Kaiseki meal in Kyoto

Kyoto is famous for kaiseki cuisine. Kaiseki is an exquisite multi-course meal. It can even be considered as an art form, where one tries to balance the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food. It goes without saying that only fresh, seasonal ingredients are used. The dishes are served in carefully selected bowls and plates, that enhance both the appearance and the seasonal theme of the meal.

The word kaiseki may also be used to refer to the meal served at a tea ceremony, although one may also add term ‘cha’ (as in chakaiseki) to indicate the difference with restaurant kaiseki.

One rainy October day in Kyoto, friends invited me to a kaiseki lunch. We walked through a few bustling, touristic Kyoto streets and ended up at this little place:

kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto

Kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto

Kaiseku menu Kyoto

There was a choice between two menus

Our meal was comprised a multitude of mouth-watering courses, several of which involved tofu. Now, before any Western readers start turning up their noses, you must take into account that Japanese tofu is nothing like the tofu you can get in the West. Western tofu is often tasteless with a rubber-like texture. Japanese tofu comes in a wide variety of delicious tastes and has textures ranging from silky to firm. And I have the impression that Kyoto is famous for tofu as well as for kaiseki.

kyoto kaiseki meal tofu

To start things off, two tofu appetizers.

kyoto kaiseki meal tofu

Then some broiled tofu, in a beautiful paper container

kyoto kaiseki meal tofu

Yet another way to prepare tofu, in a kombu broth, served in a cherry blossom themed donabe

kyoto kaiseki meal

After all that tofu, we got the main course, full of gorgeous, seasonally themed little pieces of food. And two of the dishes (top right and middle right) are once more different tofu preparations.

kaiseki meal kyoto

Our table full of food. There was also all-you-can-drink tea included in the meal. We were sitting on the floor, but cleverly hidden below the table was a recess for our legs, so that we more or less sat in the position of sitting on a chair.

kaiseki meal kyoto

The meal was concluded with a generous serving of rice, some pickled vegetables and a bowl of soup. Nobody left the table hungry, that’s for sure!

kaiseki meal kyoto matcha

To top off the meal, a delicious bowl of matcha tea with a Japanese sweet. I think the sweet might be some type of mochi, perhaps warabi mochi? I am not sure though, because warabi mochi feel to me a bit summer-like and don’t really seem to match the autumnal harvest theme of the meal. If anyone knows more, please leave a comment below.

All this exquisiteness comes at a price. While the standard price for a lunch in Japan is about 1000 yen, a kaiseki meal will easily set you back 3000 yen or more.

People watching – Tanned skin

While visiting the Hachiko statue in Shibuya, I noticed a Japanese girl with tanned skin. Both her skin tone and overall styling caught my attention and I snapped a picture of her.

japan tanned skin

Japanese girl with tanned skin

In Japan, the classic beauty ideal is to have a skin that is as pale and white as possible. To achieve this look, Japanese women go to extreme lengths to avoid sun exposure and use whitening products, referred to as bihaku 美白. This preference for white skin is believed to stem from past times when poor people worked the land and had tanned skin, while rich people stayed indoors and thus had lighter skin. 

sekkisei by kose skin whitening japan

One of the most popular skin whitening product line in Japan is the Sekkisei line by KOSE

The girl in the first picture, however, has a perfect tan, which leads me to believe that she purposefully went for this look with tanning creams or sessions in a tanning salon. Given the Japanese preference for pale skin, her skin tone stood out.

After doing some research on tanned skin fashion trends in Japan, I discovered two trends. The first one is Ganguro, which was popular from the mid-1990’s to about 2000. Ganguro is characterized by a dark tan and contrasting make-up. The trend died out in 2000, when the sudden popularity of pop singer Ayumi Hamasaki sparked a renewed interest in white skin.

ganguro japan tanned skin

Ganguro fashion trend with tanned skin and contrasting make-up

ayumi_hamasaki

The popularity of pop singer Ayumi Hamasaki, with her perfect pale skin, contributed to the popularity of bihaku skin whitening products

The other trend is B-style and seems to be a more recent thing. In B-style, Japanese youngsters try to imitate the look of American hip-hop stars, aspiring to look as much like Afro-Americans as possible. Dutch television show Metropolis made a short documentary on the subject. This trend is far from mainstream however, seeming to revolve pretty much around a single store in Tokyo called Baby Shoop.

b-style tanned skin

B-style is a trend where Japanese people try to look like Afro-American hip-hop stars. It is only a very small subculture.

Looking at the girl in my picture, she doesn’t seem to be belong to any of these two trends. She has tanned skin but pretty subdued make-up compared to Ganguro style. Her clothing seems quite provocative to me, but then again, the metropolis Tokyo isn’t the same as provincial Toyota City or conservative Nagoya to which I am used to, so maybe in Tokyo this look isn’t quite so outrageous? I would love to get other people’s perspective on this, to see how they perceive this look and how it would look to a Japanese person. Feel free to join the discussion in the comments section.

Safety first in Japan

Japanese people are very concerned with safety. One of the first Japanese words I learned after arriving in Japan was anzen (安全 ), the Japanese word for safety.

A well-known example of this concern with safety is the method of ‘pointing and calling‘, shisa kanko (指差喚呼), used by public transport operators in Japan. Japanese train drivers will point at every sign they pass, calling out its status. This looks very funny to Western eyes but it is proven to help keep focus and attention.

Foreign Toyota employees receive similar instructions when they first arrive in Japan. The Toyota headquarters in Japan are so large that they include roads with motorized traffic on them. During their initial orientation, the expat employees are instructed on how to cross the road when they are at headquarters: they have to point to the left, say yoshi (which means something like OK), point to the right, say yoshi again, and only then may they cross. The Europeans, with their disdain for rules, think it is silly and try to skip the yoshi yoshi whenever they can. The Japanese employees, however, diligently follow the safety regulations, much to the astonishment and amusement of the Europeans.

Another example of Japanese concern with safety is this group of school children. They are all wearing helmets, which seem to be part of their school uniform.

Japanese safety anzen

Safety first in Japan: helmets as part of the school uniform.

I guess a country that is frequently affected by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions and the like, cannot be blamed for an emphasis on safety. But Japan wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t also a huge contradiction in this concern with safety.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that many Japanese people watch TV while driving! While the Belgian government campaigns heavily against using the phone while driving, let alone watching television, in Japan it seems to be the most normal thing in the world to watch TV while driving. Many Japanese people have their navi system adjusted to also broadcast TV. While this isn’t exactly legal, as I’ve been told, many people do it.

Japanese people ignoring safety and breaking the rules? Just when you think you have things figured out, Japan throws you a curveball. Or is it allright to break the rules because the car is considered ‘private space’ (related to the honne – tatemae distinction) where you can do what you want? I would love to hear other people’s opinion on this. Please share what you think in the comment section!

Japanese advertising slogans

I love Japanese advertising slogans. They often include English words that have been used in a very Japanese way. Japanese copywriters are clearly convinced that positive words are the way to go. I often see a collection of positive words thrown together in a way that no native English speaker would ever use them.

What do you think of this slogan to promote apple candy: ‘Health and beauty for your life’? The message that they want to bring across is clear but no Western copywriter would communicate it so directly. Reading this kind of Japanese advertising slogan instantly puts a smile on my face. It sounds so sweet and innocent and frankly I find it quite endearing.

Japanese advertising slogans

These apple candies will bring health and beauty to your life! Yes they will!

Have a look at some other examples:

Hopeful bargain in Tokyo, Japan

Hopeful bargain in Tokyo, Japan

freshness burger in Nagoya airport

Freshness burger in Nagoya airport

funny english in japan toiletpaper

Japanese toilet paper, bringing happiness to your life

Outgoing Japanese people

When Belgian people ask me questions about my stay in Japan, they often ask what Japanese people are like. From their questions, I gather that they believe all Japanese people to be quiet and introverted. When I answer that I actually met lots of Japanese people who were outgoing and easy to come into contact with, they react surprised. When I add that, in my experience, Japanese people are a happy people who laugh a lot, they look incredulous. I wrote about these prejudices more elaborately in the article ‘Japanese people are human too‘.

Today, as I was going through the pictures that I took when I was in Japan exactly four years ago, on May 21st 2012, I found a video that perfectly illustrates how outgoing Japanese people can be. I was visiting the indoor market in Kanazawa and noticed some live crabs laying on ice, who were still moving. As I stopped to film this fascinating scene, the vendor asked me what I was doing. I said that I was making a video of the crabs but that they appeared to have stopped moving at the moment. As you can see in the video, the vendor immediately reacted by prodding the crabs and placing some more lively ones on the ice. He even took a crab and held it towards the camera, which produced some screaming and hilarity.

This kind of spontaneous and humorous exchange was by no means an exception during my stay in Japan. It shows that Japanese people, just like people all over the world, can be outgoing and enjoy having a laugh!

Japanese pedestrian crossings

When I first arrived in Japan, one of the first things that caught my attention were the pedestrian crossings. In Japan, when the pedestrian traffic lights turn green, they turn green for all directions at once. Car traffic from every direction is stopped. This enables the pedestrians to cross the intersection in whatever direction they want, including diagonally. It was such an odd view to see pedestrians walking over the middle of an intersection.

Japanese pedestrian crossing Toyota City

I took this picture of a pedestrian crossing in Toyota City on the very first day of my stay in Japan. From the hotel I had an excellent view of this crossing and I was amazed to see everyone crossing at once and walking over the middle of the intersection.

A little research taught me that this kind of intersection is called a ‘scramble crossing’ in Japan (スクランブル交差点 sukuranburu-kōsaten). I also learned that it is not unique to Japan and is also known as an ‘x crossing’ or a ‘diagonal crossing’. They are, however, ubiquitous in Japan. I have never seen one in Belgium.

I took me some time to get used to these Japanese scramble crossings. Walking over the middle of an intersection, I kept feeling apprehensive about oncoming cars. But once I got used it, it gave a real sense of freedom!

After I had gotten used to the pedestrian crossings in Toyota City (a small provincial city), and even those in Nagoya (Japan’s fourth largest city), I had another shock when I visited Tokyo and saw the Shibuya pedestrian crossing. That intersection takes scramble crossings to a whole other level. Shibuya pedestrian crossing is the busiest scramble crossing in Japan.

shibuya pedestrian crossing

People waiting to cross at Shibuya pedestrian crossing

shibuya pedestrian crossing

The crossing in full swing at Shibuya pedestrian crossing

Please take a look at this video I shot looking out over Shibuya pedestrian crossing. I took it from inside the Shibuya Starbucks and it really shows how impressive this crossing is. At the end of the video, you might also notice some people hurriedly crossing while the light is already red. This blatant rule breaking once again shows that Japanese people are human too, contrary to popular belief in the West.

People watching: Giraffe costume

Japan is full of surprises. For example, here I was strolling around a department store, when suddenly I saw someone dressed in what I believe to be a giraffe costume. It seems this person was just hanging out with friends and I could see no apparent reason to be wearing a giraffe costume. Although one could wonder if there ever is a good reason to wear a giraffe costume. The scene did put a smile on my face so maybe that is reason enough.

P1110517

Hanging out with friends in a quiet department store in Toyota City, casually dressed in a giraffe costume

 

Haramaki, the Japanese belly warmer

Haramaki is a type of Japanese undergarment. It literally translates as ‘belly wrap’ (腹巻). I first learned about haramaki when shopping at Japanese clothing store Uniqlo. In the underwear section, I saw a tube-like knitted item that seemed perfect for keeping my neck warm at night. Shortly after having bought two ‘neckwarmers’, I saw a tv program where foreigners were being interviewed about life in Japan. The foreigners commented on the peculiar Japanese habit of wearing belly warmers. Hence my introduction to the haramaki. Ever since discovering its intended purpose, I wear haramaki in winter for extra warmth or whenever I have lower back pains.

haramaki

Japanese belly warmer called haramaki

When looking for background on haramaki, I was surprised to find mostly fashion related information. I had thought of the haramaki more as an item that one wears for health purposes but apparently it is making a comeback as a fashion piece. This is remarkable because the haramaki was traditionally considered an out-of-date item worn by old men.

The history of the haramaki goes back to feudal Japan, where it was a type of armour worn by infantry soldiers. According to Wikipedia, haramaki refers to any Japanese armour which is put on from the front and then fastened in the back with cords.

haramaki armour

Haramaki armour – Image from Worldantiques

Later on, during the First Sino-Japanese War and World War II, a soldier going off to fight was often given a senninbari haramaki (“1,000 stitch belt”) by his family. A mother, sister, or wife would stand on the street and ask passing women to contribute a stitch until 1,000 had been collected. The garment was meant to both provide warmth and serve as a talisman to ward away harm.

senninbachi haramaki

Senninbari haramaki for Japanese soldiers

The haramaki then evolved to its current form: a circular tube of fabric worn around the midriff and hips. During the 70’s and 80’s, it was considered an out-of-date type of underwear for old men. Contributing to this image were various characters from popular culture like the manga series Tensai Bakabon, which stars a dim-witted boy and his insane father. The father always wears a haramaki.

tensai bakabon otousan haramaki

The dad from manga Tensai Bakabon, wearing a haramaki

Another example is Tora-san, the main character in a series of movies about a kind-hearted vagabond who is always unlucky in love.

torasan haramaki

Tora-san from the movie series Otoko wa tsurai yo (“It’s tough being a man”), wearing his signature haramaki

The transition of haramaki from out-of date underwear to fashionable mainstream item is mostly credited to Japanese game designer and entrepreneur Itoi Shigesato. Itoi had been wearing haramaki for years despite their old-fashioned reputation and perception as an unfashionable undergarment when he started selling haramaki in 2001 through his company Hobonichi. Hobonichi reinvented haramaki as fashion items to layer with your clothes. He even worked with Nintendo to make Nintendo-themed haramaki. If you are interested in buying some trendy Hobonichi haramaki, you can go to the English language Hobonichi webshop. You can wear these haramaki directly over your skin, over an undershirt and under your shirt, or completely over your shirt. If you are more into plain haramaki, you might try British shop Nukunuku.

hobonichi haramaki nintendo

Nintendo themed haramaki from Hobonichi

While not everyone may agree about the fashion merit of haramaki, there is no denying that haramaki help to keep you warm. Have a look at the chart below:

haramaki heat chart

fig. 01: low body temperature; fig. 02: slightly warmer with a summer blanket; fig. 03: even better with a winter blanket; fig. 04: high core temperature and therefore overall higher body temperature with haramaki. A haramaki is also supposed to improve circulation.

The Japanese love to talk about how important a warm stomach is to staying well. They attribute all sorts of health benefits to it. In any case the added heat provided by haramaki is very welcome during cold Japanese winters without central heating systems. If you want to know more about keeping warm during winter in Japan, you can read my post 6 ways to keep warm during Japanese winter.

What do you think about haramaki? Is it a fashion-do or don’t? Only for grandpa’s or great for young people too? Let me know what you think in the comments section!

Kimono fashion: Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day (seijin no hi) is a Japanese holiday held on the second Monday of January. It is a great day for kimono spotting. In day-to-day life in Japan, it is rare to see people in kimono. On Coming of Age Day, however, you will see them everywhere.

Coming of Age Day celebrates everyone who turned 20 years old (the age of majority in Japan) during the past year. It is customary for these young adults to wear traditional Japanese clothing, especially the women, who wear furisode kimono with long swinging sleeves. Most men seem to opt for smart Western suits, although some of them do wear kimono and hakama.

Coming of age day kimono

A group of youngsters on Coming of Age Day. The girls are dressed in brightly coloured furisode kimono with long sleeves – Image by Dick Johnson

coming of age day proper kimono fashion

Young couple in traditional Coming of Age Day attire

There are some young people, however, who have decided to put a new spin on Coming of Age Day fashion. A few days ago, I read a Japan Times article discussing ‘improper attire’ in the city of Kitakyushu. Apparently men have begun wearing brightly coloured hakama and women are dressing in a style of kimono that was popular with oiran, the high-class prostitutes of the Edo Period, showing lots of cleavage and shoulder.

coming of age day oiran kimono fashion

Girls trying on oiran costumes for Coming of Age Day

coming of age day oiran kimono fashion

Oiran costume on Coming of Age Day

If you want to get an impression of Coming of Age Day celebrations in Kitakyushu (the city discussed in the Japan Times article), I recommend the video below. It shows a mix of traditional costumes and the newer styles. The guys in the beginning of the video really remind me of the anime ‘Great Teacher Onizuka‘, which basically means they look and sound like 1980’s gangsters. Also don’t miss the guy in ladies underwear at the end of the video.

Judging from this video, it seems like a pretty raucous affair. Apparently the past few years it has not been not uncommon to have car crashes, fighting and vandalism on Coming of Age Day, although some places seem to be more famous for it than others. To be fair though, I think in most places in Japan people just dress traditionally, go to a temple and have a calm party afterwards with their friends. It’s always the excess that gets the most attention. I would love to have some reader feedback on this though. Please feel free to comment below!

But back to Kitakyushu. Apparently some people were scandalized by this new kimono fashion trend and the city of Kitakyushu has responded by setting up a webpage to educate new 20-year-olds on appropriate attire for the event. Unfortunately I can’t read Japanese, but I watched the video. It shows how a girl is supposed to walk, sit, enter a car and even go to the bathroom (if I am not mistaken) while wearing a furisode kimono. Where are the recommendations for the boys???

I wonder though, if the main problem is the new style of dressing or rather the vandalism and violence that sometimes seems to be associated with Coming of Age Day celebrations. And why do these young people go so crazy, both in fashion and behavior?

Several things come to mind. Firstly, innovations by younger generations are often perceived as shocking by older generations. This is a phenomenon as old as time. Secondly, I have come to understand that for many Japanese people, their early twenties is the only time they truly feel free. During their primary and secondary school years, they are under enormous pressure to pass entrance exams to get into good high schools and universities. After university, they enter the workforce and work long hours under strict behavior and dress codes. Or they start a family and are completely absorbed by their duties as parents (for many women this still holds true). During their university years however, they are free to do as they want. And finally, I do believe that Japan is changing. A new generation is emerging that is discarding the traditional ways and looking for their own way of doing things, much as happened in the West during the sixties. I am curious to see how things will evolve!

Nabe party

Nabe refers to a variety of Japanese hot-pot dishes. It is a typical winter food. All the ingredients for nabe are prepared together in a large clay or iron pot. The pot is usually placed on a burner in the middle of the table and the dish is cooked at the table. Everyone gathers round and picks from the pot what they like, as the ingredients cook. This makes the eating of nabe a highly social event and therefore a perfect excuse for a party, the so-called ‘nabe party’.

There are several stages to a nabe party, involving different ingredients that are added in turn to the pot. Many varieties of nabe exist, but it all comes down to a mix of different ingredients in a broth. The nabe that I will describe below consists of stock, lots of vegetables, tofu, fish cake, thin slices of meat and rice. Dipping sauce and an egg were also involved.

nabe party stock

The stock for our nabe party: water with pieces of kombu and bonito flakes in a tea bag (katsuobushi)

nabe party vegetables

Vegetables and tofu are placed on top of the stock. The vegetables are cabbage, spring onion and daikon.

how to prepare nabe fish cake

Fish cake, sliced

how to prepare nabe

Fish cake and more vegetables (spinach and carrot) are added

Japanese nabe party

The pot, filled to the brim, is placed on a cooker in the middle of the table

As the nabe is placed on the cooker, the party can begin. Friends gather round and wait for everything to start simmering. A perfect moment to enjoy a glass of wine and a laugh together. When the broth has come to a boil and the vegetables have shrunk somewhat, very thin slices of meat are placed on top of the nabe. Since the slices are so thin, they cook in about a minute.

Japanese nabe meat

Thin slices of pork for nabe

Japanese nabe meat

The meat is placed on top of the nabe and cooks very quickly

Now the time has come for everyone to dig in. You may take whatever you like from the nabe pot. This communal enjoyment of the meal creates a very cozy feeling. A nabe party is perfect for warming both body and heart during a cold winter evening.

You might have noticed the collection of sauces on the table. They are dipping sauces for the nabe, collectively referred to as tare. Everyone has two bowls for dipping sauces. As you take food from the nabe pot, you may dip it in the sauce of your choice.

nabe dipping sauce

On the left you see ponzu, a soy sauce based condiment with yuzu (japanese bitter orange) and gomadare, which is a sesame sauce. On the right are two types of paste that are added to the sauce for additional spice. I believe the green one is wasabi based but I am not sure. The red one is a seasoned chili paste called shisen toban jan.

nabe dipping sauce

On the left sesame sauce with chili paste, on the right ponzu with wasabi (?) paste

Japanese nabe party

Table setup for a nabe party: two bowls for each guest with dipping sauce. Food is picked from the nabe pot and briefly placed in dipping sauce, before eating.

When most of the vegetables are eaten and the pot is nearly empty, it is time for the second round. More vegetables are added to the pot and everyone continues eating.

japanese nabe party more vegetables

Second round of vegetables at a nabe party

At the end of round two, when only a little of the broth and some pieces of vegetable remain, cooked rice is added to the mix. The rice absorbs the taste from all the previous ingredients and gets a porridge like texture.

japanese nabe party rice added

Round three of a Japanese nabe party: cooked rice is added to absorb the left over liquid

japanese nabe party rice added

Stirring the rice

While everyone enjoys the first serving of rice, the rice left in the pot continues to cook and starts sticking to the bottom. A raw egg is added to this crunchy rice mixture, thus turning the dish into baked rice. This baked rice forms the end of the meal.

japanese nabe party baked rice

An egg is added to the leftover rice

japanese nabe party baked rice

Rice and egg baking together. Yum!

This nabe party was such a wonderful experience. Thank you to my friends for showing me this great piece of Japanese culture and for welcoming me in their midst!

friends at a japanese nabe party

Bellies full and smiling faces. What a great night!