Plain Talk

Soy Sauce, From Bean to Bottle by Elizabeth Morris

In kitchens around the world, you find soy sauce, or shoyu, the ubiquitous savory brown sauce that imparts salty, smoky and sharp tones to everything from soup to pasta to roast and baked meats.

The label tells you that it is made from wheat, soy beans, water and a generous amount of salt. But what does it take to make this versatile condiment? My friend and business owner, Takashi, is the scion of a soy sauce brewery in Chiba Prefecture. He invited my friends and I to make soy sauce from scratch in a process that was laborious and insightful.

First, Takashi explained to us that he had prepared the mash ahead of time, a process that takes a lot of precision and patience. To my surpise, an equal amount of boiled soy beans and roasted and crushed wheat kernels are mixed together with koji, the magical mold that takes some time to inoculate the mash, called moromi.

Takashi prepared for our workshop plastic PET bottles, bags of the fragrant moromi and sea salt from the nearby coast. Like any good brewing, water source is important. We drew water from the soy sauce factory's own spring.

It takes a lot of energy to mix by hand the salt and spring water until the brine looks clear. Then, it's another laborious mixing of the moromi and brine. We capped our PET bottle soy sauce brewing, enjoyed a barbeque and then took our PET bottles home.

At home, daily shaking of the PET bottle in the first few weeks, and then periodic shaking to mix have resulted in a rich brown coloured thick paste. Takashi cautioned me not to screw the cap on the bottle tightly, as gases from the fermentation process can make the bottle explode, with gooey, messy results.

My batch of soy sauce is now seven months old, and I am bracing myself for the shibori part of the process in another month. In factories, the mash is pressed to extract the soy sauce, but I will put my small batch in a muslin bag hanging above a pan to let it drip out.

Is it edible? Takashi cautioned me that wild yeasts and organisms might live in it. Soy sauce is often pasteurized, but some people like nama, or raw soy sauce. I think I'll cook mine and taste test it against store -bought varieties. So far, when I catch a whiff of it, it smells sharp and something like whisky.



最初に、タカシは 原料行程の仕込みにはかなりの時間を要すると教えてくれた。驚いた事に大豆を蒸煮し、小麦を焙煎し割砕してから麹を加え混ぜるまで同様の時間をかける。こうして発酵してできたものがもろみである。







Plain Talk


The Walls of Politeness That Keep Us Apart by Kohei Usuda

You walk into your local Starbucks in Japan, and between the time it takes to place an order and get your latte, you’re greeted with a torrent of “arigato gozaimasu” from the baristas working behind the counter as they obediently manufacture their smiles and bow their heads. Unaccustomed to receiving such royal treatment after living abroad for a number of years, I used to feel like a minor celebrity just by purchasing a cup of coffee.

Not anymore. Such excessive hospitality or omotenashi can sometimes go to your head. It was a French friend of mine who once exasperatedly confided in me that, living in Japan, he feels as if there’s a “wall of politeness” that separates him from the rest of the Japanese population, an invisible wall that he can never quite get through.

You try your best to make small talk with retail staff, so as to establish common ground, or at least some sort of rapport that is not simply based on a consumer-server transaction. Invariably, however, their responses tend not to stray far from the rigid customer service “manual”, the code of conduct that they’re trained to enact, even when you try to modify that very imbalance of power. Regardless, you’re yet again greeted for the umpteenth time with that impersonal phrase for welcoming customers: “Irasshaimase!”

It’s always dangerous to reductively pass judgment on a certain nationality as such and such. Nonetheless, I get the impression that the Japanese tend to value the “appearance” or the mere “surface” above all else. Philosopher Roland Barthes commented in his observation of Japan that the supreme value here lies in what emerges on the “surface” of things, rather than the layers beneath it. It could be the “wall of politeness” that you encounter in retail stores; it could be the purely visual act of bowing to show one’s gratitude. On the other hand, this centuries-old belief in what emerges on the “surface” can sometimes create beautiful things, such as the exquisitely intricate rock formation of the Zen garden at Kyoto’s Ryoanji that you can contemplate for hours on end, or the playfully innovative “pleats” fabric of Issey Miyake in fashion that plays with the shapes and dimensions of garments.

In other words, the common belief in Japan is that you can tell the content of the book by its cover without it being considered superficial, whereas in much of the West the exact opposite is the case. (Hence the negative connotations attached to English idioms such as “keeping up appearances” or “barely scratching the surface”.)

In the Japanese interpretation of things, a mask is not a mask, as in Noh theater. So that everything appears as if it’s inverted. This is the madly lopsided worldview that’s permeated the Japanese culture. Take for example the ambiguous expression “sumimasen”. It means, literally, “sorry” or “excuse me”, but in reality the same word is widely used to thanking someone, so in Japanese, “sorry” can mean “thank you” as well!





言い換えれば、西側諸国では全く正反対に解釈される所が、日本文化においては中身を読むことなく本を装丁で判断できるという通説が、それが浅はかだったり上辺だけの考えとはとらわれずに設立されるのだ。(逆に英語のよく使われる表現である“keeping up appearances”(平静を装う)や “scratching the surface”(核心に触れない)等、「外観」(appearance)だったり「表面」(surface)といった観念は欧米ではネガティブな意味を伴う言葉となるだろう。)


Unfinished business


HACKETTSTOWN by David Gregory

Boxing Day, raining hard on the two-lane highway winding between dark cliffs, our headlights poking snow piled heavy on fir trees, Yoshi driving, Naomi and Tomoe talking in back, following red tail lights streaming ahead, toward home, all tired after a long Whistler skiing day. “Dave, what is your best Christmas memory?” Tomoe asks me, switching to English.

Ah, Christmas...probably, with Aunt Roberta, about 1993, I think. Hackettstown, New Jersey. The best gifts show people you know something about them that they do not know themselves. That was one of those times.

Hackettstown snuggles up to the Appalachian foothills in the wilderness corner of New Jersey. Aunt Roberta is alone. She has lived most of her life in that big, old house that needs something done to that peeling gray outside. If she had the extra cash. She lost her husband when he was 35; her only son, Richard, in a construction accident a year after he returned from Vietnam; and her later longtime special friend, Joe, to cancer, just before the Christmas I went back.

She has not traveled in nearly 10 years due to her health. But, she holds her head high. Those strong blue eyes that have cried so many times still look straight at you, with love. Her soft voice calms you. Her fine silver hair is casually brushed back; she only takes care of things that really matter.

How does she keep going? She has a way of becoming attached to other families. Allison, next door, loves Aunt Roberta as she had loved her own mother. Allison’s little boy, Kaleb, calls Aunt Roberta, “Grandma”; he never met his own real grandmother. Eric and I always thought of Aunt Roberta as one of our grandmothers, too. She always told us to open her small packages before Christmas day. She knew little boys.

That Christmas in ‘93 I came in from Japan to meet Mom and Dad at Aunt Roberta’s. “Too far away,” she sometimes complained. But, she had always said, “Go.” Find out. Tell her about it. She would be waiting, back in New Jersey. “Write about it.”

The New York bus dropped me into Hackettstown’s snow and cold in front of the boarded up movie theater on Main Street. Mom and Dad came in from Chicago the next day, and we sat around the old table in the warm yellow brown kitchen. It looked like the usual Christmas Plan: early dinner out, gifts, visit Grandma the next day... lots of slow sitting... a routine more than a celebration. Yes, good to be with family, but... then the telephone rang.

Aunt Roberta called from the living room, “David, it’s your friend... he’s in the City... .”

Steve! With Heidrun! They made it... at Kennedy, just in from Germany. Can make a quick stop on their way to Buffalo tonight. “Finally, we’ll meet!” Mom said. After almost ten years, she would have a face to match the name of my good buddy from our early career trainee days at GE. Then, Mom and I sensed a chance. Why not invite a few others, too? Aunt Roberta would love it. I picked up the phone. Of course, Allison said. And with Jay, her husband, and Kaleb, and the new baby, Yeshua.

Allison and crew were already with us when Steve and Heidrun’s headlights finally swung into the driveway. We welcomed them in from the frosty night with hugs. Then, I popped outside and crossed the snowy yard to pull Angie out of her kitchen. “OK, but just for a few minutes,” she promised. “Angie Our Angel,” we called her. She often looked in on Aunt Roberta. Her eyes twinkled.

Coats and scarves piled in the kitchen, we packed into the living room. The party sparked to life all by itself. “So, you are...?”, “How do you know...?” Glasses of juice were poured, plates of baked sweet breads were passed around, fingers poked into bowls of spiced nuts. “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about... ”, “Where do you...?” No music, no special lights, no decorations. Not needed. Only the stuffy sofa and armchairs encircling us.

And the old gray house had never seen such a potpourri of people! Look at tall, German-blooded Steve, with his German girlfriend Heidrun, educated in France and the USA. Allison, from Trinidad, descendant of Native Americans, sitting on the sofa. Jay, son of Indian parents, standing taller than us all, a little shy in the big group. Angie, on the other hand, daughter of Italian immigrants, squeezing her happiness into other arms or hands. And Mom, Dad, Roberta, and myself, the instigators, maybe looking like old timers in the New Country, but with roots that also went back to others brave enough to leave their homelands, in our cases Germany, England, Scotland, and maybe Wales. Who knows? It didn’t matter anymore where anyone was from.

“Ah, I’ve always wanted to....”, “How do they celebrate...?” Yeshua just smiled, cradled in Allison’s arms. Kaleb bounced around, greeting and investigating everyone his bright-eyed way, and finally, exhausted, flopped down into Grandma Roberta’s lap.

Swirling, glowing, an hour passed, filled with chatter, munching, and laughter. The old living room had never been so alive. And, in the middle, Aunt Roberta sat, quiet, soaking it in. Just smiling. But, if you looked behind her glasses, you would see teary eyes. “All these people, from so many places... came here... just for this,” she said to me in her soft voice. “You don’t know how happy I am. Oh, it’s just... .” She squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head.

You see, Christmas is not always a happy time for Aunt Roberta. Richard was born on Christmas Eve.

Then, almost as fast as everyone had come together, it was over. Angie had food in the oven. Steve and Heidrun were still long hours from Buffalo. Yeshua was already asleep. Kaleb slumped like a rag doll over his father’s shoulder as they walked out. We waved good-byes from the back porch door and slowly returned to the suddenly empty living room.

Over, so soon. But, we made it happen, one magical hour, that year. For Aunt Roberta. She still asks me to write about it.

“My best Christmas memory? That would probably be from Hackettstown, in 1993... .” The four of us watch the wipers swish away the dark rain, the snow piled heavy on the fir trees. Hackettstown had lots of snow that Christmas. I’m wondering, now... how maybe I, too, received a best gift... one time... many times... in Hackettstown... .

The earliest version of this story I printed in my 1998 end-of-year holiday letter; a revision I read at the “Tribute to Roberta Lyon” memorial service in Hackettstown on 6 January 2001. Special thanks to Eric Gregory for editorial assistance.
Copyright (C) 2014 David Gregory. All rights reserved. Chiba, Japan


Tokyo Fab


More Japanese Colors by Joshua Lepage

I wrote about color coordination last week, so this seems like a good time to teach all of you more traditional Japanese colors (along with a dash of history). Use them in conversation -- your Japanese friends will be amazed, I promise.

Gofun-iro (胡粉色): Gofun, which literally translates to "foreign powder", is the name of an off-white pigment used in paintings since the Nara period (710-794). It was first made with white lead powder, then with sun-bleached and powdered seashells. If you see women's faces painted white on old woodblock prints, it's most likely gofun. Interestingly, the "go" in "gofun", meaning "foreign", is also used to write the words "goma" (sesame), "kyuuri" (cucumber), and "kurumi" (walnut) -- all of which were imported to Japan from other countries.

Nezumi-iro (鼠色): Simply translating to "mouse color", nezumi-iro is a nice medium shade of grey. It became huge in the middle of the Edo period (18th century), when muted greys were so popular for kimono that a slew of "nezumi" color names were created to differentiate between the shades, including su-nezu ("basic mouse") and naka-nezu ("medium mouse"). Before being known as nezumi-iro, grey was often called "pale ink" or "chestnut", because it was produced using dye made from chestnuts.

Kinari-iro (生成り色): This one translates to "ecru", the very light beige color of raw, unbleached silk or linen. It's a much more recent color name than the first two, first coming into use during the Showa period (1926-1989). And interestingly enough, kinari-iro became popular because of backlash against rapid economic growth and increasing pollution in Japan -- wearing bright chemical dyes went out of fashion, and subtle colors like kinari-iro started rising in popularity instead.

Kuchiba (朽葉): The color of rotten leaves -- a dull brown. It's been in use since the Heian period (794-1185), when it was popular with the aristocracy. Texts like The Tale of Genji mention the "forty-eight colors of rotten leaves", hinting at a large number of greenish, yellowish and reddish variations. You may be familiar with the word "cha-iro" for "brown", but that term only came into use centuries later, during the Edo period.

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Duet Game:

This simple app revitalizes the rhythm game genre by putting the player in control of two vessels, red and blue, that move in sync on a black background. Touch either side of the screen to twist your vessels around and simply avoid everything in your path. It's much harder than it sounds, but the smooth gameplay and excellent soundtrack will keep you playing until you have the hang of it. While the app isn't free, there are nine chapters to play through initially, and more chapters can be unlocked or purchased along the way. This app has won a slew of awards from The New Yorker, PAX, Kotaku, Intel Level Up, and more, so make sure to check it out!

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Tokyo Voice Column


Groceries in Japan by Corrina Stagner

One of the most common beliefs about Japan (and especially Tokyo) is that groceries are expensive. My American friends often email me to ask if I’m eating well on my student salary. The truth is, if you know where and when to shop in Japan, even fruits and vegetables can be incredibly cheap.

The first thing to note is that stores in Japan often have sales at least one day a week (the grocery store near my dorm had two). It’s easy to spot - it’s the day of the week when the store is flooded with people and you can’t walk two feet without bumping into somebody. On those days you walk out of the store wiping sweat from your brow, feeling like the victor of a legendary battle. Once you know when the sales are, be sure to get there early before everything sells out. Nothing is worse than getting to the store after the shelves are empty.

Stores will also have sales at night. I first discovered this in a bakery near my dorm. Items can go on sale for 1/2 or ? of the price! You thought you couldn’t get delicious french baguettes in Japan for 100 yen? You thought wrong. The same goes for some fruit and vegetable stands. As a student, I do most of my shopping at night.

Finally, you may have to shop in multiple places to get the best deal. I buy my meat near Jujo Station, my fruits and vegetables in a small Korean market near my house, and everything else at my local supermarket.

If you keep an eye out for the best deal, groceries in Japan can be surprisingly cheap!



夜に特売をする店もある。初めて夜の特売を発見したのは寮の近くのパン屋だった。パンが半額かそれ以上?値引きされていた! 日本でおいしいフランスパンが100円で手に入るなんて思いもしないでしょ? でも手に入る! 果物屋や八百屋でも同様な事が行われている。学生である私にとって、買い物は夜するに限る。



Strange but True


Artist sells someone's Instagram picture for 11 million yen

New York artist Richard Price has drawn a lot of attention and ire with his recent exhibition New Portraits in Gagosian Gallery, which featured 37 inkjet prints of other people's Instagram portraits. The artist bypassed copyright laws by removing the original captions accompanying the pictures and putting his own on them.
One of the Instagram users, Lime Crime CEO Doe Deere, stated she would not ask Price for a share of the $90,000 (nearly 11 million yen) he made by selling her picture.
Price was unsuccessfully sued by photographer Patrick Cariou in 2013, when UK courts ruled that his small additions to Cariou's photographs constituted fair use.

Woman shoots herself in the head while taking selfie

A 21-year-old woman in Moscow, Russia, accidentally shot herself in the head while taking a selfie with a gun she had found in her workplace. The 9 mm handgun had been left behind two weeks earlier by a security guard.
According to reports, the woman shot herself in the temple at close range and was admitted to Sklifosovsky hospital in a serious condition. The owner of the gun could face up to six months in jail for negligent storage of weapons.
It has definitely been a bad week for "creative" selfies, with a Singaporean man, also 21, dying just a few days ago after trying to take a selfie from the edge of a cliff in Bali.



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