It’s time for A to Wa of Japan, and I’d like to start with a big THANK YOU to all of you who joined in and shared your suggestions for topics beginning with あ (a) when I launched this new weekly series last week. Here are some of the suggestions I received: UK Seikatsu suggested アキラ (Akira the animated film), 網走 (Abashiri in Hokkaido), 愛と誠 (Ai to Makoto – a famous manga in the ’70s), 天城越え (Amagigoe – an enka song by Sayuri Ishikawa), 渥美清 (Atsumi Kiyoshi – a famous movie actor, known for playing Tora-san in the film Otoko-wa-tsuraiyo), 阿部定 (Abe Sada – a woman famous for committing an unusual murder), 安室奈美恵 (Amuro Namie the J-pop star), and あんこ (anko – sweet red beans used in Japanese sweets); lovelycomplex22 suggested アンパンマン (Anpanman – a cartoon character); Francoise suggested 嵐山 (Arashiyama in Kyoto), 浅草 (Asakusa in Tokyo), 安部 公房 (Abe Kobo – a playwright, photographer and inventor), アイヌ (Ainu – the indigenous people of Hokkaido), and 有松 (Arimatsu in Aichi); Genki Jason suggested 秋葉原 (Akihabara in Tokyo); and AK suggested 青い (aoi – and talking about the difference between blue and green in Japan).
Wow – such a lot of suggestions, I hardly know where to begin! As I simply don’t have the time to cover them all, I have decided this week to write about one person, one place and one food. So here goes…
Amuro Namie (安室奈美恵)
I don’t know huge amounts about J-pop, but when I first started getting into Japanese pop music Amuro Namie (or Namie Amuro, to write her name the Western way round) was one of the first musicians whose album I bought. Her music reminded me of Christina Aguilera, and I liked her hip-hop-J-pop style. She uses both English and Japanese in her music, making it very accessible to an international audience.
Namie started out at the age of 14 as an idol (アイドル) in the girl group Super Monkey’s (スーパー・モンキーズ). The group disbanded in 1995, and Namie went on to pursue a very successful solo career. Here she is with Super Monkey’s, performing their single Try Me (Watashi o Shinjite):
After a short career break in 1997 to have a baby, Namie returned in 1998 but faced declining record sales. She dealt with some difficult personal struggles in this period, including the murder of her mother and divorce. However, she bounced back, reinventing herself as the ‘Queen of Hip-Pop’ in 2005 and finding success with a string of releases, while managing life as a working single mother.
By 2007, Namie’s career was really back on track and her song Baby Don’t Cry sold over a million ringtone digital downloads after being used as the theme song of a Japanese Drama Himitsu no Hanazono.
Namie Amuro remains one of the longest surviving popular female acts in Japan, and last year was her 20th anniversary as a musician. She celebrated with a new album called Uncontrolled, which was released in June 2012. She then played a series of 20th anniversary concerts across Japan.
(Image source: Namie Amuro’s Facebook page)
Although I find it impossible to list all my favourite places in Japan, I am certain Arashiyama would be in my top ten. When I first visited Kyoto I was quite disappointed by the modern station area and the lack of ‘real Japan’ I had been expecting (you know, geisha, old temples, people wearing kimonos…). However, when I went back to Kyoto and visited Arashiyama, I was delighted to find what I had been looking for. Arashiyama manages to keep that ‘oldy-worldy’ feel, whilst still being a total tourist trap stuffed full of gift shops (actually, I would go there just to buy gifts – the shops are brilliant!).
In the picture above you can see one of Arashiyama’s main attractions – Togetsu-kyo Bridge (渡月橋), or ‘Moon Crossing Bridge’. This is a really popular place to come in spring to see cherry blossom and in autumn to see coloured leaves.
Also famous in Arashiyama are the bamboo groves. Although popular with rickshaw riding tourists, the bamboo groves provide a cool, peaceful area where you can explore various small shrines and temples and lose yourself in a forgotten time. It’s a world away from the hustle and bustle of central Kyoto, and the trees provide shade, keeping things a bit cooler in the summer heat.
Do watch out for the rickshaws, though, as you wander…
No trip to Arashiyama would be complete without a visit to Tenru-ji (天龍寺), which is a famous temple built in 1345. The temple has a beautiful garden, which you can see in the photo below:
In 1994, Tenru-ji was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. When you visit Kyoto, it’s easy to become a bit overwhelmed by all the temples and shrines, and they start to merge into one after a while. However, I really do recommend a visit to tenru-ji if you’re in Arashiyama, as the grounds are simply beautiful. Each season you’ll find something different there – cherry blossom, coloured leaves, maybe snow – and even when it’s full of tourists, Tenru-ji’s garden seems to retain a calm atmosphere.
Arashiyama is easily accessed from Kyoto Station in about 15 – 20 minutes. Just take the JR Sagano Line to Saga Arashiyama Station. Alternatively, you can arrive on the other side of Arashiyama at the Hankyu Arashiyama Station, if you come via the Hankyu Line. The Hankyu Line doesn’t run directly from Kyoto Station though – you need to take a subway to Katsura Station and pick it up there. Here’s a Kyoto train and subway map – you’ll see the various stations for Arashiyama on the left. Arashiyama is not that big, and you can easily walk around on foot. Last time I went there, I arrived at Hankyu Arashiyama Station and left from the JR station, just to see as much as possible.
Anko (餡子) is one of the names for red bean paste made from azuki beans. You will also hear this referred to as ‘ogura’ (小倉) or simply ‘an’ (餡). There are different ways of preparing anko:
- Tsubuan (粒餡), whole red beans boiled with sugar but otherwise untreated
- Tsubushian (潰し餡), where the beans are mashed after boiling
- Koshian (漉し餡), which has been passed through a sieve to remove bean skins; the most common type
- Sarashian (晒し餡), which has been dried and reconstituted with water
Anko is used in lots of Japanese sweets, desserts and snacks. It’s one of my all-time favourite ingredients, and having trawled through my photos it looks like I’ve tried it in just about every form:
Having lived in Nagoya, I also discovered Ogura Toast, which is a famous breakfast dish:
For me, ogura makes a much better toast topping than jam, and it feels healthier because it’s made from beans (although it is usually mixed with sugar).
Actually, in talking about anko, I can also mention Anpanman (アンパンマン), and squeeze in a fourth ‘something beginning with あ’. Anpanman is a popular cartoon character in Japan and, as you can probably guess from his name, he is based on anpan (see above). Here’s some information from the Bandai website about Anpanman:
Created by Takashi Yanase, Anpanman was first released in 1973 under the title Anpanman in a monthly picture book called Kinder Ohanashi Ehon. In 1988, the Nippon Television Network Corporation began broadcasting the anime adaptation Anpanman, which to date has exceeded 1,000 episodes and is still going strong. In 2009, the series was recognized by Guinness World Records as having the most characters in an animation series—a record that is still growing and remains unbroken. The stories of Anpanman and his many colorful friends can be enjoyed by children and parents alike. In a Bandai Children’s Questionnaire, Anpanman has reigned as the most popular character among preschoolers for several years.
Having taught preschoolers, I can verify that last sentence as true! My kids were crazy about Anpanman. We had a video (yes, a video cassette) of Anpanman which we would put on for kids in our school’s lobby sometimes – it was Anpanman learning his ABCs. I think I enjoyed it as much as the kids did.
So, back to anko… as you can see, anko is very versatile, and it’s something you will come across in many forms all over Japan. As an ingredient, I really can’t see why it hasn’t become more popular overseas. When people first hear that their dessert has beans in it, they might be a little surprised, but having made yummy cupcakes using azuki beans, I don’t see why anko shouldn’t be used more often in cakes and desserts. Like this…
Next week we’ll start with い (i), so please leave a comment below suggesting a topic for things beginning with い. Topics can be anything, as long as they are connected to Japan – food, places, people, characters, whatever you want to hear about! Just remember that the words you suggest must be Japanese (for example, you can’t suggest ‘ice cream’ for ‘i’, because ‘ice cream’ in Japanese is ‘aisu kurimu’, but you could suggest ‘ikebana’, which is the art of flower arranging).
I look forward to hearing your suggestions! (*^_^)v