Friday, December 31, 2010

Japanese Etiquette - Greetings and Wishes

The Japanese culture gives a lot of importance on greetings. It is considered appropriate behavior to greet someone when you meet them, when you are introduced to someone or while leaving and even if you see a neighbour from a window or even from a distance. Neighbours driving past you in their cars nod their heads in greeting and it is considered polite to reciprocate with similar gesture. As a matter of fact, not greeting someone whom you know when you see them is considered an insult.

Shaking hands is not common among Japanese. Touching members of the other sex is also not common. As such greetings are generally accompanied by bows befitting the situation and level of formality. However these days, it is common to see Japanese offering their hands for a handshake especially when interacting with foreigners.

People are expected to display a certain level of politeness, vigor and energy when greeting others. A lazy or casual attitude does not convey the emotion intended by the greeting.

Some common greetings which are used in daily life are:

Ohayo Gozaimasu: Good morning. This greeting is used from early morning till about midday or at most noon.

Konnichiwa: This popular Japanese greeting is the equivalent of Hello or good day. It is used at any time of the day especially from mid day to evening.

Konbanwa: This means Good Evening and is used from evening to night.

Oyasumi Nasai: This means Good night and literally translates as “have a Good rest”.   

Omedeto Gozaimasu: Congratulations. This is also used with addition of few related words for wishes on occasions like birthdays, weddings, promotions etc.  

Arigato Gozaimasu: Thank you.

Ganbatte Kudasai: Good luck or All the Best. This literally translates to “Please Do your best”
Dou ita Shimashte – “You are welcome” as in when responding to someone thanking you.

Irasshai or Irasshaimase: This is used to welcome visitors to your home or some place where you are the host. Irrashaimase is usually restricted to use in business environments, restaurants and stores. It is the most common greeting which store employees use when they see customers. When welcoming guests home the term changes to “Yokoso Irrashaimashta”.   

The “Gozaimasu” and “Nasai” are used in more formal situations and are considered as polite speech. Especially noticeable is that the sound of “u” in Gozaimasu tends to be more stressed upon when the situation demands extreme politeness.  The Gozaimasu and Nasai are usually dropped when speaking to children.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Japanese Etiquette - Bowing

It has been almost 8 months since we moved to Japan. By now I have got a fair idea of certain Japanese customs and etiquette. In a country where lot of importance is given to public behavior, accepted mannerisms and etiquette, it is impossible not to learn these mannerisms. In fact there are set rules on what is acceptable and what is not. We foreigners are not expected to know all of these but for sure it helps in the long run to behave like the Japanese.

One of the first things that we notice about the Japanese is their bowing. Infact this is one of the things that most people outside Japan associate with the Japanese. This action is actually more prominent in the entire East Asian region especially in China, Japan and Korea. Bowing is actually a traditional way of greeting in these countries and it implies giving respect. It is also a way to express apology and gratitude.

The act of bowing is called “O-jigi” in Japan. This act is considered to be of utmost importance. The type of bowing varies on different occasions. At first foreigners don’t see the difference. Spend a few weeks in Japan and it is easy to distinguish between the different types of bowing.

The most informal or common bow is to bend at the waist with back straight and eyes down. Males keep their hands at the side while women keep them on the lap. To express a deeper emotion and higher respect the bow should be longer and deeper. The formal bow is a slightly more deeper while the most formal or polite bow is much deeper and longer. The most informal bow is only a small nod of the head with a slight bending of the waist.  A friend explained it to me as informal bow is at 15 degrees, formal is 30 degrees and most formal ranges between 45-90 degrees. How scientific!

Seniority and superiority also are of utmost importance in bowing. Younger people bow deeper and longer when bowing to older people who reciprocate with slightly lower and lighter bows. At workplace, subordinates bow first and usually deeper and longer. At times superiors may not reciprocate with a bow and even if they do it is a slight bow and very short one.

When apologizing, the bow has to be deeper. A light bow indicates that the apology is not sincere while a deep bow implies great regret. Also the head is kept much low. Infact the body language should display that the person offering the apology is regretful for the situation.

Also when thanking the bow is deeper like in the case of apology. This is to express that the person bowing is grateful. Deep bows imply high degree of gratitude.

It is common to bow when you are introduced to a new person or even when you are meeting a person for the first time. Also when you meet friends or acquaintances, it is common to bow. Even at stores or restaurants, it is common to bow when you enter or when leaving.

Also when someone bows to you, you are expected to bow in return. At times this leads to a funny situation when both parties keep bowing repeatedly. Most foreigners are confused when to stop and the Japanese don’t stop bowing because they consider it rude to stop first! Many times we have encountered long “bowing” good byes.  

Children are taught to learn bowing at a very young age; perhaps they learn to bow before they can stand without support or before they learn to speak. I remember an 11 month old kid bowing in gratitude when we gave a gift. On my occasional visits to my daughter’s kindergarten, her friends bow when they see me and then run off.

It is common to see the other drivers bow when driving past if you have given them priority to pass. Also pedestrians at zebra crossing bow down in gratitude when quickly crossing the road to express gratitude to the drivers who stopped to let them cross.  Our friend (also a foreigner) was narrating a funny incident. He has lived in Japan for over a year now and on his recent visit to his home country, he habitually bowed to a person who had given him way. The other person looked at our friend with a “What was that for?” kind of expression.

Having lived in South Korea and Japan for over a year, we are now so used to it, bowing comes naturally to us now. Even on our trips back home we unknowingly bow when thanking someone.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Importance of Politeness and Discipline in Japanese society

Japan is a country of polite people; at least a majority of people are polite. Very rarely we encounter rude people.

There are many mannerisms which are defined as polite, rude and impolite and people behave accordingly. Even the Japanese language has words which are polite or not so polite, formal and informal. Formal behavior is expected and informal behavior is acceptable only among close friends and family. Age and seniority also define the kind of behavior and mannerisms. For instance not using certain polite speech is considered rude when speaking to older people or workplace superiors. People hardly raise their voice (at least in public) and are not shy of apologizing to others.  We are by now used to so much of politeness around that slight rudeness surprises us.

We hardly see any person breaking a queue or doing something which is of inconvenience to others. Also arrogance and carelessness is rarely seen. Most often we are greeted with smiling faces even from strangers.

What amazes me the most is the way most Japanese people react to a situation or the way they behave. There is a kind of alignment in the way they react and behave. Even body language appears to be similar. 

Also there is an amazing discipline among the people. A lot of stress is given to discipline and they are taught to be disciplined from a very young age. I say this from personal experience. My three year old daughter attends a Japanese kindergarten. We have seen a tremendous change in her mannerisms from the time she started attending the kindergarten. The same child who previously never bothered to gather her toys after playing has now learnt to keep all her things in place. On a visit to her kindergarten we did get to see how they are taught to do their things with discipline and also at the same time being considerate to others. The children are taught to help her other children in doing their work – even simple tasks like helping them with their clothes or putting things back. Children also sometimes help the teachers with cleaning up and other such chores. I really appreciate this because it teaches the children at such a young age to be independent and disciplined at the same time teaching them an important lesson about cleanliness. Even at home parents teach the children to help in the daily chores such as laying the table, wiping the cleaned dishes or making beds. This is something to learn from the Japanese.

Perhaps this is why the “5S” process was invented by the Japanese. As most people are aware of 5S is a systematic program which is designed to achieve total standardization, cleanliness and being organized. This in turn provides a safe, efficient and productive work environment while making people more disciplined and responsible.

The 5 “S’s” stand for 5 Japanese words beginning with the alphabet S:

1.      Seiri – This means Tidiness as in throwing away all unwanted things and rubbish from workplace

2.      Seiton: This means Orderliness as in each thing should have a defined place  and should be kept in its place. By doing so it is easier to retrieve things and also facilitates storage.

3.      Seiso: This means Cleanliness as in the workplace should be clean. Every person should ensure that he maintains cleanliness

4.      Seiketsu: This means Standardization as in the manner of maintaining cleanliness should be standardized. This helps in maintaining uniformity

5.  Shitsuke: This means Discipline as in all the abovementioned should be followed regularly and on a daily basis

 To sum it up these 5 S ensures simplification, orderliness, commitment, efficiency,  These 5 Japanese S’s have been replaced by English S words which are Sort, Set, Shine, Standardise and Sustain.

Though at first the Japanese customs and behaviors may appear a bit difficult for foreigners to follow, the fact however remains that there is a lot to learn from this unique country and its people.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Lucky Tanuki san

In Japan, it is common to see some or the other kind of lucky charm in front of business establishments primarily, shops and restaurants. Many Japanese people believe that certain animals bring good fortune and as such they place certain objects resembling these animals at the entrance of their business place.

I have written about the “Maneki neko” – the beckoning cat in an earlier post. The other popular animal is the “Tanuki”. Tanuki is the Japanese raccoon dog.

Many Tanuki statues can be found outside shops and restaurants all over Japan. This particular picture was taken during our recent trip to Kyoto. These Tanuki statues usually have a big belly and somewhat disproportionate body parts. They are shown wearing turtle shell hats and carrying a promissory note (sometimes replaced by an empty purse) in one hand while the other hand holds a sake bottle.

This animal is supposed to bring good fortune to business because of its 8 special traits:
1.      The big belly signifies bold and calm decisionmaking,
2.      The promissory note represents the trust and confidence
3.      The bottle of sake represents Virtue!
4.      The big tail represents steadiness and strength
5.      Oversized testicles symbolize financial luck!!
6.      Big eyes symbolize the capability to judge the environment and making good decisions
7.      The turtle shell hat symbolizes readiness and protection against bad weather (meaning bad times)
8.      The friendly smile which supposedly means friendly attitude towards customers.

The disproportionate size of the belly, tail, eyes and testicles give the “Tanuki” a comical and humorous appearance. The Japanese folklore has many stories related to the Tanuki. The tanuki is generally reputed to be mischievous and funny and at the same time gullible and absentminded.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Japanese Christmas

 “Merri Kurisumasu”.

That is the Japanese version of "Merry Christmas".

This is my first Christmas in Japan. One of my favourite times of the year.. when everything is so lively and festive, the red and green and blue lights glowing, the decors, the gifts and the cakes.  This year we had a miniature Christmas tree with tiny lights and decors (which I picked up from a 100 yen store), actually our first tree - we did it for our daughter.

Christmas day in Japan is not a holiday. Christmas is not celebrated in most homes. Christianity is not a majority religion in Japan with only 1-2 % of the population being practicing Christians and Catholics. But what surprised me is the number of Christmas trees and decors and Christmas related stuff that is available in almost every store in Japan. In recent years it has become “stylish” to put up Christmas decorations and many people now decorate Christmas trees. Christmas lights are also put up outside many homes. As a friend puts it, Christmas is a commercial festival!

Around this time of the year, almost every department store plays Christmas songs – the most popular songs seem to be “Rudolph the red nosed reindeer” and “Santa Claus is coming to town”. People are on a shopping spree and lots of gift items are on sale and display almost everywhere. In Japan it is common to exchange Christmas gifts- parents to children and among friends. In Japan too, children believe in Santa Claus, who is known as “Santa-san”. An interesting tip about this was given to me by an acquaintance. Usually the gifts should be a perishable or something which is of daily use. The reason behind this is that the receiver should be able to estimate the value of the gift and should be able to give a return gift of approximately same value. This gifting “obligation and reciprocity” tradition is common for almost any kind of gift. My personal experience is also that any gift we give is almost promptly reciprocated with a gift or at least something edible.   

The popular cake in Japan around Christmas is reputed to be “Strawberry Shortcake”. It is said that Strawberry prices skyrocket in the weeks preceding Christmas. The cake is usually purchased and not home made. I am told that people purchase the cakes a day or two in advance and most stores price it high at this time. But on the Christmas day the prices drop dramatically because they need to clear out the stock before the day ends! An interesting anecdote is that young girls are referred to as Christmas cakes. It is regarded that 25 is the ideal age by when girls should get married and any girl remaining unmarried after her 25th birthday is like an unsold Christmas cake – needs “discounts” to get married after that age! However nowadays I see more and more ladies well into their 30’s being single. This not so pleasant “Christmas cake” label seems to have been abandoned.

In schools too, there are Christmas parties before the schools close for winter break. Children are given presents- usually toys or craft/origami stuff to keep them busy during the winter break. In most schools and kindergartens, December is the season to have Christmas concerts. Our daughter’s kindergarten held their Christmas concert on 12th December in Iwaki’s performing arts centre, Alios. This event is called “Ooyogikai” and children perform dances and plays revolving around the Christmas theme.

Though not a major festival, Christmas sure is a festive season even in Japan.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Maneki Neko the Beckoning Cat

One of the first souvenirs I got from Japan was a keychain. It was a little copper cat with its left paw raised and a tiny message stick poking out from the back of its head. My husband had got it for me on his business trip to Tokyo 4 years ago.

I had seen similar images before in many shops in India which sold Feng Shui stuff and at the time I had thought this cat was a Chinese good luck charm. I always had a curiosity about the significance of this cat but it was not till I came to Japan that I learned more about this lucky cat.

This cat is called “Maneki-neko” which translates to “Beckoning Cat”. It is also called as Welcoming cat or Fortune cat and is believed to bring good luck to the owner. This cat resembles a breed of cat which is native to Japan, the Japanese Bobtail. Most often this cat is white in colour but even golden cats are common these days. Usually one paw of the Maneki neko is raised high – to beckon the onlooker. The raised paw can be either left or right but the significance varies for both paws. The raised left paw is to attract money , good luck or wealth while the right paw supposedly protects good fortune, money and wealth. It is also believed that the raised left paw attracts customers and this one is more common of the two. However certain sculptures have both paws raised, perhaps to beckon good fortune and to protect it. This tempted me to pick up this fridge magnet on our recent trip to Kyoto

At times the Maneki neko sculpture has a red collar around its neck which owes its origin to the attire of cats in wealthy families in old days. Sometimes the maneki neko also holds a gold coin in its hand which signifies the association of Maneki neko with the good fortune. No wonder piggy banks resembling Maneki neko are so popular.

Maneki Neko sculptures are usually placed at the entrance of stores, restaurants, gaming parlours and other commercial places. One particular Lottery chain has a giant sculpture or poster outside most of its ticket kiosks. This cat is usually made of ceramic but can be found in plastic, wood, clay metal etc. Now a days battery operated versions with slow moving paws are also available.

Maneki neko souvenirs are available in many forms most popular being keychains, small sculptures, phone accessories, piggy banks, fridge magnets.

Infact there is also a Manekineko museum in Seto town near Nagoya. I havent been there yet so cannot write about it. Check out this link for more information.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Emperor's Birthday

23rd December is a national holiday in Japan. It is the reigning Emperor Akihito's birthday and is called Tenno Tanjobi. 

This national holiday is the birthday of the reigning Emperor and it was celebrated on April 29th during the reign of Emperor Hirohito. After his death, Emperor Akihito ascended the throne and his birthday became the new Tenno Tanjobi. Emperor Hirohito's birthday was then continued as a national holiday initially as Greenery Day and currently as Showa Day. With each succession to the role of Emperor, it's necessary to change the public holiday calendar to reflect the new Emperor's date of birth.This is done by the Diet of Japan as per the Japanese Law.

The Imperial Palace has a unique way of celebrating this special day. On 23rd December, the Imperial Palace gates are open to public and Emperor Akihito alongwith Empress Michiko and other family members makes an appearance on a palace balcony. He thanks the wellwishers for their wishes and gives a small public address. Wellwishers greet the Emperor by waving Japanese flags and shouting "Banzai"which means Long Live the Emperor. The Imperial family waves back in gratitude. This is only one of the two days when Imperial Palace is open to visitors, the other being on 2nd January when it is a New Year custom to greet the Emperor.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Japanese Meal

Continuing on the Japanese cuisine theme, this time I am attempting to write about the staple foods in Japan. These are dishes that are eaten on a regular basis. It will take me some more time before I can write about the more special dishes.

To begin with, the most indispensable part of any meal in Japan is Rice. I had written in an earlier post that Rice is so important that the word “Gohan” which means cooked rice in Japanese is also used to mean Meal. Rice is eaten at almost every meal of the day, be it “Asa Gohan” (Breakfast), “Hiru Gohan” (Lunch) or “Ban Gohan” (Dinner). Rice is also a part of the “Bento” box. Rice is eaten by itself, cooked rice dishes, or served with soups, side dishes, or served with “Purikake” (spiced mix powder) topping.

Rice is also made into “Onigiri” which is Rice ball in round or triangular shape. This is sometimes wrapped in a Sea weed or mixed with purikake. It is the Japanese equivalent of Korean “Kimbap”. Onigiri in various flavours is easily available at any convenience store and can be easily made at home.

Rice is also an essential ingredient of Sushi. Sushi is vinegared rice topped with raw seafood or even vegetables. Difference between Sushi and Sashimi is the rice. Raw fish by itself is Sashimi and when it is served as a topping on vinegared rice, it becomes Sushi. Sushi being so unique and popular needs a separate write-up.

Yet another indispensable part of Japanese meals is “Miso soup” known as “ Miso-shiru”. Like rice, Miso soup too can be eaten during breakfast, lunch or dinner. Miso soup is made from Miso, the soybean based paste. A healthy soup, this is made in various styles and with various ingredients be it meat, vegetables or seafood. Instant miso soup packets, miso paste containers or miso soup mixes are easily found in department stores or convenience stores.

It need not be specified that Noodles are an important part of Japanese cuisine. Noodles come in various forms and tastes. Ramen is the most common kind of noodles. Ramen is wheat noodles served in a soup broth and may contain meat, vegetables, seafood, tofu, etc. Ramen was introduced from China and is so popular that each region has its own version of Ramen. Instant ramen boxes are very popular. The taste of Japanese ramen is totally different from the Korean Ramyeon. The Japanese version is mild in taste when compared to the spicy Korean Ramyeon. My personal favourite remains the Korean Shin Ramyeon which is the spiciest of the lot.  “Ramen-ya” are Ramen shops where most dishes served are ramen based and these are popular joints. Perhaps evidence to the Ramen’s popularity is the “Ramen museum” in Shin-Yokohama. The history of Ramen, varieties of Ramen and ways to prepare Ramen are on display here. Ramen dishes are also sold so that visitors can experience the tastes of different kinds of ramen. Infact Ramen vending machines are also found in Japan.

Another variety of noodles which is found in Japan is the “Udon”. Udon are thick noodles made from Wheat flour and these too are served in mild flavoured soup broth. Like Ramen, the soup may contain meat, vegetables, seafood and a variety of ingredients. The Udon too has a Korean counterpart, Udong. Udon is sometimes served chilled, especially during summer but generally hot in winter. At times Udon is served with ice cubes on top.

Soba is a speciality of Japan. These thin noodles are made of buckwheat flour and have a sweet taste. These are served with soup based broth or with a dipping sauce. The best taste is that of freshly prepared noodles. At many restaurants, you can see the noodles being made right in front of you. It is common to see that Soba is served in sieved baskets at most restaurants. These noodles are available in packets in dry and wet form for cooking at home.

Tempura is the Japanese equivalent of the Indian pakora. It is usually vegetables or seafood dipped in frying batter and deep fried. Restaurants specializing in Tempura are found all over Japan and sometimes Tempura are served in Bento boxes as well.

These are just a few of the foods which are eaten on a regular basis – be it at home or in restaurants. I cannot do enough justice by writing just a few lines about the various specialities. I intend to write more about Japan’s food scene in future.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Flavours of Japanese food

Japanese cooking is unique in its taste, flavour and presentation when compared with its regional counterparts- China and Korea. The distinct taste of Japanese food is mainly due to the seasonings that are added to the Japanese food. The Japanese say that not only the ingredients but also the order in which they are added to the dish can alter the taste. To make life easy, the Japanese have a unique code for remembering the ingredients and the order – Sa Shi Su Se So. In fact this is in the same order as the sounds for the “S” alphabet in Japanese Hiragana and Katakana scripts.

What does “Sa Shi Su Se So” stand for ? It is simple :
Sa” stands for sato. Which  is sugar in Japanese.

Shi” stands for shio. Which is salt in Japanese.

Su” stands for suSu is vinegar in Japanese.

Se” stands for seuyu.  “Seuyu” is an old name for “shouyu”. Shouyu is the Japanese word for Soy sauce! Most often even the Japanese find this the hardest to remember and many of them aren’t aware why Shoyu is associated with Se. I am thankful to my Japanese teacher Emi-san for sharing this information with me.

So” is for miso. Miso is the powder or paste form of soybeans and it is used to make miso soup. It is made by fermenting soybeans, rice , barley and other ingredients and is available in both powder and paste form. It is a staple food and is used as a base for many Japanese dishes. There are many varieties of miso and the colours vary based on the ingredients therein. Miso is considered to be very healthy due to its soy content.
Other flavour enhancers are :

Cooking sake: Sake is the Japanese wine made from rice. The cooking version of sake differs from the drinking sake. Cooking sake is an essential ingredient in most Japanese dishes.

Mirin : Mirin is another kind of rice wine but unlike cooking sake it has high sugar content and low alcohol percentage.

Soya sauce: Like most other east asian cuisines, Soy Sauce is important in Japanese cuisine and is also the base for many dipping sauces and toppings.

Ginger: Ginger is used in lot of Japanese dishes. Most often grated ginger or ginger paste is served with Sushi, probably to reduce the smell of raw fish.

Myoga:  Myoga also known as Japanese ginger has a strong flavour. The flower buds are used in Miso soup and other Japanese dishes. It is believed that Myoga has anti cancer properties, however using too much of Myoga is also not recommended.

Dashi: Dashi is made from sea weed and is used as a base for miso and other soups and stock based dishes. This is usually available in single use sachets or in bottles and is generally found in powder or granule form.

Kombu: Kombu is the main ingredient in Dashi and it is also eaten in fresh form as sashimi or in pickled form or in soups. It is cultivated in the sea in Japan and Korea regions and is considered to contain a lot of nutritional benefits.

Katsuobushi: This is a essential ingredient in Dashi along with Kombu . It is also used in  other stocks which are used in Miso and other soups and sauces. Katsuobushi is the shavings of dried Bonito and is in flake form and is available in satchets . At times instead of dried bonito, it is made of dried tuna or mackerel

Sesame Seeds: Sesame seeds are used as a topping on rice balls or sushi and in many Japanese salads and baked dishes.

Gomashio: This is a mixture of salt and sesame seeds and is usually sprinkled on top of rice or rice balls. At times it may contain a bit of sugar

Wasabi paste: Wasabi is Japanese horseradish. It is pungent and has a strong smell too. At times it leaves a stinging flavour on the tongue especially if eaten by itself or in high quantity. It is most commonly served with sushi. It is available in fresh root form or in paste form in tubes. The leaves of wasabi are also eaten and these leaves have a pungent flavour too.

Karashi: This is a kind of mustard and is used as a seasoning in Japanese dishes. It is available in powder or paste form. It is usually added to Oden, Shumai and other dishes. At times it is mixed with mayonnaise to make a dipping sauce

Shichimi; This is a mixture of seven spices and it is used in soups, oden and noodles to enhance flavour. It may be used on rice balls and other snacks too. Shichi means Seven in Japanese and that explains the number of ingredients.

Ichimi : This is red ground chilli pepper . Ichi is One in Japanese.

Purikake: This is a mixture of sesame seeds, dried sea weeds, salt, red pepper, ground dried fish etc. This is usually served on top of rice and for making rice balls. Almost a staple food as most people prefer to eat this during lunch or dinner and also in bento boxes. Many varieties are available and taste varies from mild to extremely spicy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Japanese cuisine

Japan is a unique country in many respects . No wonder the cuisine of the country is also unique. The gastronomy of Japan is distinct from the cuisine of any other Asian country. The Japanese word for Japanese cuisine is "Nihon Ryori". Nihon is the Japanese word for Japan and Ryori stands for cuisine.

Rice is the most important part of any meal and infact the Japanese word for rice – “Gohan” is the same as the Japanese word for meal. Rice is consumed at all times a day be it breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Soybeans come next being second only to Rice. Soybeans are consumed in many forms be it- Miso soup, Tofu, Soy Milk or simple Soy Sauce.

Seafood is also an important part of Japanese cuisine. Japanese sushi and sashimi are popular around the globe. But there’s more to Japanese sea foods than just sushi and sashimi. Every season has its speciality seafood too. Japanese eat fish, shellfish, sea urchins, eel and even octopus. Along with other sea food, Sea weeds are also important in Japanese food. Infact MSG which is a controversial food additive is extracted from sea weeds. This is something I learnt after coming to Japan.  

Mushrooms are another important part of Japanese cuisine. Many varieties of mushrooms are available in Japan all round the year. Infact dried Shiitake mushrooms are also available in gift packs around Japanese festivals.

In Japanese cuisine, food looks and tastes very natural. The natural flavours of the ingredients are preserved and special care is taken to avoid over cooking. Mild flavoured herbs are preferred over the strong spices of other Asian countries like India, Thailand and Malaysia. Popularity of sushi and sashimi and salads highlight the raw food specialities of Japanese cuisine.

Special pots, pans and cooking equipment are used for cooking as Japanese believe that certain foods taste better when cooked in special manner. This explains the wide variety of utensils- earthenware, metal utensils, wooden bowls, glassware and nonstickware which are displayed in stores across Japan.

In Japan a lot of stress is given not only on the flavours and cooking but also on the way the food is presented or the table is arranged. The placement of food items on the table, placing the chopsticks etc all is done with utmost care. Food is served in various shapes, sizes and patterns to achieve an aesthetic balance between the dishes and food and in order to stimulate appetite. Maybe this is the reason Japanese restaurants tend to be expensive in most countries around the world.

HRP-4C and other humanoid robots

Recently the HRP-4C was in the news. This Japanese humanoid robot performed at the 2010 Digital Content Expo held in Tokyo.
The video can be seen below :

 (Source : YouTube)

The HRP-4C is a humanoid robot designed by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST). HRP stands for Humanoid Robotics Project and C stands for Cybernetic Human. 4 is the number in the series of humanoids developed by the AIST. This robot made its first public appearance in March 2009 . The robot is considered to be a “Gynoid”- a robot resembling a human female. The HRP-4C is 5 ft 2 inches tall and weighs approx 43 kgs. The unique feature of this robot is it is designed to sing and dance and mimic human facial, head and hand movements. Through the use of special software , the robot can recognize ambient sounds and mimic the same. To see how this is done, please check out the video :

 (Source: YouTube)
HRP-4C is not the only Humanoid robot in Japan and there are many more, prominent being Actroid Repliee Q1, Actroid Repliee Q2 and Actroid Sara. The Repliee Actroids are humanoid robots which can mimic human functions such as speaking, breathing and blinking and they can recognize speech and touch and can respond accordingly. The external appearance is made using silicone and is also designed to resemble human skin. Most of these actroids are modeled on young Japanese women. Infact one particular model is designed to look like a 5 year old girl.(Reminds me of the American television series "Small Wonder" which I used to watch in my childhood.) The Geminoid HI-1 however is modeled after a male.

Infact the Sanrio group, popular for Hello Kitty and other animation characters has a separate division called Kokoro which specializes in Robots. Check out the website for interesting information on Actroids.

Vending Machine Paradise

One of the first things that most foreigners notice when they land in Japan is the number of vending machines. The moment you arrive at Narita airport and make your way out to the arrival lounge or to the parking area, you notice vending machines. No wonder  at 1 vending machine per 23 people, Japan has the highest number of vending machines per capita !

Most common vending machines are those vending canned and bottled beverages. These vending machines are so common that not finding one every few hundred metres down a road seems odd. You can buy cola, green tea, Japanese O-cha, Milk tea, Coffee, Milk, juice, water just about anything.
Most drink prices begin from 100 yen a bottle and the rate varies based on the location. Every tourist place, office building, rest area, department store, gas station  and even shrines will definitely have at least one or two vending machines. You are assured that while in Japan you will not go thirsty!

Then there are the standard vending machines which are common in other countries - subway ticket dispenses, gaming machines, parking tickets.This is the Tokyo metro ticket vending machine.
But when it comes to the variety of vending machines, you just can't beat Japan. Japan has vending machines for almost anything that you can imagine from food and drink to liquor, ice, disposable cameras, umbrellas, toilet paper, toys, neck ties, flowers and even 10 kg rice bags ! 

See it to believe it….

Ice Cream Vending machine 

Cigarette vending machine

Beer vending machine

Ice Vending machine

Egg vending machine

 Battery Cell vending machine

 Umbrella vending machine
Disposable camera and camera film vending machine

There are some food joints where you order your food from a vending machine. You pay for the food and take the ticket at the vending machine, but the food is freshly prepared and served at the table or service counter. Talk about reducing queueing time ! A boon for foreigners - you can order by seeing the picture of the food rather than attempting to explain while ordering.

There are also Instant ramen vending machines :

There are shoe shine vending machines- insert a coin and get your shoe shined. Perfect for business travelers and office going people.
In some hostel type accommodation, people have to insert coins to use the showers and water runs for a particular period of time and to keep the water running you need to insert more coins.

Then there are the pay TV and VOD card vending machines in hotels across Japan.

Most vending machines accept coins in the denomination of 10,50,100 and 500 yen and offcourse notes of 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 yen. Nowadays with “O-saifu Keitai” literally meaning “Mobile Wallet”  payment at vending machines can be made through cell phones. This service was introduced by NTT Docomo and now many other cell service providers also provide this facility. 

Loaded with a few 100 yen coins you can buy just about anything from vending machines in Japan. Do look out for interesting vending machines while in Japan and especially in Tokyo.  

And finally here is the Japanese word for the vending machine: "Jidohanbaiki". 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Manga Café

Yet another post on something uniquely Japanese - Manga Café.

Manga café is similar to a cyber café in many respects. However the basic idea differs. Unlike cybercafés, internet service is not the main feature here. Manga in Japanese stands for “Comics” and as the name suggests, Manga cafes are places where people read Japanese comics or Manga. These cafés do provide internet access and as such they are similar to a internet cafe.

Usually manga café’s are equipped with many shelves of manga, magazines and newspapers and vending machines stocking drink cans and at times also a food counter. Some manga cafes have music booths, slot machines, pool tables and also nail salons! 

The seating is divided into cubicles. Each cubicle may contain a chair or a sofa, table and a computer with internet access, and at times a printer and payphone. 

The charges usually start from 100 yen for 10 or 15 minutes  or an hourly rate. Some manga cafes operate round the clock and allow people to spend the night in the cubicles. Japanese youngsters sometimes use the manga café as a place to spend the night. I have heard that most often it is used as a snoozing place if people miss the last train home !

Capsule Hotels

Few things in Japan are unique to the country. Some of these are at times even unheard of or unimaginable to foreigners. One such thing is the concept of Capsule hotel.

A capsule hotel is a type of accommodation with very small rooms. The rooms are actually sleeping areas or blocks with barely any other space. The dimensions are usually 6.5 feet long *5 feet wide. Usually these spaces are not tall enough to stand. Usually these rooms or blocks are stacked side by side and are usually two tiered. They are actually said to resemble a bunk bed enclosed on three sides within walls. Usually a small ladder is connected for access to second level. But lack of space does not deprive users of basic facilities and entertainment. There are usually wi-fi internet services and even Television sets. Curtains or doors are also available to provide privacy. The hotels have common washroom facilities, lockers for keeping guest’s belongings, vending machines and at times also restaurants. Some capsule hotels also have saunas and common baths. Smoking and eating is usually not allowed in the individual capsules.

The capsule hotel was first introduced in Osaka and are now popular in Osaka , Tokyo and similar cities. These hotels are popular among men and more often among inebriated men. These are a cheap means of spending the night with room rent ranging between Yen 2000 to 5000. In the last few years, recession has reportedly made these capsule hotels more popular among the unemployed who cannot afford rented apartments in the big cities. 

Since I have not been to a Capsule Hotel, am sharing this link from the New York times. Click on the link to view a slideshow of pictures of a capsule hotel. 

Osaki Hachimangu Shrine

On our way to Akiu Otaki, we drove around in Sendai . Sendai is one of the bigger cities in the Northern Honshu island and also in Tohoku region. I had read about the Osaki Hachimangu shrine and we decided to pay a visit when we found out that it was on our way to the Akiu Otaki.

The Osaki Hachimangu shrine is a Shinto shrine in Sendai city. The shrine deities are Emperor Ojin, Emperor Chuai and Empress Jingu. The deity is considered the guardian deity of Sendai.

The main shrine building, known as “Shaden” has been designated a National Treasure”.

The current structure was built in the 17th century as per the orders of Date Masamune, a powerful samurai. 

The shrine’s Matsutaki Matsuri which is held annually on January 14th is considered to be one of Japan’s leading festivals. It draws crowds from various parts of the country. This Matsuri has a 300 year history . The uniqueness of this festival is the giant bonfire called “Goshinka” which is lit as a farewell for the gods who visit people’s home during the new year. It is believed that dancing close to the fire purifies the mind and body and bestows good health. I am told that many believers dance around the fire , semiclad in clothes and braving the chilly winter night.

Address: 6-1, Hachiman-4-chome, Aoba-ku, Sendai, Miyagi pref- 980-0871

Phone: 022-234-3606

Access: 15 mins from JR Sendai station by car and
              15 mins from Sendai Miyagi IC ( Tohoku Expressway) by car

Friday, December 10, 2010

Akiu Waterfalls

Our visit to Akiu Otaki was an unplanned one. We had spent the previous night at a hotel near Matsushima . We had finished sightseeing in Matsushima and decided to visit some other destination. We did a quick web search and came across information on Akiu Waterfalls. We decided to check it out.

Akiu waterfalls is supposed to be one of the three best waterfalls in Japan. This 55 m high and 6 m wide waterfall is located in Miyagi prefercture , on the outskirts of Sendai. The waterfalls are located a short drive away from Akiu Onsen and Spa resort town.  

The entrance to the waterfalls is through a Shrine complex. A walking path along the Shrine leads down to the Observation Deck. Unfortunately, the falls can be viewed only from a distance.
The observation deck is not very big and as such it was crowded.  But the view was spectacular.

We saw that a walking trail leads down to the main road but the trail was closed due to some construction work. We did get to see the falls in the distance as we drove back to Sendai . 

The Akiu Botanical gardens are located near the waterfalls. Just outside the shrine entrance there are various stalls selling food stuff, souvenirs and plants.

Akiu town is well known for its Onsens and Spa resorts.

We also visited the Rairaikyo Gorge while in the area.

There were'nt many signboards in English and we had to find our way around by asking lots of locals along the road.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Matsushima, Ah Matsushima !

In September this year, we visited Matsushima.

Matsushima is one of the three great scenic views of Japan called “Nihon Sankei”. It is said that the Haiku poet Basho was so mesmerized by the beauty of Matsushima, that he could not think of words to compose a haiku to describe it. It is said that the only words he could say were “ Matsushima, Ah Matsushima, Ah Matsushima, ah , Matsushima Ah! ”

Matsushima is a group of 260 islands in the Pacific Ocean. The name Matsushima means “Pine covered islands”. Most of these islands are actually tiny islets with no inhabitants. Due to the sea water and corrosion, these islands have strange shapes and few have acquired the shape of different creatures.

Best way to view these islands is a Cruise ride. The Marubun Cruise company is the most popular of the cruise companies that operate in the Matsushima Bay. We took the Cruise A which is a 50 minute round trip from Matsushima bay.  For more information on the cruise visit :

The other attractions of Matsushima are

Godaido Hall : It is a small islet off the coast connected to the mainland by a small bridge .

A small temple pavilion is  located on the island. The interior of the temple is open to public once in 33 years , the last being in 2006.
Admission: Free
Opening hours: 8:30 – 17:00
No closing days

Oshima Island:  This island also called Ojima was used as a meditation and training place by Zen monks.

There are lot of statues and rock carvings on this island along the walking trails.

This island can be reached on foot by a small red lacquered bridge called Togetsukyo Bridge.
Admission: Free

Zuiganji temple: This zen temple was originally built in the Heian period and the main hall contains precious paintings and carvings. This temple has been designated a national treasure. The entrance fee is 700 yen. The path from the entrance to the temple is lined on both sides by cedar trees.

There is also a path along moss covered Buddhist statues and caverns.

Kanrantei Pavilion: This is a tea house with a great view of the Matsushima bay. It is said that this was originally built in Kyoto by Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi who gifted it to Date Tadamune  who moved it to Matsushima.

Fukuurajima: This island is connected to the mainland by a 250 meter long vermillion coloured foot bridge.

A toll of  200 yen is payable for using the bridge. There are many walking trails on the island. Not very spectacular considering it is covered with lots of wild plants and weeds. It is more of a botanical garden than a  tourist spot.

Masamune Date, the feudal lord is said to have had a special liking for Matsushima. Many structures in the Zuiganji temple complex and the Godaido hall was constructed on his orders.

Matsushima  is located in Miyagi prefecture . Matsushima is one of the most visited destinations in Tohoku. The proximity to Sendai makes Matsushima easily accessible.  Hotel reservations are necessary. Weekends can be crowded and traffic within the town could be slow. Paid parking is available next to the Ojima island and near the Matsushima Bay and most places are only a short walk away. The train station is also a short walk from the Matsushima Bay. Easiest and most convenient way to travel around in Matsushima is on foot.

The entire town can be covered in one day or approximately 5-6 hours.

When in Matsushima, do try the fresh seafood. Lots of food stalls and joints sell oyster, squid and clam delicacies.