Thursday, November 24, 2011

Japan's Family Food

Kiritanbo-nabe, the entire family's pot.
One key component of any culture is its food, but how that food is eaten and who that food is eaten with is also important. From what I've seen and experienced with my host family, if Japan society-wise is often group-oriented, then Japan cuisine-wise is often family-oriented, not just as a feature of who it is eaten with but how it is eaten. Yakiniku, sukiyaki, nabeall of these are more commonly eaten as a family (or a group of friends). While other foods like ramen, donburi, and others are often bought for oneself, the more family-based foods are unique in that they are shared with the family, not just something to eat by yourself, thereby making you include yourself within the family (or group of friends) through eating.

My own dish from the kiritanbo-nabe.
With my host family, I've been able to have some Japanese food that, while I could get at a restaurant, loses some of its touch when its not eaten at home with a family. Just yesterday we had nabe, specifically kiritanbo-nabe.  For those who have never had any sort of nabe ryori, it is basically a hot pot (literally, 鍋 nabe refers to the pot the food is served in) in which a various mix of vegetables, meat, and practically anything imaginable depending on the dish is boiled together, and everyone takes what they want from the nabe with a smaller dish of their own. In doing so, the nabe becomes both the center piece for the meal as well as a center for the family or conversation, as everyone shares instead of staying isolated with their own personal bowl of rice or noodles. In addition, while kiritanbo-nabe is a specialty of Akita Prefecture and neither of my host parents are from Akita, the reason we had it was because one of their previous host students currently works in Akita and had suggested we try it, which also includes a sort of family-factor in our meal choice.

Not just at home but at restaurants as well, sharing seems very common. At a restaurant, for example, it's common to buy a large mix of items and try them all with your friends. (One of the most popular places for this around Kansai Gaidai is probably Torikizoku, where food is relatively cheap, allowing you to focus on being with your friends and enjoying the experience without having to really worry about the price!) Even the Italian restaurant near my host family's house is family orientedthe last time we went, we bought several types of pasta, pizzas, and salads and shared them all, partially so we could figure out what tasted best, partially because we were there as a family and so we thought it would be best to share. In contrast, at an Italian restaurant in America, for example, I think the more common thing to do even if you're with your family is to buy one meal for yourself, and if you share, it's not much more than a bite or two, whereas in Japan, the whole meal, regardless of whether it's Italian, Japanese, or any specific kind of food, is often based around sharing, which makes it more family-like. Granted, I am generalizing and there most likely are people who share whole meals in such restaurants in America, but in general from my own experiences, I think that it seems much more common in Japan.

Meat for the yakiniku
My host family's yakiniku
Another food eaten often as a family (perhaps most famously) is sukiyaki, which, as it is a type of nabe ryori, food is shared from a collective dish. Currently my host family is waiting for one of their previous host students to visit so we can all go together to their favorite sukiyaki restaurant like one large, extended family, in a way. In addition, I recently had yakiniku with my host parent's parents (my host grandparents?), which was also very family-oriented, as even though we were cooking our own meat, the fact that we did so collectively over the same grill made it another sharing experience.

Both meals at a restaurant in Japan as well as at home are often very family-oriented, although I have to admit I prefer eating at home to eating at a restaurant. It's one thing to eat a nice meal as a family at a restaurant, but to have yakiniku with your family after having been warming up under a kotatsu makes the experience much more memorable.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Towers of Japan

I recently went to the Umeda Sky Building, which is one of Osaka's most famous landmarks as well as one of its tallest buildings. I had gone to Tokyo Tower once last year, so besides getting to see an amazing view of Osaka from the observation area of this 170-meter tall building, I hadn't really thought too much about the Sky Building itself until I was in the gift shop. There they sold souvenirs for the Sky Building, but they also sold collectables with a "20 Towers" theme--for not just the Umeda Sky Building, but for all of towers located throughout Japan. Although I went to Tokyo Tower last year as a tourist thing to do, it wasn't until I happened to see these souvenirs that I realized how little I knew about the different towers around Japan. I didn't even know just how many famous ones there were, from the Sapporo TV Tower to Osaka's Tsūtenkaku, which made me look into some of the towers' history.

One thing I found interesting about Japan's 20 Towers is that the Sky Building seems to be one of the few non-towers of the group, as it is more of a building containing various company's offices (such as one of Mazda's offices) than an actual communications tower like Tokyo Tower, Beppu Tower, and many of the others are. Instead, the Sky Building's unique structure is actually composed of two separate skyscrapers connected at the top by its so-called "floating garden" observatory (空中庭園展望台 / kūchū teien tenbōdai) (although I wonder if its structure is what gives it the prestige of being included with the other towers).

The observatory offers an amazing view of Osaka from all angles, and just like the Tokyo Tower, the Sky Building's observatory is a prime spot for tourists (as well as for couples in its special romantic seating area). When I was at the building there was a large group of tourists from Germany and other countries there to see the view, well outnumbering the amount of Japanese tourists during the time I was there, at least. One thing that made the Sky Building different from the Tokyo Tower, however, was that the Floating Garden is outside rather than being like Tokyo Tower's enclosed observation decks, which gave it a more special, closer feeling to the city rather than being separated from the view by a window. Similar to the Tokyo Tower, however, is that at the base of both are shopping areas and more spots for tourists, although the Sky Building boasts a special Showa-themed "Takimi Lane of Restaurants."

While there are currently twenty famous towers considered representatives of Japan, there will soon be a new addition to Japan's family of towers: the Tokyo Sky Tree, which should be open early next year, although it is currently at its full height of around 600 meters (for comparison, Tokyo Tower is only 333 meters tall). In addition, the Sky Tree holds the record of being the largest tower in the world as well as the second largest structure in the world. Like the Tokyo Tower's purpose as a communications tower, the Sky Tree will serve primarily as a broadcasting tower for radio and digital television, but its height will give it much better reception as the increasing number of skyscrapers around Tokyo Tower are interfering with its signals.

Even the escalator ride down
provided a unique view.
While America has its own high-rising towers and buildings such as the Empire State Building, with its various portrayals in dramas and anime, the Tokyo Tower is iconically Tokyo (and I always think of the Tsūtenkaku when I hear Kanjani8's Sukiyanen, Osaka), which makes me wonder if the Sky Tree will soon overtake Tokyo Tower's fame, or if it will become the icon for not only Tokyo, but for all of Japan.

Sources & Links

Umeda Sky Building / Floating Garden (Official English Site)
Tokyo Tower (Official English Site)
Tokyo Sky Tree (Official English Site)
All-Japan Tower Association [20 Towers]