Big juicy watermelons are my dream for summer

 

For the past few days, my mind has been fixated on watermelons. You can buy watermelons all over the world, of course. But I want to eat them in Japan, as it seems to me that they are particularly delicious there.

They can also be very expensive. And to my surprise, a lot of people say they like to eat them with salt. Even more surprisingly, some watermelons in Japan are not round but square. Would you like to know why? Well the internet has plausible theories on all these issues.

Luxury prices

When it comes to price, it’s not only fruit in Japan which can seem expensive. Many vegetables, as well as special types of meat and fish, are pricey. On The Travel website, Lacy Womack notes that visitors to Japan “might experience some serious sticker shock when they visit the produce department” in shops.

Lacey says that’s because some consumers are very demanding and also because farmers like their fruit to look perfect. There are only limited supplies of the most premium products and of course fruit doesn’t last for long, hence the high prices.

I can imagine dollar signs appearing in the eyes of foreign farmers when they hear that in Japan, a few peaches can go for up to ¥3,000 ($300) and a big bunch of grapes can be sold for up to ¥5,000 ($500). But I think that’s only for fruit which is grown in Japan: imports don’t have the same appeal. And those inflated prices are only charged in a few high end shops, not in your average supermarket or konbini convenience store.

Salty sweet

But why eat watermelons with salt? Martin Schneider, a frequent traveller to Japan, told Quora: “Adding a bit of salt to any sweet dish will cause additional taste buds (the ones for ‘salty’) to fire when that food is in your mouth. If the dose is right, you won’t taste much of the actual salt – instead the taste signal level will make the sweet signal even more intense for your brain.”

Martin points out that watermelons are a seasonal food in Japan, almost always consumed on hot summer days. Therefore, if you’ve been sweating, your body will crave salt, and that will make eating a watermelon extra satisfying.

Other Quora users say that watermelon and salt is also a popular combination in Vietnam. And Amit Kaushik suggests “try it the Indian way for an even better taste: sprinkle some black salt and chat masala on your melon.”

Out of the box
It’s also possible to find watermelons in Japan which are shaped like cubes or hearts and pictures of these are popular on Instagram. Wikipedia reveals that cube watermelons were intended to fit more compactly into fridges and were invented by a graphic designer called Tomoyuki Ono in 1978.

How do they get their shape? Well, apparently the melons are grown in boxes and take the shape of the container. But to my dismay, Wikipedia says they taste horrible. “To retain the proper shape, cube melons must be harvested before they are ripe, rendering them inedible.” What a shame!

It is of course easy to take the flesh out of an ordinary round melon and cut it into attractive shapes such as hearts or cubes. I think I’ll do that next time I get one in Japan but I’m not planning to douse the fruit in salt.

Sadly, watermelon season seems a long way off at the moment. I am locked down in Europe, with no immediate opportunity to fly back to Japan. For now, I’ll have to manage my cravings. I’m dreaming of a real feast when the crisis is over, if not this summer, then hopefully the next.

The mighty drums beating on the world’s loudest island

I am determined to make a trip to Japan’s Sado island, home to one of the loudest groups in the world.

Sado, off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, is the base camp of the Kodo drummers. To my ears, the volume of the noise they make is at least as loud as a performance by a rock band, yet it’s achieved without amplification.

As a person with a passion for both Japan and for loud music, Sado sounds like the perfect destination for me.

Thrilling show

This week, I watched the drummers’ show at London’s Royal Festival Hall. I was thrilled by its energy but I was also impressed by the players’ discipline, which meant that every beat formed part of an intricate and highly melodic musical pattern.

They can also sing and play traditional instruments such as the bamboo flute, so this gives their gigs interesting textures.

Discipline is instilled during the drummers’ life upon the island.

A Financial Times journalist, Raphael Abraham, visited them there in 2016 and revealed that: “Six mornings a week in rain or shine, trainees get up at dawn to jog up and down hilly rural roads, followed by a ritual cleaning on hands and knees of the building in which they board, a converted schoolhouse with no central heating.”

He also explained that: “They grow much of their own food, carve their chopsticks and drumsticks, and are schooled in tea ceremonies. No computers or phones are permitted, and so their only contact with families and friends off the island is via handwritten letters.”

Devoted learners

 

 

 

 

 

 

For me, the most impressive part of the Kodo legacy show came at the climax, when a performer dressed in a white loin cloth beat out a rhythm on a drum known as O-daiko.

This mighty instrument weighs about 300 kilos and measures 145cm in diameter. It requires great power and an expert technique to make it resonate.

You can get an impression of what life is like on the road for the drummers by reading the blog of Shun Takuma, on the Kodo website. He writes: “As a foreigner abroad, I am relishing all the fresh experiences. Observing people, walking in the different cities and trying the local food. Yet at the same time there are moments of homesickness for Japan.”

Shun says audience responses vary from country to country. “In some places, the emotions are freely expressed. Elsewhere there is more reserve, rather like myself.”

Sado audition

When I go to Sado, I could ask to join the group. I have taken a few lessons in playing the taiko drums and I’m pleased that the group’s website states that Kodo welcomes apprentices from abroad.

It also warns that “advanced Japanese skills are a must to undertake the training.”

I expect that means a very disciplined approach to language learning is required, as well as a great commitment to understand the philosophy of this unique form of Japanese art.

Does Japan need a Greta to lead a climate campaign?

 

Politicians in Britain sometimes complain they are constantly bombarded by campaigners over issues relating to climate change and the environment.

Huge protests by a group known as Extinction Rebellion brought parts of London to a standstill last year. There was also a big climate change rally in the British city of Bristol this week, which included a speech by the teenage activist, Greta Thunberg.

According to the Guardian “As Thunberg spoke, onlookers clambered on to bus shelters and up trees and hung out of windows to catch a glimpse.”

Criticising governments and the media, she said: “Once again they sweep their mess under the rug for us – young people, their children – to clean up for them. We must continue and we have to be patient. Remember that the changes required will not happen overnight.”

Future Tokyo

Greta has her fans in Japan, too.

An organisation called Fridays for Future Tokyo, or FFF Tokyo, was created in 2018, soon after the campaigner started appearing in the global media.

When FFF Tokyo first hosted a protest in March, no more than 100 people showed up. However, the Japan Times reports that since then, there’s been a steady increase in attendance at climate protests across the country.

The paper carried an interview with a 22-year-old climate activist called Eri Okada who said: “In Japan, public demonstrations are seen as radical or dangerous, which might explain why people distance themselves from protests and marches.”

Less intense

I learned this week of an interesting conversation between a British and Japanese minister, which took place in Tokyo recently. It seems to illustrate the fairly mild approach towards environmental campaigning in Japan, compared to the UK.

“Don’t you get a lot of young people lobbying you to do more to protect the planet and prevent global warming?” the British minister asked his Japanese counterpart.

“Yes,” replied the Japanese minister. “We really must do more to awaken the young people to the importance of such issues and encourage them to be more involved.”

The British politician was taken aback by that reply and wondered if his question had become muddled in translation.

Natural disasters

Yet of course, the Japanese are not ignoring the issue of climate change. It is a subject on the mind of people of all ages, particularly in the wake of recent natural disasters linked to extreme weather, including a tornado last year which killed around 80 people.

The position of Minister of the Environment is currently held by a glamorous and popular politician called Shinjirō Koizumi.

He is the son of the former Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi and has often been tipped to become the next leader of the ruling Liberal Democrat Party, once Shinzo Abe leaves that role.

I assumed Mr Koizumi was trusted to take on this important role because Mr Abe sees him as one of his most adept ministers.

However, a diplomat I spoke to this week had a different interpretation.

“It could be that Mr Koizumi’s been put in such a difficult job because it will scupper his political career and prevent him from making a challenge for the leadership,” said my source.

I hope that will not be the case. Japan, like other countries – including Britain – requires skilled and determined people to take the lead on environmental issues – right up to the highest level of government.

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk

Kimono Exhibition, 25th February 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was lucky to attend the preview of a major new exhibition celebrating the elegant history of the kimono which opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum this week.

The exhibition called Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, features more than 350 creations, including works by modern designers, such Alexander McQueen, John Gallianio and Rei Kawakubo.

“We want our visitors to gain an appreciation of the significance and the sheer beauty of the kimono and we want to show that fashion is able to transcend geographic borders,” says Anna Jackson, the exhibition’s curator and the keeper of the V&A’s Asia Department.

Timeless treasures

The exhibition includes many treasures, such as an 18th century summer kimono, which is yuzen-dyed and embroidered with golden-hued cherry blossoms. It is valued at around two million yen (about £14,000 or $18,000 USD) and it is too delicate to wear.

Despite being seen as uniquely Japanese, the kimono has had an influence on international clothing styles for nearly 400 years.

The Director of the V&A, Dr Tristram Hunt, believes its allure stems from a simple structure and the invitation to create intricate designs on its surface.

“When we talk about kimonos, we often think of a beautiful and remote garment, a long way from ordinary people. This exhibition challenges that perception and it reveals that the kimono is highly dynamic. It’s been the focus of a vibrant fashion culture which has existed in Japan since the 1660s,” says Dr Hunt.

Rare finds

The first part of the exhibition examines the history of the kimono, with many precious examples from Kyoto and Edo, the city which later became known as Tokyo. Some of the clothes come from the museum’s own archive – the V&A has been collecting Japanese art and design since it was founded in the early 1850s. There are also pieces which have been borrowed from all over the world, including the Tokyo National Museum and the Kyoto Costume Institute.

People have been wearing kimonos in Japan for more than a thousand years. However, it was not until the 17th century that nearly everybody, regardless of their social status, wealth or gender, began to use them on an everyday basis.

By that stage, there were a huge range of styles, patterns and materials. Each type carried much significance, according to curator Anna Jackson. “The surface was really important and of course the choice of pattern and the colour. That’s how you showed other people how wealthy you were, what your social status was and, most importantly of all, how fashionable and tasteful you were.”

Overwhelming demand

Some of the most fascinating exhibits date from the period between 1639 and 1853, when Japan’s borders were largely closed to the rest of the world and it was known as sakoku 鎖国 “the closed country.” Despite this isolation, some entriped Dutch traders purchased kimonos in Japan and shipped them back to Europe, where they tried to sell them on at a vast profit. Anna Jackson says: “At that time, Japanese manufacturers couldn’t keep up with demand, so kimonos were made in India to supply the European market.”

When Japan reopened its borders, western dress quickly became popular. Yet even during the early 20th century, the majority of Japanese women continued to wear kimonos. The cut of the garment remained unchanged, but the designs were often modernised. One charming painting in the V&A shows a kimono-clad woman as the epitome of modern sophistication, with a clutch bag under her arm and a fox fur draped over her shoulders. Although painted in 1935, she looks strikingly contemporary. One can easily imagine her sharing a selfie on social media.

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk is held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from 29th February – 21st June 2020. It is sponsored by MUFG
with additional support from Japan Centre, Japan Foundation, the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and Toshiba International Foundation.