Sunday, July 26, 2015


Writing on Japan this week has sent me on a whirlwind trip through my past. Almost everything I wrote about had a personal connection for me. It was either books I read, movies I watched, an event I attended in Japan, food I ate at someone’s house, a memory of a conversation with a Japanese friend, and so many other cultural points I never got to. In turn, I told these things to my kids, and my daughter was very responsive. She checked out a “how to draw manga” book and did her first manga picture. For a 9-year-old, she certainly inherited her artistic talents from her father as well as my mother and her mother. And now she wants to go to Japan….

Let's have pancakes for dinner! Yeah!! Gourmet om-nom-nom pancakes.

I actually couldn’t wait to make Japanese food, so I started early. A couple days ago, I made okonomiyaki. This has been one of my favorites for a long time. I think it literally means “fry it how you like it.” Or something like that. Outside of the batter and the cabbage, the other ingredients vary to whatever you have on hand. I think it was probably a way to use all of the odds and ends and scraps you had available. In a bowl, I mixed together flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder, and then added in a grated sweet potato and some water (or you can also use broth or dashi, a type of Japanese soup base). Then it’s important to let it chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour. After the batter was chilled, I added in some eggs, some crushed rice Chex (in lieu of tenkasu, which are tempura scraps), a little pickled ginger, and some salad shrimp. At this point, I added in the cabbage. I made it easier on myself: I bought a 10 oz bag of cole slaw-cut cabbage. I pulled out my large deep-sided skillet and heated up my oil, dropping in enough batter about the size of my fist. Then I placed 2-3 slices of bacon that had been cut into quarter strips. The key is to cover it and let it cook for 5 minutes, then if the bottom is browned, turn it, and let it cook covered for another five minutes. Once both sides are sufficiently browned, you can take it out and put it on a plate. To go with this, I made the special okonomiyaki sauce that goes with it: ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, grated ginger, and honey. I topped mine with this sauce, a little bit of ebi furikake (seasoning that is supposed to go on top of rice, but I use it on a ton of other stuff), and some chopped scallions. It was so good, and I think the family loved it, too. Many people, like my sister, tops this with Japanese mayonnaise, but I am NOT a fan of real mayo. Sorry, mayo fans. But I did follow this up with novelty Japanese candy: Ramune-flavored whistle candy. The kids loved it, and I was the cool mom for just a few minutes!

Not only did I give them candy, but I gave them candy that makes noises, and I gave it to them 10 minutes before bed. Trifecta of parenting fail.

I think more food products needs to be wrapped in cookies.

So, today I started with the bread, meron-pan, or “melon bread.” My daughter helped me a lot today. Meron-pan is like a roll wrapped in a cookie and baked. Bread is not native to Japan, so any bread they have was inspired by European traditions. However, if you’ve ever been to a pan-ya (bread store) in Japan, you’ll know how innovative the Japanese are when it comes to bread. First, we had to make the bread dough: we mixed 1 ¾ c all-purpose flour, 2 Tbsp powdered milk, 1 tsp yeast, and ½ tsp salt together. In a separate smaller bowl, I beat 1 egg with 1/3 c cold water and mixed it into my flour mix and kneaded it (well, my daughter kneaded it). Then I added in 1 Tbsp sugar and kneaded it some more. After added in about 2 Tbsp butter and working it into the dough, I kneaded it some more before oiling it and letting it rest for an hour. In the meantime, we made the cookie dough: we creamed 4 Tbsp of butter with 1/3 c sugar together (I had her do this part). Then we mixed together 1 1/3 c flour, ¾ tsp baking powder, and a pinch of salt and added that to our creamed butter and sugar. Adding tiny bits of water here and there, I worked this dough together and formed it into a cylinder/tube shape and put it in the refrigerator until I needed it. After the bread dough had finished resting, I realized it had not risen at all. I think my yeast was bad, so I wasn’t able to yield as many rolls from this as I thought. I did manage to break it into six bread balls. I took my cookie dough from the fridge and cut it into discs, like I was making cookies. Choosing the six largest segments, I flattening it between two plastic baggies. I took these flattened discs and covered each of these bread balls. Then we rolled it in sugar, and I cut a criss-cross design on top of it, letting them rest another 30 minutes. Then I baked them at 350ºF for about 15-20 minutes. I had to leave them in for closer to 20 minutes. I cannot even begin to tell you how good these were. My husband tried to convince me this bread was his dinner. But I told him there was more coming.

My forte lies in eating sushi, not making it. Obviously. And I was mad I couldn't find takuan.

So, next I tried my hand at making sushi. I absolutely love sushi. It’s one of my all-time favorite foods, and I’m always ready for sushi pretty much at any given moment. But I now have a brand new appreciation for it. I had to first make the sushi rice. It called for 3 c of rice, which is more than I ever make. After the rice is done steaming, I heated together rice vinegar, sugar, and salt until the salt and sugar were dissolved. With the help of my daughter, we gently sprinkled the rice with the vinegar mix while we fanned and folded the rice to mix it completely and then cooled the rice. The next step is where it got hard for me. And perhaps I should’ve researched this better. Who knows? I laid out a sheet of nori (seaweed), spread the rice over it, leaving a gap around the edges and spread my toppings (I choose tuna, cucumbers, and shiitake mushrooms). Then I carefully rolled everything up, using a little bit of water on my free edge to act as a glue to keep it rolled up. This part was fine. I just didn’t have a sharp enough knife to cut through the nori, and it kept tearing. So, instead of makizushi, we ended up cutting the nori into smaller pieces and making temakizushi. Whatever works, right? With a little soy sauce, some furikake, and some pickled ginger, it fed my family. I know a lot of people use wasabi, but I ABSOLUTELY hate wasabi. It’s just something I can’t get past. I like hot and spicy things, but napalming my nasal passages isn’t pleasant. 

My version of heaven includes a library that serves unlimited coffee, unlimited books, and unlimited somen soup.

The other part of what I made was cold somen soup. This is one of my favorite summertime meals, although to be honest, I haven’t had it for quite some time. The somen itself is not hard to make; you can buy it in a package, and it usually comes in 100g bundles. After the water comes to a boil, it only takes a few minutes for the somen to become al dente. I rinsed them under cold water in order to cool the noodles (not sure if you’re supposed to do that or not—the instructions were in Japanese, and my Japanese is a little rusty). The sauce it comes in is a little more difficult to make. First of all, it calls for dashi, which is a little more difficult to procure, especially without monosodium glutamate. So, I made my own dashi. It’s not that difficult; it just takes time. I boiled some water with some nori (you can also add mushrooms, but I forgot) for about 20 minutes and then strained it. (There are many different recipes to make dashi.) Then I added the dashi back into my pot along with some soy sauce, sugar, and mirin (I actually just used chardonnay because I forgot to look for mirin. Close enough, right?). I poured this in a glass bottle I had and put it in the fridge to chill. When I served this, I put the noodles in one bowl with a little bit of cold water and topped it with chopped scallions and a piece of pickled ginger, and I put the sauce in a different bowl. To eat this, you pick up the noodles and dip them into the sauce. My sauce was slightly on the sweet side, but otherwise, it was very good. I don’t think the others enjoyed it as much as I did. I had two bowls—I thought it was awesome. Not as good as my friend Megumi’s mom made when I was at her house in Maebashi, but it was still good. Of course, I served this whole meal with a side of edamame (boiled and salted soybeans in the pods), and the kids were excited that I bought some Ramune, a type of soda drink famous for having a marble inside a specially shaped glass bottle. 

Although it's a little bit of a hodge-podge of all my favorite foods, I was deeply satisfied, even with Sushigate.

Each item I made has an earlier memory. I remember eating at a sushi bar for the first time in Tokyo. I was completely blown away by the sheer number of choices, especially of cuts of fish I didn’t even know exist, much less know what they tasted like. And the sushi chefs always had a look on their face that looked like they were in the least mood to deal with indecisiveness. They seemed about as likely to smile as customs agents are. And remember—this was before the influx of sushi we have now in Chinese and Asian buffet restaurants. In the 1990s, you were more likely to find pizza in a Chinese buffet place before you’d find sushi. And I remember sitting around the table sharing a gigantic plateful of edamame and just talking with the family. Those were good times. I already mentioned my friend’s mom making us somen for lunch while we sat in the living room watching music videos on TV. I don’t know what she added to her somen, but it was awesome. The power of food to bring back memories is amazing. I hope this blog does this for my children. My food may not always be super awesome, but at least it’ll be memorable.

Up next: Jordan


Japanese music goes back many centuries, and there are many different kinds of traditional styles of music. Traditional music consists of several different types, and variations have changed throughout the centuries. Different styles of music were divided between male and female musicians or whether it incorporated dance or not. Some styles of music were designed as the accompaniment for stories such as The Tale of the Heike. Min’you folk music is another popular folk music style, and I’ve seen min’you performers showcase their talent here in Indianapolis. There are different kinds of songs and dances they perform: work songs, religious songs (mostly used in Shinto), children’s songs, and songs for gatherings (weddings, festivals, funerals, etc.).


There are several native instruments in Japan, many related to instruments in China and other areas in eastern Asia. The koto is a type of stringed instrument where 13 strings are spread across a wooden base that had movable bridges. It’s often considered the national instrument of Japan. The shamisen, which is generally shaped like a guitar and has three strings and a square-ish body, is often used in kabuki, bunraku, and folk music. The shakuhachi is a type of flute that is played in front of the player. Its history involves the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism who often wore wicker baskets on top of their head (as a symbol of detachment), and some shakuhachi performers will still play with a basket on their head. There are many types of taiko drumming, and the drums can range from rather small to very large. Taiko drums were originally used during warfare and later used in theatre. Taiko ensembles, called kumi-daiko, are pretty popular today and amazingly didn’t come on the scene until the 1950s. Today, these drumming groups can often be seen during festivals and other events. I was even in charge of one of these taiko drumming groups once when I worked for Mori no Ike at Concordia Language Villages many years ago. 

There are several styles of dance, and of course many of these styles varied in different regions across the country. Many dances were born out of the theatre. Kabuki incorporated dance into its performances (the “bu” part of “kabuki” signifies dance when looking at the kanji spelling of the word). Noh Mai dancing is often performed to flutes and hand drums. The movements are done with elegance and grace. Bon Odori is performed during the holiday Obon (which I have done many times before). It’s a dance done in homage to the dead and designed to awaken their spirits. It usually takes place in August, so you may have some Obon festivals in your community sponsored by the local Japanese cultural centers coming up. There are many other dances that are more specifically identified with certain regions, prefectures, and cities. 

Renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa
Since Western classical music was introduced to Japan, they have taken it very seriously. Many Japanese musicians, singers, composers, and conductors have reached international fame. Almost every major city in Japan has its own symphony orchestra. Starting in the 1930s (except during WWII), Japanese musicians were also drawn toward jazz music. Learning from the best American and European jazz masters, Japanese musicians began to emulate what they heard. Today, there are many jazz clubs performing traditional jazz music as well as more experimental jazz.

One of the most iconic things about the Japanese music culture is karaoke. You either love it or hate it. Anthony Bourdain is widely known for hating it, and I certainly don’t mind it at all; I think it’s fun, although it’s been a long time since I’ve been. Japan takes music seriously: it’s the largest physical music industry in the world and second largest overall (next to the US; Germany is 3rd, UK is 4th, and France is 5th). 

I have so many Japanese bands and musicians that I like (often called J-pop or J-rock -- and one thing you'll notice is they use a lot of English words and phrases mixed into the Japanese lyrics), and it’s really hard to narrow it down. Unfortunately, many of the bands and musicians that I enjoyed from the late 1990s and early 2000s aren’t on Spotify for some reason. However, many of these bands do have a lot of videos on YouTube and some even have their own YouTube channels. I think it has something to do with the fact that digital music really isn’t a thing in Japan, so therefore, it wouldn’t be on this type of medium. Regardless, I thought it would be best to just list some of the bands I have grown to love over the years: 

Love Psychedelico (influenced by American music from the 1970s; I love their style, and they’re clearly one of my favorites), Chara (one of the first musicians I heard, I used to have a VHS copy of her movie Swallowtail Butterfly and her band called Yen Town Band that was pretty much made for this movie), Bonnie Pink (I love Bonnie Pink; she’s one of my favorites, and I like that she uses a horn line in her music), Namie Amuro (classic Japanese dance/electronica music; you expect it to be in a video game or something; I laughed at the video anove because this video is from 1995, and it's like they raided my closet from that year), GLAY (a hard-rock boy band of sorts), Judy & Mary (I was always 50/50 about them, but I bought their CD for only a few songs; still, I learned to like the others), Shiina Ringo (hands down, one of my top favorites; I totally wish I could find more of her stuff), Speed (very classic girl’s bubble gum pop group; there were a few songs that I liked), B’z (not a band I listened to much when I was in Japan, but they have a style similar to [if not better than] GLAY; I like them a lot), Mr. Children (another band that was widely popular that I didn’t listen to much; they have a pop-rock sound to them), L’arc~en~Ciel (I like this group; it’s the kind of hard rock you imagine playing in a TV show when people take a drive or long walk to ponder their problems), Spitz (I used to know a guy whose favorite band was Spitz; it’s more or less average rock music), Ulfuls (I seriously only knew one song from them for the longest time [“Banzai”] since it was played at Mori no Ike all the time, so I enjoyed finding out they had others out there), The Brilliant Green (another singer I loved for only a few songs; I wish I could find more), Dragon Ash (I love Dragon Ash for representing the small Japanese hip-hop genre; they had a song on the Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift soundtrack), The Star Club (apparently Japan has a few punk bands I didn’t know about; they’re not too bad), Bomb Factory (another punk band; I like their sound a lot; I can get behind this), Hime (you know I have a thing for foreign female rappers, and I can now add one from Japan; her style reminds me of some of the Middle Eastern or French-language rap styles), Guitar Wolf (totally a garage punk band, and they starred in a horribly hilarious rock and roll zombie horror movie called Wild Zero, but it’s best to watch this while drunk or high or both), Teengenerate (I would put their music in the same category as Guitar Wolf—you know, music to relax to), Melt Banana (if you like high energy noise seizures, you’ll love this band), Peelander-Z (my kids think their name is hilarious [and that their side project name should be Pooplander-J], but it’s good ol’ rock and roll; I like their music), X Japan (think 1980s hair bands from the US), Mad Capsule Markets (imagine Japanese noise rock met metal), Utada Hikaru (definitely a pop star but with some R&B influences there), Puffy AmiYumi (super stereotypical Japanese pop made for TV but with some catchy songs, the types that will give you serious earworms), Misia (her music has a lot of soul and R&B styles evident in it), and Cocco (one of the older musicians I have, there are many of her songs that I liked. I used to have a bunch of songs on a tape that broke years ago). 


Up next: the food

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Japanese art covers many mediums, and they have a large offering in the realm of world art. During the early periods in Japanese history, much of its art was relegated to clay pots as well as utilizing copper and bronze for tools and weapons.  

Architecture is also a major part of Japanese art as well. It was introduced with the spread of Buddhism since much of the architectural endeavors took the form of temples and shrines. You can see examples of this in the famous pagodas with the upward-pointed corners on the roofs. Torii gates are the traditional gates of Shinto shrines, but they can also be found at Buddhist temples as well. Perhaps the most famous of these are the Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima prefecture where it appears to be floating at high tide.

Ink painting is probably the most influential of the arts in Japan and perhaps holds the highest status as an artist. Because early writing was mostly done with a brush (i.e. calligraphy), it was easy for those studying calligraphy to venture into the painting arts. Throughout the centuries there have been several different types of painting, using different mediums and different materials. One technique was called ink wash painting, or sumi-e in Japanese. This painting was usually done on screens of various sizes (usually silk or paper) and generally devoid of color, only shades of black and grey. This method was popular throughout China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. 

Ukiyo-e is one of the traditional arts done in Japan. These are traditional woodblock prints that were popular between the 17th and 19th centuries and were quite the thing with the merchant class. The scenes depicted many of the pleasures of entertainment in the city of Edo during this time. There were far more details in the physique of the people and animals painted including the addition of a number of colors as well. 

Paper arts have been popular in Japan for many centuries and are often identified as one of the traditional Japanese arts. Most people are familiar with origami (literally meaning “folding paper”), which is the practice of folding paper to create objects. There is a famous children’s story about folding a thousand paper cranes. A related art called kirigami (meaning “cutting paper”) takes it further and combines pieces of cut paper together to create images or in some cases, pop-up scenes. The art of making paper, called washi, is also popular in Japan. When my sister went to Japan a few years after me, she was able to make a picture out of paper that she made. There are many books available at most libraries to teach you how to do these paper arts. 

Of course, today most people think of anime and manga when it comes to Japanese art. Hayao Miyazaki (along with Studio Ghibli) brought Japanese animation to the global forefront. To differentiate between the two terms, manga is more or less a comic book. It comes in a broad range of topics from fantasy to historical dramas to sports, and it’s aimed from young children to adults. If a manga series becomes particularly popular, it may be made as animation for television. In Japan, manga is used for both the comic books as well as television animation. However, for English speakers the term anime mostly just refers to animation while manga is the comic books. I’ve not been a super huge fan of anime/manga, but I do have a couple copies of Doraemon in Japanese somewhere. Every now and then, I try to get into manga, but I never know which one to start with. 

Ancient literature in Japan was still dealing with early language development of the Japanese language. It was stemmed from Chinese influences, and later hiragana and katakana was developed from this. Classical literature was primarily written during the feudal period. The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), written by Murasaki Shikibu, is often considered the world’s first novel. And it happens to be written by a woman! (I own this and read it years ago.) Another book, The Tale of Taketori (Taketori Monogatari) is often touted as one of the first examples of science fiction. 

The Tale of the Heike (Heike Monogatari), which highlights the history of the clash between the Taira and Minamoto clans, is one of the key works of literature during the Medieval period of literature. The Meiji Restoration period marked the beginning of the Early Modern period. This period brought along a number of travelogues, and due to the small amounts of Western influences that began entering Japan, a wide variety of literary genres also began to pop up. 

Around the turn of the century between the 19th and 20th centuries, writers took a different path in their work. Writers were far more influenced by the literary movements in Europe and emulated many of these styles.  Natsume Soseki was a highly influential novelist, most famous for his novels I am a Cat, Botchan, and Kokoro (all of which I own and have read). Soseki’s likeness is on the 1000-yen bill. Shiga Naoya is considered by some to be the “god of the novel” although he only wrote one full-length novel, An’ya Koro. Mori Ougai is a noted poet and novelist, famous for his novel The Wild Geese. Kazuo Ishiguro is a Japanese writer who later moved to England, known for his novels The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and An Artist of the Floating World. Japan has also produced two Nobel Prize winners: Yasunari Kawabata (1968) and Kenzaburou Oue (1994). 

There are many different types of poetry in Japan, although the most widely known types are haiku and tanka. Haiku are short, three-line verses where each line comprises of a 5-7-5 syllable scheme, meaning the first line is five syllables long, the second is seven, and the last one is five. Many times, haiku incorporates nature into its poetry. One of the most famous haiku poets in Japan was Matsuo Bashou who wrote during the Edo period. His poetry is still studied today across the world. Tanka is a five-line poem utilizing a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable scheme. Tanka is the modern form of waka poetry. 


Japan also had its forms of drama. The most widely known style is that of the kabuki play. I went to see a kabuki play when I was in Tokyo. It was moderately hard to understand, but thankfully, I had an earphone with an English translation of what was happening. Originally, women were allowed to participate, and it was highly popular among the teahouses and involved music and dance and drama, but many of these women also offered themselves as prostitutes as well. So of course, female kabuki was banned and became an all-male production where men played both women’s and men’s parts. (You see this during Shakespeare’s time with his plays as well.) Noh programs are also popular which usually includes five Noh plays, and the actors utilize a variety of masks, costumes, and props to portray characters in the story. Bunraku is a form of Japanese puppet theatre where performers manned large puppets and shared the stage with chanters and shamisen players. 

This movie led to the term "The Rashomon Effect" where different witnesses can all have very different accounts of an event.

The first Japanese film was produced in 1897, only three years after Thomas Edison came up with the kinetoscope. (This actually amazes me since this technology made it across the world, and this was six years before airplanes were invented.) Since that first film of the sights of Tokyo, filmmakers began creating all kinds of films, at first mostly based on theatre and historical events. Samurai films gained popularity during the 1920s, and the technology of connecting sound with the film became a big deal. The 1950s were the beginning of the Golden Age of Japanese film with such classics as Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, and Godzilla. Director Akira Kurosawa influenced a plethora of other directors and filmmakers. The 1980s brought home video to the scene as well as one of my favorite movies, Tanpopo. Hayao Miyazaki became one of the most celebrated directors throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s with films such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke. Today, Japanese horror films, science fiction films, and monster films are also enjoyed on a cult level.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, July 19, 2015


When I was in 8th grade and going through high school orientation, we were told to start thinking about what foreign language we wanted to study. Our options were Spanish, Latin, and Japanese. I knew I didn’t want to study Latin because I wanted to study a language I could use while traveling someday, and let’s face it: while studying a dead may be beneficial to the sciences, you can’t travel anywhere with it. Except maybe science conventions. But I think scientists speak another language altogether. And I knew that Spanish was super popular, and the classes would be full. (I did go back and learn some Spanish on my own.) So, that left me with Japanese. Plus, all of my friends were taking Japanese, and that was probably the biggest reason I took the class. But to be honest, I already had an interest in Asia and their writing systems and culture, so this also seemed to be a logical choice for me. I took four years of Japanese in high school, then won a scholarship to study abroad in Japan during the summer of 1998 where I was placed directly in Tokyo. I continued to study throughout college and joined the Japanese Student Association and other Japan-America organizations. I even worked for three summers at Concordia Language Villages at the Japanese camp, Mori no Ike. I have to admit, I haven’t studied quite as much during the last five or ten years or so, giving way to studying Spanish and Portuguese. But Japan has always had a special place in my heart, and I’m very happy to finally land on Japan for my blog. 


The Japanese word for Japan is Nihon or Nippon, often translated as “the origin of the sun.”  The etymology of the term Japan comes from a mispronunciation or other foreign term for the islands of Japan. However, which language it’s stemmed from seems to be somewhat disputed. It mostly likely was introduced into English from the Portuguese traders who picked up the Malay-origin Chinese word for the island nation. 

Japan is an archipelago of over 6800 islands in East Asia. On the eastern side is the Pacific Ocean and to the western side is the Sea of Japan, which separates Japan from North Korea and South Korea as well as Russia.  It’s also separated from mainland China by the East China Sea. The Ryukyu Islands are also part of Japan, which includes the island of Okinawa (housing one of the US Air Force Bases that are still in Japan left over from WWII) and extends all the way to Taiwan. The four main islands from north to south are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Fukuoka. Because Japan is spread out quite a ways from north to south, it has a very drastic change in climate across the country. The northernmost island of Hokkaido is very cold in the winter and has a famous snow sculpting celebration each February. The southernmost islands of the Okinawa prefecture enjoy a warm tropical climate. Its location along the Pacific Ring of Fire makes it prone to earthquakes (as many as 1500 per year—to be fair, I was in six earthquakes while I was there for six weeks, and only one or two were barely felt) and tsunamis, a Japanese word itself. It’s one of the most densely populated countries in the world: it’s like taking half of the people in the US and forcing them to all live in California. 

The original people in Japan were the Ainu who mostly lived on the northernmost island of Hokkaido as well as some of the Russian islands north of Hokkaido.  (I did a research paper on the Ainu when I was taking Japanese in college. They were treated much like the American Indians were by the Europeans who arrived later.) The early people in Japan were mainly hunter-gatherers, and they were highly influenced by the Chinese language, literature, and culture. Likewise, Buddhism began to spread and became widely popular during the 11th century. Starting in the 1200s, Japanese society entered into a feudal era. This is this time period that inspired many of our samurai films and stories. The country was pretty much shut off to the rest of the world. However, Portuguese Jesuit priests were allowed to enter during the 1600s (if you’ve ever read James Clavell’s Shogun, you’ll be familiar with this period). This was a crucial visit, which allowed Japan to obtain many items (including weapons) and cultural information from the West. This period of closure to the outside lasted until US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry landed in Japan in 1854, and Japan subsequently opened itself up to the world again. Japan entered what’s known as the Meiji Restoration where they sent out their best and finest students to learn everything they could from the rest of the world to bring back to Japan in order to help modernize the country. Around the turn of the century, Japan entered wars with China and Russia to gain land. It then entered China again in 1937 and also invaded French Indochina and Pearl Harbor. The US responded to the attack at Pearl Harbor by dropping the controversial atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (making it the only country in the world to be attacked this way). Since WWII, Japan has increased its economy to have one of the largest economies in the world and subsequently, a high quality life. 

Not only is Tokyo the capital, it’s the largest city in the country, coming in with over 13.1 million people in the metropolitan area. I have a certain affinity for this city because this is where I did my homestay (in Ikegami, Ota-ku). Its former name is Edo, which is often mentioned in literature and in some place names, but was renamed Tokyo during the Meiji Restoration. Tokyo took much damage from bombings during WWII and much of the city was rebuilt after the war. Today, it is a major city for government, education, finance, culture, sports, and the arts not only in Japan but throughout Asia. The city is divided into 23 wards, each one with its own special bragging points. The major shopping and tourist areas are in Shinjuku and Shibuya as well as the Ginza and Harajuku neighborhoods. Temples and shrines dot the cityscape along with museums, libraries, restaurants, Tokyo Dome baseball stadium, Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Imperial Palace, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, the Rainbow Bridge and many other places to see. 

Since the Meiji period started in 1868, Japan started expanding its economy and joining the world market. There were many industries getting their start, and there are many top companies in Japan today that were started during this period. The period after WWII saw much growth up until the 1990s when the bubble finally popped, and the slowdown generally lasted until the 2000s. Japan is a leading producer of cars—names like Daihatsu, Honda, Isuzu, Mazda, Mitsubishi (what I drive), Nissan, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota, and Yamaha are common names around the world. They’re also known for their electronics companies such as Sony, Panasonic, Nintendo, Casio, Hitachi, Seiko, Sharp, Toshiba, Minolta, Fuji, Fujitsu, JVC, Kenwood, Konica, Kyocera, Uniden, TDK, Sanyo, Pioneer, and Nikon. They also have substantial robotics, energy, biomedical technologies, chemical, and space programs in Japan. The oldest company in the world is a construction company that was founded in 578 and was continuously in business until it was absorbed by another company in 2006. 

Religious freedom is granted throughout the country. Although most Japanese people do not actually consider themselves belonging to any religion, most people visit a Buddhist or Shinto shrines during major festivals and holidays and will lay claim to one of these religions when asked. Other Asian religions are also found in Japan like Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam as well as Judaism and to a much lesser degree, Christianity. 

By far the most widely spoken language in Japan is Japanese. It’s the language of government and education and general communication. Japanese uses four writing systems: hiragana (for purely Japanese words), katakana (for foreign or borrowed words), kanji (the more complicated symbols borrowed from Chinese), and romaji (Roman letters as well as Roman Arabic numerals). It also utilizes a set of honorifics, meaning they have different ways of speaking to those higher than you in society and those lower than you. The Ainu language in northern Japan is on the verge of becoming extinct. However, awareness of the Ryukyuan languages (those of the Ryukyu Islands and Okinawan dialects) are also increasing. 

Japan’s popularity and cultural products have reached all corners of the earth from Hello Kitty to Pocky to anime to video games to sumo wrestling and martial arts to cat cafes to karaoke to beer vending machines to bonsai trees to sushi, green tea, fugu, and Kobe beef. I’m so excited to write about a country I love and would love to take my children to. My kids are already telling me to find a job there (I just don’t think any company offering an editing job would pay to move my whole family across the world, or to any country for that matter).  

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, July 12, 2015


We had some pretty big storms last night, and there are more predicted for this afternoon.  But luckily, we were able to grill out this afternoon. This has the makings of a really awesome meal, and I’ve been looking forward to it all week. Especially since I found out a grocery store down the street had a really great sale on chicken—I got over 6 lbs of chicken quarters for $4.35! 

I just can't get over how good this is. I am DEFINITELY going to have to do this one again.

The main dish today is jerk chicken. I often associate jerk chicken with Jamaica, but apparently it’s not the “national dish” per se, which is often attributed to a dish called ackee and saltfish. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find ackee, but lo and behold, I did find some at the international grocery store. I’ll have to remember that for future reference. But anyway, I’ve loved jerk chicken for years but had no idea how to make it. This calls to take your chicken and let it marinate overnight in a marinade made of brown sugar, allspice, scallions, vegetable oil, black pepper, salt, ginger, lime juice, soy sauce, thyme, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, minced garlic, and minced serrano peppers (in lieu of Scotch bonnets or habaneros). Then when it came time to grill (I’m actually trying to learn how to grill from my husband; it’s not my favorite thing and thankfully he handled everything today beautifully), we placed it skin side down and turned it after a little while when the marinade started to form a crust. Different recipes calls to handle this a little differently, but we reserved some of the marinade to brush on while it was grilling. We even tried to emulate a barbecue jerk chicken we loved from a jerk chicken place we used to frequent when we were in Chicago by brushing barbecue sauce on instead of marinade. This was so good, complete with sauce all over your fingers and lips. As my husband put it, “I’m having some jerk chicken with a side of jerk chicken, and for dessert I’m having some jerk chicken.” 

You really can't go wrong with this bread. It's quite easy and very good.

The bread I chose for today is called hard dough bread (spelled a variety of ways).  When we lived in Chicago, the jerk chicken places used to serve their meals with a slice of hard dough bread.  We never knew what it was called, but it was like a dense white bread that was slightly sweet (this was the closest thing I could find for it). It went well with the spiciness of the chicken.  This bread starts out with mixing all of the dry ingredients first: 6 2/3 c flour, 1 packet of yeast, 4 Tbsp sugar, and 2 tsp salt. Then I took 5 Tbsp of butter and cut it into the dry ingredients. After it was all incorporated, I poured in 2 c of cold water and kneaded it for about 15 minutes. Next it came time to form it into a ball and oil it, covering it with a towel and letting it rest for 40 minutes. After this time was up, I took out the dough ball, broke it into two pieces, and rolled it out with a rolling pin until it was a rectangle. Then I rolled up my dough as tightly as I could and shaped it into a rectangle shape so that it would fit into my greased loaf pans. After letting it rest for another 40 minutes, I put it into a 375º oven for 25 minutes. The bread wasn’t quite as dense as the bread I remember in Chicago, but it was still very good nonetheless. It was soft with a somewhat soft crust and a slightly sweet taste. It went well with the jerk chicken, but I think it’ll also go well with some butter and jam. 

This was good. Although you can use different kinds of beans/peas, I think kidney beans are best.

To go with this, I made the ubiquitous side dish of rice and beans. I drained the liquid off of the kidney beans into a large measuring cup, adding in a can of coconut milk and enough water to top it off at 4 cups. Then I put the liquids in a pot with the beans, onions, garlic, thyme, and some oil, bringing it all to a boil. After it reaches boiling, I put the rice into the pot as well, stirring it well. I laid a whole serrano pepper on top, covered it, and let it cook for about 20 minutes until the rice is cooked. Just before I served this, I took the pepper out. It wasn’t quite as flavorful as I imagined it would be. The consistency was more or less ok although there were a few grains of rice or onions that seemed a little hard still. Perhaps it needed more salt? Black pepper maybe? Perhaps some crushed red pepper or cumin? I don’t know. It was good, but I think I need to work with the recipe. 

It's so colorful, packed with nutrients and very good for you.

And finally, I served this with steamed callaloo. I bought canned callaloo (which saved a little time than if I bought fresh) and emptied it into a pot along with some oil and some water. Then I added in a little onion, a can of diced tomatoes, minced garlic, thyme, and salt and cooked it over a medium flame for about ten minutes or so. Callaloo will turn brown if it’s overcooked so it’s best to watch it. This had a little bit of a bite to it, even though I didn’t add in anything particularly spicy. To me, callaloo has a flavor and consistency like collard greens, so if you like collard greens, you’d like this. We’re huge fans of collard greens, so this went over well with my family. 

This is one of those meals that I'm looking forward to having for lunch tomorrow. If my husband doesn't eat all the chicken first.

This was one of those meals that went over well with the whole family. Everyone was raving about the chicken (which makes this a must-repeat recipe). I know as a parent and wife of people with a variety of dietary restrictions for a variety of reasons, it’s often challenging to find something everyone can/will eat. I have one who needs soft foods, no MSG, and no tomatoes; two who can’t do spicy foods; one who needs high calorie foods; and I don’t do aspartame. Not to mention that one person hates squash, one hates sour cream and cantaloupe, and one is so picky that it changes daily. So, when I make a dish or a meal that hits most of these marks, then it’s a winner for me. And this one was a winner.  Because of this, my prize is to finish my Red Stripe and then maybe finish another.

Up next: Japan


Music has played an important role in Jamaican society since the beginning. It was a way to bring the community together not only as entertainment but also to express themselves and their feelings on social issues. There are several genres of music that have gained popularity in Jamaica throughout the decades of the past few centuries. 

Love this lyric from the song "Trenchtown Rock." Always a favorite.
Mento music is a style that is often mistaken for calypso music although they are two separate genres. This style often uses an instrument called a rhumba box (it’s also called a marímbula in other Caribbean countries). It’s basically a large mbira (sometimes called an African thumb piano) placed on the front of a box that you can sit on. The mbira part is in the front of the box between your legs as you’re sitting on the top. The calypso music that mento is often confused with is actually from Trinidad and Tobago. The lyrics often utilize humor, social commentary, and sexual innuendos. Soca music, also stemming from Trinidadian traditions, is also popular in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean. 

As jazz was taking off in the early 20th century, it certainly made its way to Jamaica as well. However, there really wasn’t much audience for jazz at that time in Jamaica, and many musicians who wanted to pursue that musical path opted to perform in the UK (and other areas in Europe) and the US. 

Dances in Jamaica include traditions from both Africa and Europe. And in some cases, these traditions have been merged together. Altogether, anthropologists have identified 40 different dances in Jamaica. Jonkonnu dances are not just dances but an entire festival/celebration associated with it as well. These jonkonnu festivals generally incorporate mime-play and theatrical elements into it, coupled with a variety of dances that includes acrobatic moves, moves that mimic animals and other characters, and belly dancing. Pukkumina is another dance that had similarities to some East Indian dances. Dancehall and ska also have their own short-lived dances, usually limited to a popular song at the time. 

Ska, one of my absolute favorite genres, got its start in Jamaica during the 1950s. Ska took elements of mento and calypso and merged it with jazz and R&B. One of the key features of ska bands are its heavy use of the horn line and its emphasis on upbeats. One of the early ska bands was The Skatalites. There were several waves of ska throughout the decades as musicians combined ska with other genres. The most recent wave during the 1990s combined ska with punk rock. Ska gave way to rocksteady and reggae. Rocksteady, made popular by musicians such as Desmond Dekker, put an emphasis on the baseline. 

Reggae is fairly well known across the world and is especially popular throughout the Caribbean and Africa. Bob Marley was probably one of the biggest names in reggae and helped spread its popularity worldwide along with musicians like Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. It was so popular that many musicians borrowed elements of reggae in their music or worked with reggae musicians on certain songs. During the 1980s a style known as dancehall also came on the scene. To me dancehall and another style called ragga are extensions of reggae. They tend to be more upbeat tempo-wise, and their lyrics are less social/political (although there are a few songs out there that are) and focus more on everyday life and love. Staring in the late 1980s and 1990s, reggae and dancehall crossovers have been fairly popular across the US, UK, and Caribbean markets. Musicians such as Buju Banton, Capleton, Beenie Man, Shabba Ranks, Bounty Killer, Sean Paul, Shaggy, and Sean Kingston have enjoyed much success in this category. 

Now, I’ve listened to reggae, ragga, and dancehall for many years, thanks to my husband and his son who introduced me to these genres. And I added a lot of these artists to my playlist. So, let’s go through some of my favorites. I mentioned Desmond Dekker earlier as an example of early rocksteady. To me, his music has a lot of elements of reggae and 1950s rock. Sometimes rocksteady and early ska (like The Skatalites) share many similarities in style. 

Of course, Bob Marley is a staple. Most people know at least a few of his songs, which have been used as anthems for promoting peace and Rastafarianism. I think even the Jamaican Tourism Board used his music in promoting the island. Peter Tosh is in the same genre as Bob Marley. It’s amazing how the song “Legalize It” is still relevant today, even though that song was released in 1975. 

Shabba Ranks is one musician who I have never really listened to by himself. Everything I have heard has always been part of a mix. It seems like he often has a lot of other singers featured on his tracks and some of his mixes also features the iconic orchestra hits and electric piano that were popular in the 1980s.

Beres Hammond’s style has more of a softer, slower side of reggae. He’s another one who I have mostly heard in reggae mixes. 

Although definitely having their own distinctive styles, I often place Beenie Man, Capleton, Buju Banton, and Bounty Killer in the same category. In fact I have made mix CDs with all of their music on it. I used Capleton’s “Jah Jah City” as a ringtone for several years. To this day when I play that song, I start looking for my phone. 

And then there’s the newer dancehall/reggae crossover artists who cater to the US/North American crowd. Artists such as Shaggy, Sean Paul, Sean Kingston, and others have collaborated with hip-hop, reggaeton, R&B, and pop artists.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


Before the Spanish arrived in Jamaica, the Taíno people predominantly lived across the islands of the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, Bahamas, and others). Their greatest contribution to the art world was the zemi. A zemi is an ancestral deity and often personified as a sculpture, usually made of wood, bone, or skulls. Although some of these sculptures were small, some were quite large; many were simply made while others were elaborate. They were very important to their culture. 


After the Spanish arrived and after the British took control of the island, there was a general push toward European-style art. Many British and other European artists flocked to Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean to begin using the islands as the backdrops for their paintings. However, they only used the styles they knew: painting the islands from the point of view of a European. There were many portfolios and sketches of island life during the 1700s and 1800s. 

"Mother Caring for Young" by Edna Manley -- I know this scene, it says, "You need to be quiet if you know what's good for you."
Jamaica wouldn’t develop its own sense of nationalistic arts movements until the beginning of the 20th century.  Edna Manley was a British woman who traveled to Jamaica with her husband. She was an artist and often created paintings and sculptures that reflected the changing socio-political atmosphere in Jamaica. During the 1930s and 1940s, many of the Africans who were in Jamaica had started to seriously talk about independence. Her sculpture “Negro Aroused” and her painting “Beadseller” and “Market Women” were among her most famous works. For these works and her dedication to preserving and encouraging Jamaican art, she has been dubbed the “mother of Jamaican art.” 

by Richard Blackford

Many up-and-coming artists in Jamaica traveled abroad to study in England and other areas and brought back what they learned to Jamaica. And several of these students came back to teach at the Jamaican School of Art, later renamed in honor of Edna Manley. After independence, Jamaican artists continued to create art that reflected their African and Amerindian roots. One of the unifying styles you’ll find in many Jamaican paintings is the use of bright colors (which you’ll also find across much of the Caribbean and Latin America) and their use of shading as well; subjects such as daily life on the island were common. Artists also used social commentary, such as violence and homosexuality, as the subject of their works. 

Jamaican literature as we know it stems directly from many of the African traditions that were brought over during the slave trade. Many of these stories aligned with the Ashanti tribe in West Africa since this was one of the main areas they came from. Early on, these stories and histories were told orally, or by word of mouth. They were passed on generation to generation as a means of entertainment and preservation. One of the West African folktale characters that made its way into Jamaican folktales are the stories of Anansi (who goes by a number of other spellings, such as Anancy, Nancy Spida, Brer Nancy, or other variations). Anansi is known as the spider-god who is often portrayed as a trickster and often causing trouble with other god-characters. 

Modern literature didn’t come about as we know it until the late 1800s. Thomas MacDermot was probably the first writer who brought Jamaica into the limelight as a viable English-speaker country that also produces English-language literature. Some critics consider MacDermot as the beginning of modern Jamaican literature. 

Poetry is a popular genre in Jamaican literature, and many Jamaican poets have risen to prominence. One poet, Claude McKay, not only had a major influence on Jamaican literature but also moved to the US and directly influenced the Harlem Renaissance. This was before he moved to France and was directly involved in the Negritude movement of promoting African identity in literature, the arts, and in society.

Another well-known poet is Una Marson. Not only was she a poet, but she was also one of the first major voices of feminism. She also produced a radio show for the BBC about life in the Caribbean. Louise Bennett-Coverly made a voice for herself by writing in patois, the local dialect, giving her work a distinctive Jamaican voice. 

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican journalist and political leader who was highly influential in the Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanist movements. Throughout much of his work, he has written a number of petitions and articles outlining his views. There are a number of schools and universities named after him in Jamaica, the US, Canada, and the UK. (One of the schools near where we lived in Chicago was named after him.) 

Ian Fleming at work.

Although he was born and raised near London, England, writer and journalist Ian Fleming later moved to Jamaica. He is most known for his character James Bond and the series of novels surrounding him. Surprising to me, he also wrote Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang as well. However, his personal life was a lot of cheating and some more cheating.

There are many other writers—poets, novelists, historians, educators, science fiction writers, playwrights, editors, short story writers, folklorists, critics—who have done very well, making names for themselves and representing their country at the same time.

Up next: music and dance