Warning: This blog is about to be hit by a flurry of Japanese posts as we have just returned from two brilliant weeks in Tokyo and Kyoto. There will be a never-ending amount of gratuitous food shots and ‘kawaii’ – Japanese cuteness. Some of the items of food or cartoons I discuss may appear irrational and entirely bonkers, but don’t try to understand it; just let the Japanese joyful weirdness roll over you like marshmallow fluff on toast.
Part 1: Rilakkuma
In Japan you are constantly lost by the lack of translations. There are three different types of characters, hiragana, katakana, and kanji, differing combinations can mean different things and there are no spaces between words. I’ve heard that it can take you until 18 till you can read a full newspaper.
My ability to read only half the katakana alphabet was unhelpful except for spotting the word ‘biru’ (beer) and ‘unagi’ eel. We ate a lot of unagi and beer on the holiday! Except for the odd time when I was brave enough to ask “Dore ga osusume desu ka?” What would you recommend? Only to be presented with eel liver soup. We asked this question very sparingly and only when the answer was unlikely to produce animal entrails.
In the great bittersweet movie, Lost in Translation – Bill Murray’s character, Bob is doing a commercial for Suntory whisky. The Japanese take their whisky very seriously. Bob has been hired to exude a certain whisky sozzled American charm. A distilled Teddy Roosevelt ruggedness, a sense of the cowboy, the comfort of a sitting in a leather armchair in a knitted cardigan with a cigar, distilling Colombo-like wisdom as he sips from the glass.
This need to convey all this, however, is lost on Bob as the Director speaks no english. Instead he has to listen as the Director babbles paragraphs of directions at Bob in Japanese – to which the young, timid interpreter merely says…
INTERPRETER: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?
BOB: That’s all he said?
INTERPRETER: Yes, turn to camera.
BOB: Does he want me to, to turn from the right or turn from the left?
INTERPRETER (in very formal Japanese to the director): He has prepared
and is ready. And he wants to know, when the camera rolls, would you
prefer that he turn to the left, or would you prefer that he turn to
the right? And that is the kind of thing he would like to know, if you
DIRECTOR (very brusquely, and in much more colloquial Japanese):
Either way is fine. That kind of thing doesn’t matter. We don’t have
time, Bob-san, O.K.? You need to hurry. Raise the tension. Look at the
camera. Slowly, with passion. It’s passion that we want. Do you
INTERPRETER (In English, to Bob): Right side. And, uh, with intensity.
BOB: Is that everything? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than
DIRECTOR: (In Japanese) What you are talking about is not just whiskey, you know. Do
you understand? It’s like you are meeting old friends. Softly,
tenderly. Gently. Let your feelings boil up. Tension is important!
INTERPRETER (in English, to Bob): Like an old friend, and into the camera.
DIRECTOR: You understand? You love whiskey. It’s Suntory time! O.K.?
DIRECTOR: O.K.? O.K., let’s roll. Start.
BOB: For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.
DIRECTOR: Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut! (Then in a very male form of
Japanese, like a father speaking to a wayward child) Don’t try to fool
me. Don’t pretend you don’t understand. Do you even understand what we
are trying to do? Suntory is very exclusive. The sound of the words is
important. It’s an expensive drink. This is No. 1. Now do it again,
and you have to feel that this is exclusive. O.K.? This is not an
everyday whiskey you know.
INTERPRETER: Could you do it slower and ?
DIRECTOR: With more ecstatic emotion.
INTERPRETER: More intensity.
DIRECTOR (in English): Suntory time! Roll.
BOB: For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.
DIRECTOR: Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut! God, I’m begging you.
There is a frenetic energy that buzzes through Tokyo’s buildings above and below ground and through the labyrinthine subway network. With millions of people crammed into the city – it is remarkable how they have managed to cultivate a culture of ‘relaxing times’. Temples and green spaces, long lunches, snoozing on the subway. Products are designed around helping the Japanese relax. Kirin beer, not the whisky, is promoted as the tool for “relaxing times”. And if that’s a bit too serious, then there is even a ‘Relaxed Bear: Rilakkuma.
Move over Hello Kitty, you have been out-cuted by another product of San-X, a soft fluffy bear and his yellow chick side-kick.
Rilakkuma (Relax Bear) and Korilakkuma (white bear) and Kiirotori (little yellow chick) are a phenomenon in Japan.They are absolutely everywhere, on phones, billboards, hamburger wrappers, juice boxes.
I love this wikipedia description of them: “Korilakkuma frequently plays pranks on Rilakkuma while he is sleeping, such as drawing on him, putting headphones on him and sewing odd color patches on his bear suits.” The Relaxing bear’s other hobbies include eating pancakes, watching TV and sitting. Very admirable qualities. I am a big fan of sitting.
The brown and yellow soft fluffiness of these two characters proved irresistible and we bought – A LOT – of Rilakkuma lunch boxes, rice shapers, stuffed toys, key rings, books, folders, note pads. You really could kit out your entire house in Rilakkuma branded items.
But, it’s not all just kitsch cuteness. Rilakkuma is a window into Japanese culture and its foods. He loves mainly desserts custard pudding, omurice (omelette with fried rice and ketchup), pancakes and dango (a flavoured rice dumpling) – although I can’t explain the reason why he has inserted his friend into an egg cup here…is he intending to eat him? If I were you Kiirotori, I would un-friend him on Facebook asap!
We resisted the urge to buy the 200lb Kiirotori chick from the Rilakkuma store, but only just. We just weren’t sure where in the house you could put a giant yellow chick. In the study perhaps, for relaxing times with a glass of whisky?
For relaxing fun time, make it Rilakkuma time.
While Rilakkuma promotes a gazillion different desserts. Here’s our own selection sweet Japanese delicacies.
Green tea ice, from Royal Host diner off Omotesando, covered with sweet red bean and dango. Slightly unusual taste but very refreshing.
Tokyo Banana 東京ばな奈 – light chiffon cake filled with banana custard. I am not a huge banana enthusiast (except for perhaps Banana Angel Delight), but these light little cakes were absolutely delicious and not too sweet. Check out their beautiful web site here.
Baumkuchen バウムクーヘン- it is insane how popular this is. I saw a queue the length of Tokyo station to get into their Baumkuchen store. They are everywhere. Meticulously made german cakes, made by layering batter on a long spit which is rotated and cooked with more and more layers. It is also known as ‘tree cake’ because of its many rings. Introduced in 1919 to Japan, these cake shops are everywhere.
Much of Rilakkuma is lost in translation – but who cares. Enjoy relaxing times with soft bear and yellow bird.