Do you like soy sauce, tofu, miso soup? The humble soybean gives us so many edible wonders that you probably didn’t know it is also used to make what Westerners consider to be one of the foulest foods ever to come from Japan.
It’s called nattō, a food of the Japanese gods made of fermented soybeans, which can never be an “acquired taste” because a Westerner is either going to love it or hate it the very first time they try it. Personally, I have never seen another food spat immediately out of non-Japanese mouths more than I have seen this done with nattō. One friend of mine went so far as to deposit this wonder food in his napkin and dispose of it in a restaurant lavatory waste bin. He didn’t want to leave it on the table for the wait crew, so hideous he thought the substance.
(Nattō from my grocer’s freezer about to get mixed with raw egg. This mixture is one of my favorite toppings for rice.)
Oh, lovely nattō! I keep a steady supply in my freezer, to appease my frequent craving for nattō’s salty, stanky, gooey taste. The stuff I buy at a little grocery in San Francisco’s Japantown comes in many varieties: minced, whole bean, black soy, whole bean with red cabbage sauce, and others. Typically, though, nattō from the grocery store comes with a small packet of horseradish mustard and a larger packet of soy-based sauce with bonito or other variants. The soy sauce alone is delicious enough to covet, but with these three ingredients mixed together in a bowl, or over white rice, you have some happy snacking. That is, if you like the smell, and the taste, and don’t live with someone who abhors either. My wife prefers that I not prepare nattō while she is in the house, and if I have eaten nattō, she won’t kiss me for about 30 minutes afterward. And I must brush my teeth. And I don’t blame her, because if you don’t like this stuff, you really don’t like this stuff.
Which, of course, means more for me
(This was originally published, as is, on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency in 2005. I reprinted it here on these pages a few years ago, but it was rightfully ignored because I posted it on March 12th, 2011, one day after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Also published on Scholars and Rogues.)
It was a clothing store in the Ameyayokochō district in Ueno in April or May of 1988. I got my father to shoot this photo for two reasons: the obvious name of the shop; and memories of David Byrne’s big suit in the movie “Stop Making Sense”, which I’d seen in a South Street movie theater in Philadelphia four years before.
I went back to look for this shop twenty years later when my wife and I were on a 10-day vacation in Tokyo, but it was long, long gone. The memories and this picture remain, though.
(This image looks crummy because Costco does a rotten job of digitizing old Kodachrome slide images.)
For my mother, on her 72nd birthday…
This was 1988, in Tokyo, and my parents came to visit me. My mother was in her forties then, still vibrant and drinking from a cup that was full of the life of the world. I don’t know what happened. At the end of October I moved from Tokyo to my parents’ house in Maryland just outside the D.C. beltway, and everything turned to shit. Early in 1989 I tried, and failed, to get into Yale photography school, and my father’s alcohol abuse got so bad my mom and I had to force him into a rehabilitation hospital. The kind where you don’t wear jeans and a t-shirt, but a cotton robe and a printed plastic and paper wrist band. That was the beginning of a downward spiral that left my father functionally dead on his feet until his de facto death in 2008. In all those intervening years my mother was his muse, babysitter, lover, wife, and emotional triage for a man who took nearly two decades to die.
All those years killed her too, in a lot of ways. Emotionally, anyway. She’s dying for real now, of primary biliary cirrhosis. She continues to pray this hereditary disease does not strike me. So far, so good, my doctors say. Her doctors can’t seem to figure out how long she has to live. Another year or two, perhaps. My mother is resigned to her fate. She told me when I visited her in Dallas last year that life without my father has dried up of any happiness and meaning. They were married for 45 years. She said she has seen all she wants to see and done everything she wanted to do. “I’ve had a rich life,” she said to me. I have known since the day she told me she was dying about a year ago that her mind was made up and it was pointless to try to force her onto whatever liver transplant list her hospital maintains. Such is life. Its wildest variables are always other people.
So I don’t know if this is my mother’s last birthday, but it is her 72nd. I doubt she will ever see this, as my mom isn’t the most digitally wired of people. She has an iPhone but getting her to look at web links on the damn thing is hit and, mostly, miss. So I wanted to honor her a little, with images from some of the best of my days with her. In another place, on another planet, when my mom and I were both younger and had more of our lives ahead of us than we do today….
My mother in Uenohirokoji, not far from my apartment in Yushima.
Mom and me in my apartment in 1988. I wish I still had that Clash poster.
Mom’s red hair on the Imperial Palace Grounds, against a sea of Japanese schoolgirls.
Mom and me on the ground floor outdoor lobby of my apartment building.
I can’t remember where this is, possibly Ueno near Ameyayokochō.
Most of these images look like crap because Costco did a rotten job of digitizing these photographs from slides that my father shot. I’ve put my copyright on these images because, well, my dad is dead and these are my memories and streets and places. They’re mine.
Thanks, mom, for being an everlasting part of happy memories of the Tokyo that I love so well.
It was a beautiful September day and the world was wide open and I was back in my old Tokyo, the places in Ueno where I spent so much time when I lived nearby in Yushima. The day was warm and I felt young and carefree again, in a place that created me as much as did the flawed swirls of DNA I inherited from my mother and father.
In the middle of the wide street, with the whole of the world’s greatest city before me, it was glorious this day and the women in passing were all goddesses…
(Picture taken on Chuo Dori, near the south end of Ueno Park, Tokyo in September, 2013)
You have to suck Tokyo into your lungs and let it rewrite your DNA.
You have to piece together your own reality one combini at a time.
As you look around your tiny room and try to remember the rest of some words from an Elvis Costello song,
you grab things and put them together and that is how you change a part of the world.
It doesn’t matter, not to anyone but you, and it doesn’t objectively matter actually at all.
But it will matter when you hit Tokyo’s streets.
It will help your brain figure out how to piece it all together and give it immovable coordinates on your permanent brain map.
Like I said, you have to let the city rewrite your DNA.
Actually, you don’t have any choice in the matter, but it’s always easier when you acquiesce and let it happen easily.
I love to cook, and I am told I’m pretty good at it. The one thing I cook for people most often is this Japanese curry. I’ve been making it for nearly a decade, but I really got serious about it after my wife and I went to Tokyo in March, 2008. I make it four or five times a year. Amongst my neighbors and friends it has become my signature dish. If you are familiar with Japanese curry at all, you know the basic dish is wonderful during colder weather, the spicier the better.
Dan’s Tokyo Curry
I call this Tokyo Curry because Tokyo is where I discovered and fell in love with Japanese curries. But I’m sure this very basic variation of this dish is made all over Japan.
2 to 3 large white onions, cut or diced into medium- or small-sized pieces.
2 to 3 large carrots, cut into ¼ inch slices.
1 ½ pounds fingerling potatoes, cut in half or in thirds, depending on size of each potato.
2 pounds of rib eye beef, cut into bite-sized chunks (Note for vegetarians: bite-sized cubes of firm to-fu can be substituted for the meat. Simply skip the meat-browning step and start with the veggies instead. Add the to-fu towards the end so it gets hot but does not become goo. This dish is fantastic with to-fu!)
¼ cup good sesame oil for browning the beef.
As much tap water as is needed to cover all ingredients in the pot and bring them to a boil. You can also use ½ chicken broth for richer overall flavor.
4 to 8 cups of cooked Calrose rice, or equivalent Japanese rice variety. (This can be prepared on the stovetop or in an electric rice cooker. Prepare the amount of rice you think you will need for the number of people you are feeding.)
Fukujinzuke, the (typically) red Japanese pickles that almost always garnish Japanese curry. Fukujinzuke are essential to appreciate the full sensory experience of this dish. But if you can’t get fukujinzuke, beni shōga (pickled ginger) works well as a tasty garnish for this.
A large steel stew pot or Dutch oven, but not an enameled pot because these run too high a risk of scorching.
A big, long metal spoon or wood spatula. This dish needs to be stirred frequently.
A good chef’s knife for cutting the beef and the vegetables.
Rice pot or electric rice cooker.
Put the sesame oil and a small piece of the beef in the pot and heat the oil until the beef starts to fry. If you overheat the oil it will start to smoke, so monitor this carefully.
Put all the rest of the beef in the pot and brown it in the oil.
Once the beef is browned, put all the onions in the pot, stir until ingredients are mixed, and cook until onions are tender and starting to turn clear.
Then add the carrots, stir until ingredients are mixed, and cook for three to five minutes.
Add mushrooms and repeat, cooking for three minutes.
Add potatoes and enough water to cover all ingredients, plus another ¾ to 1 inch of water.
Stir thoroughly and bring to a full boil.
Add curry cubes, stir, and allow to boil for about 30 seconds.
Stir, reduce heat and allow to simmer for about 2 to 2 ½ hours, until the beef is very, very tender.
While the dish is simmering, stir often. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pot as curry gravy will stick to it. But this flavorful goo needs to be reincorporated into the mixture.
Once the beef is as tender as you like it, turn off heat, and prepare to eat.
Serve this curry over a bed of hot, steamy rice and serve with a generous little mound of the fukujinzuke or beni shōga or both. The pickles can be mixed into the curry, or kept on the side as you wish.
Prepare to want seconds, if there are any.
And there you have it. Let me know what you think of this concoction if you make it. May this dish take your taste buds to one of my favorite culinary corners of Tokyo, a town I love so well.
–Dan Ryan, Easter Sunday, 2014
P.S. If by some miracle of nature you are a genius of Japanese cooking who makes your own authentic curry seasoning mixture from scratch instead of cheating with pre-mix cubes like me, I’d love to get your recipe.
P.P.S. This recipe was published on April 27th, 2014 on Scholars and Rogues.
In Udagawachō, Shibuya there is this very narrow building that has existed at least since I lived in Tokyo in the late ‘80s. Back then it was a dark, dimly-lit place. I stumbled into it one summer night in 1988, attracted by an exterior sign that said “imported video” in English. I made my way up to the video store, which was on the third floor. The place did indeed have American VHS tapes for sale, factory sealed and pristine. But each tape cost the yen equivalent of about $100. The two shopkeepers, young men who both wore dark suits and sunglasses even though it was around 21:00 and 35 degrees Celsius, looked and acted uncomfortable that I was in the place. Very uncomfortable. Their shifty vibe made me nervous and I quickly left empty-handed to go drinking at a place I knew closer to Shibuya Station.
Nevertheless, the memory of this building’s location and narrow profile always stuck with me, always intrigued me. I have been back to Tokyo three times since I moved away in late 1988, and during each return trip I have made a point of finding this building and photographing it to note any changes to its occupancy and appearance. This has become a kind of side project while visiting Tokyo for other purposes. Anyway, this is the building and how it has looked at various times in the last six years. Consider these images to be the kind of happy snaps one might take while dropping in on an old friend from time to time…
(Pictures taken in Udagawachō, Shibuya, Tokyo. I previously used the image from 2008 and one from 2012 in this post.)
After 14 years of marriage
I wish I could say
that we made each other breakfast in bed
or that she bought me a fob chain and I bought her a set of combs.
But it is, on the raining surface, just another day,
and in the forthcoming movie
she gets ready for work
while I edit photographs and
dream of making love to her in Tokyo
under this cherry tree I know in Ueno Park.
The loving endurance is the thing, the gift,
the brilliant flawed red ruby
that shines in the eyes and makes all tears
things of value, grit, beauty.
It is the sunshine the gods weren’t smart enough to invent,
It’s taking out the garbage when the corpses are stacked like cord wood.
It’s laundry in an abattoir where your heart will always beat on a wood table
because you trust her never to cut nor damage it.
It is eggs in a silver cup
and ramen in a bowl of the finest paper-thin jade.
It is not a technological turn-key solution,
where you put on the rings
and suddenly stop growing together
and there are children and babies and
every in-law loves you and
you are suddenly serious contenders for a Nobel Prize.
There are fewer integrated circuits to the thing than that.
And really I wish
we could talk about this more but
I have to go make her a cup of coffee right now
and give her a hug
and kiss her goodbye.
Because you don’t just send the greatest person you’ve ever known
out into the world
without some love
and the power it gives them
to be immortal for just one more day.
(Pictures taken at the San Mateo County Fair, sometime in the 1990s. Published concurrently on Scholars and Rogues.)
I have been a bit depressed lately. Well more often than usual, considering depression is a chronic medical condition with me. I miss being in Japan. I miss my dad, though we did not get along all that well. I miss, as I said a few days ago on various social networks, being able to see the magic in ordinary things. I miss a sense of inner peace. I haven’t felt that in a long, long time.
When I get like this I take a look at my work, at photos that bring happy, or at least satisfying, memories to me. I stumbled upon this, just a throwaway shot of a faceless young man playing with his smartphone in the street outside an apartment I was renting in Tokyo last year. It’s not a prize winner, but the shot is simple, the scene rather peaceful. And it just might help me feel better and make it through the day. Maybe it can make your day better in some way too.
(Picture taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in September, 2013. Photo also published on Scholars and Rogues.)
In Ueno Park on the last day of September, 2013, a friend and I were drinking Suntory Premium Malts after a heavy lunch in a nearby joint under the JR train tracks. It was a beautiful day, warm but less humid than September had been overall.
As we sat with our beers and watched people come and go, two kids who were obviously brother and sister caught my eye. I don’t have children, but sometimes in watching kids mill about and play I see glimpses of the innocent, goofy things I used to do as a child. These recollections are small treasures of happiness scattered infrequently amongst the other memories of a less-than-happy childhood.
Yes, these two youngsters made me smile. I felt bad for the boy, though, because the slow, delicious breeze blowing through the park that day rapidly scattered the bubbles he created. He really didn’t have time to enjoy them. But my friend and I did. And I’m pretty sure watching this kid made my beer taste better.
It was a warm, sunny day in Shinjuku, and I was on my way to meet a friend at Kinokuniya. As I was waiting to cross Shinjuku Dori, I noticed this thoughtful-looking fellow next to me. For the five or six heartbeats I was near him before the pedestrian light turned green, I thought he looked like the smartest man in the world.
(Picture taken in Shinjuku 3-chome in September, 2013)
Tomorrow night (January 25th, 2014 for those of you reading this after the fact) I am appearing for the third year in a row at Brisbane’s annual Artists Evening of Sharing. I’ll be showing a video montage of images I took in September and October of last year for my “Tokyo Panic Stories” project. I’m pleased with this video, so please have a look and leave a comment below if you care to to let me know what you think…
As an additional bonus, I’ve compiled the videos I shot last year in Tokyo for your viewing pleasure. They’re not of the highest quality, and they don’t have any big revelatory importance. They’re just short slices of motion and sound that I managed to capture during some long, hot days when I was in Tokyo and life was good. Because Tokyo will always be a home and haven for me…
Thanks for having a look. I intend to do more videos in the future. Probably. I think.
My “Tokyo Panic Stories” Kickstarter campaign was a success, and so was the trip to Tokyo that it funded. And even though Japan’s humid early fall weather and the gritty locations where I did much of my work both kicked my ass, I came away from my month in Tokyo with some of the best photographs and memories of my life. Presented here are 10 of my favorite images from the work I did in Tokyo in 2013. Clicking on an image will take you to the original post in which it was used. I hope you enjoy this work, and I look forward to showing you much more throughout this shiny new year.
“I used to live in Yushima, near this amazing temple place. It was a quiet neighborhood, and amazingly full of grace…”
In 1987 and 1988, I lived in a part of northeastern Tokyo called Yushima. I had the good fortune to secure an apartment right next to Yushima Tenjin, one of the oldest Shinto temples in the city. It was, and still is, a quiet neighborhood and a wonderful place to live. I returned to check on my old digs when I was in Tokyo in September of 2013. And while I was there I took the time to see if the view from the top of my old building was still as beautiful as I remember. I was happy to find that it is. Click on the image below to share a little bit of the experience…
Yushima, Bunkyo 3-chome, 28-18, Tokyo, Japan (文京区湯島3丁目28-18)
Tomorrow is the Thanksgiving holiday here in America. It’s already upon my American friends in Japan. While I have some regrets (of the life-long variety), I have had a lot to be thankful for in the last 12 months. In particular, I am thankful that I was able to successfully fund a Kickstarter project which enabled me to return to Tokyo in September and October this year to continue my Tokyo Panic Stories work. And while I was in Tokyo, I was able to get together with some guys I already knew, and meet some new fellows with whom I hope to be friends in years to come.
I don’t have a hell of a lot of friends, and I don’t make them easily. This post is my way of thanking these fine gents for their company and warmth. Cheers, boys…
See this picture?
It’s not a very good picture. It’s grainy, and the sensor in my Nikon DSLR did something weird to the bottom sixth of the image. But this picture means a lot to me, because the bright object on top of this building was like a warm, bright friend on the numerous times I stepped out of my rented Nakano apartment at night to go have a smoke in the street. It’s a picture with good memories locked within each pixel of its form. I just wish it had turned out better. But we take what we can get of memory and happiness.
(Picture taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo on October 6th, 2013)
I got back from my 2013 trip to Tokyo a week ago. It feels like a month, but only in the sense that I have enjoyed returning to Brisbane more this time than after my previous two trips to Japan in the last 5 1/2 years. I’ve been visually drinking in my surroundings, catching up with favorite TV shows, and spending more quality time with my wife than our busy schedules typically allow. But part of the grind of coming home after a month in Japan is that I am still getting over jetlag. Another part of the grind is the daily reminders of the numerous things that piss me off about living in the United States, such as the GOP-induced government shutdown. But this really isn’t a political publishing venue and I have no real interest in, nor talent for, writing about such things anyway.
So to give my feelings physical substance and to make myself feel better today, I took this picture of my cat Indy. His facial expression is eerily similar to my own…
It isn’t the best picture I’ve ever taken. I took it unintentionally while this very nice fellow was actually telling me he didn’t want his picture taken. But I liked the way it turned out, so I am sharing it with you. Doing the work I do, one has to have some kind of an amoral streak from time to time…
(Picture taken near Nakano Sun Mall on October 3rd, 2013)
Maybe pink is my Tokyo color. It brought me a lot of comfort last year, and my encounter with that color a couple of days ago in Ueno brought a wide smile to my face…
(Picture taken outside Ueno Station, Tokyo on September 30th, 2013)
It’s a little restaurant called Rose Garden, not far from Nakano Station in Tokyo. They serve western-style food here. I particularly recommend the hamburg set for lunch. And I’ve eaten breakfast here (which is also nice and inexpensive) a couple of times during this trip. In fact, I did so with a friend this very morning.
But the other day as I was eating my “morning set”, I looked out the window and I remembered how it was my wife and I who discovered this place in 2008. Then I looked down from the window at the empty seat beside me, and I smiled while picturing her face and I was missing her like the world was on fire.
That’s why these pictures and words are dedicated to her, my love, who would make Tokyo so much brighter if she was with me here now.
(First two pictures taken in Nakano, Tokyo on September 10th, 2013. Last picture taken in Uenohirokoji, Tokyo in March, 2008.)
The way things worked out, I ‘m traveling to Tokyo via an overnight stay in Dallas, Texas. My mother lives here, so I have a free and loving place to stay while I’m in transit. When I woke up this morning at 04:30 California time, I really wished I had a direct flight to Narita and could have skipped this layover at mom’s. Once I got here, I was, and am, glad for the opportunity to see her. Even for a short time such as this. I leave for DFW airport tomorrow morning at 08:30 central time. It’s 21:15 right now.
So I’m passing through mom’s life briefly, little more than a smiling ghost who feels warm to the touch. In this house, were my mother has lived for 24 years, there’s another ghost. It’s my father, who lived here with mom for 19 years but passed away in 2008. Dad died suddenly. Mom is dying slowly, of a combination of ailments I’d rather not describe out of respect for her privacy. Suffice to say, if she lives another year or two she will have beaten the odds her doctors have given her.
It is good being here, and hard. My mother uses a walker, but is so energized and outwardly full of life whenever I am here that when I leave I feel I have robbed her of some life energy. It’s hard to describe and is probably a more universal occurrence between a child and a dying parent than I know. But it is good being here. I wish I had planned this trip to Tokyo better and arranged to fly to Dallas three days ago, to give mom more of me, and to give me more of her. I’d like to return at Christmas. That would be good.
But time is growing short. We both know this. We don’t discuss it much. But every time I come to visit my mother, I leave knowing that I may never see her alive again. I think this scares me and mom more than the fact that she is dying. We have both become grimly resigned to that. She has things she wants to tell me, stories of her life and family in what used to be Yugoslavia, and she is afraid she’ll never get to tell these things to me. In some ways, we both understand that the loss of these family stories is the tragic death here.
Maybe instead of traipsing off to Tokyo to do this photojournalism work I have chosen, the guilt inside me says, I should make my mother and her stories the highest priority in my life.
“Our lives are what they are,” my mother is fond of saying. And it is her very good way of saying we should both shut the fuck up and think about happier things.
(Picture taken at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport on September 7th, 2013.)
In April, 2012 I rode into Tokyo by myself for the first time in 24 years. My wife and I made the trip together in 2008; but riding the bus or the train into the sprawling “Blade Runner” landscape of Tokyo is different when you’re alone. When you’re with someone, there are things to see together and discuss between yourselves, often in wonder and awe and distraction. When you travel into and across Tokyo by yourself, it’s just you and the city. And the city is the alive ‘other’. It gives you no visual alternatives and no escape from its immense beauty, miniscule dirty details, and the jealous-lover-like attention it constantly demands of you.
Tokyo generates within me feelings of happiness, intimidation, anxiety, and belonging that I have never felt toward any other city on Earth. Not Paris, not London, not New York City, not even my adopted hometown of San Francisco have ever given and taken from me the affection and energy which Tokyo does.
So I’m going back for a month this September, to continue work I started a long time ago and resumed in 2012. It’s work that takes a close, hard look at some of the aforementioned miniscule dirty details, in the form of the rough, shadowy-underbelly areas of Tokyo and the destitute-yet-tough and generally unfortunate people who live in them.
To that end, this is my long-winded way of saying I created a Kickstarter project to help finance the continuation of my “literary-photojournalism” work in Tokyo. My funding goal is US $3,500, to be used on things like airfare, lodging, public transport, and food. Click on the graphic below and you’ll be taken directly to the Tokyo Panic Stories Kickstarter page, which will show you a video and explain all the details of the project.
I appreciate you taking the time to read through all of this material, and I hope you decide to help out.
In 1985, when I was a junior at Lehigh University, we all thought we’d dodged a bullet because virtually none of the oppressive, fascist government policies and surveillance technologies envisioned by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four had come to pass nor been implemented by the United States government. At least as far as anyone knew.
Times have changed, have they not? It’s an interesting coincidence (or is it coincidence?) that the recent news of the National Security Agency’s covert surveillance and data collection activities broke during the very same week Orwell’s paranoid dystopian novel was originally published on June 8th in 1949.
The year 1984 was a lot like the recently-departed 2012, in that scores of paranoids, conspiracy theorists, and flat-out religious whack jobs predicted events that would either drastically change or even end the world. The big difference is that some of what we expected to happen by 1984 just took a hell of a lot longer to come true than many people imagined. That is, if they imagined at all that our own American government could or would undertake the secret surveillance of millions of innocent, law-abiding citizens for the questionable sake of catching a couple dozen or hundred possible foreign anti-US dissidents or violent shit disturbers.
Personally, I feel cheated, I feel had, even if nobody at the NSA has ever heard my name or looked at any of my emails. This kind of government activity wasn’t supposed to even remotely be a part of the structure upon which the American Dream of my childhood and youth was built.
So I feel like a rube, the same naïve rube who wrote the following column in the February 8th, 1985 issue of the Lehigh Brown & White student newspaper. So much has changed since I wrote these words, and I thought it was all slow, gradual change for the better. How wrong I was, and how stupid I feel maintaining through all of this the hope that we all will recover and be able to continue the individual pursuit of our persecution- and oppression-free visions of the American Dream…
Clip image courtesy of the Lehigh University Brown & White Digital Archive