Sunday, June 30, 2024

Japanese Mortar and Pestle Suribachi & Surikogi

Japanese Mortar and Pestle Suribachi and Surikogi すり鉢とすりこ木

Suribachi mortar with sansho wood surikogi pestle.
Suribachi mortar with sansho wood surikogi pestle

Some typical Japanese dishes need traditional Japanese kitchen tools to get them right or to make them at all. The suribachi / surikogi (Japanese mortar and pestle) combination is one such essential tool.

Just the other night, my wife and I prepared hourensou no goma-ae (spinach dressed in black sesame) and maguro no yamakake (Tuna sashimi topped with mashed Japanese Mountain Yam). Both are very typical Japanese appetizers or side dishes, both go very well with sake.

Further down this text, you can see images of our use of the suribachi and surikogi preparing said dishes. Just as one possible example of the many uses of the Japanese mortar and pestle.

Suribachi with its typical comb pattern.
Suribachi with its typical comb pattern

Suribachi History

The combination of mortar and pestle is one of the oldest kitchen tools in any culture, dating back to the stone age. Hard grain for example could be much more easily cooked or baked after being ground in a mortar. Coarse rock salt was ground for convenient use in the kitchen, even meat went through the mortar and pestle treatment to make it easier digestible.

Those mortars and pestles were typically made of stone, a tradition carried on up to today. Stone mortars and pestles are still frequently in use for grinding spices, the expensive ones made of Italian marble.

As so often, however, the tradition in Japan is a bit different. Mortars and pestles were certainly in use in ancient Japan but in Heian times (794 - 1185), ceramic mortars arrived from China.

Those were much easier to handle than stone mortars and the Japanese pottery kilns soon got in on the business, especially the Bizen kilns in what is now Okayama Prefecture.

It's said that the Bizen kiln folks invented the comb stroke patterns inside the Japanese mortar. Rather than leave the mortar's grinding surface flat or grainy, they drew a well thought-out pattern with a metal comb before sending the pottery into the oven, greatly enhancing the grinding capacities of the mortars.

Those patterns / their variations and improvements over time still set Japanese mortars apart from any other mortars today.

There was one big problem with those patterns ingrained into the mortars, though. Pestles made of stone would quickly destroy that preciously combed surface inside the mortars.

Sansho wood surikogi.
Sansho wood surikogi

The Surikogi

Thus, wooden pestles were introduced. The wood for those pestles had to be hard enough to do even the toughest grinding job, the wood had to be resistant to all the acids released in grinding vegetables, the wood needed a resistance against mold.

After what must have been many experiments, the old masters found out that the wood of the sansho tree, the Japanese Mountain Pepper tree, was the perfect wood for the job. Extremely resilient but at the same time giving off a slight fragrance even after long-term use. A welcome flavor to any dish on the table.

Grinding black sesame in a suribachi.
Grinding black sesame in a suribachi

Uses Past and Present

Common folks used the suribachi on a daily basis. Miso soup has been a staple of Japanese cuisine for hundreds of years and the boiled soy beans making up the miso (soy bean paste) used to be available on the markets only in the form of soft-boiled beans. Thus, every household had to have a large mortar and pestle to turn those boiled soy beans into the paste needed to make a good miso soup. Suribachi were also used for processing all that other food needing a good grind. The mortar and pestle at the house did the job the electrical food processor would take on in the 1960s.

Miso paste became available factory-made at the beginning of the 1900s, other ready-made foods followed post World War II.

In a diminished but more specified capacity, the suribachi stayed on in Japanese household kitchens. Tororo, mashed yama imo (Japanese Mountain Yam), essential as a topping for many udon noodle dishes but also frequently used on top of tuna sashimi, can only produced with a traditional Suribachi grinder. In Japanese, the ground yama imo is called tororo when referring to the soft mush as such, it's called yamakake upon being placed on top of food.

Sansho peels, the edible parts of the sansho (Japanese Mountain Pepper) fruits frequently used as a spice, need to be ground in a traditional mortar for maximum effect.

Traditional families never gave up on the use of their Suribachi, younger generations re-discovered the suribachi / surikogi combination as essential tools in modern gourmet cooking. The sansho wood surikogi still being the favorite today.

Preparing hourensou no goma-ae in a suribachi.
Preparing hourensou no goma-ae in a suribachi

Suribachi Sizes

Suribachi come in many different sizes, their use depending on the amount of spices / foods to be ground.

Suribachi sizes are typically measured by the diameter of their upper rim. The Chinese 寸 (sun) indicating an old Chinese inch (about 32 mm) used to be the standard measurement. Today, you often see suribachi sizes advertised in号 (go). 号 (go) however simply means "number" like in suribachi 6号, meaning Number 6 size which would usually be about 19 cm.

Different Japanese manufacturers however slightly vary in their use of those numbers, more or less based on the measurements in 寸 (sun).
Fortunately, many if not most manufacturers today also use the metric system.

In any case, the difference from one size to the next larger one is usually about 3 cm.

For grinding spices, a rather small suribachi is best, about 10 cm in rim width. For two person-dishes, a size of 18 or 21 cm may the most convenient, larger families / parties of course needing larger Suribachi.

Grinding Japanese Mountain Yam in a Suribachi.
Grinding Japanese Mountain Yam in a Suribachi

Surikogi Sizes

Generally, the surikogi should be a bit longer than the rim diameter of the Suribachi. About one third longer, some sources say. But that's not a strict rule. The mortal and pestle should simply fit comfortably when working with the tools.

Refining the ground yam with a surikogi.
Refining the ground yam with a surikogi

Where to Find

Well-stocked Japanese department stores usually offer a number of suribachi / surikogi combinations. It's of course more of an adventure to travel to the traditional kilns deep in the countryside of western Japan and to an old-fashioned lumber workshop nearby with a master cutting the surikogi by hand.

You can also order your suribachi and surikogi right from your home from Goods From Japan.

Buy Japanese Kitchen Utensils

Goods from Japan offers a variety of Japanese foods and kitchen utensils.

Suribachi & Surikogi Set

Buy ground sansho pepper from S&B

Buy sansho rinds from Mascot

Purchase a range of Japanese foodstuffs and drinks from GoodsFromJapan.

A dish of tuna topped with ground Japanese yam, spinach dressed in black sesame and a cup of sake.
A dish of tuna topped with ground Japanese yam, spinach dressed in black sesame and a cup of sake

Related

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Yatsuhiro & Tatami

Yuzu Kosho Spice from Kyushu

by Johannes Schonherr

© GoodsFromJapan.com

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Satsuma Rebellion Illustrated Japanese History

Japan Book Review: Satsuma Rebellion Illustrated Japanese History - The Last Stand of the Samurai

Satsuma Rebellion Illustrated Japanese History - The Last Stand of the Samurai

by Sean Michael Wilson

ISBN: 978-1-62317-167-4
North Atlantic Books, 2018
104pp; paperback

Satsuma Rebellion Illustrated Japanese History.
Satsuma Rebellion Illustrated Japanese History

Two of the most momentous events in Japanese history were the ending of the 265-year rule of the Tokugawa regime at the end of the Edo Period and the subsequent beginning of the Meiji Restoration in 1868. These events, of course, did not happen smoothly.

A major incident of this time was called the Satsuma Rebellion which occurred when a group of disaffected ex-samurai, who had lost power and influence at the start of the Meiji Restoration, started to rise up. In all, some two million samurai had been downgraded and were struggling while attempting to join the ranks of everyday businessmen and farmers.

The Satsuma Rebellion was the most famous of the more than 30 rebellions that the new government had to quash. Saigo Takamori, a noted and influential samurai in the Edo Period, assembled a group of these former samurai to take on the new government. Saigo had fallen out of favor with the new government when his plan to invade and conquer Korea was rejected.

While the basic story is well-known - not just by Japanese school students who are still taught this history but by people with more than a passing knowledge of Japanese history - readers of this graphic novel will deepen their knowledge of the important people and events of this pivotal period of time. 

For example, Emperor Komei's "Expel the Barbarians" order led to many deaths including, possibly, his own. His passing, under suspicious circumstances, led immediately to his 14-year-old son, Emperor Meiji, ascending the throne.

There are actually a number of interesting, tangential characters in the book such as: Edward and Henry Schnell, Dutch-German brothers who were arms dealers and brought two of the first Gatling guns to Japan; Thomas Glover, a Scot who brought the first steam locomotive to Japan and who established companies that later became Mitsubishi and Kirin; and British merchant Charles Richardson whose rudeness towards powerful Japanese caused a major political crisis.

Despite being outnumbered six to one by government forces, and despite being on the losing end of the battle, Saigo is today greatly revered by many Japanese. There is a famous bronze statue of Saigo in Tokyo's Ueno Park. It has been standing there since 1898.

As with "Black Ships," Wilson's first Japan-related graphic novel, the art work in this book (done by Akiko Shimojima) is sufficient but not spectacular. There are no editing gaffs as seen in the first book.

If graphic novels pique readers' interest and inspire them to do more research on the main subject, then probably they are well-written. This book will do those things for many readers.

Review by Marshall Hughes.

Buy this book from Amazon USA | UK | Japan

Looking to buy Japanese things directly from Japan? GoodsFromJapan is here to help.

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Monday, April 29, 2024

Black Ships Illustrated Japanese History

Japan Book Review: Black Ships Illustrated Japanese History - The Americans Arrive

Black Ships Illustrated Japanese History - The Americans Arrive

by Sean Michael Wilson

ISBN: 978-1-62317-091-2
North Atlantic Books, 2017
105pp; paperback

Black Ships Illustrated Japanese History review.
Black Ships Illustrated Japanese History - The Americans Arrive

Most people even vaguely familiar with Japanese history will recognize the name of Commodore Matthew Perry, the American who is usually credited with the opening of Japan to Western trading.

Those a little more familiar with Japanese history will know that there was trading going on before Perry and his four Black Ships showed up unannounced on May 17, 1853; specifically trading between the Dutch and the Japanese (limited to Dejima, an artificial island off of Nagasaki) and some trading with the Chinese.

Sean Michael Wilson has written this graphic novel filling in Japanophiles on more details about Perry and his trips (there were two) to Japan.

On Perry's first trip he came with a letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore demanding that the U.S. be allowed to trade with Japan. The Japanese were not amused.

Perry was a gruff, tough-minded man who would not take no for an answer. He demanded that he deliver Fillmore's letter in person to Japan's highest-ranking officials in person. The Japanese bakufu (leaders) were trying to get Perry to go to Dejima and trying to let a lesser person receive the letter. Perry said "no" and gave the Japanese a threat along the lines of "we'll be back and we'd better get what we want.

Perry and his four ships, called the Plymouth, Mississippi, Saratoga and Susquehanna, then sailed back to America, signing an agreement with the Ryukyu Kingdom (now Okinawa) on the way back. Perry returned earlier than originally planned, this time with 10 ships and more artillery. The early return was mostly because America garnered information that other countries such as Russia and England were closing in on Japan and trying to set up their own trade agreements.

Russia brought ships to Japan just after Perry left, but the ships were destroyed in the aftermath of an earthquake, leaving the Russians stranded. Still, they managed to score some trading agreements as Japan figured if they could trade with America they might as well trade with Russia.

Even readers who think they know a lot about Japan's opening to the West will likely glean new information into a fascinating and important part of Japanese and American history.

One slightly annoying part of the book is that there are at several places where multiple random question marks are inserted in the dialogues. Besides that, the book is interesting, informative and well-drawn, but at only 105 pages it is not exactly a graduate-class level on Perry and his impact on Japan's history. Of course, not many graphic novels are graduate-class level tomes. Black Ships can easily be read in one sitting.

Note: The book is the first of, to date, two graphic novels by Sean Michael Wilson about Japan. The second in the series is focused on the Satsuma Rebellion.

Review by Marshall Hughes.

Buy this book from Amazon USA | UK | Japan

Looking to buy Japanese things directly from Japan? GoodsFromJapan is here to help.

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Tokyo Outdoors

Monday, January 08, 2024

Tokyo Outdoors 45 Walks Hikes and Cycling Routes

Japan Book Review: Tokyo Outdoors

Tokyo Outdoors: 45 Walks, Hikes and Cycling Routes to Explore the City Like a Local

by Matthew Baxter

ISBN: 978-1-919-63155-4
108pp; paperback

Tokyo Outdoors: 45 Walks, Hikes and Cycling Routes to Explore the City Like a Local.

If you have a free day and don't feel like spending Tokyo money, and are in fact just looking for interesting walking, hiking or cycling routes in Tokyo, then this could be the book for you.

Most of the suggested 45 itineraries consist of two pages, with five or six places of interest to see on each route, a recommended café, a recommended meal spot, and finally helpful QR codes which lead to maps (usually written in Japanese) corresponding to each trip. All of the maps can be downloaded at once by using the QR code on page 4.

The book is the fourth in a series written by Matthew Baxter, following his Super Cheap Hokkaido, Super Cheap Japan and Super Cheap New Zealand versions. Each book is similar in size, length and style.

Before getting into the hikes and bikes, Baxter presents three pages of details about things like transportation to and from Tokyo's two international airports, how to use Tokyo trains (both public and private lines) and how and where to rent bicycles for those who want to cycle. While anybody living in Japan will already know much of this information, it is handy for foreign tourists.
The routes are mostly in Tokyo, but on occasion stretch to Nikko to the north and Yokohama to the south.

At the end of the book is a helpful three-page section highlighting the top three (sometimes five) hikes for cherry blossoms, autumn leaves, shopping, art and museums, history and culture, day hikes and long cycling rides. The Tamagawa River ride, one of the suggested cycling courses, is 45 kilometers (28 miles) in length, although "train lines run along much of the river, with dozens of stations to pick up or drop off your rental bicycles."

There is also a two-page "festival and events calendar," with a couple of suggestions for each month.

A few small downsides of the book would include that the photos, all black-and-white, are small not especially helpful, and that a few facts are omitted or open to question. For example, it is not mentioned that Odawara Castle is actually a 1960 rebuild of the original castle which was torn down by the Meiji government in 1872.

Ignore a few oversites, and you have a book with useful suggestions about how to spend some enjoyable free days in Tokyo and its surrounding areas, without splashing out much cash.

Review by Marshall Hughes.

Buy this book from Amazon USA | UK | Japan

Looking to buy Japanese things directly from Japan? GoodsFromJapan is here to help.

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Saturday, December 09, 2023

Aizuwakamatsu Hand Painted Candles

Aizuwakamatsu Hand Painted Candles 会津若松 絵ろうそく

Aizwakamatsu e - rousoku.
Aizwakamatsu e - rousoku

Japan's Tensho Period (1573-1592) was, like most of the 16th century in the country, a period of wars. Oda Nobunaga just started out to unify the country, bloodily battling scores of local rulers.

At the same time, the late 16th century was a period of cultural refinement. Not only at the Imperial Court but across the country. Local daimyo (feudal rulers) competed in the arts as much as on the battlefield. It was the time when the Tea Ceremony became codified, the time when the finer points of ikebana (flower arrangement) became strictly regimented, the time when kodo (the Way of Incense) became an art.

Gamo Ujisato (1556-1595) was a clan chief and warrior fighting for Oda Nobunaga and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi. For his exploits on the battlefields, Hideyoshi appointed him as the ruler of the Aizu domain, in the west of today's Fukushima Prefecture.

Newly residing in Tsuruga Castle in the center of the regional capital Aizuwakamatsu, Gamo finally found time to concentrate on the arts. Gamo had already been one of Japan's most celebrated masters of the Tea Ceremony but it was his decree demanding the production of hand-painted candles that still makes him a popular figure in Aizuwakamatsu today.

Supported by the daimyo succeeding Gamo, the tradition of producing hand-painted candles has been flourishing in Aizuwakatsu since the time of Gamo's decree.

Gamo ordered the production of candles with artfully designed floral motifs. The floral motifs developed as response to Gamo's order are still the motifs on Aizuwakamatsu painted candles today. They are the perhaps most popular souvenirs bought in the city by visitors in the know.

Tsuruga Castle, Aizuwakamatsu.
Tsuruga Castle, Aizuwakamatsu, Japan

Japanese Candles

Regardless of the elaborate paintings adorning them, even a cursory look at the candles themselves makes clear that they are very different from Western candles. Those are Wa-Rousoku, Japanese candles.

Japanese candles predate Gamo's order by centuries. They served as the main source of light at night even in poor households.

Western candles in the middle ages and beyond were typically made of tallow, hardened beef fat, a byproduct of the Western meat-eating culture.

In Japan, strict interpretations of Buddhist teachings prohibited the consumption of four-legged animals from the 700s on until the early 1870s.

That meant that tallow was unavailable.

Beekeeping was also not a popular feature in old Japan, thus bee wax candles were unknown.

Instead, the ever useful and very versatile lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) was employed. While the sap of the tree could be used to create beautiful lacquerware, the oil-rich fruits could be cooked and pressed, resulting in a hard, waxy residue known as mokuro (Japan Wax).

That mokuro wax is what traditional Japanese candles are made of.

Aizuwakamatsu hand-painted candles.
Aizuwakamatsu hand-painted candles

The Wick

The wicks of Western candles were commonly made of flax, later it became cotton.

Traditional Japanese wicks are a bit more complicated. They are made of washi paper infused with the pith of rushes (Juncaceae), a common plant in Japan. The wick is stabilized by silk floss.

Typically, the lower part of a Japanese candle is hollowed out, making it easy to place the candle on a nail or the thorn of a traditional candle holder.

It was those wa-rousoku candles Gamo Ujisato had in mind when he ordered candles to be painted.

Hoshiban candle store in Aizuwakamatsu.
Hoshiban candle store in Aizuwakamatsu

Hoshiban Candle Store

The historic Aizuwakatmatsu neighborhood of Nanukamachi, a short bus ride northwest of (reconstructed) Tsuruga Castle is still a center for the production of hand-painted (e-rousoku) candles.

The perhaps most famous of the candle stores located there, is the Hoshiban. It's situated in a historic building though the building is most likely not as old as the business itself.

The Hoshiban started out in 1772 as a direct supplier to the daimyo at Tsuruga Castle. Run continuously since then by the same family over many generations, the Hoshiban is the perhaps most authentic of all the candle shops in Aizuwakamatsu today.

Enter the store and take a look. There are the shelves with the traditional hand-painted candles. Intricately painted candles in many sizes ranging from very large beauties only the richest of Buddhist temples might want to use for special ceremonies to small candles intended for the purchase by the curious visitor.

Other shelves feature fantastically shaped creations, barely passing for a candle if there wouldn't stick a small wick out of them.

Aizuwakamatsu hand-painted candles.
Hand painted candles from Aizuwakamatsu

Those are made of paraffin, the sales lady quickly points out. Paraffin being the oil / coal based substance almost all modern candles are made of. Cheap stuff, invented in Germany in 1830 and put to industrial use in England in the 1850s. Paraffin is easy to work with, hence those strange creations on display.

But main and center are the e-rousoku, the hand-painted traditional wa-rousoku candles.

Take your time choosing. While you are at the store, the master of candle painting might just sit down close to the street view window, the place with the brightest light, and start painting candle by candle by hand.

Window of the Hoshiban candle store, Aizuwakamatsu. The master is busy painting candles right behind the window.
Window of the Hoshiban candle store, Aizuwakamatsu. The master is busy painting candles right behind the window

Buying Hoshiban Aizuwakamatsu Candles

Aizu, the area around Mount Bandai and Inawashiro Lake offers quite some stunning landscape. Aizuwakamatsu adds plenty of historical city settings.

Higashiyama Onsen, a 30-minute bus ride from central Aizuwakamatsu, is one of the most beautiful hot spring resorts in northern Japan.

While there, make sure to visit the Hoshiban candle shop!

Alternatively, you can of course buy original Hoshiban hand-painted candles right at your finger tip here at Goods from Japan.

Purchase Japanese candles from GoodsFromJapan.

Aizuwakamatsu hand-painted candles.
Aizuwakamatsu e-rousoku in a butsudan (Buddhist house altar)

Related

Calpis

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Kaki no Tane

Masu Wooden Sake Boxes

Ramune

Sayama Green Tea

Shichimi Togarashi

Yanai Goldfish Lanterns

Yatsuhiro & Tatami

Yuzu Kosho Spice from Kyushu

by Johannes Schonherr

Sign outside the Hoshiban candle store, Aizuwakamatsu.
Sign outside the Hoshiban candle store, Aizuwakamatsu

© GoodsFromJapan.com

Friday, December 01, 2023

Into Japan A Starter Kit for Understanding Japanese Society

Japan Book Review: Into Japan: A Starter Kit for Understanding Japanese Society

Into Japan: A Starter Kit for Understanding Japanese Society

by Tim Odagiri

Owani Press (2023)

ISBN: 978-1-529-11481-2
176pp; paperback

Into Japan A Starter Kit for Understanding Japanese Society.

You've lived in Japan a few years now and you think you'll stick around for a while. You want to be a good citizen (OK, resident) of your new country, but you're not sure how Japan works and what you need to know. What to do, what to do?

In his introduction to Into Japan, author Tim Odagiri writes that his objective in writing this book was, "to provide tools that foreign residents need to better participate in Japanese society. A common frame of reference is essential for a functioning democracy."

His tome is broken down into five chapters, with an appendix consisting exclusively of the surprising easy-to-read Japanese constitution in its entirety. No worries, it's all in English.

The first chapter is a deep dig into Japan's history, going back 30,000 years. That's a lot of history to cover in 31 pages. Even longtime Japanophiles will learn a few new things. This chapter reveals how Japan's keen sense of nationalism came into being. The ensuing chapter discusses Japan's modern constitution, in case you don't want to scrutinize the whole thing. Included is the much-discussed Article Nine, which states in part, "The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes," and Article 27 which states, "All people shall have the right and the obligation to work." Some American friends of mine would like to see the "obligation to work" part inserted into the U.S. constitution.

The easiest chapter to digest is the third chapter concerning the state symbols of Japan, which incorporates discussions of the emperor, the imperial seal, the flag, imperial regalia and more.

The final two chapters address the workings of Japan's government (including a good explanation of the court system) and the Japanese economy.

Probably few people have read their own country's entire constitution, but reading Japan's constitution doesn't take much time. Some of the 103 articles are very short; the shortest being Article 23 which reads, in full, "Academic freedom is guaranteed." The preamble is a flowery work of art.

Although written in a humorous style at a not-burdensome length of 176 pages, Odagiri's writings are not exactly…jejune. He had me tapping into my online dictionary a few times. The concepts discussed by the author are most appropriate for long-time Japan expats wanting to contribute to their new land, and not your two-years-and-gone eikaiwa types.

In addition to learning how to be a responsible Japanese resident, readers will also come away with numerous interesting tidbits of trivia to stump their fellow expats. For example: *Kimigayo, Japan's somber national anthem, is, at just 32 words, the world's shortest national anthem.

*Among the signees of Japan's 1946 constitution (written by Douglas MacArthur and his associates), was the Minister of State, Baron Shidehara Kijūrō. Who knew there were barons in Japan?

*Between 1976 and 2016, every single lower house was dissolved by the prime minister before serving its complete term.

Whether you want to become a more informed resident to fit into Japan better, or just hope to peruse some interesting history and culture, reading Into Japan is a good expenditure of your time.

Review by Marshall Hughes.

Buy this book from Amazon USA | UK | Japan

Looking to buy Japanese things directly from Japan? GoodsFromJapan is here to help.

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Friday, November 17, 2023

Dairy Of A Void

Japan Book Review: Diary of a Void

Diary of a Void

by Emi Yagi

Penguin Random House UK (2022)

ISBN: 978-1-529-11481-2
213pp; paperback; translated by David Boyd and Lucy North

Dairy Of A Void by Emi Yagi.

Thirty-year-old Shibata is fed up at work. In addition to her regular duties at the paper core manufacturing company, she is expected to make the instant coffee for meetings, answer phone calls and change the toner cartridges etc. One day, after another pointless meeting which ended in her being expected to throw away the empty coffee cups with the cigarette butts still in them, she rebels. She tells her co-workers, "I'm pregnant, the smell of coffee, it triggers my morning sickness." "And that's how I became pregnant."

She's not any more pregnant than any of her male co-workers are, and in fact isn't married, doesn't have a boyfriend and, seemingly, hasn't had a date in years. Her ruse has some major benefits. She doesn't have to clean up anything anymore, she can go home at five o'clock and binge watch movies, people give up their seat to her on public transportation and some of her co-workers show newfound concern for her, especially Higashinakano, the guy in the desk next to her that she doesn't respect much.

Her ploy requires some planning, for example stuffing increasing amounts of material under her clothes to make her stomach bulge. She neglects to tell her parents, friends or anybody else what she is doing. As time goes on, she keeps track of her supposed pregnancy on a baby ap, eats healthier food "for the baby" and joins a prenatal aerobics class.

At this point, things veer away from the expected. Shibata (her given name is never revealed), goes to an obstetrician who tells her that her baby is doing well. She feels her baby kicking. Is she hallucinating or is she really pregnant? Who could the father possibly be?

One night, on a deserted Tokyo street, she has a talk with the Virgin Mary, with Shibata asking Mary about her hobbies and favorite singer and saying, "I'm sure you were totally freaked out when they told you that you were pregnant, but at least your baby's birth is celebrated all over the world."

The author, editor of a women's magazine, clearly leans left in her philosophy, managing to work in things like climate change, which is a bit of a non sequitur.

In an interview with the Japan Times, she stated, "I wanted to write a story showing that it's important for women not to feel like they are tied to certain roles, like office worker, wife and mother."

Shibata seems to hate not only working for "the man" but also working with men, although she says she learned in her job interview that she would be the only woman in the company.

There is not one male figure in the book she respects, seemingly including her father who she cares little about.

Overall, the book is a social commentary airing grievances at Japanese society, specifically its traditional work culture. It's quirky, original and, perhaps, thought provoking.

Review by Marshall Hughes.

Buy this book from Amazon USA | UK | Japan

Looking to buy Japanese things directly from Japan? GoodsFromJapan is here to help.

More Japan Book Reviews

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Exposure: From President to Whistleblower at Olympus

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Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyo

Friday, October 20, 2023

Ibaraki Suisha Senkou Incense

Ibaraki Suisha Senkou Incense 水車線香

Ibaraki Suisha Senkou Incense
Buy incense from Ibaraki Prefecture

Incense has a long history in Japan. Ritually smoldered for its fragrance in India and China since the most ancient of times, incense was introduced to Japan in the 6th century, along with Buddhism. Incense quickly caught on at the Japanese Imperial Court. By the time of the Heian Period (794 - 1185), incense had become a vital part of life at the court. People celebrated its fragrance, people wrote poems about the beauty of the aroma. Ancient woodprint images show people gathering in the gardens of the court, enjoying the pleasure of the smells while holding poetic parties.

Samurai culture adopted incense. Warriors purified their minds and bodies with incense before heading into battle.

Waterwheel at Komamura Seimeido.
Waterwheel at Komamura Seimeido

Kodo 香道

In the 16th century, a century of much turmoil and many wars, a ceremony known as kodo (the Way of Incense) developed, alongside other by now classical Japanese ceremonies like the Tea Ceremony and Ikebana (flower arrangement).

Kodo was (and is) as strictly regimented as the Tea Ceremony with its very own set of tools and rules.

However, Kodo never caught on with the public the way the Tea Ceremony and Ikebana did.

For a very simple reason: the incense used at the Imperial Court and by the upper samurai had always been made from agarwood and / or sandalwood. Those fragrant woods had to be imported from South-East Asia or even India via China and Korea. They were incredibly expensive and only the Imperial Court, the richest of the temples and the richest of the samurai could afford real kotoboku, the most precious high-grade incense.

Buddhism had however spread all over the country, Buddhist ceremonies had become a part of daily life. All those many temples needed incense for their regular ceremonies - and they were in no position to acquire the agarwood the Imperial Court used. Thus, they turned to local sources. Cedar, lavender and other home-grown fragrant leaves and plants became the base of their incense.

Mt Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture.
Mt Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture

Incense Today

Today, incense is still an integral part of any Buddhist ceremony. But more and more frequently, people use incense without any religious connotation.

They use incense sticks to clean their homes from other smells, they use them to enjoy the fragrance, or perhaps to enhance the olfactory environs when being with a partner in a romantic night. The latter being quite in accordance with the use of the fragrance in Heian times.

Walking into any Japanese supermarket or drug store presents you with a variety of incense made by major manufacturers.

But as always, there are the mass-produced products and there are the ones that have their own distinct fragrance, that have their own history, their own story.

The traditional waterwheel at Komamura Seimeido.
The traditional waterwheel at Komamura Seimeido

Suisha Senkou 水車線香

Suisha Senkou is the brand name of the incense made at the small family-run Komamura Seimeido factory deep in the countryside outside of Ishioka, Ibaraki Prefecture. Cedar leaf incense is the main product of the facility though other types of incense are manufactured as well.

Suisha Senkou translates to "waterwheel incense" and indeed, an ancient watermill plays an important part in the production process.

Located at the foot of Mount Tsukuba, the Komamura Seimeido is surrounded by forests and rice paddies. A very quiet area in central Ibaraki. Not really that remote from Tokyo (you can easily go there on a day trip from the city), but far away enough to be able to stroll through the rice paddies and seeing nothing but an open sky above the landscape. No high-voltage powerlines in view at all.

Right behind the small Komamura Seimeido family farm house compound, a clear little mountain stream flows by. Coming down from Mount Tsukuba, the stream flows at a pretty good speed.

That mountain stream powers an ancient waterwheel which in turn powers the mill that slowly but steadily pounds the cedar leaves used as the base of the incense sticks. The slow, water-driven pounding process brings out the full aroma of the leaves.

The Komamura Seimeido uses the ancient watermill for exactly this reason. It has been doing so for more than 100 years by now.

All ingredients, most importantly the cedar leaves are local, no chemical agents, no glue is added at all.

One small building houses the processing factory. The machines there look pretty vintage as well but are clearly from the later part of the 20th century, running on electricity.

The water-powered mill.
The water-powered mill

There, the cedar powder is turned into a hot mash which then gets pressed into thin sheets. Those sheets are immediately mechanically cut the size of incense sticks.

After a period of drying, they are wrapped up into packages ready for sale.

If you make an appointment, the master of the house will show you all the details of production himself, he will answer all your questions, and you will be able to burn a few incense sticks of various kinds to make an educated choice of what to purchase.

Cedar leaves ready for processing.
Cedar leaves ready for processing

Incense Variety

While cedar leaf incense is the main product, locally grown Tsukuba lavender, mikan (mandarin orange) peel and chrysanthemum incense are also manufactured and ready for purchase.

While a trip to the Ibaraki countryside and a visit to the Komamura Seimeido is certainly a pleasure, you can also purchase Komamura Seimeido Suisha Senkou also conveniently from Goods from Japan.

Ishioka incense.
Ishioka incense

Buy Incense From Japan

Goods from Japan offers a variety of Japanese incense.

Purchase a range of Japanese incense from GoodsFromJapan.

A worker at the press and cutting machine.
A worker at the press and cutting machine

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Vintage Komamura Seimedo Sign.
Vintage Komamura Seimedo Sign

© GoodsFromJapan.com

Monday, October 16, 2023

Reflections on Tsuda Umeko

Reflections on Tsuda Umeko: Pioneer of Women's Education in Japan

Reflections on Tsuda Umeko

by Oba Minako

Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture (2021)

ISBN: 978-1-60598-071-3
263pp; hardback

Reflections on Tsuda Umeko.

On December 23, 1871, six-year-old Umeko Tsuda was put on a boat along with four other young Japanese girls and sent from Tokyo to America, tasked with the responsibility of learning the English language and American customs. She was part of the famed Iwakura Mission, assembled to renegotiate unequal treaties that Japan had signed, garner recognition for Emperor Meiji's newly reinstated imperial dynasty, and study America and its structures and systems.

By the time Tsuda returned 11 years later as an American high school graduate, Japan had lost much of its fire to learn about America and its ways, and Tsuda was met with neither excitement nor contempt, but mostly indifference. Instead of just melting back into Japan's everyday life, she took it upon herself to try to bring Japan, at least in terms of educating its girls, into modern times.     

Starting as a lowly teacher, Tsuda soon decided that she needed more education if she was to help Japanese women become full participants of society. She returned to America, graduated from Bryn Mawr College and came back to Japan where she started Joshi Eigaku Juku (Women's Institute for English Studies) to provide opportunity for a liberal arts education for all women. The school eventually became Tsuda University, and it is still one of Japan's top private universities.

Although Tsuda's accomplishments have long been well known in Japan (enough to be honored by her likeness being printed on the redesigned ¥5,000 note to be released in July, 2024), knowledge of her thinking, emotions and motivations were not. That changed in 1984 when a box of more than 400 of Tsuda's letters to her American host mother, Adeline Lanman, were discovered stuffed in an attic trunk at Tsuda University.

This discovery was partially what prompted the writing of this book by Akutagawa Prize-winning author Minako Oba, herself a Tsuda College graduate. Oba sprinkles her insights/opinions into the passages she took from Tsuda's letters to add context.

Tsuda led arguably the most interesting life of any Japanese woman born during the 19th century. During her 64 years preceding her 1929 death, she met luminaries such as U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt, Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller and many or even most of Japan's political elite of her times, including her time living with the family of Ito Hirobume when he became Japan's first prime minister in 1885.

Ito went on to be prime minister of Japan four times, and is a historical figure known to all Japanese. He was on the original Iwakura Mission, which is where he met Tsuda.

Even those not interested in Tsuda specifically will learn much from this book about Japan's 19th century thinking, culture and living conditions from Tsuda's keen observations and insights.

The book has something for pretty much everybody, and there are abundant historical tidbits which Japanophiles will surely find interesting.

As an example, Tsuda said in one of her letters that Ito was interested in Christianity and “was very angry when the newspapers wrote that he had advised the emperor to accept Christianity and all the ministers were in favor of the idea." I doubt you will find that in any textbook.

Tsuda herself had become a Christian in America.

Note: Those wanting more on Tsuda and the Iwakura Mission should check out the book Daughters of the Samurai, written by Janice P. Nimura.

Review by Marshall Hughes.

Buy this book from Amazon USA | UK | Japan

Looking to buy Japanese things directly from Japan? GoodsFromJapan is here to help.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2023

90-Day Geisha Book Review

90-Day Geisha

90-Day Geisha

by Chelsea Haywood

Pegasus Books LLC (2009)

ISBN: 978-1-60598-071-3
Paperback, 309 pp

90-Day Geisha Book Review.

After being an international model and becoming bored with that, what is a 19-year-old girl to do?

How about move to Tokyo on a 90-day tourist visa and get a job in a hostess bar? Bring your newly-wedded husband along and start taking notes so that you can write a book about your experiences. Oh, and call yourself a geisha instead of a bar hostess to give yourself some allusion of charm, grace or class.

The goal of the book is to describe what life is like being a Tokyo geisha, er, hostess, ie what hostesses do, what kind of girl/woman signs up for it, and what kind of man visits these bars.

Much of the book is spent talking about the author's customers, and let's just say that none of them come off looking very good, despite being, if she is to be believed, among Japan's very upper crust. She dubiously claims her clients were billionaires. At the time the book was written, Japan had only thirty some billionaires. Haywood seems to want to make the reader think she is tempted to dump her husband and run away with a coke head customer, but this appears, even on the surface, to be highly contrived.

The author can be forgiven for some of her ignorances of Japan as she supposedly lived in the country for only three months (the length of her visa), but annoyances pop up a bit too often for readers who know Japan well. She translates gaijin as "foreign devil" when the word means merely "outside person." The area Shin Okubo is repeatedly called Shin Okobo. There are a few others missteps, too.

Three or four times, Haywood tries hard to impress the reader with overly flowery language, and it seems likely that these sections were ghost written. She thinks of herself as an intellectual giant, but most readers probably won't buy it. Her husband is also held up for his great brainpower. At one point she says of him, "He is the E to my mc2."

So, what was husband Einstein's job? Well, he was walking the streets of Roppongi trying to get girls to sign up to be hostesses and strippers. I am not sure what academic qualifications are needed for that rigorous profession.

While this review has tended towards the negative, some readers, especially those with only a basic knowledge of Japan and hostess bars, might find the book interesting, informative and insightful. Throw in a little salaciousness and some will be clicking on the "buy now" button. The book does get numerous inexplicably positive reviews on some web sites.

At 309 pages, 90-Day Geisha becomes a bit repetitive. If the author just took out the lines reading, "Chelsea, you are the most intelligent and beautiful woman I've ever met," and sentences approximating that, perhaps the book would only be about 250 pages. Haywood tries to partially camouflage her pretentiousness and arrogance, but her ego won't let her try very hard.

In short, the book has its merits, but long-time Japanophiles will likely want to give it a miss.

Final note: In an interview with a Canadian weekly news magazine in December, 2009, not long after the book was published, Haywood says that she and her husband were in the process of getting divorced. What a shocker.

Review by Marshall Hughes.

Buy this book from Amazon USA | UK | Japan

Looking to buy Japanese things directly from Japan? GoodsFromJapan is here to help.

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Thursday, August 03, 2023

Saihoji Temple Kyoto Application

Saihoji (Kokedera) Temple 西芳寺

Saihoji Temple - or, as it is more commonly known: Kokedera (苔寺 "moss temple") - was founded in the fourteenth century and is located on a spacious 2 hectares (4.5 acres) in Matsuo, south west Kyoto, 800 meters (half a mile) south west of Matsuno-o Shrine (Matsuo Taisha).

Moss at Kokedera in western Kyoto, Japan.
Moss at Kokedera in western Kyoto, Japan

Saihoji History

Saihoji was founded in the early to mid eighth century by the Buddhist priest Gyoki (668-749), who is considered the father of mapping and civil engineering in Japan. Subsequent famous head priests of Saihoji include Kukai (AKA Kobo-Daishi) (774-835), another "Renaissance man" of Japanese history known mainly as the founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism, and Honen (1133-1212), the founder of the Pure Land (Jodo-shu) school of Buddhism.

After falling into ruin as a result of civil disturbances and wars, Saihoji was rebuilt, and its gardens redesigned, in 1339 by Muso Soseki (AKA Muso Kokushi) (1275-1351), who was a Zen priest, poet, calligrapher and garden designer.

Saihoji became a World Heritage Site in 1994, along with 16 other Kyoto temples.

Moss at Kokedera (Saihoji) in western Kyoto.
The moss garden is at its best during the Japanese rainy season in June and July but is beautiful at any time of year

Saihoji Gardens

The garden is split level, with the upper level featuring a kare-sansui traditional dry landscape garden, and the lower level a pond shaped like the kanji for "heart" with a strolling path around it, and designed to give the impression that the pond has a geographical connection with the hills in the background.

This innovative design influenced later generations of garden designers and most famously the garden and temple building were used as models for the building of Ginkakuji Temple.

Ironically, the moss, which is now the temple's biggest draw, is the result of the temple and its gardens having been left to go into disrepair at least a century ago. There are an estimated 120 species of moss at Saihoji covering much of the grounds. Fall is a special time to visit, when the temple's trees color the grounds, but the moss is at its greenest in early summer - May and June.

The famous Kyoto-born artist and epicure, Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883-1959) is buried at Saihoji.

A carpet of moss at Kokedera (Saihoji Temple) in western Kyoto.
The temple is one of the most popular with foreign visitors in Kyoto

Visiting Saihoji - Making A Reservation

A reservation is required to visit Saihoji. Write the temple (see address below) with your name, address in Japan (that of a hotel will do), occupation, age (you must be at least 18), number of people in your group, and the date you wish to visit, plus an alternate date.

Include a self-addressed stamped postcard (ofuku hagaki; 往復はがき) available from the post office or a convenience store, or, if sending from overseas, a postcard with an international reply coupon. The ofuku hagaki is a set of two postcards one of which will be used by Saihoji to reply.

This must be done as early as possible: 2 months or several weeks at least, not days, ahead. Do not show up late for your appointed time.

Note: If you would rather consign the application process, please contact the GoodsFromJapan Concierge Service, which can take of the arrangements for you for a reasonable fee and have the reply from Saihoji posted to your hotel in Japan.

Please contact us to use our service to make an application to visit Saihoji Temple.

*Update: Saihoji now take reservations directly on their website here in English - https://intosaihoji.com/en/booking/nichinichi

The visit fee charged by Saihoji is 4,000 yen per person (up from 3,000 yen), which is the highest in Kyoto. Prior to entering, you will be asked to take part in a period of zazen, the chanting of sutras or calligraphy. This lasts 40 minutes to an hour but allowance is made for people to retire early from this, especially the elderly, infirm or non-Japanese visitors.

A carpet of moss at Kokedera (Saihoji Temple) in western Kyoto.
A carpet of moss at Kokedera (Saihoji Temple) in western Kyoto

Moss Temple Access - how to get to Saihoji

Kyoto Bus #63 from Shijo Kawaramachi and Sanjo Keihan Station is the most straightforward. Get off at Koke-dera/Suzumushi-dera - the final stop. There is only one bus an hour at 27 minutes past the hour. See here for the full timetable: www.kyotobus.jp/route/timetable/pdf/shijokawaramachi_03.pdf

Kyoto Bus #29 starts at Shijo-Karasuma. Get off at Koke-dera-michi bus stop. Go back a little in the direction the bus came from, as far as the footbridge across the main Mozume-kaido Road, and go left there. You will get to Koke-dera in just under 10 minutes.

Kyoto Buses #73 and #28 start at Kyoto Station.

Take bus #73 to the "Kokedera Suzumushidera" stop and walk 3 minutes. There are #73 buses on the hour or just past the hour from 8am to 9pm and at approximately 20 minutes past and 20 minute to the hour. See here for the full timetable. www.kyotobus.jp/route/timetable/pdf/kyotoekimae_02.pdf

On the #28 bus get off at Matsuo-Taisha-mae bus stop. Walk back down the main Mozume-kaido Road in the direction the bus came from, about 12 minutes to the second footbridge, then right down Koke-dera-michi for about 8 minutes.

The nearest train station to Saihoji Temple is JR Saga Arashiyama. From Kyoto Station the journey takes about 12-16 minutes on the JR Sagano Line to Kameoka and Sonobe and costs 240 yen. From JR Saga Arashiyama Station a taxi would cost about 1,000 yen and takes about 10 minutes.

Alternatively from Shijo Station on the Kyoto subway take a Hankyu Arashiyama Line train to Matsuo Taisha Station and walk 20 minutes.

There is also a route from Saihoji by bicycle from Arashiyama.

Saiho-ji
Matsuo Jingatani-cho 56
Nishikyo-ku
Kyoto
615-8286
Tel: 075 391 3631

Book Hotel Accommodation in Kyoto Near Saihoji

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