If you’re reading this blog, it’s a safe assumption that you have some interest in Japan and it’s culture. While there are many books on Japan, most focus on history, politics, or special interests. There are countless books on kendo, the tea ceremony, ninjutsu, the Warring States Period, and the rotating turnstile of prime ministers. There aren’t terribly many that detail the day to day intricacies of life and the culture. Probably for the same reason there aren’t many on the day to day intricacies of American life. Who would want to read about something so ordinary and common sense? But what is common sense for some is fantastic for others. My previous post on Japanese dating culture received a bit of positive feedback, and I intend on writing more articles in that vein. Something along the lines of everything no one tells you about Japan.
However, it is always good to have multiple sources on any topic of interest. Don’t believe everything you read, as they say. Corroborating information strengthens any statement. So while I would like my readers to trust me, some cautious optimism is best applied. I’m human, I make mistakes and I sometimes misunderstand things. For that very reason I would encourage you to seek out more literature on Japanese culture.
21st Century Japan: A New Sun Rising by Trevor W. Harrison
An excellent account of Japan’s more recent history and the country’s growth into its current global role. His discussion of Japan’s military and geopolitical struggles are especially worthy of note.
Japanese Culture by H. Paul Varley
This book deals with Japanese cultural history, primarily in the realm of the arts. A bit dry but a very informative read. A good book for building a foundation of understanding on the culture.
A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony by Hector Garcia
Titles like this normally don’t lend themselves to books of such quality. I was surprised at how accurate, well thought out, and concise a writing on the cultures and sub-cultures detailed of Japan. This book supplies an excellent primer to the life style of your average Japanese student, office worker, and many more. While many similar writings try to define the culture by a Western perspective, Hector Garcia does an excellent job of objectively presenting the reality faced by each facet of the population.
For more current and interactive information, the Something Awful web forum has a Japan thread run by an active group of ex-pats in numerous careers throughout Japan that discuss the culture and their experiences. The individuals on the forum are generally well spoken and well informed, discussing a broad range of topics.
Passport is lodged with the Japanese consulate for visa approval. Barring any issues I should have my visa by Wednesday. I have to say I love living near a major city with a massive Asian population. Not having to mail in my passport for the visa takes a lot of worry out of the process.
Saba also received her Certificate of Eligibility last week, so I met her at the consulate and we both applied for our visas. We had a small dinner afterward, and continued on to Borders. Though I had not intended in buying much- mostly I was going to help Saba find a good travel guide, Japanese to English dictionary and phrase book- I came back with quite the haul. I bought a book on English grammar, more for questions fielded from teachers that for use with students; a large map of the United states, as I learned last time my ability to draw the US is lacking; the newest edition of Lonely Planet, published last October making it crazily up to date; a Japanese cook book in English, so I can eat more than soba and curry rice; and a dictionary of Japanese food, a short sentence can’t describe why this is important.
The dictionary of Japanese food is vital for a number of reasons. Firstly because I love Japanese food and want to seek out and try more dishes. Secondly because I don’t know the names for a number of foods or ingredients so don’t know how to ask for them. Thirdly because most Japanese restaurants have menus in kanji that I have yet to learn and this can help me decipher it. Fourthly, and most importantly, because it will help me avoid any unpleasant surprises like that time. Gather ’round children, it’s story time.
On my first trip to Kyoto I stayed at a back packers hostel. Like most hostels they had lists of sights to see and recommendations for just about anything. One restaurant was recommended highly by the staff as an excellent place to try authentic, formal Kyoto cuisine. This was exactly what I was looking for, and so I head off. I arrive at the restaurant and I am greeted and seated.
I came a bit early, around 5:15pm, so I am the only person in the restaurant. I open the menu and realize everything is in kanji. Kanji I don’t understand, and my food vocabulary is very limited. I am too proud to ask for an English menu (though it was obvious they didn’t have one) and too arrogant excuse myself and leave. Since the dishes were numbered, I was able to order using those, ordering four dishes in all. I thought to myself “I’m an adventurous eater. I’ve had chrysanthemum, cow stomach and beef tongue and enjoyed them. What’s the worst I could get?”
Most of my meal was quite good but forgettable. There was the grilled fish, egg gelatin/soup, and the daikon based….something. However, there was one dish that I will never forget no matter how hard I try. At the time I had no idea what it was. They were four small, circular, swirly off white sacks about the size of a child’s fist. They seemed bound internally into almost clover shapes, but at the same time a square circle. The only way to eat them appeared to be pop one straight into my mouth, which I should have learned from the umiboshi incident is not always the best plan. Their wasn’t much taste at first. A little salt and saline, but the sensation of this thing in my mouth was bizarre. It slid and floated like a hand across lightly lubricated latex. When the right amount of pressure was applied, the sack burst in my mouth in a most peculiar way. A flood of salt and taste that was not taste filled my mouth. The flavor wasn’t bad, nor was it good. It was simply bizarre. I can only liken the experience to H.P. Lovecraft’s writing. It was like dining on Cthulu.
A year later I would learn from Kana what it was I ate. Cod bladder. And that is why it is important I own a Japanese food dictionary.