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Mottainai means “don’t be wasteful.” It’s one of those folksy sayings that reverberates through Japanese culture. All cultures have some similar concept, but it seems that in the developed world—the world of plastic wrap and paper plates and microwave cooking—the Japanese have a conflicted relationship with this concept. Many Americans seem to have completely forgotten the idea of “waste not, want not,” but in Japan, mottainai still lurks in the collective consciousness, even if most people can’t completely live up to its ideal.

The Japanese recycling program is mandatory and requires you to separate your garbage into the following sub-categories: (a) glass, metal, and PET1 bottles, (b) other recyclable plastic, (c) burnable trash (mostly food waste and things like used tissues), (d) non-burnable trash (e.g., light bulbs, rubber, aluminum foil, old tooth brushes), (e) newpapers, (f) cardboard and cardboard packaging, (g) recyclable, clean paper…and that list doesn’t include other categories like old clothes, bulk items like couches, and electronic goods which are picked up separately. The result of this much thought and time put into one’s garbage is you begin to hate plastic bags and packaging because you know you’ll have to rinse and sort it later to throw away. Because recycling is mandatory, Japanese packaging is designed to be recyclable or at least to fit into the garbage categories. You rarely see packaging like cans of nuts with a metal rim and a cardboard side (impossible to recycle, and also not burnable because of the metal rim) or milk cartons with plastic pour spouts that then have to be removed from the recyclable milk carton (in itself a separate category).

Nevertheless, the Japanese can be incredibly wasteful when it comes to packaging and plastic. A peach, a perfumed, juicy, glorious peach that I bought yesterday, came in a little individual plastic net to keep it from bumping up against other peaches. Vending machines are placed everywhere (sometimes you’ll see one standing alone on the side of a road, with a small power box connection rising from the dirt) to sell bottled drinks. Rice crackers and candies and cookies often come individually wrapped within a box. The wrapping of gifts is almost as important as the gift itself, and so a lot of effort and expense is expended on paper wrapping that will just be thrown away.

Ironically, the Japanese have an answer to this from their own culture: the furoshiki, a cloth wrapper that was traditionally used to wrap gifts and carry items. Furoshiki can be simple cotton squares or incredibly gorgeous patterned silk. One would wrap the gift in the furoshiki, present the gift, unwrap it in front of the recipient, and keep the furoshiki to use again. I have seen articles and news that the environmental movement and the Japanese government is trying to push for furoshiki use. We’ll see…

The mottainai concept is especially evident in Japanese cuisine. Many dishes are specifically designed to use up leftovers. Last night on the TV show Kyō no Ryōri (Today’s Cooking) a woman demonstrated how to make a noodle dish with “old” vegetables, meaning stuff hanging about the fridge like carrots, cabbage, fresh ginger, daikon, etc., that you can finely dice, and add to noodles with cool dashi (stock).

Today I was hunting around the fridge and found a container of umeboshi (pickled plums) that I had bought from a local man who makes them himself the old fashioned way. The umeboshi have red shiso (aka-jiso) leaves mixed in; these color the plums a dark red and impart an herby flavor. Supermarket umeboshi usually do not have the leaves mixed in with the plums. I happened to notice a recipe last night for yukari (dried salt-cured akajiso mixed with salt) and realized I could use the shiso leaves from the homemade umeboshi to make the salt mix.

You blot the leaves with a towel and then spread them out on a plate (glass or ceramic) and microwave them carefully in 30 second bursts until dried out. I suppose I could have tried to leave them out in the sun. Then I crushed the leaves and mixed them with a little salt (they are already very salty from the pickling process). The recipe for this is in Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen by Elizabeth Andoh.

I feel all warm and fuzzy having found a use for what I would have thrown away.


Saturday night, sporadically rainy, I take the train to Shibuya and then to Omotesando to meet an American friend at El Torito. She has promised me margaritas. Some oshaberi (chat) and booze is pretty much all it takes to get me to take a train for an hour and a half. The train becomes more and more crowded as we approach Shibuya. The Saturday night crowd is looking for action, and by the time the train pulls out of the penultimate stop, the train is full in that squashed Japanese body-on-body way, people stoic but sometimes grunting or sighing when the train sways around a turn and we jam a poor old man against the doors. I try not to step on the lovely toes of the girls in high heels with knee-high socks.

On ground level, out of the subway, the billboards are full of handbags and promises of material joy. The crowd is noticably good-looking and affluent and full of gaijin. Signs point to shrines and museums and restaurants and shops. This is civilization’s raw and cooked. I am early, as I always am, so I poke my head in a tea-ceremony shop and ponder a $1,000 ceramic tea container. It looks like a liter-sized, squashed marshmallow with drippy, pitted white glaze. I allow myself to imagine buying it, and then leave.

Greeting/meeting two Japanese friends of my friend: one is all sardonic reserve and the other exuberant voracity; they make me think of Tommy Boy or Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I’m beaming at them across the table. My friend and I must explain to her friends the way we met, and I look around wildly, and mutter something about Taylor Hicks and the World Wide Web. Time for booze, please.

Ah the cognitive dissonance of ordering in Japlish margaritas and guacamole in an American chain restuarant: “Margarita classico onegaishimasu.” Well, perhaps that is Spapanese. Who fucking cares after three watery margaritas? Not me. I don’t even care that I’m in an El Torito; I’m with folk, we’re chatting in a strange mix of Japanese and English. It has occurred to me that I have spent so much money on private lessons that every utterance I make in Japanese is worth a few bucks, so I try to get a few phrases in with Spade-san and Farley-san. They are mucho indulgent.

At one point the lights all go out in the restuarant and one of the guys mutters, “Kaze (wind).” I find myself cackling, why I do not know. Perhaps because I’m glad to have company and am enjoying the lights going out in a third-world way in this all-too-first-world place. Perhaps I’m buzzed.

I always leave Tokyo reluctantly because I want to stay up late, later than the return trains will allow. I want to be in the center of the mass, in the action. There’s so much naughty hoping to be tasted, but I gotta get home. My friend promises a live music outing, and we promise to make it happen…

Arab Strap’s Philophobia, a musical compulsion of mine when I’m feeling sweaty on a summer evening, is a slow march of dreamy humid angst. Tonight I’m not quite lonely, more alone, and through the open windows an inefficient breeze sometimes cools me. Think I’ll strip down to avoid using the air conditioning. A/C is for the weak and wasteful. And this heat is nothing compared to what will come in August.

I roamed the streets of my suburban neighborhood this evening and watched the neighbors sweep the parking spaces in front of and beside their houses. Even the road is clean, barely a speck. One family jauntily displays a concrete slab on the side of their foundation with the whole family’s hand impressions, baby, children, and parents. It strikes me as radical and stands out among the sameness of the fake siding on all the houses.

Certain plants of mine are making it in the heat, but my blue such and such (low, tufted, with tiny light blue flowers, anyone out there a gardener?) has turned brown-yellow and must be plucked for aesthetic reasons. My neighbors’ gardens are fantasies of flower and foliage. One house has a full English garden arch festooned with ivy and beside it, baroque tufts of perennial color. Another yard is a minimalist’s dream of rocks and silvery leaves and tight purple swards of flowers. I am not a gardener, but I can see the order, the mismatched effort here as I pass house after suburban house. One house has a front porch, like some dream of Alabama, but the porch is unloved and sterile. It is a mockery of a porch, a porch that serves no purpose.

Down the hill in a much less affluent neighborhood is my favorite house, the rotting wreck of a once-beautiful traditional Japanese house. Its wood alone, its organic life, makes me feel my blood as I walk by. It’s abandoned and dying and so lovely I want to caress it. I am so safe in my neighborhood and my house is clean and tidy. I can’t quite hate it, but I don’t love it either. I never feel my heart skip with emotion up on the hill with the bourgeoisie. Next time, next time, we always say, we’ll pick a more edgy neighborhood, a neighborhood where we’ll be more involved in life, but in the end, we move into yet another safe and clean place and unpack the cocktail glasses. The eight Vietnamese monks with gold leaf faces and hands in our lacquer painting from Hanoi look down and pray for me.

A friend tells me long-distance to be less careful, let myself flow, and I wonder where to put my energies. This morning every kanji I carefully copied out—words like succeed, fail, attend, return—seemed to disappear moments after I made the shapes. My mind could not hold them. Kanji are beautiful love songs from Japan that slip past my memory and make kissing noises beside my cheeks. I try not to feel the futility of my efforts.

Today I packed a care package for my man. This involved wandering around a Japanese supermaket for dried miso soup mixes and tubes of wasabi and Japanese mustard and things to sprinkle over rice, and Men’s Pocky (the dark chocolate version). Anything to make the ship food more palatable. Then I went to base and raided the Navy Exchange and the Commissary: exfoliating face mask (the air on ship is full of fuel and general ship skank), new toothbrushes (seriously, go out today and replace your toothbrush, soft bristles, bacteria-free, you’ll see), and other signs of peaceful civilization.

I switch to Hayward Williams. He sings “Hold, hold me down, baby you’re only being cautious…” I will let myself sweat and not try to avoid the heat. I want to face the flowers that don’t grow under my care. Everything has been so careful that I like to feel a little perspiration soak my bra. I want to feel the summer grow in my skin.

Today we have sugoi ōzora (amazing big sky) in Kanagawa prefecture. The neighborhood bedrooms have been emptied of their futons. The futons and bed linens hang over the edge of the laundry balconies to be sterilized by the sun. The laundry flutters in an orderly fashion above the futons. It’s an amazingly blue big sky day.

In Japanese, the kanji for sky can also be pronounced kara meaning “empty” or “nothing.” So, one may say naka wa karappo da ([it’s] empty inside).

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote:

So we say true understanding will come out of emptiness. When you study Buddhism, you should have a general housecleaning of your mind. You must take everything out of your room and clean it thoroughly. If it is necessary, you may bring everything back in again. You may want many things, so one by one you can bring them back. But if they are not necessary, there is no need to keep them.

Lately I can’t decide if I’m ōzora or naka wa karappo. Is the sky empty? Today it feels full of NASA stuff.

The quote that pleased me to no end, and made me glad that Mr. (probably Dr.) Shannon was trained in the tidy, haiku-perfect, E.B. White school of English rhetoric:

Duct tape doesn’t work in the vacuum of space.

—John Shannon, Atlantis deputy shuttle program manager

I once had great faith in the universal usefulness of duct tape. Ah well. Some good old-fashioned problem-solving is going on in the sky above [emphasis mine]: “Astronaut John ‘Danny’ Olivas used his hands, staples from a medical kit, and pins to repair a thermal blanket on the back end of space shuttle Atlantis….”

Internet Broadcasting Systems, Inc. has given me much to think about with that crap sentence. For example, are astronauts trained to use other parts of their bodies to do fine work in space? Go Danny—use that opposable thumb!

NASA has it this way: “While attached to the shuttle robot arm, Olivas tucked the blanket back into place and then used a medical stapler to secure it to adjacent blankets on the left orbital maneuvering system pod.”

Everyone please see to your laundry and your thermal blankets. I declare it a big sky day.

I was in my hair salon to get my roots touched up, and a vision of old Japan walked in for a complicated upswept hairdo. She was wearing a single woman’s kimono, which has long “sleeves” (the part that hangs down under the forearm). Miss Japan’s kimono was white with springtime colors, shades of pinks and blues on the design at the bottom of the hem. She came to the salon before a special meeting with her future in-laws, a pre-wedding ceremony. After she had her hair done, I watched her chit-chat with the staff and have her photo taken while I waited with my rejuvenating hair well-secured in plastic wrap.

The one male staff member came over and asked if I wanted something to drink. I tried my old-fashioned word on him: Ohiya o kudasai. (Please give me cold water.) [See here for previous discussion of ohiya.] His face went blank, he looked like he wanted to say something, and then went away. Miss Japan was getting wrapped up in her light summer overcoat, which had many internal and external strings to tie in bow knots. She was beaming under her hairdo piled up and decorated with pins and flowers. Then, as she shuffled off in her zori (traditional sandals), I noticed the background music was Ne-Yo’s “Because of You.” I looked up to read a little Japlish on a sign next to the mirror: “Ruche 2007 Birth Hair Campaign.” This sign means to encourage Japanese women to get a new hairstyle or color; it’s not a suggestion to recreate the natural, je m’en fou fuzz one sports when emerging from the womb. I was suddenly aware that we were having an international hair salon moment brought to us by American R&B and the fine folks at Ruche.

Then my guy came back. He had cold hojicha (roasted green tea). Ah, yes, hiya means “cold,” so he had decided that I must have meant cold tea. I sat looking at the glass for a while, wondering if I should say something. Instead, he asked me if I wanted a shoulder and head massage.

Head and shoulder massage come free with a cut in Japanese salons. This is no perfunctory trapezius pinch performed by an untrained shampoo girl. No, in my experience the massage is an extended shiatsu session with a lovely thumb walk down my upper spine’s pressure points, a vigorous clapping on the shoulders, and full head squeeze. Of course, this comes after the shampoo girl has completed her work: she washes and rinses my hair, places a hot, wet, rolled towel under the back of my bent neck and the same on my forehead, and then rubs my temples for a moment. After that she drapes a dry towel over my head, and rubs out my ears, a soft little exploration of the folds of my pinea. It is only after I am returned to the styling chair that I am ready for the shoulder and head massage. With all this extra attention, having my roots refreshed and a haircut in my salon takes quite a long time. This is a medium-priced salon in a medium-sized city. It’s a lot of work being a Japanese hairdresser.

My stylist, Junko, was ready to start cutting my hair. As she combed my wet hair with her fingers, I asked her about ohiya: “Does it mean ‘cold water’?” She smiled and pulled a chunk of hair out horizontally and snipped it. “Yes, but it’s an old word that no one uses anymore. It’s an old lady word, a 50-year-old word.” I nodded, “That’s about right. My teacher is older than that.” She smiled indulgently at me through her terribly hip rectangular eyeglass frames and looked back at my hair. What Junko doesn’t know is I’ve decided I enjoy the startled look on the faces of young waitresses and hairdressers when they hear old words come out of my foreigner mouth.

I’m inexpert and semi-illiterate here, so I must learn language and culture like a child, through play and exploration. I often take a walk in the old neighborhood down the hill from my modern suburban development. I pass an old dilapidated traditional Japanese house. It rests alone, boarded up, but it was once a modest, but beautiful home. The front entrance has an expensive cedar pole under the eaves of the entrance, and next to the house is a huge craggy boulder to adorn the garden. These two details and the bare bones of the expensive but dead plants in the garden tell me that someone once spent money on and gave love to this house. My husband and I fantasize about buying it, restoring it, and sitting in the garden drinking sake while we gaze at the moon. Of course, we don’t live in an old Japanese house. We live up the hill in a 5-year-old house that has insulation, underfloor heating, and a computerized bathtub that I can program for some future hour to be filled and kept hot. I’m comfortable in my house, but I keep looking down the hill at the old house, wondering why its owners are letting it rot.

My Japanese teacher has promised to teach me more old words. I like the idea of her waging a one-woman war against linguistic obsolescence. It’s a losing battle against the natural progression of language. Yet, older Japanese people tell me these changes are happening very quickly. This is no progression of idiom: the Japanese language is losing words that describe their culture.

I am aware, however, that Miss Japan with the fancy hair and the white kimono will have to be obsessive about keeping the kimono clean and about wearing it properly. She will go home after her meeting with her future in-laws, undress and carefully pack away the kimono. A kimono is sent to the dry cleaners rarely, if ever, because it would harm the fabric and the process would be so expensive that it wouldn’t be worth the effort. So, kimono are worn like one would wear a piece of art. They are passed down in families and grow in value with age. Once she’s packed away the kimono like a museum curator, she will gratefully pull on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. She’ll text her best friend that she got through the big meeting okay without messing up too much on the etiquette. Maybe she’ll order a pizza because she doesn’t feel like cooking. It’s a lot of work being a Japanese bride.

I can throw ohiya around like a child because I don’t have to get dressed in the language or do the work of maintaining it. I wonder what other words I can try on.


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