Saturday, March 28, 2009

What's That You Say?

The aural landscape of Japan offers many pleasures and many annoyances. Between the big black trucks trundling down Yasukunidori, broadcasting nationalist anthems and sloganeering at top volume and the general din of overcrowded urban spaces, one recognizes that contrary to the stereotypic notion of Japan being a nation of silence and contemplation, the reality is that it can be really LOUD here. When hackles aren't being raised from the general noise pollution, the Ajimi team often finds mixed pleasure - amusement tempered by amazement before forefingers unconsciously find their way into ears - in the sounds of Japan.

Among the more interesting phenomena is the hawking of products by yelling.  The most egregious must be Yodabashi, the giant vendor of all things electrical, photographic, laundromatic and gadget-errific. Take for example, the flagship store in Akihabara. Outside said store, there will be several workers shouting through megaphones about sale items. Upon entering the store, one will find more people shouting, either through acoustic or electric bullhorns, adding to the din of customers talking, and the incessant PA playing the Yodabashi theme song - a variation on the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Then, in particular sections of the store, a voice will break in over the  theme song, yelling about this or that item on sale. The din becomes overwhelming. The message is always lost.

Perhaps the most amusing are the poor workers sent out to the sidewalk with small plastic or paper megaphones. A shift of yelling oneself hoarse unintelligibly to unfazed passersby must do wonders for self-esteem and doing a meaningful day of work. But these  young workers are often relentlessly enthusiastic. Perhaps the act of doing - and doing enthusiastically and well - is reward enough. Perhaps being in the center of, and being part of a loud (think rock concert or rave) public event every day gives the hawker a pure dopamine rush.  We hope it makes up for the minimum wage. Or maybe it's just a bad cultural habit.

Recently we were in Kawagoe where we observed this young hawker hiding behind his prop. Note that the product is manju for only 10 yen. IT'S A BARGAIN!


Peoples' Theater

In Jujo, a neighborhood at the northern edge of Tokyo, the Shinohara Engeijo (篠原演芸所), built in 1951, is one of the last surviving examples of a style of entertainment that was once widespread throughout Japan. An "engeijo" is a theater or variety music hall where performers engage in "peoples' theater" or taishuengeki (大衆演劇). On a recent Sunday afternoon, guided by our friend Kokubo Shinichi, we went there for a performance by the Hasegawa Gekidan (長谷川劇団).

The performance began at 12:30, but, as we entered the theater at 11:30, it was clear why we had been advised to arrive an hour beforehand. Spectators were already sprawled out across half of the tatami area, and all of the prime seats near the stage had "reserved" signs attached. It was like a lively indoor picnic: everyone was eating, drinking and chatting in a very familial way. Hanging from the ceiling were large colorful banners with pictures of the players, members of the Hasegawa family, mainly, with a few non-Hasegawas for good measure. The mother of Hasegawa Takeya, one of the leaders of the troupe, was taking the tickets. We bought some onigiri and tea from the snack bar and sat back to wait for the show to begin.

Oddly enough, we learned just before the opening curtain that the afternoon's entertainment would include a segment on the life of Okichi, the maiden who allegedly was seduced and abandoned by the first US consul to Japan. Coming on the heels of our recent visit to Shimoda, where it was all Okichi all the time, this seemed to augur well for an interesting performance, or at least one whose general countours we would be able to follow with our limited Japanese.

But first there was the opening act which gave the actors a chance to introduce themselves and to engage in a bit of interaction with the audience. The first few segments looked a lot like voguing, with the younger and hunkier members of the troupe dancing across the stage to J-pops, occasionally pausing for a sexy pose to enthusiastic applause. The audience called out to the performers and offered them gifts: an envelope was slipped into a kimono sleeve, a bottle of health drink appeared, later a can of coffee. There was a very good onnagata (女形) act in which a middle-aged man in full geisha gear impersonated a sweet young girl.

Then came the star of the show, Aikyouka (愛 京花), wife of Takeya and co-leader of the troupe. A very appealing actress, she performed a couple of lively dance numbers, then moved through the theater, shaking hands with every one of the 100-or-so members of the audience. She later returned to the stage for a more formal Japanese dance during which an onlooker attached a fan of thousand-yen bills to her costume. After a little more dancing from the full troupe (with the aid of a smoke machine), the curtain rang down for the first intermission.

When the curtain rose again we were in the 19th-century. Shimoda Elegy -- or Shimoda Aika (下田哀歌) traced Okichi's tragic story from the arrival of Townsend Harris to her eventual death. Or, at least we assume it did. The story was told in three hour-long acts and, despite Aikyouka's lovely portrayal of the doomed woman, we could only manage to stay rapt for the first two. We left before the final denoument, after the murder of her lover but before Okichi ended up in the river.

A different touring troupe is featured roughly every month at Shinohara Engeijo, which has afternoon and evening performances (12:30 and 6:00 pm) on Saturday, Sunday and holidays, with evening performances through the week. Tickets are 1500 yen for adults and 800 yen for children. Here's the current schedule and location information along with links to other Tokyo- area Taishuengekijo in Asakusa and Kawasaki:


1. Banners outside the theater
2. An actor grabs a quick snack while getting into costume
3. Onnagata
4. Ai-san onstage
5. Ai-san works the crowd


Thursday, March 19, 2009


When going anyplace in the world, the Ajimi team always does a bit of advance research on local foods, booze, tourist attractions and the like. Shimoda is all about promoting all the Admiral Perry stuff, the Okichi - Townsend story, the onsen, but generally leaves its cuisine to the imagination. Unlike many Japanese towns, promoting either the best noodles in Japan or the best local fish (no doubt shipped from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo) the tourist literature on Shimoda tends to underplay the local dining options. This is all a bit surprising, because Shimoda actually still has the remains of a local fishing industry, kelp and seaweed beds, and a working waterfront where the locals spend lazy mornings fishing for iwashi (鰯) or whatever else may be swimming by. Plus they have a few blocks of the small town devoted to the himono (干物) - dried fish - business. When the Ajimi team popped into town on a perfect off-season day, the old heart of town had many local businesses with racks of drying cuttlefish and sardines spilling into the streets catching the sun and salty air of this famous little port.

Of course with the proximity of the wide Pacific we queried the local tourist office on where to partake of the local catch. A false start brought us to a decent but ultimately unmemorable restaurant. The second night, Friday, braving rain and wind, we hit the empty streets looking amongst the few open places for something local and delectable. And find it we did!

We noted an unassuming storefront, classically funky Japanese-style izakaya during our afternoon walk. It was one of those places that can be a true risk, perhaps gawdawful, or maybe at best acceptable, but Kanogawa (かの川) had the advantage of a posted menu describing a list of fare that we a) had never tasted in our lives and b) we were completely unfamiliar with. Always a good sign.

Sliding open the front door revealed a warm wooden room modestly outfitted with 3 tables, a small irori (open hearth) dining area and a small bar with seats for about 6 people. Sitting at the bar was the woman of the house busying herself with cleaning seaweed. Her husband sat behind the counter, watching the TV set high above the dishware-cluttered back bar. He, also, when not glancing at the tube, was attending to a large bunch of seaweed. We were their only guests the entire evening.
We asked for some local sake and were informed that there really was none, or at least none worth serving, but happily, the masters of the house were true sake lovers and had chosen about a dozen bottles, mostly from the Niigata region, to highlight the fare that came from their humble kitchen. Our hostess was more than enthusiastic in describing some favorite nihonshus, so leaving ourselves in her hands the sake poured and the feast began.

We started off with the most brilliant of otoushi. A long glass box with 3 compartments featured a classic gobo and carrot salad, vinegar-cured wasabi shoots, and an intriguing seaweed that was gathered that morning. In fact, the piles of seaweed that they were cleaning was the very stuff itself. We had never had anything quite like it. Not quite as strong as cured konbu, but not as delicate or silky as a wakame, this seaweed had a beautiful brinyness, a whisper of smoke and a satisfying tooth - just enough to give it a soft crunch. The wasabi shoots had a touch of heat, but none of the acridness that wasabi can sometimes smack you with. The vinegar was puckery and demanded a sip of sake to tame it.

We followed that with three little tokubushi (常節) - small abalones. And in great Japanese style, the little critter was served up whole, not just the foot. The faint muskiness and softness of the innards complimented the fresh chewiness of the perfectly cooked foot. After that, a small selection of bite-sized miso-cured iwashi himono. These little sundried sardines still had a bit of moisture in them, their already oily tastiness intensified by the sun and sea air.

Next came some local turban shell sea snails - sazae (栄螺) - which in the local parlance are called maimai - small blue shells where we pricked off the hard estivate and corkscrewed the tender flesh out with toothpicks.

We then ordered some locally caught kinmedai (金目鯛) as a nimono (煮物), a simmered dish.

As it took a bit to cook, our hostess brought out a little bowl of namoko (海鼠) - little bits of sea cucumber. We had seen these odd creatures in fish shops but had yet to try them. We were greeted with a light sea-y taste and an amazing texture. A rubbery toothiness turned immediately into a sort of nothingness, or rather liquid state at each bite. This relative of the sea urchin is apparently under close scrutiny from bioengineers for its ability to turn its tissue from solid to liquid and back again. There's nothing in the world quite like it.

The kinmedai arrived - a whole fish, red with a big eye staring at us, laying in a puddle of shoyu. We picked at the mildly sweet flesh, drank our last of several rounds of sake for a perfect end to the eating portion of our experience.

And then it was time for dessert.

We had noticed several large glass jugs of mysterious infusions behind the bar. In the best of izakaya traditions, Kanogawa makes their own fruit infusions. The classic is umeshu (梅酒), made from local Japanese "plums." In June every year, many bars and households put up this fruit in shochu. The Ajimi team is no different: our first batch is resting on the back of a low shelf awaiting its 1st anniversary in June 2009. Kanogawa, however, in addition to umeshu had several other fruit liquors on hand. We had a sampling, on the rocks with a splash of soda, of local yamamomoshu(山桃酒 - mountain bayberry) - delicate, with a slight astringency to its basic sweetness - and yamabudoushu (山葡萄酒 - mountain grape )- slightly more robust, with a touch of grapey funkiness.

Kanogawa is not exactly a rare find, but an important one. In a country, or rather a world, where tradition and localness have become brands - controlled and tailored to create a homogenous "experience", its always wonderful to stumble into the unhyped, unhurried and exceptional places that honestly do carry on local traditions and allow experience to become an adventure.

Kanogawa is located a few blocks from Shimoda's waterfront, a 3-minute walk from the train station, at Shimoda 1-12-22. Telephone 0558-22-2649. No English is spoken.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Searching for a taste of the sea

South of Tokyo the Pacific seashore is mostly encased in concrete. This concrete was ostensibly poured to control erosion, but, along with massive dam projects, river channelization, and the general de-naturing of many of the country’s once wild and beautiful places, the disfigurement of Japan’s seacoast has mainly served to stave off erosion of the national public works budget. Thus, one has to travel several hours by train from the metropolis to find a relatively unspoiled stretch of ocean.

Eager for some contact with the Pacific, we headed for the Izu peninsula. At its northern end, the spa town of Atami is another testament to overbuilding. The highrise hotels and endless crowded shopping streets -- not mention a storied red-light district -- have managed to obliterate whatever natural features might have attracted visitors there in the first place. But head farther south along the eastern coast and the towns become smaller, the buildings shorter, the views of unspoiled seashore more frequent. By the time you reach Shimoda, it is possible to imagine what life in that part of Japan might have been like 150 years ago.

In Shimoda, making you imagine the historic past is the main touristic purpose. It was here, in 1853, that the Black Ships (kurofune – 黒船 – in Japanese), a fleet of American vessels led by Admiral Matthew Perry, sailed into port, the key event in opening Japan to American influence. The Kurofune/Perry theme is omnipresent. So is the story of Townsend Harris, the first US consul to Japan, and the Japanese maiden Okichi. The most romantic legends have it that Okichi became Harris’ lover and right hand for many years, only to be abandoned once her usefulness was over. Other tougher-minded historians claim that Okichi lasted but a few days in Harris’ employ, only to be tossed out on suspicion of having syphilis. She may or may not have run a bordello after that (or was it a saloon?), and may or may not have committed suicide in her early '50s (or did she just fall into the river in a drunken stupor?). Whatever the real tale, local tourism promoters never let the facts get in the way of a marketable story. The Harris/Okichi story has become a cottage industry. (You may recall it as the subject of the film “The Barbarian and the Geisha” starring John Wayne as Townsend Harris). There are also some lovely remnants of 19th-century streets and buildings to stroll around in while you take in the lore.

But of course the Ajimi Team was mostly there for the food. All along the Izu coast one sees signs for himono (ひもの), fish of one kind or another that is dried in the sun, with or without flavorings such as miso or salt. Kinmedai (金目鯛) is another heavily advertised local specialty. This version of tai, or sea bream, is served in many ways, including stewed whole or atop kamameshi (釜飯), a hearty dish which usually combines rice, vegetables, mushrooms and meat or fish which is then baked in a metal bowl. We also tasted wonderful wakame (若布), fresher than we’d ever tasted it, pulled that day from the sea, and were introduced to fresh nori in its original red state in our miso soup. Overall, Shimoda is not a grand dining destination but we found a few excellent izakaya (居酒屋)and shokudo (食堂)that served up memorable meals built around local products. Snails were eaten. More on that in the next post.

Photos, top to bottom:

1. The Pacific coast from the seaside walkway south of Shimoda

2. Harvesting wakame

3. Kinmedai and ginmutsu (Japanese bluefish)


Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Ajimi Team in the Japan Times

Howdy, y'all. Please take a look at our recent article about the Tokyo bluegrass scene: