Friday, June 17, 2005

Summer is here: Part I

Since we’re about to head into the “dog-days” of summer here in the States, I thought this would be the perfect time to introduce the Limited and Regional Kitties that represent the various summer festivals and customs in Japan.


Nothing says summer like the beach and a bit of “smash-the-watermelon” or more precisely, suikawari – the watermelon splitting game. Kitty is blindfolded and her goal is to crack open that juicy watermelon with just that stick. Wish her luck because the beach natives are getting hungry!


Its another hot summer night, but that doesn’t stop Kitty from going out to see the fireworks. To make sure she’d be comfortable, she donned her yukata and brought her uchiwa fan. Yukatas are casual, lightweight cotton kimonos. During the summer, many women and young girls wear beautifully colored/patterned yukatas for festival and firework events.


In this netsuke version, Kitty holds a senko hanabi (an incense stick-sparkler) for a more home-style fireworks show. Once all the grown-ups have safely fired off the rockets and firecrackers, Kitty gets to hold a senko hanabi. Once its lighted Kitty must be careful not to shake the stick or her small fireworks show will go out too soon!

* In the plush version, Kitty holds something that looks like a little toy pig. At first I thought it was another toy firework but I could not find any references to it. My sympathetic Kitty contact kindly explained what it really was: a porcelain pig that is often used to hold a burning mosquito coil. I guess Kitty doesn’t want to take any chances with encephalitis. Smart cat.

["Katori Buto" - a nice 3D depiction that I found at the this website]


Another item synonymous with summer is goldfish. Goldfish are symbols of good fortune, prosperity, harmony and beauty. They are also an integral part of summer festival activities, both as games and prizes.

In part II I will cover some of the festival events including the goldfish games and "yomise" -- the special stalls that surround the summer firework events.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Elusive Regional Kitty

When I first started looking for Regional Limited Hello Kitty, my only guide at the time was Nyankovivi’s wonderous site. It should come as no surprise that her collection was a bit of a bible guide in my early auction searches. The site offers a gallery of genyo era regional/limited plushes. I would go through the gallery and look at some of the amazing regional plushes and make a list of the items I had to find.

After 6 months of trawling the web, I had amassed a collection that should have satisfied my needs. I was able to find some I'd seen in the gallery plus newer releases that were popping up on eBay. Granted, my list of gimmeez was considerably shorter than it once was, but there was a handful of plushes that never seemed to come up on the auction block. Maybe their absence gave me the illusion of special rarity, but all I knew was that I could not stop collecting until these few Kitties were found. Yes, my other regional Kitties were cute and interesting, but this elusive group was haunting me. To make matter worse, when I finally discovered the “official” regional site (Asunaro) it was apparent that these alleged rarities were no longer available – either sold out or no longer made. I should have given up, but those particular Kitties haunted my computer dreams.

In the following 6 months, at least 70% of those haunting Kitties made it to an auction. Yes, I paid more than I should have for a few, but I sleep better at night. Two of the Kitties were obtained through the generosity and sympathy of a fellow Kitty collector who found one in a Tokyo train station and the other up for auction on YahooJapan. Of course, this means there is at least one left that still taunts every now and then, but I think I can let go... for now.

I can't really say for sure why these particular Kitties hit me so hard. They may seem rather ordinary and indistinguishable from my other plushes. Maybe it was the fact that they somehow challenged me to a hunt? I don't know. I just really likedthem and I had to find them. So here they are:


Kitty pays tribute to Tokyo Firemen. Kitty proudly carries the matoi, a big banner standard that was used as a firefighting tool by the firefighters or hikeshi of the Edo period. The strips of cloth on the matoi were soaked in water. A hikeshi would then climb up to a rooftop near the burning building. The hikeshi would then start to twist the matoi back and forth so it would release a spray of water. This spray and the current created by the twisting motion would help to either trap or put out any rising embers that threatened to land on other buildings in the area – an important consideration in a old city that was made primarily of wood, straw and paper.

If you’d like to see a matoi in action, this website has a few modern day demonstrations:


Kitty appears as a version of the Inu Hariko, or paper-mache dog. This is a talisman that focuses on the protection of children. For pregnant mothers, the Inu Hariko is said to ensure a safe and easy birth and that the newborn will be strong. For their children, it protects them from evil. After all, dogs are still regarded as the guardians of our homes in these modern times. In addition, dogs are thought to have the ability to recognize evil – all dog owners at one time or another swear they once had a dog that could smell trouble! In this Tokyo version, Kitty’s Inu Hariko carries a denden taiko, a double headed drum that is also a child’s toy. The drum is also meant to be a talisman against evil spirits.


Kitty mugs for the camera as she wrestles with the nanko ume – the king of plums. These famous Wakayma plums will be used to make the highly regarded umeboshi. The plum is pickled in a salt brine then aged. The result is a very salty, tangy “slap-in-the-face” taste, which probably explains Kitty’s expression.


Dressed in a two formal kimonos, Kitty displays Kanazawa’s famous Kaga Yuuzen or the art of silk dying. This is a complex process that combines a number of different techniques including stenciling, blocking and painting. Nature-themed motifs are traced on fine silk with a line of juice from the aobana flower. Then the aobana line is covered with a rice-paste that will keep the dye from bleeding out of the design lines. Then the hand painting is done. Another layer of rice-paste is applied which allows certain gradation of colors and to protect the design as the material heads into its “background color” dying. The silk is then rinsed in water to wash away the paste, then steamed to fix in the dye and rinsed one last time to wash away any remaining paste.

Of personal note: Kitty holds a temari ball. When I was very little my sisters were given large temari or thread balls. I was fascinated with them and had the strongest urge to take a pair of scissors to them and unravel all that thread. Fortunately, no one every gave me the chance to act out my moment destructive of curiosity

Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Ramen Devas: Ramen Enlightenment

At times I am horrendously embarrassed to let people know that I collect Hello Kitty items. However, I am always reminded how the queen of kawaii ensnared me into her evil trap. It is a trap of innocent cuteness wrapped around an interesting topic/subject with a giant hook of creative, miniaturized detail wedged down the middle. Its that hook of detail that sends me into Google mode. I will want to know why Kitties are dressed a certain way. Is it for a festival? When and where is it and what is the festival for? Why is that weird bird is perched her head and why is she sitting in a hangiri? As usual there is little wasted detail on these regional/limited Kitties and I always enjoy what I end up learning.

So my obsession from the most recent shipment? Ramen: How could a certified starch queen not know the true nature of this wonderful food? I am grateful to Kitty for opening my eyes to the possibilities and for showing me the path to Ramen Enlightenment.

Stage One: EARTH : Its fast, filling and cheap... but is it ramen?

The Dry Pack: What I thought was ramen
Revelational Source: College Dormitory Cooking

Ramen isn't the dried block of stuff that became a pantry staple for every college student who grew tired of macaroni and cheese variations. I sort of understood that when my mom made me a bowl of some ramen that was sent from my aunt. This was a partially dried variety with a very simple shoyu broth. I thought that this ramen was the best thing I had ever had but as usual, my mom crinkled her nose and said "Its not that good. Its not as good as real ramen." So I offered to unburden my mother's shelves of this inferior noodles but she said that my Dad really liked them and I 'd get too fat eating them so she'd hang on to them.

Stage Two: PERIPETIA : Is this what the dry stuff is trying to be?

Miyako Frozen Pack: What I learned ramen could be
Revelational Source: ANA Supermart

Fast-forward to about a year ago - I found some Miyako frozen nama ramen. It was a difficult choice to make since my habitual flavor choices involved small foil packages of chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, mushroom -- and if I was really adventurous creamy chicken (ugh). The Miyako selection was strange; I had a choice of miso, soy-vinegar or salt. What the heck was this I thought. I decided that since I liked miso soup, miso would be the logical choice for a first try.

I'm not sure if it was because the noodles had been frozen and then defrosted, but it was quite a challenge to cook the noodles. In all honesty, it was a noodle massacre. The noodles lost and my victory was a shallow one with over-cooked, broken strands and little end bits that had clumped together. Yet, despite its unattractive appearance it was better than the partially dried version I had shared with my mom over a decade ago. Who knows how good they could be when I learned how to cook them properly!

Stage Three: TRUTH : Ramen Is

Hakata Ippudo's Tonkotsu Ramen, live and unedited!:
What I learned ramen truly is
Revelation Source: Hello Kitty's Four Ramen Devas limited series

My noodle massacre gave me new-found respect for ramen; for those who know how to cook it and for the food itself. When I found the Hello Kitty "Four Ramen Devas" limited series I knew this was a signal for me to reach for the Google button. Oh what fun I had and oh what a sticky process - I can't read Kanji (chinese characters) and my katakana/hirigana skills are that of a two-year-old dog. Thank god my mac displays them all, thank god for Google's language tools, Jim Breen, and foodie blogs. I would have gone insane without them.

Kitty Teaches the Path of Ramen Enlightenment

My latest additions: netsukes and memo pads from the limited "Ramen Devas" line

The name itself should give you an idea of just how serious ramen is in Japan. Devas, in Hinduism and Buddhism refer to "exalted beings" - charismatic, shining ones who are on a higher realm than normal mortals. Clearly, a good ramen chef will make or break that hot bowl of pleasure so the ones that excel at their craft earn the adoration of the mortal, slurping peons.

Kitty introduces her choice of exalted ramen masters:

Kitty does the vogue as she poses as the "ogre of food". She's not kidding about her stance: this is serious business buddy.

Sano-san of Shinasobaya - Considered by many as the first name in ramen, this is where every ramenista-in-training should begin their lessons. Sano-san emphasizes the importance of selective ingredients and the time needed for proper preparation in order to cultivate a profound flavor. His soups appear to be simple (emphasis on the clear shoyu and shio varieties) but are said to be rich in flavor. The use of the Nagoya cochin (a special breed of chicken) for his soup base, special wheat for his noodles and the chashaomin are hallmark features of Shinasobaya.

> sorry, no homepage to be found

Kitty pays tribute to the Donald Trump of Kyushu by donning the trademark Ippudo bandana or tenegui. It is to remind us that even though Kawahara is thinking of a global ramen market he still cooks and sweats behind the counter when he's needed

Shigemi Kawahara of Ippudo - Ippudo specializes in tonkostu ramen - a version that comes from Hakata, Kyushu. The broth for the noodles is white and creamy, made the marrow of pork bones (nice and fatty!) He opened his first restaurant in 1979, and opened the first Hakata Ippudo in 1985. Now president of Chikara no Moto (a food service company) Kawahara is changing the look and feel of traditional ramen houses, expanding its menu and taking the franchise overseas. Right now, Kawahara is hoping to open 60 ramen shops in China by the 2008 Beijing Olympics and hopefully an Ippudo in New York. Sounds good to me. When is Ippudo coming to my neck of the woods?

> Ippudo's homepage:
> non-flash version:
> Chikara no Moto:

Kitty emulates the dramatic draining-of-the-noodles stance that has become part of Nakamurasan's pop mystique

Shigetoshi Nakamura of Nakamuraya Co. Ltd - He is the young, twenty-something ramen genius of Fujisawa City, Kanagawa. I guess the best analogy I can use to sum up the web reviews of his work: the Iron Chef Morimoto of Ramen. Nakamura has become somewhat of a sensation not only for his ramen but for his rapid ascension to the top of the noodle pile - all done without the lengthy apprenticeship that is sometimes expected of the best Ramen Devas or "ramen oyajis". Like Kawahara, Nakamura would like to change the concept of traditional urban noodle houses, making them oriented towards family dining and expanding the menu to include European inspired entrees and patisserie.

> Nakamuraya:

Kitty dons the Menya Musashi uniform of red-shirt, brown pants and her favorite, the tenegui. Now she's ready for the long line of customers waiting outside for some hot ramen!

Yamadasan of Menya Musashi - One of the most popular "ramen-yas" in Shinjuku, Menya Musashi specializes in shoyu ramen - a ramen served with a clear soy-sauce seasoned broth. Many fans of the tonkotsu varieties won't stick-up their noses at this traditionally "lighter" variety because of the stock it's master chefs brew: a blend of a fish and pork broths, served with thick noodles. Yamada also takes a spin on the "simpler" variety of stock by keeping his menus in synch with seasons.

> sorry, no homepage to be found