Browsed by
Category: Japanese Culture

Things related to Japanese culture including Japanese lifestyle, way of thinking, art, food, etc.

Western vs Japanese aesthetics – Appreciate Unique Qualities and Stop Comparisons

Western vs Japanese aesthetics – Appreciate Unique Qualities and Stop Comparisons

While making Japanese umeshu (which I detail here), I drank some of the shochu that I was using straight.  Not liking strong alcohol this isn’t something I normally do, but I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity of its taste.  It had a hint of sweet on the tip of my tongue, a hint of fruity (but no real fruit), a tingling sensation in my nose, and a warmth in my throat.

I gave some shochu to an American friend of mine and his immediate reaction was “it tastes like rubbing alcohol.”  Numerous times over the past few years I’ve shared Japanese food items with coworkers, friends, and family to often receive a reply of “it tastes like ____”, or a confused look in the cases where they can’t figure out what it “tastes like.”

Herein lies a source of frustration for me living in the U.S. after having spent time in Japan.  I’m with the Japanese who are more likely to examine and think about the aspects of something unfamiliar, but Americans often try to mentally simplify and relate to known things thus making it harder to understand and appreciate something new for its own qualities.

comic about aesthetics sense

 

As the Wikipedia article on Japanese aesthetics points out, aesthetics (or what I like to call the art of appreciating), is treated as an abstract philosophy in the West but is an integral part of daily life in Japan.  Japanese culture through education, lifestyle, and shared experience teaches Japanese to look at things in a way that is different from the west.  If you watch Japanese food shows (of which there are many), people will taste a dish then they’ll describe the different aspects of it and appreciate how those aspects interact.  By contrast, when confronted with something new (such as an unknown food), Americans tend to simplify it to the lowest common denominator and rely on the comparing it to something known by saying “it tastes like ____”, “it reminds me of _____”, etc.  This limits understanding and appreciation to how closely the new thing can be compared to something else which is already known.

My American friend frequently laments about how he never went to college so he doesn’t have the “refinement and education to appreciate the finer points of things.”  This is a symptom of western culture’s view that aesthetics is a philosophy and something academically studied as opposed to integrated into daily life.  My friend is a smart and intuitive guy, there is no reason he should feel that he can’t understand and appreciate the good points of something unfamiliar.

Beyond food there are differences in the way Japanese take other things in as well.  A study once showed that when westerners look at a photo or painting their eyes go from object to object and spend the most time on those key focal points whereas Japanese people’s eyes tend to go around the entire scene as if taking it all in more evenly rather than focusing on the most obvious components.

Having experienced the beauty of Japan and the inspirations and feelings they find in the world, it’s a perspective that I really came to appreciate and miss now that many around me don’t have that perspective.

-William A. Milberry

 

 

How to make Japanese green plum ume syrup (aka 梅シロップ, mashil-jeup, 매실즙)

How to make Japanese green plum ume syrup (aka 梅シロップ, mashil-jeup, 매실즙)

When my wife and I lived in Japan we used to make Japanese green plum wine (umeshu) which I’ve detailed how to do here.  The glass jars sold for making umeshu in Japan always had instructions for making it as well as ume syrup which can be used to make a refreshing ume flavored non-alcoholic drink, top shaved ice, ice cream, make korean BBQ sauce, or numerous other uses.

I never tried ume syrup since we enjoyed umeshu so much.  But I became curious this year, in part because we now live in the U.S. and get most of our Japanese ingredients at a Korean supermarket and Koreans make and use more ume syrup (mashil-jeup 매실즙 in Korean) than the Japanese do.

It’s simple and delicious to make and there are several variations.  The only difficult part is finding ume (梅) aka green Japanese plums (even though they are more closely related to apricots.)  They are available for a VERY SHORT season for about the first 3 weeks of May in the United States (where they are grown in California and found in larger Asian grocery stores across the nation) or in June for most of Japan.  Outside of this you will almost never find them!  As in my umeshu article I’ll list some sources and locations at the end.

Japanese ume

Ingredients:
This recipe can adjusted proportionally to whatever amount you want to make.  You should use a minimum of 250 g. of ume to get usable results.  I have gotten a little under 1 ml. of syrup per 1 g. of ume.

  • Green ume (250 grams or more*)
  • Sugar (granulated or rock**) equal in weight to ume
  • Optional:  Vinegar (rice or apple cider) 1/10 ml per gram of ume (ie. 25ml per 250 g.)
  • Optional:  Shochu or vodka (~50ml. clear, flavorless alcohol for sterilization)
    (My article on umeshu talks about inexpensive Korean shochu that can be found in the U.S.)

* My experience suggests less than 250 grams of ume might inhibit the process from working smoothly
** Rock sugar is popular in Asian recipes and is discussed in my umeshu article.

Removing the stem from umeStep 1:  Prepare ume

  • Remove any ume with brown spots, bruises, or cuts to their skin
  • Gently remove any remainder the stem with a toothpick or bamboo skewer (pictured above).  Be careful not to break the skin.
  • Wash the ume in plenty of clean, cool water

Step 2:  Pack ume in sugar

  • Clean a glass jar with detergent and hot water.  Optionally you might want to wipe the inside with some shochu or vodka to disinfect.
  • Fill the jar with alternating layers of ume and sugar
    • Optional:  You can freeze the ume overnight and pack them in the sugar while frozen hard.  Freezing causes microscopic ice crystals to break the ume’s cell membranes and fibers allowing the juice and flavor to flow out more readily.  This also decreases the likelihood of fermentation in the first week if you want a sweeter syrup as opposed to a more sour fermented variant (read on for more info.)
    • Optional: In a clean bowl swish the ume around in the shochu or vodka then drain out to sterilize their outside to reduce the probability of fermentation if you want a sweeter syrup as opposed to a fermented sweet and sour syrup (see variants section below.)

Step 2:  Allow ume to sit in sugar and gently shake the jar once or twice daily

The concentration of sugar outside of the ume will trigger osmosis and all of the fluid and deliciousness in the ume will sweat out and melt the sugar to form a delicious syrup.

time lapse of ume syrup

Variant 1:  Non-fermented sweetume close-up in syrup with small bubbles

  • Sterilize the jar and ume with shochu or vodka and freeze prior to packing in sugar as suggested above.
  • Remove the ume and refrigerate the syrup after no more than 7 days for a sweet and fresh taste

Variant 2:  Non-fermented sour

  • Pour in the optional rice or apple cider vinegar after layering the ume and sugar to prevent fermentation and produce a sweet and sour syrup which should be refrigerated after no more than 7 days.

Variant 3:  Fermented

  • I’ve seen various (most often Korean), recipes which call for letting it sit for 30-60 days.  After 7 days it begins to ferment and you can see some tiny bubbles forming in in the syrup and around the ume and pressure building up in the jar.  It will smell a little off but then after a few more days it will start to take on a richer more complex fragrance and flavor.  I’m in the process of doing my first batch this way, so I can’t tell you the full results yet.The picture to the right shows some tiny bubbles that I noticed forming when I stirred it up which I assume are from a small amount of fermentation.

shriveled ume after syrup making  After your syrup is ready remove the ume and store the syrup in a clean jar in the refrigerator.  Don’t throw away the ume just yet!  The ones I froze were a tasty treat that I enjoyed eating straight!  Ones that I didn’t freeze were very hard and fiberous.  Some Koreans remove the pits and preserve them with kochujang to eat as a side dish, while others simmer them in sugar water and mash them into jam.

 

Ume truely are a magical, tasty, versitile super-food!

 

Places to find ume in the United States:

  • Hmart – a Korean grocery store chain with locations across the US where I’ve bought ume.  They are GREAT for finding Japanese stuff as well and well worth even a 1-2 hr drive to get to.
  • Lotte Plaza – a Korean grocery store chain with locations in MD, VA, and soon FL.  Like Hmart they carry a wide selection of Asian groceries and Japanese and worth a 1-2 hour drive to get to.
  • Wikipedia list of Asian supermarket chains
  • If you know of any other good Asian grocery chains with multiple locations in the US that sell ume please contact me and I’ll include it here.

-William Milberry

How to make Japanese umeshu (梅酒), a delicious green plum infused liqueur

How to make Japanese umeshu (梅酒), a delicious green plum infused liqueur

Japanese umeshu (梅酒, pronounced u-may-shu) is a delicious, aromatic, wonderful alcohol drink from Japan that you have to try.  It’s hands-down my favorite drink from Japan.  Umeshu is often mischaracterized as “Japanese plum wine”, but is closer to a fruit cordial or fruit liqueur.  It’s made from allowing green unripe Japanese ume plums and rock sugar steep in a clear distilled alcohol called shochu (焼酎) for several months.  Shochu itself is an incredibly popular drink in Japan (and South Korea), which the Japanese drink WAY more than the traditional sake (pronounced sa-keh, not sa-ki).

Umeshu is typically 15%-20% alcohol and can be enjoyed straight, on the rocks, or mixed with carbonated water.

It is a common tradition for Japanese people to make their own umeshu during the summer and I did the same.  I was thrilled when I was able to make it this past summer in the United States as well.  I’ll explain how and tell you where to look for ingredients and what substitutes can work.

For those who have never tried it or don’t want to make it, Choya and other brands of umeshu (pictured to the right), can be found at good and larger alcohol retailers in the U.S.  Especially look for alcohol retailers in areas with a high Asian populations.  The picture to the right is a 750ml bottle of Choya that I used to buy at the local grocery store in Japan for 900 yen.  It’s more than double that ($20) here in the U.S.

Japanese ume

Read More Read More

Music Monday: Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ on traditional Japanese koto

Music Monday: Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ on traditional Japanese koto

NHK has a feature called Blends where they have performances of modern music performed with traditional instruments and styles. Mana Yoshinaga plays Madonna’s 1989 hit Like a Prayer on a traditional Japanese koto.  It it quite beautiful (as is she.)  The performance begins at about the 55 second mark after an introduction.

 

Japanese haiku poetry isn’t quite 5-7-5 like you think

Japanese haiku poetry isn’t quite 5-7-5 like you think

Haiku (俳句) is a well known style of short Japanese poem that has become popular among English and other speakers.  We’re taught that haiku has three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables.  An argument can be made that 5-7-5 isn’t exactly correct and that haiku can’t be the same in English as it is in the original Japanese.

古池や      furui ike ya       At an ancient pond
蛙飛び込む   kawazu tobikomu   the frogs go bounding into
水の音      mizu no oto       the sound of water

by Matsuo Bashou, 1686, translation W. Milberry*

Haiku was originally first stanza of a style of old Japanese collaborative poetry called renga (連歌).  These short first stanza’s became popular themselves and became their own short poems, haiku was born from them.  They were written in the specific style of 5-7-5.  However, ‘syllable’ means something a little different in English than it does in Japanese which throws the necessity of the 5-7-5 pattern into question when haiku are written in English.

The entirety of the Japanese language consists of a finite set of vowel or consonant-vowel combination sounds.  There is a total of only 139 sounds in the enirety of the Japanese language and they can all be spelled out using the Japanese Hiragana alphabet seen below.

Japanese Hiragana table

(Click here for a high resolution version of the Hiragana table for printing or classroom use.)

All Japanese words, including those which are written with complex Chinese kanji characters (漢字), can be spelled out with the Hiragana alphabet characters above.  Haiku’s 5-7-5 pattern derives from how many Hiragana sounds are needed to write out each line.

Where Japanese phonetics differ from English is that adjacent sounds never combine and each Hiragana is pronounced with the same time duration making it not quite line up with the way English speakers see syllables in words.  For example, the word ‘haiku’ is spelled out with three Hiragana sounds:  ha-i-ku (はいく) but only two syllables (hai-ku), to English ears.  Other well known Japanese words that we miscount syllables on are the city names of Tokyo and Sapporo.  We hear these as three syllables (To-ky-o and Sap-po-ro) but they are both actually four Hiragana sounds (とうきょう  or To-u-kyo-u and さっぽろ or Sa-p-po-ro.)  In Sapporo you can see the effect of the small ‘tsu’ (っ), which doubles the following ‘p’.  This is a distinct sound to the Japanese but one that English ears are blind to.

Because of this difference in the way the two languages interpret their basic units of sound (Hiragana for Japanese and syllables for English), you can ask if it is really meaningful to adhere to a strict 5-7-5 syllable pattern when writing haiku poems in English?  Perhaps it’s better to focus on the other distinguishing characteristics, namely their invocation of natural imagery and simplicity which invites the listener to imagine.

Final rays …
still reason
to hum

Marion Clarke/UK, NHK Haiku Masters

Japan’s national broadcast station NHK has a series called Haiku Masters where they invite people to submit haiku in English.  Above is the haiku of the month for 12/2016.  It, like many others, doesn’t follow the 5-7-5 format but instead focuses on the more meaningful aspects of haiku.  Phonetic pattern, rhythm, and rhyme in poetry is something the English world focuses on somewhat more than other languages.  The frequent explanation of haiku being 5-7-5 syllable poems above being described as the invocation of natural imagery and the reader’s imagination speaks to this.

If you’ve ever wanted to write haiku but have difficulty adhering to 5-7-5 give it a try without being so strict about the form and you might create something small but full of beauty like the haiku by Marion Clarke above which makes us think about bees and how they live their short lives to fullest.

* The haku by Matsuo Bashou at the very top of this post is a well known haiku and has been translated hundreds of times.  The Japanese language doesn’t apply a plural form to nouns so it’s linguistically not specified if the author was thinking of one frog or many.  Haiku is meant to invoke images of nature and is intentionally simple to invite the reader to use their imagination.  Only about one out of every two dozen or so translations of this haiku uses plural “frogs.”  To me plural “frogs” invokes a stronger feeling of being in a place full of nature.  It reminds me of a frog filled lake outside of my hometown that my departed grandmother and I used to visit during summers when I was young.  Since I placed this haiku early in the article prior to any explanation I did stick to 5-7-5 syllables but would have preferred to have written the second line “a frog goes bounding in” rather than “into” if I wasn’t adhering to 5-7-5.