Sunday, 27 January 2013

Living in the Land of Cute!

A little while ago I was asked to draw some illustrations for a children's book that might be later adapted for a series for publications aimed at the Japanese market. During preliminary discussions, the matter of ‘style’ was discussed and in particular the need for the images to have that one essential element that will ensure popular success in Japan … ‘the cute factor’! This is apparently that intangible ingredient that is sprinkled over much of the commercial world, providing a particular visual aesthetic that instantly appeals to the Japanese public. They even have their own term for it … ‘Kawaii’, which refers to anything that is loveable, adorable or cute and can be widely associated with not only products or graphics, but with all manner of popular culture.

The driving force behind this influential phenomenon appears to have been young Japanese women, who began to change their sense of fashion having been influenced by the physical appearance of popular female manga comic book and anime characters. In the later years of the twentieth century, there was a deliberate effort to show more skin, exaggerate the length and colour of their hair and wear the tallest platform shoes they could find. Having a rounded child-like face became a highly desirable physical feature, while bold eye shadow further enhanced the ‘doe-eyed’ look. Over the years, ‘cute-couture’ was developed to complement the overall image and in doing so further establish a distinctly youthful trend that continues to defy the test of time. These days, such fashion statements remain as popular as ever and continue to broaden their appeal through mainstream fashion stores. This has resulted in a degree of frustration for Jules who can’t quite see herself wearing this sort of attire, even if it is somewhat toned down for the wider market. However, for the hard-core devotees of ‘Kawaii fashion’ there remains many specialist stores in downtown Osaka for young Japanese girls prepared to devote a sizable slice of their income to dress like human anima characters. In fact, one of the most popular singing stars in Japan, Hatsune Miku is not human at all, but actually an animated 3D hologram whose concerts are regularly sold out and her continued success further perpetuates the youth orientated fashion trend. Likewise, another pop sensation AKB48 has similarly provided a role model for millions of young Japanese girls. The group consists of around 90 female members (currently the largest pop group in the world) and has made a fine art of ‘sexing-up’ the cute aesthetic. Not surprising that they have also attracted a large male following who seem to adore the innocence and helplessness of these nubile young things.

Over the years the whole ‘cute’ phenomenon has morphed into a wide range of lucrative commercial enterprises and has become influential enough to become accepted as a recognizable aspect of the modern Japanese identity. Kawaii imagery can now be seen on all manner of graphics and merchandise; with the success of ‘Pokemon’ and ‘Hello Kitty’ spawning a myriad of little characters eager to entice you to part with your money in the cutest possibly way. Walking around town, we are constantly bumping into costumed characters or oversized blow-up figures designed to attract our attention and inevitably lower our consumer defences. The most popular of these characters have developed their own sub-culture making their merchandise particularly collectable, with their recognizable imagery even spilling over into their own television shows. They can be seen on t-shirts, bags, shoes, mugs, pencil cases, key rings, bento boxes and the dangly ornaments that hang from mobile phones. What is amazing however is that in Japan, these characters don’t just relate to children, but seem to be appreciated and enjoyed by all age groups, making them particularly potent commercial symbols.

While there doesn’t seem to be any signs of 'cute-worship' abating in the short term, it does at times seem to be at saturation point. Yet it remains an increasingly popular aspect of Japanese culture, reinforced by the power of the internet and global commercial expansion. I watched a news report recently that discussed the growth of ‘Kawaii tourism’ and the desire of visitors to experience the cute factor first hand. In a world that is so often tainted by hatred, violence and the seedier side of life, there are certainly worst phenomenon’s that can emerge from a modern day society. While at times there may be some serious undertones, on the surface it all remains bright and innocent. However, I sense that the ‘land of cute’ may be somewhat of an illusion that merely provides a pleasant form of escapism from the rigidity and more serious aspects of Japanese urban life. Yet it’s wide acceptance and tolerance of the more eccentric aspect of the craze suggests much about the sense of fun that so often lies just below its more austere cultural facade.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

A Quick Taste of Yokohama and Beyond

It’s always a bit of a buzz hopping on the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Osaka to Tokyo. It’s just the perfect distance and time (around two and a quarter hours) to sit and relax, read a book, write a blog or to simply watch the passing countryside. Of course passing Mt. Fuji along the way is always a treat and despite the winter season, it again looked perfect this time around. We were heading to the Japanese capital for a conference and after it was all over, Jules had planned to surprise me with a quick over night trip to neighboring Yokohama. Of course I was totally unaware of all this and after traveling on the subway for around forty minutes that evening, I was quite astounded when she announced that we had actually arrived at this alternate destination. There was I thinking that we were still in the suburbs of Tokyo, which is probably a pretty good indication of the sprawling nature of the city and my sketchy knowledge of the train systems.

Jules had chosen a nice spot in the historic waterfront area of Kannai, overlooking Yamashita Park and Tokyo Bay beyond. As one of the busiest ports in Japan, it appeared to be a hub of activity and so it was not at all surprising that the tallest inland lighthouse in the world (Yokohama Marine Tower) could be found right next-door. That evening the air was crisp and the sky was clear as we enjoyed a leisurely walk along the waterfront heading toward ‘bills’ restaurant for a meal with an Australian connection. Celebrity chef Bill Granger has launched several restaurants in Japan over the last few years and as Jules is somewhat of a fan of his cooking, she had made it her mission to try each one. I had begun to suspect that was part of the initial motivation for the visit to Yokohama, when the next day we found ourselves in yet another of Bills restaurants for lunch in the nearby seaside town of Shichirigahama. Not that I was complaining, particularly as this wouldn’t be the first time that food had provided the motivation for our various travel destinations. (see Jules blog).

The next morning, we stepped out into another gloriously sunny day and were provided with a perfect view of the harbor and the Yokohama city skyline. This is an attractive, modern looking city that appears much more contained than its population of 3.7 million (the second largest in Japan) might suggest. It’s growth has been rapid due to flourishing trade with China over the years and has in turn resulted in the emergence of quite a large Chinese community. This also particularly sparked the interest of Jules culinary side and she was keen to make a short to visit Yokohama Chinatown as it is regarded as one of the largest in the world, with over 250 shops spreading over several city blocks.

With time pressing, we eventually hopped back on the train bound for the popular tourist destination of Kamakura, a place known for it’s great Zen Temples of Japan and numerous Shinto shrines. However, what Jules and I had particularly come to see was the iconic Amida Buddha at KĊtoku-in. This large and impressive statue has become recognized throughout the world as one of the defining images of ancient Japanese religious culture. While it originally sat in a wooden temple over 1,200 years ago, it now provides a much more majestic sight in the open air, against the backdrop of a tree covered hillside. The original temple was apparently destroyed many centuries ago, but the garden setting appeared to us to be far more appropriate. The gold leaf had disappeared long ago from the surface of the great Buddha and the 44 foot bronze statue had become nicely weathered over time forming a beautiful green patina. As we circled around this amazing work of art, we were both impressed by its proportions and the craftsmanship of its symmetrical form. For the small cost of 20 yen (around AU20 cents) Jules even chose to investigate the interior structure. Despite the esteem of the sculpture, there were relatively few people at the site, which made it quite a tranquil experience and one we agreed was well worth the 30-minute walk from the town.

Later that day we found ourselves back in the busy streets of Kamakura. Being Saturday afternoon and a perfect sunny day, the tourists were out in force visiting its various cultural sights. However with just a little time before our departing train, we decided to take a stroll down nearby Komachi Dori. This is a narrow and bustling shopping street that sells all manner of traditional Japanese food and products, which is always interesting to us westerners. After an unexpected visit to the local Modern Art Museum, we headed back in the direction of the railway station down a tree-lined street with hundreds of hanging lanterns. This added to the quaintness of the old town and we could imagine how nice it would look in the evenings.

We were soon back on board our train and heading back to Yokohama to connect with the Shinkansen for the run back to Osaka. It had been a whirlwind visit, but one we had both thoroughly enjoyed. As we nibbled on the delights of delicately prepared sushi from our bento box, there was nothing else to do but simply sit back and relax as the 250km per hour super train whizzed us home.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

A Sweet Slice of Adelaide

While visiting Adelaide for Christmas, we again resumed the hunt for the world’s best Vanilla Slice. Regular readers would be well aware that this has been an ongoing fixation that spans many years and has seen Jules and I searching out bakeries from all over the world in order to find the definitive version of this classic custard cake. (check out my earlier blog)

Australia in particular continues to hold this creamy delicacy in very high regard and across this vast land, competitions are regularly held in order find the country’s best. In my hometown of Adelaide, there are many bakeries that proudly boast of their awards, while others simply rely upon word of mouth to claim that their version of the humble Vanilla Slice is simply the best.

With some bakeries closed over the Christmas/New Year period, it was difficult to sample all of the highly rated slices, but we made an effort to search out a number of the better local slices for a comparative taste test. Using our usual criteria of appearance, custard quality, icing and overall taste, we set about selecting five of the best versions of this iconic dessert.

1. Dulwich Bakery, Dulwich – This remains a perennial favorite. Plain and simple with both topnotch custard and icing which simply can’t be beaten. This slice remains as one of our top six in the world!

2. Orange Spot Bakery, Glenelg – While the custard is not quite as creamy as the Dulwich variety, this slice rates very highly and would just about nudge its way into the all time top six based upon its all round perfection.

3. Brumby’s Bakery, Richmond – A genuinely traditional slice that has its own distinctive custard flavor. The overall presentation and its consistency across all of our major criteria place it on the highly recommended list.

4. Price’s Bakery, Hillcrest – This is another good example of the traditional ‘snot block’ with particularly good icing. If the custard was just a little creamier it may move up the rankings.

5. St Georges Bakery, Kensington – A slice with a delicious custard that stands high and proud. The only disappointing aspect of this slice was the frosted icing which lacked the flavor of the traditional sticky variety.

While South Australia has many attractions and remains world renowned for its wine and seafood, if you ever visit you might also like to try some of our favorite local bakeries to sample the great Aussie Vanilla Slice. In the meanwhile we will continue to search far and wide in the hope of one day stumbling upon the definitive version, so if you have any particular recommendations don’t hesitate to comment.