Monday, May 26, 2003

Mold

Tsuyu, the Rainy Season, has started in Southern Japan already. And so with Tsuyu also comes the season of Kabi (mold).
Because of Japan's humid climate, mold becomes a problem at home. Areas such as your bathroom, kitchen, etc., provide an environment for spores to grow, and while you may feel this is a bad thing, we also have to remember that mold is a key contributor to some unique Japanese foods (and of other cultures as well).
One such food is Natto, a sticky mixture of boiled soy beans that traditionally come wrapped in straw. The bacteria responsible for Natto's smell and stickiness is Bacillus Subtilis, which propagates in straw and which makes Natto rich in Vitamin B.
Another food is Katsuo Bushi (dried bonito), the shaved brown flakes that people put on top of their Tako-yaki or Okonomiyaki. Shaved fish flakes dance in the heat of the food and are fun to watch as they move. The flakes are produced with a mold enzyme which breaks down the bonito adeps (a type of lard) and adds the taste and flavor.
Cheese is also, of course, made with the help of molds, as well as wine, saki, etc. Especially the precious is the Botrytis Cinerea bacteria's contribution to create La Pourriture Noble (Pourriture Noble wine). Botrytis cinerea requires a complicated combination of temperature and humidity, which wine makers struggle with each year.
Interestingly, with the SARS epidemic, people in Hong Kong and China have started wondering why Japanese and Koreans are not suffering from the disease. An urban myth has emerged that it may be because both cultures eat a lot of fermented foods. As a result, sales of Kimchi and Natto have soared in the region, as have those of Yakult, a fermented milk drink, made with the Shirota strain of Lactobacillus Casei bacteria.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Parks

May is the month when Tokyo's greenery becomes noticeable. The weather is nice, with lots of sunshine, and its only natural that most of us decide to take a walk and/or a picnic in the park.
Public parks came into being in 1873 in Japan. Each prefecture chose suitable locations. In Tokyo, Sensojii/Asakusa Park, Zojoji/Shiba Park, Kaneiji/Ueno Park, and Tomioka Hachimangu/Fukagawa Park were all among the first public parks to be established. By no coincidence many of the parks are in the precincts of famous temples. Apparently, the parks were an appeasement by the central government in return for prior neglect when innovating the land distribution system.
Before this, Japan didn't have parks. Instead, people went to shrines and temples to enjoy manicured landscapes. The first such publicly developed temple grounds were at Asukayama, opened in the Edo era (1716 - 36). At this time, the masses started enjoying cultural pursuits that previously had been restricted to the ruling class.
Each nation with a park tradition, has had a different reason for developing them. For example, with the industrialization of England and the increase of blue collar workers (who liked dog fighting and other "low-brow" sports), parks were created as a place to escape for the mid- and upper-class residents of London. In Germany on the other hand, parks were created to provide an uplifting of the general public's spirit -- which they achieved by building many statues of patriots and public achievers in the newly created public spaces.
How about Japan? The government was totally focused on modernizing the nation and thus in 1903 established Hibiya Park as a place that would reflect the moral ambitions of the time. Unfortunately, the park soon became overrun with peddlers, street performers, carriages and rikishas.
Well, considering that this was the exact same thing that such people did at the various shrines and temples, their actions were actually quite normal.
Today Japanese parks serve not only as places of recreation, but also as fire breaks. When the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 hit Tokyo, it caused about 43% of the city to burn. The other 60% was protected by parks, squares, rivers, and similar open spaces.