Tapas

We went out to celebrate Yuko’s birthday (it’s tomorrow, the 18th). The first place we tried was full, as was the second. We ended up driving and looking for a place, and getting pretty hungry, and I pulled in so that we could think about where to go. And as it happened, right there where I stopped was a tiny Spanish bar/restaurant called Margarita.

Sitting in the car, we squinted in through the window trying to make out whether they serve full meals, and whether it would be a nice place to go for a birthday meal, and we decided to give it a go.

It turned out to be a good choice. The menu had a very interesting range of food: small tapas dishes such as octopus in ajillo, smoked quails eggs, duck carpaccio, olives, and so on; as well as full meals such as paella and pizza. As soon as we arrived the waiter brought us a complementary tapas dish which was delicious and very welcome at that point. We ordered a Caesar salad, smoked quails eggs, olives, octopus, a pizza (jalapeno, ham, egg and olives) and a dish of baby squid, scallops and rape greens in garlic oil.

DSC_0294

DSC_0296

DSC_0293

While enjoying the flavours, we started reminiscing about delicious meals we have eaten in Spain, especially in the Basque country. Food is a big part of Basque culture. Gastronomic societies are clubs where Basque men meet to cook and eat, to develop and demonstrate their cooking prowess. Although the clubs are not open to outsiders (or to women), the result is a highly-developed food culture where you can go to a seemingly ordinary, even down-at-heel restaurant, and (if you are lucky) get an extraordinary and memorable meal at a very reasonable price.

One such place is Garamendi, in Amorebieta (Bizkaia). Over the years from 2005 to 2008, I went there maybe 3 or 4 times. As far as the internet is concerned, it might as well not exist. But in my memory it has become the stuff of legend.

On the face of it, it is a small, extremely nondescript bar facing onto the calle Karmen.

Bar Garamendi

There are a few tables, but regulars all sit at the counter. At the rear, behind a low partition, are three or four small restaurant tables.

Each time I went there, I felt decidedly unwelcome at first. They were not serving meals today, or it was too early, but if we insisted we could come in and sit down and they would prepare a meal for us. There was no menu, but the waiter (owner?) explained to us what was available. And if necessary he would go out and buy the ingredients before preparing it for us. And it was always fantastic. The guy was an honest-to-goodness top-class chef, working in this tiny bar in this back street of a town you’ve probably never heard of.

As the meal went on, he gradually opened up, sharing his tremendous enthusiasm for the food and wine. “You must try this cheese – it won first prize at the fair in Durango!” On one occasion they served a stew of organ meats as a starter – I forget the Spanish name of the dish, and I couldn’t understand half the things he told me were in it. But it was incredibly delicious.

I really hope to go back there one day, and recommend it to anyone who loves food!

Happy birthday Yuko!

St Patrick’s Day

I checked on the internet last night to see if there would be any events in Osaka to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. To my surprise, I found there were several events organised, including a parade! Until now, I had been completely unaware of any Irish presence in Osaka.

The parade was due to be held in Osaka Castle Park. We drove there with the intention of parking the car near the end-point of the parade and then walking back along the route until we met the parade.

However, our plan didn’t work out. The car park was full and we had to drive on until we came to another car park, and by the time we walked back to the castle park, the parade was already over. Approaching the end point, we heard fiddle and box music and saw a lot of people wearing green, standing around in the warm sunshine.

DSC_0151

There were two enormous Irish wolfhounds dressed up for the day.

DSC_0154

 

Shiro and Miffy were patriotic too.

DSC_0163

Mark Donnellan from Tipperary was in the role of St Patrick. I heard one curious Japanese person ask him if he was Santa Claus!

DSC_0156t

The parade was organised by Irish Network Japan (Osaka). As well as the parade, they had organised a live music session on a boat, a céilí and pub crawl, and other events. We had other plans for the day though, and couldn’t stick around. I was kind of sorry I hadn’t known about this more in advance.

Walking back to the car, we visited the plum grove of Osaka Castle, which was a sea of blossom despite being past its peak.

DSC_0170 DSC_0171 DSC_0174 DSC_0177

These guys were doing some pretty impressive skipping moves in Taiyo no hiroba at the north end of the park.

DSC_0184

 

梅 ume—plum

It’s almost a year since I wrote about o-hanami, the time in spring when Japanese people enjoy viewing the cherry trees in full flower, sit out on the grass under the trees, eat and drink and admire the beauty of the flowers. Now the year has come almost full circle, and it’s almost cherry-blossom time again.

But before the cherry blossom comes the plum blossom, which has its own delicate beauty. Different types of plum trees bloom at different times in late February and early March; some are past their peak while others are only now in full bloom.

Here is a collection of photos, mainly taken by Yuko during the past few weeks.

In Kouzen Park (Sakai city):

DSC_1341 DSC_1348

DSC_1326 DSC_1328 DSC_1329 DSC_1332 DSC_1333

In Ooizumi Ryokuchi park:

DSC_0097

DSC_0095

DSC_0094

DSC_0093

DSC_0091

DSC_0098

In a private garden in Kishiwada:

DSC_1473DSC_1472

In a private garden near some ancient tombs in Habikino city:

DSC_0028

At a temple in Fujiidera city:

DSC_1566 DSC_1574

献血 kenketsu—blood donation

Last Friday was blood donation day at work. The blood transfusion service came in and set up in the big hall on the third floor of the building.

After lunch, I went down to give blood. This was partly motivated by my general policy of trying to experience many different aspects of life in Japan, partly because it’s a good thing to do, and partly just to get away from my desk for half an hour.

I went in and sat down at the registration table. The sudden and unexpected arrival of a foreigner caused some visible alarm to register on the faces of the 4 staff members on the other side of the table. A foreigner? What do we do now? This won’t end well.

One of the young doctors asked me 初めてですか “is it your first time?” I replied, 日本で初めて ”first time in Japan”. So far so good.

Then, one eyebrow raised, he asked me この問診表が読めますか ”can you read this?”, holding out a sheet of paper that appeared to contain hundreds of complicated questions. I looked at the first one for a minute or so trying to puzzle out the meaning. Bizarrely, it appeared to be asking whether any of my teeth had fallen out in the last three days.

At this rate, it would take me hours, with a dictionary, to get through the full questionnaire. I gave in to reality. 読めません ”I can’t read it.”

With apparent relief, he informed me that if I couldn’t read it, he was very sorry but I couldn’t give blood. Thank you and good day.

But I wasn’t ready to admit defeat. 同僚に手伝ってもらいます “I’ll get one of my colleagues to help me”.

I looked around and saw Mr Matsumura in the recovery area. I asked him if he would help me. He said he would be delighted to, and sat down beside me. We got through about 5 questions, about teeth falling out, recent infections, and prescription drugs, when we came to “have you spent more than 1 month in England since Showa year 55”. No, I had not.

At this point, the young doctor interrupted. What country was I from? Ireland, I explained. Some brief discussion followed, and a couple of white-coated assistants carried in this comically large list of rules. I mean, it was a board about 5 feet high and 3 feet wide, like a prop for a public lecture or a TV programme.

To their credit, and to my mild surprise, they were sufficiently well-informed not to think that Ireland was part of Britain. But Ireland was on the list of countries that represented a risk of CJD (mad cow disease), and the threshold was 6 months. So they asked me if I had spent more than 6 months in Ireland since 1980. Yes, I had. Slam dunk, you’re out, thanks for playing.

Well, they didn’t say that. In fact they were hugely (and unnecessarily) apologetic and offered me a free carton of apple juice as a consolation even though I hadn’t actually given blood.

So, the whole thing worked out well from my point of view: I got away from my desk for half an hour, I had an interesting Japanese experience, and I got free juice!

人口 jinkou—population

Take a look at this graph:

Population_of_Japan_since_1872.svg (1)

 

If you’re not shocked, try looking at it again.

It shows that Japan’s population has already begun to decline from its peak of 128 million people in 2010, and that this decline will continue over the coming decades at a rate of approximately 1 million per year. By mid-century there will be fewer than 100 million people, and by 2080 the population of the country will have dropped by 50%.

Of course, such predictions are subject to assumptions about future birth rates, death rates and net immigration, all of which are uncertain. However, with stubbornly low fertility rates (1.4 children per woman), one quarter of the population now aged over 65, and restrictive immigration policies, they represent a realistic view.

So what happens to a society when population numbers decline steeply through natural attrition (i.e. not through war or natural disaster) over a long period? As it happens, Ireland underwent a similar trend over a 120-year period from the mid-19th century, losing half its population to emigration. But I don’t think the two situations are comparable.

First of all, while the rural population of Ireland fell dramatically, Ireland’s cities grew during the period, and the country grew in prosperity (albeit slowly). Japan’s population is already overwhelmingly urban (80%), so there is little scope for cities to maintain their population through internal migration. In fact, the big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka are already experiencing population reductions (although their suburbs and neighbouring cities are holding steady or still growing).

Some questions on my mind are:

  • What happens to the existing infrastructure (for example, the amazing bridges of Osaka Harbour, the long road tunnels that snake through the mountains between the major cities, the tall buildings and high-speed rail lines)? Will a smaller population be able to afford the upkeep of the infrastructure they inherit?

The answer depends on whether future productivity increases allow a smaller working population to maintain or grow GDP. This in turn depends on future technological trends, which are unknowable.

  • What happens to the land? 

In our area, we see many small plots of land being farmed by elderly people. Their children have grown up, maybe have a college education and an office job, and there is nobody to take over the farm when the farmer becomes too old or too ill to continue.

Up to now, such land has been developed for housing (such as the street we live on now, which was probably a rice-field 15 years ago). Even in the year since we arrived, we have seen some fields in our neighbourhood being built on. But with a shrinking population, demand for housing will reduce, and the trend for converting agricultural land to housing will presumably come to a stop.

 

Our nearby park, on the other hand, is growing. I wrote last week about Ooizumi Ryokuchi park, a very large park near our house. One part of it, which we visit regularly, has been newly incorporated into the park, and there are grandiose plans for further expansion, taking over large areas now used for agriculture and light industry.

park map

The existing extent of the park is shown in red (including a little exclave to the north-east, in Matsubara city). The area outlined in yellow has been acquired by the park but has not yet been landscaped and opened to the public. And the blue represents the ultimate intention to expand to the east as land becomes available in Nakamura village, joining the two parts of the park into a single contiguous area some 30% larger than at present.

This, to me, is amazing. I am so used to the idea of land at the fringes of cities being gradually but inexorably incorporated into the urban sprawl, green belts coming under relentless pressure for development, that it would never have occurred to me that it would instead become parkland. But with a shrinking population, there is a different dynamic at play. Perhaps this is an example of what the future holds for Japan and for other developed countries.

傘寿 sanju—80 years old

Today (11th March) is my father-in-law’s 80th birthday.

We invited him over last night for a birthday dinner to celebrate the big day.

DSCN4935

It was actually his first time to visit our house, even though he lives nearby and we’ve been here for almost a year. On previous occasions, we’ve gone out for a meal together or met at his house. The dogs were delighted to have a visitor!

We also took the opportunity to borrow some plates and other stuff from him, because we will have visitors from Ireland soon and we’re only really set up for two people. He asked me to take a look at a problem with his video, and I managed to solve it. Which was good, although in fact all I did was disconnect the cables and reconnect them exactly the same way, so I don’t know. Maybe one of the connections was loose.

80 years old is called sanju (umbrella age). Why? Well, there is a kind of wordplay that associates certain ages with particular names. See the table in the photo below:

DSCN4884

The kanji character for umbrella 傘 seems to combine the character for eight 八 and the character for ten 十.

More famous is 米寿 beiju—rice age for 88 years old. By a similar logic, 88 (normally written 八十八) gets piled up into the single character 米 meaning rice.

My favourite is 白寿 hakuju—white age (99 years old). Why is it white? Well, the character for 100 looks like this:

and the character for one looks like this:

So if you subtract 一 from 百 what are you left with?

And that’s how “white” comes to mean 99. Does that make sense?

Incidentally, the right-hand table shows the ages that are considered “years of misfortune” (yakudoshi). So if you were born in Showa year 28 or 47 or Heisei year 1 (men) or in Showa year 52 or 56, or Heisei year 7 (women), you might want to be extra careful this year.

(I was born in Showa 46 so this is a year of “lesser danger” for me).

公園 kouen—park

There is a huge park at the end of our street.

DSC_0122

The name of the park is Ooizumi Ryokuchi, and it’s about 1.3 kilometres long in a north-south direction, and around 800 metres wide. Within its boundaries, it offers an amazing variety of different kinds of environment and amenities: woods, lakes, small hills, gardens and facilities for various kinds of sports.

The yellow sign is in the characteristic shape of a gingko leaf. Gingko is a very familiar tree in Osaka. The main road alongside the park is lined with them, as is Midousuji Avenue in front of my office building.

First thing every morning, since we arrived in Japan last March, I go for a walk with the dogs in the park. Very often we go there in the evening too. In this way, I’ve got to know Japanese nature in its various moods, and experienced a full cycle of seasonal changes.

DSC_0125

DSC_0123

Yesterday evening we were out for our evening walk and it occurred to me; the one place I had visited more than anywhere else, that I had got to know and love, had not yet featured in a blog post.

So I decided to go out this morning and take some photos. Fortunately, the day was hot and sunny.

DSC_0121

This is the main park building. It includes a covered platform built out into the lake.

DSC_0115

In front of the park building, stretching out along the main north-south axis of the park, is an area of formal lawns and flower-beds.

DSC_0113

DSC_0112

Nearby is a “sensory garden”:

DSC_0109

DSC_0103

One aspect that I like a lot: as well as the paved roadways, there is a separate network of paths called 樹のみち ki no michi—tree roads, which also link up all the different parts of the park, but allow you to experience it in a completely different way.

DSC_0099

Thanks to the policy of hanging signs on the trees, indicating the type of tree, I have been able to learn a lot about Japanese trees. This one, for example, is a kind of evergreen oak tree called arakashi (Quercus glauca).

DSC_0128

Here are pine trees and camellias in bloom.

DSC_0127

This sign shows the way to the “King Tree”.

DSC_0086

And here’s the king tree – a largish camphor tree right at the edge of the park. Compared to the 500-year-old camphor trees in our local shrine, it’s not particularly big. But in a park of relatively young trees, it is the king

DSC_0088

At this time of year, the plum trees are in full bloom.

DSC_0097

DSC_0118

DSC_0117

DSC_0126

DSC_0124

There are many cats living in the park. They are generally well-fed; some people come along at night and feed the cats, although you are not supposed to.

This sign asks people not to abandon cats or dogs in the park.

DSC_0080

While this sign warns that abusing animals is a crime.

DSC_0129

The rule is that dogs must be kept on a lead in the park. However, there is a newly-developed area of the park (we call it the “future park”) where hardly anyone ever goes except us. When there is nobody else around, I let the dogs off for a run. Here, Shiro has crossed the fence and is exploring the real “future” park; an area that has been acquired but not yet developed as parkland.

DSC_0083

This is the sakura no hiroba—cherry field. In a few weeks, this will be crowded with people enjoying o-hanami. But for now, a few people are taking advantage of the warm March sunshine to enjoy a picnic lunch.

DSC_0078

And this is hitsuji no hiroba—the sheep field. In a place where sheep are a less familiar sight than in Ireland, the park has three young rams on display.

DSC_0120

And another reminder that we have been here for almost a year: the park’s plant market will start on 17th March.

DSC_0074

Like most of the people we see working in the park, this worker wears a “Silver Sakai” sweater. He is one of an army of “silver” workers, past retirement age, who keep everything clean, meticulously maintained and in perfect condition.

Note on the word of the day:

公園 kouen, a park, is written as 公 public and 園 a garden.

大泉 oo-izumi literally means “great spring”. In fact, however, 和泉 Izumi is a historical name for this area (now the southern part of Osaka prefecture, the portion that lies to the south of the Yamato River). So the name of the park recalls the old name of the province. 和泉 has an unusual reading, because the second character 泉 is pronounced izumi while the first character 和 meaning “peace” is not pronounced at all. Such unusual readings/pronunciations are very common in this part of Osaka.