DNA

Every living being on the planet comes with its own genetic code all neatly tucked away in its DNA. It’s a fascinating and unique piece of information, but it is not really useful in daily life. I mean, of course, DNA evidence comes handy in paternity disputes and similar crimes, when trying to find a match for a lung transplant, or simply to make sure that the arm that has just been fished out of the sewers is not the one missing from your body.

But other than that, human DNA has not been really commercialised on a large scale, an interesting oversight in today’s economy. But never fret, the Japanese – ever eager to create the latest novelty – are trying to fill that gaping hole. Recently I became aware of two different commercial uses of one’s DNA that I will present below.

DNA Hanko

A hanko is a seal that is used in Japan instead of a signature whenever one makes an important legal contract; buying houses, opening companies, or getting married for example. They are usually exquisitely carved in wood or even stone and show the kanji of the owner’s name, often in a design that is based on ancient writings of those kanji that are undecipherable today even for educated Japanese.

The company Hankoya, the largest producer of hanko in Japan, has come up with a way of encoding one’s DNA into a hanko. Obviously not into the kanji themselves, but a hancode as they call it uses a sample of the owner’s DNA to create a unique background for the seal, on which a rather standard rendition of the name kanji is placed. The seal itself is made from titanium and resembles a double helix, and it looks something like this:

DNA seal and imprintsOf course, all this glory comes at a rather hefty price: First of all, one personal DNA seal takes months to make; when you order one, you receive a DNA sampling kit which you use on yourself and then return to the company. There, your DNA will be extracted and an algorithm will produce from it the background of your seal. Second, the cost of one hancode is 75.000 YEN at the moment, not too shabby, although I have to say that I find the idea with the double helix quite fascinating!

The main drawback of the hanko in general has not been solved though: That it can be stolen and used by anyone. Even though the owner’s DNA is encoded in it, there is no way of verifying whether the person who is using it to sell away his soul is the owner of both the hanko and the matching DNA. But who knows what the Japanese will come up with next…

DNA Glass

A much less serious application for DNA comes from beer and whiskey producer Suntory: The DNA Glass for beer. They say that in one person’s DNA they can identify five traits that are then translated into the size and shape of a beer glass:

Alcohol tolerance is encoded as capacity,
sensitivity to hops bitterness as rim thickness,
sensitivity to malt aroma as top diameter,
stimulation preference as sharpness, and
sociability as complexity of the glass.

The overall result is a glass from the 3D printer looking like this:

DNA GlassSomehow this sounds like fun and I wonder if they could find out that I don’t like beer very much. I could not find a link to purchase such a glass, but maybe there will be one later. Here is a link to a design rules I have given above: http://en.dna.glass/howtocreate/ The main page starts with a very noisy video, so go there at your own peril: http://en.dna.glass/

Valentine’s Day

Today is Valentine’s Day and depending on where you live, you will get your loves ones Valentine’s cards (US), flowers (Austria) or chocolates (Japan). Obviously, I prefer the Japanese type of gift to all the others, but then again: I will not receive one. That’s not because I’m single, mind you, no woman in Japan will receive any Valentine’s gift today.

That’s because in Japan, Valentine’s Day is an occasion for women to buy chocolate for men. And not the other way around. Also, it’s “men” in general, not just lovers or husbands. So, today many Japanese girls bring chocolates for their colleagues and bosses as well; and, given that many more men are in the workforce than women, especially in traditional companies, this can become very expensive.

Surely this is the reason why many supermarkets have had standard chocolate products for sale for weeks already, and mine even allocated extra space for a special display of Valentine’s chocolates – from cheap single pieces to very expensive family size boxes.

Anyway, I thought I could easily get over the fact that I won’t get any chocolates today, but then I found this: An exquisite “galaxy” chocolate box containing six planets of our solar system:

Valentine's chocolate galaxyIsn’t that the perfect gift for any nerd? I’m seriously jealous! Not because I had to buy them myself, but because by the time it is White Day – March 14th – where men should reciprocate and buy chocolates for women, the only thing to be had then will be hearts and flowers and Hello Kitty shaped stuff, all in pink and cute and boring. Why would I want that?

Creation of Japan

Yesterday was Kenkoku Kinen No Hi, the National Foundation Day, which is a perfect opportunity to have a look at the Japanese creation myth. The source used for my summary here is the Kojiki from 712, a fascinating account of Japanese myth that later turns into history, and the oldest surviving Japanese book.

In the beginning, there was chaos. But then, the light and the particles separated and ascended, but because the particles were heavier than the light, they could not rise that high – this is why the light is above everything else, and then there are the heavens and the seas and lands below it.

Five generations of heavenly deities and two generations of earthly deities came into existence, they were neither male nor female, and hid shortly after. Then, five pairs of deities  – brother and sister – came into being, the last pair were called Izanagi and Izanami, respectively. To these two the older deities gave the order to make, consolidate, and give birth to the land now known as Japan, and they handed the two siblings a bejewelled spear to do so.

Izanami and IzanagiIzanagi took the spear and stirred the oceans with it, and when he lifted the spear out of the waters again, the drops falling from it formed the island Onogoro. On that island, Izanagi and Izanami built a palace with a mighty pillar in its middle. They then decided to procreate as they had been ordered, and to do so, they first circled the pillar in opposite directions.

When they met on the other side, Izanami spoke first: “Oh, what a beautiful and kind youth indeed!” and Izanagi answered his sister in the same words: “Oh, what a most beautiful and kind youth!” Izanami then went on to bear two children, but they were both misshapen. So, they went back to the heavens to inquire the reason for this, and the elder gods said: “This is because the woman spoke first when you met at the opposite side of the pillar”.

Izanagi and Izanami returned to Onogoro and repeated the ritual of circling the pillar, now taking care that Izanagi spoke first, and henceforth, Izanami bore many healthy children. Their first eight children were the Oyashima, the (then known) major islands of Japan: Awaji, Shikoku, the Oki Islands, Kyushu, Iki Island, Tsushima, Sadoshima, and finally Honshu.

Afterwards, Izanami bore six more islands of Japan, and then began to give birth to a plethora of different gods and goddesses, until she died of the wounds she suffered at the birth of the God of Fire. But that’s another story that’s starting here…

I find this creation story quite interesting. Of course, there are many themes we have seen before: A chaos giving way to order, the first gods coming out of nowhere and giving birth to the land (and many more gods). The interesting part is the story of Izanagi (male-who-invites) and Izanami (female-who-invites), and I am not aware of a similar one.

Even though ordered to procreate, Izanami voluntarily agrees – after an inspection of each other’s bodies – to Izanagi putting “his excess into her scarcity”, a scene that must be so raunchy in the original that the first English translation dares only reproduce it in Latin (for the sake of the reading ladies, obviously). This is a far cry from the common rape and abduction scenes and even the “oh, by the way, you’ll be having God’s child” of Christianity. And even though it is punished immediately, it is the female Izanami who speaks first at what could be interpreted as a wedding ceremony. The story is almost feminist, which I find quite exceptional.

Anyway, the list of eight major islands mentioned in the Kojiki shows its age: At the time it was compiled, Okinawa had not been discovered (that would take another 60 years). And Honshu’s north was so scarcely populated, that even the existence of Hokkaido does not seem to have been common knowledge until the Nihon Shoki – the second oldest book in Japan, also a myth/history compilation – was completed in 720.

If you want to read further in the Kojiki, you can read the very first, 1882, translation into English at Sacred Texts. The footnotes are extensive, but not really needed if you are simply interested in the (hi-) story of Japan. In any case, I might come back at a later time and tell some more Japanese myths.

Setsubun

Setsubun – literally seasonal division – is a religious festival that usually takes place on February 3rd in Japan, and it marks the last day of winter. It dates back more than 1000 years, and was introduced in Japan as a part of the New Year’s festivities in the lunar calendar. Because of this, the main part of the setsubun festivities is the driving out of the demons of last year, bad habits and bad luck may stay behind as well.

Red Demon of avariceThe way to do this is very interesting: One throws fukumame – lucky beans – at the demons while shouting “Oni wa soto” (demons outside) and one eats the beans with a hearty shout of “fuku wa uchi” (luck inside). This mamemaki ceremony is done in many Japanese homes at 5 pm, and it is great fun for kids. Somebody of the family will wear a demon mask, and the kids are allowed to throw beans at the demon, all the while shouting on top of their lungs. Even some of my adult friends do the shouting! As for the “fuku wa uchi” part, once the oni are out the door, people are supposed to eat the fukumame, one for each year of their lives plus an extra one for the coming year.

Many people also visit a shrine or temple for setsubun to take part in the mamemaki. Often, not only beans are scattered there, but among them little gifts or coupons for larger prizes. In the larger shrines, celebrities like actors, sumo wrestlers, or Geisha who were born under the same zodiac sign as the coming one (they are called toshi-otoko or toshi-onna) perform the mamemaki, and the visitors can get quite rough in order to catch the prizes.

Yoshida Shrine's ShinshiThe banishing of the demons itself is a religious ceremony. In Kyoto, Yoshida shrine has the largest setsubun festival, and in a shinto ritual, complete with music and dance, and archers who are actually shooting arrows at the oni, three demons are vanquished that have come to the shrine from the mountains and threatened the people on the way. I have not quite found out the precise meaning of the figure with the four eyes, but he does not seem to be a demon himself, rather the one who does or helps with the banishing.

Demon of selfishnessHowever, the colours of the demons do have meaning, and there are five different oni easily distinguishable by the colour of their skin (since they only wear loincloths):

red: avarice
blue: anger and irritation
yellow: selfishness
green: ill-health
black: complaining and hesitance

Once the ceremony is over and the demons of last year are defeated, the oni return to the mountains, no further threat for the people residing below.

Some shrines also have a bonfire later in the evening, where people can bring last year’s omamori amulets and similar things to have them ritually burned.

A very interesting – and unfortunately, almost forgotten custom – is dressing up in disguises, wearing different hairstyles or even crossdressing altogether. The latter custom is still maintained by the Geiko in Kyoto and their clients, who dress up as the other sex when meeting on setsubun.

Of course, no Japanese festival can do without special food. Except for the fukumame, people are supposed to eat sardines with grated daikon radish, and then put the fish heads on the doorpost together with holly leaves to drive away the demons who apparently don’t like the smell of fish. As accompaniment, ginger sake is drunk.

Ehomaki and OnimaskA relatively new culinary custom has its origin in Osaka: eating ehomaki, literally lucky direction roll. Nothing more than a usual fat sushi roll, one must eat the whole, uncut (!) roll in one sitting without speaking and while facing the lucky direction of the year, which depends on the current Chinese zodiac. This year’s eho is north-north-west, by the way.

Out with the Demons!

Tomorrow is setsubun, a very old traditional festival which at the times when Japan was still using the lunar calendar was part of the New Year’s festivities. And a part of these is the driving out of the old year and its demons and bring in luck for the coming year, and it is big fun for kids young and old…

setsubun demon and eho makiThis evening there was the demon vanquishing ceremony at Yoshida Shrine, which is the largest one in the city. I just returned home, cold and tired, but at least I had lots to eat – there were many food stalls lining the entrance to the shrine. Tomorrow is the big bonfire where people can burn their old amulets and charms from last year, I brought a few of mine as well and bought a new one instead.

Anyway, very short post today, I will write in detail about setsubun in the weekend. Apparently I have never done so before, so that gives me something to do!

 

Hidenobu Suzuki

For all of you who are not stalking me at my workplace on Facebook, I just have to share this wonderful photo of what is called “Monet’s Pond” in Gifu Prefecture:

Monet Pond by Hidenobu Suzuki

Monet Pond in Gifu by Hidenobu Suzuki

The photo has been taken by Hidenobu Suzuki, a young Japanese photographer and digital artist living in Aichi prefecture. He says about his work:

My landscape photographs are like Japanese paintings. I think that realism is more Western style. Japanese like to express emotions and spiritual feelings through the landscape photography.

Many more of his absolutely fantastic photographs from places all over Japan can be found on his National Geographic Page; and his work has even been chosen 10 times or so as “Picture of the Day” by the National Geographic – and they are known for exquisit photos! Last December he even had an exhibition in the Louvre in Paris! I wish one day I’ll be as good as he is…

Persimmon Leaf Sushi

There are many kinds of sushi, most of them with fish, a few with other things like avocado or eggs, and they come in a variety of forms: nigiri sushi (classic rice on bottom, fish on top), maki sushi rolls, temaki sushi wrapped in a piece of seaweed looking like an ice cream cone, chirashi sushi (rice in a bowl with raw fish sprinkled on top)… However, the one thing all sushi has in common is that it must be consumed fresh on the day it is made – it is raw fish, after all.

Well, there are exceptions to everything of course. In this case here, one of them is called kakinoha sushi, persimmon leaf sushi. It looks like a standard nigiri sushi wrapped in a green leaf, but there is a little more to it: To make kakinoha sushi, the cooked rice is placed in a wooden mold, the already cured fish is put on top of it, and the whole thing is pressed firmly. The finished pressed sushi is cut into bite sized pieces and only now individually wrapped in salted persimmon leaves. After that, the pieces are put back into the mold, topped with something heavy, and left to rest for a few days in a cool place.

Kakinoha sushiEating kakinoha sushi is easy: Simply unwrap and eat with your fingers (like all sushi, by the way). The persimmon leaf (which is not eaten although one probably could) can be used as a sort of natural napkin to touch the sushi, which are a bit more sticky than usual. Their distinct taste originates from the persimmon leaves – which are antibacterial, by the way – but it is not strong enough to overpower the fish. Most often, salmon, mackerel, and trout are used in kakinoha sushi.

kakinoha sushi ekibenThis type of sushi is a speciality of Nara, a landlocked little city southeast of Kyoto; this is interesting because one would expect a fish product like this to be made where fresh fish is easy to get… The dish was traditionally prepared for ceremonies like the summer festival, where it is important to have food that does not spoil easily. Today, kakinoha sushi can be bought in many places all over Kansai at least, and it is a popular ekiben – the kind of bento food box you eat when traveling by Shinkansen. But that’s a story for another weekend…

Parade

Parade
Shuichi Yoshida

Book cover paradeIn a small apartment in Tokyo live four young people in their twenties: Ryosuke, a student whose favourite pastime is to wash his car. Kotomi who faithfully waits in front of the telephone for her lover to call. Mirai, manager of an import company who spends her nights getting drunk in gay bars. Naoki, who works for a film distributor and goes running for stress release. Although they live together in rather cramped conditions with boys and girls sharing one bedroom respectively, each of them more or less remains to themselves.

Then Satoru is brought home by Mirai, and the 18-year old who “works in the night” stays on the couch in the livingroom. His sudden appearance promptly upsets the fragile balance of the roommates, and cracks begin to show…

The book is written in five parts – one from the viewpoint of each protagonist. Although the story stays chronological, this change of viewpoint makes it feel a bit fragmented. Also the fact that the four roommates are “good at playing friends” without actually being so – as Satoru observes – did not make me care for the characters or draw me into the story. And the end – a shocking revelation about one of the five, which was shrugged away and covered up by the others – left me very dissatisfied. This can’t be how young people live these days?

Shuichi Yoshida was born in Nagasaki in 1968. He began writing very early, and received the Bungakukai Prize for New Writers in 1997, and the prestigious Akutagawa prize in 2002. Today, he has published 15 novels and 11 collections of short stories, however, only two of his novels have as yet been translated into English. Parade was his first novel, published in 2002 and translated in 2014.

The book is available on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Nanakusa no Sekku

January 7th, also called jinjitsu, traditionally marks the last day of the New Year’s festivities, and of course the Japanese celebrate it with special food. In this case, they eat nanakusa gayu – seven herb soup – which gives an alternative name to this day: nanakusa no sekku, the Festival of Seven Herbs. Eating nanakusa gayu is supposed to promote health during winter, and give one a long life, of course. 

Besides that, after all the gluttony of New Year’s feasting, nanakusa gayu is also meant to rest the stomach a bit, and indeed, the soup is based on okayu, a simple, soft, and very bland rice porridge that people usually eat when they are sick. They then add the following seven herbs to the soup: water dropwort (seri), shepherd’s purse (nazuna), cudweed (hahagokusa), chickweed (hakobe), nipplewort (koonitabiraku), turnip (kabu), and radish (daikon).

Nanakusa gayuOf course, it is now in the middle of winter, and these herbs are not easy to be gathered outside; note that in ancient times however, the festival would have been on the seventh day of the first month according to the lunar calendar, that is, about two months later than today. In any case, the modern Japanese do not forage outside, but rather in their nearest supermarket, where nanakusa can be bought in conveniently sized packs – or even, as I found out, as a dried mixture or in reheatable plastic bags complete with the finished rice porridge.

Even though my cooking skills are not exemplary, I did not stoop that low, but indeed bought the smallest pack of fresh nanakusa I could find and made my own rice porridge. The result was rather bland to be honest, but the tastes of the different herbs did come out very well this way.

Below is the recipe I used to make the nanakusa gayu from scratch. I will not post it in my washoku category because the herbs are pretty much impossible to find outside of Japan. However, if you feel like trying it anyway, you can use other herbs that you like or can find. 

Recipe for nanakusa gayu, seven herbs rice porridge (for two people)

– 2 cups rice (Japanese or risotto rice)
– 8 cups water
– 1 piece of kelp (optional)
– salt
Boil the rice with the water and salt until it has a very soft texture. There should still be some water left at the end. (Optional: you can add a piece of kelp to add some flavour, but remove it when the water starts boiling so the taste will not get bitter.)

– 1 cup of nanakusa or seven other herbs (nanakusa are: Japanese water dropwort, shepherd’s purse, cudweed, chickweed,  nipplewort, turnip, and radish)
Clean the herbs and blanch them in boiling water, then drain, rinse, and cut in small pieces.

When the rice is finished, gently stir in the herbs and let them heat up for a minute or two. (*) That’s it! Enjoy!

(*) Alternatively, you can forgo the blanching if you add the herbs to the rice a bit earlier. I did it that way, and it tasted fine to me, which does not necessarily mean anything though…

Japanese New Year Traditions

A New Year has begun, and again, I have tried yet a few more of the hundreds of traditions that surround this time of the year in Japan.

Unfortunately, I have been rather sick since Christmas, so instead of going out for the joya-no-kane ringing of the temple bells, I stayed in bed. I could hear the bells from there, however, and even so, it gives a wonderfully spiritual feeling to the quiet night.

I tried two of the food related Japanese New Year traditions though: On New Year’s Eve, I ate what is called toshi-koshi-soba, year crossing soba. Soba are buckwheat noodles, and depending on who you ask, you will get a different version of their significance in the dish: The noodles are long and symbolise a long life; but they are also easy to cut, so they make you let go of the hardships of the past year; and since the buckwheat plant is very hardy, this is a representation of strength and resilience (something I can definitely use right now).

New Year's SweetsFor New Year’s Day, I had bought not a full Osechi menu, but only the sweets that come with it. The rooster is a symbol of this year, and the long flat thing is a paddle that’s used for hanetsuki, a type of old Japanese shuttlecock I have written about before. Interestingly, only half of the pieces had anko in it – I was very happy about that!

Ceramic statue of a RoosterBesides that, I bought a rooster for my home. Not a real one of course, but a small ceramic statue that is usually displayed near the entrance. Since I don’t have space there however, I put it in my living room – one of the few things that are decorative there at the moment. It is my first such zodiac animal and according to a friend, you should not reuse an old statue (the zodiac repeats itself every 12 years), but always buy a new one, to attract new good luck to your home, so to speak. Well, this is a nice tradition to start in my home I guess, and it’s neither expensive, nor does it take too much space, so…