Tag Archives: #Japan

Fading Indelibility

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Old habits die hard. So, it turns out, do new ones.

Back when I was living in Japan, I had a friend who was born near Tokyo in the 1950s. His family wasn’t poor, but with the scarcity of protein that Japan faced for many years after World War II, he grew up eating whale meat. He told me that while he hadn’t particularly liked it, and no longer ate it, it had a taste for him of childhood nostalgia.

Kuniyoshi print of fisherman. Source: printsofJapan

Kuniyoshi print of fishermen.
Source: printsofJapan

According to an article on the BBC web site, large-scale Japanese whaling only began after the war, at the encouragement and with the support of the U.S. military. While the Japanese whaling culture goes back hundreds of years, in contrast to the American whaling for oil, traditional Japanese whaling made use of the entire animal, and it was mostly at a subsistence level.

Whaling increased during the 1930s, but long-distance Antarctic whaling only started once the U.S. helped the Japanese convert two Navy tankers into whaling factory ships to meet food demand.

So while I was eating hamburgers and chicken and fish and chips and spaghetti, kids my age in Japan were eating whale meat. Not because it was an age-old tradition across the entire country, but because it was an immediate solution to the aftermath of war, a solution created by a winning army used to doing things on an industrial scale.

Whaling Scene on the Coast of Gotō. An ukiyoe by Hokusai. Circa 1830. Via: Wikipedia

Whaling Scene on the Coast of Gotō. An ukiyoe by Hokusai. Circa 1830.
Via: Wikipedia

When I was in Japan – around 25 years ago – everyone was eating hamburgers and chicken and fish and chips and spaghetti in addition to their udon and ramen and fish. Then as now, there was no need for cheap protein, especially not protein as heavily subsidized as whale meat. I saw whale meat for sale my very first day in Tokyo at the Tsukiji fish market, and was shocked – but I was told that almost no one bought the stuff, it was a specialty item.

But the people, the men in particular, who grew up in the post-war era, are now the men who fill many bureaucratic and political positions across Japan. And they have an appetite for both nostalgia, and for the whale meat of their youth. And not just for its taste, but for what it does.

Even as the consumption for whale meat has been in steep decline in the country as a whole, and even as whaling is condemned internationally, the Japanese continue to hunt whales in the name of ‘scientific research’ and we often find ourselves wondering why.

Japanese whale tattoo. Source: Pinterest

Japanese whale tattoo.
Source: Pinterest

The BBC article concludes that the reason the Japanese still hunt whale is simple: During the post-war period, a bureaucracy grew up around whale meat.

It quotes former Greenpeace researcher Junko Sakuma as stating the simple political reasons for continued whaling: “Japan’s whaling is government-run, a large bureaucracy with research budgets, annual plans, promotions and pensions.

“If the number of staff in a bureaucrat’s office decreases while they are in charge, they feel tremendous shame.

“Which means most of the bureaucrats will fight to keep the whaling section in their ministry at all costs. And that is true with the politicians as well. If the issue is closely related to their constituency, they will promise to bring back commercial whaling. It is a way of keeping their seats.”

Japanese whale tattoo. Source: Pinterest

Japanese whale tattoo.
Source: Pinterest

This comment made me wonder: How many practices that we call conventional yet unsustainable, from pesticide use to forestry practices to livestock treatment to fossil fuel dependency, are the result of the same kind of thinking?

We know the practices don’t work in the long-term, the appetite for them is decreasing, and they don’t date back as far as we’d like to think. In fact, in almost all cases, the practices we now know are unsustainable only date back to the post-WWII era.

Like the stale bureaucracy around Japanese whaling, we’ve built an entire world economy around them, as if they are all indelibly inked into our future as well as our past.

 

 

New Arrivals

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The first snow of winter, marching towards us across the Jura.

Different perspectives on the approaching snowstorm on the French Jura. All photos: PKR

Different perspectives on the approaching snowstorm on the French Jura.
All mountain photos: PKR

The sun was shining in a final burst before a major storm that was due to hit overnight, and I had to go for a final autumn run in the last bits of warmth, even as I could see winter’s approach.photo 1-6

No images here of the white carpet that greeted us the following morning, it all started melting soon after sun-up.

But in celebration of winter’s greeting card, we tried the Suntory produced Hibiki Japanese Harmony Master’s Select blended whisky I mentioned in a recent post, a foray into mostly unexplored territory for single malt fans such as ourselves.

According to Master of Malt, “Hibiki Japanese Harmony is made with malt whiskies from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, as well as grain whisky from the Chita distillery. The whiskies are drawn from 5 different types of cask, including American white oak casks, Sherry casks and Mizunara oak casks.” The blend includes ten different malt and grain whiskies.

photo 4-3

For me, this is limited edition blend is a curious mixture of tart, oaky acidity with round apple sweetness and not much in between, a double-edged sword that I’m not sure I love, but which I definitely enjoy. It’s like one of those candies which you might not like at first taste, but which you can’t seem to stop yourself from eating.

The Hibiki bottle and stopper.

The Hibiki bottle and stopper.

I do, however, think the bottle, with its 24 facets and matching stopper, is very lovely. The 24 facets are meant to represent the two dozen Japanese seasons, and I’ll be the first to admit that although I lived in Japan, I didn’t realize just how many seasons I was experiencing over the course of a year.

Alps across Lake Geneva, before their winter coat.

Alps across Lake Geneva, before their winter coat.

What I do know is that a new season is upon us. It’s cold outside.

Yes, winter is not only coming – it is already here.

That doesn’t have to be all bad.

A Whisky Woman and a Spring Cordial

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I finally bottled a batch of elderflower cordial yesterday, after letting the brew steep for a couple of days and then rest in the fridge until I got around to cooking it up.

One of the bottles I used – I’d actually saved it for use as a cordial bottle – reminded me of a whisky woman I’ve been meaning to mention for a long time.

Anyone who knows Japanese whisky has at least heard of Jessie Roberta Cowan, better known as Rita Taketsuru (1896-1961), or as the Mother of Japanese Whisky.

Born in Scotland, Miss Cowan met a young Japanese man named Masataka Taketsuru who had come to Glasgow to study chemistry and Scottish whisky-making. They married, and she went with him to Japan, where he dreamed of creating a real Japanese-made whisky.

Jessie Roberta Cowan and Masataka Taketsuru Source: K&L Wine

Jessie Roberta Cowan and Masataka Taketsuru
Source: K&L Wine

To make a long story short, they succeeded after overcoming many obstacles on the long road to achieving their goal, from prejudice in both their native countries against an interracial and international marriage to the task of establishing a whisky empire. The Nikka distillery in Yoichi, Japan was founded in 1934, and continues today as one of the world’s top whisky producers.

I’ve written previously about the kind of determination it must have taken for Masataka Taketsuru to leave Japan and study in Scotland, and to use traditional Scottish methods in Japan to make whisky.

But as a long-term expat myself, and as one who once worked in Japan in a town that boasted only one other foreigner at the time, I can only imagine how challenging it must have been for a young Scotswoman in the 1920s, when foreigners were a genuine rarity.

Rita Taketsuru Source: Japanese Whisky

Rita Taketsuru
Source: Japanese Whisky

The cultural divide must have been daunting, to say the least, especially once World War II was underway. However, the war had the effect of increasing domestic whisky business in the face of an import ban.

Rita helped keep the household afloat by teaching English and piano lessons, and some of her clients ended up becoming investors in the distillery.

There is a new Japanese television series about her life, and I wonder how much that series manages to convey the challenges and rewards of living in another culture over the course of decades.

The 'Mother of Japanese Whisky' Source: Matome

The ‘Mother of Japanese Whisky’
Source: Matome

One of the things I’ve learned during my long time as a foreigner in rural France, at least, is an appreciation of the seasonal joys of homemade jams and cordials. Sure, my grandmother was master of the art in Washington State, but I grew up in the supermarket Sixties and Seventies. I had to relearn everything for myself.

And so to the elderflower cordial.

It’s an easy enough process. Pick some fresh flower heads, shake out any bugs or debris and give them a quick rinse.

The elderflower heads.  All cordial photos: PK Read

The elderflower heads.
All cordial photos: PK Read

Put them into a bowl with lemon zest and orange rind. photo 2-1

Cover the lot in boiling water, and let it sit around for a few hours or a couple of days (in the fridge, ideally). Strain through a cheesecloth.photo 4

Bring it to a gentle simmer with sugar and lemon juice, and funnel it into sterilised bottles or jars, cap them and store them cool.

I used brown sugar, which is why the cordial turned out a bit dark and hazy instead of a nice flowery yellow. If I make another batch this year, it’ll be with white sugar.photo 3-1

A couple of bottles to keep, a couple of bottles to give away.

Perfect in cold sparkling water with a sprig of fresh mint, or in a prosecco cocktail. Ready for summer.

It’s no whisky empire, but it’s not bad.

Fish Owl Equation

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The Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni) is an intimidating creature of tufted ears and daunting size – the largest known owl in existence, it stands at up to 75 cm (2.5 feet) and has a wingspan of over 180 cm (6 feet). It is also a flying barometer of forest health.

Blakiston Fish Owl hunting Source: Internet Bird Collection

Blakiston’s Fish Owl hunting
Source: Internet Bird Collection

Its dining habits – it feeds on salmon and other fish from running rivers – require pristine forest and river health.

A study has shown that the large trees in which the fish owl nests are the very ones that create the best river environments for salmon life cycles, and thus add another facet to why these trees are important to the fish owl. When the trees age and fall into rivers, their girth and length creates the deep backwaters and rapid-flow passages the salmon require.

If the Blakiston’s fish owl is disappearing from its ranges in the Russian and Chinese far east, and in northern Japan, it is mostly due to habitat disruption. Other factors are the big bird’s inability to avoid getting caught in power lines and fish nets.

Blakiston fish owl Photo: © Jonathan C. Slaght, WCS Russia

Blakiston’s fish owl
Photo: © Jonathan C. Slaght, WCS Russia

The fish owl is an impressive if shy indicator of the well-being of the forest, an element in an equation that includes salmon, other owl species and large mammals.

At  the heart of the equation are the old-growth trees. And what is the solution to this equation?

Reduced logging, recovery programs for river systems, restricted human access to remote protected areas.

Elements we often have difficulty adding up to action, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.

 

 

Diving In

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bg_mainvisual_yam_002When I first moved to Japan many, many years ago, someone told me to bring along a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label as a gift to the head of the household where I would stay. I thought it seemed like a very specific gift, but was assured that this was exactly the right thing to do to show my gratitude for a stranger’s roof over my head. I dutifully bought a bottle at a shop in San Francisco and carried it to Japan (yes, this was so long ago that airline passengers could carry a large bottle of whisky on board with them, just like that).

To my astonishment, the bottle of Black Label was a huge hit. I hadn’t realized at the time how important whisky was in Japan, or the instant friendship that giving a bottle of genuine Scotch whisky could inspire.

But at the time, I myself had not yet been introduced to Scotch, and I associated whiskey only with the bourbon I put in mixed drinks. So I missed a golden opportunity to explore Japanese whiskies at the source while I was living there.

One of the most famous poems in the Japanese language is the 17th-century  haiku by Matsuo Bashō that goes like this:

Furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto

The translation I like is:images

The old pond;
a frog jumps in —
the sound of the water

According to Robert Aitken, Bashō is presenting his mind “as this timeless, endless pond”, a serenity won through persistent inquiry. In the practice of Zen,  a simple incident could suddenly disclose the ultimate Way. Aitken: “As Yamada Rôshi has said, any stimulus would do — a sudden breeze with the dawn, the first twittering of birds, the appearance of the sun itself.” For Bashō, it was a frog.

In Japan, apparently, this poem has become quite stale with repetition over the past three centuries. For some Westerners, it is still new. I’m guessing the situation might be similar for Japanese whiskies – well known in Japan, still being discovered elsewhere.

Suntory’s Yamazaki 25-year-old was voted the World’s Best Single Malt at the 2012 World Whiskies Awards, and overall, Japanese whiskies have been attaining new heights since their introduction early in the 20th century.

And so, today I’m heading out to one of the best liquor stores in the Lake Geneva region, the Caveau de Bacchus, in the hope that within their usually excellent whisky selection I will find a good Japanese variety. Otherwise, there’s always online.

I hope to hear the plop of a frog, the sound of water.images-1