Happy New Year! 2018, year of the dog

I customarily blog about New Year’s food, although I’m a little tardy this year.

We had, of course, toshikoshi soba on New Year’s Eve to bridge the old year and the new. We went with a simple (and sticky) mix of okra, grated nagaimo (a sticky yam/potato), nori seaweed, nameko mushrooms, and green onions.


On January 1st, we had osechi, lots of lucky food in the traditional box format. This year’s selection had Japanese, Chinese, and ‘Western’ style items.

New Year’s food

See also last year’s post for more New Year’s food info.

And, we went to mochi-making. Very tasty, as per usual!


KFC and cake

Christmas in Japan means Santa Claus and Christmas tree-themed everything, Christmas music blasting everywhere from November, and on the day itself, KFC and “Christmas cake.” It’s mostly a romantic holiday for couples, a fun time for kids, and a massive shopping season for everyone, leading up to New Year’s, which is the main holiday of the season (and the year).

As the Gaijinpot blog puts it:

“It’s a question that many Westerners ask every year around this time, when the iconic red, white and green marketing campaigns go up across the nation: How did Christmas in Japan become synonymous with a fast food joint?” Essentially, it’s due to an extremely successful marketing campaign in the 70s. Read the blog post for more details.

KFC is indeed enormously popular for Christmas lunches and dinners, and it’s necessary to order your fried chicken well in advance.

A sampling of KFC ads:

We skip the KFC craziness, but we do tend to partake in “Christmas cake.” According to this NPR article, Christmas cake became a tradition in post-war times, where American-style cake came to be associated with a decadent American Christmas.

Japanese Christmas cake is typically white sponge cake with white icing and decorated with strawberries and the like, plus various Santa and winter-themed decorations. But there are many different variations, including our raspberry mouse shown below. See also last year’s chocolate.

Christmas cakes aren’t just sold in bakeries, but also supermarkets, department stores, and even convenience stores. But in most cases, pre-ordering is absolutely essential!

Most Japanese I’ve spoken with assume that fried chicken and cake is typical Christmas fare in America and other Western countries and are surprised when I tell them, well, it’s not!

Homelessness in Japan

One striking thing about living in Japan, compared to everywhere else I’ve lived, is that it’s very rare to see homeless people. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, of course, and I’m interested in knowing more about the social attitudes about homelessness, and the economic, gendered, and ethnic factors that contribute to the problem.

This article from a couple of years ago discusses the history of a slum district (doya-gai) not far from where I live. It seems that homelessness has decreased significantly since 2002 with new legislation that supports people in finding housing and jobs, as well as welfare benefits. Perhaps there are lessons there for other countries. Since Japan is an aging society, though, the future of the welfare state is somewhat uncertain.

Anyway, the article is worth a read.

Gill, Tom. (2014). Skid Row, Yokohama: Homelessness and Welfare in Japan. From http://www.nippon.com/en/column/g00232/


For a long time now, I’ve wanted to take a picture of the exceedingly cool clothes worn by construction workers and other tradespeople. (Or rather, tradesmen in Japan—almost never women.)

I don’t like taking photos of random people on the street, but fortunately I came across a short article and photo gallery featuring nikkapokka (usually called nikka), described thusly:

Billowing outward below the knee, they taper sharply at the ankles. The pants are an adaptation of the knickerbockers worn by early Dutch settlers in New York, which later became fashionable as sportswear.

The photos also show jikatabi, which are split-toe shoes with rubber soles. Have a look!

Sun and rain protection

Japanese women are very much into sun avoidance, and as the weather heats up, the latest in protective and cooling accessories dominates the shops. The merchandise below, spotted in Loft (the department store Sogo’s best shop), shows the array of possibilities.

Out of necessity, I’m also a fan of sun protection, and whenever I’m out in the sun for a long time, I wear long sleeves, including UV protection shirts, a straw hat, big sunglasses, and often a parasol. (The latter are pretty typical here, so I can use one without looking ridiculous.) But I haven’t yet tried a veil…maybe I should so that I don’t stick out as a foreigner for once!

(Click to enlarge)

June is the rainy season, so the rain gear is also making an appearance.

No guitars in the toilet

As a rule, I don’t take toilet photos, but this sign is too amazing to pass up. (Found in a public washroom in a sort of health/beauty services wing of the Yokohama station Sky Building.)

The top says, “obey the rules and pass the baton to the next person”.

Some notes on manners

Gratuitous armor photo

On the Japan Info blog/website, I came across a list of “7 Daily Habits Considered Rude Elsewhere, But are Perfectly OK in Japan.” Yes, I’m susceptible to clickbait, but it’s still an interesting list.

The seven things are:

Not tipping

Nope, not done here; this is good

Being indirect

“hiding” the meaning of what you really mean to say by minimizing complaints or overstating compliments.

Interrupting when someone else is speaking

In other words, Japanese conversations have more feedback—saying things like “I see,” “really,” “uh huh” more frequently than in English, for example.

Not holding doors open for other people

Not sure, see comments below.

Making noise when eating

Must slurp the noodles!

Pushing people when getting in or off the train


Shouting for service in a restaurant

I’m not sure about all restaurants, but definitely in pub-style restaurants, just yell “sumimasen” to get the server’s attention.

As previously discussed, I would also add “smoking permitted indoors especially restaurants”, which is among the very worst and rudest things about Japan in my opinion.

But anyway, on the topic of #4, I haven’t really noticed whether people tend to hold open doors generally or not, but definitely people do hold open elevator doors. This is a very minor thing, but it’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. The gym I go to is on the 6th floor of a building, and you have to use the elevator to get there. Without fail, the person in the elevator closest to the door holds down the “open” button and allows others to exit first. This is great when, for example, the elevator is really crowded or there’s a baby stroller or elderly person with a shopping trolley. But if there are only, say, 3 people in the elevator, it’s really annoying! People tend to make a big show saying どうぞ (douzo) “go ahead”, “no, after you” “please, you first” etc. etc. … and then no one ends up getting out of the elevator before more people start getting in. I’m usually the one who appears very rude by being the first out of the elevator, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice so that we don’t have to be trapped in the elevator forever. (And, I now make a point to hold the door open whenever I’m closest to the button, just so I’m not rude all the time.)


Winter in Japan

“Winter in Japan” is diverse, actually, as there are several climatic regions. Northern Japan has some of the snowiest large cities on earth, while Okinawa in the south is tropical.

My experience is of the Kanto region (that is, central eastern Japan), where it gets cold, but not too cold, and snow is fairly rare in recent years. Lately the overnight temperature has been getting down to 0 C (32 F), which is very chilly when you don’t have central heating or proper insulation. I don’t know about northern locales, but around here, people generally have wall-mounted air conditioner / heaters, and frequently kerosene or electric space heaters, and drafty windows and doors.

For readers in warmer climes who romanticize the idea of a cold winter, let me remind you of the following: drippy noses, never-ending colds, everyone coughing on the bus, numb fingers and toes, steamed up glasses when you come inside, being simultaneously hot and cold when you’re bundled up but walking around a lot, mold danger from window condensation, slipping on ice, feeling dried out from heaters, painfully cold water from the taps, etc. etc. etc. So yeah, not that romantic.

Anyway, the point of this blog post was to share a nifty list from the Gaijinpot blog, with ‘top 10 tips‘ for winter comfort in Japan. In summary:

  1. Thick curtains and window-sealing plastic
  2. Socks and slippers
  3. Nabe (hot-pot) dinners
  4. Kotatsu (yay!)
  5. Electric carpets
  6. Hot baths
  7. Electric kettles
  8. Walk around in the mall
  9. Stick-on warmers
  10. Travel somewhere else!

(Click through to the blog post to read more.)

New Year’s food

The last three days have pretty much been filled with eating. Because, New Year’s food.

正月 (Oshogatsu) — the Japanese New Year — is the biggest holiday of the year, and of course there are rituals, traditions, and special food.  The holiday generally runs from December 31st to January 3rd, with most people spending time with family and often visiting shrines/temples.

On New Year’s Eve, it’s traditional to eat toshikoshi (New Year’s) soba (buckwheat noodles) for health and long life. We had ours with tsuyu (dashi stock), nagaimo (grated sticky yam/potato), and green onions.

Red/orange/yellow/gold foods are central to New Year’s cuisine, as shown in the photos below, all for good luck! Osechi refers to traditional New Year’s food served in stacked boxes. The style of food dates back more than 1000 years, with the idea being to preserve food to avoid cooking over the turn of the year (which I fully support). We’ve been in Japan for New Year’s before and have eaten many of the traditional dishes, but this was the first time we ordered osechi. I really enjoyed many of the items, but by design, much of it is pretty sweet or salty, so it’s definitely possible to stray into excess. We rather regretted having so much despite sharing it with family, so we’ll have to find some more people to share with next year, plus plan to eat more salad alongside.

For more descriptions of the specific food and their meanings, see Savvy Tokyo or Wikipedia.

Mochi, or sticky rice pounded into little cakes, is also central to New Year’s cuisine. There are several mochi items in the osechi boxes seen above. We also went to a mochi-tsuki, or mochi-making, in Yokohama. It was fun to see the rice being steamed and then pounded with huge mallets. Kids also got to line up and have a go with the mallet. And of course, eating it was the best!

Cooking the rice
Cooking the rice
Mochi with kinako (soy bean powder) and anko (sweet red bean paste) respectively

(With the sounds of the kids’ mochi-making in the background)