Two Short Japanese Books (and Food, Lots of Food): ‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto (1987) and ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami (2012)

I don’t want to go for glib connections within foreign fiction, but I’ve been really struck by two books that were placed high-up on my 2016 reading pile. Yoshimoto’s ‘Kitchen’ and Kawakami’s ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ both left me with a sense of having peeked into fragmented lives across the globe.  They also both left me feeling very hungry; main characters share a methodical obsession with food leaving me, as a British reader, with an unsatisfied and ignorant craving for dishes that I could neither picture nor pronounce.

For the bereaved protagonists of the two stories that make up ‘Kitchen’, food is an escape from and link with the past.  Emotions are so difficult and love so complex that cooking and ritualising food and drink become powerful tools in the healing process.  The limitations of such a method are exposed, even the most mystical tea drinking ceremony cannot bring the dead back to life, but the necessity for discovering some way of making order in a shaken world is also sensitively and poignantly understood.

In ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ the loss is less defined.  Instead, two lonely souls find companionship through sharing food and drink.  The sensual listing of bar snacks and favourite dishes takes the place of more complex human emotions.  As the narrator tells us: ‘I was pretty sure that I wasn’t very good at this whole love thing.  And if being in love required so much effort, then I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of it anyway. ‘  It’s easier to construct routines around food and drink, but the characters are going to have to learn how passions and habits have a way ensnaring you; lives and food are both made for sharing.

These two books are precise, delicate and imbued with a quiet power that will stay with you long after their short reading time.  If Han Kang’s sublime ‘The Vegetarian’ dealt with the trauma of consumption in a sick society, these two volumes show food as redemptive, comforting and a desperately needed method for reaching out to others.   Higly recommended reads, though probably not for anyone contemplating diets or trying to reduce the wish to munch while reading.

As a side note: ‘The Vegetarian’, (reviewed here) is on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize shortlist and I highly, highly recommend it to everyone.

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11 Responses to Two Short Japanese Books (and Food, Lots of Food): ‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto (1987) and ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami (2012)

  1. I really like both these novels – and completely agree that they make you hungry!

  2. Pingback: Inspired by Diverse December: an A-Z of BAEM authors for 2016 | Shoshi's Book Blog

  3. What a great post! I personally found Strange Weather lacking a little but I think my expectations were too high. I definitely plan to read more Yoshimoto for this years JapLit Challenge!

    • SW is a very quiet book, and it did contain some moments when I felt ‘lost in translation’ (as I did with ‘The First Wife’), not that I didn’t get the story, but I did feel there was a lot of cultural resonance that I was missing. Overall, I loved the food so much that I’ll probably end up re-reading it some day, so clearly I still got a lot out of it! I look forward to following your Yoshimoto reading, this is the only book of hers that I’ve encountered, but I’m willing to add others to the TBR mountain.

  4. I really enjoyed Kitchen when I read it, but that was around 20 years ago so I can’t remember details. I’ve read a more recent book of hers – The Lake I think it’s called – and I liked it too. However, I haven’t heard of Strange weather in Tokyo. Just the title makes me want to read it!

    • Since writing this post, I’ve just started seeing ‘The Lake’ in bookshops. I’m not sure if it was there before and I just never looked, or if it’s another example of book related serendipity. Whichever, it’s duly been added to my insanely long to-be-read list…

  5. oneblacktree says:

    I’m so glad to have found this wonderful blog. I live in Japan and read a lot of Japanese fiction (I recommend The Lake if you haven’t read it yet, and Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki).

    I’m enjoying reading through your posts and coming across many favorite writers, like Elizabeth Bowen and Patricia Highsmith. And I was really interested to read your post on Soseki and the parallels you draw between Russia and Japan. I’ve visited Russia and agree that there are many similarities in the two cultures in terms of how they’ve (rapidly) adopted aspects of western culture. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts.

    • Thank you so much. I would love to be able to visit Japan one day and it’s great to hear your perspective on the similarities between Japanese and Russian views of the West.
      Also – a massive thank you for the book recommendations, I’ve been meaning to read more Yoshimoto and hadn’t even heard of Shibasaki so both titles are now on the to-be-read list 🙂

      • oneblacktree says:

        You’re very welcome, and I’m always happy to send on more (if you have room on your list!) as I read a different Japanese novel most weeks.

        I hope you get to visit Japan one day – it is a place that really gets under your skin and never stops being fascinating, which is why I’m still here four years later! And please do get in touch if you decide to visit 🙂 Meanwhile, I am so enjoying reading your posts and adding to my list. For starters, your review of ‘The Power’ has convinced me to get hold of a copy (I agree ‘Citizen’ should/will hopefully become required reading).

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