Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

Baby on board

October 19, 2013

Common courtesy, like common sense, isn’t quite as common as it should be. For example, some people can see a pregnant woman standing on a bus or a train and not think to offer her their seat.

At the same time, some people are so polite that they might hesitate to send the message, “You look pregnant,” to someone who might not be.

Luckily, there is a Japanese solution to both of these problems: the “maternity mark,” a pendant that pregnant women can use to identify themselves on public transit.


Available at almost any train station in the greater Tokyo area, the pendant can be attached to the strap of a handbag or otherwise displayed to subtly alert seat-holders to the fact that the bearer is, well, a bearer.

The words in the design’s heart-shaped area say, “There’s a baby inside me.” The works on the bottom of the pendant say, “Please protect from tobacco smoke.”

On a recent stop at a highway rest area near the border of Tokyo and Yamanashi Prefecture (part of a trip on which I bought some Yamanashi fruit curry), I saw a sign giving pregnant women with the badge preferential treatment in parking, too.


Signs and pendants notwithstanding, some people still don’t get the message. A friend told me that when she was pregnant and carrying the pendant, the people least likely to offer her their seats on trains were young women.

I’m tempted to describe this phenomenon as strange yet unsurprising, but the little evidence I have is admittedly anecdotal.

So, if you’ve ever used such a pendant, please feel free to share how people reacted in the comments section.

Around Japan in 47 curries: Tottori nashi pear

September 7, 2013
This is what a nashi pear looks like. (The one shown here is from Chiba Prefecture.),

Here is what a nashi pear looks like. (This one is from Chiba Prefecture.)

This is Part 13 of a 47-part series of almost-weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

One day in 1989, someone brought some nashi pears the office where I was working. They sliced them up and passed them around on little plates. I had just begun living in Japan and had never seen or heard of nashi. The first thing I noticed was that these pears weren’t pear-shaped. They were big and round. The second thing I noticed was that they were some of the most delicious fruit I had ever eaten.

The texture was remarkable. The pale flesh was about as hard as that of a Red Delicious apple, and even more crisp. But it was packed with a seemingly impossible volume of clear, sweet juice. How so much liquid could some out of something so solid was a wonderful paradox. And after eating it, my mouth felt clean and refreshed. I was blown away.

If only people in America knew about these, I thought, they would be hugely popular there.

ghost-dvd-cover-artA year later, in 1990, I went to the theater to see the movie “Ghost.” Patrick Swayze plays a murder victim, and Demi Moore plays his grieving girlfriend. The villain who arranged the murder wants to find out how much she knows, so he sets out to seduce her. In the most shocking scene I saw on film that year, the actor Tony Goldwyn pulled out a crumpled paper bag and presented Demi Moore with some delectable “Japanese apple pears” – a rare, expensive and little-known treat in America, a gift meant to show his generosity and savoir-faire.

I was aghast. My beloved nashi had been introduced to the American public at last – but as a tool of seduction in the hands of a cold-blooded killer. Oh, the injustice! They might as well have taken those pears, chopped them into tiny pieces and made them into curry!

Well, 23 years later, I have learned that someone did just that.


Map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

This week’s curry comes from Tottori Prefecture, which is perhaps most famous for sand. The Tottori Sakyu sand dunes, 16 kilometers long and two kilometers wide, are one of the weirder bits of Japan’s geography. They’re also the place where the famous 1964 movie “Woman in the Dunes” was filmed.

So far in this blog series, I have tasted curries made with cheese, olives, mackerel, strawberries and horse meat. Almost anything can be made into curry in Japan, and I’ll try almost any Japanese curry. But even in Tottori, there is no sand curry. Good thing, too, or I might feel obliged.

However, they do grow nashi pears there. In particular, they have one nashi tree with especially good pears that was found growing wild in 1904. It was named “Nijuu Seiki Nashi,” which literally means 20th-century pear. This tree and its many offspring produce pears that Tottori is quite proud of, as evidenced by this promotional website and the fact that they actually built a Tottori pear museum.

Tottori nashi 001And of course, there is Tottori 20th-century pear curry. Nashi is the first listed ingredient, but a parenthetical note advises that only 60 percent of it is the 20th-century variety. This is followed by sautéed onions, curry roux, fond de veau and ground meat. It is labeled as being mild enough to eat for breakfast, and that is when I tried it. It was very nice.

The soft bits of minced fruit and firmer bits of well-cooked ground meat gave it an interesting pebbly texture that went well with tender grains of rice. I surmised that the meat might be pork, knowing how that particular meat is often prepared with fruit. But the ingredient list identified it as a beef-pork mixture. It was definitely sweet, but not in such a way that the flavor shouted, “Nashi!” If I’d been tasting this blind, I might have guessed it was made with green apples that had mellowed in cooking. On a more personal note, the particular sweetness of this curry brought up memories of being a little kid pulling out the insides of honeysuckle flowers to taste of the drop of nectar in each one.

It was a very pleasant breakfast indeed.


Salt candy: A Japanese summer survival tool

July 15, 2013

Salt candy marked

Today’s Tokyo area weather is bright and breezy and warm. It’s a pleasant contrast to earlier this month, when we were in the grip of an outright heat wave with temperatures often reaching the high 30s Celsius (in the 90s Fahrenheit) amid suffocating humidity. Nationwide, more than 2,500 people were hospitalized for heatstroke just in the first week of July, and there have even been a few deaths.

salty lycheeThe media have been full of warnings about keeping cool, drinking plenty of water, and making sure to get enough salt. With that in mind, I singlehandedly a large bag of potato chips between breakfast and lunch the other day, thinking all the while that there must be a better way to get some salt into my body.

salt kanji 001And perhaps there is. The photo above shows an array of salt candy at a Japanese convenience store. The word for salt is “shio,” and it is written with the kanji character shown on the left. See how many times you can spot it on the labels of the candies in the photos.

For the record, I bought a package of salty lychee and salty lime candies. They taste exactly as advertised. The ingredient list specified that the salt comes from Okinawa Prefecture.

Hmm. I wonder if there’s an Okinawa salt curry…

Around Japan in 47 curries: Kagawa olive curry

May 24, 2013

This is Part 2 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Kagawa Prefecture (map by Lincun for Wikimedia Commons)

Kagawa Prefecture (map by Lincun for Wikimedia Commons)

Kagawa is the smallest of Japan’s 47 prefectures. It has a total land area of about 1,870 square kilometers, making it about half the size of Long Island, New York. Most of Kagawa occupies the northeastern corner of Shikoku, but much of it is scattered across more than a dozen islands in the Seto Inland Sea. The 13-kilometer Seto Ohashi bridge hopscotches across a couple of the smaller islands to connect Kagawa with Okayama Prefecture, on the main island of Honshu.

The largest of Kagawa’s islands is Shodoshima, which boasts two major products: soy sauce and olives. Lots of places in Japan are proud of their local soy sauce, but olives are unusual. In 1908, this island became the first place in Japan to successfully cultivate them. The prefecture even has a local professional baseball team called the Kagawa Olive Guyners.

Kagawa olive 001Ingredients in the olive curry I’ve picked to represent Kagawa include olives, olive oil, and olive leaf tea. There’s some Shodoshima soy sauce in there, too. The olives are green (and pitted) and taste like they were cooked fresh rather than first being pickled. You have to be looking for the olive flavor in order to appreciate it, though, because the dominant flavor is the peppery taste of the thin sauce. The ingredients list a mysterious “seasoning powder” several places ahead of “curry powder,” which may explain why this curry tastes more like pepper stew. In addition to olives, the solid ingredients are the usual onions, potatoes and carrots.

I purchased a single-serving package of this curry for 530 yen at Japan Food Market, a temporary-looking shop in the Koshigaya Laketown Mall in Saitama Prefecture.

Olive watermark

William Blake at a Japanese zoo

May 23, 2013

In “The Tyger,” English poet William Blake (1757–1827) describes the terrible beauty of a graceful but deadly tiger, and wonders how a loving God could have created such a fearsome monster. Here are some key lines:

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?…

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?…

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Now, with those images in mind, watch this chilling video from the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper last summer in which the staff of Tennoji Zoo in Osaka hold a drill to prepare for the terrifying scenario of an escaped tiger running amok in the park.

There’s some very brief dialog in Japanese, but you don’t need to understand the language to understand the action.

Watch it here.

Around Japan in 47 curries: Kanagawa navy curry

May 17, 2013

This is Part 1 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Kanagawa Prefecture (map by Lincun for Wikimedia Commons)

Kanagawa Prefecture (map by Lincun for Wikimedia Commons)

Yokosuka, in Kanagawa Prefecture, is the perfect spot for a naval base. It occupies most of the Miura Peninsula, which forms a natural breakwater protecting the mouth of Tokyo Bay. The establishment of an Imperial Japanese Navy base there in the late 19th century gave Yokosuka an unexpected connection to the nation’s culinary history.

In its early days, the navy was plagued by the painful and often fatal disease beriberi. Food historian Katarzyna J. Cwiertka writes in her excellent book “Modern Japanese Cuisine” that 12 percent of all Japanese sailors were found to be suffering from the condition in 1883. A high-ranking navy doctor named Kanehiro Takagi was aware that beriberi was rare in Western navies, whose sailors more often ate meat. He theorized that a high-protein diet might improve sailors’ health. Efforts were begun to Westernize navy meals by including more meat, and curry was one of the dishes used for that purpose. It became a staple of Japanese navy cooking.

Yokosuka shipyard underconstruction ca. 1870 (public domain photo via Wikimedia commons)

Yokosuka shipyard underconstruction ca. 1870 (public domain photo via Wikimedia commons)

Today, we know that beriberi is caused by a lack of vitamin B, which is associated with the heavy use of nutrient-poor white rice. But Takagi’s theory was a good one for its time, Cwiertka writes, because the concept of vitamins was not scientifically understood until the 1920s.

Meanwhile, curry’s prominence in military cooking in an era of large-scale conscription, and the influence of military cuisine on other forms of institutional food – most notably school lunches – helped make curry a de facto national dish.

The varieties of curry now available in Japan are beyond counting. For a series of weekly blog posts beginning today, I plan to eat one type of curry from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. From within each prefecture, I will have many to choose from. (I’m open to recommendations.)

Yokosuka curry 001Not surprisingly, a number of curries are marketed with naval themes. One of these is Yokosuka Navy Curry, which I have chosen to represent Kanagawa Prefecture in my “Around Japan in 47 Curries” project. According to the label, this particular curry is based on the dish served at the city’s popular Wood Island restaurant. I purchased a single-serving package of it for 580 yen at Japan Food Market, a temporary-looking shop in the Koshigaya Laketown Mall in Saitama Prefecture.

Unfortunately, I found it rather bland. The chunks of beef it included seemed to be mostly fat. As a snooty 21st-century gourmet, I was not too impressed. But if I were a malnourished 19th-century draftee, I’m sure I would have gobbled it with gusto.

And with 46 curries to go, I’m sure there are some good ones out there.


A new caffeine delivery system

August 18, 2012

If you’re an office drone in need of a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, you might decide to sip some espresso. Or you might decide to guzzle some soda. Now, thanks to the Suntory company, you don’t need to decide at all. Its new “Espressoda” product appears to combine both experiences in one handy bottle.

The concept is clever, the name is clever, and the marketing is clever, too. Its website includes a video game in which a tiny stick figure carrying a briefcase runs across a gigantic spreadsheet, leaping from pie chart to bar graph as you control him with your mouse. (Click on the “game” tab at the bottom of the screen here to play.)

Caffeine junkie that I am, I was quite excited when I saw this beverage in a vending machine in the building where I work.

When the bottle came out of the machine and I was able to read the ingredient list on the back label, I was disappointed to see that sugar was the first ingredient. (Coffee was second.) I’ve been trying to cut needless sugar out of my diet, so I knew I probably wouldn’t be buying this product again.

On the other hand, I have enjoyed coffee ice cream and coffee-flavored candies in the past, so I still expected to enjoy drinking Espressoda.

Alas, the beverage didn’t strike my palate as sweet at all, but harsh and stale, like coffee that had been left out overnight. I wound up pouring most of it out in the sink. I love coffee, but this was not my cup of tea.

(P.S. You know what Japanese vending machine concoction I do love? Pancake milkshake in a can.)

Coca-Cola adds a word to the Japanese language

July 5, 2012

A few weeks ago, I began to notice that some of the Coca-Cola vending machines I saw on the streets in and around Tokyo had a new word painted on them: Ecoru.

Spelled with the Roman letters E, C, and O plus the hiragana character “ru,” this was clearly a verb that meant something along the lines of “to be eco-friendly” or just “to eco.”

Lots of Japanese verbs end in the suffix “-ru.” For example, eat, think, sleep, run, throw, forget, and live are taberu, kangaeru, neru, hashiru, nageru, wasureru and ikiru.

According to “Zakennayo,” a 1995 book on Japanese slang, the Denny’s restaurant chain was such a popular hangout for Japanese teens in those days that they turned its name into a verb: “deniru,” meaning “to do Denny’s.” I never encountered that word in real life myself, but I get the concept. And apparently so does some clever copywriter at the Coca-Cola company.

It seems that the ecoru machines have been around for a couple of years. They involve such eco-tweaks as LED lighting and non-CFC coolants, and they claim to put less strain on the power grid by charging up in the off hours so they don’t have to draw on the public electricity supply during periods of peak demand.

You can find technical details in Japanese at Coca Cola’s website here. It shows that some of the machines even have solar panels on top. I haven’t seen those yet.

Condsidering what a big business vending machines are in Japan, this looks like a step in the right direction.


The plot thickens: A third lover appears

July 2, 2012

In a previous post (here), I wrote about a trademark dispute between the makers of “White Lover” cookies and “Funny Lover” cookies. Now there’s a “Black Lover” on the scene:

White Lovers (Shiroi Koibito) are cookies made by Hokkaido-based Ishiya Co. Funny Lovers (Omoshiroi Koibito) are cookies made by Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo Co. And Black Lovers (Kuroi Koibito) are little bars of chocolate-covered corn made by Hokkaido-based Sapporo Gourmet Foods.

The design on the Black Lover box features the silhouettes of a man and a woman beneath and old-fashioned streetlamp with a block of text hovering above them. I hoped the text would describe some classic old love story, but here’s how I’d translate what it really says: “Grains of love. These are the jewels of a vast land — sweet and crispy snacks of corn and Asahikawa-grown black beans coated in chocolate to fascinate lovers.”

I brought my Black Lovers to the office, ate one, and shared the rest with coworkers — one of whom remarked on their similarity to a “Corn Chocolate” product made by another Hokkaido-based confectioner called Hori. So, in the name of research, I dropped by the Hokkaido antenna shop in Yurakucho, Tokyo, to buy some of those:

They certainly look similar. But to my palate, Corn Chocolate is tastier Black Lovers. The Hori product has a more disctinct corn taste — especially the white chocolate variety, which has a milder-flavored coating.

Considering that Ishiya decided to fight Yoshimoto Kogyou over the Funny Lovers, I wonder what is going on in Hokkaido right now among Ishiya, Hori, and Sapporo Gourmet Foods over the Black Lovers.

Is it sweet love or bitter  hate?

Watch the skies (especially over Japan)

May 18, 2012

A few minutes ago, I went outside and tested my fancy new eclipse-viewing glasses. Forty-eight hours from now, on the morning of May 21, I’ll be among millions of people in Japan and the western United States taking the rare opportunity to view a “kinkan nisshoku,” or “annular eclipse.”

An annular eclipse is one that occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun at a point in the moon’s orbit when it is far from the Earth and thus appears relatively small – the exact opposite of the effect seen in the recent “supermoon.” In an annular eclipse, this small moon appears superimposed in front of the sun rather than completely blocking it out. The visible portions of the sun form a fiery ring around the moon’s black silhouette.

One positive effect of this event is that it has expanded my vocabulary in two languages. The English word “annular,” which comes from Latin via French, means “ring-shaped.” The Japanese term is even more straightforward and easy to remember, as it is written with a string of kanji characters that literally mean “gold-ring sun-eating.”

The moon’s shadow will fall across a large swath of the Earth, but the full annular effect will be visible only in a narrow band that goes through nearly all of Japan’s major cities (what luck!) on Monday morning before moving out to sea in a long arc across the northern Pacific Ocean, during which it will cross the International Date Line to jump back to late Sunday before coming ashore in northern California, passing over Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and finally fading out around New Mexico’s border with Texas.

The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan has an excellent English-language map you can use to plan your eclipse-viewing HERE, with peak times for nine Japanese cities listed. And you can find a map from NASA, showing a worldwide view of the eclipse area, HERE.

A warning that bears repeating is that if you look directly at the sun, even during an eclipse, you can seriously injure your eyes. And that is why eclipse-viewing glasses like the ones I bought at Bic Camera in Yurakucho, Tokyo, are now on sale all over Japan. These are no ordinary sunglasses. They are so dark that if you put them on and look anywhere BUT directly at the sun, you won’t be able to see a thing. But you can see a clearer and more detailed image of the sun than you would ever be able to get with your naked eye. This morning, looking at a normal sun, I found that the eclipse glasses work best in combination with the ordinary eyeglasses I usually wear to look at distant objects.

There are a couple of different brands available. I picked Vixen because it was the most expensive (1,480 yen, or about 19 dollars) and I had few other data on which to base my choice. Therefore, I was a little annoyed to open the package and find that the glasses have holes on either side for a piece of string to keep them on your head – but no string was included. You’d think that customers who pay the highest price could at least get a piece of string thrown in.

On the bright side, I’ll get to use these glasses more than once. Early next month, Japan will also be in the optimal viewing area for the transit of Venus, an event in which the planet Venus passes between us and the sun.

Image credit: NASA

Even if you don’t live in Japan, the transit of Venus will be fully or partially visible across most of the world, including parts of Africa, parts of South America, all of Australia and nearly all of the northern hemisphere.

Watch carefully, and enjoy the show.

Image credit: NASA