New: The calendar page

Dear readers, I proudly present the latest addition to this blog: the calendar page. I created the calendar to give an overview of festivals and events specific to the Toyota City region. It is the kind of thing that I wished I had when I lived in Toyota City. It is by no means exhaustive. I listed the events that seemed most interesting or relevant. For the events that are listed, I attempted to gather all the relevant information in one place. There is a focus on ‘how to get there’ and ‘when does the event start’, information that is often hard to come by if you don’t read Japanese. I hope the calendar will be of much use to current and future expats. Enjoy!

 

How to make Japanese green tea

Green tea is one of the basic elements of life in Japan. I think it is safe to say that most Japanese people drink green tea every day, in one form or another. One of the most famous kinds of Japanese green tea is sencha. It is a fairly good quality of tea leaves, served to guests that visit one’s home. For everyday use, many people drink bancha. Similar to sencha, these are green tea leaves, but of a lesser quality. Other common types of Japanese tea are hōjicha, roasted green tea leaves, and genmaicha, green tea leaves with roasted brown rice. For a more complete overview of the most common types of tea in Japan, I refer you to japan-guide.com and japanesegreenteashops.com.

Japanese green tea sencha

Sencha, good quality Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea bancha

Bancha, lower quality Japanese green tea, a bit coarser and with a less delicate taste than sencha

Japanese green tea hojicha

Hōjicha, roasted Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea genmaicha

Genmaicha, Japanese green tea with roasted brown rice

Today I would like to share with you how to prepare Japanese green tea. More specifically, I will explain how to prepare sencha when receiving a guest at your home. It is possible that there is more than one correct way to do this, but this particular way was taught to me by a Japanese friend from Nagoya.

Start by arranging everything you will need on a tray:

  • A teapot. Most teapots that I have seen at people’s homes were rather small, plain red earthenware teapots. But of course teapots come in all shapes and sizes.
red Japanese teapot kyusu

This type of teapot is called kyusu. Though the Japanese word kyusu itself simply means teapot, it often refers to side-handled clay pots like those made in the Tokoname region of Japan.

Japanese teapot kyusu inside

Japanese teapots include an integrated strainer, allowing the tea to steep freely and thus improving the taste.

  • The tea leaves, in a decorative tea holder.
japanese decorative tea tin

Japanese decorative tea tin

  • Cups for all the guest. Sencha cups are smaller than mugs or even Western teacups.
  • Saucers for the cups. The use of a saucer adds formality. To serve the cup without a saucer could be perceived as a bit rude. Wooden saucers can be used in all seasons. Openwork woven saucers are only for summer. If you serve cold tea, it is also best to use an openwork saucer. Instead of a saucer, you could also use some kind of coaster.
japanese tea saucers

Japanese saucers for sencha tea cups, wooden saucers on the left, openwork woven saucers on the right

  • A small plate with some kind of sweet for each guest, with a small fork or spoon if need be.

The total setup should be something like the image below:

serving sencha final setup

This setup, although not exactly as I described, gives you a general idea of what I mean. Image from everyonestea.blogspot.com.

japanese tea

This is one instance where I was served tea when visiting a friend’s home, on an afternoon in July. What a lovely and welcoming image!

Now on to the actual instructions for making the tea. It is best to make sencha green tea with less than boiling water. Boiling water burns the leaves, ruining the delicate taste of sencha green tea. To reach the desired water temperature, water is first brought to the boil and then passed into several different vessels (like the tea-pot and the cups) to drop the water temperature. Every time water is transferred into a different vessel, the temperature drops by 10° C. There is also the added advantage of preheating the cups with the hot water. Proceed as follows:

  • In the kitchen, pour the boiling water from the kettle into the tea-pot. At this point, there are no tea leaves in the tea-pot yet. The reason you are doing this in the kitchen, is to hide the kettle from your guests. Since it is very hot, your guests might burn themselves. By hiding the kettle, you show concern for your guests safety. Showing great concern for your guest’s comfort at all times is very important in Japan.
  • Then take the tray, with the teapot and everything else on it, to your guests. In front of your guests, pour the water from the teapot into the cups. This way, the water cools further and the cups are preheated.
  • Put the tea leaves into the teapot, about one tablespoon for each guest.
  • Pour the water from the cups back into the tea-pot.
  • Steep the leaves for a few minutes.
  • Pour the tea from the tea-pot into the cups. Start by pouring a little into each cup, then go back to the first cup and pour some more into each cup. The reason you are doing this, is because the first tea out of the pot is the weakest. The tea at the bottom of the pot is stronger. It is believed that the last drop from the teapot is the best one, so make sure that the last few drops are divided over all the cups and that the tea-pot is completely emptied.
  • Give each guest a cup and saucer, as well as a small plate with a sweet.
japanese tea

Tea served by my calligraphy teacher when I visited her home in April.

It is possible to use the same tea leaves for a second brew. For the second brew, the water should be slightly hotter. Since you can no longer use the tea-pot or the cups to transfer and cool the water, the boiling water is transferred into an extra tea-pot or water container in the kitchen and then brought to the guests, where it is poured into the tea-pot. Steep the leaves a bit longer than on the first brew, then serve the tea in the same way.

If you want to know how to brew bancha, hōjicha and genmaicha as well, this Japanese video explains it:

Ancient arts: Japanese calligraphy

Calligraphy is one of the great Japanese arts. This is exemplified in the Japanese word for calligraphy, shodō 書道. The second kanji of the word, , means road. All the great Japanese arts have this kanji in their name. Examples are:

  • sadō 茶道 the way of tea
  • jū 柔道 the famous martial art, literally the gentle way
  • kadō 華道 the way of flowers, also known as ikebana

The inclusion of ‘road’ in their name implies that the study of these arts takes you on a life-long journey. As you study these arts, you not only learn about the art itself but also about life in general. It takes many years to master these arts, and even the master is never finished with his studies. These arts exemplify Japanese culture at its purest and are often closely linked with Zen Buddhism.

shodou, the japanese word for calligraphy

Shodō, the japanese word for calligraphy

There is however another word to indicate Japanese calligraphy: shūji 習字. It refers more to good penmanship and writing neatly than to sophisticated art and walking ‘the great road’. It is for example used to indicate the calligraphy lessons that are a mandatory subject in elementary school. In high school, Japanese calligraphy is no longer a mandatory subject but one of the choices among art subjects like painting and music. It is also a popular high school club activity. People who are really serious about calligraphy continue (or start again) to study as adults. Over the years, they earn different degrees until ultimately, after ten years or more, are qualified to teach themselves.

Being the eager Japan geek that I am, I tried my hand at calligraphy when I was living in Japan. I was lucky enough to be introduced to a wonderful teacher, Isogai-sensei. Here she is teaching her grandson:

japanese calligraphy teacher teaching her grandson

My Japanese calligraphy teacher, teaching her grandson

Usually Japanese calligraphy is practiced sitting in seiza, the Japanese way of sitting kneeling on one’s heels. But because my teacher had a knee injury, she preferred to teach at a table. This picture also illustrates the necessary tools for a Japanese calligraphy lesson:

  • thin calligraphy paper
  • calligraphy brushes
  • black ink (here in a bottle, but also available in a solid block to be diluted with water, see below)
  • an ink stone to hold the ink
  • orange ink to correct mistakes
  • paperweight
  • soft mats to cover the table
utensils for japanese calligraphy

Here is a closer look at the utensils for japanese calligraphy. You see the items mentioned above. Additionally, the small teapot-like container holds water to dilute the ink. You can see the block of ink resting on the ink stone. To use it, put a bit of water on the ink stone and move the block of ink back and forth over the stone. It can take up to ten minutes to make enough ink. This repetitive action is meant to calm the mind before starting your calligraphy practice. But these days, many people buy ink in bottles that is ready to use.

The very first exercise that a calligraphy student practices includes drawing a horizontal line (the kanji for ‘one’) and a cross (the kanji for ‘ten’). Many of the basic techniques are already included in this simple exercise. At the start of each class, my teacher usually tried the first few exercises together with me, noting points of interest and correcting mistakes. She then gave me an example in orange ink and left me copy this a dozen times.

japanese calligraphy student practicing the basics

A japanese calligraphy student practices the basics

We would then line up my work on the table or on the floor and my teacher would correct the work with orange ink. She also choose the one she liked best at the end of every lesson and indicated it with an orange spiral over the calligraphy.

 japanese calligraphy practice sheets lined up

My work from the first lesson lined up. Top left shows the first basic exercise. The other ones spell niji in hiragana (Japanese phonetic, syllabic writing system), which means rainbow.

a japanese calligraphy teacer makes corrections in orange ink

My teacher corrects my work with orange ink

japanese calligraphy the two best examples of the day

These are the two she liked best

My classes lasted for about 45 minutes to one hour. Afterwards I always felt both calm and tired. If you are doing it right, you are very focused on every exercise you do, so it takes quite a bit of energy. But it is so much fun! And to get one even remotely right is so rewarding. I was always amazed at the ease with which my teacher writes her calligraphy. Once you have tried it yourself, you realize the years of practice it must have taken to write so beautifully and fluently.

I only studied calligraphy for a few months but even during that time, I got a glimpse of the broader lessons it can teach you. During class, I was doing my very best to write as correctly as possible, paying attention to every detail. But due to my emphasis on form, my writing was lacking in energy. It turns out that I had to learn to let go a little and add some more vigour and joy to the strokes. A good lesson for life!

japanese calligraphy lesson with my teacher's grandson

It helped me a lot to study together with my teacher’s grandson, whose personality embodied just the things my calligraphy was lacking: spontaneity and energy, which of course showed in his writing as well.

Toilet slippers

Purity and cleanliness are important values in Japanese culture. For example, in Japan people remove their shoes before entering a house. I believe this practice to be rooted in the focus on purity in the Shinto religion. If you come to think about it, it makes sense from a practical viewpoint as well. You leave all the dirt, both visible and invisible, at the doorstep.

Japanese homes have a special area to make the transition from outside to inside, called a genkan. Located at the front door, it is slightly lower than the rest of the house. Shoes are left in the genkan and usually there are slippers for residents and guests alike. Or else people just wear socks indoors.

genkan in a japanese home

Our messy genkan in our Japanese apartment. You can clearly see the height difference with the rest of the house, which helps to keep the dirt out.

But the quest for purity doesn’t stop at the genkan. The Japanese take it even further with special toilet slippers. These are slippers to be worn in the toilet only. They are placed at the toilet entrance and whenever you want to use the toilet, you change from your regular indoor slippers to the special toilet slippers. Again it makes sense when you think about it. Why would you go through all that trouble to keep your floors clean and pure, to then spread all the (invisible) toilet nastiness all over the house by walking around.

toilet slippers in japan

Toilet slippers for men in blue and for women in pink at a hostel in Takayama, Japan

toilet slippers in japan

Toilet slippers outside the men’s bathroom

toilet slippers in japan

Toilet slippers lined up outside the toilet in a Japanese hostel in Kyoto

A few extra things to note about the use of slippers:

Do not forget to leave your toilet slippers at the toilet door after you are done. Stories of forgetful foreigners walking all over the house in toilet slippers are ubiquitous.

When you remove your shoes at the genkan, make sure you don’t step on the elevated part and take them off there, but actually remove them in lower area of the genkan. It is something I used to do a lot in the beginning, but it kind of defeats the purpose of the genkan.

Taking off your shoes before entering a house applies to traditional Japanese homes, restaurants and hostels. In a Western style hotel, for example, people keep their shoes on, even in their room. In some restaurants, you should also keep your shoes on. So the rules about where to take off your shoes may differ a little according to the situation. But no need to panic. If you just try to keep the shoe issue in mind and pay attention to what other people are doing, you should be fine.

slippers in a Japanese restaurant

In this restaurant, which is an izakaya, you keep your shoes on, except when you are with a group and use a private booth. The slippers in this picture are for people who would like to use the toilet, so they don’t have to put their shoes back on every time.

private nomikai booth in a Japanese restaurant

This is one of the private booths, usually reserved for nomikai (corporate parties).

Do not step on tatami wearing slippers. I discovered this rule the hard way, after having been severely scolded for stepping on tatami with slippers when I was visiting a temple. I imagine tatami are delicate and the slippers might damage them. You may only step on tatami barefoot or with socks. Socks are preferred because it is more hygienic.

no slippers on tatami

Many things are happening in this picture, but I would like to draw your attention to the indoor slippers that are left outside the tatami. The polite Japanese ladies are standing on the tatami in socks, the KY gaijin is barefoot.

Finally, if you do mess up the slipper thing and someone gets angry at you, try a sincere and humble apology to defuse the situation. Depending on how angry they are, you might try a bow and sumimasen deshita. If they are positively fuming, whip out your deepest bow, hold it for a while and say mōshiwake gozaimasen deshita. Good luck!

 

Chicory Village

In Japan you never know what you’ll see next. It is one of the many things that I love about living in Japan. The strangest thing you will ever see might be just around the corner.

Like that one time we were visiting the towns of Magome (in Gifu) and Tsumago (in Nagano). These picturesque little mountain towns are a popular tourist destination. They are connected by a beautiful walking trail that used to be part of the Nakasendo and at only 1h30min from Toyota City by car, it is the perfect day trip.

My story, however, pertains to the remarkable sight we had on our way back from Magome to Toyota City. All of a sudden we saw a building with a giant chicory plant (also known as Belgian endive) on the roof. Since chicory is a typical Belgian product, we were very excited. I managed to snap a few shots as we drove by.

chicory villagechicory villageThe only thing I could make out from the sign on the roof was ちこり村, which reads Chicori Mura, meaning Chicory Village. So with only that information to go on, I still had no idea if this was a factory or a tourist facility. Fortunately the internet is there to help mankind solve such mysteries. A little research revealed that this is in fact a tourist recreation park dedicated entirely to the humble chicory.

chicory village website and mascot

They have a website (unfortunately Japanese only) and of course there is a chicory themed mascot

It seems amazing to find a place in Japan that is exclusively dedicated to chicory. Perhaps the bitter taste makes it a popular vegetable in Japan? I do believe that Japanese people living in Belgium are generally quite fond of chicory.

Since I don’t read Japanese well enough to understand the website, I am still not entirely sure what one is supposed to do at Chicory Village. In any case there is the opportunity to eat chicory in the restaurant and drink some chicory shochu or grappa. I would love to find out what other kind of chicory fun can be had there.

Be sure to check out the videos on the Chicory Village website if you want to get a feel for the place. The enthusiastic employees with their big smiles are so typical of Japan and really make me miss living there even more!

chicory village smiling employees

Smiling Chicory Village employees

Are you excited to visit Chicory Village for yourself? It is right off the Nakatsugawa intersection on the Chuo expressway. The address is 1-15 Sendanbayashi, Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture 509-9131, Japan. If you have a Japanese navi system, you can probably insert the phone number: +81 573-62-1545. There are detailed directions on the website, but they are Japanese only: http://chicory.saladcosmo.co.jp/access.html

My writing process

Today is a milestone in my blogging adventure: I will deviate from the topic ‘Japan’ and dedicate a post to the topic of blogging itself. The reason? I was invited by Buri-chan from San’in Monogatari to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour. The San’in Monogatari blog is a nice mix of traditional Japanese culture (e.g. folk tales, tea ceremony), anecdotes about life in Japan and information about the San’in region. What makes San’in Monogatari extra special is the addition of cute manga drawings, done by the author Buri-chan.

While I was a bit hesitant to deviate from my topic of choice, the writing process is something that I find so interesting that I decided to give the Writing Process Blog Tour a go. So here goes:

What am I working on?

Currently my only project is this blog, The Japans. I try to give people an idea of what it was like for me to live in Japan. I focus on the little differences and single out things that might seem plain at first sight but are actually quite interesting. Although it has been two years now since I left Japan, I still have plenty of inspiration for posts to come. I found life in Japan to be endlessly fascinating and I hope that I can keep sharing my fascination through this blog.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I think my focus on daily life, while at the same time keeping things informative (rather than a personal journal), is something that I haven’t seen very often. I try to steer clear of stories about ‘weird Japan’ or strange subcultures. I also avoid writing travel stories or posts focusing on tourist information, since there are already so many bloggers who do that, and do it well.

Why do I write what I do?

When I was researching information about Japan during my many years as a Japan fanatic, before having lived in Japan, I really felt the need for a blog that focused more on the ‘plain’ aspects of life in Japan. So when I got the chance to spend a year in Japan, I decided to start a blog doing just that. I try to write articles that I would have enjoyed reading myself when I first got interested in Japan. I also wanted to create a platform with information about Toyota City, to help future expats that are building a new life in Toyota City (admittedly that part still needs some work). And of course I just enjoy the writing in itself, and it’s a great way to get in touch with people from all over the world.

How does my writing process work?

Usually I start thinking about a post a few days before I write it. Ideas pop in and out of my head at different times during the day. By the time I start writing, I have a pretty good idea of the point that I want to bring across. Sometimes I already have the first few lines made up in my head and go from there. If I don’t have any inspiration before hand, I flick through my photographs or notebook from the time I spent in Japan and use that as a starting point. The structure of the post usually develops while writing. I reread everything several times and change quite a bit, both in wording and structure, before publishing.

I have a few guidelines that I follow when writing:

  • Write for your audience, not for yourself. I always try to imagine if I would be interested to read my own post, had someone else written it.
  • Ask yourself what someone needs to know in order to understand the point you are making. Information should be presented in the clearest and most accessible way possible.
  • I try to limit myself to one idea or topic per post.
  • Less is more. Is everything I am saying essential to the point I am making? If it’s not essential, it has to go. I also try to limit the length of my posts.
  • Always include a picture.
  • I try to write with a sense of humour and an open mind.
  • Quality over quantity. I prefer to blog less frequently but really polish my posts and only publish things that I am 100% happy with.
  • Every once in a while, I remind myself of the original concept of my blog. As time goes by, it is easy to gradually deviate from the original idea. But I believe that sticking to a well outlined concept is beneficial both to the audience (they know what they are getting) and the blogger (helps to stay focused and inspired).

Upcoming Blog on the Writing Process Blog Tour:

Nippaku is a blog by 20-year old Belgian student Ann-Sofie, currently in her third year of Japanese Studies at the University of Leuven. She started her blog around two years ago, because she wanted to research different aspects of Japan a bit more in-depth. She also wanted to broaden her knowledge about Japan by reading other blogs. Up untill now, writing has been a lot of fun for her. Next year she is planning to study in Japan, so she hopes she can share her experiences through her blog. I really enjoy her blog because of the quality of the information and the more unusual topics. Her academic approach to blogging about Japan is a nice addition to the current Japan blogs that I know.

How to take a bath in Japan

One of the many things that I love about Japan is the bathing culture. Of course the onsen (volcanic hot water baths) are famous, but I also love the way Japanese people bathe at home. The key difference with bathing in the West is that Japanese people wash themselves at a faucet before getting in the bath. When Western people take a bath, they wash themselves in the bath and then soak in the soapy, dirty water. Even before travelling to Japan, I had never been a fan of Western baths. It goes without saying that I was delighted to discover the Japanese way of bathing.

Japanese bathrooms have a particular layout to facilitate the Japanese style of bathing. In a typical Japanese bathroom, the sink area and the shower/ bath area are completely separated. Usually the bath area is in a small, separate room with a bath tub and a low faucet next to the tub. The faucet has a shower head attached to it, which also provides the option of taking a shower for those who prefer it.

traditional japanese bathroom

A typical Japanese bathroom, with the (covered) tub on the left and a faucet with shower head on the right

If you travel in Japan, you will see this style of (communal) bathroom in many small hotels and ryokan. How to take a bath in such a typical Japanese bathroom? You undress in the dressing area right outside the bathroom. Leave your slippers outside as well. Then you enter the bathroom and sit on the stool in front of the faucet. The hotel usually provides soap, shampoo and conditioner, or you can use your own. Use the shower head to hose yourself down and then clean your body thoroughly with a wash cloth and soap, while sitting on the stool. Wash your hair if you like. Make sure to rinse off all the soap when you are done. Sometimes you also get a small plastic wash basin. This is used to hold water to soak your wash cloth, and it is used to pour water over one’s head. But the introduction of shower heads has made the wash basin mostly obsolete.

Now it is time to soak in the warm water and relax. Because everyone enters the water after a thorough wash, all the guests share the same water. There are a few etiquette rules when it comes to the bath water:

  • No soap should enter the bath water. Rinse thoroughly before entering the bath.
  • Don’t soak your wash cloth in the bath water. The cloth is considered dirty since you have used it to wash yourself. You may rest the cloth on your head if you like.
  • Don’t immerse your head in the bath water (not 100% sure on this rule though).
  • In hotels, most baths will have a cover to keep the water warm. You are of course allowed to remove the cover by yourself when you want to enter the bath. Make sure to put the cover back on the bath after you are done. It is considered very rude towards the other guests to let the water cool off.
typical japanese bathroom

Communal bathroom in a Japanese low-budget hostel. Faucets for washing on the right, a bath tub for soaking on the left.

typical japanese bathroom

Put the covers back on the bath when you are done!

Families also use a cover to keep the water warm, as different family members take their turn in the bath. So in terms of water and energy usage, the Japanese way makes a lot of sense. In the West, everyone who takes a bath has to fill an entire tub just for themselves.

In traditional Japanese culture, the order in which people of the same family or household use the bath is determined by their social status, with higher ranking individuals entering the bath first and thus having the freshest water. For example, if a guest is visiting the house, the guest usually gets first dibs on the bath.

Another thing that I love about Japanese baths, is the dimensions of the tub. In the West, bathtubs are lower and longer. But if a tall person like me tries to lie down in a Western bath, either my knees or my feet will stick out and be cold. I also tend to get a sore neck in Western baths, because you have to rest your neck on the porcelain edge of the bath if you want to lie down (sitting up, your torso sticks out above the water line and again, gets cold).

typical western bath

A typical western bath

Japanese baths are shorter and higher, so that you sit upright in the bath with your legs pulled in. This way, the whole body is under water and I also find this posture more comfortable.

typical japanese bath

Our typical Japanese bath at home. It is a lot deeper than a Western bath. The size is perfect for me!

One final advantage of Japanese baths, is that they are, like so many things in Japan, high-tech. Look at the control panel for our bath at home: so many buttons! I especially love that it is possible to keep the bath water at a constant temperature. The ‘auto bath water fill up’ function is also very convenient. You don’t have to keep an eye on your bath while it is filling up. Convenient really is a good word to describe Japan!

control panel for a japanese bath

Control panel for our Japanese bath at home