Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What I Did for My Spring j-CATION

More than a week after I attended j-CATION at the Japan Society, I'm still thinking about what a fantastic event it was. Based on the theme of food, j-CATION celebrated the joys of the Japanese culinary experience through the unlikely (at least for Westerners) conventions of art, calligraphy (which can be considered art), and a game show.

Lanterns at the entrance to the Japan Society

Making a $5 donation to the shrine

The place had a festive atmosphere as fellow j-CATIONers crowded around every open space in the Japan Society to soak in the sights, sounds, and flavors of Japan's culinary delights. Giant video screens placed throughout the building displayed Japanese food commercials, music videos, and photos from Japan Society's bento contest.

The big screen with j-CATION promo

Virtual bento contest

Girls dressed as maids

There was so much to do, but I was able to take in a majority of the activities. Here's a basic rundown of my day.

Attended a language lesson on how to order food and pour drinks in a Japanese restaurant
This class was as basic as it gets, but with good reason as many of the people in the classroom had never studied Japanese or visited Japan. For once, I actually felt smart in a Japanese class, but that's not why I liked it. The instructor, Kazuko, had great energy and enthusiasm. She printed menus featuring simple items such as coffee, tea, beer, and sake and even had props like sake bottles and fake sushi.

Kazuko-san's menu

Observed a calligraphy class
I watched a group of people, mostly classmates studying Japanese in college, learn from master calligrapher Masako Inkyo how to write the kanji (Chinese characters) for certain foods. The atmosphere was much quieter than the boisterous language class, but calligraphy seems to be done best in a hushed setting. Watching Inkyo Sensei's precise movements with the thick brush made me wonder if I would have enough patience to learn shodo, "the way of writing." Her first example to the class was the kanji for sakana, or fish (魚). The contrast of the shocking black ink on crisp white paper turned the writing into a work of art. I also couldn't help but love the coincidence of someone named Inkyo chosing a craft that involves ink.

Masako Inkyo draws "sakana" (fish)

Inkyo Sensei helps a j-CATIONer with the brush

j-CATIONer draws "niku" (meat)

Sampled food
Of course. The event was about food, after all. Vendors from local Japanese restaurants and stores set up kiosks and sold their wares. The sweets were my favorite. Kyotofu was there with their scrumptious green tea cupcakes and signature "pigs in a duvet." Yeah, they sell pigs in a blanket. I suppose "duvet" makes it sound classier. When I bought one – of course, I did – I said to the people manning the Kyotofu kiosk that it didn't sound like a Japanese snack. After I devoured the mini hot dog wrapped in bread, I realized I had in fact eaten them from several panya (bakeries) in Japan.

Kyotofu's mini green tea cupcakes

I bought crazy snacks – squid legs, ramen-flavored wheat crackers, dorayaki (a pancake filled with bean paste and chestnuts), and some kind of corn stick thing – from the Dainobu stand. The Japanese deli's stall reminded me of the black-market stalls at Ameyayokocho in Taito-ku, an area near Ueno Park in Tokyo. Well, it's not the black market now, but it was back in the days following the end of World War II.
Setting up Dainobu's stall

Snacks from Dainobu

The popularity of Oms/b was good and bad. It was good that so many people had the opportunity to enjoy their healthy and creative rice balls; it was bad that they were sold out when I wanted the opportunity to enjoy their healthy and creative rice balls. I didn't feel like waiting half an hour for more to arrive, but I did have a chance to talk to Toshiya Suganuma, Oms/b's vice president. He's also the director of Ippudo, the East Village ramen noodle restaurant that's so wildly popular that it's been packed with patrons each time my husband and I have tried to eat there. I may not have had rice balls, but I am going to do a couple of stories about the Japanese snack and the ramen phenomenon in NYC. Stay tuned.

Oms/b had only wax replicas of rice balls; more arrived later

The tsukune (chicken meatballs) from East Japanese Restaurant was quite tasty. I can't explain it, but somehow I managed to resist the cream puffs from Choux Factory. The more I think about it, the more upset I am with myself. I didn't taste the sweets offered by Minamoto Kitchoan, either. What was wrong with me?! The amazing Japanese bakery was there selling and offering samples of wagashi, Japanese sweets that perfectly complemented the tea from ITO EN's tea workshops.

j-CATIONer learns about wagashi

Learning about tea from ITO-EN

I washed all the good food down with Hoji Cha (roasted green tea) and sake.

The bar in the j-LOUNGE

Umeshu (plum wine)

Tied one on with furoshiki
I've sung the praises of tenugui, Japan's most versatile cloth, but now I must give furoshiki its due. Unlike tenugui, furoshiki is square and can come in different sizes. Like tenugui it can also be used to wrap wine and sake bottles. Keiko Iida from Kiteya, a SoHo crafts store, showed us how to make what she called "a kimono for wine bottles" and eco-friendly grocery bags.

Keiko Iida (left) of Kiteya demonstrates furoshiki tying

Saw an exhibit
I've actually seen the Japan Society's current exhibit, Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection (my review to come soon), but I wanted to walk through to see a few of my favorite prints again. The Japan Society also found connections between Kuniyoshi's artwork and Japanese cuisine, and they created a quiz asking us to look for examples of food and drink while enjoying the art.

Upstairs to the gallery

Hiroki Otsuka (center) discusses manga with a budding artist

Hiroki Otsuka, Japan Society's Mangaka (manga artist)-in-Residence, was set up in the exhibit space. He critiqued j-CATIONers' examples of manga and drew a few caricatures as well.

Watched a game show
I'll be honest. I thought the game show was gonna suck. I didn't know any of the participants – quite frankly, reading Amazon Annie, the Queen of Squeeze was going to be there with her Lobos Locos actually scared me – and I wasn't sure what to expect. It was a bizarre mix of contestants and games, but it was well done and entertaining. Blindfolded contestants wearing nose plugs had to guess what the kimono-clad assistants fed them (onion, Spam, Pepto Bismol). Another game was to guess what the Japanese food was by an out-of-focus picture on the big screen. Finally, they made sushi out of their teammates. It was actually hilarious. Oh, and the Queen of Squeeze beat out a musical group and food bloggers.

Long Cat makes an appearance

"Clash of the Foodies" game show

Witnessed Kobayashi eat hot dogs 
Competitive food eating champion Takeru Kobayashi was the subject of a "Luscious Lecture." The six-time winner of the Nathan's July 4th hot dog eating extravaganza was interviewed by food writers from Time Out. Kobayashi began his career in competitive food eating by entering a curry-eating contest while in college, and he's been eating all kinds of food in timed competitions since. He shared his technique that allowed him to consume 64.5 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Then he and the food writers gobbled down a plate of hot dogs. How can something so gross be so fascinating to watch?

Time Out's Daniel Gritzer and Jordana Rothman introduce Takeru Kobayashi

Kobayashi talks about his workout regimen

More kimono-clad assistants bring out the hot dogs

Kobayashi makes quick work of the dogs; Rothman and Gritzer, not so much

Met interesting people, some of whom had no prior connection to Japan
I'm a true fan of all things Japanese, so it was only natural that I attend j-CATION. However, I was amazed at how many people I came across who didn't think about Japan every day the way I do. In my account of the event for examiner.com, I highlighted a few of the conversations I had to emphasize how the event meant different things to different people.

Long line outside the Japan Society

Chose dinner over music
After debating over whether to stay for the Asobi Seksu concert, my friend Lisa and I decided grabbing a meal would be the better choice. As we walked out of the Japan Society, I noticed the growing line of people waiting for concert tickets. It would've been interesting to see, but I'm happy that we had delicious ramen at Menchanko-Tei instead.

Enjoying j-CATION with Lisa (left)

My husband and I have been members of the Japan Society for about ten years, and this is the best event I've ever attended. We've been to great weekend forums before, but they're usually held exclusively in the auditorium and consist of a series of interesting and informative lectures and panel discussions that rely on the use of slide shows and short video clips. The inclusion of the world's top Japanese culinary experts notwithstanding, looking back those forums seem vanilla compared to the sensory overload of j-CATION.

Essentially I went to Japan on a Saturday. Just for the day, but a full day, indeed.


Marc said...

Wow. Great review and pictures.

This looks like it was a great time. I'm sorry I missed it. As you point out, our past experience with Japan Society events has been hit or miss.

And how mainstream is long cat to be appearing at a Japan Society event? :)

shrinecastle said...

Thanks! I wish you could've been there with me; it was a lot of fun. You would've enjoyed it. The game show would've been your favorite.

Either Long Cat is mainstream or the Japan Society is hip!