Abeya Tsugaru Shamisen Performance Ensemble throwdown – who’s got the fastest fingers?

This jaw-dropping shamisen throwdown took place during a free performance sponsored by the Consul General of Japan at Denver, of ABEYA Tsugaru Shamisen Performance Ensemble. It’s an incredible eight-piece group that performs traditional folksongs (and original material) on the shamisen, a three-stringed lute with a tone similar to a western banjo, that’s plucked with a tool that looks like a putty knife.

The two men, Kinzaburo and Ginzaburo Abe, are brothers and both past national champions of shamisen. The woman, Maya Nemoto, who’s also an awesome vocalist, is the current national champion. These musicians are so amazing that it’s like imagining a similar face-off on guitars between rock giants like Jimmy Page, Richard Thompson and Les Paul.

Who do you think is the winner of this competition?

Denver marks the 100th anniversary of cherry trees from Japan to US by planting 50 trees

Chidorigafuchi Sakura Tokyo

Cherry blossoms at the Japanese Imperial Palace moat in Tokyo (photo Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons)

When I was a kid in Japan, my family would make the requisite trek out every spring to see the cherry trees, or sakura, blooming at places like the Imperial Palace (above) or Ueno Park, which is better known the rest of the year for a bustling train station and crowded market with smelly fish vendors. Sakura-viewing is such a historically significant cultural event in Japan that it has its own name: Hanami, or “flower-viewing.”

People — individuals, couples in love, entire families — stroll parks and avenues for Hanami and marvel at the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossoms, which bloom and then fall too soon as everyone picnics beneath the lovely pink cascade.

From the woodblock master Hiroshige's series, "36 Views of Mount Fuji" (Public domain)

The country feels so strongly about its precious sakura, that in 1912 Japan made a gift of friendship of 3,000 cherry trees to the United States. They were planted in Washington D.C., around the Tidal Basin (near the Jefferson Memorial), East Potomac Park and around the Washington Monument.

Those trees have become a springtime ritual for Americans as well, a popular seasonal tourist attraction. There’s a National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington that runs from March 20-April 27 this year, with events throughout the month, as well as lots of “hanami,” except we call it “bloom watching.”

When my family moved Stateside in the 1960s and lived in northern Virginia, we would visit D.C. every spring to enjoy the sakura there.
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Yuki Kokubo’s “Kasama-Yaki” documentary needs some last-minute help fundraising

Yuki Kokubo, a talented filmmaker and photojournalist whom I met at the Asian American Journalists Association convention in Detroit last year, certainly has been busy. She’s been working on a documentary about her hometown of Kasama, Japan, which is not far south of Fukushima, in the part of Japan devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. Kasama was hit hard by the temblor but spared by the tsunami. But the town is close enough to the meltdown at the Fuskushima Dai Ichi nuclear power plant that although residents didn’t have to evacuate, they may suffer long-term after-effects of radiation.

The documentary, which translates to “Made in Kasama,” focuses on Katsuji and Shigeko Kokubo, the filmmaker’s parents, who are artists who yearn to live simple, timeless lives making pottery and sculptures. Kokubo is able to capture their stately lifestyle in unhurried, exquisitely detailed camera shots.

Here’s her explanation for why she wants to make this film:

My parents and I moved from Japan to the U.S. when I was eight years old, and they moved back to Japan when I was sixteen. In the weeks following the horrible disasters in Japan, I came face-to-face with the distance that had grown between my parents and myself over the past two decades, not just geographically but also personally. My personal motivation behind this film is to get to know my parents better. Another goal I have for this film is to bridge the gap between the culture that is now mine, and the one I left behind. Many of us have read articles about the “quiet strength” and “resilience” of the Japanese people. I hope to make a film that will provide a window through which the viewer will gain better understanding of the Japanese psyche, and learn how the disasters have emotionally affected the people of Japan.

Here’s the critical fact about the funding for the film: As of yesterday, Kokubo had surpassed the Kickstarter goal of $20,000, with $20,703. However, her largest backer, at the executive producer ($5000) level may reduce his or her pledge because of a family emergency. If the pledges fall below the goal by March 31 (Saturday), Kokubo will lose ALL her funding.

So please take a look at the beautiful video above, and click to the Kickstarter page for “Kasama-Yaki.”

It would be a crying shame if Kokubo weren’t able to finish her film because at the last minute, a donor fell through.

March 29, 2012 update: Yuki reports the supporter who was on the brink of pulling out is going to “make it work,” but now another donor who pledged at a high level may change his mind and keep her from making the Kickstarter funding goal. So, keep the pledges coming — her situation is still precarious.

As anniversary of Tohoku Earthquake nears, Japan thanks the world, shows recovery efforts

It’s almost a year since the 9.0-level Great East Japan Earthquake, as the disaster is now officially called, and the subsequent tsunami devastated a huge swath of the Tohoku region along the country’s northeast coast. With the anniversary looming, many communities in the U.S are planning commemorative events, and many people are remembering how they learned of the disaster.

The initial news of the earthquake, which struck at 2:46 PM local time on March 11, 2011, were horrific: I got an email alert and tuned in CNN late at night Denver time on March 10, and saw the tsunami devour entire towns, outracing cars of residents trying to escape its path. The total toll as of February was over 15,000 confirmed dead with over 3,000 still missing. The tsunami that wreaked most of the havoc after the earthquake was as high as 40.5 meters, or 133 feet — that’s 13 stories high — and washed as far as 10 kilometers, or six miles, inland. Entire towns were erased in one terrible wave. And with the added terror of nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai Ichi nuclear plant, a town and its entire surrounding shave become toxic and closed off for decades, with lives interrupted, homes abandoned.

The reaction to the disaster on both sides of the Pacific was swift and supportive. Nationally, JACL announced a partnership with Direct Relief International, which has now given more than $2.4 million in donations to eight organizations in Japan — 100% of all donations went to recovery efforts, with no administrative fees taken out. The American Red Cross takes out a portion of all donaions to pay for administative fees, but it’s the best-known relief organization in times of crisis, and by the end of summer the Red Cross announced it had given $260 million to tsunami relief in Japan.

Beyond such high-profile efforts, there were dozens of fundraising events and benefit concerts across the U.S including in Denver, where a number of fundraising events were held to channel money to recovery efforts. The Red Cross in Colorado raised $3 million for Japan. The Japan America Society of Colorado raised more than $126,000 over the few months and hand-delivered a check directly to aid agencies on the ground in the affected part of Japan at he end of the summer. (Full disclosure: I’m a board member of JASC, although I wasn’t involved in the fundraising efforts.)

The Asian Pacific Development Center’s “Power of Solidarity” concert, which was held just weeks after the quake, raised over $30,000. There were other concerts organized on the fly to raise money for disaster relief and recovery efforts.

All of the expressions of goodwill and condolences — and donations, and volunteer aid workers — from around the world were much appreciated by the Japanese government. In the run-up to the March 11 first anniversary of the disaster, the Japanese government has been sending out groups of diplomatic emissaries to thank communities for their help.

A couple of weeks ago, Yoshio Onodera, the Director of Risk Management for Miyagi Prefecture, the state most affected by the tsunami, visited Denver with a delegation to show his government’s appreciation.
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Cooking Japanese food with my mom: Okara and Tempura

Mom cooking kakiage tempura

My mom doesn’t cook as much as she used to. She used to cook everything — mostly Japanese food of course. She even used to make her own tofu. After my dad passed away in the early ’90s she cooked for herself for years, making large portions of dishes to freeze and re-heat as meals for days. But lately she finds cooking “mendokusai,” which translates to “bothersome but I like “pain in the butt.”

She was always a great cook and of the three boys in the family, I was the one who absorbed a lot of her cooking by watching and noticing how everything tasted. I miss a lot of the dishes she used to make when I was a kid — many of them, like steamed egg custard (Chawan Mushi), which is a rarity even in many Japanese restaurants. So Erin and I have been concerned since she stopped cooking a lot of her signature dishes, and figured we better get some lessons now while we can.

Food is the one immutable bridge back to root cultures for any descendants of immigrants in this country — which means most of us. And even though it might be easier to go to a Japanese restaurant to chow down on traditional foods, I’m glad we’re holding onto our culinary heritage by learning to cook Japanese dishes too.

The two dishes we wanted to cook with my mom last week were Okara and Tempura, done the way she’s always made them.
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