Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, January 31, 2006


I've always heard that calligraphy is a high art. I've never really understood it, but I've accepted it. I've sort of filed "calligraphy as art" in the category of things I don't know enough about to have an opinion.

Now I'm learning to read and write kanji. Now I'm starting to get it.

It's quite a task to write a character well; one that is well proportioned and balanced. You really have to slow down and think about what you're doing.

If you've ever golfed you might know the feeling of hitting a ball really well. It feels a special way as your hands grip the club, and the sound of the striking the ball has a certain tone. I'm more familiar with what it feels like to hit a ball not so well (it feels like hitting a rock), and that sound is also distinctive. Writing Kanji is like this.

Calligraphy as art is something I am just now beginning to appreciate.

Zhuge Liang, Strategist and Daoist Wizard

On the Jan 25th entry at The Pragmatic View, is a short article about the brilliant Chinese strategist from the Three kingdoms period, Zhuge Liang.

When Zhuge Liang joined the faction he supported during the Three Kingdoms period, it was little more than a small band of warriors trying to not get wiped out. Under his direction, at the time of his premature death, his faction controlled the Kingdom of Shu, one of the three kingdoms which strived to rule all of China.

Here is one story about him: Zhuge Liang was known for his painstaking planning and preparation. He was once inspecting a city with a small band of guards, when a large enemy army was seen approaching. He didn't have enough troops to fight, and he didn't want to run away and leave the city for the invaders.

What he did was hide his troops, throw open the city gates, and made himself conspicuous on the city ramparts apparantly relaxing and playing his lute.

The enemy general stopped in his tracks. Knowing Zhuge Liang's reputation, he expected a trap; turned around, and marched off.

You can get to The Pragmatic View by clicking on the link at the right, or on the title of this post.

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Father of Japanese Karate

At, Rob Redmond has written a very good article about the facts and myths that surround the life of Gichin Funakoshi, who is widely knows as the Father of Japanese Karate. It's a fascinating article for anyone who is interested in the history of martial arts.

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the article. You can also click on the link at the right, and be directed to the 24FightingChickens homepage.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

How to make a Japanese wooden training sword

If you click on the title of this post, you'l be directed to an article on how to make a Japanese wooden sword, a bokken, which is used in the practice of Japanese swordsmanship.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Dao De Jing: Chapter 10

The Dao De Ching (aka Tao De Ching) is not only one of the world's classics, it's the foundation of philosophic daoism. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to a complete online version.

10. Harmony
Embracing the Way, you become embraced;
Breathing gently, you become newborn;
Clearing your mind, you become clear;
Nurturing your children, you become impartial;
Opening your heart, you become accepted;
Accepting the world, you embrace the Way.
Bearing and nurturing,
Creating but not owning,
Giving without demanding,
This is harmony.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Better to stay inside

Dark sky
cold winter snow
better to stay inside
another log on the fire
warms us

-The Snow Shovelling Daoist

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The 36 Strategies: #12 Take the sheep in hand as you go along

Next to the Art of War, by Sun Tzu (or SunZi), probably the next best known Chinese book on strategy is the 36 Strategies. Here is #12.

12 Take the sheep in hand as you go along

You take advatange of any opportunity, however small, and avail yourself to any profit, however slight. This comes from the story of a destitute traveler walking on a road. As he went along, he came across a flock of sheep; making his way through them, when he emerged from their midst he had a sheep with him. He behaved so calmly and naturally, as if he had been leading his own sheep to market all along, that the shepherd never noticed him.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

San Francisco Japanese Tea Garden

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to original on line news article, where you'll find more pictures.

Thursday, January 19, 2006
(SF Chronicle)
SAN FRANCISCO/Tempest in Japanese Tea Garden/Move to restore fidelity to design, oust the schlock
Charles Burress,
Chronicle Staff Writer

A conflict over cultural sensitivity is brewing at a Bay Area landmarkfamous for its image of tranquility -- the Japanese Tea Garden in GoldenGate Park. The generic souvenirs and junk food sold in the 5-acre garden's tea houseand its gift shop are a glaring intrusion of tourist schlock, someJapanese American community leaders contend. The 112-year-old oasis, the oldest public Japanese garden in the UnitedStates, should more accurately reflect Japanese culture for hundreds ofthousands of visitors annually, the community leaders say.

"We're very uncomfortable with the products being sold at the tea garden,"said Rich Hashimoto, president of the Japantown Merchants Association."They reflect more a Chinese culture than a Japanese culture. And thequality of the products doesn't meet our standards."

Hashimoto and leaders of other Japantown organizations are backing a bid from a Japanese American cafe owner to take over the concession from the current operator, a Chinatown business owner, and bring in more Japanese-themed food and items.

The concession battle includes the open-air tea house, where tea is served with a fortune cookie and other cookies for $3.20. Critics point to the racks of American candy bars and chips and to the casually-fitted robes the waitresses wear, which are meant to resemble normally snug kimonos.

Another irritant is that the tea menu is topped by jasmine tea, more of a Chinese staple. The fortune cookie in the tea service is no problem, however. The tea garden is the reputed birthplace of what has become known as the "Chinese fortune cookie," an American invention ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants in the United States but not commonly found in China.

In anotherJapanese-Chinese admixture, a scene for the recent film "Memoirs of a Geisha," which drew criticism for casting Chinese actresses in Japanese roles, was filmed in the garden.

The gift shop contains some Japanese items such geisha dolls, as well as some Chinese items like tomb-warrior figurines, but the lion's share ofthe merchandise could be found at a typical tourist shop in San Francisco-- cable-car mugs, giant lollipops, Alcatraz caps, little license plates bearing common American first names.

Carol Murata, who sits on the Japantown Merchants Association board and owns Murata's Cafe Hana, a cafe and flower shop in the Japan Center mall, submitted a proposal to the city's Recreation and Park Department to takeover the concession from Fred Lo, whose Chinatown Fashion House Inc. has held the contract for 14 years.

Murata's supporters stress fidelity to the heritage of a garden established by wealthy landscape designer Makoto Hagiwara for the Japanese Village exhibit at the California Midwestern International Exposition of1894. The Hagiwara family ran the garden until the World War II Japanese internment in 1942. Lo, who also has the Coit Tower concession, wants to keep the contract.

City staff members gave a higher bid score to Murata and recommended giving her the concession. The Recreation and Park Commission will consider the issue today.

"I don't know why they gave higher scores to her with no experience," said Lo.

He called Murata's projected 100 percent increase in revenue impossible. He also criticized her plan to offer higher-quality, more expensive goods, saying tourists don't want to spend much.

The city cares about the tea garden's finances because the Recreation and Park Department budget included $200,000 in rent from the concessionaire in fiscal 2004-05. The city received $1.1 million from visitors paying the$3.50-admission fee.

Lo's concession grossed $648,299 this past fiscal year, according to city records. He has hired two attorneys to represent him on the bid and what he called "a specialist ... to create a whole series of Japanese items."

Murata declined to comment, saying city staff members advised her not to. Her plan would add upgraded Japanese-themed gifts and menu items such assushi, miso soup and Japanese desserts, as well as Japanese cultural programs developed in cooperation with Japantown organizations.

"Japanese Americans operated it for many, many years," said businessman Allen Okamoto, co-organizer of the Japantown centennial commemorations this year.

"There was a little consternation in the community about a Chinese American taking over the Japanese Tea Garden." Lo said ethnicity, like gender, shouldn't matter: "You don't need a woman to design the latest dress."

When he took over from the former Japanese American operator, some workers were wearing Raiders' jackets and he helped restore authenticity, he said. Douglas Dawkins, a great-great grandson of Hagiwara, agreed that race is not the issue but said Murata's Japanese American background and ties to Japantown do matter.

"From the Hagiwara family perspective, it's not a racial issue," he said."It's an affinity for Japanese culture issue."

E-mail Charles Burress at

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Who needs fiction: Parrot squawks on woman's affair

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the new article on the BBC page.

A parrot owner was alerted to his girlfriend's infidelity when his talkative pet let the cat out of the bag by squawking "I love you Gary".

Suzy Collins had been meeting ex-work colleague "Gary" for four months in the Leeds flat she shared with her partner Chris Taylor, according to reports.

Mr Taylor apparently became suspicious after Ziggy croaked "Hiya Gary" when Ms Collins answered her mobile phone.

The parrot also made smooching sounds whenever the name Gary was said on TV.

New home

Mr Taylor, 30, a computer programmer, confronted the woman he had lived with for a year who admitted the affair and moved out, several newspapers reported.

He also gave up his eight-year-old African Grey parrot after the bird continued to call out Gary's name and refused to stop squawking the phrases in his ex-girlfriend's voice.

"I wasn't sorry to see the back of Suzy after what she did, but it really broke my heart to let Ziggy go," he said.

"I love him to bits and I really miss having him around, but it was torture hearing him repeat that name over and over again."

Ms Collins, 25, said: "I'm not proud of what I did but I'm sure Chris would be the first to admit we were having problems."

Ziggy - named after David Bowie's former alter ego Ziggy Stardust - has now found a new home through the offices of a local parrot dealer.


If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the original Associate Press article on Yahoo.

China Police Patrol Village After Violence
Associated Press

Police patrolled a village in southern China on Tuesday, a day after the cremation of a teenage girl who was beaten to death by officers in violent weekend protests over land compensation, according to media reports.

The girl reportedly was clubbed by police wielding electric batons during a demonstration Saturday, when hundreds of villagers from Sanjiao in Guangdong province rallied outside government offices and blocked a highway as part of their protest.

The parents of the girl — whose age was given as either 13 or 15 — have been given up to $25,000, on condition they say she had died of a heart attack, the South China Morning Post and other newspapers in Hong Kong said, citing unidentified villagers.

Her body was cremated on Monday, according to Hong Kong's Sing Tao newspaper. Police were patrolling the area every few minutes, it said.

Local authorities have refused to comment on the reported death, although the official Xinhua News Agency issued a rare dispatch blaming the villagers for inciting the clashes and denying officers used violence.

Dozens of villagers reached Tuesday by telephone mostly refused to talk about the protest, apparently out of fear of retribution from authorities. One woman said she had heard of the girl's death, but wouldn't give her name or any details.

"The government wants the land. What can we do?" she said. "It's not convenient for me to say anymore."

Saturday's violence came a month after authorities opened fire into a crowd of villagers in Dongzhou, also in Guangdong, reportedly killing up to 20 people in the deadliest incident in decades.

The protests in Dongzhou and Sanjiao focused on complaints of inadequate compensation for farmland, taken over by authorities for industrial use or property development.
Simmering anger in China's vast, poverty-stricken countryside over land seizures, official corruption and pollution have been erupting more frequently and becoming more violent.
Government figures show 74,000 cases of rural unrest in 2004.

Official media reports said the villagers from Sanjiao had staged a sit-in at local government offices earlier in the week. On Saturday, about 100 villagers staged another demonstration, which eventually attracted a crowd of at least 500 others.

"A few troublemakers started throwing bricks, stones and burning firecrackers at policemen and bystanders," said the Zhongshan Daily, which reported that five people were injured but no one was killed. Zhongshan is a city that oversees Sanjiao.

The newspaper said Monday that 25 people were questioned after Saturday's incident and four have been detained. It said police reinforcements had been called up to maintain order in the area.

A waitress who refused to give her name said Tuesday that she had heard that police checkpoints had been set up but hadn't seen any herself.

"There are no roadblocks here today," she said. "But some policemen are on patrol right now."
She said that on the night of the protests, hundreds of people swarmed the area near her restaurant and tried to block the expressway to get the government's attention.

"I heard an official speaking through a loudspeaker," the waitress said. "He was telling villagers to go back home but they just weren't listening."

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Physics of Karate Strikes

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to an article at 24FightingChickens regarding the physics behind karate strikes.


If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full news article.
January 14, 2006
Oases Springing Up Here for Ancient Game of Go

In September, a weekend carnival in Edison, N.J.,celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival, a major Chineseholiday. Thousands of visitors swarmed past hawkers ofpork buns and Kettle Korn, acupuncture and healthinsurance. In the booth of the Feng Yun Go School, asmall crowd gathered around a woman in a sleevelesssalmon-colored dress as she juggled 11 simultaneous games of go, the ancient Asian board game played on agrid. Oblivious to the fireworks exploding above, shedrifted silently along an L-shaped table, pausingoccasionally to place a single white stone on a woodenboard.

For Feng Yun, who spent 18 years on China's nationalgo team, the two-hour exhibition did not pose much ofa challenge. Facing financial analysts andschool girls, she won nine matches, losing the othertwo only after offering substantial handicaps. Norwill Ms. Feng, 39, meet anyone of her caliber at theHotel Pennsylvania this weekend during theToyota/Denso North American Oza, a two-day tournamentthat begins today in New York and in Las Vegas.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

300 Tang Dynasty Poems, #12:Seeing Li Bai in a Dream II

The Tang Dynasty was a Golden Age of culture in China. Poetry was particularly esteemed. The two giants of Tang Dynasty poetry were Da Fu and Li Po (also read as Li Bai). They were great friends as well as opposites. LiPo could dash off a complete masterpiece in a single draft while drunk, while Da Fu had to grind his work out. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to an online version of the classic anthology, the 300 Tang Dynasty Poems.

Below is #12, written by Da Fu.

Du Fu
This cloud, that has drifted all day through the sky,
May, like a wanderer, never come back....
Three nights now I have dreamed of you --
As tender, intimate and real as though I were awake.
And then, abruptly rising to go,
You told me the perils of adventure
By river and lake-the storms, the wrecks,
The fears that are borne on a little boat;
And, here in my doorway, you rubbed your white head
As if there were something puzzling you.
...Our capital teems with officious people,
While you are alone and helpless and poor.
Who says that the heavenly net never fails?
It has brought you ill fortune, old as you are.
...A thousand years' fame, ten thousand years' fame-
What good, when you are dead and gone.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Evolving language

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the original news article.

From the Los Angeles Times
Cantonese Is Losing Its Voice

Speakers of the spicy tongue that can make words of love sound like a fight are having to learn its linguistic kin, the mellower Mandarin.

By David Pierson
Times Staff Writer
January 3, 2006

Carson Hom's family has run a thriving fortune cookie and almond cookie company in Los Angeles County for 35 years.

And for much of that time, it was a business that required two languages: Cantonese, to communicate with employees and the Chinese restaurants that bought the cookies, and English, to deal with health inspectors, suppliers and accountants.

But when Hom, 30, decided to start his own food import company, he learned that this bilingualism wasn't enough anymore.


Cantonese dialect �An article in Tuesday's Section A about the decline of the Cantonese dialect in North America's Chinese communities identified Cantonese speaker Victor Law as an accountant. He is a pharmacist.He checked out the competition at a recent Chinese products fair in the San Gabriel Valley and found that he couldn't get much further than "hello" in conversing with vendors.

"I can't communicate," said Hom, whose parents are from Hong Kong. "Everyone around used to speak Cantonese. Now everyone is speaking Mandarin."

Cantonese, a sharp, cackling dialect full of slang and exaggerated expressions, was never the dominant language of China. But it came to dominate the Chinatowns of North America because the first immigrants came from the Cantonese-speaking southern province of Guangdong, where China first opened its ports to foreigners centuries ago.

It is also the chief language of Hong Kong, the vital trading and financial center that became China's link to the West.

But over the last three decades, waves of Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants have diluted the influence of both the Cantonese language and the pioneering Cantonese families who ran Chinatowns for years.

The surging Chinese economy today has challenged Cantonese further. Because Mandarin is China's official language, entrepreneurs like Hom have been forced to adapt, often learning the hard way that business can't be done with Cantonese alone.

Many Cantonese speakers are racing to learn Mandarin any way they can � by watching Chinese soap operas, attending schools, paying for expensive immersion courses and even making more Mandarin-speaking friends. This is no cinch. Although Cantonese and Mandarin share the same written language, they are spoken as differently as English and French.

At the same time, few people are learning Cantonese. San Jose State University and New York University offer classes, but they are almost alone among colleges with established Cantonese communities. The language is not taught at USC, UCLA, Pasadena City College, San Francisco State or Queens College in New York, to name a few.

With the changes, some are lamenting � in ways they can do only in Cantonese � the end of an era. Mandarin is now the vernacular of choice, and they say it doesn't come close to the colorful and brash banter of Cantonese.

"You might be saying, 'I love you' to your girlfriend in Cantonese, but it will still sound like you're fighting," said Howard Lee, a talk show host on Cantonese language KMRB-AM (1430). "It's just our tone. We always sound like we're in a shouting match. Mandarin is so mellow. Cantonese is strong and edgy."

Cantonese is said to be closer than Mandarin to ancient Chinese. It is also more complicated. Mandarin has four tones, so a character can be intonated four ways with four meanings. Cantonese has nine tones.

Beginning in the 1950s, the Chinese government tried to make Mandarin the national language in an effort to bridge the myriad dialects across the country. Since then, the government has been working to simplify the language, renamed Putonghua, and give it a proletarian spin. To die-hard Cantonese, no fans of the Communist government, this is one more reason to look down on Mandarin.

Many say it is far more difficult to learn Cantonese than Mandarin because the former does not always adhere to rules and formulas. Image-rich slang litters the lexicon and can leave anyone ignorant of the vernacular out of touch.

"You have to really listen to people if you want to learn Cantonese," said Gary Tai, who teaches the language at New York University and is also a principal at a Chinese school in Staten Island. "You have to watch movies and listen to songs. You can't learn the slang from books."

Popular phrases include the slang for getting a parking ticket, which in Cantonese is "I ate beef jerky," probably because Chinese beef jerky is thin and rectangular, like a parking ticket. And teo bao (literally "too full") describes someone who is uber-trendy, so hip he or she is going to explode.

Many sayings are coined by movie stars on screen. Telling someone to chill out, comedian Stephen Chow says: "Drink a cup of tea and eat a bun."

Then there are the curse words, and what an abundance there is.

A four-syllable obscenity well known in the Cantonese community punctuates the end of many a sentence.

"I think we all agree that curse words in Cantonese just sound better," said Lee, the radio host. "It's so much more of a direct hit on the nail. In Mandarin, they sound so polite."

His colleague, news broadcaster Vivian Lee, chimed in to clarify that the curse words were not vindictive.

"It's not that Cantonese people are less educated. They're very well educated. The language is just cute and funny. It doesn't hurt anyone," said Lee, who does the news show on the station five days a week. "The Italians need body language. We don't need that at all. We have adjectives."

To stress a point or to twist a sentence into a question, Cantonese speakers need only add a dramatic ahhhhhhh or laaaaaaa at the end.

Something simple like, "Let's go" becomes "C'mon, lets get a move on!" when it's capped with laaaaa.

By comparison, with Mandarin from China, what you see is what you get. The written form has been simplified by the Chinese government so that characters require fewer strokes. It is considered calmer and more melodic.

Take the popular Cantonese _expression chi-seen, which means your wires have short-circuited. It is used, often affectionately, to call someone or something crazy. The Mandarin equivalent comes off to Cantonese people sounding like "You have a brain malfunction that has rendered your behavior unusual."

The calm tones of Mandarin are heard more and more around Southern California's Chinese community.Even quintessential Hong Kong-style restaurants, including wonton noodle shops, now have waitresses who speak Mandarin, albeit badly, so they can take orders. Elected officials in Los Angeles County, even native Cantonese, are holding news conferences in Mandarin.

Some Cantonese speakers feel besieged.

Cheryl Li, a 19-year-old Pasadena City College student whose parents are from Hong Kong, is studying to become an occupational therapist and volunteers at the Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park, where most of the patients are Chinese.

Recently, she was asking patients, in Mandarin, what they wanted to eat. When one man thought her accent was off, he said, "Stupid second-generation Chinese American doesn't speak Mandarin."

Li responded angrily, "No! I was born here. But I understand enough."

"We're in the minority," she added, reflecting on the incident. "I'm scared Cantonese is going to be a lost language."

Still, Li is studying Mandarin.

There are places where Cantonese is protected and cherished.

At a cavernous Chinese seafood restaurant in Monterey Park, members of the Hong Kong Schools Alumni Federation gathered in a back room to munch on stir-fried scallops, pork offal soup and spare ribs.

It was a regular monthly meeting of the group and a sanctuary for Hong Kong Chinese people who take comfort eating and joking with fellow Cantonese speakers.

"I just can't express myself as freely in Mandarin," said Victor Law, an accountant who left Hong Kong to attend college in the U.S. 34 years ago. "That's why we have this association. I feel like we're the last of a dying breed."

For Law, it's not just the language but many Cantonese traditions that are on the decline. He says it's now hard to find a mah-jongg game that uses Hong Kong rules instead of Taiwanese rules, a distinction concerning how many tiles are used.

"I'm not ready to be a dinosaur," said Amy Yeung, president of the alumni group.

To the trained ear, it was instantly apparent that this was a gathering of Cantonese speakers. The room was deafeningly loud with everyone talking. Even serious discussions were punctuated with wise cracks.

When Yeung announced that members could get seats and walk the red carpet at an Asian film festival, the room erupted in unison in the most common way a Cantonese person expresses astonishment.


Near the end of the night, Yeung had important news. A mother in Hong Kong called to say she was moved to tears by a scholarship the federation had given to her daughter to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"She told me to tell you all, 'Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I didn't know there were such good people in the world,' " Yeung said.

The room fell silent for a moment. Sensing the awkwardness and, God forbid, self-congratulatory tone of the story, Law blurted, "Does she know how to cook?"Everyone laughed and another successful meeting came to an end.

Friday, January 06, 2006


With the popularity of the new movie, Memoirs of a Geisha, I thought I'd post something about what a Geisha actually is and isn't. What follows is the Wikipedia article on Geisah. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the Wikipedia site, where there are several links to follow if you're interested in more information.

The movie poster just stopped me in my tracks.

Geisha (芸者 "person of the arts") are traditional Japanese artist-entertainers. Geisha were very common in the 18th and 19th centuries, and are still in existence today, although their numbers are dwindling.

The geisha tradition evolved from the taikomochi or hōkan, similar to court jesters. The first geisha were all male; as women began to take the role they were known as onna geisha (女芸者), or "woman geisha." Geisha today are exclusively female.

Geisha were traditionally trained from young childhood. Young girls were often bought from poor families by geisha houses who took responsibility for raising and training them. During their childhood they worked first as maids, then as assistants to the house's senior geisha as part of their training and to contribute to the costs of their upkeep and education. This is part of a very long tradition of this form of training which still exists in Japan, where a student lives at the home of a master of some art, starting out doing general housework and observing and assisting the master, and eventually moving up to become a master in their own right (see also irezumi). This training often lasts for many years.

They began studying a wide range of arts from a young age too, including musical instruments (particularly the shamisen) and traditional forms of singing, traditional dance, tea ceremony, flower arranging (ikebana), poetry and literature. By watching and assisting senior geisha, they became skilled in the complex traditions surrounding selecting, matching, and wearing precious kimono, and in various games and the art of conversation, and also in dealing with clients.
Once a woman became an apprentice geisha (a maiko) she would begin to accompany senior geisha to the tea houses, parties and banquets that constitute a geisha's work environment. To some extent, this traditional method of training persists, though it is by necessity forshortened, since most geisha now begin their training in their late teens.

Geisha are not prostitutes. Although in the past the right to take their virginity (an event called a mizuage) was sold, they were not obliged to have sex with any customers, even the men who paid dearly for their virginity.

Modern geisha are no longer bought by or brought into geisha houses as children. Becoming a geisha is now entirely voluntary, and women who are not the children of geisha by necessity begin their training, which remains extremely long and difficult, at much older age. The practice of mizuage is a thing of the past.

Thursday, January 05, 2006


If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the original newspaper article.

January 4, 2006
Essence of Sweet Potato, Sip by Sip

BY 6 p.m. the after-work crowd jams the Chicken Shop in this city in southernmost Japan. A mixed crowd in business uniforms, including six men in identical slate-blue jackets with "Tobishima Company" on the sleeve, sit at an L-shaped dining bar or cram cross-legged around low tables on tatami mats. They talk, order small plates and drink.

The patrons are knocking back a clear distilled spirit called shochu, poured from one of 350 cinnamon-colored clay bottles, each marked with a regular's name. Not a glass of sake is in sight.

This is the capital of what a travel brochure calls the "Kingdom of Shochu," a city of 600,000 with more than 1,000 izakayas, casual eating pubs where the shochu culture comes alive.

While sake may be better known abroad, shochu has been more popular in Japan since 2003, according to the Japanese ministry of finance. It can be distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, cane sugar, buckwheat or even chestnuts. (Koreans drink a related rice-distilled liquor called soju, and say they originated the drink.) The taste varies widely: it can be a bland vodkalike mixer or a full-bodied spirit as sublime as a single malt Scotch.

Honkaku, or "the real thing," is where shochu gets interesting. This version, an artisanal spirit, is produced from a single ingredient distilled just once, so it keeps the character of its base. Perhaps the most revered honkaku is imo-jochu, Kagoshima's signature shochu, distilled from fermented sweet potatoes. This complex spirit radiates a powerful aroma like that of dried shiitake mushrooms. It's astringent but not neutral like vodka: you taste the sweet potato flavor. And at 50 proof, it doesn't overpower you with alcohol.

Ninety minutes from the city by ferry and a winding two-lane coastal road is Mori Izo, the source of one of the finest imo-jochus and the Château Pétrus of the 110 shochu makers spread across rural Kagoshima prefecture. Virtually all of the coveted 120,000 bottles Mori Izo produces each year are sold through a phone-in lottery.

Kakushi Mori, 56, the company's fifth-generation owner and master distiller, makes imo-jochu by hand, as his ancestors did. An earnest man, proud of his family heritage, he wears a traditional fringed indigo shop apron and an indigo jacket, with the characters for kame tsubo shochu, "clay vat shochu," printed on the left lapel.

The heavy smell of yeast hits you as you walk inside his brightly lighted distillery, lined with 50 handmade vats sunk two-thirds into the floor. Each is 120 years old and holds 190 gallons. Seed malt and sweet potatoes in various stages of fermentation gurgle inside like cooking oatmeal. Some vats give off a sharp tinge of alcohol, as well as heat.

Mr. Mori and his similarly clad assistants mix the mash with stirrers that look like polo clubs made from bamboo. Mr. Mori is as serious about terroir as any first growth Bordeaux winemaker. Ten farmers grow kogane sengan sweet potatoes just for him on special plots. Water holds the same importance. He draws the area's prized Tarumizu spring water from his own 300-foot well.

And there's another key ingredient: "This building," he said, or rather the microbes and spores that have been clinging to the ceilings, walls and thick dark cedar beams since its original construction in 1885, giving his imo-jochu unique character, as he sees it.

Masayuki Fuchinokami, a 36-year-old newspaper reporter who was moonlighting as a certified "shochu sommelier," said that in Kagoshima imo-jochu is traditionally taken "oyuwari" - cut with hot water.

"You don't drink it straight," Mr. Fuchinokami said. Pour hot water in the cup and then the spirit, he explained, to release the flavor and aroma. Fifty-fifty, or 60-40, favoring the water, are the usual proportions, he said. "But you decide."

"This makes it very easy to drink," Mr. Fuchinokami said. It may also explain another widely held belief. "Drinking shochu doesn't give you a hangover," he said. (Actual results may vary.)

Imo-jochu oyuwari fits the personality of Kagoshima, Mr. Fuchinokami said, because "you can drink it every night of the week." A stroll on any evening along "Culture Street," a downtown drag packed lighted sign to lighted sign with bars and izakayas - and people - proves the point.

BUT it's not simply drinking for drinking's sake. Mixed with hot water, shochu has about the same alcohol content as wine. And like wine, this is a drink made for food - in this case, Kagoshima's boldly flavored cooking.

A tiny Culture Street izakaya called Mariko's has the neighborhood feeling of a corner pub in Leeds. The 13-seat place has been run for 45 years by the same woman, a gruff 5-footer with a silver pageboy haircut who would give only her first name, Kyoko. Regulars call her Mom.

The izakaya is run-down but comfortable. Mom's silvery head is all you see of her as she works behind a dining bar topped with a glass display case where raw tuna and octopus rest on fat ice cubes. Yellowed handwritten signs taped one on top of the other, some rivaling the izakaya itself in age, advertise the menu.

On two shelves that run the length of a wall sit 300 bottles of shochu with names like Five Mountain Peaks, Three Mountain Peaks, Isa's Glory and Island Beauty. Each has a customer's signature scribbled across the label.

Patrons fend for themselves while Mom cooks. A regular named Toshio Fukishimo pulls his bottle off the shelf and shares it with three friends. When a new customer walks in the door he asks, "toriaezu biru?" - beer for the time being? This is a Kagoshima ritual, Mr. Fukishimo explained, to temper the palate for shochu. He fills the mug himself from a tap at the bar.

Mom's comfort food seems as if it would be as welcome in Seoul or Shanghai, both nearer this old port than Tokyo. Mom delivers to Mr. Fukishimo's table a bubbling cast-iron pot of nabe, a hearty Japanese stew, this one with beef intestines, bean sprouts and leeks. She serves it Korean style, with bright-red dried chili peppers and whole peeled garlic.

Mr. Fukishimo and his group wash down their meal with glasses of imo-jochu oyuwari. When they run out of hot water, he heads to the kitchen and refills a thermos.

On a nearby avenue of apartments and office buildings, a cartoon of a chef clutching a squawking hen marks the entrance to Toriya, the Chicken Shop. The 100 and more items on its menu are richer and sweeter than what you would find in Tokyo, said Ryoichi Yamashita, the chef and owner.

Chef Yamashita and his assistant furiously work in an open kitchen over a grill the size of a coffee table as servers shout new orders. The cooking crew grips hand-held butane torches like a band of gunslingers and shoots fire to char-finish skewers of chicken, chicken organs, sardine-size fish and unpeeled garlic.

Customers at this 100-seat place draw Black Baby Deer brand imo-jochu from Toriya's distinctive clay bottles. Mr. Yamashita said it is his favorite label, and the only one he sells. Customers know why when they taste it, he said.

"This food goes better with the dry, strong-tasting imo-jochu," he explained, because the drink stands up to the richness of the cooking.

At a low table eight men talk and eat and drink. Their clay shochu bottles compete with plates - and a large thermos of hot water - for table space. They drink imo-jochu oyuwari from what look like four-ounce bistro glasses, with a Kagoshima difference: they have a single circling sight line drawn halfway up the side, for proportioning the hot water and shochu.

When the men finish their meal they look at each other, clap their hands once in unison and say loudly, also together, "Done." Which in Kagoshima is as good as it gets.

Hot Pot Heaven

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the original newspaper article.

The Chinese meal-in-a-pot is a great way to bring friends and family to the table for the new year
- Olivia Wu, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The fire burns blue, the pot bubbles music and the steam swirls magical aromas.
Diners swish foods in a central cauldron for seconds, remove them and dunk them in a cooling sauce that's hot with chiles and garlic.

It's winter, time for the hot pot -- the easiest edible entertainment this side of popcorn. It's ideal for New Year's weekend, and a cinch for a celebration during the whole of winter.

Called huoguo in Mandarin, hot pot is the Chinese communal cook-your-own, gather-round-the-fire meal that is friendly in the extreme. It's like the fondue format on epic scale.

Hot pot has versions in Japan, where it is called shabu-shabu, all over Southeast Asia and even in Switzerland, where a butter-saturated version is called "fondue Chinoise."

Huoguo translates literally as fire (huo) and pot (guo), although it is also translated as steam pot or steam boat. With a heat source in the middle of the table, a pot of rich broth boiling and a dazzling array of meats, seafood, noodles and vegetables, this meal fills the belly and fuels the soul.

"The weather's turning cold, and people are starting to order the hot pot," says Vincent Kwang, manager of Millbrae's Hong Kong Flower Lounge, which lists this meal on its menu.

In Japanese, shabu-shabu refers to the sound a thin piece of meat makes as it is swished in broth. The same kind of language is employed in the Chinese regional variant called shuai yangrou, with the "shuai" meaning to rinse, for "rinsed lamb meat."

This version likely originated in traditionally Muslim Chinese areas, where lamb is cooked in a spicy, garlicky broth, but regional variations abound. In general, beef and lamb are used in the north and west parts of the country, while southern areas focus on seafood. In urban cosmopolitan centers, diners can order any combination of red meats, poultry and seafood, noodles and local greens.

Chinese and Japanese restaurants do a steamy trade in this meal. The large Chinese restaurants, usually the big dim sum specialists, pull it off easily. Millbrae's Hong Kong Flower Lounge makes hot pot available daily for $78 for four to six diners, and includes a large selection of seafood, says Kwang. Depending which raw foods are ordered, it costs from $15 to $20 per person. If diners order whole lobster and whole crab, says manager James Tam, the tab rises accordingly.

Koi Palace in Daly City has takers for the meal year-round for $26 per person.
In these restaurants, the Cantonese term is dabeen lo, which is almost untranslatable. A whimsical stab might be "Play-by-the-Stove.''

The name reflects the ease of setting up the meal. For many Asian families, it's the default winter celebration, especially for working moms and dads with abundant relatives; it feeds many with no cooking required.

For guests and family, it's a meal that engages everyone. How difficult is it to sit around a stove and cook delicious, healthful, fresh food? Following are the components you'll need; see recipes for cooking and serving instructions.


Equipment can range from garage-sale vintage to glossy gourmet.

Following is what you need:

An electric frying pan is the central piece of hardware in Chinese student apartments, sometimes scavenged from yard sales, for just the purpose of hot pot. The pan is on the shallow side, but you don't need as much stock at the beginning -- just make sure to add more boiling stock or water often during the meal.

These days, electric woks would do just as well. You may graduate to restaurant style and purchase a tabletop propane stove -- the kind that some caterers use on buffet tables. In many Asian supermarkets, they can be found for as little as $14. However, it is better to find one with a high BTU.

You can place any attractive heatproof shallow pan on the tabletop burner. A bronze or copper wok is ideal.

Wooden chopsticks are perfect for quickly dipping raw foods in the broth. Guests who would be stressed by holding on with chopsticks can use little wire ladles (about 60 cents apiece).

A single 1-cup porcelain rice bowl per diner works best for the dipping sauce. By the end of the meal, it is used to hold a steaming serving of the scrumptious soup that contains the essence of all the foods cooked in it. You've never tasted a broth so rich.


Beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, fin fish and shellfish can all be cooked in a hot pot. It's critical that you use absolutely the freshest products, cut as thinly as possible. Remember, the food cooks for just a few seconds.

The beef should be premium-quality beef, sliced extra-thin. Chinese and Japanese supermarkets offer a selection, ready sliced and packaged.

I prefer the Japanese supermarkets' shabu-shabu meats, which are film-thin. Ready-sliced sukiyaki beef will do in a pinch, but the slices are a little thicker.

At some markets, you can choose between premium varieties such as Angus, Wagyu and American kobe, all cut from the rib-eye. Pork sliced for shabu-shabu is often the highly flavorful Kurobuta.

The stores usually freeze a block of meat first, then machine-slice it. You can do the same at home if you choose to slice your own: Freeze the meat until just hard, then slice it into mere shavings.

Fish fillets should be cut on the diagonal into large, thin slices. Shrimp are peeled, deveined and halved lengthwise.


Napa cabbage, or da baicai , is the vegetable of choice because it is a winter vegetable. It should be cooked until tender and wilted, like warm sauerkraut.

Other leafy greens, such as spinach, also work well.

Soft tofu and quick-cooking noodles go into the rich broth at the end of the meal. Often, the host cooks these in bulk.

Cover the pot with a lid and allow the soup to come to a full boil. Then, with a "ta-da!", remove the lid and serve the hot rich soup with vegetables, tofu and noodles.


A light chicken stock boosted with aromatic herbs such as ginger, green onions and pickled mustard is common.

Considering how much cooking goes on in the broth, it can begin as canned chicken broth diluted with water.

Make sure to have more stock or water simmering on the stove. Pour about 2 cups at a time into the hot pot as the stock evaporates during the dinner party. You may need to do this several times.


Many people buy bottled sauces, such as a Chinese barbecue sauce called "sacha sauce.'' Others dip into a simple soy-garlic-chile sauce. I've given the recipe for my family's classic, whipped up in minutes.

Hot Pot (Huoguo)

Each person cooks and eats his or her own food. The best progression is to move from red meats to poultry to seafood.


6-8 ounces per person, assortment of raw, thin-sliced beef, pork, lamb, fish, cuttlefish, shrimp, poultry, all preferably prime or choice quality

1/2 to 1 pound soft or silken tofu

1 to 2 pounds napa cabbage, cut into 2-inch segments, stems and leaf separated

1 pound spinach, tender stems attached

4 ounces bean thread noodles, soaked and drained

Cooking broth:

About 2 quarts unsalted chicken stock + water to come within 1 1/2 inches of rim of pot

4 to 6 slices ginger

2 green onions

1 head cured mustard green (suancai)

Dipping sauce (see recipes)


1 to 1 1/2 gallon, 3- to 4-inch deep pot or wok, or 1 large electric fry pan or wok

1 tabletop burner (if not using electric appliance)

8- to 12-ounce soup or rice bowls, 1 per guest

Small plates, 1 per guest (optional)

Wire ladles, 1 per guest (optional)

Wooden chopsticks, 1 pair per guest

Soup spoons, 1 per guest


Place hot pot in the center of a table. Arrange the various meats attractively on serving plates and place around the hot pot. At each place setting, arrange a bowl, small plate (if using), soup spoon, chopstick and wire ladle.

Invite each guest to spoon about 2 tablespoons of the sauce in his/her bowl. A sprinkle of cilantro and/or green onion over the sauce is optional. Those who have a more timid palate should use only about 1 tablespoon of the sauce.

Bring the soup broth ingredients to a boil and cook for about 30 minutes. If using a burner/pot equipment, it is usually faster to cook it on the stove at a rolling boil before bringing the pan out to the propane stove.

Using the wire ladle or chopsticks to hold the raw food, dunk it in the boiling soup and hold it there until done. Do not overcook, especially the beef or lamb. Some prefer these meats medium rare, which means cooking them a few seconds, "rinsing" them in the broth. Remove and release into the prepared bowl, dipping it lightly in the sauce. Have boiling water on hand to replenish the liquid as it boils down.

The covered, slow-cooking segment begins when everyone has had their fill of meat and fish.

The host adds the cabbage stem segments, covers the pot and allows it to boil for about 10 minutes.

Add tofu, the cabbage leaves, spinach and bean thread noodles and bring broth to a boil, letting it cook for another 5 minutes. Serve broth, vegetables, tofu and noodles into the sauce bowls.

There should be just enough sauce left to season the broth. Those who want more can use more sauce. This soup -- with all the vegetables and noodles, which absorb all the flavors of the meats -- is the grand finale of the meal.

Serves 8

PER SERVING: 395 calories, 56 g protein, 15 g carbohydrate, 12 g fat (4 g saturated), 105 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.

Rich Hot Pot Sauce

INGREDIENTS:1/4-1/3 cup kojojang (Korean red pepper miso) or substitute 1/4 cup chile garlic bean paste

2 cloves garlic (if not using chile garlic bean paste)

2 squares of brined tofu (doufu-ru), optional

3 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste (not tahini)

2 tablespoons light (not lite) soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup Shaoxing (rice) wine or sake

3 tablespoons imported, roasted sesame oil

1-2 tablespoons water

1 cup chopped cilantro

1 cup minced green onion


Place ingredients up to sesame oil in a food processor or blender and process until smooth.

Slowly add water as the machine runs until you have the consistency of a thin mayonnaise. You may also add water if the flavors are too strong. To adjust seasonings, add sugar if the sauce is too spicy and sesame paste if too salty.

Each hot pot diner should take about 2 tablespoons in his/her bowl. The use of the paste varies enormously. Those who like intense flavors can go through 4 or 6 tablespoons. Others are satisfied by just 1 tablespoon. Sprinkle with cilantro and onion, as desired.

Yields 1 1/2 cups

PER TABLESPOON: 70 calories, 1 g protein, 2 g carbohydrate, 7 g fat (1 g saturated), 0 cholesterol, 184 mg sodium, 0 fiber.

Simple Hot Pot Sauce


2 tablespoons soy sauce (Kikkoman)

1/2- 3/4 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon rice vinegar

1/2 teaspoon imported sesame oil

Hot sauce, such as chile garlic bean paste, to taste, optional


Stir together ingredients until sugar is dissolved. Dip meats in sauce as they are cooked and removed from the hot pot.

Serves 2

PER TABLESPOON 24 calories, 1 g protein, 3 g carbohydrate, 1 g fat (0 saturated), 0 cholesterol, 1,029 mg sodium, 0 fiber.

Analysis is for the dipping sauce provided per person. The amount consumed will vary.

E-mail Olivia Wu at

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

2006 Training Plans

A lot of people are starting out with new training plans to accompany the new year, and I'm one of them. My approach to making plans for my training is to approach it from the view point of what can I reasonably get done?

As a normal family man with a demanding job and a social life, I can reasonably expect to train about five hours a week. Sometimes a little more and sometimes a little less. I live in suburban Detroit, and the closest I would come to training like a Shaolin monk would be to try and pick up my barbeque with my forearms, branding "WEBER" into my flesh, to dump out the charcoal.

I can use five 1 hour blocks as a model, but I will also state up front that this is only a model and will be subject to change on the fly. There will be somedays that I won't have that full hour, and there will be others where I'll have more time on my hands than I'd be able to fill constructively. There will also be brief blocks of time that I'll be able to make use of here and there if I'm both opportunistic and vigilant.

My training plans revolve around the concept of doing a few things well, where I get the biggest return for my investment in time and energy.

What I've settled on for now is to basically break my one hour block into two halves (excluding for discussion some warmups and a few supplementary exercises). The first half I dedicate to the standing practice, which I simply get a lot out of; and the other half to "everything else."

A lot goes on with the standing practice. There are a lot of different postures used in YiQuan, which can be practiced using different methods, for different purposes. There are "health postures" and "combat postures." There is standing to relax, there are a variety of visualizations used for different purposes, and there are different methods of breathing.

I've decided to settle on two postures. The first is the "embracing" posture that is the familiar one that comes to mind whenever anyone thinks of standing for health. The other one is the classic santi posture from XingYiQuan; that is the foundational posture of the martial art that was the main influence on the creation of YiQuan.

Again, each of these postures have many visualizations that accompany them, and the two of them can cover a pretty fair range of the standing practices associated with YiQuan.

Now the "other stuff." In YiQuan this would include "testing strength" where basically the visualizations which were applied to the stationary postures are applied to some simple to complex movements, various stepping drills (where you can either just move the feet as a more basic exercise, then later with the "testing strength" movements to see if you can keep "whole body strength") using the "friction step," "snake step," "bear step," and the footwork of XingYiQuan forms. Then there are "fighting drills" which are sort of like shadow boxing, and "issuing force" drills, and on and on.

I'm still sorting this out, but I've found that if I use a TaiJiQuan form that I learned years ago, and adapt it to use a long continuous "testing strength" exercise (rather than the way I was taught), I can get a lot of practice with a wide variety of movements in a fairly concise format.

I'm also seeing that if I practice some of the basic XingYiQuan forms in a variety of ways, I can cover a lot of ground regarding the "other stuff."

Mostly I have to keep a clear idea in my head of what it is I'm practicing and why, and not get caught up in the forms themselves.

My ideas may change as the year passes, and I expect them to. The point is that I'm setting myself up to get something done, rather than have a task ahead of me that I'd probably beat my head against, fail, and feel miserable about.

It's a pretty common failing to set up lofty goals at the beginning of the year, and be hopelessly offtrack before January is out. The stricter and more ambitious the schedule, the less likely you are to achieve it because life has a nasty way of intruding upon our best laid plans. I think it's more effective to be both flexible and realistic.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Golden Pavilion

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple formally known as Rokuonji.

In 1397 construction started on the Golden Pavilion as part of a new residence for the retired shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Kinkakuji was converted into a Zen temple after Yoshimitsu's death in 1408.

The Golden Pavilion functions as a shrine, housing sacred relics of the Buddha and is covered in gold leaf.

The present building dates from 1955 as the pavilion was burnt by a fanatic monk in 1950. This act scandalized the country, and became the central episode of Yukio Mishima's novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Dao De Jing: Chapter 9

The Dao De Jing is the foundation of Daoism. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to an online version of this world classic.

Holding a cup and overfilling it
Cannot be as good as stopping short
Pounding a blade and sharpening it
Cannot be kept for long
Gold and jade fill up the room
No one is able to protect them
Wealth and position bring arrogance
And leave upon oneself disasters
When achievement is completed, fame attained, withdraw oneself

This is the Tao of Heaven

Sunday, January 01, 2006


If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed specifically to some directions on how to sit in Zazen, and more generally to a page which describes the outward form of many Zen practices.

Getting the New Year Off to a Good Start

A friend sent me this:

Take twelve whole months. Clean them thoroughly of all bitterness,hate, and jealousy.Make them just as fresh and clean as possible.

Now cut each month into twenty-eight, thirty, or thirty-one different parts, but don't make up the whole batch at once. Prepare it one day at a time out of these ingredients.

Mix well into each day one part of faith, one part of patience, one part of courage, and one part of work.

Add to each day one part of hope, faithfulness, generosity, and kindness. Blend with one part prayer, one part meditation,and one good deed. Season the whole with a dash of good spirits, a sprinkle of fun, a pinch of play,and a cupful of good humour.

Pour all of this into a vessel of love. Cook thoroughly over radiant joy, garnish with a smile, and serve with quietness, unselfishness,and cheerfulness. You're bound to have a happy new

~Author Unknown~