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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.

Oct 102015
 

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On this date in 1964 the Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XVIII Olympiad opened in Tokyo. Tokyo had been awarded the organization of the 1940 Summer Olympics, but this selection was subsequently passed to Helsinki because of Japan’s invasion of China, before ultimately being canceled because of World War II. The 1964 Summer Games were the first Olympics held in Asia, and the first time South Africa was barred from taking part due to its apartheid system in sports.

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These games were also the first to be telecast internationally without the need for tapes to be flown overseas as they were for the 1960 Olympics four years earlier. The games were telecast to the United States using Syncom 3, the first geostationary communication satellite, and from there to Europe using Relay 1. These were also the first Olympic Games to have color telecasts (partially). Certain events like the sumo wrestling and judo matches, sports huge in Japan, were tried out using Toshiba’s new color transmission system; but just for the domestic market, not for any international coverage. History surrounding the 1964 Olympics was chronicled in the 1965 documentary film Tokyo Olympiad, directed by Kon Ichikawa.

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I remember being absolutely enthralled by the telecasts. We had watched snippets of previous Olympics via tapes that were flown to Australia, or, in the case of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, films shown on newsreels in the local cinema. Besides being able to watch whole events and somewhat continuous coverage, I was amazed by all the new technology – electronic starters and photo finishes, instant replay, slow motion, the works. It was as if the modern world had arrived fully formed into our living room in a rather electronically impoverished corner of South Australia.

TRANSPAC-1, the first trans-Pacific communications cable from Japan to Hawaii was also finished in June 1964 in time for these games. Before this, most communications from Japan to other countries were via shortwave.

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The start of operations for the first Japanese “bullet train” (the Tokaido Shinkansen) between Tokyo Station and Shin-Ōsaka Station was scheduled to coincide with the Olympic games. The first regularly scheduled train ran on October 1, 1964, just 9 days before the opening of the games, transporting passengers 515 kilometers (320 mi) in about 4 hours, and connecting the three major metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka.

Some already-planned upgrades to both highways and commuter rail lines were rescheduled for completion in time for these games. Of the 8 main expressways approved by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 1959, No. 1, No. 4 and a portion of No. 2 and No. 3 were completed for the games. Two subway lines totaling 22 kilometers (14 mi) were also completed in time for the games, and the port of Tokyo facilities were expanded to handle the anticipated traffic.

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The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo celebrated Japan’s progress and reemergence on the world stage. The new Japan was no longer a wartime enemy, but a peaceful country that threatened no one, and this transformation was accomplished in fewer than 20 years. Although Japan’s foreign policy was closely linked to the United States during the Cold War, the city of Tokyo hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics in the spirit of peaceful engagement with the entire international community, including the Communist states. The goals were to demonstrate to the world that Japan had fully recovered from the war, had disavowed imperialism and militarism, welcomed high-caliber sports, and sought to engage the peoples of the world on a grassroots level. Sports were kept entirely separate from politics. The event proved a great success for the city and for Japan as a whole, with no untoward incidents. Japan’s foreign policy was expanded to include sports diplomacy as the nation sent teams to international competitions across the globe.

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Japanese cuisine was once virtually unknown in the West. For my 21st birthday (1972) I went to the ONLY Japanese restaurant in London where my partner and I were the only Westerners in the place – and the waitresses (dressed as geishas) spoke minimal English. It was a memorable meal which set me on a life course of eating as well as preparing Japanese dishes. It’s possible to prepare a number of dishes at home but you have to have the right ingredients, prime of which is the bonito stock – dashi. I give a recipe here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ajinomoto-monosodium-glutamate/ Above is an example of my Japanese home cooking – various kinds of fish with dipping sauces. Udon and soba noodles are usually readily available at Asian groceries and are very easy to prepare, simply by poaching them in dashi and then serving them in the stock or cold with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and bonito flakes, or shaved ginger root.

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However, for a good variety it’s just as well to go to a restaurant where you’ll find all manner of traditional dishes prepared perfectly and served beautifully.

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