Category Archives: Friday Column

No.015 “Enough Already, Kokubo-san”

I attended a professional baseball game with my niece and nephew who were back in Japan for their summer holidays. August 24th (Wed), Bay Stars vs. Giants at Yokohama Stadium. My niece and nephew are now in junior high school. They’ve been living in Belgium since they were little so they speak fluent French, but they know close to nothing about baseball. This was thus their first time watching a sports game at a stadium. Yes, there’s no such thing as “baseball” in Europe. As far as popularity of sports goes, soccer seems to be number one. Aside from that, tennis, bicycle and motorcycle racing as well as skiing and ski jumping in the winter is what they watch on television. Aside from the Eurosports channel, I never once saw any baseball in the two and a half years I spent living in Paris. For the French people, it seems that they usually know that such a sport exists, they’ve just never tried it even once.

Let me tell you a story about when Morimura, a music promoter I used to work with, was studying abroad in Great Britain in his university days. Quite the rarity, there was baseball club close by where he lived. Morimura, having been a member of a baseball club in his junior high days, timidly went and joined the club. The overall skill level was so low, he was immediately made the pitcher after they played a bit of catch with him, and his team got into a streak of consecutive victories as they were getting strike after strike thanks to his throws. He was written about in the local newspaper with the headline of “The Kamikaze Pitcher Has Arrived!

I’m getting way off-topic. Even for me, it’d been ages since I last saw a baseball game at a stadium. Thinking about it now, my last time was probably in ’93 when I saw Yakult vs. Kyojin at Jingu Stadium, so roughly about 12 years ago.

When you’re watching a game of baseball at a stadium, it’s best when it becomes a hitters’ battle. I mean, if it becomes a pitchers’ battle, it’s not like you can see their strained faces or anything. No, it’s way more awesome if you get to see a game with hitting and running, exciting close plays and, if possible, a disputed judgement that results in a huge fight. Well, a fight isn’t going to break out that easily though. Anyway, you’re always heading out to the stadium thinking “man, I wanna see a whole bunch of home runs.” Also, another great thing to look forward to at stadiums is the “buying and consuming” part. Hot dogs and corn dogs, takoyaki, yakisoba, udon curry… stuff like this tastes unusually good at stadiums. So, I decided on some original rules to make baseball even more exciting. “No eating before a home run,” and “when a home run does happen, we have to go and get something to eat.” Thus, we arrived at our seats at 17:55, exactly five minutes before the match started.

As I was explaining the basic rules and how to read the scoreboard to my niece and nephew, neither of the teams were getting any hits and the game was progressing towards a slooooow pitchers’ battle. I was getting increasingly worried as I was questioning myself, “I have to go home on an empty stomach if there are no home runs?” My nephew, who was getting hungry due to my rules, asked me “hey, can we really not eat if there are no home runs?” “Hey, when are they going to hit a home run?“, said my niece. “Even I can’t tell you the answer to that when the game is like this“, I replied. The salaryman-looking guy sitting in the seat in front of me seemed to be really enjoying his Yokohama specialty “Nagasaki-style pork dumpling bento box” — which I was beginning to smell, too.

I realized that in a Giants without Rhodes, Kiyohara or Takahashi, it was pretty much just Kokubo who might be able to hit a home run. Then it was finally his batting turn in the fourth inning in a no outs, first and third base situation. The exact moment I was going to say “this guy could possibly pull it off…” there was a loud *clack!* “Go, go, go, YEEEESSSSS!!!” He hit a three-run homer right in between the left and center fielders, his 24th of the year. I yelled out “YESSSSS!! Let’s eat!!!“, unintentionally raising both my hands in joy. “Right, let’s go buy something!” We couldn’t care less about any of the following action as we headed out right for the stands. We started off with the safe and sound hot dogs with plenty of ketchup and mustard. We made our way back to our seats to begin munching on them. “Ah man, this is good. It’s gotta be hot dogs with baseball, am I right? No food before a home run is a pretty darn exciting rule, ain’t it?

The game progressed into the sixth inning as we were thinking about what to eat next, and it was yet again Kokubo’s batting turn. “Isn’t he the one who just hit that home run?” “Yep, that’s him. Oh!” *clack!* “Again?! Go, go, YEEESSSSS!!” (cue me raising my hands again). He hit his second home run to the right of the back screen, his 25th of the year. With an “alright, off to the stands!“, we were at it again. This time we took our time looking through the different stands. Me and my niece decided on yakisoba while my nephew went for roasted pork ramen soup. We got back to our seats and ate in relative calmness. Ahh, we ate to our hearts’ content. “Baseball is fun!

The 8th inning. This time Nioka hit his 14th home run in the left stands! “…What now? Back to the stands?” “Well, that’s the rule.” “… I guess so.” As we were having this discussion, it was once again Kokubo’s batting turn. “Ah, that man again?” “He can’t possibly hit another one, right?” “Yeah, I might be good even if he didn’t.” *clack!* “No way! Enough alreadyyy!!” They scored their second consecutive home run, a 130-meter one to the middle of the back screen, Kokubo’s 26th. His third of the match. Third! I suppose it couldn’t be helped when they went this far, so we were off to the stands once again. “What do you want to do?” “Do we have to eat two now?” “I think I’m good.” “Wanna just go for popcorn?” “Popcorn’s good. Popcorn is proper food, right?” Thus, we gave in and changed the rules. We got our popcorn from the young lady selling it and the three of us munched on them out of compromise.

The next day I was reading the newspaper and it said it was Kokubo’s first time in his 12-year professional career scoring three home runs in one game. That’s seriously pretty amazing.

Baseball really is fun. Moreover, stadiums that don’t have ceilings feel better than ones that do. Well, it must suck for the management if they have to cancel an event due to rain. But for the audience, the roofless ones are great. Who knows, in 15 years there may not even be any roofless stadiums anymore, so you should all go see a game in one while you can. It’ll be even more fun if you make up your own rules to go with it.



No.014 “A Law Against Lip-Syncing”

Last week on the 10th I was reading the Asia section of the Asahi newspaper and there was an article about a new law against lip-syncing. It said that starting next month, the Chinese government is going to start enforcing a new law which prohibits singers from lip-syncing at concerts and other similar events.

Lip-syncing, one of those things that typically has an image of “cheating.” I, too, have done lots of cheating on stage, including playing bogus steel drums, a fake trumpet solo, fake tapping on a guitar without strings and so on, but lip-syncing is something I haven’t done. Yet.

But I’m sure that those who do lip-sync have their reasons for doing so. A very mean-spirited guess would be one having to do with a lack of skill on the singer’s part. For example, during recording they’d sing the song over and over and then just cut and paste only the good parts together, whereas singing it live would result in something sub-par. I’d think this sort of lack of skill is getting increasingly rare these days though.

Besides that, I can think of many other reasons for lip-syncing. I’ve heard shady stories of America — the society of contracts & court trials — where the artist will be approached just before their TV performance and be told that singing live and refusing to lip-sync will cause their performance fee to lessen by a digit. Not just that, but with programs where they demand in the contract that they get to mess with the sound and mixing to make it sound perfect before it airs anyway, I think many artists will just say “fine, let’s go with lip-syncing then.” So, it’s not always a case of wanting to cheat when it comes to lip-syncing.

The man known as the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. There are theories that his vocals and most of what his band plays in concert are pre-recorded specifically for his live performances. There are a lot of rumors about Michael Jackson, though, so you can’t be sure of the authenticity of those claims. But if it is true, I’m sure there’s a very good reason for it. Because, man, his concerts are insane. They’ll raise up the entire set including the stage floor you’ve been watching up until now, and they’ll slide in a whole other stage set from behind. Wearing a space suit, Michael Jackson will get into a rocket that flies off the stage, and yet, just a couple of seconds later will emerge from a whole different part of the venue, lifted by a crane and wearing a different outfit. The stage setting is constantly changing. If you were to make it into a 100% live performance under those circumstances, it’d just be asking for trouble for the musicians. It’d be difficult even in places like Tokyo Dome that do a good job with their electrical systems and other equipment, but Michael Jackson does shows all over the world at baseball fields, soccer stadiums, or even huge plots of vacant land where they have to build everything from scratch. Since they tour and put on such large-scale shows in such varying circumstances, I think it’s only natural that they do it in “karaoke” mode to guarantee the show being a success for both the performers and the spectators. Even if at some point there’s a Michael Jackson dummy that lip-syncs, rather than a concert I’d personally just call that a pretty amazing attraction. When it reaches a point like that, I kind of don’t like how it being “karaoke” or “lip-synced” would be something controversial.

To get back on topic regarding this article on China’s law against lip-syncing: “China has put in place clear regulations in regards to associations for singers and performers: if there are repeated violations within a period of two years, their work licenses will be revoked. The Chinese government is striving to develop improved technology to detect “lip-syncing.” (People’s Daily)

Yep. I like how Beijing-y even the words “work license” sound in context, but more than that, I’m extremely interested in this “improved technology to detect lip-syncing.” Just how will it detect lip-syncing and in what way will it be used? And as for those who do lip-sync, will they also go on to develop new lip-syncing techniques through rigorous training and whatnot so they can remain undetected?

Mmm. I’ve developed a strange fascination with lip-syncing. The fact that it’s now “banned” in China works only to double the intensity of my fascination. I think I’ll have to try it out myself sometime if there’s a bit in my show that’s not working. …Well, I say “try it out,” but in my case I’ll seriously pull out all the stops doing it.

Now then, here’s a question for you.

Using Mandarin Chinese, the official language of China — the country who are enforcing a new law prohibiting lip-syncing — how do you write the word “lip-syncing“? Please select from one of these three and also try to imagine how it might sound when pronounced.

1. 対口形      2. 没唱儿        3. 口把克

※ Please see the correct answer at the end of the column after the next one.


No.013 “To Make a Forced Musical Comparison”

※ This column is a continuation. Please read No.012 first.

I got a bit of a reaction from writing about “mass produce” ramen shops last week. I had quite a lot of friends and acquaintances ask me “where can I find a shop like that, do tell!” So I was thinking it might be fun to get together with everyone and go on a “mass produce tasting tour” and feel all empty inside together. Well, I won’t though. Not like anyone would show up anyway.

That feeling of lifelessness that begins to weigh you down by the second half of your meal when you’re eating at “mass produce” ramen shops where you can’t even see the face of the person making your food… to make a forced musical comparison, it’s like if you had this amazing set on stage, you could hear the vocals but the singer would be nowhere to be seen, and there’d be these fake musicians all wearing matching cool outfits, hardly pretending to be playing their instruments to the music being played from the PA system. As you’d be watching this, all you could do is start dancing to the strong beat rising from below. Yeah, it feels pretty lifeless if you liken it to music, right? But on the other hand, if you were to think of it as just a cheap attraction, I suppose it’d be fine as long as you were having fun.

Just like the music lovers who will try to perceive that as “music,” the ramen lovers will try to perceive their experience at the ramen shop as “ramen” and that’s when it starts to feel lifeless. Alright, I’m starting to not understand what I’m trying to say here. It’s difficult even for me, and I’m the one who’s writing this.

Now then. Three and a half weeks ago when I was in Hokkaido to record for STV Radio’s “KAN no Rock Bonsoir,” I took the opportunity to drop by at the ramen shop Mikatsuki in Furano. After passing through the traditional restaurant noren, sitting down and having a quick glance at the menu, I went for the soy sauce ramen. For whatever reason, probably because my body’s gotten used to all the strong-tasting ramen that are currently popular, when I started eating my soy sauce ramen I thought to myself “doesn’t this taste a bit weak?” But as I kept eating, I realized just how wrong I actually was.

To make a forced musical comparison, it’s like “Ue wo Muite Arukou” and “Itsudemo Yume wo.” In the upheaval of the Showa era, those were the kinds of famous and loved songs that gave moral support to the people who worked and worked to create the foundation for the plentiful Japan of today. I’m sure Mikatsuki’s ramen, too, has been on that same street in that same spot for ages, being loved by the people of Furano as it has continued to exist for all this time. That’s the kind of ramen it is. Just like it would be impossible for a musician to disrespect and separate the lyrics and melody of famous songs on the level of “Itsudemo Yume wo” and “Ue wo Muite Arukou,” the noodles and soup of Mikatsuki’s ramen belong together.

When I realized that about Mikatsuki’s soy sauce ramen, I suddenly felt that it’s a simple bowl of delicious ramen that soothes your heart.

Two weeks ago I was visiting the Shikoku/Sanuki area. I felt like some local udon and so I got taken to the self service restaurant Sakura-ya. Passing through the noren, there were several people there, ordering bukkake udon or grated radish udon from the missus in the kitchen, paying the bill for their favorite fried foods, or just sitting at the tables eating. I’m looking through the menu as I’m waiting in line for my turn. “What’ll it be?“, I’m asked. “Ummm, one unpasteurized soy sauce udon.” I’m quickly handed my moist udon and having the green onion sprinkled on top. “Here you go. 100 yen.” “100 yen?” “Yes. You can add ginger to your liking and there’s soy sauce at the table, the red one is really hot so don’t put in too much, okay?” Ah, there was such simpleness in that exchange which felt somehow really fresh. It wasn’t anything special, just plain old delicious food. I’m not very knowledgeable on udon, but it was worth going there just for that exchange. Good stuff.

To make a forced musical comparison, it’s like if you were randomly traveling somewhere and there was this ancient local song with a long-forgotten title that’d been passed along generation to generation, and the eldest of the village sang it to you before your eyes. You’d take your high quality recording of it back to Tokyo and when playing it with your leading edge sound system, that’s when you’d realize how nothing beats listening to it while surrounded by that area’s climate and natural features.

I’ve been writing about this two-week span of time so much, I’m gradually becoming more and more incomprehensible. But my point is… what I want to say is… When you can properly see the cook working earnestly to make your meal, there’s something there that you can’t taste anywhere else, and though it’s not fashionable or showy, it’s still profound. Thus, you never get tired of eating there. That’s the kind of ramen that makes me happy.

One day I want to become the sort of musician who’d make you think “that’s KAN, right?” when trying to come up with a forced musical comparison to the above. That’s what I wanted to say.

Whatever. Doesn’t this look good? ↓

Unpasteurized soy sauce udon, 100 yen


No.012 “Nostalgist’s Prediction”

Man, I’m so busy. I’ve been very absorbed these days in preparing the contents for the paid side “Kita-Aoyama Image Redevelopment” (which opens on August 20th), writing articles and selecting photos for those contents. I’m currently writing this column in the middle of all that workload. That’s why I’m really glad that I took time off to visit Vietnam three weeks ago. Still, speaking for myself, I was never the type to make orderly arrangements weeks ahead of time. And although I usually don’t consider writing for this column disruptive to my break time after the tour, at the moment, for some reason, I’ve become more sensitive to my situation, probably because I don’t have much time to rest at all, so my head has become filled with all kinds of strange ideas. “Please tell me what’s the point of this work? It’s not like anyone will read it, or rather, just who do you think I am?!” Ahh, I’m so glad I took that break, since life, from beginning to end, doesn’t seem to have any special meaning anyway. You’re probably thinking, “by the way, KAN-san, how’re those songs that you’re quietly working on coming along?” And I agree with you. “You are right. Yes, I do.” But you see, in regards to this site project, I don’t think work like this is really fitting to the glamorous and prideful activities of a true artist. Like I said already, it’s pointless.

So while I’m at it, wasting text on pointless excuses, I’ll try to merge the last week’s topic about “noodles” with this week’s entry.

Now, I can’t emphasize enough how exciting this historic “Ramen Boom” is. It has already reached Tokyo, and you can smell it in the air. So last week I happened to drop by some “mass produce” ramen shops, called so because the actual creators of the food aren’t present there. Common flavor with common style. Each shop displayed a menu on a wall scribbled in a calligraphic font, focusing on the items like noodles and soups, and all of these shops had the same atmosphere. The way the servers looked after customers felt as if it was done by the manual. “Hello, please come in~. Do you have any special request for your meal~? Your seat is over here, please~. We have two types of noodles, thick and thin, which one shall we prepare for you~? How firm would you like your noodles~? Right now, we are offering a free small portion of rice with every meal, or would you like soup instead~? Please wait a moment~. Here you go, the thin noodles as requested~! Thank you very much~!” You can tell they rush these phrases out forcefully, like for example: “Uhh, yes, the noodles…They’re made like usual. No, it’s fine.” It’s as if they’re threatened to be speedy.

It’s difficult to tell apart the ambience during this kind of reception at “mass produce” ramen shops from that of convenience stores or McDonalds. If I were to make a really radical comparison, they look after customers like bus guides, JAL stewardesses, and Tokyo taxi drivers, with everyone expressing themselves in the same manner and smiling in the same manner, and the way they greet you upon your arrival is exactly the same. It makes me extremely uncomfortable. And for the second half of the time I spent eating ramen at these shops, the overall mood grew gradually lifeless. But you know, they say that this is merely a trend of the times, and that people support these changes. As a nostalgist, however, I want to see this evolution stopped for the good of others.

Well, as for me being a “ramen detective”, it seems nowadays that before I even enter a restaurant to sniff out its “mass-produce-ness”, I’ve noticed that none of them give off that lifeless vibe anymore. Or perhaps I should say, I made a huge mistake the other day. So I decided to go into this new restaurant in Shibuyaku while passing it on the street. “Alrighty, here I go“, I came in and sat by the counter thinking: “Crikes, could this be a ‘mass produce’ shop?“, and before I know it, the water and the napkin were placed before me and the ramen ordered. There was no turning back now. The eating counter stood surrounding the cooking table by which several young male and female employees stood cheerfully whispering to each other while preparing the ramen. As I had feared, the first sip came with a sharp impactful flavor, while the rest of the dish was plain salty. I clearly made a mistake here. I guess it couldn’t have been helped, since it was certainly a unique eating experience. The real problem occurred after that. There was a female employee making ramen for the next customer and she was boiling the noodles in the middle of a telephone conversation. As she inclined her head, the handless phone extension hung over her left shoulder to her left ear, while she was having fun talking with someone on the phone. She fried the noodles in that state, sizzling them boastfully, and then dished up some pork fillet and green onion.

Right there, I witnessed the end of that historic “Ramen Boom”. Yes, the Ramen Boom has already ended. Obviously by the process of natural selection, through which the bad shops were weeded out, and the only ones that I’ll be visiting from now on will be the good ones, just as I had wished. This is not some nostalgist’s prediction either. It’s the law of big cities. Yeah, I’m really glad that the burden that’s been torturing me all this time has been lifted off my shoulders. That mysterious sense of freedom.

So, although this topic has finally grown into its fruitfulness and I’ve made myself clear, I have to postpone the next part until another week due to present time constraints. In the meantime, how about trying out a bowl of this “mass produced ramen” that I talked about in this entry? When you have time, that is.

※ “Mass produce” is a neologism I used according to my intuitions. Other people may interpret it differently.


No.011 “Three Bowls of Pho”

※ If you’re in no hurry, it might be best to start by reading No.009 and No.010.

This week, I’ll write about the rice noodles called pho that I got to eat during my little vacation. Like Japan, rice is also a staple food in Vietnam, but for them, “boiled white rice” as we enjoy it is not their only everyday food made out of rice. They also have the ultra-thin rice paper that you wrap around different foodstuffs, bánh tráng, and the rice noodles, pho.

With a light, transparent soup made out of cow and pork bones, the white noodles themselves are about half as thin as Japan’s udon, semi-transparent and soft. If you put in raw, thin slices of beef, you get pho bò. You can add some green onion and coriander if you want to be fancy. As accompaniments, take a plate on which you pile on heaps of the mint-like leafs and the other kinds of green leaves whose names escape me now, some bean sprouts, and finally some limes cut into wedges. The way to eat it is to first take some leaves, put them on top of the pho, then the bean sprouts, then squeeze in some lime, and then eat — it works out in a way that when you do, the beef will have already gotten cooked in the heat of the soup.

Pho is also well-known in Paris, France, a place with close historical ties to Vietnam. There are two large Chinatowns in Paris that started as places with big Chinese-style supermarkets that sold Chinese foodstuffs, then grew to include items from Japan and other places in Asia. There are also many Asian restaurants on the streets, linking together the buildings. Though they’re called “Chinatowns,” to me it seems like over half the restaurants there are Vietnamese, with the rest being Chinese, Thai, Laotian and Cambodian. So in that sense, they could as well call them “Vietnamtowns.”

Within those Vietnamtowns, the items found on most of the restaurants’ menus include pho as well as little fried spring rolls wrapped in rice paper, also known as nem. For the people in Paris, these two are the kind of items that even if they haven’t eaten them personally, I doubt there’s anyone who doesn’t at least know of them. The Vietnamtown in the 13th district was around 10 minutes by bus from where I lived, so I often got to visit shops specializing in pho. All the other Japanese residents there as well loved pho and the commonly shared opinion was that “rather than going for ramen and being disappointed, the pho here tastes somehow better and fresher.

Since around the beginning of the year, I was getting fed up with all the ramen I was eating and I’d been thinking I wanted to have pho again since it’d been a while. I thought it was then best to get it authentic, and that’s why I was so dead set on my destination this time being Vietnam.

For someone like me who loves to eat, Vietnam is a pretty great place to be. Of course, there are a great number of other things I want to eat there aside from pho, too. Anyway, since the plan was to eat three times a day — in the morning, at noon and in the evening — that meant I was going to have 10 meals while in Vietnam. Checking my guidebook, it said that all pho shops open at 7 o’clock but that it’d be really crowded at breakfast. However, I had my mind set on having my daily “morning pho.” Thus, every morning I’d set out at 9 o’clock as planned, I’d try three different shops, and at each one I had a bowl of pho. (Though because of influenza-related reasons, I didn’t get to eat pho ga as it includes chicken.) I think some of you might be thinking “Pho? First thing in the morning?” but really, portion-wise it’s about the same as eating half of a light niku nanban soba. You’ll be hungry again three hours later.

With its low-calorie image, pho has also been gaining popularity in Japan for some time now. Like Italy’s spaghetti, having some foods you like and know that you can get almost anywhere on your journeys is very valuable to a traveler. If you include my travels in ’94 and ’95, I’ve now had around seven bowls of pho in Vietnam.

So, what do you think about Vietnam? 10 years ago when I last visited I didn’t see any other Japanese people there aside from me, but perhaps because of the fact that you can now stay there for up to 15 days without a Visa, I saw quite many young Japanese female travelers there this time around.

Those of you who are interested should head on over to the “World of Ramen” section of my site where I’ve added a review of one of the pho-specialized shops in Ho Chi Minh City. For those of you who want to know even more on Vietnam, I recommend joining the special paid site “Kita-Aoyama Image Redevelopment”, opening on August 20th. (I’m at it again.)