If you look very closely at food packaging in Japan, you will often find the following disclaimer in tiny print: 写真はイメージです shashin wa imeeji desu—literally “the photograph is an image”. Another variant is 画像はイメージです ”the image is an image”.
I was mystified for a long time; what, exactly, was this supposed to mean? Of course it is an image. What else could a photograph be? And yet, redundant as it may seem, it is ubiquitous. For some reason, manufacturers feel the need to include it on their packaging. Do they fear that without this guidance, their customers will attempt to eat the photographic representation, mistaking it for the food inside?
After much discussion with Japanese people, I gradually came to understand the meaning. The word imeeji, which is the English word “image” borrowed into Japanese, has various connotations like “impression”, “artist’s impression” or “idealised image”. So the intention of the mysterious sentence is to warn us that the contents may not necessarily be identical to the picture.
Here’s a more usefully specific version of the disclaimer from the makers of Choco Pie: it tells us that the items in the photo are a little larger than life-size.
There is a row of 11 bird cherry trees lining a section of Lad Lane in Dublin. I walk past them on my way to and from work on the days when I travel by Luas (other days I cycle).
They seem a little out of place. Lad Lane is an unprepossessing spot; a back alley running along the rear of the Georgian houses on Fitzwilliam Street, it’s a handy short cut for office workers in the morning and evening and the scene of unsavoury activities after dark. Not the kind of place where you would expect anyone to have planted a row of trees. But there they are.
And every year at the start of May, they mark the arrival of summer by bursting into fabulous bloom, their sweet honey-almond scent hanging heavy in the air, transcending for a few days the drabness of their setting.
On those few mornings, as I hurry along on my way to work, I catch the scent and look up to admire the display, and my spirit is lifted.
The Shinkansen has been moving people around Japan at high speed since the 1960s, and throughout that time the network has continued to extend, with new, ever faster and more futuristic-looking train designs appearing every few years.
The latest development, which opened in March 2015, extends the Hokuriku line to Kanazawa and Toyama on the Sea of Japan coast. The journey from Tokyo to Kanazawa is reduced from 4 hours to 2 and a half, in the stylish comfort of the new E7 series train.
This morning we took the local train to Shin-Osaka station, where we reserved seats in the Shinkansen for our journey to Tokyo and for the onward journey from Tokyo to Sendai. The JR pass entitles us to unlimited travel for one week on the JR rail network. This represents excellent value as the cost of the pass is equivalent to that of one return journey from Osaka to Tokyo.
The trip to Tokyo took just under 3 hours on the Hikari service, which reached a top speed of 285 km/h and made several stops en route. Punctuality is extraordinary, with departure and arrival times accurate to within a few seconds over the journey. The reclining seats are spacious and comfortable and have electric sockets and seat-back tables to facilitate use of laptops.
The faster Nozomi service covers the same distance in 2 hours and 25 minutes but is not available with the JR pass.
When we arrived in Tokyo station it was time to think about buying lunch. Japan has a tradition of 駅弁 eki-ben, lunchboxes sold in stations for eating on the train. eki means station and ben is short for 弁当 bentou meaning lunchbox. You can buy a lunchbox in the shape of the new E7 train.
My lunchbox commemorates the opening of the Ueno-Tokyo line.
Each of the 9 little compartments contains food typical of Ibaraki prefecture, with a wonderful variety of ingredients, including melon jelly for dessert.
This is the train that took us to Sendai. It was the first time I had seen the E5 train, with its cartoonishly long nose cone.
The train information board shows where to find your carriage when you go upstairs to the platform. We were in carriage number 8 on the 12:36 train. Needless to say, it pulled smoothly out of the station at exactly 12:36.
This blog post is being written at 280 km/h as we speed through the countryside in the 新幹線 Shinkansen train from Osaka to Tokyo on Easter Sunday morning.
Our destination today is Sendai, in Japan’s 東北 touhoku (north-east) region. Even at Shinkansen speeds, it will take 5 or 6 hours to get there. Sendai is much cooler than Osaka right now (about 14°C difference), so we had to pack winter clothes for Sendai as well as short sleeves for Osaka.
Yesterday morning we decided to visit Osaka Castle Park to see the 桜 cherry blossoms. They are earlier than usual this year so we expected that we would arrive in Japan too late to see them. But in fact our timing was perfect: the flowers were 満開 mankai—fully open when we arrived. The blossoms were beautiful against the backdrop of the castle and the blue sky.
One little difference between Japanese and English is that when we urgently need to warn someone of danger, we call out something like “Careful!” or “Watch out!”, whereas they say “Dangerous!” (危ない abunai). (I’m talking about the spoken language here, rather than warning signs.)
Similarly, where in English we say “Be quiet”, or “Shut up”, the Japanese will say “Loud!” (うるさい urusai). A Japanese person might exclaim 邪魔 jama, meaning “in the way” or “nuisance” (for example if the dog is under our feet) where an English-speaker would say “move over” or “out of the way!”. On one occasion I heard the boss at work telling a subordinate to speak up by saying “small voice”.
In other words, the Japanese tend to say a word that describes the unwanted situation, whereas in English we tend to prescribe the remedy.
This minor language difference caught me out once on an early visit to Japan. I was at the barber, getting my hair cut, and I wanted him to cut it very short. My Japanese was not good enough at that time to be able to say “Please make it shorter”, nor did I know the word 丸刈り marugari to describe the hairstyle I wanted, but I did know the Japanese word for “short”: 短い mijikai. I thought, wrongly, that this would be enough to make my intentions known, so while the barber was cutting, I repeatedly called out “mijikai”, trying to encourage him to cut it shorter. What I didn’t realise was that a Japanese-speaking person would interpret this as “too short!” The poor man became increasingly distressed as he tried to tidy up my hair without making it any shorter, and I kept yelling (as he thought) “too short! too short!”
I’ve often said, only half in jest, that when you go to a foreign country, your IQ immediately drops by 50 points. A task as simple as buying milk in the store has pitfalls for the unwary. And so it was on our recent visit to France, which featured several instances of idiocy, fortunately none of them calamitous.
On our first night in the gîte, I was struck by the amazing clarity and multitude of stars in the pitch blackness of the night sky, and I called Yuko outside to share the experience. The glass door was fitted with wooden shutters, so I pushed them closed to reduce the light coming from inside the house. Then I heard a tiny, horrifying, “click” as the shutters latched closed behind us, and all thought of stargazing was instantly dispelled. Anxiety rose as it became clear that we really were locked out of the house, in short sleeves, at night, miles from civilisation. I tried to force the shutters open, applying more and more force, but to no avail.
Then it occurred to me: had I left the car unlocked? I had! Which meant I had access to tools. A minute later I had succeeded in popping the shutters open, with no discernible damage, and we were safely inside once more.
One of the pleasures of staying in France is that you can buy very good wine at very low prices, and I enjoyed a glass (or two) of red wine with my dinner each evening. The second gîte had a fancy corkscrew that looks like this:
Obviously, the screw is intended to turn freely when going down into the cork, then to “lock” and pull up without turning to lift out the cork. But whatever skill or technique was required to achieve this simple sequence eluded me. No matter what I tried, the screw remained in “locked” mode, pushing the cork ever further down the neck of the bottle. By the time I admitted defeat and resorted to a simpler, no-moving-parts, idiot-proof corkscrew, it was too late. I only succeeded in pushing the cork the remainder of the way down the neck, forcing the now-pressurised contents to spray all over me. Good wine or not, it stings when you get it in your eyes. My white shirt was ruined.
Lait Ribot is a Breton fermented milk product, like buttermilk. I did not know this. When randomly choosing a container of fresh milk from the supermarket shelf, I just assumed that “Ribot” was the brand name.
Granted, had I read the label more carefully, I would have seen the words “lait fermenté” written right there. In red. But it went into the supermarket trolley without that level of scrutiny. I discovered my mistake when I poured it into my coffee that evening and it curdled unpleasantly.
Well, when life gives you fermented milk, what do you do? You make crêpes! And that’s how we came to have crêpes for breakfast every morning for the last 4 days of our stay. For 10-12 crêpes:
- 200g of plain flour
- 300 ml lait ribot (or buttermilk)
- 300 ml fresh milk
- 2 eggs
- a pinch of salt
Put the flour and salt in a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the beaten eggs. Mix a little. Beat in the milk and fermented milk in stages, continuing to beat until the batter is smooth. It doesn’t need to rest but can be used immediately.
Serve hot with butter, jam, fresh fruit or compote. Delicious!
We stayed in a really charming gîte (holiday rental) in Upper Brittany.
These gîtes ruraux are usually in quite remote countryside locations; typically they are former farmhouses that have been renovated and converted for use as comfortable holiday homes. It’s not unusual for the gîte to be located around 4 km from the local village, so a car is really a necessity.
This gîte, however, was particularly remote, set among cornfields at the edge of a vast forest, with the nearest house over 1 km away (straight-line distance) and the nearest shops 8 km away.
You can imagine how peaceful it is, a beautifully-tended acre surrounded by farmland and wilderness, the only sounds the sounds of nature. And the stars at night, far from streetlights and the lights of habitation, were a breathtaking spectacle. Not twinkling dots, but hard steely brightly-coloured points of light in the deep blackness, on either side of the great overhead sweep of the Milky Way.
The address is “Lieu-dit La Feutelle”. Lieu-dit literally means “place called” or “place known as”, but it has become a common noun in French to refer to these remote rural places. Lieux-dit are somewhat equivalent in concept to “townlands” here in Ireland, in the way they are used for rural addresses.So for example you could say (despite the apparent redundancy) un lieu-dit nommé «La Croix Rompue» — A lieu-dit called “La Croix Rompue”.
The hierarchy of places in rural France goes something like this:
- lieu-dit: a rural location that may have one or two houses, or may be completely uninhabited;
- hameau: a hamlet, a cluster of houses with (typically) no shops or services;
- village: a village with a church, and shops such as a café and a bakery;
- bourg: a larger village with a market-place and a weekly market, often the administrative centre of the commune.
- ville: a town big enough to sustain local industry, services and administration and not focused on agriculture.
All of these are faced with a challenging future as young people migrate to cities for educational and employment opportunities, and rural France becomes increasingly empty. Hamlets are deserted, village bakeries close and towns struggle to find a future. Farmhouses become holiday homes for Parisians, permanent homes for retired English people or gîtes ruraux for weekly rental to visitors like us.
After one week in that area, we moved to another gîte in Lower Normandy, in the Val de Saire. One thing that was very striking in that area was the unusual place-names.
Some of the place-names come from the local Norman dialect. For example, the address of our gîte is Rue du Plat Douet, where douet is a local word for a stream. The sign in the picture above indicates the hamlet of Hamel ès Ronches, which looks exotic but is just a local version of hameau des ronces — the hamlet of the brambles. Placename elements are shared between this part of Normandy and the Channel Islands: for example names ending with -hou such as Tatihou and Quettehou in France and Jethou, Burhou and les Écréhous in the Channel Islands.
But many of the placenames in the Val de Saire turn out not to be Norman French at all, but Danish. After all, the Normans were originally Northmen, Danes, Viking raiders, before they settled, adopted the local language and went on to conquer England and Ireland, as well as more far-flung places in sunnier climes. And they left reminders of their original Germanic culture in the local toponomy.
For example, the nearby beach in Cosqueville was called Plage de Vicq (vík meaning harbour); Clitourps is klíf torp (cliff village) and the tôt in the village name Tôt de Haut is also a variation of the word for village (topt). Even the names that appear French in form are often actually Scandinavian in origin. The fleur in Barfleur is not a flower but a river; the many places with tour are not French towers but Scandinavian villages. L’Anse du Brick is not the cove of the brick but of the brekka (coastline). La Mare and La Houe are not native French (“the pond” and “the hoe”) as they appear but Nordic names in disguise (“the salt-marsh” and “the holt”). And finally, one name of Irish origin: Néville is not “new town” but “Nial’s town”; one of our Viking settlers may have come from Ireland.