Monday, December 1, 2008

Uguisu Droppings


Here is an example of how a little curiosity -- combined with confusing information -- can be a dangerous and wonderful thing. We were riffing the other night on the meaning of the names of stops along the Yamanote Line, that roughly oval train line that circumscribes central Tokyo. Many of the stations along the Y are named after natural or historic features that were obliterated in the urban expansion. Take for example Uguisudani -- Valley of the Bush Warbler -- the stop north of Ueno on the city's east side, now noteworthy for the sharp contrast between its 20th-century love hotel district and Sasanoyuki, one of the city's most revered tofu restaurants dating back 200 years or more.

So, like, today, Nick picked up a wee treat at the local konbini, a pastry filled with green bean paste. It was called "Uguisupan." The penny dropped and we started thinking that there might be some connection between the pastry and the place. The pastry was a classic an-filled bun, but instead of the traditional red bean filling, there was a sweet mild green beany paste. We hit the Internet, with its problematic auto-translation, to assist our limited Japanese. Several false leads later, we finally came upon a site that had a recipe for uguisuan - the mildly sweet paste filling. Voila! The secret of the paste was endomame - peas, minus pods, cooked with sugar to create an enjoyable sweet spread. But where did the bird fit in? Was the treat named after the color of bush warblers? Their droppings? The sound of steaming bean paste mimicking their love call? Or what?

Uguisuiro -- or "bush-warbler color" -- also translates into olive green. A quiz of some Japanese friends revealed that the names of many colors - or at least the more appealing ones - come from their resemblance to the flora and fauna of Japan.

The uguisu is also sometimes referred to as the Japanese nightingale, although it never sings at night. A web search followed for the term "Japanese nightingale." And what should turn up first but a reference to the use of Japanese nightingale droppings as a component of a beauty cream used by Victoria (Posh Spice) and David Beckham. This wonder product apparently contains an enzyme that lightens skin, cures acne and could enhance your career as a kabuki actor.

Alas, the little mystery of the origin of the pastry name remains unsolved. Is the green bean paste known as uguisuan because of its resemblance to the bird or its droppings? It's a sticky subject we've come to - and maybe not just metaphorically. When you open the door and a little uguisu darts in, be prepared for a few flights of fancy and some potentially profitable cleanup.

The wikipedia entry on the bush warbler - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_Bush_Warbler- adds another layer of lore and uguisu usage for your pleasure.


NV and VS

No comments: