Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Damn Camels: Onjuku & Tottori

The artwork for the following regional items fit into the category of "vague & haiku-like." It isn't enough that she's dressed in a green tutu or as a shallot. She has to be next to a camel and on the desert. We've seen Gotochi (Japanese Regional) Kitty dressed as a number of food items, fruits and vegetables, historical and fictional characters as well as dressed in traditional garments of a certain period or region. Not much surprises me but I have to admit to being puzzled and frazzled over these items.

What is the deal with all the camels and the desert night scenes? Kitty dressed as some kind of Arabian princess? She is clearly part of the Gotochi collection, but her artwork looks like a page from 1001 Arabian Nights. Is Scheherazade a new character at Puroland? Are there native breeds of Japanese camels? From what I could tell from my internet sources the answers were no and no. So what's going on with all this night desert scenery? I finally scanned and emailed my mom a picture of the tag below. I followed up with a call and asked her what she thought this was all about. She couldn't figure out the camels- not in her memory banks, but the desert scene and the green tutu'd Kitty hit a chord. "Oh," she finally said. "She's supposed to be Nijisseiki Nashi!" Thanks, Mom. It made purrfect sense to her. It gave me a place to start my internet search.

So what did I find? While there aren't deserts in Japan, there are places that inspire the romantic images of moonlit deserts and Arabian Princes and Princesses on camelback. One such place is Onjuku Beach, Chiba Prefecture. It is said that the rolling sandy hills of Onjuku and its beach were the inspiration behind the 1923 song "Tsuki no Sabaku" or "Desert Moon" (Poetry by Masawo Kato, music by Suguru Sasaki.)

Long ago and far away in a forgotten land
In the desert late at night camels walked o’er the sand
Lost in time, a mystic line, on a journey unknown
Wearing gold and silver saddles, ‘neath the moon that shone

On the saddlebag of gold, hung a bright silver urn
On the silver saddle fold, hung an urn made of gold
So divine, another time, on a journey unknown
Tied together by a twine, ‘neath the moon that shone

On the camel’s back that night
Rode fair handsome prince
On the camel there behind, a young princess did ride

Lost in time, a dream so fine, on a journey unknown
Wearing white and wondrous gowns,
‘neath the moon that shone

Long ago and far away in a forgotten land
In the desert late at night camels walked
O’er the sand
Who could know where they did go?
Step by step, all alone
Desert dreams, misty light beams,
‘neath the moon that shone

O’er the mountains made of sand,
Hearts of gold, lips of stone,
In a long forgotten land, on a journey unknown

First camel mystery solved as well as the Arabian Princess Kitty. On Onjuku beach, there is a statue of an Arabian Prince and Princess upon camelback on a concrete dune commemorating this song. But what about the tag I emailed my mother? Is there another statue of a camel floating out there in Japan? Not quite. The answer lies on the other side of the peninsula and at another "desert-like" place called the Tottori-sakyu Sand Dune.

Tottori-sakyu Sand Dune is located near Tottori City, Tottori Prefecture. The dune is said to be the result rough winds and sea currents that return to shore the river sediments that run into the Sea of Japan. Spanning almost 10 miles along the coastline and the width of a mile, the Tottori-sakyu Sand Dune is the largest in Japan. The winds are constantly changing the shape of the dune, creating deep craters and high hills. Needless to say, the dune is quite the tourist attraction along with the reasons Kitty is dressed the the following costumes and shadowed by a camel. In addition to seeing the dune, for 1800 yen, you can take a ride on a real live camel. An imported live camel, but it's real, not a statue.

Kitty as the famous Nijisseiki Nashi. Unlike the Asian pears we are used to seeing in super markets these days, the Nijisseiki Nashi or "20th Century Pear" is said to have been cultivated from a wild pear tree found in the early 1900s. They are said to be plump, sweet and juicy with a green-to-yellow skin.

Tottori Rakkyu: Pickled Shallots, anyone? Like garlic, the pickled shallot is said to be good for blood circulation. Tottori is said to be one of the largest producers of the shallot...yum yum.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The List of 27

It's been a long time since I've done the kitty-search on the web. It's been a rude awakening.

I was doing "research" for my next kitty post and was appalled to see the changes at Asunarosha. All of the old versions of regional items as well as their artwork have been removed and what remains is a tiny collection and some lukewarm artwork. While the older kitty mascots still rattle around the train stations and souvenir haunts, I miss seeing those little square thumbnails of artwork and their vague, haiku-ish names. I miss the fast, encyclopedic reference the other parts of the site provided as well. I know. Everything changes, progress, expansion, etc. I get that. There was only so long the regional kitty craze would last, but for me, those Japanese cultured critters epitomized "The Way of Cute". Kawaii-do. They did it far better than a pair of pink fuzzy slippers or a cat-shaped toaster.

The old Shingen Takeda artwork; the new Shingen at Asunarosha. Call me old fashioned but I liked the old artwork. Way cuter...

As I wistfully dug through my packed up boxes of Regional Hello Kitty items (note the capitalization that suggests a level of seriousness to an otherwise girlie-cutsie endeavor), I came across a very precious item. It was a treasure list that I had created six years ago when I was living in another time and place... sometimes I think it was another reality as well. It was a pictorial list of the 27 Japanese Regional Hello Kitty Plushes that I had to have. I yearned for these kitties. I ached for them. I looked all over eBay and found myself lucky a few times, but for the most part, I was fighting tooth and nail to find these little treasures.

The list was inspired and literally built on the pictures from a gallery I found online back in the early days. It was called Nyankovivi.com and was primarily focused on the sale of those adorable San-X Nyan Nyanko cat plushes. The site also featured a gallery of her (or his for all I know) Japanese Regional Hello Kitty plushie collection which was not for sale. It was my source, my bible, my gestalt...

I giggled when I found this mashed-up list. A smug grin followed. Not just because I kept the list, but because I found those little you-know-whats. This list was my trophy; my testament for having stayed in the line of battle; for never giving up hope that I would find the Dazaifu Plum kitty; for being so freakin' serious about getting these stuffed animals mounted on my wall! Now, I am just grateful to have this memento because Nyankovivi.com is gone. Poof. So is that gallery that inspired so many bidding wars on eBay. I hope it returns in some form or another....

X marks each triumphant spot. The Daizafu Plum blossom kitty was the last and probably the hardest fought kitty of the collect. I'll admit that once she made it to me from Japan via Yahoo Japan auctions, the thrill was over.

The plushies were up in my new abode for a little while, but I eventually put them away. I also stopped collecting. Not really sure why. Am I growing older and more boring? Am I pretending to be an adult? Does it matter? All I know is that the cute army has retired to some nice boxes in my closet. Their days of fighting off boogie monsters and channeling displaced hostility are at an end. At rest, but not out of sentimental value. They still have that ability to pique my curiosity and dig a bit deeper into my family's cultural past. They call, mewl, moew and entice and puzzle me. In fact one is calling me now, asking about Arabian princesses and camels in Japan...(hint: that's the next post)

Safely stored in boxes, no more dust and fade to attack my army of cute. Just a pain to dig out when I want to do a post, but its worth the effort...

Up and Running Again

Meatloaf sandwich anyone? Hearty and highly portable, not to mention cute....

Well, I'm back -- sorry for the abrupt stoppage of Regional Kitty blogging but between a webspace move and an actual physical move, Kitty and her accessories were put in boxes to be dealt with when the time came. And the time is now or at least I finally transferred images I could rescue from the old space. Everything was in tact except for the post on Kasutera... weird, but not fatal. Still working on ideas for the next Kitty, but just to let you regional kitty fans know that this blog hasn't been abandoned.

She'll be back soon!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Noodles and Stuff: Nabemono

Clearly the ramen post kicked off a noodle phase in my eating habits. After having a bit of nabeyaki udon (chinese cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, fishcake, poached egg and green onion simmered altogether in a pot) for dinner last night, I awoke still craving noodles. I realized that with Spring finally here, the season of noodles and dishes like nabeyaki have come to an end. Always behind the seasons, I felt inspired to write about those wonderful nabemono dishes that fix a blue mood on a cold rainy day.

Nabe is a cooking pot (clay or cast iron) and mono refers to all the ingredients that will be used for making a complete meal. Vegetables, meat and noodles are simmered together and served "family-style."

One famous example of nabemono is Sukiyaki, which is thinly sliced beef that is stewed in a sweet soy broth with tofu, shiitake and mung bean noodle. My mom's winter favorite is Oden which is a big production involving two different kinds of fish cake, fried tofu, cabbage, konnyaku, potato, radish, eggs and finally "treasure pouches" which are fried tofu skins filled with meat. A lot of work goes into making dishes like Oden, so much so that these days it's not uncommon to find frozen Oden kits that are ready to go. Ever anxious to keep up with the Kitty market, Asunaro also makes a Hello Kitty version of Oden that comes in a can...

Back in the Genyo era there was a limited seasonal kitty dedicated to nabemono called "Nabebugyo." The series featured 10 regional examples of nabemono. During my collecting days, I was only able to find one mascot from this particular series, but Kitty has a way of cross referencing herself in the regionals so I hoped for some luck.


This kitty version features a specialty of Hokkaido, Ishikari-nabe: Salmon stewed in a miso broth with potato, konnyaku, cabbage, chrysanthemum greens, radish, tofu, green onion and butter!

Ah! Close up of those hot pot ingredients...

As I had hoped earlier on, I did get lucky in the regional varieties. The next Kitty is one of my all time favorite original mascots: Houtou Kitty from Yamanshi Prefecture. In this dish the udon is an extra wide noodle that is a specialty of the region. The mono include Yamanashi specialties like mushrooms and Kabocha - that beautiful pumpkin-like squash. Everything is stewed together in a hearty miso broth.

No family-style service from this nabe. Kitty is IN the pot getting a heaping serving of that thick udon. I guess she loves the Houtou more than the usual nabemono. I wonder how Daisy feels about eating furry stew...

If you're interested in making nabemono, there's a number of fun/quirky videos on youtube that show you how to make a few of them like Oden.

Cooking with Dog: I am a new fan of these quirky but informative videos on Japanese cooking

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Alchemy of Fat & Carbs: Tonkatsu Ramen!!

Almost five years ago I did a post on a promotional line of Hello Kitty featuring Japan's "Ramen Devas". Deva is the sanskrit word for god or celestial one, so you get an idea of how highly regarded these gentlemen are. One of these devas makes a return appearance with a regional Kitty from Hakata, a ward of Fukuoka city on the southern island of Kyushu. I was fortunate to visit Kyushu many years ago and I loved it! As I watched the fog and rain roll in I had visions of Seattle. Sadly, my visit happened before Genyo introduced the regional and promotional kitty lines but more importantly, I was ignorant of regional specialty. I was too busy looking for Baumkuchen (I'll post on that if they ever make a kuchen-kitty) and Ohina dolls to take note of the legendary Tonkatsu Ramen.

Love pork or hate it, the rich taste and luxurious appearance of its broth make this noodle dish a distinct contender in the battle for best of the best in ramen. The broth is made by cooking pork bones until all the marrow and gelatin are released. This gives the broth its distinctive milky color and silky sheen. Traditionally it is topped with slices braised pork belly, green onion, red pickled ginger and hard boiled egg.


The tag for the plushie features chef Kitty and her ramen street stall or yatai. I can't tell what is on Daisy's plate, but its either very salty or sour considering her expression. Cod roe (mentaiko) or pickled ginger?

In the Genyo era version, Kitty dresses in her white ramenista uniform and presents a fresh bowl of creamy white Tonkatsu ramen. She can barely see over that bowl of noodles topped with slices of pork belly, green onion and ginger

In the Asunaro era, Kitty loses her chef whites and earns a pig costume. It's cute, but I prefer the Genyo version.

Just thinking about this post sent me to the Asian grocery to pick up some Tonkatsu style ramen and eat it before trying to blog on the subject.


It's not the real thing and its full of processed fat, carbs & MSG, but hey, I don't live in New York and this is the closest thing I will get to Hakata style ramen in the next few hours. This package boasts that it contains extra noodles so I can pretend I'm at a yatai and asking for those extra servings!

Errr, the ingredient list for the soup does not mention pork fat or lard, but refers to "pork essence". Yeah, it's gotta be a nice slab of something arterially challenging.

It looks a lot better once I've added the hot water...

...and even better with noodles and appropriate condiments. No pork slices and too hungry to add an egg...

In an earlier post I said that I thought udon was Japan's soul food. Ramen puts in a good bid for that title. In fact, ramen and udon share a few things in common such as Chinese origins and the importance of minerals that go into making the noodles themselves. For udon, it was salt; in ramen, it is a combination of salt minerals and water (kansui). This mixture gives ramen its distinctive yellow hue -- and I always thought it was egg... Its also worth mentioning that it too has a dedicated movie in its honor: Tampopo!

If you'd like to try a bowl of this comfort food without going to Japan or consuming the large quantities of MSG and "pork essence" like I did a few hours ago, there is hope. The Hakata Ramen Deva, Shigemi Kawahara has opened up one of his signature Ippudo restaurants in New York City. This isn't a humble street stall or typical ramen restaurant -- its a brasserie (insert the rolling of eyes right here) serving the traditional Tonkatsu Ramen, as well as a number of other ramen and meat dishes. Just like he had hoped for back in 2005, Kawahara has made his New York debut and it looks like they love this pork ramen as much as the Japanese.

Kitty returns as Shigemi Kawahara, the Hakata ramen Deva and marketing master mind who transformed the ramen shop into a full restaurant experience.

Another great food movie: Juzo Itami's 1985 film Tampopo. It's a fun and quirky ode to all kinds of soul foods and the people who love them

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.