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 This is remarkable because the haramaki was traditionally considered an out-of-date item worn by old men.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 During the 70’s and 80’s, it was considered an out-of-date type of underwear for old men.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!

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!

Heating the outdoors

Customer service is extremely important in Japan. Sometimes this leads to situations that seem a bit excessive in my eyes, like the amount of packaging they use or that time we saw a heater placed outside in the open air, to accommodate waiting customers.

open air heater in Japan

A kerosene burner placed outside in the open air to help customers waiting to have lunch stay warm

In Japan, it is very popular to eat out for lunch. Since many restaurants have only very limited seating space, it is common to have to wait for a table at a good restaurant. If the restaurant is really small, it doesn’t have an indoor waiting area and customers have to wait outside. One cold January day around noon, we were waiting to have lunch at a restaurant in Hakone. There was a waiting area next to the restaurant, i.e. outdoors. To my great surprise, the staff had placed a kerosene burner in the waiting area. Although I was very thankful for this extra heat (it was so cold!), at the same time I felt a bit guilty about taking advantage of something that somehow felt a bit wasteful. The heater was pretty much attempting to heat the entire outdoors, which is of course futile. There was no tent, no enclosure, nothing that could even barely attempt to keep a bit of the heat localised.

outside heater in Japan

Such a cold day!

After having discussed the situation with some Belgian friends, they pointed out that in Belgium sometimes we also make a bonfire outdoors or restaurants place heaters on their terrace in winter to enable people to sit outdoors. While this is true, I still felt an initial shock at seeing this heater in Japan. It is not the first time that I have felt torn between my love of Japanese customer service and my desire to not be wasteful. I would love to hear about other people’s experiences and opinions on the matter! Have you ever felt the same? How do you deal with these things? Or is it a non-issue?

Oden – wholesome winter food

Oden is a typical winter dish from Japan. It consists of several ingredients like daikon, tofu, konnyaku, eggs, etc., stewed in a light, soy-flavoured broth. One of the many wonderful things about oden is that it is so cheap. Each piece of oden costs between 75 and 100 yen (between 0,5 and 0,7 euro). It is also healthy, delicious, and it really warms you up in winter.

Oden japanese winter food

A display of oden, where you can clearly see the different ingredients. I admit it is not much to look at, but I assure you that it is delicious. At first I was a bit suspicious of oden myself but after I gave it a try, I was hooked! The daikon in the lower left corner is my favourite.

As the cold months set in, you see oden stands pop up in convenience stores all over Japan. When you want to buy some oden, you are supposed to serve yourself: just take a few pieces with the pincers provided by the store and put them in a cup. You may add some broth if you like. Then you tell or show the convenience store cashier what you took.

oden stand in Japanese convenience store

An oden stand in Japanese convenience store. In the background on the right, in the ‘hot snack’ display, you see ‘man‘, which is another kind of delicious Japanese winter food.

I discovered this self-service system only after having asked the poor employee from the convenience store around the corner from our house to serve me some oden on several occasions. Being as polite as any Japanese would be, and possibly also a little frightened of that bossy, tall foreigner, the employee dutifully served me every time. Until I saw someone else serve themselves and I realised how it actually worked. Embarrassing! But things like that are also very much part of life in Japan.

Oden illustrates two things that I love about Japan:

  • It is so easy to get healthy and cheap fast food in Japan.
  • I love how the Japanese celebrate the seasons with seasonal food. Here in Belgium, we can pretty much get any kind of food all year long. But the seasonal food in Japan really gives you something to look forward to. I also seemed to enjoy the food more because it was only available for a limited amount of time.

Japanese New Year’s decorations

Around New Year’s time, you will see special decorations outside shops and in temples all over Japan. For foreigners, these public decorations are very interesting. Since we often don’t have access to Japanese family life, the decorations put up by shops and temples are the best (and often only) way for us to learn about Japanese New Year’s decorations.

The picture below was taken exactly two years ago, on January 7th 2012. It is a small restaurant underneath the train overpass next to our apartment building.

japanese New Year's decorations

Japanese New Year’s decorations outside a small restaurant

The two decorations on the ground are kadomatsu (門松, literally ‘pine gate’). Kadomatsu always come in pairs. Designs vary depending on region but they are typically made of bamboo and pine. Pine is considered lucky because it remains green in winter. Sometimes plum (ume) tree sprigs are also included, which represent longevity, prosperity and steadfastness.

Kadomatsu are placed at the gate or door of a house, temple or business. They are an invitation for the New Year God (toshigami 年神) to come down from the sky. The kadomatsu are meant to provide temporary housing for the god. The New Year God is believed to bring a bountiful harvest for farmers and bestow the ancestors’ blessing on everyone.

Kadomatsu are left outside until the 7th of January. After that, they are burned to  appease the gods and release them.

japanese new year's decorations kadomatsu

Two kadomatsu outside a wayside service area on December 30th

If you look back at the first picture – the one of the restaurant – you will also see a decoration above the door. That is a shimekazari (しめ飾り). Again, there are many different designs for shimekazari but most of them include a sacred braided straw rope (shimenawa), fern leaves, white ritual paper strips (shide) and a bitter orange (daidai). Like the kadomatsu, the shimekazari invites the New Year’s God to visit the home. Additionally, it is also meant to keep out bad spirits and thus prevent bad luck.

shimekazari at ryoanji temple in kyoto

Shimekazari at Ryoanji temple in Kyoto

Japanese new years decorations kyoto

Japanese New Year’s decorations in Kyoto, with a shimekazari above the door and kadomatsu at the entrance

japanese new years decorations shimekazari restaurant kyoto

A shimekazari at the entrance of a restaurant in Kyoto

Furry business

“Japanese women love to wear fur.” Why have I chosen this simple statement as the topic for an entire blog post? Because the difference in attitude towards fur between Japan and Belgium (and I think Europe in general) is a striking cultural difference.

A girl wearing a fur scarf.

In Japan, fur usually appears as a trimming on coats and gloves, rather than as a full fur coat. Fur scarves, as seen in this picture, are also popular. Image from http://www.tokyofashion.com

Two girls wearing fur collars. This kind of collar is very popular in winter fashion. Image from www.tokyofasion.com (click on image to go to site)

Two girls wearing fur collars. This kind of collar is very popular in Japanese winter fashion. Image from http://www.tokyofashion.com

I have had a lot of trouble explaining to Japanese women why most Belgians frown upon the practice of fur as a fashion statement. In Belgium, fur coats are usually only worn by wealthy, elderly ladies; possibly belonging to the aristocracy. Fur is simply not considered politically correct, of course relating to concerns regarding animal suffering. I think fur is also considered a tad decadent. We Belgians are a simple people (*insert self-mockery*).

Most European people, on the other hand, find it difficult to understand why Japanese people wouldn’t think twice about wearing fur. Here is a nation that cherishes the seasons, has dedicated vast amounts of poetry to the beauty of nature and is collectively overcome by a screaming fit of ‘kawaii!!!!’¹ if exposed to so much as the slightest hint of a furry creature; yet wearing fur is considered the most normal thing in the world. Indeed I have been scolded by a Japanese girl for admitting to occasionally eating rabbit, while she herself was wearing a fur scarf that looked an awful lot like rabbit fur. It is one of the many contradictions in Japanese culture that one simply cannot make sense of and that contribute to the enigma of this fascinating country.

As with most cultural differences, I have evolved from initial amazement and slight shock to a general acceptance of the habit. I even went as far as purchasing a pair of rabbit fur-trimmed gloves myself, my reasoning being that if I eat rabbit, I shouldn’t have a problem with wearing rabbit fur either. I did draw the line at the beautiful white coat in the picture below. I checked the label when I went to try it on, only to find out it was fox fur. My captivation with the coat was instantly dispelled.

Beautiful white coat trimmed with fox fur. That's a bridge I won't cross.

Beautiful white coat trimmed with fox fur. Although I think the coat is gorgeous, the fact that the collar is fox fur really put me off.

¹kawaii means cute

 

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!

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.

Are Japanese people impervious to cold?

Winter in Japan seems to provide me with endless inspiration for this blog. One of the things that keeps amazing me is how lightly some Japanese people dress, despite a freezing cold outside. It is not uncommon to see people walking around without a coat, without gloves or in open shoes without socks while it is near freezing outside.

In January we visited Hakone. We took a cable car to the top of a mountain, where it was freezing cold. As soon as we left the relative comfort of the cable car, we had to brace ourselves against gusts of icy wind that chilled us to the bone. Despite having donned up in my full winter armour, I still felt like my face was freezing off.

view of mount fuji from hakone

View of Mount Fuji from Hakone - too bad this photograph can't capture how incredibly cold it was

winter armour

My winter armour

It was so cold that even dogs were dressed in warm coats, as you can see in the picture below. But if you glance to the girl in the right of the picture, you might notice that she isn’t wearing a coat, just a sweater. How she manages to brace the cold for even five minutes in that attire is beyond me.

dog in a coat

The dog seems to be dressed warmer than the girl

She was hardly an exception, as the pictures below illustrate:

miniskirt in freezing weather

A miniskirt in this weather. Are you kidding me?!

Bare legs, just looking at them makes me cold!

Bare legs, just looking at them makes me feel cold!

And last but not least, a scene from the train on one particularly cold February evening, showing two schoolgirls with bare legs and another girl dressed in an outfit that I myself might wear in May.

summer outfit in February

Summer outfit in February

Why don’t these people dress warmer? Is it that they just couldn’t be bothered to put on a coat? It can’t just be about being fashionable because salarymen in plain suits do it as well.  Are they just as cold as me but ignore it? Or are they actually built differently and therefore less susceptible to the cold?

I have seen some evidence to that last option in the onsen. Japanese ladies often enter both steaming hot or icy cold water without so much as flinching, while I am forced to retreat from the same water because it is physically hurting me. It could be I am just a big sissy, but consider this next fact: Japanese people (and I think Asian people in general) have a lower body temperature than Caucasians. While the average temperature for a Caucasian is around 37° C, for Japanese people it is around 36° C. I have heard stories about Caucasian kids being sent home from a Japanese kindergarten because the teacher thought they had a fever, while in fact they were perfectly healthy.

So many questions… Anyone care to share their experiences on the subject?

The sunny side of Japan

Yesterday it snowed in Toyota City. That’s a big deal because in this area of Japan it rarely snows. In addition to that, the amount of snow we had yesterday (about 15 cm) occurs only once every twenty years, according to my Japanese teacher.

Snow in Toyota City, Japan

The view from our terrace in the morning

A lot of snow in Toyota City, Japan

Snow piled high

Snow covered flowers in Toyota City, Japan

Snow covered flowers

I was surprised to see that everyone in Japan uses an umbrella when it snows. In Belgium, just brushing off the snow before entering a building always seemed to do the trick. But come to think of it, snow is of course precipitation just like rain is, and I did seem to feel slightly less freezing when the snowflakes were kept away from my face thanks to my umbrella.

Umbrella and snow in Toyota City, Japan

Braving the snow with an umbrella

Of course Japanese kids love the snow, as I imagine kids do all over the world. I came across different snow men all day long.

Snow man in Toyota City, Japan

Snow man at Toyota City station

Kids playing in the snow, Toyota City, Japan

Children playing in the snow

As you can see in these pictures, it wasn’t long before the sun was shining again. That is one of the great things about winter in this part of Japan: lots of sunshine! In Belgium people often suffer from the ‘winter blues’ due to lack of sunshine.

Sunshine during Japanese winter, Toyota City, Japan

The view from our terrace the next day. Blue skies and sunshine, the snow all but molten

In Japan, all along the Pacific coast (the area called ‘Omote-Nihon’), winter is sunny and bright. On the Japan Sea coast however (the area called ‘Ura-Nihon’), they always get lots of snow, even up to 4m high this year. This difference in winter precipitation is caused by a mountain range that runs across the middle of Japan from north to south. The humid air blowing inland from the Japan Sea is stopped at the mountains and deposits its humidity as snow or rain, causing the other side of the mountains to be virtually cloud free all winter long.

japan precipitation map

Japan precipitation map, showing precipitation only on the Japan Sea coast, Toyota City is at the red cross (map from the Japan Meteorological Agency, click on the map to go the their site)