Tag Archives: Japan

What’s in the (bento) box?

Last night I did a fun class called ‘All About Bento’ – a Japanese language taster organised by the Japan Foundation on the subject of the famous lunch-box!

First we explored ‘What is Bento’. It has a surprisingly long history (more than 1000 years!). It was interesting to learn how it had evolved – in particular how it had come into its own in the era of the steam train. Still now eki-bento is the perfect food to take on a journey. We found that bento is an integral part of Japanese life, accompanying it through various important stages and marker-points – from school-day lunches, through school trips and cherry-blossom parties (with optional sake), to later years when it might be delivered as handy food for the elderly. But it’s definitely not like a ready-meal! A huge amount of effort, skill and love can go into making bento!

We watched two short video clips – one of a father making incredible kyara-bento for his children: his care and attention to detail making these realistic animal characters out of food was astonishing, almost painful to watch! The second (from a Tokyo Gas advert) was of a mother steadfastly making bento for her son every day, putting all of her love and encouragement into it ‘like a secret message’ even though he didn’t always appreciate it – it had us all quite teary;)

We discovered that there are various tools to help personalise your bento – such as a nozzle device that allows you to ‘write’ on your creation; a rice-ball maker, useful for making small spheres to turn into characters’ faces (see kyara-bento); and colourful partitions to divide up your bento.

A bento will normally have three compartments, and should feature all five-a-day colours! Rice or another staple goes in the biggest compartment – but we were surprised that the ‘main dish’ (meat, fish) goes in the smallest! But then it made sense – have as much protein as you need, but don’t over-eat. Fun, healthy, adaptable, portable… Bento seems like the perfect way to eat! Our teacher even showed us her own bento – yes, it had all the correct colours and arrangements, and she could even tip it upside down (it was a plastic food model, very realistic…)

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So now we had to get on to the part where we learned to say what foods we like or don’t like; asking our neighbour the same; making up our own bento, and one for our neighbour. By now with all this talk of food everyone was getting so hungry. I wanted to bring my bento to life, by saying the magic word Oishii (Delicious!)

Talking about food is always a wonderful ice-breaker; and it’s amazing how we can feel we’re getting close to another culture by sharing its food. I think this is all going to be very useful for the next J-trip…

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (Aug 6th 1945, 8.15am). Japan and UK were enemies then. How absurd it seems – and of course absolute horror was the result. Here in London there were several acts of remembrance – the floating of lanterns down the Thames from the Battersea Peace Pagoda, for instance. I went to something at lunchtime in Tavistock Square – London’s de facto peace garden, with the statue of Gandhi at its centre. Happily there were many people there.

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Strolling through Bloomsbury afterwards – sun shining, garden squares beckoning, tasty lunch in hand from the ubiquitous farmers’ market – I thought how insanely lucky we are to be here now, in a peaceful place: rather than there, then, or in a million other places in the world today.

Another beautiful thing – all the languages being spoken around me as I walked – like music!

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I ran into my lovely Polish friend (and origami-maestro) Justyna, and together we chatted to the artist who had been inviting people to make paper cranes in the Square after the ceremony. His name is Yozo Hirayama. He took us to see his installation of 1000 cranes at the SOAS roof-garden nearby. Children were playing there too and it was lovely to see how he softly passed on his passion for peace through more crane-making…

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Passport was out at the Kings Head in Islington last night

Passport was out at the Kings Head in Islington last night, to see the play ‘Yama – Tales of Shonai’ by Anglo-Japanese theatre company Doubtful Sound. What a thoroughly enjoyable evening! Doubtful Sound plunder traditional Japanese folktales to show a refreshing side of Japan – fun, cheeky, mysterious, shocking and entertaining. There’s a wonderful variety of stories – some are very short, some more extended, with some clever cross-referencing between them. Bittersweet stories like The Salmon Wife contrast with out-and-out comedy (the Lord of the Underworld laments his feeble demons), and there are satisfying twists on archetypal tales such as Cinderella. Personal favourites included the very brief, very funny Lying Competition and the dangerous foxes of The Man With The Tumour on his Cheek (think the witches from Macbeth, but there are seven of them and they love drinking sake!). It’s a delight hearing the cast skipping between languages (there are subtitles for the Japanese parts) and using their voices so expressively (those seven foxes are represented by just three actors, ingeniously playing a kind of Knock Knock, Who’s There…). If you go, you’ll definitely have your own favourite episodes!

Another level of enjoyment is added by the SOAS Min’yo (Japanese folksong) Group, who variously accompany, comment on or connect the different stories with beautiful traditional songs played on authentic instruments. We’re drawn into an unfamiliar, captivating sound-world of the Japanese countryside, far away from the big city lights.

As it turned out, last night had some technical difficulties beyond the control of the players – but it didn’t matter: it just brought audience and performers even closer together – and provided a chance to hear more of the SOAS group and even learn a song together! By the end of the evening, the audience were totally involved and even seamlessly integrated into the action on stage (watch out if you’re sitting near the front!). The joys of a small pub theatre!

Most of all, we were responding to a talented company really enjoying what they were doing, passionate about sharing their knowledge and love of Japan’s lesser-known sides.

PS After the show, I ran into one of the cast in the bar – interestingly, she said (I think) that the world of these folktales does live on in people’s minds in modern Japan. Things may appear pristine, commercial and hi-tech, but this realm of nature, spirits and strange goings-on can still infiltrate everyday life. It helps explain the Murakami I’ve just been reading…

There are two more performances of ‘Yama – Tales of Shonai’ at The Kings Head in Islington next Sunday (3pm & 7pm). Go and see it – you will definitely enjoy it!