Dreaming of seafood on United Airlines flight 881

A 12-hour flight is certainly a unique space. To my left are young school children flopped over and deep in sleep. All around me, in darkness, passengers sleep or absorb themselves in a movie appearing on a tiny screen on the back of the seat in front of them. Pan to me, reading an anthropological piece about the interconnectedness of physical market processes and national culinary trends. Okay, I’m not just reading it for fun. This chapter, “Wholesale Sushi: Culture and Commodity in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market” by Theodore C. Bestor, was our designated reading to do during the flight. But it was a fun read.

Returning to the anthropological and sociological sides of historical and contemporary events is always enjoyable as I think it is a useful way for me to collect broad, sometimes abstract thoughts about history and bring them to a human scale. By that, I don’t mean that ideas and concepts in history can’t exist on a human scale, just that viewing events and processes through anthropological eyes shows how these things impact people individually, and people as groups.

I’ll get into some specifics now. Bestor’s main ideas depend on analyzing Japanese culinary concepts on two levels: one at the Tsukiji fish market, where wholesalers flock to bid for the best fish they can get, brought in from around the globe; and one in which people’s ideas of what seafood is – where it comes from, how it looks, how it’s produced, etc. – drive market patterns. I particularly liked one example, perhaps because it hits close to home. He mentions sea urchin roe, an important part of Japanese seafood cuisine. Hokkaido and Maine fisheries supply Tsukiji with sea urchin roe, although one can’t always be sure of a particular batch of roe’s origin. This is because sea urchin roe that arrives from Maine in Hokkaido is repackaged, labeled as though it originated from Hokkaido, then sent down to Tokyo for market sale. Bestor attributes this activity to the larger trend that recognizes domestic seafood as having higher quality and thus higher value.

I don’t know if there is an actual difference in the quality between Hokkaido and Maine sea urchin roe, but there is a cultural standard that puts more stock in domestic seafood, thus the incentive to alter the point of origin on the packaging. Seafood acts as a medium of communication and connection between Japan and the rest of the world, but it also serves as a defining (or defined) factor of cultural production. Tomorrow, I will venture to Tsukiji with the rest of the cohort to observe the fish market and hopefully we will put together some concrete impressions to ground the more conceptual ideas from the reading.

Thoughts of a Passerby Overhead

I guess, again, I’ll be doing a two-part post. Mostly, I just wanted to document some thoughts I had on the flight from Portland to Chicago, and then later I’ll write about our first day in Japan. I think I tend to get oddly reflective whenever I’m on a long flight. I wrote these down, mid-flight, honestly just shortly after taking off from Portland, so tense might be a bit strange to read after the fact. ごめん!Gomen! Sorry!

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I think, you never really realize how fragmented and patchy our landscapes are, even in a place like Maine, until you’ve been flying over it in a small, short-distance, domestic airplane. Patches of cleared forest, square and rectangular in shape; highways and winding, crisscrossing roads; towns and cities sprawled out as grey and black tiles against the contrasting hues of green, human settlements arranged in grids or perhaps more haphazardly–that’s the landscape I see below me now. As we depart from major urban and rural hubs of everyday human life, between the sea if slowly-drifting, low-flying clouds I see rolling hills and small mountains interspersed with vales. All are crowned with the dark green of trees and yet, still occasionally I’ll see a break, a line, and though I cannot see below the canopy, from way up high, I know that there’s an asphalt serpent winding its way through those trees, with cars and trucks riding its black scales.

We’re so conditioned, I think, to see the world in contrasts and boundaries. Even within this small airplane, traveling some many thousand feet in the air, we compose a patchwork symphony of different backgrounds, different identities, different personalities. I think it’s a wonderful thing, such diversity, but at the same time our very sensory systems are designed to highlight edges through lateral inhibition, though perhaps those are more graded to an extent. What if our landscapes were not so patchy, but gradually faded and blended with those of our surrounding environments, of nature? What if, for instance, Central Park in New York City or Meiji Shrine in Tokyo were not islands of green, biodiversity in an ocean of metal and concrete, but rather blurred into those urban surroundings? And what if, in turn, those cityscapes melded into their surrounding countrysides? What ecological consequences would arise? What about social or cultural implications? Would this, too, be a gradual change, or would we suddenly be cast into a world where this was so?

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“Riffle through my Mind” (a poem, as we passed over the Great Lakes)

Will you ripple across the surface of a glassy lake,
or will you lose yourself in a swirling riffle?
You might call the forest floor your home,
clinging to soil or burrowing down with the earthworms, the beetles.
Or perhaps you might reside on the waxy green of a leaf,
a traveler ready to depart
and soar amidst the clouds.
At times invisible,
at times clearly seen.
Gentle in the first light of dawn,
sheathing the most peaceful blades you may ever witness.
Or, barreling through channeled walls,
scratching and clawing at the rock like a torrent of rabid mice.
Of many forms and dispositions, this ocean’s daughter,
but all one and the same, this precious water.

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Someone, entirely unknown to us, just came over and asked us if we knew if the people next to us (also total strangers to both parties), sleeping, were supposed to get on the presently boarding flight. Out of total, random concern for people he didn’t know, that they’d miss their flight. It takes guts and an eye open to your surroundings to reach out to two independent groups of strangers like that.