Japan: Angles and Oddities

So, as I mentioned, I spent last week in Japan. As promised, here is my post about it. Many people have written about and photographed Japan’s food and other attractions, and though I did spend plenty of time with these (it was cherry blossom season, after all), I want to come at this from a less direct POV. I won’t give you temples and geishas, but angles, lines and random observations, and I’ll only give you people and food if I have something to say about them, or if they’ve been stripped into more basic forms. I have also included a few snaps to help illustrate a some of the bizarre things I came across. This ain’t no essay; just a few comments and pics. This was all in Kyoto.

That’s long enough as an introduction, but I would be remiss if I didn’t plug today’s Drop, #13: Kill, a Very Nice Man, which you can find below this post/in my previous post. Look, the Drop should really deal with Japan, but it takes place in Korea instead. I figured though, that it was close enough – at least geographically, and to a certain extent culturally – to fashion a thread. Moving on.

Observation #1: Japan is full of aesthetically pleasing lines and patterns.

Some are rigid rectangles; others flowing waves:

 

 Some push you into a corner; others lead you away:

 

 Some are straightened by nature; others curved by human hand:

Some display obvious tradition:

Others resemble modern art (even as part of traditional structures):

Some are best displayed in food:

Others combine a bit of everything:

And that’s the end of the picture show! Apart from the three further snaps below. And now, 3 further random observations.

Observation #2: Japanese make a big deal of serving the same drink to people in the same party in different drinking vessels – three of the same cocktail: three different glasses. Also, it’s big to choose your own sake glass, or hot sake cup in a restaurant. They offer you a selection. I guess it’s a way of maximizing individuality, to enhance the experience, but it’s kind of funny in relation to the extensive conformity displayed by the people, and encouraged by customs. There are plenty of rules, and people stick to them. We do it this way, and not that, but please – choose your own cup.

Observation #3: In Japan, with so many distinct sensory inputs to absorb, I found myself constantly weighing two polar reactions to an experience: delving into and enjoying the ceremony of a thing – the tradition, the detail, and idiosyncrasy; and questioning the validity of the act, becoming annoyed with the ritual and wondering if it was just silly. For instance, sushi chefs train for something like ten years to be able to cut a fish properly, and that’s kind of cool, but it also seems like overkill and kind of preposterous, doesn’t it? I mean, my palate is not unquestionably sublime, but I’m sure a San Francisco chef who knows what he’s doing and has great, fresh pacific fish at his disposal, can cut a fish to taste just as good. In Japan I sometimes felt the purpose of the thing was the ceremony itself, not the result or obvious amelioration of the thing. For instance: in a fancy little coffee shop, the well-groomed and dressed barista spent a great deal of time and made quite a show of heating each cup and saucer (offering each person a choice of their own, unique cup, of course), grinding the coffee freshly and carefully, filling the filter four separate times with hot water by making tiny circles with his wrist, heating the milk separately, placing the café au laits very neatly and pleasingly on the counter with the cookie, and the pretty spoon and the handles all aligned – and it was worst cup of coffee ever. OK, maybe I have become a coffee snob like so many of us have, and I know matcha is a better bet in Japan, but this was no café au lait, firstly, and secondly, it tasted like dish water. In fact, don’t bother drinking coffee in Japan at all – it’s like drinking wine in India. I had five coffees and the only decent one was from a Nespresso machine in someone’s house. But back to my point: big ceremony, little result. A guise of quality. An illusionist’s act.

Look, I understand the value of ritual, repetition, detail and being present when performing a task. Maybe in the past, the value was in the act itself – like samurais and their sword making, or monks and their floor sweeping – a kind of life training though action, and I’m sure that plenty of Japan still operates using this approach, but in modern-day Japan, I think the act has become confused, and the point murky. Where is the value exactly? I’m moving on cause this could get real subjective real quick.

Observation #4: Many of the people cooking the food in Japan are old, often in their eighties (they all also dress smartly, the men wearing ties). It seems a lot of the restaurants are family run, so you will have an older couple running the joint and their son or daughter, and his or her spouse helping out, or something like that. These are usually small places that sell regular/comfort/less refined/tasty food over a counter They stay open long and late to serve the lunch, after work and after drinking crowds. I ate at three such places: One was a tempura bar where the man personally frying each item slowly and deliberately, with movements like that of a chameleon, must have been at least 85. The second was an oden joint. Oden offers various vegetables, eggs, tofu, fish cakes cooked/heated in a dashi broth. OK, these two guys were probably in their sixties. The third place was an okonomiyaki joint. Okonomiyaki is a kind of thick cabbage, egg, green onion, shrimp/squid/meat and many other ingredient pancake topped with brown sauce and in this case, eaten right off the grill from the counter. This lady, pictured below, must have been well into her eighties. I made a rough calculation and figured it was possible she had made a million okonomiyakis in her life.

Told you they were random. Now for those oddities I mentioned up top.

Exhibit 1:

My Japanese friend explained: Working women can come to this bar and spend money for a certain amount of time with one of these guys. In this case, I think it was per 2 hour slot. They are called host bars, and the guys flirt and talk to the women while expensive drinks are bought and consumed. Apparently it usually isn’t sexual, focusing more on conversation, receiving attention and feeling loved (qualities often lacking in relationships to other men), though they will sleep with the women sometimes for expensive gifts. Anyway, I just love the way these ‘studs’ look with their boy band hairstyles and bedroom eyes. Who’s your favorite?

Exhibit 2:

This  was on the window of a cat cafe. It’s for people who don’t have the space, time or money for their own pets. They can come here, enjoy a refreshing drink, pay the fee (30 minutes for 1000 yen) and play with, pet and cuddle one of the cafe’s cats.

That’s it for this post. Don’t forget to check out my previous post, Drop #13: Kill, a Very Nice Man, which should be below this one on the main page.

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About EM Vireo
flooding the world with fiction

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