Sobacha or Buckwheat Tea

For a long time, I have known about buckwheat tea but have never given it a shot.  After enjoying some nice bibim naengmyeon at the best Korean restaurant near me, I went to the Korean market nearby and chanced upon a container of buckwheat made for brewing.  At seven dollars for a decent sized container, I figured, “Why not?”

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Thoughts on Volume Seven of Spice and Wolf

The seventh volume of the Spice and Wolf novels offers a break from the main story.  This annoyed me because of how little happened in volume six: the worst volume thus far.  Volume seven features the usual bad religion, especially in the novella which forms the first part of the book.  (You can tell already what most of my comments shall be about.)  This novella and one of the short stories were as bland as the prior volume.  Only “The Red of the Apple, The Blue of the Sky” showed Isuna Hasekura at his best.  The second short story was interesting in how it took Holo’s perspective, revealing how terribly insecure and anxious Holo is behind her quick-witted and capable facade.

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The novella takes place before Holo settles down as the goddess of the harvest and concerns two children, Aryes and Klass, who are forced to flee their lord’s estate and find a new life for themselves in a far off town.  On the way, they run into Holo, who makes herself extremely useful and extremely annoying by turns.  (Holo appears unable to help teasing any man or boy in her company.)  The story ends with a thrilling chase, which would have been better without the twist.

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Nobi – Fires on the Plain (1959)

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I first came across Nobi – Fires on the Plain and its director, Kon Ichikawa, through the site Genkinahito.  To my knowledge, there’s no better blogger when it comes to contemporary Japanese cinema, and I can’t recommend his blog enough.  Curiously, I became interested in this film based on an article Genkinahito wrote about the remake of Nobi; but, hearing that it was a remake, I naturally opted to find and watch the original first.  The movie is a bleak representation of the hardships facing Japanese soldiers during their last days occupying the Philippines and the barbaric steps those individuals who were cut off from the main army took to survive.  Usually, I don’t like movies which are this gloomy, but this one has enough guts and human spirit to make it more than palatable–sort of like certain stories of Ernest Hemingway.

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So, I heartily recommend it and will try to watch the remake and more films of Kon Ichikawa in the near future.  Tomorrow, my dear readers may look forward to that article on a biography of the Black Prince which I have promised.

A Great Series on the Katana

Recently, I discovered a new YouTube Channel called “I am Shad” through Shad’s video on the Kite or Norman shield.  Shad is about as entertaining to watch as Skallagrim and as factually reliable as Matt Easton–though, not with that gentleman’s depth of knowledge.  Shad’s excellent sense of humor and solid interpretation of the facts manifest themselves well in “The TRUTH about the Katana.”  This series delves into the strengths and weaknesses of the katana’s forging process and its design in the most even-handed manner I’ve yet seen.  I found myself hooked on this series as soon as he used Rurouni Kenshin for a reference point.  Few anime fans don’t have an interest in katana, so I encourage all my dear readers to check out this series.  Parts one through four are short enough to be watched in tandem, however the last video is almost fifty minutes long.  Enjoy!

The TRUTH about the Katana, part 1: Introduction

The TRUTH about the Katana, part 2: What it is Made from

The TRUTH about the Katana, part 4: Differential Hardening

The TRUTH about the Katana, part 5: Design and Shape

The Moe Manifesto

I had the good fortune to win this book in a contest put up by Random Fantasy for a title from Tuttle Publishing.  The Moé Manifesto by Patrick W. Galbraith takes on the misunderstood topics of moé and otaku through looking at the perspectives of people as diverse as mangaka, singers, economists, psychologists, directors, and  self-professed otaku.  The interviews are generally of good quality.  The result is a fascinating work which I finished in practically one sitting.  The introductory chapter, where Patrick Galbraith explains his own views and history with the moé movement, is the most difficult to sit through; but, I would not recommend skipping it, because it holds very cogent information.  The pages turn quickly after that, a speed of reading which is helped by the fascinating and odd pictures included on every page.

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Go: A Little About the Game and My Experience Playing it

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The object of go is simple: use your stones to surround territory and to prevent your opponent from doing the same.  Stones connect orthogonally in order to share liberties, i.e. the open intersections orthogonally adjacent to them.  Stones may be captured if the opponent deprives them of their last liberty.  Stones can only be placed on intersections where it has at least one liberty or can make a liberty through capture.  A situation where captures may occur infinitely back and forth invokes the ko rule, where the other player must allow the person who just captured one turn to connect the stone back to a friendly group before he can capture in return.  Two secure and unconnected liberties within a group ensure the group’s safety.  If a situation occurs where neither side can move without losing their group, a truce is declared and neither side gains points from that area.  Players play stones alternately on the intersections, and the game ends when both players pass or one resigns.

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How can a game with so few rules take a lifetime to learn?

Yes, my dear readers, my first paragraph offers all the rules to this game.  The problem comes in perfecting one’s play.  How does one play lightly and efficiently rather than heavily and wastefully?  How does one retain the initiative?  What threats may be ignored for a greater good?  How should I invade here without playing too deeply or too shallowly?  Playing on what space would radiate the most influence on the board?  Should I strive now for territory or influence in the center?  How might I save my beleaguered group?  How might I kill my opponent’s group?  Should I go for the kill or just threaten and constrict that group?  Which joseki should I use in response to that attack on the corner?  Am I playing too aggressively?  Have I read all the possible variations of that fight correctly?  There are times when all of these questions must be answered before one can make a single move!  No other game I know can so frazzle the nerves.  Often, sweat would bead my brow, my mouth would dry out, and my hands would tremble from the sheer excitement of playing on the edge of a knife.

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It is a wonder that more people do not play this great game!  In my own case, I must confess to losing touch with my usual partners in playing this game and thus the game itself.  Now that I am trying to get back into playing, it is frustrating to lose to people online whose skills are less than those I once attained!  At one time, I could give an entertaining game for a professional Chinese 6-dan.  Note well that I say entertaining, not great!  However, my two favorite partners declared my first game with her the greatest they had ever witnessed!  Unfortunately, my fear of her killer instinct soon led to me playing so conservatively that the games stopped being as entertaining.

An artistic representation of how badly I lost to the 6-dan.

An artistic representation of how badly I lost to the 6-dan.

Oddly enough, I started learning the game because my father bought me a set for Christmas one year.  (A friend in Alabama now has this set.)  The proper way to play eluded my father, and he quickly lost interest in the game.  (Do not play on the edge of the board unless necessary to reducing your opponent’s territory or saving your own group.)  In sophomore year of college, I discovered that a good friend of mine loved the game, and we engaged in many stirring battles.  Like a Mongol, he preferred battles in the open center where precise calculation determined victory or defeat.  He often had the edge and it took me a while to develop a more defensive style and willingness to sacrifice in order to deal with his finesse.

Mongol Army

During the summer, I stumbled upon two of the greatest resources for the beginning go player: Game of Go: The National Game of Japan by Arthur Smith and Hikaru no Go.  The latter has a surprising amount of information pertinent to the beginner, while the former stands as perhaps the best introduction to the game.  These works combined with much playing on Fly or Die led to a lopsided victory over my friend on my return to college.  I had learned the importance of controlling the corners and the sides in order to gain advantage in the battle for the center.  The Mongol cavalry met solid squares of Swiss pike and, like the French cavalry at Waterloo, dashed itself against the fighting square.  He took the loss with good humor.  Though he seldom afterwards beat me at this game, he was still an opponent to be reckoned with for his skillful tactics in the center and ability to calculate with exactitude.

I should watch the anime again or read the manga.  Such a good story!

I should watch the anime again or read the manga. Such a good story!

These victories turned me into a fervent apostle of the game, and I preached its virtues to Jew and Gentile.  Devouring every work I could get my hands on, I established myself as the greatest authority of the game at college until the 6-dan arrived.  To my surprise and chagrin, my dominance on the board earned me the nickname of “the Go Rapist” among my friends.  But, those defects which cause the downfall of every champion began to gnaw at me: boredom in not finding an equal on the board (go is best played with equals, despite whatever advantage handicaps accrue to the weaker player) and the fear of losing.  The more I feared losing, the more conservative and uninteresting my play became.  At the same time, my roommate doggedly studied the game with the goal of beating me, and, during senior year shortly after one game where I only won by a single point, he became the dominant player!  Though at present we are both out of practice, I’d say that he still remains the superior player.

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Now, I am no longer the masterful player of five years ago, but I’d like to be.  There is a certain pleasure in starting again from the bottom.  The game does not bore me at all, and winning or losing is a lesser concern to playing well.  To my dear readers who love games of reason, skill, and intuition, be sure to give go a shot and to have a cup of tea next to you when you do!

Kisara’s Revenge: Right or Wrong?

Here’s one last article on Black Bullet and the Spring season of 2014.  Like most of you, Kisara’s utter obliteration of her treacherous brother took me by surprise.  I thought that she would let him off with the loss of his legs, but I suppose cutting off a limb is always the prelude to giving the killing stroke–whether one is considering Japanese or Western martial arts.  Anyway, the parricidal villain got what he deserved.

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Or did he?  Kisara laughs maniacally after his death and claims that she is evil and that only evil can eradicate evil.  These two claims strike one as shocking, especially for someone from a culture where filial piety is so esteemed.  (And no, evil cannot eradicate evil.  Only justice and mercy can.)  When one takes that into account along with the traditional belief that the victims of murder will not rest in peace until they have been avenged, I’d say that most Japanese would think badly of her had she not killed Kazumitsu Tendo.

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So, whence arises the idea that she did wrong?  I am tempted to think Kisara’s words as purely rooted in the emotion of the moment.  To a person of integrity, killing is always ugly and painful even if justified.  Or does she feel that she ought to have left Kazumitsu’s punishment to the authorities?  But, one has already seen the degree of corruption in both the police and the government, and Kisara no doubt took this into account when she undertook extralegal means to avenge her parents.  Using a duel to execute a murderer is hardly ideal, but neither is Black Bullet‘s society.

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I’m pretty sure this did not enter into Kisara’s mind at all, but in the spirit of this blog let’s ask this question: was it unchristian to kill her brother?  The Faith does recommend mercy.  Kisara could have stopped short of killing him at least, right?  But, four things must be taken into account when judging this matter: 1) Kazumitsu thinks nothing of taking human life–even the lives of his parents; 2) merely maiming him does not prevent him from continuing to use his political power or influence to cause grave harm; 3) the corrupt government might acquit in a trial, thus allowing him to continue to take human lives or endanger society for his own ends; and 4) Kazumitsu would no doubt be using his power to eliminate witnesses should he be arraigned.  I think that there exists a hierarchy of compassion in Christianity and prudence partially governs how mercy is given.  As the Glossa Interlinearis, a 12th century Biblical gloss by Anselm of Laon, states: “Justice and mercy are so united that one ought to be mingled with the other; justice without mercy is cruelty; mercy without justice profusion…” (Gloss to Matt. 5:7).  Permitting Kazumitsu to live in society places the life of a murderer above his potential victims.  To have compassion on the murderer in this case is to lack compassion for the innocent.  Giving the lethal blow to Kazumitsu falls more under Katsujinken (“the life giving sword”) than Satsujinken (“the murdering sword”).

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If anything could have rendered Kazumitsu’s death a moral wrong, it would be if Kisara had arranged the duel in the belief that she was doing wrong.  It is possible to render something objectively right evil by having the wrong intention.  For example, giving money to the poor in order to be praised by others or telling truth for the purpose of delighting in another’s pain on hearing it.  The ugliness of the deed certainly struck her after the fact, but she did not have any doubts about whether she should fight Kazumitsu beforehand.  The preparations before the duel evince her sense of righteous indignation.  But, if there be any truth to Kisara’s belief that she’s evil for avenging her parents, it could only be because she undertook the revenge believing that she was doing wrong.

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You couldn’t be more wrong, Kisara.

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Nevermind, you could be.

But, what do my dear readers think?  Was Kisara’s action laudable filial piety?  The only way to stop a dangerous malefactor?  Erroneous vigilantism?  Or wrong because Kisara acted against her conscience from the beginning?

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The Best of Basho

The time seems ripe to take a break from my little series on prayer.  I wonder how many of my dear readers were even able to read through the last article?  So, here’s some incredibly amusing haiku from the famous poet Basho (1644-1694).  Usually, we think of haiku as abstruse, pithy poems containing a good insight or a beautiful image, which often fail to reach the sublime in amusing ways.  Here, I have no doubt that Basho meant these to provoke laughter, probably in order to prevent readers from falling asleep midway through one of his volumes of poetry.  Enjoy!

A snowy morning–/by myself/Chewing on dried salmon.

As for the hibiscus/on the roadside–/My horse ate it.

Many nights on the road/and not dead yet–/the end of autumn.

Clear water–/a tiny crab/crawling up my leg.

The jars of octopus–/brief dreams/under the summer moon.

In the fish shop/the gums of the salt-bream/look cold.

Year after year/on the monkey’s face/a monkey’s face.

A fishy smell–/perch guts/in the water weeds.

My summer robes–/there are still some lice/I haven’t caught.

Fleas, lice,/a horse peeing/near my pillow.

The dragonfly/can’t quite land/on that blade of grass.

A group of them/gazing at the moon,/not one face beautiful.

Teeth sensitive to sand/in the salad greens–/I’m getting old.

Still alive/and frozen in one lump–/the sea slugs.

The morning glory also/turns out/not to be my friend.

Having no talent,/I just want to sleep,/you noisy birds.

These days/summer underwear brings comfort–/the fourth moon.  [Actually from a friend of Basho’s named Shohaku]

Anti-Teaism

Having just post onThe Book of Tea, I need to laugh at this event which happened in a park known as Deep Cut Park today.  Those of you who happen to reside in the eastern half of Monmouth County, New Jersey have likely paid it a visit.  On a prior day, I brought The Book of Tea with me to the park, and the similarity of the park’s structure to a tea house and its environs struck me.  Consider the parking lot as the ante chamber.  From there, we begin to walk on a path which leads us to a small pond containing several large orange and white koi and many smaller fish.  After the sight of these fish bores us, we move farther along the path.  The abundance of trees obscures the parking lot from us as we descend a gently sloping staircase.  On each side, we have dense, wide-spanning trees lining the way with purple and white flower bushes adding splashes of color against a dark green background.  Eventually, a vista opens up with a garden and a gazebo at the path’s end.  The flowers among this garden’s shrubbery have yet to bloom, but it’s still a very pleasing walk.  Like the roji before your traditional sukiya (the Japanese word for a tea house/cottage, lit. “house of fancy”), this does a marvelous job separating us from the cares of the outside world.

Today, I selected a bench overlooking the gazebo from which to write.  As I wrote, a large procession consisting of a pair of newly weds and their eighty or so guests arrived.  I suppose the best way to ensure that the roji does not separate one from the world is to bring the world with one!  How greatly this defeats the purpose!  Though these people are also coming here to enjoy the environs, how well can they while surrounded by people as they mill about the gazebo?  They almost might as well have chosen a mall.

Then, I noticed a gray catbird hopping about under the bush next to where I sat.  Seeing that he had an admirer, he hopped onto the bench beside mine and looked me straight in the eye.  Never have I seen a catbird so used to the presence of a human being!  I sat petrified, scared that the slightest movement should frighten him.  As it presented its somberly beautiful gray and black plumage to me, it seemed to say: “Enjoy my beauty, dear visitor.  I’m invisible to the rest.”  Then, having entertained its sole guest, he flew away.

Review of Okakura’s The Book of Tea

For those of my dear readers who did not know me in college, I am a tea connoisseur.  My preference for tea has existed at least since I turned ten.  Some time after that, I began to indulge in coffee but always considering it a lesser drink to be enjoyed with much milk and five teaspoons of sugar until after my college years.  Indeed, in my dorm room, you could find eight to ten high quality teas and a box of Folger’s bagged coffee just in case I needed a change of pace.  Even now that I enjoy coffee more, I usually keep only one premium coffee.  You see, I felt that all coffees were the same, but tea held real variety!  In the early days, Bigelow’s Raspberry Royal was the most prized of teas, now it’s Phoenix Mountain Oolong (a Peet’s item.  In addition to their coffees, they also offer some very high quality tea).

In order to enrich my tea hobby, I got a couple of works on tea.  One is an incredibly dense and informative work called The Tea Drinker’s Handbook by Francois-Xavier Delmas et al. and the other is Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea, which will be the book under review.  Okakura is famed for his resistance to the Westernization trend during the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912).  He wrote two other works (also in English): The Ideals of the East and The Awakening of Japan in order to explain Japanese Culture to a Western audience.  He strove to demonstrate that there is much good to Asian culture and that it is worthwhile for Westerners to understand it–samurai are not the only worthwhile part of Japanese culture!  For someone working in a second language, his skill with English is incredible.  Also, the boldness of his style seems equal to the best passages in Nietzsche, and the variety of information and humor in this particular work make its 49 pages fly by!  I’d highly recommend picking this work up, especially as it deals with a part of Japanese culture which has almost disappeared.

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