Your favorite city sucks

Currently reading: Edo ga Tōkyō ni natta hi 江戸が東京になった日 ("The day Edo became Tokyo"), by Sasaki Suguru 佐々木克. A bit prolix, but it sort of has to be given the fiddliness of the topic: the first question is how to even define the "capital" of a country like Edo-period Japan, ruled as it was through a delicately balanced system of real and figurative power centers by people who were not particularly interested in emerging European nation-state theory.

Anyway, in discussing pre-Meiji attitudes towards Kyoto, he quotes this zinger from a 1781 book entitled Mita Kyō monogatari 見た京物語 ("Kyoto/the capital as I saw it"), by Nishōtei Hanzan 二鐘亭半山, a shogunate functionary from Edo who had recently spent a year and a half in Kyoto gathering material. (Although Hanzan is now better known as a writer, Sasaki notes that he was no mere dilettante — he served in Edo castle and his work was based on a deep understanding of the history of power and politics in Japan.)


Kyō[to]/the capital is like a piece of candied fruit peel: all very elegant and sweet, but if you bite into it there's nothing there. Just a measly little dried-up thing. It's beautiful, but somehow desolate [...] The days of the "capital in bloom" (hana no miyako) were two hundred years ago; now it is a florid backwater (hana no inaka). A backwater, but the blossoms do remain (hana nokoreri).

Burn! The putdown works even better in Japanese, where you can use hana naturally to mean both literal blossoms and figurative flowering.

Also note that it's difficult to say if, when he writes "京", he means it as a proper noun ("Kyoto") or a description ("the capital"); and even if he means the latter, translating it merely as "capital" is potentially misleading to a modern English-speaking reader — that's the point of the whole chapter, really.

Popularity factor: 11


Ha, I like it. 京 was the first Japanese pun I ever made. I think I was in 2nd year when some exchange students from 京都大学 came to my school for a semester. I kidded one student, "Does your school have a short name? If 東京大学 is 東大 then your school is part of the family, 兄弟 , right?"

She didn't like that at all.


I can parse most of the quote without much trouble, but かみしめてむまみなし trips me up. My first thought was that he was smooshing a も and an う into む, but your translation of "nothing there" suggests that I may be trying to find うまみ where there is none.

江戸が東京になった日 sounds like one to put on the reading list. My tolerance for prolix historical material is probably at an all-time high after reading Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, so it's now or never.


My translation in that case is bad, for it is indeed むまみ. (Sasaki notes this in furigana.)

Carl: When she got mad, you should have been all like "Ooh, what are you gonna do, TEA me?" (Oh, Kyoto... I kid because I love.)


You mean "Charles:". Carl and Charles may go back to the same etymological roots (which means that if Latin were written in something like 漢字 [I guess called 羅字] they'd be the same character), but they are different names, yo.


A quick Google around brings up a modern translation of the whole thing as 砂糖づけのような町だ。全体に雅あって、味にくらべると甘い。だが、かみしめてみると、うまみなく、きれいなれど、どこやら寂し。(No way of knowing if it's correct as a source isn't given.)


@aragoto: むまみ can well be うまみ if we call うめ's むめ.


Oh, duh, I should have said "It is indeed むまみ = うまみ" along the lines of minus273's other example of the same thing (see also "muma", "mumareru", etc.) That's why my translation is bad, substituting nothing at all for a lack of... umami.

Carl/Charles: Sorry!

Vilhelm S:

Hm, so searching for umami brings up a Wikipedia page which explains in great detail what amino acids etc gives rise to that taste and why it is natural that it was first classified by a Japanese researcher -- but here I guess it is used metaphorically?

So I can perhaps imagine what it would mean for a city to be "sweet", but what qualities would it have to have to qualify as "umami"?


Umami means a good taste, as opposed to amai, sugar-candy-sweet. So, sweet, filling, delicious are all good translations.


What Avery said, although I would tend to avoid "sweet" (esp. in contrast with "amami", like here) myself.

The "umami" that has made its way into English is more of a technical term and describes a "primary flavor" in the same category as "saltiness", "sweetness", etc. I don't think that this specific flavor was even isolated in Edo times. Certainly "umami" was used much more generally (note how even today, "umai" just means "tasty" or "delicious" -- it's like the manly "oishii").

Here's what I think Hanzan means. Kyoto is superficially appealing/pleasant, but not profoundly rewarding. I translated "(m)umami" as "nothing" because that's how I'd express the concept in English. I was toying with "nothing there to chew on" or some variation on that, but it felt like going a bit too far.

Also, note that "umami" can be used metaphorically even if you haven't established a food metaphor in advance. Try googling "旨味のある作品". Here, again, "umami" denotes a satisfying inner core distinct from superficial bells and whistles.

Leonardo Boiko:

Weird, I could swear Daniel (from howtojaponese) had written a post on umami… am I hallucinating o_O

Comment season is closed.