Stinky Tofu

When you walk through the streets of Taipei, every so often you notice that there is a quite disgusting smell. It comes and goes and puts you in mind of open sewers. This smell is the smell of one of Taiwan’s most famous foods, and on a recent trip there my wife decided that she wanted to try it. It was an odd thing to want to do, I felt. Who smells a shit, and thinks, ‘I fancy eating that!’?

The food is what the Japanese call shudofu and whose name is commonly translated as stinky tofu. I don’t know about you, but I’m of a mind to think that if you want a food to appeal to people, you might want use a euphemism for ‘stinky’. It’s an honest name, though, and it perfectly describes the food.

Stinky tofu is basically a form of fermented tofu and is commonly found at street stalls or at night markets in Taiwan. Thus, as darkness began to fall and dinnertime approached we made our way to a night market which wasn’t too far from our hotel.  Once there, it wasn’t hard to find a stall selling stinky tofu. We just followed our noses.

In a Reuters article of 2013, the writer Michael Gold described the smell as ‘a cross between burning garbage and body odour’. So why, you have to think, would anybody choose to eat that? Well, apparently, it tastes a lot better than it smells. It would have to, though, really, wouldn’t it?

The fermentation process can take several days or even a week and the tofu sits in a brine which can be made with cabbage, milk, meat or shrimp. Individual stinky tofu outlets have their own secret recipes. And there are plenty of variations to the dish. Common is deep-fried stinky tofu, but you can get soft stinky tofu, spicy stinky tofu and several other versions, all of which have the word stinky in their name. They say the smellier it is the better it will taste. If that is true, we had chosen well.

What arrived at out table was a bowl containing a few squares of deep-fried tofu in a broth with the colour and aroma of unflushed toilet water. The assault on our nose made it feel as if we had chosen to dine in a station’s public convenience where the cleaners had long been on strike. I had a flashback to visiting my grandparents as a child and going into the bathroom just after granddad had been in. That had been a daring game my brothers and I used to play. But we wouldn’t have dreamed of eating there!

With more than a little trepidation, I readied my chopsticks. My wife was less hesitant and delved straight in.

‘It’s quite nice,’ she said. I looked at her doubtfully. After all she often eats natto in Japan. Natto is a hideous sticky mess of fermented soy beans, which like its cousin the stinky tofu, has an aroma best described as rank rotten. They say natto tastes much better than it smells, too, but to be honest I have never really found that it does. I’m not a fussy eater by any means and will try almost anything once, but some things, no matter how healthy they are proclaimed to be, really deserve to be no more than a cultural dare.

‘It’s honestly not bad,’ she said. ‘Try it.’

I raised a piece to my mouth, began to chew and waited for the abomination of flavour that would surely come. Well, it was better than it smelt, of that there was no doubt, but I couldn’t really say it was pleasant. It was really just like having fried tofu in an extremely unpleasant smelling place. Every so often you got this horrible whiff, as though a smelly, fat bloke had just come running in on a summer night and begun airing his unwashed armpits in your face as you ate. I had a few more bites and let my wife have the rest. She even spooned up the soup and drank it as if it didn’t taste like it and been strained through the aforementioned fat bloke’s underpants. I was glad I had tried it. It was something to tell people. But it was best left, I felt, as a one-off culinary challenge.


Outside as we wandered the narrow streets in the area, I was presented with a real food dare of sorts. We had just passed a sign for the less-than-ambitious sounding Taiwan National Normal University, when a group of university students ran up and excitedly asked me if I would eat some food they were proffering. Being a glutton and not having filled myself up on the stinky tofu, I agreed, but began to get a bit suspicious when one of them then produced a phone and began to film me.

‘Wait. What is it?’ I asked, thinking it might have been prudent to ask that before agreeing to eat something being presented by complete strangers.

‘It’s okay,’ they said. ‘It is pig blood.’

‘Why are you filming it? I don’t want to be on the Internet.’

They assured me that it was just a bit of fun. They had to find a foreigner to eat pig blood and film it to present as evidence. It wouldn’t, they promised, be posted anywhere. It was some kind of game, I gathered.

I tried the food and it was actually rather nice. Not surprisingly, it was a bit like black pudding. I told them it was nice, they stopped filming and ran away again giggling. I saw them later, huddled on a street corner checking things off on a sheet of paper – marking off the challenges completed, I guessed. Or hoped. But if you find a video on youtube entitled something like, ‘Look at this bald foreigner say he loves eating pig cock!’ do let me know.

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50 Non-Fiction Books About Japan

The other day I was sorting through my book cupboard and getting things organised and I began leafing through some of the books about Japan I have read over the years.  As I am always looking for new books about Japan, I thought maybe others  would be, too. So here’s a list of 50 that were in my collection – mostly paper, but a couple of ebooks thrown in, too. Most I enjoyed, a few not so much, but included them anyway as we all have different tastes. I hope maybe you find something you didn’t know about and fancy reading. If you have any other non-fiction books about Japan you would recommend feel free to leave their titles in the comments. So here they are, in no particular order: 50 non-fiction books about Japan:

1. Hokkaido Highway Blues – Will Ferguson

2. The Blue-Eyed Salaryman – Niall Murtagh

3. The Accidental Office Lady – Laura J. Kriska

4. The Inland Sea – Donald Richie

5. Village Japan – Malcolm Ritchie

6. Looking For The Lost – Alan Booth

7. Geisha of Gion – Mineko Iwasaki

8. Speed Tribes – Karl Greenfield

9. A Ride In The Neon Sun – Josie Dew

10. The Sun In My Eyes – Josie Dew

11. The Japan Journals – Donald Richie

12. Pictures From the Water Trade – John David Morley

13. Kicking – Following the Fans To The Orient – David Willem

14. Wrong About Japan – Peter Carey

15. Lost Japan – Alex Kerr

16. Dogs and Demons – Alex Kerr

17. The Land Of the Rising Yen – George Mikes

18. The Roads To Sata – Alan Booth

19. Four Pairs of Boots – Craig Mclachlan

20. Underground – Haruki Murakami

21. Angry White Pyjamas – Robert Twigger

22. Getting Wet: Adventures In The Japanese Bath – Eric Talmadge

23. Tales Of A Summer Henro – Craig McLachlan

24. Against The Wind: Pedalling For a Pint From Japan to Ireland – Yasuyuki Ozeki

25. 6,000 Miles On A Bicycle – Leigh Norrie

26. Learning To Bow – Bruce Feiler

27. Turning Japanese – David Galef

28. Tokyo Vice – Jake Adelstein

29. Sushi and Beyond – Michael Booth

30. 2:46 Aftershocks – Various (compiled by Our Man In Abiko)

31. Confessions of a Yakuza – Junichi Saga

32. For Fukui’s Sake – Sam Baldwin

33. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan – Isabella Lucy Bird

34. My Name Is Loco and I am a Racist – Baye McNeil

35. Welcome To Sawanoya – Isao Sawa

36. Teaching in Asia: Tales and the real deal – Kevin O’Shea

37. The Teas That Bind -J.C. Greenway

38. Reconstructing 311 – Various

39. The People That Eat Darkness – Richard Lloyd Parry

40. 36 Views of Mount Fuji – Cathy N. Davidson

41. Long Road Hard Lessons – Mark Swain

42. Loco In Yokohama – Baye McNeil

43. Chasing the Cherry Blossoms – Lowell Sheppard

44. Marshmallow-Go – Matt Keighley

45. Deep Kyoto Walks – Various (Edited by Michael Lambe)

46. Bending Adversity – David Pilling

47. Gaijin Story – Michael Gillan Peckitt

48. Running The Shikoku Pilgrimage – Amy Chavez

49. Children of the Tsunami – Patrick Sherriff

50. Sado – Japan’s Island in Exile – Angus Waycott

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Haiku Appreciation

As many of you are surely aware, a chap by the name of Matsuo Basho is widely considered to be one of Japan’s greatest poets, and, in particular, a master of the haiku. Getting above myself somewhat, I’ve recently been reading some of his work.

You see, on wandering around the Internet I stumbled upon a publication in which Basho’s haiku poems have been translated into English and I began to read through them. They are the perfect literary form for the Internet generation, being so short that you needn’t concentrate very long to read one. I read one after another and I realised a couple of things. The first was that I quite like them; they are nice; they convey an image or tell a small tale in very few words. Take this, for example:

Chilling autumn rains

curtain Mount Fuji, then make it

more beautiful to see

I like this because it is beautifully simple yet perfect, for nothing is surer than the fact that after a good rainfall on a chilly day down on the ground, Mount Fuji will soon appear in a blue sky blessed with a fresh crown of snow. The miserable weather allows her to touch up her make-up.

But the other thing I realised when reading Basho’s work was that I am missing something. Or at least, I think I am. I know the vagaries of translation can play their part in the impact of a piece, but still, there are times when I have to wonder why something is considered to be so wonderful. One such haiku, so revered, is perhaps Basho’s most famous creation. You know the one – the one about the frog and the old pond.

In Japanese it reads:

Furu ike ya

kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto

You see, when I read that I begin to feel my ignorance. I can’t help but think I must be missing something. There must be some subtleties in the Japanese choice of words that escape me, and which continue to escape me no matter which of the myriad English translations I choose to read.

The esteemed Japan scholar Donald Keene has translated it fairly straightforwardly thus:

The ancient pond

A frog leaps in

The sound of the water.

I mean, it is nice. It does convey an image. But  I’m still not sure why it is the genius everybody seems to say it is. And it doesn’t get any easier to appreciate when reading other translations. Allen Ginsberg’s effort is,

The old pond

A frog jumped in,


while, that of philosopher and writer Alan Watts is,

The old pond,

A frog jumps in:


Now, at the risk of being scoffed at by intellectuals, let me tell you something. I am quite certain that if I ever came running out of my study, pen in hand, sweat on brow and demanded, ‘Stop what you are doing and listen! I’ve done it!’ and then proudly said, ‘The old pond, a frog jumps in: Plop’ nobody would put down a cup of tea,  stare at me in open-mouthed awe for a moment, and declare ‘By jove! You, sir, are a poetic genius.’ Even were I to give a delicious enunciation to the word ‘Plop’ that reaction would seem unlikely.

Now, some have apparently said that it is the very fact that Basho focused on the sound of water, not the sound of a croak that lends his work its majesty, but is a plop that much more intriguing than a croak? Were his readers chuckling at his genius, muttering, ‘I so thought that would be a ribbit!’?

Who knows? As I said, I like it, but perhaps it reveals more about my character that this one speaks much more to me personally:

a hangover:

but while the cherries bloom,

what of it?

Indeed. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I shall try and compose my own, for the cicadas are humming and the beer bottle is sweating and that seems like a splendid combination for a summer effort.

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Lizard vs Cicada


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Power Rangers Taking a Selfie


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An Extract: Arriving In Japan

This is an extract from my book Lifer – How To Be A Bald Middle-Aged English Conversation Teacher in Japan. It tells of my first day in Japan.

My original teaching contract was for two years. I had every intention of staying for that length of time and then going back home and figuring out what to do with my life. My Japan trip was a diversionary adventure, intended to delay the important decision of what my life plan was. After meeting my first other foreigner in Japan, however, I suspected I might not last the two years. He was in Japan for the long haul, a lifer, and was also what I believe is commonly known as a genki arsehole. His name was Paul and he was absurdly enthusiastic about anything and everything. He was a man that you could peg in an instant as a complete dork. Unless you were one of the Japanese who are the food of the genki arsehole; one of the ones who didn’t see him as a first class tosspot but rather as just being full of beans and overflowing with eau de westerner, like the foreigners on the telly.

Paul’s optimism manifested itself most in his choice of hairstyle. He had a combover, a barcode as the Japanese so wonderfully call it. That in itself was unusual in a man just on the cusp of thirty, but he had gone to the trouble of dying it peroxide blonde. Granted, it kind of killed the barcode joke but I’m of a mind to think that if you are a man who opts for the combover, the colour of the hair isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference to your attractiveness. Paul obviously thought differently.

He was a teacher at the chain school which had hired me and he had been sent to meet me at the airport. It was then that I found out the school had thought I had been arriving the day before.

‘I came down here to meet you yesterday,’ he said, beaming with joy as if that in itself had been just great!

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘Oh, don’t worry about it,’ he said. ‘They’re not pissed that you got your dates wrong.’

‘I didn’t,’ I said.

‘Hey, it’s cool,’ he said. ‘Really.’ And then, once we were on the bus into town, bouncing with unbridled energy on the seat next to me, he said, ‘So, whaddaya wanna know?’

‘Sorry?’ I said.

‘About Japan! Whaddaya wanna know? You can ask me anything.’

I wanted to ask if he thought Japanese people didn’t realise he was bald.

‘Well,’ I said, resting my greasy head against the bus window, ‘I’m a bit tired just now, so I can’t really think of anything. I’m sure I’ll have lots to ask you soon enough though.’

Paul told me that would be just fine and then he sat grinning at me with widened eyes and saying nothing. And when it looked like he was just going to continue to sit and grin at me for the whole journey, I felt a bit uncomfortable about going to sleep and decided to ask him how far it was to my apartment.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘So what’s happening there is that you can move in tomorrow. Tonight you can stay at mine!’ I emitted a small squeak through my fake smile.

He told me he had made his home here in Japan and had no plans to return to The States, because there was nothing there for him anymore. He was one of the many guys I would later meet who appeared to be hiding out in Japan because they couldn’t hack it at home. They were people who had found a place where they could walk down the street without fear of a wedgie, people who had discovered that somehow, somehow, they had found a place where reasonably pretty girls would shag them. People, I was sure, quite unlike me.

Paul had a friend called Don. He was about 31 and had a huge Ned Flanders on his top lip. Without the moustache he would have had an enormous expanse between nose and mouth and a lip to keep his chin in permanent shade; with it he looked absolutely ridiculous. I first met him in a bar with a Japanese girl whom he proudly and loudly proclaimed to be his girlfriend. She was pretty and slim and so far out of his league that you would be forgiven for assuming he was making a pathetic joke, like a sleazy uncle hugging his niece in front of friends and thinking it funny to try to pretend she is a conquest. But he wasn’t joking, and she was his girlfriend, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from taking hold of her by the shoulders and giving her a thorough shaking while pointing at Don’s top lip and shouting, ‘Look! Just look at that for fuck’s sake!  DO YOU UNDERSTAND?’

I used to laugh at Paul and Don but I could hardly blame them for staying. When you’re a loser like that, staying here and getting a Japanese wife and teaching English for a career is the best you can hope for in life. Oh, how I pitied them!

But, well, I’m still here. I’m bald and my wife is Japanese.

We arrived in downtown Fukuoka and Paul took me into a large office building. He summoned the lift and he, my large suitcases and I made our way up to the eighth floor. A high-pitched voice announced that the lift doors were opening and we stepped out into a reception area with blue carpet tiles, a couple of sofas, and walls decorated with photographs of Japanese students playing various kinds of party games. There were also random English slogans on pieces of card! ‘How are you?’, ‘What do you do?’, and ‘Boy, it’s hot today!’ were some I remember.

By now it was around 11 o’clock on a Wednesday morning. I had left my home on the Monday. For some reason the Japanese staff at the school seemed to be under the impression that I had spent a pleasant evening relaxing in Tokyo before catching a connecting flight to Fukuoka the next morning. I have no idea why they thought this or why they thought my plane was due to arrive the day before, but they were mistaken on both counts. In fact, I had left on the Monday morning, had spent some time in Heathrow enjoying a few airport pints, had flown to Singapore and had spent six hours or so in Changi airport enjoying a few more airport pints before flying on to Fukuoka. I had left my house almost thirty-six hours earlier and had slept little on any of the flights. So it came as something of a shock to be taken directly to the school and then to be asked by the manager if I had a suit.

‘Yes, of course,’ I said, thinking that she was worried that I would show up for work the next day in the same sort of clothes I had travelled in. She told me I could get changed in one of the classrooms. I was too much of a coward to object and anyway had nowhere else I could go. My apartment, Paul had already told me, was not yet ready and I would have to spend the night with him in his tiny, one-room flat. He would be finishing work at 9:00 that night and I could go home with him then.

I was unshaven and smelled faintly of stale beer and sweat. I was shown to the small room where I was to change. I dug out a suit. It was brown and so crumpled that when I reappeared some of the staff thought I had come to my first day of work dressed as a walnut.

I sat in the corner of a classroom until nine that evening, watching my predecessor say tearful goodbyes to students who clearly wished he wasn’t going anywhere. I held my arms close to my body lest any errant breezes waft in the direction of others and struggled not to blink in case I started snoring immediately. I made odd facial expressions as I perfected the art of the covert, closed-mouth yawn.

Students pointed with quivering arms and said, ‘What? That?’ when told that the starey man grimacing in the corner was soon to be in charge of their classes. I’m surprised any of them came back again.

Actually, some didn’t.

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Children Of The Tsunami

Since publishing has become digital, I have on occasion bought individual essays or short stories online rather than forking out for an entire anthology. A single as opposed to an album, you might say. I did so this morning. It cost me less than a dollar and I read the entire thing over my lunch break, but it was worth every cent.

The book, if it can still be called such, is Children of The Tsunami by Patrick Sherriff, and it is the tale of the author and his family taking a short trip into the disaster zone of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, four years on.

Early in the story, the author expresses concern that he may be engaging in some sort of disaster voyeurism, but his fears are unfounded. He strikes the right tone in his storytelling. He tells the facts as they were on his trip and he does so without being maudlin or overly dramatic. That’s not to say the story doesn’t have power. It does. He talks with people who survived; teenagers who have lost parents, a mother who lost her young child, a grandmother who lives alone in a tiny prefabricated house hundreds of miles from any remaining family members. You can’t help but be moved by their stories and indeed the kindness that the author’s family, particularly his wife, appears to have shown to the victims of the quake and tsunami since that dreadful day.

As the author drives through the disaster area, the polite female voice of the car’s satellite navigation system urges him to turn left at petrol stations that are no longer there. It demands he turn right onto roads that are now just figments of a ghostly computerised memory. It is a reminder that the area is not what it used to be.

And the story is a reminder, too. It is a reminder that while we are back to shopping in fully lit convenience stores with working automatic doors, while we have long ceased feeling guilty at switching on the air conditioners or heaters, and while we have resumed living reasonably comfortable lives, there remain many who have not. I am sitting with my wife and a beer watching television in my snug living room. Elsewhere, a pensioner is sitting alone in a tiny cramped room of just 7.5 square metres with paper-thin walls. She once had a living room ten times that size. Things aren’t like they used to be, though.  Not for those who were there.

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