Grocery shopping in Japan

February 6, 2010

I take my camera with me everywhere in Japan; for this reason, I carry a tiny Canon point-and-shoot, rather than the “my-lens-is-bigger-than-yours” SLR camera that shouts “TOURIST GEEK” in capital letters. (I have one of those, mind you, for those times when I want to be obnoxiously creative, snapping close-ups of flower petals or nose hairs or some such, but it doesn’t travel with me unless I have a car at my disposal.) Today, I went shopping for cookie fixings; I have had a hankering for chocolate chip cookies for a couple of days, and I was missing a couple of the key ingredients (chocolate chips and baking soda, in case you were wondering). As Japanese supermarkets offer a seemingly endless assortment of weird and wonderful products, I often find myself wandering aimlessly up one aisle, then down another, to see what new oddities I can unearth. For example:

When you're in a snack mood, howzabout a Cream Collon?

Or how about these Moony Man disposable diapers, each variation featuring a different baby, each with a distinctly different attitude:

That last one is my personal favorite; the kid seems to be saying “So what did you expect, potty training awready? I’m only a year old, for heaven’s sake!”

A while back, a friend of mine, Al Brandt, told me a story that had me in hysterics. I may have a detail or two wrong, but this is the gist of it: Another friend, Bob Berg, had come to Tokyo, and Al agreed to serve as Bob’s guide around the city, showing him things he’d never have found easily, if at all, on his own. Bob, quite grateful, offered to take Al out for drinks. Al demurred, citing a prior engagement, upon which Bob asked if there was anything else he could do by way of appreciation. “Well,” Al replied thoughtfully, “You could buy me a cantaloupe.” A cantaloupe? Well, it turned out that Al had been craving a cantaloupe for a while, and just had not gotten around to getting one. Bob, for his part, thought he was getting off quite lightly, considering that he had planned on springing for at least a couple of rounds of drinks. “Hell,” he said magnanimously, “I’ll buy you two cantaloupes.” Al grinned contentedly, knowing full well what was about to transpire, and they headed off together to the supermarket. I will leave you to imagine what happened; have a look at the picture below, and be sure to note the price (the yen-to-dollar exchange rate is about 90-to-1…)

For the mathematically challenged, the 6500 yen cantaloupe pictured here runs about $72 US!


Japanese Woodblock Prints, a Brief Introduction

February 6, 2010
Part of what drew me to Japan (apart from the girls, the food, and the exotic foreign-ness of the place) was a distinctly Japanese art form known as the woodblock print. As the name suggests, woodblock prints are made by carving a design into a block of wood, then printing it onto paper. This would seem to be a fairly straightforward process, at least until you introduce color into the equation, at which point numerous blocks must be utilized, one for each color, each perfectly aligned with the previous and succeeding block (as you can imagine, this makes the undertaking exponentially more difficult). Sometimes dozens of blocks are used, and the results can vary from photorealism to Picasso-esque abstraction. Although color woodblock prints have been around for hundreds of years in Japan, they didn’t come to the attention of Westerners until the late 1800’s, at which time individual woodblock prints were used as wrapping paper (!) for packages sent to Europe and the Americas. The prints caught the eye of painters such as Van Gogh, Mucha, Whistler, Toulouse-Lautrec and many others, and elements of Japanese woodblock images would figure prominently in their paintings from then on (Van Gogh blatantly lifted a couple of designs from Ando Hiroshige’s 100 Views of Edo, essentially rendering in oil what Hiroshige had done with wooden blocks and colored ink).

The prints that tend to catch the eye of this Westerner are largely from the 20th century. They fall into two sometimes overlapping categories: shin hanga, in which the artist creates a design, usually in watercolor, which is then made into a print by a team of professional carvers and printers, thus a collaborative effort; and sosaku hanga, in which the artist creates his own design, does his own carving and printing, and thus is responsible for the whole process from conception to finished result. The shin hanga prints tend to be more accessible to new aficionados, as they are often images of beautiful scenery or attractive kimono-clad women, while the sosaku hanga prints tend to be avant-garde, and thus rather more of an acquired taste. Also, shin hanga prints are often (but by no means always) more carefully carved and printed, as those artisans are schooled in their respective crafts, and do not have to be responsible for other elements of the process. Here is a representative selection of some shin hanga and sosaku hanga prints, dating from the early part of the 20th century up to about the early 1970s. Enjoy!

A shin hanga print by Uehara Konen, pre WWII

A shin hanga print by Hiroshi Yoshida, also pre-WWII

A shin hanga print by Kaburagi Kiyokata, early 20th C.

Japan becomes more westernized; a modern girl by Ito Shinsui

Ito Shinsui again, altogether more traditional

A shin hanga print by a Westerner in Japan, Elizabeth Keith

Some sosaku hanga, by way of contrast; Kihei Sasajima

A sosaku hanga abstract by Reika Iwami

A sosaku hanga street scene by Junichiro Sekino 

A sosaku hanga harbor scene by Fumio Kitaoka

Mt. Fuji, by Hideo Hagiwara

A fanciful cat by Tomoo Inagaki

Stay tuned for my next woodblock print post, where we’ll have a look at contemporary printmakers, both Japanese and Westerners, working in Japan nowadays.