Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

January 26, 2008

Is rice still the "Soul of Japan?"

Is rice still the soul of Japan? Perhaps not so strongly anymore when you see the advance of hamburgers, pasta en steaks.

But various things still remind me of the fact that this tropical marshland plant has shaped Japanese civilization as we know it. Rice and the Japanese share a long and deep relationship. Rice cultivation caused the rise of extended families, of sophisticated water control and of communal cooperation. It made Japan into the "interdependent" society it still is today.

It also shaped religion as rice cultivation itself was seen as a religious act - the God of the Paddies (or the Mountain God) would be welcomed to the fields in spring and be sent off again in autumn. This in turn gave rise to annual observances, festivals (matsuri) and folk performing arts. These rituals were also connected with ceremonies in the Imperial House.

But that is not all. I find it interesting that rice was also money. Besides being the staple food, rice functioned as salary - samurai's stipends were measured and paid in rice - and as tax money. Both were measured in koku, usually translated as bushels, although the Japanese bushel at 180 liters was more than 5 times the U.S. bushel. One koku was the total amount of rice eaten in a year by one person.

Traditional Japan truly was a rice economy. Was there ever a bread or potato economy in Europe? I have not heard of it!

The type of rice eaten in Japan is called Japonica and characterized by greater stickiness than Chinese or Indian rice. Besides normal glutinous rice, there is even a more stickier type that is used for making the dreaded mochi rice cakes and the okowa (sticky, steamed rice) you can buy on the food floors of department stores. A third variety with long, starchy kernels is used exclusively as rice for brewing sake.

There are thousands of varieties of rice in Japan, many of them bred in the 20th century for improved productivity and resistance to disease and cold weather. The most famous types such as Koshihikari and Sasanishiki are brand names in their own right and demand higher prices than ordinary rice where different types have been mixed.

That rice is the basis of the Japanese menu, is demonstrated by an expression as ichiju ichisai : "one soup" (miso) and "one vegetable dish" (pickles) - a bowl of rice is also included, but so obvious that it is not even mentioned!

Besides being eaten as white rice (after polishing the brown hull away), rice is used for rice cakes, Japanese sweets, rice crackers, and to make sake, vinegar, miso, mirin (sweet cooking sake) and koji (malt). There are various rice dishes, such as onigiri, takikomi gohan (rice cooked together with various ingredients), donburi (white rice with a topping as eel, fried pork etc), Chinese-style fried rice (chahan) - and of course pilaff.

In a traditional society, nothing is thrown away, so rice straw was used for making rope, straw sandals, straw mats (goza), tatami padding, straw rice bags and straw rain coats (mino).

By the number of expressions and nuances for it in a given language, you can see whether something is important in that culture. Not surprisingly, there are many words for rice in Japanese. The Japanese make a difference between rice in the fields (ine), harvested rice (kome) and cooked rice (gohan). Gohan is also the general term for "food." When rice is eaten from a plate instead of from a bowl, it is not Japanese anymore and is therefore called by the English term "raisu."

Finally, some "rice etiquette":
- when serving rice, do not fill the rice bowl to the brim but only lightly put two or three scoops of rice in the bowl with the rice paddle;
- never put other food on top of the rice or mix it with other food in the ricebowl (of course, except when some pickles as a dried plum are already on top);
- do not add flavorings such as soy sauce or red pepper to the white rice, this looks very barbarian!
- when eating the rice, pick up the bowl in one hand and bring it close to your mouth (do the same with the miso soup); however, never pick up the plate when rice is served on a plate.
- when starting the meal say "itadakimasu!" ("I receive") and when finished "gochisosama!" ("Thank you for the feast").

If you don't like rice, be assured that it will grow on you the longer you stay in Japan. At least, that is my experience. When I was just in Japan, I could at most eat half a bowl, but after a couple of years I found myself increasingly asking for "okawari" (a second helping)!

January 13, 2008

Black food is healthy in Japan

Food crazes come and go in Japan, one after the other, sometimes many simultaneously, but the fervor for "black foods" is remarkably steady – it has already been with us for almost ten years. And indeed, black is better, as black foods often contain more anthocyanin (a type of polyphenol found in high concentrations in blueberries and raspberries), isoflavones and minerals and have additional health benefits such as antioxidants to battle those free radicals. Anthocyanins make blueberries blue, cherries red and blackberries black. The darker the color, the more anthocyanins a food contains.

Most black foods have actually been long known in Japan, but were dropped out of the modern diet or are only eaten on special occasions, such as the black soybean – by many Japanese this is consumed only once a year in Osechi Ryori, the traditional New Year dish.

In fact, black soy beans were used in Chinese medicine to clear toxins from the body. Black beans are high in protein, fiber and anthocyanins and may be helpful for lowering cholesterol levels. Years ago a method was developed for roasting the beans, making it possible to eat the beans as a snack - or make black soybean tea by soaking the roasted beans in hot water. The resulting tea has the aroma of roasted beans and tastes slightly sweet. You can even eat the beans left over at the bottom of your cup as a snack!

Black soy beans have found their way into various food products as well. House Foods has brought a new type of cocoa drink to the market, “Black Bean Cocoa”, to which black soybeans from the Tanba region in Western Japan have been added. This has been a hit, adding the polyphenols of the cocoa to the anthocyanins of the black soybeans.

Kobe-based food manufacturer Fujicco has developed Black Beans Tea, there is Black Bean Coffee, and black beans are even added to soymilk drinks. There is also Black Beans Natto (if you can stomach that).

Another black ingredient are Black Sesame Seeds, which are a source of calcium and seem to be good for the kidney and liver. They also have high amounts of protein, iron, and magnesium. Black sesame seeds too, are added to all kinds of foods and drinks – there is also a soymilk drink with black sesame seeds, not to speak of black sesame biscuits and cereals.

Black Vinegar Drinks or “Kurosu” have also been around for some time now on the health foods market. Black vinegar is aged vinegar made from rice, barley and sometimes brown rice. It is aged for 3 months to a year in ceramic pots. The dark liquid is rich in citric acid, vitamins and minerals. It is said to help lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, among other benefits. This, too, is a huge market. Most manufacturers come from Kagoshima in southern Kyushu, such a Sakamoto Breweries that has 70% of the market.

Black Rice or Kurokome is so rare and high in nutrition that in China only the imperial house was allowed to eat it - it was therefore also called "forbidden rice." It is again rich in anthocyanins. It is not very common in Japan and you will probably have to to visit a health store to get it. The best way to eat it is to mix a spoonful through your "ordinary" rice.

Blueberries have for some time been a popular ingredient in for example yogurt as they are believed to improve eyesight. That may be a myth, but these deeply hued berries are indeed high in antioxidants.

Black mushrooms such as shiitake are often eaten in Japan and also thought to be good for fighting loose radicals. Shiitake do not go well with Western food, but can be eaten separately as tempura. In Japan, you find them often in stews and soups.

Finally, we have Chinese Black Tea or Puaru (Pu-erh) tea that has also boomed in Japan. Chinese black tea is of the green tea family, but has undergone a fermenting process of many, many years – sometimes as long as twenty years (although three is more normal)! This leads to a very rich aroma. The tea is thought to possess detoxification and antibacterial properties. It also helps to slim down.

In short, black is healthy. The market for black foods in Japan is huge – it is estimated to easily surpass the $500 million mark. Of course these foods are not a cure-all and some health claims are rather based on folklore than on solid scientific research. But being high in proteins and other nutrients, they will never be bad for you!

January 9, 2008

Sushi shop slang

When you want to show off in a sushi restaurant as THE connoisseur, you can of course order an omakase course and let the sushi chef, the Itamae-san, serve you the best delicacies he has been able to find at Tsukiji that day.

That may however be dangerous for your wallet. Sushi chefs have a rather obscure way of setting prices and omakases are always expensive.

Luckily, there is another way to boast your way to sushi stardom: use the special sushi shop slang to demonstrate you know your way around.

Here are a few examples of "itamae-nese":

otemoto - chopsticks, normal would be ohashi. "Otemoto" means literally "at the base of your hands."

murasaki - soy sauce, normal would be shoyu. Murasaki means "purple" and so refers to the color of the sauce.

agari - tea, normally ocha.

gari - thinly sliced ginger pickled in vinegar. "gari-gari ni yaseta" means "rattlebones," but I am not sure that is related!

ichinin-mae - a serving for one person, usually referring to the thick, sweet omelet eaten at the end of the course. Literally, "in front of one person."

odori-ebi, "dancing shrimp," a shrimp that is still alive.

hikari-mono, "shiny things," fish with the skin still attached as aji, horse mackerel.

shari, vinegared sushi rice. This is my favorite one: cooked rice normally is gohan. Shari refers to the Buddha's ashes, which were considered an important relic in Buddhism. When people are cremated in Japan, the body is not wholly reduced to ashes, but brittle bones are left. Small pieces of bone resemble rice grains, as they are white and shiny. The term is not meant to be unpleasant, but rather an honorific. In fact, as very few pieces of Buddha bones made it all the way to Japan, in medieval reliquaries often grains of rice were used as a substitute!

January 6, 2008

Hatsumode 2008 (Kamigamo Shrine, Kyoto)

Last year it was the Shimogamo Shrine we selected for our Hatsumode, this year we opted for its "sibling", the Kamigamo Shrine in northern Kyoto. January 1 was a dark and overcast day, with some sleet raining down, but New Year's day would not be complete without a shrine visit.


The Kamigamo Shrine is dedicated to Kamo-wake-ikazuchi, the son of Tamayori-hime, a princess who together with her father Kamo-taketsunemi-no-mikoto is enshrined in the Shimogamo Shrine. The deity was miraculously conceived after a red arrow touched the princess between her legs. Both shrines were tutelary shrines of the Kamo clan who ruled this area before Kyoto (Heiankyo) was established here as the new capital in 794.


Before being adopted by the Kamo clan, and "humanised," these deities were sheer natural forces. The Shimogamo shrine stands downstream, where the Kamo and Takano rivers flow together and was a sort of river god to whom prayers were said to guard against floods. The Kamigamo Shrine stands farther north, at the foot of Koyama Hill, where the deity first was called down to an iwakura, a rock formation at the top. He was most probably a thunder god to whom prayers were said for rain and good harvests.



This is the Romon, a two-storied gate that gives entrance to the inner part of the shrine. It dates from the 1620s. In front flows the Omonoi stream which is crossed by the red Tama bridge. Like Shimogamo, also this shrine has clear streams which were used for purification ceremonies and stands in a patch of forest. Although the surroundings are more natural, the buildings are slightly smaller than those of the Shimogamo Shrine.



These two mysterious conical heaps of sand (Tate-suna) probably originated in a gardener's device to have fresh sand at hand, but now are believed to be imizuna, "purifying sand" or "exorcising sand" that is scattered at impure spots and in unlucky directions as the northeastern "Demon's Gate." It is even sold in small bags to take home.




Like the Usa Shine in Kyushu, Kamigamo keeps a sacred horse as mount for the deity. The shrine is also famous for the annual horse races (Kurabe-uma) on May 5, held continously since 1093. The purpose of the ceremony is to pray for a good harvest and for peace. Next to the Aoi Matsuri held jointly with the Shimogamo Shrine on May 15, this is the most popular ceremony of the shrine and many people come to watch.


This is the entrance to the Honden, the Main Sanctuary, and Gonden (temporary sanctuary on the left of the Honden), a sort of Holy of Holies where no pictures are allowed. The buidings are National Treasures and date from 1863. They are representative examples of the "Nagare-zukuri" style of Shinto architecture: the front of the gabled roof has been extended forward, the building is three bays wide and roofed with cypress bark. Inside, nothing but the sound of clapping hands and clinking coins.



In front of the shrine, this shop selling local pickles was open even on January 1. Their specialty are Suguki, a kind of turnip (belonging to the famous branded category of Kyo-yasai, Kyoto vegetables), well-fermented and with an acidic flavor. It is one of the typical "winter pickles" of Kyoto.



The Kamo River with as background Kyoto's northern hills. It is barely visible, but one of them, Mt Funayama, has been encrusted with the shape of the ship that is lighted with bonfires during the Obon Festival on August 16. It carries the souls of the dead towards the Pure Land of the Buddha. The Kamigamo Shrine stands just to the right. Walking here, you would not think you are in a large city, it rather feels like free nature.



Another Kyoto winter scene: yurikamome, black-headed gulls, gathering on and near the Kamo River.

P.S. The Kamigamo Shrine is also the location of Poem No 98 of the Hyakunin Isshu, an ablution poem.