Tofugu » Food A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Wed, 02 Sep 2015 01:11:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Tsukemono! The Wonderful World of Japanese Pickles Fri, 14 Aug 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When we think of pickles in the US, it’s mostly the spear along with our sandwich or the slices on a burger. When I was growing up we had two types, sweet and sour. And maybe there were some pickled beets in the fridge that I refused to eat. Little did I know the riches I […]

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When we think of pickles in the US, it’s mostly the spear along with our sandwich or the slices on a burger. When I was growing up we had two types, sweet and sour. And maybe there were some pickled beets in the fridge that I refused to eat. Little did I know the riches I was missing elsewhere in the world.

In Japan, they’ll pickle anything that’s not moving. All kinds of things are pickled in different ways, creating healthy side dishes that add variety to traditional meals based on rice.

If you’ve never been to Japan, you may have seen a couple of these in restaurants (That pickled ginger with your sushi is one of them). But when you get there, you’ll find all kinds of mysterious things on little dishes with your fancy dinner and tucked in your convenience store bento. Come along with Tofugu on a journey through the wonderful world of Japanese pickles and find out what all those amazing little tidbits are about.

Many Ways to Get In A Pickle


Photo by Tokyo Times

Tsukemono 漬物 is the Japanese word for pickles, derived from tsuke “soaked” and mono “things.” You’ll see that most of the Japanese names for different types end in -zuke, which is the same word as tsuke when it undergoes rendaku in the second part of a compound word.

But “soaked” is far from the only way that pickles are made. Yes, some are made in liquids like vinegar, but other methods will probably surprise you.

Shio-zuke – salt pickles

The original and simplest, there are a couple of different ways of making salt pickles.

In one method, the vegetables are sprinkled with salt – although the word “sprinkled” may be misleading given how much salt is used – and put in a container. They’re covered with a weight or lid that presses down on them, which makes sure the salt penetrates. (Nowadays you can buy plastic containers that come with a pickle press). The salt makes the water content of the vegetables seep out by osmosis, so the container needs regular attention to drain the liquid.

Removing the water from the vegetable concentrates the flavor, and with less water, the vegetables are less susceptible to rotting. Salt pickles can take varied length of time. There’s a version that you just leave overnight. Another one is measured in months. Pickled plums, for example, are supposed to be left in the salt for the whole rainy season. The longer the pickling time, the more intense the flavors.

In the other method, vegetables are put in salt water in an airtight container. As Kikkoman describes it, “in this environment, the enzymes in the ingredients break down the food’s components into very different and flavorful substances.” That sounds a little scary to me actually but it’s nothing compared to our next example….

Nuka-zuke – rice bran pickles

Rice bran pickles are made by laying vegetables down in a specially prepared bed of rice bran. Boiled salt water is mixed with the bran. Then, similar to sourdough bread, you add some of the bed from an old batch that contains microbes to get the lactic acid fermentation process going. It must be mixed up regularly, traditionally with your bare hands, to keep all the little microbes growing and healthy.


Photo by Max Wheeler

I’ve never had the privilege of getting close to one of these beds (although I’ve seen them displayed in shops). But The Black Moon says this is how you know when it’s ready: “After a week or so the pickling medium should have a heady aroma and look like damp sand.”

Some rice bran pickling beds have been passed down for generations. It’s an astonishing thought in a century where everything in the supermarket has an expiration date printed on it. Like salt pickles, vegetables can be left in briefly or for a long time, up to several months, with different flavor results.

Kasu-zuke – sake lees pickle

Sake lees is the solids left over after sake, which is made from rice, is filtered. Like rice bran, instead of being discarded, people figured out how to use it to make pickles. Also cured for a variety of lengths of time from a few days to several years, they may actually be slightly alcoholic. Kampai!

Koji-zuke – koji pickles

You probably have never heard of koji, but Japanese food wouldn’t exist without it. It’s a microbe (let’s not call it mold, that sounds so unappetizing!). This little one-celled friend is responsible for soy sauce, miso, and sake, and it’s even been proposed that it should be called Japan’s National Fungus. Koji is mixed with rice to start the fermentation process that results in those fundamental products. And this koji mash can also be used to make pickles. These are somewhat sweet because koji produces amylase, an enzyme that produces sugar from the starch in rice.

And the rest….

Pickles are also made using soy sauce, miso, and vinegar. The most familiar to us, vinegar pickles are not usually for long-term storage. This is because Japanese vinegar is low in acid. I make one regularly with vinegar and a little soy sauce and sugar. Eaten fresh it’s more like a little side salad. Leftovers the next day are more pickle-y.

What’s that? You’d like to try the recipe yourself? No problem. Here it is.

Recipe for quick pickled cucumber:

Use pickling cucumbers or another type with the minimum of seeds – they have a better texture. If you have to use a regular American cuke, scoop all the seeds out.

  1. Slice cucumber and cut slices in quarters or halves. Finely shred some gingerroot.
  2. For a large cuke, mix 1/4 c soy sauce, 1/4 c rice vinegar and about a tablespoon of sugar. (Start there and experiment – you can go up to 2 T next time if you want it sweeter.)
  3. Mix it all up and refrigerate for an hour or two or three before serving. It’s also good but different the next day.

(Adapted from a recipe by Harumi Kurihara)

Tsukemono’s Little One-Celled Friends: Fermentation and Microbes


Some of these methods may seem weird to us. In our culture, we think food will spoil if left out of the refrigerator for five minutes. How can it possibly be a good idea to put vegetables in a tub of rice bran and leave them there, at room temperature, sometimes for months? And those pots of rice bran have been passed down for generations! And people mix them with their bare hands! Why aren’t people dying of food poisoning left and right?

Because these methods actually preserve food: They encourage good microbes, which keep out the bad microbes that make you sick.

In the US, fermentation is the new cool hipster foodie thing. There’s a kombucha bar at my Whole Foods and a stand at my local farmers market selling kimchee and sauerkraut. Maybe we’re finally starting to catch up. But Japanese cuisine always been all about the fermentation. As mentioned earlier, miso and soy sauce, both fundamental to Japanese cooking, are produced by fermentation. And aside from those quick vinegar pickles that are more like salads, most of the pickling processes involve fermentation too.

Preserving vegetables this way not only made them last longer when there was no refrigeration, some methods even made them healthier. Some types of pickles aid digestion. Rice bran pickles are high in B vitamins – a vitamin that the Japanese diet was short on when it was based mostly on white rice. Rather than throw away the B-vitamin-rich rice bran after it’s removed while making the white rice, pickling with it adds these vitamins back into the diet.

Famous Japanese Pickles


Photo by Shigemi.j

Japanese people make pickles out of almost every vegetable in so many ways that we could never list all the combinations. There are local specialties and all kinds of ingredients added for flavor. From herbs and citrus fruits to ingredients that add umami like kombu seaweed, bonito, and shiitake mushroom.


Photo by Sushicam

But there are a few pickles that you’ll see everywhere:

  • Umeboshi is the Japanese plum, salt-pickled then dried in the sun. They come in a variety of sizes and different textures. They’re colored with red shiso (an herb) and are intensely sour. You’ll see them in bento and inside onigiri rice balls (careful, because they still have the pit). They’re said to have been made for over a thousand years, and to have an antibacterial effect that keeps the other foods in your bento fresh.
  • Gari is the pickled ginger you get with sushi. It’s a simple vinegar pickle. And in case you didn’t know, you’re supposed to eat it between pieces of sushi to cleanse your palate so you can appreciate the different flavors of each kind of fish. Young ginger naturally turns pink when pickled. But the bright pink kind you’ll often see is made with artificial dye.
  • Takuan is rice-bran pickled daikon radish.  It’s usually served in half-moon slices, and makes a good vegetarian sushi roll filling. Manufactured takuan is also often dyed nowadays, to a bright yellow color. Traditionally it’s dried in the sun before being pickled, which can make a pretty awesome photo.
  • Beni shōga is ginger in little red strips. You probably seen these on top of yakisoba or takoyaki. It’s pickled in the vinegar used to make umeboshi pickled plums. So its bright red color ought to come from the red shiso leaves. Sadly, today it is also usually artificially dyed.

How to Approach a Strange Tsukemono


Photo by Ruth and Dave

The earliest pickles were vegetables preserved in salt. One legend of the origin of tsukemono places it at Kayatsu Shrine in Nagoya. The shrine is now nicknamed Tsukemono Jinja and home to a festival celebrating the occasion each August. It’s said that the local people there traditionally made offerings of salt harvested from the sea and the vegetables from the first harvest. Because the offerings spoiled quickly, someone came up with the idea to combine them together in a barrel.

The result was a fermented product, which lasted a longer time. This was considered a gift from the gods, and with good reason. Before refrigeration, and greenhouses, and flying produce all around the world from places where seasons are different, there weren’t a lot of vegetables around in the winter. Pickles were the answer. They preserved spring and summer’s bounty for the cold time of year.

Now we can buy all kinds of fresh produce at any time of year. So they’re no longer necessary for providing vitamins and fiber when they’re out of season. But Japanese cuisine developed to include them, so a traditional meal doesn’t make sense without them. In fact, just rice, soup, and pickles count as a complete traditional Japanese meal.

Japanese food is often stereotyped as having delicate, subtle flavors. That may fool you into taking a huge mouthful of pickle, which could be a shock. Think of them more like a condiment. And remember that Japanese cuisine is based around a bowl of rice. Rice is indeed a subtle (some would say bland) food, and there’s nothing like a little bit of pickle to kick it up a notch when you take a mouthful of rice.

If you watch Japanese cooking shows, you’ll often see them taste something and say “this makes me want to eat a lot of rice.” That’s tsukemono in a nutshell. Oh, and that’s supposed to be a good thing.

Aside from their flavor, don’t forget how important presentation is to Japanese food. Tsukemono in their varied colors add eye appeal as well.

Japanese Pickles Today


Photo by anjuli ayer

Pickles used to be made by hand in each household, and each tasted a little different. Your mom’s rice bran pickles really were different from everyone else’s, because the microbes on her hands were different. Now, homemade pickles are usually lighter kinds that only take an hour or a day or two to make. Most people go to the store and buy the more labor-intensive kinds.


As noted above, manufactured pickles are often made with artificial dyes. Read the ingredients on the packaged ones. You’ll find they are about as similar to traditionally made pickles as instant ramen is to a real local ramen shop. Remember that many of these pickles take days or weeks or even months to make in the old-fashioned way. So commercial ones take a lot of shortcuts.

However, you can still find traditional stores specializing in handmade pickles, which may have hundreds of kinds. You should look for them when you’re in Japan, because even if you don’t buy anything, it’s as much a true traditional Japanese sight as any temple or rock garden.

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Ekiben! Japanese Food on Japanese Trains and Beyond Wed, 15 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 In the US, feeding yourself while traveling is pretty much just a chore. Highway rest areas with the same fast food chains all over the country let your fuel yourself and your car at the same time, but you wouldn’t call it a treat. You won’t starve on Amtrak, but you’re better off packing a […]

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In the US, feeding yourself while traveling is pretty much just a chore. Highway rest areas with the same fast food chains all over the country let your fuel yourself and your car at the same time, but you wouldn’t call it a treat. You won’t starve on Amtrak, but you’re better off packing a lunch, and if you take the bus that may be your only option. And airline food – ugh, better not to think about that at all.

When you travel by train in Japan, it’s a different story. Ekiben (駅弁), the bento sold on trains and in train stations, were once a simple necessity for hungry travelers. Modernized in the face of competition from the private auto, now they serve as souvenirs and promotion for local tourism. Now people even flock to buy them when they’re not traveling – for sure something that would never happen with an airline meal.

Come with us on a journey from the first simple rice ball to a wonderland of local delicacies, charming presentations, and delicious, delicious Japanese food.

The First Japanese Train Station Bento Box


It’s clear that train travel started in Japan in 1872, but the beginning of the ekiben is a little harder to pin down. There are various competing theories as to what counts as the first ekiben, as is often the case with an idea whose time has so obviously come. There were trains, there were people, people get hungry. The market was so ready that it almost had to happen in some form, and surely more than one merchant met the need. But who would think to keep precise accounts of who first sold a thing that hadn’t even been defined yet? What’s more, many historical records were lost in the war, so even if they did, they’re long gone now.

The standard narrative gives the honor of being first to a meal that was sold at Utsunomiya station in Tochigi prefecture, consisting of two rice balls in a bamboo wrapper, with pickles. It sold for five sen. One sen is 1/100 of a yen, so that was the equivalent of around 10 dollars in current money, which is about the price of a nice ekiben today.

Competing possibilities for the honor of the first are actually earlier, including meals sold in Osaka and Kobe and 1877 and Ueno Station in 1883, among others.  I wonder if the Utsunomiya station one wins more or less official recognition because apparently we know the exact date it was first sold – July 16, 1885, the opening day of the Japan Railway Tohoku main line. That gives us a precise anniversary to celebrate. Pretty convenient.

Something this good needs more than one excuse for a party, though, and ekiben are also celebrated on another day: April 10 is Ekiben no Hi 駅弁の日, because the Japanese cannot resist a kanji pun. Apparently 弁 looks like a combination of 十 (ten) and the Arabic number 4? Whatever. Any excuse to eat more ekiben, right? This year, April 10 was in fact celebrated as the 130th year of the ekiben by the association for Japan Rail ekiben makers as you can see from this official flyer.

The Ekiben Develops


Photo by 4563_pic

The ekiben quickly began to take on the features that are recognizable today. 1888 saw the first standard ekiben with rice and a bunch of side dishes, sold at Himeji Station. Some sources say the first ekiben to feature local specialties were sushi ekiben sold at Ichinoseki and Kurosawajiri in Iwate beginning in 1890, but whoever started it, the idea took off in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While travellers didn’t have websites to consult in those days, by 1905 a magazine listed the different ekiben available in different places, and some railway timetables would list the famous ekiben of the region.

In the old days, ekiben vendors carried their wares on a display tray that hung from a strap around their necks. Announcing themselves with a special sales call, they walked along the platform and sold through the windows of the stopped trains.

This charming custom died out when trains became climate-controlled, with windows that didn’t open, as well as schedules that were tighter. Sales have mostly moved to kiosks and to inside the train, but there are still a few places left with old-fashioned platform vendors (here you can see photos from some train stations that still had them in the early to mid 2000s).


Along with local specialties, ekiben incorporate a couple of other features essential to traditional Japanese cuisine. Some feature seasonal foods and are only available at certain times, and always, beautiful presentation is vital. Even when made in large facilities instead of by local cooks, attention is still paid to the presentation and placement of each item. (For example, check out this report of a visit to an ekiben factory.)

When we talk about presentation, that includes the box and wrapping as well as the food itself. These are not your supermarket/conbini bento in plastic trays. Not to knock conbini bento, which are one of my favorite things, but one way ekiben compete with these cheaper options is with souvenir containers and attractive packaging. Fun containers include the shinkansen above, and my favorite, this octopus jar:


Photo by Linda Lombardi

Ekiben in more conventional boxes are covered in wrappers that feature a fantastic variety of Japanese art and graphic design. Many give you an idea of the food inside, with elegant drawings of fish or produce. Others commemorate occasions – for example, there was a special ekiben at Tokyo Station for the 1964 Olympics. And some include historical or folkloric figures and famous sites. This one from Ueno Station features the station facade and the statue in Ueno Park depicting Saigō Takamori, often called the last samurai, and his faithful dog:


Photo by Luke Lai

Pop culture characters get into it too. For the full experience of that sort of thing, watch someone buy an Anpanman ekiben and eat it on an Anpanman-themed train:

And then you can spend hours on this site navigating one guy’s collection of over 6000 ekiben wrappers, some going back to the 1900s, and some, if he bought the actual meal himself, with photos of the contents as well.

The Ekiben Rises, Falls, and Rises Again


Photo by Luke Lai

During World War Two, ekiben were affected by rationing, with limited rice supplemented by sweet potato or noodles and fancy wrappers replaced by plain paper, sometimes with patriotic slogans. One famous Japanese dish came out of this period. Ikameshi, squid stuffed with rice, was invented by an ekiben vendor in Hokkaido using small squid that weren’t otherwise being made use of. Stuffing the squid with the rice and simmering the result made a small amount of rice into a more satisfying meal.

After the war in the 1950s, there was a travel boom, and with the rise in popularity of TV, interest in ekiben was spurred by a 1973 drama based on a manga about a guy who travels around Japan to try them. These decades were the golden age of ekiben. Consumption rose from about two million boxes per week in the late 1970s to twelve million boxes daily in the mid 1980s.

Times changed though as private car ownership became more common and flying became more popular as a way to travel. Ekiben purchases dropped, and 1987-2008 saw a 50% decline in the number of ekiben makers. To save their companies, new ideas were needed. Some of these were technological, like self-heating boxes, but even more attention seems to have been given to promotion. Maybe the most brilliant realization was that if people weren’t taking the train as much, what we needed was ekiben minus the eki. The first department store ekiben festival took place in 1966, and in two weeks sold 400,000 ekiben of 200 different kinds from all over the country. Now, instead of the train taking you to sample local specialties, the local specialties came to you, at least for a couple weeks out of the year.

Ekiben Today


Photo by かがみ~

While some say ekiben have seen better days, they really don’t seem to be doing all that badly. They are keeping up with the times with anime-themed products to catch the attention of young people for whom ekiben don’t have the nostalgia value, like a Naruto ekiben, offered in the home prefecture of the original manga’s creator. Or this one (that I really want) with both nostalgia and kid appeal, a souvenir Kitaro ekiben.

Since that first department store ekiben festival, more stores started holding them, and I’ve even been to an ekiben matsuri at a Mitsuwa market in the US. You can still go to the biggest and most famous annual ekiben matsuri at Keio Department Store in Shinjuku where over 200 varieties are sold. There are cooking demonstrations and special theme events, such as a recent Abandoned Railway Line Ekiben Project that recreated the ekiben of train lines that have been shut down.

But those department store festivals only last a couple of weeks. What if you’re in Japan at the wrong time? Never fear! Now you can head for the new, permanent ekiben matsuri street in the renovated Tokyo Station, where you can choose from 170 different ekiben from all over the country. The three most popular are reportedly a self-heating grilled beef tongue bento from Sendai, a chirashi bento with lots of egg omelet from Niigata, and a beef on rice bento from Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture, which is famous for its beef. That’s a lot of culinary geography you can cover without even getting on the train.

But try to do it the old school way at least once. There’s nothing more quintessentially Japanese than eating your ekiben while looking out the window of a train. You may weep at the memory next time you’re served an airline meal, but it’s worth it.

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The Taming of the Shroom: The Umamitastic World of Japanese Mushrooms Fri, 22 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Mushrooms are an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and there are so many varieties to choose from.  Hopefully this guide will make things a bit easier on you.  It will tell you what a mushroom is, their types and uses, as well as what makes them so darn delicious.  I couldn’t cover every mushroom that […]

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Mushrooms are an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and there are so many varieties to choose from.  Hopefully this guide will make things a bit easier on you.  It will tell you what a mushroom is, their types and uses, as well as what makes them so darn delicious.  I couldn’t cover every mushroom that grows in Japan, but I tried to cover the types you can usually find for sale.  But before we start:

Warning: Do not go foraging for mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing.  That means you have lots of experience learning first-hand from another expert.  There are lots of tasty mushrooms out there, but there are also many that could give you a stomach ache or worse.  The vast majority of us should content ourselves with what’s available in stores.

What are Mushrooms and Why are They So Yummy?


A mushroom is, of course, a fungus.  More specifically, it is the fleshy, fruiting body of a fungus.  All mushroom are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms.  Mushrooms sometimes usually have stems and caps, and typically have gills.  Those are the little frills you see on the underside of a mushroom’s cap.  Those gills produce spores that, in turn, produce more fungi.  The mushroom is connected to more fungal structure embedded in its food source, whether that be the soil, a tree, or something else.

A big factor in the flavor of many mushrooms is their umami.  Umami basically means “deliciousness,” but was applied by scientist, Ikeda Kikunae, to mean a sort of rich, savory flavor.  Ikeda was studying the science behind the flavor, and discovered that glutamate was the cause.  Ikeda mainly used kombu dashi for his studies, and subsequent studies also looked at dried bonito flakes.  However, in 1957, Kuninaka Akira discovered that the ribonucleotide GMP found in shiitake mushrooms also gave an umami flavor.  Based on that research he later discovered that when ingredients rich in glutamate are combined with those with ribonucleotides, the resulting umami is stronger than each individual part.

Buna-shimeji (Hypsizygus tessellatus)


Photo by Andy

Buna-shimeji are fairly small mushrooms with white, long, often-curved stems and tan caps.  They taste bitter when raw, but this is replaced with a nutty flavor when cooked.  They have a firm, slightly crunchy texture.  They are good for most recipes.

Enokitake (Flammulina velutipes)


Photo by Wendell Smith

Enoki mushrooms are named after the tree on which they grow, which is known as the Chinese hackberry in English.  However, they also grow on other trees, like mulberry and persimmon trees.  In the supermarket, they are easily recognizable as dense clumps of small, white mushrooms with long, slender stems.  Cultivated enoki are grown in a dark, carbon dioxide-rich environment to keep them white and encourage long stem growth, respectively.  Wild enoki tend to be dark brown, with shorter, thicker stems.

Enoki don’t have a strong flavor, so they probably aren’t the best mushroom to take center stage in a dish.  They do have a relative crispness to them.  For these reasons, plus their small size, they are often used in soups and stews.  They could also be used in some side dishes or salads.

Eringi (Pleurotus eryngii)


Photo by David Loong

Eringi have many names in the West, perhaps most common being the King Oyster Mushroom.  Unlike most of the fungi in this article, it is not native to Japan. It was mass cultivated there in the early 1990s and has become quite popular since.  Eringi are rather large, with long, thick, meaty white stems, and relatively small tan caps.  They don’t have a lot of flavor raw, but when cooked the umami comes forward.  I find them particularly good when grilled.  Keep it simple and cook them over flame or in a pan with a bit of salt and pepper.

Magic Mushrooms


Photo by Scott Darbey

Some mushrooms can have psychedelic effects on those who consume them.  There are a number of such mushrooms, but the most popular by far are from the genus Psilocybe.  They cause hallucinations due to two different chemicals: psilocybin and psilocin.

Japan is a country that tends to take drugs quite seriously (apart from alcohol and tobacco), so it’s surprising that before 2002 magic mushrooms were legal.  You could buy them in head shops, and apparently even in vending machines.  In 2002 they were made illegal, perhaps because of the World Cup that was played in Japan that year.  It’s thought that Japanese leaders changed the law in anticipation of an influx of foreign fans getting high and causing trouble.

Maitake (Grifola frondosa)


Photo by Brain Lioila

Maitake translates to “dancing mushroom.”  They don’t look like your stereotypical mushrooms.  They grow in a dense cluster and the stems flow into the frond-like caps, giving the whole cluster an appearance something like a head of cabbage.  The clusters can get quite large: over 40 kilograms (100 pounds)!  They have a woody, smoky flavor, but it isn’t as meaty as some other mushrooms.  They can be used in stir frying, simmering, roasting and other applications.

Matsutake (Tricholoma mastutake)


Photo by 挪威 企鵝

Matsutake form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain tree species, most notably the Japanese Red Pine, hence the name matsutake (“pine mushroom”).  Matustake have long, thick stems and knob-like brown caps.  Due to the difficulty in finding them, they are quite expensive.  The average price is about $90 per kilogram, but matsutake found in Japan at the beginning of the season can go for up to $2,000 per kilogram!  Matsutake grown in the U.S. can be had for a much lower price sometimes.  If you get the chance to try them, one of the best ways to show off their flavor is in a simple rice bowl dish (matsutake gohan).

Nameko (Pholiota nameko)


Nameko are small and amber-brown.  They have a nutty flavor and a thin layer of gelatin on their caps, which forms a sort of glaze when cooking with them.  They are often used in miso soup, nabemono, and stir-fries.


Photo by Akiko Ogata

Long popular in Japanese cuisine, nameko have recently gained notoriety in another field.  A trilogy of smart phone games called “Nameko Saibai Kit,” has become quite popular.  The goal of the game is to raise various types of anthropomorphic cartoon nameko.  Of course, with popularity comes merchandise, and you can find plenty of stuff featuring these cute little mushrooms.

Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)


Photo by tup wanders

Shiitake are named after the tree on whose dead logs they commonly grow, the Castanopsis cuspidate.  Shiitake is probably the most popular Japanese mushroom, both at home and abroad.  Who knows how long people have been collecting them in Japan, but somewhere along the line they discovered a method for cultivating them.  A shiitake bearing log would be placed next to freshly cut logs, allowing the fungus to spread to all of them.  They even found that damaging the bark of the new logs would improve the efficiency of mushroom multiplication.


Photo by Brian Liloia

It’s easy to see why shiitake are so popular, as they are both flavorsome and versatile.  When cooked, they are aromatic and have a nice rich, woody flavor.  Due to this and their chewy, dense texture they make a great meat substitute.  Shiitake can also be bought dried, which actually intensifies their flavor and adds a bit of smokiness.  The applications of shiitake are many and varied, from stir fries to grilling, from simmering to soups and nabemono (and that’s just in Japanese cuisine).  I love making a shiitake nimono: simmering the mushrooms in dashi and soy sauce until the liquid reduces to almost nothing.  You’ll have a bowl full of concentrated umami.

Kinoko no Yama


Photo by Robyn Lee

Okay, so obviously these aren’t real mushrooms.  However, they have been a popular snack ever since Meiji launched them in 1975.  Their part milk, part dark chocolate caps sit atop crunchy biscuit stems, and make for an excellent combo.  No list of Japanese mushrooms is complete without them.

Mushroom Medicine


Photo by dbaronoss

Some mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine for centuries.  For example, the fungus from maitake has long been used in China and Japan for enhancing the immune system.  Modern research has indicated that the entire maitake may be useful in this regard.  In addition, a 2009 study by Sloan-Kettering showed it to have anti-tumor effects.  It may also have hypoglycemic effects.

Shiitake mushrooms have also shown some promise in the fighting both cancer and viruses, but studies have not been conclusive.  Still, as long as you’re enjoying some mushroom cooking, it’s nice to think they might be helping you too.

How to Choose and Store Your Mushrooms


Photo by Chiot’s Run

When selecting mushrooms at the store they should be dry, but not withered.  If they come plastic-wrapped, look out for condensation.  When storing them, sealing them in a paper bag is a good way to keep them from getting too wet or dry.  If you keep them in a plastic-wrapped tub, poking a few holes in the plastic is a good idea.  At any rate, you should use them within a few days.

You shouldn’t wash them until you’re about to use them.  Some say they shouldn’t be washed at all for fear of waterlogging them. Brush them instead.  A brush is fine, but time consuming, so a light wash should be fine.  If you don’t see any dirt on them, there shouldn’t be a need for either.

Let’s Put a Cap On This


Photo by Wendell Smith

What more is there to say?  Mushrooms are some tasty and versatile fungi.  Go forth and try as many kinds, in as many ways as possible!

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A Day in the Life of a Japanese Monk Thu, 21 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Last year I wrote an article called “The Real Japanese Monk’s Guide To Buddhism In Japan.” At the end of it I said that we would one day explore a real Japanese monk’s day-to-day life. It took a while, but that day has finally arrived. We are finally diving into the intricacies of a the monk life in […]

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Last year I wrote an article called “The Real Japanese Monk’s Guide To Buddhism In Japan.” At the end of it I said that we would one day explore a real Japanese monk’s day-to-day life. It took a while, but that day has finally arrived. We are finally diving into the intricacies of a the monk life in Japan.

I interviewed the same helpful monk from my article last year, Yugaku Ikawa of Daihisen Tatsunoji Temple in Yagyu, Nara. He belongs to a Japanese group of Shingon Buddhists from the Koyasan Shingon-shu sect. The lives of monks from different sects will differ. Even monks from within the same sect are likely to take slightly different paths because each region often has different habits, and monks who have different ranks and/or titles have different responsibilities. Even so, this interview is a great way begin understanding the lives of Japanese monks. I hope you enjoy it!

A Note from Yugaku Ikawa

There are three different types of temples: 観光寺 (かんこうでら/kankou-dera), temples for sightseeing, 御祈祷寺 (ごきとうでら/gokitou-dera), temples for praying, and 檀家寺 (だんかでら/danka-dera), temples for supporters. My temple is a danka-dera. To wrap your head around the idea of danka-dera, imagine Twitter. My temple is a twitter account. I have some followers who like my temple. They are called 檀家 (だんか/danka) or 檀家さん (だんかさん/danka-san) and they provide support to maintain my temple. In return, I assist with their worship for their Buddha and ancestors’ souls.

With this in mind, I’ll walk you through my life as the monk of a danka-dera.

An Ordinary Day



Photo by kumazoo_jp


Good morning! I get up around 5 am, then worship. I read sutra to the Buddha statue in my temple and pray for the peace of the day. It’s like a greeting to Buddhist Gods.


I clean my house and altar room.


I offer rice and tea to the Buddha statue.


I eat breakfast and prepare for the day. My breakfast is usually a banana and yogurt, since my stomach is not that strong. But in principal it should be shojin ryori (monk’s vegetarian diet). Although it’s vegetarian, there are five vegetables called 五辛 (ごしん/goshin) or 五葷 (ごくん/gokun) that are prohibited for monks to eat: green onions, garlic, Chinese chives, scallions, and hajikami, which means both ginger and Japanese sansho pepper. Why? Because they act as aphrodisiacs and are too good for building energy. We are supposed to be calm all the time.



Photo by S.R.I.M.I.N.

If there are no funerals that day, I visit the homes of my danka-san (supporters) for worship. There are two types of worship. One is called 月参り (つきまいり/tsukimairi), which is a monthly worship on monthly anniversaries of each family member’s death. I usually visit five to ten places for tsukimairi in a given day. Each tsukimairi usually takes about 10 minutes. The other is called 法事 (ほうじ/houji), which is a Buddhist memorial service which almost all family members attend. These is conducted on the first, third, seventh, thirteenth, seventeenth, twenty-third, twenty-seventh, thirty-third and fiftieth anniversary of a family member’s death. Each houji memorial service takes about an hour.

At a houji memorial service, I not only do worship but also preach a Buddhist sermon. Then I visit the grave and worship there too. When I offer houji memorial services, I usually eat lunch with the family while remembering the deceased and sharing stories about them. At these times, I eat meat and drink alcohol if they are offered because it is rude to refuse.



At whatever time I return from my day’s activities, I start the evening worship. The length of the worship is about a half hour to an hour. Afterward I clean for about twenty minutes. When all the work is done, I have something tasty for dinner though originally monks are supposed to fast during this meal.

Overall, I do 法務 (ほうむ/houmu), which are Buddhist clerical duties, early morning and evening. Later on I do 檀務(だんむ/danmu), which are worship services for the temple’s supporters, during the day time.

Wakes and Funerals


Photo by Tod McQuillin

When somebody passes away, I get a phone call. It can be midnight or early morning. When I get the phone call, I visit the home of the deceased to offer Makura-kyo (also referred to as makura-gyo), which is one of the services held immediately after a person’s death. This is done to offer the first sutra chanting for the first time after death in order to keep the soul of the deceased from wandering before the funeral ceremony starts. Even if I already have other plans for the day, the funeral takes priority, so I ask those involved with my predetermined plans to kindly reschedule. If there are two funerals happening at the same time or some other unavoidable circumstance comes up, I will ask another monk from a different temple to help. Private plans are of course cancelled.

After finishing the makura-kyo ceremony, I have a meeting with the family about how they wish to conduct the wake (viewing) and the funeral and what kind of worship they would like to be performed. The wake is sometimes held the night a person passes, but it can be the next night too. Before the ceremony, I have to write 塔婆 (とうば/touba), which is a wooden grave tablet, and 墓標 (ぼひょう/bohyou), which is a grave-postmark. After the funeral, the family cremates the body and I go with them for a memorial service there, but I leave before they collect the bones. Finally, the family buries the remains on a later date, usually on the forty-ninth day after the person’s death, which is when the Buddhist services for the repose of soul are held.

Obon And Ohigan


Photo by Matthew Hine

Obon is the Japanese ritual ceremony that welcomes the souls of ancestors from heaven and to sends them off again. Ohigan is a equinoctial week in which Buddhist services are performed. There are ohigan in both spring and autumn.

I always do the early morning and evening worship and cleaning, but the daytime shift is very different and much busier during these seasons. At these times, all of the supporters want worship services so I have to visit a lot of places. I usually visit about 30 to 40 places a day, and sometimes up to 50. I get so busy that I can only offer 5 to 10 minutes of worship during this season, though I wish I could offer longer ones.

My area is a small countryside town, so my temple’s supporters are all in the same area. The supporters of city temples could be all over the place, so they probably wouldn’t be able to visit as many supporters as I do (probably 10 to 15 places a day). For both ohigan, I also hold memorial services for the people who died during the war on top of the memorial services held at each house.

And We Do It All Again Tomorrow!

And that’s an average day in the life of a Japanese monk! Did you find it interesting? Did you find any parts that you want to learn more about? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Have a Rice Day! Rice Cooker History, Features, Futures, and More Fri, 15 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 My brother had warned me, “Once you go rice cooker, you don’t go back.” He was right. I had grown up in a household where we cooked rice in a pot, on our stovetop. In college I used a hotpot to the same effect. Then I came to Japan, where a small but mighty appliance forever changed my […]

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My brother had warned me, “Once you go rice cooker, you don’t go back.”

He was right.

I had grown up in a household where we cooked rice in a pot, on our stovetop. In college I used a hotpot to the same effect. Then I came to Japan, where a small but mighty appliance forever changed my cooking ways.

Although I had had a rice cooker at my disposal upon arrival in my Japanese apartment, I felt reluctant to use it. The kanji labeled buttons intimidated me. It did not appear intuitive.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I worried. What was the worst that could happen? My rice turns to porridge? It took a visit from my brother to teach me the wise ways of the rice cooker.

Measure the rice. Dump it in. Wash it. Measure the water. Dump it in. Press the big red button. Go enjoy life until you hear “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Enjoy perfect rice every-time.

But that’s not all. New models push the limits of the term “rice cooker.” Equipped with features like magnetic fields, fuzzy logic and artificial intelligence, and with cooking versatility ranging from stew to bread, today’s rice cookers are the go-to kitchen appliance.

So forget the microwave and give your gas bill a break. Join us as we compare models and features and decide which rice cooker is best for you. If you’re still feeling reluctant, don’t be (like I was). Learn to stop worrying and love the rice cooker.

A Grainy History

Photo by TANAKA Juuyoh

Sometimes referred to as “denshi jaa” (電子ジャー) or “suihanki” (炊飯器) rice cookers were born out 0f Japan’s post-war revival. Before then, people cooked rice on kamado, large stoves made to accompany giant pots.

The nature of these stoves made controlling temperatures tricky and cooking delicious rice difficult. A short lyric attempted to make up for the lack of technology at the time. Kids Web Japan describes the old rhyme:

Hajime choro choro, naka pappa, butsu butsu iu koro hi o hiite, instructs the cook to begin at low heat, then increase the heat, and then lower the heat again when the inside of the pot begins to bubble.

The post-war period left companies scrambling for new commodities. With cash scarce, rice was also accepted as payment. War factories closed down and left Japan with plenty of electricity but few ways to utilize it. These two factors would soon lead to a rice cooking revolution.

At the time Sony focused on modifying and repairing radios built to strict wartime specifications (like limited stations), but looked to expand. How could they take advantage of the electrical productivity of a rice-fed nation like Japan?

The (first) electric rice cooker, made by merely interlocking aluminum electrodes which were connected to the bottom of a wooden tub, was a primitive product. The result depended heavily on the kind of rice used and the weight of the water. Tasty rice was a rarity, as the rice cooker produced mostly undercooked or overcooked rice. It was a memorable first failure.(Sony)

But Sony wasn’t the only company dreaming of a convenient rice cooking apparatus and thanks to competition, the quality of rice cookers improved. According to Kids Web Japan, Toshiba would release the first commercially successful rice cooker in 1955.

After much trial and error, the company came up with a method called “double-pot indirect cooking,” in which a cup of water was poured into the outer pot, and the machine automatically turned off when all of this water evaporated, signaling that the rice was ready. (Kidswebjapan)

Because of how they drastically altered the standard of living for households in the 1950’s, Japan dubbed the refrigerator, television and washing machine The Three Treasures. The rice cooker could have easily been declared the fourth. The convenient appliance became a cultural mainstay, offering safely cooked, delicious rice while rendering the more dangerous, inconsistent kamado obsolete.

Fuzzy Logic, A.I. and Rice Cookers of the Future

Photo by Alex Shultz

Competition between brands meant rice cookers would continue to improve. For example, “in 1960, the first rice cookers that could keep rice warm after it was cooked went on sale, as did some models with timers.”(Kidswebjapan)

Rice cooker technology continues to march into the future, cooking rice faster while bringing out the best taste. Old machines relied on simple mechanical settings, ignoring factors that are now considered like air pressure, weight, temperature and planetary alignment (okay, maybe not the last one).

Technological advancements have even made direct heating obsolete. Induction heating or “IH” (for those in-the-know) became the industry standard.

Here’s how an IH cooker works. An electric current is passed through coils around the pot. This produces a magnetic field, which in turn produces an electric current in the pot’s metal. Metal heats up when an electric current runs through it, so the entire pot quickly rises to a high temperature and cooks the rice evenly. (Kidswebjapan)

The next wave of machines incorporated computer chips and fuzzy logic. As  explains,

Fuzzy logic has to do with mathematical sets, or groups of items known as elements. In most mathematical sets, an element either belongs to the set or it doesn’t. For example, a sparrow would belong to a set of birds, but a bat wouldn’t. In fuzzy logic, though, elements can belong to sets in varying degrees. So since a bat has wings, it might belong to a set of birds — but only to a certain extent. Fuzzy logic is basically a way to program machines so they look at the world in a more human way, with degrees of truth.

Fuzzy logic allows rice cooker to make “judgement calls” based on collected data and rewards its owners with consistently delicious rice, despite life’s variables.

So what does the future of rice cookers hold? Perhaps we only have to look to sci-fi films, like The Terminator, 2001: Space Odyssey or Rojin Z for scary but delectable predictions. For example, Jordan Shapiro of Forbes contacted Zojirushi, the premier rice cooker producer, about their new lines of A.I. rice cookers. He reported,

 Zojirushi tells me that (its rice cooker) learns from each cooking experience so as to adjust to your cooking idiosyncrasies. I didn’t ask, so I’m not sure what rice cooking behaviors it “learns” from, but I imagine it could adjust to variables that may stay constant for each particular user: i.e. different brands of rice, the moisture in your climate, the particular chemistry of your water.

I’m hoping for a “smart” rice cooker I could control with a phone app. Or at least a talking rice cooker, similar to HAL from 2001 Space Odyssey that could create well balanced meals on its own. “Dave, your rice is ready. Please eat before it gets cold.”

Rice Cooker Features

Photo by esPose de


Rice cookers come in various shapes and sizes. Choose a model that best fits your lifestyle. If you’re single, the smaller the better, no need for a family-sized behemoth. But if you have a family or plan on hosting parties, go big!

Choosing the Best Pot

Even the cooking pots vary. Some have chemically treated, nonstick surfaces to make cleaning easy. Aluminum is also a popular option. But if you want to avoid those surfaces, for their purported health detriments, go with a more natural option like steel or clay.

Programming and Settings

Of course, some rice cookers boast more features than others. Even those made strictly for cooking rice often feature multiple rice cooking settings. Making brown rice? Hit “brown.” Feeling under the weather and need some kayu rice porridge? Hit the special button. A clock and timer add to a cooker’s convenience. Other models even feature digital screens for detailed options and settings.


Why mention it twice? Because a timer is a rice cooker’s must-have feature. Set it before you go to bed to have fresh rice in the morning. Set it when you head off to work to have fresh rice waiting when you get home.

Multipurpose Versatility

Rice cookers now take cooking convenience to the next level and smash the excuse, “I don’t have time to cook.” You can steam some veggies, broccoli or barbecue some meat and have a healthy, fresh, affordable home cooked meal in minutes. And with some rice cookers, you can cook it all at the same time in the same appliance!

If you want to cook more than rice, you could take your chances with a standard “rice only” model, but its cooking settings and rice-centric fuzzy-logic might make for over cooked, mushy meals. But don’t fret, many of today’s “rice” cookers accommodate multipurpose needs. Special cooking settings make cooking soups, stews and even steaming vegetables and meats as easy as the push of a button.

Some rice cookers feature special steaming trays. Others double as crock pots and pressure cookers. With the help of a timer you can prepare all of your ingredients in the morning, set the timer and have a well balanced scrumptious meal waiting for you when you get home.

One of my current models, the Vitaclay 2-in-1 Rice N’ Slow Cooker, has special settings for making stew and soup (I can smell the tomato and chicken stew stewing as I write!).

Charm Points

On top of all of the shapes, sizes and technological advancements and features, rice cookers also feature charm. Although I love my Vitaclay, my Zojirushi takes the prize for charm.

For one, it has a convenient, self winding plug that stores internally and never gets in the way. There’s also a removable container to catch spill water from the lid. But best of all, the Zojirushi plays “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” when the rice is done.

The rice cooker universe is surprisingly vast. Please examine all the options (and read the next section) before buying one!

Rice Cooker Battle!

Photo by Eric Hunt

Now that we’ve covered the appliance’s history, technology and features it’s time to look at specific models. Which will come out on  top? You be the judge!

Zojirushi NP-NVC10/18

The Zojirushi NP-NVC10/18 is the top-of-the-line, rice connoisseur’s model.  The giant (15.4 x 10.1 x 8.6 inches, 13 pounds) NP-NVC10/18 flashes some bling in its a “platinum infused nonstick coating.” Apparently this coating makes for the best rice which is the NP-NVC10/18’s goal.

The model features both fuzzy-logic and AI and takes pressure into account. Settings allow users to make the rice as soft or hard as they prefer, and rice can even be toasted and crispy with the NP-NVC10/18’s “scorch” setting. The clock and timer means you can have your preferred style of rice when you want it.

The top of the line, this rice cooker comes in sizes and price ranges to match. If rice cookers equalled street cred, MC’s would be rhyming about the NP-NVC10/18 instead of spinners and medallions. Although it lacks versatility in terms of cooking foods other than rice, if you want awesome rice prepared nearly any way (brown, gabba brown, scorched, umami, sushi rice, or porridge), the NP-NVC10/18 is the model for you.

Panasonic SR-DE103 (13 X10 X8)

The Panasonic SR-DE103 is a well balanced model with a few extra features at a great price. Fuzzy logic helps the SR-DE103 alter the cooking time to net delicious rice every time. Although its choices in rice cooking settings pale in comparison to the NP-NVC10/18, it features a steam tray and steam and cake push-button settings that give it the edge in versatility. It’s also more compact (13 X10 X8 inches), making it easier to store.

With a timer that lets you have rice when you want it the Panasonic SR-DE103 offers what’s expected of a traditional rice cooker with a few convenient features. Priced under $100, the Panasonic SR-DE103 offers a high end cooker at a more affordable price.

Aroma Digital Rice Cooker and Food Steamer

The Aroma Digital Rice Cooker and Food Steamer offers easy, one button controls (white rice, brown rice, keep warm and steam). It comes in various sizes so you can choose one that suits your needs.

Like the Panasonic SR-DE103, the Aroma Digital features a black nonstick coated aluminum cooking pot. It also has a special “steam” setting that allows users to steam vegetables in the fitted tray while cooking rice. Take advantage of the timer to have balanced meals ready when you need them!

What’s the difference between the Aroma Digital and Panasonic SR-DE103? Size, shape and material. The Panasonic SR-DE103 is a rectangular plastic box. The Aroma Digital is a round, crock-pot styled rice cooker with a stainless steel shell (8.7 x 8.5 x 9.3 inches for the 8-cup model).

VitaClay VF7700-6 Chef

VitaClay’s claim to fame is its clay pot; a natural, stick-free alternative to most rice cooker pots’ artificial coatings. Although I love the clay pot, it can be a double edged sword. If you tend to drop things, the breakable clay pot might prove problematic. Although extra pots can be purchased online, it’ll cost you. But for the sure-handed readers out there, the clay pot is easy to clean and won’t pell after prolonged use like non-stick coated pots do. It also presents a nice aesthetic when it’s carried to the dining room table!

The VF7700-6 Chef encourages experimentation; its stew and soup settings work well in preparing curries, sauces, as well as ANY types of soups and stews. My only gripe is its lack of a steam tray. Like the Aroma Digital Rice Cooker, the VitaClay comes in a crock-pot styled shape.

Aroma Simply Stainless

As the Japanese-English phrase goes, sometimes “Simple is best.” And in the case of the Aroma Simply Stainless, it’s cheap too. This no-nonsense model features a lid, pot and plastic casing. A bare bones rice cooker, Aroma’s Simply Stainless line comes in three sizes and one touch simplicity. The pot is made from surgical-grade 304 stainless steel, so it’s a great option for those looking to avoid aluminum and chemically coated surfaces. The pot also boasts the ability to cook soups, stews, chili and oatmeal.

Although some reviews complain about steam and water spurting from the hole on the lid, the reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Want a no-fuss, affordable and tiny rice cooker? The Aroma Simply Stainless is your best bet!

Not Just for White Rice Anymore

Photo by Rich

When I first arrived in Japan I asked a Japanese acquaintance, “Can I cook brown rice in my rice cooker?”

“Oh… you better not,” she warned.

Japanese take their white rice very seriously, and I’ve heard the myth repeated time and time again, “Rice Cookers are for white rice.” But nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve cooked brown rice, beans, and even fish and vegetables in a rice cooker only meant for rice. Slight odors and staining of the white plastic shell proved to be the only downsides.

Whether cooked through induction heating, fuzzy logic, or artificial intelligence, at its very core a rice cooker is a heated pot. Like some of the models mentioned above, many rice cookers are moving to multi-functionality. And taking advantage of these features can be simple and fun.

A simple Youtube search reveals all sorts of things that can be cooked in a rice cooker – from various types of rice to pasta, eggs, pancakes, cake and bread. Resources to help you become a cooking everything-other-than-rice rice-cooker master.

Karate Rice

A site offering tips on how to prepare the perfect rice as well as various rice-based dishes, Karate Rice proves anyone can cook for themselves. I recommend the “Japanese Sweet Potato and Rice” and “Rice Chili Stew.” Add extra garlic and cumin to the stew to give it more zing!

Ariel Knutson’s 21 Surprising Things You Can Make in a Rice Cooker

A less traditional collection of recipes that often abandons the rice altogether. Although Mac and Cheese is always popular, I love the Vegetable Frittata as a quick, well balanced meal. Just looking at the “Tofu and Asparagus’s” deep green asparagus, soft brown tofu cubes and rich broth made my mouth water.


The offers all sorts of articles aimed at dedicated dog lovers. It even features a recipe for dog food (though I’m considering trying it as people food) made in a rice cooker. Instead of cooking with a dog, cook for a dog!

The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook

With the subtitle, 250 No-Fail Recipes for Pilafs, Risottos, Polenta, Chilis, Soups, Porridges, Puddings, and More, Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufman’s book puts cooking within reach of even the most inept household chefs.

Learn to make risotto, chunky or smooth applesauce, tapioca pudding, and hot breakfast cereals. Although I haven’t run into any problems myself, reviewers say this book nets the best results with fuzzy-logic models.

Bask in the Glory of Well Cooked Rice!

More versatile than the name implies, rice-cookers are clean, safe, and super convenient! After not using one for most of my life, aside from the refrigerator it has become the most used appliance in my kitchen. I don’t even own a microwave, toaster or oven anymore and have no plans on investing in any of them. Don’t get me wrong, the rice cooker can’t outperform those appliances, but for me it’s an acceptable alternative.

Rice cookers make cooking easy.  Timers and extra features can make cooking convenient for even the busiest of people. Best of all, it’s easy to make healthy, well balanced meals. Plus experimenting with new recipes is fun and (usually) rewarding.

If you have a rice cooker to recommend or recipes or recipe websites, please comment below. Happy rice (and everything else) cooking to all!

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25 Reasons To Join The JET Program (And 8 Reasons Not To) Fri, 08 May 2015 13:01:33 +0000 If you’re reading this, you must have some kind of interest in the JET Program. This isn’t a decision to be made lightly, though. As a JET alumni myself, I’ve experienced (and heard stories of) the incredibly positive aspects of the program, as well as the not so positive. You are packing up and moving to a […]

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If you’re reading this, you must have some kind of interest in the JET Program. This isn’t a decision to be made lightly, though. As a JET alumni myself, I’ve experienced (and heard stories of) the incredibly positive aspects of the program, as well as the not so positive. You are packing up and moving to a foreign country, after all. It’s important to do your research.

I’ve put together a list of pros and cons for going on JET. By pulling from my own experience, as well as the experience of many other JETs, I think I’ve come up with a pretty thorough resource. I hope it helps you to make a good decision for you.

A Note

This article is intended for those interested in the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) position. JET also employs CIRs (Coordinator of International Relations) who work in Boards of Education and government offices. However, the CIR position requires at least N2 level Japanese and accounts for only 10% of JET participants. Less than 1% of JET participants are SEAs (Sports Exchange Advisors). ALTs make up 90%. All this to say, our focus will be on becoming an ALT in the JET Program.

Tangible Benefits


Photo by

Free Trip to Japan

JET brings foreign people to Japan, so the plane ticket seems to go without saying. As “basic” as this sounds, it’s actually a perk JET has over other ALT programs. Most private ALT companies expect you to pay your own way into the country.

Be aware that flying with JET means you must return to the same airport you departed from. Aside from this it’s a free round trip international flight (with 1 to 5 years in between). A nice perk not offered by many other programs.

Job in Japan

One of the most stressful situations in life is finding a job. It’s doubly stressful when paired with moving your life to a new country and culture.

It’s possible to move to Japan without a job and find one once you get there. But consider the vast expense of moving to Japan. Then finding a place to live, and the costs associated. Finally add job searching.

You’ll probably find an English teaching job, but not having one set up beforehand adds a countdown to zero monies. Stress like that is the last thing you need while job searching.

Depending on the company, some ALT staffing agencies may not always have your best interest in mind. Their job is primarily to make money by keeping the Board of Education happy. This is not always the case, but keep it in mind when looking at alternatives to JET. JET places you in a job with the intention of keeping you there. Things will go wrong (we’ll get to that later), but at least the JET Program isn’t trying to make things difficult for you.

The fact that JET offers you employment in Japan may go without saying. But considering what it’s like to move across the globe without a job helps put into perspective what a major benefit this is.

Getting Set up

You’re flown to Japan and given a job. On top of that, JET sets you up with an apartment, a visa, a residence record, and a residence card. Most other English teaching programs should help with this as well, in varying degrees. However if you are coming to Japan on your own, all of these things rest on you.

Even with a good deal of Japanese under your belt, navigating the bureacracy required to secure an apartment, put the utilities in your name, set up a cell phone plan, get a visa, and register your residency would be daunting. Having a supervisor to get you on your feet in a matter of days relieves a lot of that hassle.


JET sets you up with your living situation. This is a big deal considering how different home set-up in Japan is, compared to other countries. In most cases, you’ll take over your predecessor’s home, which diminishes the startup fees normally required for new apartments. This isn’t a guarantee though. You may need to have up to six times your monthly rent to pay in key money and other fees. Super expensive, but that’s just how apartments in Japan work.

Your JET apartment may not be a dream home, but it’s your own place in Japan. In most cases, it’s fully furnished and partially subsidized, though it could be only one of these or neither. You are free to leave and find your own apartment at your own expense (which is very possible, given the generous JET salary). Follow this guide if you take that route.

Don’t underestimate the benefit of having a place set up for you before you arrive. It’s a big stress reliever and a great way to feel that Japan is your home as soon as you land.

Lots of Support

You have a lot of bosses with varying degrees of power to help you. If one boss is not helpful, at least you have other avenues to explore when solving problems. Not all bosses help with the same things, so in certain situations, you’ll need to approach a certain boss.

School Supervisor (担当者)

This person will be your main go-to supervisor at school. They will be a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) who works at your school, a day-to-day coworker and one you will work with in class. You can go to them with school issues, classroom issues, Japanese culture issues, etiquette issues, and sometimes even issues outside of work.

Vice Principal

The Vice Principal is a supervisor as well and can help with a lot of things, but usually only when your School Supervisor directs you there. These are usually issues that the School Supervisor can’t handle on their own, thus they move up the chain of command.


The Principal is definitely your boss. If it’s a situation the Vice Principal can’t handle, it’s on to the Principal. Realistically, you won’t handle issues with Principal at all, if ever.

Board of Education or Prefectural Office Supervisor

CLAIR refers to this supervisor as your “supervisor”. Like, this is the supervisor for your JET contract and your number one go-to boss in just about every situation.

This person is someone who works at the office of your contracting organization. Your supervisor will be in charge of setting you up in your apartment, setting up utilities, registering you at all local government offices, registering you for health insurance, dealing with repairs in your apartment, opening your bank account, helping you find a doctor, giving you permission to take time off, evaluating your performance, helping you in case of emergency, and helping you to recontract to stay on JET at the end of each year.

Prefectural Advisor (PA)

You will most likely have two Prefectural Advisors (PA). These people are JET Program participants who work closely with the contracting organizations and Prefectural government. Their job is to confidentially counsel you in all issues you have on JET, including issues with your contracting organization. Because PAs are still performing their duties as JET participants, they have a more relatable perspective and may be able to mediate between you and your contracting organization. Bear in mind that PAs have limited power and may not be able to solve your problem. But no matter what, it’s nice to have an advocate who can be in your corner, even if the outcome doesn’t develop the way you like.


After publishing this article, I learned that CLAIR had effectively removed the PA position from JET’s support network last year. PAs still exist, but they are barred from offering counseling or mediating in any way. I don’t know why the PA position is still in place if it’s been stripped of ability to act. The other supports are still in place, but the Prefectural Advisor was one of the most helpful and important sources of official support. The Association for JET (AJET) compiled a study on JET participants’ reactions to this change and presented it to CLAIR, MOFA, MEXT, and MIC. You can read it here. Hopefully this will turn things around, but we’ll see.

If you do go on JET, I would recommend you supplement the loss of PA support with other support organizations like the AJET Peer Support Group or the Tokyo English Life Line. They won’t be able to mediate with your contracting organization like PAs did, but at least they’ll be able to provide the counseling aspect.


JET Program pay is very generous. The pay scale goes like this:

  • 1st year JETs – ¥3,360,000/yr
  • 2nd year JETs – ¥3,600,000/yr
  • 3rd year JETs – ¥3,900,000/yr
  • 4th and 5th year JETs – ¥3,960,000/yr

This is more than enough to pay rent, pay bills, buy meals, spend money, save money, and go on trips. You’re not only given the experience of living in Japan, but also the means to enjoy it!

Generally speaking, JET is the highest paying ALT gig there is, unless you join a company that has a pay scale in which your raises would eventually exceed ¥3,960,000 a year. However, this might take a few years of teaching, which would be a great goal for those wanting to live in Japan long term. But as far as starting salaries for ALT work go, JET can’t be beat.

Tax Exemption for 2 Years

On top of the high pay, you will most likely be tax exempt for the first two years. Many countries, including the U.S., have a tax treaty with Japan, wherein the money you earn for the first two years on JET is tax free. Check with your home country’s tax authority to find out if you qualify. You will still need to file taxes with your home country and your local Japanese government, but that’s a small price for two years of tax free pay.

Pay off Debts with That Money

Many JETs use their income situation as an opportunity to pay off student loans or other debts. This is a huge benefit considering the amount of time it usually takes people to pay off debts. You could pay off those student loans in 4 years rather than 30, and still having money to spend on vacations.

Many Insurances

As a member of the JET Program, you are automatically enrolled in 3 insurance plans to cover you in most imaginable cases. Many private ALT staffing companies try to get out of enrolling their employees into the National Health Insurance Program by claiming employees’ total work time per week as 29.5 hours. In reality ALTs in those companies work closer to 40.

With JET, you are enrolled in the mandatory National Health Insurance Program and two others as well. And all without any paperwork required. Below is a breakdown of the healthcare you would receive:

  • The National Health Insurance Program is the social healthcare program. The majority of Japan is enrolled and nearly every Japanese doctor accepts it. This plan covers 70% of your medical expenses, which includes doctor visits, treatment, medical supplies, operations, hospitalization, nursing, and transportation. Dependents are also covered under this plan and receive all the same benefits of the beneficiary. Dependent care differs in that they must pay 20% of hospitalization costs and 30% of out-patient care.
  • JET Accident Insurance covers whatever National Health Insurance doesn’t. Use it if it’s a situation you wouldn’t want to pay for out of pocket. It also covers you for up to one month at a time outside of Japan, in case you want to go on vacation or visit your home country.
  • Employment Insurance is your contribution to the Japanese unemployment fund. This allows you to collect unemployment if you remain in the country after JET and are unemployed for a time. This is an invaluable safety net for those who wish to reside in Japan long term and need to look for a job after JET.

Pension Fund (for retirement or unable to work due to injury)

Everyone working in Japan is required to put money away in the National Pension. It’s like America’s Social Security, except you get back the money you put in. This is used in case you are too ill to work, you die and need to leave money to family, or you retire in Japan. In the event you leave Japan without doing any of these things, you can apply for a refund of the majority of what you put in after you return to your home country.


JET offers an incredible amount of time off, especially when compared with your Japanese co workers. The exact amount you get depends on what your contracting organization allows. The numbers below should be a close estimate to what you will get:

  • Vacation Days – 12-20 per year
  • Sick Days – 5-10 per year
  • Special Days – If you are a prefectural ALT, you may be entitled to a compensatory holiday (だいきゅう, 代休) if the number of work days in a month exceeds the number stated in your contract.

Language Practice

JET gives you an invaluable chance to take textbook Japanese and temper it into real, working fluency. Whether you know a lot or a little, it will get practiced into a smooth buttery flow. And studying on JET means real world application, which smashes the learnings into your brain.

Is it possible to live in Japan and not learn any Japanese? Definitely. But Japan offers so many opportunities for immersion that it’s the best place to reach benchmarks of fluency.

The JET Program Japanese Language Course

CLAIR offers its own Japanese Language Course to all JET participants free of charge. The course is split between Beginner/Intermediate Courses and the Translation and Interpretation Courses. You have to test into the Translation and Interpretation Courses, but the Beginner/Intermediate Courses are open as soon as you start JET.

In years past, the JET Program Japanese Language Course was administered with textbooks and CDs mailed to your contracting organization. However, in recent years it has become an online e-learning course.

You can read what JETs say about the course here. It may not ultimately be the best course for studying Japanese, but it’s worth trying. It teaches grammar and vocab based on situations you may encounter on JET and it’s free. If anything, it at least shows CLAIR’s pro-activeness in caring for your development.

International Work Experience

The ALT Job, which has its pros and cons, does offer a lot of opportunity to hone skills which look good on a resume. Chief among these is “international work experience,” which hiring managers love. To employers this usually means, adaptability, flexibility, and the ability to work with various personalities. If you know how to highlight this on a resume and in an interview, it can be the career strengthener you need to land a better job.


Enkai are one of the best perks of the job. You pay some money and go to a party with all your teachers. Eating and drinking ensues. You can only experience this by working in Japan, as enkai are only for those “in the group”. No spouses or family allowed.

Tatemae gets pushed to the side at these parties and you see a side of your co workers that you won’t see at school. After the fun, there’s more fun. Most enkai continue at the 二次会 (second party).

Enkai are fantastic and exclusive experience. Go to as many as you can.


Yay! Sitting in chairs and listening! There’s not a whole ton of training involved on JET (see sections below), but you are offered some. There are several orientations before leaving for JET, one in Tokyo upon arrival, one before you finish JET, and in the middle of every year.

The Skill Development Conferences were the ones I found most helpful. They are conducted by host prefectures and all ALTs in the prefecture attend with one JTE from their school. This means open discussions and workshops with one of your JTEs, and getting to hear from other ALT/JTE teams from the region. Results will vary, but the potential is definitely there.

The CLAIR Grant for TEFL Certification

CLAIR offers grants for JETs to get Teaching English as Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification. This is great if you want to teach English in foreign countries as a career or want to get better at your job as an ALT. More info here.

A TEFL Certification will allow you to get better teaching jobs in Japan, including universities. Other countries in which English is not the native language open up as well. If you love your job as an ALT and want to travel Japan or the world, a TEFL Certification can help you achieve that goal.

Alumni Network

JET only lasts five years, so you will need to find another job at some point. This is where the JET Alumni Association (or JETAA) can be a big help. There are 52 chapters in 15 countries totaling over 25,000 members. No matter where you end up after JET, there should be a (relatively) nearby support base built in. Not only does this help with reverse culture shock, but JET Alumni are always eager to help a former JET get adjusted to their new home, whether it be in finding a new job or anything else.


Your contracting organization will most likely supply you with a bicycle while on JET. Maybe not, but 90% of the time you will get a bike. Hey kid! You wanna free bike? Why would you say no?

Foothold in the Country for Living Long Term

For those wanting to live in Japan long-term, this might be the number one reason to go on JET. You can get to Japan and live for a year or two while networking, job searching, and getting acclimated to your new life. Starting a career in a new country is difficult enough without having to blaze your own trail. JET gives you a solid base from which to start your career advancement operation.

Intangible Benefits


A Chance to Live on Your Own in a Foreign Country

It goes without saying that living in Japan is different than visiting. You’ll experience Japan as a relative insider, seeing both good and bad aspects of culture, society, religion, government, and daily life. You will also be largely on your own forcing you to become more resilient in a shorter amount of time than you might in your own country.

Dealing with Culture Shock (Initially Bad, Long Term Good)

Culture shock is a personal disorientation experienced when moving to new countries or environments. While on JET you will be forced to deal with it in varying degrees. This may not sound like a benefit, but it can be if dealt with correctly. If you can gain perspective and adjust in some ways, you’ll find it easier to cope during other transitional times. Not fun but certainly beneficial.

Learning More About Your Own Culture

Yes, I did say your own culture. Learning about and interacting with Japanese culture has the funny side effect of teaching you about your own. When confused or frustrated by the way things are done in Japan, eventually you’ll start to examine why those things bother you. This usually leads to an examination of your own values and/or the values of your home country. With a lot of these experiences and thinkings compounding on one another, you eventually gain a broader perspective of your own culture and why it functions the way it does.

Experience All Four Seasons in Japan

Recently in the Tofugu office, we had a fun argument about which season was the best. I said fall, while Koichi said winter, and Kristen said summer. Seasons in Japan are all wonderful (though fall is definitely the best). This is not so much due to weather, but rather the interesting and exciting ways Japan celebrates each season. Sakura viewing in spring, matsuris galore in summer, momiji hikes in the fall, and nabe at the kotatsu in winter. Living in Japan year round enables you to experience each season and discover reasons to love each one.

The People

It’s great to talk about mountains, temples, shrines, arcades, and konbinis. But none of these amazing Japanese things would exist without Japanese people to create them. The people you will meet in Japan are the best part of the experience.

A lot of guide books and travel sites say things like, “Japanese people are polite, kind, and hospitable.” I’m not arguing that but you’ll meet all kinds of characters that fall in line with and defy the stereotypes. There’s no telling what you’ll encounter when dealing with the cocktail of personalities that is humanity.

You’ll certainly always remember places you went and things you did, but people are what make experiences into adventures.

The Horcrux Effect

A fellow JET friend of mine likened her leaving Japan to a Horcrux from Harry Potter. For the uninitiated (muggles), a Horcrux is something a wizard can use to split their soul and attach a piece of it to an object, thus anchoring that piece of them to a certain place. This is the best description I’ve heard for living in and leaving places.

We all leave pieces of ourselves in the various places we’ve called home, and this is no different when living in Japan. When you leave, there are people, places, and memories that you’ll hold dearly. I’m not sure whether or not to call this a benefit. But it’s definitely a feeling, though bittersweet, that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Reasons Not to Go on JET


Photo by tokyoform

After reading the lists above, you may get the impression that JET is a perfectly positive organization offering a perfectly positive experience. Of course, this is not true or possible. JET has its share of pitfalls, miscommunications, and downright crappy situations. Some of these are due to Japanese culture and society conflicting with a JET participant’s worldview (ie. Culture Shock), while others may be administrative problems caused by JET or the Japanese school system itself. Below is an overview of cons to consider before jumping into JET with both feet.

Every Situation is Different (thus you can’t prepare for it)

This was the previous mantra of the JET Program, sometimes abbreviated as ESID. Though CLAIR no longer officially supports this catchphrase, it’s still a fact of life on JET. The organization is so large and sends ALTs to such disparate locales, it’s impossible for them to predict what will happen to you when and how. On some levels this is understandable, but it came to the point that CLAIR and other JET entities used this idea to deny responsibility or take action when there was a legitimate issue. While it’s encouraging to see this motto dropped, it’s probably still ingrained in the wiring of the organization.

In reality, JET and CLAIR are not god-like entities that can swing the hammer down any time a JET is in trouble. Part of the point of the program is being on your own in Japanese society. So you are, in essence, signing up for an experience in which the powers that send you have very little ability to help after you are deployed. You may have a great school with attentive students, or a difficult school full of street toughs. You may get Japanese co-workers who are thoughtful and caring, or indifferent and rude. You may get housed in a large 2 bedroom home or a tiny shoebox. More than likely, you’ll get a mix of good and bad elements to your JET experience (ie. Good teachers, bad students. Small home, close to train station, etc). JET drops you directly into Japanese life and Japanese life, like life anywhere, is complicated.

Culture Shock

Just a few sections up, I talked about the benefits of culture shock, but to get the benefits one must go through some real sucky times.

Most will go through culture shock and come out on the other end just fine. But it can be detrimental if you have a predisposition to depression or are in the middle of dealing with a tough life situation. It’s best to deal with those things first, learn some coping strategies, and then try coming to Japan. Adjusting to Japanese life takes some mental preparedness, so it’s best to defer if you aren’t ready.

Training Sucks

Rather, training in Japan is different. Japanese work culture is one of on the job training, wherein you jump in and learn the ropes as you go. If you’re coming from a Western country, you may be more used to being trained in what to do before being sent to do the job.

Neither approach is right necessarily, but going from one to the other can be frustrating. This is explained best in this article by Rochelle Kopp. In Japanese culture, training is seen as something that develops the self and therefore should be done on one’s own time. Thus, you should be ready to jump into your new job and roll with the punches until you get the hang of it.

You’ll Most Likely Get Put in the Inaka

The majority of JET participants are placed in the countryside of Japan (called “inaka” in Japanese). This could be a pro or con depending on your preferences. In general, inaka life means living far from train stations, having only a few shops in your town, being one of the only foreigners in your area, needing a car, and not having a whole lot to do after work. There is a lot of charm to living in the inaka, but we’re focusing on the negative here, so let’s not get too chipper.

Medical Situations

Japanese medical practice is a whole issue that is best covered in this article. The Japanese medical system will provide you with the care you need, though you may bump into a number of nuances and roadblocks that give you pause. Certain procedures that are common in the West may not be in Japan. Certain medications you are used to may not be available. Doctors are gods among men who cannot be questioned. The language barrier can feel especially daunting when it comes to medical Japanese. All in all, you will be fine in the Japanese medical system and you won’t pay much thanks to all your insurances (see above sections). But unfamiliarity with Japanese medical processes and the differences in medical practices may cause some frustration.

The Japanese School System Takes Some Getting Used To

Just as the Japanese medical system takes getting used to, so does the Japanese school system. The difference here is that the majority of your time on JET will be spent in this system.

Understanding the Japanese School System would take an entire article in itself, but the main things to remember are:

  • Kids are the center of the school, not the teachers: Kids stay in their homerooms and teachers go to them. This gives the students a sense that the classroom is their turf.
  • The school school is a group and that group must がんばります together: This is more of a dynamic of Japanese work culture, but the basic idea is that the group has to work together, and that means individual needs may get marginalized.
  • Japanese school is test focused: Japanese students have one goal: to get into a good college. To do this, they need to pass an entrance exam. And to get accepted to take the exam, they need to graduate from a good high school. And to graduate from a good high school, they need to test into a good high school. And to do all these things, Japanese students need to be good at taking tests. This can mean that some or most of the English lessons you teach have very little practical application.

These are just a few examples, but hopefully they should give you a good idea of how different the Japanese school system may feel.

You Are a Public Servant, Not Simply a Teacher

This means that you are bound by the same rules and obligations of other full-time government employees. As a public servant you may be asked to attend functions at the last minute, work on weekends, or stay late. Most schools choose not to ask their ALTs to do these things, but it is in your contract so be aware that your school or Board of Education has the right to rope you into a lot of extra work any time they choose.

The Answer to Some Questions Is “Just Do It Because That’s the Way It’s Done”.

In the West, we usually want to know why we are doing something before we do it. In Japan sometimes reasons may not be given as to why you need to do something.

For example, a friend of mine asked his Japanese neighbor about paying the NHK man who asks for money door-to-door.

The NHK is a government run public broadcasting service funded partly by the public. Instead of running telethons, the NHK simply goes door-to-door and insists on payment. As a person with a TV that receives NHK (all TVs in Japan do by default), you are expected to pay for the channel.

My friend told his Japanese neighbor that he didn’t pay the NHK man because he doesn’t watch NHK. The neighbor responded in shock. “You must pay the NHK man!”

When my friend asked why, the neighbor replied, “Because that’s what you do!” The real answer is that payment is required by law, but to the Japanese neighbor that wasn’t the issue. You just do it because you do it.

Several of your “why” questions on JET may be answered with “Because that’s the way it is” or “Because that’s the way it’s done.” This is especially frustrating when your questions are about things more serious than paying for public television.



Photo by skyseeker

JET is without a doubt a worthwhile program with a lot of flaws. There’s much to consider when deciding whether or not the JET Program is for you. You’ll want to talk it over with family and friends, make your own pros and cons list based on your life situation, and think about overall career goals. Keep in mind that life on JET is an adventure, and adventures are not constant excitement or good times. There’s a lot rough patches, boring spots, and downright frustrating obstacles. But peppered in there will be joys and ultimate rewards. An adventure is always a gamble, but hopefully worth it in the end.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The post 25 Reasons To Join The JET Program (And 8 Reasons Not To) appeared first on Tofugu.

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

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

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


Photo by Andy King50

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

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

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

Start with A Fish


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

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

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

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

Now What?


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

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

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

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

Why So Good?


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

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

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

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

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

4. The coating of mold keeps off other microorganisms.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo by tokyofoodcast

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

Modern Cheats


Photo by Julie Frost

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

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

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

Not Dead Yet


Photo by Sophie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Bad to Be True?

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

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

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

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

What Gives?

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by High Contrast

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


China's Unsafe Food

Photo by M M

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

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

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

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

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


China's Unsafe Food

Photo by MPF

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Import From China?

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Angie Harms 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Major Chinese Imports

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Nino Barbieri

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

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

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

What You Can Do?

China's Unsafe Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy label reading!

The Label-less

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Matt Smith

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

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

Research Online

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Merdal

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

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

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

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

You Are What You Eat

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Arto Teräs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaping Syrup

cropped critters

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

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

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

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

amezaiku artisan making beetle

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

finished amezaiku beetle

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

Evolution of Amezaiku


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Candy Creatures Change with the Times


Photo by Exploratorium

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

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

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

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

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

Amezaiku Abroad and Beyond!


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

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

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

Uncredited images by Linda Lombardi

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

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

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

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

The Top Three

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



Photo by Tako Yamada

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



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



Photo by Ryosuke Hosoi

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

Rarer Rare Tastes

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



Photo by: DDD DDD

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



Photo by kobakou

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



Photo by pelican

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



Photo by Shinya ICHINOHE

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



Photo by Ryosuke Hosoi

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



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

Karashi Renkon


Photo by Shinichi Kato

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



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



Photo by t-mizo

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

Chinmi and the History of Japanese food


Photo by jun560

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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


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

Kombu 昆布


Photo by: Benjyamin

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


Photo by: iris

Kombucha, but no kombu.

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

marine menu Kombu-on-tempura

Photo by: star5112

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

Wakame わかめ


Photo by: Javier Lastras

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


Photo by: zenjiro

Nori 海苔


Photo by: Kattebelletje

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


Photo by: Mr Hicks46

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


Photo by: Koji Horaguchi

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


Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker

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

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

Aonori 青のり


Photo by: Norio NAKAYAMA

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

Hijiki 鹿尾菜 / 羊栖菜


Photo by: Janne Moren

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


Photo by: Kattebelletje

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

Arame あらめ / 荒布


Photo by: Rakuten

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

Umi budo 海ぶどう


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

Allez Cuisine!


Photo by: jamesjustin

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

Umeboshi: pickled ume fruits common in Japan.

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

What Is Umeboshi?


Photo by Tamaki Sono

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

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

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


Photo by Yuya Tamai

I’m pretty sure that remains unchanged even today.

Umeboshi Facism In The Minabe-Cho Government


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

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

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


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

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


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

Umeboshi Onigiri Is Actually Not That Popular

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Opposition Was Found In Minabe And Why

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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