Friday, June 13, 2008

Kitty as the White Tiger
Tigress of Kai, that is...

There she is, invading a classic painting of the Warlord Shingen Takeda

I saw Kung Fu Panda last weekend and its no surprise that I loved it. It rolled together my favorite subjects into a fuzzy, giant, tempura-battered futomaki of joy. It was a trifecta of cuteness, food and chop-saki humor. Let the recent Disney/Dreamworks box office smash be a yet another gentle nudge to the Asunaro designers to create a martial-art Kitty. Look how good a cat looks when they focus their ki/chi.

As I watched Tigress and then Tai Lung (a snow leopard) shake their tails in the movie theater, I thought this was the perfect time to talk about Japanese Regional Hello Kitty's version of Shingen Takeda.

Her plushie doesn't quite pull-off the whole "tigress-warlord" thing. She looks a little sheepish and squished in her samurai gear, but still powerfully cute.

During the 16th century, Takeda was a powerful Daimyo or feudal lord over Kai and Shinano provinces (modern day Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures respectively). This was a time of constant conflict amongst the various Daimyos across Japan. The ruling government in Kyoto was losing power as the outlying territories were enjoying economic prosperity and a strong desire for power and independence. Takeda held a strategic geographical hotspot for the clans that wanted to supplant the current government and rule over all the feudal territories. Anyone to his "West" would have to get through him and his forces if they wanted to enter Kyoto.

Takeda was a bit of a contradiction. He was a great military strategist, and quite a ruthless warrior (nicknamed the Tiger of Kai), but he was also a great civil administrator and an accomplished artist. Like Musashi himself, Takeda was master of the pen-and-ink as well as the sword. His fair and consistent application of criminal laws and taxation gained him popularity and loyalty from his subjects. Ironically, many of his administrative systems would be adopted by the very shogunate that ended his clan's preeminence.

Kitty gets ready to oversee the great battles. She brandishes her war fan or Dansen Uchiwa- ready to signal her troops and block those pesky little flying arrow-thingies. Behind her, the black banners bear the Takeda mon or family crest and gives testament to her studies of the great martial strategist, Sun Tzu's writings. The characters are Fu Rin Ka Zan: Swift as the Wind, Stolid as the Forest, Fierce as Fire, Immovable as the Mountains

Okay, so I've covered two of the trifecta of the giant tempura-battered futomaki of joy: chopsaki humor and cuteness. Now let's talk about Shingen and food.

In this phone strap mascot, Shingen-Kitty is holding some grapes in her left paw, a specialty of the Yamanashi prefecture.

One of the things I've caught on to with regional omiyage is the branding and pairing of historical subjects and regional food specialties. However, when it comes to Shingen and food, we enter into a very intense pairing. Rice cakes, crackers, sweet cakes, peaches, plums, grapes, even the Houtou noodle dish are paired with Shingen. The pairings normally fall in the line of "he liked this so let's put his image on the packaging." Sometimes there are fanciful stories - like the one about how he instructed a cook to make rice in a fashion that would allow troops to carry it for long periods without it going bad (hence the mythical birth of the Shingen senbei). A reasonable mythology attributed to the strategist and civil administrator. But then there comes the plethora of sweets! It makes me wonder if this guy had been Dionysus in another life.

I briefly introduced a zipper mascot back in 2005. Now that I have a better camera and better context, I felt like this one deserved a little revisit

This mascot is "preeminent" for me because I found out about this wondrous treat on a blog that inspired me to blog. Anyways, Kitty pops out of the famous Kikyou-ya bag that would normally hold a few furoshiki wrapped servings of soft mochi, roasted soybean powder and a molasses-like syrup called kuromitsu.

Like the Kikyou-ya packages, this version of Shingen Mochi uses the wonderful Kitty artwork on the outside and inside. The tigress appears on the plastic furoshiki style wrappers.

Another company, Kinseiken has a version of the Shingen Mochi that uses the Gotochi era artwork for its bag and furoshiki wrapper. The toothpicks look a bit 'obento-generic' but it's all Kitty. I haven't eaten the Kikyouya or Kitty versions, but I have had the Kinseiken version. Tasty, but like Chika describes in her blog, the best part really is the fun of opening the tiny little servings and tailor-making your teeny treat.

There is a a kind of rice cracker paired Shingen as well. Unlike the rice crackers or sembei that we're used to eating here in the States, these are more like cookies than crackers.. actually more like a pizzelle. They are made with egg and flour and tend to be slightly sweet.

In addition to the Shingen mochi in the Genyo-era Kitty packaging, Kinseiken offers these Danzen Uchiwa shaped wafers in "grown-up" versions and Kitty versions. The "White Tigress of Kai"'s face is prominently stamped on these sweet things.

The Yamanashi region is also famous for grapes and peaches. That offers even more examples of sweets available flavored or filled with fruits that bear the traditional images of Shingen Takeda on their packaging. While I couldn't find Kitty versions of some of the more interesting sounding cakes (peach-shaped manju, plum mochi packaged like the Shingen Mochi), Gotochi offered up some simple but tasty butter cookies with the White Tigress of Kai.

At last the trifecta is complete. I am hungry...


Thursday, June 05, 2008

Summer Vacation

Sketching Kitty White and my sunflowers while watching CSI reruns: summer is really here

Ah yes...
Summer is here and for me this means off-season and that equals time-off!! Time to do the things I should be doing (other web-based projects, video editing, fix-me house projects) and the things I really want to do (tend to my fledgling sunflowers, doodle Kitty and Kogepan while I watch CSI, cook, blog, have a life) when the season is going full-throttle.

I will be getting back to some more obscurely aikido-related Kitties in the following weeks (Shingen Takeda and the 47 Ronin) but to kick off my Kitty-blogging return I thought I'd post on a regional Kitty that best describes my enthusiasm for this time of year.


Karuizawa is in Nagano Prefecture, Japan. Once a busy and important stopping point between Edo (old Tokyo) and Kyoto during the shogunate era, Karuizawa has been reborn as a favorite summer retreat for Tokyo-ites looking to escape the heat of summer and the energy of city life.

Canadian missionary Alexander Kroft Shaw is credited with "re-branding" Karuizawa as a resort area. It's said that he found the climate and landscape reminiscent of his own home country, so in 1877 he built a summer villa there for himself and his family. He encouraged fellow missionaries and westerners to do the same and soon Karuizawa's new life as the Hamptons began.

Only and hour train ride away from her home in Tokyo, Kitty will spend most of her summer "weekending" at her villa in Happy Valley, Karuizawa. She likes to hike and play tennis, but her favorite pastime is to ride her bike on tree-lined, flag stone paths. She finds the sounds of nature relaxing and it gives her a chance to reflect on her life and the things she needs to work on when she returns to her city life. She also gets a wicked tan.

Nagano Prefecture is the second largest producer of apples in Japan and some say they are better than the Fujis... guess I'll have to do a taste test, but in the meantime, I'll enjoy looking at these tiny, fuzzy versions.