Sep 092017
 

Today is 9-9 (9th of September) in the Gregorian calendar which makes it the double ninth.  In the lunar calendar, used for religious and civic festivals in Asia, the double ninth (ninth day of the ninth lunar month) is an important day which wanders around October in the Gregorian calendar.  But Japan has modified its lunar calendar events to fit the Gregorian calendar, so today is the double ninth there, also called the Chrysanthemum Festival (菊の節句). I’ll take today’s post to look at all Double-Ninth Festivals in Asia even though it’s celebrated only in Japan on this date this year.

According to the I Ching, nine is a yang number. The ninth day of the ninth lunar month (or double nine) has too much yang and is, thus, a potentially dangerous date. Hence, the day is also called “Double Yang Festival” (重陽節). To protect against danger, it is customary to climb a high mountain, drink chrysanthemum liquor, and wear the zhuyu (茱萸) plant, Cornus officinalis. Both chrysanthemum and zhuyu are considered to have cleansing qualities and are used on other occasions to air out houses and cure illnesses.

On this holiday some Chinese also visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects. In Hong Kong, whole extended families head to ancestral graves to clean them and repaint inscriptions, and to lay out food offerings such as roast suckling pig and fruit, which are then eaten (after the spirits have consumed the spiritual element of the food). Chongyang Cake is also popular. Incense sticks are burned. Cemeteries get crowded, and each year grass fires are inadvertently started by the burning incense sticks.

The Chinese origin legend is as follows:

Once there was a man named Huan Jing, who believed that a monster would bring pestilence. He told his countrymen to hide on a hill while he went to defeat the monster. Later, people celebrated Huan Jing’s defeat of the monster on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month.

In 1966, Taiwan rededicated the holiday as “Senior Citizens’ Day”, underscoring one custom as it is observed in China, where the festival is also an opportunity to care for and appreciate the elderly.

Double Ninth may have originated as a day to drive away danger, but like the Chinese New Year, over time it became a day of celebration. In contemporary times it is an occasion for hiking and chrysanthemum appreciation. Stores sell rice cakes (糕 “gāo”, a homophone for height 高) with mini colorful flags to represent zhuyu. Most people drink chrysanthemum tea, while a few traditionalists drink homemade chrysanthemum wine. Children learn poems about chrysanthemums, and many localities host chrysanthemum exhibits. Mountain climbing races are also popular; winners get to wear a wreath made of zhuyu.

In Japan, the festival is known as Chōyō but also as the Chrysanthemum Festival (菊の節句) and is celebrated at both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. There are also traditional sports on the day including crow sumo.

There is an often-quoted Chinese poem about the holiday, Double Ninth, Remembering my Shandong Brothers (九月九日憶山東兄弟), by the Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei:

獨在異鄉為異客,
dú zài yì xiāng wéi yì kè

每逢佳節倍思親。
měi féng jiā jié bèi sī qīn

遙知兄弟登高處,
yáo zhī xiōng dì dēng gāo chù

遍插茱萸少一人。
biàn chā zhū yú shǎo yī rén

As a lonely stranger in a foreign land,
At every holiday my homesickness increases.
Far away, I know my brothers have reached the peak;
They are wearing the zhuyu, but one is not present.

There are various cakes made for today called Double Ninth cake, also known as “chrysanthemum cake” or “flower cake”. It dates back to the Zhou Dynasty (11th century – 256 BCE). It is said that the cake was originally prepared after autumn harvests for farmers to have a taste of what was just in season, and it gradually became the cake for people to eat on the Double Ninth Day.

The cake was usually made of glutinous rice flour, millet flour or bean flour. In the Tang Dynasty, its surface was usually planted with a small pennant of multi-colored paper and bore at its center the Chinese character “ling” (order). The Double Ninth cake in the Song Dynasty was usually made with great care a few days before the Double Ninth Day, its surface covered with colored pennants and inlaid with Chinese chestnuts, ginkgo seeds, pine nut kernels and pomegranate seeds.

It was considered a nice festive present for relatives or friends. In the Ming Dynasty, imperial families customarily began to eat the cake early on the first day of the 9th lunar month to mark the festival, while the common people usually enjoyed it with their married daughters. It was basin-sized and covered with two or three layers of jujubes. The cake in the Qing Dynasty was made like a 9-storied pagoda, which was topped with two sheep images made of dough. The cake was called Chong Yang Gao in Chinese, which means Double Ninth cake as “Chong” means double, “Yang” simultaneously suggests nine and sheep, and “Gao” means cake. Also, because “Gao” (cake) shares the pronunciation with “Gao” (high, tall), people hope to get a higher position in life by having Gao on the Double Ninth Day.

Dec 312016
 

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Almost every culture celebrates the turn of the year at some point in some way, and these days the turn of the Gregorian calendar year is an almost universal turning point even though many cultures use other calendars as well. This state of affairs creates a little bit of confusion in some cultures, but only a little. In China, for example, the turn of the Gregorian year has its importance, but the lunar New Year is still much more important. In the Jewish Diaspora things are a bit more complicated. Rosh Hashanah marks the Jewish New Year, and has its importance, but it vies much more earnestly with the Gregorian New Year.  All told, we can say that every culture, perhaps every individual, has multiple turning points in the year. For me birthdays are critical turning points when I reflect on the previous year and look forward to what is to come.  But I still cling to New Year’s Eve as a critical turning point for several reasons. First, it’s a communal celebration. Second, there are real secular changes that happen. Third, I’m in the habit of doing special things on this day.

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I could rabbit on about how anthropologists view cycles, the passing of the year, etc., but I’ll spare you. Some of it is interesting, some is challenging, but most of it is fairly straightforward common sense  which you already know at some level. Maybe you’d like to learn why January 1st is the beginning of the new year? Well . . . look it up. Most of the online historical sources are accurate – to a degree. You can dismiss all the “origins” nonsense, but the basic facts concerning when Europeans switched to January 1st are not controversial. You might be a bit surprised though.

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I always take the time on New Year’s Eve to reflect on the past year in a personal way. I go through each month, step by step, and look at successes and failures, with an eye to learning something useful. I don’t make resolutions as such, but I do hope to learn from the year’s mistakes. Obviously this practice can be ongoing, but taking stock once a year is useful too.  My first job as a teenager was working in a light engineering factory on Slough Trading Estate as a stockroom clerk. Most stockrooms in those days took inventory once a year, but this firm had what they called “perpetual inventory.” That is, when the workload for the clerks was light they were supposed to do a bit of inventory, so that in the course of a year they had checked all the stock drawers twice. Of course that never happened. Everyone hated doing inventory, so it got put off until it had to be done all at once. That’s how I wound up with my summer jobs – doing inventory. From a factory point of view I don’t think it matters whether you do inventory all at once or a little at a time – all the time. Life is different. It’s good to take stock of your life daily. I do. It’s ridiculous to put it off. On my commute on the way to work and again on the way home I give thought to how my life is going, and how the day went. It looks an awful lot like staring out of the window, but I’m musing. What will the day bring and how will I manage? What worked? What didn’t work?

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For cooking on New Year’s Eve I fluctuate between traditional Japanese food, and fish of some sort. For many years Japanese dishes were my norm – especially soba which is very traditional. Soba means buckwheat in Japanese, but usually also means buckwheat noodles. I’ll make soba tonight. There are many, many varieties of hot soba. Soba is also often served as a noodle soup in a bowl of hot tsuyu. The hot tsuyu in this instance is thinner than that used as a dipping sauce for chilled soba. Popular garnishes are sliced long onion and shichimi togarashi (mixed chili powder).  These are various possibilities.

 

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Kake soba 掛け蕎麦: Hot soba in broth topped with thinly sliced scallion, and perhaps a slice of kamaboko (fish cake).

Kitsune soba きつね蕎麦 (“fox soba”, in Kantō) or たぬき蕎麦 Tanuki soba (“raccoon dog soba”, in Kansai): Topped with aburaage (deep-fried tofu).

Tanuki soba (in Kantō) or Haikara soba ハイカラ蕎麦 (in Kansai): Topped with tenkasu (bits of deep-fried tempura batter).

Tempura soba 天麩羅蕎麦: Topped with tempura, a large shrimp frequently is used, but vegetables are also popular. Some of soba venders use kakiage for this dish and this often is called Tensoba.

Tsukimi soba 月見蕎麦 (“moon-viewing soba”): Topped with raw egg, which poaches in the hot soup.

Tororo soba とろろ蕎麦 or Yamakake soba 山かけ蕎麦: Topped with tororo, the puree of yamaimo (a potato-like vegetable with a mucilaginous texture).

Wakame soba わかめ蕎麦: Topped with wakame seaweed

Nameko soba なめこ蕎麦: Topped with nameko mushroom

Sansai soba 山菜蕎麦 (“mountain vegetables soba”): Topped with sansai, or wild vegetables such as warabi, zenmai and takenoko (bamboo shoots).

Kamonanban 鴨南蛮: Topped with duck meat and negi.

Currynanban カレー南蛮: Hot soba in curry flavored broth topped with chicken/pork and thinly sliced scallion.

Nishin soba 鰊(にしん)蕎麦: Topped with migaki nishin 身欠きニシン, or dried fish of the Pacific herring.

Sobagaki 蕎麦掻き: A chunk of dough made of buckwheat flour and hot water.

Nov 032016
 

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On this date in 1954 the first Godzilla movie was released in Japan. Godzilla (ゴジラ Gojira) is the first film in what became the Godzilla franchise and the first film in the Showa series. The film was directed by Ishirō Honda, with a screenplay by Honda, Takeo Murata, and Shigeru Kayama and stars Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, with Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka as the performers for Godzilla. Nakajima went on to portray the character until his retirement in 1972.

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In 1956, TransWorld Releasing Corporation and Embassy Pictures released Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, a heavily re-edited “Americanized” version of the original film with additional footage featuring Raymond Burr as a U.S. reporter. In 2004 Rialto Pictures gave the original 1954 film a limited theatrical release in the United States to coincide with the franchise’s 50th anniversary.

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Here is the original movie plot (in italics so that you can skip it if you want):

When the Japanese freighter Eiko-maru is destroyed near Odo Island, another ship – the Bingo-maru – is sent to investigate, only to meet the same fate with few survivors. A fishing boat from Odo is also destroyed, with one survivor. Fishing catches mysteriously drop to zero, blamed by an elder on the ancient sea creature known as “Godzilla.” Reporters arrive on Odo Island to further investigate. A villager tells one of the reporters that “something large is going crazy down there” ruining the fishing. That evening, a ritual dance to appease Godzilla is held during which the reporter learns that the locals used to sacrifice young girls. That night, a large storm strikes the island, destroying the reporters’ helicopter, and an unseen force destroys 17 homes, kills nine people and 20 of the villagers’ livestock.

Odo residents travel to Tokyo to demand disaster relief. The villagers’ and reporters’ evidence describes damage consistent with something large crushing the village. The government sends paleontologist Kyohei Yamane to lead an investigation to the island, where giant radioactive footprints and a trilobite are discovered. The village alarm bell is rung and Yamane and the villagers rush to see the monster, retreating after seeing that it is a giant dinosaur, which then roars, and returns to the ocean.

Yamane presents his findings in Tokyo, estimating that Godzilla is 165 feet (50 m) tall and is evolved from an ancient sea creature becoming a terrestrial animal. He concludes that Godzilla has been disturbed from its deep underwater natural habitat by underwater hydrogen bomb testing. Debate ensues about notifying the public about the danger of the monster. Meanwhile, 17 ships are lost at sea.

Ten frigates are dispatched to attempt to kill the monster using depth charges. The mission disappoints Yamane who wants Godzilla to be studied. Godzilla survives the attack and appears off-shore. Officials appeal to Yamane for ideas to kill the monster, but Yamane tells them that Godzilla is unkillable, having survived H-bomb testing, and must be studied.

Yamane’s daughter, Emiko, decides to break off her arranged engagement to Yamane’s colleague, Daisuke Serizawa, because of her love for Hideto Ogata, a salvage ship captain. When a reporter arrives and asks to interview Serizawa, Emiko escorts the reporter to Serizawa’s lab. After Serizawa refuses to divulge his current work to the reporter, he gives Emiko a demonstration of his recent project on the condition she must keep it a secret. The demonstration horrifies her and she leaves without breaking off the engagement. Shortly after she returns home, the sound of Godzilla’s footsteps approaching is heard. Godzilla surfaces from Tokyo Bay and enters the city, scattering residents from its path. A passing commuter train collides with the monster, who then destroys the train. After further destruction, Godzilla returns to the ocean.

After consulting with international experts, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces construct a 100 feet (30 m) tall, 50,000 volt electrified fence along the coast and deploy forces to stop and kill Godzilla. Yamane returns home, dismayed that there is no plan to study Godzilla for its resistance to radiation, where Emiko and Ogata await hoping to get his consent for them to wed. When Ogata disagrees with Yamane, Yamane tells him to leave. Godzilla resurfaces and breaks through to Tokyo, unleashing a more destructive rampage across the city. The Tokyo Tower and the National Diet Building are destroyed and there is a large loss of life.

Distraught by the devastation, Emiko tells Ogata about Serizawa’s research, a weapon called the “Oxygen Destroyer,” which disintegrates oxygen atoms and the organisms die of a rotting asphyxiation. Emiko and Ogata go to Serizawa to convince him to use the Oxygen Destroyer but he initially refuses. After watching a program displaying the nation’s current tragedy, Serizawa finally accepts Emiko and Ogata’s pleas.

A navy ship takes Ogata and Serizawa to plant the device in Tokyo Bay. After finding Godzilla, Serizawa unloads the device and cuts off his air support, taking the secrets of the Oxygen Destroyer to his death. The mission proves to be a success and Godzilla is destroyed but many mourn Serizawa’s death. Yamane reveals his belief that if nuclear weapons testing continues, another Godzilla may rise in the future.

© Toho Co. Ltd.

© Toho Co. Ltd.

The original Japanese name for the monster, Gojira (ゴジラ), is a portmanteau of the Japanese words: gorira (ゴリラ, “gorilla”), and kujira (鯨 , “whale”), which was created because in the early planning stages, Godzilla was described as “a cross between a gorilla and a whale,” alluding to its size, power and aquatic origin. One popular story is that “Gojira” was actually the nickname of a corpulent stagehand at Toho Studio. Kimi Honda, the widow of the director, dismissed this in a 1998 BBC documentary devoted to Godzilla, “The backstage boys at Toho loved to joke around with tall stories.”

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Godzilla’s name was written in ateji as Gojira (呉爾羅), where the kanji are used for phonetic value and not for meaning. The Japanese pronunciation of the name is [ɡodʑiɽa]. The Anglicized form is /ɡɒdˈzɪlə/, with the first syllable pronounced like the word “god,” and the rest rhyming with “gorilla.” In the Hepburn romanization system, Godzilla’s name is rendered as “Gojira”, whereas in the Kunrei romanization system it is rendered as “Gozira”.

When Godzilla was first released in 1954 the film sold approximately 9,610,000 tickets and was the eighth best-attended film in Japan that year. It remains the second most-attended “Godzilla” film in Japan, behind King Kong vs. Godzilla. Its box office earnings were 152 million Yen ($2.25 million). The film initially received mixed to negative reviews in Japan. Japanese critics accused the film of exploiting the widespread devastation that the country had suffered in World War II, as well as the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon) incident that occurred a few months before filming began. Ishiro Honda lamented years later in the Tokyo Journal, “They called it grotesque junk, and said it looked like something you’d spit up. I felt sorry for my crew because they had worked so hard!” Honda also stated “At the time they wrote things like ‘This movie is absurd, because such giant monsters do not exist.'” Others said that depicting a fire breathing organism was “strange.”

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Honda believed that Japanese critics began to change their minds after the good reviews the film received in the United States. He said “The first film critics to appreciate Godzilla were those in the U.S. When Godzilla was released there as Godzilla, King of the Monsters in 1956, the critics said such things as, ‘For the start, this film frankly depicts the horrors of the Atomic Bomb.’, and by these evaluations, the assessment began to impact critics in Japan and has changed their opinions over the years.” As time went on, the film gained more respect in Japan. In 1984, Kinema Junpo magazine listed Gojira as one of the top 20 Japanese films of all time, while a survey of 370 Japanese movie critics published in Nihon Eiga Besuto 150 (Best 150 Japanese Films), had Godzilla ranked as the 27th best Japanese film ever made.

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The film was nominated for two Japanese Movie Association awards. One for best special effects and the other for best film. It won best special effects but lost best picture to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The film was re-released theatrically in Japan on November 21, 1982 as part of Toho’s 50th anniversary.

In 1955 and in the 1960s, the original Gojira played in theaters catering to Japanese-Americans in predominantly Japanese neighborhoods in the United States. An English sub-titled version was shown at film festivals in New York, Chicago and other cities in 1982.

Obviously Godzilla themed Japanese food is appropriate to celebrate, although you may struggle a little. I found a recipe for Godzilla sushi rolls here: http://www.favfamilyrecipes.com/godzilla-rolls/  You could make them yourself, but I would not recommend it.

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Here’s the list of ingredients:

For the Roll

sushi rice
1 sheet nori (dry roasted seaweed)
2-3 pieces shrimp tempura
2 slices avocado
3-4 tsp cream cheese, cut into long, rectangular slices
½ cup flour
tempura batter
oil for frying

For the Spicy Mayo:

½ cup mayonnaise
2 tbsp Sriracha sauce
1 tsp sesame oil

All right. Let’s assume you can find such ingredients as nori and Sriracha; they are not too hard to find in oriental groceries in the West. Making good sushi rice is best left to the experts although I’ve made a passable job once in a while. Making good tempura is also a skilled practice. Then you have to put the whole roll together. That too is not impossible, but, true to Godzilla, this is a BIG roll and takes experience even if you have the right ingredients. Here’s a video of a sushi chef:

All told, I’d go out for sushi if I were you.

Oct 132016
 

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Today is the beginning of土居太鼓祭り—Doi Taiko Matsuri. Let me break down the Japanese for you (not that I speak Japanese). Doi is a place on Shikoku Island in Japan, Taiko is a traditional Japanese drum, and Matsuri means festival. So, Doi Drum Festival.  It runs for three days from the 13th to the 15th of October annually. Drum festivals in Japan these days are fairly common in a number of locations but they are not all the same.  Some drum festivals are what you might expect – groups of men, or men and women, in special costume drumming out traditional rhythms on sets of specially made drums.  Doi Drum Festival is not one of these, but its form is also common. It involves processions of太鼓隊 – Taiko Tai – literally meaning “drum squad,” that is, large troupes of men who accompany (and sometimes carry) a large, very heavy, ornate platform carrying a “drum” through the streets of the town, with men standing on the platform barking orders and supervising events.

I have not been to Doi, but I’ve attended festive processions in other parts of Japan and pretty much have the overall impression – hoards of people, lots of food, manic performers, colorful costumes, rafts of men carrying heavy platforms . . . etc. This video (and the photos) make the point. I’m sure the Doi festival has its peculiarities; you’ll pardon my ignorance of the finer details, I hope.

Doi is now a district in Shikokuchūō (四国中央市),  a port city located in Ehime Prefecture on the northern shore of Shikoku – the smallest of the main islands that make up Japan, located south of the main island of Honshu and northeast of Kyushu. Shikokuchūō is a city created in 2004 out of 2 neighboring cities, and 2 smaller towns. Doi was one of the towns. The merger was a political move to establish a worthy capital should Shikoku become an island province, and the name Shikokuchūō (Shikoku Central City) was chosen to reflect this aspiration. It has been roundly condemned by locals as a name that is both unoriginal and uninspiring. Within this conurbation localities still strive to maintain their distinctiveness. Doi Taiko Matsuri helps Doi in this regard.

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If you watch the video you’ll see that there are certain basic elements to the Doi Taiko Matsuri processions. First, let’s consider the floats. They are large platforms on top of heavy wooden poles carrying an ornate “drum.” These platforms weigh around 3 or 4 tons apiece and can either be lifted in the air using the poles, or rest on a wheeled carriage. The “drum” is now an elaborately decorated centerpiece which I am assuming would have been a container for a real drum or drums at some point (based on processions I have seen elsewhere in Japan where drummers sit inside this centerpiece and knock out rhythms on drums inside). In Doi there appear to be no actual drums although they could be inside the towers – as they are in other parts of Shikoku. In some cases there are men sitting on top of the towers and might be drummers. There are, however, men standing on the platform directing the movements of the drum squad with hand gestures and whistles. All the actions of the drum squad are rhythmic.

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Second, the thrill of the procession is in the dexterity of the squads who are in competition with one another. For most of the procession the squads merely guide the float on its carriage as they work their way through the streets (you can’t see the carriages in the video because they are obscured by the men in the squads). But periodically they stop and, under the direction of the men on the platform, turn the float, and lift it above their heads. This action requires both strength and coordination. Speed, dexterity, strength, and agility are all judged critically by the onlookers – mostly Japanese, but with some foreign tourists mixed in (very few, because such events are not widely touted).

The Doi procession is relatively sedate in comparison with some I have seen, notably in Osaka. Some of these processions pull and push the floats at running speed through the streets with the men on top having to hold on tight as they careen around corners at breakneck speed. Others are carried on the men’s shoulders for long distances and then periodically shaken and tilted violently. These more active processions are potentially quite dangerous and there are records of the platforms falling over because of poor coordination of the squads, or runners being trampled. The energy and enthusiasm of the men in the squads is electric. It’s not hard to imagine them being carried overboard in the heat of the moment.

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Festival food is available everywhere on these days, of course. There’s really no way to replicate local specialties, so, instead, I’ll mention a famous one – Jakoten. Jakoten (じゃこ天) is a special product of Uwajima in Southern Ehime prefecture, but can be found at many festivals because it is good finger food. Jakoten was supposedly invented in the early 17th century and was originally a kind of steamed fish paste cake ordered by daimyo Date Hidemune to be made by his craftsman using fishes of Uwajima when he lived there. According to legend, he loved steamed fish cakes when he was in Sendai so he wanted to eat them also in Ehime.

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Hotarujako, which are small white fish, are common for making Jakoten. Hotarujako is the Japanese name for Acropoma japonicum, a member of the Acropomatidae family of bioluminescent fish, called, in English, glowbelly or lanternbelly. Hotarujako is also called Haranbo in Uwajima. First, the heads, viscera and scales of the fish are removed. Then, the remaining parts are minced including the bones. Seasoning is added and the minced fish is ground into a paste. Next, it is shaped into rectangular patties by using a wood frame. The patties are fried several minutes until they become brownish color.

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Jakoten are usually eaten with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and daikon. You can buy them on Shikoku cooked to eat immediately, or fresh to take home and cook. I couldn’t find an online source. They wouldn’t be any good anyway. They’d have to be frozen and shipped overnight. Just get on a plane and visit Doi.

Jun 042016
 

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Today begins Saiō Matsuri (斎王まつり), a 2-day festival held on the first weekend of June in the town of Meiwa, Mie Prefecture, in Japan. The Saiō Matsuri celebrates the town’s history of once being an Imperial residence. The festival re-enacts the march of the Saiō and her entourage to the nearby Ise Shrine. The festival consists of over 100 people dressed in Heian period costume, marching down a section of the Ise Kada, the old Ise Pilgrimage road, toward the Saiku Historical Museum.

In pre-modern Japan, Meiwa was best known as the location of the ancient Saikū, the residence of the Saiō, an unmarried Imperial princess who, in place of the Emperor, was sent to serve as the High Priestess of Ise Grand Shrine to perform three important Shinto rituals. During the Edo period the area developed into a thriving agricultural center and shukuba (rest station), providing lodging to people making the pilgrimage to Ise Grand Shrine.

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According to Japanese legend, around 2,000 years ago the divine Yamatohime-no-mikoto, daughter of the Emperor Suinin, set out from Mt. Miwa in Nara Prefecture in search of a permanent location to worship the goddess Amaterasu-omikami. Her search lasted for 20 years and eventually brought her to Ise, Mie Prefecture, where the Ise Shrine now stands. Prior to Yamatohime-no-mikoto’s journey, Amaterasu-omikami had been worshiped at the Imperial Palaces in Yamato.

According to the Man’yōshū (The Anthology of Ten Thousand Leaves), the first Saiō to serve at Ise was Princess Oku, daughter of Emperor Temmu, during the Asuka period of Japanese history. Mention of the Saiō is also made in the Aoi, Sakaki and Yugao chapters of The Tale of Genji, as well as in the 69th chapter of The Tales of Ise (Ise Monogatari).

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In the 13th century, Jien recorded in the Gukanshō that during the reign of Emperor Suinin, the first High Priestess (saigū) was appointed for Ise Shrine. Hayashi Gahō’s 17th century Nihon Ōdai Ichiran is somewhat more expansive, explaining that since Suinin’s time, a daughter of the emperor was almost always appointed as high priestess, but across the centuries, there have been times when the emperor himself had no daughter; and in such circumstances, the daughter of a close relative of the emperor would have been appointed to fill the vacancy.

The role of the Saiō was to serve as High Priestess at Ise Shrine on behalf of the Emperor, to represent the role first set out by Yamatohime-no-mikoto. Three rituals a year were conducted at the Shrine in which the Saiō prayed for peace and protection. In June and November each year, she journeyed to the Shrine to perform the Tsukinamisai Festival. In September she performed the Kannamesai Festival 神嘗祭 to make offerings to the gods of the year’s new grain harvest.

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For the rest of the year, the Saiō lived in Saikū, a small town of up to 500 people approximately 10 km north-west of Ise, in modern Meiwa, Mie Prefecture. Life at Saikū was, for the most part, peaceful. The Saiō would spend her time composing waka verses, collect shells on the shore of Ōyodo beach, or set out in boats and recite poetry upon the water and wait to be recalled to Kyoto.

The Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū), located in the city of Ise, Mie Prefecture,, is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu. Officially known simply as Jingū (神宮), Ise Jingū is a shrine complex composed of a large number of Shinto shrines centered on two main shrines, Naikū (内宮) and Gekū (外宮).

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The Inner Shrine, Naikū (also officially known as “Kotai Jingū”), is located in the town of Uji-tachi, south of central Ise, and is dedicated to the worship of Amaterasu, where she is believed to dwell. The shrine buildings are made of solid cypress wood and uses no nails but instead joined wood, rebuilt exactingly every 20 years. The Outer Shrine, Gekū (also officially known as “Toyouke Daijingu”), is located about 6 km from Naikū and dedicated to Toyouke-Ōmikami, the god of agriculture, rice harvest and industry. Besides Naikū and Gekū, there are an additional 123 Shinto shrines in Ise City and the surrounding areas, 91 of them connected to Naikū and 32 to Gekū.

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Modern Ōyodo Village was established on April 1, 1889 during the Meiji period establishment of municipalities. It was elevated to town status on February 1, 1924, and was renamed Sanwa on September 3, 1955. In 1958, the town of Sanwa and the village of Saimei merged to form the town of Meiwa.

Inarizushi, a type of sushi, is a good dish to celebrate this festival. Inarizushi (稲荷寿司) is a pouch of fried tofu typically filled either with sushi rice alone or with a mix of rice and vegetables. It is named after the Shinto god Inari, who is believed to have a fondness for fried tofu. The dish is normally fashioned from deep-fried tofu (油揚げ, abura age), but regional variations include pouches made of a thin omelette (帛紗寿司, fukusa-zushi, or 茶巾寿司, chakin-zushi).

Inari Ōkami (稲荷大神, also Oinari) is the Japanese kami (spirit) of foxes, of fertility, rice, tea and sake, as well as of agriculture and industry, of general prosperity and worldly success, and one of the principal kami of Shinto.

This video gives an excellent description of preparing inarizushi. You can buy the deep fried tofu at a good oriental store:

Apr 082016
 

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The birthday of the Prince Siddhartha Gautama (that is, the Buddha), is a holiday traditionally celebrated in Mahayana Buddhism. In most Asian cultures it moves about the Gregorian calendar, but in Japan it is celebrated on this date and is called Hana Matsuri, that is, Flower Festival.

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According to the Theravada Tripitaka scriptures, Gautama was born in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal, around the year 563 BCE, and raised in Kapilavastu. The date of Buddha’s Birthday is based on Asian lunisolar calendars and is primarily celebrated in Baisakh month of the Buddhist calendar and the Bikram Sambat Hindu calendar. In Nepal, which is considered the birth-country of Buddha, it is celebrated on the full moon day of the Vaisakha month of the Buddhist calendar. In Theravada countries following the Buddhist calendar, it falls on a full moon Uposatha day, typically in the 5th or 6th lunar month. In China and Korea, it is celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. The date varies from year to year in the Western Gregorian calendar, but usually falls in April or May. In leap years it may be celebrated in June.

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As a result of the Meiji Restoration, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in lieu of the Chinese lunar calendar in 1873. Therefore, in most Japanese temples, Buddha’s birth is celebrated on the Gregorian calendar date April 8. The day is celebrated with parades featuring images of the baby Buddha, the white elephant seen by his mother in her dream just before his birth, and cherry blossoms carried by children dressed in traditional Japanese clothes. The famous sakura (cherry) trees bloom at this time, and so are given as offerings to adorn the nativity celebrations and ‘amacha’, sweet tea symbolic of the heavenly rain is poured over the baby Buddha.

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According to legend, briefly after the birth of young prince Gautama, an astrologer named Asita visited the young prince’s father—King Śuddhodana—and prophesied that Siddhartha would either become a great king or renounce the material world to become a holy man, depending on whether he saw what life was like outside the palace walls. Śuddhodana was determined to see his son become a king, so he prevented him from leaving the palace grounds. But at age 29, despite his father’s efforts, Gautama ventured beyond the palace several times. In a series of encounters—known in Buddhist literature as the four sights—he learned of the suffering of ordinary people, encountering an old man, a sick man, a corpse and, finally, an ascetic holy man, apparently content and at peace with the world. These experiences prompted Gautama to abandon royal life and take up a spiritual quest.

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As long-time readers know, I am reluctant to give Asian recipes for people who don’t live in Asia, but I do make them now and again when I can get the ingredients.  So here’s my recipe for Japanese rice and greens with miso sauce. Use oriental greens such as pak choi or baby bok choi. Use starchy short-grained rice. This is a vegetarian dish, suitable for celebrating the Buddha.

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Japanese Rice and Greens

Ingredients

140g short-grained rice
1 tbsp sesame seed, toasted
1 tbsp sunflower oil
250g baby bok choi or pak choi sliced lengthways
6 spring onion, cut in 1” pieces

sauce

2 tbsp white miso paste
1 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
2 tsp finely grated ginger

Instructions

Soak the rice in cold water overnight.

Mix the sauce ingredients together and marinate the greens in it overnight.

Next day, boil the rice in the soaking water for about 20 minutes, or until soft. Drain.

Meanwhile remove the greens from the marinade, and reserve the marinade.

Heat oil in a wok or skillet over high heat.    Add the greens and stir fry briefly. Then add the rice and reserved marinade and heat through.  Serve sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Apr 042016
 

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On this date every year the Ose Matsuri (Fishermen’s Festival) takes place at Uchiura fishing port, Numazu City, in Shizuoka Prefecture Japan. Fishing boats come from a wide area around Numazu City to take part in the festival. The boats are festooned with flags, streamers and other decorations. But what makes the event unique is that all the rough and tough fishermen dress in women’s clothes and dance aboard the boats. The event is said to ensure good catches and safe trips at sea for the coming year. It is not certain when the festival began or why, but local folklore has it that it originated when the wife of a fisherman gave her husband a kimono to ensure he was safe on his voyage. Take that for what it is worth.

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Festivals of gender inversion are quite common worldwide and have been studied extensively by anthropologists. Naturally there is often an element of humor, as at the Ose Matsuri – tough men acting in effeminate ways. But inversion of roles and categories can also be very powerful culturally.  They highlight traditional roles, and may involve men appropriating the power that conventionally belongs to women.

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I have not been to this festival but I have attended other fishermen’s festivals in Japan. They are raucous affairs that are very well attended and enjoyed by the public. There is always music, drumming ,and dancing. There is also a wealth of festival food.

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Food on a stick is very common because it’s easy to eat as you walk around. There’s the usual grilled offerings, but you can also get pickles or fruit on skewers. There’s also fish-shaped pastries made in molds that are closed around a dough and grilled.

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Mar 282016
 

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The renowned Japanese tea ceremony master, Sen no Rikyū (千利休, 1522 – 1591), also known simply as Rikyū, is celebrated by tea schools on several different days, including today. Rikyū is considered the historical figure with the most profound influence on chanoyu, the Japanese “Way of Tea”, particularly the tradition of wabi-cha. He was also the first to emphasize several key aspects of the ceremony, including rustic simplicity, directness of approach and honesty of self. Originating from the Sengoku period and the Azuchi–Momoyama period, these aspects of the tea ceremony persist.

There are three iemoto (sōke), or “head houses”, of the Japanese Way of Tea, that are directly descended from Rikyū: the Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushakōjisenke, all three of which are dedicated to passing forward the teachings of their mutual family founder, Rikyū.

Rikyū was born in Sakai, present-day Osaka prefecture. His father was a warehouse owner named Tanaka Yohei (田中与兵衛), who later in life also used the family name Sen, and his mother was Gesshin Myōchin (月岑妙珎). His childhood name was Yoshiro. As a young man, Rikyū studied tea under a townsman (chōnin) of Sakai named Kitamuki Dōchin (1504–62), and at the age of 19, through Dōchin’s introduction, he began to study tea under Takeno Jōō, who is also associated with the development of the wabi aesthetic in tea ceremony. He is believed to have received the Buddhist name Sōeki (宗易) from the Rinzai Zen priest Dairin Sōtō (1480–1568) of Nanshūji temple in Sakai.He married a woman known as Hōshin Myōju around when he was twenty-one. Rikyū also underwent Zen training at Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto. Not much is known about his middle years.

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In 1579, at the age of 58, Rikyū became a tea master for Oda Nobunaga and, following Nobunaga’s death in 1582, he was a tea master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi. His relationship with Hideyoshi quickly deepened, and he entered Hideyoshi’s circle of confidants, effectively becoming the most influential figure in the world of chanoyu. In 1585, in order that he could help at a tea gathering that would be given by Hideyoshi for Emperor Ōgimachi and held at the Imperial Palace, the emperor bestowed upon him the Buddhist lay name and title “Rikyū Koji” (利休居士). Another major chanoyu event of Hideyoshi’s that Rikyū played a central role in was the Kitano Ōchanoyu, the grand tea gathering held by Hideyoshi at the Kitano Tenman-gū in 1587.

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It was during his later years that Rikyū began to use very tiny, rustic tea rooms referred as sōan (lit., “grass hermitage”), such as the two-tatami mat tea room named Taian, which can be seen today at Myōkian temple in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto, and which is credited to his design. This tea room has been designated as a National Treasure. He also developed many implements for tea ceremony, including flower containers, tea scoops, and lid rests made of bamboo, and also used everyday objects for tea ceremony, often in novel ways.

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Classic raku teabowls were developed through his collaboration with a tile-maker named Raku Chōjirō. Rikyū had a preference for simple, rustic items made in Japan, rather than the expensive Chinese-made items that were fashionable at the time. Though not the inventor of the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in the very simple, Rikyū is among those most responsible for popularizing it, developing it, and incorporating it into tea ceremony. He created a new form of tea ceremony using very simple instruments and surroundings. This and his other beliefs and teachings came to be known as sōan-cha (the grass-thatched hermitage style of chanoyu), or more generally, wabi-cha. Typical sayings:

Though you wipe your hands and brush off the dust and dirt from the vessels, what is the use of all this fuss if the heart is still impure?

Though many people drink tea,
if you do not know the Way of Tea,
tea will drink you up.

The Way of Tea is naught but this:
first you boil water,
then you make the tea and drink it.

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The general philosophy of chanoyu that his descendants and followers carried on became known as the Senke-ryū (千家流, “school of the house of Sen”).Two of his primary disciples were Nanbō Sōkei (南坊宗啓; dates unknown), a somewhat legendary Zen priest, and Yamanoue Sōji (1544–90), a townsman of Sakai. Nanbō is credited as the original author of the Nanpō roku (南方録), a record of Rikyū’s teachings. Yamanoue’s chronicle, the Yamanoue Sōji ki (山上宗二記), gives commentary about Rikyū’s teachings and the state of chanoyu at the time of its writing.

Rikyū had a number of children, including a son known in history as Sen Dōan, and daughter known as Okame. This daughter became the wife of Rikyū’s second wife’s son by a previous marriage, known in history as Sen Shōan. Due to many complex circumstances, Sen Shōan, rather than Rikyū’s legitimate heir, Dōan, became the person counted as the 2nd generation in the Sen-family’s tradition of chanoyu (“san-Senke” school).

Although Rikyū had been one of Hideyoshi’s closest confidants, because of crucial differences of opinion and other reasons which remain uncertain, Hideyoshi ordered him to commit ritual suicide. While Hideyoshi’s reason may never be known for certain, it is known that Rikyū committed seppuku at his residence within Hideyoshi’s Jurakudai villa in Kyoto in 1591 on the 28th day of the 2nd month (of the traditional Japanese lunar calendar; or April 21 when calculated according to the modern Gregorian calendar), at the age of seventy.

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According to Okakura Kakuzo in The Book of Tea, Rikyū’s last act was to hold an exquisite tea ceremony. After serving all his guests, he presented each piece of the tea equipment for their inspection, along with an exquisite kakemono, which Okakura described as “a wonderful writing by an ancient monk dealing with the evanescence of all things.” Rikyū presented each of his guests with a piece of the equipment as a souvenir, with the exception of the bowl, which he shattered, uttering “Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by a man.” As the guests departed, one remained to serve as witness to Rikyū’s death. Rikyū’s last words, which he wrote down as a death poem, were in verse, addressed to the dagger with which he took his own life:

Welcome to thee,
O sword of eternity!
Through Buddha
And through Daruma alike
Thou hast cleft thy way.

When Hideyoshi was building his lavish residence at Fushimi the following year, he remarked that he wished its construction and decoration to be pleasing to Rikyū. He was known for his temper, and is said to have expressed regret at his treatment of Rikyū.

Rikyū’s grave is located at Jukōin temple in the Daitoku-ji compound in Kyoto; his posthumous Buddhist name is Fushin’an Rikyū Sōeki Koji.

Memorials for Rikyū are observed annually by many schools of Japanese tea ceremony. The Omotesenke school’s annual memorial takes place at the family’s headquarters each year on March 27, and the Urasenke school’s takes place at its own family’s headquarters each year on March 28. The three Sen families (Omotesenke, Urasenke, Mushakōjisenke) take turns holding a memorial service on the 28th of every month, at their mutual family temple, the subsidiary temple Jukōin at Daitoku-ji temple.

To celebrate Rikyū you could go several ways.  One would be to use matcha in a recipe. It’s become a very trendy item in the West because it has antioxidant properties. This site’s not bad:

http://dailyburn.com/life/recipes/matcha-recipes-matcha-latte/

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Another tack would be to make a traditional tea ceremony dish. The tea ceremony can be just about serving tea, or it can involve an elaborate (yet simple) meal. The essence of the meal is that it must delight the eye and palate.

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Each guest is served a meal, called chakaiseki, served on a tray with fresh cedar chopsticks. The meal consists of three courses (or items). The dishes are served cooked white rice in a ceramic bowl and miso soup which is served in covered lacquer bowls with raw fish, plain or pickled, or pickled vegetables in a ceramic dish.

The first course/dish is called hashiarai (rinsing the chopsticks): nimono (foods simmered in broth) in separate covered lacquer dishes and yakimono (grilled foods) are served in individual portions on ceramic plates. The palate is then cleared with kosuimono, a simple clear broth served in covered lacquer bowls.

The next course derives its name from the Shinto reverence of nature. It is called hassun which is also the name for the simple wooden tray that is used to serve this course. This course consists of uminomono and yamanomono (seafood and mountain food respectively) which signify the abundance of the sea and land. The position of server is considered a higher position and, to insure equality of all in the tea room, each acts as host if only momentarily.

Konomono (fragrant things) are served in small ceramic bowls, and browned rice is served in salted water in a lacquer pitcher, representing the last of the rice. Each guest cleans the utensils they have used with soft paper which they bring. An omogashi (principal sweet) is served to conclude the meal. The host then invites his guests to retire to the garden or waiting room while he prepares for tea.

I have given some basic Japanese recipes on this site in the past – miso soup, tofu, noodles, etc. If you search for “dashi” you will easily find them. As with Chinese cooking, it’s very difficult to replicate authentic Japanese cooking at home.  Even the Japanese do not do it (except for some simple home-cooked items).  Restaurant chefs have developed particular skills over decades, and there is no way to rival them. If you’re curious, go to Japan.

Apr 102015
 

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Today is the birthday (1794) of Matthew Calbraith Perry), a commodore of the United States Navy and commander of a number of ships. He served in several wars, most notably in the Mexican–American War and the War of 1812. He played a leading role in the opening of Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854.

Matthew Perry was the son of Sarah Wallace (Alexander) and Navy Captain Christopher R. Perry, and the younger brother of Oliver Hazard Perry. Perry received a midshipman’s commission in the U.S.Navy in 1809, and was initially assigned to the USS Revenge, under the command of his elder brother. Under his brother’s command, Matthew was a combatant in The Battle of Lake Erie aboard the flagship Lawrence and the replacement flagship, the brig Niagara.

Perry’s early career saw him assigned to several ships, including the USS President (where he served as an aid to Commodore John Rodgers (1772–1838)) which had been in a victorious engagement over a British vessel, HMS Little Belt, shortly before the War of 1812 was officially declared. He continued in this capacity during the War of 1812. Perry was also aboard the President when it engaged HMS Belvidera when Rodgers himself fired the first shot of the war at this vessel with a following shot that resulted in a cannon bursting, wounding Rodgers and Perry and killing and wounding others. Perry transferred to the USS United States, and saw little fighting in the war after that, since the ship was trapped in port at New London, Connecticut. Following the signing of the Treaty of Ghent which ended the conflict, he served on various vessels in the Mediterranean. Perry served under Commodore William Bainbridge during the Second Barbary War. He then served in African waters aboard USS Cyane during its patrol off Liberia from 1819–1820. After that cruise, Perry was sent to suppress piracy and the slave trade in the West Indies. Later during this period, while in port in Russia, Perry was offered a commission in the Imperial Russian Navy, which he declined.

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Perry commanded the USS Shark, a schooner with 12 guns, in 1821–1825. In 1763, when Britain possessed Florida, the Spanish contended that the Florida Keys were part of Cuba and North Havana. Certain elements within the United States felt that Key West (which was then named Cayo Hueso, meaning “Bone Key”) could potentially be the “Gibraltar of the West” because it guarded the northern edge of the 90 mile (145 km) wide Straits of Florida—the deep water route between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1815 the Spanish governor in Havana deeded the island of Key West to Juan Pablo Salas of Saint Augustine. After Florida was transferred to the United States, Salas sold Key West to U.S. businessman John W. Simonton for $2,000 in 1821. Simonton lobbied the U.S. Government to establish a naval base on Key West, both to take advantage of its strategic location and to bring law and order to the area. On March 25, 1822, Perry sailed the Shark to Key West and planted the U.S. flag, physically claiming the Keys as United States property. Perry renamed Cayo Hueso “Thompson’s Island” for the Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson and the harbor “Port Rodgers” for the president of the Board of Navy Commissioners. Neither name stuck.

From 1826 to 1827 Perry acted as fleet captain for Commodore Rodgers. Perry returned to Charleston, South Carolina for shore duty in 1828, and in 1830 took command of a sloop-of-war, the USS Concord. He spent the years 1833–1837 as second officer of the New York Navy Yard (later the Brooklyn Navy Yard), gaining promotion to captain at the end of this tour.

Perry had an ardent interest and saw the need for the naval education, supporting an apprentice system to train new seamen, and helped establish the curriculum for the United States Naval Academy. He was a vocal proponent of modernizing the Navy. Once promoted to captain, he oversaw construction of the Navy’s second steam frigate the USS Fulton, which he commanded after its completion. He was called “The Father of the Steam Navy,” and he organized America’s first corps of naval engineers, and conducted the first U.S. naval gunnery school while commanding Fulton in 1839–1841 off Sandy Hook on the coast of New Jersey.

Perry received the title of Commodore in June 1840, when the Secretary of the Navy appointed him commandant of New York Navy Yard. The United States Navy did not have ranks higher than captain until 1862, so the title of commodore carried considerable importance. Officially, an officer would revert to his permanent rank after the squadron command assignment had ended, although in practice officers who received the title of commodore retained the title for life, and Perry was no exception.

During his tenure in Brooklyn, he lived in Quarters A in Vinegar Hill, a building which still stands today. In 1843, Perry took command of the African Squadron, whose duty was to interdict the slave trade under the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, and continued in this endeavor through 1844.

In 1845, Commodore David Conner’s length of service in command of the Home Squadron had come to an end. However, the coming of the Mexican-American War persuaded the authorities not to change commanders in the face of the war. Perry, who would eventually succeed Conner, was made second-in-command and captained the USS Mississippi. Perry captured the Mexican city of Frontera, demonstrated against Tabasco and took part in the capture of Tampico. On November 14, 1846. He had to return to Norfolk, Virginia to make repairs and was still there when the amphibious landings at Veracruz took place. His return to the U.S. gave his superiors the chance to finally give him orders to succeed Commodore Conner in command of the Home Squadron. Perry returned to the fleet during the siege of Veracruz and his ship supported the siege from the sea. After the fall of Veracruz, Winfield Scott moved inland and Perry moved against the remaining Mexican port cities. Perry assembled the Mosquito Fleet and captured Tuxpan in April, 1847. In July 1847 he attacked Tabasco personally, leading a 1,173-man landing force ashore and attacking the city of San Juan Bautista (Villahermosa today) from land.

In advance of his voyage to the Far East, Commodore Perry read widely among available books about Tokugawa-era Japan. His research even included consultation with the increasingly well-known German Japanologist Philipp Franz von Siebold, who had lived in Japan at the Dutch trading post of Dejima for eight years before retiring to Leiden in the Netherlands.

Perry’s expedition to Japan was preceded by several naval expeditions by American ships:

  • From 1797 to 1809, several American ships traded in Nagasaki under the Dutch flag, upon the request of the Dutch, who were not able to send their own ships because of their conflict against Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Japan limited foreign trade to the Dutch and Chinese at that time, under the policy of sakoku (closed country).
  • In 1837, an American businessman in Canton named Charles W. King saw an opportunity to close trade by trying to return to Japan three Japanese sailors (among them, Otokichi) who had been shipwrecked a few years before on the coast of Washington. He went to Uraga Channel, near Edo, with Morrison, an unarmed American merchant ship. The ship was attacked several times, and sailed back without completing its mission.
  • In 1846, Commander James Biddle, sent by the United States Government to open trade, anchored in Edo Bay with two ships, including one warship armed with 72 cannons, but his requests for a trade agreement remained unsuccessful.
  • In 1849, Captain James Glynn sailed to Nagasaki, leading at last to a successful negotiation by an American with “Closed Country” Japan. James Glynn recommended to the United States Congress that negotiations to open Japan be backed up by a demonstration of force, thus paving the way for Perry’s expedition.

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In 1852, Perry embarked from Norfolk, Virginia for Japan, in command of the East India Squadron in pursuit of a Japanese trade treaty. Aboard a black-hulled steam frigate, he ported Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna at Uraga Harbor near Edo (early Tokyo) on July 8, 1853. His actions at this crucial juncture were informed by a careful study of Japan’s previous contacts with Western ships and what could be known about the Japanese hierarchical culture. He was met by representatives of the Tokugawa Shogunate who told him to proceed to Nagasaki, the only Japanese port open to foreigners at that time where there was limited trade with the Netherlands.

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As he arrived, Perry ordered his ships to steam past Japanese lines towards the capital of Edo, and turn their guns towards the town of Uraga. Perry refused Japanese demands to leave. He then demanded permission to present a letter from President Millard Fillmore, and threatened to use force if the Japanese boats around the American squadron did not disperse.

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Perry attempted to intimidate the Japanese by presenting them a white flag and a letter which told them that in case they chose to fight, the Americans would destroy them. Perry ordered some buildings in the harbor shelled. Perry’s ships were equipped with new Paixhans shell guns, cannons capable of wreaking great explosive destruction with every shell. In Japan, the term “Black Ships,” used for centuries to refer to foreign trade vessels, would later come to symbolize a threat imposed by Western technology.

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After the Japanese agreed to receive the letter from the American President, Perry landed at Kurihama (in modern-day Yokosuka) on July 14, 1853, presented the letter to attending delegates, and left for the Chinese coast, promising to return for a reply. After Perry’s departure, fortifications were built on Tokyo Bay at Odaiba in order to protect Edo from possible future American naval incursion.

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Perry returned in February 1854 with twice as many ships, to find that the Japanese had prepared a treaty accepting virtually all the demands in Fillmore’s letter. Perry signed the Convention of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854, and departed, mistakenly believing the agreement had been made with imperial representatives. The agreement was made with the Shogun, the de facto ruler of Japan.

On his way to Japan, Perry anchored off Keelung in Formosa (modern day Taiwan), for ten days. Perry and crew members landed on Formosa and investigated the potential of mining the coal deposits in that area. He emphasized in his reports that Formosa provided a convenient mid-way trade location. Formosa was also very defensible. It could serve as a base for exploration as Cuba had done for the Spanish in the Americas. Occupying Formosa could help the US to counter European monopolization of major trade routes. President Franklin Pierce declined the suggestion, remarking such a remote possession would be an unnecessary drain of resources and that he would be unlikely to receive the consent of Congress.

When Perry returned to the United States in 1855, Congress voted to grant him a reward of $20,000 (US$ 506,000 in 2015) in appreciation of his work in Japan. Perry used part of this money to prepare and publish a report on the expedition in three volumes, titled Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan. He was also promoted to the grade of rear-admiral on the retired list (when his health began to fail) as a reward for his service in the Far East. Perry was known to have suffered severe arthritis that left him in frequent pain, and on occasion precluded him from his duties.

Perry spent his last years preparing for publication his account of the Japan expedition, announcing its completion on December 28, 1857. Two days later he was detached from his last post, an assignment to the Naval Efficiency Board. He died awaiting further orders on March 4, 1858, in New York City, of rheumatism that had spread to the heart, compounded by complications of gout and alcoholism.

Initially interred in a vault on the grounds of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, in New York City, his remains were moved to the Island Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island on March 21, 1866, along with those of his daughter, Anna, who died in 1839. In 1873, an elaborate monument was placed by his widow over his grave in Newport.

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After Japan was opened to the West, a style of cooking developed called yōshoku (essentially Western cuisine with a Japanese slant). Common examples are curry and rice, fried meat cutlet, and hayashi rice (a rich beef stew with rice) – all made possible by the prohibition on red meat being lifted under the Meiji restoration following Perry’s visit. I don’t care that much for yōshoku, partly because when I am in Japan I am not interested in fake Western food. But the Japanese love it. They are popular dishes whether cooked at home or found in western style diners. Children, in particular, enjoy it as family/comfort food, and it is often featured in okosama-ranchi or kids’ meals. I have had a few of these dishes and do like omurice at a pinch.

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Omurice is said to have originated around the turn of the 20th century at a western style restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district called Renga-tei, inspired by chakin-zushi. The dish typically consists of chikin raisu (chicken rice: rice pan-fried with ketchup and chicken) wrapped in a thin sheet of fried egg. The ingredients flavoring the rice vary. Often, the rice is fried with various meats (but typically chicken) and/or vegetables, and can be flavored with beef stock, ketchup, demi-glace, white sauce or simply salt and pepper. Sometimes, rice is replaced with fried noodles (yakisoba) to make omusoba. A variant in Okinawa is omutako, consisting of an omelet over taco rice. Fried hotdog and Spam are also two popular meats to include in the dish courtesy of the U.S. occupation.

Here is a simple recipe; at the end I have appended a link to a very good video.

Omurice  

1 cup cooked rice
½ small onion, finely chopped
½ cup chicken breast cut into small pieces
butter
ketchup (in a squeeze bottle)
2 large eggs
salt and pepper

Instructions

Sauté the chopped onion in butter over medium-high heat until transparent. Add the chicken and sauté until barely done. Add the rice and toss over high heat until heated through. Add about 2 tablespoons of ketchup and toss rapidly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm.

Make an omelet in the usual way, that is, whisk up the eggs, melt a little butter in an omelet pain over medium heat, pour the eggs in gently stir then until they begin to set, and then let settle, perhaps still slightly runny on top.

Add the rice mix in the middle and fold the omelet around it. Turn it out on a plate seam side down.

Shape into a package and squirt ketchup on top. Add some salad greens if you wish.

Variations are cook’s choice. For example, use demi-glace instead of ketchup, use different meats etc. This video is very helpful:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTf5EgVY5uU

As you may know, many Japanese restaurants advertize their menus with plastic replicas of their dishes in the window — very lifelike.  Here’s a restaurant that specializes in omurice showing an array of varieties.

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Jan 072015
 

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Today is the Festival of Seven Herbs or Nanakusa no sekku (Japanese: 七草の節句), the long-standing Japanese custom of eating seven-herb rice porridge (nanakusa-gayu) on January 7 (Jinjitsu). “Herbs” in this context means greens, some of which are regular green vegetables and some of which are herbs in the West. This reminds me of the fact that until relatively recently all greens were called “herbs” in England. So a salad could be made of lettuce, spinach, sage, thyme, and so forth, and they were all “herbs.” The greens would then be dressed with oil and vinegar. The notion of using greens in the salad and then dressing with a vinaigrette with the herbs in it is a modern idea. You should try using lettuce, spinach, fresh basil, fresh mint, and so forth in the salad bowl and then adding oil and vinegar. It is much fresher than the conventional salad.

The nanakusa are the seven edible wild herbs of spring. Traditionally, they are

Japanese parsley (Oenanthe javanica)

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Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)

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Cudweed (Gnaphalium affine)

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Chickweed (Stellaria media)

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Nipplewort (Lapsana apogonoides)

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Turnip greens (Brassica rapa)

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Daikon greens (Raphanus sativus)

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But there is considerable variation in the precise ingredients, with common local herbs often being substituted.

On the morning of January 7, or the night before, people place the nanakusa, rice scoop, and/or wooden pestle on the cutting board and, facing the good-luck direction, chant  — “Before the birds of the continent (China) fly to Japan, let’s get nanakusa” while cutting the herbs into pieces. The chant may vary.

The seventh of the first month has been an important Japanese festival since ancient times. The custom of eating nanakusa-gayu on this day, to bring longevity and health, developed in Japan from a similar ancient Chinese custom, intended to ward off evil. Since there is little green at that time of the year, the young green herbs bring color to the table and eating them suits the spirit of the New Year.

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Nanakusa-gayu, and rice porridge in general, is not to my taste. It is quite common in China but not especially where I live. I find it too bland. I’ll eat it if given to me, but won’t eat it by choice. Preparation is simple. First you make a stock. For nanakusa-gayu make it by steeping konbu in water overnight. Konbu is a seaweed easily obtainable from Asian stores. Discard the seaweed and add some steamed Japanese rice to the broth. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook until the grains are really soft. Then add your chopped greens and cook for 5 minutes or so, and serve in bowls. For Westerners it would not be terribly sacrilegious to use whatever greens you can get hold of. But you should use some kind of fish or seaweed stock.