Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tsukiji: Big Fish out of Water

Stats have it that there’re almost a hundred centralized wholesale markets in 56 cities across Japan: 50-odd for fish, 19 for flowers, and 10 for meat. Tsukiji, here in Tokyo, is the heftiest of the lot; in fact it’s the biggest fish market in the world. Remember the scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the U.S. government stores the Ark of the Covenant at the warehouse that stretches off into the horizon, without apparent end?

Tsukiji (東京都中央卸売市場) is just like that.

Also known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market and as “Tokyo’s Kitchen” - or more simply Tsukijishijo in Japanese - it everyday handles somewhere in the vicinity of 2,000 to 2,900 metric tons of seafood, dabbling in over 400 varieties of aquatic vertebrate, crustaceans and cephalopods (this includes 300 kg slabs of tuna).

Employed to oversee the whole circus are around 65,000 people. This in effect makes Tsukiji the largest fish graveyard on the globe, as well as one of the bigger wholesale food markets in general.

It’s located near Ginza, just a quickie stroll from Tsukijishijo Station on the Toei Oedo Line or via the Hibiya Line’s Tsukiji Station.

Inside the market they have auctions in the wee hours, and the best time to be there is around 5:30am - though don’t wear your best footwear as parts of the place are awash in fish blood and hosed-down produce. It’s not really for the light-of-heart or vaguely animal rights-conscious, let alone people on the cusp of vegetarianism for ethical reasons, as you’re going to see a lot of sea creature carcasses, guts, squirming eels, and very big live craps tied in shoddy Gordian knots.

But you also get to witness people practicing their slice-and-dice techniques on both frozen and fresh tuna and swordfish, using intimidating sword-like shivs of their own that’re over a metre in length - just steer clear of the gas-powered go-carts and the guys lugging around huge blocks of ice, as they’re even more dangerous.

Set up early on in the 17th century by shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, this sprawling hub was originally a more humble affair located near Nihonbashi Bridge, not far from the current Tokyo Station.

But after the general destruction of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, the market was shifted to reclaimed land in the Tsukiji area - right next to a small Shinto shrine called Namiyoke Inari-jinja, built on the water’s edge of Tokyo Bay (before land was reclaimed from the sea to eventually house the market) in the mid 17th century.

Inari is apparently quite the chipper deity in Japan, with around 32,000 shrines (over a third of Shinto shrines in this country) dedicated to the Japanese kami of fertility, rice, agriculture, industry, worldly success - and foxes.

Thus the shrines are usually decked out with not only vermilion-coloured torii-gates, but also a bunch of statues of kitsune (foxes) who may or may not be messy eaters since they have bibs tied round their necks.

Namiyoke Inari-jinja itself also goes for much dragon and lion iconography, since the original attempts at land reclamation, commenced in the 17th century by the Tokugawa government, were often washed away in storms. When success was actually achieved, people celebrated by lugging round dragon floats - symbolizing control of the clouds - and a huge shishi lion’s head, renowned for its oddly calming roar that was probably aimed at virulent nature itself.

After the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market was relocated next door, Namiyoke Inari-jinja became the unofficial guardian shrine of the marketplace, and it’s dotted with memorial plaques and statuettes donated by several of the market’s trade groups.

In June every year, the shrine plays host to the rather wild Tsukiji Shishi Matsuri festival (see video below) which harks back to the original purpose of Namiyoke - lions, dragons, and all - and in turn underscores the more recent relationship with the neighbours, as many of the market’s traders are those people sweating under the mikoshi.

But Tsukiji isn’t just festivals, shrines and fish.

It was the star of the 2008 film Tsukiji Uogashi Sandaime (築地魚河岸三代目, also known as Third Generation Tsukiji Fish Market Man or The Taste of Fish), directed by Shingo Matsubara of Ultraman: Tiga fame, and based on a 2000s manga series by Masaharu Nabeshima and Mitsuo Hashimoto; then again, the story here centers on a businessman who quits his high-flying bank job to work for his father-in-law at the fish market.

Tokyo’s Kitchen also pops up in the ‘90s manga version of Shota no Sushi (将太の寿司, Shota’s Sushi or King of Sushi) by Daisuke Terasawa, and - while I’m unsure if it appears in the live-action spin-off that played on Fuji TV in 1996 - I have it on good advice that the market features in Haikei, Chichiue-sama (拝啓、父上様), a.k.a. Dear Father, starring Kazunari Ninomiya (Letters from Iwo Jima, and the voice of Kuro in Tekkonkinkreet), which was broadcast on the same channel 11 years later.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Japan Sinks author Komatsu passes on

Just found out that the great Sakyo Komatsu, author of the novel Japan Sinks (日本沈没 Nihon Chinbotsu) passed away on 26 July, at the venerable age of 80.

"Japan Sinks" might fittingly apply to this country itself in 2011 with the slew of disasters since March. Five years ago it was adapted as a fairly mediocre SFX/romance yarn starring Tsuyoshi Kusanagi (from J-pop group SMAP) and Kou Shibasaki (Battle Royale, 47 Ronin) in which - racked by earthquakes, firestorms and volcanoes - Japan is slowly sinking into the sea.

Much better was the 1973 version (also called Tidal Wave) directed by Shiro Moritani, starring Keiju Kobayashi (Samurai Assassin) and Kunihiro Fujioka (the first Kamen Rider), along with a soundtrack by Masaru Satō - who scored the Akira Kurosawa films Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo and Sanjuro.

Komatsu even makes a cameo at the beginning of the movie.

Less renowned in the West is the entity alternately known as Sayonara Jupiter (さよならジュピター) or Bye Bye Jupiter - a novel he adapted himself for the somewhat ill-conceived trilingual 1984 Toho movie directed by Koji Hashimoto (Godzilla 1985: The Legend Is Reborn).

That outing is just plain bizarre, yet worth another ride into the imagination conjured up by one of Japan's more creative writers. As a tribute, here's something a wee bit oddball: the Russian-dubbed trailer for the 1973 version of Japan Sinks.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Heavenly Spirits?

In the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice, there’s an essential exchange between our globetrotting British spy (Sean Connery) and his Japanese counterpart Tiger Tanaka (played by Tetsuro Tanba but voiced by Robert Rietti).

This moment comes just after Bond is offered the rice-based alcoholic beverage sake, instead of his usual dry vodka martini. He surprises all when he graciously accepts, saying that he enjoys the Japanese drop – especially when it’s served at the ‘correct temperature’, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

The moment is something to drink in, and 98.4ºF would sound fair enough to most people since, in common Western perception, sake is doled up piping hot to wash down raw fish. But for those a tad more in the know about Japanese cuisine a rumour has circulated over the past 44 years that Bond got it wrong; that sake served at this temperature – 37ºC for those like me who are Fahrenheit inept – is invariably inferior in quality.

In truth that might have indeed been the case in the mid ‘60s, around the time of the making of You Only Live Twice, as many breweries fortified their product with distilled alcohol – a hangover from Second World War rice shortages. Serving it steaming helped mask any of the sharp or unbalanced flavours.

But in the intervening period brewers have been able to return to the prescribed method of naturally brewing pure rice sake, with no shoehorned artificial alcohol, to recreate mixes that are refined and pure enough to serve chilled.

Even so, we don’t need to take sides here.

Bond wasn’t wrong – and neither were the rumours. 98.4ºF isn’t exactly the ‘correct’ temperature for sake, but it’s perfect for Ozeki One Cup and some more expensive premium blends; the Japan Sake Brewers Association reports that this drink can be enjoyed anywhere within the range of 5ºC (41ºF) to 55ºC (131ºF), depending on the concoction.

Then there’s the Holy Grail of modern day nihonshu (which is what the Japanese tend to call sake).

Myouka Rangyoku (‘heavenly flower’) has been touted as the world’s best sake at and in the pages of The Japan Times newspaper – and like all chart-topping, divinely-inspired beverages this one comes with a healthy price tag: A 720 ml bottle retails upwards from ¥12,600 (about US$150).

“As a brewery, we do our utmost to create a truly great and perfect sake with Myouka Rangyoku – made according to a totally new concept, both as regards the flavour of the sake and the design of the bottle – and therefore we have been able to have a sizeable impact.”

So last year I was informed by Ad G. Blankestijn, the Director of Overseas Marketing and Sales at Daishichi Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., located in Fukushima, 230 km northeast of Tokyo.

Unfortunately this placed the brewery slap-bang in the middle of the massive March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and they're located 60 km from the ongoing nuclear reactor debacle at Fukushima Daiichi.

On their website they strive to be reassuring:

"The walls of the brewery consist of 25 cm thick concrete. In addition there are fire-resistant tiles and hollow concrete blocks, making a total of 32 cm of protection from the outside. The sake storage area has even thicker walls in order to keep the products cool. No radiation can penetrate these walls.

"When we heard about the nuclear problems on March 11, we have immediately stopped air conditioners and ventilators and covered the windows and air ducts in plastic sheets to keep the inside of the brewery and storage areas airtight.

"Sake brewing is almost finished and the accident has had no major influence on our activities. Products being shipped now are vintage 2008-2009 sakes, and 2010 for the plum sake. These products are completely free from any influence of the nuclear accident."

I haven't spoken to Blankestijn at the brewery since I interviewed him last year, but the nuclear crisis is in no way going to deter me from my aspiration to (one day) road-test this particular drop.

Even bottles matter to these people and theirs is a classic (see below); the brew itself has been dubbed ambrosial by critics far more canny than myself.

“Most exclusive sakes are made with a modern, simplified process, but ours has been made with the ‘Kimoto’ method, the most traditional, laborious and time-consuming way of brewing a handcrafted sake,” Blankestijn said.

“The result is that it tastes very pure while at the same time possessing much complexity and depth. In contrast to other exclusive sakes which have to be drunk relatively young, Myouka Rangyoku is very slowly matured, so that over the course of many years it ripens into a rich and beautiful sake that we do not sell every year; we only make it in good years when we can attain the highest level. And even then, we only make it in a limited quantity. Of course, we are happy with the very positive judgment of many sake specialists, as well as the fact that it is often selected by the Japanese government for important diplomatic events – such as at the G8 Summit in 2008 in Hokkaido.”

While it's kind of tricky to hope that the nuclear crisis gets nipped in the bud overnight when people like Prime Minister Naoto Kan mutter that it'll take somewhere in the vicinity of two decades to clean up, I have several fingers crossed that essential Japanese sake brewers like Daishichi can get back into the groove of their handicraft as soon as possible.

Only final final word needs to be uttered here. Kampai! 乾杯

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hot under the (shirt) collar

It's been baking in Tokyo over the past couple of weeks or so.

As I teach my students new adjectives to replace the just plain inadequate 'hot' (think roasting, cooking, etc), I'm enjoying the weather.

When I first came to Tokyo 10 summers ago, it was overcast, humid as heck and sticky. The kind of heat we're getting now, while it occasionally tumbles back into that Tokyo cliché, is more like that I remember from Australia: a blue sky, sizzling sun and high temperatures.

I other words I love it - except when I have to go to work, wearing a darn tootin' suit. Ack.

The problem may be that other people, not quite so fond of the scorched-earth temperatures and affected by the power shortages caused by the loss of power from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant (and others since shut down), will find it hard going and health concerns like heat stroke are already in play.

The Japanese government has appealed for people to save on electricity by raising the temperature settings on air conditioners to a minimum of 28°C.

Most people are also hesitant about heading off to the local beaches since there's that nuclear hazard still pumping away up north-east, and related "hot-spots" (of the radioactive rather than sun-related kind) popping up around the city.

Last summer went on record as Japan's hottest ever; now we have summer 2011 to look forward to. P'raps luckily I'll be whizzing down to Melbourne in August for a couple of weeks, to torture myself with a temperature about 30 degrees lower.

Then again, give me the sun, a t-shirt (sans witless collar) and shorts, plus a chilled beer in a park, and I'll be fine. Maybe an el cheapo wading pool to dip my feet in would just add to the attraction?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Captain Funk: Versions 2011

Before I came to Japan in 2001, I was already a bit obsessive/compulsive about Japanese electronic music - I loved Yellow Magic Orchestra's back-catalogue as well as that of Mo' Wax contributors Major Force West Productions and DJ Krush, not to mention techno-meisters like Fumiya Tanaka, Takkyu Ishino, Co-Fusion, DJ Shufflemaster and Captain Funk.

As it shaped up I've since become mates with some of these people, in particular DJ Wada from Co-Fusion and Captain Funk's Tatsuya Oe. Both guys graciously did remixes of a couple of my tracks - Wada renovated 'Compulsion', while Oe had a shot at 'Cocaine Speaking', both of which appear on a recent CD ('Commix') through Japanese label Fountain Music - and I'm a huge fan of both gents as much for their wunderbar temperament as their talents behind rack-mounted machines and music-making software.

Anyone who's bothered to peruse this wayward blog (and with a long memory to boot) may recall my piece on Star Trek's impact in Japan - or at least lack of same - back in 2009. Tatsuya was one of the contributors there, and in fact I often call on him for his two or three cents on different silly articles I do as he's always into it and forever patient.

Anyway, he just emailed me to let me know that he's doing likewise fine here in Tokyo despite the recent spate of shakes, and is is about to unleash his Captain Funk "Versions 2011″LP worldwide tomorrow (July 11th in case you don't have a calendar handy).

Tatsuya's style has come a long way since those '90s inroads I mentioned above, and he's become one of this city's most in-demand DJ/producers, so it's definitely worthwhile checking this baby out. You can find out more by heading to his website.

Meanwhile, for those far more adept at foreign languages than I am, here's the Japanese propaganda bomb:

Captain Funk の新作”Versions 2011″ が7月11日にリリースされることになりました。

収録内容はロック色の強い新曲”Endless Possibilities”に加えて、これまでのCaptain Funkのリリース楽曲を2011年版として大幅にアレンジ改訂した”I’ll be There”と”Just Wanna Get You Tonight”の2曲、そしてこの数年Ne-YoやPhonat, Kavinsky などのリミックスで注目が集まっているフランスのプロデューサーBestrack Production ( による”Piece of You”(原曲は米国Forver 21のプロモーションで使用)のリミックスの4曲になっています。


どの曲もいつも通りファットでブライトなサウンドに仕上がっていると思いますが、特に”Just Wanna Get You Tonight” 2011年バージョンは “Weekend (kissing, touching, tasting, loving)”の流れを汲む、夏らしくダンサブルなアレンジになっていますので、これからの季節に向けて是非チェックしてみて下さい。

(Reverbnation のCaptain Funk ページにて各楽曲の試聴サンプルをアップしました。そちらもご参照下さい。)

尚、今回のリリースは米国のディストリビューションを通じて、日本を含めた各国のiTunes, Amazon, Beatport その他のMP3ストア、Spotify, We7などのストリーミングサービスで世界同時配信されます。

Friday, July 8, 2011

Crow Castle in a Flap

Just a three-hour drive east of Shinjuku on the Keio Line Bus is Matsumoto, in the mountainous Nagano Prefecture.

This is the sister-city to Utah’s Salt Lake City and Nepal’s Kathmandu, and is one of the best places to try basashi (raw horse meat) and soba (buckwheat noodles).

The city itself is located on an open plain in the Japanese Alps, just over half an hour from the historic watermills at the nation’s largest wasabi farm – Daio at Azumino – where Akira Kurosawa in fact shot part of his epic movie about his own fitful Dreams (1990).

But the standout here is Matsumoto Castle (松本城), and it’s actually a genuine keep unlike the faux fort closer to Tokyo at Odawara.

Matsumoto Castle is a gorgeous and immaculately maintained building that dates back to the Sengoku (Warring States) era prior to the 17th century. It’s locally dubbed 'Karasu-Jo' (Crow Castle) because of the somewhat sinister black lines, but for me (I’ve visited twice) this is a stunning place that lives up to its confirmation as a National Treasure of Japan in 1952.

It’s one of only four castles in this country to receive the honour.

But 2011 hasn’t been kind to Japan.

Unless you’ve had your head buried deep inside one very big sandpit, you’d know all about the huge earthquake and follow-up tsunami on March 11, followed by worrying ripples in the economy and a continuing radioactive crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 230km northeast of Tokyo.
We’ve had thousands of aftershocks and earthquakes across the country over the following four months, and one of these earthquakes – with a magnitude of 5.4 – rocked Nagano on Thursday June 30.

Aside from minor injuries to local residents – although I’m not sure if the people themselves would call broken bones trivial – the quake caused around ten large cracks in the inner walls of the main tower of Matsumoto Castle.

After 400 years successfully circumnavigating civil wars, neglect, deconstruction, renovation and tourism, let’s hope Karasu-Jo’s earthquake damage isn’t so serious and – like the rest of Japan – it makes a complete recovery.

(This is part of an article that appears on the Forces Of Geek site - you can read more of that yarn here.)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Goat in the Sky

There's now an in-depth interview of my editor Kristopher Young and me - by the cool Martin Garrity - online @ Solarcide, regarding Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat.

Martin writes:

"TSMG is an odd sci-fi tale of corruption in a dystopian future, set in Melbourne, Australia. (Bergen is himself Australian, though he now lives in Japan) It features an immediately likeabe protagonist, Floyd Maquina, who is a government endorsed ‘seeker.’ Floyd’s job is to hunt the deviant menace that threatens the future of the last inhabited city on the planet. This could almost be a special edition, Vegemite-flavoured version of a certain Philip K. Dick story.

"But that ain’t even the half of it.

"TSMG is also homage to the golden age of film noir. It’s a cigar puffing, whiskey sipping, piano playing, bar lout, and the book may very well stir up memories of a black and white nature. Andrez makes a million and one references to movies (The Third Man and The Maltese Falcon, in particular, are heavily drawn on) and the settings are stuffed to the margins with inspiration from this classic era of cinema."

I actually really dug doing this interview; Martin was great to yack with and he asked some canny questions - and I really loved the head-to-head between he and Kristopher.

Anyway, you can read it if at all interested HERE.

Cheers, Martin! ;)