NB: Some of my earliest blogs no longer have their accompanying images but enjoy the copy!
This week’s blog will be a bit shorter than usual as I’ve had a rather unexpectedly exciting week! I’m going to be in London for a couple of months for work, so I’ve been having to get ready for that. Don’t worry though, this blog is still my pride and joy and will not be neglected just because I am employed!
If you missed last week’s notice, you still have until Monday 10th to enter this art competition I’m running. Details are in this video and last week’s blog.
News Story of the Week: Ozawa Ichiro’s trial begins
You might vaguely recall the name ‘Ozawa’ from a few weeks back, during the Prime Ministerial bid which saw Noda Yoshihiko succeed Naoto Kan. Ozawa Ichiro has long been a behind-the-scenes power broker in Japanese politics and has a history of corruption charges. His trial for a political party funding scandal began today and is likely to hugely undermine his power.
In 2009, Ozawa engineered the Democratic Party of Japan’s rise to power and allegedly oversaw false accounting by his former aides in a confusing 2004 deal. Monetary scandal is regrettably familiar in recent Japanese politics and Ozawa is incredibly high profile, apparently considered untouchable by some. He is pleading ‘not guilty’ against these charges, of course, but it is possible that his reputation might be irreversibly tarnished.
The trial is ongoing, so for the latest updates it is best to follow the trial online. The BBC provides a useful timeline on Ozawa’s political career and you can also check the link in the archives for more information.
Destination of the Week: Takachiho
We are slowly working our way through every island of Japan! This week is the mythologically-fascinating mountain town of Takachiho on the island of Kyushu.
In order to understand the religious and spiritual importance of Takachiho, a little background into Japanese mythology is required. The Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu, is said to be directly linked to the imperial family of Japan. The valleys of Takachiho are not only said to be where her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto, was sent down from heaven to establish the imperial line but also where she hid from her cruel brother, Ame no Uzume. According to Shinto legend, she was lured out of a cave (Ama no Iwato) and imprisoned by her brother and other gods using a sacred mirror, sword and jewels. These items are still very important to imperial rites today but, unlike the British Crown Jewels, are not to be seen by the public and certain items are believed to have been lost and replaced.
Takachiko is remote but incredibly scenic and would certainly complete a spiritual journey around Japan. Nightly traditional Yokagura dances take place at the Takachiho Shrine, which re-enact the legend surrounding Amaterasu. Impressive ravines and waterfalls can be traversed by boat and, whilst it draws millions of Japanese tourists annually, not many foreigners make it this far. It could be described as one of the wonders of Japan.
- Visit Onokoro Jaya Teahouse, which is at the base of the gorge itself. You can enjoy some fresh green tea whilst overlooking the stunning scenery.
- Forget your camera. I mean, really!
Saying of the Week: Neko wa Kabaru
Cats are cunning (or at least they’re meant to be). ‘Neko wa Kabaru’ literally translates to ‘wearing the cat’ but a more westernised translation would be to feign ignorance or hide your true intentions. Admit it, you’ve all worn a cat at some point! Let’s just hope it’s a proverbial one!
Samurai of the Week: Katô Kiyomasa
Kiyomasa was born in 1562, in Nakamura, the same town where Toyotomi Hideyoshi was supposedly born. He became Hideyoshi’s retainer, rising to prominence at the Battle of Shizugatake where his lord’s forces clashed with Oda Nobutaka and was recognised as one of the great Seven Spears. He earned the respect of Hideyoshi, being granted a large fief in Higo and leading the Korean invasion. In fact, he was the only general reported to have stepped onto Chinese soil (albeit briefly, as the invasion of Korea ultimately failed).
(If you haven’t already, it might be an idea to skip back to weeks 5 and 6 which cover Hideyoshi and Ieyasu.)
Despite this apparent loyalty to the Toyotomi, Kiyomasa was quick to jump ship when Hideyoshi died and Tokugawa Ieyasu made his move to depose his heir, Hideyori. The so-called western forces that defended him were led by Ishida Mitsunari, who had quarrelled with Kiyomasa during the Korean invasion, and included Konishi Yukinaga, whom he also despised. So, despite his previous loyalty, Kiyomasa sided with the Tokugawa either because he wanted to be on the winning team or because of these personal reasons – probably both!
It would not be unfair to call Kiyomasa a traitor, and that’s what I’m going to do! Perhaps ironically, he died shortly after the Tokugawa seized control over Japan and it is rumoured Ieyasu arranged to have him poisoned.
He is also known for his passion for hunting tigers with spears, earning him the title ‘Devil General’. One particular report claims that, when a tiger that had been brought over from Korea escaped from its bindings inside the castle, Kiyomasa stared at it and it stopped in its tracks. If you wanted more proof that he was a no-nonsense man, he also wrote that poetry and dancing were unbecoming of a samurai and any one caught partaking in those activities should be forced to commit suicide.
Bento Box of the Week: Pokemon
A staple part of every Japanese child’s diet (I think) is Pokemon! I’m pretty sure I had a Pikachu lunchbox back in the day but, once again, Japan had to show me up with its awesome Mudkip. For those of you only familiar with the original 1990s series that graced our TVs, Mudkip is from the third generation of Pokemon … that’s number 258. I have to admit, I’m not sure how healthy red and blue dyed rice would be.
Series of the Week: Cat Soup
Cat Soup (Nekojiru-sou) is a brilliant example of weird Japanese cinema. It’s surreal, a great introduction to the ‘WHAT?’ realm of animation and very trippy to watch. Technically, this is a short film rather than a series but I am going to list it here because I think it’s definitely worth a watch.
It’s very difficult to describe the plot of Cat Soup not only because there is barely any dialogue to it but also because it’s almost impossible to do so. In a nutshell, the main character is a cat called Nyatto who is on a quest to save his sister’s soul. The two embark on a artistically bizarre adventure, exploring the transience of man’s existence.
Cat Soup should be appreciated for its artistic and what might first seem like nonsensical nature. I was utterly confused when I watched this the first time and have watched it twice since. I am still confused but, on the plus side, I can appreciate it a lot more. Who said that anime was nothing but flashy fight scenes and big-breasted women?
Score: 9/10 (well worth a watch if you are looking for something completely different)
N.B: For those of you who keep up to date with your anime, you will know that mid-October signals the beginning of a lot of brand new anime series. I plan to review a couple of these once they have been out for a while but, for now, I’m having to go through some older series. The good news is that I am trying to be deliberately obscure and the bad news is that I have not sat down and watched something new for over a year as I was in my final year of university and sadly had to prioritise. Now that I am actually employed, weekday evenings will give me a good chance to pick up on some good shows.
Weird Thing of the Week: Vending Machines
Japanese vending machines are famous for being 100% cooler than any other vending machines in the world. Not only do they have a much wider selection of (bizarre) drinks, are brightly coloured, are located more or less anywhere you can imagine and take debit cards, but they do not just pop out drinks.
Japan is typically much hotter than Britain, so people need cool drinks closer to hand. You can find vending machines in the subway, on the street and even right next to a religious shrine. Quite often you will see as many as ten lined up in a row. Statistically, there is 1 vending machine for every 23 people in Japan.
What makes Japanese vending machines so unique is … well, the number of reasons is actually infinite. For example, Coca-Cola had a giant robotic one wandering around Tokyo at one point. More importantly, vending machines are not just limited to drinks. Ties, umbrellas, freshly laid eggs (put in by farmers every morning – there aren’t actually chickens cooped up in there!), live lobsters and flowers are just some of the things that you can get from a vending machine.
You might ask why Japan could ever need so many vending machines and whether they cause a huge pollution problem. The answer to the first one is ‘yes’ and the answer to the second is ‘surprisingly, no’. Having been to Japan twice now in humid summer, I can safely say that the vending machines are without doubt the most enticing things you will see on a hot day. There are also recycling bins inside the vending machines so, when you’re about to go buy a new drink, you can drop your last one inside! Some of the weirdest drinks I can recall buying from a vending machine are a Dragonball Z ‘soda’, which resembled green nuclear waste but was still delicious, and orange jelly in a bottle.
Rather than show you a static picture of a vending machine, here is a very entertaining video of one guy’s adventure around Tokyo and his encounters with many a vending machine.
Recipe of the Week: Tempura
You know, it’s pretty shocking I haven’t written about tempura yet given how it’s my favourite Japanese dish! Simply put, tempura are deep fried vegetables or meat/seafood and are an excellent snack or full meal if you eat enough. For the sake of this blog, I’ll give you a recipe for shrimp tempura, although you can use more or less anything in its place and it will still taste great.
- 12 large shrimp
- 1 egg
- 8oz flour
- 250ml ice water
- Vegetable oil for frying