Monday, August 31, 2009

Let's Eat Some Sweets: Tsujiguchi Hironobu

And now for something completely delicious.

When I look at many of the current promotional items posted on the Asunarosha site I realize that this tribute to celebrated pâtissier Tsujiguchi is pretty "old." It's alarming how fast new kitties start to pile up and simply amazing what these designers will come up with in just a few short years. Yet despite this, I find this promotional version to be one of the most unusual in my collection. This is a Dear Daniel exclusive. Normally, Dear Daniel (now and forever referred to as DD) completes a pair to Kitty White when the regional/promotional subject involves a couple. Kitty White, regardless of the subject's gender is always the headliner. For this promotional item, she takes a powder and DD takes a solo bow in the spotlight. Maybe it was the hair...

Some of you may remember Tsujiguchi from the Valentine's Day inspired "Banana & Chocolate" battle with the beleaguered Italian Chef Masahiko Kobe. Back then in 1998, he was already recognized as an international prize winning pâtissier. These days, he is a marketing force (typhoon is more like it) that has turned his extensive experience with French and Japanese sweets into the art that decorates his high-end comestible "boutiques": Mont St. Clair, the pâtisserie which this DD item represents; Chocolate de H, a chocoholic's nirvana; Confiture H, a kind of perfume boutique only the perfume is various fruit preserves; Marriage de Farine, a classic "boulangerie" or french style bakery; and a number of "concept" offerings (Waraku-Beniya, cafe Fortissimo) in the wonderful world of the Japanese department store. As an aside, I should point out that the food section of the Japanese deparment store is heavenly. Imagine Saks, but instead of fancy Lancome and Estee Lauder counters, there are all kinds of food ready to be purchased and "furoshiki-ed" for your convenience!

Sweets may have been in Tsujiguchi's blood at birth since his family ran sweet shop in Beniya, in Nanao City in Ishikawa prefecture. He began his training in Tokyo and moved onward to France. When he returned to Japan he opened Mont St. Clair. In this pâtisserie, Tsujiguchi features the classic French sweets, some of them fused with uniquely Japanese ingredients.

May be it was the hair that did it. Did DD's signature coif make him the natural choice for Tsujiguchi?

Here is a teeny Kugelhopf - a yeast cake with dried fruit that is usually soaked in liquer.

Here is a teeny fruit crepe

Here are some teeny-tiny Madelines or shell shaped tea cakes

Here is a teeny slice of strawberry shortcake. Here's a bit of BTW-trivia: Strawberry shortcakes have become a contemporary traditional dessert for Christmas in Japan.

Here is a teeny tiny bit of Mont Blanc, a chestnut cream meringue

Friday, August 21, 2009

And Now for the Other Side: The Shinsengumi

In the last two posts I introduced two historical Kitty Regional figures that were looking for either an end to the Shogunate system or at the very least some kind of reform that would allow Japan to survive and flourish in the brave new world of "foreign relationships." This next post will introduce a group that remained loyal to the shogunate.

In 1863, the Tokugawa shogunate funded a group of ronin samurai who were given the task of protecting Tokugawa Iemochi, the Shogun - the big kahuna, so to speak - when he made unprecedented visit to Kyoto to meet with the Emperor, Komei. Think of them as the original secret service of Japan. However, unlike the secret service, not everyone in the ensemble was loyal to the shogunate. A few suspects used this group as a means to recruit ronin who were fervent sonno joi believers (anti-shogunate). The plan was to march into Kyoto as protectors of the Shogun, but once arriving, they were to become the very forces that they were designed to quash.

Tags from the two versions of plushies in my collection: the blue comes from the Genyo era, while the later 2003 pink version features the signature artwork that I've come to love. In the background the Daimonji-yama mountainside is aflame with a bonfire of the Chinese character "dai" -- part of a summer festival to be covered later called "Gozan no Okuribi

Kitty in Pink, Kitty in Blue: I do love pink, but have to wonder if it really was a color of choice amongst these secret service warriors. The uniform included a haori, a short jacket with the angular white trim, against solid colors like blue and black (maybe even pink) making it easy to recognize the Shinsengumi in battle.

Ever paranoid in the turmoil of the times, the shogunate already suspected some of its newly formed corp were up to no good. Orders were made to send the group back to Edo to "expel" some foreigners which fell in line with anti-shogunate mind-set. However, about 13 of these ronin refused the orders to return to Edo on the grounds that they really intended to protect Shogun, and would continue to do so if permitted. Needless to say, it was permitted and the corp was reformed as the Shinsengumi or "newly elected" corp. In addition to protecting the Shogun on his visit, they were charged with the duty of policing Kyoto and keeping hostile forces at bay.

Even though history did not favor them in the end, the Shinsengumi represented a strong sense of honor and duty. Their high point may have been in 1863 when they thwarted the plans of sonno joi extremists to burn the city of Kyoto, and kidnap the Emperor and take him to Choshu.

Loyal from the beginning to the end, Kondo Isami was part of the original 13 ronin who refused orders to return to Edo and petitioned Kyoto's military commissioner to remain the Shogun's protector. He eventually became commander of the Shinsengumi corp. In the end, Isami was beheaded for allegedly assassinating our previous Kitty - Sakamoto Ryoma. However, the jury is still out on his part in the assassination.


I think the artwork is what sold these cookies to me -- the 2003 version of the Shinsengumi.

...and what a fun surprise to find Kitty's face stamped on this delicious butter cookie!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Kitty's Political Side: Sakamoto Ryoma

Since we left of with the Last Samurai, might as well stay with a few more players in the waning days of the warrior.

Sakamoto Ryoma was a low ranking samurai from Tosa (present day Kochi prefecture, Shikoku island). He was renown as a master swordsman, but for the most part, not considered a samurai of much importance. History would later show a very different story.

Like Saigo of the previous post, Ryoma was drawn into the anti-Tokugawa shogunate movement in this home region. When efforts to break away from the shogunate were uncovered, Ryoma was forced into exile as ronin. During this time period, Ryoma "crossed paths" with Katsu Kaishu - an important official in the Tokugawa shogunate. When I say "crossed paths" it really means he was going to assassinate him, but somehow, Kaishu was able to turn the tables and show Ryoma the futility in trying to "expel the barbarians." Kaishu believed that Japan could not stop invading forces without modernizing its military forces. Ironically, they could not do this with out the help from other parties from the West.

A Genyo-era plushie: Kitty as Ryoma-kun, representing the popular ronin warrior-turned-negotiator and the Shikoku region.

So instead of assassinating Kaishu, Ryoma worked with him to establish a Naval Academy in Kobe, Japan. Ryoma was a faithful follower of Kaishu but this did not change his view of the Tokugawa shogunate. This would eventually force Ryoma to flee once again as the shogunate grew more and more apprehensive over outbreaks of subversive activity.

As fate would have it, Ryoma fled further south to Kagoshima where anti-Tokugawa sentiments were stronger and becoming more organized. Perhaps his time with Kaishu had changed him from master swordsman to master negotiator because Ryoma was able to do what was thought of as impossible; he negotiated a secret alliance between the enemy domains of Satsuma (Saigo's territory) and Choshu. This alliance and its forces would be key to the downfall of the shogunate.

In this double netsuke version of Ryoma, Daisy appears in a pretty pink kimono as Ryoma's equally famous bride, Oryo, a maid servant who according to legend helped Ryoma escape an assassination attempt by Tokugawa forces. Their trip to a hot spring in Satsuma (at Saigo's invitation) following their wedding is said to the first Honeymoon in Japan.

Unlike Saigo, Ryoma was not seeking to preserve the feudal system and practices of the samurai. He envisioned a democratic government like the United States, and recognized that Japan could not survive against foreign invaders as long as it remained a disjointed group of feudal domains. Additionally, he did not support the political annihilation of the Tokugawa regime. Hard for me as a non-history major to discern what his motives were but it may have been fear of the Satsuma/Choshu region gaining too much power or the risk of civil war and foreign intervention that moved Ryoma to quickly negotiate a peaceful resignation of the Shogun.

In his own letters to his sister, Ryoma knew that due to his actions and efforts, he would not live a long life and certainly the fluidity of his political views earned him more enemies than devoted friends. While the life of being a masterless samurai offered him no monetary and physical protection, it did offer the ability to act on his own set of political beliefs and vision of Japan's future. Sadly, at the age of 32, Ryoma was assassinated by a pro-Tokugawa group.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Saigo Takamori - The Real "Last Samurai"

Back in 2003 I saw the movie "The Last Samurai" starring Ken Watanabe in the title role. The screenplay was inspired by the somewhat romanticized legend of a samurai by the name of Saigo Takamori who was literally one of the last true samurai of Japan.

Saigo Takamori was born in 1827, Kagoshima, Japan. He was a low ranking samurai in the Satsuma region whose rise up the ranks was a bit of a mess. For a while he was even banished to the Amami Islands for "anti-shogunate" activities, but was eventually pardoned and sent back "to work."

Emerging from the mists, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) sees his vision of the white tiger in the form of John Algren. Of course this is all the beautiful fictional work of screenwriters, but it works for me.

From the 12th up until the 19th century, Japan's true ruling power rested in the military and its "commander and chief", the Shogun. The Emperor, on the other hand, was considered more of a symbolic or ceremonial leader. However, Japan's increasing contact with the West set off a series of "cause and effect" reactions that eventually led to the end of the Shogunate and the restoration of the Emperor.

While the Portuguese left their imprint on Japan during the 17th century (like the tasty cakes of the previous post), it wasn't until Commodore Perry's arrival in 1854 that Japan was forced to deal with the rest of the world and its place in the West's obsession with manifest destiny.

Food tie-in: Kitty as Saigo makes an appearance on a box of a Kagoshima specialty; Satsuma Age or fried fish cakes. The illustration on the box shows "Kitty-as-Saigo" with canine companion overlooking Kagoshima Bay and the volcano Sakurajima. They are eating delicious fried fish cakes as one of Admiral Perry's "Black Boats" floats in the background.

Needless to say, not everyone was ready to accept the West's entry into their ports especially under implied military force and they grew resentful of the Shogunate's inability to resist Perry's threats and the terms of the Harris Treaty . The shogunate's critics cried sonnō jōi or "Revere Emperor, Expel the Barbarians!" Japan needed to close its doors, preserve its tradition as well as rebuild its strength before allowing the foreigners back in. Within their slogan, it was clear. The shogunate had failed as Japan's leader and it was time to bring unified Japan back to the Emperor.

Although Saigo Takamori began his early exploits in support of the Tokugawa shogunate in Satsuma (modern-day Kagoshima), he eventually found his role in the efforts to restore the Emperor.

Unable to withstand the pressures from foreign and internal threats, Tokugawa Yoshinobu agreed to step down from his role as Japan's ruling shogun and thus restoring the Emperor as Japan's leader. However the Tokugawa family still retained much of its ruling power.

To make a very long and complicated story somewhat short and sweet, there were some who strongly argued that the shogunate needed to be abolished and the Tokugawa family be stripped of its lands. Saigo Takamori, a samurai from the Satsuma domain (now modern-day Kagoshima) was one of the strongest proponents of this belief. Despite his early exploits as defender of the shogunate, he would successfully prevent the Tokugawa regime from ever posing a threat to the new government.

However, the tides were changing for Saigo. Despite his participation in overthrowing the old system, Saigo saw the new ruling body turning too far from the original goals of preservation. The new government's commitment to modernization and establishing new international identity was starting to threaten the way of the warrior. A conscripted imperial army was now the defender of Japan's figure head and there was no place for the samurai and therefore no privileges. Their way of life was coming to an end. Saigo resigned from his new government position and returned Satsuma.

Like his statue in Ueno Park, Tokyo, Saigo-Kitty strikes a pose with his/her canine companion.

Although Saigo retreated, he established a kind samurai academy in Kagoshima for the disaffected warrior. It's from this point in Saigo's life that John Logan and Edward Zwick draw inspiration for their character Katsumoto in their movie "The Last Samurai". In his academies, Chinese classics and Bushido were taught as well as weapons training, both traditional and modern. Soon the one academy turned into 132 academies and the new government was starting to grow concerned over Saigo's influence in the Satsuma region. Trouble was already surfacing around the region and they saw an organized revolt led by the popular Saigo as a real threat.

After a failed assassination attempt on Saigo by government envoys, the situation quickly escalated into an open conflict. Students of Saigo's academies were running raids on the local arsenals in both protest to the government's restrictions and in preparation for revolt. Meanwhile, Saigo became the reluctant leader of what was now being called the Satsuma Rebellion.

Needless to say (especially if you've seen "The Last Samurai") things turn out rather tragically for Saigo and his fellow warriors. While the historical context gets a bit sketchy, the sentiments of these warriors running down the hill to face certain death as samurai may be quite true.

Saigo's last stand has come to symbolize the end of the way of the true Samurai. However, not all of Saigo's mythos fall into the category of tragedy. Written accounts describe him as imposing in stature; over 6 feet tall and rather husky. He was said to have commanded both honor and respect by his actions rather than in words or force. Like the Logan/Zwick version, Saigo has become a symbol of honor, bravery and wisdom in the face of a changing world.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Nagasaki Kasutera: Thank You Portugal!!

Kitty and Daisy in ruffs, galligaskins and cloaks? A carrack in a harbor? What's going on? It must be about food, right?

One of the things that tend to end up along with Hello Kitty items in my international internet shopping cart are special sweets and cakes. While some end up being a permanent part of my associated Kitty collection (meaning unedible and fossilized) some never make it past the box it was shipped in. Japanese sponge cake is one of those things.

Kasutera (also called Castella) was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese back in the 16th century. It's name relates back to it's original Portuguese pão-de-ló or bread of Castille. Unlike its modern French cousin, this cake is slightly denser and kept moist by the use of starch syrup or honey. It is eaten unadorned by strawberries and whipped cream (the combo I expect with my understanding of western spongecake) and is often paired with a spot of tea.

Nothing more disconcerting slicing up a piece of this tasty, eggy cake and finding a Hello Kitty face. I guess she's trying to compete with San-X's NyanNyako designs. While I love my collection, I have to admit, these ball-bearing appendages mystify me.

Nagasaki is regarded as the homeland of Kasutera. Thanks to its geographical location and the political independence of its surrounding smaller islands, Nagasaki was open to foreign trade during Japan's "Sakoku" period. This allowed the Portuguese to introduce many new things to Japan like sugar, firearms, tobacco and a tasty cake that could be preserved for long sea voyages.

On the flip side, Kitty's backside bears the proud stamp of a Nagaski Kasutera

Eventually, the Portuguese came under the suspicious eye of the ruling daimyo Hideyoshi who didn't like the possibility of his unification plans being thwarted by Christian missionaries. The Portuguese missionaries and eventually merchants were expelled, but their influences remained.

There are lots of recipes out there in internet-land and the truly devoted home cook strives to improve their techniques so the results can compare to the Kasutera Standard: Bunmeido. Another company website (Fukusaya) has a rather impressive flash video of the "mass production" that goes on in their bakery, but it doesn't look like the kind of mass production I'm used to seeing when it comes to a Hostess Twinkie.

Check out the video