Glorious international foodstuffs 2: ramen

 

From imgur.com

 

Japan is a land of many pleasures.  It has cultural pleasures (ukiyo-e, rakugo, ikebana), literary pleasures (Edogawa Ranpo, Osamu Dazai, Haruki Murakami), alcoholic pleasures (sake, shochu, Sapporo Beer) and musical pleasures (Ryuichi Sakamoto, Shonen Knife and, obviously, the Mad Capsule Markets).  However, for pure, visceral, immediate-gratification pleasure, nothing can compare to the bowlful of joy you get when you venture into a certain type of Japanese eatery at lunchtime, after a morning of hard graft and when your stomach is yowling with hunger, and a steaming helping of ramen is set on the counter in front of you.

 

Ramen is hardly an elegant dish.  It’s rough-and-ready and thrown-together but none the worse for that.  In its basic form, it consists of a mess of noodles, a skoosh of broth, a few cuts of pork, a boiled egg, some spring onions and bean sprouts and a nice, green, papery square of nori (seaweed), all chucked into a big bowl.  And strictly speaking, it’s not a Japanese dish either.  The first ramen in Japan probably appeared in Chinese restaurants that served food from Shanghai and Canton in the 19th century.  Indeed, up until the middle of the 20th century, it was referred to as ‘shina soba’, i.e. Chinese soba.   And it didn’t achieve mass-popularity in Japan until the late fifties with the invention of instant noodles.  At that moment, ramen stopped being a special treat and became affordable daily fare for the average working Joe.

 

Despite being a relatively late cultural import to the country, ramen is now synonymous with Japanese cuisine and culture.  By 1985, it’d become iconic enough for a Japanese filmmaker to make a movie about it.  This was Juzo Itami’s comedy-classic Tampopo, which was marketed as a ‘ramen western’ – a joke on spaghetti westerns, although in Japan spaghetti westerns are called ‘macaroni westerns’.  To be honest, Tampopo is more about Japan’s overall relationship with food and its most memorable sequence doesn’t involve ramen all – we see a gangster and his moll have culinary simulated sex by popping a raw egg-white-and-yolk back and forth from, and in and out of, their mouths.  (I remember sticking the video for Tampopo into the VCR in my family’s living room one evening, expecting to watch an innocuous Japanese comedy; and feeling mortified when this scene appeared because my eighty-something Northern Irish granny was sitting knitting in the corner.  But thankfully, the eighty-something Northern Irish granny thought it was hilarious.)

 

©Itami Productions / New Century Producers / Toho

 

Tampopo’s main plotline follows the old western formula wherein a gang of gunslingers ride to the rescue of a besieged town – only here, it’s a gang of ramen-lovers hurrying to the rescue of an ailing ramen-ya.  A ramen-ya is a fixture of Japan’s backstreets, a little restaurant that serves ramen, portions of rice, side-plates of gyoza dumplings, beer, liquor and not much else.  When I lived in Japan, which was for most of the 1990s, it seemed that everyone I knew had a favourite ramen-ya that they’d discovered somewhere in their local neighbourhoods.

 

As for me, I swore by a particular ramen-ya that was in the town of Takikawa, up on the northern island of Hokkaido, where I spent my first two years in Japan working as a classroom assistant.  This ramen-ya was called the Manten and was as typical as you could get: a long narrow chamber with a counter and row of stools on one side and, at its far end, a small tatami room where a few months after my arrival, I recall, a hard-living Glaswegian guy I’d encountered introduced me to the seductive but hazardous pastime of drinking shochu.  (Unlike sake, which is fermented, shochu is a distilled Japanese liquor.)

 

The Manten had a window looking out onto a little compound or back garden where, when it wasn’t under a half-dozen feet of snow – Hokkaido has a climate akin to Siberia’s – I’d see the place’s owner wielding a golf club and practising his swings.  But what anchors the Manten in my memory most of all was its ramen, which I found delicious.

 

The Manten didn’t just acquaint me with ramen.  It acquainted me with the Hokkaido versions of it.  There are various types of ramen, such as shoyu (soy-sauce) and shio (salt) ramen, but up in Hokkaido they like miso ramen.  As its name suggests, its broth is thick and liberally laced with miso and it’s perfect for insulating you against the raw Hokkaido winter.  (The island is also the home of another variation of the dish, the self-explanatory curry ramen.  Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the Japanese archipelago, the island of Kyushu has pioneered a further variation, tonkotsu ramen, which has a distinctively whitish broth.)

 

Probably that’s why nowadays I rage when I find myself in a Japanese restaurant back in Britain, with what purports to be ramen on its menu, and I get served something whose broth is vapidly thin and watery.  No, you useless wimps, the soup in the ramen has got to be thick.  That’s the Hokkaido way.

 

One other good thing about ramen, in Japan anyway, is its price.  I could never get over how cheap the stuff was, considering there was usually enough in one bowl to leave me feeling stoked up with fuel for the next three days.  In fact, a friend who visited Japan in 2015 told me it was still cheap – especially compared with those trendy Japanese-restaurant chains in the UK where you pay twice the cost for a pale imitation.  (Yes, Wagamama, I’m looking at you.)

 

Accordingly, when you enter a ramen-ya at lunchtime, you’ll be greeted by the sight of Japan’s smaller earners – dusty construction workers, say, and lower-hierarchy salarymen – sitting along the counter and tucking into their midday ramen fix.  Often, after I’d eaten a bowlful, I’d feel ready to slouch home, lie down and sleep it off.  But for those guys, of course, an afternoon nap isn’t an option.  In ever-industrious Japan, you return to the building site or the office and spend the afternoon working it off.

 

They say that an army marches on its stomach.  For the blue-collar and lower white-collar army that keeps Japan’s economy (still the third-largest economy in the world) marching, that stomach is surely full of ramen.

 

©Itami Productions / New Century Producers / Toho

 

Time to learn about Hearn

 

(c) Tuttle

 

19th-century writer Lafcadio Hearn surely had a confused sense of identity.  Perhaps it’s unsurprising that he had to travel to what was considered at the time the ends of the earth – Japan – before he found some sort of cultural peace.

 

He was born in 1850 to a Greek mother and an Irish Protestant father, but was reared in Dublin by a great-aunt who’d fervently embraced Catholicism.  Later, he was dumped in an austere boarding school in Durham in northern England.  It was during the unwelcome rough-and-tumble of boarding school that a playground accident cost him the sight of his left eye.  At the age of 19 he arrived in the USA, where he worked as a journalist, first in Ohio – losing his job with a Cincinnati newspaper for committing the crime of marrying, briefly, a black woman – and then in New Orleans.

 

In 1890, he found his way to Meiji-era Japan where he worked as a school-teacher and university-lecturer whilst doing his best to chronicle the minutiae of life in a traditional and, to him, exotic Japanese culture that was fast vanishing under the wheels of Western-inspired industrialisation and ‘modernisation’.  Nowadays, to the Japanese at least, he is the most distinguished and accomplished foreign scribe who ever attempted to describe their country in writing.

 

Since Hearn’s death in 1904, the Irish – who are good at doing this – have claimed him as one of their own.  So to me Hearn will always be the oddball wandering Irishman who got, and seized, the opportunity to record for posterity the details of life in old Japan just before it changed forever.  But by the end of his days Hearn was technically more Japanese than Irish.  He’d taken on Japanese citizenship, married a Japanese woman called Koizumi Setsu, fathered four children and adopted the Japanese name of Koizumi Yakumo.  He struck a solemnly Japanese-looking pose with his wife in the monochrome family photographs of the time – his head always in profile with the right side of his face towards the camera, so that his disfigured left eye was out of view.

 

From en.wikipedia.org 

 

These days, some historians and cultural commentators chuckle at Hearn and at how he hankered after a disappearing Japan that, as an outsider, had never belonged to him anyway (and one wonders how much the old Japan described in his writings was embroidered by his own fanciful yearnings).  There’s also an irony in how the Japanese were happy to adopt Hearn as their foreign champion after they’d modernised themselves and dumped the very culture that Hearn was so preoccupied with.  Thus, in a way, Hearn’s writings have become the literary equivalent of a holiday brochure, advertising an ethereal version of Japan that now exists only in the imaginations of tourists.

 

But nonetheless, I admire Hearn’s writings greatly.  The descriptions of late-19th century Japan in his journalism, with their gaudy colour and intricate attention to detail, are startlingly evocative.  In our modern digital world, where you can point your phone or tablet at just about anything and instantly preserve its image in pixels, the business of writing detailed descriptive prose no longer seems necessary.  Indeed, it’s become a lost art.  But when it was necessary, Hearn was one of its greatest practitioners.

 

Hearn was instinctively drawn to stories about ghosts and the uncanny, perhaps because of his pedigree – the supernatural is another thing that the Irish are good at.  Accordingly, his books In Ghostly Japan and Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, in which he recorded the weird and creepy folk tales circulating in his adopted country, are among the most famous works in his canon.   What I like about Hearn’s stories – or more precisely, about Hearn’s retellings – are how commonplace the supernatural elements, the ghosts and spirits, goblins and demons, seem among the human tableau of medieval Japan.  The supernatural doesn’t suddenly and unexpectedly intrude into the world of men and women.  It’s already there – if not quite existing alongside the Japanese people, certainly inhabiting the forests, mountain gorges, snowy plateaus and crumbling Buddhist cemeteries located at the edges of their existence.

 

Hearn’s tales also constitute a fascinating bestiary of the creatures of Japanese legend and folklore.  The story Mujina, for example, contains a being called a nopperabo, which in Japanese folklore is almost perfectly human in its form and dress – except for its face, which is as smooth and featureless as an egg.  Meanwhile, in the story Rokuro-Kubi, the title creature is a type of goblin with a detachable head – once detached, the head can flit about through the air, this way and that, like a giant bumblebee.  (Incidentally, in Japanese mythology, there’s another type of rokuro-kubi with an elastic neck that can stretch to grotesque and snake-like extremes.)

 

Perhaps the nastiest of Hearn’s supernatural beasties, though, appears in Jikininki, in which a travelling priest called Muso arrives in a village plagued by a hideous monster that materialises whenever there’s a death and a corpse becomes available for it to feed on: “…when the hush of the night was at its deepest, there noiselessly entered a Shape, vague and vast; and in the same moment Muso found himself without power to move or speak. He saw that Shape lift the corpse, as with hands, devour it, more quickly than a cat devours a rat – beginning at the head, and eating everything: the hair and the bones and even the shroud.”

 

(c) Tuttle

 

I lived in Japan for much of the 1990s.  There I encountered a few foreign residents — to use the Japanese term, gaijin — who reminded me slightly of Lafcadio Hearn.  Seduced by the country and its culture, they’d become ardent ‘Japanophiles’.  In fact, they’d ended up as a sub-species of gaijin that ‘normal’ gaijin in Japan sniggeringly describe as being “more Japanese than the Japanese.”  Such foreign types never seemed to me to be particularly happy.  Unfortunately, when you fall completely in love with a place, you become disillusioned when the place then spurns you by daring to change, losing what it had that attracted you in the first place.  And at times there seems no place in the world more capable of bewilderingly rapid and sudden change than Japan.

 

This certainly happened to Hearn.  Towards the end of his life, he wrote wearily that, “I felt as never before how utterly dead Old Japan is and how ugly New Japan is becoming.  I thought, how useless to write about things which have ceased to exist.”  Well, they may have ceased to exist by then, but I for one am glad that poor old Hearn bothered to write about them in the first place.

 

Adam Yauch / MCA: 1965 – 2012

 

 

One Thursday evening in early 1987, I sat down in front of my television to watch Top of the Pops, which at the time was the most popular showcase of popular music on British TV.  Come to think of it, it was almost the only showcase of popular music on TV at the time – this was before most people had access to satellite or cable television, which could pump 24-hour-a-day channels devoted to various genres of music into their living rooms.  In fact, most of the music shown on Top of the Pops was bland, middle-of-the-road, non-threatening, cheesy or plain terrible and I tended to sit through the programme in a semi-doze.  But, as I said, it was almost my only opportunity each week to see musicians performing songs that were currently high in the charts.

 

Anyway, I was suddenly jolted awake this evening when an obnoxious American voice yelled, “Yeah!” and then, “Kick it!”  This was followed by a chugging and wonderfully-stupid heavy-metal riff and a funny Three-Stooges-like video in which a trio of young hooligans invaded, disrupted and eventually destroyed a boring, preppy house party being held in New York, whilst continually shouting the refrain: “You gotta fight… for your right… to paaa-aaarty!”

 

Top of the Pops received complaints from concerned parents about the video and, typically timid, promised never to show it again.  However, the damage had already been done.  Fight for your Right to Party – for that was the song – was seared into my brain forever.  The Beastie Boys – Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz), Mike D (Michael Diamond) and MCA (Adam Yauch) – had arrived.

 

Alas, it now looks like the Beastie Boys have departed, for yesterday it was announced that Adam Yauch has passed away from cancer of the salivary gland, a condition he’d been suffering from since 2009.  This came only a month after they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland – to date, only the third rap act to have been given this honour.

 

Despite the impression of the 1980s you might get now, from watching populist and nostalgic TV documentaries about the decade, or from listening to nostalgic collections harvested from the decade’s singles charts, there was actually a lot going on during the 1980s musically.  It wasn’t just about unspeakable New Romantic bands in eyeliner and shiny suits pratting around to neutered sub-funk guitar licks, dinky-sounding synthesisers and even dinkier-sounding drum machines.  A couple of years in, the 1980s had produced not only rap music, but house music, goth music, several new and more lethal brands of heavy metal and a slew of great indie bands.  Meanwhile, interesting things were starting to stir in northern cities in both Britain and America – Manchester in the former case, Seattle in the latter.  However, not being the musical anorak that I am now, I wasn’t aware of this diversity.  Getting my information from the mainstream newspaper press in Britain, and from Top of the Pops, I assumed that all that was happening music-wise were Duran bloody Duran and Spandau bloody Ballet.

 

Therefore, hearing Fight for your Right to Party and the Beastie Boys’ debut album, Licensed to Ill, on which it was the seventh track, was something of an awakening for me.  It made me realise that music was getting exciting again.

 

A loud, fast, brash and bratty confection of metal riffs (largely sampled from Led Zeppelin) and some pretty-obnoxious raps, Licensed to Ill quickly became the soundtrack to a million beer-fuelled fraternity parties in the USA and a million similarly drunken student parties in Europe.  It didn’t in any way suggest, however, that its three authors would be more than one-hit wonders.  Consequently, when its 1989 follow-up Paul’s Boutique failed to achieve anything like the same sales, music critics were happy to write them off.

 

In fact, Paul’s Boutique was a savagely underrated album, full of funky sounds that suggested the trio were willing both to experiment beyond the adolescent parameters of their first album and to do some serious growing up.  1992’s Check Your Head brought another new development – the Beastie Boys had learned to play their own instruments! – but it was the 1994 album Ill Communication that marked their comeback in the popularity stakes.  In fact, by now equally capable of serving up fuzzy, trippy guitar-instrumental tracks, short, shout-along thrash-metal standards and indescribable but fascinating items infused with samples from old blaxploitation-movie soundtracks, the Beastie Boys had become one of the coolest and most unpredictable musical acts on the planet.

 

Also by now, Yauch had converted to Buddhism and was shoehorning Buddhist themes into the Beastie Boys’ lyrics and Buddhist sounds into their music.  Some critics sneered at this, but the Buddhist dimension added to the bands’ ever-increasing palette of colours.

 

Later albums Hello Nasty (1998), To the Five Boroughs (2004) and Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011) all had their moments, but in retrospect it’s clear that Ill Communication was their high-water mark.  In 1999 the band also found time to put together a hits-and-oddities anthology The Sounds of Science, which is as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it includes.  For one thing, the absence of Fight for your Right to Party shows how keen Yauch, Diamond and Horovitz were to write their frat-brat origins out of their band’s history.

 

I got to see the Beastie Boys live only once, in 1995, but I’d rate their show as one of my top five gigs ever.  Ironically, I almost didn’t attend the concert.  They were performing at the Jasmac Plaza in the Japanese city of Sapporo, in whose Hokkai-Gakuen University I was working at the time as a lecturer.  Unfortunately, the show was due to begin at 7.00 PM – concerts in Japan tended to start when the tickets said they would – and the same evening I had to give a late lecture until 7.20 PM.  Plus I calculated that by the time I got from the university campus, which was in a district south of the city centre, to the Jasmac Plaza, which was downtown, the Beastie Boys would already be an hour into their gig.  So it didn’t seem worth it.

 

However, a few weeks before the concert, something odd happened.  It was announced that work had been completed on a new Sapporo subway line, which had a station called Gakuen-Mae directly below the campus where I was working.  I also discovered that the next station along the new line, Hosui-Suskino, had an exit that was only a block from the Jasmac Plaza.  And a subway train left for Hosui-Susukino from Gakuen-Mae every evening at 7.30.  I figured that if I caught the 7.30 train, and moved very fast, I could be at the concert hall in the Jasmac Plaza ten minutes later – hopefully not halfway through the Beastie Boys’ set, if they indeed started performing at 7.00.  Fate seemed to be telling me to buy a ticket, so I did.

 

That evening, I finished my lecture on the stroke of 7.20 and, once I was out of sight of the departing students, ran like hell for the subway station.  It seemed to have half-a-dozen escalators, descending deeper and deeper into the earth, and I charged down all of them.  The train was already at the platform and I ran and jumped through its about-to-close carriage doors like a fugitive being pursued by the police in an American urban crime thriller.  I sprang out of the train at Hosui-Susukino, ran up more escalators, ran along a city block into the Jasmac Plaza and up several stairs to its fourth floor, where the concert hall was.  I heard live rap music blasting out of speakers above me.

 

I ran into the hall, gasping for breath and leaking sweat down my university-lecturer’s shirt, suit and tie.  And I realised that the Beastie Boys weren’t on stage at all.  What I was hearing was a support act.  The trio themselves didn’t appear until forty minutes later.

 

But what the heck?  As I said above, it was a superb gig.

 

Thanks to Yauch’s passing, this video on Youtube will no doubt be viewed a zillion times this weekend.  It’s for Sabotage, their big hit off Ill Communication, and probably the song that will do for their memory what Smoke on the Water did for Deep Purple or Stairway to Heaven did for Led Zeppelin.  (As if already aware of this, on the night I saw them in Sapporo, the Beastie Boys worked the Smoke on the Water riff into their performance of Sabotage.  But I always thought Sabotage was vastly more entertaining than that clumping Deep Purple dirge.)

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5rRZdiu1UE

 

And just in case you’ve forgotten it, here’s the video accompanying the song that awoke me from my Tops of the Pops-induced stupor in 1987.  Yeah!  Kick it!

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBShN8qT4lk

 

Kleptocrats of the world unite

 

Now that I’m putting pieces of writing on the Internet, I’ve become a bit paranoid about the grammatical and lexical accuracy of my prose.  This is a medium accessed by hundreds of millions of folk around the globe, after all.  You don’t want to appear illiterate in front of that many people.   (Though admittedly, this blog appears to have attracted a readership of one so far – myself.)

 

One word I used in a recent entry was ‘kleptocracy’.  As soon as I posted the entry, I began to wonder if I really knew what the word meant and if I’d used it appropriately.  Thankfully, when I checked the Wikipedia article on kleptocracies, I discovered that I’d been right.  Wikipedia defines it as “a form of political and government corruption where the government exists to increase the personal wealth and political power of its officials and the ruling class at the expense of the wider population”.

 

Put a big tick in the ‘kleptocrat’ column next to Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s name, then.

 

Helpfully, the Wikipedia article also listed the world’s worst kleptocrats, based on research done in 2004 by the NGO Transparency International.  Here are the five most brazen offenders.

 

NAME PRESIDENT OF… POCKETTED…
Suharto Indonesia 15 – 35 billion dollars
Ferdinand Marcos The Philippines 5 – 10 billion dollars
Mobutu Sese Seko Zaire 5 billion dollars
Sani Abacha Nigeria 2 – 5 billion dollars
Slobodan Milosevic Yugoslavia and Serbia 1 billion dollars

 

Only slightly further down this league table of avarice and infamy are Haiti’s Baby Doc Duvalier, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, Ukraine’s Pavlo Lazarenko, Nicaragua’s Arnoldo Aleman and the Philippines’ Joseph Estrada.  Those poor Philippines really got lumbered with them.

 

Bear in mind that this list was compiled in 2004.  The victims of the Arab Spring – Hosni Mubarak, Mr and Mrs Ben Ali and the ghastly Gaddafi clan – would surely have a good chance of qualifying for an updated one.  And there are plenty of people still in power whose kleptocratic excesses haven’t been calculated yet.  God knows how much of Zimbabwe’s wealth has disappeared into Robert Mugabe’s trousers during the last three decades.  And one shudders to imagine the revenue generated by the hard-pressed workers of North Korea’s factories and farms that’s ended up in the Kim family bank account in Macao.

 

Returning to Transparency International’s research in 2004, I did once share a building with one of the names listed.  In the mid-1990s, Alberto Fujimori – the son of Japanese immigrants to Peru and not yet regarded as the colossal embezzler and human-rights violator that he’s known as today – was on a tour of Japan.  He stopped off at the university where I was working then, Hokkai-Gakuen University in Sapporo, and gave a speech in the swanky conference centre a few floors above the floor containing my office in the main campus building.  I didn’t go to see Fujimori and his entourage when they arrived, but I remember getting a note slipped under my office door early that morning.  The note politely informed me that if I opened my window that day, I ran the risk of being shot by a police sniper.

 

Fujimori is currently four years into a 25-year prison sentence in Peru.  Meanwhile, I suspect his visit doesn’t get much of a mention in Hokkai-Gakuen University’s promotional literature these days.