Japan; the one country in the world that I have longed, longed, to visit for decades. I cannot put my finger on the moment when I first wanted to visit Japan; childhood I think.
I was given a set of books by my grandfather, one of which was about Japan; its otherness absolutely fascinated me. My father used to talk of the horrors committed by Japanese soldiers in WW2; they had a fearsome reputation, but I was somehow convinced that they couldn’t have been the only ‘bad guys’. Over the years, I have dipped in and out of my love affair with this distant land; Books, Films, Manga/Anime, Sushi, Textiles, Crafts, Comics etc.
But what of modern-day Japan?
It is a country of contradictions, fascinating customs, beauty and respect. Japan arrived relatively late to the ‘Westernisation party’. They had had connections with the Dutch and English since the 16th century, however, it was the Americans (Commodore Perry), who literally forced Japan to open its doors; to trade; join us, or suffer the consequences was the implicit message from Perry’s massive fleet.( I equally loath and thank the man)
An island nation of 127 million, Japan is notorious for its ultra-strict work culture, and for being so safe even its Yakuza gangsters do not carry guns – much. The murder rate is the third lowest in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), with fewer than one thousand homicides in 2015. In that same time period, the US – a country with a population less than three times the size of Japan’s – recorded fifteen times that many. Japan is one of the safest countries in Asia, and its murder rate of less than one per 100,000 is the lowest among industrial nations (* compare with South Africa – The murder rate since 2011 stayed at around 32 per 100,000 but the number of murders has increased with increases in population. South Africa also has one of the highest rates of rape in the world.)
And it just keeps on getting safer. 2015 saw the lowest rate for every single type of crimesince 1945. Tokyo is ranked as the safest city in the world. Osaka is ranked as the 3rd safest. Greater Tokyo is the second largest urban habitation on the planet, so that’s one heck of a verdict.
Street crime is practically non-existent there, and drug use is low. This is largely attributed to the culture of Japan, as being known to use illegal drugs or being sentence to prison would be considered of bad character.
According to the United Nations, in their report called UN Chronicle: The Atlas of Heart Disease & Stroke – Japan has one of the lowest rates of coronary heart disease in the world.
Japan is well known for its politeness and good manners. Not only that, but Japanese culture is also extremely efficient. Japan is a busy country but is well organised.
The Japanese take hygiene seriously. You will hardly see any rubbish on the roadsides – even the trains are clean!! In Japan, not only they are clean, everything is in perfect order and neat as well – well trimmed trees, for example.
Temple bells, the stone gardens, the bamboo, and the torii gates instill a sense of peace and serenity. And teenagers can be seen paying tribute at shrines as often as older generations. Respect for tradition and culture runs deep.
It has been reported to me many times by family and friends, that Asian countries always have much better hotel service than in the West, but, I read repeatedly, Japan takes it to another level. Bags are brought to your room. Towels brought up just because you might need extra. Hotel owners wave you good-bye. Everything is done with a bow. Everyone is helpful.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dumb; Japan has its down sides, doesn’t everywhere. But I cannot help but be drawn to this place that is 9,406 km away. And the recent mini-series of TV shows by BBC 4 made me pine for it even more.
I think in the age of the ‘self’, the individual, me, me, me; we might learn a thing or two from the Japanese.
In the light of recent cultural divisions, that have been happening across the world by various means, I decided to write of something that we all have in common – FOOD.
We all consume food, we even share similar palettes to people’s and cultures we may know little about, or think we have in common. Lemons, for example, are thought to originate in India and yet are eaten all over the world today. The pomegranate started out in Iran, and yet I can get them from my local supermarket. And oranges; one of my favourite fruits and bits of knowledge – Did you know – oranges come from South East Asia, they were first cultivated in China. The colour orange come from the fruit not the other way around. And why do we say, “Can I have an orange?” ? Because the fruit was originally called narange, a Sanskrit word for “orange tree” (नारङ्ग nāraṅga). As with many words, it became Anglicized, so from “Can I have a nāraṅge?” it morphed into ‘an orange’. How cool is that?!
How are we divided? Tonnes has been said on that – let’s focus on what we ALL have in common; the need to consume, the joy of eating, the love of specific treats and delicacies. And what a culture does not/may not eat due to spiritual concerns can also show our similarities – Tim Minchin, comedian, wrote a song (He’s written quite a number of songs actually), about the similarity, rather than differences amongst the Muslim and Jewish folks called ‘Peace Anthem For Palestine’ – about how they both do not eat pork!
Sure, it’s a light-hearted, comedic foray into international politics (!!) BUT, essentially, he is talking about commonality through food.
I thought then; writers have used food and drink in their stories over and over, to help develop plots, bring characters to life and give a sense of place. What is sense of place? Wiki tells us – Cultural geographers, anthropologists, sociologists and urban planners study why certain places hold special meaning to particular people or animals. Places said to have a strong “sense of place” have a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors.
We all have used the phrase at some time or another. However, if a fresh, tall glass of orange juice conjures up images of Californian sunshine and groves of fruiting trees sparkling in the morning dew – what of the origins of the orange? Doesn’t consuming food from across the globe begin to distort our idea of sense of place?! And maybe, rightly so.
I say embrace the commonalities. Drink French wine, whilst eating American raisins and roasting English lamb, followed by Iranian pomegranates and Italian ice-cream. Cue the extracts, oh, first let me say, ***SPOILER ALERT – after the Shakespeare quote, the passage selected from Patrick Suskind’s Perfumeis the ending of the novel. So avoid if you have not read it. And if you have not read it – please do – a hideously delightful story, redolent with humans. Enjoy:-
“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”
“I went to sit in the bus station and think this over. I ate another apple pie and ice cream; that’s practically all I ate all the way across the country, I knew it was nutritious.”
“Happiness. Simple as a glass of chocolate or tortuous as the heart. Bitter. Sweet. Alive.”
“I sell dreams, small comforts, sweet harmless temptations to bring down a multitude of saints crashing among the hazels and nougatines.”
“The air is hot and rich with the scent of chocolate. Quite unlike the white powdery chocolate I knew as a boy, this has a throaty richness like the perfumed beans from the coffee stall on the market, a redolence of amaretto and tiramisù, a smoky, burned flavor that enters my mouth somehow and makes it water. There is a silver jug of the stuff on the counter, from which a vapor rises. I recall that I have not breakfasted this morning.”
Patrick Bateman: Not if you want to keep your spleen.”
Our pasta this evening… is squid ravioli in a lemon grass broth… with goat cheese profiteroles, and I also have an arugula Caesar salad. For entrees this evening, I have swordfish meatloaf with onion marmalade, rare roasted partridge breast in raspberry coulis with a sorrel timbale…and grilled free-range rabbit with herbed french fries. Our pasta tonight is a squid ravioli in a lemon grass broth.
God, I hate this place. It’s a chick’s restaurant. Why aren’t we at Dorsia ?”
“I saw her in the back-kitchen which opened on to the courtyard, in process of killing a chicken; by its desperate and quite natural resistance . . . it made the saintly kindness and unction of our servant rather less prominent than it would do, next day at dinner, when it made its appearance in a skin gold-embroidered like a chasuble, and its precious juice was poured out drop by drop as from a pyx.”
The meal consists of limpid turtle soup laced with Madeira, blinis Demidoff with caviar, quails en sarcophage (stuffed with foie gras and truffles in puff-pastry cases), a salad, cheeses, tropical fruits and a glistening baba au rhum, all accompanied by Champagne and fine wines.
“The moment Scrooge’s hand was on the lock, a strange voice called him by his name, and bade him enter. He obeyed. It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation… Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam…”
” “Queequeg,” said I, “do you think that we can make a supper for us both on one clam?” However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition: when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey’s clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment. Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word “cod” with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.”
* “But to eat a human being? They would never, so they thought, have been capable of anything that horrible. And they were amazed that it had been so very easy for them and that, embarrassed as they were, they did not feel the tiniest bite of conscience. On the contrary! Though the meal lay rather heavy on their stomachs, their hearts were definitely light. All of a sudden there were delightful, bright flutterings in their dark souls. And on their faces was a delicate, virginal glow of happiness. Perhaps that was why they were shy about looking up and gazing into one another’s eyes. When they finally did dare it, at first with stolen glances and then candid ones, they had to smile. They were uncommonly proud. For the first time they had done something out of love.”