Sushi in Film

I spend too much time online. On youtube in particular. There are many interesting videos out there, mostly about cats, but every now and then, something else catches my eye. This one is fun: a master sushi chef from Tokyo rates the skills of other “chefs” as seen in movies or on TV.

Sushi master Endo Kazutoshi looks at nine sushi scenes from popular TV shows and movies and rates them based on realism. Endo is a third-generation sushi master specializing in the Edomae style of sushi, a technique particular to Tokyo. He was born in Yokohama and has been working in kitchens for 26 years.

From the video description.

Musashi

Musashi
Eiji Yoshikawa

Takezo and his best friend Matahachi barely survive the battle of Sekigahara in the year 1600. Upon returning to his village without his friend, Takezo incurs the wrath of Matahachi’s mother, but he is saved by the travelling priest Takuan Soho who becomes Takezo’s teacher for the coming three years. Afterwards Takezo – now calling himself Musashi – travels through Japan to study swordsmanship and to challenge other famous fighters. However, he soon learns that brute strength alone is not sufficient to win and he begins to study calligraphy and painting, wood carving, and even farming. On the path to ever refine his Way of the Samurai, he makes a number of influential friends, and even more powerful enemies, until it comes to the great duel with Sasaki Kojiro, another of the great wandering samurai of his time.

Miyamoto Musashi is probably the best-known swordsman of Japan. It is said that he never lost a duel, and he has 61 victories to his name, more than any other samurai. This book depicts about 15 years of his life from the battle of Sekigahara to the duel with Sasaki Kojiro. In this fictionalised biography we nevertheless meet a number of real people who influenced him, like Honami Koetsu, Takuan Soho, Yoshino Tayu, and of course, Sasaki Kojiro, another great swordsman of the time who eventually becomes Musashi’s arch enemy. Overall, the story is that of a reluctant hero trying to find his own way.

Eiji Yoshikawa, born in 1892, began his literary career when he was 22. During his 30s he worked as a journalist, but kept writing short stories and novels that were often published as a series in newspapers and magazines. He received the Cultural Order of Merit, the Order of the Sacred Treasure and the Mainichi Art Award. When he died from cancer in 1962, he was considered one of the best historical novelists of Japan.

If you’re in for an excellent novel about one of the great figures of Japan, this book will do the trick. Get it from amazon.

Murderer out of Love – Sada Abe

On May 19, 1936, a lowly prostitute became known in all Japan. From that day on, the name of Sada Abe carried a certain spine-chilling factor that fascinates people to this day. Who was Sada Abe and what happened that made her a household name for more than 50 years?

Sada Abe was born in 1905 into a family of tatami makers. Her parents were fairly well-off and especially her mother doted on the little girl, indulging her every whim. When Sada became a teenager, her calm family life became upset through quarrels over the succession to the family business. To protect their youngest daughter, she was sent out of the house to spend her days with friends.

Sadly, this didn’t turn out well. Sada fell in with the wrong crowd and became an unruly and even promiscuous teen who stole money from her parents and went out during the night without permission. Her father, seeing no other way to discipline her, sold her to a tea house, where she was to train as an apprentice geisha. Sada was 17 at the time.

At first, Sada was thrilled about her new life. Since childhood she had enjoyed wearing beautiful clothes, and now she had finally the opportunity to put her long training in traditional music to good use. And her clients loved spending time and money on the young maiko.

However, disillusionment soon followed. Sada had to learn quickly that she would never be a top-ranking geisha who commanded respect in addition to highest rates. Instead, customers demanded sex from the young girl, and the tea house did not object.

Over the following years, Sada Abe turned from geisha to prostitute, in successively seedier establishments, first in Tokyo and then in Osaka. Although she tried several times to leave the sex industry, she did not succeed until she met Goro Omiya. He had more serious designs on her than any of her previous lovers and suggested that she learn how to run a restaurant. In time, he promised, he would buy one for her and set her up as his mistress. Sada gladly accepted.

In February 1936, she began working in a restaurant in Tokyo. The owner, Ishida Kichizo, didn’t waste much time with the beautiful woman, and already in mid April, they became lovers. Kichizo was a womanizer and knew hot to please Sada. Not only was she in love for the first time, she also felt sexually satisfied like never before. Like any woman in her situation, she wanted Kichizo, who was married, to herself.

In order to consummate their affair undisturbed, Kichizo and Sada left the restaurant and went on a two-week lover’s spree, starting on April 23rd, 1936. They rented a room at an inn, ordered expensive food and geisha to entertain them and had sex over and over again. Only when they ran out of money did Kichizo return to his restaurant, but he promised to meet Sada again, on May 11.

On that day, they checked into the inn again and once more indulged in food, entertainment and sex. Their sex play became wilder and they eventually tried erotic asphyxiation and they both enjoyed it. Sada found it hard to control herself. In the early morning hours of May 18, 1936, Sada strangled Kichizo in his sleep. She then cut off his penis and scrotum, tidied up the room and left the inn.

Thanks to an ensuing media frenzy after the discovery of Ishida’s body, the public went into a what became known as “Sada Abe panic”. She was spotted by people as far as Osaka, and one alleged sighting in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza district caused a traffic jam. All the while, Sada went about her days as if nothing had happened, undisturbed and still carrying her trophies of Kichizo.

Sada was arrested in the afternoon of May 20th and questioned extensively by the police. She asserted that she killed Kichizo out of love and that she was not crazy or depraved. Her lawyers and the judge at her trial thought otherwise. That’s why she was sentenced to a mere 6 years in prison on December 21, 1936.

She was a model prisoner in the Tochigi women’s penitentiary, where she served only 5 years of her sentence. After being released on May 17, 1941, Sada was surprised to find herself somewhat of a celebrity. The transcripts of her police interrogation had been published, and many writers took her case as inspiration for stories.

Unable to escape the public eye, Sada decided to cash in herself. She wrote an autobiography and appeared in a film about the case. The bar where she worked became famous with the locals. Eventually, however, Sada grew weary of the attention. She retired from the bar and left Tokyo. After 1971, her trail is completely lost. Nobody knows where she went or when she died., although some sources point to Kyoto. All that’s left is her story that fascinated people to this very day.

Sada Abe definitely fascinates me! The above is just a short summary of a longer piece I have written about her, which has just been published in an anthology. There, I talk in greater detail about the early life of Sada Abe and the possible reason she turned to prostitution, as well as her fatal attraction to Kichizo Ishida.

If you’re interested, the book is called “The Best New True Crime Stories: Crimes of Passion, Obsession & Revenge” and it has a number of other essays on passionate crimes from all over the world and many eras. As always, you can get the book from amazon. I hope you’ll like it!

Last Winter, we Parted

Last Winter, we Parted
Fuminori Nakamura

A writer – whose name we never learn – has taken a commission to write a book about Judai Kiharazaka. The famous photographer has been convicted of burning two young women alive, and the writer interviews him to understand the motive. Kiharazaka is reluctant to open up, but the more the writer learns about Kiharazaka’s background, the more an obsessive personality comes to the foreground. However, when his investigations lead him to K2, a group centered on an artist who creates life-sized dolls after the image of dead women, the writer begins to doubt everything he has found out about Kiharazaka so far…

A complicated thriller, written from perspectives of both the writer and that of Kiharazaka. It is comprised of interviews, letters, and the writer’s notes and memories, and the plot unfolds slowly and in bursts. The big reveal at the end is a twist so far out there, I doubt that anyone could see it coming.

Fuminori Nakamura, born in 1977, is a Japanese writer. He published his first novel “The Thief” in 2002 and won three prestigous literature prizes within three years, one of them the Akutagawa Prize. In 2010, he won the Kenzaburo Oe Prize. A translation of “The Thief” was selected among the best 10 books of 2013 by the NY Times. Out of his 15 books, 7 have been translated into English so far.

If you’re in for something different – warning: it’s not a lighthearted read this one – then you can get it on amazon.

Yoiyama 2021, Part 2

This week is the second yoiyama of Gion Matsuri, the three days leading up to the Ato Matsuri Parade on July 24th (which has also been cancelled this year). Only 6 of the 10 yamaboko that take part in the Ato Parade were constructed. I visited “my” Ofune Hoko, where I usually help selling souvenirs, but this year I was just a guest because I can’t stand on my feet for 5 hours with my hip problem…

It was nice seeing my friends again and they even got me free entrance to the top of the Ofune Hoko. This is the first time I noticed all the names and numbers on each and every piece the Ofune Hoko is constructed of.

There are more than 600 pieces for the main boat and the large dragon that sits at the front of the float is made from 12.

Just like last week, the Daimaru Department store, which is nearby where the yamaboko are built, showed miniature versions of them. They are maybe a meter high (excluding the poles) and are made in loving detail. These look like antiques, so they are probably priceless. I couldn’t find out whom they belong to, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are owned by one or more of the old merchant families of Kyoto that have been involved in Gion Matsuri for centuries (literally).

As usual around the time of the Ato Matsuri, it is very hot. Today it was around 35 degrees and the inner city streets were stifling. I went out pretty early and still got myself a nice sunburn… And yet, it is comparatively cool, several degrees below what is usual. There was even a slight breeze today and I haven’t used my fan a single time yet. Maybe tonight’s the night?

Atsuage Donburi

Time for another summer recipe! My friend Junko taught me this dish, and besides being quick-and-easy, it has the added bonus that it is extremely cheap: The tofu needed for this recipe costs only 50 yen a slice! Initially, I hesitated putting it up, as some of the ingredients may be a bit hard to find outside of Japan, but then again, I modified the recipe already, and so can you. Here we go:

Atsuage Donburi à la Junko san
(for 1 person)

  • 1 bowl of cooked rice
  • 1 tablespoon of furikake
    Mix the rice with the furikake and put it in a bowl.
  • 1 piece of yawaraka tofu (atsuage). These are very thick slices (3cm) of fried tofu.
    Wash the tofu in hot water to remove any remnants of oil. Use a fork to poke small holes through the tofu.
  • 1-2 tablespoons each of dashi and mirin
  • 1 teaspoon each of sugar and soysauce
    Combine the above ingredients and heat them in a small pan. Put in the tofu and heat it from all sides so that it absorbs the broth.

    When this is finished, take the tofu out of the broth, cut it in squares and place it on top of the rice.

Now, if that wasn’t quick and easy – and it’s vegetarian too! As I said, I modified the original recipe which called for carrots and daikon cut into small pieces and replaced it with the furikake. I’m using furikake made with sesame and red pepper to add a spicy flavour to this otherwise rather bland dish (the broth doesn’t help that much). But any type of furikake or fresh herbs and spices will do just nicely, depending on your own preferences.

Enjoy!

Kinkaku-ji, Plain

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavillion, is probably one of the best-known tourist attractions of Kyoto. The two top floors of the temple are covered in leaf gold; the third floor with the main Buddha relics is gilded inside as well (and not accessible to the public).

However, the temple as you see it today – I’ve written about it before – is not the same one as built in the 14th century. The original building was set on fire by a novice monk of the temple in 1950, and was restored in 1955. At that time, gold leaf was added quite liberally to the top two floors, and some people question whether this is historically accurate.

At any case, here is an image of Kinkaku-ji from some time in the Meiji period. It has been colored by hand and does not show much golden sparkle, but this may be just because of the age of the building. It’s absolutely stunning, and, compared to the modern building, it feels much less sterile. What do you think?

An old photo of Kinkaku-ji

Journey under the Midnight Sun

Journey under the Midnight Sun
Keigo Higashino

Cover for "Journey under the Midnight Sun" by Keigo Higashino.

Osaka, 1973. In an abandoned building in a poor part of town, a local pawnbroker is found stabbed to death. Although the investigation is able to zero in onto a prime suspect – the man’s lover – the case cannot be solved and is put on ice. But inspector Sasagaki is not deterred and keeps a watchful eye on Ryo, the son of the pawnbroker and on Yukiho, the daughter of his suspected mistress.

Over the years, Yukiho turns into a mesmerising and independent woman, and Ryo becomes a small gangster involved in computer crime before he disappears without a trace. Only 20 years after the murder inspector Sasagaki is finally able to tear apart the web of deceit that surrounds Yukiho and Ryo and finally finds out who and what was behind the murder.

Another fascinating novel by Keigo Higashino with a startling twist near the end. We follow the two children at the periphery of the murder from their teens to their early adulthood and although they never seem to meet openly, there are too many coincidences in both their lives not to believe in an ongoing connection. What starts out as a strong bond of friendship between them is soon brimming with criminal energy, both out in the open and hidden in the dark.

Keigo Higashino was born in Osaka in 1958 and received a Bachelor of Engineering from Osaka Prefecture University. He started working in the automotive industry, but left the company in 1986 after receiving the Rampo Prize for best unpublished mystery. Has written more than 85 novels and short story collections, and is one of Asia’s most popular authors. From 2009 to 2013 he served as the president of Mystery Writers in Japan.

Get this great summer read on amazon before heading to the beach.

Kyoto’s Three Dainenbutsu Kyogen

Super short weekend post today. I was out all afternoon and came home later than I expected. I was watching Dainenbutsu Kyogen – short pantomimes that often have a religious theme but are mostly meant to be funny – by the three most famous groups in Kyoto, all in one afternoon and all in one venue and for (almost) free to boot!

I will give you a more detailed report next week.

Teru Teru Bozu

Japan is very much a kawaii culture. Think of Hello Kitty, Doraemon and yuru-chara like Kumamon. Even official letters from the government, tax office or health center cannot do without specially designed characters, the cuter, the better. More traditional ones that originate centuries ago are the maneki neko in stores, the ubiquitous tanuki and the teru teru bozu.

This little doll resembles our kids’ idea of spooky disguise: put a bedsheet over your head, paint on black eyes and turn into a ghost! The resemblance is purely superficial though. In Japan, a teru teru bozu is believed to be a good spirit that influences the weather!

These dolls were originally made by farmers as a prayer for good weather. They became very popular in cities during the Edo period when they were made by children and hung outside their windows just before a school outing. Sadly, they don’t seem to be very common anymore, probably because of vastly improved weather forecasts. In all my time in Japan I have only seen the one above – and at a temple to boot (which is funny because the name means literally shine shine monk.) However, if you do see one, you can find out easily how enticing the upcoming school outing is to the child: If the teru teru bozu hangs heads up, the prayer is for good weather the next day, heads down, and the prayer is for rain. I wish I had known a trick like that when I was in school…