January 26, 2017

The toast of Japan

Ah, the heroine in a hurry running out of the house with a piece of toast in her mouth. One of anime's tried and true tropes. Modern, fast, and tasty, toast is the ideal breakfast substitute for a girl on the go.

The category of "breakfast cereal" never took hold in Japan. A supermarket may stock a few boxes but not an entire aisle. The whole idea of a "sweet" breakfast is recent too. A "traditional" breakfast might include fish and rice and miso soup and natto (the grossest food ever).

On the culinary cultural spectrum, natto is at the opposite end of the scale as toast. A good many Japanese can't stand the stuff either. I would hazard that you see more natto eaten in television dramas than in real life because it just screams "old school" and fairly eccentric to boot.

French toast, on the other hand, is a dessert. As are pancakes. Both are somewhat exotic and yet easy to make. And so can be endlessly modified without much fear of failure. And, yes, there are countless French toast and pancake connoisseurs in Tokyo.

The daily melodrama series Toto Nee-chan devoted a week's worth of episodes on the magazine staff figuring out how to explain pancake-making to their readers in the late 1940s. In the end, a recipe wasn't enough. They had to use photographs, a real innovation at the time.

There is a simple and pragmatic reason for the popularity of French toast and pancakes. Few homes in Japan are equipped with the kind of kitchens that grace even the average apartment in the U.S. A full-sized oven is rare, counter space limited. Refrigerators are still small by comparison.

If they wanted, most Americans could make the dishes shown on America's Test Kitchen. Far fewer Japanese have the room for the basic equipment. A bakery is the only place where an enthusiastic baker can bake. And enthusiastic bakers are enthused over, as in Midnight Bakery.

And Ma're.

The typical cooking shows concentrate on the rice cooker, frying pan, sauce pan, microwave, and toaster oven. Somebody baking at home is probably using a countertop convection oven.

Here we get back to French toast (and pancakes): anybody can make it with the utensils and ingredients on hand.

The same goes for curry over rice (karee raisu), another visitor that's gone native. Curry rice is a 19th century import that seems older. The Japanese navy likely got the idea from the British navy (who got it from India), and universal conscription made it the national dish.

House Foods sold the first curry roux in 1926 and currently has a 60 percent market share. Their big seller going back to 1963 is "Vermont Curry." It is sweetened with apple paste, and apparently apples were associated with Vermont even in 1963.

Again, anybody can make curry anywhere with practically anything, as on all those anime school field trips.

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January 19, 2017

Regular Joe

Japanese are enthusiastic borrowers of English vocabulary. And if you are a girl, that includes English/European names. Off the top of my head:


Pretty much any name that conforms the rules of Japanese phonology can be transliterated directly (often with kanji equivalents), but popular names for boys are harder to come by. While June/Jun is quite popular, John/Jan/Jon is rare.

Dan and Benji/Ben qualify, though the latter is avoided because ben is also the kanji for bathroom.

Eugene/Yuujin passes muster. And if you're Russian, Yuri/Yuri/Yuri (a boy's and a girl's name in Japanese). Hence the anime Yuri on Ice, which has the titular character competing against a Russian skater with the same name.

The most recognizable boy's name in this category is probably Ken, as in the actors Ken Takakura and Ken Watanabe.

And then there's good old Joe.

Joe (Jou or Jō) is pronounced the same in Japanese and is a not-uncommon boy's name. The spelling "Joe" is often preferred by actors and artists who lived or are popular overseas, such as Joe Odagiri (小田切譲) and Joe Hisaishi (久石譲).

Joe Odagiri (above) studied at Fresno State. He reminds me a bit of of a young Robert Downey Jr. The Bug Master ("Mushi-shi") and Shinobi: Heart Under Blade are available from Netflix. If you're lucky, you might run across a showing of The Great Passage.

Joe Hisaishi is the stage name (derived from Quincy Jones) of the musician Mamoru Fujisawa. He composed the soundtracks for all of Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli films. And way over at the Quentin Tarantino end of the entertainment spectrum, for several Beat Takeshi films.

Odagiri and Hisaishi use the same kanji (譲) for their first name, which means "modesty."

Probably the most famous "Joe" in Japanese popular culture is Joe Yabuki, from the classic boxing series Ashita no Joe. The kanji for his name (丈) means "stout-hearted."

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January 12, 2017

Moore's law illustrated (II)

From PC Magazine in the early 1980s. Remember, these are kilo-bytes, one K being equal to 1024 bytes.

At the above prices, adjusted for inflation, 4 GB (giga-bytes) of RAM in 1982 would cost 22 million dollars and the memory card would be bigger than a regulation basketball court. Today 4 GB costs twenty bucks and is about the size of your thumb. Moore's law in action.

Thanks to giant magnetoresistance technology (GMR), which won its inventors the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics, the price/performance curve of hard disks has been no less staggering (also called Kryder's law).

Back in 1982, a 5 MB (mega-bytes) hard disk cost $1995. Accounting for inflation, $1995 compounds to $4975 in 2016 dollars. By comparison, a 500 GB hard disk today goes for one percent of the price, holds 100,000 times as much data, and is at least 1000 times faster.

As slow as those old 8088 and 80286 CPUs were, they often weren't slow enough. Back in the day, a figure you always checked on a computer's spec sheet was its wait states. That is, how long the CPU just sat there twiddling its thumbs waiting for other stuff to get done.

Related posts

Moore's law illustrated (I)
The accidental standard
MS-DOS at 30
The tortoise and the hare

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January 05, 2017

Holidays and Hanabi

If you want a job that cleans up on days off, work for the state department in a foreign country. When I was living in Osaka and confronted with the headache of filing taxes in the U.S. as well, I had to keep in mind that the American consulate was closed on U.S. and Japanese holidays.

Christmas isn't an "official" holiday in Japan. But it certainly is celebrated. It's turned into the U.S. equivalent of Valentine's Day, an excuse for couples to get all gooey over each other. In Japan, only guys get feted on Valentine's Day; White Day for girls is celebrated a month later.

(As you might imagine, guys get the better of the deal.)

Just about every holiday and local festival in Japan is accompanied by fireworks. Hanabi (花火) literally means "flower" + "fire."

Except on New Year's. At midnight on December 31, Buddhist temples ring their gong-like bells 108 times. If you're a real devotee, you get up early to watch the first dawn of the year (hatsuhinode). And then dress up in a kimono and visit the local Shinto shrine (hatsumoude).

Anything worth doing is worth doing en masse.

Meanwhile, nengajou, the equivalent of the Christmas card, are delivered on New Year's day in a coordinated burst of postal activity.

Japan has strict fireworks regulations for personal use. That's why sparklers are such a big deal in anime. There's a whole home-grown sparkler culture. Not like Utah, where July 4th and the 24th (Pioneer Day) sound like the climax of a Marvel superhero movie (fighter jets included).

But when it comes to official gunpowder-powered light shows, fireworks festivals aren't just bigger in Japan. They're huuuge. Especially during O-Bon, which is held in July or August (depending on the region's adoption of the Gregorian calendar). And Tanabata (July 7).

Local summer festivals and celebrations (compare to Pioneer Day in Utah and the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York and the Tournament of Roses parade in LA) put on big and elaborate parades followed by big and elaborate fireworks displays.

There are also regional fireworks festivals. Dancing, drumming, and float competitions (that can turn into demolition derbies) have been going on for centuries. And amusement parks and hot springs resorts that, like Disneyland, do it for the publicity and entertainment value.

For a little virtual touring, here's a "how-to" guide and a list of the major festivals.

The Tokushima Awa Odori festival gets national television coverage and has become a huge tourist attraction. You can find lots of videos on YouTube.

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