Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Tokyo Stories

Bonsai at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Ann Arbor, on a walk today.
Tokyo is almost unimaginably large for someone like me to imagine. Though the official city of Tokyo has 13 million people, the greater Tokyo area has close to 38 million. The Book of Tokyo, edited by Michael Emmerich and others, presents ten very recent short stories that take place in this huge urban setting. I decided to read this collection to become more familiar with current Japanese authors.

Surprisingly, almost all of the stories had some type of food theme. I wasn't expecting this! Cooking at home, including food purchases, preparation, and sharing among generations; eating sushi, Thai food or cheap Chinese meals out; quirky responses to food -- all seem to pop up in these stories of domestic and city life. Small grocers, fish-mongers and bakers; medium-sized supermarkets; large food halls in the sub-basements of the major downtown department stores; or high-end bakeries: all have a place here.

The lives of the characters are often depicted by their food thoughts and what they eat or how they feed others. An out-of-work man, cooking to save money, restores the kitchen in his apartment, which he's been using as a clothes closet. A woman for whom life has no meaning begins to cook occasionally for her aging father (though it doesn't help her). Another woman rebels against her traditional mother by having a totally messy house with ready-meals and take-away containers left on the table and her husband doing the laundry. Most of the stories are sketches of the lives of pretty ordinary individuals, and food is not neglected.

Here are some examples from the highly varied stories in The Book of Tokyo:
"When he pressed her over her dislike of basement food halls [in Tokyo's department stores], her reply was simple: ‘Just the thought that everyone there is thinking about eating gives me the creeps.’ But Watanabe had the feeling that there was some other, more personal reason and began imagining what it might be. There must be someone in her past she didn’t like eating with. She hated being watched while she was eating, and she didn’t like seeing the other person eat. Maybe she felt vulnerable, as if she was being stripped naked by whoever it was staring at her while she ate. On the other hand, if she watched someone else while they were eating, she was being forced to see that person’s nakedness, or listen to their pathetic whingeing." -- From "An Elevator on Sunday" by Shūichi Yoshida (Kindle Locations 2443-2448) 
"Sitting next to me on the sofa, Mother asks, ‘When will the grocery delivery arrive?’ 
"‘It should be here tomorrow.’ 
"‘Thanks. That’s such a big help. Rice and the like are so heavy I just can’t carry them myself anymore. Ooh, this cake is delicious. That new shop’s a real winner.’" -- From "A House for Two" by Mitsuyo Kakuta (Kindle Locations 463-466) 
"In a daruma-patterned rice bowl and a rabbit-patterned rice bowl, I heaped white rice, as densely and as appetizingly as I could. There were two lights on the kitchen ceiling, but both were dead and had been left that way, because I couldn’t be bothered, for a year. In the dim light, Yukari brought the plate of miso-pickled mackerel, the small plate of pickled radish, and a little bowl of seasoned boiled spinach to the table and said, ‘Let’s eat,’ handing me chopsticks. 
"I took them and said thank you. 
"‘I don’t know how good this is.’ 
"‘You don’t have a club meeting tonight?’ I asked. 
"‘It’s only Wednesdays and Saturdays,’ Yukari said, putting a fish bone on the edge of the plate. ... 
"All the side dishes were bland. I’m originally from the Kansai region so I like bold flavours, but all the meals that my Kyūshū-born wife made were basically bland. Yukari’s cooking was even blander than her mother’s." --  From "Dad, I Love You" by Nao-Cola Yamazaki (Kindle Locations 1433-1442)
"But it’s the second time this year we’ve come for a picnic in this park, five minutes’ walk from our house. We’ll probably do the same thing 20 more times until winter arrives and the grass becomes completely withered. We did that last year, and the year before. We have sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, curried cauliflower, meatballs cooked in tomato sauce and more besides, packed together and arranged in different-sized airtight containers. We also have two vacuum flasks – one of coffee and one of sweet-corn soup. 
"‘Is it okay?’ Kyoko asks, as I put a piece of cauliflower in my mouth. 
"‘Mm, it’s good,’ I say. She looks slightly relieved." -- From "Picnic" by Ekuni Kaori (Kindle Locations 302-307).
"The monster prepares his meals with ingredients purchased at supermarkets, or convenience stores, or delicatessens. But four times a week without fail he must eat ashitaba. He cannot go without it. Which means that first he must obtain it. According to the explanation on the package in the vegetable aisle of one supermarket, ashitaba is a large perennial of the parsley family. The explanation goes on to say that ashitaba is in the angelica genus of the parsley family, a name that comes from the Latin angelus, which means angel." -- From "Model T Frankenstein" by Hideo Furukawa (Kindle Locations 281-284).

If you are expecting to find Bonsai, Tea Ceremonies, formal Kimonos, Noh Drama, or any of that sort of thing, you'll
be very disappointed in the very modern life depicted in The Book of Tokyo! Those things are for us, over here.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

I should get this for Rick for Christmas. He adores Japan and has been there many times and cooks Japanese quite a bit from books he got there. I had huge culture shock and anxiety in Tokyo. It was so big -- and I'm not unused to traveling to large cities but I can interpret signs better in our alphabet -- the kanji was terribly confusing and there were so many people, I was afraid I would lose Rick. I rarely get into that panic mode traveling. I found I loved Japan a lot more when we got out of Tokyo! Maybe a second time would be less intimidating.

But oh, the food was wonderful! I might like this one, too!