Sunday, September 21, 2014

It's in the Water

When we're talking about booze, we're talking about a few simple ingredients - alcohol, water, sugar, flavorings, maybe yeast and carbon dioxide with beer and champagne, maybe some other trace elements. Of course how that becomes something delicious and transporting is a mix of art, science and alchemy that humankind has been working on ever since wild yeast first dropped into something sugary and somebody drank it and said, "Ah ha!"

But for most alcoholic potables, seems the main ingredient is just plain ol' water. It's the turning of that water into liquor is where the magic lies. One of Jesus's most inspired and truly magic moments happened when he turned water into wine. He could have done the conventional thing - gotten some grape juice and let it ferment, but I guess he liked the theatre, was working on a tight schedule and knew he had a good trick up his sleeve.

Around the time Jesus was doing his thing, distilling was born. It became the purview of alchemists for several centuries in their magical and mystical attempts to transmute chemicals and elements. Their experiments led to concoctions that had a more secular effect of transmuting the drinker into more mystical states of drunkenness. And the grand love affair continues between us mortals and alcohol - and the water!

Notwithstanding the old joke -

A Scotsman walks into a bar and asks for rare 30-year-old Macallan. The bartender asks him if he     wants it neat or with a splash of water. The Scotsman howls at the bartender, "Why would I want water in it? We spent 30 years trying tae gie the water out!"

But even the Scotsman's drink neat was something like 57% water!

Which brings us to maewari. It's a speciality of Kyushu - and it's based on a pretty simple idea. You take about 4 parts shochu and mix it with 6 parts water and let it rest for a few days. Time turns the mixture into a slightly unctuous, smooth, yet gently spicy cocktail.  Something magical.

If your bartender just poured some water into some shochu and served it to you, it would not taste half as good. Probably not bad, depending on the shochu, but not at all the same.

The Ajimi team was out with friends in Nakano the other night where we stopped in at the Kamakura Saketen, just south of the JR station. It's an unassuming stand-up bar that has huge ceramic pots filled with different shochus, some of the best yakitori in Tokyo, a continuously steaming pot of motsu by the door and some of the cheapest prices in town.

Two pots behind the bar are simply labeled mugi (麦 / barley) and imo (芋 / sweet potato). Both hold the fabled maewari. The folks here mix their shochu with water from Kumano, on the Kii peninsula about 100 km south of Osaka. Speaking of mystical, it's a place of shrines and temples sometimes known as the land of the dead. Kamakura Saketen has certainly got the good juju working for them in their delicious mixes. The mugi version has a light spiceness floating in very soft water. The imo version tends toward clear perfection. It's like a dream of water, flying.

Much of that magic - it's in the water.


Kamakura Saketen
2-30-14 Nakano 


Thursday, September 18, 2014

A meeting of cultures at the Mingeikan

Indigo-dyed cotton takes on a soft, luminous quality as it ages that's almost like velvet.  That characteristic isn't apparent in historical black and white photographs of people wearing garments made of indigo.  Experiencing the beauty of old indigo is just one of the reasons to visit Kantha and Sashiko - Needleworks from Bengal and Tohoku at The Japan Folk Crafts Museum or 日本民芸館.  The show features embroidery from two very different cultural traditions which both demonstrate the amazing creativity that can emerge from humble materials.

The indigo garments come from Tohoku, northeastern Japan. Cotton only became a common clothing material there fairly recently, perhaps 150 years ago.   But once it arrived people made the most of it, embellishing everyday objects with meticulous stitching known as sashiko (刺し子).  The designs range from simple lines of thick, white thread inching across a blue field, to wonderfully intricate motifs in threads of many colors that must have required countless months of work to execute.

Bengal is represented by kantha. Colorful imagery spills across large fields of cotton and, occasionally, silk.  Rivers teem with happy fish.  Elephants, horses, birds, lions and birds surround scenes of human festivity.  The stitching gives the figures a nice 3-dimensional quality.  Some of the pieces reminded me of New England samplers, slightly crude but highly expressive in their execution.  Great joy emanates from every piece.

This show is exceptionally fine, but I will go to almost anything the Mingeikan puts on.  It has a huge collection of wonderful objects with a rich history and the building itself is a delight.  It may have the best museum shop in Tokyo.

I do have two gripes, however.  First, the English interpretation leaves something to be desired.  There was a good, concise English description of the show in a flyer we received as we entered.  But beyond that, the only English to be found was in signs saying, "Don't touch."  This is not only a problem at the Mingeikan: Japanese museums and public places in general are pretty poor at explaining things in English.  I hope as the 2020 Olympics approach venues of all kinds will work harder to meet the needs of their foreign visitors.

Then there is the photo issue.  You can't take any photos in the Mingeikan. This, again, is typical of Japanese museums - and fabric stores, too, for some reason.  I can understand a "no tripods, no flash" rule, but most US and European museums I'm acquainted with allow visitors to take photos, perhaps since they're aware that pictures posted on blogs and social media are a great source of free promotion.

A little background on the kantha pieces on display.  They come from the collection of Hiroko Iwatate, who also runs the Iwatate Folk Textile Museum in Tokyo's Jiyugaoka neighborhood.  The museum is small but her collection is massive.  When we visited a few months ago, she told us her South Asian collection alone contains several thousand items.  If you are lucky enough to visit on a day when Iwatate-san is there, she may describe for you, as she did for us, in English, the history and composition of the pieces on display.  You might be able to touch them and, yes, take photographs.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Semamori Story 背守り物語

Shortly after I posted my review of the semamori exhibit at the Lixil Gallery, I came across this little beauty at a shrine sale.  I'm guessing it was once worn by a girl around 4 or 5 years old, but only occasionally since it's in remarkably good shape considering parts of it could be over 100 years old.

It's pieced together from remnants of other kimonos, striped silk for the body and sleeves and blue chirimen on the chest and upper back, with a soft black velvet collar.

Look carefully at the details on the chirimen:  are those people, puppies or pupae climbing up the ropes?  Then there's the semamori, the little red knot of cloth sewn onto the back to protect its wearer from evil.   Did it work?  Have its powers kept this kimono intact since the Taisho era?

The lining appears to be of raw silk, a rather lavish feature for a modest child's kimono.  It's probably not the original but even so it bears a nice patina of age.  The newest addition is undoubtedly the striped chiffon belt, so delicate I can't imagine it would withstand more than a couple wearings.

We'll never know the fate -- or the identity -- of the lucky little girl who once wore this piece or the occasion for which it was made.  But the garment itself tells its own tale of a long-ago community that took care to preserve and pass down beautiful objects.