The Japanese have a saying: On-ko-chi- shin, meaning “ask old things” to “know new things.” The Confucian proverb encourages taking lessons from the past and learning from the wisdom of the ancients in order to forge new paths.
From an outsider’s perspective, Japan is all about the new. Japanese culture with its obsession towards perfectionism (and the equally strong pull against perfect uniformity) seems the ideal incubator for the latest crazes and headshaking forms of self-expression. Michiyo, a Tokyo guide, explains that “Japanese are perfectionists. We find something we like and will immerse ourselves in it to the end.” But somewhere along the line, amidst sensational stories of eyeball licking, hadoken-ing knockout photos and bagel heads, Japan became the arbiter of cool. Hello Kitty, Pac-Man, energy drinks and anime are worldwide phenomena originating in the Land of the Rising Sun. But increasingly, what appears to be new may actually be a reinvention of the old, a living expression of on-ko-chi-shin, on display on the streets of frenetic Tokyo, where Lolitas (modeled after Victorian-era schoolgirls) walk side by side with kimono-clad matrons.
Sushi as Art
While some tales say sushi was fortuitously discovered by an old woman who stashed her pots of rice high up in an osprey’s nest far from thieving hands, only to come back and find her rice had fermented and got mixed with tasty scraps of fish, sushi most likely originated as a way to preserve seafood using the acid from fermenting rice. With the invention of rice vinegar, the process of sushi-making went from months to days, making it available to the Japanese masses and then the world.
While traditional sushi chefs (almost always men) take up to five years to master the art, the Tokyo Sushi Academy has seen a new trend – kazari maki sushi (‘fancy rolled sushi’) prepared mainly by women. During a recent class, the 12 participants, ranging from a Parisian wine instructor to housewives looking to generate income by teaching sushi-making classes at home, looked on intently as the instructor went through the intricate steps of making a crab design, meticulously assembling cucumber claws, egg body and tuber eyes. Yuta, 26, one of only two men in the class, explains the renewed interest in art sushi. “It’s all about beauty and presentation.”
“You’ll probably never see these in a restaurant,” says Sachiko Goto, vice president of the academy. “While a skillful sushi chef can make a regular roll in two to three minutes, one art roll can sometimes take 30 minutes and only yield four or five slices.” The academy has filled orders for everything from corporate logos to sports team mascots. One particularly difficult design involved Olympic rings, the face of a table tennis player and a Japanese flag.
Sachiko thinks kazari maki sushi is more than just a fad, though. The academy has had more than 700 members in its art roll program, completing the five-day course which costs around USD1,500 per person. “Sushi is very healthy and these days people love healthy food. Unlike baking where you need a lot of special equipment, here you just need a sushi roll mat. For color, seaweed powder, cod roe, salmon flakes, chopped pickles, scrambled eggs and sesame powder can be used. Once you have the basic skills, you can create a lot of different patterns.”
The fish used in Tokyo’s sushi likely comes from the iconic Tsukiji Market, over 1,700 stalls selling more than 500 varieties of fish. “Unlike Western food laden with sauces we want to taste every single ingredient,” says Reiko Yoshikawa, author of an upcoming book on the stories behind the market and its vendors. “The Japanese say it’s ideal to have 30 ingredients per day for a balanced meal. That’s why the Japanese take pride in the freshness and care provided to our food.”
In the wet market, Reiko points out some of the old ways – a woman who deftly uses an abacus to tally up purchases and a traditional woven basket strung from the ceiling used as a cash register. A few solitary handcarts are lined up outside, abandoned for the fast electric carts which whiz around tight corners, oblivious tourists be damned. Technology has come to Tsukiji, bringing with it sanitation and efficiency. Despite 2,000 tons of seafood changing hands daily, the market barely smells fishy thanks to roving sanitation inspectors with the latest in laser thermometers to ensure the products are fresh. Mountains of used styrofoam containers for both live and flash frozen fish are ground up and melted into industrial-sized cakes of resin for export right on the grounds of the market.
Embracing the new, though, may actually sound a death knell for the market. The government has plans to relocate the world’s largest fish market (inner market only) to a new, modern facility as early as 2015. “About one-third have decided to move, but the rest are opposed to moving,” says Reiko. “Most workers here are older and are used to the old style of business. The government is trying to make ‘good use’ of the land by building malls and office complexes. Their thinking is: New is good. But I think it would be unfortunate to knock down the locality and the nearly 80-year history of Tsukiji.”
New properties often look back to find inspiration when it comes to design aesthetics. The award-winning 37-story Conrad Tokyo, is an example of marrying elements of traditional Japanese architecture with contemporary design. Entrances are perfectly square, emulating Shinto torii gates, denoting visitors are about to enter a sacred space. In the lobby, “Purification”, a modern oversized sculpture is designed to alleviate modern-day stress and fatigue. Elements reflecting the Shinto (“the way of the gods”) reverence for nature are also woven throughout the property, in the form of sakura (cherry blossom) motifs in the carpets, sumi-e (brush paintings) of trees and birds, live pine cuttings in each room and even the light-rimmed circular mirrors, mimicking the full moon.
In Kazahana, Conrad Tokyo’s Japanese restaurant, the nature theme resurfaces in Chef Masanobu Inaba’s traditional 9-course kaiseki menu. sashimi is served atop a whole fresh yuzu and garnished with purple shiso flowers. While obsessed with perfect presentation, Chef Inaba is also known for his modern blend of Western ingredients and classic Japanese dishes. Diners may be surprised to find cheese and truffles incorporated into their dish or bite into a Kyoto chestnut infused with brandy. “I always think: What looks natural but has a creative twist?” says Chef Inaba whose intention is to bring out each ingredient while making it look like its natural state. his menu includes seasonal and grilled dishes, like barracuda wrapped in wood paper and grilled with autumn mushrooms and chestnuts, adorned with leaves that look like they just fell onto the plate. “I want it to look natural and not too staged so guests can fully feel the season.”
As any otaku (geek) knows, Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics mecca, is the place to hang out, where cosplay-ers (short for ‘costume play’) in elaborate outfits find themselves at home amidst shops specializing in anime, manga and retro video games. For a lonely otaku, an hour with a cute, giggling girl in a French maid outfit who calls you “Master” while hand feeding you dessert and playing rock-paper- scissors may sound like heaven, explaining the estimated nearly 300 maid cafes which have opened in Akihabara alone since they first appeared in 2001.
But the maid cafes have found their match in the Robot Restaurant which opened last year, reportedly at a cost of USD100 million. Visitors are greeted outside the restaurant by robotic dinosaurs and aliens, providing the smallest of hints of what’s to come. The 70-minute experience is in part seizure-inducing, awe- inspiring and head-scratching, an homage to everything gaudy, blinking and deliriously gleeful. Flashing lights, flat panel screens, psychedelic colors and lasers covering every available surface assault the senses, and we haven’t even gotten to the main showroom yet.
As the crowd filters in – part tourist, part work colleagues looking for some fun, part middle-aged single guys – bento boxes and light sticks are handed out. What follows is a blur of million-dollar, larger than life robots, staged battles between what looks to be Kung Fu Panda riding a giant cow against samurai robot warlords and a taiko drum sequence by scantily clad, white-wigged beauties. This is every boy’s Princess Leia fantasy reinvented for the new millennium.
“Originally, we targeted Japanese customers – mostly business people after work, or maybe girlfriends going for a night out. We didn’t expect it to be so popular with tourists, too,” says Namie Osawa, the dancer / choreographer / businesswoman behind the restaurant cum dance extravaganza. “My vision was to have futuristic girl dancers together with robots. Other than that, it’s just my taste,” she says of the gold bathrooms, the gilded nautilus chairs in the lounge and the three meter tall humanoid robots. “There doesn’t have to be a reason for creating something.”
If the quirky celebrities who’ve visited the Robot Restaurant, ranging from JJ Abrams to Katy Perry to tim Burton, are any indication, the otakus of the world have a new place to call home.
The Cultural Barometer of Food
The Japanese are known for their life expectancy, perennially the world’s longest. While good genes, a leaner diet and a more active lifestyle are often cited as factors, Japan is also spearheading the trend towards being more health conscious. Food creator and writer Yuka Togami is a proponent of fermented foods and macrobiotics, a low-fat, low-sugar, high-fiber diet focusing on whole grains and vegetables. Founded by Japanese educator George Oshawa in the early 20th century (and further mainstreamed by celebrities like Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow), the macrobiotic movement addresses spiritual health and balance in addition to the physical side.
“Japanese people have gotten used to eating oily Western fast food that isn’t suitable for Japanese DNA,” says Yuka, who now leans towards ingredients like shio-koji (a fermented mixture of rice inoculated with a special mold and sea salt that has become trendy in recent years) and substituting ingredients like beet sugar for processed sugar and soy instead of meat protein. “Macrobiotics is about the yin and yang of every ingredient and its connection with the environment. We are what we eat and the macrobiotic diet encourages eating seasonal food harvested locally where one is born and raised, in order to harmonize one’s body with the environment in balance.”
Another food trend reflects Japan’s changing attitude towards work. With the average Japanese spending 540 working minutes per day, amongst the world’s highest, it’s no surprise that yakitori, skewered grilled chicken marinated in soy sauce or simply seasoned with salt, has long been popular with Tokyo’s salarymen. “That’s why you’ll often find yakitori joints near train stations,” says foodie Meg Yamagute. “Most open after five and are more bar than restaurant. People typically work until late and the trains are packed during rush hour, so businessmen will pass the time here until the trains thin out. That’s why the clientele is mainly middle-aged men wearing suits. The culture here is you finish work and then keep working. If your boss invites you out for a beer, you’re not supposed to refuse. Their life is their work. They see more of their coworkers than their own family.”
But that workaholic tide may be turning. “Nowadays when the work day is done, young people are saying: I’m sorry but I have to go home to my family,” says Meg. “With changing economics, keeping the same job even if you don’t like it isn’t the norm anymore.” We hop on the metro and head out to Tsukishima for monjayaki, a popular savory pancake, evidenced by the 70 or so similar restaurants that line the road. Inside, the atmosphere is raucous and alive, filled with family and friends. Meg orders monjayaki with bacon and cheese and proceeds to cook the pancake on the table’s hot plate. “You can choose your own ingredients, like pork, fish, spicy eggs or seafood and as you can see, this dish is designed to be shared so it’s nice to have in a group”, perhaps a reflection of Japan’s shifting focus from work to family.
Images by James Pham