Tofugu» Food A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 25 Jul 2014 01:41:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Unagi, The Japanese Eel: A Long Story Tue, 17 Jun 2014 16:00:13 +0000 Eels: long and snakelike and slimy, they’re hard to love – unless, of course, they’re grilled and basted with a sweet sauce. Unagi is a signature dish in Japanese cuisine, and you’ve probably encountered it at least in sushi, but if you’re American it’s probably the only place you’ve had the chance to eat it. Strangely, though, even if you’re eating it in Japan, that unagi may actually have spent most of its life in North America. It’s part of a long story about the eel’s strange lifestyle and the bad news about its plummeting numbers.

Unagi: Cooking and Legend


Photo by Patrick

The traditional preparation of eel involves grilling the fillets over charcoal while basting with a sweet sauce made from soy sauce, mirin and sugar. Of course there are regional differences, because what’s Japanese food without regional differences? In Kanto (eastern Japan including Tokyo) the eel is grilled, then steamed to get rid of excess fat, then grilled again. In Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka and the west) there’s no steaming – the eel is just grilled longer, making it crispier and chewier.

There’s also a difference in how the eel is prepared for cooking, which legend attributes to cultural difference in the regions. In Kanto, the eel is split open from the back rather than the stomach, supposedly because Edo was the military capital, and the restauranteurs didn’t want to remind their samurai customers of the practice of ritual suicide, seppuku, which involves stabbing yourself in the stomach. In Osaka, the eel are cut down the stomach – supposedly because people there are more open and frank and inclined to “spill their guts.” Uh, sure.

The grilled eel is usually served with rice and pickles, and Japanese sanshō pepper to sprinkle over it, which if you’ve never tried, you should. It’s an amazing aromatic spice that’s not like anything Americans use. And at a proper eel restaurant, no part of the eel goes to waste: the guts are skewered and grilled, the liver is made into soup, and even the spine is deep fried and eaten like a crispy cracker.

The Eel Days of Summer


Photo by Ray Larabie

Another traditional belief regarding eel might have some basis in reality. It’s supposed to be good to eat in hot weather to restore your energy. There’s said to be some truth to this because it contains various vitamins including B1, which is lost in sweat. To be fair, none of the references where I found this claim made any comparison to other fish – for all I know, there’s just as much vitamin B1 in all the others – but I’m happy to have any excuse to eat eel, so I’ll leave it at that.

Although eel is eaten all summer (and the rest of the year too), the biggest eel-eating day is Doyo no Ushi no Hi (Midsummer Day of the Ox), which is supposed to be the hottest day of the year. The exact date is determined by the lunar calendar, so it moves around, but it’s always in late July or early August, which gives the day a fair shot at being hot as heck if not actually the hottest.

One legend has it that the custom began as a marketing gimmick: in eighteenth century Edo, an eel restaurant hired a famous calligrapher to make a sign that said “Today is the Day of the Ox.” Basically a celebrity endorsement, people noticed the sign because of the fame of the artist, and a connection between eel and the date stuck in their mind. Whether that story is true or not, the day certainly works well as a marketing gimmick nowadays, with supermarkets setting up special sections to sell grilled eel for the day.

Caution: Unagi


Photo by Glen Bowman

Those special eel displays are selling already-grilled eel, because it isn’t usually cooked at home, for a variety of reasons. One is that it’s best to slaughter and fillet them on the spot with special knives, and since they’re very strong and slippery beasts, this is better left to experts.

Then there’s the sauce. Restaurants have their own secret recipes passed down from one chef to the next, and apparently it’s one of those things where the same pot is simmered and added to for years and years, something you can’t really reproduce at home. It’s traditionally said that if there were a fire, the pot of sauce would be the first thing the chef would grab to rescue. (I don’t know if that’s ever really happened, but I found one person who didn’t manage to grab their pot in an emergency and regretted it – this AP article following up on some victims of the Fukushima disaster mentions the owner of an eel restaurant who was devastated at losing the traditional sauce that had been passed down in his family.)


Photo by istolethetv

But the biggest reason eel isn’t cooked at home was quite a surprise to me. You hear all the time about the toxic liver of the famous fugu blowfish and how chefs need a special license to prepare it, right? But in all my years of eel-eating I’d never known that their blood contains a neurotoxin. That’s also why eel is never eaten raw, so that even sushi is made with the grilled kind. Less than one cc can kill a rabbit, and you don’t want to get it in a cut or in your eye because apparently it doesn’t take much to kill a person, either. I couldn’t find out the exact amount, but if I ever get to watch a chef prepare a live eel for me, I’m going to play it safe and sit a ways back. However, cooking neutralizes the poison, so unlike with fugu, no worries about eating the cooked fish.

Eating Eel Elsewhere


Japan consumes about 100,000 tons of unagi per year, about 70 percent of the catch worldwide, but while most Americans have never eaten eel except at a sushi place, it’s a specialty of a number of other countries. They stew them in Sweden, smoke them in Northern Europe, and the Basque boil tiny young ones and then saute them in garlic, just for a few examples. Eel are also eaten in New Zealand, where they’re important in Maori folklore.

Maybe the most famous non-Japanese eel dish comes from England, where since the 18th century, especially in the east end of London, they’ve eaten jellied eels. Originally a cheap dish for the lower classes, it’s made of eels chopped up and boiled in a spiced stock which sets like gelatin when it cools. It’s sold in “eel, pie and mash” shops, and you can reportedly eat it hot or cold, although – sorry, Londoners – from the sound of it, I’d rather not eat it at all, and keep walking till I find a sushi bar.

Journey of the Eel


The eel has a very unusual life cycle among fishes, involving an amazing long-distance migration. In English, unagi is called “freshwater” eel, in contrast to anago the “saltwater” or conger eel, but this nomenclature is somewhat misleading, because unagi spends a large part of its life in the sea. They are born in the middle of the ocean, then find their way to the coast and enter rivers and streams, where they live for ten to thirty years. Then they swim back out to sea to spawn. How eel find their way from the middle of the ocean to the mouths of rivers they’ve never seen is still unknown. Most fish that migrate similarly go the other way round, like salmon: born in a river, they go out to sea, then return to the familiar river they came from.


Much of the eel’s life cycle was a mystery till recently, although people have been trying to figure out where they come from for a long time. All the way back to Aristotle, naturalists were coming up with theories, some of which were pretty peculiar – he thought they emerged from mud, and Pliny thought they reproduced by rubbing against rocks. You can’t really blame the guys for being creative, though: the thing is, when eels were dissected, no sexual organs were found, since they develop only after the eels leave the rivers and head for their spawning grounds.


Photo by Uwe Kils

Another thing that made it hard to figure out the eel’s reproductive story is that the young look nothing like the adults. Called elvers or glass eels, they’re tiny, transparent, and shaped more like a willow leaf than like their snakelike parents. In fact, when first described in 1856, they were considered to be a different species of fish altogether. Not until forty years later did two scientists see one metamorphose into an adult (in a fish tank) and realize that they were different forms of the same fish. The European eel looks so different at different times in its life that at one point, forms of the same species had thirty different names.

And of course, the long distances they travel and the huge size of the ocean made studying their life cycle a challenge as well. The spawning grounds of American and European Eels in the part of the north Atlantic west of Bermuda called the Sargasso Sea weren’t discovered till the 1920s, and the spawning grounds for the Japanese eel were only located – after 60 years of searching – in 1991 near Guam and the Marianas Islands.

The Decline and Fall of Japanese Eel


Photo by David Becker

Although it is generally agreed by the Japanese that the Japanese species is the most delicious, Japan now gets about 80 percent of its eel from elsewhere. The simple answer to “where” is “eel farms mostly in China and Taiwan,” but the full story is more complex.

In the early 1990s, populations of the Japanese eel became so small – and prices so high – that suppliers began to look elsewhere. They discovered that similar species lived in Europe and North America and even better, in North America no one cared about them, so there was no limit on how many could be caught. The complication was the need to get them to market alive, and it’s a long way from the US East Coast to Japan, so what developed was an industry that catches the tiny juvenile glass eels, ships them to Asia, and raises them to market size in fish farms.

The small amount of actual Japanese eel still consumed is also mostly raised in farms – less than one percent is wild eel caught as adults. The most prized are from Hamamatsu, which sell for double the price of the imported ones. Perhaps it’s no surprise that this has attracted dishonesty: some suppliers have been arrested for falsely labeling eel from China as Japanese eel from Hamamatsu.

The Eel Rush


Photo by Jer Thorp

The decline of the Japanese eel has also resulted in crime in the US. When Asian suppliers started to buy North American eel, the fish went from almost worthless to a virtual gold mine: glass eels are now worth up to $2,600 a pound. In 2013, Maine fishermen caught more than 18,000 pounds of the tiny eels, worth about $33 million.

Great for the economy, right? Except now they’ve also got poachers, turf wars, armed guards watching over tubs of glass eels, fights about the local Pasamaquoddy tribe’s sovereign fishing rights, huge amounts of cash attracting criminals including drug gangs… Long story short, it has gotten to the point that Animal Planet made a reality show about Maine eel fishing (this is the Animal Planet that now makes shows like one that claimed mermaids are real, in case you’re remembering the days when it was actually an educational channel).

Vanishing Eel


Photo by Ken Ohyama

Somewhat belatedly, the Japanese government recognized that there’s an issue: In early 2013, the Ministry of the Environment added Japanese eel to its Red List of endangered fish. Statistics cited include the fact that the species has declined by 90 percent over the last three generations and that populations are 5 percent of what they were in the 1960s. Nice that they have finally taken notice, but inclusion on their Red List apparently doesn’t result in any kind of fishing ban, and regulations are only being “considered.”

The problem is even more pressing because it’s not confined to Japan – all the other eel the Japanese are eating are also declining alarmingly. European eel are dropping in large numbers, including in London, home of that other iconic eel dish, the jellied ell. In the River Thames, the population was reported in 2010 to have fallen by 98% in the previous five years – from 1,500 in 2005 to just 50 in 2010.

And although the numbers of eels caught in Maine are mind-boggling, in fact, they’re declining in North America as well. Canada has declared them as endangered in Ontario and the Maritime Provinces and in the US, although an attempt to list them as an endangered species failed, fishing for glass eels is only legal two states, Maine and South Carolina. Maine has introduced fishing quotas, and they’re serious about it: this year, limits started to be enforced with an electronic swipe card system that will allow regulators to monitor how many eels are being caught daily.

The Future of Unagi


Photo by Kenji Oka

Is unagi in danger of disappearing from our plates? It seems to be generally agreed that the species can’t sustain our habit of robbing the cradle of tons of their tiny babies every year. The most respected organization that evaluates the environmental impact of the fish we eat, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, says that unagi is one of the species you should avoid if you care about sustainability. But this doesn’t seem to have had any effect on whether restaurants offer it, any more than the fact that they say the same thing about tuna has affected the menu at any sushi bar I know of.

And just as I was finishing writing this article, some news broke: the Japanese eel was declared to be an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This is a big deal, because the IUCN’s Red List is the recognized international standard reference for what counts as an endangered species. Like the Japanese national red list, it doesn’t automatically mean fishing is regulated, but it’s taken very seriously when international trade regulations are negotiated. And, as one restaurant owner said to a reporter, “We are already losing customers because of the rising prices. Now, consumers might feel guilty about eating a red-listed species.”

Researchers are at work on the obvious solution, which is to figure out how to breed eels in farms from the start.  But as probably doesn’t surprise you at this point, this has not been easy. Eel eggs were first successfully fertilized in a lab in 1973, but it took till 2001 for the scientists to figure out what the fussy little buggers would eat (which turned out to be a slurry of freeze dried shark eggs. Mmm!) But they didn’t get any of them to live long enough to grow to full market size till just a few years ago. And still, only 1 percent of fertilized eggs survive even to 100 days – and this is a fish that can take a couple of years to get big enough to sell. Of course for all we know, that could be the natural survival rate in the wild, but for market production, it’s a long way from economically viable. And then another problem is that for some unknown reason nearly all the fish born this way are males, which is pretty much backwards from what you’d want – you can get by with only a few males, but you need the females for eggs to make more baby eels.

Scientists are working to solve these problems, and we better wish them luck. Because sadly, the way it’s going now, eventually we’ll all be telling our disbelieving grandchildren about how we celebrated Day of the Ox in the good old days, eating our fill of that luscious grilled unagi.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Mysterious Fish by James Prosek. Harper Perennial, 2011

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The Empire Built On Egg Shells: An Interview With TanKuma Owner Gensho Nishigaki Thu, 05 Jun 2014 16:00:02 +0000 What an eggy week it has been! I wrote a travel review of an Egg Vending Machine and a raw-egg-on-rice (tamago-kake-gohan) restaurant called Tankuma. I also wrote simply about the famous Japanese dish tamago kake gohan. I mentioned them a few times, but when I went to Tankuma (the tamago-kake-gohan restaurant) I was both enamored and curious about all the bear statues and figures. I also wanted to know more about the egg vending machine, how this restaurant was started, and more. So, I visited the office of the president of Tankuma, Mr. Gensho Nishigaki (as instructed by his sister, the owner of a nearby pharmacy). He wasn’t there at the time, but a worker called to tell him I was there, and he was egg-stremely generous with his time, coming down to his office to answer my questions. So, thank you Mr. Nishigaki! Down below is the story that he told me.

Q. You have four places of business (the egg vending machine, raw egg on rice restaurant, your personal farmer’s market shop, and cake shop), but which place did you come up with first?

The vending machine and the veggie shop (personal farmer’s market) were first, then the raw egg on rice restaurant, and finally the cake shop.

Q. How did you come up with the vending machine (and the direct store)?


About 40 years ago, there were 18-20 chicken farmers around this area and we were selling our eggs to Osaka and Kyoto together by splitting the transportation costs. However, as other big farmers got ever larger, small farmers like us were getting pushed out. About 20 years ago, I was the only chicken and rice farmer left here. Although I didn’t have benefit of a larger scale farm and production, I did have a very unique quality to my eggs. Yet, I still had to decrease employment costs, so I decided to start the vending machine and the direct sales store in 1996. They both went well and the sales of my eggs increased.

Q. Why did you open the tamago-kake-gohan (raw egg and rice) restaurant afterward?


Actually there is a long story to that one. Although the eggs started selling well, selling rice wasn’t that easy since there are so many rice farmers in Japan. If I became a member of J.A. (short for Japan Agricultural Cooperatives), I could obtain some money right away, but I didn’t want my rice to just be one the many kinds of rice that J.A. sold at the same price because I found my rice to be different. My rice field is located on top of a mountain, so we use only the fresh water that comes from the mountain. It is very clean, pure water, so it makes rice taste better, but it is also so cold that we can’t harvest a lot of rice compared to rice fields with access to warmer water. Furthermore, I had to deal with boars and deer eating my rice crops. If my rice was sold at the same price in J.A., it wouldn’t be fair. So, I decided to sell my rice by myself, though I also had to take the risk of not getting any money until the rice was actually sold. Moreover, every year I also needed to adjust my rice stock until the following harvest. Every Fall, around September and October, new rice is harvested, so the rice harvested the previous year gets price dropped.

Yet, I couldn’t sell it very successfully if it was only available in the direct sale shop, so I thought, “I can’t sell uncooked rice, but what if I make delicious cooked rice?” My cooked rice is delicious but I realized that the people I sell the rice to aren’t able to taste it the same way that I do. They bring the uncooked rice back to their home towns and put their own city water in their rice cookers. Because of this, they miss the chance to taste the BEST tasting rice that I cook by using the perfect amount of mountain water.

The first item I started was not tamago kake gohan (raw-egg-on-rice), but onigiri (rice balls). My goal was to let people know how tasty the rice was by itself, so I made very simple onigiri and seasoned them with a little bit of salt. Unfortunately, those simple onigiri didn’t become that popular. People still bought rice balls, but only if they were seasoned with a lot of ingredients. That killed the taste of the rice itself. I wasn’t satisfied with the result.

I was actually thinking of making a raw-egg-on-rice restaurant for a long time, alongside the rice ball business, since I have chicken farms and a rice field. However, whoever I consulted with laughed at me because they thought that nobody would come all the way out to the middle of a mountain for such a simple meal that everybody can just make themselves. So, I didn’t even try it out until the huge typhoon (Typhoon #26) struck our region on October 21, 2004.

The river was broken and many places were flooded. Some tourists got stuck on a bus and they had to evacuate to the roof and waited there all night for rescue. In the mountain area, we had a lot of debris scattered everywhere because of the strong flowing water and my farms were damaged. So after the catastrophe, the government subsidized grants to aid farmers. It didn’t cover everything to start a new raw-egg-on-rice business, but I thought I could at least try out my idea if I combined this money and my savings. I was really wanting to do this business, so I finally decided to do it, and I opened the restaurant on March 21, 2006.

Luckily, the raw-egg-on-rice boom had just started at that time so my restaurant was interviewed by many media companies, and a lot of people came out to try my raw-egg-on-rice dish. They thought it was tasty and word spread amongst the people until eventually, and thankfully, it became a popular restaurant that people are now lining up for. I’ve never advertised my restaurant because I thought it would be better for the knowledge of it to spread by word of mouth. I guess I was right about that.

Q: What is the secret of the deliciousness?


As for the eggs, they are all fresh and delivered right from the chicken farm. The name of our eggs is “クリタマ (Kuritama)” because they are produced in Tantouchou-Kurio. We raised the baby chickens from the Goto hatchery in Gifu Prefecture since my father started the chicken farm in 1956. When they grow, they become brown chickens called Gotou-momiji (momiji means Japanese maple leaves). We don’t use any antibiotics in their feed (Some people use antibiotics to make the chickens grow faster). As feed, we mix 20 kinds of special feed, such as Super PHF corn, which are not GMO’s and are made with very little fertilizer. They don’t get fumigated after being harvested, either. We also use fish powder without antioxidants. Those chickens produce delicious eggs on our tranquil mountain farm.

The rice we make is called “夢ごこち (Yumegokochi)”, which means enchantment. It is not organic, but I’m using as little chemical fertilizer as possible. I also use organic fertilizer, which is made from fermented chicken manure. Thus, chicken and rice farming is a great combination! Yumegokochi was invented by the Plant Research Institute as a rice with low amylose and low protein. Only a few places are allowed to make it, so it is a niche market rice with low volume and high prices, being sold to people in the know. It has a great stickiness and the amylose is lower than the king of rice “Koshihikari” by about 2%. It also has a feature which is that it stays soft and tasty even when it gets cold. So you can make rice balls and take it to your work as lunch without losing its deliciousness.

First we use a rice cooker for 1升(shou) / 1800 cc, which is an old Japanese unit of measurement for liquid, on a gas stove. I was told the best way to cook rice is not to cook it at half capacity, or at full capacity, but at 80% capacity each time. Yet, this typically only serves 8 people, so it was too little after the restaurant became popular. Six months after its opening, we decided to double the amount, which is 80% of 2升 (3600 cc). It can still serve 15 to 16 people at a time, but I didn’t want to increase the amount any more because it might ruin the taste of the rice. And of course we use the delicious pure water from the mountain to cook the rice.

Q. Why are there so many bears here?


Because our restaurant is named Tan-Kuma! Tan comes from the name of this region, Tajima. Kuma, which means bear, got attached because bears come down to our place before winter when they are preparing to hibernate. One day, while on the phone with my friend who I was talking to trying to come up with a name for the restaurant, I looked out the window to see a bear taking some acorns and persimmons from the yard. I told him that and he said “scary”, but surprisingly he told me that I should be happy about it. I asked him why and he told me that the bear is the biggest land mammal in Japan, so if a bear is there, that shows you how much nature remains at your place. I was amazed at what he said so I named my restaurant Tankuma – a shorter form of Tajima-no-kuma (Tajima’s bear). I wished for a meaning that suggests that people can come to eat delicious food produced in a place with a lot of nature, so much nature, in fact, that you might even see a bear.

Because of the shop’s name, my friend, who is also the husband of one of our staff members, named Zigen-san, started making those wooden bears for us. He is a chainsaw artist. You can see his work on his website.

Q. What about the bear bathroom?


The monumental bear bathroom hasn’t been there since the beginning. It was made when we built the cake shop in 2010. I created such a toilet because I wanted people to take pictures with it. Everyone takes pictures in front of the restaurant and posts it on their blog or social media sites, but it looks too normal and boring. I thought nobody would usually want to take a photo in front of a toilet, so it would be funny if I made a special toilet that people would want to take pictures in front of. It ended up costing about 3,700,000 yen (~$37,000) and I actually regretted it a little bit afterwards. (chuckle)

Q: Do foreign customers come here too?

It’s extremely rare. Our staff can’t speak English, either.

Q: Do you have any other new egg business in mind?

Actually no. Now I’m thinking of how to properly pass the baton (the business) on to my daughter and her family. I have to work hard to decrease our debt as much as possible.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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A Raw Egg On Rice Is A Japanese Feast Wed, 04 Jun 2014 16:00:48 +0000 When you get hungry and feel like something tasty, I’m guessing that most of you have never considered cracking a raw egg on top of some cooked rice. Many of you may even feel disgusted just by thinking about it, or maybe get worried about Salmonella poisoning. Yet, this simple 卵かけ御飯 (Tamago-Kake-Gohan) dish, consisting of only the two ingredients mentioned above (though usually you add a bit of soy sauce), is an eggs-elently delicious meal to many Japanese people. Since it is such a simple meal, some people refuse to consider the preparation of tamago-kake-gohan as “cooking”. Yet, famous Japanese cooking expert Harumi Kurihara introduced this dish in her Japanese cook book for foreigners: “Harumi’s Japanese Cooking“. There are now a lot of restaurants in Japan that actually specialize in serving this raw egg over cooked rice dish, and some are eggs-tremely famous. There is even an annual tamago-kake-gohan symposium! I know it’s pretty hard to swallow, but isn’t it at least eggs-citing to learn about such a popular and unique Japanese dish? Please “chick out” today’s post to get egg-ucated in this Japanese meal!

Author’s Note: Tamago-kake-gohan is also called “卵ぶっかけ御飯” (Tamago-bukkake-gohan), “卵ご飯” (Tamago-gohan), “卵掛け御飯” (Tamago-gake-gohan), “卵かっか” (Tamago-Kakka), “卵かけ” (Tamago-kake), “たまご飯” (Tamagohan), “たまつる” (Tamatsuru), “ぼっかけご飯” (Bokkake-gohan), “T.K.G.” (Tamago-Kake-Gohan) , and several other variants depending on region and personal preference. Tamago-kake-gohan is the most common usage, but if your prefer another one, feel free to use it.

Editor’s Note: Sorry for all the puns, their egg-istance is due to how egg-cited they made me.

History Of Tamago-kake-gohan


Since ancient times the main meat consumed by the Japanese people has been fish, because of the Buddhist commandment against killing animals. Although the consumption of chicken was a little bit higher than the consumption of other land-animals, the egg was not considered to be food for a long time. In Shintoism, the egg is regarded as an offering to the Gods, and people believed that they would be punished if they ate eggs.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868), people began keeping chickens as pets (what is this, Portland, OR?). Shortly after, eggs began to become a regular part of some diets because they quickly came to realize that unfertilized eggs didn’t hatch. One result of this new knowledge was that they could stop considering an egg as a creature under heaven. Because of that, people eventually lost the belief that eating an egg was a sin, so the act of doing so was no longer taboo. They then moved on from having chickens as pets to having chickens for the sole purpose of egg production and collection. Because eggs were considered a luxury and were a very expensive food item for a long time, nobody ever dreamed about using eggs for such a simple dish like tamago-kake-gohan.

The first person to make tamago-kake-gohan is said to be Ginko Kishida (1833-1905), who was considered a pioneer in various things. For example, not only was he Japan’s first war reporter, but he was also the creator of line dancing. In addition to this, Ginko was a close friend of James Curtis Hepburn, who made the Hepburn Romanization System. Ginko also helped him to make the Japanese-English dictionary, which, in case you haven’t heard of it, is called “和英語林集成” (Wa-eigo-Rinshuusei). My favorite accomplishment of Ginko’s was his invention of tamago-kake-gohan, which he did during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). He was amazed at how tasty it was and recommended it to everyone he knew. His affection for his tamago-kake-gohan did not go unnoticed and it was introduced to the public in a magazine. That issue wrote about how he puts 3-4 eggs on top of cooked rice for breakfast.

The Special Soy Sauce Only For Tamago-Kake-Gohan


Because of Ginko, tamago-kake-gohan gradually spread among the Japanese populace, but for a long time all it really could become was a popular comfort food eaten in people’s homes. It wasn’t until a special soy sauce made strictly for tamago-kake-gohan was made (in the early 2000s) that it really became a big hit. It sounds like some guy just got really lucky and made a lot of money because he was struck with an idea for a unique take on soy sauce, but the fact is that it only became a hit after a lot of work and effort on his part.

This special soy sauce was first produced by a group formed out of a public-private partnership, which was a joint venture between local government and private investors from a small mountain village named Yoshida, Iishi-gun, in Shimane Prefecture. Today, this village is now Yoshida Town Unnan City in Shimane prefecture. The town used to be famous and prosperous for its “Tatara Iron Manufacturing” plant, but they started having trouble as the manufacturing of steel blast furnaces came to Japan. Despite this, they didn’t give up and started making firewood, charcoal, and timber from nearby forests. But, due to energy revolutions of the time, jobs had to be cut again. Sadly, more and more people had to leave in order to get a job. The population was around 5,000 in 1955, but it dropped to 2,800 in 1980.

Some people living there were aware of the decreasing population, so they became very determined to increase it. They knew the biggest reason why young people were not settling down in the village was because there weren’t enough jobs to go around, so they decided to create job opportunities. They considered how they could improve upon something that was already a part of their community. They knew that they had tasty rice and wonderful vegetables, so at first they tried making pickles and nishime (which includes vegetables such as carrots, taro, konnyaku, etc). In order to achieve their goal, local government and residents had to combine efforts and work together.

The people had to convince every resident in the village that they had to do something to save the village and asked them for help. For 50,000 yen, you could get a single share of the company. They understood that was a great deal of money for poor villagers, but they ended up raising more money than they had expected because village groups, companies, and villagers (everyone, young and old alike) were resolute in their desire to make their community stronger and better. Thus, a public-private partnership company, named Yoshida Furusato Mura Co., Ltd., was established in April of 1985.

A very long time passed until they stumbled upon their idea for their tamago-kake-gohan soy sauce. It began when a chicken farmer made the request: “Could you make something that we can sell with our eggs?” Just like that, the soy sauce venture got underway in March, 2001. The initial conception of how this sauce was going to taste was very difficult to come by as they had no other sauces to build off of or compare to. They had numerous meetings, made an infinite amount of samples, and conducted countless taste tests with rice until, finally, the first specialty soy sauce, named おたまはん (Otamahan) was born a year later in May, 2002.

Tamago-kake-gohan Boom


Thanks to the unique concept, great taste, cute name, and assurances that only all-natural ingredients and very little fertilizer was used, it built itself a nice reputation. They started selling it with rice out of Yoshida Town and the success became evident soon after sales began. It wasn’t long before they had a 4-month back order.

Today, there are more than 50 kinds of Tamago-kake-gohan soy sauces sold in Japan, and there is a vast number of popular restaurants that only serve tamago-kake-gohan. That should help to give you an idea of how popular this dish (and this soy sauce) has become.

The people of the Yoshida Town community were reminded of the importance of tamago-kake-gohan to the Japanese by witnessing the boom they basically created. So, they made a “Tamago-kake-gohan Symposium Committee.” When Yoshida Town held the first “Japanese Tamago-Kake-Gohan Symposium” for three days in October of 2005, around 2,500 people came from all over Japan. That’s a lot of people for a village with a population of around 2,300. And, the people attending weren’t just ordinary folks like you and me. There were many TV and radio stations attending as well, and the news about the symposium was reported all over Japan, which helped popularize Tamago-kake-gohan even more.

Safety And Nutrients


Eggs contain many nutrients and a good amount of protein. Though the bioavailability of cooked eggs is 91% (compared to 51% in raw eggs), other nutrients become denatured when exposed to high heat, so raw eggs have some special benefits as well, maximizing what the body can intake and process.

However, raw egg yolks are also known as a medium for Salmonella. Although Japanese egg farmers provide eggs that have been very well washed, as they expect Japanese people may consume them raw, the number of people getting salmonella poisoning in Japan has increased since the 90s. So be careful, everyone! I wonder if this is just in line with the increased popularity of tamago-kake-gohan or something else?

Salmonella is found in chicken intestines and it sometimes attaches itself to egg shells via chicken poop (there’s only one hole in a chicken, and it all comes out that one hole). Most Japanese eggs get sterilized at GP Center, which is a factory for grading eggs and packing them, but you shouldn’t eat an egg raw if it has a crack in its shell. Moreover, even if there is no crack in the egg shell, you shouldn’t eat a raw egg that has been left for a long time after cracking it open. If you want to eat raw eggs, please make sure to get fresh ones!

Tamago-Kake-Gohan Products


Following the tamago-kake-gohan boom, various products for tamago-kake-gohan were made. For example, there is a tamago-kake-gohan stirring rod which acts like a whisk to mix raw egg to a smoother consistency and also a tamago-kake-gohan T-shirt to express your love of tamago-kake-gohan.

Although it is such a simple recipe, there is a tamago-kake-gohan recipe book which boasts one recipe for each day of the year. The book has also become an app. Following the release of the book, they also made a catchy 365 day tamago-kake-gohan song that you can listen to on the app or you can buy the CD from here , if you like (there are some sound samples here, as well).

End Of A Boom?


Photo by psyberartist

Since the typical food boom usually only lasts for a couple years, some people say that the tamago-kake-gohan boom quickly reached its end, too. However, others point out that it has been a “staple” meal for Japanese people and will continue to be so in the future. I agree with the latter opinion. Regardless of whether it was a boom or not, I like tamago-kake-gohan and I will have it every time I come back to Japan.

In fact, I recently visited a famous tamago-kake-gohan place and wrote about it for Tofugu’s Travel Section. I was impressed to see such a long line of people waiting to eat such a simple meal, especially because the restaurant is located in such an inconvenient place. I was so impressed that I asked to do an interview with the president of the restaurant and he agreed (so we’ll post that up tomorrow!). Not to spoil it for you or anything, but he had the idea for tamago-kake-gohan long before the boom started and his road to success is such an interesting one. So, be sure to stay up all night hitting the refresh button on your browser so that you can find out how he took the simplicity of tamago-kake-gohan and made it into his life.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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A Beginner’s Guide to Shochu Mon, 02 Jun 2014 16:00:59 +0000 Shōchū is a liquor with strong ties to Kyushu, especially Kagoshima. My appreciation of shōchū began in the year I spent studying in Fukuoka. I traveled all over Kyushu, but very little in Honshu. Late in my year there, I went to visit Kyoto and Nara for a weekend. It was there where I realized just how Kyushu shōchū is. Having traveled alone, I went in a bar near my hostel looking for a drink to sip while reading the manga I had purchased that day. I surprised the bar staff, by asking what shōchū they recommended. Friendly, but dumbfounded, one of them said “I don’t know. It’s not popular here. You really have been living in Kyushu haven’t you?”


Photo by Adam Ledford

Maybe shōchū is responsible for Kumamon’s red cheeks.

Most Westerners have heard of sake, even if they have never tried it. Japanese beer brands like Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo are also well known. However, relatively few Western people have ever tried shōchū or even know what it is. Even for those who have spent time in Japan, shōchū is often overlooked. Admittedly, it is an acquired taste for many, but that could be said of any liquor not disguised in a cocktail dress. Shōchū is a versatile drink, as I hope to show here. I encourage others to experiment and give it a chance, because I think there’s a shōchū out there for everyone. So sit back, relax, and have a cup, while I act as your guide through its history, making, types, and some of the myriad methods of enjoying this beautiful beverage.



It is thought that shōchū originated when distillation methods made their way to Japan via China, Southeast Asia, and Ryukyu to southern Kyushu. In fact, from its beginnings, Kyushu and more specifically Satsuma (modern day Kagoshima) was the area most strongly associated with shōchū. In 1410, the lord of Satsuma, Shimazu Motohisa, offered something called nanbanshu (“southern barbarian alcohol”) to the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimochi. It’s thought that this nanbanshu was something along the lines of a rice shōchū from Thailand.

However, the earliest known appearance of the characters for shōchū was graffiti written by construction workers on a board in the roof of the Kōriyama Hachiman Shrine in Ōkuchi, Kagoshima. It dates from a 1559 renovation of the shrine, and in addition to its importance to the history of shōchū, it shows that people have been complaining about their bosses for a long time. It reads, “The high priest was so stingy he never once gave us shōchū to drink. How annoying!”


Photo by washimo

The first written mention of the word shōchū.

It seems that the first types of shōchū were based on rice or other grains. Around the beginning of the 17th century, the sweet potato was brought from China to Ryukyu. Europeans had brought it from its native South America to China not long before. It was introduced from there to Satsuma, where it quickly spread over the domain, and then to the rest of Japan. It was around that time that people began using the tasty taters to make shōchū, but rice-based shōchū remained far more popular until the Meiji period.

The man who deserves a lot of the credit for making sweet potato shōchū synonymous with Kagoshima was the daimyo of Satsuma, Shimazu Nariakira. By the time he took his office in 1851, a lot of the strict rules the Tokugawa shogunate had put in place had begun to break down and Western powers were encroaching upon Japan. Nariakira himself was open to all sorts of learning, including Western science, though he too feared for Japan’s future sovereignty.


Shimazu Nariakira

He encouraged the modernization of military power, including the replacement of barrel loaded firearms with those which used ammunition detonated by percussion caps. The triggering explosive in those caps was mercury fulminate (“Breaking Bad” fans may recall that Walter White used this very same chemical to get himself out of a sticky situation).


One of its ingredients is ethanol, and for Nariakira the most ready source of ethanol was shōchū. To begin with, rice shōchū was used but, because the people relied on rice as their staple crop, Nariakira ordered research into using sweet potato shōchū instead. He thought that if sweet potato shōchū could become a special product of Satsuma it would be good, not only for military and industrial purposes, but profitable for his people as well. In his time, it wasn’t clear what results they would achieve, but during the Meiji period sweet potato shōchū successfully supplanted rice shōchū in Kagoshima.



Photo by Ryan McBride

Now that you have some background, let’s look at how shōchū is actually made. As the chart below indicates, water, yeast, and mold called kōji (Aspergillius oryzae) are combined and left to ferment for a few days, creating a mash called moromi. There are different types of kōji, and they contribute different flavors. For Okinawan awamori, black kōji is used, but the rest of Japan generally uses white kōji.


When the moromi is ready, the rice and sweet potato (or whatever the main flavor contributor is to be) is crushed and mixed into the moromi. That secondary moromi is left to ferment for another week or so. Then it is moved to stills for distillation. Distillation increases the purity and alcohol level, but some shōchū has water added after the fact to achieve the desired alcohol content. If water isn’t added it’s called genshu.



Photo by Ken Lee
  • Kome shōchū: Made from rice and being a bit milder in flavor makes it a good choice for beginners. There are some great examples from Kumamoto, including the hi no kuni manyū pictured at the beginning of the article.
  • Imo shōchū: Made from sweet potatoes. Kagoshima is well known for this type. With its strong aroma and flavor, it may not be the best choice for a first timer, but it’s my personal favorite. It’s also the best candidate for drinking warm.
  • Mugi shōchū: Made from barley. It tends to be fairly mild and is also a good beginner’s choice.
  • Kokutō shōchū: Made from brown sugar. This type isn’t that common, but well worth a try if you can find it. It generally comes from the Amami Islands.
  • Soba shōchū: Made from buckwheat. This type is only about forty years old. It’s the only one on this list that I’ve never tried myself, but it’s reported to be quite mild.
  • Awamori: Made from long-grain Thai rice. This is Okinawa’s equivalent of shōchū. Although it’s generally 25-30% alcohol, it can be much stronger.
  • Chūhai: A fruity, shōchū based cocktail. They can be hand mixed, or bought in a can for a very reasonable price (the canned ones don’t always use shōchū).

Ways to Drink


Not only are there many types of shōchū, but there are a number of ways to drink it as well. Give them all a try because each adds its own little something to the experience.

  • Neat: The simplest method of consumption and it allows you to get a general idea of the shōchū’s flavor. However, for many shōchū is an acquired taste and some shōchū may be a little too harsh for beginners to enjoy straight.
  • On the Rocks: A little ice is nice, especially in the summer. The downside is that some of the subtle flavors may not come out as much.
  • Cut with Water (mizuwari): It may sound a little odd to intentionally water down one’s drink, but this is a common way to drink shōchū. The water rounds the edges a bit, so beginners might enjoy this way or on the rocks. A good ratio of water to shōchū is 4:6 or 5:5.
  • With Warm Water (oyuwari): Drinking alcohol warm isn’t that common in the West, but it’s great for shōchū. If you’re doing this at home, the ideal water temperature should be about 158 F/70 C. You don’t want it too hot. Pour the water into your cup first, then the shōchū. The specific gravity of shōchū is heavier so it will sink and the two will naturally mix. The ideal ratio of hot water to shōchū is 4:6 for weaker shōchū or 5:5 for stuff that’s at least 25%. This method creates a nice aroma and brings out flavors you don’t get otherwise.
  • Warm: A traditional way to drink shōchū, but not as widely available, particularly in more modern establishments. Shōchū in a little black pot (kuro joka) is heated either on a charcoal stove or in water. When vapor begins to come out of the pot’s spout it’s ready to drink. Don’t overheat it, and don’t heat in a microwave.

Warm or cold, rice or sweet potato, in a cup or used to make ammo, shōchū has remained a versatile and fascinating drink for hundreds of years. I hope you’re inspired to give it a try. Until next time . . .Kanpai!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Culture Shock Can Be Nuts Mon, 19 May 2014 16:00:40 +0000 When it comes to food, I’m a bit of a health nut. I love snacking and nuts are my go-to snack. Compared to the other choices that fill snack aisles, nuts are low in sugar and, depending on the variety, unprocessed and nutritious. At break-time, instead of downing cookies or chips, I reach for my nuts. This habit wasn’t a problem, until I moved to Japan.

A Nutty Admission


Photo by Melchior

Out of all the things I expected to miss when I moved to Japan, nuts took me by surprise. Although Japanese supermarkets have sections dedicated to natto, seaweed, and tofu, there’s little choice when it comes to nuts. My local market carried cashews, almonds, and butter peanuts. Were they roasted? Salted? Organic? I gave them a try and ended up with super-salty cashews, fried almonds oozing oil, and uniquely flavored Chinese peanuts.

Could I live without my comfort foods – those soft walnuts, mild raw almonds or fibrous pumpkin seeds? As the Joni Mitchell song goes, “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” I had taken my nuts for granted, but wasn’t about to give up hope. It was time to nut up.

Unsatisfied, I began a quest. I would journey to every supermarket, search every grocery, explore any place that might stock nuts. And so I present the fruits of my labor. If you’re living in Japan, please take note – this is your buyer’s guide. If not, I hope you enjoy the moral of my tale.

Japan’s Nuts


What Japan lacks in Western nuts it must make up in its own varieties, right? At the very least Japan’s nuts could substitute for what I yearned for… Or so I thought.

Research suggests that Japan has four native species of nuts. Savory Japan mentions the ginnan or gingko nut. I hear it makes an excellent soup. The Encyclopedia of Fruit & Nuts refers to the Japanese hazelnut. Finally, Fruit Breeding, Nuts discusses Japanese walnuts and kuri chestnuts. Of the four, chestnuts are most common. They are sold whole or used to make Japanese pastries. In the winter they can even be found on mountain roads or trails – if you get there before anyone else.

Aside from these native species it appears that Japan has little domestic nut production. Even the chestnuts I found on store shelves were imports. Chiba prefecture grows 落花生 (rakkasei) peanuts, but I’ve never seen them in stores. Like the other nuts on store shelves, almost all peanuts are imported.

Of course there are domestic snack alternatives; like edamame, dried soy beans, fish jerky and dried seaweed. I love dried soy beans, chestnuts and seaweed – note I didn’t mention the fish jerky. Still, I had an itch only those familiar nuts could scratch.

A Nutty Heritage


Photo by Jason Kuffer

Is there a country as nutty as America? The sheer variety of nuts available in many American grocery stores is overwhelming. Nuts come salted, lightly salted, sea salted, unsalted, dry roasted, honey roasted, fried, raw, organic, fair-trade and unfair-trade. Japan’s four native species pale in comparison to the almonds, chestnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, macadamia, pecan, pistachio, walnuts, beechnuts and peanuts produced in the US.

But unlike Japan, the US has a rich cultural heritage of nut consumption. Many species date back to the pre-colonial era, meaning America’s nut consumption predates the formation of the country itself. Forget the apple pie, nuts are America’s true iconic snack food.


Photo by Katorisi

A lack of native species means Japan didn’t develop a nut culture. Instead, Japan developed its own traditions. Onigriri rice balls and mochi rice cakes are a result of Japan’s rice culture.

Photo by Gerald Ford

Similarly, sushi and seaweed dishes show Japan’s historical dependence on the sea. Soy sauce, miso, natto and dried soy beans are proof of Japan’s long history of soy bean use.


Photo by Tammy Green

Whether it’s for lack of growing conditions or lack of necessity, Japan simply doesn’t grow nuts. As a result Japan lacks the variety and availability of other places – hence my quest.

The Quest For Nuts


Although the selection is limited, the first place to check is the supermarket. Nuts can be found near the beer and alcohol – usually alongside the fish jerky. After all, nuts are still considered a bar snack in Japan. I once offered a coworker cashews but he declined, “I can’t eat those without a beer!” Snack bars often stock complimentary bowls of nuts. This explains why unsalted nuts are a rarity.

Unsalted nut rarity used to be the case in the US as well. Elaine Watson of foodnavigator-usa states, “If you asked most people where nuts belonged on a food pyramid 20 years ago, they would probably say in the candy section. Today nuts are widely regarded as nutritional dynamite, which could explain why 60% of nut-related snack launches in the US were on a ‘health’ platform of some kind in 2013.” Healthy offerings have inflated the nut market in the west while changing perceptions of the snack.

Back to the Japanese grocery store. If the beer section doesn’t have what you’re looking for, head to the the fruit section. Finally, check the baking goods aisle- but be warned, servings are small and expensive. Nevertheless I found raw unsalted almonds here.

Next my quest took me to my favorite phenomenon in Japan – hyakkin or 100-yen shops. Aside from the household items and stationary, 100-yen shops have loads of snacks. In fact, some hyakkin had more varieties of nuts than the actual supermarkets. They often provide more value too, with equal or bigger bags priced at 100-yen. My local hyakkin carried unsalted American walnuts and lightly salted pistachios.

Don’t bother with convenience stores. They’re pricier than supermarkets and have less selection. Only count on them in do or die situations – which, considering it’s just nuts, I hope you’ll never be in.

The Final Frontiers


Photo by

For a time supermarkets and 100-yen shops satisfied my needs. Maybe the extra sodium was to blame, but I started feeling squirrely again. Could I find affordable raw almonds? Or packages beyond a single serving size? The quest continued.

On a friend’s recommendation I headed to a specialty baking goods shop. Many Japanese breads, cakes, and cookies contain nuts, so it seemed like a good idea. I hit the jackpot. They stocked wholesale bags of raw almonds and plain walnuts. So if you live in Japan and have a hankering for nuts try the local baking goods shop. You might get lucky too.

But if all else fails, nuts are just a click away. Many of you have been screaming, “Hey nutcase! You forgot about the Internet!” And you’re right. Sites like and Rakuten sell all sorts of nuts. At the time, I didn’t have a Japanese credit card and didn’t understand the other payment options. With no way to pay, I deleted the Internet from the list of applicable solutions to any problem. On the plus side, buying from the family owned baking goods shop offers more satisfaction. And there’s the added bonus of practicing Japanese and exchanging cooking tips with the owners.

Journey’s End

Photo by Rich Duffy

What did I learn from my quest? First that the old proverb, “He that would eat the kernel must crack the nut” is true. If you want something, you have to work for it. And sometimes, the act of cracking the nuts ends up more valuable than the kernel itself.

My quest for nuts led to new discoveries. Through my journeys, I got to know the neighborhood. By learning about Japan’s native nuts, I discovered and tried new foods. Think of what I would have missed out on if I had ordered from the Internet!

Thanks to my quest I became versed in Internet shopping and can now purchase anything that’s not available in local stores. Well, almost anything – I still miss New York pizza. Even in this global age, there are some things you just have to live without.

In retrospect I chalk the entire situation up to culture shock. If I was a Japanese person living in the US, I might write an article about my quest for authentic sushi, mochi or natto. And thanks to my experience, I’m already considering the Japanese things I’ll miss when I return to the US. From new comfort foods like natto and udon, to the more important things like my heated toilet seat and health care plan.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Japanese Food Models, Yesterday And Today Thu, 15 May 2014 16:15:50 +0000 If you’ve ever visited Japan and had to order food without benefit of being able to read Japanese, there’s one thing that’s a lifesaver: those plastic food replicas lined up in the windows of many restaurants. With their exquisite detail, you know exactly what you’re going to get – what toppings on the ramen, what side dishes with the set meal – and if you really can’t communicate in any other way, all you need to do is point.


Photo by YoAndMe

Despite how helpful they are to those of us with minimal Japanese skills, these samples were not created for our benefit – they’ve existed since before mass tourism to Japan was practical. And in fact they’re so unfamiliar to people from most other countries that some are put off by them. One tourist told a reporter:

When I see this it makes me feel like I don’t want to eat it. It is too weird.

Personally I remember that before I was familiar with Japanese food and culture, when I saw food models in a Japanese restaurant in the US, they seemed odd and rather suspicious. Maybe because these days we equate “plastic” with “fake” and “cheap,” they struck me as the opposite of a sign of quality cuisine.


Photo by FakeFoodJapan

Well I couldn’t have been more wrong about the “cheap” – in fact those samples cost a LOT of money. An easy place for the English-speaker to peruse the prices is at the website of FakeFoodJapan (which has a handy converter in the right hand-corner to change the price in yen into your native cuisine). A simple cup of green tea is 3,600 yen (about 36 dollars), and a single onigiri rice ball is 7,000 yen. Full main dishes go up into the equivalent of hundreds of dollars, like 52,600 yen for a platter of sushi for four.

Now imagine one of those restaurant display cases with several rows full of a few dozen dishes, many of them set menus with several components, and add up the numbers in your head. You’re talking serious money.


Photo by camknows

When I first discovered how expensive these models are, I was surprised. Sure, it’s great for customers to know exactly what they’re getting before they order. But other restaurants, both in Japan and in countries that don’t have these food models, do that by printing color photographs in their menus, which is far cheaper. In fact even in Japan many places do both.

So I wondered, how did this business get started?

Who Invented The Food Model? The Pretty Story


It turns out there’s a good reason why the original users of these food models didn’t print photos in their menus instead – it’s because when they were first invented, that wasn’t an alternative. The first model was made in 1917, and the industry really took off in the 1930s, long before color photography – and the reproduction of color photography – was common.

There’s agreement on the general outlines on the start of food models becoming a big business. Takizo Iwasaki is acknowledged as the father of the industry, and his company, Iwasaki-bei, is still in business. His first model was a rice omelet, which is still on display at the company’s factory in Gujo Hachiman.

The story of Iwasaki’s crucial moment of inspiration in 1932 Osaka is often retold, and for something that didn’t happen all that long ago, there’s surprisingly little agreement on the details. But the more I looked into it, the more I realized that actually made sense – the story turns out to be a bit of an origin myth, so the tale has been romanticized to sound better.

One version, on an episode of NHK English TV’s Begin Japanology, relates that his wife was sick, and he couldn’t pay the electric bill, so they had to use candles, which Iwasaki would gaze into late into the night. One evening he picked off a piece of melted wax and saw his fingerprint imprinted. He let wax drip on the tatami and saw how the pattern of the ridges was precisely reproduced. An acquaintance asked if he could make model food samples and despite having no experience, he was sure it could be done with wax.

Or if the leap from wax fingerprints to food doesn’t sound convincing, how about this: On the company’s web page, an introductory video says Iwasaki let wax drip in the water and it formed the shape of a beautiful flower on the surface. Years later, after a lot of testing and trials, he created the first omelet food model.

Who Invented The Food Model? The Not-So-Pretty Story


I sort of wish I had believed those romantic stories and left it at that, because when researchers look deeper, it gets a little unappetizing. In fact, there were actually wax food models before 1932. Yasunobu Nose, a journalist who wrote a book about the food sample industry, says the first one was made in 1917 by Soujiro Nishio of Kyoto, who made anatomical models out of wax: “The original craftsman was working for doctors and making models for pathological studies, such as skin diseases and human organs, before he was asked to make food samples for a restaurant.” Yum!

Other writers have added that detail into Iwasaki’s moment of inspiration: “images from anatomical wax models displayed at Japanese apothecaries collided with memories of a wax flower arrangement,” or a combination of “anatomical models, imitation food used in nutrition lessons, and watching wax from a candle drip onto tatami.”

Did a wax flower arrangement really enter into Iwasaki’s inspiration? Had he seen anatomical models of skin disease or was a fingerprint in wax the only body part involved in his inspiration? I don’t know. But I suspect that the stories are all slightly fictional because maybe there wasn’t really a single mythical moment. Although Iwasaki may have been the father of the industry, it seems probable that he didn’t come up with the idea out of the blue. For instance, if he didn’t know of the guy who made them in 1917 in Kyoto, they were also in use in the 1920s in Tokyo. Apparently in that decade there was a huge boom in eating out, and department stores were opening cafeterias to cater to office workers. There were complications trying to satisfy large numbers of people unused to eating out, and perhaps unfamiliar with city cuisine. Letting people see the food in advance was a way to let them know exactly what they were getting. The first department store to try this was Shirokiya in Tokyo, where they had the idea to display a serving of each dish. But real food could attract bugs and get sad-looking in other ways by the end of the day, and making the food and throwing it away every day wasn’t without expense.

So someone had the idea of asking Tsutomo Sudo, a anatomical model maker in Nihonbashi, to make models of food. Made with a mixture of paraffin wax, stearate, and vegetable tallow, his first piece is said to have been tuna sashimi.

Did someone in the department store know about the models made by the anatomical model maker from Kyoto, or did they come up with the idea on their own? Had Iwasaki seen or heard of these prior models, and was the whole wax-dripping-from-candle story an invention? There’s probably no way to know. It wouldn’t be the first great idea that several different people came up with independently. He was definitely the man who made a huge business out of it, though – and his company reportedly still has sixty percent of the market. So that’s enough of an accomplishment that I guess he earned his romanticized origin story.

Making Food Models, Old-School


Photo by henry…

Food models are no longer made of wax – it was replaced by more durable plastic in the 1970s. But you can still see how wax models are made, and in fact try your hand at it at workshops for the public held at various food model stores and factories. The typical demos are of making a head of lettuce and tempura. To make lettuce, they pour layers of white and green wax into a water bath, lift out the resulting sheet, scrunch it up, and cut it in half. It’s pretty remarkable how realistic it looks.

Here’s the lettuce:

And here’s some tempura:


Photo by Shoko

To make tempura, wax is dribbled in to look like tempura coating, then a separately made food model, like a shrimp, is wrapped in it.

Making wax lettuce looks like fun, but it doesn’t seem to be all that representative of how most models are made nowadays. It seems to rely on the natural randomness of squishing the wax layer being a lot like the natural randomness of the lettuce leaf ridges. Most of the processes rely more on precise reproduction both of the real foods and sometimes even the actual preparation methods for the real food being duplicated.

Making Food Models Today


Photo by Tokyo Times

Wax was more long-lasting than food, but today’s materials are way more durable than either. Models are made of plastic, using silicon molds that retain the finest details of the real food. And we are talking real food: a mold for a piece of tuna sashimi, say, is made by pressing an actual piece of tuna into a layer of silicon. The silicon is left for a day to set and then liquid colored plastic is poured in to make many little copies of the original piece of fish.


Photo by Shoko

There are still tricks for some individual foods that molds aren’t suitable for, like ramen noodles made by covering string in liquid plastic. Some foods are reproduced using similar techniques used in preparing the real dish. Sushi is made by taking individual mold-cast plastic rice grains, mixing them with an adhesive, and then shaping them by hand. Real chef’s knives are used to chop, and a sandwich is made whole and then cut into pieces just like the real thing.

Although already-made models are sold, companies also do custom orders and pride themselves on precisely replicating the exact dish as made by a particular restaurant. And while saying that molds are used may make the process sound mechanical, there’s clearly a lot of craft involved. Since real food isn’t one solid color like plastic, the molded items needed to be individually colored realistically, using both hand paintbrushes and airbrushes.

And there’s apparently still work to be done on perfecting particular items. Uncooked natural food is said to be the hardest to imitate, and one employee of Iwasaki told a reporter that his greatest achievement was making a realistic Japanese leek, or negi. This is a vegetable that’s sort of like an American scallion or green onion but somehow, subtlely far more awesome. You see it chopped up on top of ramen and many other dishes, so it’s needed for a lot of food models, but apparently past versions were not very convincing. Made of a thin layer of white plastic rolled up, when sliced, they looked like, well, white plastic rolled up and sliced. This man’s achievement was not only to reproduce the yellowish-green shade in the middle of the negi, but to make it act like negi when sliced – the layers come apart, and the fine strips droop naturally.

Fake Food Travels


Photo by Shoko

If you’re visiting Tokyo and you’re interested in food models, Kappabashi, the famous street full of kitchen supply stores, is the place to go. They cater to tourists as well as the restaurant trade, because the industry has caught on to the fact that there are ways to make these things into perfect souvenirs like magnets, cell phone charms, stands, and so on.


Photo by Shoko

The small stuff is reasonably affordable, and if you’re like me you’ll be sorry when you get home that you only bought one tiny grilled squid fridge magnet, so learn from my mistakes and don’t be stingy.

A couple of the stores have websites, in Japanese:

The latter also has a souvenir shop in Tokyo Skytree if you don’t make it to Kappabashi.


Photo by Shoko

In Osaka, the mythical birthplace of the food sample, there are shops in the Doguya-suji shopping street. For a real pilgrimage, though, you need to head to Gujo Hachiman, Iwaskaki’s home town, where there are ten food model factories. Apparently there’s room for so many because they specialize in certain items – I guess this means that when someone like the guy we met earlier creates the ultimate fake negi, everyone doesn’t steal his idea, which is a nice thought.


If you just want to sit and home and shop on the Internet, though, I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time on the website of FakeFoodJapan coveting a USB drive pickled plum ($35.15), a business card case covered with red bean rice ($21.48), and a fridge magnet of boiled fish paste ($8.79). They’re a company whose noble mission is “to give people spanning the globe the opportunity to own and enjoy for themselves this Japanese time-honored craft of producing the most authentic looking fake food known to man.” I’ll drink a foamy-headed, 7,000-yen totally convincing fake mug of beer to that.

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You Will Never Starve If You Can Eat Thu, 08 May 2014 16:00:53 +0000 Two grains of rice clung to her pale cheek as she lowered her chopsticks and the now finished bowl of Gyudon.* Having unceremoniously downed her breakfast, the woman appeared contented.

“Excuse me! Can I have a second serving please?”
“Yes, ma’am.”

The male populated counter stared, taken aback, and then, applauded. The woman equally surprised by their response tilted a bow, her lips curling into a smile.

This scene from the film Moteki (2011) stresses an underlying concept often overlooked by those outside Japanese culture: ownership of eating.

Sure, many countries celebrate victorious eaters. There are contests for nearly every cuisine. Some challenges are public, while others are quietly participated. Television shows promote such gluttony and yet nothing will prepare a first timer to sit a proper food challenge.

Most articles focus on the spectacle in lieu of the philosophy behind great eating. Is it any wonder why, when seated before a single gyoza the size of one’s head or a basin of ramen fashioned into a bowl? The novelty is distracting.

Living To Eat Or Eating To Live


While the uninitiated and more often hungry will segregate Japanese cuisine into two basic camps: quality and quantity, neither is exclusive of the other, and both can be attached to a benefit-cost ratio. Except of course when the meal is free. In perishing one’s appetite as a contestant in hopes of gaining a free meal, pocketing a few thousand yen, or simply to enjoying the fuss, the Eater will quickly confront their inner philosopher: does one live to eat or eat to live?

Everyone outside of stuffing his or her face beyond reason can never truly understand. As spectators, they may applaud challenge and challenger, but it is that moment, the one that reaches beyond third helpings, in which the Eater must decide what they really believe.

That sense of shared life, common to the Japanese experience, cannot be claimed in this matter. One must go it alone. Enter the fighting spirit.

“From the next day on, everyone ordered second and third helpings and the general air of lassitude lifted from the entire sesshin.‡ With that, the jikijitsu told us that we had finally worked up some of the fighting spirit required for the most important sesshin of the year.”§ Teaching and Learning in Japan

Zen Buddhism encourages portioning up. Outside of professional eating (competition, sumo), Japan is little known for its substantial portion sizes. Yet, all-you-can-eat buffets are numerous, in every style of cuisine and in every city throughout Japan. They are relevant. This does not include the random challenges that dole out cash prizes with their walls covered in polaroids and the chance for localized fame. I am convinced that Western societies are fed so little Japanese food that their minds are decidedly biased in the belief that Japanese food is expensive, the people are terribly skinny, and small portion size must be the rule.

However, this author has witnessed the most petite of office ladies consume no less than eight donuts in one sitting at the neighborhood Mister Donut.† Being a lunch hour, this was theoretically a timed competition. Something is going on here, and not for the greater good.

Eating For Your Future Self


Q: When you are hungry and anxious, what do you eat?
A: Comfort food.
Q: And how much comfort food do you eat?
A: Enough.

Does that sound familiar? Guilty. Now let us back up to the beginning. In reference to Moteki, I left out a crucial element as to why the woman was eating so voraciously. Why was she famished? Why did it matter? You see, the woman was overcoming her shame of the previous night. Her eating, while impressive, was both comfort and demonstration of resolve. In other words, the men’s cheers brought the woman into a state of awareness, which she otherwise may have simply ignored. Instead, she claimed the very fighting spirit she had subconsciously initiated through her self-imposed food challenge and thus, wholly owned the moment.

If one watches Japanese Dramas or films, it is not uncommon to witness so-called “extra portion” scenes, similar to the one cited. And more times than not, that second helping is emotionally connected to an outstanding internal conflict the character must satisfy. As a Western viewer, I might dismiss this bellying up as merely a moment of comfort binging. As a Japanese viewer, I will see this as an act of consequence, or a first step in a new direction. So with the determination of eating one’s self into a brighter future, comes consciousness. The substitutionary extra portion represents a future, accomplished self.

Finding My Own Fighting Spirit


Photo by JD Hancock

Extra portions, baikingus, all-you-can-eats, and any other form of massive over consumption seems to counter one significant Japanese holding: modesty. Surely all of that eating could be nothing less than immodest? I needed to investigate firsthand.

It was going to be a burger challenge, I’d decided. And upon completion of my mission, an award of $300US would be graciously delivered to my grimy ham-fists. All I had to do was sit the entire meal, eat a burger, swallow some fries, polish off a portion of mashed potatoes, consume a few brownies and wash it down with a Coke. Simple.

I had the fighting spirit, and just to be double certain of victory, I researched how one might prepare. The answer was drinking lots of soup to expand the stomach. I had three days to train. The day of the challenge had arrived. I ate an egg on toast for breakfast. I was ready.

Approaching the small diner with two friends in tow, I retrieved my invitation. Many challenges require advanced booking, and as our party took to our awaiting table, a wall of Instax photos welcomed us.

Now I was presented a release waiver to sign. This was getting heart attack serious by the moment. My gut said it was ready, so I put down my mark and out came the feast. My eyes widened in fear when the 1 kilogram burger patty covered in a stack of cheese, lettuce and tomato placed between a singular artisan loaf was set before me. This platter was encircled with a moat of French fries and topped with brownies so high that my fighting spirit turned to my fearless stomach for encouragement. Then came the 800 grams of mashed potatoes in the form of the Matterhorn. And don’t forget the Coke, all 1.8L of it.

Now Is Not The Time To PANIC


Photo by gwaar

In the meantime, a small line had formed. These fans sought photo ops. Not with me, but the colossus before me, and who was I to deny them? Every peace-signing spectator now contented, I was given the rules: no getting up, no sharing. The official engaged the stopwatch, and I began. I had 45 minutes to destroy the place.

Tearing the burger down, I focused on the meat first. Is there such a thing as 50% lean? Those bastards! That was it, I vowed to shame everyone and burn the place to the ground, humiliate their families, and call it a day. Working through my strategy, I focused. I was making serious progress, and then, I hit that wall: the choice between pride and death or living to fight another day.

I turned to my supporters knowing the cause was lost. Gesturing with the international sign for cut it out, my mouth continued its current task. One companion looked me squarely in the face and said, “Giving up?” I nodded. “Thank goodness, now we can eat your fries.”

At the end, we had a party, but I was not celebrating. Surely I had been cheated. I did everything right, only to fail. And when I asked the venue owner if anyone had actually beaten the challenge, he laughed with a resounding, “No.”

Taking It All Back


Photo by Osamu Kaneko

Later in the week, I continued to dwell on my stunted performance with thoughts of, “If I only…,” or, “I should have…” and, “It would have been better if…” In some sense I was shamed, not for the experience, but because my fighting spirit left me so quickly. I was owned by the moment, the absolute opposite of what I wished to be writing about now. Taking lunch at one of the local ramen shops, I gracefully slurped my usual at the counter. Looking about, familiar faces itadakimasu-ed.¶ They were respecting the food, and then it hit me. Ownership of eating was not about completing the challenge. It was about accepting it. With that, I set down my bowl and spirited, “Extra portion please!”

When thinking about Japanese food, what comes to mind first: Portion size? Quality? Aesthetic? Taste? Perhaps it’s the balance thereof. Might I suggest trying an “extra portion” scene for yourself. You won’t regret it.


* Gyudon (牛丼): beef and onion, simmered in soy sauce based broth on rice.
† Baikingu (バイキング): a buffet or smorgasbord often all-you-can-eat or all-you-can-pile.
‡ Sesshin (接心): a period of intensive meditation (zazen) in a Zen monastery.
§ Jikijitsu (直日): the overseer in charge of every movement of the monks coming to sit zazen in the zendo (meditation hall) within a Japanese Zen monastery.
¶ Itadakimasu (いただきます): traditional Japanese expression of giving thanks before a meal.

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A 120 Years Of Mornings: The History Of Coffee In Japan Tue, 29 Apr 2014 16:00:28 +0000 Behavioral ecologists could probably explain through foraging theories why, when I travel, I scope out coffee shops and situate myself around them. In Japan, for example, I quickly learned where the non-smoking, reasonably priced, good quality coffee was. I stuck to a handful of habitats that suited those interests. I changed location depending on whether I was alone or in a group, and whether I was hurting for money or ready to indulge.

If you’ve ever looked at Japan’s Starbucks menu or used gomu shiroppu, you know about Japan’s spin on seasonal flavors and efficient service. Beyond unique Japanese flavors, though, some coffee shop adaptations naturally attract certain consumers. Looking at these different traits, along with the evolution of coffee-drinking in Japan, illuminates a new side of a culture Tofugu readers like you love. So I’ve put Japanese cafés under a microscope (not literally, obviously – Japan’s tiny spaces aren’t that tiny) and, based on readings and personal exploration, found some things you might want to know.

Kissaten Origins


“…[I]t began as a new place, not directly inheriting the social space of the chaya [tea house]” (White 30)

For starters, let’s look at the original Japanese coffee shop, called a kissaten (喫茶店). My own kanji-by-kanji interpretation of the word is whacky and off-point, “caffeine savor store”, while the more sensible Makiko Itoh says that it literally means “tea tasting shop.” She describes it as a no-rush place to grab a bite and something to drink. The word is more loosely translated as “coffee lounge”, which suggests a languid, dreamy atmosphere. Considering kissaten were the habitats of such creative creatures as Léonard Tsuguhara Foujita (artist), Junichiro Tanizaki (writer), and Yoko Isaka (poet), “coffee lounge” is probably the most accurate interpretation.

Foujita’s Café, 1949:


Before the kissaten, there were chaya – traditional tea-serving joints. Chaya (茶屋) had been the pub-like nests of camaraderie, gossip, and familiarity in villages and along the old roads. In other words, chaya were physical twitter feeds for pre-Meiji Japan. In a chaya, one was known and menu items were cheap and small. Kissaten, on the other hand, didn’t sell green tea or dango, but focused on coffee or black tea, and, from the very first establishment, provided tobacco and newspapers, all in a setting modeled with モダン (“modern”) furnishings – Western tablesets, bars, and Art Deco.

Merry White, author of Coffee Life in Japan, writes, “At different times in the past 120 years the Japanese café has offered more than coffee … and private solace, [but], depending on the era… cafés have provided what the city dweller needs” (30).

The first time such a place existed in Japan was 1888. A man named Tei Eikei, who was the well-traveled, multilingual, adopted son of “a Taiwanese secretary in the Japan Foreign Ministry” (White 18), established the first Japanese kissaten. He named it Kahiichakan, and it went bankrupt in five years.


Photo by LWYang

That short-lived but influential first kissaten gave birth to the trend of coffee-central drink halls.

It was Meiji-era Tokyo, where industrialization was affecting more than just technology. Class structures like “samurai” and “merchant” and “emperor” were breaking down. Men and women were increasingly moving towards urban centers and taking on 9-5 jobs or pursuing education. Naturally, kissaten blossomed along the train lines, acting as information hubs for those who were new to the city and as locations for businessmen to play Angry Birds until their next train.

Despite the importance of these original cafés, I never heard this word spoken in Japan; ‘Kissaten’ is a term I learned formally. A friend of mine suggests that it’s an older-sounding word, one that brings to mind a certain style of place (like Chatei Hatou) and sells ナポリタン (Naporitan) in addition to the standard coffee or black tea.


For him, a twenty-something year old, there’s a better word for a place that sells coffee. That word is カフェ (kafe).

Café Evolution


Japanese emmigrants learning Portuguese on their way to Brazil. 1908.

Some people might believe that, because Japan has been a large producer of green tea for centuries, coffee is considered an exotic, foreign luxury. However, according to White’s book, Brazilian coffee-growers deliberately, and successfully, reached out to Japan in the late 1800’s to export the original energy drink. From then on, expatriates working at the top of the industry, combined with the burgeoning crop of cafés in Japan, made the daily cup of jo as Japanese as wasei-eigo. More than a century later, Brazil is still the largest supplier of unroasted and instant coffee to Japan, which now ranks third in global coffee imports for consumption.

Thanks to those coffee relations, the Japanese map features home-grown cafés blazing beyond the original kissaten species. The first café chain in the world, for example, Paulista, was established in Japan in 1908. Fast forward past the sad war times when coffee (and everything else) was hard to come by and up to when Japan started getting on its feet economically: coffee chains became a big thing. After all, busy salarymen and OL’s needed their caffeine. Not too much has changed in that regard.

Chain Mutations


Doutor, established in 1980, is the biggest such beast in the land. It’s similar to other large coffee companies, like Pronto, for diversifying its store brands. When I say diversify, I mean going up and down the scale of price, variety, and location. For example, the train stop Doutor breed often has cheap food and little variety, while the Ecelsior Café is a happy medium of price, taste, and convenience. Still higher up the ladder and out in suburban areas is Café Colorado. Higher still in price, and in ritzier metro areas, is Le Café Doutor. Check out the graph below for an idea of numbers. I made it after counting results from each company’s ‘store locator’ section on the official websites.


Another trait that both large and small cafés share in many cases is smoking. Segrafeda, a popular Italian-style chain, is notorious for its smoky haze. Tully’s, a popular foreign company, and Doutor also have seem to have vague or non-existent separation for smoking in-store. Some Japanese, often older folks, appreciate the pairing of coffee and tobacco. But plenty don’t – a trend that has helped the success of those establishments which are non-smoking. In this survey by Nifty, 40% of men and 53% of women respondents would like to see cafés become non-smoking areas. More then half said that when choosing a restaurant they would look exclusively for non-smoking places.

Smaller chains usually optimize one trait or focus one one locale to compete. Renoir isn’t so small, but flocks around Kanto and is known for prioritizing plug-in and wireless access for patrons. Then there is Miyakoshiya, which only has 26 locations but thrives by crowding up Sapporo. This mostly-Hokkaido chain also maintains a good reputation for both quality coffee and responsible smoking/non-smoking separation.

Finally, there is the most recent coffeeveelution of kissaten: independent cafés and espresso bars. The total number of cafés, from chain to independent, has been shrinking. But White suggests this decline isn’t a result of endangered mom-pop stores, but rather an effect of the Bubble Economy. After Japan’s recession, a downsizing had to happen. White adds:

“[T]his does not signify fewer customers for cafés or a growing use of chain coffee shops like Doutor or Starbucks (whose appearance simply created a new customer base rather than poaching on that of the independent cafés)” (White 38)

Some people still paint the picture as dismal, though, convinced that the success of foreign competitors like Starbucks is threatening the livelihood of local coffee masters.

Foreign Franchises


Photo by Dick Johnson

The three biggest foreign coffee-providers in Japan are Starbucks, Tully’s, and, believe it or not, McDonald’s.

While any one of the more than 3,000 McDonald’s stores in Japan will sell a cup of coffee, the corporation began establishing standalone coffee shops in 2007. These coffee shops, so far 94 in number, are called Mccafé by Barista. They provide typical café sandwiches and sweets but specialize in a higher grade coffee than the normal McDonald’s. The menu is also pricier than the regular McD’s, but still less expensive than Starbucks. Mccafé by Barista’s real battleaxe, though, is its high number of 24 hour locations (84 of 94 total) and the increasing number of delivery service cafés (14 of 94 total).

Invading species No. 2 is Seattle-based Tully’s, which opened its first Japanese branch in 1997. Now, 513 Tully’s dot the island country. Taking a look at some of the menu items, Tully’s seems to be a bit more like the traditional kissaten in offering things like pasta. Yet, you can also order ice cream, which sets Tully’s apart from most other coffee shops I’ve been to, though maybe ice-cream selling cafés are a thing in Japan. Price-wise, it’s about the same as Starbucks.

That brings me to the only chain with numbers comparable to Doutor: Starbucks. More than 1000 branches have been established in Japan, though naturally these cluster around metropolitan areas. Starbucks opened its first Japanese branch in 1996 in Ginza, Tokyo, and quickly gained footing in the Japanese coffee-service market. A 2006 survey by MyVoice demonstrates how connected Starbucks became to local consumers in just ten years: for those respondents, Starbucks was the most loved and most often visited self-service coffee shop. That’s enough to convince me it’s not foreign anymore – Starbucks adapted with its new surroundings and fit them perfectly. Though, not everyone feels that way, as you’ll see below.

Tottori Invasion


Photo by Yazan Badran

Last year, Tully’s announced plans to open a location in Tottori Prefecture, a small place where the largest city has a population of about 200,000. Tottori is notable for its unique sand dune tourist destination. Tottori is also notable because until this year, there was neither a Tully’s nor a Starbucks in the prefecture. Not long after Tully’s announced their move, Starbucks matched suit, releasing its own plans to set up shop in sand-dune-land. This shouldn’t be noteworthy except that these are foreign-grown companies. Doutor actually doesn’t have branches in Shimane or Oita, but no one seems to be fussing over that. (Maybe Shimane and Oita are happy with the Starbucks or whatever there)

We asked some residents of Tottori how they felt about the encroaching Starbucks:

“It’s sad that, since there aren’t any Starbucks in Tottori, I don’t have any places to read or study with a nice coffee by myself. If it was built, my guess is that quite a lot of people would go.” -Shokotan, 28-year-old woman

“It’s fine that we don’t have any Starbucks. I mean, if there was one, I might go, but I’m not bothered that there isn’t one. Actually, there are cafés that originate in Tottori such as ラバール (La Bar) because we don’t have Starbucks. So I think not having Starbucks makes Tottori create new businesses.” –Masashi, 25-years-old man

“I’m actually disappointed to hear that Starbucks will be built in Tottori. Like the Tottori governor said,”We don’t have SUTABA (Starbucks), but we’ve got SUNABA (sands) in Tottori” – it’s part of our charm.” –Anonymous 20-something

The whole thing has made a bit of a stir on Twitter and in the news. I even found this small talk-radio style video with an older host who is utterly confounded by Starbucks in a Lewis-Black angry kind of way.

He’s a smoker (“First of all, you can’t smoke in there”) who criticizes the menu (“What the heck is with this menu?…There’s too much…… The heck’s a ‘Furappaccino’?”) and the use of lids (because then the drink takes forever to cool down and he burns his tongue).

Successful Transmutations


Photo by Ryosuke Yagi

Except for the smoking, I’m on that talk-show guy’s side. His strong opinion goes to show that despite Starbucks’ popularity, there are true fans of older-style chains and kissaten. When you consider the other voices from Tottori (including two other people in that video) that are either ambivalent or fond of Starbucks-esque cafés, you can see the range of adaptations different companies have made to survive since Kahiichakan.

Have you tried Naporitan or the Sakura Macchiato? Tell me about your Japanese café experiences or, for those who haven’t been yet, your aspirations. And if you’re in Tokyo looking for a neat place to get caffeinated, check out our travel guide for Omotesando Coffee. If you want to know more about the history of Japan, be sure to read Viet’s Japanese coffee article from a couple years ago to see how things have changed. Plus, canned coffee!

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The Delicious History Of Japan’s Anthropomorphic Kawaii Food Characters Thu, 10 Apr 2014 16:00:08 +0000 Sanrio, maker of the world famous Hello Kitty, just announced the debut of their latest character. Like any other character, Kirimi-chan has an adorable face, and you can buy all kinds of products in her shape. Unlike Kitty, though, Kirimi-chan is not based on a cute little animal. She’s a delicious salmon fillet.


This might be surprising if your concept of cartoon characters is based on American models. Sure, all kinds of improbable things exist in American cartoons that we don’t think twice about. Walking, talking animals – that’s so normal it’s boring. Sponges that wear pants, whatever. But not usually a fillet of fish that gets on Twitter and says “Please eat me, I’m delicious.”

But for the last few decades at least, cute characters that are live, walking, sometimes talking, foods, have been totally normal in Japan. And it turns out they have historical precedents that go WAY back.

Anpanman: The Granddaddy Of Modern Food Characters


Anpanman: He’s your classic superhero. He wears a cape, he fights for truth, justice and the Japanese way. And… he’s a bread roll with sweet bean paste inside.

His friends are other types of bread – plain sliced white bread, buns filled with melon or curry – as well as humans who apparently see nothing odd about the situation.

Anpanman apparently never gets stale. After starting as a manga in 1973 and as a TV show in 1988, it aired its 1,000th episode in 2009and its 25th movie in 2013.

Anpanman also set the stage for using these characters for merchandizing, having been used to promote almost every conceivable product including other foods (isn’t that kind of like cannibalism?). I’ve even seen him on boxes of okonomiyaki mix, which isn’t something I imagined was marketed to children.


Perhaps Anpanman’s most direct modern descendent is Kogepan – modernized in part by making him the emo version. Unlike the cheerful, pink-cheeked Anpanman, he’s full of existential angst: Having been left in the oven too long, till he’s burnt, Kogepan is depressed about no one wanting to buy him. Yes, instead of rejoicing that he’ll escape being eaten, he’s miserable that he can’t fulfill his life’s work as a bun. He drowns his sorrows in milk, which makes him drunk.

Like Anpanman, Kogepan’s friends are all different kinds of bread, but his relationships are far more conflicted. He’s jealous of the pretty, unburnt breads, the Kireipan, and I can’t blame him – the cheerful little strawberry breads annoy even me.

But bean paste buns are far from the only walking, talking foods, as we’ll see on the following brief journey through Japanese foods, characters and history.

Beyond the Bun

Traditional sweets like Anpanman have always been big in the food-character market. In another animation from the 1970s, a taiyaki, the fish-shaped pancake filled with beanpaste, comes to life and swims in the ocean:



Later in the 90s, three dango brothers and their tango song had a huge hit:


Nowadays though, almost any food can be made into a character. It’s easy to make fruits and vegetables come to life by giving them faces and arms and legs. From just one company, San-X, there are over a dozen, including Amagurichan, a chestnut who’s impatient to be eaten, Mikan Bouya, a mikan (a citrus fruit like a tangerine), Mamepyon, a family of peas, and Soreike Otamachan!, an onion.

Elsewhere we find an NHK character who is a bitter melon and the incredibly adorable Nameko mushrooms.


Prepared dishes can come alive too. In the picture book and anime Oden-Kun, all the different ingredients of oden are made into creatures: you’ve got your boiled egg, your various fish cakes, and your chunk of daikon radish:


Fusion Food


Food character designers often go beyond giving a fruit or bread a face and limbs, resulting in strange, unnatural chimeras combining food with other creatures. A simple example is Momobuta, who’s a cross between a peach and a pig:


Hokkaido, too, has been all aboard the hybrid food train. The northern prefecture is known for a few main things, one being a bear, the other being various types of food (salmon, melon, onions, to name a few). How do you combine those things? Oh, let me count the ways.

First, let’s start with this melon-higuma mascot mashup.


Okay, so maybe this one’s not as “kawaii”

From there it can go many different directions, including bear+salmon, bear+onion, bear+crab, bear+squid, so on and so forth. Koichi happened to have the bear+crab and bear+squid combinations on hand and took a picture:


My favorite food-creature combination, though, is the San-X characters Nyan Nyan Nyanko. These little cats were presented in various scenarios over the years where they were incorporated and/or transformed into every conceivable dish and type of cuisine.

Their first appearance was a festival theme, where they were various traditional foods you’d buy at festival stalls, like takoyaki:


Next came traditional sweets eaten with green tea, which of course also had a cat in the cup.


Over the years they appeared as dim sum, burgers, onigiri, bubble tea, school lunch, sushi, Western sweets like cream puffs,… just about everything you can think of.


If you think too hard about this, it ought to be incredibly gruesome. Instead, it’s adorable. With every limited edition iteration you could buy stationery, stickers, plushes and what have you, so it is sad but good for my personal budget that the cats appear to have been retired in 2010 after ten years of appearing as various foodstuffs.

Classical Characters


Anthropomorphic food turns out to have some pretty ancient precedents in Japanese art. What’s funny about the early examples is that they also seem to presage another Japanese invention: the TV show food battle.

In the 15th century, a fashion started of illustrated stories of battles between food characters. In the Shoujin Gyorui Monogatari, an army of vegetarian foods, Shoujun, led by the lord Natto, battled against the seafood army led by the lord Salmon. The vegetarian army won, killing the lord Salmon in Nabe Castle.

The picture above is a similar battle from 1859. Although these stories are humorous, this one is said to have a pretty serious historical context: a cholera epidemic. The vegetarian foods won the battle this time too, supposedly symbolizing the fact that they were less likely to spread cholera (presumably because cholera is a water-borne disease).

Other Edo-period anthropomorphized food includes this lovely dancing ear of corn:


There are also precedents to the food-creature chimeras. The famous folktale of Momotaro, the Peach Boy, is about a boy who was born from a large peach floating in a stream. There’s at least one illustration where he is half peach, half boy


Maybe that version didn’t stick because it was too hard to believe that anyone was desperate enough for an heir to raise that creepy creature as their own.

Modern Battle of the Food Characters


With all this as background, it no doubt seemed totally normal for Sanrio to decide to have a new character contest where all twenty of the candidates were some kind of food, or something combined with some kind of food.

Fairly standard sorts of contestants included dog-mochi sweets, panda rice balls, an egg, and my favorite, a long negi onion.





Others were really stretching it, if you ask me, especially some of the food-animal fusions. Yeah, a giraffe’s horns do look a little like mushrooms, but if you have a whole bunch of mushrooms growing out of a giraffe’s head, it just gets creepy:


And I love tanuki like nothing else, but I cannot accept the combination of a tanuki and kiritanpo, a cylinder of pounded rice that a specialty of Akita and Aomori prefectures:


And the public seemed to agree with me that those were overdoing it, because the winner is the one that’s the foodiest of all. Kirimi-chan the salmon fillet has nothing added but tiny dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, and a tiny body. Simple, like Hello Kitty’s expressionless face. In fact, she might not look all that out of place in one of those fifteenth-century battles of the anthropomorphic seafoods.


So although she is brand new, she’s way more old school than anyone probably imagined.

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Ways To Save Money While Living In Japan Tue, 25 Mar 2014 16:00:36 +0000 It wasn’t too long ago that Tokyo was considered the most expensive city in the world. Not to mention that Japan as a whole was very expensive as well. Even today, that (mis)conception is still quite prevalent.

The truth is that Japan is probably nowhere as expensive as you may think (or fear). Even living in Tokyo can be manageable, assuming that you get a reasonably priced place to rent. This article hopes to introduce to you some ways of coping and forcing down your costs.

This is more meant for people living in Japan than touring it (though there’s nothing stopping tourists from using the tips here). Also, the stuff here has been formulated mostly by me and other students in Japan – and as you may or may not know students love to save in ridiculous ways to spend money on ridiculous things! Some of the tips here may seem extremely trivial but hey, a yen saved is a yen spendable on something else.



Photo by C121749n

You need food to survive so you’ll definitely need to spend some money on this. But there are ways of suppressing the cost.

1. Cook.

This may be obvious at first, but keep with me here, it gets more specific. Assuming that you know where to shop for your ingredients cooking may be able to slash your expenditure on food to one third of what it might be without. One friend (American, Male) spends less than 10,000 yen a month by cooking three times every day. Is three times a day too much? Cook two portions for dinner and leave half for the microwave for lunch tomorrow. Saves you both the money and the expense.

Even if you don’t want to cook whole meals, even just cooking the rice and bringing it with you for lunch (mainly applicable for students) will save you money in the long run.

2. Shop Smart – At The Wholesale Market

Wholesale markets (ie. 業務用スーパー) are places where restaurant owners go to buy their ingredients. These places are your friends especially if you cook a lot. There are a few good places worth keeping in mind.

1) Costco: Readers from North America and the UK may recognize this. Yes it’s in Japan too. You need to pay 4000 yen for the membership but if you’re sharing a house with people, you can split it up. Anyways, if you’re living nearby it’s definitely worth it as things are quite cheap.

2) Gyomu Suupaa (業務スーパー): My personal favorite. Quite widespread throughout the whole country. Generally very low prices, especially if you don’t mind frozen foods or large product sizes. Some produce (generally vegetables) may be cheaper somewhere else, but this is generally a safe bet for low prices.

For example …


138 yen for 500 grams of frozen vegetables is probably going to be the cheapest you can find. (It’s usually even cheaper – it’s the end of winter now so vegetable prices are a bit higher than usual)

And also…


19 Yen udon!

3. Shop smart – And Late If You Don’t Plan To Cook


9.45 pm at my local supermarket (note: mine’s a 24 hour one so the discounts aren’t that steep. For supermarkets with a closing time discounts can go all the way until 50% before closing)

Most supermarkets will start offering discounts for their ready-to-eat food nearing closing time. Generally, 2-3 hours before closing 10% discount tags start to get tacked on. As closing time approaches these go up all the way to 50% discounts – you can get a nice ready-made meal at a very reasonable price if you go late to your supermarket near 9 pm.

4. Miscellaneous Tips From Me And My Friends

Buy 輸入食品 (imported foods), like meat from America or Australia, or frozen food from China, bananas from the Philippines, etc. never buy Japan 国産 (made domestically) stuffs.

Yes made-in-Japan produce tends to be more expensive indeed.

Buy strawberries meant for jam/juice at a lower price – jam/juice strawberries usually look quite terrible and are close to being overripe but they taste great still. And are cheap, for about 198jpy per pack over here in Kyoto. … I find them in random supermarkets.

Never done this myself but sounds legit – better than being overcharged just because of the unnecessary packaging.

If you like tea, forget buying even the 2 liter bottles they sell. Buy tea packs instead (and buy bottled water online if you don’t like tap).

Making your own tea is really a lot cheaper than buying it. And bottled water online is much cheaper than buying it in the actual stores.

In MCD (Macdonalds), check the keitai (mobile phone) coupon before buying anything. Also, having 2 or 3 100yen burgers plus one 100yen S size drink would be enough to make you as full as buying those expensive set meals.

Ie. subscribe to the Line/email mailing lists of restaurants such as McDonalds, Sukiya etc. They often send discount coupons to subscribers via these lists.

If you’re eating out consider places (usually family restaurants(ファミレス) such as Gasto if you just want somewhere to have a nice long chat with people. They have things called drink bars ie. a free flow of soft drinks, tea and coffee for an unlimited period of time. Also consider this if you need to study etc.

Stalk out your local stores. Some of them may have special days of the week / month where they have big discounts on a certain item eg. meat. Shop according to the calendar after you find this out.

Avoid: convenience stores… you pay for convenience, not for the value. If there’s a convenience store there’s probably a supermarket nearby. Find the supermarket and shop there.

Avoid: being picky. I don’t know what you Europeans call bread. As far as I am concerned if it’s made out of raised flour and is fluffy it is bread. We all have our pet peeves of how Japan bastardizes/does not have (it usually is either-or) our favorite national food which we miss – but demanding it is going to cost you a bomb. So you might as well start learning how to cook/eat Japanese stuff! Hey that’s what you’re here for right?

General Shopping


Photo by Ren Bucholz

What about other shopping related things, then?

1. 100 Yen Shops

The first thing that you need to do when you arrive to Japan is to find the nearest 100 yen shop and raid it for anything you possibly need. Daiso and Seria are the more major ones. Go to their websites, search for the nearest one to your house and plunder it.

2. Point cards…


Photo by Karl Baron

What you may (not) want to do

This can help you to save money in the long run. But get too many and you’ll find your wallet bursting with plastic.

Generally drug store point cards may not be very useful because they tend to go along the lines of 1 point per 100 yen spent, and 500 yen redeemable after reaching 500 points. Which means you need to spend 50,000 yen to get the discount. Not very useful in my opinion.

Instead consider getting point cards for the big electric stores such as Yamada Denki or Yodobashi Camera – you’ll probably need to go there occasionally for printer ink/appliances etc if you don’t buy those online. Those give you 10% of the amount you spend in terms of points so that helps in the long run.

3. Consider Shopping Online


Photos by Thomas

For Sayonara Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn – kudos if you get the reference.

Nowadays you can get everything and anything online and usually for a reasonable price. Some websites you may want to check out are:

  1. – helps you directly compare the same product being sold over multiple sites so that you can make the best buys.
  2. – full of second-hand stuff which people want to get rid off for cheap or for free. Watch out especially for “sayonara sales” from people leaving Japan.
  3. – for furniture
  4. Groupon / Groupon-ish sites – such as or These can get you good deals for eating out/travel/whatever if you keep your eyes open and snap up the attractive ones.
  5. Portal sites – such as and are also worth looking at. That being said whether the deal is good depends on the individual vendor.

4. Also consider buying things second-hand.

Check for 2nd hand shops (リサイクルショップ) such as 2nd Steet which sell a whole variety of goods second hand. Recycl-navi is another website listing these 2nd hand shops in each prefecture.

For clothes, Shimokitazawa (Tokyo) for example has lots of second hand clothing shops. Find out where the second-hand clothes districts are if you want to save up.

5. For weird souvenirs:

japanese-souveneirs1 japanese-souveneirs2

With this kind of stuff you can’t possibly go wrong.

Need to get some souvenirs for a short trip home? I recommend Don Quijote. When you’ve got a departmental store which sells things like these you probably can’t go wrong.


Getting around can be a big expense. Trains, buses, taxis… you name it. Here are some ways to save money on transport.

1. Cycle


Photo by minato kaidou

If you’re in Japan for more than ~6 months this will likely save you money unless you live very nearby to a convenient train station. After all…

  • Buses are around 200 yen per ride. This adds up quickly. You might as well bike to the nearest station.
  • Having a bicycle also widens the area you can shop – meaning that you probably can shop cheaper with one.
  • Bicycle vandalism / theft is not common in Japan so it’s unlikely that you’ll have to pay extra beyond the buying the bicycle.

2. Kaisuuken

If there’s a route that you frequently use and which your commuter/student pass does not cover, you may consider getting some kaisuukens (回数券). The system differs from company to company but some may for example sell you 11 tickets for the price of 10 for a single route (eg. JR East, Hankyu). Some may even sell off-peak hour kaisuuken for even steeper discounts.

They expire in about 3 months so only buy these for routes you reasonably use. Also, this may not be compatible with your IC card so you’ll have to keep the paper tickets in your wallet if you do so.

3. Special Tickets (eg. Seishun 18)

Tourists to Japan may know of the JR rail pass which allows for unlimited Shinkansen and JR use within the period of time. Unfortunately that’s limited to tourists. But, even if you’re a long-term resident in Japan there’s other things you can use.


  1. Limited area unlimited use passes – For example Kyoto residents will know about the 500 yen, 1 day free pass on Kyoto city buses. JR East offers unlimited railway use for a day within the 23 wards of Tokyo for 730 yen. This may be useful when you need to pop by multiple places in a day.
  2. The Seishun 18 – Very useful if you like watching countryside scenery / have time to spare. A useful and relevant article can be found here

4. Buses are good too.

Especially if you want to travel long distances. For example, the cheapest trip between Tokyo and Osaka is around 3500 yen single-way; the same trip on JR (excluding the Seishun 18) would cost at least 8000 yen and take around 9 hours if you’re just riding local trains. Plus you get a seat.

Willer Express may be good if you’re not confident of your Japanese ability, but otherwise Rakuten has a whole slew of bus operators in its travel section.

5. Budget airlines for very long distances.


Photo by Alec Wilson

Because at long distances…

  1. The availability of bus routes dwindles. Plus, 14 hour bus rides damage people’s sanity.
    2) Trains become increasingly expensive and take very long too.

At shorter distances do note that because airports are less convenient than major bus terminals, it may be more expensive (and take longer when adding waiting time etc) than buses.

Note: Hitchhiking is not often practiced in Japan. Wikitravel has an artice about if you want to try though.

Avoid: The Shinkansen. Yes it cuts down the traveling time to around 2 and a half hours between Tokyo and Osaka. But the title of this article is how to save money not how to zip across Japan. Plus, an extremely roomy 2 seat-per-row overnight bus costs about 10,000 between Tokyo and Kansai (cheaper than the Shinkansen) – take your pick.

Lodging / Rent



Really can’t be avoided but there are a few things you can do:

  • Consider moving into a share-house such as those operated by Oakhouse(English) instead of a typical apartment. Saves money and you can make friends albeit at the cost of having to share amenities.
  • Try apartments without the 敷金 (shikikin – something like a deposit) and the 礼金 (reikin – the money you have to pay as thanks, yes seriously). Also ensure that the shikikin and reikin aren’t just reflected in an inflated monthly rent price.
  • Because the Japanese are very particular about having a bathtub / ofuro, searching for an apartment with only a shower may be cheaper.
  • From a friend: “I’m not sure but somebody once told me that there are special offers like renting an apartment where some poor soul committed suicide … and it’s much cheaper (c)” Another friend says, “Yeah I’ve heard of places being cheaper because of suicides or murders, too. They call it 事故物件 (or 訳あり物件).”

Oh, right, Tofugu wrote about that: “How To Avoid (Or Even Find) A Stigmatized Property In Japan”

Worth a shot maybe?

2.Temporary lodging

If you find yourself needing to stay someplace temporarily (for example, when traveling within Japan) you may want to consider the following options:

  • Capsule Hotels: Available in the major cities. Cheap but I HIGHLY RECOMMEND (from personal experience) to buy some 100 yen earplugs if noise bothers you.
  • Hostels: Consider the youth hostels operated by this group (English map). Same thing applies, ear plugs recommended.
  • Wikitravel also has an article on camping if you really don’t want to spend any money on lodging.



Generally you can’t do much in Summer – if you can make do with a fan instead of the AC that saves you quite a bit of money though. HOWEVER, it’s more than possible to keep warm in winter without the heater.

Behold the creativity of me and my friends!

  • “Since electricity is cheaper from 11pm to 7am, only charge your computer, wash clothes and use anything that needs electricity during that time”
  • Get a wearable blanket like the ones that they sell at Don Quijote. Very fluffy, comfy and is able to surprisingly negate the need for external heating.
  • Pair the above with 100 yen room shoes for the cold cold floor. Or if you don’t want to…
  • “Stick huge hot water bottles under your feet in bed/at your desk. I recommend the metal kind that can be reheated on the stove.” – If you’re the type to get literal “cold feet”.
  • “Hang wet clothes in the room to save on humidifier bills!” (Note: this saves on having to use the clothes dryer too. Make your own clothes lines or buy indoor clothes hanging racks from Nitori)



Photo by gwaar

Unless you like playing games in your dormitory or are content with the internet, you won’t be able to avoid spending on this. These are the ways you can make the most bang for your buck though.

1. Karaoke Deals

Karaoke is quintessential if you’re living in Japan (and a good way to shed your sense of shame). Anyways…

  1. Karaoke freetimes (フリータイム) are your friend, especially if you’re a student who doesn’t have to wake up the next morning. Most times, taking a free time is more worth it if you’re staying more than 2-3 hours anyway.
  2. Some Karaoke chains have special deals on weekdays such as men’s night etc. One that I frequented had a deal where on Thursdays (for men, Wednesdays for women) Karaoke was free for 2 hours if you just bought a drink.
  3. Sign up to be a member. This usually automatically gives you a discount.

2. Amusement Centers

Round 1 also has an all-you-can play giant sports-and-arcade facilities for a flat fee. (A full list of shops can be found here, look out for the ones with SP (スポッチャ) highlighted in their labeling.

Kansai residents can also take advantage of Beaver World which offers the very same things PLUS Karaoke PLUS bowling under the same price.

Watch out for: Free flow drinks at Izakayas

While having free-flow alcohol may sound like a good idea, be wary of deals which are actually deceiving.

Most Izakayas will require you to order at least 1 item in addition to their automatic starter. Thus, what may look like an 800 yen 2 hour free-flow may actually be closer to 1500 when adding the starter and a dish (around 500 yen perhaps). Not to mention that the drinks are often heavily weakened.

Bonus! Free Travel!

Occasionally some of the local tourist bureaus of lesser-known cities will be fishing around for foreigners to tour their city. These are often conducted free of charge and all they require you to do is to write feedback forms / some PR material for them.

Occasionally google searching ”外国人モニターツアー” may yield you some promising results so be on the lookout for these.

By the way, add your suggestions to the comments – I may collate them into a Part 2 post with the ideas that you all have.

Relevant article:

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]

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The Picturesque Bento Art Of Hige-Man Ume-Chan Tue, 11 Mar 2014 16:00:17 +0000 If you recognize the name of the bento creator that we’re interviewing today, you’re not going crazy. He’s the man with a mustache, Hige-Man Ume-Chan, that we interviewed a couple of weeks ago. Actually, he is not simply just a hige-man, but also happens to be a bento artist too. So of course, I didn’t miss out on this chance to ask him about his bento life as well. Actually, Tofugu has already wrote a bento-related post on the bento art of Mari Miyazawa, from which we learned how cute bento boxes can be. However, unlike most of “kawaii” Japanese art, I believe that Hige-man Ume-chan’s bento art is more creative and unique. For example, his latest bento art work is a Stereogram, in which a 3D image is hidden within another picture. In order to view the 3D images, simply stare at the picture until the image starts to take shape. Can you see it?


Alright, I presume everybody’s interest in hige-man’s bento work has begun to ripen at this point. Let’s review his profile once again, to get the rice-ball rolling.


Name: Keisuke Umeda
Age: 31
Occupation: Designer at a game company
Passion: Bento Art
Distinguishing Facial Feature: Majestic Mustache
Web page: Umeda no site

Q: Tell us about your bento art career.

I modestly began making bento about 2 years ago. I didn’t even realize that that my passion for bento art had been gradually escalating over that period of time.

In the summer in 2013, my bento art was selected to be shown on an NHK TV program called サラメシ (sarameshi). I held my bento art exhibition in the fall of that same year. I also published a book with a collection of my bento pieces that came out shortly before my exhibition.



I’m planning another exhibition this year, too.

Q: How long have you made bento art?

About 2 years. I make a bento box every day, except when I’m too busy, when I oversleep, or when I don’t have any ingredients for it.

Q: Why did you start making bento boxes?

I got sick of eating cafeteria food. I also wanted to brush up on my cooking skills. Moreover, after the Tohoku earthquake, I started taking food safety more seriously and gave more consideration to what I put in my body. Managing my food in this way is good for my health and helped me save money, too.

Q: Why did you start designing bento?

I’m not really good at cooking and don’t have much time either. On the other hand, I wanted to enjoy lunch time. I contemplated how to do it and I soon realized that I could be creative. I realized designing bento is a great way to enjoy it. I have some bento friends at work and it became something for us to talk about, as well. The more we enjoy our lunch time, the tastier the bento becomes – to me.

Q: What do you usually do after making it?

Naturally, I eat everything. Every grain of rice disappears. I’ve never had leftovers. If I made bento boxes like the ones I do and didn’t eat them, it would mean I’m just playing with food in a creative way. I’d rather treasure and respect the food and I show that respect by eating it.

This is MY LUNCH and if I don’t eat it, it means I don’t eat lunch.


There is a saying in Japan, “If you don’t finish your meal, your eyes will be crushed.”

Q: What kind of bento boxes do you make?









「サンマたちの横顔べんとう」(saury fish’ side faces bento)


「春風べんとう」(spring breeze bento)


「コンバットべんとう」(combat bento)


「ちりめんじゃこべんとう」(dried young sardines bento)


「フランクフルトべんとう」(Frankfurt sausage bento)


「フグべんとう」(Fugu bento)


「おでんべんとう」(Oden bento)


「金目カブト煮べんとう」(Beryx splendens helmet bento)


「松坂牛の、肉じゅうたんべんとう」(Matsuzaka beef carpet bento)


「コーンまっ黄っ黄べんとう」(Corn pitch yellow bento)


「タコウィンナーべんとう」(Octopus shaped wieners bento)


「生々しいべんとう」(fresh [flesh] bento)


「ひじき黒ゴマべんとう」(hijiki seaweed and black sesame bento)


「デッサンべんとう」(rough sketch bento)


「モンドリアンべんとう」( Piet Mondrian bento)

Q: What do you think of men who make their own bento boxes and how do other people react to it?

I think that’s good because they can be more careful about the food they eat.

People react interestingly every day and it’s fun to hear their inquiries; “Does it taste good?”, “Are you really eating that?”, “Is it hearty?”, “Why did you start making bento boxes like these?”, “What’s today’s bento?”, etc…

Q: What is your favorite bento you’ve created and why did you choose it?

“Hanasaka bento” (Translates to Flower Bloom bento)


A bento’s life is as short as a flower’s, but each one of them remains in the heart and it will stay alive as a part of our body.

Similar to the flavor of my tears, I will never forget the saltiness of the pickled radish and pickled Japanese plum as well as the welcomed tingle provided by the sansho pepper in this bento.

“That was the bento I made for the NHK TV program. It took me 2 hours”, he laughs.

Q: Have you made a big mistake before?

There are actually a lot of bad mistakes.

The most memorable one is Nanakusa Bento (the seven spring herbs bento).


In Japan, people eat rice porridge with seven different spring herbs on January 7. I used those herbs, just as they are found in nature, for my bento. It turned out to be just like eating grass. It was disgusting.

However, sometimes an interesting-looking bento box, albeit bad tasting, can become a popular topic of conversation at lunch time and is often even brought up again later on. In that sense, making a mistake is not all that bad.

Q: If someone told you they wanted to start designing bentos, what advice would you give them?

I would tell them that pickled Japanese plums have an antibacterial effect, so they preserve pretty well.

In my bento box, I often put them underneath the design.

Q: Could you tell us a bento story of yours that you haven’t told anyone yet?

It’s Kani bento (crab bento).


I couldn’t put the lid on the bento, so I ended up opening up the shell and started eating a little bit of it in the morning. It almost made me late for work. Furthermore, none of my bento friends showed up in the cafeteria during lunch time, so I ended up eating the luxury bento without anyone around to see it before it was eaten. It was pathetic.

Q: As for bento-making, is there anyone you respect?

My mother.


She made bento boxes everyday when I was a child. At the time I thought it was just a trifling thing, but now I know how hard it is to continue making bento everyday. Now I really appreciate what she did for me and I respect her even more.

Q: Is there anyone out there making bento that inspires you?

Actually, I get inspired by many things, not only by someone’s bento but also by anything from different cuisine to pictures to movies to scenery to my travels.

But I’m trying to find inspiration from the ingredients themselves.

Q: Is there one particular incident involving bento that has changed your life?

Bento has changed my lunch time, myself, and has made sight and gradual changes in my life and in a small way it has also changed the daily lives of the people around me.

For example, because of bento-making, I got to be on television, held an exhibition, and was even interviewed by Tofugu-san. It’s very fun and I believe bento will continue to make such changes in my life.

Q: Share with us what your favorite bento goods and tools are.

There you go!


The first one is bento goods that I design and sell. Please contact me via my website for more information.


This second one is my collection of some of the tools that I use or have used in the past.

Q: Do you think you could make a Tofugu bento? If you could, how much would it be?

I think I could, but it may be a very plain bento. The price is free because THAT’S MY LUNCH, YO!

A few days later, the picture arrived. Mecha Kawaii! Thank you Ume-chan!

Fugu bento

Ingredients: Rice, a cherry tomato, 2 black beans, and seasoned ground meat called Soboro.

——At the end

Thank you for your interview. If you are interested in Hige-man Ume-chan’s bento art book, get in touch with him via his blog,


]]> 44
American Chu-Hi: Not The Same Fri, 28 Feb 2014 17:00:28 +0000 A while back, one of our delightful Tofugu readers brought something to my attention: Chu-hi in America. I never thought the day would come. “Takara Can Chu-Hi,” in America – not imported, but actually made here. Had my dreams finally been realized? Had the booze gods answered my prayers? Was my favorite Japanese drink available everywhere at long last? Well, no – not really. And I’m not happy about it.

Chuhai, Chu-Hi, Chūhai


As much as it pains me to admit, I’m sure some of you are unfamiliar with the nectar of the gods (aka chuhai/chu-hi). I wrote a post about how much I love the stuff, but I’ll give you a quick rundown here.

Conventional Japanese chuhai is made with shochu (Japanese alcohol around 25% ABV) or vodka, and flavored soda water. They are sold in cans and they are delicious. They come in many flavors and are cheaper than beer with ABVs ranging from 2% to 9%.

There are many different manufacturers of chuhai and it’s been around in Japan for a long time. They seem to be viewed as more of a “girly” drink, kind of like Smirnof Ice and Mike’s Hard are in America, and kind of taste similar to these malt beverages, only much better.

The bottom line is that chuhai is cheap, tasty, varied, and awesome.

The American Chu-Hi Blunder

Okay, so Takara Saké – they’ve been making Chu-hi since the late 70s and are a huge name in the business so it’s no surprise that they were the ones to break down the international barriers and bring this drink to the USA. What is a surprise is the decisions they made while doing so.

From the Takara Saké USA website: “Chu-Hi was the first Japanese-style sparkling cocktail to appear on the Tokyo drinking scene in the late 70s. In summer 2012, we renewed our Chu-Hi. We added ‘JPOP’ to the product name, and now we have 2 flavors – Grapefruits and White Peach.”

So apparently these had been around for about two years already, but I only just recently discovered their existence myself. The only place I’ve seen them is at the local Japanese market. I haven’t seen them in any normal grocery store, but that doesn’t really surprise me.

I tried to figure out what made them decide to bring this over to America after so long. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any real information concerning this. I can only surmise that they read my whinings about it on the internet and decided to do it just for me. I appreciate the effort, Takara, but in the end, you’ve disappointed. Let me tell you why.

Ingredient Changes? Really?


Photo by zolakoma

When our most loyal Tofugu reader Joanna W. informed me of these American Chu-Hi, she also commented on their taste. She stated that they did not taste all that great and just reminded her of flavored malt beverages from America, like Smirnof Ice, and not in a good way. She wondered if the Japanese ones tasted this way and how anyone could be as crazy about them as I was.

Upon hearing this, I became concerned. Was the flavoring just bad on these Chu-Hi? Had Takara made a mistake? Or, wait – oh no… had they changed the formula to “appeal” to American tastes?

Unfortunately, the answer was yes. They had changed the formula. These were not the Chu-Hi that I loved. They were a bastardized version that disgraced the name.

For whatever reason, Takara decided to make these American Chu-Hi with a malt base instead of shochu/vodka like they do in Japan. The result of this is that the American Chu-Hi just taste like crappy Smirnofs. They are not new, exciting or refreshing. They’re just one more lousy flavored malt beverage that brings nothing new to the table.

Since the ingredients for Chu-Hi aren’t exactly listed out online, this is the only change that I am aware of. There might be other slight changes, but the malt/shochu change is so huge that I don’t even think other smaller changes would matter that much. I bought each of the American Chu-Hi flavors recently and gave them a taste test. Here’s what I thought.

Taste Testing


The first thing that made me wary of these American Chu-Hi was the fact that they came in bottles. Chuhai in Japan was always in cans – never in bottles. Something is wrong here.

The next thing I noticed was the price. Chuhai in Japan was cheaper than beer. The prices ranged from maybe 60yen ($0.60) to 110yen ($1.10) or so, depending on the strength and can size. They were an amazing deal. Now these American Chu-Hi – they were priced at an unreasonable $2.75 (~280yen). Already I’m grumbling and I haven’t even tried the thing yet.

On the bottles, they say that they’re great over ice. I always had chuhai out of the can in Japan, but I decided that I would try these American ones both ways. First just out of the bottle, and then over ice to see if there’s a big difference.

Grapefruit: 6.5% ABV, $2.75 a bottlejpop1

From the Bottle:
This tastes just like a Smirnof, if Smirnof made a grapefruit flavor. That’s not a compliment. This tastes much less like grapefruit than its Japanese counterpart and tastes a bit too heavy and sweet and just not good. I think I would start to feel sick if I had more than one or two of these.

Over Ice:
This tastes just like a Smirnof, but over ice. This improved the flavor a bit since the ice melting made it a little bit lighter and not as sweet. The ice improved the drink, but it still didn’t make it good.

As grapefruit was my favorite chuhai flavor in Japan, this drink was a gigantic disappointment.

1/5 Stars, would not buy again

jpop2White Peach: 6.5% ABV, $2.75 a bottle

From the Bottle:
Similar to the grapefruit, this tastes very similar to a Smirnof. The initial taste of the peach is quite pleasant though, but immediately after that initial taste comes the oppressive malt taste that ruins the flavor. Definitely better than the grapefruit, but not by too much.

Over Ice:
At first I thought that the ice really changed the flavor for the better because the oppressive malt taste was absent at first, but soon the taste returned and it tasted much like it did before, but colder. Not much of an improvement.

The peach was better than the grapefruit, but not by much.

2/5 Stars, would not buy again

Conclusion: These do not even deserve to be called Chu-Hi. Do not judge Japanese Chu-Hi by these imitations. There is no comparison.

But Why Were the Ingredients Changed?


Photo by Dick Johnson

I learned from Chopsticks New York that Takara Chu-Hi “reached the U.S. market two years ago with a slight modification of base ingredients and flavors to meet the American people’s palate. This August, TAKARA SAKE USA INC. re-released it by renewing its name to JPOP, revamping the package and tweaking the flavor. ‘We changed the recipe of the malt alcohol, the base of the drink, in order to get refreshing flavor. As a result, its carbonation became more noticeable on the palate,’ says Mr. Hirokazu Nishikawa, General Manager of Marketing in TAKARA SAKE USA INC.”

WHY, TAKARA, WHY!? Yes, maybe Americans prefer more carbonated, malty type beverages that they are familiar with, but not when they cost so much and offer nothing new but two (underwhelming) flavors. If you expect people to pay $2.75 for a bottle of this, it should at least be new and exciting and worth the steep price of admission. Ugh.

Again, I was unable to find much info concerning exactly why they made this change and the whole thought process behind it, but I am incredibly bummed out about it. I also don’t like how they added the JPOP moniker to it. I don’t know if they are trying to be clever with the JPOP by saying it’s like Japanese (soda) pop, or if they’re trying to relate it to J-pop as in Japanese pop music or they just thought JPOP would be easier for Americans to remember than Chu-Hi, but I don’t like it. I think it’s silly.

So do I think anyone is going to try this and think it’s better than anything currently available in America? No. Do I think anyone will buy it again after trying it once? Definitely not, especially when it costs so much more than what “America’s palate” is already used to.

Western vs Japanese Alcohol “Taste” Confusion


Photo by Rollofunk

Speaking of America’s palate as compared to the Japanese palate, this isn’t the first time it’s been an issue. We’ve written about Japanese beers and Japanese whiskies before, and there are reasons why you don’t see these alcohols with the saturations that Japan has. In the end, the tastes are (supposedly) different. When’s the last time you saw someone drinking an Asahi outside of an Asian restaurant?

Koichi helped to weigh in on this topic a little bit as well:

When you look at the history of alcohol in Japan, it’s quite interesting. The competition between beer companies in Japan revolves around how dry the beer is and how much koku (rich taste) it has, with quite a bit of emphasis on the dry side of things. This pairs well with foods that the Japanese eat. An Asahi Super Dry certainly pairs with my katsu/ramen/yakitori much better than, say, a double chocolate stout, or something like that (or even a Budweiser, for that matter). This has become considered a very “Japanese” taste to the Japanese. In some cases it becomes a bit of Ninhonjinron pride, if you ask me, which results in the thinking of “only Japanese people can understand this taste.” Obviously this isn’t true, but this is probably why the American Chu-Hi version got sugared up and malted, because that’s what “Westerners like.” They thought they’d make more money this way and probably don’t understand why things didn’t work out. If only they hired John on as their American Chu-Hi CEO.

In the case of whiskey it’s basically the same thing. Although you see some trickling of whiskey coming over to America, you’ll notice that certain Hibiki whiskeys, like the 15+ year old variations, are not sold outside of Japan. This is because non-Japanese “won’t understand the Japanese taste,” which I’m guessing is just their way to keep all the good whiskey to themselves, because wow those are some good whiskeys.


In the end, I think there’s a confusion about “Japanese taste” and “Western taste.” Sure, you have to take into account what kinds of foods you’re pairing these alcoholic drinks with, and that does make a difference, but a lot of assumptions get made too, which means the original Chu-Hi recipe gets carbonated, malted, and sugared up for our “Western” tastes.

The Future of Takara JPOP Chu-Hi


In my opinion, Takara made a colossal mistake with their American Chu-Hi. Quite frankly, I’m amazed that it’s still even being made. I’m also really surprised that I hadn’t heard of these American Chu-Hi until now even though they came out in 2012, but that just speaks to their unpopularity.

I expect these American Chu-Hi to do terribly, and eventually get pulled from the market, so if you have any interest in trying them out and discovering what all the disappointment is about, do it now before it’s too late.

I really wish that Takara would have had more faith in the American people and their willingness to try new things. Maybe I’m outside the norm here, but I like to try new things and get excited when I see something new and appealing at the grocery, especially when it’s in the booze aisle.

If Takara had made these things in cans with their original recipe and priced them more aggressively, they would have been an overwhelming success (with me, at least). But as they are, I’m never going to buy them again.

Shame on you, Takara. Shame on you.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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