Traditional Japanese breakfast

If you ever spend the night in a Japanese hotel or traditional ryokan, it is highly likely that you will be confronted with what I like to call ‘the Japanese breakfast experience’. While most Westerners will already consider a bowl of cereal a heartening breakfast, the Japanese are a bit more thorough when it comes to eating breakfast.

The simple version will usually include a bowl of miso soup, rice or rice porridge (called okayu), a piece of cooked fish and some pickled vegetables. Additionally bread, eggs, vegetables, natto or meat may also be included. And of course a cup of green tea.

japanese breakfast

Traditional Japanese breakfast from a breakfast buffet at a youth hostel. From left to right: bowl of miso soup, cup for green tea, glass of water, plate with fried egg, baked fish, various vegetables and salad, pickled vegetables and squid salad, bowl of rice, container with natto

japanese breakfast

Japanese breakfast in a hotel. From left to right: pickled vegetables, cup of tea, daikon and tofu boiled in broth (oden), bowl with various vegetables, bowl of rice porridge (okayu) with a pickled plum (umeboshi) on top, fried eggs, glass of water, miso soup.

modern japanese breakfast

Due to Western influences, bread and meat may also appear in a modern Japanese breakfast. From left to right: cup of green tea, delicious home-made bread, miso soup, yoghurt with raisins, a plate with vegetables, bacon and fried egg.

The Japanese breakfast experience can be quite a hurdle for Westerners. We are not used to eating fish, rice or soup for breakfast. Most of those items are considered dinner foods in Western cultures. While some gaijin seem to have trouble suppressing their gag reflex while just looking at a Japanese breakfast, personally I am a big fan. The hearty Japanese breakfast provides energy all through morning, without getting the 10 a.m. faintness I usually experience after a Western breakfast. And I love the taste of the salty rice porridge.

But even a fan like me has her limits. I had a bit of trouble downing this breakfast provided to me in a traditional ryokan:

japanese breakfast ryokan

Elaborate Japanese breakfast at a ryokan

grilled fish for breakfast

I had some trouble with the fish especially

The fact that the breakfast was served at 7 a.m. didn’t help. I was even more surprised that the gentleman at the table next to us felt the need to combine this healthy, early morning breakfast with a large beer.

beer for breakfast

A Japanese man enjoying a beer for breakfast. Notice the 1 liter (!) bottle on his table.

In fact, it seems quite normal to have alcohol at breakfast in Japanese hotels. Look at this menu we found on our breakfast table at a hotel in Nagano:

beer for breakfast in Japan

A menu advertising beer or sparkling wine for breakfast. Don’t even get me started on the Engrish, that’s for another blog post.

Hot ‘n tasty man

One of the things that surprised me while living in Japan, was the fact that there are so many seasonal foods in Japan. Coming from a country where it is considered completely normal to eat tomatoes all through winter and where young people think pineapple is a local produce (it’s not!), I was charmed by the way Japanese people look forward to their seasonal foods.

As a first world nation, the Japanese are of course perfectly capable of importing anything they might want at any time of the year. My personal interpretation is that they deliberately choose not to. I had the impression that people relish the anticipation associated with seasonal treats, and that the food is enjoyed all the more intensely because it is only available for a limited amount of time.

A good example of such a seasonal food is the wintery snack called ‘man’ (まん). Starting november, convenience stores all over Japan put heated display cases on the counter, displaying an assortment of stuffed buns (could this post get any more suggestive? I swear I’m not even trying).

Display cases with hot snacks in the convenience store

Display cases with hot snacks in the convenience store

There are different kinds according to the stuffing, like for example meat man (nikuman 肉まん), cheese curry man (chiizukareman チーズカレーまん) and my favourite, pizza man (pizaman ピザまん), which is filled with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese. The ‘man’ is wrapped in a paper wrapper, much like a hamburger, and is of course meant to be eaten within minutes after purchasing it. Perfect for a quick snack on the go!

display with hot stuffed buns in japan

Different kinds of ‘man’ on display

pizzaman

Pizza man. Yummy!

Mystery sausage identified

It turns out that the mysterious ‘walking sausage’ in my previous blog post was not a sausage at all. Thanks to the people who commented on that post, I can now tell you that the ‘mystery sausage’ is in fact a piece of cod roe (fish eggs), called ‘tarako’ in Japanese.

tarako or cod roe (fish eggs)

Tarako or cod roe (fish eggs). Image from Sakura House Blog. Click on the image to go to their site.

The tarako mascot that we saw in the supermarket was promoting tarako flavoured mayonnaise and pasta sauce. The mascot is called Kewpie-chan and it has its very own theme song. It goes たーらこーたーらこー、たっぷりたーらこー♪  Apparently the song was a big hit a few years ago. In the clips below you can hear the song and see Kewpie-chan in action.

Kewpie-chans making music:

Giant Kewpie-chans marching through a city. At least they stopped for the red light:

An army of Kewpie-chans rising out of the sea:

And last but not least a UFO beaming down a host of Kewpie-chans:

When watching these videos of marching pieces of tarako and listening to the monotonous song, I can’t help but be reminded of a zombie invasion. Actually it is a little bit scary to me, but funny at the same time.

In my experience, Japanese commercials are one of the biggest tokens of the cultural differences between Japan and the West that I have come across. I could spend hours in front of the TV in Japan, fascinated by the commercials. They are just so different from what we have in the West.

Some things that Japanese people might consider cute or funny, will be considered childish or downright weird by Westerners. I would love to hear what Japanese people think of Western commercials. Feel free to put your stories in the comments section!

So much sauce!

A trip to a Japanese supermarket is quite the adventure. The aisles are filled with unknown products. I feel especially overwhelmed when standing in front of the sauce stand. Any Japanese supermarket will have up to three aisles that are filled with nothing but sauce.

Sauce stand in a Japanese supermarket

Sauce stand in a Japanese supermarket

There are so many different kinds: a wide variety of soy sauce (dark, light, low salt, …), salad sauce, sauce with orange aroma, sesame sauce, sake derivates like mirin, … The list is endless. Liquids and sauces are the main condiments in Japan (as opposed to the West where we mostly use herbs). And of course I have no idea how to use most of these sauces. Even if you have come prepared and looked up a recipe beforehand, finding the sauce that the recipe requires can be quite a challenge, as most of the labels are written in kanji (chinese characters). To sum things up, facing this wall of sauce is both awe-inspiring and daunting at the same time.

tsuyu sauce in a Japanese supermarket

Most of these sauces are different brands of ‘tsuyu’ (つゆ), a dipping sauce for noodles

Ponzu sauce in Japanese supermarket

Another sauce stand, mostly ponzu (citrus sauce) and sushi vinegar

After returning to Belgium last month and seeing the selection of cheese in Belgian supermarkets, I imagine Japanese people living in Belgium must experience a similar sensation when being confronted with this vast array of cheese for the first time. How would they know the difference between young and aged gouda, or that camembert is actually supposed to smell like that. Some cheese is for cooking, other cheese is to put on bread. There is Italian cheese, French cheese, Dutch cheese, … There are so  many options, while most Japanese supermarkets only offer one kind of cheese: a very soft, synthetic cheese, with every slice in its individual plastic wrapper.

If you see a confused looking foreigner in the supermarket, desperately staring at the cheese stand (in Belgium) or at the sauce stand (in Japan), please rescue them! They need your help!

white cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

A selection of white and blue cheese

dutch cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

Different kinds of Dutch cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

A time for goodbyes… and gifts!

Our time in Japan has come to an end. [insert dramatic silence]

Yes, that’s right. After only one short year, it’s back to Belgium for us. Our pleads to Toyota to extend our stay have been to no avail. The project is finished and new projects await in Toyota Motor Europe. Resistance is futile.

That means it is time to say our goodbyes. And goodbyes in Japan involve gifts. Lots of gifts. In fact you are supposed to give a gift to anyone you have some sort of relationship with, or people you are indebted to. And of course you will be showered with goodbye gifts yourself.

While one might consider this gift giving obligation a nuisance, I for one found it to be heartwarming. The Japanese are incredibly generous when it comes to giving gifts. Some of the gifts I have received are incredibly sweet, precious and beautiful. And as for the gifts I am handing out myself – to say it with a cliché for lack of better words – a goodbye gift can only begin to express my gratitude for all the generosity and hospitality I have received from so many people throughout the year.

So what might be an appropriate gift in Japan, you ask? Of course a personal gift is always good. I found that for example a photo album of your time together, with illustrations and some personal notes, usually makes people very happy. But if you can’t think of anything personal to give, food or drinks are always a safe bet. Especially a box of Japanese sweets. And this brings me to our topic for today: the Japanese sweets shop.

Japanese sweets shop

Japanese sweets shop

The Japanese have their very own sweets culture, that has nothing to do with Western sweets. The sweets are sold in department stores or special shops, which are beautifully decorated. There is often a fountain or a small pond inside the shop.

Pond inside the sweets shop

Pond inside a sweets shop

The selection of available sweets depends on the seasons. The Japanese love to celebrate the seasons! In summertime, jellies are very popular. A popular ingredient in all seasons is ‘anko’ or sweet read bean paste. By western standards this is by no means considered sweet, but the Japanese love it.

Red bean paste anko

Red bean paste or ‘anko’

Japanese sweets anko

Winter selection of Japanese sweets

Box of jellies

Box of jellies, typical for summer

Jelly and senbei

A display with giftboxes of jelly and senbei (shrimp and rice crackers)

Whenever in doubt what to give someone, remember you can never go wrong with a box of Japanese sweets, whether it is a goodbye gift or you are visiting someone’s home for the first time.

If you want to know more about the Japanese gift culture, check out the Japan Guide (click here) for some more tips on how and when to give gifts in Japan.

It’s sumo time!

Sumo flags, Naruto beya, Nagoya, Japan, July 2012

Flags advertising the presence of the wrestlers. Each flag portrays the name of a wrestler.

Today, July 8th, is the start of the Sumo Grand Tournament in Nagoya. There are six tournaments throughout the year, three of which take place in Tokyo. But come July, everyone in the sumo world travels to Nagoya for the July basho.

The wrestlers arrive in Nagoya about two weeks prior to the start of the tournament. They traditionally stay at a temple, since in the olden days those were the only buildings large enough to house an entire sumo stable (a stable is a group of sumo wrestlers who live and train together, called a ‘beya’ or sometimes ‘heya’ in Japanese).

Sumo wrestlers temple

Inside the temple grounds

Sometimes the training sessions at those temples are open to the public. And guess what? Thanks to a Japanese friend of mine who kindly looked up all the necessary information, we were able to witness one of those training sessions!

Imagine our excitement at being able to watch the titans from close-by, rather than on a tv-screen or from the other side of a giant venue; to get an inside look into the life of a sumo wrestler and watch their daily routine … If you like sumo, it’s exciting to say the least.

Watching sumo training

Watching sumo training

Beforehand, we were a little worried that we wouldn’t recognize any of the wrestlers (we’re relatively new at this whole sumo thing). But there was no need to worry. Immediately upon arrival we spotted an ozeki (second highest ranking wrestler). I’m not one to get starstruck easily but this made me jump up and down like a little girl on her birthday. “OMG, OMG, it’s Kisenosato!” And there even were two other guys that we recognized. One of them was a wrestler from the Czech Republic called Takanoyama and the other one was rising star Takayasu. They are all members of the Narutobeya.

After the training everyone was invited to a bowl of ‘chankonabe’, the traditional sumo wrestlers’ food. It is a thick soup with lots of protein and vegetables. Ingredients include chicken, tofu, eggs, cabbage, onion, daikon … Sumo wrestlers are able to gain a lot of weight quickly by eating vast amounts of chankonabe and rice at lunch time, followed by taking a nap in the afternoon.

Chankonabe uncooked

Chankonabe ingredients before cooking. The uncooked ingredients might not look like much but the finished chankonabe was delicious!

To our surprise, the wrestlers themselves were handing out the nabe. I would never have imagined an ozeki to carry out such a lowly task. But there he was, Kisenosato himself, handing out bowls of nabe to the fans.

Sumo wrestlers handing out chankonabe

Sumo wrestlers handing out chankonabe. From left to right: Takayasu, Takanoyama, Wakanosato and Kisenosato.

Chankonabe from kisenosato

Dennis gets his bowl of chankonabe from Kisenosato himself. Lucky!

Chankonabe changing hands

Chankonabe changing hands

We were able to get very close to the wrestlers. When watching them on tv, you don’t fully realize how big these guys really are. Sure, they look fat, but they are also very tall (for a Japanese that is) and very broad. I imagine they must be incredibly strong as well. What an experience to meet them face to face!

If you’re in the Nagoya area, don’t miss your chance to see live sumo. The basho is held every day from now until July 22nd. Follow the links below for more information.

Japan Sumo Association homepage (in English)

Ticket information. Click through to the Chunichi Shinbun web site. They have a page in English that seems to work well.

Current banzuke (ranking of all the top-players, with links to their profiles).

Fancy fruit

Fruit is extremely expensive in Japan. While in Belgium fruit is priced by the kilo or the bag, in Japan the price usually applies to one single piece of fruit. These apples for instance, cost 198 yen a piece (about 2 euro)!

One thing I do have to admit is that fruit in Japan is of the highest quality. So at least you can take some comfort in the fact that you’re getting your money’s worth.

Expensive japanese fruit

Expensive japanese apples

A day in paradise

Around the middle of April it was cherry blossom time in Japan. Needless to say I had been looking forward to this for a while. When foreigners think of Japan and typical Japanese things, the beauty of the cherry blossoms is one of the first things that comes to mind.

Sakura beauty

Beautiful cherry blossoms

My anticipation was only increased by the excitement that takes hold of the entire Japanese nation as the blossom time approaches. The news report even gives daily reports on the advancement of the ‘cherry blossom front’.

Cherry blossom front for 2008. The flowers open first in the south and then the front makes its way north. The blossoms were a bit late this year due to the cold weather. (picture taken from http://stlelsewhere.blogspot.jp)

Why do the Japanese people love cherry blossoms, or ‘sakura’, so much? Apart from the simple fact that the sight of a street lined with blooming cherry trees is just gorgeous, the Japanese feel touched by the transient beauty of the blossoms. The sakura are at their most beautiful for only a few days. One day of rain may destroy the fragile flowers. This short-lived beauty is often taken as a metaphor for life: so beautiful and yet so short and sad. Indeed when watching the blossoms, one may be touched by an intense joy and a sweet melancholy all at the same time.

Sakura detail beauty, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms against the bright blue sky

Sakura detail

The delicate beauty of a cherry blossom

Apart from these rather poetic feelings, of course the Japanese also love to celebrate the seasons and never pass up an excuse to gather with friends and enjoy some typical festival food.

Sakura selling sweet potato or yakiimo

A small cart selling grilled sweet potato (called 'yaki-imo' in Japanese)

Sakura sweet potato salesman

A happy salesman, also selling sweet potato

Sakura selling takoyaki or octopus balls

A stand selling 'takoyaki': baked balls of dough stuffed with vegetables and pieces of octopus

In my efforts to see as much of the cherry blossoms as possible, I prepared for a ‘hanami’ (the viewing of the blossoms) on a sunny afternoon in April at one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful cherry blossom spots: the Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya.

Sakura Yamazakigawa riverside, Nagoya, Japan

The Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya

Cherry walk in Nagoya, Japan

Walking alongside the river Yamazaki in Nagoya

Having been to a few other cherry blossom viewing spots earlier that week and being slightly underwhelmed, I was not prepared for the beauty of this place. Not only was it simply gorgeous, all other conditions were perfect as well: the weather was sunny and warm with a slight breeze, it was not too crowded since it was a weekday, and everyone I met was just as happy as I was. Even the animals I met were in a good mood. It truly seemed like a paradise on earth; some place as yet untouched by the rest of the world. A magic spell, just for one day.

Sakura and fish, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms and sunlight on the water. Even the fish seem happy.

Sakura rabu rabu, Nagoya, Japan

A young couple, enjoying a romantic moment under the cherry blossoms

Sleeping under the cherry blossoms

It doesn't get any more relaxed than this: having a picnic and a nap on a sunny afternoon

Sakura and children playing in Japan

Children playing in the river

Sakura salaryman escaping modern life

An office worker escaping from modern life just for a moment

6 ways to keep warm during Japanese winter

Winter is in full swing in Japan and it is cold! While the average daily maximum temperature for the Nagoya region in January is 9°C (according to the Japan Meteorological Agency), this year has been particularly cold with many days where the temperature doesn’t go above 3 or 4° C.

Japanese homes, unlike Belgian ones, are not equipped with proper heating systems. While every Japanese home has a state of the art air conditioning system to get through the hot and humid summers, nobody in Japan seems to have ever heard of a ‘central heating system’.

Central heating radiator

This is a central heating radiator. In Belgium, every room in the house has one or more of these radiators attached to the wall. Warm water is circulated through all of them. They emit a constant and comfortable kind of heat, a lot more agreeable than for example warm air heaters.

How odd for such a highly developed country to not have a proper heating system for homes. Does anyone know why that is? In addition to that, Japanese homes are often quite drafty due to lack of proper insulation. Most windows, for example, only have single glass.

So how do we make it through this cold Japanese winter? There are several ways one can hope to keep warm:

  1. Japanese people often use kerosene burners to heat their homes. These however give off a slight to rather strong kerosene smell, depending on how modern the heater is. An alternative to that is a small electric or ceramic heating unit. These usually only suffice to heat one room, not a whole house. Fortunately, Japanese homes are quite small.

    Traditional Japanese room with kerosene burner on the left

    kerosene burner

    kerosene burner

  2. By far my favourite way to keep warm is the ‘kotatsu’. It’s a coffee table with a blanket coming out from under the table top. On the bottom of the table is a heating element. People who love their kotatsu so much that they hardly ever get out from under it are called ‘kotatsu mushi’ which means ‘kotatsu bug’. Guilty as charged.
    kotatsu mushi

    Kotatsu mushi

    kotatsu bottom

    Bottom of the kotatsu with heating element

  3. If after all of this you are still cold, you can adorn yourself with what I like to call ‘heat stickers’. You apply these rectangular stickers to your undergarments. Upon coming into contact with the air, the stickers emit a comfortable heat for several hours, until the material inside the sticker crystallizes. I later found out that they are called ‘hokkairo’ in Japanese. You can buy them in the supermarket and drugstore.

    heat stickers

    Heat stickers

  4. A good way to warm yourself through and through is going to the onsen. Onsen are typical Japanese bathing facilities where you can soak in hot baths for hours. The entrance is usually fairly cheap (about 600 yen) so a weekly visit is feasible if you have the time.

    onsen

    Onsen (picture from http://blog.asiahotels.com)

  5. Nothing is as uncomfortable as a cold bed. Since our bedroom is the coldest room in the house, a mere hot-water bottle to warm the feet does not suffice. Luckily a friend of mine recommended using an electric blanket. The blanket is placed under the mattress cover and can either be used to just preheat the bed or provide a steady heat supply all night long, depending on how cold it is.
    .
  6. The best winter food to warm you from the inside out is ‘nabe’. Nabe is a one pot dish with meat, tofu and vegetables cooked in a shallow soup. It is usually prepared at the table with a portable gas burner, while the whole family gathers around.

These are my tips and tricks. Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments section!

Check out one more way to keep warm during Japanese winter: haramaki, the Japanese belly warmer.

 

The Mochi Mobile

Anyone who has lived in the Toyota City center or has visited Toyota City will know the characteristic sound of ‘The Mochi Mobile’. It’s a little van that drives around the city while blasting it’s characteristic song from a megaphone. This is what it sounds like:

I’ve heard the wildest theories about the significance of this van among the foreign residents of Toyota City. One couple even thought that the van belonged to a cult in search of new members. But nothing could be further from the truth. The van is selling ‘warabi mochi’, a jelly like candy dusted with sweet soybean powder, popular in the summertime.

warabi mochi in toyota city, japan

Warabi mochi: jelly like white balls with soy bean powder. Doesn't look very appetizing, does it? But the taste is refreshing in summer.

In the wintertime there is a similar van that sells grilled sweet potato (yaki imo). And of course this van also has its own song.

This is what the grilled potato looks like:

grilled sweet potato (yaki imo) in toyota city, japan

Grilled sweet potato (yaki imo) - again doesn't look that appetizing, does it? The taste is described by its name: it tastes slightly burned and like a potato, only sweeter.