Friday, December 29, 2006

Friday Flash

I Get Knocked Down But I Get Up Again..
Around this time of year many people and businesses buy daruma.These are traditional lucky charms.Named after the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, the daruma are red,hollow,round and usually made of papier mache.They lack arms and legs and eyes as it is claimed he lost the use of them during meditation.
After making a personal or business resolution at New Years one of the eyes is painted.Should the aim be achieved during the year such as a sales goal then the second eye is painted.Many politicians at the beginning of their campaigns buy a doll,paint in a eye and if they win their election paint in the other eye as part of their election victory celebrations.
At the end of the year the old daruma are discarded and burnt.They can be purchased at shrines,markets and stores at various prices and sizes.
The daruma being round and hollow are also known as "tumbler dolls" due to their self righting design.
In class the other day some of the students talked of a proverb associated with the daruma."Nana korobi yaoki" which translates roughly as "if you fall down seven times get up eight" a reference to their design but also to their being a symbol for determination and resilience.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Japanese Christmas Cake...

Still seems surreal working on a Christmas Day.Not a statutory holiday in Japan.
Business as usual.
The train to work still stuffed with salarymen donning thick coats to keep out the cold.Surly schoolboys scowling at their cellphones.Typical Monday ride to work really.No seasonal greetings or compliments of the season.No excitement or anticipation one associates with Christmas morning.No frantic parents.No kids trying out their new bicycles or gifts.

Not till I saw my colleagues at work was it acknowledged that it was Christmas Day not just another work day.
Nor was it a particularly busy day either.I had prepared two special Christmas lessons.Not a great turnout.Two students arrived for the first lesson then left.So much for cultural exchange.

In years to come I think my memories of Christmas 2006 will be rather strange.First I'll remember it was the day that James Brown "the Godfather of Soul" died.Secondly,I will recall it as the day 4 Japanese death row inmates were hanged.
Business as usual....

Friday, December 22, 2006

Friday Flash

Strawberry Yields are Heaven

Its a truism the world over.Once something becomes popular the price goes up.If theres a demand for it.. milk it.At the risk of mixing metaphors oil is a prime example of a cash cow.
Strawberries are another.The week before Christmas their price hurtles into the stratosphere like a Space shuttle launch.From a moderate 250 yen per punnet ( or "chip" as some of my North American colleagues call the plastic containers) the same punnet is today, Friday 22 December, being sold for 500 yen.
Of course one has to buy them.Its not Christmas in Japan unless there are strawberries and whipped cream atop a sponge cake which is your typical Japanese Chrissy cake.No spicy,moist cake laden with raisins and dried fruit, swollen with brandy and covered with two layers of almond icing.
No.In Japan its a sponge cake topped with a saccharin sugar Santa figure drowning in a sea of cream and strawberries masquerading as Christmas cake.
Nor will 500 yen necessairly buy you the best strawberries available.I've seen top of the range strawberries go for nearly 800 yen a punnet.With such a hefty price tag one gets the equivalent of a Rolls Royce of the strawberry world.
They are perfect.And huge.No more than eight to a punnet.Without a blemish.Not a coy blushing red but glowing red.Almost as if they too were embarrassed as to the price.
I cant vouch for the taste as Ive never eaten one.Just admired.Sighed.Moved to the other aisle and picked up my smaller punier punnet.

Finally Im not sure if I'll blog this Monday.Its not only a working day but also Christmas Day so I'll be otherwise engaged.
To all and anyone who reads these entries thank you and I wish you a Happy Christmas and good 2007.Remember that any comments are always of food and money will also receive a favourable response..

Monday, December 18, 2006

Its That Time of Year Again...

Christmas in Nagoya seems to come around earlier and faster each year.Its as if the retailers have some sort of "mission creep " at work.It appears to be starting in early November and slowly but surely rolling back into late October.As the carol goes "I wish it could be Christmas every day of the year " may be a reality in the not too distant future.
Blinded by the illuminations,exhausted from standing in long lines everywhere at this time of year.Christmas Eve in particular and the whole Christmas season is more a couple focused event here rather than a family oriented one.

Like most people in Japan I'll be working next Monday. 25th December.Its not a public holiday.Business as usual....
Another Two Quick Book Reviews.
The Best American Short Stories 2006.Selected by Ann Prachett.Houghton Mifflin Company.356pages.
These twenty short stories arent as the editor Ann Prachett says in her intro "actually a volume of the best stories in America.These are just the stories that I like best and I am full of prejudice and strong opinions".
And that in a nutshell is the problem.If you dont find your tastes the same as those of the annual guest editor you can be disappointed.Somewhat.I felt a similar sense after finishing Michael Chabons 2005 edition.And this despite this volume featuring such names as Tobias Wolff,Thomas McGuane and Alice Munro.
Nothing particularly memorable.No vivid images.Nothing you want to store away and plagarize later, dazzling your friends.
One advantage is that each year a new editor is chosen so i might luck out.And its still a good way to pass the daily 45 minute train trip by immersing oneself in reading even if your expectations havent been met.Theres always next year.

I Know You Got Soul by Jeremy Clarkson.Penguin Books.233pages.

I knew Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear a BBC motoring program.His breezy,light style as a TV presenter translates well to print.Subtitled "Machines with That Certain Something" the book is divided into short chapters devoted to a machine that he considers has a soul and are more than mere collections of wires and metal.He covers trains,planes and automobiles.He also includes the AK47 Theres a chapter on battleships with special mention of the Japanese battleship Yamato which he writes
was the most beautiful of them all.A mildly diverting book that can be read quickly.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Friday Flash

A couple of the bentos or lunchboxes available from the local Yamanaka Department store.Each contains a variety of food,tastes,textures and colours.

The black tray bento had been reduced to 350yen while the red plastic one sporting a wooden design was a reasonable 500yen.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Oseibo..Gift Giving

Oseibo or the customary gift exchange to relatives,colleagues,acquaintances and others takes place during December in Japan.
Gifts are given to thank them for their help during the year.They are also given in mid-summer or ochugen.
One newspaper article (The Daily Yomiuri Thursday December 7 pg 15) describes the gifts as "an embodiment of social obligations".Gift giving in Japan is often obligatory rather than being a sign of any personal connection between people.An example would be "giri-choco" whereby females workers feel obliged to give chocolate to male co-workers and bosses to celebrate St Valentines Day.

There is a certain amount of uniformity regarding the whole gift-giving business.Oseibo are today usually bought from department stores or shopping centres.One will often get gifts through the mail or send them via couriers.The twice yearly gift giving rituals generate a lot of money for the regional and national economies of Japan.

Another feature is the fact that much value is placed on the actual wrapping paper one uses for the gift.Talking about oseibo in class today some of the students agreed and rated a present wrapped in the local Matsuzakaya Department Store paper very highly.

There is also a standard selection of gift items.One must take into account such factors as the receivers age,sex,social position and what the relationship is.Again the students came up with a list of "safe gifts" similiar to the one in the newspaper article.These safe gifts include household items that can be used by everyone for example liquor,sake,vegetable oil,coffee and drink sets.

Finally gift-giving also highlights the importance of obligation-based relationships in Japan or ningen kankei.Japanese people realise that they owe much to others in their every day dealings with others.One way of showing their gratitude and recognition of this debt to others is by exchanging gifts.Put simplistically the value of the gift given reflects the value that you put on that relationship and person.Obvivously then a 3,000 yen coffee set from a local shopping centre sends a different message about the relationship than a 10,000 yen imported wine and cheese collection from an upmarket central city department store.
The photo above shows a commonly sold example of oseibo, a boxed set of various cans of fruit juice.

Two Short Book Reviews

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster.304pages.Faber and Faber.
I found this a more accessible book than one of his other novels The New York Triology which I read earlier in the year.Basically a story of relationships,family and second chances set in Brooklyn during 2000 and ending a few hours before the events of September 11,2001.
I liked the way chance encounters and new characters moved the story on even if some of them such as Harry the bookseller were a bit too over the top and unrealistic to be believable.While I didnt find myself " not wanting it to end" as the blurb on the cover suggests I did find it entertaining.Certainly not memorable but readable.

The Geckos Foot by Peter Forbes.236 pages.Harper Perennial.
Subtitled "How scientists are taking a leaf from Natures Book" this is an account of the fields of bio-inspiration and nano-technology.Bio-inspiration is a relatively new field of science about 15 years old.It describes how scientists are looking at Nature,its mechanisms and principles such as space,shape and patterns to discover and create new products.
The author,Peter Forbes takes a few well known examples to illustrate his point including among others the field of self cleaning surfaces derived from the lotus leaf and Velcro.
The Geckos Foot of the title concerns various studies being done into adhesion and sticky/non sticky surfaces based on the structure and features of gecko feet.
For a non-scientist like myself Forbes explains such things as phages,photonic crystals and Moores Law in simple laypersons language.He also provides some easy practical kitchen table experiments one can conduct to further illustrate the concepts and principles he describes.
Despite the subject its not a difficult book to read or digest thanks to the authors enthusiastic,easy to understand style.I picked up a few new words such as tensegrity and cullet which I'll try to slip into future conversations...

Friday, December 08, 2006

Friday Flash

A selection of shots from my recent trip to Italy.It was autumn,a bit rainy and cold in Florence but spent a sunny afternoon in Rome with the hordes of other tourists.

Lots of these Smart cars were in Florence,navigating the narrow cobble-stoned lanes.

Wash day in Florence.

A well-cared for Bambina parked in Rome.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Paper Mache Workshop

One of the reasons for visiting Florence, apart from having a vacation, was to take part in a paper mache workshop.One week.Monday to Friday.Thirty hours about four or five hours a day.

Start with one kilo of clay.Measure your facial features with callipers e.g distance from chin to forehead,nose,mouth etc and mark on the clay.Then start to shape a mask.It seems the only limit is ones imagination and ensuring the shapes and angles can be removed from a mould without breaking.

After finishing the mask cover it with plaster of paris.This provides the negative mould for the paper mache mask.

After the plaster has dried remove the clay from the cavity and clean it.Then using thin construction paper and pva glue line the cavity with one layer of paper.After the first layer then continue to paper the cavity with three more layers of thicker grade paper.

Once the final three paper layers have dried carefully remove the mask from the plaster mould.

Finally decorate the mask using acrylic and oil paints and seal it with a mix of tar and wax which both seals and "ages" the mask.We,myself and five far more artistic women on the course, also were taught how to use gold and silver foil on the masks but as I was running out of time I opted not to put any on my mask.
My mask is obvivously pretty simple and I wouldnt call myself artistic but I learned some interesting techniques and methods to attempt something more elaborate in the future.
The course was run by a very patient, friendly Alice Dessi in her basement art studio and I'd recommend it if you are in any way interested in paper mache.