In a complete deviation from my usual content, I'd like to share some incredible pictures of Russia from 100 years ago which I just stumbled upon over at The Boston Globe.

Between 1909 and 1912, a photographer by the name of Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii used a revolutionary new system in which three monochrome photos were taken in quick succession, each with a red, green or blue filter. Putting the three (glass) plates on top of one another created these stunning pictures.

It's impossible to judge the age of these pictures from their quality. And it completely boggles my mind to think that the people featured, even the children, may have grown up to have children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren and so on.

It's worth viewing the full article here, as it's completely fascinating. But here's a few of the 36 pictures featured.

I wonder who he grew up to be...

Even history had its history...

If you look really closely, you can see the ripples in the water are different colours, due to their movement between the stages of process mentioned above...

I love this picture. The water looks so smooth, almost as if it's ice. Probably a byproduct of the photography technique again.

The detail in this image is staggering.

Look closely - some of the people in the background moved between the three pictures being taken. Little imperfections like this show just how precise the process was in order to have taken such crystal-clear clarity in the rest of the picture.

(All images are out of copyright, but reproduced here with thanks to The Boston Globe and the LOC)


I was thinking. Sometimes, when you distill the big decisions or themes in your life down to their very very beginnings, they can seem quite ridiculously trivial. I thought I'd share today the specific circumstances that actually started me out on my fascination with Japan...

A good few years ago, me and Louise had just started getting into martial arts films after watching a few good ones (House Of Flying Daggers, Crouching Tiger, Hero). When we came across an Amazon voucher, we thought we'd use it on another, similar DVD.

My job involves making TV listings magazines and film guides, so I tend to be fairly clued-up on movies, and one which I'd heard about and was hoping to see soon was Ong-Bak - the Thai film starring Tony Jaa. For some bizarre reason, instead we elected to go for an animation called Spirited Away - something we'd both only vaguely heard about but heard it was kinda quirky and very good. A quick *click* and it's ours - I remember hoping I don't regret it...

It arrived on a Friday, and we watched it that night. It was nothing like anything either of us had - ever - seen before. It's sheer unaldulturated genius. I got in touch with our (work's) film critic and asked him for similar titles, and he informed me that Spirited Away was made by a company called Studio Ghibli, and he provided me with a list of some of their other highlights. Christmas came, and I tracked some of them down for Louise's stocking. By the next Christmas, I think we'd got just about all of them! We're complete addicts.

Funnily enough, Studio Ghibli, through its fantastical, magical worlds, actually gave us a reason to delve further into the very real aspects of Japan and other Japanese films, cartoons, manga, culture, food, etc.

We joked about going to the Ghibli Museum. We didn't know that just a short while later, we'd actually be going...

It's interesting to consider that if we had gone for Ong-Bak instead (I subsequently saw it: it was ok; good, not great) I may not have ever gone to Tokyo or eaten ramen or listened to Macdonald Duck Eclair or read GTO or anything fun like that!

I've got a new Blogger client for my phone, so I'm hoping this post comes out okay.

Last night being Bonfire Night, we went to a fireworks display put on by a local charitable organisation called the Beverley Lions. They do it every year on the Westwood, a historic common pasture on the edge of town, and every year I'm surprised by how good they are (and how busy it is!).

The bonfire was lit by the time we got there, and we just had enough time to queue for some chips (which were really good) before the display starts with a BIG bang.

They were stunning, so naturally i tried to take some pictures, and naturally they came out really badly. But don't take my word for it, judge for yourself!

A recent trip to York saw me in a craft shop. Nothing unusual about that - Catface is a very crafty lass, so we spend ages picking up supplies for her business - but this time, I thought I'd treat myself to something. I've never really had any ability with art whatsoever (my hands are the hand-equivalent of tone deaf, as to which my atrocious handwriting will attest) but I do enjoy calligraphy, even though I don't count myself as any good.

The shop in which we found ourselves had a large selection of Chinese and Japanese brushes of all shapes and sizes, so I selected a small-ish squirrel-hair brush that seemed to feel right and speak to me. I know that may sound strange, but there's a great quote from about brush selection, which I hope they don't mind me copying here:
"In the west, a brush is considered simply a tool for self-expression; it needs little character of its own ... In the East, however, there is a tradition of treating artists' materials as friends, rather than as slaves to artistic expression. Artwork is a cooperative process that involves the unique characteristics of the tool as well as those of the artist."
Certainly, I have no truck with Western art, so maybe this approach will suit me better. It definitely makes a change to hold an artistic implement that feels natural and comfortable, so already I'm ahead of where I've been before.

In the past I've used my calligraphy set to write kana characters, but that's not really all that it's made for. This time, I decided to be more ambitious, and try kanji (which I can't really read yet), in cursive style (which is possibly silly of me since I definitely can't read cursive!). I had a think about what to try, and I settled on the phrase "water's sound", which is the last line from a Basho poem I like.

I really enjoyed making it in the end. Although this is just a rough draft (I'd quite like to put it on three canvas blocks once I'm confident enough), I think it's come out looking quite cool. Although since I can't really read Japanese, I'm probably not the best judge... Anyway, this - I hope - is Mizu no Oto:

I'd really love to hear some opinions. I'm genuinely not fishing for compliments or anything - if you happen to be able to read Japanese and could tell me where I'm going right/wrong, I'd very much appreciate it!

It's been a while since I added anything to this blog, due to a combination of having little to say and little time in which to say it. Anyhow, I'm back again, and with a new load of recipes from which to draw.

I came home to a nice surprise the other day. Christmas shopping has started early this year, and Louise mailed me at work to tell me she'd already got some of my presents (now that's organised!). However she was also busy with college work and some commissions for her business, and by the time I'd got home she'd not got round to hiding them (that's much less organised, granted...). As a consequence, since I saw one of them, I got to have it early. Hurrah! It's a recipe book by my favourite Japanese chef Harumi Kurihara, of Your Japanese Kitchen fame on NHK.

It's full of great recipes and brilliant photographs. It's one of those books that never fails to make you hungry as soon as you open it. I'm no fan of shellfish, but even these dishes look amazingly tempting.

The first recipe I made out of it - well adapted from it, as I was missing some vital ingredients - was egg-drop soup. It's originally a Chinese dish, but it's been given a very Japanese twist by Kurihara-san with a dashi-stock base. I didn't have access to the bonito or konbu required for dashi, so I used a chicken stock. I also added dried ginger since I think chicken stock is a little plain on its own - leave it out if you're using dashi. So here's my jerry-rigged version:

900ml good chicken stock
2tbsp mirin
4tbsp light soy sauce
1/2tsp dried ginger
1tsp cornflour or potato starch mixed with a bit (50-100ml) cold water
3 large eggs

Mix the eggs in a bowl and put to a side.
Bring the stock to the boil (merely heat it if it's dashi, but boil it for a spell if it's chicken stock). Add the mirin, ginger & soy sauce.
Once it's fully heated through, add the starch & water mix, and stir well. This gives the soup a really nice, silky thickness. After just a few minutes, it's almost ready...
Drop in the eggs, and stir, quickly (cooking chopsticks are awesome for this, as I think a whisk would mix it too finely), and almost immediately take it off the heat. The eggs need almost no cooking, since the stirring will break them into tiny strands - the greater surface area means greater contact with the hot liquid, so the heat transfer is more efficient. Wow, that was surprisingly boring and sciency of me - apologies!

Anyway, I was thrilled when mine came out looking like this:

It's almost exactly how it's supposed to look, which is rather unusual for me. I would have got a better picture, but I was too hungry at this point to bother finding my camera, so just snapped this with my phone.

I hope this recipe's useful, and that it inspires people to seek out more from NHK's excellent Your Japanese Kitchen, which is on Mondays, NHK, wherever you are in the world (here in the UK it's on Sky channel 516).

Coincidentally, NHK is also the home of JIB - another, smaller, Japanese broadcaster, who recently employed me as a programme monitor. I'm getting paid in Amazon vouchers for watching Japanese documentaries - it's my perfect job! If only it was full-time... So far I've seen all sorts of fascinating programmes that I'd never have seen otherwise. And I'm getting paid for the privilege! I feel pretty lucky sometimes...

Here's to soup, telly, and good old Japan.

All best to all,
I've been fuly immersing myself lately into my Japanese studies. For one thing, I'm on my own now for while. For another, I'm almost entirely stuck indoors - I've managed to earn myself an 'intercostal myalgia' which is basically a torn muscle in my ribs. So I've been off work for a good coupla weeks, with no real ability to go out, and with no one else in the house. Fun...

As a consequence I've been watching NHK and playing my Nihongo games on my phone almost constantly.

One thing that's cropped up, that I'm not 100% sure about, is this: good/bad. Which is dame/ii, right? I always thought it was, but now I see "dame" can mean "closed"; "ii" open. I'm now hoping that the closest comparison is that "ii" could be said to mean "cool" whereas "dame" could be "not cool". Can anyone confirm/deride this? The reason I ask, is that since I always believed "dame" to mean "bad", I have used the phrase "watashi no Nihongo wa dame desu" to mean "my Japanese is bad", yet when I put it into Google Translate, it (rather ironically) read "I do not eat my Japanese". No idea where that came from, so either me or it (likely both) need more lessons...

Now, having used this phrase many a time (to a generally mixed response), I hope Google have dropped a ball here. But having used Google even more times than I've spoken (or tried to) Japanese, I know them to be pretty damn good at most things. So I'm having a crisis of confidence here -what actually does "dame" mean? And, for that mattter, what means "good"?

Another great thing about NHK (if you're in the UK it's found on Sky channel 516) is the documentaries. I'm currently watching a lovely short film about the pilgrimages made on the isle of Shikoku - I recently watched the J-horror film Shikoku which was about the same thing (albeit with an horrific twist), and thoroughly enjoyed it. And this brings a whole other level of legitimacy to the story.

It's hard to describe my feelings about Japan, beyond the obvious (love). I feel an outsider when I'm there, of course. But every single other time I've felt 'outside' of something, it's been because I've had no real connections to it. I guess I have no real connections to Japan, but still, I feel ... involved. Attached. It sounds entirely ridiculous, but in this World Cup I find myself experiencing national pride towards the Blue Samurai. I don't just mean I want them to do well; of course I do. That's natural. But I get defensive towards criticism of the team, and - perhaps more importantly - I am moved by the national anthem. It's a 'national' anthem - and I'm nationally British. So why would Kimayago hold sway over me? I have no idea, but it apparently does.

Of course, I am hoping for an English victory in the World's Greatest Sporting Tournament Ever. The wonderful outcome in 1966 was a long, long time ago, and it deserves to be repeated. But nothing would make me happier than our method of victory being, say, a 5-4 victory over the Blue Samurai at Jo'burg on July ll...

All this is exceedingly unlikely of course, but on the offchance, C'MON EN-GER-LAND and GANBARE NIPPON!

I had been making decent progress with written Japanese lately, but then I realised I'd been neglecting the actual language. I went back over some of the stuff I learned some time ago, but I've still got a long, long way to go. It's an odd feeling, as I realise with pride that I can read something written in hiragana, katakana, or some (very few) kanji - only to find I don't understand the words I can read. It's quite hard to strike a balance. Does anyone have any tips - vocab vs writing?

We've just had a busy Bank Holiday in the kitchen, baking bread and cooking mochi. Or rather, trying to cook mochi. I think we've got the wrong type of rice flour, as it turned out quite doughy and not at all springy, like actual mochi. However it's still quite nice, just closer to a kind of pastry sweet from India I had once than it is to mochi. The bread, however, was fantastic - I can't take any credit for that though; it was all Louise's handiwork!

It's been a while since I've posted any recipes, so I thought I'd include one. Not mochi - I think I have a lot of work to do before I can claim that one's finished! - but something suitably Japanese. I've developed a kind of simulacrum of ramen which I'm quite pleased with. It's not quite the real deal, as we have no access to bonito or kelp with which to make dashi, and I don't have much of a proper recipe to go from anyway. But I had some amazing ramen in Tokyo, and ever since I've been using what I do know about cooking to try to make something similar tasting. So here goes (I apologise in advance if I'm way wide of the mark and it's an affront to the good name "ramen"):


Fresh ginger
Pork stock
Vegetable stock
Noodles (par-boiled)
Cayenne pepper
Shichimi togarashi
Black sesame oil

Spring onions
Pork (I have a recipe for choshu pork, however it takes so long and makes such a lot, I tend to just marinade a few slices of ham in soy sauce and ginger and fry for a few seconds each side - cheat!)
Nori (one inch squares)

Fry the ginger, onion and garlic (all very, very finely chopped) for a few moments in a hot wok. I use vegetable oil, but anything with a high smokepoint is good. Once it starts to caramelise slightly, add the spices, the sesame oil, and then the stock, one after the other. Let this simmer a while - the longer the better, although since there's no meat in here it doesn't matter if you only give it a few minutes. Keep tasting as you go, and once you've got something you're happy with, and you're close to serving out, add the noodles and, depending on the type, cook for another minute or two.

The toppings can be arranged in each bowl after serving. The egg looks best hard-boiled, sliced, and placed on top - but I think it tastes best if you drop it raw into the wok along with the noodles and poach it in the soup for a minute.

This is where a proper recipe blogger would have a picture. But I've never photographed my own ramen, so until I make it next, here's one I stole off Google as a placeholder:


This year is flying by...

I think I've been too relaxed about things lately, and it seems like life is beginning to pass me by. I don't particularly want these next seven weeks or so to pass me by, because at the end of them my life will be changing quite a lot for quite a while, so I intend to make a bit more of an effort to enjoy, and make the most of, my remaining time with Louise.

We have resolved to redouble our efforts to learn Japanese - that's the main thing. We'd been learning in different ways, and at different speeds, independently but now we've promised each other to help each other out with our studies. I'm coming on quite well with written Japanese (or at least well by my standards!), while Louise has been more focused on the spoken. We're aiming for at least three hour-long joint lessons a week, where we'll share with each other what we've been learning.

I'm also going to make more of an effort to keep my blog up to date - and, remembering why I set it up in the first place, I'll be sharing what I'm learning here, too.

One topic I've always struggled to remember has been days of the week - for some reason, even though there's only seven of them, they just won't stick. Louise dug this out of the internet, which really helps a lot. I'm aiming to have them - kanji and all - remembered by the end of the week, and to have taught Louise colours in the same time frame. By the time Louise goes away at the end of May, I'm hoping to have helped her master hiragana (which I've pretty much completed now), and to have learned sentence structures/verb conjugations myself. I reckon that's a healthy target to have set.

We've also set up a Tumblr site focusing on Japanese style & culture, which you can find lurking behind this link. It's a photo blog, with a new theme every week; the current one is bento. It's nice being able to share the myriad quirky pics we happen across here & there...
Finally, at the risk of sounding like a bloody advert, I have to once again extoll the virtues of smartphones, in particular Android phones, as a fantastic resource when learning a second language. An app by iStudy Campus called Survive! Japanese has done absolute wonders for my progress. And they're not even paying me to say that!

So it's back to the books and the blogs for me. Wish me luck - Watashi wa ganbarimasu!

So Louise, my better half, is doing something incredible this Summer, and I feel I must spread the word. She's leaving her job and going half way around the world, to Phuket, Thailand, to volunteer at The Soi Dog Foundation, who look after sick, mistreated and abused cats & dogs. Unfortunately, in Thailand, strays have a rough time - they are often poisoned, beaten and otherwise persecuted by business owners and residents. I won't go into too much detail because it's actually very upsetting, but those who would like to learn more can do so here.

Scratchy before treatment Scratchy after treatment

Louise is self-funding her trip, but because of mounting costs (she found out today, after booking her flights, that her budget accommodation has just fallen through) and an already very basic budget, she needs help. She's set up a website,, on which kindly folk have been donating. There's also a link to her shop on there, where you can buy Louise's handmade amigurumi animals, with all proceeds going to her cause. The local papers have been great, too - the East Riding Mail and Beverley Guardian have both promised to run articles. In fact, the former sent a photographer round yesterday and will be conducting an interview shortly.

If you can, please donate or buy a knitted animal. And if you can't (there is a recession on after all) but you do support the cause, then please tweet or Facebook about Louise (she's @Catface85 on Twitter) and, or even just leave her a message of support. She's doing such a wonderful thing, and I am so proud of her, but there are so many obstacles at the moment that any help - moral, fiscal or otherwise - would be very gratefully received.

I hope you can help.

Thanks for reading!

Okay, I've been discovering the joys of quizzes today. In a quiet patch at work I set my team a grammar quiz, with the grand prize of a bag of skittles going to the winner(!), and then I got home and found one for myself: This is a great, and oddly addictive given its simplicity, little game that's helping my kana nicely. I particularly like the different fonts... Enjoy!
January ... Meh.

So Santa's been 'n' gone, the snow's been replaced by rain (actually, that's kind of a good thing - more on why later!) and work is back to normality.

I shouldn't moan - I've had a really great Christmas, and was off from the 23rd Dec-4th Jan, which is pretty good. I got some fantastic gifts, many of them Japan-related (and many of those were Japanese sweets - brilliant!). The candies included some DIY sushi-style sweets, with little sachets and moulds that you used with water to make jellies that look like rice, ikura, tuna and other fish, as well as black icing to roll out (with the mini-rolling pin included) as nori. Not only was it delicious, but it was very fun, and clever, too - I was particularly impressed by the ikura, which was made by mixing up a sweet, red liquid, then dropping it with a pipette (also included!) into a sweet solidifying solution. This satisfied the amature physicist in me as well as the candy-loving child in me!

I won't list every one of my gifts here (as much as I may want to!) but I would like to thank everyone for picking such great gifts and making it a wonderful Christmas. I hope i was able to play a part in doing the same for them.

I began the New Year with a renewed determination to learn katakana, and to my surprise I've done really well! Thanks to the 'Survive! Japanese' phone app on the Android Marketplace. In just two days I've pretty much got it. Compared to the two months it took me to learn hiragana... I really am very impressed with this game - cliched though it may be, it actully does make learning fun. This means I'm able to move on to kanji, which is more of a challenge to me, as my handwriting is terrible. Louise got me a kanji practice book though so I'm having fun trying (no matter how childish my scrawl may be).

Mini Blog-In-A-Blog: Snow.

Normally, I love the snow. My last post was testament to this (wow, that was a long time ago now i think about it). But last week the UK's Big Freeze really upped the ante. We'd already had our share of disruption, before six inches fell in under an hour, which is rather a lot for here. the Councils just aren't geared up for it, and started running out of grit. The roads ground to a halt. We left work three hours early at 4.30pm but still didn't get home until gone half-past 10. And I'm sure there's people out there who had it even worse, too. So as beautiful as snow may be, the fact this particular bout has turned to steady torrential rain is not necessarily a bad thing.

On the plus side, I did see this incredible satellite photo on the BBC last week. No PhotoShop or colour-correction here - this is genuine!

I hope you all kept warm and safe wherever you are - Rob