Saturday, April 8, 2017

What Has Life Tortoise?

It’s sakura (cherry blossom) season and the lovely pink blossoms are resplendent across Japan and in Washington DC here in the US.  The blossoms call to mind the beauty and magic in the world, as does this charming puzzle box from Yoh Kakuda of the Karakuri Creation Group.  Kakuda is known for creating whimsical and nostalgic pieces which take the form of animals and evoke an emotional sentimentality.  “POH” is a giant tortoise with a prominent shell and a bemused expression.  Kakuda has created a few versions of POH, including this one with a striking yosegi checkered pattern on the shell created by yosegi artist Yuta Shimizu.  The details are lovely, including the colorful checkered shell and the green hued wood used for POH’s body.  There’s a lot more to POH than meets the eye.  There are a few nice tricks which are required to open the shell, but the story of Poh is the most interesting of all.

POH by Yoh Kakuda

The Japanese novelist Shinji Ishii published his first book, Once Upon a Swing, in 2000.  In that novel, there is another story, written by one of the main characters when he was four years old. This story in a story is called “Typhoon”, and is about a fisherman who braves a storm, only to survive and live alone after his entire village is wiped out.  It’s fatalistic and alarming, and surreal as part of the larger story.  It’s hard to believe it was written by a four year old child, but this is a fictional story, after all.  Amazingly, it actually was written, exactly as published, by Shinji Ishii when he was four years old.  He has been writing this way since he could write.  His style has been described as “Gabriel García Márquez and a splash [of] John Irving and Roald Dahl under the direction of Tim Burton”.1

What lessons have you learned, Poh?

In addition to the fable-like quality and emotional sweep of his novels, Ishii tries to remove time from his stories, so that someone living hundreds of years from now, or hundreds of years in the past, could understand and enjoy them equally.  “The Story of Po” (Po No Hanashi) was published in 2005 and is set in an unnamed town in an unnamed land.  One day, one of the “eel-women” who work along the river bank collecting eels from the river, notices something lumpy in the water.  She pulls it out and realizes it is connected to her by a cord – she has just given birth to it!  Doves take flight shouting “Peauuuuux! Peauuuuux!” and all the eel-women name the baby “Poh”.  The story follows Poh on his life journey.  He initially learns lessons of guilt, atonement, right and wrong in the little village, and is then swept down the river by a flood.  He lands in a fishing village and befriends a kind man named “Doggone Old” who cares for a sick grandchild and has a dog named “Child”.  Here, Poh learns the meaning of life.  The novel traces the life themes of love and loss, and of correcting the mistakes we make along the way.

Doggone Old Fashioned

Hopefully this brief glimpse into the world of Shinji Ishii and the Story of Po has given you new insight into this lovely, evocative piece by Yoh Kakuda, and into the stories which inspire Kakuda’s charming works of art.  To continue the theme I’ve paired POH with a special Japanese themed twist on the classic Old Fashioned cocktail.  The Old Fashioned is essentially the original cocktail, an American invention from the early 1800’s. The first description appeared in an 1806 newspaper describing a “cocktail” as a combination of spirits, bitters, water and sugar.  It was finally referred to as the “Old Fashioned” in 1881 at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky.  Nowadays, a proper “classic” Old Fashioned has bourbon, ice, and a bitters soaked sugar cube, just like the original.  

Doggone it, this is delicious

For the “Doggone Old Fashioned”, this special Japanese themed version named after another character from the Story of Po, I’ve used an exquisite Japanese whisky, the Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve.  The Yamazaki was named best whisky in the world in 2015. For the sugar I created a special Umeshu Plum Wine syrup which is incredibly delicious.  The bitters are replaced with cherry blossom oil essence, aromatized across the top of the glass. One sip and you’ll be transported directly to Tokyo.  Here’s to the timeless beauty of life and all its lessons.  Kampai!

A timeless pair

Doggone Old Fashioned

2 oz Yamazaki whisky
¼ oz umeshu plum wine syrup
Cherry blossom essence

In a mixing glass, stir the whiskey and syrup with ice. Strain into an old fashioned glass with a large cube. Spray the cherry blossom oil over the drink or add a few drops directly.  Enjoy while contemplating the meaning of life.

Special thanks to Hideaki Kawashima who helped me track down the Story of Poh.

For more about Yoh Kakuda:
For prior puzzles by Yoh Kakuda:

For prior variation of the Old Fashioned:

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