Friday, April 15, 2011

Hanami time

Hanami means "flower viewing," and in Japan it refers to the springtime tradition of going out to see the cherry blossoms. This is an old tradition, perhaps nearly 1,500 years old (medieval), but it wasn't always for cherry blossoms: the earliest parties were for ume, or plum blossoms, which, fittingly, bloom earlier in the season.

How does one "hanami?" By picnicking under the trees, usually on bright tarps, often with a great deal of liquid encouragement.

No, we hadn't been drinking for this picture. Justin and I can make fools of ourselves with no outside help whatsoever.

Our first hanami was at Ohori Park. This was the first time in Japan I'd actually seen someone falling down drunk in broad daylight. (The same thing happened in Scotland within approximately forty minutes of the plane touching down). Some parts of the park looked like a college campus, like my old residential college used to look on TDDDTD Day (Timothy Dwight Drunk During The Day Day), except with a much higher proportion of people over 22.

There is, according to Wikipedia, a Japanese proverb poking fun at people who focus on the drinking and food: hana yori dango, "dumplings rather than flowers." This reminds me of a Korean TV soap called "Boys over Flowers," which should really be about a hanami with high school girls. (What is it actually about? Justin and I never figured that out, except that it has an incredible scene we watched during Korean class in which a male protagonist, about to marry the wrong woman, can't come up with a better way to stop the ceremony than to brace his hand on the coffee table, turn somberly to the best man, and say, "Break my arm." Apparently, in Korea, this was not meant to be comedy.)

This is not to say that people drink at every hanami, or that the only point of hanamis is drinking. This one was after five o'clock on a Saturday, when, as Billy Joel can tell you, the regular crowd has a tendency to shuffle in. Our second hanami, at Nishikoen (Nishi Park), was at midday on a Sunday and was, in many parts of the park, a family affair. It was a popular chance for mothers and children to take pictures dressed up in kimono. I didn't see fathers in traditional dress, a fact which causes the material cultures historian in me to want to blurt out obnoxious theoretical pontifications on gender. Feel free to smack me if I do. If you're too far away, send an email, and I'll do it myself.

So. Nishikoen. Pretty!

Slightly out of focus!

One of my favorite parts of hanami was watching the petals falling in the air, the effect we saw recreated on stage when we went to watch geisha dance. It's like watching fat snowflakes, but more so, since the sun can be out, lighting the petals beautifully, and you're not freezing your booty off. The Japanese also seem to enjoy this aspect, but in a bit more of a melancholy way, using the blossoms and petals as a symbol of transience. Cherry blossoms, although beautiful, rarely last long. If the weather is perfect, they last a few weeks.

A senior student of mine wrote a research paper on kamikazis and cited a haiku which went something like "Falling cherry blossoms/ The remaining cherry blossoms will soon be /Falling cherry blossoms." It captures the idea of young men dying in battle and new young men going off to the front - a Japanese "Where have all the flowers gone?/Long time passing."

Despite these somber overtones, hanami are generally festive occasions. That's been a problem this year, as Japan continues to confront the tsunami and earthquake devastation up north. Those of us in less-affected or unaffected areas worry that it would be in poor taste to picnic under trees while other people have lost so much. The crowds this year are apparently much lower than normal as, according to this BBC article, many hanamis have been cancelled. While all of us want to be respectful, the article offers two perspectives from up north encouraging us to proceed. One man says, "We've lost everything here. We want other people to remind us what normal life is like." A man named Kosuke Kuji, who owns a sake brewery which survived the earthquake, has suffered during what is typically a boom season because cancelled hanamis mean less drinking. (I looked up his brewery. It's Nanbu Bijin. They apparently even have some US distribution, so maybe keep an eye out for their product.)

Boy, where was I when they handed out those books with all the answers in them - you know, the one you get when you become a grown-up?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Taiwan: Beef Noodles & Night Markets

Taiwan is known for good, cheap food. It's Chinese culture: at mealtimes, you tend to find yourself holed up in a dingy-looking place like this--
. . . eating food that looks like this--
. . . that somehow, nine times out of ten, manages to be totally awesome.

Night markets are the best place to go for cheap street food. Like the hawker stalls in Singapore, night markets can be found all over Taiwan.

Even with Nana's Chinese, we spent a lot of time playing menu roulette, though generally we were able to pick out a couple different kinds of meat, and I made darn sure I learned the characters for "beef noodles" by the end of the trip.

Here are a few of the culinary highlights of our trip (excepting an excellent dinner on our last night with Edinburgh pal Mei--none of the photos of that meal came out).

These are two variations on the ultimate local dish: Taiwanese beef noodles. Somewhere between a soup and a stew, with marinated beef. I'm pretty sure I could eat this every day for a month and not get tired of it.

We also had the Taiwanese take on teppanyaki--a Japanese dish of fried meat and veggies, similar to what you'd get at a Benihana in the US. (Remember, Taiwan was under Japanese rule for half a century--the Japanese influence pops up in all kinds of unexpected places.)
In Taiwan, though, you can get lamb teppanyaki, which I don't think is as common in Japan.

Lamb seems to have been lost in the Americanization of Chinese cooking, but seems to be pretty popular among Chinese people throughout Asia. Too bad--Chinese lamb dishes are pretty great.

The one below, an oyster omelette, was a little disappointing. It's supposed to be a Taipei specialty, but ours was kind of bland and gooey. Maybe we just didn't get a good one!
On the whole, though, we spent most of our time snacking, rather than eating proper meals. Luckily, Taiwan is a great place to snack.

This place sold some incredible green-onion pancakes.
They were somewhere between latke and Indian paratha bread--kind of flaky, with a lot of onion.

This fellow sold us fried rice dough wrapped in . . . rice dough.
And these guys had blood sausage--one of my favorites!
It's the black one in the middle.
Finally, my undoing--the Moriarty to my arterial Holmes, if you will--fruit ice.
That's a mound of shaved ice, topped with fresh fruit and drizzled with fruit sauce and condensed milk. They have this in Japan and Korea, but I'd never tried it before Taiwan. I guess I always thought the ice would be the texture of a snow cone, but it's not--it's like frozen air. Creamy, delicious air.

The only problem? Some places seem a little overzealous about the whole "tomatoes are fruit" thing.
Tomatoes for dessert? Seriously!