May 31, 2013

Mugicha (roasted barley tea) : something indispensable in summer!

When I was younger,  麦茶 (むぎちゃ、mugicha) or roasted barley tea, was always in the refrigerator of every Japanese household in summer.

Of course there were many kinds of cooling beverages back then, such as cokes, sodas and juices, but those were something we bought only occasionally, and it was normally mugicha that we gulped down every day, every time.

This non-sweetened, caffeine-free beverage goes well with any types of meals, and is suitable for people of all ages including small children.

In Japan barley tea is generally considered as a summer drink, but I drink it all year around (I heard it is normal in China), cold in summer and hot in other seasons, because I like the taste and also I can have it anytime of the day. I'm very sensitive to caffeine and caffeine drinks often make me difficult to fall asleep.

Tea is available in plastic bottles, but I'm making it at home. It is super easy, more eco-friendly and more economic. My mother boils roasted barley for several minutes to bring out the flavor and cool it down. I know this makes the tea taste better, but I don't to this. I'm using tea bags.

This is what I'm using: "香り薫るむぎ茶” (Kaori Kaoru Mugicha). Produced by Itoen, a major tea manufacturing company, containing 54 sachets,  it is less than 200 yen. I don't remember exactly how much it was, but I bought it at a bargain price, around 160 yen, which is cheaper than a tea bottle of 2 liters.

One tea bag is this size. You put it in 1-liter water and wait for two hours. That's all you have to do!

In two hours, simple filtered water turned into tasty barley tea! Too simple, right? You can take out the tea bag, but I leave it there. It won't become too strong.

Today's useful expression: つめたい むぎちゃは いかがですか?Tsumetai mugicha wa ikaga desuka?  (Would you like to have some cold barley tea?)

May 29, 2013

Rainy season has come in the Kanto area. Oh no! Too early!!

Today the Japan Meteorological Agency announced that the rainy season (it is called tsuyu) has started in the Kanto region, in Tokyo. Unbelievably early! According to the agency, this is the third earliest start in 62 years.

My friends and I were thinking of having a drink at an outdoor beer hall in Shibuya this weekend, but we probably have to change the plan.

Normally tsuyu begins in mid-June and lasts about a month. The weather forecast says that tsuyu of this year will end around July 20 as in other years. Ummm.... this means we'll have at least 10 more rainy days than usual.

If you are planning to visit Japan during the rainy season, don't forget to bring an umbrella! Though I know some of you don't like carrying it around, but if you are walking in the pouring rain without an umbrella, soaked to the skin, people might think you are weird and feel like staying away from you. (Be careful!)

Generally speaking, Japanese hate getting wet even a little bit, and many of them use an umbrella until it stops raining completely. Actually, so do I. When I go out without an umbrella and it suddenly starts to rain, I rush into a convenience store or a supermarket to buy one.

If you don't have an umbrella, why don't you buy a simple transparent plastic umbrella for 100 yen at Daiso or other all 100-yen store chains? You can throw it away or give it to someone before getting on the train.

But I want to strongly recommend women to get a 500-yen folding umbrellas that you can easily find at "all girly things" stores. They are compact, good quality, light-weight and come in a great variety of colors and patterns. They can become good souvenirs for you and your friends. The photo below is the one I got three years ago, and I'm still using it.

By the way, when you bring your wet umbrella into shops or buildings, you are required to pick one of the plastic bags found at the entrance and put the umbrella in it, to prevent the floor from becoming  wet and slippery, and throw it away in a garbage can when you leave.

You might think it is not eco-friendly (I think so too), but it is a kind of etiquette to do so. If it is against your policy, use your own water-proof bag.

Today's useful expression: ねふだを とってください。 Nefuda o totte kudasai.  (Please cut off the price tag.)

May 27, 2013

Geographic quiz of Japan


Hi everyone! 

You might know that the economy of Japan is the third largest in the world after the U.S. and China, but what else do you know about Japan? 

I'll ask you some questions about geography of Japan. Even if you don't know anything, don't be embarrassed. Many of us Japanese don't know much about our own country anyway. (What a shame!)

Question 1: Japan is a bow-shaped island country, and four big islands comprises of 97 percent of the total land surface. Can you tell the names of all those islands?

Answer: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. For Japanese it is a too easy question.

Question 2: How many islands are there in Japan in total?  

Answer:  6,852 islands, of which 430 are inhabited. 

Question 3: Total land surface is about 378,000 sq.-km. What is the rank by area? 

Answer: Japan is 61, slightly bigger than Germany but smaller than the U.S. state of Montana.

Question 4: Why is Japan so densely populated?

Answer: Because 73 percent of the land is covered with mountains unsuitable for living and most of the population (about 128 million) concentrate on flat habitable zones, especially in big cities. 

Questions 5: Why are there so many earthquakes in Japan? 

Answer: Because Japan is located in the volcanic zone of the Pacific Ring of Fire. They say more than 90 percent of earthquakes that happen in the whole world occur in Japan. We have destructive quakes every century. Especially, the one that hit the North Kanto and Tohoku areas two years ago was shockingly devastating. 

Question 6: How many volcanos exist in Japan? 

Answer: 108 including Mt. Fuji. Don't forget, the famous Mt. Fuji is an active volcano!!

Frequent earthquakes and volcano eruptions sometimes make me feel like escaping from Japan and living somewhere else... but when I take a nice bath in onsen (hot spa) resorts, I easily forget the anxiety. How simple-minded I am!  

May 26, 2013

Let's go to see sumo!

Yesterday was the day I had been looking forward to. Yes, it was my sumo day!

There are six tournaments a year, and three of them are held in Tokyo, in January, May and September. The other three take place in Osaka (in March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November), and each lasts 15 days. 

When they have a tournament in Tokyo, I go to seethe sumo usually on the 14th day. 

When I was young, I was not interested in those fat naked wrestlers at all. I didn't understand why people of older generations were so excited about such an ugly sport. 

But now I'm a big fan of sumo. For me it is not just a sport, but a cultural entertainment that brings me back to the Edo Period. If you are aged over 25 and plan to visit Japan, check the sumo schedule here . I'm sure you'll like it too!

The Tokyo tournament is held at Kokugikan, one minute walk from JR Ryogoku Station.
Address: 1-3-28 Yokoami Sumida-ku, Tokyo
tel: 03-3623-5111

Colorful banner flags with the names of wrestlers at the gate create festive atmosphere. 

Ukiyoe  (woodblock prints) images depicting the sumo of the Edo Period on the outside walls. 

Inside there are shops selling foods, drinks and sumo-related goods. 

This is the dohyo ring. It is considered sacred and women are not allowed to step on it.  

The hall opens at 8 a.m. and the matches of low ranked wrestlers start around 8:30 a.m. but I always arrive there between 3 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., because strong and popular wrestlers appear after 4:10 p.m. 

Arriving at 4 p.m. is too late though. I don't want to miss the Makuuchi Doryo-iri ceremony (photo above) that starts at 3:45 p.m., and I need to buy something to drink or go to bathroom before that.

The higher-ranked wrestlers wearing the apron-like kesho-mawashi step on the dohyo (ring), being introduced one by one to the spectators. The kesho-mawashi, made with 100 percent silk and embroidered with silver and gold threads, is extraordinarily expensive, from 1 million yen to 20 million yen depending on the designs. They are normally presents from the wrestler's sponsors or the fan clubs. 

At 4 p.m. Yokozuna dohyo-iri starts. Yokozuna, or the highest-ranked wrestlers, performs "shiko" or the action of rising a leg high in the air to the side and stomping back on the ground.

Shiko is a basic training for sumo wrestler to strengthen their legs, but it is also performed as a ritual to get rid of evil spirits from the ground.

The wrestler shown in the photo above is Harumafuji. There are only two yokozuna at this moment, Hakuho and Harumafuji, and both of them are Mongolians.

Sumo is a Japanese national sport with a long history, but contrary to its exclusive image,  the sumo world is very open. If you are strong, you can climb the success ladder, regardless of your race and nationality.

For example, two out of four Ozeki, the second-highest rank wrestlers, are foreigners, one Mongolian and the other Bulgarian.

The photos of the tournament champions are displayed high around the hall. Looking at the photos I realized Japanese wrestlers have not won the championship for such a long time.

There was a match between Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho and Japanese ozeki  Kisenosato yesterday. Both of them had no lost matches until yesterday and many Japanese spectators wanted to see Kisenosato to beat the great yokozuna Hakuho.

When they appeared on the ring, the hall was shaken with the shouts and clapping of excitement. I love Hakuho, but this time I called out "KISENOSATO!!!!"

This is the photo of nervous-looking Kisenossato ready for the match.

The flags men in kimono are holding up represent the prize money from sponsors. One flag is 60,000 yen, of which the Japan Sumo Association takes 5,000 yen and the winner takes the rest. For this match there were 17 sponsoring flags.

The result? Unfortunately Kisenosato lost. It was a good match, but Hakuho was too strong.

Sorry there's no photo of the match. I was too excited to take photos. If you are interested,  please see this Youtube video.

Usually you can buy the ticket of the day, but there were no tickets left when we arrived at the hall because of this match. The banners written "Thanks for the full house" were hanging from the ceiling.

Each tournament day ends with Yumitori-shiki, or a bow dance is performed by a sumo wrestler, usually not very famous.... 

Today's useful expression: とうじつけんは まだ ありますか。 Tojitsu-ken wa mada arimasuka?
(Do you still have tickets for today?) 

May 21, 2013

Japanese bread that I want to recommend ③: kare-pan (curry pain) & Melon-pan

If you like curry, I'm sure you'll love  カレーパン(curry pan)  as well (photo above).

Needless to say, "pan" comes from a Portuguese word for bread.  Curry-pan, pronounced karee-pan in Japanese, is a bun stuffed with curry paste. As it is deep-fried like a donut, it is sometimes called カレー・ド-ナッツ (karee-donattsu, curry donuts), but it rather reminds me of Russian snacks pirozhki.

As curry-pan uses no ingredients that are too "interesting"or "exotic" to non-Asians,  I think everyone can eat it without hesitation. If you are not allowed to eat pork for the religious reasons, however, you'd better check with someone at the bakery before buying one. You can ask this way:  ぶたにくは はいっていますか。 (Buta-niku wa haitte imasuka? Does this contain pork?)

We don't know exactly who "invented" the curry-pan, but it is generally believed that some bakers or restaurant cooks started making it in the early 20th century, when Japanese were becoming familiar with foreign food. Today it is available at almost any bakeries.

The photo above is a melon-pan, a different type of bread  that I want to show you.

Melon-pan is a sweet fluffy bun covered with crisp cookie dough. It is called this way because they say it looks like a melon. Ummm... I have never thought it looks like a melon, though.

What about taste? Does it taste like a melon? In recent years, some manufacturers are making melon-flavored melon-pan, but traditionally we add nothing that tastes or smells like a melon to the dough.

Melon pan was believed to have first created in Japan in the beginning of the 20th century, around the World War I. Ever since, they have been popular not only in Japan but also in Taiwan and China. Today, there are even stores specializing in melon-pan, where you can find many different flavors such as chocolate, caramel, orange and strawberry.

Ah, there's one thing I have to say. One melon-pan is about 500 kcal. If you don't want to get fat, don't eat it too much!

May 19, 2013

Sanja Matsuri is taking place this weekend!

Hi everyone! 

It is getting warmer and warmer in Japan. When it is sunny, we feel even hot! 

May is one of the most comfortable months here. If you are living abroad, I'd like to recommend you to visit Japan around this time of the year. Not too hot, not too cold, lots of sunny days. Although sakura (cherry blossoms) is over in Honshu island, you can see them in Hokkaido, and also we have many festivals! 

One of the most famous festivals in Tokyo is Sanja Matsuri, which is currently taking place in Asakusa. 

The highlight is today, but we went to see the festival yesterday to avoid too much crowd. 

Sanja Matsuri is annually held on the third weekend of May. Though considered one of the three representative Edo festivals, this festival used to have a rough and wild image with the involvement of local yakuza.  

Until several years ago, we had thought that half-naked tattooed men (usually yakuza) dancing and yelling on the mikoshi (portable shrines) was a norm, or rather considered as the essential part of the festival. 

We knew that the festival that attracts 1,5 million tourists was an important financial source of yakuza, but took it as a matter of course. According to the survey conducted in 2007 by the Metropolitan Police Department, about 70 percent of mikoshi carriers were related to yakuza.

Since 2008, however,  the act that carriers mount on mikoshi has been banned, and since 2012 the organizers has requested yakuza not to wear a hanten matsuri jacket with the name of their "kumi" (group or organization) printed on the back.

If you'd like to know what it was like before, take a look at the photo blog of an amateur photographer Edokko! Sanja Matsuri.

I saw many guys with arm tattoos showing from their half-sleeved hanten jacket yesterday, but you don't have to be scared. They are enjoying the festival and usually don't do any harm to tourists. 

Many hochin lanterns with the name of the sponsors, usually small shops and restaurants in the Asakusa district are put up around the Asakusa Shrine, next to the famous Sensoji Temple.

After the purification, more than 100 mikoshi from each district leaves the Asakusa Shrine one after another to stroll the Asakusa area.

Musicians playing the festival music are also townspeople. They include small children.

Looking at people in matsuri jackets, kimono and hakama (trouser-like men's kimono) walking around, you may feel as if you were back in the Edo Period.

Today's useful expression: おみこしは どこで みられますか。 O-mikoshi wa dokode miraremasuka? Where can we see the mikoshi (portable shrines?)

May 16, 2013

How to order sushi ②: tuna

Hi everyone!

Look at the photo above! The red sushi on the right is, needless to say, tuna, more exactly fatty tuna. Doesn't it look delicious? Well, it was VERY tasty.

Tuna is obviously the most popular sushi topping among Japanese. That's why I decided to pick up tuna as the first topic in this sushi series. 

Tuna fish is generally translated "maguro" in Japanese, but at sushi restaurants maguro usually means "lean tuna,"  and fatty portion of tuna belly is called by different name, "chu-toro" or "o-toro" depending on how fatty it is. (O-toro is fattier than chu-toro) .

When it comes to the price, the fattier, the more expensive. According to the price list of Bikkuri-zushi, a popular sushi chain in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture, a maguro is 157 yen, a chu-toro is 262 yen and an o-toro is 420 yen.  (Be careful: sushi usually comes in two pieces, but this price is for only one piece.)

I know many foreigners prefer lean tuna, but you have to try chu-toro at least once. You'll be surprised at its soft melting texture!! I personally find chu-toro best among three kinds: maguro, chu-toro and o-toro. 

Today's useful expression: 中トロ、おねがいします Chu-toro onegaishimasu, Chu-toro please.  
You can replace chu-toro with whatever you'd like to eat.

May 14, 2013

Authentic sushi restaurant is the place for "adults" : How to order and how to behave? ①

When I was younger, eating at an authentic sushi restaurant was intimidating. Unless I was with the "adults" who knew how to behave, I had no nerve to sit at the counter.

"Real" sushi restaurants are the places for adults. I realized that I became "old"  when I found myself relaxed during a dinner at a sushi counter. Well, it is a good thing. Young people who lack experience naturally feel uneasy there. 

If you are with little children who may scream around during the meal, it would be safer to take them to kaiten-zushi, or sushi restaurants with a rotating sushi counter. Don't worry, many kaiten-zushi today are family-oriented and more reasonable, yet the quality is not bad at all. 

At many sushi restaurants, there are tables as well. If you don't know much about sushi, you might feel more comfortable at the table, but I strongly recommend you to sit at the counter, where you can see the art of sushi making. You can decide what to eat by observing the "catch of the day" in the glass showcase or through the conversation with the chef.  

There are no rules about ordering sushi, but for dinner we often start with sashimi (thin-sliced raw fish)  or other small dishes, and because sushi rice makes you full fast. Of course we can eat sushi only, but it is not a very cool behavior.

When you sit at a counter, order something to drink first. Beer, dry white wine and sake go very well with seafood. If you don't like alcoholic beverages, you can ask for free hot green tea. 

At the counter, it is normal to order sushi to the chefs behind the counter directly, although you can ask for other things such as drinks to a waiter/waitress as well. When the chefs are talking to other clients, you should not interrupt their conversation, but don't hesitate to make your order when they are working on something. You can simply say, "Maguro onegaishimasu (Tuna please), "  for example.   

I'll explain more about fish in the next post.   

May 13, 2013

Eat sukiyaki at a classy traditional restaurant: Ningyocho Imahan

Do you like seafood? Can you eat raw fish? If the answer is yes, you will be able to fully enjoy the stay in Japan. But what if you don't like seafood so much? Are there anything else to eat here?

Don't worry. Japanese meat is not bad at all either. Try gyudon (beef bowl) for quick lunch at chain restaurants such as Yoshinoya, Matsuya, Sukiya, and I'm sure you'll be satisfied with the quality for the price. At Yoshinoya, for example, one regular-sized beef bowl is only 280 yen! 

Those chain stores are, however, not the best place for taking your friends or family on special occasions. If you'd like to eat quality meat in better atmosphere,  I'd like to recommend you sukiyaki restaurants. 

Sukiyaki -- it is not the title of Japanese old song. (Actually, I have no idea why this song is called Sukiyaki in the U.S.) It is a Japanese dish consisting of thin sliced beef, vegetables, tofu and other ingredients, cooked in a shallow iron pan with soy-based sauce. 

Normally we eat the simmered food, dipping in raw beaten eggs. You don't have to worry about the food poisoning caused by raw eggs, because in Japan hens are being fed antibiotics against salmonella. If you feel grossed out at the idea of eating raw eggs or the eggs from antibiotic-fed hens, you don't have to eat them, but I believe it is much better WITH raw eggs.

Sukiyaki was invented at the end of the Edo Period, or in the mid-19th century, when Japan was forced to open its doors to the outside world. Before foreign culture was introduced, eating four-legged animals had been very rare due to the Buddhist precept, but sukiyaki soon became popular among Japanese and many restaurants were opened one after another. 

Last weekend my husband and I had lunch at Ningyocho Imahan, one of the most well-known and oldest sukiyaki restaurant in Tokyo. (It was established in 1895.) 

 When we arrived there around 1 p.m., there were only a few groups waiting before us, but they told us that we might have to wait for over an hour. We decided to wait because it was pouring rain outside and we didn't feel like looking for a different restaurant. Frankly, the receptionists were not very friendly, but don't give up here. The time we actually waited was about 30 minutes, and other staff are very nice and friendly. 

If you don't want to wait, it is possible to make a reservation for lunch with the condition that you order a menu item of more than 4,725 yen per person. 

What we ate was Sukiyaki Gozen of 2,625 yen, which include sukiyaki, white rice, soup and some pickles. (You can ask for as much rice as you want.) The photos shown below are uncooked ingredients for two persons.  Look at this beautiful marbled beef! They say they buy the best meat on the market everyday, and this came from Shizuoka Prefecture. 

A friendly kimono-clad lady prepared sukiyaki for us at the table. She was very friendly. She says she is happy about having many foreign clients.

There are many other sukiyaki places in town and I'm not saying Imahan is the best. If you have no idea where to eat, however, it is not a bad choice. It is famous, and you'll be satisfied with the classy traditional atmosphere as well as its food.

Ningyocho Imahan: 2-9-12 Nihonbashi Ningyocho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; tel: 03-3666-7006
Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m., closed New Year's Day only.

It has about 10 brunches in major departments and shopping malls in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Fukuoka. For more details about the locations and prices, check their English website.

Today's useful expression: おちゃ ください。 Ocha kudasai. (Tea please!)
At Japanese restaurants, tea is free of charge. Don't hesitate to ask for it.

May 10, 2013

Japanese bread that I want to recommend ②:anpan

Have you seen a Japanese TV cartoon series "Soreike! Anpanman (Go! Anpanman)"? Anpanman is probably the most popular fictional character among small children in Japan. As his indicates, he is a super hero who has a head of あんぱん(ampan), a sweet bun filled with sweetened bean paste called あんこ (anko).

Here is the image that I found in the official website .


He flies in the sky and beats evils, like Superman, but this Japanese cartoon character may be even more heroic than the American counterpart in a way. He is amazingly selfless, and when he sees starving people he offers them his bread head!! Don't worry, he will not die but just lose some of his physical strength, and Uncle Jam the baker will repair his head later. Very strange, but kids take it as a matter of course. 

A true anpan looks like this. This is the anpan I bought the other day at my neighboring bakery.

I cut it in two to show you the inside...

Unfortunately many Westerners don't like anko so much, but if you like Chinese sweets using same type of bean paste, I'm sure you'll like anpan as well.

Anpan was "invented" in 1874 by a former samurai/first Japanese baker Yasubei Kimura, and spread all over the country. It is now available everywhere and loved by people of all generations.

Kimura's shop, called Kimuraya, still exists in the classy shopping district Ginza (4-5-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo. tel: 3561-0091 ), close to the Ginza-Yonchome Crossing. You can buy their delicious anpan on the first floor, and there are a cafe and restaurants on the upper floors of the building.

Today's useful expression: あんぱん ひとつ ください。 Anpan hitotsu kudasai.
Please give me an anpan.

May 9, 2013

Japanese bread that I want to recommend ①: shokupan

My former British student told me once that she was having trouble finding hard brown bread here. That's true.  The types of bread available at most bakeries in Japan are different from what Western people are eating in their home countries. I cannot say which tastes better, Japanese or Western. It is just different, and I like both.  

When I was living in Paris, I really loved all types of French bread -- baguettes, croissants and pain au raisin, etc. -- but I sometimes felt like eating softer, sweeter, fluffy Japanese bread. What I missed most was "shokupan," a loaf of simple white bread similar to pain de mie, but bigger and much softer. 

It may look like ordinary white bread that you can find anywhere in the world, but... 

When I picked up a piece with fingers, it slightly droops due to its softness.

Some people prefer eating "shokupan" with no butter, no jam, even untoasted, so that they can fully enjoy its fluffy texture and subtle sweetness. I can understand them, but I usually toast it lightly, which makes the outside crispy but keeps the inside soft. Ah, it is so yummy. 

If you would like to know what a thick and soft Japanese toast tastes like, you should try a "morning set," which normally includes a thick toasted shokupan slice, a boiled egg or a sunny side-up, a drink and sometimes salad. You can order it at many 喫茶店(kissaten) or coffeehouses. 

The photo below is a morning set menu offered at 上島珈琲店 Ueshima kohi-ten, a popular café chain located mainly in Tokyo area. Look how thick the bread is! Be careful, the morning set is available only in the morning, till 11 a.m. at Ueshima. 

みみまでサクッと Aセット ベーコンエッグ&厚切りバタートースト ¥580

When you buy a loaf of shokupan at a bakery, you can ask them to slice it. If a regular size of loaf is sliced in six, one piece is about 2cm thick.

Today's useful expression: 6まいに きってください。 Rokumai ni kitte kudasai. (Please slice it in six. )  

You can replace rokumai (six slices) with the number you like, such as yonmai (four), gomai (five), rokumai (six), jumai (ten) .

*If you have any questions, don't hesitate to email me. Also, I'd appreciated if you correct my English errors. Thank you!

May 8, 2013

Don't miss Kanda Festival taking place this week!!

In the recent post I wrote a bit about shinto and Kanda Shrine, but I forgot to mention the very important event that will happen this week... Yes, that's Kanda Matsuri (Festival)!!! If you happen to be in Tokyo this week, don't miss it!

Considered as one of the three biggest festivals of Edo (ancient name of Tokyo), Kanda Festival usually takes place every other year, but it was cancelled in 2011 due to the big earth quake in Tohoku region. Therefore, we were waiting for this year in great anticipation.

The festival will start with a ritual that transports "kami " (shinto gods) to mikoshi, or portable shrines,  tomorrow evening (9th) on the precinct yard of *Kanda Shrine, located at 2-16-2 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo.
 *Kanda Jinja is the official name but it normally goes by the name of  Kanda Myojin.

The highlight of the festival is on the 11th (Saturday) and 12th (Sunday)

On the 11th, there will be a procession of shinto priests in traditional court costume of the Heian Period and the parade of floats and mikoshi through the central districts of Tokyo (Kanda, Nihombashi, Otemachi, Marunouchi and Akihabara) all day long. They are definitely worth viewing!

A float for the festival was being displayed on the shrine's precinct yard the day we visited. See the close-up shot of the upper part (below).

On the 12th, about 100 mikoshi will gather at the shrine. The precinct yard will be packed with people who carry the mikoshi and of course tourists.  The photo is borrowed from the official website of Kanda Myojin Shrine.

Today's useful expression: すみません、とおしてください。 Sumimasen, toshite kudasai.
It means Excuse me (us), please let me (us) go through.

You'll have many chances to use this expression in the situation like the photo above....

May 7, 2013

Yes! You can make noises when eating Japanese noodles!

Hi everyone! 

I'm sure almost all the foreigners who are not familiar with Japanese customs are shocked to see the Japanese eating noodles. Why? Because it is a norm here to slurp soba, udon and ramen noodles. (It is considered as a bad manner to make noises when eating spaghetti though.)

Do I make noises? Of course I do, although I'm trying not to slurp when I'm with foreigners. I don't want them to think of me as a barbarian who doesn't care about etiquette at the table. 

When I was living in Paris, I have eaten ramen at a Japanese restaurant only once. Half of the customers were Japanese and the other half were French or the tourists from other countries. When a Japanese man started eating his ramen in a "proper way",  a French mother and her child sitting at the next table looked at him totally in shock, and the mother whispered, "Look. That is such a bad bad manner. You can never eat like him." I felt really embarrassed, but there is nothing wrong with this guy. He just did what all the Japanese do. 

I have no courage to slurp noodles in foreign countries, especially in Europe. But I'm in Japan now. When there's no foreigners around, I slurp to my heart's content. Ah, what a joy! Sometimes I make my shirt dirty with the soup, but who cares!

If you have a chance to eat noodles in Japan,  why don't you try to slurp?  It is something you cannot do in your home country anyway. You might feel like being a bad guy (or a bad girl)! 

This is the ramen of Yokohama-ya, my favorite ramen chain. The tonkotsu (pork marrow bone) based broth makes the soup milky white. The black paper-like thing is nori seaweed.

Today's useful expressions you might use at ramen shops. If you prefer firm noodles, you can say,  めんは かためで おねがいします。 Men wa katame de onegaishimasu.
Meaning is " I want my noodles firm, please".  Katame (= a little firmer)  can be replaced with やわらかめ yawarakame (= a little softer) if you like soft texture. 

May 5, 2013

How to distinguish shinto shrines from Buddhist temples

Hi everyone! 

I'm often asked by my students, "What is the difference between shrines and temples?" "How do you know which is which?" 

Good questions! Temples are, needless to say, for Buddhism, and shrines are the holy places of shinto, or Japanese native religion that worships sacred spirits called "kami" gods.

Ancient Japanese believed that there are 8 million kami (it actually means "myriads") residing in this world, in both animate and inanimate objects, natural phenomena or even concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers, rocks, storms, fertility and prosperity. Humans also become ancestral kami to protect their descendants. Some kami have human-like forms, while most of them are invisible forces. 

Shrines are the dwelling place of "kami" and people visit there to pray for good fortune or just thank kami for their peaceful daily lives.  

The most symbolic structure of shrines is a 鳥居 torii gate, which marks the approach and entrance to a shrine. It comes in various colors, sizes and materials. The photo below shows a blue torii of Kanda Shrine. 

You go through the blue stone torii gate, walk about 20-30 meters, and reach the entrance of the shrine (the photo below).

This is the main shrine (photo below), where some holy objects that represent kami are stored, but no one is allowed to see them.

The day we visited, a wedding ceremony was being held.

The two people facing back are a bride and a groom in traditional kimono costumes. The young girl in the middle is "miko",  a shrine maiden. 

Another symbolic objects in shrines are "komainu," a pair of guardian dogs or lions, often found on each side of a shrine's entrance or near the inner shrine. 

Look at the photos below. They are the komainu of Atago Shrine in Minato-ku, Tokyo. One of them opens its mouth saying "あ a, "  the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, while the other closes the mouth as if it pronounces the last letter "ん n", representing the beginning and the end of all things. In some shrines, they are foxes rather than dogs.

Today's useful expression: しゃしん を とっても いいですか。Shashin o tottemo iidesuka?
May I take photos?

At shrines you'll have more chances to see people in kimono, but it would be nicer to ask for their permission before taking photos of them. 

*If you have any questions, don't hesitate to email me. Also, I'd appreciate if you correct my grammatical & vocabulary errors. Thank you!