Reading the Air: Mama- san

image Some of my best friends and acquaintances in Japan are Mama-san. This sounds very exotic, conjuring up pictures of large-breasted  hostesses who provide wonderful food and drinks for needy and weary visitors. Of, course, large beasts are not usually part of the image here, but we can find the izakaiya, or informal bar, on most street corners. They are indicated by colorful red and white lanterns hanging outside, and inside are usually fairly small windowless cafes with a counter and beer pumps, food display cases, etc. and tables andimage chairs to sit at.

We do not need a reservation unlike for formal restaurants here, so we can go spontaneously and always be sure to be able to get tasty cold beer or sake (rice wine) or sho-chu (barley or potato vodka) and freshly cooked varied food. I live in the mountains of western Japan outside Osaka, so my local izakaiya which is called Yamaizakaiya chan or ‘Mama Mountain’ down a long flight of stone steps from my front door, is so convenient. Apart from that, it is highly gourmet, and being passionate about cooking myself, I have got to know the Mama-sans – there are two of them so we’re very blessed – and we exchange dishes. They are always keen to try to make their extensive menu more cosmopolitan.

Going there is always a great yet inexpensive treat. We open the door and are greeted loudly by three or sometimes four warm, apron-clad young women. In Japan, vendors and restaurant owners always shout loudly when customers enter their establishment to show their gratitude to the gods!izakaiya 1

Immediately, we are provided with iced water and oshibori (warm/chilled wet scented towel to refresh our hands), and the handwritten menus hanging above the counter, are swung around in front of us so we can place our order. There’s so much to choose from, but while we choose, we order freshly poured delicious malty beer in large glass mugs. In the hot summer here, almost everyone enjoys Japanese beer’s effervescence, which temporarily takes your breath away.

Japanese weather 5Sitting at the counter on high chairs is desirable because we can see all the cooking going on. The space behind the counter to westerners is incredibly small, but all the equipment and attractive serving dishes are fitted into their special niches, and the staff know the layout intimately.  Food is ordered, the fresh ingredients are displayed, and the cooking using all manner of equipment from frying pan to steamer to Bunsen burner to rice cooker, begins. The fragrances and site of the food being transformed into dishes is fascinating, so I love watching.


One of the most fascinating processes is native to Kansai in general and Osaka in particular, and involves octopus, a great delicacy here. It is called takoyaki and is available everywhere here, but our Mama-san’s version is highly gourmet. This is what it consists of.

okazuA thick batter is made using flour and soya and so on – the ingredients of this batter  are usually a closely guarded secret, so I cannot say more. Then small pieces of tendarised octopus are added to it. The cooking involves a large pan set on gas heat with between 15 and 25 round indentations about 3 or 4 diameters across. This special pan is greased with vegetable oil and heated until smoking, and then the batter is poured to fill each receptacle. Almost immediately the cook, using two long-handled turners, works rapidly to turn the crisping spheres so that they can brown evenly. This is a real skill, especially at speed.okazu 1

The smell is gorgeous while cooking, and eventually these crispy tasty spheres are turned out into an attractive dish, sprinkled with bonito shavings and eaten with a little mayonnaise if desired. This is a delicious light snack, and especially gourmet when made by our Mama san, who smiles and chats away while she’s performing this feat.

While we are drinking gorgeous chilled beer, it is our Mama-san’s habit to serve some tasty okazu, various snacks involving bamboo and lotus root, exotic cuts of fish and meat, sushi okazu 2with fresh salmon or gyoza, small steamed pastries filled with ginkgo nuts, cabbage and minced beef, and so on. Then the other dishes arrive, one after the other, freshly cooked, steaming hot and garnished with lemon, grated white radish, and unusual vegetables like chrysanthemum leaves and mountain potatoes.

We invited our Mamas to come for European lunch which I will describe in the next post. It was a very exotic lunch indeed. We must remember that Japan is a monoculture, so international exchanges re unusual for the majority of the nation. Some Japanese people have never ever been close to a foreigner. It is a privilege to be in Japan at this time as it opens up to the influences of the world.

social equality in Japan

Reading the Air: Eternal Zero

eternal zero

The story of this novel by Naoki Hyakuta (2012) is riveting and revealing. The topic is the Pacific War and the kamikaze or suicide pilots Japan is so famous for, a topic that the older generation nowadays in Japan do not care to discuss. Kami means ‘divine’ or ‘of the gods,’ kaze ‘spirit wind.’ This warrior’s sacred intention carried out in a mechanical age is a raucous echo of the medieval Samurai honour code known as seppuku or abdomen-cutting, executed at the warrior’s own hand rather than fall kamikaze imageinto enemy hands. Both the modern and the ancient version of the realization of this death-wish would seem to come from a highly emotional state induced either by a surfeit of pride, of nationalistic zeal, or the intolerable fear of torture in enemy hands. In other circumstances, such a drastic act or sacrifice of precious life, may issue from a religious or sacrificial source, and although both Samurai and kamikaze pilots tended to be spiritual rather than religious, their setting for such an act secular rather than religious, it is eternal zero 1seriously sacrifical for the greater good.

The story of ‘Eternal Zero’ starts with a funeral ceremony, the family assembled clad in back in the traditional way, the furnace doors closing away a human life, which the loved ones were not able to revive with their wailing and entreating. The chief mourner falls to his knees, sobbing uncontrollably, which surprises the gathering. Step-grandfather has never shown such emotion, so what does it symbolize? This breaking down is a symbol of a secret that must come to light, and it is the grandchildren who take the reigns of their legacy and become eternal zero 2determined to understand what has been kept from them for so long.

Their search takes them across Japan to interview fighter pilots who survived the Pacific War, in an attempt to unearth the story of their biological grandfather whose existence has been buried until now at the death of his then-wife.

Young smooth-faced men are caught up in the war games of their blustering elders, uncertain of their true motivation for risking their lives and destroying others, but forbidden to question orders. Cheering each other on, they are constantly on standby to launch their fighter planes  from the aircraft-carrier, then delighted by the hazardous landings back on deck, their flimsy wheels halted by taught wires. Their task is to disable the American aircraft-carriers at all costs, if not by bomb-drop then by deliberately flying their plane into the target, the most effective way of causing the greatest damage.

Miyabe, their blood grandfather, is painted in many lights by the survivors of his squadron. Hero. Murderer. Varyingly attached to or detached from human life. While on leave to see his wife and new baby, when the moment comes for him to go back to eternal zero 3 enemy lines, his wife begs him not to go, and he says he will come back even if he dies serving his Emperor and country. He swears he will always protect his family from the spiritual or physical worlds. He speaks out when a senior officer rails the squadron members for the loss of one of their precious planes, suggesting simply that the human life lost is surely more precious than the plane. This is met with a vicious assault around the head and eyes, but with marvelous respect from the squadron members. His skill as a pilot is unsurpassed, the envy of all his comrades, one of whom tries to shoot him down to shift the limelight to eternal zero 4himself.

Young step-grandfather becomes a good friend of Miyabe, who visits him in the hospital when he is wounded, and gives him his own warm trench-coat to wear for his convalescence back in freezing and ruined Japan. They each promise to let their families know if they fail to return from a mission, Miyabe entrusting him with his cherished snapshot of his wife and baby daughter, grandmother and mother. And as Japan’s position becomes weaker and weaker, their arsenals depleted, US forces creeping ever closer to invading mainland Japan, Miyabe is required to offer himself up as special-kamikaze attacker, delivering as much of their munitions as possible on a direct hit. He sacrifices himself in the certainty that he is going on the way of the kamikaze 3gods, smiling widely from the cockpit during the vertical descent.

Miyabe suffers badly at the loss of members of his squadron who volunteered to sacrifice themselves. It’s clear from the shrines he makes for each of them, displaying their photographs, lighting candles and incense, that he values life for living more than for sacrifice, more than for duty. He has watched them explode around him silently from his cockpit, no radio warnings or may-days possible.

The war is lost, Japan ravaged, America invades. Wives and children are left bereft, without any means, by dead husbands and fathers. Step-grandfather goes to find Miyabe’s wife and daughter from the salvaged photograph as promised. He knocks on the cardboard-covered door, which eternal zero 5slides aside swiftly to reveal his wife with a broom held ready to attack foreign intruders. At first, she thinks the shadowy soldier is Miyabe, but then realises that there is official news to be conveyed. There is such hostility, fear, not-knowing and gross shock, which turn her too into a merciless warrior. She does not want the young soldier’s money or pity; her bitterness all utilized to keep her and her infant daughter in some way warm.

But the young solider stays close by. He has promised his sacrificial friend to take care of his family. He tries to gain the trust of the little girl, offering her a coin, candy, most of which are given back by irate mother. Then eventually, the bitterness subsides, smiles emerge, the young child bonds with her father’s replacement easily. The young soldier has found his reason to live, way of the godslosing site completely of his reason to die.

They marry, have more children, and vow not to ever talk about Miyabe though he will always be their foundation, and spiritual protection, their bridge to the invisible world. And so, life goes on, the war is forgotten, the ‘Way of the Gods’ is buried as Japan pledges never to enter another war.

The secret is out, and the grandchildren rejoice in their heroic Miyabe, and the incredible strength and fearlessness of their ancestors. Finally, Miyabe’s zero-sen fighter cruises past his tear-consumed grandson on a city bridge, and the divine way of the gods is passed on with wing-tip and propeller, gasoline fumes and leather helmet.

This story displays beautifully the refusal of the Japanese spirit to sell out entirely to high-tech and super-power. The way of the gods, of no-mind, remains strong even today.

irreligious Japanese

Reading the Air: Meredith records her impressions of Japan

MukaijimaThe small digital recorder is switched on, the standby light turning from red to green. Meredith prepares to record.

‘I am sitting in my small room which serves as an office and bedroom. During my time in japan, I am staying in a centre for foreign students and teachers in a new town area of Kyoto which has been reclaimed from swamp-land.  It is filled with concrete apartment blocks of identical construction along the wide terrace by the river, bounded by delightful strip gardens in Japanese traditional design, by supermarkets, which are quiet and unidentifiable, and train stations with their social equality in Japan minimal signs.  Nothing is overstated here. No individual or company allowed to get more advertising space or brighter neon lights.

Everyone here has a bicycle, because the walk to the station from this apartment city is too long.  They have permits to park their bicycles next to the train station in a huge bicycle warehouse.  All stations have them here.  Most Japanese people seem to crave the silent speedy mode of travel in preference to walking, apart from pedalling homeelderly people who have been warned about possible strokes and urged to walk vigorously by their doctors.

I am really happy to use a bicycle again as it is not possible for me to use one near my city university office in US. I especially enjoy the ride home in the evening, when the dark straight streets are shared with others who have been released from work.  There is a kind of forgotten joy in pedaling the evening in with Japanese strangers.

My small room, with the sole door opening outwards on to the external corridor of the  external corridorsrectangular student apartment block is high above the ground-nine stories actually.  It’s very strange and exciting to burst out of my room to immediately feel the quality of the air, which is either boiling hot or icy cold.  There are two reasons for this.

First, Kyoto’s weather has so many extremes, and second, the railing is the only thing which prevents me from walking off the edge of the corridor and crashing into the car park below.  i think, this open-sided quality of Japanese apartment blocks is perhaps meant to reflect the Japanese preoccupation with safety, as fires seem to break out quite commonly in this country. The buildings are increasingly pre-fabricated in the event of earthquakes.  But on the other hand, I might feel safer with a wall.

Of course, living in a student centre is not always as quiet as this.  Quite often, groups of students chatter together on the corridor, and let their metal doors bang constantly as they go in and out of each other’s studio rooms.  But mostly, it is incredibly quiet.  It’s almost impossible to believe that I am quite near the centre of the city so calm and muffled is it.

bosorzoku boysThe only distinguishing sound feature is the bosorzoku boys, the motorbike riders-a kind of virtuosic Hell’s Angels.  They deliberately tune up their engines and rev up their throttles to make rapid drum rhythms while they wait at the traffic lights.  This is a recent development among young people who want to show their displeasure with this repressive society in a novel, harmless, but incredibly irritating way.  The other way they do this is by throwing themselves on to railway lines.  Japan still holds the word record for suicides.

Now, the uncharacteristic wind ruffles the metal charm which hangs from the outside peephole on my metal door. With a lump in my throat and palpitations low in my chest, I must prepare for the important Fire Ritual ceremony which Nohmen wants me to attend wind chimetomorrow.  I will happily study the buildings and ancient plans of these beautiful temples, but when it comes to what goes on inside them, I feel very Japanese.  Apparently, the majority of Japanese people are allergic to any talk of religion!  Some call them ‘Irreligious.’

It feels as if I am coming under some kind of powerful force, as if someone is going to hypnotize me so I’ll be lost forever. Invisible world?  Visible world?  I really don’t know what Nohmen and Kokoro are talking about.’

irreligious Japanese



Reading the Air: archipelago child

archipelago childNohmen and Kokoro drive along narrow Kyoto streets packed with singular dwellings, for there have been few building regulations until recent years when Japan has become more and more prosperous.  Some of the rickety structures and dilapidated older houses have been removed, and instead light, smart earthquake-proofed houses build in their place in a trice.

The hushed bicycle is the most favoured form of transport for local people, their riders fearless and determined to take the shortest route to their destination, which often means traveling the wrong way on one-way streets.

‘So, my lovely Kokoro, have you found your first moment of self-sincerity we were talking self-sincerityabout yet?’ Nohmen enquires, taking her hand which he usually does as they drive together.

She answers, ‘Etto……Yes, perhaps.  When I was child, I very quiet.  I happy to be alone.  Near my house, there was Christian church, kyokai. Every Sunday I enjoy going to ceremony, to sing a song. Then afternoon, school for children. What you call it English?’

sunday school in japan‘Ah, perhaps you mean Sunday school.  Ah, really?  I didn’t know.  So much more to learn about you, my darling.’

‘Yes, it real pleasure.  So peaceful, and people so kind to me.  We read Bible and monk explain us story.  Different story each week,’ she says.

‘So, how did you feel your self-sincerity at Sunday school?’ he asks.jesus in japan

‘Japanese not know religion, Nohmen-san.  Not like you.  We have no training.  Most parents not know, too.  There, kind and pure teachers help me understand good way to live, to be honest and sincere.  I never forget. I so happy to understand human life better.  I never feel alone when I there, and every time when I leave I feel happy because Jesus with me.’  She taps the pocket in her warm red jacket.  ‘Jesus in my pocket they tell me.  And I believe it.’

religion forbiddneShe smiles, and Nohmen is so touched by the image of this solitary archipelago child being able to listen to the teachings of a great master. It is well-known that Japanese of the twentieth century were often prohibited from practising religion, and that Christian missionaries were martyred in early times.

Buddhism for many hundreds of years, was exclusively for the noble and rich, not for lowly people.  And sadly, its ethical and moral strong points were thought to have little connection Buddhism for nobilitywith education, unlike the strong points of Christian morals in Christian countries.  Buddhism was something separate from ordinary life, something of the mountains and the glamour of comparatively highly civilized China, which often barely touched the lives of lay people.

Kokoro’s moving story reminds Nohmen so much of his encounter with the sea turtle which brought him to Buddhism.  It would seem that despite their birth in countries separated by space and time, despite their dramatically different cultures, they were bigger planboth summoned by unlikely sources and were duly able to hear the truth, and to accept a need for remarkable spiritual teachers.

‘Ah!  This is amazing Kokoro. Our lives converged even when we were children.  It was all part of a bigger plan.’  Nohmen has never been so sure before that she is his soul mate.

Distiny, Noh-chan,’ she says, boldly squeezing his hand.Jundal Gianga

‘Destiny, my love,’ he says, gently correcting her pronunciation.  Kokoro goes on.

‘Later, when I maybe same age as you when you start university, I find Buddha, and our Masters.  Then I become more happy to have Buddha in pocket and heart as well!’

‘Hmmm, you are lucky girl. Jesus and Buddha both in your pocket,’ he quips.

They happily weave their way through the maze of streets and up on to the main expressway to their beautiful temple sanctuary in the mountains.  They are together and a part of all things in the vast Universe.christian martyrs in japan








Reading the Air: weather

Japanese weather 5It’s difficult to describe the climate in Japan. Most foreigners who live or stay here find it unique, and no doubt that is due to the massive land mass to the north and west of the islands of Japan, and the massive expanse of the Pacific Ocean to the north-east and south.: China, Mongolia and Siberia stand solid, sabre-brandishing to the rear, while we look out to arctic and tropical clear waters conquered by Indian pirates and Pacific island marathon canoeists determined to find more stable land.

The phrase ‘Far East’ is not an exaggeration when you live here. Somehow, the geographical location and the cultural separation does make it seem far away from anything and anyone. Occasionally the strange feeling arises of not knowing how you came to be here, or Japanese weather 1how or why you have stayed so long, in this volcanic land where mountains explode unexpectedly and the ground shakes so violently that it turns the Pacific Ocean turbulent. Earthquakes? Volcanoes? Typhoons? The Wet season? Unprecedented humidity? Were such extreme conditions intended for us from our birth in the industrial ‘enlightened’ west?

Such extremes of weather perhaps provoke extreme behaviour. People are excitable en masse when a typhoon is approaching because Japan is so exposed, even though it generally passes by only lightly fingering the coasts and producing endless rain in its Japanese weatherwake. Only the other day a mountain, regularly climbed by ageing hikers, suddenly exploded injuring many of them with ash and rock fall. This was a shocking sign that below the surface of these high-tech and orderly islands, there is a bubbling cauldron balanced on plates of the earth which suddenly move, stubbing against each other and upsetting the molten rock.

Never has the impermanence of things been so close at hand. Never have we felt so exposed to nature’s pain and impatience for balance and partnership. The extremes of excitement bordering on hysteria contrast with silence and stillness unknown in Japanese weather 4the west.

The flush of summer is over and autumn approaches making people’s sadness a self-fulfilling prophesy as winter does the Sakura-joy of Spring. But the humidity still creeps up the full-length trouser legs and prevents sitting as it did in full summer. A constant towel to dab at the sweat, and an elegant fan for arrivals and waiting periods outside still need to be at the fingertips. While habitual short sleeves may bring on a chill as arctic air conditioning will be used until winter truly arrives in December when it will magically transform into blistering hot air. The native people are so sensitive to temperature, so lacking in body weight, their beautiful flesh lying close to strong white bones.

The weather gods are ever-present here on these ancient islands. We must appease them by going to the shrine, offering a coin or two and shaking the rough rope of the bell. Closing of the eyes, a temple stepsnational pastime, and bringing together of the palms in gassho, followed by a vigorous clapping once or twice may keep us safe, but will it indicate what to wear to be comfortable in such climate shifts. Kimono would be  a safe bet in any condition.