Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How About Some Perspective?

I'm so angry at so many people right now.

I'm not going to get into it in detail, but it seems like this disaster (every disaster?) is increasingly becoming an opportunity for every scaremonger with a political agenda to come out of their holes and exploit everyone's natural fear for their own ends.

Right now, it's the reactors. The reactor situation in Fukushima is undoubtedly bad. It could become really, REALLY bad. But it is not at all the world-damaging Chernobyl disaster that all the anti-nuclear freaks say it is. Nor, however, is it the simple, peaceful, nothing-to-worry-about-here cakewalk that the pro-nuclear freaks say it is. People are going to have serious problems because of this. Some people may get sick, some might die, people are certainly going to lose their homes.

But there is no harmful radiation in Tokyo, no nuclear fallout spreading across the globe. The radiation levels at the gate to the power plant (.4mSv) are less than a 4th of the natural background radiation you would get living in Denver for a year (1.8mSv).

Not a place you want to take a nap, not, but for 99% of us it's NOT DANGEROUS. Right now. The brave men and women trying to fix this are, of course, in another situation, and my heart and thoughts go out to them. But for most of us, there is no danger at all.

Does that mean we shouldn't be watching? Of course not. The situation could get worse. But that is always the case, isn't it? So watch, take precautions, but for pete's sake...Don't let the idiot media and the agenda-filled grandstanders cloud your judgment.

But the worst part? The really really bad part? All the time they spend telling you how awful the reactor situation is is time taken away from the true problem in Japan. At least 10,000 people, men, women, children. Gone. Some never to be recovered, to be given their final rest where their families can tend to their graves.

Thousands more...Millions? Homeless, with nothing at all to their names now. Homes, cars, jobs, everything--gone. NOW.

So let the technicians and the emergency workers take care of the completely unmeasurable risk of radiation coming from Fukushima. Because tonight, in Miyagi, it's going to snow. There aren't any more stocked grocery stores. There's no electricity to heat, no water to drink, no food to eat.

What sounds like the bigger problem to you?

Did I mention you can donate to the Red Cross and help those people?
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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Some Peace Among The Madness

I had to take a day off from the "Cry every time I pass a TV" routine I've been in since Friday afternoon, so that's what the wife and I did.

I know that while people in the north of Japan are still suffering, are still searching desperately for their loved ones and mourning their dead (a list which has surpassed 10,000 souls), it is pure selfishness to want to stop thinking about it. I, who have the luxury of being able to do just that, should not. But sometimes people are selfish. I know I certainly am.

Indeed, apart from cash donations (Have you? Can you? Please do, if you can: How To Help.) I don't really know what at all I can do. My tears and my frustration certainly aren't helping anyone, so I figure it's about time to stop that. I guess it's thin justification, but that's all I've got.

And so today, my wife and I got out of the house into the warm March sunshine, and enjoyed as much of our time together as we could.

We left our home in Hikari and drove toward the center of Yamaguchi prefecture, to a place called Akiyoshidai. The side of Japan on which we live, the one facing the Pacific, is known as the "Sanyo Coast", and is the more heavily populated and industrialized side of Japan. The other side is called the "Sanin Coast" and is cleaner, quieter and more relaxed. The two coasts are separated by the mountains that make up the majority of Honshu's landmass.

Driving into these mountains from the factory-filled Sanyo coast is a joy. The bamboo and pine covered slopes rise gently, and hide little villages lining streams and rivers running clean and clear. On a day like today, with not a cloud in the sky and the winter chill all but gone, they were perfect.

The drive was about 2 hours, as we made it intentionally long. Akiyoshi is a famous place here in Yamaguchi. It's a small town, surrounded by unusual mineralogical formations. There are three large, rather lovely caves in the area, as well as our desination today: Akiyoshidai.

Akiyoshidai is a valley, or series of hills, or a mountain...I'm not really sure. But it's covered with these rather striking rock outcroppings called "karst". Apparently they're rare, these huge chunks of stone emerging from the soil like this. I'm not sure that they are enough of a draw to become a real tourist attraction, but apparently enough people come to warrant a small gift shop and restaurant.

And people were there. We weren't the only ones who felt the need to get out and away from the constant rush of pain coming through the wires. Here they are, laughing and taking pictures and eating soft-serve. They way it's supposed to be.

And here I get the real story about today.

One of the main activities, simple as it is, at Akiyoshidai, is eating Summer Mikan Soft-serve. Summer Mikan is a type of small orange, similar to a Clementine or Mandarin, that is particularly famous in Yamaguchi. And Akiyoshi, being a Yamaguchi landmark, makes a big deal out of this by pushing the Soft Serve Ice Cream they make with it. So we decided to get some, just to fit in.

There are two shops selling Yamaguchi Summer Mikan Soft-serve at Akiyoshidai. One is right on the way in, and is marked by a mannequin in a China dress. We passed this one because the line was very long--it's right in the entrance, and everyone has to pass by it so it gets all the foot traffic. The other is further up the hill, attached to the restaurant and a little out of the way. This place had a shorter line, and we got our Ice Cream there. I got the Mikan, of course, but my wife got Strawberry--her reasoning was, there's no reason for us to get the same flavor, we can share.

So we got our ice cream, and made our way back toward the car. On the way, we decided to sit in the sun and eat, so we stopped at a nice warm bench. We didn't pay attention, however, to the fact that we were right in front of the other Ice Cream shop.

The crowd had dispersed, and as we sat eating, the little old woman manning the counter (well into her 70s, I think) called out to my wife and motioned her over. We were both a bit surprised, but when she brought out a small spoon, we thought that she was just offering one to my wife. So she went over, and then another gesture beckoned me over as well.

When my wife reached the counter, instead of offering her the spoon the woman held out a hand for her cone and started gently berating her. "What are you eating? Strawberry!? This is Akiyoshi! You have to eat Mikan!" And taking my wife's cone, replaced the half-eaten strawberry with a big dab of Mikan ice cream. Then she took my cone. "Oh, this is terrible. You shouldn't buy this crap, here let me..." And taking the spoon from before, she scooped out most of my ice cream and refilled the cone with her own Mikan soft serve.

(Photo from wikitravel here. That's definitely the stuff, that's the cone she uses.)

"That place up there, it's terrible. They just add flavoring to the vanilla to make their Mikan and Strawberry. We make it all from scratch, and use real fruit. Even our vanilla is better!" With that, she took my wife's cone again. "Here, try the vanilla." she said, and topped my wife's cone with said vanilla, making a triple cone of strawberry remnants, mikan and vanilla. When we tried to pay her, she waved us off and said "What? No, no, if you try to pay I'll just get angry. I want you to have the good stuff!" So in lieu of payment, we thanked her and asked to shake her hand--a big thing in Japan. She laughed, embarrassed, and said "Oh no, not this wrinkled old thing!" My wife shook her head and said "Your hand is beautiful" and we shook it.

Bowing and thanking her again, we backed away.

As we took our leave, another crowd of people had gathered behind us, and we overheard one young woman saying "Oh, I want a triple like her!" We rushed away before we were forced to explain our mistake.

In the car, we finally ate our new Ice Cream. And you know what? That old woman was right...Of course, the line wasn't just because of the foot traffic. Hers was so much better, with fresh fruity flavors and rich, natural vanilla.

And, of course, the kindness with which it was given made it all the sweeter.
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Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquake **UPDATE**

Now that things have gotten a little calmer, I just want to update.

We here in Yamaguchi are TOTALLY SAFE. Our friends and family are all accounted for, and there wasn't even a shake here, so please don't worry.

If you would like to do something for all the families who have lost so much, I would encourage you to give to the Red Cross.

Other than that, all we can do is hope that the worst is over, and give our support to those who are really in need of it.

Take care of each other. Click Here to read the rest.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Sake Is Born

Last weekend we had the good luck to get a tour of a local sake brewery, on a day when it's normally closed, because of an acquaintance.

I've not been a big fan of Sake so far. It's got its own peculiarities, and I'll be honest-I feel like so far, I've not had much good stuff.

Until last weekend...

Yamagata Sakagura was founded in Shunan city 130 years ago by the great-grandfather of the current owner. That current owner, Toshiro Yamagata, has expanded from just owning a single brewery, to heading a multinational Sake distribution firm with offices in New York, LA, and Korea. But he still found the time to take us through his brewery on his day off...

If you want details about the general process of making Sake, you could do worse than visiting the website of the Japan Sake Brewer's Association.

Our tour followed this chart, basically.

We started at the beginning, with rice.

When sake is made, the rice is first polished. It starts with it's brown, protein rich hull, but it polished down to the white, starchy core. The amount of polishing has a direct effect on the flavor and price of a sake.

(From the Japan Sake Brewer's Association Website)
Ginjoshu-Sake made using white rice which has been milled so that 60% or less of the grain remains. It also contains rice koji and water, and may contain all of these ingredients plus brewing alcohol. It is characterized by a fruity, somewhat floral bouquet and a clear, crisp flavor. If the rice is polished down to 50% or less, the sake is called Dai-ginjoshu.

Here is an example of the rice. The top row, of course, is unpolished brown rice. The bottom row is polished--Left side is polished 50%, the middle is down to 35%, the right is down to 70%. The middle rice takes 70 hours of polishing to reach its tiny size, and the sake it produces is a light, sweet one with an amazing balance of flavor (to my unsophisticated palate) and is, to me, the most drinkable sake I've ever tried.

It's also the priciest. Yamagata's "Moriko Chou-Toku Sen Dai Ginjoshu", Or "Moriko Extra-special Select Dai-Ginjoshu" runs about $30 for a 720ml bottle. But apparently, in the states, it runs about $100.

We were treated to this sake, not only freshly tapped from the tank but in its "Genshu" state, meaning that it was undiluted for bottling. Before sake is bottled for selling, it is often cut with water to bring the alcohol level to 14-17%. Before bottling, as Genshu, it's usually 20-22%.

It do have a kick, but it is just lovely...and the owner was generous enough to give us bottles of it to take home.

So here are some pics of the brewery...

The polished rice, ready for washing and watering.

After it's washed, it's steamed soft and then cooled to 40 degrees C, at which point the Koji, a microbe that turns the rice starch into sugar, is added. Then water and yeast, which turns the sugars into alcohol, are added, and in about 24 days you have sake.

This is a tank of starter--rice, Koji and yeast.

These tanks are brewing away, and smell fantastic.

We were allowed to taste sake in process, this one was about 18 days in. The alcohol content was about 14%. It was a sweet, full flavor, with lots of rice flavor and a touch of carbonation. Quite drinkable, too.

After fermentation is done, the sake is pumped to this big filter press, where the rice solids, or lees, are filtered and pressed.

The lees make a foodstuff called "Pressed Sake Cake" or Kasu. This is used in soups or to make a sweet, very low-alcohol festival drink called Amazake.

Soft kasu.

Hard kasu. It tasted about like you would expect--starchy and slightly sweet, with some alcohol bite. Not bad at all...

After pressing, the sake is lightly filtered again, and then pasteurized at low heat (about 60 C) to kill any bacteria that might spoil the sake.

Then it's stored for a few days to settle down a bit, and bottled.

These tanks hold 46,000 liters, or about 15,000 gallons. There were ten of them, but not all were full.

It was, in all, a heck of a tour, and the owner was so friendly and enjoyable to talk to that I almost want to go back next weekend.

The free sake didn't hurt, either.
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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Lies They Told Me About Japan

It ain't what they said it was.

I did a lot of research before I came to Japan, both to avoid culture shock (I had some serious problems adjusting to life in Germany the first time I went) and out of pure old curiosity. I wanted to know what I was getting into, you see.

I learned all kinds of things. For example, I learned that the Japanese are unemotional, lacking in affection and indeed, there was no word for the Western concept of "love" in the language (I swear this is true--one of my first Japanese language learning books included this bit of wisdom).

I learned that Japan was a land of ineffable subtlety and that communication in Japanese is an exercise in unspoken cues, creating an almost telepathic effect. That the language is obscure and almost impenetrable to outsiders because of its intense level of "contextualization."

I learned, basically, that Japan is as alien a place to Americans as Mars would be.

It was all crap, of course.

The first thing I noticed when I got here was how...normal..everything seemed. Oh, to be sure, there are real differences between American/European cultures, the most familiar to me, and Japanese. Food and manners, customs and clothes are indeed not the same.

(This video will teach you everything you need to know about Japan...)

But...I didn't see any mystical displays of "Japanese-only" communication, at least no more than I saw at home between people vying for seats at a cafe. People were smiling and laughing, sharing food and talking animatedly in the streets and in the shopping malls. Sure, the buses and trains are quiet--but that's a matter of manners, more than anything.

In conversation, people looked me in the eye--unless they were intimidated by me, the big loud foreigner who didn't speak their language. But they laughed at my clumsy jokes, and appreciated my attempts at manners. There was none of the dull, robotic lack of emotion I had been led to expect. (Indeed, a student of mine recently told me "They keep saying on TV that Japanese people don't look at each other when they speak...but I don't think it's true." He's Japanese. And he's right. They say stuff like that on TV here all the time, looking at each other when they say it.)

Nor was the language as alien as I had been told. The writing system is a trial, absolutely, the three different character sets require work, and Kanji require IMMENSE effort. But these weird rules, the vague grammar and unclear sentences, the mysterious lack of subjects, and all the little things that supposedly make Japanese an impossible language for blunt Americans--not there. It's a language, with relationships with context and social norms indeed, but nothing at all difficult, even for we unsubtle Americans.

On the contrary, I have found that communication in Japanese is often overly detailed, direct and lacking in any kind of vagueness. Sure, once you've said "Taro has a big car." 太郎が大きい車を持っている。You don't don't have to say "The car is a Honda," all you have to say "Is Honda." ホンダです。 But what kind of idiot wouldn't understand that in the second sentence, we're talking about a car, not Taro? A BIG idiot, that's what kind.

But in many cases, every conceivable detail is laid out as clearly as possible, ostensibly to avoid confusion.

(This is all very important in the case of apologies, of course)

Whenever you start to speak publicly, you begin by saying 発表します (Happyou shimasu). "I announce." Whenever you end a report or email, you end by writing 以上です。(Ijyou desu.) "The end." You ALWAYS write that, otherwise it's not finished. Japanese is full of declarative sentences telling people what you are about to do, or what you have just done...which, of course, they should already know.

I've already talked about books in Japan which suffer from this over-explanation malady.

My favorite example comes from movies--when Western movies are shown on TV here, as soon as a character appears in a movie, a caption appears giving the character's name and the name of the actor portraying it...even if the character hasn't been introduced in the story yet. So when watching Transformers, as soon as that yellow car shows up, a little caption appears saying "Bumblebee." None of the characters in the story knew that information, but whoever was putting these on TV felt that the audience really needed to know it as soon as possible.

It's direct, clear and without room for miscommunication.

So where did this come from, this idea that Japanese people communicate through mysterious ESP powers? My theory is this.

For many years, the vast majority of communication between Japanese and Americans/Westerners was in a formal context, business negotiations or the like. IN a formal context, emotional expression and the like are, in fact, rare in Japan. It's a formal atmosphere, and thus a quiet one. This may have led to the "emotionless" stereotype. When Japanese people listen in a meeting, they may in fact close their eyes, or look down at their desk, instead of at the speaker--as a sign of respect, showing "I'm listening with my ears, not my eyes." Thus, there's not a lot of eye contact. And in business meetings, the Japanese side has already made its decisions and everyone is already in agreement--because of a habit called "nemawashi."

"Nemawashi" literally means "digging around the root of a tree" but in practical terms, what this means is that before a business meeting, the various members discuss the points of the meeting privately, face to face, building consensus through personal contact. The actual meeting is therefore just a performance, a public demonstration of the privately fixed conversations--so to an outsider, it seems as if all the members magically understand each other, without even talking. Roles are set, so that an underling knows what to say when his boss nods at him, or when he cocks an eyebrow he knows he should stop speaking...he's been prepared.

So there is no mystery, just preparation, timing, and context.

It turns out, of course, that Japanese people are JUST PEOPLE. They aren't magical alien beings. They aren't soulless automatons. Just people, with all the failings and weaknesses, and occasional bouts of generosity and warmth, that other people are prone to.

Funny how that works, innit?
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