There are quite a few things that evoke the saying, “Only in Japan.” Fruit as a status symbol is one. Like many things where those in other cultures go dully about their business, the Japanese have instead raised the growing of fruit into an art form.
The lust to produce a specimen that is cosmetically perfect is so strong that farmers will place a protective bag around each blossom once it is fertalized. The result is that fruit comes into the home as often in a gift box or wrapped in a bow as it does in a grocery bag. Let’s look at some of the superstars in the Japanese fruit world:
These prima donnas are grown only in the town of Yubari, Hokkiado. The melons are normal sized but must be perfectly round. That means perfectly round. Plenty of fruit is wasted that is not a miniature bowling ball. But that is not enough – the stem of these pricey melons is left on and forms a perfect “T” shape. Again, that word “perfect” is a must. When a pair of ideal Yubari melons goes up for auction (they are sold in pairs) bidders go into a frenzy. The record bid is over three million yen.
These beauties come from Ishikawa Prefecture and don’t even begin to talk about your grapes unless they have a sugar content of at least 18% and weigh 20 grams each. That’s about the size of a ping-pong ball. For a grape. Sometimes you can count the number of yearly crops that make the cut on two hands. The Ruby Roman is a relative newcomer to the fancy fruit game. It was cultivated only in 1992 from seeds of the Fujiminori variety. The first grapes went up for sale in 2008 and fruit lovers have been swooning ever since. In the summer of 2016, a bunch of 30 Ruby Roman grapes sold for 1.1 million yen, more than 30,000 yen each.
This is an architectural case of form following function. It is simply more efficient in a space-starved country like Japan to have a square melon that takes up less room in the refrigerator. But it costs a lot of money to grow watermelons in glass cubes so Japan’s square watermelons often end up as decorative ornaments (they are favorites of gift-givers during humid summer ochugens) then split open at a picnic. Japanese farmers never tire of breeding fruit in geometric shapes – be on the lookout for pentagon-shaped oranges, pyramid-shaped melon and more.
The Densuke watermelon is a looker as well with its sharp black skin but it is valued more for its unreal sweetness. That and the scarcity of its taste – only about 100 Densukes are harvested in the typical crop each year in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. That is the only place where it grows. Whereas individual standout Yaburi melons can fetch higher prices at auctions, the Densuke is the world’s most expensive everyday melon. You can find them in stores for the bargain price of 20,000 yen but bring a bigger checkbook to bring home a premium Densuke at auction – think more like 500,000 yen.
Southern Japan is not without its own brand of fruit insanity. Each individual mango of this variety, sold under the brand name of “Egg of the Sun,” must pass strict requirements for weight and sugar content (very high). If the fruit passes and makes it to auction, have your paddle ready – bidding for one pair from Miyazaki Prefecture didn’t stop until it cleared 300,000 yen.
Driving in Japan presents its own set of challenges, especially for those used to roads and traffic “back home.” The most obvious challenge for many is that the traffic moves on the left side of the road instead of the right, but in addition we must get used to sudden double-parking in Tokyo, very narrow streets, and very tight quarters in car parks throughout Japan.
Winter driving in particular can be tough here. Even those accustomed to driving in wintery conditions will find a challenge or two when the snow starts to fly, or when driving through the mountains mid-winter.
We have complied a list of useful tips to keep in mind if you’re new to winter driving here in Japan.
This can be as simple as keeping a small windshield ice scraper, brush, and foldable shovel in the trunk. Trying to scrape your windows with a credit card while you are already late is probably one of the worst ways to start a day; not recommended.
This writer is from St. Louis, Missouri, and we get a decent amount of snow every year, but there is one thing that we do that most of Japan doesn’t do enough of; salt and plow the roads. This means if you are used to “all-weather” being sufficient for winter tires in your home country – BEWARE! You may find your car unable to get up even the smallest incline on a cold, snowy day in Japan.
Because of this, snow tires or chains are imperative for winter driving in Japan. In metro Tokyo, Nagoya or Osaka, you may get away with not needing snow tires, but a set of chains to keep in the trunk is still highly recommended. Especially if you’re prone to driving to ski resorts or freak snow storms hit your neck of the woods.
If your vehicle is rear-wheel-drive, adding some weight in the trunk or cargo bed will help, since the rear drive wheels offer better traction when there is weight above them. To note, cars leased through www.LeaseJapan.com will often come with snow tires as a part of the lease package, in addition to providing English language service and even a 24 hour helpline for car related emergencies.
Make sure to drive with no less than 1/3 of a tank of gas when plying the roads in winter. If you become stuck in the snow you’ll appreciate having enough reserve gas to keep the car’s engine and heater going to keep you warm while you wait for help to arrive. Buying gasoline in Japan.
Always carry battery jumper cables in your car. In cold climates, it’s not unusual for your car’s battery to go dead. If your battery dies you may be able to use jumper cables to jump start it using another vehicle. How to avoid a dead battery? Make sure to run the car’s engine at least a couple of times a week to prevent the battery from going dead in the cold. If you have not used your cars for a few days you should start the engine and leave it running for five minutes before driving. Using jumper cables.
You can’t go anywhere if you can’t see, and your car needs good wipers; if you want to err on the side of caution, grab a new set every fall before the snow hits. Fold the wiper blades away from the glass if you know snow or freezing rain will hit. This prevents the blades from cracking and makes it easy to deice the windshield later, as the blades can freeze to your windshield or become buried under snow. Also make sure to keep a full tank of windshield washer fluid with a winter-mix formulation, because winter windshields can get nasty in a hurry.
Don’t forget your sunglasses. You will need them to keep the glare from snow to a manageable level. Make sure you’ve got gloves handy in case you have to use that scraper. And enough warm clothes or blankets in the car to keep you safe if you break down and need to wait for help. Don’t wear enormous boots if you can help it, as you want your feet to be nimble on the pedals for to adapt to changing road conditions. Your margin for error is a lot slimmer than usual when the roads are slick, so this stuff matters more than you might think.
Keep a space blanket tucked in the glove compartment or some other storage space within reach of the driver. A shiny space blanket’s ability to keep you warm could be a lifesaver, it takes up virtually no space, and it costs less than $10.
Consider keeping bags of kitty litter, sand, and rock salt in the car in case you find yourself stuck in a patch of slippery ice. Sprinkle the salt, sand, and/or kitty litter in front of the driven tires. The salt will melt the ice which forms when you spin the wheels, while the sand and cat litter will provide additional traction to get you free. If kitty litter, sand, and rock salt is not available, put the floor mats under the drive tires instead.
Try to rock your way out. The trick here is to avoid flooring the accelerator and hoping that copious wheel spin will get the job done. In fact, it will just dig you into an even deeper hole by melting the snow as mentioned above. Try the “rocking chair” technique. See if you can get the car to move just an inch in either direction-try going forward first, and if that doesn’t work, switch to reverse. Any movement? Good, then you can start up the rocking chair. Rock as far as you can in that initial direction, and then take your foot off the gas and let the car roll back. When the momentum swings back again, give it a little gas, then let up and so on. If you find it tough going, use the kitty litter around the wheel that is spinning. With any luck, you’ll get a nice rocking chair going, and eventually you’ll rock your way right out of being stuck.
How to dig your car out after a snow storm:
If you do not have a car, but want one, navigate over to www.LeaseJapan.com and check out our selection of new and used vehicles for sale or lease, as well as car insurance. Need a driver’s license first? www.JapanDriversLicense.com has tools, tips, and guides to help you navigate the system. Happy motoring!
The Aichi Nagoya Snow Festival is 2000 tons of snow imported from Nagano and Gifu on an annual basis for our enjoyment!
This family friendly festival offers an equivalent tonnage of fun things to do besides the 2000 tones of snow used to create a 50 meter snow slide which you can fly down using sleds provided by the venue. You can also find trampolines, bouncy castles, stage performances and shows, and a truly impressive selection of food vendors will be on hand to provide your sustenance and any adult beverages you may require.
As a Brit, I am used to winters being cold, wet and miserable, with skies as grey as the faces shielded from the perpetual sleet and drizzle. As such, it always baffled me when Japanese friends would claim, without a second’s hesitation, that the year’s last was their favorite season.
Unsurprisingly, the reason behind this is the food. Hearty, healthy and warming, winter food in Japan is something that many Japanese look forward to all year round. This is just a quick look at what can be enjoyed in this coldest of seasons.
Not being insulated, Japanese homes tend to get cold in winter, so one of the most popular dishes is one that the whole family can crowd around to keep warm. By far and away the most popular is the hot-pot dish ‘nabe’ or ‘nabemono’ (literally ‘things in a pot’). A nabe is actually a large cooking pot, into which a variety of ingredients such as fish, seafood, meats, and vegetables can be simmered in a ‘dashi’ or broth. The dish is cooked on a gas stove around which the family can gather, taking from the bowl and adding more as they go. There are various kinds of nabe such as motsunabe that uses beef or pork with cabbage and chives, kimchinabe that utilizes the Korean spicy fermented cabbage, or yosenabe with meat, seafood, vegetables, tofu, and egg.
Like the nabe, shabu-shabu, my favorite winter dish, is prepared on a gas stove in a large pot and has ingredients such as vegetables, seafood and, most commonly, pork strips. Unlike the nabe dishes, with shabu-shabu each item is cooked individually by stirring it through the boiling water or dashi, and it is from this action that the dish gains its onomatopoeic name as you swish it one way (shabu) and then the next (shabu). The cooked ingredients are then dipped into a vinegar ponzu.
Sukiyaki is a near identical dish, though the broth is a sweeter mixture of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, and ingredients are dipped in raw egg rather than ponzu.
Another warming dish, oden (in the main picture above) is a huge winter favourite. You may have noticed it in the convenience stores in the big wooden pots near the cashier. If you are anything like me, then you will have noticed the smell before you saw it and been a little revolted (the strong fishy scent is a turn off for me), but ask any Japanese, the conbini oden is not a patch on the real stuff. Often sold by street vendors this dish features a variety of ingredients, such as egg, tofu, konnyaku yam cake, daikon radish, and chikawa fishcake which are stewed for hours in a soy sauce based broth.
Yakiimo is, as the name suggests, baked potato. However this is no ordinary baked potato, but rather the super sweet, purple on the outside, yellow on the inside, Japanese potato. To an older generation, there is nothing to signal the coming of winter quite like the plaintive call of the yakiimo seller, wheeling his cart, singing his arrival “yakiimo, ishi yakiimo”. Nowadays you are most likely to find yakiimo at festivals or at vendors outside supermarkets but you may still find them sold from the back of vans where they wrapped in newspaper to be devoured: creamy, sweet and a true taste of traditional Japanese winter.
There is a good chance that you have seen the Game of Thrones memes going around. A character stares out into the middle distance surrounded by the caption ‘The conbinis are selling nikuman.’ Yes, nothing quite denotes the coming of winter in Japan like convenience stores returning the nikiman to their glass steam cabinets. Nikuman, the Japanese take on the chinese food ‘baozi’, is a steamed flour dough filled with juicy meat (though there are other flavors such as ‘curryman’ and ‘pizzaman’, the latter of which isn’t as awful as it sounds. With the traditional nikuman, I can recommend using a small pinch of mustard. Well worth the funny looks you’ll get!
This last one isn’t exactly a dish that one immediately thinks of in winter, however it is something of a seasonal treat that is best tried at this time of year. Fugu, or blowfish, is famous in the west for being a deadly delicacy, but handled correctly (by chefs that have gone through many years of training), and keeping away from the poisonous liver, it is a delicious dish. In winter there are many places at which you can enjoy a full course, starting with fugu sashimi, deep fried fugu ‘karaage’ and finally, as it is winter after all, fugu nabe. I highly recommend overcoming your fears and searching it out, as it is absolutely delicious. But as I say, ensure that you are dining at a reputable, licensed restaurant. Do not try this at home!
Besides skiing and snowboarding, there are a variety of family friendly options to get outside and active this winter. From ice skating to “snow rafting” and even a snow tractor adventure ride for those less interested in getting sweaty; there is no reason to miss out on the great outdoors just because it is cold outside, get the family together and go play outside!
Of course finding what you like is a matter of buy and try, but there are a few words that will help you on your way if you’re looking for certain qualities in your milk. For starters, the Japanese word for milk is gyuunyuu (牛乳). You might often see something called “Miruku” (ミルク), but this may or may not be real milk. If something is 100% real milk, it will always be labelled 牛乳, and anything else is most likely labelled with 乳製品 (milk product) or 乳飲料 (milk-drink).
Next, you will want to look at fat content. A regular Japanese brand of milk is about 3.6% fat, so you will see this number somewhere on the carton (if only in the details section on the back). A really creamy version might be for example 4.4%, and then a low fat version might be something like 1.8%. Low fat milk is most often labelled like this: 低脂肪牛乳 (teishibou gyuunyuu). You can also find milk fortified with extra calcium (カルシウム) and iron (鉄).
Here are some key words to help you find what you are looking for!
Almond Milk アーモンドミルク (Āmondomiruku)
Oh the weather outside might be frightful, but a warm bowl of ramen is so delightful. With Japanese winter in full swing, the warm and delicious reasons to leave the house are even more tempting. One of those belly-warming delights is a hot bowl of ramen! Unlike some noodle dishes in Japan, ramen comes in a wide variety of options that can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned ramen-enthusiast.
Have no fear, though, we’ve put together a quick guide to dissecting common ramen distinctions and how to order them so you can courageously leave your kotatsu this winter and order a steaming bowl of noodley deliciousness.
One thing you may notice when making a visit to a ramen shop is that many ramen shops are set up with vending machines for ordering. This can be efficient, but also quite stressful if you don’t know what to look for! Here are the main categories that ramen is often divided into: shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso, and tonkotsu (pork).
Shio-flavored ramen is the oldest version of the soup with ties to the dish’s Chinese roots. Shio soups usually have a lighter broth base and are distinct by the sea salt flavor.
Shoyu bases have been popular in the central region of Japan, mostly surrounding Yokohama in the Kanto region, but they can be found and enjoyed across the country. This flavoring offers a distinctly Japanese soy sauce tanginess that pairs well with chicken, seafood, and even pork or beef-based soups.
Miso-based ramen dishes are relatively new to the ramen game, but worth a try, especially in the colder months! The heartier, thicker base pairs well with heavier and more flavorful toppings like pork belly or even sweet corn.
The options for ramen broth are either thick or thin, and this depends on which type of broth base you want.
The most widely recognized broth base is tonkotsu, which is a boiled pork bone broth. This broth is a bit thicker and is characterized by a milky golden color and pairs well with colder weather!
Other common broth bases that are on the thicker side use animal bones like chicken, beef, and seafood, and have various flavor differences from the pork version!
There is also the option to try a lighter broth, which is usually made from seaweed or dried seafood!
Though ramen connoisseurs would have you believe it’s the flavor of the base and the thickness that determines a good bowl of ramen, the toppings are perhaps the most fun!
The most popular meat topping is tender, sweet soy sauce simmered chashu pork. This meat can range from the leaner cuts of pork loin to more fatty cuts like pork belly.
Kakuni is similar to the more common chashu, but it is characterized by its red braising cooking technique and appearing in larger chunks on top of the noodles.
Bacon is also used often as a topping, and this can be sliced and added to the broth in cooking or cut up and fried for a crunchy and flavorful noodle topping.
Shredded pork comes from braised pork shoulder and is a good option for those who don’t necessarily want large chunks of pork in their soup.
Ground meat is a flavorful option to add as a topping because the meat is usually stir-fried with other seasonings and vegetables to create a unique burst of flavor.
Seafood is another popular option, especially in the winter season when fishing is at its peak. Try lightly simmered mussels, scallops, crab, or shrimp on top of your lighter broth base for a wintery delight!
Eggs are a popular topping for ramen dishes all across Japan. Choose from traditional soft boiled (hanjuku) or soy sauce marinated soft-boiled for more tang (ajitsuke tamago), or even the more custardy and flavorful onsen tamago that are cooked in Japan’s natural hot springs.
Fresh veggies like scallions, cabbage, corn, spinach, and enoki mushrooms are common across Japan to add some extra flavor and a fresh crunch to your bowl.
You could also try out some stir-fried vegetables that usually include carrots, onions, and bean sprouts and pair well with miso ramen.
For extra crunch, you could try some wood-ear mushrooms that have been rehydrated and sliced as common ramen toppings.
It is also increasingly common to see a few sheets of seaweed (nori) placed on top of your bowl for a salty punch of sea-like flavor.
Located between the Dojima and Tosabori rivers, the island of Nakanoshima is a gorgeous sight to behold any time of year. This historical epicenter of Osaka’s commercial and administrative culture is especially impressive to see on clear winter nights when holiday lights send a glowing reflection across the water. To get the best view of this glimmering island, it’s best to hop on board one of the impressive Nakanoshima river cruises for a full tour around the lit-up bridges, buildings, and tree-lined streets.
Tours only last around 25 minutes, so you can use one to start or end your evening on a high note! This river cruise is marketed as “the next generation style cruise” due to its inclusion of state of the art wireless headphones that cancel out background noise to give riders a unique entertainment experience. The music changes from traditional Japanese instruments to natural background sounds to better accompany the atmosphere of the Nakanoshima island. While other evening cruises on the river offer tour guides and some music, these personalized headphones on the Nakanoshima River Cruise make for quite a unique viewing and listening experience.
The cruise runs every hour and half hour through December 25 between 5:00 p.m. & 9:00 p.m., and tickets are made available for purchase only on the day of the tour, starting one hour before the first departure time. So head out to the docks one evening this December to reserve your seat on this cruise for a truly unforgettable time on the river!
Where: Fukushima (Hotarumachi) pier – Dojima River – Fukushima (Hotarumachi) pier 1-1-20, Fukushima, Fukushima-ku, Osaka 553-0003
When: Cruises run until Sunday, December 25 with departures at every hour on the hour and half hour between 5:00 p.m. & 9:00 p.m.
Price: Adults (Junior high school students and older) – 900 yen, Children (Elementary school students and younger) – Free for one child when accompanied by adult. 400 yen is required per child for more than 2 children. Tickets can be purchased at the boat dock up to one hour before the first departure time on the day of the tour. No advance reservations necessary.
Website (Japanese): http://www.ipponmatsu.co.jp/module_news/detail.php?id=468
Reference Website (English):
Extra Information: Persons with the Osaka Amazing Pass can show their pass to get on board for one free ride on the cruise.
When it comes to alcoholic beverages, the Japanese are most proud of their sake and rightly so. However, while sake is one of the most recognisable totems of Japanese culture, outside of the country, you’ll be hard pressed to find many people who regularly drink it. Yet, when it comes to Asahi Super Dry and Kirin, it is a different story altogether. Pretty much every sushi or noodle bar worldwide is stocked with the famous brews
Asahi and Kirin are of course two of Japan’s biggest brewers, which means that vast quantities of beer are made in factories all over the country. you can find them both here in Nagoya and, for absolutely no charge, you can take a trip around.
In operation since 1962, Kirin Beer Nagoya Factory is the oldest beer factory in the Tokai area, but that doesn’t mean that it is a relic, by any stretch of the imagination. Its old factory (which is actually in Kiyosu city, 5km from Nagoya station) has since been renovated so visitors may watch the unique brewing kettles for boiling ingredients.
The 75 minutes tour features a couple of videos with an augmented reality wide screen showing of the brewing process, in particular explaining what is so special about “ichiban shibori” (the first press). You can sample the freshly squeezed wort that is used in making the beer, and if that hasn’t quenched your thirst, the tour concludes with 20 minutes of tasting, with up to three free glasses of beer.
Around three hundred people take this tour daily, with coach trips coming from as far as China and Korea to see how the famous beer is made. However visitors wanting to see the factory in motion must visit on weekdays and non-holidays, as the factory closes on Saturdays and Sundays. Should you visit on one of these days, you will instead be shown an interesting film of the factory in full flow.
The tour itself takes approximately 55 minutes to complete, where you learn about the beer making process and history of the Asahi company. You can witness the marvel of modern machinery, and hide your jealousy of the official beer tasters whose job is to sip two bottles of beer every day.and at the end you are shown to the bar. There you have twenty minutes to test three of Asahi’s main draft beers: Asahi Premium, Asahi Black and, of course Asahi Super Dry. Like the Kirin tour there is a three drink limit, however anecdotal evidence shows that this is not always strictly adhered to
There are of course many beautiful castles all around Japan, but perhaps there is none so famed for its majesty as Hyōgo Prefecture’s Himeji Castle. Designated as one of Japan’s first UNESCO World Heiritage Sites in 1993, the castle, also known as Shirasagi-jō (“White Heron Castle”) due to of its brilliant white exterior and resemblance to a bird taking flight, is the largest and most visited castle in Japan.
In recent years it has been partially obscured by scaffolding while it was being renovated, but in March 2015 the works were completed and it now stands just as resplendant as it did at its original inception. As such, it makes for a must-visit site for anyone spending time in Japan.
Located at a strategic point along the western approach to the former capital city of Kyoto, Himeji Castle dates back to 1333, when Akamatsu Norimura built a fort on top of Himeyama hill. Following various restructuring, and changinging hands to the famous feural era general Toyotomi Hideyoshi, it was completely rebuilt between 1602-1609 after it was given to Ikeda Terumasa by the shogun Tokagawa Ieyasu as a reward for his help in the Battle of Sekigahara.
For over 400 years Himeji Castle has remained standing, even throughout the extensive bombing of the area during World War II and the catostrophic disaster of the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake.
Thanks to its expansive gardens the castle is particularly popular during the ‘hanami’ season as thousands of visitors flock to enjoy the cherry blossom trees that line the outer routes of the castle. However, at any time of the year visitors can walk around the grounds and up into the castle keep itself, which is a staggering example of feudal era design.
Although it was never besieged, Himeji Castle has a multitude of defensive walls and turrets and is made up of over eighty buildings spread across multiple baileys connected by a series of gates and winding paths and visitors can wander and admire the beautiful, prototypical Japanese archirecture and imagine what it would have been like to live within its walls that are little changed over the last four centuries.
The six storey castle keep (including the basement) is of course the greatest of draws. From the outside, on the top floor, we can see a pair of Shachigawara, the mythical tiger-headed fish that are in place to protect the castle from fire, something that would have been a major concern for the wooden structure. The keep, 30m high (and 90m above sealevel) is supported by pillars with a two metre diameter from the ground to the sixth floor, an advanced technique for the time.
It is not just the building itself that makes the visit worthwhile, but also the breathtaking view from the top of the castle is a sight to behold as you take in sprawling city of Himeji below. From there it is not difficult to imagine how powerful the Ikeda clan would have felt, knowing that any potential attackers would have been daunted by the task of capturing the castle that is a perfect mix of strategic positioning and aesthetic design.
The city of Himeji itself, the castle aside, has much to recommend it.
Engyoji Temple, about 8km northeast of Himeji Station on Mount Shosha, is set in an enchanting cedar forest and has gained recent fame following its use in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai. It is accessible by a ropeway gondela.
Opened in 1992 to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Himeji City, Kokoen Park consists of nine gardens of varying size that are divided by the ruins of Himeji Castle’s West Mansion and the residences of the local samurai and allies. Thanks to its Edo era beauty it is often used as a location for historical dramas and visitors can even experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony within the grounds.
While Himeji has plenty to offer visitors, animal lovers may wish to steer clear of Himeji City Zoo, which could be regarded as ‘not one of Japan’s best’ or ‘truly depressing’ depending on how diplomatic you are being. Instead you should head for Himeji Central Park, which includes a safari park, amusement park, pool and skating rink.
Photo: flickr.com “CIMG2506 – Himeji” by Jordi Marsol (CC BY-SA 2.0) -Modified
Photo: flickr.com “016” by Bryant Wong (CC BY-SA 2.0) -Modified
Photo: flickr.com “DSC_9663” by Koji Haruna (CC BY-SA 2.0) -Modified