Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

Sushi Fallacies

As long as I have been eating sushi, I have been under the impression that the quality of the sushi depends on the freshness of the fish and that the best sushi is necessarily more expensive because it utilizes the most expensive cuts of fish. It turns out that I was under a misapprehension. According to Master sushi chef Naomichi Yasuda,

1. Fresh fish has no taste . It is just hard and chewy

2. You don’t need expensive cuts of fish to make exquisite sushi.

3. Rice, not fish, is the most important ingredient in making sushi. 

Rice is more important than fish in sushi ?!!This will sound almost heretical to a sushi lover but Chef Yasuda speaks from a wealth of experience. For twenty-seven years he lived in New York City and was the chef and part owner of Sushi Yasuda, one of the best ( if not the best ) sushi restaurants in NYC. Then, in 2011, he suddenly pulled up stakes and relocated to Tokyo where he runs a small 14-seat sushi restaurant with his wife as his sole helper. His friend , Anthony Bourdain, tracked him down in Tokyo and interviewed him for one of the episodes on his TV show, Parts Unknown.  Why did Chef Yasuda relocate to Tokyo so suddenly and after such a long successful stint in NYC? According to him,  it was simply a desire to work in the city which is the home of sushi.

Like other top chefs, Chef Yasuda also gets his fish at Tokyo’s world famous Tsukiji market but , unlike them, he does not get up in the middle of the night to get there at 4 AM. Unlike them he doesn’t pay top prices for pieces of toro, the fatty belly meat of the tuna.He gets there later in the morning and selects from among the lesser pieces of tuna, often pieces from the head. He then transforms them by dint of his masterful knife skills and by ” curing” the tuna meat, often by freezing it in a blast freezer for a week or more. Chef Bourdain who ate at Chef Yasuda’s Tokyo restaurant says that his sushi is as good as it ever was.

What a difference between Chef Yasuda and Chef Jiro whose highly acclaimed sushi restaurant received three Michelin stars. Jiro is no doubt dedicated to his craft but he comes across as a sourpuss and an elitist. Not so chef Yasuda who laughs readily and seems a much friendlier type. If I were to go to Tokyo again I know  whose sushi I would want to sample.

P.S Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown is worth watching but the quality of the episodes is uneven. The show is more about the culture of a place and only incidentally about food. The episode on Tokyo riffs on night life, bondage, the sexual nature of mangas and other topics and” Viewer discretion is advised”.

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A Nation of Twins

Americans, because of their ethnic, economic and educational differences, share far less in the way of common experience than do the Japanese. Living in Japan is like living in a nation of twins. “ Itami,Juzo , Japanese filmmaker.
I am not sure in what context Itami said those words but I can’t argue about the truth of the remark. Japan, because of its geographic location far from any other land mass, has historically been very insular. Its population is very homogenous because there has been very little immigration and mixing even in modern times. Only about 2% of its population is non-Japanese, mostly indigenous Ainu peoples, Koreans and Chinese. Japanese families are very much alike in every way; food habits, religion, culture, traditions etc. There is a marked tendency to adhere to norms and one of the best known Japanese sayings is ” The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” In business , the preferred, indeed the only, way is group consensus. There are limited opportunities to express individuality though occasionally the young people try to break free. Some years ago, young people took to dressing outlandishly in garish clothes, sporting mohawks and Technicolor hair and congregating in Tokyo’s Ueno Park. For a while it was quite the thing to go to Ueno and gawk at them. But, come Monday, everything went back to’ normal’.
All this conformity and homogeneity has been very good for Japan as a nation. The manner in which it rebuilt itself from the rubble of World War II is nothing short of amazing. The Japanese people’s national spirit, hard work and sacrifices propelled their nation to the forefront of the developed world. It must be admitted, though, that all this uniformity can be boring. I’ve been to Japan twice and enjoyed it thoroughly. It is a lovely country with great natural beauty carefully tended for best effect, the people are very polite and obliging, their food and culture intriguing. I can see, however, that living there permanently could become wearying. When your neighbors and friends and work colleagues are exactly like you, with the same background and experiences, when your actions are dictated by old traditions, when you are expected to always behave in certain ways, it must be stifling. It is easy to see why Itami spoke of “a nation of twins”. We Americans are different and , while I sometimes worry that we have less and less of shared experiences and values, our society is much more varied and interesting. I’m glad to live where I live.

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In a post last year , I had commented on how  South Korean TV serials ( Kdramas ) have taken the world by storm. For the last decade or so , their popularity has increased by leaps and bounds , not just in Asia but all over the world . Halryu  ( or the Korean wave) has brought in billions of dollars for the Korean economy and simultaneously burnished the image of South Korea abroad. Nowadays , Japanese tourists take charter flights to Korea to visit the locations they have seen in their favorite serials and Chinese women fly to Seoul to get plastic surgery so that they can look like their favorite Korean actresses. In Los Angeles , there are  some Americans ( with no connection to Korea whatsoever) who have taught themselves Korean just by watching KDramas. Even my wife and I have picked up a smattering of Korean words from such programs . What is it about these KDramas that makes them such favorites from Buenos Aires to Beijing , from Manila to Manalapan ?

To put things in perspective , not every KDrama is a hit or is even worth watching . I know that every drama has its diehard fans but , in my opinion , KDramas have their share of clunkers. My wife and I get stuck into only one in every four or five that we begin  ; the others we give up on after three episodes or so. It takes us that long to decide on whether a particular series is worth persisting . By now , we have watched probably fifteen or twenty  series and I have come  up with this list of what makes these dramas so appealing .

10. KDramas are bright and colorful . The colors are vivid and eye-catching , the picture crisper and clearer than anything else I’ve seen . This is particularly true of serials shot after 2010 because of the use of very effective HD cameras.

9.  Kdramas emphasize  family values and are a good  teaching medium . They are very suitable for family watching as there is nothing sordid or gritty.

8. In the end , things turn out well . No matter how many tribulations the heroine goes through , in the end she emerges triumphant . Love prevails , something we all long to see. Sometimes , however , the heroine winds up hitched to the ” wrong ” man . I’m not sure why this is .. Is it an attempt by the director to shake things up , make the story unpredictable ?

7. The settings are opulent and attractive and meant to wow. Audiences everywhere like to experience riches , at least vicariously, and KDramas are happy to indulge them . Indoor settings are luxurious and outdoor shots , whether in the city or the countryside , focus on the best views. Offices are spacious and hi-tech , private homes palatial . Even when some characters are depicted as struggling to make ends meet , their homes are well-kept and spotless.

6. The actors and actresses are attractive and the acting surprisingly good, very good . By now we have come to recognise some of them and delight in trying to remember where we had last seen them . For us ,  the heroine and hero must be attractive and good actors ; otherwise we switch and try to find something else.

5.  The clothes worn by the actors  , no matter whether if it is a period drama or a modern romcom, are stylish and beautifully designed . Friends who have been to Korea tell me that Koreans have a great sense of style and that the average Korean man or woman is almost always well-groomed . I can  believe it. Usually I am oblivious to styles and colors, but when I watch these serials , I often find myself noting , almost sub consciously, how attractive a particular shade is or how nice a dress looks on an actress . That said , I must mention that I find the suit coats worn by the actors to be way too short and too tight by our standards.

4. The storyline is well thought out and it progresses steadily and , almost always , the action is in character. Serials last anywhere from 16 to 50 hour-long episodes and , inevitably , there is a certain amount of fluff as the writers try to stretch out the series  but it is less than in soaps elsewhere which go on and on.

3. KDramas are very sentimental and stress family togetherness. Many of them deal with the strains of joint families and there are conflicts between mothers-in- law and daughters-in-law, between fathers and sons , mothers and daughters , and between siblings but in the end they all get resolved. Throughout the episodes are scattered scenes where characters express their feelings  for each  other. Often , there are scenes showing people dining together and interacting . An added bonus is that the camera lingers lovingly on the food and makes one want to rush out and have a bowl of noodle soup ,or some grilled meat with all the side dishes or ban chan .

2. KDramas have mastered the art of the cliff hanger. Every episode leaves you hanging and eager for more . When one watches older , already completed KDramas on streaming mode on Netflix or Hulu Plus , one is often inveigled into watching four and five episodes a day . However current KDramas are usually aired only twice a week and one is in a fever of impatience until they become available . Episodes are aired n Korea  on weekends and re-broadcast here a day or two later after the sub-titles have been attached . Currently , my wife and I are watching Hundred Year Inheritance and I Summon You, Gold and I know we look forward eagerly to new episodes on Mondays and Tuesdays.

1. The central character is almost always the heroine , not the hero as happens in most TV dramas elsewhere. When you couple this with the emphasis on sentiment , on family values , on clothes and fashion, it is not surprising that these dramas appeal so strongly to women viewers who make up most of the audience for KDramas.

P.S. KDramas have their flaws and it is well to be prepared for them . In many serials , the hero starts out  a jerk, behaving abominably towards the heroine ; only later , as he falls in love does he begin to improve . Thankfully , this is getting less frequent. Characters are painted with a very broad brush and the mother-in-law is often pure evil. Sometimes , at the end when all is forgiven , you wish it weren’t so and that she would get her just desserts. (LOL). “Humor ” too is often far from subtle and , overall, one must make allowances for the differences in culture. In the end , these are all minor faults far overshadowed by the attractions and that is why these dramas are so popular.

Korean movies are a mixed bag , very different from KDramas. The settings are more realistic and grimy , the violence graphic and the general mood dark. Some are very good , many of the romcoms silly, and  few are happy or uplifting .

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As I’ve written before , I like to collect proverbs from different countries because they reflect the nation’s life and character. With Myanmar in the news because of President Obama’s visit , I thought it would be a good time to list some Burmese proverbs . Rather than those which are familiar to us as re-workings of proverbs from other countries , I’ve chosen those which seem , to me , unique to the country and its people . I’ve also included my own thoughts about some of them . These proverbs are taken from several sources and , where I felt the translation left something to be desired , I’ve reworded them in a way that makes sense to me, and I hope to readers of this post.

1.Those who have the same ideas may become enemies .

2. He who  is too kind hearted becomes a slave .

3. One sesame seed won’t make oil.

4. Seven days is the length of a guest’s life . Elsewhere , I have heard that “Fish and guests begin to stink after three days” . Looks like the Burmese are more hospitable than most !

5. A hero appears only when the tiger is dead.

6. Use a needle now or you may need an axe later. Obviously the same thought as : “A stitch in time saves nine ” but I liked this version , too.

7. No child was born without being conceived . Reminiscent of ” Where there is smoke , there is  fire.” but not quite .

8. You can pull back your leg but not your promise.

9. Mango among fruits , pork among meats and tea among leaves ( are the best ). I was a little surprised by this one. Since the Burmese are devout Buddhists I didn’t expect any reference to meat in their sayings.

10.If you take big paces , you leave big spaces.  This one puzzles me . Is it the same as ” Haste makes waste .” ? The wordplay ( ‘paces’, ‘ spaces’) is obviously the work of the translator ; I wonder what the original in Burmese said .

11. A genuine ruby won’t sink and disappear in the mud . A reminder that Burma produces many gemstones . I guess this echoes the English proverb ” Cream always rises to the top.”

12. No matter how much care is taken , someone will always be misled . Ain’t that the truth ?

13. Only with a new ruler do you realize how good the old one was.

14. The anger of the prudent never shows.

15. You can stop speaking to someone but you can’t stop being related.

16. One without learning has to carry others’ burdens .

17. Even the son of the foolish can be a sage ; even the son of a poor man can be rich. Do not be contemptuous of anyone .

18. The weakest man can cause some hurt.

19. Anthills are formed from particles of dust; raindrops when collected can fill a big pot.

20. Old cows like young grass. Another puzzler .

21.Water can wear away even the hardest rock.

22. Only true friends will tell you when your face is dirty.

24. The top of a pinnacle now , firewood soon.

25. The more violent the love , the more violent the anger.

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Zatoichi and the Master Chef

Zatoichi was the blind swordsman who featured in a long running series of movies and in a popular TV  series in Japan. Between 1962 and 1989 there were 26 movies with the role of Zatoichi being played by Shintaro Katsu . He also starred in most of the 100 TV episodes that were aired between 1972 and 1974. For viewers  who are not familiar with Zatoichi , here is a brief description :  The Zatoichi stories are set in 19th century Japan.  Zatoichi is a wandering blind man who earns his living as a masseur and gambler  and who, in spite of his blindness, is a formidable swordsman. Though he calls himself a gangster , he lives by a strict code of honor and uses his fighting skills to protect the poor and correct injustices . His lack of eyesight has sharpened his other senses and, singlehandedly, he mows down dozens of attackers while barely breaking a sweat . While his fighting skills are  just barely credible  , it is quite impossible for him to travel freely and do some of the other things as he does . Still , viewers are  willing to suspend disbelief as they watch Zatoichi’s exploits .

Earlier this month , Fox aired the finale of its hit TV show  Master Chef ( Season 3) and the winner was Christine , a 32-year-old blind graduate student . Winning such a cooking contest involves not only cooking skills but presentation skills because the food has to be plated  attractively . It demands a great knowledge of food preparation techniques , an eclectic appreciation of cuisines , an eye for detail and the ability to work under pressure . Winning such a contest  is difficult enough for a sighted person ; for a blind person , it is well-nigh impossible .  If I hadn’t seen the show , I would never have believed it could be done . That Christine was able to do so makes her a real -life Zatoichi, as good in her own sphere as Zatoichi was in his.

I well remember the tryout for Master Chef aspirants when Christine was selected for the contest proper  . When she tap-tapped her way to where the judges were stationed , they were taken aback and Gordon Ramsay remarked that it was a first time on the show for a blind contestant. While viewers ( including myself) were happy that she made it to the contest proper, I don’t think any of us thought she had a chance at winning the whole shebang. Week after week , I thought that this was the week when she was going to be eliminated .How she was able to peel, shell, cut , chop, bake , fry and plate so well is  something I’m still finding it difficult to fathom.She had a couple of close calls but persevere she did, as others fell one by one . And along the way , she became the one we were all rooting for . Departing contestants are asked which one of the survivors they would like to see win the contest and many of them said it was Christine .

In addition to her cooking skills and her gumption in even daring to enter the contest , there were several things to admire about her. Yes , she was competitive and wanted to win , but  she was not mean spirited in her comments as  some of the others were. And she wanted to win the right way . In the semifinals , she had to select a partner in a tagteam match against another pair. If her side  had lost , she would have had to go against her erstwhile partner in an elimination contest. In similar situations , others had picked a weak partner , so that if they lost they had a good chance of winning the head-to-head challenge . Not Christine . She chose  Becky , the strongest of the others , because she said  she ” was in it to win” . Even so , it was not until she made the final that I began to think she might win it all.

In the final , she was up against Josh , a 24-year-old ex -army man who was a worthy opponent . I liked Josh too and would have rooted for him had his opponent been anybody but Christine . For the finale , Josh and Christine had to cook a three course meal of their own devising for the three -judge Master Chef  panel. After they presented their dishes to the judges for tasting,  l didn’t give much for Christine’s chances. She had cooked an Asian -inspired meal that seemed plain when juxtaposed against Josh’s classic creations with a southern twist . On the other hand , Josh made a serious misstep when he added bacon pieces to his pecan pie dessert. I was relieved when Gordon Ramsay announced  Christine was  the winner because she must have won by the thinnest of margins .

The winner’s prize is a $ 250,000 check and an opportunity to publish a cookbook . I’ve no doubt Christine will write a cookbook and that it will be a success. But what will she do next ? Will she complete her master’s and work in her area of specialization , whatever it is ? Or will she open her own food business / restaurant ? I don’t know what path she will take but , whatever it is , I wish her well . She has been an inspiration to a lot of people and she deserves every bit of her success..

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Yesterday , I watched a wonderful documentary ,  “Jiro Dreams of Sushi“, available on Netflix streaming . Released in 2011 , the movie chronicles the life of Jiro Ono , an 86-year old sushi master in Tokyo. He is the proprietor and head chef at Sukiyabashi Jiro, a small ten- seat sushi restaurant which received three Michelin stars and drew the admiring comment ” That is the only rating that we could give him” . The restaurant is located in the basement of a Ginza office building , has no bathroom and its decor is best described as minimalist . It does not serve appetizers or drinks , only sushi. However , that doesn’t keep away sushi mavens who are willing to pay upwards of $ 300 for the experience of dining there.

Jiro Ono’s father was an alcoholic who abandoned the family when Ono-san  was only seven ; Ono-san   had to fend for himself since he was 9. For seventy-six years , almost his entire life , he has made sushi. Even today , at 86, he comes to the restaurant every day and oversees every aspect of the operation from checking the preparation of the rice and fish , finalizing the seating arrangements , deciding the seating arrangements and ,of course, preparing and serving the sushi. Working alongside him is his older son , Yoshikazu , and in the back are three apprentices .

The movie follows him at work in the restaurant and uses interviews with the food critic Yamamoto , with Ono -san’s two sons Yoshikazu and Takashi , various food suppliers , apprentices and others to paint a picture of the man . Yoshikazu works alongside his father and , as the eldest son , will one day take over for him . Takashi was encouraged by his father to leave and now manages the Roppongi Hills branch of the restaurant.

There are  segments  in which Ono-san talks about his life and work. In one sequence , we follow Yoshikazu as he makes the rounds of the giant Tsukiji fish market to buy the day’s fish . This was a chore that his father  used to do himself but he gave it up when he had a heart attack at the age of seventy ; it was also when he gave up smoking. We find out more about Ono-san’s beginnings and early life  when he takes a train to attend a school reunion  and we meet up with his old schoolmates.

The movie is a visual delight , as the camera lingers lovingly on the jewel-like pieces of sushi as they are expertly formed .Ono-san’s hands are a symphony of motion ; there is not a wasted movement as his fingers pat and caress the rice and the fish into sushi. It is beautiful to watch and one  believes  him implicitly when he says ” We don’t care about money… All I want to do is to make better sushi.” A former apprentice says “He never takes a day off except for funerals .” Another person says ” They aren’t trying to be special … they just want to work.” His son , Yoskikazu , talks of him as being like ” the maestro of an orchestra.”

At various points , Ono -san talks about his philosophy of life and work ” Once you decide your profession , you must immerse yourself in your work. You must fall in love with your work…. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and the key to being regarded honorably .” This is a man who dreams of sushi and who says that he often wakes up at night with new ideas to try out. He is completely immersed in his work and it is no wonder that he says ” I feel ecstatic all day .”

It shows.

There is a calmness about Ono-san which is a sign of his inner peace . He may be a hard taskmaster but he treats his apprentices with consideration , passing on his knowledge , demanding perfection, without ever talking down to them . There is not a hint of ego , no condescension when he tells them how they could do better. ( Gordon Ramsay , you should watch this movie !) Books on spirituality exhort us to live completely in the present moment ( “Be Here Now” ), with no thought for the past or the future. In his single-minded quest for perfection , Ono-san seems to have found fulfillment . As someone in the movie says ” Ultimate simplicity leads to ultimate purity.” Those words are used to describe Ono-san’s sushi but they could also be applied to his life.

When Michelin paid a visit to Sukiyabashi Jiro and gave it a coveted three star rating , it was Ono-san’s son , Yoshikazu, who prepared the sushi . It feels good to know that when the inevitable happens , Jiro Ono ‘s skills and traditions will not be lost to posterity.

Since the dawn of time , Man has pondered “What is  the meaning of life ?”. It is a conundrum  that we can never solve . There are as several ways to answer the question , and many of us conclude that there is no meaning to life . Perhaps we think too much . Perhaps it is best to do as Jiri Ono does and just concentrate on doing our work well , seeking to perfect what we do and to pass along what we have learnt. Particularly in Japan , there seem to be many like Ono-san who follow this path and who lead long ,happy,  fulfilled lives. People like Shigeoki Hinohara ( 97) who still works as a fulltime physician and has written 150 books since the age of 75. People like Shigekazu Yamazaki  who lives in Ibaraki , and at the age of 82 is still active in civic affairs , serving on four different committees . He walks to town meetings and bicycles to the market every day on his 30-year-old bicycle .

If you get Netflix streaming , don’t miss watching ” Jiro Dreams of Sushi “. You will be glad you did.

P.S: It is very instructive to listen to these octogenarians and others talk about what they believe in  as they go about their daily routine . Try and go to www.eightbillionlives which features a series of short films about ordinary people . One of the films is a six-minute short about Shigekazu Yamazaki. Enjoy.

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I have been reading  Japanese Pilgrimage , Oliver Statler’s masterly 1983 account of  a famous pilgrim trail in Shikoku , the southernmost of the Japanese islands . The trail connects 88 temples sacred to the memory of the Buddhist holy man , Kukai, better known as Kobo Daishi( 774-835). He was a remarkable man ,a scholar , a traveling evangelist , miracle worker and civil engineer who founded the Shingon sect of  Japanese Buddhism . The route is scenic but arduous, traversing high mountains and deep valleys,  and pilgrims have been tracing it for over a thousand years . In the beginning , they  used to do it on foot ; the hardiest of them took over two months to cover its approximately 720 miles . Nowadays , however, most henro ( pilgrims) do it by bus .

I enjoyed the book ,but less than I had expected . The tales of the Daishi and other holy men ,the ceremonies at the temples, and the stories of individual pilgrims are wonderful but the descriptions of the route itself , good though they are, become repetitive and wearisome . What does remain green in the reader’s memory is the faith and devotion of  the pilgrims.

At one of the temples early in the pilgrimage , Statler comes across an old woman facing the altar, her hands pressed tightly together in prayer. Tears streaming down her cheeks , she says again and again “ I am eighty-four years old , Daishi-sama , and I am so grateful to be able to come here again.” She tells Statler she is from across the Inland Sea and she knows this is the last time she will be able to make the pilgrimage . She has no family left, she says , but some neighbors invited her to join them. They have climbed further to the temple proper but she is unable to accompany them  and she is waiting for them to come down . “ I am quite ready to die at any time, ‘ she declares. ” I ask only to be buried along the pilgrimage route.”  

Such intense devotion  is to be found among those who undertake pilgrimages whether they are following in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi on Shikoku , seeking to expiate their sins by taking a dip in the holy Ganges or walking the pilgrim route to Santiago del Campostella in Spain . They may have different motivations . Some do it as a penance for past sins ; others because they seek divine favor . Still others walk the pilgrim route in gratitude for boons  already granted . During its thousand-year history , the pilgrim trail in Shikoku has had many , many of each kind. Beside the trail are scores of graves , hundreds of  unobtrusive mounds, each marking the last resting place of a pilgrim.

Statler’s book tells the tales of some  of these pilgrims , ancient and modern. Perhaps the most remarkable is that of Mohei Nakamatsu who made his first pilgrimage in 1865 when he was just 18. Over the next fifty-seven years , he was to complete a total of 280 pilgrimages before dying in 1922 in the course of his 281st. Not only did he walk the trail, he erected innumerable stone guideposts to mark the way for future pilgrims . Many  exist to the present  today.

Mohei Nakamatsu’s story is extra-ordinary  but the other tales that Statler relates are  interesting too.  One is the story of Mr. and Mrs. Ishii , retired farmers from Okayama City , across the Inland Sea. Mrs. Ishii had been  in  poor health , having suffered from headaches, sleeplessness and malaise for the past twenty years and more. They went to doctor after doctor but none was able to do anything for her. Finally ,the year before , when the Ishii’s were at the end of their rope , they decided to undertake the pilgrimage . They had always been fervent worshipers of Kobo Daishi and he was their last hope . At first , it was agonizing . They were only able to go a short distance each day but they persevered and , at every step of the way they prayed.Oh , how they prayed ! Gradually , Mrs. Ishii’s health improved and their path became easier. They went all the way around and by the time they reached Temple 88 , Mrs . Ishii was cured. Now , a year later , they were doing a part of the pilgrimage again in gratitude and they planned to do so  each year for the rest of their lives.

How does one explain what happened ? True believers will say that it was  the Daishi’s blessings that cured Mrs. Ishii. Sceptics will say that it was the physical exercise  that restored her health.  Both camps , however , will agree that Mrs. Ishii’s intense faith had something to do with it ; good things happen when one lays one’s problems in the lap of the Almighty . Letting go her worries and trusting in the Daishi undoubtedly helped Mrs. Ishii.

There is an old Hindu story  that makes the same point.

In ancient India , there once lived a learned Brahmin of advancing years. In those times , it was the custom that when one reached the age of seniority , to renounce the world and set off to Benares to wash away one’s sins in the holy Ganges. It was not a journey that one returned from, so the Brahmin made the necessary arrangements . He distributed his worldly goods among his sons , bade them farewell and set out on his pilgrimage carrying with him only the barest necessities.For many months he made his way north struggling through forests , over steep hills and through deep valleys, in constant fear of being attacked by robbers . After much difficulty , he finally reached the Ganges and settled down to a life of austerity and prayer. For five long years , he led a life of prayer and devotion when another pilgrim came by .

” What are you doing here ? ” the pilgrim asked the Brahmin .

” I am praying beside  the sacred Ganges . ” replied the Brahmin .

At this , the pilgrim laughed loudly . ” This is not the Ganges ,” he scoffed . ” This is no more than an insignificant tributary. All your penance has been in vain.”

Chastened , the Brahmin packed up his meager belongings and set out once again . Finally , after many months of travelling , he reached a mighty river , so wide that he could not see the further bank. This surely must be the holy Ganges , he said to himself as he  settled down to his austerities. Alas , five more years passed when he was once again disabused of his notion by another traveller.

Once again , the Brahmin made his way northward but , by now , he was old and feeble and he died before he reached  his goal . When he appeared at the gates of Swargaloka ( Heaven ) , the minions of Yama , the God of Death denied him admittance. Yama , however, intervened . ” It does not matter that this Brahmin never reached the sacred river” , he said. “In his heart , he thought that he was praying on the banks of  the Ganges , bathing in it every day. That is enough. Admit him forthwith.”

It is the journey that counts , not just the destination . The only thing that matters is Faith.

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In Oliver Statler’s book ” Japanese Pilgrimage ” I came across three separate references to 42 being the unlucky age for men. In one place , Statler quotes a pamphlet published by a Buddhist temple which states ” The years of Great Danger are for men 41, 42 and 61: for women 32, 33 and 61…”. For children ,  year 13   is considered unlucky. The pamphlet also  enumerates 22 other years of Lesser Danger. 

There are 88 temples on the Shikoku pilgrim route dedicated to Kobo Daishi and some hold that it is because 88 is a total of the unluckiest  ages of men , women and children ( 42 + 33 + 13  = 88). All over Japan , the belief in these ” unlucky ages” ( or yakudoshi) persists and people approaching one of these ages visit temples and make offerings to ward off misfortune and death.

Until last week I had never heard of these beliefs and I was curious about how they originated . At first , I thought it might have something to do with medical or scientific reasons or with statistics but was at a loss to think what they might be . The answer , it seems , is much simpler.

In the Japanese language , the symbol for 4  ( ” shi”) is a homophone  for “death” while that for 9 ( “ku”) is like that for ” suffering “. There are similar inauspicious connections for the other numbers . Thus 19 = “bad luck “, 33 ( ” sanzen”) =” trouble, disaster” and 42 ( ‘shi-ni” ) = “death” , or at least so many Japanese believe . I haven’t been able to find why the unlucky ages for men are different from those for women and children .

The superstitions are widespread, though I wonder if  most Japanese themselves know how these numbers came to be regarded as unlucky. They simply know that they are unlucky  just as , here in the West , we take it for granted that the number 13 is unlucky without knowing why. ( The most likely explanation is that 13 was the number of people at the Last Supper . 1.e Jesus + the twelve apostles. Since Jesus is believed to have died on a Friday , Friday the 13th is very , very unlucky).

To get back to Japan :In some Japanese hospitals , room numbers 4 and 9 do not exist and in some maternity wards , the room number 43 ( “shi-san” ) is missing because it means  ‘still birth”.To us outsiders , this may excessive but consider this : if you had been told since birth that these numbers were unlucky , would you want to take a chance ?

The Chinese are just as superstitious , if not more. While they feel  number 9 is lucky,they consider the number 4 unlucky because it is a homophone for “death”. Thus in East Asia , some buildings do not have a 4th floor ( just as in the West , some buildings do not have a 13th floor). The elevator skips from Floor 3 to floor 5. The prohibition against the number 4 is carried to an extreme in some Hong Kong buildings which do not have any floors that contain the number 4  i.e no number  4, 14 , 24, 34, 40-49 in addition to 13  so that a 50 floor building may contain only 35 actual floors !

In Singapore , Singapore public transit buses do not have licence plates ending in 4 . Canon Sureshot G series skips from G3 to G5 and Nokia  does not have a series beginning with 4. The aversion to number 4 also explains why dim sum platters in Chinese restaurants have three pieces of dim sum , and not 4. I’m sure you noticed that when you have struggled to divide a plate of dimsum equally between two couples.

While numbers are considered unlucky on the basis of the way they sound , the age 60 is considered lucky in Chinese , Indian and other cultures for other reasons . It is considered a landmark event and the beginning of seniority. Perhaps , also , in earlier times people did not often live that long and reaching 60 was an achievement, a milestone . 

P.S: In the U.S, major league baseball players cannot have number 42 on their uniforms for an entirely different reason , not having anything to do with luck. That number was worn by Jackie Robinson , who broke the color barrier in major league baseball in 1947 when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of his début , his number was retired and since then no new player in any of the teams has worn it .

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The temperature outside is close to freezing but it is a comfortable 65 degrees indoors. Like almost all houses in the north-east , our house has central heating . In August , when temperatures outside can be a hundred degrees or more, the central air keeps us comfy. Not all dwellings have central air  but most  of those that don’t have room air conditioners.Indeed, most Americans are so accustomed to these luxuries that we take them for granted , sub-consciously assuming that that’s the way things are everywhere.

Not so.

Even in developed countries , central A/C  and central heating are not the norm ; only the upper class or the upper middle are able to afford them . A friend who lives near Tokyo tells me that she has a new appreciation for these luxuries since moving to Japan. She has both these in her apartment but most Japanese dwellings have neither and, to make matters worse ,  the houses are not insulated.As a result it sometimes feels colder inside than it does outside the dwelling. So , how do the Japanese cope ? Well , of course they bundle up inside and outside the house , but they also use heating pads or patches .These single-use patches, which cost about 100 yen ( about $ 1.25) each are applied to one’s clothing and provide heat for a period of 10-12 hours.They can also be used for a few hours then returned to the plastic pouch and re-used , the next day, for the rest of their 12-hour life .

I’d never heard of these patches until yesterday and I was mystified by how they worked . I did some research and found that they are known to the Japanese as Kairo and are available in the U.S . They were invented by the Japanese , are manufactured by several companies among them Hotteeze and Hakugen and have been around for almost a decade . Each heat pad contains iron powder, water, vermiculite , carbon and  salt. When the plastic container is opened and the pad exposed to the air ,the iron oxidizes and creates heat. Pads are usually worn around the midsection though smaller ones can be applied to the feet. ( The Japanese believe that keeping the feet and  area around the solar plexus warm is essential for well-being). The pads are bio-degradable and are thrown away after use. Neat, aren’t they?

Writing about these wintertime happenings reminded me of a week we spent in the little English village of  Tottington, near Manchester,almost thirty-five years ago. It was in late October and it was already cold and damp. The house we were staying in was quaint but it was not very well insulated and , of course, it had no central heating. All the rooms , including the kitchen had doors to keep the cold from spreading and at nights we would feed coins into the gas meter before retreating under our down comforter.The gas heat would warm up the bedroom and the comforter kept us snug and warm . However, the coins we fed in would only keep the gas on for a couple of hours . It was wonderful as long as we were in bed but when we threw off the covers in the morning … boy, did we get a shock !!

Yes, heating pads and down comforters are fine but , thank God for central heating !!

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Yesterday’s Womens Soccer World Cup final was a wonderful , wonderful match with a surprise ending . It was an absorbing game , a clean  keenly contested game and even though we lost , we cannot be too unhappy with the result seeing what it means to the Japanese nation .

I’d not seen any of Japan’s prior games . So , all I knew about them was that the Japanese had a precision passing game that enabled them to control the ball for long stretches  and that they never , never gave up, often coming from behind to snatch victory . After the U.S victory over Brazil in the quarters , I think I , and most other observers , could be pardoned for feeling that this American team was somehow destined  to win the Cup. After the way they battled Brazil , playing shorthanded for much of the game, after the way they overcame some dodgy decisions by the referee , how could they not win ?

For most of the match yesterday , it seemed like they were going to . They could have been up by two goals or more even before halftime. Several times they came oh-so-close , denied by the thinnest of margins as the ball glanced off  a goalpost or hit the crossbar . What was most surprising was the way in which their swarming defense negated the Japanese passing attack , forcing the Japanese to punt the ball out of danger. Meanwhile they were constantly on the attack , constantly moving forward . Any Japanese counterattacks were far and few between and  against the run of play. When the U.S did score it came on a beautiful play as Alex Morgan , at 22 the youngest player on the U.S team , got behind the Japanese defense and rocketed a left footed kick past the Japanese goalie. At that point , I thought the goal would be enough but the Japanese proved me wrong . They began to attack more and I think the pressure got to the U.S team a little. In the 81st minute , only nine minutes away from a U.S victory the Japanese struck . A U.S defender tried to clear the ball away from the goal line only to see it carrom off another U.S player to the feet of an onrushing Miyami . She didn’t make a mistake , giving Hope Solo no chance , as she tapped the ball into the net.

 Once again , in OT , I thought the U.S had the game won as Abby Wambach scored on one of her patented headers in the 104th minute. But once again , the Japanese seemed to gain strength as the U.S seemed to panic. With only about 3 minutes to go to the end of OT , the veteran Homare Sawa tied the game in the mêlée following a corner kick. It was a nail-biting 3 minutes till the end of OT  as the Japanese seemed more likely to score than the Americans .

Hope Solo is the best goalie in the world and I thought the U.S would have the edge in a shootout  but I was wrong . The first three U.S players all missed ( Shannon Box had her shot kicked away by the goalie Kaihori; Carlie Lloyd ballooned the ball over the net and  then Kaihori made another save, on Tobin Heath) and that put the shootout out of reach . Amby Wambach did score on the next shot and Hope Solo did make one save but it was too little , too late.The Japanese won the shootout and took home the Cup.

It is a cliche to say about a game that there were no losers  but , in the case of this game , it is the truth. The U.S women dominated most of the game and gave it their all . They have nothing to be ashamed about.Their stirring quarterfinal win over Brazil will be talked about for years to come . As for the Japanese women , no praise can be too high . Back on n their heels for most of the game , they never gave up against a taller, more physical side and twice came from behind to force the shootout and to win it . Prior to this year’s tournament , they’d never beaten a European side , any European side . In the World Cup , not only did they beat powerhouses Sweden and France , they also overcame the No. 1 ranked Americans . In doing so , they uplifted the spirits reeling from the shock of the recent tsunami  and the ensuing nuclear disaster. If the U.S could not win  the championship , I’m glad Japan did . As one of the U.S players , Carli Lloyd , said after the match  “If any other country was to win this, then I’m really happy and proud for Japan. Deep down inside, I really thought it was our destiny to win it. But maybe it was Japan’s.”

Prior to yesterday’s match , commentators were talking about the impact a U.S victory might have on U.S soccer . Their feeling was that it might finally allow the sport to become mainstream , eventually to compete  with basketball , baseball and football. That may still happen as yesterday’s final was a good advertisement for the game and it was  played by native-born players, not foreign imports.

 It is interesting to think of the impact of the impact the Japanese women’s victory will have on Japan . Not only on Japanese sports , but on the status of women there. Women in Japan , though long emancipated , do not have nearly the same opportunities as women in the Western nations .  Prior to WWII , they were wholly subservient to men and , subsequently , their standing has only improved very slowly. When we were in Japan ten years ago , we were on a bus trip from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji when the tour guide , a Japanese woman , surprised us .She said  that one of the good things to come about as a result of the Japanese defeat in WW II was that it immeasurably improved the lot of Japanese women , enabling them to leave the confines of the house. Even now , women have restricted roles in corporate life since they are thought of as only being short timers , who will quit as soon as they get married. Perhaps , yesterday’s World Cup victory will enable them to claim their rightful due as equal partners in society and the corporate culture, not just in sports.

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