Dec 31, 2013


Dec 25, 2013

Christmas in Japan

Borrowed cultures in Japan are mostly commercial events. Christmas day may not be a national holiday, but it is celebrated throughout Japan in quite an elaborate manner! With less than 1% of Japanese being Christians, it is indeed surprising to see the extent of Christmas fever, nationwide. Christmas Eve which is thought to be exclusively for romantic couples, is the most important day followed by Christmas Day,  where families and friends enjoy a Christmas dinner, which always includes chicken and the Japanized version of the Christmas cake, covered with whipped cream and topped with mouthwatering, red strawberries. Since artificial food colors are strictly avoided by the Japanese, Christmas cookies or Christmas cakes decorated with fancy colors are rarely seen, except maybe in Western homes. There is also no egg nog, ginger bread, pies or figgy-pudding. 

My homemade Christmas Cake

Homemade Christmas Tree Salad

Comercial Cakes
Commercial Cakes
Chicken is substituted for the traditional “Turkey” in Japan simply because Turkey’s are not readily available in Japanese supermarkets and the Japanese are not quite fond of the “smell”. This is where the commercial aspect overtakes tradition, and the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Japan leaves no stones unturned to deliver special Christmas, fried chicken with additional menus, and make huge profits along the way! Most people make reservations at KFC ahead of time, so as not to miss out on the new, Christmas Menu.
Christmas songs most popularly sung or played during the Christmas season include Jingle Bells, We wish you a Merry Christmas and Silent Night, which are often sung in Japanese, and the most frequently heard BGM around town would be “Last Christmas” by Wham and Mariah Carrey’s “All I want for Christmas is You.”
Christmas trees are never live trees, but artificial ones in different sizes, beautifully decorated and lighted up, adorning almost every home, school, office and shop.
Christmas presents are usually exchanged between romantic couples and friends, and the price of the gift is usually determined by depth of the relationship between the couple or frineds. Parents and grandparents buy children Christmas presents but when the children stop believing in Santa, the presents also stop coming! The variety of presents include flowers, jewelry, small trinkets, stuffed teddy bears and toys.
Christmas parties are arranged mainly by families with small children or young adults. The elderly who wish to join the Christmas celebrations buy expensive tickets to Christmas dinner shows hosted by famous celebrities at big hotels or famous restaurants. Christmas lighting or illuminations are displayed all over town soon after Halloween and usually last until New Year’s Eve.
Around Okayama Station
Okayama City Illumination
No matter what the form, the Japanese embrace the Christmas celebrations joyfully!
Merry Christmas!

Dec 16, 2013

Japanese New Year Cards

The custom of sending New Year greetings cards or Nengajo in Japan, started a thousand years ago in the Heian period and peaked during the Meiji era. In the early years, cards were personally delivered and stuffed into mail boxes on January 1st, but from 1899 they were collected in December and delivered on January 1st. New Year greeting cards in Japan are very unique for the following reasons:
1.      They are postcards.
2.      They are never delivered before January 1st. 
3.      They need to be posted on a certain date in December to be delivered on January 1st. (usually by December 25th).
4.      They contain no Christmas greetings, rather a simple congratulatory message as Happy New Year with an advanced thank you message for favors to be taken in the coming year.
5.      They feature one of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs , where there is one sign for each year and the cycle is repeated after every 12 years. All 2014 cards will have pictures of the wood horse.
6.      They contain a lottery number and a chance for the recipient to win a prize following a lottery draw in mid-January by the Japan postal service.
7.      They are either made at home using high tech printing devices, latest computer software or ordered in bulk with printing companies for a price averaging 110 yen/card.

In 1949, the lottery ticket post card was introduced by the Japan postal service, where lottery prizes ranging from cash prizes of 10, 000 yen to towels and commemorative stamps are awarded.

 A typical Nengajo may be a simple, blank, white postcard where one writes or draws a new year greeting using a calligraphy brush, or rubber stamps containing conventional messages, or it may also have a recent photo of the sender and the specific zodiac sign of the coming year, in addition to a personal message.
However, people who lose a family member to death in the past year do not send new year cards as they are in mourning, and instead send an advanced (in mourning) postcard by early December, reporting their loss, requesting people not to expect or send them new year cards for that particular year.
Having been in Japan for over 22 years, I usually send out about a 100 cards to my superiors, friends and colleagues whom I rarely meet now and look forward to receiving their cards to update myself about them. In the digital era, increasing numbers of people are opting for  digital versions of New Year greeting cards, and sadly as with many other fading, traditional Japanese customs, there seems to be a decline in the enthusiasm and excitement of wirting, sending and recieving personalized, handwritten new year cards! I still look forward to writing mine, as with every individual message I write, there is joy and nostalgia intertwined with fond memories. I look forward to posting my New Year card on this blog on January 1st. 2014. Happy Holidays!!

Dec 9, 2013

December: Japan’s busiest month

“Tis’ the season to be jolly, fa la la la la, la la la la!!

While December sees Japan elaborately decorated for Christmas, December 25th still remains a working day in Japan! However, the Japanese are no less busy! They may not exactly be Christmas shopping, but rather occupied elsewhere, attending year ending parties, sending year ending gifts, cleaning their offices and homes, writing new year cards and many other things. All this is in preparation for the New Year which happens to be the most important time of the year for every Japanese person. I feel the Japanese new year is somewhat a belated thanksgiving, where the whole focus is on family and home.

BONENKAI: (Year-ending parties)

Literally bonenkai means “forget-the-year-party”, where office colleagues, friends or groups get together at Japanese pubs (Izakaya), restaurants, or even banquet halls in hotels to eat, drink, make merry and forget the unpleasant memories of the passing year!

Illust taken from the internet
 Most companies hold at least one bonenkai and people socializing with different groups attend consecutive parties throughout December. In most bonenkai’s, one gets to see otherwise calm, sober, people, let down their guards and show their wild sides, specially when they are very drunk. The party begins on a milder note, with the chief or head making a small speech, followed by another raising a toast. From then onwards, drinks and laughter flow alternately and the real party begins! Though a variety of food is served, it seems alcohol is what occupies the limelight!

Sometimes stage performances by professional artists or amateur performances by junior colleagues entertain one and all. Bingo games and Karaoke add further delight.
Though costumes are rare, some people dress up as Santa or wear Santa hats. Usually, the bonenkai ends for most around 10 pm, but it is often followed by a second or even a third party, which can last all through the night. For those who pass out drunk, are taken home by their friends or colleagues or picked up by family members. I think the Bonenkai is a great way the Japanese unwind and move on to the New Year with a fresh perspective.

O-SEIBO: (Year ending gifts)

It is a custom in Japan where people send a year ending gift of gratitude or appreciation (o-seibo) to people who have extended a special service or helped them in someway. Traditionally the custom began by making offerings to the graves of the deceased ancestors and is now given to teachers, company superiors, doctors or customers. A similar custom when done in mid-summer is called (o-chugen). The gifts are usually sent in the first two weeks of December, preferably by December 20th. The type of gift usually varies depending on the relationship with the recipient. Gifts range from detergents, coffee, tea, cooking oil, beer, canned food, ham, sausages, fruits, desserts, gift certificates, etc.

They are usually home delivered either by the department stores or personally. The price range averages between 3000 yen to 5000 yen. Though it is a very old, traditional custom, recently, many companies discourage such gifts and think it is rather an obligation or burden than an offering, and the custom is gradually fading among the new generation.

OSOJI: (General cleaning)

Similar to spring cleaning in the west which symbolizes a new start, the Japanese choose December as the month to clean up their houses, offices, schools to get rid of all the unwanted dust, de-clutter and begin the New Year in a clean environment.


Most Japanese clean out not only the inside and outside of their houses but almost everything that they use in their daily lives, such as cars, bikes, bicycles, machinery, etc. This custom is based on the belief that everything has a soul and needs periodic cleansing. Extensive cleaning is carried out in most homes, schools and offices before the year ending holidays begin from December 29th to January 3rd. This year, the annual bonus will come not only in cash but in holidays too, begining a day ahead on December 28th(saturday) and ending two days later on January 5th (sunday)! Which adds upto 9 days......Yippee!!!!

Putting things in their place and cleaning up the environment at the end of the year seems therapeutic for the Japanese. How about you?

Nov 24, 2013

Blood type personality

Do you know your blood type?

If you ask this question in Japan, more than 90% Japanese will answer “Yes”.
Can your blood type reflect your personality?
Interestingly, the theory linking the ABO blood type to human personality traits is very popular in Japan, almost as popular as astrological signs in other parts of the world. Just to refresh your memory, the 4 different ABO blood types are: A, B, O and AB.

Taken from the Internet
Among the Japanese population, 40% are Type A, 30%  Type  O, 20% Type B and 10% Type AB.
Taken from getty inages

So why are the Japanese so obsessed with blood-type personality?

Well the idea was introduced in medieval and early-modern Japan, drawing similarities between blood types and the four social classes of that era.

1.    Samurai (type- O): strong-willed

2.    Farmers (type-A):  mild-mannered

3.    Artists (type-AB): sensitive

4.    Businessmen (type-B): earthy

However, the actual trend was started by Professor Takeji Furukawa, at Tokyo Women's Teacher's School, in 1927, when he published an article in the journal of Psychological Research” titled "The Study of Temperament Through Blood Type". This study was aimed at creating “ideal soldiers” by the reigning militarist government. However, lack of scientific evidence and experience on Mr. Furukawa’s part weakened his “theory” which disappeared in the 1930s. About forty years later, the same idea was revived in a book by Masahiko Nomi, a lawyer and broadcaster, who did not come from a medical background. Mr. Nomi's work also received a lot of criticism from the Japanese psychological community, as it lacked substantial clinical evidence. Nevertheless, his book remains popular even today and his theory has been kept alive through more books written by his son, who also ran the “Institute of Blood Type Humanics” in Japan. 
by Toshitaka Nomi & Alexander Besher

The height of obsession

In Japan, popular women’s magazines regularly highlight blood typology putting emphasis on which blood types are romantically compatible, while many Japanese daily newspapers devote a small section on blood type horoscopes. Even matchmaking services in Japan use blood type personality information when arranging meetings between prospective suitors. Many famous Japanese celebrities include their blood type on their webpages. In 2008, books describing people’s character by blood type ranked third, fourth, fifth and ninth on the best seller list in Japanese book shops! Last but not least, some Japanese shops also sell products ranging from chewing gum to bath salts to suit the individual blood type. 

The dark side

Unfortunately there seems to be a dark side to this interesting theory. Blood type harassment, called "Bura-hara" in Japanese, where children are bullied in schools for their particular blood type has been reported. Rumor has it that in Japan, individuals with blood type B are considered unpredictable and unreliable. There is also a very popular book in Japan called: "Instruction Manual for People with Type B Blood"?

Asking the blood type can be a standard question during job interviews and some employers are known to refuse applicants with the "wrong" blood type.  This attitude has also been witnessed among Japanese politicians.  A former minister, Ryu Matsumoto was asked to step down after he had made rude comments about other politicians. To everyone’s surprise, Mr. Matsumoto defended his offensive behavior by saying:
"My blood is type B, which means I can be irritable and impetuous, and my intentions don't always come across."

The Wikipedia version of the “Japanese blood type personality chart” is given below for your curiosity and reference.

Type A

Best traits

Earnest, creative, sensible, reserved, patient, responsible

Worst traits

Fastidious, over earnest, stubborn, tense

Type B

Best traits

Wild, active, doer, creative, passionate, strong

Worst traits

Selfish, irresponsible, unforgiving, erratic

Type AB

Best traits

Cool, controlled, rational, sociable, adaptable

Worst traits

Critical, indecisive, forgetful, irresponsible, "split personality"

Type O

Best traits

Confident, self-determined, optimistic, strong-willed, intuitive

Worst traits

Self-centered, cold, doubtful, unpredictable, "workaholic"

Finally, everyone in my family has blood type “O” but our personality traits do not confine us to any particular blood group, though we do tend to lean towards “O” and “A”! How about you?

Nov 10, 2013


Sushi is the most famous Japanese food in the world. Before coming to Japan, I was under the wrong impression that, the Japanese only ate raw fish or sushi. For those of us coming from Southeast Asia, cooking food with a variety of spices may be the norm, but the Japanese definitely do not eat sushi everyday! Rather, it is eaten on special occasions such as celebrations.

To begin with, the whole idea of sushi being raw fish is wrong. Raw fish is sashimi and therefore, the words sushi and sashimi are not interchangeable.

The Su of sushi means vinegar and Sushi literally means vinegared rice combined with other ingredients. Each type of sushi derives its name from the way in which the ingredients are served with the vinegared rice.

Sushi Ingredients include
1.     Vinegared rice or “sushi meshi”
2.     Nori or dried sea weed
3.     Eggs
4.     Raw fish (tuna, yellow tail, snapper, mackerel, salmon)
5.     Seafood (shrimp, squid, eel, octopus, pike conger, clam, sea urchin, crab)
6.     Roe or fish eggs
7.     Seaweeds
8.     Vegetables (cucumber, pickled radish and other vegetables, burdock, gourd)
9.     Meat (beef, beef tongue, chicken, pork, horsemeat, duck, whale meat, deer meat)
Types of Sushi
1.     Nigiri-Zushi
Nigiru means to press something between the fingers. Nigiri zushi is made by pressing small amounts of sushi rice into oval-shaped rice balls, accenting with a touch of wasabi or horse radish paste and topping with one of the ingredients listed above.
Nigiri Zushi

Supermarket Nigiri Zushi
2.     Maki-Zushi
Maku means to wrap around into a cylindrical roll. In this type of sushi, rice and other ingredients are placed on a dry piece of seaweed Nori and made into a roll.
Maki Zushi (Left; hosomaki; Right; Futomaki
a.     Futomaki
Futoi means thick, so a large or thick roll of Maki zushi containing many ingredients is called futomaki.
b.     Hosomaki
Hosoi means thin, and a thin roll of Maki zushi containing very few or just one ingredient is called hosomaki.
     3. Temaki Zushi

  Te means hand and temaki zushi is made by placing rice and ingredients into a cone  shaped dry-seaweed paper or nori. Usually, all ingredients and stacked pieces of Nori are placed on the table and one is free to make their own nori cone and place whatever ingredients one chooses into the cone and eat.
Temaki Zushi
4.     Oshi-zushi
Osu means to press something against something. This type of sushi is made by pressing fish onto sushi rice in a wooden box.

Shrimp Oshi Zushi

5.     Chirashi-zushi
Chirasu means to scatter, and in this kind of sushi, ingredients are scattered or spread over sushi rice, presenting a colorful treat to the eyes!
Supermarket Chirashi Zush
A unique form of Chirashi-zushi is Bara-zushi, a special kind of sushi in Okayama Prefecture, where I live. The unique taste of this sushi is achieved by flavoring each ingredient individually before mixing it with the sushi rice to accentuate a deep flavored “one dish”.
6.     Inari-zushi
The simplest form of sushi is the inari-zushi, placing sushi rice into deep-fried tofu (bean curd) parcels. In some places inari-zushi is also referred to as Oinari-san.
Inari Zushi
The art of eating sushi
Nowadays almost everyone prefers to use chopsticks when eating sushi but traditionally nigiri zushi was eaten with the fingers. Usually, a piece of sushi is dipped into soy sauce with the topping side down, before eating. The soy sauce dipping provides flavor to the raw ingredients, which sit on the sushi rice containing a small amount of wasabi. Those who prefer a stronger pungent taste, can add extra wasabi to the soy sauce dip.
Price of sushi in Japan

The price of sushi depends on the quality and freshness of the ingredients. In Japan, the toro (fatty belly) of a blue fin tuna is a prized treat. Toro is graded based on the marbling of the meat, like the grading of beef. Toro taken from the underside of the fish close to the head called otoro is the highest grade and most costly and “chutoro is, a lower grade extracted from the belly in the middle and back of the fish, but is less marbled than otoro. While a pack of roll sushi at the convenience store or supermarket may cost between US$ 5.00-7.00, a reputable restaurant in Tokyo may charge US$ 100 per person! For a reasonable price and fairly satisfactory taste, one can visit the revolving-sushi-bars called kaiten-zushi, where single plates containing sushi are placed on a conveyer belt-like moving table, revolving around the customers tables. Customers can pick up what they like or wait for their favorite sushi plate to arrive. Each plate of sushi can cost from 100 yen to 300 yen and customers are billed based on the number and type of plates they picked.

Taste of sushi
For starters, fresh sushi does not taste fishy. In fact, it really doesn’t taste like anything! Rather we can say it is an acquired taste. The taste comes from the spicy wasabi, soy sauce and other flavors. The sushi rice has a somewhat pungent taste due to the vinegared seasoning.
To wrap up, I would like  to say, Sushi tastes like sushi, and is simply delicious!
Please try it..