Kyo Chaffle

Green tea is a wonderful discovery/invention. In Japan, some 90.000 tons of tea leaves are harvested each year. Most of this tea is consumed either as “raw” green tea or fermented or roasted (as black tea or hojicha, respectively). An interesting Japanese invention is matcha, green tea leaves that are finely ground to a powder and which can be used to make the famously bitter tea for tea ceremony, or as an ingredient for cooking.

Additionally, in Japan you can buy matcha flavoured anything: From candy to kitkat and chocolates, to ice-cream (with and without anko) for example. And all sorts of cakes and cookies.

Kyochaffle with packageA personal favourite of mine from the latter department are cookies called Kyo Chaffle. Those are thin, round cookies with an intensely green color and an even more intense taste. Their “mouthfeel” if you want so is like that of brownies: On the inside they have a slightly sticky consistency, while they are dry on the outside. They are very delicious indeed and are nice as a snack in between – provided you can manage to stop after a single one…

Under Wraps

In Japan, giving gifts is a very important part of culture. Not only what is inside can make or break a relationship, also the way it is presented is crucial. That’s why gift wrapping has evolved to almost an art form in this country.

Very often, if you buy food items as gifts in a department store, there’s already a wrapped version available. Sometimes, the wrapping is done in front of you though, and there is a small but important difference to Europe in the way it is done: When wrapping a box in Europe, we place it in the middle of the paper such that the sides of the paper and of the box are parallel. Unless one uses a really large piece of paper, three strips of tape will be necessary.

In Japan, the box is placed on the paper at an angle near a corner. With a bit of experience, only a single strip of tape is needed to close the package. it’s quite fascinating! Of course, there are many youtube videos for that – check out the one below from some large Japanese department store. (He needs three strips of tape though 😉 )

Maneki Neko

The maneki neko – literally beckoning cat, also called welcoming cat, lucky cat etc. – is probably one of the best known objects associated with Japan. The little cat figurine with its raised paw can be found at the entrances or cash registers of most shops and restaurants in Japan, and has made its way into numerous Asian restaurants abroad as well. black manekineko with lucky koban coinThe maneki neko is of truly Japanese origin, although when exactly it became customary to put the little statue up is unclear. They most likely first appeared in Tokyo in the mid to late 19th century, and by 1902 they were already extremely popular. There are a number of folk tales that give a story for the first appearance of the maneki neko; the one most down to earth simply talks about two competing ramen shops situated next to each other. One of them put up a maneki neko in the window, just to see an increase in customers, at least until the other shop followed suit.

many many manekineko...A cat statue is only allowed to call itself maneki neko if it has a paw raised in the typical Asian beckoning gesture, which is executed palm-down here. The raised paw is supposed to beckon customers and/or wealth in general. You can find maneki neko with left or right paws raised, but interestingly not even the Japanese themselves seem to know whether the right paw stands for money and the left paw for customers or vice versa. Other interpretations are one paw for shops (especially bars), the other paw for the home; one for wealth, the other for luck… About 60% of the Japanese maneki neko have their left paw raised, thus bringing in customers (probably), according to research by the Japanese Maneki Neko Club. Really clever people have come up with maneki neko that raise both paws, just to be sure, but they are not very common.

2 calico maneki neko with left/right paw raisedIn any case, the paw became raised higher and higher over time, so some people use this as an indicator of the age of the statue. The idea is here to increase the reach of the cat to lure in customers and money. The latest development is clearly the solar-powered arm that is beckoning for real – and forever.

Other common features of a maneki neko are the red collar with a bell and a little bib. These things most likely go back to the Edo period where wealthy pet owners were actually dressing their cats like that. Furthermore, many maneki neko hold or sit on coins, mallets, carp, or marbles and gems, all of which symbolise money. The coin represents a koban, a gold coin used in the Edo period that was worth one ryo, and the writing on the coin usually says senmanryo – 10 million ryo – a huge amount of money, not just for a little shop owner.

Maneki neko come in various colours. The three-colored calico is based on the Japanese bobtail breed and, probably because those animals are quite rare, is considered the luckiest. Other traditional colours are white (happiness, purity, and positive energy), black (to ward off evil spirits and, in a modern interpretation: stalkers), and gold (wealth and prosperity). A red color is rather unusual, it stands for protection from evil and illness, but nowadays, maneki neko can be bought in practically any color – with more or less modern meanings attached.

modern manekineko in various coloursAn interesting side note to the probable origin of the maneki neko is the following: In the Edo period, sex was not quite as shunned as it is today, and many houses where female companions were available had shelves with lucky charms – often in the shape of penises of all sizes. Enter the Meiji restoration and the opening of Japan to the much more prude West; obviously those charms had to go. However, they were replaced with the maneki neko, because in Japan, the cat is associated with young, beautiful women, especially geisha. This may be because of the witchery cats are said to be exercising – just like young women…geisha figurine with maneki neko

Bansugoroku

By chance, I have come across a very old Japanese board game called Bansugoroku. Just like Go and Shogi (Japanese chess), it was popular at the Heian court in Kyoto some 1000 years ago. However, over time, it became a major game for (illegal) gambling, and when the Edo government cracked down on this and banned gambling, bansugoroku fell out of favour and nowadays is practically forgotten.

That’s a pity because it is actually quite fun to play, a mixture between backgammon and “Mensch ärgere Dich nicht”. You need: A board with 24 fields arranged on opposite sides like shown in the picture below, 15 black pieces for one, and 15 white pieces for the other player, and two dice. Bansugoroku mid gameAt first, the pieces of each player are piled at one side of the board, and the goal is to bring all pieces to the opposite side where now the other colour is. That means, that the white and black pieces move in opposite directions on the same board, like in backgammon.

And this is how to play: After agreeing on who starts, the first player rolls both dice. She is now allowed to move one or two of her pieces according to the result of the dice throw. For example, if you roll a 3 or a 6, you can either move one piece 3 fields forward and the second piece 6 fields, or you move a single piece 9 fields forward. Then, it’s the other player’s turn.

playing bansugorokuSounds simple? The game is not trivial though, since there may only be a single piece on any field: if two pieces of the same colour would fall on the same field, you have to move another piece instead. And if a black piece reaches a field occupied with a white one (or vice versa), then the white piece has to move all the way back to the beginning (just like in Mensch ärgere Dich nicht). Also the final field has to be reached with the correct number of moves – no overshooting allowed! The game is over when one player has moved all his pieces to the opposite side.

The above are the rules as they were explained to me, but I am sure there are variants of the game. How to approach the finish was a bit unclear for example: If you cannot reach the goal and are not allowed to overshoot, then what do you do? I have been told to turn back at the finish, but it is probably best to wait until you roll the correct number.

bansugoroku / backgammonI have since done a bit of research and the Internet in its infinite wisdom insists that bansugoroku was played similar to modern backgammon – with the pieces even laid out on the board in the same way in the beginning. I have found a number of images and woodblock prints from the Edo period of the 18th century which would suggest the same thing. It is possible though that the game was played differently at the Heian court of 1000 years ago and has evolved into a variant or predecessor of backgammon. Since I am not a scholar in the history of Japanese games however, I will leave this open.

In any case, as mentioned above, bansugoroku is not played any longer, although some Japanese do play “real” backgammon these days. I wouldn’t mind owning one of those bansugoroku boxes though – aren’t they fabulous? Bansugoroku box

Cold

I’m having a cold. Since last Monday I’ve had the sniffles, with a bit of temperature even in the evening. I know exactly what caused it, and looking back: It was worth it!

Last Sunday I spent 7 hours sitting in a rather unheated event hall in Osaka watching the first day of this year’s Spring Tournament of Sumo. It was rather unplanned, a friend of a friend bought the wrong tickets and couldn’t find anyone else to go with her, so we were four girls sitting high up there above the ring to watch sumo. Before entering the hall at about 11 in the morning, we bought food and drinks to last all day, and then we hunkered down and enjoyed the show.

Two sumo wrestlers preparing for their boutA sumo tournament lasts for two weeks, and every rikishi or sumo ringer has one match a day. The ranking after the tournament is determined by the number of wins each rikishi could score, and there are very complicated rules as to how and when to move up to the next level. I guess I’ll write about sumo in more depth in a Sunday post some day.

This was my second sumo event (I saw one in Nagoya some 8 years ago or so), and there were essentially three parts to the whole day. The lowest ranking rikishi start wrestling in the morning – the tournament was well under way when we arrived – and the last match of the day in the late afternoon is always the one of the yokozuna, the top ranked rikishi.

It may sound a bit funny, but you can actually notice a difference in the matches. The lower ranks seem to be more different in fighting strength, so many of the early matches are over very quickly, with one rikishi clearly dominant. The higher the rank, the more even the pairs, and a match takes much longer, including of course the going into the ring and clearing it with salt, the foot stamping etc. which is sometimes repeated several times before the match really starts.

It’s also not always true that the bigger fighter with more fat wins, often the not so fat ones are more muscular or agile and can thus make up for a lack of sheer body mass. Nevertheless, no matter what their size, sumo wrestlers are in a very good shape – or could you lift your foot over your head like the two guys in the picture above?

Altogether, I had a fun day last Sunday, and I gladly paid for it with the cold I caught (even though I could use a good night’s sleep by now).The greatest bit happened at the very last match when the yokozuna lost… This is always a big disappointment for the spectators, and they show it. Enjoy!

(This 2013 video is a bit loud in the beginning, but sound is not necessary for the fun part. In January 2017, Kisenosato became the first Japanese yokozuna in 19 years. He’s the one winning the fight in the video.)

White Day

Today is March 14th, and the Japanese celebrate White Day. It is the day when guys are supposed to “pay back” the chocolate they received a month ago on Valentine’s Day. Of course, just as I thought a month ago already, there are no especially nice chocolates around this time, but White Day gifts still appear to be quite difficult…

marshmallowsThe thing today is that men are allowed to make differences in the gifts they buy according to recipient: If he just has to reciprocate for what is called giri choco, obligation chocolate, from coworkers for example, simple sweets in return are fine. A favourite one in this case are marshmallows for some reason, probably because they are (mostly) white?

Girlfriends get special treatment, the present may be more expensive, luxury handbags and expensive jewellery are not unheard of. Once you are married however, there’s no need to worry about gifts any longer: After all, your wife has access to your bank account and will simply go out and buy herself a present – and deduct the price from your monthly allowance. Yes, at least the first part of this sentence is still true in some households!

The above information I have gathered from a friend of mine, and she said that in her youth, a boy was supposed to reciprocate with a present that was about 10 times as expensive as the one he received! Of course, this was back during the bubbly economy, nowadays this number has gone down considerably – to about 3.

Still, I cannot understand why there’s not more exciting chocolate around on White Day. The displays have shrunken a great deal and it’s more of the standard fare this time – maybe guys aren’t as picky as girls? My friend assures me though that the 3 times as expensive holds for giri choco as well. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the Japanese ways…

Salvation of a Saint

Salvation of a Saint
Keigo Higashino

Cover Salvation of a SaintYoshitaka Mashiba is found dead in his livingroom. Soon it is clear that he was poisoned by arsenic in in coffee, and when it transpires that he had an affair with his wife’s assistant, the prime suspect is logical: Yoshitaka’s wife Ayane. But since she had spent that weekend in Hokkaido with her parents, she could not have committed the crime, could she? Detective Kusanagi is convinced of her innocence and tries to find another suspect, but his young assistant Utsumi is not so sure. And when she sees that Kusanagi is falling for Ayane, she must be ready to call on an outsider to prove her suspicions and solve the case.

This is another of Higashino’s crime novels featuring detective Kusanagi and his old friend Prof. Yukawa. Although not on speaking terms at the moment, Yukawa is intrigued by the ostensibly perfect crime that has been committed and agrees to help. Once again, the solution comes at the very end and with a twist that is completely unexpected and touches the reader to the core.

Keigo Higashino, born 1958 in Osaka, started writing while still working as an engineer for a Japanese automotive company. At age 27, his first novel won the prestigious Edogawa Rampo Award and he began to write professionally. In the West, he is mostly known for his brilliantly crafted mystery novels.

Check it out on amazon.com or amazon.co.uk.

Kisen de Oden

Sorry for not writing on Sunday. First I was occupied and later incapacitated…

A friend of mine took me out to Otsu, some 30 minutes east of Kyoto. Otsu is the capital of Shiga prefecture and the largest city situated on Lake Biwa which in its turn is the largest freshwater lake of Japan. Both Otsu and Lake Biwa are popular day trip destinations from Kyoto, and there is even a path over the mountains from Kyoto to Lake Biwa, but it is probably not for the weak of limb…

Anyway, we went to Otsu on Sunday evening for a Kisen-de-Oden. Oden is a soup or rather a hot pot that is eaten throughout Japan during winter: in a light broth various types of fish cake are boiling, together with a whole egg, some daikon radish, and konyaku. It’s a bit like shabu-shabu with the difference that the ingredients are already pre-cooked and just heated in the hot pot.

Kisen means boat in Japanese, and Kisen-de-Oden thus means that you eat Oden while riding in a boat somewhere on the lake. Well, it didn’t work out like that exactly, but still: There was a short trip by boat from the main harbour of Otsu to the little landing at the old Biwako Otsukan hotel. This is a lovely building situated directly on the lake with a beautiful garden right next to it. Of course, when we arrived it was dark already and neither the building nor the garden could be seen. However, Otsu lies on the southern tip of Lake Biwa, and surrounds a good part of it, so there was a wonderful view of lit up Otsu from Otsu across the lake.

Old Otsu Hotel at Lake Biwa(photo by 663highland on Wikimedia commons)

The Oden was an interesting mix of French and Japanese cuisine. We had cooked beef in sauce, some hearty egg pudding, and foie gras as appetizers. Then the pot for the oden was heated on our table, and we were supposed to eat it – and top it off with the grated cheese that was provided. When the oden was finished we put a fried, plain onigiri rice ball into the remaining soup to make our own risotto. My overall impression was: interesting combination, but delicious.

With these sort of things I am never sure whether they are meant for the food or for the drinks. Together with the ticket, you got three coupons for free drinks (I chose three glasses of wine) plus an additional glass of hot wine on the trip plus another additional glass of wine upon arrival. That’s 5 glasses of wine – within 90 minutes, not for the weak of stamina… Of course, as usual in Japan, the whole evening was minutely planned, and executed as well, and while the waiters held themselves in the background, you still had the feeling of being rushed a little. 30 minutes more would not have been amiss.

After 75 minutes in the restaurant we had to leave and were taken by boat back to Otsu harbour again. My friend forgot to order dessert (which was a good thing because there wasn’t time enough for another course anyway), so we went to have pancakes in a Hawaiian restaurant (of all places) near the train station.

Altogether I had a nice evening in Otsu. The place looks peaceful in the night and worth examining further. I have been there before for Otsu matsuri (with the same friend) and this time we kinda sorta got invited to return for the Otsu fireworks in summer. But that’s still five months to go, and with a bit of luck I will go there earlier.

Baby Kasutera

One of the great things of Japanese festivals of a certain size is the fast food sold there. From very simple grilled meat – on sticks – and very elaborate pancakes with different toppings – rolled around sticks – to the all time favourites of yakisoba and okonomiyaki. Sweets are either caramelised fruit like apples or strawberries – on sticks – or bananas – on sticks – dipped in chocolate and sprinkles.

And then there are Kasutera. They are hard to describe, little oval balls made from simple pancake batter (I think) and baked in a special mold. They are not very sweet as there is no sugar added (although is there certainly some in the batter), and they are best when eaten fresh and really hot.

Making Baby KasuteraBaby Kasutera like this seem to be a speciality of matsuri, I have never seen them sold elsewhere. Also it seems that at least in Kyoto there is a monopoly on Kasutera. No matter what festival, and no matter how large, there is a single Kasutera booth only and it is always the same company. So, if you come visit a Kyoto festival, try to find the Kasutera booth, they are certainly worth it!

By the way, there is also a sponge-like cake called Kasutera, but the taste is a bit different. Don’t mistake those two, although the Kasutera cake is not usually sold at matsuri anyway.

Nail House

You have heard of nail houses or holdouts, right? Those are houses or rather the property on which it stands that did not become a part of a larger development (a shopping centre, public building, etc) because the owners refused to sell. Nail houses is a relatively new term for these properties, many of them are in China and there are plenty of photos online.

Recently, there is a lot of building going on in Kyoto. Lots of beautiful old buildings, many with large gardens, are torn down to make room for a brand-new mansion – I positively hate them! Often, a number of houses in a neighborhood are bought up by a developer to be able to build even bigger mansions… When you are walking down the roads in Kyoto in 20 years or so, all you will see are mansions and parking lots, with a few convenience stores strewn in between, I swear. The old buildings that will be left at that time will feel like a zoo because nobody will live in them anymore, they will be just cafes and souvenir shops…

Anyway, I wanted to write about a nail house near the old place where I lived. The owner refused to sell to one of those huge mansion developers, and now her house is surrounded on three sides by the mansion, the fourth side is facing the road. While I commend her guts to stand up to the guys with the big money, I have to say I wouldn’t want to live like that…

But then I realised that there is an even more prominent nail house in Kyoto. It is smack on one of the busiest corners in inner city, at Shijo-Kawaramachi, and it is this:

Kyoto Takashimaya Building, 2006The big building is the Kyoto Takashimaya, one of the largest department store chains in Japan. It was founded in Kyoto in 1831 and moved to this prominent spot in 1948. And at that point already, the owner of the little house on the corner refused to sell to the big developers, and you can see what happened then: Just like what would happen nowadays. You see, in Japan, it’s all about tradition… 😉