Tofugu » Food A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 24 Apr 2015 16:47:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Katsuobushi, The Dried Fish You Didn’t Know You Loved Fri, 03 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 This probably doesn’t look tasty to you. After all, it looks like a chunk of dirty wood: Photo by Andy King50 With the above pic in mind, try not to freak out when I have to tell you, if you love Japanese food, you’ve eaten that thing many, many times. It’s a dried fermented fish product called […]

The post Katsuobushi, The Dried Fish You Didn’t Know You Loved appeared first on Tofugu.

This probably doesn’t look tasty to you. After all, it looks like a chunk of dirty wood:


Photo by Andy King50

With the above pic in mind, try not to freak out when I have to tell you, if you love Japanese food, you’ve eaten that thing many, many times. It’s a dried fermented fish product called katsuobushi, and its flavor is the backbone of traditional Japanese cooking.

Katsuobushi is probably familiar to you in a different form: those papery-looking fish flakes sprinkled on top of cold tofu or okonomiyaki. But it has a less visible, very important role as a main ingredient in dashi, the broth used in traditional Japanese food. Unlike the soup stock used in most other countries, dashi takes only minutes to make – but that’s only after the weeks or months it takes to produce katsuobushi.

Like many traditional foods and crafts, old-fashioned ways of using katsuobushi have been replaced by modern shortcuts in many homes, but the real thing is still hanging on and even spreading across the world.

Start with A Fish


Katsuobushi is made from a fish called skipjack tuna or bonito in English. It’s katsuo in Japanese, reflected in its Latin name, Katsuwonus pelamis. As with any food with a long history, there are different types and many regional variations in how it’s produced, but for the most traditional and elaborate kind, here’s basically how it goes:

The fish is cut into four fillets and simmered for a couple hours, then deboned. Each fillet is then smeared with fish paste to fill in all the cracks and lines left where the bones were, giving it a smooth surface. Then it’s smoked for about a month.

After that, the hardened hunk of fish is shaved to make sure the shape is perfect, and then sprayed with mold. No, really, it’s okay – after all, many Japanese foods involve our little one-celled friends. In fact the mold used is related to kōji, the microorganism used to make sake, miso, and soy sauce – we wouldn’t have Japanese food without it. The moldy fillets then spend about six months cycling between resting in a humid fermentation room and being dried in the sunlight. The result is what you see above.

Nowadays only a very small percentage of katsuobushi goes through that entire process. The simpler kind, called arabushi, is simply smoked for thirty days. As we see with many other foods and drinks like cheese and wine, the longer aging and fermentation processes are reserved for the most expensive, high-quality product, which goes under various names including hongarebushi, karebushi and shiagebushi.

Now What?


You can’t just bite into a hunk of katsuobushi. Although I can’t confirm this, I heard on an NHK TV show that katsuobushi holds the Guinness record for world’s hardest food. If that’s not true, it ought to be. This is why the form we’re most familiar with is those flakes, because you’ve got to shave the hardened fish into paper-thin pieces to use it. The traditional device for producing the flakes by hand, a wooden box with a sharp blade on top and drawers to catch the shavings, is called a kezuriki, pictured above.

The flakes are eaten in many ways – on top of okonomiyaki (where they dance around from the heat), on top of takoyaki, on top of cold tofu, and inside of rice balls. But their most fundamental use is for dashi stock, which is used to make miso soup and is an ingredient in many traditional dishes. You may not know what dashi tastes like plain, but Japanese food wouldn’t taste like Japanese food without it.

The most basic dashi is made of kombu seaweed and katsuobushi flakes. There are variations on how to do this, but basically, you soak a piece of kombu for while, then simmer it for ten minutes or so. Then turn off the heat and add the katsuobushi. The dashi is done once the flakes sink to the bottom of the pan (from half a minute to a few minutes, depending on who you read).

I always thought it was interesting and surprising that making dashi goes so quickly. Western soup stocks take hours of simmering to develop flavor, which made me wonder how the Japanese figured out how to make it so easily? But now I know the truth that dashi takes MUCH longer to make – it’s just that the majority of the time is taken up in the production of the main ingredient long before it gets to your kitchen.

Why So Good?


Something like katsuobushi has been around since maybe the eighth century, with the first evidence of smoke-dying in the late 1600s and the fermentation process entering the picture about a century later. Various legends tell of some brave soul who found some dried, smoked katsuobushi that had gotten moldy, decided to eat it anyway, and discovered that it had become even more delicious.

But why? In my fridge, mold makes stuff worse, not better. What’s going on? Here are some of the effects of mold in the process of making katsuobushi, according to the Tokyo Foundation:

1. Mold consumes the moisture in the meat to sustain itself, thus accelerating desiccation.

2. Mold has the ability to decompose fat, ridding the meat of both its fat and smell and converting the fat into soluble fatty acids. The process also takes the edge off the taste, enhancing the savor and aroma.

3. Mold breaks down proteins into amino acids and other nitrogenous compounds, which also increase savor (umami).

4. The coating of mold keeps off other microorganisms.

5. Mold breaks down the neutral fat and increases free fatty acids, resulting in a clear soup when katsuobushi shavings are boiled.

The result of all this is crazy full of umami. Umami is a trendy foodie concept now, but it’s actually pretty old – and it originally came from Japan. In fact, dashi itself is where the concept comes from.

You may have heard that there are four primary tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. But it’s generally recognized now that there’s a fifth: umami, which is the flavor of savory, meaty things. One reason dashi has become central to Japanese cuisine is that it helps impart that kind of rich flavor to meatless dishes based on soy, vegetables, and fish.

In fact umami was first identified in 1908 by a Japanese scientist named Kikunae Ikeda who was thinking about why dashi had that meaty flavor. His analysis identified a component of kombu seaweed that he decided to call umami from the Japanese word umai, “delicious.” (Ikeda built an empire on that work: basically he had discovered MSG, which he sold under the name Ajinomoto, now a giant food and chemical corporation.)

The combination of ingredients in dashi, because of the inosinic acid in katsuobushi and glutamic acid in kombu, have a synergistic effect that more than doubles that umami effect.

“One plus one becomes three or more on the umami scale,” as one chef puts it.


Photo by tokyofoodcast

Still, the very highest quality katsuobushi is about more than just a couple of molecules. There are subtle variations in flavor, with resulting differences in price (like in the photo above) and individual and regional preferences. Supposedly many cooks in fancy Kyoto restaurants prefer what’s called Satsuma type made in Makurazaki in Kagoshima Prefecture. And individuals have individual preferences as well – dashi that tastes like mom made it can be a big deal. On my first trip to Japan, a friend took me to an udon place where she waxed ecstatic about the flavor of the dashi, a subtlety that was completely lost on me. And she’s clearly not alone – it’s even a trope you can find in fiction, like in a drama that I’ve written about elsewhere, where the proprietor of an old restaurant says she’ll have to shut down if their traditional katsuobushi maker goes out of business, because their food would never be the same without it.

Modern Cheats


Photo by Julie Frost

It’s no surprise that such a complicated food would be the target of modernizers. If you’ve ever bought katsuobushi yourself, you probably bought it already shaved. That’s a modern development, if you count the early 20th century as modern – which is fair to say given how long katsuobushi has been around. Before that, everyone had to have one of those shaver thingies to make the flakes themselves. The shop that’s said to have first started selling katsuobushi in flake form in the early Showa era is still in business at Tsuskiji Market: Akiyama Shouten, which was founded in 1916.

It’s also worth noting that nearly all of that pre-shaved katsuobushi in packets is the kind that’s produced the fast way, by just smoking, not the kind that’s fermented for six months. You’re not going to find the best quality product in packet form, same as how you won’t find the finest aged Parmigiano cheese pre-grated in a cardboard box with a shaker top.

It still counts as making dashi from scratch if you start with a packet of shavings, though, and you should try it because it’s really easy. But of course nowadays there are even shorter shortcuts. Given how fast it is to make dashi I’m a little ashamed to say that sometimes I use these little tea-bag things that have the seaweed and fish and other ingredients in them, which you just pop into a pot of boiling water and steep for a while. They’re really not bad though, compared to the fact that you can also buy dried instant granules and liquid concentrate. Can we all agree that there’s no excuse for that? At least use the tea bag thingies, okay?

Not Dead Yet


Photo by Sophie

Although there are worries about the preservation of Japanese traditional food culture and few people shave their own bonito flakes at home anymore, production of katsuobushi has actually been rising. And despite my own sad feelings about instant dashi granules, the reason for this increase is precisely the demand for its use in processed foods – not just convenient forms of dashi but entirely pre-made dishes like instant miso soup.

And while the majority of production is the simpler arabushi, there are producers committed to preserving the handmade product. One city, Yaezu, Shizuoka, where katsuobushi production is a major industry, has designated the art of making it the traditional way as a living cultural treasure.

Not only that, people are starting to make it overseas. This year, the first katsuobushi plant in France is supposed to begin production. The idea for the plant started when some visiting producers tasted a bowl of miso soup in Paris and were shocked at its lack of umami flavor. They discovered that the reason was that the French couldn’t get the fancy kind of katsuobushi from Japan because EU rules prohibited the import of moldy foods. So they decided to build a plant to make it locally. Another chef is reported to be planning to make his own for an udon shop in Switzerland.

A famous American chef is even extending the technique to non-fish. David Chang of Momofuku in Los Angeles, who’s known for being into fermenting anything he can get his hands on, has invented butabushi, processing pork in a similar way. Chang seems to be another brave man in the history of fermented foods, judging from tales of the initial attempts:

Pork loin is steamed, smoked and “left to rot.” The first time he made it, it was “a technicolor weird thing” covered with mold. “I wondered, am I dying as I’m breathing this in?'” But when cut into, it was the same amber as katsuobushi, and just as delicious, according to Chang.

He had a hard time replicating it at first but eventually even got a scientific journal article out of documenting the process, which included having the DNA sequence of the mold analyzed.

At the end of the day, katsuobushi seems to be doing all right. People are preserving the old ways as well as changing with the times. And I’ll raise a cup of miso soup to that. But not one made with granules.

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Japan’s Dependence on China’s Unsafe Food Wed, 14 Jan 2015 17:00:44 +0000 Fake eggs crossed the line.  I had gone through life in Japan, blindly filling my basket at the grocery store, hunting for the best bargains instead of the healthiest or safest options.  Then I heard about China’s fake (chicken) eggs – wonders of human innovation created by a complicated chemical process that look real enough to […]

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Fake eggs crossed the line.  I had gone through life in Japan, blindly filling my basket at the grocery store, hunting for the best bargains instead of the healthiest or safest options.  Then I heard about China’s fake (chicken) eggs – wonders of human innovation created by a complicated chemical process that look real enough to be sold and consumed by unsuspecting consumers.

Really?  Artificial eggs?  Chickens eat stuff off the ground and lay real eggs.  Ethical issues aside, I thought factory farming had that problem solved.  If any food seemed to be safe from forgery I thought the egg was it.  Boy, was I wrong.

Suddenly, I found myself giving the grocery aisles a shrewd eye.  The cheaper an item, the more suspect it became.

I interrogated products.  “Green tea, why are you so cheap?!”  Labels provided answers.  “Oh, because you’re from China huh?  Back to the shelf with you!”

Despite troubling trends in food safety, Japan depends on China for a surprising amount of food imports.  Everyone living in Japan can stand to take caution.  Yet the issue is not exclusive to Japan.  China’s continuing growth as a contributor to the global food market means the issue concerns everyone.

Too Bad to Be True?

Global confidence in China’s food products has taken several blows in recent years.  In 2007, when several brands of pet food made by the same manufacturer sickened and killed pets, the cause was found to be ingredients from China that were contaminated with melamine. Chicken jerky pet treats made in China have made also made thousands of pets sick and the illness has killed over a thousand dogs. The specific cause of that illness is still unknown and under investigation.

Since news of tainted pet food broke in 2007, scandals have continued to haunt China’s growing food industry.  The 2008 San Lu milk scandal shocked China and the world when milk and baby formula tested positive for traces of melamine, a chemical that can cause blindness. Vaughn M. Watson of World Policy Blog reported, “By the end of 2008, China’s ministry of health reported more than 300,000 children may have been affected by the contamination.”  But news of scandals only snowballed from there.

China’s food safety issues exploded into headlines earlier this year thanks to the tainted meat exported to Japan. A Shanghai company provided rancid meat to major Japanese fast food chains like McDonalds and Family Mart.  Zoe Li of CNN reported on the gloveless meat handlers and forged expirations dates among the company’s illegal and unsanitary practices.

By this point nothing should come as a surprise.  If food isn’t contaminated by toxins, it’s altogether counterfeit.  If it isn’t counterfeit it’s rancid.  At first, cases of gelatin injected shrimp, poison rice, and even glowing meat forced domestic customers to use caution.  Now expired meat and poison pet foods have forced the world to take heed.  When will China’s food scandals end?  More importantly, why are they happening in the first place?

What Gives?

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by High Contrast

As Chinese food scandals continue to break at home and abroad, consumers are left wondering why. Experts blame pollution, lack of regulations, and the strain of providing affordable food for the world’s largest population.


China’s air pollution may actually be more famous than its food scandals, a situation that gained notoriety thanks to the county’s quick cleanup before hosting the 2008 Olympic games.  Allison Jackson of Global Post writes:

It’s hard to overstate the severity of air pollution in China. In many cities the level of contamination in the air often reaches levels considered by experts to be hazardous, and much has been said about the devastating impact it’s all having on people’s health.

But the pollution problem doesn’t end with air quality. According to state reports, sixty percent of China’s underground water is also polluted (The Guardian). The less visible, less known problem of soil contamination is nearly as bad. The Wall Street Journal reported:

One survey declassified last December had found that nearly 20% of Chinese farmland could be contaminated with deadly heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. Officials in Guangzhou last year found high cadmium levels in 44% of rice samples.

Yet pollution has done little to deter the land’s use. “In Hunan, rice production in polluted sites has not stopped” said Mr. Wu of Greenpeace.

With its most important resources to food production heavily polluted, it’s no wonder China has given birth to food quality scandals.  Produce from polluted land still finds its way to the market and unlucky consumers pay the price with their health.


China's Unsafe Food

Photo by M M

If the Chinese government enforced regulations, pollution, contamination and counterfeiting wouldn’t be such a problem.  Instead, the government turns a blind eye, underplaying pollution and questionable practices. The Wall Street Journal points out, “Officials classify pollution data as ‘state secrets’ to prevent the public from pressuring them to take action.”

The Chinese government is so secretive that it falls under suspicion even when it takes visible action. The overemphasis of post-scandal government “crackdowns” force many to question their validity.  Conspiracy theorists believe the government set these smokescreens to reassure customer confidence and return things to normal.

Patty Lovera, Assistant Director of Food & Water Watch testified in Washington DC,

Since 2009, the Chinese government has made a point of making public displays of enforcing food safety rules, inspecting food facilities and punishing people connected with tainted food. News reports frequently reference millions of inspections of facilities and frequent “crackdowns” on particular products.

Proper inspections, performed by the Chinese government or other countries, only serve to shake consumer confidence. Stanley Lubman of China Real Time writes, “reports on the state of Chinese food processing establishments are discouraging. More than half of food processing and packaging firms on the Chinese mainland failed safety inspections in 2011, according to a report by Asia Inspection, a China-based food quality control company.”


China's Unsafe Food

Photo by MPF

Perhaps this is what it takes to feed the world’s largest population.  But in reported cases, profit trumps necessity, regulations and well-being.  Patty Lovera explains, “China’s food manufacturers often found to cut corners and substitute dangerous ingredients to boost sales.”

Food Scandals in China timeline on shows meat being injected with water to boost weight, cabbages sprayed with cancerous chemicals to prolong shelf-life and the use of “gutter oil,” a low-cost cooking oil made from “reprocessed garbage and sewage” (Max Fisher). All of these practices serve one purpose – increasing profit.  And that wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t at the expense of consumer health.

The Center for Investigative Reporting‘s Rachael Bale writes, “Halting agricultural production in many of the worst-hit areas simply isn’t an option.  It would put people’s livelihoods at risk and could result in food shortages.”

Enforcing food production and pollution rules with adequate inspections costs the government money. The abandonment of polluted land and disposal of contaminated goods equals net profit loss for producers.  In terms of profit, enforcement creates a lose-lose situation.  By turning a blind-eye everyone makes out, except consumers (and their pets).

But media exposure and the growing distrust of Chinese food producers may eventually lead to a loss of profit and food shortages anyway.  For example, the 2008 milk scandal forced many Chinese to avoid domestic milk products and empty supermarkets of imported alternatives, hurting China’s domestic producers and creating shortages

Recently exposed scandals and data hurt China’s reputation and its business’s wallets.  The government and businesses are slowly being forced to change.  Nations that buy from China are demanding proper regulations some conduct investigations of their own. Hopefully these scandals and tragedies will lead to true reforms that force China to become a trusted food source.

Why Import From China?

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Angie Harms 

Unbelievable scandals and the disregard of its own citizens’ safety begs the question – why would anyone import food from China?

Considering the countries long history of distrust and even downright hatred for one another, the question is especially poignant in Japan.  But like other countries, Japan depends on Chinese imports because it cannot produce enough food to support itself.

In the past, Japan’s large population and small, mountainous landmass made providing enough food for its population a challenge.  Yet farming techniques and technology helped Japan meet the challenge and for years Japan produced a large percentage of its own food.

Today Japan’s percentage of domestic food production is at an all time low.  According to Kazuhito Yamashita of The Tokyo Foundation, “Japan’s food self-sufficiency ratio has dropped below 40%.” Lack of arable land is not the problem. In fact, nature has begun to reclaim abandoned plots of farmland in the country. Unused agricultural plots located in residential areas are being converted into apartments, convenience stores and solar farms.  Yamashita writes, “Some 2.60 million hectares-more than 40% of the 6.09 million hectares that existed in 1961 – have disappeared due to abandonment and conversion for residential or other purposes.”

Japan’s aging farming population has also forced Japan’s dependance on imports.  The country’s farmers have reached retirement age.  According to one government report, in 2008 sixty percent of Japan’s farming population was sixty-five years old or older (, and no one is replacing the void left by these retirees.  Most young people have no desire to live in the country or farm for a living.  They perceive the farming lifestyle as uncool, inconvenient and therefore undesirable. Current population trends show Japanese citizens are migrating to cities.  The Japan Times reports,

The three largest metropolitan areas around Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka combined had a record high population of 64.39 million as of January, accounting for 50.9 percent of the whole nation, while 39 of Japan’s 47 prefectures lost population compared to the previous year.

Thanks to government subsidies Japan still produces enough rice for its population.  But that’s not true of all Japanese food staples. Kazuaki Nagata of the Japan Times explains,

Although Japan’s self-sufficiency rate for rice, eggs, whale meat and mandarin oranges exceeds 90 percent, the rate for essential ingredients for Japanese cuisine, including soy beans, is a mere 5 percent, and just 13 percent for daily necessities like cooking oil.  Half of the meat products consumed in Japan is imported.

Japan isn’t alone – countries around the world are growing dependent on Chinese imports.  Patty Lovera, Assistant Director of Food & Water Watch testified in Washington DC on behalf of the American people,

China is the largest agricultural economy in the world and one of the biggest agricultural exporters.  It is the world’s leading producer of many foods… apples, tomatoes, peaches, potatoes, garlic, sweet potatoes, pears, peas – the list goes on and on.

Like Japanese and Chinese citizens, Lovera worries about the dangers of Chinese products and advocates stricter enforcement of import regulations at home to make up for the lack in China.  As China grows as a global food producer, we all have reason to use caution.

Major Chinese Imports

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Nino Barbieri

After learning to read Japan’s food labels, I found the amount of food imported from China surprising.  And there was usually one dead giveaway – the lower the price of the product, the more likely it originated in China. Most of my local supermarkets’ honey and peanuts came from China. Honey from other countries sold for about five times the price.  Non-Chinese peanuts went for triple the cost.

Deeper investigation revealed the majority of Japan’s garlic, pumpkin seeds and frozen berries also come from China.  China’s garlic is so cheap that it undersells locally grown garlic, despite shipping costs.  In America, cheap garlic imports are putting California’s local garlic growers out of business. As China increases its production of green tea and kimchi, local Japanese and Korean industries might face the same threat.

Now I don’t want to seem unfair.  All countries have their share of contaminated food products.  Japan has strict regulations on American beef imports due to mad cow disease.  Germany and Scandinavian countries lead the world in incidents of campylobacter, salmonella, yersinia, e.coli and listeria. Perhaps some degree of contamination comes with the food business. But out of all the world’s food scandals, China’s are the most consistent, bizarre, and alarming.  And research shows we have reason to worry.

What You Can Do?

China's Unsafe Food

Although strict regulations and enforcement would be optimal, they are not a reality.  Right now we have to take responsibility for ourselves.  Since China has become a global food provider, anyone that cares about their health needs to remain vigilant.

But taking extra care can prove tricky abroad, where language and cultural barriers add a layer of difficulty.  Throw in three different types of characters (hiragana, katakana and kanji) and it becomes downright intimidating. That’s why Tofugu is providing these tips and tricks to help our fans in Japan protect themselves.

Most packaged foods feature important product information on the back of the package, framed by a convenient little table.  Here are the categories that usually fill out the table’s left side.

  • 名称  (meishou):  the product’s name.
  • 原料 (genryou) / 材料 (zairyou): ingredients.
  • 原料 原産 地名 (genryou gensan chimei): the goods’ or ingredient’s place of origin.  The following locations are featured on the right.
    • 国産 (kokusan) domestic
    • (ken) prefecture
    • 中国 (chuugoku) China
    • 韓国 (kankoku) Korea
    • アメリカ, 米国 (amerika, beikoku) America/United States
    • カナダ (kanada) Canada
  • 保存 方法 (hozon houhou): storage instructions
  • 商品の情報 (shouhin no jouhou):  product information
  • 内容料 (naiyou ryou): the content quantity/weight of the goods/package
  • メーカー名 (meekaa mei): name of maker/manufacturer
  • 製造者 (seizousha): manufacturer

Overwhelming labels become less intimidating when you know what to look for.  The most important kanji to remember are 原料 原産 地名 (genryou gensan chimei), 国産 (kokusan),  (ken) and if you intend on avoiding Chinese products, 中国 (chuugoku).

From the examples above we can see that the package on the right contains strawberries (イチゴ) from China (中国).  That label lists little information and is easy to decipher.  The one on the left contains more detailed information.  But when you know what to look for, finding the important information becomes easy.  It contains blueberries (ブルーベリー) from the United States (アメリカ).

Happy label reading!

The Label-less

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Matt Smith

While produce like loose vegetables and fruit don’t have labels, they often have signs nearby explaining their origins.  In the case of imports, the signs will show the country of origin.  This is where knowing the kanji for China comes in handy.

In the case of domestic produce, the sign will display the prefecture’s name. Remember, prefecture/ken is written with .  So if the sign shows a bunch of kanji with  at the end, the item is probably domestic, from one of Japan’s prefectures.

Research Online

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Merdal

If a food seems suspicious, for example it has an unbelievably low price or a strange taste, search for it online.  I didn’t know Japan imported green tea from China until I bought a cheap, odd tasting green.  The package revealed that it came from China and this article from Greenpeace informed me that Chinese tea leaves test positive for banned pesticides. From then on I made sure to buy domestic green tea.

When I searched for Chinese honey, I discovered that the United States bans the product due to illegal antibiotics and heavy metals.  Cassandra Profita of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, “Chinese honey producers inject some honey with water, heat it, filter it and distill it into syrup, which wipes out antibiotics but turns it into a diluted, less valuable product that can be sold below the price of regular honey production.”  The enterprise is so profitable it has given birth to global Chinese honey smuggling rings.

A search for cheap garlic revealed that Chinese garlic had “high levels of lead, arsenic and added sulfites” (The Washington Post).  The trend continued and my searches exposed antifreeze contaminated toothpastes, “catfish laden with banned antibiotics, mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides, and others” (The Washington Post).

When you’re uncertain about the quality of a product from any country, do an internet search. What it reveals might surprise you and change your shopping habits!

You Are What You Eat

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Arto Teräs

In the past, I shopped for the best deals. Price dictated what I bought and quantity ruled the day. But when getting more for your money includes extra antibiotics, heavy metals, molds, and pesticides it may be time to change your shopping habits. Watching your budget is important, but so is protecting your health.

China’s recurring food scandals should have us all taking extra caution. Although news of China’s tainted dog treats first broke in 2007, instances of sickness and deaths from those treats continue today.  It’s unfortunate, but these instances can be avoided.  Small efforts, like checking labels and doing a little research can go a long way.

Although I’ve become cautious, there are always new surprises. Thanks to this article I learned my frozen strawberries come from China! Time to do more research!

Of course, even with extreme caution, you can never be too sure. The idea of honey smuggling seems like a joke, but it’s a real problem. Though the label may say pure honey from India, customers might actually be buying watered down, contaminated honey smuggled from China.

Each new China food scandal makes the next one easier to swallow (pun intended).  Instead of shock, we’re left wondering, “what’s next?”

From gutter oil to fake eggs and poison milk, nothing about the bizarre state of Chinese food production surprises me anymore. But with a little effort I hope to avoid becoming a victim of food scandal – it’s bad enough having to read about them.

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Amezaiku: Japanese Candy Creatures Born from Sugar and Fire Tue, 06 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 In traditional Japanese cuisine, it’s not enough for something to taste good, it has to look good too. This is particularly true of sweets, which are often just as much a handicraft as a food. The most famous example of this is the seasonal wagashi sweets traditionally made for the tea ceremony, which look more […]

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In traditional Japanese cuisine, it’s not enough for something to taste good, it has to look good too. This is particularly true of sweets, which are often just as much a handicraft as a food. The most famous example of this is the seasonal wagashi sweets traditionally made for the tea ceremony, which look more like tiny sculptures of flowers, fruits, and other seasonal symbols than something to eat.

Amazingly, candy sculptures aren’t restricted to high society. Common people had them too. Even their children had amezaiku. This unique craft of making intricate sugar figures of animals and other creatures was once commonly practiced by street vendors, but recently it seemed at risk of dying out, restricted by new health regulations and losing the competition with more modern forms of fun. But now, new craftspeople are keeping it alive and adding their own personal take on the tradition.

Shaping Syrup

cropped critters

Amezaiku, unlike other candies, is edible entertainment, as much performance as sustenance. One place where you can watch the mesmerizing act of amezaiku creation today is Amezaiku Yoshihara in Sendagi, Tokyo. If you buy one of the already-made creatures (like the ones pictured above), you miss out on the best part.

To do watch the show, first make a choice from their catalog. Amezaiku artisans can make giraffes, dragons, snails, octopi, koalas, wild boar, owls, flamingos, different breeds of dogs, and many more. They also have seasonal specials, like their own rabbit mascot dressed up in Halloween outfits. When I was there, I wanted something quintessentially Japanese but, I have to confess I also thought, “what’s the point of watching him make something easy?” So I picked a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, the kind that’s kept as a pet.  With its thin legs and antenna, it looked like the most challenging of the lot.

The amezaiku artisan’s material is a boiling pot of mizuame, a sugar syrup made from rice or potato starch, similar to corn syrup. Grabbing a glob of the molten mixture and holding it above a small fan, he tosses and stretches it like taffy until it reaches the right temperature. The mizuame is white so, if the creature is meant to be a different color, the artisan adds a drop of coloring, which mixes in as he stretches and kneads.

When the material is the right consistency, he compresses it back into a glob and inserts a long wooden lollipop stick. Then, using only his fingers and a small pair of special scissors, he makes tiny cuts and pulls the candy into legs, ears, wings, or antenna, depending on the creation.

amezaiku artisan making beetle

You can see a video of him making a cute octopus here. He has only a few minutes to make the figure before the candy becomes too stiff to work with. When he’s done, he taps on it with his fingernail to show you that it’s hardened. He paints on details with a tiny brush, then wraps it carefully and you’re good to go.

finished amezaiku beetle

Don’t ask me how it tastes. It’s been over a month now and I haven’t had the heart to eat it. I’m not sure I ever will.

Evolution of Amezaiku


Some sources say that amezaiku goes all the way back to the eighth century, when a candy puller made an offering at the completion of the temple To-ji which was built when the capital was moved from Nara to Kyoto. But what’s recognizable as amezaiku today probably started in the Edo period, where it was known as “ame no tori” or “candy birds” since that was the usual shape that was made. The technique was actually different in the old days: the craftsman put the glob of candy on the end of a hollow reed and blew air into it, rather like glassblowing. The result was a hollow candy, less intricate than we see today.

Techniques grew more complicated over time, and the English flyer at Amezaiku Yoshihara gives a rather fanciful explanation for how this happened:

It is said that the ninja disguised themselves as candy workmen and wandered through the town, collecting information on the techniques that each candy puller used. The talents and secrets of the different pullers were collected, and more complicated technology and designs were collected, making the candy pulling ever more complicated and beautiful.

Amezaiku makers didn’t have shops. They were traveling vendors. The video below is a traditional call of a vendor entreating children to come and buy candy birds.

The fact that amezaiku vendors made their wares on the streets contributed to the decline of the craft in the late 20th century. In the 1970s, health laws prohibited candy from being made in street stands, and also outlawed the old technique of blowing hollow candies, because you’d have the craftsman’s germs on the inside of your candy. (It’s still done this way in China, as you can see in this photo.)

Making a living as a candy vendor on the street was always hit or miss, but eventually it became impossible. The remaining artisans hired themselves out for festivals and private events. In 1995, an amezaiku maker included in a book called “Vanishing Japan” was said to be the last experienced one in Tokyo. He said that his customers at that point were mostly young women, rather than children. Kids were too busy with scheduled activities, he said, but no doubt amezaiku faced stiff competition from the burgeoning world of TV and video games.

That vendor also said he had many apprentices during his thirty year long career but not a single one stuck with it. You can’t blame them when you hear current practitioners talk: suffering for your art is unavoidable when your material is sticky syrup at a temperature of 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit). One craftsman, when asked what was the trick to touching the hot molten sugar, told a reporter that, when he began learning, “I thought there should be a trick, but there was NOT.” Another recently explained on an NHK TV show, “your skin hardens and your nerves die, so you don’t feel the heat.”

Candy Creatures Change with the Times


Photo by Exploratorium

As is clear from the fact that there are current practitioners to quote, amezaiku hasn’t vanished completely, and new practitioners are taking the craft to new places.

The craftsman who made my beetle, Takahiro Yoshihara, was the first to open a permanent brick and mortar amezaiku shop. He’s been in business since 2008, and there are three other artisans who work for the shop as well. Yoshihara made an interesting observation about the development of the craft now that it’s being done in a shop. When I went, I got to see the show, but I also bought an already-made rabbit to take home to a friend. The latter sort of purchase puts pressure on the craftspeople to make their products more impressive:

“At festivals, you buy amezaiku for yourself, and the fun part is watching it being made. But in a shop like this one, people come to buy something to give to someone else, so the person who receives it doesn’t know how it was made. And if the thing they receive is not extremely well made, they won’t be happy to receive it. One thing I noticed since I opened the shop is that I think the shapes become more and more beautiful.”

The success of this shop was a good sign for the craft, but when there’s only one of something, it’s hard to have confidence that it’s not on the brink of disappeaing. However, there’s now a second shop. Opened in 2013 in Asakusa, Shinri Tezuka of Ameshin has his own style, using clear sugar and painting on translucent layers of color. To increase interest in the craft, both places offer workshops where you can try it yourself (although remember, you’ve still got nerve endings to burn off).

These are the only two shops, but they’re far from the only amezaiku makers left. Others still do it more or less the old way, travelling around and appearing at special events, although they’re modernizing the business in other ways. Some are on the internet, of course: You can read the blog (in Japanese) of a woman in Nagano who has her own company. And Takahiro Mizuki, another Tokyo amezaiku maker, has a website in three languages, Japanese, French and English. Mizuki makes traditional figures but is just as happy to make modern characters like Pikachu and Winnie the Pooh.

Amezaiku Abroad and Beyond!


There are also a handful of amezaiku makers outside Japan. In fact, if you’re an American and this all sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because for years there was a woman who did it at Epcot Center,  although sadly she’s no longer there. There are also a couple in Los Angeles and Hawaii,  both places with large Japanese-American communities. (The LA craftsperson is actually training his nephew, who came from Sapporo and plans to return to Japan to practice the trade.)
And those travelling amezaiku artists travel a lot farther now than they did in the old days. Takahiro Yoshihara of the Sendagi shop recently performed at a fair in New York City. And if you’ve got the big bucks to hire an international travelling amezaiku artist, try Takahiro Mizuki – he’s been to the US and Saudi Arabia and says on his website “Will fly anywhere on the planet!”

Amezaiku is still seen as something old-fashioned – Takahiro Mizuki writes that, much to his amusement, he’s even heard elementary school children call it “nostalgic.” But it looks like, while they might have had a close call there for a while, these candy creatures have been saved from extinction.

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  • Kiritani, Elizabeth. Vanishing Japan. Tuttle, 1995.

Uncredited images by Linda Lombardi

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Wined, Dined, Brined, and Intestined: Acquiring a Taste for Japanese Delicacies Mon, 15 Dec 2014 17:00:00 +0000 The world has fallen in love with Japanese cuisine. It has even been recognized as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. You probably know all about the big stars of Japanese food: sushi, noodles, onigiri. Maybe you’ve even tried some stranger Japanese dishes, like the opinion dividing natto. But have you ever heard of chinmi? Chinmi (珍味) […]

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The world has fallen in love with Japanese cuisine. It has even been recognized as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. You probably know all about the big stars of Japanese food: sushi, noodles, onigiri. Maybe you’ve even tried some stranger Japanese dishes, like the opinion dividing natto.

But have you ever heard of chinmi? Chinmi (珍味) literally means “rare taste,” but it also contains the meanings of acquired taste and delicacy. To give you some context of what sort of food qualifies as a chinmi, the word is also used to describe some non-Japanese foods such as caviar, truffles, and foie gras, which are described as 世界の三大珍味, the world’s top three delicacies.

The idea of chinmi pops up in Japanese popular culture across the spectrum from the surreal Toriko to the classic Oishinbo. Seeking out strange gourmet dishes is possible in the real world too. Even for Japanese people, these are a little out of the ordinary. If you really want to level up your Japanese food appreciation, seek chinmi out. Some of them are hard to find. Some of them are hard to stomach. Some of them are hidden gems.

The Top Three

Uni (sea urchin), karasumi (dried mullet roe), and konowata (salted sea cucumber innards) reign supreme in the world of chinmi. These three are the most popular and widely available.



Photo by Tako Yamada

The spiky little sea urchin, or uni, is valued for its roe (ripe eggs). You can easily find uni topping donburi or gunkan sushi across Japan. However, the most famous regions for uni production are old Echizen province (now Fukui prefecture) and the cool northern waters of Hokkaido. Living in Hokkaido, I had many chances to eat top notch uni. Unfortunately, I never made the most of it since I’m not really a fan. I felt pretty bad about wasting this opportunity since uni is a very pricey delicacy, with top quality uni fetching $450 per kilogram. Even if I can’t give you my personal recommendation, if you want to try one of Japan’s top three tastes then give uni a try. As a side note, sea urchins got their English name from their resemblance to hedgehogs, who have a wide variety of nicknames including urchin and furze-pig. Aww uni are cute, gourmet, little sea-hedgehogs.



The name karasumi supposedly comes from it’s resemblance to sumi (ink sticks) from China (kara). Karasumi is very similar to the Mediterranean dish botargo. Both are the cured roe pouches of the mullet fish. Karasumi is typically soft, while botargo is harder. Karasumi is made by salting mullet roe and drying it in the sunlight. Karasumi becomes even more of a delicacy if it’s given a sake bath or smoked. There are plenty of different karasumi to try. Traditionally served as a side to sake, thanks to its powerful umami flavor, karasumi has also become a popular ingredient in a wide array of dishes, such as this karasumi pasta.



Photo by Ryosuke Hosoi

Konowata is made from the cured entrails of sea cucumbers. Sea cucumbers are pretty fascinating creatures in their own right (even before they have their guts scooped out and turned into something you can eat.) Sea cucumbers don’t have brains, they barely even have a nervous system and they aren’t vegetables, despite what the name suggests. They are echinoderms from the class Holothuroidea. In Japanese they are called namako (海鼠) which literally means sea mice. Squishy, sausauge shaped creatures that live on the bottom of the sea probably don’t seem very appetizing. Yet, their guts are highly valued in Japan. First, the entrails are scooped out. Then, they are cleaned thoroughly. Salt is added and the mixture is stirred frequently for about 5 hours. The final step is putting it in a barrel for a week to let the intestines’ own enzymes work on turning themselves into finished konowata. Since sea cucumbers aren’t very big, the process doesn’t produce high volumes. A 100 gram jar will set you back about 3000 yen. The final taste is briny and pungent, verging on putrid. It is often served with sake and sometimes even served in sake. That makes it slide down easier.

Rarer Rare Tastes

If you’ve mastered Japan’s top three chinmi, how about seeking out some of the other ones? Just because they didn’t make the top three, doesn’t mean they aren’t delicious and/or disgusting. Either way, they are certainly worth hunting down. Even if rare tastes aren’t your thing, at the very least, forewarned is forearmed. I know from personal experience how much some people get a kick out of watching others try these dishes. I wish I’d known what I was eating before I tried some of these. So here are a few of my top chinmi recommendations/warnings.



Photo by: DDD DDD

You know when a food is described as “famously malodorous” it has got to be good. Kusaya has a pretty interesting history. It comes from the Izu islands, the tropical island chain that is technically part of Tokyo. In the Edo period, the people there made a living from salt production and paid their taxes in salt because they didn’t produce enough rice. This left the islanders with little salt to use themselves to preserve their food. They frugally reused the salty brine which they cured fish in over and over again. The brine, called kusaya eki (くさや液) became sticky and stinky and so did the cured fish, which is called kusaya. The kusaya eki, or kusaya juice, was also used as a medicine. These days, each of the inhabited Izu islands has a different brand of kusaya, with Hachijo-jima and Niijima being particularly well esteemed.



Photo by kobakou

The kanji that make up the name shutō (酒盗) mean sake thief. This name indicates shutō’s typical accompaniment, alcohol. Actually, most chinmi are usually served as sides while you are drinking. (Perhaps the alcohol helps distract from the fact you are eating pickled sea stuff.) Shutō itself has one of the most stomach turning descriptions. It is made from the entrails of the bonito (katsuo), a fish more widely known as an ingredient in Japan’s ubiquitous stock dashi. The guts are mixed with sake, honey, and mirin. After six months of fermenting, it’s ready to eat with a nice glass of sake. You are most likely to find shutō in Odawara city in Kanagawa prefecture.



Photo by pelican

Dorome is a speciality of Akaoka Town in Kouichi prefecture. It takes the alcohol-chinmi link to new heights as it is celebrated in the Dorome Matsuri, a festival that involves a men vs women sake drinking competition. The dorome themselves are a type of young anchovy fry that are eaten whole, similar to whitebait. The Dorome Matsuri may be more about drinking than it is about dorome, but the fish are pretty good too, especially with ponzu sauce.



Photo by Shinya ICHINOHE

Akita prefecture brings us a chinmi that isn’t made of marine stuff! Tonburi is made from the Bassia scoparia plant, also known as the burning-bush, Mexican fireweed, or hōkigi (ホウキギ), depending on where you find it. The seeds of the hōkigi plant are dried, boiled, soaked, and then rubbed by hand to remove the skins. Although it isn’t made from fish, it seems even this plant-based chinmi can’t escape the marine connection as tonburi is sometimes called “land caviar” as its texture resembles fish eggs. The little dark green seed pods are often used as a garnish.



Photo by Ryosuke Hosoi

I had to include something made from fugu. This is Tofugu, after all. You’ve probably heard of fugu, the fish that can kill you if it isn’t prepared properly. Well how would you like to eat a fugu’s ovaries?
Usually this would be a very bad idea, as the ovaries contain very high levels of the potent neurotoxin tetrodotoxin. Chefs train for years to learn how to cut out the ovaries without contaminating the rest of the fish. Of course, some clever person looked at all those discarded toxic ovaries and thought, “what a waste.” In Ishikawa prefecture, a technique was developed to make the ovaries edible. They are salted and pickled for almost two years. This renders the toxins harmless. Even so, each batch must be tested by the Ishikawa Prefecture Preventive Medical Association before it can be sold. Would you dare to eat Fugunoransounonukadzuke?



The other half of Tofugu is tofu, so here’s a tofu based chinmi. Tofuyo is a delicacy from Okinawa, characterised by its red color and pungent smell. It is made from shimadofu, Okinawan tofu that is a little harder than other Japanese tofu. It is fermented with benikoji, or red yeast rice, and the local Okinawan distilled spirit awamori. The bright red color of tofuyo comes from the mould Monascus purpureus. Apart from being yummy, tofuyo may also have health benefits. A 2012 study found that tofuyo increased the life span of mice infected with influenza. Stinky and healthy – yum!

Karashi Renkon


Photo by Shinichi Kato

If you like mustard, karashi rekon is the delicacy for you. It’s from Kumamoto in Kyushu and comes with a legend attached. The daimyo of Kumamoto, Tadatoshi Hosokawa became sick. In some versions of the story a zen monk called Gentaku, and in other versions a kitchen worker named Heigoro, presented the sick Hosokawa with a lotus root that had been boiled, stuffed with a miso and mustard paste and deep fried. Supposedly, this cured Hosokawa. Conveniently for the story, sliced lotus root looks a lot like the mon (family crest) of the Hosokawa family. It is important to note that karashi renkon should be quite thinly sliced before you eat it. It is often sold whole, but if you try to take a big bite, you’re going to have a bad time



It wouldn’t be an article about unusual foods without some insect action. This one comes courtesy of Gifu prefecture where they cook up a delicious meal of black hornet larvae. It is also sometimes called hachinoko (hornet’s children). The honeycombs are collected before summer to encourage the hornets to build larger combs. The larvae are plucked out and boiled in either soy sauce and sugar or honey. If you don’t like your hornet larvae sweet, you can also try them as a sushi filling. Now, I haven’t actually tried these, but I would given the chance. As I always say, why not eat insects? These bugs were an important source of protein for generations in Japan.



Photo by t-mizo

The last chinmi I’ll introduce you to today is the dramatically black kurozukuri. It gets its color from squid ink. Squid is salted and mixed with its own ink and liver. It is then left for over a month, undergoing fermentation by various different microbes including, Staphylococcus saprophyticus and Weissella paramesenteroides. If you like the sound of that, go find some kurozukuri in Toyama prefecture and pick up a copy the manga or watch the anime of Moyashimon: Tales of Agriculture to learn more about the wonderful world of the microbes in your food.

Chinmi and the History of Japanese food


Photo by jun560

You might have noticed a theme running through many of the chinmi I’ve just described, fermentation and preservation. The Zenchinrin Association, which promotes chinmi, classifies chinmi into groups; smoked, salted, marinated, pickled, roasted, dried, and boiled. All of these techniques are used to prevent food from spoiling. Japanese cuisine as we know it now is very different than it was even 100 years ago. From a food production standpoint, Japan was not an easy country to live in. While it is rich in resources such as sea food, there were cultural and logistical problems in farming animals for food. Before the introduction of the refrigerator and food imports, people relied on preservation techniques to store enough food to keep them going through hard times. Chinmi illustrate the inventiveness of Japanese cuisine in making the most of the resources available.

These days many people, Japanese or foreign, would rather have a plate of curry rice than a dish of fermented fish guts. I’m probably one of them (curry rice is delicious!). However, if you have the chance to try some chinmi, just screw up your nose and put that stuff in your mouth. Maybe you won’t like it the first time you try it. Maybe you’ll love it. Either way, you’ll have a better appreciation of how lucky we are to be able to make choices about our foods. Also, you can gain an appreciation for the background that some of your favorite Japanese foods like sushi and miso emerged from. The chinmi are a window back into Japan’s past. Many of them have dwindled to little more than oddities, even for Japanese people, but they show us that some of the techniques our favorites share are still alive (just as the microbes that make them are still alive too).

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Are You Kelping Me? There is More Than One Seaweed on the Menu? Fri, 24 Oct 2014 16:00:46 +0000 Wrapping your sushi, topping your okonomiyaki, or floating in your miso soup: there’s a lot of seaweed in Japanese cuisine.  Seaweed consumption has a long history in Japan.  In the Taiho Code of 701, one of Japan’s earliest legal codes, some seaweeds (including kombu, nori, and wakame) were an acceptable form of tax payment.  Though […]

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Wrapping your sushi, topping your okonomiyaki, or floating in your miso soup: there’s a lot of seaweed in Japanese cuisine.  Seaweed consumption has a long history in Japan.  In the Taiho Code of 701, one of Japan’s earliest legal codes, some seaweeds (including kombu, nori, and wakame) were an acceptable form of tax payment.  Though foreigners have become more familiar with their flavors over the past few decades, seaweed and the full extent of its culinary applications remain a bit mysterious to many (at least in America).  Let’s have a look at these delicacies of the deep, their history, production, and a recipe you can try at home.


Seaweed is a word applied to a wide variety  of species.  They are divided into three different Phylum: Rhodophyta (red), Ochrophyta (brown), Chlorophyta (green).  Unlike terrestrial plants seaweeds don’t have roots.  They do have parts for anchoring themselves which may appear root-like, but they draw their nutrients straight from the water around them.  Like other plants, they do photosynthesize, so most seaweed grows in shallow water where the light can reach them.

Kombu 昆布


Photo by: Benjyamin

Kombu refers mainly to Saccharina japonica, but sometimes to other kelp species.  There is some evidence of earlier kombu consumption, but it was definitely being eaten by the eighth century.  It grows mainly around Hokkaido and northern Honshu, but during the Muromachi period (1336-1573), new drying techniques were developed which let kombu be transported further.  By the Edo period it had become widely used in Japanese cooking.  It even became a mainstay in the cuisine of the Ryukyu kingdom (modern day Okinawa Prefecture), roughly 1600 km away!  Even today, Okinawan households consume more kombu per year than those of any other prefecture.


Photo by: iris

Kombucha, but no kombu.

You may be wondering, as I once did, if the kombucha that is so currently popular amongst the health conscious is made with kombu.  The answer is no.  In Japan there are teas made from dried, powdered kombu, but that is not what Americans are buying at Whole Foods these days.  The popular kombucha is black or green tea that is fermented with a colony of bacteria or yeast.  It’s probably from northeast China or Manchuria and spread to Russia sometime before 1910.  The name kombucha (referring to this drink) first appeared in 1995, but the reasons remain uncertain.  People may have thought the film left by the fermenting culture looked like seaweed.  In Japan this drink is called koucha kinoko literally “red tea mushroom,” though “red tea” is how Japanese labels what is called black tea in English.  Does your head hurt now too?  Maybe you should have a cup of tea.  Let’s return to the basics.

marine menu Kombu-on-tempura

Photo by: star5112

Kombu’s most essential role in Japanese cooking is in providing umami flavor to most dashi (stock), and dashi is used in a whole lot of recipes.  Kombu does have many other uses though, like wrapping appetizers or in pickle making.

Wakame わかめ


Photo by: Javier Lastras

Undaria pinnatifida is a large brown seaweed, usually found in shallow waters.  It can grow in dense stands, making a thick seaweedy forest.  It’s also tough, and can deal with a range of temperatures and salinity levels.  It’s native to coastlines around Japan, Korea, and China, but has become an invasive species as well (more on this in an upcoming article).  What is believed to be wakame residue has been found on Jomon period (14,000-300 BCE) pottery, showing that people in Japan have been munching on it for a long time.  You probably know it best from its use in miso soup.


Photo by: zenjiro

Nori 海苔


Photo by: Kattebelletje

Nori, which now wraps your sushi, originally referred to number of seaweeds, but came to be applied to a couple species of red algae of the genus Porphyra.  It has been eaten in Japan since at least the eighth century.  Nori was collected from the rocks, shells, wood, etc. that it grew upon in shallow waters.


Photo by: Mr Hicks46

Around the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868) it was discovered that the nori growing in Edo Bay, near Asakusa was especially delicious.  As the capital grew and reclaimed a lot of shoreline people began cultivating nori on poles stuck in the shallows, then on nets attached to poles, then on large floating nets.  Over time Edo Bay became Tokyo Bay and the waters became too warm and polluted for nori to thrive as it once did.  There are still a few closely guarded locations in Tokyo Bay where nori is grown, and you can still buy the famous Asakusa nori if you don’t mind throwing down $300 for 72 sheets.


Photo by: Koji Horaguchi

For hundreds of years it was eaten in a wet, paste-like form.  The dry, sheet form was invented in the early 18th century based on the paper making process.  After being rinsed, strained and chopped into fine pieces the nori is put into a wooden frame on a bamboo mat in a bucket of water to make a sheet.  Everything is then removed from the water and the bamboo mat with the nori sheet is set out on a rack to dry in the sun.  After drying, sheets of nori are usually roasted.


Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker

In 1949, British scientist Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker discovered that nori has three distinct stages in its life cycle.  She found that during one of these stages nori grows on oyster shells and similar surfaces.  This discovery led to the practice of collecting oyster shells and using them to ‘seed,’ an innovation which led to an upscale in nori production.  There is a monument to Kathleen Drew-Baker at Sumiyoshi Shrine in Uto City, Kumamoto Prefecture, where she is honored as the “mother of the sea” every April 14th.

In 2010 another nori-related scientific discovery was made.  Scientists found evidence that Japanese people have a genetic advantage in getting nutrients from nori.  Exclusively in people of Japanese ancestry, the scientists found gut bacteria which produce an enzyme for breaking down algal carbohydrates such as those found in nori.  There are certain marine bacteria that produce similar enzymes, and they hypothesized that in the past such a marine bacteria was ingested and transferred the genes for making the algae-eating enzyme to the human gut bacteria.  They speculate that this is only found in Japanese people because such gene transfer events would be rare, and due to the volume of seaweed eaten by the Japanese, it would have been far more useful to them than most other people.

Aonori 青のり


Photo by: Norio NAKAYAMA

It’s not just the name; aonori and nori are from different families.  Aonori can refer to algae of a couple different genera in the Ulvaceae family.  It makes a great topping for dishes like yakisoba, takoyaki, and okonomiyaki, adding a little extra umami.

Hijiki 鹿尾菜 / 羊栖菜


Photo by: Janne Moren

Sargassum fusiforme grows attached to the rocky bottoms of coastlines, but is sometimes ripped free by waves or weather and continues to live in a more free floating manner.  Some hijiki is cultivated, but when harvested from the wild divers cut it with sickles during low tide in springtime.  In the store you can find just the little leaves or leaves and stems together.  Just make sure to thouroughly rehydrate or you’ll be in for a long chew.


Photo by: Kattebelletje

Hijiki contains all sorts of mineral goodness, being high in calcium, iodine, and magnesium.  However studies have found that hijiki also contains potentially harmful levels of inorganic arsenic, and currently the food safety agencies of the U.S., U.K., and Canada advise against eating it.  The Japanese government responded with a report that conceded that eating more than 4.7 grams of hijiki a day could exceed tolerable levels of inorganic arsenic, but pointed out that the average daily consumption in Japan is only 0.9 grams.  So far, no known illnesses have been linked to hijiki consumption.

Arame あらめ / 荒布


Photo by: Rakuten

Eisenia bicyclis is a small species of kelp native (seemingly exclusively) to Japan.  It is a stiff, woody stem with two feathery fronds growing from the top.  It has a mild flavor, so it’s used in a wide variety of side dishes, soups and salads.

Umi budo 海ぶどう


The name means “sea grapes,” and you can see why.  Not unlike grapes they, pop pleasantly in your mouth, though umi budo are slightly salty, not sweet like their vine-dangling counterparts.  Known to the scientific community as caulerpa lentillifera, vertical stems of tightly packed spheres rise from long horizontal stems that spread across the ocean floor.  Umi budo are a popular dish in Okinawa, usually fresh with a side of soy sauce, or as part of a salad.

Allez Cuisine!


Photo by: jamesjustin

I’ve only touched the surface of the many tasty sea veggies used in Japanese cuisine.  What’s your favorite seaweed?  Hopefully you’ll be inspired to go cook.  I know writing this made me start to crave some umami filled goodness.  One way to experience a lot of that great seaweed flavor is by making tsukudani, seaweed simmered in soy sauce and mirin.  You can eat it with rice or put it in the center of onigiri, but be careful.  It’s potent.  I’ll leave you with this simple delicious recipe.  It’s for kombu, but you can try it with other seaweeds too.

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The Minabe-Cho Government And The Rise Of Umeboshi Fascism Fri, 17 Oct 2014 16:00:00 +0000 Fascism: A political system in which the state has absolute power and control over censorship of the media and the lives of the people who live under it. Umeboshi: pickled ume fruits common in Japan. As we all know, Adolf Hitler, the notorious leader of the Nazi Party, turned Germany into a fascist state and took […]

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Fascism: A political system in which the state has absolute power and control over censorship of the media and the lives of the people who live under it.

Umeboshi: pickled ume fruits common in Japan.

As we all know, Adolf Hitler, the notorious leader of the Nazi Party, turned Germany into a fascist state and took many evil and unforgivable actions following the change. Fascism is a disdainful suppression of human rights. However, history often repeats itself – first as tragedy, second as farce, and third as a Japanese pickled plum. Yes, fascism is on the rise in Minabe-cho in Wakayama prefecture, Japan, and people are calling it… Umeboshi Fascism.

What Is Umeboshi?


Photo by Tamaki Sono

But first, though, we should talk about what umeboshi is. Some may know, others may not. Feel free to skip this section if you do.

Umeboshi, aka Japanese salt plums, are pickled ume fruit (Japanese plums). They are extremely common in Japan not only because they have a dramatic, tasty flavor, but also because they are very healthy and medicinal (though eating too many may result in too much salt intake!). One interesting health point about it though is that it has a paradoxical alkalinizing effect on the body. This means that the acidity in the umeboshi actually helps to neutralize the acids inside your body. An eye for an eye, I guess. In addition to this, umeboshi also helps to neutralize fatigue, stimulate digestion, provides many good minerals, improves blood circulation, and promotes the elimination of toxins. Not bad for a little pickled plum!

The actual origin of umeboshi itself is obscure, but the oldest record dates back to around a thousand years ago. This record confirms that it was used as a medicine to cure specific diseases, such as dysentery, typhoid, and food poisoning. Not only that, it was also used to prevent fatigue, purify water, and rid the body of toxins. Umeboshi has proven itself quite useful, especially during Japan’s furious samurai period, as it was the soldier’s most important field ration, mending battle fatigue and purifying their water. Although in those days, like today, umeboshi were typically used to flavor rice or vegetables, the most common usage, perhaps, was to flavor onigiri, aka rice balls.


Photo by Yuya Tamai

I’m pretty sure that remains unchanged even today.

Umeboshi Facism In The Minabe-Cho Government


Now that you know what umeboshi is, let’s cut to the chase: why the fascism? On September 26, 2014, the “Must-Use-Umeboshi-For-Onigiri” ordinance was passed in Minabe-Cho, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. Minabe-Cho also happens to be the largest producer of ume fruit in Japan. As the name of the ordinance suggests, the only ingredient that may be used in onigiri is… you guessed it! Umeboshi.

It certainly places a severe restriction on the freedom to choose whatever ingredient someone may like to flavor their onigiri with. To be honest, though, umeboshi is very good with onigiri and one of my favorites, but sometimes I’m in the mood for some tuna-mayo, salmon, bonito, konbu, bacon, or another tasty onigiri ingredient.

When I imagine myself as one of the Minabe residents, where all of those wonderful flavors are prohibited, I simply shudder all over. It is obviously a flagrant, but fairly delicious, violation on human rights!


Upon reading up to this point, you might be wondering why they made such a bizarre ordinance in the first place. The reason is actually very simple: Although Minabe-cho produces one-third of the nation’s total volume of ume, consumption has been decreasing year after year. In fact, last year’s annual umeboshi consumption per family was just 754g, compared to 1053g in 2002. That means that consumption has dropped more than 25% over a decade.

In retaliation to this trend, they are forcing their residents to only use umeboshi for their onigiri. They also thought it would help to appeal to other parts of the country in that such a bold act would show how truly serious they were about their one, special product. “How selfish was that? Wasn’t anyone against it?” I asked myself. After some research, I found out that they passed this ordinance by unanimous consent. In other words, 14 of 14 members voted “Aye” for this to happen. More surprisingly, now their city hall even has an “Ume Department”.


How could this happen? Do these Minabe people love umeboshi so much that they don’t need to eat other kinds of onigiri? I got even more curious.

Umeboshi Onigiri Is Actually Not That Popular

Netallica conducted interviews with a couple of convenience stores in Minabe-cho about the popularity of umeboshi as an onigiri ingredient. The answers were as follows:

“Umeboshi is unpopular. The most popular ingredient is konbu seaweed.”

“Umeboshi onigiri don’t sell well. Many more customers buy tuna-mayo onigiri.”

It’s a bit sad that umeboshi is actually unpopular in the area where the majority of umeboshi in Japan are produced, isn’t it? Now, you may be feeling pity for them and may also be beginning to understand why they made such a regulation, but can we really abide this infringement? If anyone is going to be tired of all-umeboshi-all-the-time it’s going to be the people who live in the place that makes one-third of the ume in Japan. Shouldn’t they be allowed to eat what they want? It would be like taking someone who works at McDonalds, and telling them that from now on, they could only eat McDonalds hamburgers, even when they weren’t at work. They should be allowed to eat what they want.

Luckily, after the ordinance passed, some people in Minabe-Cho quickly found solutions without having to break the law. The answer: “Just eat them with umeboshi!”

Plum-kobo is one of those stores and they put a recipe for “tuna-umeboshi” onigiri on their website. Just to introduce one of their tips, they suggest that you cook the rice with umeboshi already in it because it makes the rice nice and shiny as well as giving it a delightful flavor.

No Opposition Was Found In Minabe And Why

I also found some dissenting opinions from other areas in Japan. For example, ときしらず(Tokishirazu) from Hokkaido says on her twitter, “梅干し嫌いな私としては狂気の沙汰” (To me, an umeboshi hater, this ordinance is craziness). However, I couldn’t find any bad opinions from the people of Minabe about this.

For example, I did a quick interview with a woman who is from Minabe and her comment was as follows.

I think it’s such a funny ordinance *laughs*

Anyway, Minabe’s umeboshi is really tasty, so I think it’s an awesome choice for an onigiri ingredient!

What!? A Minabe resident doesn’t really mind? The answer made me feel like I was tricked. The above-mentioned Netallica also interviewed a town council member, Mr. Shimomura. Here is the Q&A.

Q. 条例というからには、違反をしたらやっぱりなんらかの罰則を受けることになる?
Since it’s called ordinance, if someone goes against it, would they have pay a penalty of some sort?

A. いえいえ、この条例に罰則規定はありません。町民はおにぎりにどんな具を入れても構いません。ただ、梅干しも忘れずに入れてね、と。それだけなんです(笑)
No no. There is no penalty related to this ordinance. Residents can put whatever ingredients they like in their onigiri. It is just a reminder to not forget to put some umeboshi in it as well. And that’s it. *chuckles*

Well, it looks like this fascist rope I’ve been pulling on wasn’t actually tied to anything real. It was just a publicity stunt to gain some attention for umeboshi throughout the country and they succeeded pretty well. But wait a minute. When history repeats itself, will we notice? We’d better keep our eyes peeled so that they don’t start secretly punishing residents for eating non-umeboshi onigiri. If we do a plum job of it, we might never see this umeboshi fascism become a real thing.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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10 Not-Japanese Foods Lost in Translation Thu, 02 Oct 2014 16:00:30 +0000 Food is a great way to share culture, but sometimes it can be difficult. Like any other art, certain cultures value certain traits more than others. What’s delicious to one may be disgusting to another. Add difficulty obtaining ingredients due to price, season, or general scarcity, combined with differences in cooking techniques, and even food […]

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Food is a great way to share culture, but sometimes it can be difficult. Like any other art, certain cultures value certain traits more than others. What’s delicious to one may be disgusting to another. Add difficulty obtaining ingredients due to price, season, or general scarcity, combined with differences in cooking techniques, and even food itself can become lost in translation.

Thus, this list. While Japan is often accused of having “weird” food, it’s simply a reinterpretation based on local culture. Often we can still find the spirit of the original dish, and hopefully, by discussing some of the origins, we can see how even our own local favorite “ethnic” food might have been adapted for our own culture’s taste buds.

1. Pizza


Photo by Takeshi Kiriya

The first time I visited Japan, my family friends thought it would be good to give me something “American” for dinner, to help my stomach adjust to the long flight, lack of sleep, and different weather. What I got was a mayonnaise, corn, “sausage” pizza (wait for my section on sausage). I’d never had any of those ingredients on a pizza since, well, we don’t really do that in the states. I was going to say it was “wrong”, but despite not liking sushi at the time, I immediately thought of California rolls and a Japanese friend I knew who had complained about fake Japanese food. Rather than shutting my mouth, I accepted the difference and tried to embrace it. I didn’t really enjoy it that time, but future adventures went much better.

I feel like pizza is a good place for us to start, because it is one food I feel like is both universal and also…not. For those unaware, there are actually guidelines for what a real Neapolitan pizza is. That’s pretty hardcore, not just because a government would outline what allows a food to be called by a certain name, but also because it dictates the region the ingredients must come from. It certainly makes it hard for even Americans to say they’ve had the “real” thing, but maybe that’s okay.

A wise geek has mentioned that pizza is the people’s food and, in the old days, was pretty much just dough, cheese, and whatever you had around. In fact, the tomato part of pizza came from America, so while it was created in Italy, its current form is rather modern. In that sense, we shouldn’t be too surprised when Japanese people use toppings like shrimp, canned tuna, avocado, seaweed, or even squid ink on their pizza.

I know there are some well known differences between the two regions’ pizza styles on the web, but from people I know, the big differences for modern Italian pizza when compared to American pizza (which can be applied to most Japanese pizzas too) are the consistently thinner, wood-fire baked crust, less but fresher tomato sauce or just chopped tomato, lighter amount of cheese, and fewer toppings, especially in terms of the kinds of meat you can use. Pepperoni isn’t a kind of meat in Italy because it’s the name of a bell pepper in Italy; the meat is an American creation with a confusing name for real Italians.

In that sense, both Japanese pizza and American pizza are odd but normal. Odd in that an Italian weaned on Neapolitan pizza may be surprised that corn is the most popular pizza topping in some Japanese pizza places. But that’s okay since, much like the creation of pizza, the spirit of using American vegetables is still being upheld. Oh, and using whatever’s around and delicious as a topping. Or something like that. It’s normal to use local ingredients, and that’s where we’ll rest this debate.

 2. Cheese


Photo by Ran Zwigenberg

The above photo exemplifies most of the cheese you will find in Japan without visiting an import store: heavily processed, plastic wrapped cheese with no specific name. Honestly, whenever presented with these non-Kraft singles, I ask people what kind of cheese it is. Most people look at the package, and then I list a few names, like gouda and cheddar, which can be found at import stores or some really nice super markets. Then they laugh and usually answer “mild.” Which is a pretty friendly way of saying, “This doesn’t have a taste and may just be tofu mixed with plastic.”

As a processed cheese, it’s probably at least a type of what we’d call “American cheese.” Oh, there’s cheese in there, but there’s so many other ingredients that, even by American standards, you can’t really call it cheese. This is important because, although cheese is popular in America, we don’t eat “raw” cheese, cheese that’s been made from unpasteurized milk. The pasteurization process is supposed to make the cheese safe from certain bacteria, but it also changes the flavor, which is why you’ll often hear French people dissing American cheese.

Of course, this assumes you like the taste of cheese. There’s a reason that Japan uses a lot of processed cheese: it’s pretty much a fatty, spoiled milk byproduct. How many readers can actually say they like stinky cheeses like limburger? Keeping in mind that Japan’s Buddhist influences upheld a ban on eating (most) four-legged animals until 1867, and that cattle were work animals before this, Japan’s history with cheese may seem short. However, despite the fact that it wasn’t really popular until the Meiji era, cheese actually was present in Japan around 700 AD from China. Obviously it didn’t do so well, since most cheese in Japan is very  processed and/or very mild these days.

3. Mexican Food


Photo by Hajime NAKANO

This one’s probably a bit tame and decently well known: takoraisu (or Taco Rice). It’s “Mexican” food made in Okinawa that’s popular with foreigners. I personally can barely stand the stuff. The “salsa” usually tastes like a sweet, slightly spicy ketchup. It doesn’t always include cheese, and sometimes uses cabbage instead of lettuce. However, most tacos Americans know (including myself!) are actually Tex-mex, so you can blame this one on America. Why? Two big hints if you look at a recipe for takoraisu: cumin and beef.

Mexican chefs from Mexico have noted that real Mexican food usually doesn’t have beef or cumin. For meat, most Mexican people eat a lot of chicken and pork, unless they live very far north or are ranchers. Cumin, on the other hand, is another “northern” ingredient. Cumin is relatively new to Mexican cooking, being imported from India via the US or England.

In this sense, I can understand why some Japanese “Mexican” food is just so different from some of the better Mexican food I’ve had (made by Mexicans who moved to the states or Mexican-Americans who try to uphold their parents’ culture). As some Mexicans might tell you, American Mexican food can be rather mild to suit American tastes that may not be able to handle as much heat. Transferred again to Japan, where, despite having spice-loving neighbors like China and Korea, spicy food isn’t very popular. So some of the changes make sense. On the plus side though, Japanese people will use more white cheese like traditional Mexican cooking does. However when you have food that actually includes a tortilla, like burritos, corn tortillas are replaced with wheat.

4. Corn Dogs


Photo by Bing

In Japan, it’s called an “American dog,” but sadly, it’s yet another food Americans can’t exactly claim; corn dogs were created by German immigrants to Texas who wanted to sell more sausages. While the stick may have come later, the original recipe did, in fact, use corn meal, which is a bit odd considering that older Germans have told me they grew up thinking of corn as animal feed unfit for human consumption. Heck, my old German teacher freaked out her German roommates when she was studying abroad and they found her eating a big can of something they only expected pigs to eat. Oddly enough, though Germans aren’t traditionally corn eaters, they do eat some now, and as per one of my friends from college, Germans now eat corn on pizza.

So what’s the big deal? Even though they love corn, Japanese use wheat flour for American dogs. Don’t ask why, since I’ve yet to find out, but corn meal just isn’t made out here. No one can tell me why.

5. Sausage


Photo by kagawa_ymg

I know I’ve mentioned her before, but I met a German sausage enthusiast in Japan. I hadn’t had a decent sausage in awhile, and she was hurt concerning the reactions to her food. Most people were saying her bratwurst were too spicy, and she kept trying to assure me that it was a traditional, mild recipe, so I picked one up. I’ve had sausage at least made by Germans who love their food heritage in the states, but aside from the small size (most food gets smaller in Japan), the taste was the same: juicy coarse cut meat and just enough pepper to let you know it’s there.

As I said earlier, Japanese people aren’t good with spicy. They’re more into mild tastes, so it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to say that the first Japanese “sausage” I tried tasted more like a hot dog. Nothing wrong with hot dogs, but don’t exactly blame this on America. While popular in the states, its origins lie in Austria.

Hot dogs are a mildly spiced (if at all) type of sausage that are made of finely chopped meat (if meat is used), whereas other sausages tend to be more spiced with coarse cuts of meat. In addition, hot dogs are pre-cooked, while sausages can be sold raw. The “sausage” I’ve had on several pizzas in Japan were certainly pre-cooked, lightly spiced, and used finely chopped meat, much like that fish sausage/hot dog above.

To be frank, I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of sausage in Japan outside of Tokyo, including at Oktoberfests. Again, using the above description, a lot of what is labelled as “sausage” here is very mild, pre-cooked, and finely chopped. It’s not bad at all, but it’s not what I’m used to getting when I think of sausage.

6. Bacon


Koichi spoke about this, so I’ll try to expand on what he’s brought to the fight so far. Bacon can actually be a little flexible from country to country, but at it’s core, it’s meat cured either in a brine or through dry packing, usually with salt and can be smoked or boiled. Usually it’s pork, but the location of where on the pig it originates from varies. Americans love their pork belly bacon, while Canadian bacon is taken from the back of the animal. Oddly enough, the Canadians have bacon from other parts of the animal, as do Europeans. I guess that’s why we’re a bit picky about bacon.

Those who have eaten Japanese bacon are sometimes confused and upset by the taste though. When cut into cubes and grilled over a fire, it’s not bad, but it often reminds people of ham. While, like America, Japan uses pork belly for bacon, Japanese bacon is pre-cooked, meaning you can eat it right from the bag. Americans reading this might have made the connection by now, but if not, it’s similar to ham in the states, which undergoes a decent amount of curing, cooking, or general processing so that few hams Americans encounter are truly “raw.”

As a bonus, “ham” in Japanese is totally different from English. While our hams are usually pork thighs (or sometimes turkey), in Japan, it’s pretty much just processed meat, not just from pigs. It includes prosciutto, but sliced chicken breast has been called “ham” by some of my Japanese co-workers.

7. Curry


Photo by ekkun

This one’s a bit tough, since, like pizza, it’s become very international. At the same time, it’s been an Indian staple for thousands of years, and at the very least, it’s traditionally made with ginger, turmeric, and garlic with some rice on the side. The Japanese have the bare basics down, but their version is pretty different from what I expect from Indian curry. This time, though, we can blame the Brits, who introduced curry after the opening of Japan. Although Buddhism was passed down to Japan from India, curry was somehow left behind. It was the British who gave curry a ride to the land of the rising sun. Oddly enough though, Japanese curry’s claim to fame is a roux, a traditionally French technique.

Now, I could just say, “It’s milder and uses a roux,” but that seems a bit too simplistic. Instead, let’s first compare ingredients from the above link. Indian curry uses many more spices than Japanese curry. Japanese curry, conversely, uses several fruits and meats, as well as udon noodles as ingredients. It’s not that Indian curry doesn’t use other ingredients, but it’s usually more about the spice and uses fewer ingredients. Speaking  as someone who’s tried the lifestyle and has a sibling who still upholds it, Indian curry is also more vegetarian friendly than Japanese curry. Still, if you think this is a bit too broad, let’s go with a recipe comparison.

This was a bit tough, since even the most home-made Japanese curry recipes at least use pre-mixed spices like garam masala, but I just found a comparable recipe that also used it and other similar ingredients. Both recipes are for a kind of butter chicken curry. Starting with the garam masala, the Indian recipe uses 1/4 less than the Japanese version, but also uses more of a variety of spices: cinnamon, cloves, chili powder, fenugreek leaf powder, and ginger, but no cayenne like the Japanese version. Both use tomato, but the Japanese version uses ketchup or tomato paste, while the Indian one uses a puree. The Indian version has more tomato, but the Japanese one also uses tonkatsu sauce, so we already can see the Japanese one will be sweeter. The Indian recipe uses honey, but the Japanese version uses a whole apple. Finally, both use dairy to help keep things cool, but the Indian recipe uses butter and cream while the Japanese just uses butter. I think you can see how things differ.

8. Char siu


Now this is something I really miss from less Americanized Chinese places (and Hawaiian restaurants): char siu, a Cantonese method of cooking (traditionally) pork. Think barbecue, both in cooking method and in taste: it’s a bit salty, a bit sweet, smokey, and delicious. For some reason, the Japanese changed it. You may now know it as “chashu,” and while the change happened centuries ago, the name similarity is enough that even a foreigner to both Chinese and Japanese culture (like me) is able to hear the similarities between the two and make the connection.

In Japan, instead of using a nice fire, the pork (just loin) is rolled, braised, and lacks five spice and sugar. Oh, and the modern day food coloring addition. It’s certainly less colorful, but still rather good, despite the name taunting those of us who know its origins. Chashu’s pretty good on it’s own, which is why it’s ramen’s best friend, but not everyone agrees with the changes.

9. Cheesecake


Photo by loving.baking

Just looking at this picture makes me a little sad. It’s not that Japanese people can’t make cheesecakes, nor that souffle cheesecakes are bad (hint:they’re not!). But the cheesecake made in Japan really is nothing like what I’m used to. I think of cheesecake as a rather decadent dessert. In Japan, it’s…. not. If you go by a basic definition, what Japan makes is certainly cheesecakes. However, what I like in the states is called “baked cheesecake.” For me, it’d be like buying “baked bread.” I see it as the food’s default state. No, in Japan, cheesecake here often seems to be something different.

Finally, we have a food that at least I feel comfortable enough to call “American,” and not because it naturally grows there! Cream cheese is actually an American food, being made by failing to recreate Neufchâtel cheese to make something richer and creamer. While other cheeses are used in other countries, Japan’s cheesecake is described as seeming a bit plasticky, probably due to the way it emulsifies its ingredients. Cornstarch and flour aren’t ingredients I think of being in cheesecake (unless it’s made by a cheap restaurant or used in the crust), but the very first recipe on a popular Japanese recipe site uses it for a “baked cheesecake.” This makes the cheesecake less dense and less sweet, but that’s not the first thing Japan does differently.

“Rare” cheesecake is what we’d call “no bake” cheesecake in the states. This recipe’s no-bake cheesecake method is pretty much what I’m used to. Yeah, it’s a bit less “cheesecake” and uses cream, but it’s still pretty rich. In Japan, they sometimes use gelatin, yogurt, or milk. Once again, these make the cheesecake less dense and less sweet, which is fine, but certainly not what my American stomach craves when it thinks cheesecake.

The most different style cheesecake, though, is the souffle. A simple google search will result in recipes that constantly call it “Japanese Souffle Cheesecake” because, well, it really is a Japanese creation. Again looking to popular Japanese recipes, we see not only substitutions to cut back on the cream cheese (such as using whipping or sour cream), but the addition of yogurt and use of cake flour. While this is a light, fluffy, subtle cake sure to please someone with a delicate palate. However, those with a carnal desire for unadulterated American cheesecake will certainly be in for an unpleasant surprise. Just see if there is any “baked cheesecake” and live with the fact that it’ll be milder than what you’re used to.

10. Western Breakfast


Photo by Robyn Lee and David Woo

Just searching Google in Japanese for waffles and pancakes will visually show you the difference, but for those too lazy to click the link, here’s the hint: they’re desserts. While I know many Americans joke about this, I think if you want to a restaurant and saw pancakes or waffles on the dessert menu, you’d be pretty confused. I know I was the first time I played Tomodachi Life in English and found both foods in the dessert section, and one looking much smaller than I’d anticipated.

Pancakes are sometimes a little sweet. Fruit and whipped cream aren’t that uncommon, but if you look at the Japanese Google results, you see far more of that than maple syrup, butter, and bacon being served along side a stack of pancakes. It isn’t entirely sweet in Japan though. No, I’m not talking about savory crepes. While I haven’t tried them, I was assured they were becoming popular. One site shows things like curry pancakes, tomato pancakes, Christmas cake pancakes, and cheese fondue pancakes. It’s also got the more traditional variety we’re used to, but the Japanese pancakes certainly make use of local tastes to experiment with the form.

Waffles, on the other hand, seem much more limited to sweets. I’ve been told you can find American style waffles in some places, but overall, Japanese waffles are more like soft cookies, which is exactly how they appear in Tomodachi Life. While you may imagine Belgian waffles as the definition of waffles, those are actually American waffles based on Belgian styles (notice the s!). Despite sometimes calling them “Belgian Waffles,” Japanese waffles are more similar to Liège waffles, a (real) Belgian style waffle that’s richer and denser than what Americans eat (and oddly, the opposite translation of the Japanese cheesecake!).

Now, while these are both a bit in between for Americans, any style is pretty acceptable, since historically, both pancakes and waffles played both sides, with early pancakes using cheese sometimes and early waffles using orange blossom water.

Bon Appétit


Photo by toshisyung

So, there you have it! Ten foods pulled from around the globe, translated differently in Japanese culture than what you might have expected which, perhaps, in turn, you didn’t realize was different from it’s original. Hopefully with this in mind, the next time you try another country’s version of a pizza or pancake, you remember just how far the recipe’s come from its humble origins!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Kamaboko: A Pureed Fish Cake Fit For Celebration Wed, 01 Oct 2014 16:01:00 +0000 What’s better than pureed fish made into a cake? Not much, I say. Kamaboko is exactly that, a traditional type of fish cake that is closely connected to Japanese celebrations, though slightly less now following the arrival of the Western cake. I took a trip to a kamaboko museum with Shoko, who wrote a great […]

The post Kamaboko: A Pureed Fish Cake Fit For Celebration appeared first on Tofugu.

What’s better than pureed fish made into a cake? Not much, I say. Kamaboko is exactly that, a traditional type of fish cake that is closely connected to Japanese celebrations, though slightly less now following the arrival of the Western cake. I took a trip to a kamaboko museum with Shoko, who wrote a great travel piece about it. So that you can further enjoy our experience at the kamaboko museum, I thought we could first learn about this traditional Japanese dish.

What Exactly Is Kamaboko?


Photo by Hajime NAKANO

Simply put, kamaboko is a variety of Japanese fish cake. It’s made from the meat of several kinds of fresh fish or reprocessed pureed white fish called surimi. It’s actually not all that hard to make, either. Fresh fish is mashed into a paste, some seasoning is added, and then it is formed and cooked. IT’s usually formed into a loaf-like shape, and then steamed on wooden boards until fully cooked and firm. It can actually be formed into many other shapes and sizes as well, and can also be cooked by boiling, broiling, or deep-frying it. It can be served chilled, in a noodle dish, in a hot soup (such as oden), or in a variety of other delicious ways.


Photo by Takekazu Omi



Photo by gamene

In fact, if you are familiar with fake crab meat, often used in “California Rolls”, you may have had a type of kamaboko. This type of kamaboko is called kani-kama in Japan, which is an abbreviation of kani (crab) and kamaboko.


Photo by Samson Loo

Despite its delicious taste, it’s full of health benefits as well. It contains very little fat, relatively large amounts of nutrients, and a very large amount of well-balanced proteins. kamaboko includes a well-balanced array of amino acids, including all nine essential amino acids. A study conducted by Tokyo University’s Department of Food Science and Technology also found kamaboko to have anti-oxidative effects.

History Of Kamaboko


Photo by netagura

It’s unknown when exactly kamaboko was first made in history, but the first known record of it is in picture form found in a tome from the Heian period. With detailed sketches, the book, called 類聚雑要抄 (ruijuu-zatsuyoushou), primarily depicts the furnishings and costumes of nobility for traditional ceremonies and events. There is also an illustration of kamaboko placed on a bamboo skewer, which was served when 藤原忠実 (Fujiwara-no-tadazane) held a feast to celebrate his moving to a new house in 1115 AD. Discovering the year in which Fujiwara-no-tadazane moved into his new house gave Japan the idea for Kamaboko Day, which is now held on November 15. Get it? 1115AD = 11-15, November 15!

As it’s depicted in the book, early kamaboko was wrapped around the end of a bamboo stick. It’s said the name became 蒲鉾 (kama-boko), which literally means cattail-spear, because the look of it is resembles the head of the cattail (plant), which is called 蒲 (Gama) in Japanese. Speaking of cats, the early kamaboko was made from freshwater catfish, whereas nowadays it’s made from saltwater fish.

The Edo period was when kamaboko on a cedar plank appeared. In order to distinguish the two types of kamaboko, people started calling the original tube-shaped kamaboko 竹輪蒲鉾 (chikuwa-kamaboko), which literally means bamboo ring kamaboko and called the loaf-shaped one 板蒲鉾 (ita-kamaboko), which literally means plank kamaboko. Eventually, the name kamaboko fell off from the chikuwa version and that tube-shaped one was simply called chikuwa, whereas the loaf-shaped one took the name kamaboko.

The oldest remaining kamaboko company in Japan is 美濃屋吉兵衛商店 (Minoya-Kichibee-Shouten) and was established around 1550 AD. It is located near Odawara station in Kanagawa Prefecture. When Shoko and I visited the museum, we didn’t do a large enough preliminary investigation into Kamaboko and we missed this place as a result. My apologies!

There were also some distinctive differences between the kamaboko from the Kansai area (Western Japan including Kyoto and Osaka) and the Kanto area (Eastern Japan including Tokyo). In Kanto, kamaboko was steamed. In Kansai, it was grilled after being steamed. It’s believed that this difference arose because the main cities on Kansai (Kyoto and Osaka) were far from the sea, so they grilled it for preservation purposes. A well known saying “江戸は蒸し、京坂は焼き” (Edo wa mushi, Keihan wa yaki), meaning “Edo (now Tokyo) is steamed and Keihan (Kyoto and Osaka) is grilled” found its origins as a result of this difference. This phrase characterizes the stereotypical cooking styles of the two regions still practiced today. Kamaboko isn’t the only dish that follows that cooking trend – check out the regional differences in these products’ eels.

Celebrating With Kamaboko


In early kamaboko history, white fish was very expensive and kamaboko was considered a feast. Thus, it was used as a special gift or the type of food served at celebratory feasts. It is said that kamaboko was the favorite food of 豊臣秀頼 (Toyotomi Hideyori), who was the son and designated successor of 豊臣秀吉 (Toyotomi Hideyoshi), the general who first united all of Japan. It was also served as the final meal of 織田信長 (Oda Nobunaga), one of the three unifiers of pre-modern Japan, before he was killed by the 本能寺の変 (Honnō-ji no hen – the Honnō-ji Incident) in 1582.

In Samurai custom, the sea bream was considered as a bringer of good luck because it had a beautiful red color, which was thought to be a lucky color. Sea Bream was rare, had elegant taste, and its name 鯛 (tai) was a play on the word めでたい (medetai), which means happy or joyous. Therefore, the sea bream became essential for wedding celebrations, but only to those who could afford it. When a real fish was too expensive to buy, a picture or an imitation fish would be substituted in its place, and 細工蒲鉾 (saiku-kamaboko) or 飾り蒲鉾 (kazari-kamaboko), which means decorative kamaboko, was used for this. This custom can still be seen in several places throughout Japan.

For example, in Toyoama prefecture, people who are invited to join the wedding ceremony are given a big, decorative kamaboko shaped like a sea bream, a crane, a tortoise (a symbol of longevity) or Mt. Fuji. Then, when they return home, they cut it up and hand it out to their neighbors to inform them of the marriage. If it’s in the shape of a sea bream, a family gives away the head and body parts and keeps the tail as their own.

The Words Delivered From Kamaboko


Photo by kazuh

Due to kamaboko’s large role in Japanese culture, there are various words in the Japanese language that are derived from kamaboko.

For example, we say 蒲鉾型 (kamaboko-gata) or “kamaboko-shaped”, to describe anything that is D-shaped. The arch-like barracks in military garrisons are sometimes called 蒲鉾兵舎 (kamaboko-heisha), which means Kamaboko barracks, as well. We also call the security vehicles of riot police Kamaboko because the style of the original riot police vehicles were similarly shaped. When you go bowling, if the oil used to make the lane more slippery is too thick in the middle and thin on the sides, it’s called 蒲鉾型レーン (kamaboko-gata-reen), which means kamaboko-shaped lane.

Or, there is the word かまとと (kamatoto), which means a girl who pretends to be sweet and innocent. This word was made up for this type of woman, especially a prostitute in from the Edo period, who would ask questions like, “Is this fish?” (fish is toto in old Japanese / sakana in current Japanese) while pointing at kamaboko and thus pretending that she knew nothing about the world. In the world of sumo, escaping from practice was also called kamaboko. Imagine a sumo wrestler trying to sneak out of camp, and while trying to avoid being seen, needing to put his back up against a wall – this conjured images of kamaboko on a cedar plank.

How To Eat Kamaboko


The Suzuhiro Museum we visited explained that the thickness and the temperature of kamaboko are important for getting the maximum taste out of it. When you eat kamaboko by itself, 12mm of thickness is ideal for enjoying the texture and flavor of the fish. When you want to use it as an ingredient, but still want a bit of its texture, you can thinly slice it. For example, if you slice it to 3mm, it can be a substitute for BACON! If you want to retain a lot of its flavor, cut it to around 15mm thick and add it to salad or other dishes.

The other important factor is temperature. Since it contains a lot of proteins, which can easily be denatured by heat, when you heat kamaboko in the wrong way it loses its nice texture and becomes quite hard. So, eating it at a cool temperature is the best, but if you really want to heat it, just heat up its surface at high heat very quickly and make sure the heat doesn’t make its way to the center of the kamaboko.

There is lot more to explore regarding kamaboko, especially in its ability to decorate food, but I’ll save that for the next time because I’m hungry for kamaboko, so I’ll need to begin my kamaboko hunt.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Delicious Road: a Japanese Dessert Journey Mon, 08 Sep 2014 16:00:25 +0000 When it comes to cross-cultural experiences, some things are more universal than others. For instance, outsiders might find it difficult to understand the Japanese phenomena of deliberately crooked teeth, refrigerated underwear, or butt-attacking fingers. These cultural features are unlikely to be exported anytime soon. Desserts, on the other hand, are one of the best ways […]

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When it comes to cross-cultural experiences, some things are more universal than others. For instance, outsiders might find it difficult to understand the Japanese phenomena of deliberately crooked teeth, refrigerated underwear, or butt-attacking fingers. These cultural features are unlikely to be exported anytime soon.

Desserts, on the other hand, are one of the best ways to bring cultures together. Who doesn’t enjoy sampling treats from around the world? Japan has its fair share of fine confectioneries, and most of them won’t even induce that wide-eyed “seriously, Japan!?” look.

Eight Steps to Deliciousness

We’re going to travel through Japan from north to south, looking at a dessert associated with each of the country’s eight major regions. But first, a few broad observations.


Japanese desserts, referred to broadly as wagashi, feature four principal recurring components: mochi (rice flour cake), bean paste (especially “red bean paste”, made from azuki beans), fruit, and gelatin (especially agar, derived from algae). These components are also found in many regular, non-dessert foods. When used in desserts, however, they’re generally sweetened with the addition of honey or sugar.

Not too sweet though. If there’s one major barrier to Westerners enjoying Japanese goodies, it’s an expectation of overwhelming sweetness. As is often the case, Japan’s approach is more subtle. Well, except when they do things like deep-frying ice cream hot dogs…but we’ll get to that later.

It’s time to take a tasty trip through Japan, from top to bottom. Let’s-a-go!

Hokkaido: Japanese Cheesecake


Photo by yoppy

Hokkaido is the most northern, and least populated, of Japan’s main islands. Here we find our first dessert: cheesecake.

That might not sound like a very Japanese choice to start with, but we’re talking a different sort of cheesecake here. Japanese cheesecake is light, fluffy, and smooth. It’s less rich and sweet than most American or European cheesecakes.

Why Hokkaido? Well, this island happens to be the agricultural heart of Japan, particularly renowned for its dairy products. It’s only natural to try making cheesecake when local producers supply the wheat, egg, sugar (often made from beets), milk, and cheese. Naturally, Hokkaido cuisine in general is heavily influenced by these ingredients.

Example recipe: Japanese Cheesecake

Tohoku: Edamame Mochi


Tohoku is the northernmost part of Honshu (the main island of Japan), with relatively harsh weather and low population. Here we’re going to sample a much more Japanese-sounding dessert: edamame mochi. This dish originates from Sendai, the principal city of Tohoku.

Mochi is simply cake made from powdered rice (known as rice flour or rice starch) that cooks to a soft, somewhat gummy consistency. It can serve as a meal or dessert, and is often stuffed with filling, such as bean paste or fruit. Bits of mochi can be mixed into soup or ice cream.

Edamame (also known as zunda) refers to immature soybeans, which make an excellent paste (unlike mature soybeans, which are too hard to mash). Immature soybeans are often eaten on their own, sometimes as an appetizer. Edamame paste, like bean paste generally, can be used either for meals (e.g. soup, dumplings) or desserts (e.g. cakes, jellied candies).

Example recipe: Zunda Mochi

Kanto: Coffee Jelly


Alrighty, time for a dessert that might sound kinda weird. Do you like coffee? Really really like it? So much that you’d even consume it in jelly form?

Kanto is the easternmost region of Honshu, containing about a third of Japan’s population, mostly in the metro area of Tokyo. Coffee jelly was invented, likely in this region, during the nineteenth century. Under the influence of European culinary traditions and café culture, moulded jelly dishes were merged with coffee in a stroke of Japanese genius.

This will be the simplest recipe on our journey, consisting merely of coffee, sugar, and gelatin. Once again, sugar is added in moderate amounts, avoiding excessive sweetness. The coffee, however, is often quite strong, making coffee jelly a capable pick-me-up.

This isn’t some niche product, either; coffee jelly is commonly available in restaurants and convenience stores across the country. The jelly may be eaten on its own, or added to ice cream, milkshakes, coffee (!), or tea. When eaten alone, coffee jelly may be garnished with bean paste, whipped cream, or condensed milk.

Example recipe: Kohi Zeri – Japanese Coffee Jelly

Chubu: Uirou


Photo by t-mizo

Chubu is basically the middle of Japan. Here we find uirou, a derivative of mochi. Uirou is associated particularly with Nagoya, the largest city of the Chubu region.

Like mochi, uirou is a mildly sweet cake made from rice flour. But while mochi uses glutinous rice (aka sticky rice), uirou uses non-glutinous rice, resulting in a chewier texture. Uirou are traditionally flavoured with azuki bean or green tea, and are typically brightly coloured, in such hues as green, brown, orange, and pink.

Suggested recipe: Matcha Green Tea Uiro Steamed Cake

Kansai: Ice Hot Dog


Photo by W236

We now move to Kansai, the southern-central region of Japan. The primary city of this region is Osaka, the second-largest city in the country. Here you’ll find Amerikamura (“American Village”), an American-style retail/entertainment district. Within this district, you’ll find a glorious union of American gluttony joie de vivre and Japanese weirdness: the ice hot dog!

Instead of a regular hot dog bun, you have a sweetened “candy bun”. And instead of a hot dog, you have ice cream (made from Hokkaido milk, natch). And it’s deep fried.

Need I say more? This invention alone proves the importance of cultural fusion.

Suggested recipe: Hot Dog Ice Cream Sandwich

Chugoku: Maple Leaf Manju


Photo by jam_232

The southernmost region of Honshu, Chugoku, is famous for its spectacular autumn leaves. Not surprisingly, this inspired the creation of at least one local dessert: maple leaf-shaped manju cakes, known as momiji manju. (Manju is a minor variation of mochi, in which the dough is well-kneaded before cooking.) Momiji manju are sometimes fried, resulting in age momiji.


Photo by Travis

Traditionally filled with red bean paste, momiji manju (like wagashi generally) today feature a wide range of fillings, including fruit, chocolate, and custard. Momiji manju cakes date to the early twentieth century, when they were created in Miyajima. Incidentally, Miyajima is also home of the world’s largest spatula! Presumably, this is much less of a tourist draw than the leaves.


Photo by Karl Baron

Don’t leave your manju unattended. Miyajima features a healthy population of deer, which have apparently developed a taste for momiji manju. They might sneak a bite if you aren’t careful!

Suggested recipe: Japanese Manju Steamed Cake with Anko filling

Shikoku: Sudachi


Photo by Zengame

Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, is the home and main producer of sudachi, a citrus fruit similar to lemon or lime. The sour juice of the sudachi is used as a condiment with many meals, including fish, noodles, and vegetables. It’s also a standard flavouring in mass-produced foods, including soda and alcohol.

Just like lemon and lime, sudachi is an extremely versatile dessert flavouring. You can find sudachi-flavoured mochi, bean paste, gelatin, mousse, and ice cream.

Suggested recipe: Dessert Ball

Kyushu: Sweet Potato


Photo by Charles Kim

Our final stop is Kyushu, the island that forms the southern tip of mainland Japan. Kyushu is renowned for its Japanese sweet potatoes. Enjoyed baked or fried, alone or as part of a larger dish (e.g. salads, stews), Japanese sweet potatoes have a relatively dry consistency and chestnutty flavour. Roasted sweet potatoes (yaki imo) are popular street vendor fare.

But where does the sweet potato fit in, dessert-wise? That would be ikinari dango (pictured above), a dish associated primarily with Kumamoto, the capital city of Kumamoto Prefecture. Ikinari dango are dumplings, each containing a chunk of sweet potato covered in red bean paste.


Not in the mood for fancy schmancy? Well, you could just take chunks of sweet potato, coat ‘em in sugar or honey, and deep fry ‘em. The scrumptious result, pictured above, is known as daigaku imo.

Suggested recipes: Japanese Sweets: Ikinari Dango, Daigaku imo

Such Sweet Sorrow


Photo by tiarescott

One might say that Japanese dessert cuisine embodies a curious duality. On the one hand, half of the recipes explored by this article are based on mochi (or something derivative of mochi), often with a filling of bean paste. This reflects a strong current of restraint and conservatism.

On the other hand, Japanese desserts also venture in unusual directions, including coffee gelatin, sugary sweet potatoes, and deep fried ice cream hot dogs. Clearly, even as tradition is staunchly maintained, Japanese chefs enjoy developing novel recipes.

Altogether, the Japanese dessert world yields a lively mixture of conservative and radical. And it’s delicious.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Rice Ball Wed, 27 Aug 2014 16:00:59 +0000 A 52-year-old resident was found dead in his Kitakyushu home. While investigating the man’s death, officials discovered a journal. The man was starving, and in his final entry he penned: “3 a.m. This human being hasn’t eaten in 10 days but is still alive…I want to eat rice. I want to eat a rice ball.” […]

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A 52-year-old resident was found dead in his Kitakyushu home. While investigating the man’s death, officials discovered a journal. The man was starving, and in his final entry he penned:

“3 a.m. This human being hasn’t eaten in 10 days but is still alive…I want to eat rice. I want to eat a rice ball.”

Headlines swept across Japan in Fall 2007. Perhaps society failed him. Maybe he was proud. Either or, this man died for lack of food. The incident stirred national debate, and not for the mere fact that the man had starved. It was that he had died in hope of eating onigiri.

What Is In A Word?


Onigiri is a word with vague origins at best. A Japanese sushi chef, part of my extended family, often teased me saying that onigiri was not actually O-nigiri (お握り) [a grasp of rice], but Oni-giri (鬼義理) [demon-obligation]. As a child, this creepy humor freaked me out, not because I was superstitious, but because he actually believed it. Having a shrine devoted to Inari, the kami of rice within his bar, he hoped to find supernatural stipulation.

Later I discovered that Japanese was more often about the spelling rather than enunciation. And for someone who has watched The Scripps National Spelling Bee, the importance of word origin is sacrosanct to spelling. Is it cliché then, that many Japanese people routinely ask English speakers, “How to spell?”

Japanese is little different, as countless observations reveal Japanese people slashing the air with extended index fingers as they form words in their mind’s eye to understand word meaning through character identification. My ojisan understood this principle, clapping his hands and bowing his head before a pillar of rice and burning incense.

The Symbol Of Japan At Its Center


Photo by tamakisono

Searching the web, the onslaught of posts dedicated to the rice ball is astounding. There are endless pages chronicling preparation, from rice selection to nori wrapping, yet there is scant information in regards to onigiri’s origin and innovation. What is documented, are wisps of history. In the 17th century, samurai consumed onigiri as battlefield-ready meals. 11th century Japanese writings casually mention rice ball consumption as a picnicking item.

“Rice balls for the retainers were set out in the garden.” The Diary of Lady Murasaki (c. 973-c. 1020)

And not so ironically, that same right-leaning uncle proclaimed onigiri as Japan’s first fast food. I laughed when he said this, but not aloud. He had a habit of claiming Japanese firsts of all sorts. Then he withdrew an old American pocketknife. Cutting through one of the rice balls he had set before me, he asked, “What do you see?”

I crinkled my nose as I spoke, “Umeboshi (pickled plum) and rice, doi!” This was apparently not, the answer. I was not a persnickety child, but the doi had my 8-year-old cousin in stitches.

Denying my youthful absurdity, her father wiped the blade upon his apron, folded and placed the knife upon the glass counter between us. He asked rhetorically if I knew the story of his knife. I did not answer. So he calmly turned the plate as he spoke, “I see a rising sun through a field of cherry blossoms.”

My cousin cupped her hands around my ear. “Hinomaru.”*

Development To Modern Form


Photo by tanaka_juuyoh
  • 300BC to AD250 (Yayoi Period) Chimaki—Glutinous (sticky) rice wrapped in bamboo leaves introduced from Mainland.
  • 250 to 538 (Kofun Period) Glutinous rice pervades.
  • 538 to 710 (Asuka Period) Glutinous rice pervades.
  • 710 to 794 (Nara Period) Pre-chopsticks, the sticky rice “ball” gains popularity.
  • 794 to 1185 (Heian Period) Tonjiki—Glutinous rice shaped into snack sized squares emerge.
  • 1185 to 1333 (Kamakura Period) Glutinous rice persists.
  • 1333 to 1336 (Kenmu Restoration) Glutinous rice persists.
  • 1337 to 1573 (Muromachi Period) Hard earthenware is introduced from Korea. Non-glutinous (Japonica) rice supersedes sticky rice as dietary staple. Nori introduced as wrapping.

From this point, the popularity of Japonica rice outpaced sticky rice. It was only in the 1980’s when the development of automated rice ball machines solidified the ubiquitous triangle shape into the minds of the masses.

The Experts Remain Divided


Photo by wordridden

Some foodie scholars argue that Korea’s Jumuk Bap predates all other iterations of rice ball. Chinese claims are refuted by demonstrating their refusal to eat cooled rice for several centuries prior to onigiri. Yet one thing is undisputed: the modern day Japanese rice ball is the standard bearer in proliferation, quality and variety. It is onigiri that the world thinks of when speaking about the rice ball.

Through the wild expansion of Family Mart in Southeast Asia, to the quaint Mussubi restaurant in Paris, to the flourishing Western adoption of Japanese food, there is but one sort of rice ball to be found: onigiri.

In lieu of the above-mentioned, the one outstanding, often overlooked fact, proving once and for all that onigiri is and will remain Japan’s greatest food innovation, are the Japanese themselves. This is a circumstance in which the people define a food, not the other way around.

Saying Rice Means Eating It


Photo by mujitra

Time to hit the streets, and by streets I mean immediate Japanese friends, family and co-workers. I posed the question: What makes onigiri especially Japanese?

Everyone had an opinion, with most answers embedded in nostalgia. They remembered school field trips when mom had packed simple salted onigiri within their boxed lunches. Another shared the story of summiting Mount Fuji, and the well-deserved mountain top treat our uncle prepared the night before. There were those who reminisced on the time separated from their families while on business or at school and the comfort they felt biting into a store bought onigiri being so far away from home.

The irony was that it did not matter if the onigiri was good or bad. When asked, all of my respondents seemed rather unimpressed with the onigiri they recounted. My cousin who shared her story of eating a rice ball atop Fujisan said that the onigiri was mediocre at best, “The nori wasn’t kept separate so it was soggy, and the rice was a bit dry.” But her fondness for the memory will always be associated to that rice ball.

I understood this sentiment, often associating events, people and places with food. My delight in expressly refrigerated German chocolate cake is ever connected to my sixteenth birthday. I often reminisce about barefooted Swedish summers when eating strawberries. And then, there’s my association with onigiri.

When I think of the rice ball, I remember picnics with my family, the lack of extravagance and the simplicity of sharing onigiris prepared by my mother. The rice ball is profoundly Japanese in its design and consumption. All of the people I spoke with remembered events, because that event involved onigiri. In the rice ball’s singularity, it is a transcendental food. Everyone can relate to the humble onigiri and in turn, to each other.

Sentimental Rice


Photo by sparklig

Onigiri holds this nostalgic place in the hearts of most Japanese I know. No matter their story or association, the rice ball always signifies that moment of pause, an absolute moment of self-reflection. This was the key to unlocking their nostalgia; that no matter what one was doing, be it in good company or alone, in joy or in sorrow, the onigiri transported their minds to tranquility.

“Yeah, it’s just a ball of rice, but…” my friend Yo-yo would say with a sidelong glance, “Rice is life.” She reflected on her own grandmother’s wartime struggle to source enough grains in a week to make a single rice ball. “That was a real treat. You should see her face when she tells it, my grandma’s delight in such simplicity. I cannot imagine sharing onigiri, let alone splitting it four ways.” Yo-yo smiled serenely from some far-off place.

I understood her. The nostalgia enraptures us as we stand before the hum of an open cooler. The distant memory of sweeping up grains of rice to this moment’s no want for lack of choice grants us pause. A battalion of perfect pre-made triangles are stocked and color-coded in every variety imaginable. We do not purchase any, but take comfort in knowing they are there.


*Hinomaru – Flag of Japan AKA “Circle of the Sun”

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Social History of Ramen Mon, 11 Aug 2014 16:00:52 +0000 When I say Japanese food, the first thing you think of is probably sushi. And the second thing? These days, it’s likely to be ramen. Everyone’s familiar with the ubiquitous instant kind, and the real thing – stock simmered for hours, hand-made noodles, regional variations – is catching on in the US and becoming a […]

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When I say Japanese food, the first thing you think of is probably sushi. And the second thing? These days, it’s likely to be ramen. Everyone’s familiar with the ubiquitous instant kind, and the real thing – stock simmered for hours, hand-made noodles, regional variations – is catching on in the US and becoming a foodie obsession. But ramen hasn’t always been so central to Japanese cuisine, as I found when I read a fascinating recent book.

The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze, by George Solt, is written by a serious academic historian (who confesses to preferring soba, despite having clearly spent a crazy amount of time thinking about ramen) and published by an academic press. What’s a college professor doing writing about noodles? Well, it turns out that the story of ramen is a tale of Japanese history and culture in ways I could never have imagined. Let me take you on a tour of some of the highlights, and perhaps you’ll be tempted to delve into the entire book as well.

The Birth Of Ramen


Ramen is complicated, and its history is messy.

Although ramen is now an iconic Japanese dish, it’s actually an immigrant, and the names originally used for it made that perfectly clear. Chūka soba and Shina soba both basically mean “Chinese noodles” but have very different connotations. Chūka soba became the most-used term after World War II and is having something of a revival. It replaced shina soba as the political connotations of “shina” became controversial, since it was the word used for China when Japan was an imperialist power in Asia. But there’s no dish in China that closely resembles today’s Japanese ramen, so the story is much more complicated than a simple borrowing.

Solt presents three main origin myths about ramen, and what he calls “The first and most imaginative” comes from a book published in 1987. It credits a legendary feudal lord, Tokugawa Mitsukuni, as the first to eat ramen in the 1660s. This is based on a historical record of a Chinese refugee giving him advice on what to add to his udon soup to make it tastier, including garlic, green onions, and ginger.


Photo by James Callan

It’s unclear, to say the least, how much the modified udon soup resembled modern ramen, and in any case there’s no direct historical connection – no one can argue that that soup gradually developed into the dish eaten today. However, the Ramen Museum of Yokohama popularized this story, and Solt attributes its appeal to the fact that it places the origin of ramen far back in Japanese history at a time when – as we’ll see later – ramen is acquiring its modern symbolism as a quintessentially Japanese food.

The second and more plausible story associates ramen with the opening of Japan to the outside world in the late nineteenth century. Port cities like Yokohama and Kobe attracted Chinese as well as westerners, who brought with them a noodle soup called laa-mien, handmade noodles in a light chicken broth. Japanese called the dish Nankin soba (Nanjing noodles) after the capitol of China. This soup didn’t have toppings and was eaten at the end of the meal instead of being a meal in itself, so again, it’s hardly identical to the ramen of today. But it does seem to have a far more legit claim to being a predecessor: the Yokohama version inspired Tokyo pushcart peddlers who started selling noodle soup in the old Ueno and Asakusa neighborhoods of Tokyo in the early twentieth century.


Photo by Jeff Laitila

The third tale is similar to the second, but attributes the invention to a single person, which always makes a more satisfying story. In 1910, a shop called Rai-Rai Ken opened in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. The owner, Ozaki Kenichi, had been a customs agent in Yokohama, but the soup he served wasn’t the unadorned nineteenth century version: it sounds like it would be familiar to anyone who’s eaten ramen lately:

Rai-Rai Ken incorporated a soy sauce–based seasoning sauce and served its noodle soup, referred to as Shina soba, with chāshū (roasted pork), naruto (fish-meal cake), boiled spinach, and nori (seaweed)—ingredients that together would form the model for authentic Tokyo-style ramen.

The Young Adulthood Of Ramen


Photo by jamesjustin

Solt argues that it wasn’t enough to invent a recipe – the product had to have a customer base, basically, and in the late 19th and early 20th century, it was the right food at the right time, as Japan was becoming more industrialized and urbanized. Instead of living in rural areas where they grew and prepared their own food, more and more people had jobs in the cities and made money to eat in restaurants. Ramen wasn’t a hand-made artisinal delight in those days – the attraction was largely speed and calories:

When making Shina soba, cooks prepared a pot of soup base and a bowl of flavoring sauce to serve an entire day’s worth of customers, leaving only the boiling of the noodles and reconstituting of the soup to be left for when the orders were placed.

The short amount of time necessary to prepare and consume the noodle soup, and its heartiness compared to Japanese soba (which did not include meat in the broth or as a topping), also fit the dietary needs and lifestyles of urban Japanese workers in the 1920s and 1930s.

Ramen was also one of the first industrialized foods – a mechanical noodle-making machine was in general use by the late 1910s. At this point it was definitely still seen as foreign  – it was largely eaten in cafes (kissaten) and Western-style eateries, as well as Chinese restaurants and street stands – and this was a point in its favor. Foreign food was regarded as more healthful and nourishing than traditional Japanese food, a theme that we’ll see recurring later on, because it had more meat, wheat, oils, and fats.

That sounds crazy to us now, but remember that for most of history, people have had to worry less about being fat and more about starving to death. For workers who’d moved to the city from rural areas where they had to scrape as many calories as they could from the earth with their own two hands, the idea no doubt made perfect sense. So this period of ramen’s history is intimately tied up with Japan’s starting to develop into a modern, urbanized, industrial nation, turning away in some senses from its traditional past:

As Japan became industrialized and more urbanized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese restaurants and movie theaters gradually replaced the buckwheat noodle (soba) stands and comical storytelling (rakugo) performances that had previously dominated the cityscape. In this manner, ramen production and consumption became an integral component of modern urban life.

The Dark Days


Photo by Hikosaemon

In the 1940s, the war changed everything. At first ramen essentially disappeared, a victim of rationing and of the idea that this was no time for frivolous luxuries like eating out. Food shortages persisted after the war ended in 1945, and Solt says that the years between between 1944 and 1947 were the worst period of hunger in Japan’s modern history. He quotes a scholar of Japanese food born in 1937 writing of his memories of that period:

From 1944 on, even in the countryside, the athletic grounds of local schools were converted into sweet potato fields. And we ate every part of the sweet potato plant, from the leaf to the tip of the root. We also ate every part of the kabocha we grew, including the seeds and skin. For protein, we ate beetles, beetle larvae, and other insects that we found at the roots of the plants we picked, which we roasted or mashed. Even in the countryside, food was scarce.

After the war ended, thousands of black markets including food stands sprang up, despite being technically illegal (the US occupation authorities continued both food rationing and a ban on outdoor food sellers). Because rice was hard to come by and wheat was being imported from the US, many foods based on wheat were popular – ramen, as well as yakisoba, gyōza, and okonomiyaki. Also heavy with garlic and oil, these were referred to as “stamina” foods, a term still in use today.

The dependence on U.S.-imported wheat flour as a substitute for rice during and after the American occupation set the stage for a couple of changes. One was that a generation grew up eating foods like bread, with the result that these are now a standard part of the Japanese diet. The other is that ramen took on an almost mythic status as the food that nourished people in a time of great hunger and despair.

Solt says that nowadays in retrospect that memory contributes to ramen’s positive image, but at the actual time people felt rather differently. Popular culture such as radio and film used ramen as a symbol of the still-desperate times – an indication that a character can’t afford to eat anything more expensive – and to highlight class differences and the growing generation gap in dining habits, since for older people the association with hearty food for laborers still clung to the dish. Here’s one example from a movie Bangiku (Late chrysanthemums), released in 1954.

One of the four main characters is a single mother who must part with her only daughter, who is soon to be married and move away with her new husband. In one of the central scenes of the film, the daughter decides to treat her mother to a meal before she leaves, taking her to a Chinese eatery. The mother, though appreciative, reminds her daughter that this is the first time the daughter has treated her to a meal. As the two silently eat Chūka soba together, the daughter’s marked enthusiasm for the dish and the mother’s disdain symbolize the vastness of the generation gap. The scene makes it evident that to a middle-aged mother from a middle-class background in Japan at the time, ramen still could not be eaten without a sense of embarrassment.

The Boom Years


As Japan’s economy boomed in the period from 1955–73, ramen boomed too. Tokyo in the early 1960s was building venues for the 1964 Olympics as well as development inspired by it, including major transportation projects like new subways, the shinkansen, and five new expressways. Vast construction projects required vast numbers of construction workers who ate vast numbers of bowls of ramen, and it also became a staple for students and young people who had grown up eating more wheat and meat.

In this period of rapid social change there’s way too much going on to cover in a short article (there’s a reason why Solt had to write a whole book) including the invention and popularization of instant ramen, a subject that will definitely have to wait for a post on its own.


Photo by jepster

But one thing I can’t leave out that I found quite surprising was the continuing development of the idea that Western foods – including wheat in particular – were healthier. The Ministry of Health and Welfare actively promoted this idea and nutrition scientists happily jumped on the bandwagon. Some of this promotion and “science” took the rather odd form of attributing cultural differences and Western superiority – which apparently went without saying – to the difference in diet. Here’s one authority’s argument:

The character [seikaku] of rice-eating peoples and the character of wheat-eating peoples are naturally different , where the former believe that people eat because they exist, while the latter believe that people exist because they eat. Each of these are the result of the types of food that they eat, and while the former are resigned and passive, the latter are progressive and active. . . . [Because of the tasty and satisfying nature of rice,] peoples who eat rice easily become accustomed to that way of living, and they lose their will to be active. . . . [People who consume wheat ] find that it alone does not taste good, which makes them desire more than what they already have, motivating them to become active and providing the initiative for them to achieve progress, and the result is that they move in the direction of wanting other types of foods… The need to turn the wheat into wheat flour and then to combine it with other foods such as meat and dairy products has led to many innovations that together have produced the wheat-flour based food culture of today. . . . The relative ease of the rice-based dietary lifestyle naturally leads people to move away from things such as reason [wake], thought [shikō], and contrivance [kōan]. Scientific experimentation and development do not advance in such a context.

That passage is laughable today, but others verge on shocking. Here’s another nutritionist:

Parents who feed their children solely white rice are dooming them to a life of idiocy. . . . When one eats rice, one’s brain gets worse. When one compares Japanese to Westerners, one finds that the former has an approximately twenty percent weaker mind than the latter. This is evident from the fact that few Japanese have received the Nobel Prize. . . . Japan ought to completely abolish its rice paddies and aim for a full bread diet.

This author’s work became the basis of a pamphlet by wheat producers who, not mincing any words, used the title “Eating Rice Makes You Stupid.”

Ramen Against The Man


Photo by Owen Lin

While the government and scientists were pushing a wheat-based diet, ramen in particular was still associated with poverty and struggle in popular culture, but things were beginning to change. With more money around to be spent, ramen developed from a cheap pushcart product into something you ate at a moderately priced restaurant. And at the same time that instant ramen – the most industrialized food possible – was becoming popular, we see what could be considered the first hints of the modern hand-crafted ramen movement. In the 1970s, something that was all the rage – at least according to the media at the time – was the datsu-sara, “salaryman escapee.” These were men who left successful careers to become self-employed – farmers, say, or ramen cooks.

As someone who has written for newspapers, I can tell you that the general rule is that you only need to find three of something for an editor to call it a trend. But one newspaper even ran a weekly “Datsu-sara Report,” so if they could find enough material for that, maybe it really was a Thing. In any case, in this context, running a ramen shop was seen as the kind of work that provided a degree of independence and creativity that wasn’t possible in a corporate environment. This romanticization of the ramen maker is the start of an entirely new symbolism around ramen.

Ramen Becomes Trendy


Photo by Aaron Webb

In the 1980s, ramen started to become almost as much a fashion item as a food. The traditional pushcarts were disappearing and the Chinese restaurants and diners that used to sell it were declining, replaced by the specialty ramen shop with a more limited menu and a higher price. The manual workers who were its old customer base were also fewer in number, and now the stereotypical ramen eater started to be the young urban consumer who was labelled with the term Shinjinrui, “new breed.”


Rather than fuel for hard physical work, for many ramen starts to become basically a hobby. The phenomenon of waiting in line for hours at a special ramen shop became common enough that people who did it were given a name, “rāmen gyōretsu.” The 80s also saw the start of the obsession with special regional varieties of ramen and fans who would travel to far-away places especially to taste a new kind they’d read about. And by the 1990s, he says:

ramen chefs were appearing on television, writing philosophical treatises, and achieving celebrity status in Japanese popular culture, while their fans were building museums and Internet forums.

Ramen Turns Japanese


Photo by ibtekn

Given its birth as a foreign import, and the central role that foreign wheat plays in the dish, it’s odd that ramen would become a symbol of traditional Japan, but that’s exactly what happened. The new customers had been born after the period of war and post-war hardship, so its older associations were purely nostalgic – a comfort food that seemed native in contrast to elegant European gourmet cuisine. Shops stopped having names and decor with Chinese associations – no more red and white noren – and the chefs began to dress differently:

In the late 1990s and 2000s, however, younger ramen chefs, inspired primarily by Kawahara Shigemi, founder of the ramen shop Ippūdō, started to wear Japanese Buddhist work clothing, known as samue. Usually worn by Japanese potters and other practitioners of traditional arts, the samue, usually in purple or black, was worn by craftsmen in eighteenth-century Japan… The new clothing suggested that the ramen maker was now considered a Japanese craftsman with a Zen Buddhist sensibility rather than a Chinese food chef.

And now, instead of western food being argued to produce superior people, apparently some started using ramen to argue it was the other way around, to the extent that it caused a backlash in some quarters: one newspaper article headlined a section on the ramen boom, “The Frightening Situation Where Plain Old Ramen Becomes the Basis for ‘Theories of Japanese Superiority.”


Photo by leesean

And this brings us to where we are today, where ramen shops are now appearing in fashionable cities all over the world, presenting what’s seen as a quintessentially Japanese dish:

[Ramen] has gained a reputation as a relatively affordable, youthful, and fashionable representation of Japanese food culture, unlike sushi, which has very different symbolic baggage. Ramen is now an important component of both official and unofficial attempts at remaking “Japan” as a consumer brand for foreigners.

The artisanal hand-made type of ramen and its cultural baggage fits perfectly into modern culinary obsessions – an earthy, authentic, hand-made comfort food. And at the same time, instant ramen has taken over the world even more – did you know that Mexicans buy one billion servings annually? But if you want to know more about that, you’ll have to read the book yourself.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Five Ways To Experience Japan Without Leaving Home Thu, 07 Aug 2014 16:00:49 +0000 I’m sure for a lot of us, visiting or living in Japan is high on our list of things to do. But when you can’t make the trip overseas, there are lots of ways to experience Japan without getting on a plane. In fact, some of these you can try without even leaving home! Of course, […]

The post Five Ways To Experience Japan Without Leaving Home appeared first on Tofugu.

I’m sure for a lot of us, visiting or living in Japan is high on our list of things to do. But when you can’t make the trip overseas, there are lots of ways to experience Japan without getting on a plane. In fact, some of these you can try without even leaving home! Of course, I’ve left some basic suggestions off – like learning Japanese, reading blogs about Japan, and eating Japanese food – because you have probably already thought of those. But here are some things that might be new to you!

Community Service


Japanese communities and Japanese-American friendship groups are both great ways to experience Japan at home. There may not be much of one if you’re away from a major city, but it never hurts to check or ask around. Start on the internet – search for (nearby large city) Japanese Society. Or (nearby large city) Japan America Society. For example, I live in Seattle. When I Google “Seattle Japan Society”, the Japan America Society for the State of Washington immediately comes up. If you’re in college, there may be a Japanese Students Association or an Asian Students Association. If you don’t have any luck searching online, don’t be afraid to ask around at a local Japanese restaurant or Asian grocery store before broadening your search. The Japanese consulate closest to you might also have an idea of what sort of communities or societies are active in your area.

The benefits of seeking out the local Japanese community are numerous, as Japan America societies tend to do a variety of activities. I’ve been involved with these sorts of groups in several different states. Through them, I have chaperoned Japanese exchange students, worked at Japanese New Year celebrations, gone to Japanese festivals, and attended a bunraku play – just to name a few. If you can’t find a Japan America society near you or want even more involvement, try to find the nearest Asian art museum, as it will likely have regular events of interest. Over time, investing in these groups more and more will help you foster connections in the local Japanese community, providing even more opportunities.

Communication is Key


Photo by liz west

Out of all my suggestions, this one may take the most effort, but it can yield some great results over time. There are a lot of Japanese people online who want to make friends overseas and practice their English. Several sites offer penpal ads, so do some searches and find which one you like best. I’ve had the most luck with Japan Guide and the Penpals Subreddit. Ideally, if you can write and read Japanese, include some Japanese in your letters. Try to keep your English simple, practice internet safety/common sense, and talk about your hometown and what makes your life awesome. After all, these are probably the sorts of things you would want to know about the Japanese people you talk to. For several years, I maintained a penpal in Japan – we eventually even sent each other packages.

If you get to know your penpal and want to exchange snail mail or packages, but you’re not entirely comfortable sharing your home address, consider investing in a PO box. Be prepared to download Skype, Line, or whatever other messaging system is most popular at the time (right now, I see a lot of penpals looking for friends who use Line). Most ads you see will be very general, and it may take some effort to understand what the person is trying to say. Practice patience. I recommend writing an intro paragraph about yourself – say where you’re from (to whatever degree of specificity you are comfortable giving out on the internet), include your age, indicate your gender, describe a few of your interests, what you do for a living, what your favorite food is, and your Japanese language proficiency. If you can translate it into Japanese or get a friend to do so, include both the Japanese and the English. Keep the paragraph in a file and copy/paste it to new potential penpals, rather than reinventing the wheel each time you want to respond to an ad. When you get replies, respond to them in a timely fashion, take notes about each penpal so you don’t repeat conversations, and have fun!

Abandoned Places


Photo by Kenta Mabuchi

Haikyo (廃墟) is the Japanese word for “ruin” or “abandoned place”; it’s used to refer to the exploration of abandoned sites and sometimes urban exploration in general. As stated before, blogs about Japan are great, and if you need suggestions for those, sources like Tofugu can provide you with lots of J-blogs to read. Here, we’re looking for a specific type of blog or site – those about haikyo. Gakuranman is a great place to start. If you can read some Japanese or don’t mind picking your way through Japanese sites, try searching for 廃墟 on

I recommend haikyo sites for several reasons. First of all, haikyo enthusiasts visit a variety of locations – love hotels, amusement parks, houses, museums, hospitals, schools, factories – you get the idea. Second, haikyo frequently involves a dip into the history behind a site; I find that it gives a taste of Japan in a unique, engaging way. I once spent hours picking my way through Japanese company crests to try to solve the mystery behind this haikyo. Although I was unsuccessful, I learned about company crests and insignia and had a lot of fun. That haikyo sums up what I love best about good haikyo, which are beautiful, creepy, and fascinating – sometimes all at once.

Hobby Time


Photo by halfrain

Take up a traditional Japanese hobby. Some of these hobbies are probably already well known to you (at least in theory), like karate, haiku, and origami. Your local YMCA or gym may offer karate classes, and there are numerous resources, both printed and online, if you’re interested in origami or haiku. There are also less well known Japanese arts that may intrigue you more.

Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging; it’s quite different from Western flower arranging and may appeal to you even if you’ve never had any interest in becoming a florist. A search online for your hometown, home state, or home country plus “ikebana” may give you a good idea of where to start. Kendo is a sword-based martial art; it may especially appeal to you if you are interested in both martial arts and Japanese swords. One of my favorite Japanese arts to practice is shodo, or Japanese calligraphy. If you cannot find a shodo society near you, try contacting nearby Japanese language professors; some form of shodo is frequently included in Japanese classes, so a professor may know someone who can instruct you. Any of these pastimes may have a local group in your area, but if you can’t find someone who’s already interested, look into making a group of your own – every organization has to start somewhere!

Analog Sources


Photo by Samantha Marx

A recent trip to my local public library yielded more books about Japan than I expected – add the fact that many libraries these days will allow you to request books from other branches online, and you will definitely find a multitude of books on Japan. My suggestion is to look online, then write down the call numbers and head to the library itself. Once you locate your book on the shelf, you’ll likely find more books that interest you. The call number system means that other books on the same subject are likely to be on the same shelf. In my library, I found not only a large selection of Japanese history books, but a second section on the other side of the library with books that had more of a travel-guide theme. I didn’t expect to find much there, but was happy to be proven wrong. Looking for foreign-language books is always worthwhile as well as there will likely be a Japanese language section. Some of these may be of interest to you, even if you can’t read Japanese yet. By browsing this section, I once found a beautiful Japanese-language travelogue about my hometown that had been written by a Japanese expat by browsing the foreign-language section. Whether you find books in English or Japanese, reading is a great way to learn about Japan, and the library not only collects books for you by subject, but is also free – win-win!

Do It All for the Experience


Photo by moominsean

No matter which of these suggestions most appeals to you, I urge you to look most closely at the options that are furthest from your current experiences. The further out of your comfort zone you wander, the more likely you are to have totally new experiences and find something awesome and shiny to be passionate about. I took a class in college that had us practice ikebana, shodo, and haiku. Those experiences have stuck with me, long after I forgot many of the other things I learned for exams. There are many ways to experience Japan without boarding a plane, and I hope you give some of these a try!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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