Thoughts, observations, ramblings..

Sunday, January 25, 2009


It has been a long time since I wrote anything on this blog. Reading it, reading about my past life, only five months after returning to the UK I get this slightly sicky feeling in my stomach - it's homesickness, homesickness for Japan ! It's a nostalgia, a craving I never felt so acutely over there for my own country, my own culture. On my lunch breaks I walk to the Japan Centre, wander the aisles, letting the familiar wash over me. I see two Japanese ladies chatting away by the bento boxes, I sidle over, pretend to be admiring a teapot and crane to listen. I ask random questions to the shop staff, "Ano, kuki cha ga arimasu ka?" just to speak some Japanese.. I notice other gaijin piling their baskets with miso, mochi, natto..

I realise that Japan is a large part of my life now, after only three years. I lived six crazy years in France and I barely think about it, apart from to think about the friends I made out there.. but Japan has a powerful hold over me. The pull that it had from afar, the chilvalry of its samurai heroes, the fabulous animations, the clean tastes of its food, the exoticism, got me over there in the first place. The reality of life in Japan was very different of course - how could it ever replicate my fantasies - but the country was so different, so complex, its people so warm and welcoming, I could not fail to come away profoundly changed.

A lot has happened since I last wrote in this blog, I got married to another Japanophile.. and we moved back to England and are now living another life in South London.

Since I came back to England I have been doing far too much working and far too little reading, filmwatching and musing.. By the end of each week my body is aching and my brain is frazzled. I think I shall continue to tap away into another blog.. Say goodbye to Japan and reflect upon my life in my 'home country' after over eight years away.. It's good for the soul.. I hope to post a link soon..



Sunday, May 20, 2007

I love the rain in Asia

A swollen river in Osaka, rain scoring a patchwork of patterns, textures on the surface. I cycle past, my umbrella in one hand, the other balancing the handlebars. Rain spatters off one waterproofed arm and seeps through my jeans into my thighs. I wait for the lights to turn and look across the river at a line of worker ants crossing a bridge, sheltered from the downpour by steel and glass. I smile and lift my face to the sky, feel the wind and rain on my face. Rivers of water are running under my wheels. Cars splash noisily past, pedestrians are joining me now on the bridge, clutching umbrellas, hugging their jackets closer. The green man flashes, I wobble off down ramp and over road and pavement, rain pricking at my face.

Now I sit in the office, hear the water gurgle outside, my jeans cold and clammy on my skin. I sip hot tea, think of sheeting rain on a longtail boat, rolling waves, my backpack precarious on the bow as the angry sea tips us in all directions. I’m wearing a plastic bag over my torso, my arms are pushed through holes in the sides. I’m laughing hysterically as the sea and the sky drench us by turns. I savour the fresh rainwater as it cleanses my lips, my eyes, my face of salt. We’re nearing the bay now, I can see a boatman through a fringe of rain standing on the jetty, ready to moor us to land. We emerge bright-eyed and bedraggled off the boat, toppling to shore with our bags. Relief, a celebration, sitting dripping onto plastic seats, with curry and a beer.

In Cambodia, the roads are orange rivers. We step from the taxi ankle-deep into cruising water. Broken red bricks and concrete slabs line the roadsides. Plastic sheeting, metals rods, the detritus of builders serve as camber. We stumble in our sandals through this hazardous sea.

I think of Little India in Bangkok. Rain sheets off awnings, poles and cords become molten glass.. the noise is deafening. Rafts of water carry leaves, litter, dust and rocks down storm drains with a roar. Cockroaches are swarming out of the drains, scuttling in all directions to escape the rising waters. I look on in wonder.

In Vietnam, holed up in a hotel room, our eyes pressed to a distorted windowpane, we’re at sea as thunder booms around the bay.

Rain in the jungle. The boom of the storm, the relentless sound of water hitting the grass roof, the snapping of branches, heavy thuds as coconuts fall to earth. Gradually the roar subsides and a pitter-patter of rain falls gently from the forest canopy. The musty smell of dust, moulding leaves and insects is in my nostrils, liberated from the roof above my bed. Leaves float lazily down from the eaves onto my mosquito net. I open the shutters, peer at the forest outside, green, vibrant, quenched. Leaves are nodding, bowing and springing with fat rolling drops of rain from the branches above.

At a festival in Kyushu, we’re stumbling drunk in the dark. Sleeping bags are wrapped around our necks like stoles, with only one torch to light our way through a mire of mud, mixed to a slippery paste by the last day’s constant rainstorm and the cars who’ve passed this way. Rain is pouring, we’re in purgatory, ankle-deep in black mud, holding onto car fenders and each other for balance - one of us squeals and falls back first into the mire. The umbrella is up-ended, we lose a sleeping bag as we scramble to pull him up.. doubled-up in laughter as he writhes like a startled beetle. We slide on, now heedless to the water and squelching mud beneath – shelter, shelter from the relentless rain and sucking mud!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dolphin steak, anyone?

As Monday 12th February was a ‘Substitute Holiday’ for the whole of Japan, I was able to escape Osaka for the weekend and get into the wilds of Totsukawa in southern Nara. After an hour and a half train ride, my friend picked us up for the two hour car ride through wiggly roads to her home in the mountains.

Despite forecasts of heavy rain, it was a warm and sunny spring-like weekend. We walked the mountains by day and bathed in the river onsen of Kawa-yu by night.

One afternoon we drove down to Hongu in Wakayama prefecture, walking in the forests and hills before dark.

Heading to an onsen on the way back we stopped off at a small supermarket on the mountain road to stock up on chocolate and drinks.. I was browsing the fish section, which was varied, despite the remote location of the shop, when I saw the tell-tale deep red bloody flesh of what I thought must be kujira or whale.

Looking closer, I could see that the skin attached to the fish was like a silvery-blue plastic rind.

“Er, that’s not whale..” said my friend, “That's iruka, dolphin”. I was stunned. The Japanese hunt and eat dolphin ? For 464 yen, we could a slice of arguably one of the most intelligent animals in the world.

On my return to Osaka, the Japanese I spoke to about the dolphin meat were genuinely shocked and surprised. Eating dolphin meat doesn't seem to be a speciality, at least not in the Kansai. It's decreased in popularity since dolphin meat is reported to have dangerously high levels of mercury, cadmium and pesticides such as DDT.

Searching on the web this week, I found a few articles on the BBC website about the traditional hunting and killing of around 3,000 dolphins each year at Taiji in Wakayama prefecture, a seaside resort just a short drive from Hongu.

Ric O'Barry, an American marine mammal specialist with One Voice tells the BBC's Paul Kenyon about the dolphin killing which takes place between October and March every year :

"The fishermen surround a pod of dolphins at sea. They lower metal poles into the water and bang them with hammers.

The clattering noise carries through the water, and confuses the dolphins' sonar. In their panic, the dolphins are driven into shallow water. Then the killing begins.

There is little finesse about it. The water runs red, as the fishermen use knives and ropes to capture them and hoist their thrashing bodies onto the quayside.

From there, they are dragged, many still alive, to the slaughter house, chunks of flesh ripping from them onto the tarmac."

Paul Kenyon looks deeper into the 'cultural gulf' between Japan and the Western world :

".. the dolphin hunters surprised me. They were not the callous animal rights abusers I had been led to expect. They were dignified and philosophical about their trade. They were also confused. Dolphins to them are just big fish to be treated like any other. "You'd think nothing of slicing off a tuna's head while it was alive, so why the outcry over dolphins?" one of them said. That night, in the dolphin bar, I showed them a BBC film about the latest research on dolphin intelligence. I wanted to understand the cultural gulf dividing Japan and the rest of the world. They sat in silence, watching bottle-nose dolphins master up to 60 words of sign language and demonstrate some pretty mind-blowing problem-solving skills. They were not impressed. "They're just like dogs," said one. "You could teach dogs the same tricks; it doesn't mean they're clever."

Read the whole BBC article here.

Save the Taiji Dolphin Campaign's website claims that the aquarium industry is encouraging the killing of dolphins by paying huge amounts of money for live dolphins :

"the international aquarium industry subsidizes these massacres by paying upwards of US$45,000 for prime live specimens for aquariums, dolphin-shows and swim-with-dolphins programs. A dead dolphin sells for about US$600 on the market for meat."

BBC - Dining with the Dolphin Hunters
Japan Times interview with Ric O'Barry, campaigner with One Voice
Save Taiji Dolphins Campaign
One Voice

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Wisdom food

I had my wisdom teeth out on Valentine’s Day. I made my first visit to a Japanese dentist and before you could say ‘double extraction’ he’d whipped them out. All my usual feelings of fear and helplessness when visiting the dentist were accentuated by the language barrier, for although the dentist spoke near-perfect English his two female dental assistants didn’t speak a word. So, he’d leave me alone with these two impossibly beautiful, clinical girls who didn’t look a day over 16 to poke and prod and drill into my teeth and the fear would come like a freezing tide from my feet to my head. I must admit I’d watched Marathon Man only the week before and had horrific visions of dental torture in the forefront of my mind. Anyway, they’re out now and it wasn’t so bad really.

So I can’t chew any food, which leaves me reduced to the prospect of baby food-like stuff to eat for the next week until my gums are healed. And actually, I’ve been discovering lots of yummy ways to eat mush.

Here are a few of my faves from the last few days, these recipes are simple to make, healthy and great anytime:

Breakfast and snack meals

Tofu soymilk graintastic breakfast drink

Cook some quinoa and amaranth in a pot of boiling water until the tails of the quinoa have unfurled themselves and the amaranth looks like little shiny pearls.

Drain the grains and add to a blender. Add some silken tofu (‘nama tofu’ in Japan), soymilk and a dollop of maple syrup.

Whizz together and enjoy.

Grainy Banana milkshake

Cook some quinoa in a pot of boiling water until the tails of the quinoa have unfurled themselves.

Strain and add to blender with some milk and a banana.

Add honey or maple syrup to taste (The banana is quite sweet so you may not need a sweetener at all).

Blend and pour into a glass. I love this one !

- Benefits of quinoa : high protein content, high in calcium, good source of iron, phosphorous, B vitamins and vitamin E.

- Benefits of amaranth : high in protein, fibre, amino acids, vitamin C and calcium.


Flaked salmon on a bed of spinach with mashed potatoes

Cook and mash the potatoes, adding a little salt, olive oil and milk.

Place salmon en papillote in some aluminium foil with a sliver of butter. Place in oven or under the grill for 15 – 20 minutes.

Wash spinach and place in a pot with a little boiling water. Let it cook lightly, until soft, then add to a blender with a drop of sesame oil, a little soy sauce, a crushed garlic clove and some sesame seeds. Blend the mixture until it's a shining green paste.

Make a bed of mashed potato, top with the emerald paste and flake salmon on top.

This is fantastic !

- Spinach builds the blood and stops bleeding, quenches thirst, it is “rich iron and chlorophyll content (which) builds blood” (Healing with whole foods, Paul Pitchford).

Good old English leek and potato soup

Chop an onion. Chop leeks and potatoes into chunks. Cook the onions in a little olive oil until translucent, lower heat, add leeks and potatoes, cover for a few minutes for the vegetables to sweat it out in the pot. Add some vegetable stock, salt and pepper, a bayleaf and some crushed garlic along with lots of water. Cook for 45 minutes until its all lovely and mushy. Blend together, allow to cool and little and eat !

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Natto tales

I just love natto - those stinky, gooey, stringy fermented soybeans traditionally eaten for breakfast in Japan. Natto on toast, natto spaghetti, natto brown rice, natto omelette.. I could eat natto every day and not get fed up of the stuff. Natto is a great source of protein and vitamin B2, so it's great for vegetarians, plus it has high levels of vitamin K2 which can combat osteoporosis, and vitamin E which can slow the ageing process. The stickiness of natto, the nattokinase is an enzyme which can prevent bloodclotting. I'm sure that these health benefits add to its addictive properties.

Speaking to a fellow natto-addict last week we remarked that there seemed to have been a run on the natto at our local Nara and Osaka supermarkets. The natto section was bare, save for a lone pack of pre-chopped spreadable beans (blergh). What's going on we cried? Has there been a soybean blight? Is natto seasonal?

I'd forgotten all about the natto shortage until I overheard an animated natto conversation in the staffroom this week. It was explained to me that a hugely popular health show on TV had claimed that eating natto morning and night helped shed the pounds and people had rushed out to stock up on the stuff. The show later had to take back its claims as it seems they weren't strictly, you know, 'scientifically' true. Hilarious ! One teacher was fuming that he had stockpiled so much natto that he couldn't fit anything else in his fridge.

The BBC reports that the incident has led to a row in the national media about the show.

The whole incident highlights the sad fact that obsessions with health are often linked to being slim as opposed to being truly healthy.

Sarah's natto brown rice salad

Try this recipe if you want to try natto but the smell puts you off. I guarantee that even self-confessed natto haters have enjoyed this ! I think the natto makes the rice salad moist and yummy and more-ish.

1. First of all put a cupful of brown rice on to cook
2. Put the natto into a small bowl. Now stir the natto vigorously with a chopstick. The Japanese recommend you stir* at last 100 times, but I don't think that's necessary. Just make sure the natto has woken up !
3. Add a little soy sauce and mustard to the natto. These are usually provided in the pack.
4. Grate a carrot
5. Quarter some cherry tomatoes
6. Cut half a cucumber into smallish chunks
7. When the rice has cooked just add the carrots, tomatoes and cucumber and natto to the rice, giving it a good stir
8. Pour the mixture into a small bowl.
9. Top with sesame seeds, nori and squeezed lemon juice.
10. Enjoy.

(*The more you stir the stringier it gets, but the stringier it gets the more healthy it is..)

Of course you can experiment with this recipe, I especially like spinach and mushrooms added to this if you have the time..

Natto nuts on the web:

The Natto Project
Natto for Everybody

Fighting fire with fire

Report described as 'wonderful' by PM urges Japanese schools to consider reintroducing corporal punishment in order to tackle bullying.. Other measures discussed include increasing class hours and switching the start of the school term from April to September.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Contribute to 'the biggest blog in history'

Get details of your daily life into the British Museum!

'History Matters' are running a campaign to create the 'biggest blog in history' for the benefit of future historians. They're calling for UK residents or UK citizens living overseas to write a 650 word diary entry on Tuesday 17th October.

As for what you write about.. the more mundane the better. They want to get a snapshot of what people in the UK were eating, watching, listening to and thinking about on this day in history.

Check out the details below, you can sign up and send your contribution to the History Matters website here

" 'One Day in History'

The History Matters campaign has designated October 17 a day for the public to make historic. We have chosen 'an ordinary' weekday of no particular significance to ask you to write a one day on-line diary.

We want as many people as possible - tens of thousands of UK residents - to record a 'blog' diary of this one day to be by the British Library and others as a record of our national life.

And we want to urge people to reflect in their diaries how history itself impacted on them - whether it be simply commuting through an historic environment, or how business history influenced their decision-making, or merely that they looked up some old sports statistics or listened to some pop music from the 1960s. It could be anything.

'Ordinary' day

October 17 has been chosen deliberately as 'an ordinary' weekday of no particular significance. We want to record the mundane and ordinary lives of citizens and by doing something contributing valuable to the historic record. Material that could be used by historians and researchers for time to come.

Mass Observation

The idea is inspired by similar experiments by Mass Observation, the social history resource, founded in 1937, and which still exists today - based at the University of Sussex.


From the 17 October until 1 November it will be possible to add your 'One Day in History' diary on this website.

To do so you will have to fill out a simple form. We will ask you to write your diary on the form. This can be from one word up to 650 words (about the size of one page of A4). After you have added your diary we will also ask you to fill in a few key words describing what you have written. This could be words like town names, your name, key facts. This enables the diaries to be more searchable so that you should be able to find your diary easily afterwards.

We will also ask you for your name and you e-mail address. Your name will be displayed but NOT your e-mail address. The reason for asking for your e-mail address is to ensure we can contact individuals where there may have been a problem in the uploading process. Again we assure this will be not be available to the general public.

The archive thereby created will be held by the British Library, Mass Observation, the National Trust and others. "

Friday, June 30, 2006

Kawaii ! Mouse lemur discovered in Madagascar

Full story here