Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Two Japanese Stories

I don’t really see any relationship of the
cover image to the novel.
Publication date is 2012.
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami is a strange novel. You could view it as simple tale of love between a woman in her late thirties — the narrator — and her vastly older former high-school teacher, whom she calls Sensei, that is, a very respectful word for teacher. But it’s really more of a story of loneliness, with a sense of not belonging in the modern world while not longing for any other world in particular. And a story of a middle-aged woman who feels that she's still a child.

Almost all the interactions in the book take place in a bar that serves Japanese food, and the food plays a big role. As a non-Japanese reader I suspect I am missing a lot of the subtlety of the many traditional dishes and their meaning. For my particular interests the fascination with food that the characters show in this book is wonderful.

A few of the many food descriptions include these:
Sipping saké side by side in the dimly lit bar while we used our chopsticks to carve away at either chilled or warm tofu, depending on the season— that was how we usually saw each other. (Kindle Locations 167-168).
“One kimchi pork special,” Sensei said to the girl at the counter. He prompted me with his eyes, “And for you?” There were too many things to choose from on the menu— it was bewildering. Bibimbap with egg appealed to me at first, but I decided I didn’t want a fried egg, which was the only option. (Kindle Locations 205-207).
That night we drank only beer. We had edamame, grilled eggplant, and octopus marinated in wasabi. (Kindle Location 302).  
Many of the foods and preparations were entirely unfamiliar to me. The following passages, for example, are a bit baffling. I could look up all the Japanese names, but I haven't done so.
Daikon, tsumire, and beef tendons, please, Sensei ordered. Not to be outdone, I followed with Chikuwabu, konnyaku noodles, and I’ll also have some daikon. The young man next to us asked for kombu and hanpen. We left off our conversation about fate and past lives while we focused on eating our oden for the moment. (Kindle Locations 935-938).
The flying fish’s head shone on the plate. Its wide-open eyes were limpid. With renewed determination, I seized a piece of the fish with my chopsticks and dunked it in gingered soy sauce. The firm flesh had a slightly peculiar flavor. I sipped from my glass of cold saké and looked around the bar. Today’s menu was written in chalk on the blackboard. Minced bonito. Flying fish. New potatoes. Broad beans. Boiled pork. If Sensei were here, he would definitely order the bonito and the broad beans first. (Kindle Locations 1294-1297).
Or a little familiar. like this reference to one of my favorite condiments, ponzu sauce:
Dipped in ponzu sauce, the sweetness of the octopus melted in your mouth with the ponzu’s citrus aroma, creating a flavor that was quite sublime. (Kindle Locations 1693-1694).
Sometimes there are long conversations about food, such as this:
“There are many varieties of mushrooms.”
“I see.”
“For instance, you can pick murasaki shimeji mushrooms and roast them on the spot. Drizzled with soy sauce— my goodness, so delicious!”
“And iguchi mushrooms are quite savory as well.”
“I see.”
As our conversation went on, the owner of the bar had poked his head out from his side of the counter. (Kindle Locations 441-445). 
I've only included the food descriptions that characterize the narrator's relationship with Sensei. She has a brief relationship with another man, one her own age, and they also talk about food and eat together -- but the food is entirely different.

In sum, Strange Weather in Tokyo is an appealing and rather complex novel that masquerades as simple. I think Hiromi Kawakami is an interesting author, and I hope to read one of her other books.

The other story I read is  from the current New Yorker, "Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey.” It's by the very much more famous writer Haruki Murakami. It's a coincidence that I read it immediately after finishing Strange Weather in Tokyo because the two stories had some eerie similarities. I was especially intrigued because both stories included a character wearing an unexpected t-shirt printed with the motto:

In Strange Weather in Tokyo the wearer was Sensei, who normally wore clothing appropriate for the retired high school teacher that he was (and teachers dress pretty formally in Japan). In "Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” it was the monkey who wore the shirt. The monkey also served as a bath-house attendant and shared beer and Japanese snacks with the narrator, who seems to have been a fictional version of Murakami. If you are a Murakami fan, a monkey who does things like this will not surprise you -- in fact, I think you will love the story.

This review © 2020 by mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.


My name is Erika. said...

I've tried Japanese literature but sometimes the cultural differences really get in my way. I have visited Japan on of all things a school trip as an exchange with my district's sister city. No one told me not to bring open toed shoes as they are poo-pooed in schools. I did bring dress up clothes, because I knew they were formal. And they are. That itself was a big cultural difference. And never mind the food. Happy Wednesday. hugs-Erika

Kitchen Riffs said...

Sounds pretty interesting. Certainly worth reading for the food descriptions alone! Excellent review -- thanks.

Mariette VandenMunckhof-Vedder said...

Dearest Mae,
Envy you for finding the time to read any novel... My dream for the future.
Writing an academic type of handbook is not easy but I'm at chapter 8, out of 12. Two more big ones ahead and then I'm FREE! Well, some more work to do before it finalizes but simpler!

Let's Curry said...

Japanese culture have always inspired me as a kid. I still remember when we were learning about Japan in the school, what stood out in the lesson was the arrangement of flowers in Japan known as Ikebana and their dress known as kimono.

Thanks for writing this post, I'm always the one who gets inspired by different names in the food captions and run to google to know what is kimchi etc. Food definitely unites in diversity.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I've worked with Japanese in industry. They are extremely formal and stiff. I've never read a story for the food before. I tend to prefer mysteries, so reading your thoughts on these two books showed me a very different style of both writing and reading. The book Strange Weather sounds quite interesting.

DVArtist said...

Great reviews. I spent some time in Japan and dress and food are very important part of the day. Also the preparation and how it is served. I loved being in Japan. I told my partner that if we were not together I would move there. I wouldn't be able to get Mr. M to move anywhere. LOL

Pam said...

I've always enjoyed reading about Japanese culture and will be checking the book out, sounds interesting.

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

We very much like Japanese food (which may or may not be authentic...sadly I cannot compare to the real thing).... but we have good restaurants here in Eugene Oregon and in Florida (well at least we did have back in the day when “eating out” still existed in our life)...anyway, so some of the foods you mentioned I knew. One that is very familiar (even without restaurants) is daikon. It’s a white radish. Very delicious. .... anyway, all that is beside the point really. I enjoyed your book (and story) review ... and I will look for the book. Virtual travel (through blogs and good books) are easing my travel longings these days.

Lavender and Lime ( said...

You've given me an idea to try octopus with Japanese flavours. I shall have to do some shopping first. Thanks for the review.

Iris Flavia said...

I do have a (well, mostly) loving husband, I studied, I worked for 17 years, yet still in my thoughts I go to "school".
Maybe cause we have no kids, maybe we keep learning all our lives (a "shock" to my Niece, LOL).

I never tried Sake, but was a tad... "mad" at my Asian friends adding forks to the table for us just in case. Hello. No.

Saw some docus on Japanese life and read a few (non-food) books. Not my world.
And yet I was a Geisha once, in original Japanese clothes. Weird, huh.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

I don't know why I am still reading reviews tbr pile is overflowing and I need to stop finding more reads. Thanks for sharing.