NB: Some of my earliest blogs no longer have their accompanying images but enjoy the copy!
It’s been a rather interesting week for Japan and, hopefully, you as well! In my Japanese lesson this week, I picked up some pretty useful phrases to use when you’re visiting a friend’s house… Now I just need to go visit some of mine in Japan and regurgitate them! The Katakana has taken a back seat as I’m on an internship right now but I know 20 of them! With that in mind, here is ‘sushi’ written in Hiragana. You’ll need it when you go over there.
News Story of the Week: Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko
At least last week’s news story isn’t just a repeat of this week, as Japan’s new Prime Minister is a rather unexpected one. The former finance minister now faces a series of challenges; including re-unifying his own party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). His plans are to raise taxes in the country, in response to the high value of the Japanese Yen which is affecting exports, strengthen the security alliance with the US and, significantly, he has not backed former Prime Minister Kan’s calls for a nuclear-free Japan.
The move does not appear to have been popular with the Japanese public, not least of all as he is the sixth Prime Minister in five years, but also because the government has been consecutively riddled with scandal. Ozawa Ichiro, the party’s most powerful faction leader who is currently suspended from the party following a major funding scandal, still managed to sway the elections when he refused to back Maehara Seiji. As there were no new faces emerging out of the elections, it is understandable why many people perceive this to be nothing but a juggling of power.
The question is whether Noda will be able to show strong leadership skills and tackle the fiscal situation, or whether he will go the same way of his predecessors. For the sake of the country, we can hope that this will be the start of something positive. Reuters have done a good round up on Noda, for those of you who want more information.
Destination of the Week: Hida-Takayama
Hida-Takayama, locally known as Takayama, is one of Japan’s most historically preserved cities. It is located in the mountainous Hida region in the Gifu prefecture and boasts two of Japan’s best festivals, held in spring and autumn. It is famous for its well-preserved Edo style streets (the period of the Tokugawa shogunate, which I’ll be covering two weeks from now).
From a tourist point of view, there is plenty to do in Takayama. Everyone should check out the Hida Folk Village (Hida no Sato), an open air village exhibiting traditional buildings from the Edo period. In particular, visitors should check out the gassho-zukuri houses, massive farmhouses with steep roofs, which were moved from the Shirakawa-go region. I bet that wasn’t easy to do! Takayama also has its Old Town district, the Sanmachi, which is full of shops and breweries, many of them dating back centuries. If you are looking for a quieter journey around the city, the Higashiyama Walking Course is ideal as it takes you the Teramachi temple town, Shiroyama Park and the former site for Takayama Castle.
If you go at the right time of year, you can also experience Takayama’s two festivals; the Sannō Matsuri, held in April, and the Yahata Matsuri, held in October. The Sannō Matsuri is associated with the Hie Shrine and Yahata Matsuri with the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine, both of them of course being in Takayama. Large floats (yatai) are paraded through the city during both festivals and are decorated with thick curtains and mechanical dolls (mikoshi). The origins of the festivals are not exactly known but they are said to date back to the mid sixteenth century. As well as being spectacular in their own right, the festivals fall around perfect times of year. The Sannō Matsuri coincides with the cherry blossom viewing (hanami) season and Yahata Matsuri with the emerging of autumn leaves (koyo).
All things considered, you cannot go wrong visiting Takayama. It’s not far from Nagoya, a major historical city in the Aichi prefecture, so there’s no reason not to hop on a train and enjoy the matsuri.
- Eat some ramen noodles, as Takayama is famous for theirs
- Visit the Takayama Jinja, an old government building from the time of the shogun
- Forget your camera, especially if you appreciate Japanese history!
Japanese Saying of the Week: Akinasu wa yome ni kuwansuna
Here’s a wonderfully bizarre saying, which is much more reminiscent of Japan’s agricultural past than anything else. ‘Akinasu wa yome ni kuwansuna’ means ‘do not let your daughter-in-law eat your autumn eggplants’ and, whilst it probably doesn’t have any meaning to westerners, has some significance to the Japanaese. It refers to a rich mother-in-law, who won’t share her food (in particular, her eggplants) with her poorer daughter-in-law. The best explanation I can find for this phrase is ‘don’t let people, even family, take advantage of you’. I may be completely wrong about this but I think this is also a rather insightful look at traditional Japanese attitudes towards charity and independence.
Samurai of the Week: Oda Nobunaga
I can’t really discuss much more of the Sengoku jidai without covering Oda Nobunaga, who is synonymous with the era. He was the first of the great three unifiers of Japan, at a time when factions were continuously warring amongst themselves and no clear leadership could be established, and set the foundations for the future unification of the country.
Nobunaga was born to Nobuhide, part of the fractured and little-known Oda clan in (most likely) 1508. Nobuhide’s rise to power is concerned with the similarly obscure Matsudaira and prestigious Imagawa clans in Mikawa. A particularly interesting episode of these continuous conflicts came when Matsudaira Hirotada was pressured by Imagawa Yoshimoto to hand over his six-year-old son Takechiyo in exchange for assistance against the Oda. However, Nobunaga intercepted Takechiyo and demanded that Hirotada relinquish Okazaki otherwise he would kill his hostage. Hirotada tactically refused and Nobunaga, who had not intended to harm the boy, had his bluff called and Takechiyo was released after Nobuhide’s death.
So, why is this information about Nobuhide relevant? Takechiyo grew up to be Tokugawa Ieyasu, the eventual unifier of Japan.
By 1551, Nobunaga was the clear leader of the Oda clan. He was described as ‘disgracefully’ rude and, in samurai-era Japan where manners were incredibly important, this gives us some idea as to how intimidating he must have been. His two brothers, Nobuhiro and Nobuyuki conspired against him consecutively and Nobuyuki was killed whilst Nobuhiro was spared, sending an ominous message to anyone else amongst the Oda who might have been considering to do the same. I think it’s fair to say that Nobunaga was not one to be messed with.
The victory at Dengakuhazama (1560) marked the beginnings of Nobunaga’s rise to undisputed power, where he fooled and brutally ambushed the Imagawa clan. Whilst Yoshimoto was camping with his army and celebrating the success of his campaign, Nobunaga had his men hoist battle flags behind the hill, making the enemy believe that they were also camping nearby. Instead, under the cover of heavy rain, he led them to where the Imagawa were and ambushed them – killing Yoshimoto. Over the next decade, Nobunaga further built up his foundations in the province, moving his capital to Inabayama, establishing alliances with Takeda Shingen and and Matsudaira Motoyasu and acting as a patron of Ashikaga Yoshiaki. Although he helped Yoshiaki achieve the position of the fifteenth Ashikaga shogun, everyone knew that Nobunaga was the true ruler of Kyoto, and he later had Yoshiaki removed when he no longer had need of their tactical relationship.
Daimyō outside of Kyoto were increasingly threatened by Nobunaga’s schemes and, again, Takeda Shingen was considered to be the most significant member to recruit into the anti-Oda schemes. This never occurred, partly because Shingen was concerned with clashes against Tokugawa Ieyasu and, in 1573, he died.
I do not have the space or time to document all of Nobunaga’s victories and acts of warfare, which are at worst described as massacres reaching into the thousands, although he is historically remembered for being cruel and calculating. Ultimately, this is what led to his demise in 1582. He frequently mocked and showed great distrust for his retainers, one of them being Akechi Mitsuhide, whom he taunted particularly for his poetic ability and hairline. Not exactly what you would call ‘mean’ by modern standards but this was enough to cause Mitsuhide to betray him. He arrived in Kyoto with an army of men, under the pretext of going to help another of Nobunaga’s retainers, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, at Takamatsu castle and assassinated Nobunaga. Mitsuhide himself died just eleven days later at the Battle of Yamazaki, where he was killed by Hideyoshi. As you may or may not already know, Hideyoshi became the second ‘unifier’ of Japan, adopting some of his lord’s practices.
Overall, Nobunaga ruthlessly sought to create a military and economic superpower in Japan, which was unusual a time where the conflicts in one province rarely affected the other. The Sengoku jidai was characterised by its lack of national coordination and Nobunaga, although he never accepted the formal title of ‘shogun’, was the first to be recognised across the country as an albeit brutal leader.
Bento Box of the Week: Karate Girl
Here is a very creative Bento box made by kopiicat. I found this whilst googling for something else but was delighted to come across a random blog post, back from 2008. The girl’s clothes are made from mozerella. Yummy!
Series of the Week: Berserk
Berserk is a classic series and it’s not for the faint of heart. Blood, torture, prostitutes, demons and lots of adult themes are abound in this series! The anime is a good introduction to the series, as it covers the first arc over 26 episodes. It ends on a massive cliffhanger though, which does encourage you to go and buy the manga… I guess that’s the point.
Berserk follows the adventures of Guts, a mercenary who is recruited into the Band of Hawk, run by Griffith. The story shifts from fantasy to horror as Griffith manipulates the group to help him fulfil his goal of becoming king. It’s a pretty dark story but I cannot say much about the plot without giving everything away, so you’ll just have to find things out for yourself.
There are currently over 35 manga volumes so, if you plan to buy it, you need a hefty amount of money. Alternatively, you can do the technically illegal thing and read the manga online. It’s a good read, that’s for certain. The hilarious outtakes from the English version of the anime are probably the strongest argument for buying the DVD, too.
Score: 8/10 (sometimes it’s too depressing and traumatising to read. I also like series that have an idea when they’re going to end and, seeing how Kentaro Miura began this series in 1988, he may want to consider wrapping things up to make for a thrilling conclusion)
Weird Thing of the Week: Cat Cafes
Cat cafes are all the rage in Japan and I really wish they would catch on in Britain already! The draw of cat cafes is self-explanatory – who wouldn’t want to enjoy a cup of tea with a kitty? Mine is always clambering over my lap trying to finish off my drinks anyway. Inside Japan have a nice blog by a girl who recently went to one of these cafes in Shinjuku, Tokyo.
So, why do cat cafes even exist in Japan? Apart from obviously loving cats (you can find plenty of Japanese TV shows featuring cute cats and millions of Youtube videos), there is another reason for their popularity. Cities such as Tokyo are densely populated and most people live in little apartments, meaning they cannot have a pet. For the busy worker, the cat cafe can offer some relaxation. Everyone knows that stroking a cat (or dog) is scientifically proven to reduce stress levels and heart problems… Why is this not being introduced elsewhere?
When I was in Kyoto two years ago I walked past a cat cafe but was, believe it or not, ‘too embarassed’ to go in and check it out. The thought of cats being cooped up in a cafe all day may not appeal to all but rest assured the Japanese love their cats. Again, when I was in Kyoto, I saw a man on the street with two kittens, presumably selling them. At first, I was upset because it was not only hot but also very busy but they had several bowls of water between them and the man asked people not to stroke them, so they would not be prodded and poked all day. There was also a policeman very nearby, which told me that it was safe and legal.
So, when you’re in Japan, look out for a cat cafe and you’ll feel all fuzzy inside!
With 5 out of 11 votes (thanks to those who voted!), the new weekly feature is recipe of the week. I was hoping this would be the winner actually, as I’ve recently discovered the simplicity and deliciousness of Japanese cooking. I’ve taken the recipe (with some of my own amendments) from the amazing book Harumi’s Japanese Cooking, which I highly recommend. This week we’ll be making gyudon (beef on rice). I have made this several times now and everybody loves it!
Ingredients (for four people):
- 500g onions
- 200ml white wine
- 100ml water
- 500g thinly sliced beef
- 150ml soy sauce
- 150ml mirin
- 4 tablespoons of sugar
- 600g hot cooked rice
- picked ginger (for garnish)