HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Tag: Japanese culture (Page 1 of 3)

The Lost Interview - Junku Nishimura

Lost Interview Series – Photographer Junku Nishimura

The first time I saw the photography of Junku Nishimura I became transported to a different place, like a poor man’s Arthur Dent, though not so much gone on an actual trip as merely dumbstruck, mouth agape, thoughtless and wearing a frayed robe and suddenly wondering where my towel was. It is not as if I was perusing these 35mm film images on stark white walls at a local gallery printed large on 16 x 20′ Ilford Multigrade FB Warmtone Fiber Base Paper, no, I was looking at his flickr stream a few thousand miles away on a crappy laptop and sipping on a lukewarm mug of coffee, thinking how I wished things were different, that I wished I could wander around Junku’s old school Japan with him, hitting the pachinko parlor and the bathhouse, the strip joint and pull up a chair next to him at whatever local divebar he frequents and pound on the counter pouring out stories and fish tales over medium quality whisky and cannisters of film. Sufficiently drunk, we would then venture off to find some spicy kimchi ramen or hit the Karato Ichiba fish market in Shimonoseki for some baby blowfish tempura, anago nigiri, and ice cold Asahi. Not being there I have to imagine it through Junku’s masterful eye, so I project his vision onto what my brain thinks it knows about the reality of people and places that exists independently of myself, to which I have been only a handful of times. My hitchhiker’s guide spits out a series of gritty, vaseline-coated images from the early 70s, a fractured compendium of gangsters and bathhouses, bars and kimono-clad wenches, stray cats and random urban landscapes. The truth is not far off. He would be having hundreds of conversations with all of these people, the photographs coming naturally, not interfering with the human connection. Because to look at Junku’s photography, that is what one finds, humanity, in all its mundane frailty and strength, the perpetually imperfect moment perfectly captured.

Lost Interview Series – Photographer Junku Nishimura

HESO: Who are you and where are you from? Give us some background please.

Junku Nishimura: I was born in a small coal-mining town called Mine-City (Me-nay), Yamaguchi in 1967. I lived there until I graduated from a high school and then studied at a university in Kyoto. After working as a club DJ as well as a construction worker and dish washer for a couple of years, I was hired by a concrete material company and worked for 18 years (6 years in Sapporo, 12 years in Nagoya). During this period, I happened to get a Leica and started to devote myself in photography. Since retired, I am fully engaged in it.

HESO: When did you first pick up a camera?

Junku: I was seven or eight when I first took a picture of a plastic model tank that I made with my parents’ camera. My mother helped me to get a sharp focus. I happened to find the camera in storage at home a few years ago. It was a Minolta HI-MATIC E. My first camera was like a cheap copy of Canon 110ED. I used it when I was a high school kid, but not really crazy about photography at that time.

HESO: Your photos have a very distinct look. Often very crisp and sharp yet there is a grainy feel as well. Are you a mathematical photographer or do you just shoot?

Junku: Thanks. Although my photographs might look completely intuitive and spontaneous, I consider myself quite conscious about exposure. As a user of a Leica M5, I have explored the best combinations of aperture and shutter speeds to create the contrast that I intend. Leica is not easy to handle in terms of exposure, but worth struggling for.

HESO: Do you prefer analog to digital photography or vice versa. Or is it not important? Explain.

Junku: Regarding processing, I prefer analog. There is a very personal reason why I use films. I like the whole process of printing. When listening to my favorite music, soaking a paper in liquid in a little darkroom of my apartment, I feel the same tranquility as when I concentrate on fishing in the ocean. Both require sincere focus to get the “it“ moment. It is not easy, but truly rewarding.

Sound and smell bring back memories and inspire images. For me, music is my inspiration. Click To Tweet

HESO: You get up in the morning, pick up your camera, where are you going?

Junku: I usually go to the market. Fish market is always first.

HESO: Who are your favorite photographers?

Junku: Isao Yamaguchi and Katsumi Watanabe. Yamaguchi took pictures of coal mines in Kyushu. He was a coal miner himself. Watanabe captured vivid images of Shinjuku, selling food on the street. I am overwhelmed enormously by works of people who are deeply rooted in where they belong to. There are such photographers in Okinawa including Mao Ishikawa.

HESO: You mention that you are the “most funkiest funk-old school unknown-dj in the world.” Does music influence your photography? What are some of your favorite styles of music and musicians?

Junku: I might have been the “most funkiest DJ” (lol) when I used to steal the DJ booth at night clubs, but now I should be modest to say “once-the-funkiest.” Sound and smell bring back memories and inspire images. For me, music is my inspiration. Like many other Japanese, I think of an old downtown like Golden-gai of Shinjuku when I listen to 70’s to 80’s Japanese folk songs. When traveling overseas, I shot scenes inspired by folk music of the county, for example, Trot in Korea, Isaan in Thailand and Spanglish Hip-Hop in Spanish Harlem. Personally I love R&B and Hip-Hop from late 70’s to mid-80’s. I was working in my darkroom listening to DeBarge last night. On a side note, I read the Okino interview on HESO a while ago. Once when I was a DJ at a club and he was the manager, I let him stay with me in my cheap apartment. Kyoto, 23 years ago :).

HESO: Very cool. What do you do when you are not working?

Junku: I used to go fishing and camping when I owned a car. Recently, I am making mixtapes, reading, and studying Korean while I am not working. Other than that, just drinking.

HESO: What is your favorite food? If you could eat with anyone, alive or dead, in any time period in history, in any place, who, when and where?

Junku: I am not picky and enjoy anything, but rice is something special to maintain my strength. For the other question, I am thinking of a black woman’s small diner in the last scene of a Norman Jewison film In the Heat of the Night. In the middle of nowhere Deep South, around the season for cotton crops, with young Quincy Jones and Sidney Poitier, it would be nice to have hogshead cheese and Hoppin’ John that Mama Kariba cooked, with a cheap bottle of bourbon.

HESO: Junku, if you want to mention anything else about yourself, your work or a charitable cause you work with—anything—please do so here. Thank you for your time.

Junku: I will be based back in my home town from next year on and engaged in growing rice. If you feel tired from city life, come visit me at www.junkunishimura.com Yoroshiku desu

Junku

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa

The former villa of the silent actor Denjirō Ōkōchi (大河内 傳次郎 — 1896-1962)–most famous for starring in Akira Kurosawa`s Sanshiro Sugata, among many others and at his peak, was one of the top jidaigeki stars–lies lost in the back of Arashiyama’s bamboo groves. Called Ōkōchi Sansō (meaning Ōkōchi mountain villa) Ōkōchi’s estate consists of several ornate gardens, living quarters and tea houses, all lost along a narrow path that winds circuitously through natural settings that appear wild, yet are meticulously kept by a regular team of professional landscapers. This is near the apex of the Japanese gardener trope–the private sector of gardening versus the Emperor’s gardeners… If you`re looking for an escape from the masses of tourists wandering around the backstreets of Tenryuji Zen Buddhist Shrine, the villa`s immaculately manicured gardens could be the middle way for you.

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa Observation Platform Overlooking Kyoto

On humid summer days when the crowds are at a maximum and every corner of the shaded bamboo path are fraught with screams, follow the call of the cicada up the wide path into the deeper shade. It looks private on purpose, to drive away the tourist hordes. There always seems to be a work truck parked out front and the confusing entrance (located around a bend) is not altogether inviting. The 1000 cost of admission is high enough to keep the kids out and allows for the expanse of Mt. Ogura to open up and swallow you whole. Just behind Tenryūji Temple and Sagano Chikurin Komichi bamboo groves in Ukyō-ku, Kyoto, wandering through the ornate gardens will provide snatches of Mt. Hiei and the Hozu River gorge. Taking a moment out at the Okochi Sanso Villa Observation Platform overlooking the hustle of downtown Kyoto gives one perspective on the tranquility of the scene. Taking your time and strolling without desire increases the profound sense of benevolence that shrouds you in. Relaxing in the lower garden with the matcha and a sweet snack, done properly, will perhaps provide a memory of meditating monks from the collective unconscious to arise and permeate the day.

The Japanese government declared Daijōkaku (the main house), the Jibutsudō (a Buddhist shrine), the Chashitsu (tea house), and the Chūmon (the middle gate) as tangible cultural properties (tōroku yūkei bunkazai) in 2003. A particular highlight is getting there via the special Sagano Scenic Railway at Torokko Arashima Station. Although the closest station is Arashiyama on the Keifuku Electric Railroad Arashiyama Main Line, this sojourn is not about convenience or getting in and out. It is about the journey itself.

The 1000 yen admission includes matcha green tea and an odd little snack. Open from 9:00 to 17:00.

A Floating World in Bloom - HESO Interviews Tokyo-based photographer Michael Nguyen

A Floating World in Bloom – Interview with Michael Nguyen

I first met Michael Nguyen on a beautiful spring day in Tokyo, the flowers in bloom. We were in a Shibuya park on Meiji Dori, where an anti-nuke rally climaxed in a costumed hippie drum offensive, bursting in the dappled light. If I remember correctly, Mike had a can of beer and a cigarette (he likes his tobacco, lights it with a Zippo with a dazzling flair that would make a seamus smile). It didn’t take long to establish friendship: he was a Gaucho and so was I, alumni of University of California at Santa Barbara, meaning we’d both known Paradise as younger men and that this heady knowledge acquired as twenty-year-olds had affected our lifelong trajectories. I’ve only known Mike for about two years but judging by his photography, I can see he’s never discarded the pleasures introduced in Santa Barbara. It’s nice to see that he’s still trailing after beautiful manifestations, glad he sees fit to share his gleaning with the rest of us. Mike’s wonderfully eccentric street tableaux aside, he’s well-known among his peers for his bathing beauties—what has been called his “babe in the onsen” motif, but really that is simplifying and involves not a little envy. There is an element in fantasy in such an intimate, sensual image. After all, most of us photographers are not Lothario types, and an attractive woman will not be seduced by the size of our lens. Something more is at work, something mysterious, which I suppose is a secret, and a well-guarded one.

We at HESO then are proud to present a sample of Michael’s work—his women, and because it’s spring, his flowers, for what better way to illustrate the ephemeral beauty that breaks our hearts, then to complement these lithe, youthful figures with the ambassadors of spring, in which we are reminded we have yet another chance to set things right.

A Floating World in Bloom – Interview with Michael Nguyen

A Floating World in Bloom - HESO Interviews Tokyo-based photographer Michael NguyenHESO: Why photography? Why not painting? Or music? Or triathlons?

Michael Nguyen: If you have ever heard me at karaoke then you would know why not music. Photography and painting do not necessarily really differ in terms of how we experience time and space, but the creation phase is different. Painting starts out in the light and develops gradually, but remains visible the entire time. A photo captures a scene all at once and is then developed over time in a dark laboratory. Digital is changing all of that, but that’s another story. Photography for me is the best means of expressing and hanging on to those little fleeting splinters of life we experience each day.

HESO: How did you get into photography? I believe you majored in it at UC Santa Barbara. Do you think studying the subject at university has made you a better photographer?

MN: I was a graphic design major actually. I started taking photography classes in college and fell in love with the zen state of mind in the darkroom. I can’t say I really learned much in college, nothing I couldn’t have learned by going to galleries myself and looking at books and hanging out with other photographers.

HESO: Which cameras do you prefer? And why? Does shooting with film matter?

MN: Ah, the obligatory gear porn question. I suppose it depends on what I shoot. For street photography I have my Leica M6 with a 50mm Sumicron, which is good for much single-subject shots. For portraits and landscape I have my Rolleiflex Sl66 for the slower process and higher film resolution, basically a Hassy with bellows that allows me to play around with the focal plane. I haven’t seen anyone else using one. To keep the film vs digital debate succinct, I’m of the opinion that from a personal expression point-of-view, the process does matter and the process of shooting film slows things down and allows one to think with deeper clarity. It doesn’t help that I’m a sentimental motherfucker who clings to bygone things. The well-worn cliche here being if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. There was nothing wrong with film photography when digital came along. Which isn’t to say that digital is bad or anything per se–it makes commercial work more efficient and streamlined, but it hasn’t added anything to the art form.

HESO: Though we are featuring a series of flowers and feminine beauty, you’re a bit of a street photographer as well. What is it you’re looking for on the street?

MN: Other than the typical “I wanna capture the fleeting moments of life” schpiel, street photography is my way of sticking it to the man so to speak. Like poker, the house always wins. Every now and then the perfect hand comes and you happen to bet big and take down the house. Most of the time we take shitty snapshots of mundane objects, but when that perfect moment comes where you’re at the right place at the right time and had the right settings on your camera, and, well, that time is beautiful.

HESO: Do you enjoy shooting in Japan better than elsewhere? How is it different than shooting in the States?

MN: Difficult to answer really. It wasn’t until I got to Japan that I took it seriously. So I can’t say I’ve had a good attempt at really shooting in other places. I did recently go to Spain however and found the light there to feel harsh and low, quite challenging.

A Floating World in Bloom - HESO Interviews Tokyo-based photographer Michael NguyenHESO: What is the most difficult aspect of being a photographer today?

MN: Coming up with something groundbreaking and new since everything seems like its been done. Cliche is the enemy.

HESO: So much good photography in my experience is due the serendipitous moment. Share with us a story of accidental good fortune.

MN: In life anyway, accidental is the only kind of good fortune I get. As far as photography, I can’t go as far as to say I’ve had any true serendipitous moments. You always try to be in the place with the best possibility of seeing something interesting and be prepared as best as you can. Photography isn’t a terrible John Cusack movie.

HESO: Flowers, youth, the elegant form of the female nude… what else do you find beautiful in this world?

MN: That’s just about it! Haha. With the sensory overload in this day and age I’ve become so jaded and numb that anything that stimulates any kind of emotion, good or bad, is beautiful in this world. Being rather immature for my age however, beauty remains a superficial thing unfortunately…

HESO: Your photos presented herein are just lovely. Any chance they’ll become part and parcel of a more comprehensive project on beauty?

MN: Ideally yes. but again like I mentioned earlier its really hard not to do cliche and redundant things, so who knows. I’m torn between just getting out there or hold out till I have something mind blowing. waiting for that epiphany.

HESO: You are somewhat notorious among your friends for the ‘babe in the onsen’ motif, but a lot of the ribbing is just jealousy. They would love to imitate you if only they could! Any tips for guys on making their beautiful girlfriends comfortable enough to pose in such intimate circumstances?

MN: Lots of booze! Seriously though, women tend to be insecure creatures. Reassuring them of how sexy they are and showing your passion in having them as such an integral part of your vision is key. Everyone just wants to feel needed and loved.

See more of Michael’s work here.

Modern Japan with Bronica Zenza

Modern Japan with Bronica Zenza

In part V of the series Manny Santiago looks at Modern Japan via the Bronica Zenza (ゼンザブロニカ?), a Japanese brand of medium format roll-film cameras, a single-lens reflex model first appearing in 1958. Partially named after the company’s founder, Zenzaburo Yoshino, and reputedly derived from Zenzaburo Brownie Camera. The Bronica Z and successor Bronicas, using Nikkor lenses, are all cult classics. Bronicas are workhorse cameras for wedding and portrait photographers and secondhand Bronica cameras are still widely used by professional and serious amateur photographers, due to superior image quality over smaller film and digital sensor formats as well as affordability.

After the death of Zenzaburo Yoshino in 1988, Bronica was acquired by the lens manufacturer Tamron which discontinued the brand’s single-lens reflex models (SQ, ETR and GS) in October 2004. Bronica’s last model, the RF645 rangefinder camera, was discontinued in October 2005.

Modern Japan with Bronica Zenza

The Modern Japan Gallery

Fan faces at Fujirock (Manny Santiago)

Modern Japan with Horizon S3

In part IV of the series Manny Santiago looks at Modern Japan via the Horizon S3 Pro Panoramic. The Horizon is a mechanical swing-lens panoramic camera manufactured by Krasnogorskiy Zavod in Krasnogorsk, Russia, known for their range of Zenit cameras.

The Horizon was produced in two formats: the 205pc, which took 50.5×110 mm wide frames on 120 film, and the 202, which took 24×58 mm wide frames on perforated 35 mm film. The 202 has been superseded by the S3pro, a redesigned and improved camera with silent rotation and more exposure times.

An older version called the Horizont, produced in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, had an all-metal, rectangular body and a removable viewfinder. The technology of the “202” is basically the same, but the body covering is plastic, and has an integrated viewfinder, making it larger. Additionally, the 202 features a slow-speed shutter mechanism, with exposure times of 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250 of a second; the S3-Pro has exposure times of 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 and 1 second, slower rotation than the 202, and silent rotation. It has been appropriated by Lomo.

Modern Japan with Horizon S3

The Modern Japan Gallery

Sobazushi at Owariya Soba in Kyoto (HESO Magazine)

Sobazushi at Owariya Soba in Kyoto

Visualize if you will, a spry young man in his work kimono, made of an easy to clean light fabric, walking down the dirt-paved roads of the old capital Kyōto to the clickety-clackety of hundreds of Japanese sandal-wearing passers-by as they go about their daily business, smiling and nodding while the deciduous trees rain orange and red fires of leaves all around. With a wave of the hand, a quick konnichiwa to his neighbors, and a right turn past the entrance curtains our man enters his shop. A small storefront with a tiny garden pond to the left and a backroom for kneading, mixing and baking makes up the modest shop, all separated by the thinnest of rice-paper sliding doors, yet somehow keeping the cool autumn breeze from disturbing the still sun-dappled air of the fine-milled flours and powdered sugars floating like benevolent ancestral ghosts around the confectionery. The year is 1465 in Nakagyo-ward, just south of the grounds of the Emperor’s palace, and you have entered Honke Owariya, which although new, has quickly become one of the favored confectionery shops of the imperial family. Sadly the Ōnin War, which will begin in just two short years and will last ten, destroys most of the city, scatters the population, and renders the emperor powerless: excellent timing soba-monger.

One day an influential member of the emperor’s entourage comes calling telling you His Highness really loves simple blue-collar fare, like Soba and should you decide to take advantage of the large natural water table upon which the city lies (thanks to its beneficial situation in the Yamashiro basin of the Tanba Highlands) to extend your talented hand into making the best dashi soup stock around, your legacy might still be around in 2012. Thankfully that or something like that is exactly what happened, which is why we still have Owariya, arguably the oldest restaurant in Kyōto- which would likely make it the oldest in Japan- 546 years later.

Sobazushi at Owariya Soba in Kyoto (HESO Magazine)

The traditional Seiro Soba is served cold with a dipping sauce

Sobazushi at Owariya Soba in Kyoto (HESO Magazine)

The cooks of Honke Owariya have been around for years and know their noodles.

When you are invited by the family to stay at the restaurant itself, and they casually drop that it was established in 1465, your mind begins to go numb. These kinds of numbers don’t mean anything to Americans. 544 years of uninterrupted service means that they had already been serving soba for more than 300 years by the time the thirteen British colonies got off their lazy bottoms and decided to unify into the U.S.A. The soup I was slurping was older than my own country’s constitution, and much more delicious, which made me wonder, 1) just exactly who are these soba-mongers? and 2) what’s the difference between their product and the stuff you buy at the store?

That first talented young patisserie chef who came from Nagoya along with some members of the imperial family, worked hard to turn the shop from strictly sweets to the soba du jour. Generally considered an everyman’s dish, fit for laymen as well as for a king, the initial proprietor Denzaemon (でんざえもん)–as has been named every master behind the Owariya (尾張屋) symbol–has passed down the recipe alongside the name from father to son since the end of the Muromachi and into the Edo period, until today. While the building itself has changed over that time, the shop has been located on the same soil–despite war, fire, and other misfortunes which prevailed upon a Japan still searching for its national identity during the violence of the 15-19th centuries–since 1465. Only open for lunch, the current establishment, a multi-leveled wooden building which can seat over 50 guests comfortably, located down a sleepy side-street near the Karasuma-Oike subway station, has been in use since the early part of last century, the 1920s or 30s.

Barring another civil war, a massive fire, an earthquake of great magnitude, a genealogical dry spell or any other potential disaster already having occurred in the storied history of Kyōto (Mothra’s Revenge perhaps?), the current incarnation could be around for another five hundred years.

But what exactly is soba? According to Owariya, soba “are thin grey noodles made from sobako, or buckwheat flour.” Depending on which area of Japan you live, they range in percentages of purity from 100% juu-wari inaka-soba found in the rich buckwheat fields of Nagano to mixtures containing various wild mountain yams, green tea and even mugwort. It ranges from the traditional kaiseki-esque 500 + year-old stuff of Honke Owariya all the way to small shacks serving bowls of the stuff as fast, cheap food for businessmen who don’t have five minutes to sit. Despite sounding a bit boring, soba has a flashy side: sushi. Or more properly pronounced: Sobazushi.

How, you ask, is it so highly favored among the blue bloods, the proletariat and, of course, the wayward traveler? Despite the ancient mama-san trying to hurry you up to free space for the next customer in line, the important thing is to go slow. In order to be able to appreciate the finer subtleties amidst a symphony of salaryman slurps, you have got to eat it often and eat a lot of it. Which shouldn’t prove a problem as according to a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition eating whole grains, such as buckwheat, has been linked to protection against atherosclerosis, ischemic stroke, diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and premature death. Another benefit would be eating the 100% juu-wari soba for people with wheat allergies (it’s a fruit seed, which does not contain protein glutens).

With seasonal specialties like the roasted duck, where the crispy skin reminds one of the falling leaves crunched underfoot walking in the chill dusk evening toward your lady friend’s house, there is reason for hedonistic celebration. The centimeter thick layer of beautifully textured fat redolent like the bearskin rug before the hearth of the roaring fire which throws flame light on the open bottle of vintage old world Pinot noir said lady friend is holding. Finally past the skin and beneath the fat comes the tender flesh, reminiscent of the autumnal elements, of the mingling of fire and air, and as you bite down and union is achieved, you taste the fine seiro fish stock now with a hint of oaky barbecue added as ballast and realizing that this meal too, perfectly balanced as it is by the light buckwheat noodles awash in their own sobayu, like others, will pass, you slow down.

Taking things slowly at the beginning of the year is important. Yet done’t mean we should take their presentation for granted. Soba, like mochi, is a traditional food for New year’s day in Japan. But that doesn’t mean you have to eat it in the traditional–dare I say it, boring–manner. Get crazy. Yes, go ahead and take an example from American culture and deep-fry your healthy buckwheat noodles. It’s not as if the Japanese have always been staunch traditionalists, despite claims to the contrary. They haven’t always celebrated their New Year on the 1st of January. No, that estimable tradition hailing from the Gregorian west began under Emperor Meiji’s modernization rampage in the late 19th century. The original New Year is based on–as with many other Asian cultures–the Chinese Lunar Calendar and generally falls on the second new moon after Winter Solstice, marking the beginning of spring, and signifying links with the Middle East’s Nowruz and Carnival (Mardi Gras) in the west.

Whatever your culture, your religion, your food and drink, whenever the new year comes where you are from, it goes without saying that your firsts are very important. In Japan the hatsuhinode: first sunrise of the year, hatsumōde: first trip to a shrine or temple, waraizome: first laugh, hatsuyume: first dream, and especially hatsuzushi: first sushi of the year. Why not head to Honke Owariya for you first lunch eating out of the new year and ask for the Sobazushi (you may have to specify deep-fried). It may be your first time trying it, but you won’t be sorry. Especially if you get the chilled bottle of Momo no Shizuku (Peach Dewdrops). May all your firsts parallel your dreams of laughing at the sunrise from the shrine steps. Taking your time now, you look out the window and watch the bundled people passing and the wind whipping the snow to the edges of your vision. Things inevitably change, but thankfully some things do not.

Sobazushi at Owariya Soba in Kyoto (HESO Magazine)
Mochitsuki - New Year in Japan Making Mochi

Mochitsuki – Making Mochi

Come the Japanese New Year, when some particularly enthusiastic families and co-workers across the archipelago once again dust off their bamboo rice steamers, big wooden hammers, not forgetting the Sake, and head off to the local community center, school, or as in my case, the abandoned yacht club, it raises the hairs on the neck to bear witness to how easily people who arrived in Mercedes Benzes sporting Gucci like it’s Gap can hear the call and hark back to the Yamato Damashi (Japanese Spirit) of their kimono-clad ancestors. What is the pull to mashing fresh-boiled rice, using the traditional Mochitsuki tools with rarely-heard names: kine, usu?

But first, what exactly is Mochi?

Mochi is often translated as Japanese Rice Cake, which immediately brings to mind the hockey puck-sized cakes of puffed rice my mom ate whenever she was “dieting.” If the fingernails-on-blackboard sound of teeth cracking through styrofoam or the feel of chewing on stale cardboard wasn’t enough to put her off of them, then the fact that at short range they flew with greater accuracy and velocity (at my cat) than my frisbee probably insured my mother stopped stocking them and tried to diet another way.

Mochitsuki – Making Mochi

Seriously though, Mochi is not diet food. Made from glutinous–meaning glue-like and not referencing gluten–rice of the Japonica variety with a high concentration of starch (due to having low amylose content and high amounts of amylopectin, which is responsible for the sticky quality) that is pounded into a smooth paste while hot and then formed into balls, it’s actually pretty high in calories and like plain rice, pretty tasteless. Mixed with azuki (sweet bean paste), natto (fermented soy beans), formed into tiny balls in zoni, covered in kinako flour and the sake starts flowing, it’s generally a slow descent into chaos. But let me back up a bit.

Served in a variety of manners for millennia throughout east and southeast Asian countries, the Japanese style of making mochi is similar to its oriental neighbors, yet also very stylistically unique.

As modern society has tended toward the equality of the sexes (even in Asia), tradition dictates that mama-san is in the kitchen cooking the rice, stewing the azuki beans, mixing the natto, prepping the zoni (mochi soup), all the while happily gossiping away with the other aunties while the men are the ones who stand around outside alternating between smoking and pounding the kine (wooden hammer) into the warm mochigome rice, slowly morphing into the white blob for which everyone has been waiting. It’s not necessarily that way–lots of people do nothing whatsoever except eat or drink.

As a rule most Japanese assume (probably correctly) that westerners prefer bread to rice, and likely have no idea what mochi is, and thus cannot truly appreciate the end result of the day’s worth of laborious work in order to get…what again–rice cakes? With the winter wind and snow on their way, standing around outside at six am, one is only warmed by colluding with the shivering children around the meager bonfire or getting down to the meat and potatoes of it and properly pounding their weight in the white stuff. While the kine is rather easy to get a grip on, when the initial two to three-man team begins circling the usu (semi-hollow tree trunk mortar in which mochi is pounded) and the rice-mash fest begins, fingers beware! After getting it the right consistency, two of the men back off and one hammer takes the lead in concert with a cohort whose job it is to wet the glutinous glob, turning it over in between mallet whacks, and keeping the rhythm with the kind of beat/chant/song typical to Japanese grunt work: Yoshi (emphatically pronounced “Yosh” or “Yosha”).

If you can brave the cold and bruises until lunchtime, the rest of the day will be rice cake, so to speak. Mashing with all of one’s might, you suddenly hear the call to come inside the abandoned Yacht club lodge where roars a huge fire and before you lies a feast of unimaginable sights and smells buffeted by the slurps of soup and clack of wooden chopsticks. Intermingling with laughs of the standing crowd whose aim of disappearing food quickly into their open, hungry mouths is quickly realized: anko, natto, zoni, shoyu, nori, mitsuba, yuzu, kinako. All centered around making the simple staple that has sustained them for centuries a bit meatier, more colorful and overall tastier than anything our collective moms might have eaten in the 80s.

Homeless in Tokyo

Homeless in Yoyogi Park

Homeless in Yoyogi Park

Homeless communities peak out of the hidden areas of Yoyogi Park in Shibuya

Homeless in Yoyogi Park

As the weather worsens and the pace toward the closing of the years quickens, take a Saturday morning to drop by the Sanyukai NPO & free medical clinic in 32 No. 8, 2-chome, Kiyokawa in Taito-ku, accessible via Minami Senju station. Help make bento lunches, go along to pass them out among homeless people along the Sumida River, donate some food, clean blankets and clothing, sit down on a bench in front of Sanyukai and have a conversation over tea with someone. Act human in a time when that is beginning to seem so out of the ordinary. Find out what happens when the 2020 Olympics comes to Tokyo.

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