Tofugu » » Food A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Wed, 01 Oct 2014 16:01:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Kamaboko: A Pureed Fish Cake Fit For Celebration Wed, 01 Oct 2014 16:01:00 +0000 What’s better than pureed fish made into a cake? Not much, I say. Kamaboko is exactly that, a traditional type of fish cake that is closely connected to Japanese celebrations, though slightly less now following the arrival of the Western cake. I took a trip to a kamaboko museum with Shoko, who wrote a great travel piece about it. So that you can further enjoy our experience at the kamaboko museum, I thought we could first learn about this traditional Japanese dish.

What Exactly Is Kamaboko?


Photo by Hajime NAKANO

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


Photo by Takekazu Omi



Photo by gamene

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


Photo by Samson Loo

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

History Of Kamaboko


Photo by netagura

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating With Kamaboko


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

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

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

The Words Delivered From Kamaboko


Photo by kazuh

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

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

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

How To Eat Kamaboko


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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

Eight Steps to Deliciousness

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


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

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

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

Hokkaido: Japanese Cheesecake


Photo by yoppy

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

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

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

Example recipe: Japanese Cheesecake

Tohoku: Edamame Mochi


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

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

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

Example recipe: Zunda Mochi

Kanto: Coffee Jelly


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

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

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

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

Example recipe: Kohi Zeri – Japanese Coffee Jelly

Chubu: Uirou


Photo by t-mizo

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

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

Suggested recipe: Matcha Green Tea Uiro Steamed Cake

Kansai: Ice Hot Dog


Photo by W236

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

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

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

Suggested recipe: Hot Dog Ice Cream Sandwich

Chugoku: Maple Leaf Manju


Photo by jam_232

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


Photo by Travis

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


Photo by Karl Baron

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

Suggested recipe: Japanese Manju Steamed Cake with Anko filling

Shikoku: Sudachi


Photo by Zengame

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

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

Suggested recipe: Dessert Ball

Kyushu: Sweet Potato


Photo by Charles Kim

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

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


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

Suggested recipes: Japanese Sweets: Ikinari Dango, Daigaku imo

Such Sweet Sorrow


Photo by tiarescott

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Rice Ball Wed, 27 Aug 2014 16:00:59 +0000 A 52-year-old resident was found dead in his Kitakyushu home. While investigating the man’s death, officials discovered a journal. The man was starving, and in his final entry he penned:

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

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

What Is In A Word?


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

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

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

The Symbol Of Japan At Its Center


Photo by tamakisono

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

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

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

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

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

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

Development To Modern Form


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

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

The Experts Remain Divided


Photo by wordridden

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

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

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

Saying Rice Means Eating It


Photo by mujitra

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

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

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

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

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

Sentimental Rice


Photo by sparklig

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

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

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


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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Social History of Ramen Mon, 11 Aug 2014 16:00:52 +0000 When I say Japanese food, the first thing you think of is probably sushi. And the second thing? These days, it’s likely to be ramen. Everyone’s familiar with the ubiquitous instant kind, and the real thing – stock simmered for hours, hand-made noodles, regional variations – is catching on in the US and becoming a foodie obsession. But ramen hasn’t always been so central to Japanese cuisine, as I found when I read a fascinating recent book.

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

The Birth Of Ramen


Ramen is complicated, and its history is messy.

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

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


Photo by James Callan

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

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


Photo by Jeff Laitila

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

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

The Young Adulthood Of Ramen


Photo by jamesjustin

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dark Days


Photo by Hikosaemon

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boom Years


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

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


Photo by jepster

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

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

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

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

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

Ramen Against The Man


Photo by Owen Lin

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

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

Ramen Becomes Trendy


Photo by Aaron Webb

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


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

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

Ramen Turns Japanese


Photo by ibtekn

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

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

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


Photo by leesean

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Five Ways To Experience Japan Without Leaving Home Thu, 07 Aug 2014 16:00:49 +0000 I’m sure for a lot of us, visiting or living in Japan is high on our list of things to do. But when you can’t make the trip overseas, there are lots of ways to experience Japan without getting on a plane. In fact, some of these you can try without even leaving home! Of course, I’ve left some basic suggestions off – like learning Japanese, reading blogs about Japan, and eating Japanese food – because you have probably already thought of those. But here are some things that might be new to you!

Community Service


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

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

Communication is Key


Photo by liz west

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

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

Abandoned Places


Photo by Kenta Mabuchi

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

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

Hobby Time


Photo by halfrain

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

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

Analog Sources


Photo by Samantha Marx

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

Do It All for the Experience


Photo by moominsean

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Namahage – Akita’s New Year’s Ogres Mon, 04 Aug 2014 16:00:39 +0000 泣く子はいねがぁ / “Are there any crybabies here?” may not be something you want to hear shouted through your door on New Year’s Eve, but the people of Akita Prefecture, specifically Oga Peninsula, feel differently. The Namahage / なまはげ, a Japanese demon, similar to a mix between Santa Claus and the Krampus, are yearly visitors for many people living in North-Western Honshu.

Five years ago, while studying at a school in Akita, I found myself face to face with these Namahage, on the streets, in stores, really everywhere I turned, and I couldn’t help but wonder what they were and where they came from. Eventually, I ended up at a museum dedicated to them and realized there is a lot more than meets the eye.

Scaring Children for Centuries


Photo by Evan Blaser

We know traditions surrounding the Namahage have been around since at least the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) because they were mentioned in a book by travel writer Masumi Sugae during this period, but it is likely they have been around longer than that.

These ogres have some pretty basic goals, at least in their current iteration. On New Year’s Eve they come down from the mountains, parade around the streets with knives held high, burst into homes, and check to see if the children have been behaving during the past year.  The main things the Namahage look for are laziness, being a crybaby, and not listening to your parents. The point is, don’t be a brat.

As long as you’ve been good, and your parents offer the Namahage some food and sake, they will supposedly protect your home from natural disasters, sickness, and promote good crops. They aren’t all bad.

To some, especially the kids, this may seem pretty scary, traumatic even. But for parents and the young men playing the part of the Namahage, it’s a light-hearted, symbolic tradition that has been continued and protected for generations.

The Origins of the Namahage


Photo by Teppei Hayashi

There are a few different stories floating around about how the Namahage came to be, the most popular being the folk tale of “The 999 Stone Steps”. In this tale, the Chinese Han Emperor sent five ogres, or oni, to steal crops and young women from the villages of the Oga Peninsula, in the present day Akita Prefecture. The villagers managed to trick the oni into accepting a bet: The oni could have every young woman in their villages if they could build a one thousand step stone staircase up to the temple at the top of a nearby mountain in one night. The oni were pretty greedy, so of course they accepted. The ogres were about to start putting down the one thousandth step when a villager, pretending to be a rooster, crowed as if the sun were coming up. The oni thought they had failed and angrily marched back up the mountain and left the stairs incomplete with 999 stairs.

Other legends suggest they were people from other countries who drifted ashore, or were traveling to Japan and landed on the coast of the Oga Peninsula. These people were startling to the native Japanese and spoke languages they didn’t understand, thus becoming demons in the eyes of the natives.

They also could have been representatives of the god said to live at the top of a mountain in Oga. Or perhaps they were simply mountain priests who would come down to the villages of Oga to pray, and whose outfits were so fearsome from mountain living that they looked like demons.

Whatever the story, Namahage are pretty scary looking. Over time, the legends surrounding them changed to the point where they don’t play too much of a part in the events surrounding them today.

How to Become a Namahage


Photo by Kanegen

Usually, to become a Namahage you need to be a young man who grew up in Akita Prefecture, tormented in your childhood by Namahage. Then, once you reach the right age and show interest, you can take your turn either at one of the larger festivals or simply parade around your hometown, going to pre-planned homes. Rumor has it, you also have to be a virgin to get the part, but I can’t seem to confirm this. Many Namahage are also skilled taiko drummers and perform throughout the year – playing in full costume and sneering at little kids in the crowds.

If you’re able to visit one of the Namahage Museums located in the Oga Peninsula, you’ll be able to dress like one and take pictures. Here is the essential gear every good ogre needs:


Photo by: kota i

  • men – the distinctive mask, which can be made of anything from wood, paper mache, or even plastic. These masks vary based on where in Akita they are from, and some have some pretty distinctive styles. The ones based in Oga are the most common style.
  • ケデ kede – a straw coat/cloak. Sometimes translated as a raincoat.
  • ハバキ habaki – straw shin guards.
  • わらぐつ waragutsu – straw snow boots. It snows pretty heavily in Akita during the winter so having a way to safely traipse through the snow is important for any ogre.
  • 出刃包丁 deba-bōchō – a large knife, usually made of wood and painted to look like a cleaver.
  • 御幣 gohei – wooden wands, the same ones you see used in shinto rituals.

Once you have it all on, congratulations! You are now a menacing Namahage. But to really start your night as a fearsome ogre, you need to eat first.

The Path of the Namahage


Photo by Yasuhiro_S

Before the men dressed as Namahage go off to put the local kids in their places, there is a small ceremony. They sit before an offering of traditional Oga foods and drink sake. They then visit the local shrine (the most famous being the Shinzan Shrine) and drink sake there before stomping around outside. The stomping may seem like some kind of intimidation tactic but it’s actually a form of purification. Considering this is a Shinto tradition, it shouldn’t be too surprising that there is some method of purification involved. Along the same lines, Namahage do not go to any houses that had a birth or death in the family that past year. Those are both events associated with defilement in the Shinto tradition.

The Namahage of Oga usually have a normal human with them to announce their arrival. Or they’ll have a  Namahage leader who announces them instead. They stomp at the entrance (7 times when entering, 5 times before being served food and sake, 3 times before leaving) and grab whatever children are in the house. While this does tend to cause screams of こわい! and tears from the younger kids, after the Namahage make sure they’ve been good, they bless them for the upcoming year. If you were a bad kid, meaning your parents tell the Namahage you were bad, then they will try to drag you out into the snow, but it usually doesn’t get that far. Generally, they just lean down with their masks in the kid’s face and make loud noises. According to the current legend, they’re trying to take you up to the mountain, where you’ll never be seen again. A pretty terrifying concept, and you can bet the little ones know that’s what could happen, which explains the crying.

Once they’re done terrorizing, asking questions, and growling, the Namahage expect an offering and, like many folk tales in Japan, this isn’t out of the ordinary. But there are particular foods that you are supposed to serve, in order to keep your kids safe.


Photo by Kristen Dexter

Once again, there is sake involved, which helps the men in their costumes to keep from feeling too cold, since this does take place in winter. They are presented with traditional food, shown in the picture above. After the Namahage leave, the people of the Oga Peninsula are able to look at the New Year as a fresh start. It’s kind of like their kids’ bad attitudes are gone and they can move toward a better, new year. When the Namahage have visited all the houses, they go back to the shrine, tie their grass cloaks around the pillars, go in once more, and head home.

Visit the Namahage Year Round!


Photo by: Iwao

If you’re really interested in Namahage but aren’t in the area at the right time of year, the Namahage Museum located in the Oga Peninsula is open year-round. It is a bit out of the way, an hour and a half car ride away from Akita Airport and even longer if you take the train and a taxi, but for only 500 yen for adults and 250 for students, it may be worth the trip.

Within the museum, there is a theater which screens a Namahage documentary, a room dedicated to the history of Oga, a sizeable exhibit displaying many different kinds of Namahage, as well as a costume booth where you can dress up as one yourself.


Photo by Kristen Dexter

For a bit more money you can walk over to the Shinzan Folklore Museum and watch a twenty minute performance held between men and some Namahage. The banter between the men and the Namahage is meant to be humorous, (you can find a description of it in English here), but if you have children in your group, you may be distracted by their reactions. The parents tend to chuckle, but if screaming kids aren’t appealing, then you should probably just stick to the main museum. If you’re interested you can simply watch this recording. (Don’t worry, the museum promotes taking lots of pictures and videos.) It shows the entire performance, without focusing on little kids crying.

If you’re like the parents in Akita who think crying children are hilarious, here is one with some terrified little kids.

The Sedo Festival – なまはげ柴灯祭り


Photo by: Hildgrim

If you are already in the area, or are planning a trip, every year on the second Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of February the Sedo Festival is held at the Shinzan Shrine in Oga City. This large Shinto festival involves music, dance, performances, and lots of nervous children with their parents. Don’t worry, there are people of every age that attend the festival, so even if you don’t have your own kids to scare, you won’t be out of place.

At the end of the festival, all of the Namahage performers make their way down the mountain (usually through snow) with torches held high, and walk around the large shrine so you can get up close and take pictures with them. Then the priests of the shrine offer them goma-mochi (mochi roasted on the fires at the shrine) and the Namahage return to the mountains. (Or back to a room to change out of their sweaty costumes.)

If the trip up to the mountains is too expensive or too far, the power of the internet can help with that! Here is a taste of the Sedo Festival:

Namahage Everywhere

Namahage traditions are deeply ingrained in the culture of Akita Prefecture, and you can’t live or even visit there without seeing Namahage versions of everything.


Photo by: Iwao

There are statues…


Photo by Kristen Dexter



Photo by Kristen Dexter



And of course, Namahage Hello Kitty!

In 1978, the Namahage of Oga were officially designated as a “significant intangible folk cultural asset of the country.” This was a pretty big deal, since Oga certainly isn’t the only place in Japan to have their own demonic folklore, and, in the scope of Japan, it is a pretty small place.

Remember, if you ever find yourself in Akita Prefecture, keep your eyes open and you’ll be sure to see some Namahage for yourself. Just make sure you’ve been good this year, or you’ll regret it.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

Unagi: Cooking and Legend


Photo by Patrick

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

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

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

The Eel Days of Summer


Photo by Ray Larabie

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

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

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

Caution: Unagi


Photo by Glen Bowman

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

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


Photo by istolethetv

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

Eating Eel Elsewhere


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

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

Journey of the Eel


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


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


Photo by Uwe Kils

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

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

The Decline and Fall of Japanese Eel


Photo by David Becker

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

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

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

The Eel Rush


Photo by Jer Thorp

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

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

Vanishing Eel


Photo by Ken Ohyama

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

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

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

The Future of Unagi


Photo by Kenji Oka

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What is the secret of the deliciousness?


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

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

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

Q. Why are there so many bears here?


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

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

Q. What about the bear bathroom?


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

Q: Do foreign customers come here too?

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

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

History Of Tamago-kake-gohan


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

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

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

The Special Soy Sauce Only For Tamago-Kake-Gohan


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

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

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

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

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

Tamago-kake-gohan Boom


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

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

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

Safety And Nutrients


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

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

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

Tamago-Kake-Gohan Products


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

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

End Of A Boom?


Photo by psyberartist

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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


Photo by Adam Ledford

Maybe shōchū is responsible for Kumamon’s red cheeks.

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



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

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


Photo by washimo

The first written mention of the word shōchū.

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

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


Shimazu Nariakira

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


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



Photo by Ryan McBride

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


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



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

Ways to Drink


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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

A Nutty Admission


Photo by Melchior

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

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

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

Japan’s Nuts


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

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

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

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

A Nutty Heritage


Photo by Jason Kuffer

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

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


Photo by Katorisi

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

Photo by Gerald Ford

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


Photo by Tammy Green

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

The Quest For Nuts


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

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

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

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

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

The Final Frontiers


Photo by

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

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

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

Journey’s End

Photo by Rich Duffy

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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


Photo by YoAndMe

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

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

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


Photo by FakeFoodJapan

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

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


Photo by camknows

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

So I wondered, how did this business get started?

Who Invented The Food Model? The Pretty Story


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Making Food Models, Old-School


Photo by henry…

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

Here’s the lettuce:

And here’s some tempura:


Photo by Shoko

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

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

Making Food Models Today


Photo by Tokyo Times

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


Photo by Shoko

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

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

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

Fake Food Travels


Photo by Shoko

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


Photo by Shoko

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

A couple of the stores have websites, in Japanese:

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


Photo by Shoko

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


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

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