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Three factoids I picked up from three different conversations with my Japanese friends on this week.


When Japanese women give birth, it is customary for hospital to take the umbilical cord and put it in a little box. The mother is then presented with it as a memento on leaving the hospital.


There is a kami who specialises in straightening out badly behaved children. His twisted staffs symbolise the crooked behaviour of the children he has to deal with, usually as a result of a prayer of the parents.

mami kami

Also, he gets to ride on a fox.

Man's Estate

Whenever a train is late and it is deemed to be the driver's fault, the driver is made to write a letter of apology to the customers. However, whenever a Japanese salaryman feels that it's all too much and throws himself in the path of a speeding shinkansen (as happens all too often), the family is made to pay a large amount of compensation to the train company - pour encourager les autres, presumably.
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Ever since Corbyn was first elected leader, I've heard a lot from the right wing of the party (and thence the media) about the threat of deselection of sitting MPs. It hasn't actually happened, though - to anyone. Whereas there has been a very messy attempt to "deselect" Jeremy Corbyn, and what one can only conclude was a systematic attempt to prevent his supporters from voting in the leadership election - another form of deselection, if you will.

(Digression: that attempt was so blatant yet has been so under-reported that it's worth bringing out the key facts here, for reference. Here are the voting participation figures, first for members and then for registered supporters - i.e. those who paid £25 in order to take part:

non-voting members

As you will see, only just over half of members are counted among the votes in the contest. We don't know how many of those were due to suspension, exclusion, "lost" ballots, etc., but even allowing for the fact that some members would have decided not to take part that seems that an awfully low percentage of the electorate for such an important vote. But the real killer is the figures for registered supporters. These are people who paid precisely in order to be able to vote, so one would expect turnout among this group to close to 100%. In fact, however, more than a third - that's 62,000 - are recorded as "without a vote". The NEC compliance unit were working their Delete keys into the night, one might reasonably surmise. As a former foe of Trots once said, it's not who gets to vote, it's who gets to count the votes...)

Sometimes it seems that the right wing of the Party is a little paranoid, because it fears that the left will behave in the same undemocratic way that it's shown itself so capable of. (Indeed, back in the days of Blair I seem to remember the NEC itself drawing up lists of left-wingers for deselection...)

Corbyn doesn't seem at all keen on mandatory reselection, in fact - unsurprisingly, if he's trying to build a consensus (or at least a modus vivendi) in Parliament. The issue is probably only going to arise when boundary changes are introduced by the Tories - but even then, convention dictates that where two MPs are unseated by the disappearance of their seat and are forced to compete for a new one, only sitting MPs are considered. In most cases, the Labour CLPs will be given a choice between two people who voted to get rid of Corbyn. There will also be a few cases, no doubt, where there is a choice between a pro-Corbyn and and anti-Corbyn MP. In those, it's true, a left-leaning CLP may well opt for the former. I don't see how that's an affront to democracy, to be honest, or anything that the party at large should be losing its shit over. If MPs' numbers are being reduced by 50 and fewer than 50 MPs are willing to bow out, then obviously choices will be made, and if not by the local parties then by whom? But I expect to hear much, much more in the coming months about how this is the worst thing since the Terror - and nothing at all about the purge of the Labour electorate.
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St Werburgh's is just a five-minute walk from my house, by a path between the allotments and the railway line, and (as I think I've mentioned before here) it's quite a different world. An inner city enclave formed by the convergence of several railway embankments, this area of Bristol is almost inaccessible by car - and certainly not a place you would just "stumble across" if you were exploring the city in any conventional way. I've promised in the past to try to describe it, but I don't think I can quite do it justice here. However, these brief entries should give you something of the feel. As you might guess, it's the perfect place to have a Wicker Man event.

I went last night with my friend Marie, and we approached down this long tunnel, which was lit with candles along its length, as one would expect.

unnamed (4)

I wore my horse's head mask, and I'd lent Marie a garland left over from one of my magical jaunts to the Gower last year. Beyond the tunnel, the woodland amphitheatre that the Werburgh folk made for themselves a few years ago had been kitted out with a screen, but first there was a "trail" to follow through the woods. There we came across many an unworldly scene, including a couple of naked women (and one man) making much of a bonfire. They plucked a late apple and offered it to me, and sent us down towards a place where a rather stern priestess was making runic gestures, and occasionally screaming as if she had been kanchoed by the gods. Elsewhere we sat in a roundhouse (a permanent feature) and listened to a really excellent harpist, dressed in something approximating Venetian masked ball garb (she neighed at me as she played, recognising in me no doubt a devotee of Epona). And here and there, lit by red and green lights and hundreds of candles, strange moppets and scarecrows and gibbets abounded, throwing their eldritch shadows against the leafy canopy. The isle was full of noises.

The trail was also punctuated by woodland screens, hung between branches perhaps like the webs of giants spiders, showing clips from 1970s documentaries about the supernatural and paranormal. A Devon dowser demonstrated his craft. A pair of Glastonbury hippies (this was 1970) explained that St Michael's chapel was built on Glastonbury Tor in order to discourage UFO visitations. A Sgt. Howie-ish policeman emphasised that the ritual slaughter of sheep on Dartmoor was just not on.

After a visit to the compost toilet (scatter your own sawdust!) we settled down to watch the main feature in the amphitheatre, cider in hand, and very thoroughly softened up we felt too. Not that the film needs any preparation to work its reliable magic. The final shot of the Wicker Man's head tumbling from its torso to reveal the westering sun was matched by the introduction of flames onto the stage, and a couple of fire workers - half jugglers, half shamanic ritualists - rounded off the evening's entertainment. After which there was a general invitation to the Miner's Arms.

An excellent evening, all told. There's one more evening to go of this event, and if you can go, I highly recommend it.
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Yesterday, the Today programme celebrated the equinox by having Juliet Stevenson read Keats' "To Autumn", which was probably my favourite poem when I was a teenager (when autumn was my favourite season, and when the water meadows near Winchester - which inspired the poem - were among my favourite haunts). I still love it. Has anyone ever made better use of the word "clammy" than in these lines, for example?

to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

But I slightly digress. After the reading, they produced Prof. Peter Swaab of UCL to talk about the poem. At one point he and Stevenson had a slight disagreement about the tone of the final line, "And gathering swallows twitter in the skies." You can hear it from 2.26.00 on the link above, but I've written the relevant part out for your convenience. Swaab was making the point that the final stanza includes positive and livelier notes along with the expected elegaic, and cited the "gathering swallows" (along with the gnats and the lambs) as "assertive and vigorous" voices competing with and counterbalancing the poet's own sense of decline.

JS: I don't know though, you know that "gathering swallows" thing is about departure, it's about leaving, and going south, and heading off to a completely different... It's always about the end of summer, isn't it, seeing the swallows gather, so I don't know that it's... I don't think it is that cheerful, I think it's...

PS: If you're a swallow, though, you're going to summer south.

[Presenter]: You're going to other things, you're looking forward to your holiday.

JS: But it's not written from the swallows' point of view, is it?

PS [audibly trying not to tell Stevenson she's stupid]: Well, it's in there, I think.

Personally I'm with Juliet Stevenson on this. Also, I don't really see "full-grown lambs" as a positive image. They're going to be slaughtered soon, after all! (If indeed we're being asked to look at it from the animals' point of view.) And as for the gnats...

But soft, what's that about the swallows going south for the winter? I mean, yes they do, but isn't that a rather anachronistic piece of knowledge? After all, solid evidence about patterns of bird migration only dates from 1822 (three years after the poem was written), and the remarkable discovery of a stork in Mecklenburg with an African spear through its neck (for pics and the whole story, see here). Where migratory birds went in the winter was, before that date, something of a mystery, as I understand it. I'm sure some people had considered the possibility that they migrated somewhere, but I doubt whether "gathering swallows" would have had the same "package holiday" connotations for Keats that it has for the Today presenter or indeed for Prof. Swaab.

(On the other hand... what if the swallow used a strand of creeper, held under the guiding dorsal feathers?)
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Perhaps, like me, you've often seen memes mocking fundamentalist Christians who condemn homosexuality or crossdressing because they're banned in Leviticus or Deuteronomy, while blithely ignoring other practices outlawed in the same places, such as eating shellfish, mixing linen and wool, wearing tattoos, etc.

Where did this meme begin? I don't know, but I give you a contender for the earliest example: Sir Richard Baker, Theatrum Redivivum, or, the Theatre Vindicated (1662):

Indeed, he cites a text of scripture for it, Deut. xxii. 5: 'The women shall not wear that which pertaineth to the man, neither shall a man put on a woman's raiment.' A pregnant place indeed, but where finds he this precept? Even in the same place where he finds also that we must not wear clothes of linsey-woolsey; and seeing we lawfully now wear clothes of linsey-woolsey, why may it not be as lawful for men to put on women's garments? But if he will have this precept to stand in force, though it be no part of the moral law, yet because it may have a moral construction; how will he then defend his own eating of black-puddings against the precept for the eating of blood? For this precept against eating of blood hath a stronger tie than that for wearing of garments.

There is nothing new under the sun, sayeth the Preacher.
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I have a question about the proposal for a second Brexit referendum - as backed by many, including I think the LibDems and well-known Brocialist Owen Smith.

The question isn't about the principle. As I've mentioned here before, personally I'm against it on democratic grounds. (Yes, the Leave campaign lied, but then so did the Remain campaign - remember George Osborne's emergency budget? Nick Clegg lied about tuition fees, David Cameron lied about being green and not mucking around with the school system, Tony Blair lied about - well, take your pick. That didn't make their governments unconstitutional.)

No, my question is about procedure. As I understand it, the idea is that the British people should be given a vote on whether they accept the terms that have been negotiated for Brexit by the Government. But substantive negotiations won't even begin until after Article 50 has been triggered, and once that has happened there's no way (as I understand it) to untrigger it. The clock is ticking inexorably down an exit two years later.

Of course, it might be that the rest of the EU would be willing to have the UK back and to waive Article 50, but it would be under no obligation to do so on the same terms, surely, with the whole panoply of opt-outs and rebates that the UK has enjoyed until now? Would a UK that changed its mind be allowed to stay out of the Euro, for example? Or wouldn't it more resemble that moment in The Merchant of Venice, when Shylock realises he's not going to get away with taking his pound of flesh:

SHYLOCK: Give me my principal, and let me go.
PORTIA: He hath refused it in the open court:
He shall have merely justice and his bond.

In short, aren't people calling for a post-negotiation second referendum misunderstanding the legal position entirely? Or is that me?
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In 1666, the Great Fire of London started because of a fire at a baker's in Pudding Lane. Apparently Alfred the Great was on duty.

Just nine years earlier, the Great Fire of Edo began when a priest attempted to cremate a haunted kimono. It had belonged to several girls in turn, all of whom died before being able to wear it. As the kimono burned, wind caught the flames and set fire to the city.

From the ashes of London rose the dome of St Paul's. From the ashes of Edo rose Tsukiji Market, foaming like Aphrodite - for the land had to be reclaimed from the sea, and sea and land have held joint custody ever since.

My keenest regret about my trip to Japan in April was that I didn't visit Tsukiji and try the world's best sushi, especially as I knew the market was due to move to a new site this autumn. That's now been put on hold, however, so perhaps I'll get to see it in its classic location after all...
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I find the sight of people wearing lanyards depressing, especially en masse. When I passed my son's old school at lunchtime today, and saw scores of pupils (and some staff) wandering out for a break, 90% of whom had lanyards dangling from their necks like so many cow bells, a huge distaste rose within me. I bless the child who took hers off and stuffed it in her pocket. She may have been doing it for safety reasons rather than to reclaim her individuality from the corporate Borg, but whatever the reason the gesture warmed my desiccated old heart.

At my old university, I saw the lanyard habit spread inexorably as the years passed, especially once cards became mandatory for swipe access at every door and floor, but I never considered keeping my own card anywhere but my pocket or purse, out of sight. There's something feudal about wearing your school's livery (or your employer's).

I'm reminded of an old Charlie Brown cartoon (I suppose they're all old by now) in which a neighbour explains that his father has renamed all his children with numbers. "Is it his way of protesting against the system?" asks Charlie Brown. "No, it's his way of giving in."

The truth is, my gut despises the lanyard wearers.

Before I run to Portmeirion shouting "I am not a number!", I should add that I realise my gut's reaction is over the top. It comes (as they say) from a very young place. I'm particularly suspicious of it because it feels much like the visceral resistance I used to have to having my fingerprints taken or retina scanned, which prevented me from going to the States for almost a decade. That dissipated like magic when I transitioned, and therein lies a big clue, I think. As a trans person in the climate of a small town in the '70s secrecy was instinctive, and it's easy now to forget how that secrecy dominated my first 44 years. So, perhaps my distaste for seeing people happily proclaiming their identities on lanyards has to do with that - it's a kind of retrospective jealousy dressed as individualism?

I still don't like them, though.
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Damn you, kanji! I just tried to write "kumamoto no jishin" (熊本の地震, Kumamoto earthquake), got one letter wrong and ended up with "kuramoto no jishin" (蔵元の自信 - i.e. "self-confidence of the brewery").

Japanese is full of traps for the unwary. My other regular from earlier in my Japanese study was "henji wo arigatou" (返事をありがとう "Thank you for your reply"), which for some reason I actually wrote "henshi wo arigatou" (変死をありがとう "Thanks for the unnatural death").

Aubergines cropped up a lot in those early emails, too.

Always proofread, people!
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In my Marie-Kondo-fuelled rage for tidying I came across some material from the Diana Wynne Jones 2009 conference that [personal profile] fjm, [profile] chilperic, [personal profile] lady_schrapnell and I organised at UWE, Bristol. This included a copy of the message Diana recorded for the conference, since (because of illness) she was unable to attend personally - something I know she regretted. In it she reads the beginning of the (then still unpublished) novel, Enchanted Glass.

I thought that this might be of interest to some people here, especially those of us who miss her.

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I'm not really a foodie, but last night I went with my friend Marie to a proper posh restaurant, the Historical Dining Rooms in south Bristol. You can find the menu here, which describes what was on offer much better than I could. The main idea, as you can see, is that they make recipes from various numbers of centuries ago - although I should add that the presentation of same is entirely 21st century. I'd add photographs, but ones I took with my crappy phone turned out badly in the low light, so you'll have to make do with me sipping a delicious aperitif in the form of Mrs Beeton's lemonade, heavily dosed (the drink, that is) with oloroso and topped with egg white and flower petals.


I got the impression that this restaurant (discreetly located above a pub) hasn't yet got the attention it deserves, in part because it's new and in part because it's south of the river. So, if unlike me you're a proper foodie and live in Bristol, do give it a try, and do tell them I sent you. (They won't know what you're talking about, but it will make me feel important.) You won't regret it.
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According to my mother, who worked at Geoffrey Bles at the time, when C. S. Lewis handed in the MS of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe he regarded it simply as a working title, and asked them to supply a better one. It took some persuading to make him believe that it was already very good. I can see why he was doubtful, but it is good, of course; not least because of its riddling conjunction of three apparently unrelated objects: one adventurous, one supernatural, one resolutely domestic. The unusual rhythm helps too: three amphibrachs. Threes work well in Western culture, anyway - it gives the structure to so many of our jokes and folk tales.

I learned in conversation with my friend Chiho today that in Japan this book is simply called The Lion and the Witch (ライオンと魔女). The wardrobe has disappeared! Presumably this seemed a good idea to whoever translated it, back in the day, but I wish I knew what had gone through their head, and what canons of Japanese taste this version satisfies that the original did not.

I fear for other truncated titles: E. Nesbit's Five Children; Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher, etc. I'm sure you can supply more...
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I suppose people have always insulted their political opponents: "Tory scum" is hardly a new coinage. But it's only recently (in this country, at least) that people seem to have started suggesting that their political opponents are so irresponsible/evil/stupid that they should not be allowed to vote, or that their votes should be ignored.

I won't say it began with Brexit, but it's been very noticeable in its wake. The narrative that those who voted Leave should be overruled because they were a) too racist, b) too stupid, c) have probably changed their minds by now, etc., kicked in pretty much immediately after the vote. Even if all these things were true, though, it doesn't change the result: in a democracy, even stupid people get a say. If you don't like it, then why not just come out and say honestly that you would rather have a different kind of political system - a government of technocrats, for example, like Mario Monti's or Xi Jinping's? A case could be made, I'm sure. What you don't get to do is call the result democratic. Yet, in a wonderful but it seems unconscious irony, one of the movements to overturn the referendum result and take the power to decide on Brexit away from the voters has named itself "the People's Challenge". That kind of double-think is not untypical of political discourse in the UK today.

The result of the last Labour leadership election (and probably the next) is another case in point. The determination of many people not to see Corbyn's victory as legitimate, except in the trifling and legalistic sense that he got more votes than anyone else, is bolstered by a move to delegitimize the views of those who voted (or intend to vote) for him. Here I don't refer to the literal disenfranchisement of 130,000 Labour members by the NEC, though that's not irrelevant, but to the dismissive way in which those who support Corbyn's position are routinely described: they are members of a cult, they are bewitched, they are too young to understand the issues, they have had their arms twisted by Trots, they are Trots, they are "Nazi stormtroopers", or simply (as Financial Times journalist Janan Ganesh has it) "as thick as pigshit". Otherwise, they wouldn't be voting for a "lunatic",* would they? Given that, their views and votes can be safely ignored, and we can start undermining the result the day after it's announced, secure in the knowledge that we are defending democracy, war is peace, freedom is slavery, etc.

* Copyright Owen Smith.
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I thought it might be fun to look at the Olympic gold medal table, adjusted for things that (one might expect) would make a big difference to the number of golds a nation is likely to win - namely, population and GDP. After all, the bigger the population, the more chance of its containing a winner; and the richer the country, the more resources it can throw at things like training facilities. Because I'm lazy, I've only used the top ten countries in the medal table as of this afternoon.


The UK does okay on all three charts, but the Netherlands is the unexpected star of the show. And oh dear, China.
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Okay, I just watched the short anime, Little Witch Academy, a post-Potter take on the magic school genre, featuring a "Sorceror's Stone", a snobby trio of pupils and a ragamuffin trio to put up against them, including our heroine, Akko. So far, so generic.

Except... when we listen in on their lessons, the teacher begins by mentioning that their school is built on a confluence of ley lines, as advocated by Alfred Watkins (and, indeed, The Old Straight Track is mentioned on the blackboard). Rowling's magical authorities are mostly invented (Nicholas Flamel excepted), but Watkins is of course very real. Once again I'm impressed and curious at the titbits of Western magical lore that have found their way to Japan. Ley lines don't form a major part of the plot, so it's an interesting insertion.

But then the teacher reads a quotation from a book called "Wizardly Eudaemonics" by one T. S. Daniels, to the effect that those that cannot control magic will be destroyed by magic. Watkins being a real person, it seems reasonable to wonder whether Daniels is too, but I've never heard of him or her, nor does Google supply a ready answer.

Any ideas what may be being referred to here?
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Today was the last day of Bristol's annual balloon fiesta, so I got up before 5am and went with my friend Htay to see the morning ascent an hour later. The fiesta takes place at Ashton Court, a stately home owned by the city (as is proper), just on the far side of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Htay and I were far from alone, despite the hour - we had to queue a long time to get in, then joined the snaking throng that was winding its way past the deer park to the balloon field. When we arrived, the balloons were still laid flat.

Balloons below the cut )

Oh, the title of my post? As well as being a reference to David Niven's autobiography it's a literal description of Luke Jerram's latest artwork, which we didn't get to see today, alas, but which you can read about here. Sadly, it burst....


Aug. 11th, 2016 08:55 pm
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If not my cats, then who will eat me,
When I have my fatal stroke?
Even now, their purrs entreat me -
If not my cats, then who will eat me?
Will earthworms nibble, then excrete me?
Will I be lost in lifeless smoke?
If not my cats, then who will eat me,
When I have my fatal stroke?
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Diana Wynne Jones once told me that this diagonal path through a graveyard in Clifton was a place she considered magical, and it's not hard to see why.


Part of its charm is the occasional Narnia-esque lantern dangling from the foliage, the copper-green arch supporting it almost invisible amidst the leaves.


I was walking that way to get to Goldney Hall, a place that has something of a Hunsdon House vibe, being open only one day per year. I think I posted pictures from here a decade or so ago, but much has changed since then... Then as now, though, it's a place of early eighteenth-century follies, including a gothic tower (built to house a beam engine) and a shell-lined grotto dedicate to Neptune.



Also, a statue of Heracles trying out for the Mets.


My favourite such monument in Bristol, though, is the statue of Neptune in Warmley in the east of the city. This clinker-cloaked god once stood in the middle of an ornamental lake in the grounds of the house of zinc pioneer William Champion, around the same time Goldney was being grottified in rich Clifton. Neither house nor lake survives, but clinker Neptune stands tall to this day, in the middle of a caravan park:

warmley neptune

I think we can safely say that the Warmley Neptune is the real deal. Clifton is pretty, but in terms of sea-gods it's just playing around.
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As part of my KonMari tidying binge, I divided my food cupboard into Japanese (top shelf) and the rest (bottom shelf):


In that spirit, I decided to set natto against Marmite...

If you're interested in how to prepare natto, there are some pictures of the process below the cut:

Natto prepping )


I have to tell you that both were delicious in their way, but that Marmite won, by dint of being so... Marmitey. That said, I've now reached the stage where my hypnogogic phantasies are usually conducted in (very bad) Japanese, so it may be that by this time next year the answer will be different.
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I'm getting stronger slowly, but I'm definitely in that perilous zone where I may be tempted to do too much, then crash. Almost every day I still need to sleep during the day - not my usual fifteen-minute power nap, but something deeper and longer, and hopefully more healing.

In the week or two before my operation, many of the things I owned broke in sympathy - including my car, in a very terminal way. So, for the last seven weeks I've been carelessly carless. Since I was unable to drive anyway it was as good a time as any for that to happen, and strangely liberatory. I even got a small road tax refund from the DVLA. The other day, though, coming to the end of my driving moratorium, I thought I should do something about getting a replacement, and (having intended merely to make tentative enquiries) ending up buying a second-hand Ford, which now sits outside my house. Though normally cautious and risk-averse, I occasionally buy very expensive things more or less on impulse. That's how I got the house itself, in fact. (Albeit it's a cheap house - for a house.) The new car has number plate that I particularly like, since it (almost) spells "LOL JOY". This makes up somewhat for its being grey.

The other day I went with my friend Htay and some of her circle to the Chinese restaurant over the large Chinese supermarket near here, to celebrate her birthday. Our populous party ate dim sum, which gave me a chance to try many new things, all of which I liked - except for ducks' tongues, which surprised me by consisting mostly of gristle. I swore then and there never to French-kiss a duck, even if it is a prince in disguise.

That Chinese supermarket has many interesting goods, though to my regret I've never been able to find nagaimo there, with the result that my okonomiyaki never have quite the right texture, but on this occasion I noticed that they had some natto in the freezer section. I've eaten natto only once, last year at the ryokan in Hakone, and I'm sure I did it inexpertly enough, so I'm keen to give it another go.

Natto is the Japanese equivalent of Marmite; not that they taste anything alike, but both have the reputation of being "love it or hate it" foods. So for lunch today I'm going to do a "natto and rice" versus "egg and Marmite soldiers" face-off.

Which will win?


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