskeletal explosions. Ouch!
The meal was utterly utterly delicious (a match for the incredible seafood I had in Hong Kong the first time I went), but we came out into the fresh air covered in ash, and stinking of food and smoke. Worth it though.

We then went for a drive, found a German bakery, found a Hokkaiddan ice-creamery, and then went to an onsen.
As I understand it, this was quite a swanky place, given the price and the poshness of the building. There were a couple of indoor pools, a salt-sauna, a steam room and an ice cold bath. Outside though, there were many pools of differing temperatures; some were extremely hot. There was also a natural waterfall that you could sit under to have your shoulders pummeled. I ended up talking to a couple of old blokes who loved England and couldn’t get over how London taxi drivers knew so much about the place, without Satnav! They were Boy Scout leaders, too. The joy, they said, of travelling to different countries with their boys was that – to paraphrase – no matter where you go, every one enjoys a bit of banter. And so true. We also talked about Barrow-in-Furness of all places, which one of the guys had visited as a teenager because a lot of the Japanese Navy had been built there (or something along those lines). I wonder how many times Barrow has been a topic of conversation in northern Kyushu without me as one of the interlocutors.
I was quite pleased with myself at being able to maintain this conversation in Japanese, and left the onsen with a warm glow (and smooth skin!)

Huge thanks to Eiko-san who continues to show us the Japan we wanted to see. 

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Bite-sized Japanter - N°22

BSJ N° 22 - The English word "honcho" (as in, he's the head honcho) is derived from the Japanese "han-chô" which means team or squadron leader. How many other Nihon derived words do we have?

I found this out in a lesson as I was giving synonyms for "boss": "Bigwig", "big cheese", "head honcho" I said. At their looks of confusion, I kept repeating this. They must have thought I had gotten stuck in Japanese mode.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Spring Springs

Spring is here ! Well, in Japan it is. Well, Japanese tradition says it is. Today is "Setsubunthe day when we welcome the advent of Spring with “Mamemaki”: literally “bean throwing”.

On February 3rd, people go to shrines to see celebrities (though I cannot vouch for the celebrity of said celebrities) who count as toshiotoko or toshionna (“year men”, or “year women”), ie – they were born under the same zodiac animal as the current year. This year, it’s the turn of the dragons. Toshiotoko and Toshionna throw the beans (and they’re pretty delicious – I admit to having eaten them before I was supposed to)  in the shrine.

At home, you throw them out of the window and shout enthusiastically: “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” (Out with evil, in with good fortune!).
In our case, or resident toshichans, Robato-san and Ina-chan, threw them from the classroom window. You had to be quick to close the window though, so that them evil-spirit blighters couldn’t get back in (also, it was bloody freezing). Next, Henry-sama, Maddy-chan, Sarah-chan and myself donned oni (evil spirit) masks and ran from the room as our classmates pelted us with the beans.

Next year, I shall have the honour of being a toshiotoko, when we snakes take over!

P.S.- a great big 誕生日おめでとうございます(tanjoubi omedetou gozaimasu!) to me partner in devilishness, Sarah-chan who turns 22 today. Getting old ey, channy-chan-chan?