Hello Sandwich Japan Interview # 3 - Emma Japan

Today I bring you a gorgeous little Japan Interview with my lovely friend Emma Japan! You can see the other Japan Interviews here and here. I hope you will enjoy and fall in love with Japan all over again! Oh and be sure to check out Emma's blog Le Petit Flaneur.

Like me, you seem to be in love with Japan! Can you tell us how you first become interested in Japan?
I think from a very young age I was very curious about Asia. My parents had friends that had lived in Japan, and were (and continue to be massive) fans of all types of Asian food. I vividly recall my Mum taking my sister and I for our first Japanese meal in Sydney’s The Rocks while we were on holiday visiting my great aunt. She ordered sukiyaki and, while we were initially apprehensive at dipping our food into raw egg, in no time at all we were happily gobbling it up!

At my junior school, come Year Four or Five we had the option of taking after school Japanese lessons with the fabulously inspiring Walton-sensei. She made us all the most adorable origami place cards with our names written on them in katakana. Around that time, my Mum started taking Japanese lessons; I remember the orange Alfonso textbooks and tapes she used. By the time I got to senior school and had to choose between French, Indonesian and Japanese language study, I easily chose the latter – I was totally struck.

What do you love most about Japan?
Now that is a difficult question! Broadly, that it has such a beautiful aesthetic culture – everything, from the tissue packs handed out at stations to the most expensive Rei Kawakubo knit, has been so carefully thought-out and designed.

I love the otera and jinja. They make me feel an incredible sense of calm, and I always take my shrine book (shuincho) and get it stamped and signed by the cute but also a bit cranky calligraphers.

I suppose the duality of history and modernity – Australia is such a new country that we don’t so much have that.

Um, vending machines with hot oolong and ocha? Hyaku-en stores? Muji? Freshness Burger? Sento? I could pretty much go on forever, but for the sake of you readers I will not!

How is Japan a part of your current life? Are you working in a Japanese company, researching Japan, or have another link with Japan?
I am involved with Japan now less than ever before, chops! Prior to my current job at The Diplomat, I worked for Jiji Press (one of two Japanese wire services) and also NHK (Japan’s public broadcaster). And before that at the Consulate-General of Japan, Sydney! I have recently been doing some Japan-related research for both The Diplomat and Art World, but I guess I am no longer a full-time Japanophile!

Have you been to Japan a few times or lived in Japan? Please tell us about your time there.

Yes, I studied in Japan twice, during both my undergraduate (Tokyo) and masters (Kyoto) degrees. I much preferred living in Kyoto – I consider it one of the most special places on earth. My uber-modern apartment building was right next to a rice paddy, after all! And just a few stops away from downtown Kawaramachi, which I adore.

I completed my masters in Kyoto, so I kind of feel like I left a piece of my heart (and a lot of blood, sweat and tears!) in that city.

I went back for the first time last year and it was both perfect and surreal. Returning to my neighbourhood, visiting a yakuza sento, and the Yokohama Triennial. Perfect.

What is your favourite city in Japan and what do you love about it?
Oh, am one step ahead, gomen Ebony! Tokyo is, of course, the metropolis that has to be visited (my favourite cities within the city are Daikanyama, Aoyama and Shimokitazawa), but Kyoto is more like home to me. I love to roam the backstreets of Kawaramachi and Karasuma – the hidden boutiques, amazing vintage stores, artisans selling traditional wares, the Nishiki market, funny little teahouses and ryokan. Love, love, love!

Do you speak Japanese? Any tips for anyone interested in learning Japanese? Most useful Japanese phrase for beginners?

Yes, I speak Japanese but I feel I am losing more and more each day! Zannen da yo! I really think the only way to learn a language is to be dogged and determined, and to immerse yourself as much as you can without living in a country where that language is spoken. Watch news broadcasts, television dramas and movies; listen to music; read or at least look at and try to translate magazines. And make it fun – organise a weekly conversation exchange with friends that are also studying, go on little cultural excursions and such.

Your favourite Japanese food? (Don’t tell me it’s Natto! He he)
Too hard, Ebony! I love so many kinds of Japanese food. From the simplest things like dorayaki and yoghurt with aloe in it, to fast foods like Freshness and Mos Burger, to the funny Japanese takes on Italian and Indian cuisines (which are actually delicious), to ramen and izakaya foods and mama-san style home cuisine and yakiniku and zarusoba and nabe and sukiyaki hotpots and all the lovely ame and cakes and pan-ya goods. I love mochi at New Year and the kumara chips you sometimes get at shrines. There are not many kinds of Japanese food I won’t eat – mainly dishes that are particularly stinky or have red fish in them. Oh, and I despise chikuwa! But that still leaves quite a bit for me to gorge on. Yum!

Do you cook Japanese food in your hometown? If so, what sorts of foods? And do you have any websites, blogs or magazines you refer to for recipes?
Luckily, in Sydney there are a ton of places I can go to eat Japanese, though I do cook simple things like curries and noodle salads and soups and hotpots. I love Azuma for their amazing ponzu salad and wagyu sukiyaki; Ichi Ban Boshi for their vegetable ramen; Haradokei for hearty home-style fare; Wagaya for izakaya yumminess; Ton Ton for their soups, bento and grilled kingfish… I could go on, but now I’m getting hungry!

Where do you go to stock up on Japanese food / books / treats when in your home city?
Well, I used to go to Maxim at Lumiere but it has sadly shut! So usually Konbini 8 because it is close to my workplace (on Pitt Street behind Woolworths) and Haradokei for lovely pickles and stocks. When I was at NHK, I happily patronised the great J-village going on in Artarmon – there are two fantastic Japanese grocers there, plus a great noodle soup place and Japanese pottery studio! Obviously, Kinokuniya is the one-stop-shop in Sydney for Japanese books and magazines – we are super lucky to have it.

Your favourite Japanese cultural quirk?
I love Japanese television advertisements. And that there is generally total silence on the trains – no loud mobile phone banter! The fact that nature and seasons still play quite a part in every day life. Respect for and obsession with design. The fact that you can pretty much organise your entire life in a convenience store. Funny trends that grasp the nation, like ‘Cool Biz’ (the introduction of short-sleeved shirts for salary-men) a few years back so as to stop people over-relying on airconditioning. The tendency to over-wrap and package everything (so beautiful, yet so bad for the environment). In Kyoto, I love to see oba-chan on Vespas speeding off to the supermarket with their aprons still tied on, cute!

Your favourite thing to do in Tokyo?
In Tokyo? Wander about Aoyama and Daikanyama, I suppose. Visit shrine stalls and galleries and book stores. I like to get lost in Tokyo – that is when I seem to find all the best stuff. Oh, and I always try to get my hair cut there. The best anthropological experience!

Do you have any funny stories about being lost / lost in translation in Japan?
I think these have more to do with my Mum than me (she came to visit just before I returned home after turning in my masters thesis). My Mum became quite obsessed with Japanese support underwear (the shop assistants thought her hilarious); she would loudly pronounce oki-ni! despite being in Tokyo; she would try and taste everything in the markets and department store basement food sections; she would ask to have her photo taken with random strangers; she would yell at people she considered rude. My Mum is a wonderful, vivacious woman with quite a bit of chutzpah – watching the way she responded to Japan made me realise a) it can be quite a tough place for foreigners and b) how normal it had all become for me.

What is your most memorable moment in Japan?
I think travelling to Enryaku-ji at Hiei-zan for the first time – a misty day, a procession of nuns and monks, a total adventure.

What are you like at karaoke? Or, like me, do you stick mostly to purikura?
I am an unashamed karaoke obsessive. I have been at least once a week over the last three weeks, chops! I love to sing duets with my friend Dougal best – he is extraordinary. The songs I probably sing most are ‘Lovefool’ by The Cardigans and ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna, though I would like to sing ‘Not Fair’ by Lily Allen. Why does no one have this song as yet in Syd?

Chu-hi, Sake or umeshu? Which one is your favourite?
Umeshu. When it comes to alcoholic beverages, I have a total sweet tooth! I also love Tsunami drinks.

And what about Onsen and Super-cento’s – like them much? Do you have any favourites in Japan?
I just love going to sento! I would go every single day if I could! We went to a hilarious yakuza sento near Kyoto station last November, and I’ve been to some fantastic rotenburo in Hakone – very deluxe. Ohara and Kurama outside Kyoto also have some amazing onsen and rotenburo – it is such a special treat to go and stay at a ryokan in those towns, languish in the baths, then eat some kaiseki cuisine or hotpot. Heaven.

Favourite Japanese themed websites / blogs?
I love A-net’s Humor to see all the new stuff from my favourite J-designers; I also often look at Mottainai to check out their latest green wares. Oh, and I want everything on Truck furniture’s site! The illustrations of Yamauchi Kazuaki are favourites of mine, and of course I daily check out Hello Sandwich and Ii Ne Kore!

Favourite Japanese magazines?
This is a bit of a dorky answer, but I kind of love the big, fat, mainstream ones like Vogue Nippon, Spur and Madame Figaro. I think it’s fantastic the way that Japanese fashion magazines are very engaging and instructive for the reader – the seem to respond rather than dictate to readers.

If you could live anywhere in Japan where would it be and why?
Kyoto, because it allows the best of both worlds (history / modernity) and I like Kansai people best. In a perfect world, I would live in a little apartment near Kawaramachi and take classes in ikebana, tea ceremony, calligraphy, zazen and cooking every day.

And finally, what do you miss most about Japan?
Everything! Friends, food, the aesthetic and atmosphere, the sounds, the shopping, sento, the sense that anything and also nothing is possible.

Thank you so much lovely Emma Japan for your inspiring answers and super-cute images!

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