Saturday, 26 February 2011

Dicing with the Deadly Fugu

As Jules and I wander the streets of Osaka we inevitably find ourselves in one of the numerous restaurant areas…there are just so many! Of course, there are plenty of different forms of food to choose from, but the one that has me particularly fascinated are the places that specialise in serving the deadly Fugu fish. They are quite easy to find, as they often have a tank in the window with these ugly, but highly appreciated fish swimming around or a large model of one hanging above the door. Now, the first time I heard of this type of marine creature was when I used to go fishing with my dad many years ago and we would occasionally catch the Australian equivalent, called a Toadfish or ‘Toady’ as we used to call them. When you caught one they would puff up to about three times their size looking very unappetising. Even more significant was the fact that they are highly poisonous and so we were always happy to just throw them back. Our wariness was further fuelled by various urban myths regarding whole families who had been wiped out after catching and eating the deadly fish. Well, it seems that Japanese Fugu (puffer fish) is a somewhat bigger cousin…uglier and even more poisonous that it’s Australian counterpart, but for some strange reason it’s meat is highly sought in Japan. It is so revered that people will risk their lives to eat raw slices in government-licenced premises. In order to obtain permission to serve the fish, the chef must go through a rigorous training program in order to learn how to remove all traces of poison from the flesh, which is traditionally served sashimi style. It is one of the most expensive fish in the world and it’s flavour is said to be very delicate. At this stage Jules and I have not been tempted to try it, but some of my teaching colleagues have indulged and live to tell the tale. Their advice to me was simple…just get your affairs in order before you enter the restaurant! I’m not sure whether I am quite ready yet , but I must admit I have a sneaking admiration for those who are brave enough to dice with the Fugu fish.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Building a Japanese House

As I have always had a strong interest in architecture, I was particularly keen to have a closer look at domestic architecture while in Japan. Over the years in my Design classes we would inevitably discuss the stylistic inspiration of Japanese architecture on modernist pioneers such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. This would eventually lead to the Bauhaus and obvious connections to the minimalist style that remains so popular today. While the traditional wooden, grid-based style can still be easily found, it is fair to say that the modern Japanese home is now very different in both design and construction. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to observe modern house construction first hand while passing the numerous building sites on the way to school. Being in the outer northern suburbs of Osaka, the once open foothills are now quickly being covered with what can only be described as ‘instant’ homes.

The first thing that strikes you is the size of the land on which they are being built, which is very small. However, in true Japanese tradition every portion of the space is fully utilised ensuring that each home is literally within arms length of its neighbour.
Most sit very close to the road, with just enough space for a small car space. The generally double storey designs vary considerably, from flat roofed modern executive styles to traditional cottages that would look more at home in England. The last remnants of Japanese aesthetic appears to have almost totally disappeared, with even the traditional tatami room increasingly giving way to the popular home cinema. However, what continues to fascinate me is the sheer speed in which they are constructed. With the foundation barely dry, the wooden framework goes up with tradesmen busily working into the night, often under floodlights in order to push the job forward. A cloth covered scaffold is neatly placed around the house while construction is underway, so for several weeks the house looks like a large present ready to be unwrapped by the proud owner in due course. There is not a cement mixer in sight, with the stone, brick or cement exterior finishes achieved by textured panels that are eventually glued on. Not surprisingly, I have heard that modern homes are not particularly well insulated and this might explain the high demand for reverse cycle air conditioning units. Nonetheless, when the finished home is revealed a few weeks later, it has the appearance of a shiny new appliance.
Of course there is great care taken in selecting an impressive front door, which always opens outward for some reason. This could be cultural or more likely a way of providing more interior space for removing your shoes; a traditional practice that still continues today.

Le Corbusier once stated that a home should be ‘a machine for living in’ and it seems that the Japanese have taken this adage on board. Like most modern products that inevitably become obsolete, these homes are not expected to last forever. Having lived with earthquakes for centuries, the Japanese are well aware of that. I was told that 30 years was a reasonable expectation for the life of a house and with that in mind, you can well understand the sense of impermanence these modern homes often seem to reflect.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Osaka's Electronic Maze

During our early days in Japan we found ourselves with the challenge of having to quickly furnish and equip our apartment with the usual array of electrical appliances. It was while going through this process we became more than familiar with the ‘Godzilla sized’ electrical stores that dominate many of the major shopping areas. Nothing quite prepares you for the experience of walking into multi-level mega-stores like ‘Yodobashi Camera’ or ‘Labi’. Here, you are immediately hit by a wave of noise and visuals that would totally disorientate most unsuspecting consumers, not to mention the already disorientated foreigner, who can’t read or speak a word of Japanese. Catchy jingles are continually and loudly played throughout the store, subconsciously planting an annoying little tune in your head that is guaranteed to stay with you long after you leave. For those long suffering sales assistants, it must be like slow torture, but they don’t outwardly show it, maintaining their friendly bows and echoed crys of ‘Irasshaimase’(welcome to my store) all day long. While the sounds are distracting, they pale into insignificance to the visual barrage of information that faces you. To us it simply becomes a meaningless mosaic of pattern and colour, but for the Japanese consumer it must truly be a ‘sledgehammer’ approach to selling. Thankfully for us, the prices are clear and presented in English characters, making it easy for us to buy our chosen products. When you eventually reach a cashiers desk, the assistants are gushing over with friendliness and immediately offer you a point card (hugely popular in Japan). This means that with every purchase you can build up your ‘pointo’s’, which allows for future discounts. This provides the incentive to lure you back into the store to endure the experience all over again. Of course, we have been back many times and each time we walk in those doors the sight and sound of these amazing electrical stores instantly brings back memories of our first confusing and exciting days in Japan.