Monthly Archive January 2017

ByMark Guthrie
Jan 30, 2017

Making Mochi – Fun for Kids and Big Kids Alike

When I first heard about mochi, my heart really went out to the children of Japan. You see, where I’m from, sweets really are just that: sweet. And so, when I was told that one of the most popular form of confectionaries in Japan was a cake made from rice and typically stuffed with beans, well I couldn’t help but think about what I would have made of that when I was a kid. Not all too impressed, I can tell you. That all changed once I actually got to try some of the stuff. It was was sweet, delicate and oh, so chewy. But it is at its best when it is freshly made.

There are two ways to make this classic Japanese dish, and while both can be lots of fun, one requires some old fashioned technique and a bit of hardware, and the other way is… well… decidedly easier. We’ll start with the traditional way.

Traditional Mochi Making

The classic way to make mochi is quite labor intensive and requires some pretty heavy duty hardware. It is made by using a type of rice called ‘mochigome’, a sticky, glutinous rice that is soaked overnight and then steamed in a wooden box called a ‘seirou’. Once ready, the rice is placed with some water in an ‘usu’, a mortar so large that it may take two people to maneuver it.

Next comes the fun part. Using a heavy wooden mallet called a ‘kine’, the mochi is hammered and pounded until it comes to resemble the sticky treat, after which it can be coated with various flavors such as ‘kinako’, soy sauce and wasabi, or it can be stuffed with red adzuki bean paste. Check out the video below to see how the real professionals do it. (And if you happen to be in Nara, I can highly recommend the mochi from this shop. It’s the best I’ve ever had!)



Of course, there is a good chance that you don’t have the mallets and mortars required just lying around your house. I tried for the first time at my local high school, and it was a lot of fun, if a little tiring, as the students repeatedly requested to see the ‘gaijin’ pound the rice. In fact, quite often schools, kindergartens and community groups will have events at which you and your kids can get involved, so it’s well worth asking around to see when such events will be held.

Modern Mochi Making

If your family can’t wait to get their teeth stuck into the delicious delicacy and you are afraid of what your little ones might do to your lovely home with a giant wooden mallet, there are a few much easier ways of making it, right at home in your kitchen, without a single swing of a hammer.

Making sweet mochi in the oven:

  • 500g Mochiko (glutinous rice flour, sometimes called sweet rice flour)
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 0.5 can sweetened condensed milk (preferred for thicker sweeter mochi)
  • 1.5 cups of water
  • A few drops of food coloring (preferably red)
  • Katakuriko (potato starch) (cornstarch is also a substitute or variation)

Follow the instructions as outlined here.

Making green tea mochi in the microwave:

Follow the instructions as outlined here.

Making mochi with a steamer:

  • 1 cup Mochiko (sweet rice flour or Mochi flour) (160g)
  • 3/4 cup water (180ml)
  • 2 cups sugar (400g)
  • cornstarch
  • Anko (sweet red bean paste) or Green Tea Ice Cream (choose to preference).

Follow the instructions on the video here.

Making mochi with mortar and pestle:

  • Glutinous sweet rice (mochigome)
  • Potato or rice starch
  • Sugar, soy sauce, kinako or topping of your choice.

Follow the instructions here.

Mark Guthrie

Image by Gina-Marie Gattone (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via (modified)

Video byGreat Big Story, via (modified)

Image by Ryan Ozawa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via (modified)

ByJade Brischke
Jan 30, 2017

“Take a hike!” in Hiroshima

As you come into, or go east, out of Hiroshima Station on one of the local trains or Shinkansen you can see a large silver pagoda on the top of the mountain, which overlooks the station. Many people never bother to find out anything more about it, but the history is fascinating reading and the area is well worth exploring.

The mountain itself is Mt. Futaba or Futaba-Yama and the silver pagoda is referred to as the Silver Peace Pagoda. It was built back in 1966 as a memorial to all those who died as a result of the atomic bomb and is one of over 80 built throughout the world, mostly by the Nipponzan Myohoji, a Buddhist sect whose aim is to promote peace.

Peace pagodas are a type of Buddhist stupa and in fact, the one in Hiroshima contains ashes of the historical Buddha and were donated by the then Prime Minister of India and a number of Mongolian Buddhist monks. It also has a number of stones donated by a local resident that represent prayers for peace.

Although it is possible to get a taxi to the top, the best way is to hike. Yes, it is steep and a number of people have reported that they’ve been puzzled by the exact path due to lack of signage, but when, not if, you reach the top, the view of Hiroshima City and out to the Inland Sea is more than enough reward.

The hike is actually part of Futabanosato Historical Walking Trail and takes 40 minutes to complete. The beginning of the trail
is accessed via the Tosho-gu Shrine, which you can walk to from the North or Shinkansen Exit of Hiroshima Station.

Map link to hiking route

Behind Tosho-gu Shrine you will find Kinko Inari Shrine, a collection of 100 red torii gates which wind up the mountain and it is through these that you walk up to the Pagoda. The area surrounding the Pagoda is particularly spectacular in spring when the sakura or cherry blossoms are in bloom, but the hike can be done any time of the year.  If you’re new to hiking or just want a short weekend hike it’s the perfect activity and of course, being in Hiroshima City itself it’s easy and convenient to access.

If you prefer a longer hike there is also the option of walking from Nigitsu Shrine in Ushita all the way to Shokoji Temple, past Hiroshima Station. The trail extends approximately 10km and is particularly popular in spring and autumn when the weather is not too hot and not too cold.

Whichever one you choose, you can be guaranteed of nice scenery and a feeling of accomplishment when you finish.

Happy Hiking!

Photo by Rich and Angela Housley

Jan 30, 2017

Halal Food and Grocery Stores in Nagoya

Halal means “permissible,” and Halal food is food that adheres to Islamic law, as defined in the Koran.  As visitors and residents from Muslim countries, especially from Indonesia, in Japan increase the availability of services to provide for their needs also increase.  It is now possible to find prayer rooms and Halal food in most international airports in Japan, and shops selling Halal foods are making it simpler for people to keep to their faith while working or visiting Japan.

Halal Food and Groceries in Nagoya

If you are seeking Halal foods in Nagoya, you may find what you seek at one of the options listed below.  My favorite is Kaserya International Halal Bazaar in Osu.  The staff is friendly and the location convenient, though it is a small shop.  

Map loading, please wait ...
Photo by Victoria.shuttle.wizzard (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Jan 27, 2017

Plum Blossom Viewing in Nagoya – Top 5 Umemi Spots!

plum blossoms ume

Ume, is not just half of an “umeshu,”  a Japanese liqueur made from unripe and green ume fruits, it is actually a quite lovely tree.  “Prunus mume” is tree species more commonly referred to as Chinese plum or Japanese apricot tree.  The tree produces a delicious fruit that is usually referred to as a plum, but is closer to an apricot.  You may know it best as “umeshu” if you have an affinity for too sweet alcoholic drinks, or “umeboshi,” if you eat bentos boxes with any regularity or have an affinity for too sour foods.  The fruit is used to flavor many candies, juices, alcohol, and sauces in Japan.  Another product of the ume tree  are plum blossoms, which brings us to the topic of this article; Plum Blossom Viewing  and the best places to do that in Nagoya.

You may be more familiar with the word “hanami,” or cherry blossom viewing, but there is a different term for viewing ume blossoms; “umemi  / 梅見.” Umemi is usually  in late winter and early spring, just before the more famous “sakura” cherry blossoms.  Their timing makes them a herald of spring, and traditionally the Japanese have loved the strong, sweet smell of the pink, red, and white flowers.  The peak period for viewing the blossoms will depend on the variety of tree, but the season is from early February until late March.  Many locations will hold a festival during their specific peak period, and catching that will be well worth the trip!

Top Top 5 Umemi Spots around Nagoya

If you are interested in braving the lingering cold of winter and enjoying your own day under the plum blossoms this year, you can try one of these locations.

Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens

A trip to Nagoya’s Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens, located near Higashiyama Koen Station on the yellow line, is a very convenient option for enjoying umemi.   If you are looking for a quick and easy way, this might be your best option, and with 200 trees in 30 different varieties, you are likely to see blossoms from January until March, though the ideal times is from  mid February to early March.

Higashiyama Park Station on the Higashiyama (yellow) Subway Line
3-70 Higashiyama Motomachi, Chikusa Ward, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture 464-0804 (google map)
Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens (Japanese)

Nagoya Castle (and Meijo Park)

Nagoya Castle beautiful symbol of Nagoya, and a classic landmark of historical significance.  It was built in 1612 by Tokugawa Ieyasu, Nagoya’s most famous resident, but rebuilt after the war knocked it down.   The surrounding grounds, including Meijo-koen Park, hold a number of interesting things, most relevant here are a number of gardens.  The castle is a convenient place to see umemi, but with only 100 trees in 13 varieties is best visited from middle February to early March.

Shiyakusho Station on the Meijo (purple) Subway Line. Use exit 7  (castle) 
Meijo Koen Station on the Meijo (purple) Subway Line. Use exit 2. Walk west  (park)
1-1 Honmaru, Naka Ward, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture 460-0031 (google map)

Nagoya Agriculture Center

The Nagoya Agriculture Center is located in Tenpaku Ward.  It is free to enjoy the cafe and a shops selling  a variety of organic vegetables and other healthy foods, as well as green houses and a model farm complete with live stock.  Some sections require a fee to use, but the grounds are perfect for picnics, if a bit crowded during blossom season.  This location features 800 trees in 12 different varieties; including some very lovely and distinctive hanging types. Best visited from middle February to early March.

Hirabari Station on the Tsurumai (blue) Line.  15 minutes walk east
2872-3 tenpaku cho oozawa hirabari kuroi, Tenpaku Ward, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture 468-0021 (google map)
052-801-5221…  (Japanese)

Mt Togoku (Togokusan) Fruit Park

Togokusan Fruit Park is an agricultural park dedicated to outdoor and agricultural education.  It features 15 separate orchard of local and “world” fruits, as well as a fishing area, a Japanese garden, and fields full of seasonal flowers and plants.  They of course also offer restaurants and shops. The park features 200 trees in 21 varieties, allowing  blossoms from January until March, though the ideal times is from  mid February to early March.

2110 Togoku, Kamishidami, Moriyama-ku, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture 463-0001, Japan (google map)
052-736-3344 (Japanese)

Sori Park (Sohri Midori to Hana no Fureai-koen)

This park is built around a water retention pond on the Chita Penninsula.  The park has a stunning 4,600 ume trees in 21 varieties, making this an excellent place to visit from  January until March, though the ideal times is from  mid February to early March.  The ideal time is made more ideal by the matsuri (festival) held here during this time, where you can view stage events,  and outdoor tea ceremonies held under the blossoms.

2017  schedule for the matsuri is Saturday February 11 until Sunday March 12th.  Events vary, see website for details… sorry; its not in English!

Asakura Station on Meitetsu Tokoname Line. Then Chita Bus bound for Sohri.  Get off at Ume-no-yakata-guchi.
Walk east
3-101 Sohridai, Chita-shi, Aichi 478-0018  (google map)

Image: “Plum blossoms(Hanegi Park)” by kanegen (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

ByJustin Hanus
Jan 23, 2017

Kobe’s International Cuisine Tour

Although Kobe’s Chinatown is a major international attractor to the city, Chinese isn’t the only cultural influence worth exploring in this Kansai metropolis. Being a popular port city has brought a diverse array of international cultures to Kobe, and one of the best ways to experience this diversity is through food. Next time you’re considering making reservations at that Kobe beef specialty restaurant, why not take a break from the local delicacies and try out one of these delicious international options?

To help you narrow down your decision, we’ve rounded up a list of some of the most notable and reputable restaurants featuring international menus.


For some incredible Indian food, there’s no better place in Kansai than Chef Bjon’s Sona Rupa. Try the soup curried lentils or tandoori chicken, and don’t miss out on one of their famous kebabs!

Sona Rupa

Where: Across the street from the B Kobe Hotel on the 3rd floor, 2-2-9, Shimoyamatedori, Chuo-ku, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture 650-0011
Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Lunch Course:
Monday-Saturday: 1,200 – 5,500 yen
Sunday: 1,650 – 5,500 yen
Dinner Course: 3,600 – 5,500 yen
à la carte: 3,000 – 6,000 yen
Tel: 078-322-0252
Website (English):


Vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike will love the delicious options at this surprising plant-based cafe in the heart of Kobe beef land! Try one of their delicious wraps, burritos, or salads!

Modern Ark Pharm Cafe

Where: 3-11-15 Kitanagasa, Chuo-ku, Kobe City, Japan, 650-0012
Hours: Monday to Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Tel: 078-3913052


The owner, Mr. Winston, is an expert on Caribbean cuisine! Be sure to give their jerk chicken or the Rice and Festivals dish a try for a spicy island treat.


Where: 1-22-27 Nakayamatedori, Chuo-ku, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture
Tuesday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Tel: 81 78-251-6488

French Fusion

Located in one of Kobe’s only outdoor dining areas, Bistrot Cafe will please all of your senses. If you can get a table in this popular restaurant, make sure and try the beef bourguignon and crème brûlée for dessert in addition to their lineup of delicious soups, salads, pizzas, and sandwiches!

Bistrot Cafe de Paris

Where: 1 Chome-7-21 Yamamotodōri, Chūō-ku, Kōbe, Hyōgo Prefecture 650-0003
Hours: Monday to Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Tel: 078-241-9448
Website (translation available):

German Bakery

This popular bakery is located inside the former Kobe Union Church, so dining in here is an experience! Whether you’re just stopping in to pick up some pastries or dining in for some delightful sandwiches and soups, Cafe Freundlieb won’t disappoint.

Cafe Freundlieb

Where: 4-6-15 Ikuta-machi, Chūō-ku, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture
Hours: Monday to Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Tel: 078-231-6051
Website (Japanese/English):


Allow the warmly-lit and jazz-filled ambience to take over your senses as you dine on burgers, sandwiches, soups, and Nailey’s infamous caesar salad.

Nailey’s Grill

Where: 2 Chome-8-12 Kanōchō, Chūō-ku, Kōbe, Hyōgo Prefecture 650-0001
Monday to Friday from 6:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m.
Saturday & Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. & 6:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m.
Tel: 078-231-2008
Reference website (Facebook):


Located in one of the oldest Western-style houses in Kobe, Totenkaku will take you back in time for your delicious authentic Chinese cuisine experience. Make sure to try out their world famous Peking duck, which is flown in from China, and wash it down with one of their traditional floral teas.

Totenkaku Royal Chinese Restaurant

Where: Funadochō, Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture 659-0093
Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. & 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Tel: 0797-32-8181
Website (English Available):

By 663highland (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJustin Hanus
Jan 23, 2017

It’s Strawberry Harvest Season near Tokyo

Japan’s vivid changing seasons are not only beautiful to witness, but they can also be very delicious to taste! Throughout the year across the country, various produce farms take their turn growing and harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables. Instead of waiting for these healthy treats to arrive at the local supermarkets, many farms offer the option for visitors to get involved in the picking and harvesting process themselves! Strawberry season is one of the most popular and delicious fruit-picking opportunities in Japan, and it’s just beginning!

These juicy red berries are grown throughout Japan, with the most abundant supplies hailing from the Tochigi, Fukuoka, and Shizuoka prefectures. You might be surprised to find out that there are over 100 unique varieties of strawberries, including the Tochiotome varietal from Tochigi, the round and sweet Amaou from Fukuoka, and Shizuoka’s bright and fragrant Benihoppe.

Most of the strawberry farms are located slightly out of the main city areas, so the best option for a day’s harvest is usually jumping on a tour. Different tour companies offer slightly different packages, but similarly delicious experiences. When you arrive on site, you will be directed to greenhouses bursting with fruit ready to be picked. One of the best parts of strawberry picking in Japan is that many of the farms don’t use chemicals, so you can eat while you pick straight from the plant! Additionally, there is often the option to carry a small tray while you pick that has some sweetened condensed milk on it for you to dip your berries in for an additional burst of sweetness.

Depending on where you’re located this spring, check out which strawberry farms are most accessible and be sure to make the trip! Your tastebuds will thank you later!

Departing from Tokyo:

Kawatsura Strawberry Farm (Chiba)

Where: By train, take the express train “Shiosai” from Tokyo Station for 1 hour and 10 minutes. By car, enter navigation 0475-82-4328. 478 Hayafune, Sanmu, Chiba
Open: December 15 to the end of May
Hours: Weekdays opens at 10:00 a.m., weekends/holidays opens at 9:20 a.m. Closes daily when most red fruits have been harvested.
Adults: 1,100-1,600 yen
Children 4-6 years: 700-1,300 yen
Children under 3 years: 300-500 yen
*Price ranges indicative of quantities of strawberries available
Tel: 080-3749-3271

Roman no Mori Kyowa Koku Strawberry Farm (Chiba)

Where: A 1-hour drive from Tokyo on the Aqua Line, and an additional bus ride for a total of approximately 2 hours. 659-1 Toyohide, Kimitsu , Chiba
Open: January 1 to the end of May
Weekdays (except Wednesdays): 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Weekends: 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Adults: 1,200-2,000 yen
Elementary Age: 1,000-1,600 yen
Children 2-5 years: 600-1,000 yen
*Price ranges indicative of quantities of strawberries available
Tel: 0439-38-2211
Website (Japanese only):

Departing from Osaka/Kansai

Haru Farm

Where: Take the Nankai Railway, Airport Line to Kishiwada Station and take the Nankai Bus bound for Michino-eki/Aisai Land. Get off the bus at Tombo-ike Koen Mae, 2415-1 Obu-cho, Kishiwada, Osaka Prefecture 596-0816
Open: January 5 to early June
Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Adults (junior high school student or older): 2,500
Elementary Age: 2,000 yen
Younger than elementary age: 500 yen
Infants: Free
*Pricing includes all you can eat strawberries for one hour
Tel: 072-440-0200
Website (English):

By Walter J. Pilsak, Waldsassen (German Wikipedia) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJustin Hanus
Jan 23, 2017

Kobe Takes the Lead In Japanese Fashion

It was the late 1800s when promotionally minded French dress designers began hiring women to wear their latest creations to high-profile public events like parades and horse races right on the streets of Paris. It was not long before retailers in New York brought the concept with them back to the United States along with the high-end fashions for the news season and hired women to model the clothes in their stores. By the early 1900s the first fashion shows, or “fashion parades,” as they were called were being staged in New York City. These events could last half-a-day and were staged for weeks at a time to insure the most possible buyers would see the clothes.

The parades were so popular over the years that they came to be viewed as entertainment events, requiring licenses. During World War II retailers had no access to French couture so New York staged a “fashion week” that concentrated the new styles in one place for potential buyers. Milan, Italy started a fashion week in 1958, Paris in 1973 and London in 1984. Today these are the Big Four of womenswear and menswear manufacturers with most everyone taking their cues from the designers at these shows.

So where does this leave Japan? Western attire did not even barge into the traditional Japanese garb until the middle of the 19th century. But quickly the emperor and empress embraced Western fashion and passed mandates in 1870 that all government workers (men, in those days) had to wear Western male suits. Women were expected to attend high society affairs in evening gowns. By the post-World War II era traditional Japanese kimonos were seen only on some elderly women at themed restaurants and businesses. The Western business suit was standard garb. Meanwhile Japanese women were taking their fashion cues by the proliferation of American movies that invaded the island. Enough Japanese fashion designers began showing their interpretation of modern fashion beginning in the 1970s that Tokyo elbowed its way onto the list of international fashion capitals.

Where can you learn about Japanese fashion and its impact on society? The Kobe Fashion Museum, the first museum in the country to devote itself solely to fashion. The museum, now nearing its third decade of operation, is the inspiration of Keitaro Takada, creator of the trendsetting Kobe Collection Fashion Show in 2002 that has since brought the planet’s latest fashions to Kobe every year. Born in Osaka he came to Kobe because he thought it was a trendy fashionable place, going to school and starting work with a clothing manufacturer. Following Takada’s lead, Tokyo, Osaka and others began staging shows. In 21st century Japan, fashion is big business, not just about clothes but about lifestyle.

As a result of Takata’s efforts, the futuristic saucer-like museum building is home not only to a wide-ranging collection of dresses and costumes around the world but to an exhaustive fashion library of books and videos, a laboratory to encourage up-and-coming designers and event space for runway shows. The Kobe Fashion Museum is a must-see for fashion mavens and serious aspiring designers.

DVMG [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJustin Hanus
Jan 23, 2017

Ritualistic Ceremonies Could Be Your Cup of Tea in Kobe

In Japan you can enjoy a cup of tea or you can immerse yourself in Japan’s Way of Tea, a ritualistic tradition that focuses on the way green tea is prepared and presented. Japan came relatively late to tea, first enjoying the hot beverage in the 9th century. China, it is said, had already been brewing tea for 1000 years by that time.

Buddhist monks who had gone to China to study began arriving home with tea seeds to cultivate in the gardens of their monasteries. The practice at the time was to grind the leaves into powder with a mortar and whip the powder into a potable beverage with a whisk. The monks prepared some for reigning Emperor Saga in 815 and he issued an imperial order to create tea plantations. But the enthusiasm for tea quickly faded away, not to be wholly revitalized for another three centuries.

The beverage made its reappearance in religious rituals in the Buddhist monasteries where it was believed tea consumption enabled priests to remain alert during long sessions of prayer and meditation without exciting the body. It is this link between Buddhist spiritual practices and tea drinking that spawned the elaborate choreography of today’s tea ceremony.

The first thing to know about Japanese tea ceremonies is that there are two seasons, one encompassing the colder months of winter and the other the warmer months of summer. Each has its own peculiar equipment and utensils, both critical to the presentation as they are employed in precise sequence. A big part of a tea ceremony is admiring the craftsmanship of the various bowls, kettles and utensils. The costumes of the preparer are dictated by the season as well.

There are also different types of tea ceremonies in Japan, an informal gathering known as “chakai” and a formal affair called “chaji.” A chakai will involve a thin tea, typically doled out in single servings, and a light meal. This is the Japanese tea ceremony most often experienced by visitors.

If you receive a formal invitation to a chaji, normally for groups of four or five, you are in for a full-blown ceremony that will last up to four or more hours. There are invitations, centuries-old rules of etiquette, thin and full-bodied “thick” tea served, and a full meal. The tea is distributed communally and your host or hostess (the male Buddhist priests have given way to young women who have studied at local tea schools) will lead you through the chaji which is intended to lead to spiritual enlightenment.

In Kobe the widest exposure to tea ceremonies occurs at Zuihoji Temple Park in early November. The popular outdoor chakai started in 1950 to remember 14th century governor Toyotomi Hideyoshi who often traveled the country with his tea master, Sen no Rikyu. The governor was said to favour this particular spot at Arima Onsen. The Arima Grand Tea Ceremony is timed to coincide with the shelter of thousands of maple and ginkgo trees that are blazing with autumn colours that complement the beauty of the rituals of the Way of Tea.

I, 小太刀 [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJustin Hanus
Jan 23, 2017

Land of the Rising Sun is No Mere Slogan

The “Land of the Rising Sun” is not just a catchy marketing slogan drummed up by the Japan tourism bureau. In fact the slogan is not even of Japanese origin, but Chinese. Centuries ago the Chinese began referring to the Japanese islands as the place where the sun comes from. The Japanese historically referred to their own land as “Nippon” – the “source of the sun.”

Japanese sunrises are legendary for their beauty and the people hold the sun in special reverence. Tradition holds that Toshigami, the god bearing good luck, arrives with the first sunrise of the New Year so that is always a popular one to catch, especially if you haven’t yet gone home from the evening before. The custom started in the Meiji period (from 1868 to 1912), encouraged by the Emperor.

There are plenty of legendary spots to watch a Japanese sunrise. Mt. Moiwa in Sapporo, Mt. Takao in Tokyo, Mt. Misen in Hiroshima. At Lake Yamanaka during the year you can watch the sun rise over Mt. Fuji and experience what is known as “Diamond Fuji.” If the winds are still and the sky cloudless you may even see a reflection of the phenomenon in the waters of the lake called “Double Diamond Fuji.” In Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera temple is a popular spot to experience the sun rise with the 1230-year old temple framed in the widening daylight. Another is the Buddhist temple of Yoshimine-dera built in 1029 in the western hills so you can watch the first rays of light creep over the city.

A more modern perch for watching the sun rise is in Osaka at the Umeda Sky Building Floating Garden Observatory. The Umeda Sky Building was raised in 1993, two identical 40-story glass-and-steel towers that are connected across the uppermost stories so the skyscraper is one of the most instantly recognized landmarks in the city even though many structures are taller.

The Observatory is an open-air platform that affords 360-degree views across Osaka. The trip up on a special elevator encased in a see-through tube is just about worth the price of admission – and there is a fee to visit the Floating Garden (although you can ride up to the 39th floor for free). You can take in one of Japan’s best views from the indoor lounges or embrace a rare opportunity to walk outside at 40 stories in the air. Yes, it is breezy up there.

The sun makes its first appearance over the Ikoma mountains and then bathes the city’s skyscrapers in ranges and reds as light spreads out before you. For “Hatshinode,” as the first sunrise of the year is known, the observatory opens at 5:00 a.m with the sun taking the stage sometime around 7:00 a.m.

When the Umeda Sky Building Floating Garden Observatory is not open early enough to meet the sunrise, you can arrive in the evening and snare a sunset – access to the facility is usually open until 10:00 p.m. And the Umeda Sky Building itself makes a dramatic subject when caught in a photo of a sunrise rather than standing atop it.

Photo by Brücke-Osteuropa (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Jan 23, 2017

Food Allergies in Japan

Dealing with food allergies can be a hassle anywhere, but it can be especially worrisome when trying to find something safe to eat in a foreign country. Here are some tips for what to ask when you’re eating out and what to look for when cooking meals on your own.

Ingredient Labels

If you’re like me, whenever you receive a snack from a friend or buy a new product, the first thing you look for is the ingredient label. If you have a severe food allergy, you’re probably already familiar with what to look for and how to read the fine print back home, but, if you can’t read the label yourself; how can you ever be absolutely sure that what you’re eating is safe? Here are some basic things to look for if you have the chance to see the ingredients yourself.

In general, there are 7 major allergens that are commonly listed on food packaging. These are:

  1. えび – “ebi” (shrimp)
  2. かに – “kani” (crab)
  3. 小麦 – “komugi” (wheat)
  4. そば – “soba” (buckwheat)
  5. 卵 – “tamago” (egg)
  6. 乳 – “nyu” (milk)
  7. 落花生 – “rakkasei” (peanuts)

This isn’t a comprehensive list, and unfortunately it isn’t always as easy as just memorizing the characters to find what you’re looking for. The words above are not always listed in the same fashion, e.g. they could be written in any three of the Japanese scripts: in kanjihiragana, or katakana. For example:

  • 海老 / えび / エビ – These are all read as “ebi,” meaning shrimp.
  • 卵 / たまご / タマゴ – Again, these all have the same reading: “tamago,” meaning egg.
  • 落花生 / ピーナッツ – Here, the words themselves are different: “rakkasei” vs. the foreign loan word “piinattsu.”

In the last example, it can be particularly confusing because both words can be used to talk about the same thing (however technically speaking “rakkasei” is used to refer to the shelled peanut, whereas “piinattsu” more commonly refers to the “nut” inside). Needless to say, if you’re not too confident in your reading ability, it’s best to ask a Japanese friend to check just to be safe.

Read the Fine Print

If your food allergy is severe, you know that even if a product doesn’t have allergens in it, it may have come in contact with other allergens in the factory where it was made. If you need to know details such as this, you probably are already familiar with skimming to the bottom of the ingredients list to read the fine print. Fortunately, ingredient labels are structured in much the same way as those in the United States. Here’s an example of an ingredient label of a popular snack:

When confronted with a wall of text like this, it can be a little daunting to quickly tell if there are any allergens that you need to be aware of before you take a bite. However, there are two places that are always good places to check.

1. In the photo on the left, the ingredients list is shown in detail. Circled in red is the end of the ingredients list, where usually any major allergens will be written inside parenthesis. Here the characters 大豆 (“daizu” – soy) can be seen. While most of the time allergens will be listed at the end of an ingredients list as shown above, there are cases where not everything is included, so if you are unsure, be sure to either read through the whole list yourself or have a friend check it for you.

2. You’ll usually find the information shown in this next photo just below the main ingredients list. Here is where companies will usually include a warning about where the product was made and if it possibly came into contact with any allergens on the same manufacturing line. Circled in red we can see the characters for 卵 (“tamago” – egg) and ピーナッツ (“piinattsu” – peanuts). If you have a severe allergy and cannot risk even trace amounts of an allergen, it’s best to look for this information in addition to what’s written in the ingredients list.

What to Ask at a Restaurant

While you might feel safer sticking to foods and restaurants you know at first, eventually you’re going to want to try and sample the same foods the locals eat. If you’re not comfortable with your ability to ask for yourself, it’s a good idea to go out with a friend who speaks Japanese and knows about your allergy. Otherwise, here are some tips you can use to make sure you know what’s in what you’re eating no matter where you go.

Some of the safest bets for good food with clear allergy information are well-established chain stores and family restaurants. Thankfully, there are a lot of these in Japan. Most of these kinds of places will offer full allergy menus with common allergens clearly marked–some even in English.

If you don’t see one on the table, you could always try asking,

  • “すみません、アレルギーメニューがありますか” or “Sumimasen, arerugii menyu ga arimasu ka,” meaning “Excuse me, is there an allergy menu?”

The important thing to note here is that if you want to make it clear you have an allergy, it is important to say it the Japanese way. Saying “allergy” instead of “a-re-ru-gi-i” will likely lead to confusion, as the pronunciation is quite different.

On the Menu

Shown above is a sample of an allergy menu you might find at a chain restaurant. Below the photo of the meal, you’ll see a large grid of some common and not-so-common allergens followed by either an “X,” meaning that the ingredient is not used, or an “O” if the ingredient is in the meal. In this example, the only item with an “O” is リンゴ (“ringo” – apple), so if you’re allergic to apples, you should probably order something else.

In Closing

Please note that the information above is listed for your reference and is not a comprehensive guide in avoiding food allergens while in Japan. Especially if you have a life-threatening food allergy, remember that there may always be some risk involved when trying a new food in a new place. Even with foods you’ve had before, it’s never a bad idea to review the ingredients list or to ask the waiter or chef about allergens again. As a general rule, if you’re not sure, it’s probably best to just pass. However, the hope is that if you know where to look and what to look for, you can feel a little safer about trying new foods or going grocery shopping in Japan.

(top) Photo by David Castor (dcastor) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
(middle) By Author – Sebastian Eifrid
(bottom) Photo by Jun OHWADA (えるしっているか) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons