For some of you reading, perhaps you’re familiar with the old line that you should never open an umbrella indoors, lest you be cursed with bad luck. Perhaps you’ve lamented over your coming 7 years of bad luck over that mirror you dropped. Or maybe you’ve even been hesitant to pass beneath a ladder, for fear of something bad happening.
Whatever your particular brand of superstition, chances are many of them hinge on bad luck. In Japan, however, it may come as a surprise that many commonly held superstitions are not only completely unrelated to luck, but are also incredibly, and oddly, specific.
In Japanese funeral rites, more specifically Buddhist funeral rites practiced in Japan, the body of the deceased is laid with the head pointing North. It is said that when Buddha died, he fell with his head facing North, and the Japanese replicate this by directing their deceased in the same direction. It follows then, that sleeping in a way that mimics the way the dead rest will bring you bad luck.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. The story goes that if you hiccup 100 times in a row, you might as well bend over and kiss your butt goodbye. This one apparently comes from a lack of knowledge of disease in the past. People who have hiccuping to the degree that they would have 100 in a row usually have some underlying cause that can lead to death if untreated. In the past, with no knowledge of disease, the hiccups themselves were associated with death, and not as a symptom of something more serious.
If you have allergies or a cold, don’t worry. This is for those random sneezes you get out of nowhere that immediately make you go “well, that was weird.” This superstition comes from the idea that, since a sneeze is not something you can make yourself do, a random sneeze is caused by the connection made between yourself and a person talking about you.
Though some might be quick to jump on the “weird Japan” train with this one, it’s not actually a superstitious belief in transmogrification. People say this to remind their children and family members that no matter how tired you might feel after eating, it’s unhealthy to lie down and then fall asleep on a full stomach, as it can lead to weight gain. The cow part just means getting fat.
According to acupuncture, various spots on the body supposedly stimulate various responses. The center top of the back of the head, a common place for a cowlick, is one such spot, and applying pressure to it is said to cause a gastrointestinal response.
Most popular laundry detergents have a variety made for indoor drying. You can look for the phrase 部屋干し用(へやぼしよう － heyaboshiyou). These laundry detergents are designed to prevent souring.
In the west, it’s often said that visualizing an audience in their underwear will help ease your nerves. In Japan, you eat “people” to calm down. If you’re facing a big speech or some other nerve-wracking activity, simply write the kanji for “person”, or 人 (ひと) on your palm 3 times and pretend to eat them. The idea is that your audience will look very small to you from wherever you are standing; so small in fact, that should you wish, you could reach out and eat them, so there is no reason to be nervous.
This superstition comes from Daikokuten, a hybrid Buddhist/Shinto god often associated with wealth and good fortune. He was known for his rather large earlobes, so people who also have large earlobes are thought to have a predisposition for wealth.
In the older, less modern days of human trafficking, this was told to children to keep them quiet at night to prevent them from being kidnapped by traffickers (snakes). Today, it’s just another superstition.
Japanese is full of homophones, or words that sound the same but have totally different meanings and spellings. Two of these are 夜爪 and 世詰め which are both read as よづめ, or “yozume”. The first yozume means clipping nails at night. The second means to die before your parents. These two homophones carry a bad omen, so it is said that if you do yozume (clipping your nails at night), it carries the other meaning as well.
So, since the “dying before your parents” meaning would mean you wouldn’t be around to see your parents’ funerals (as you would be, ya know, dead), clipping your nails at night will give you a curse that will prevent you from being at your parents’ funerals, no matter how hard you try.
In Japanese, the word for thumb is 親指 (おやゆび), or oyayubi. This literally translates into “parent fingers”. The idea is that when you see a hearse, you should protect your parents from death by covering them, i.e. covering your “parent fingers” with the rest of your fingers.
During the past few weeks, Ken has seen a number of SUVs with small rowboats on top, presumably for some sort of nature excursion. While driving, he covered his thumbs when he saw them because he thought they were hearses at first. This happened two other times recently. Then today, he saw what he thought was another SUV/boat combination, smirked, and didn’t cover his thumbs, only to realize it was indeed a hearse. He’s pretty worried about his parents now. ;)
No matter what culture you come from, chances are there are seasonal foods that we all look forward to. In the summer in Japan, Nagashi soumen is one such food.
Soumen is a type of Japanese noodle made from white flour. It is typically dipped in a soy sauce-based dipping sauce, and is served cold, making it a popular summer dish for it’s cool, refreshing taste. The noodles themselves are not sticky or greasy, and are actually quite slick. They don’t have much flavour alone, so the dipping sauce is essential. Garnishes like Japanese basil (シソ shiso), sliced leeks (ネギ negi), and myoga ginger (ミョウガ myouga) are also commonly eaten with soumen.
If you have never had soumen, you can find it at many restaurants or you could even try your hand at making it yourself! This is what it looks like dry:
流しそうめん (nagashi soumen) literally means “flowing soumen”. Sometimes cooked soumen noodles are put down a bamboo shoot flowing with cold water. People will stand along the shoot and try to catch noodles as they quickly flow past, then dip them in a small bowl of sauce. If a noodle is missed, however, fret not! Usually the person after you will catch it. In this way it almost becomes a kind of competition.
This style of eating soumen was started in 1955 in Miyazaki prefecture. Farmers started doing it during break times, and it became incredibly popular. Nagashi soumen is now done all over Japan during the summertime.
There are a number of ways you can make a slider for the water and noodles. If you are crafty, you can purchase and split bamboo logs, remove the knot between segments, and lay them slightly overlapping end to end, at a slightly downward angle.
You can also use cleaned plastic bottles and other kinds of plastic to rig up a slider.
If actually making a slider isn’t your thing, there are a number of tools you can buy that emulate the experience.
Whatever your method for nagashi soumen, it is definitely something you should try at least once. It’s an excellent way to pass the time, have a little excitement, and have a refreshing treat in the beastly Japanese summer.
Stay cool and have fun, everyone!
For info on sunscreens available in Japan: https://www.lifeabroad.jp/html/personal_care/sunscreen.html
For info on insect repellents available in Japan: https://www.lifeabroad.jp/html/daily_life/insect_repellent.html
For tips on how to stay cool in the summer: https://www.lifeabroad.jp/html/daily_life/heating_ac.html#cooling
Aedes albopictus, or the Asian tiger mosquito, also known as evil incarnate. These abominations are common in many countries, and most of you will be familiar with them. You will see them flying around your homes, poorly air conditioned schools and government work places, and generally everywhere. They look like this:
When you notice one of these bastards flying around your face, generally being annoying and disruptive, he’s often not the one you should be worried about. Mosquitoes often work in pairs, and when one is busy distracting you, another is busy popping you like a Capri Sun.
So if you see one that is flying around you but not trying to land on you, look around for another one that’s already on you.
If like me you were not born in Japan, everything from the common cold to mosquito bites on this side of the pond can cause much more severe reactions. Having not grown up here, my immune system is not accustomed to the variations in bacteria and viruses, so when I get sick, boy do I get sick. A simple cold will have me out of commission for 3-4 days with extremely high fever, severe body aches, coughing that can break ribs, and general malaise so bad I am bedridden.
This reaction is not typical for Japanese people, whose immune systems are accustomed to common attackers to where they can typically continue working throughout their illness. In a similar way, when Japanese people get bit by a mosquito, they can generally expect an average sized bug bite of average itchiness. When I get bit, I can expect something like this:
That is one bite, with a horrendously itchy and painful welt that took up almost the entire width of my arm. This is actually an allergic reaction. If you are not from Japan and have a tendency to get bit by mosquitoes (I envy those that don’t), you may have a similar experience. Unfortunately the only thing that can be done about it is to apply one metric tonne of itch cream and wait for it to dissipate, after which you may be left with scars for months and months even if you did your best not to scratch the damn thing.
Even one of these can be unbearably itchy. I can tell you first-hand that the hot spoon method doesn’t work. Neither does pressing an ‘x’ into the bite with your fingernail. The most effective products I’ve found are Muhi S and Kinkan. You can find info on itch relief products here:
For those of you from the U.S., there is a product called After Bite that was super effective and contained ammonia. They reformulated, taking out the ammonia, and now After Bite doesn’t work at all. Kinkan (キンカン）has ammonia, menthol, camphor, salicylic acid, and capsaicin, so it works wonders on bug bites. Just be sure not to put it on broken skin or rashes, as it will burn and make the issue worse.
If the OTC stuff doesn’t work, you can always go to your doctor or dermatologist and they will give you prescription itch relief cream. They are usually steroid based, so be sure to follow the instructions carefully and wash your hands after use.
A couple years ago there was an outbreak of Dengue Fever in Yoyogi Park. This year seems to be all right so far, but with the number of mosquito-borne diseases we should watch out for, prevention is key. Luckily, insect repellent can be found easily and affordably in Japan. We actually have an all-English list of repellents, with their active ingredients and instructions on the Life Abroad website. Check it out here:
Most repellents here, like in other countries, contain DEET. For most people, DEET works great for keeping mosquitoes away from you. If you’re like me,however, DEET does literally nothing to deter mosquitoes from feasting on your delicious delicious blood. No matter how much I apply, the damn things still manage to drink me. Luckily, however, I have found a solution: I make my own. It works like a charm and it smells awesome, too.
Mix the alcohol and peppermint oil together. Pour into spray bottle. Add the purified water. Shake well before use. Store in refrigerator for cooling sensation during use.
All of these ingredients can be bought on Amazon or your local drug store. The peppermint variety happens to be the one that keeps mosquitoes off of me (the only times I get bit now are when I forget to spray myself). There are other varieties where you can use other kinds of oil that may work better for you.These kinds of sprays work by masking your smell from mosquitoes. Peppermint makes me smell delicious, but not to tiny blood suckers. It also keeps my skin feeling cool, which is a bonus considering how hot it is already.
NOTE: In the event of an outbreak of Dengue Fever, Malaria, Zika, or any other mosquito-borne disease, please follow the directions of the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW) or the World Health Organization (WHO).
Until the mosquitoes finally go away for the year, take care to protect yourselves!
If you’ve ever seen or studied Japanese theater, you know that traditionally, it is primarily a male art. Kabuki and Noh are probably the most well-known to the West. In these forms of theater, all roles are played by men, even female roles.
Takarazuka is Japan’s answer to the lack of female representation in theater. Founded in 1914 by Ichizo Kobayashi, the girls at his Takarazuka School put on their first performance, and history was born. Takarazuka celebrated its 100th birthday in 2014.
The Takarazuka Revue consists of 5 all-female theater troupes founded throughout the 1920s and 30s (Flower, Moon, Snow, Star), and one in the mid 90s (Cosmos). There is also a specialist troupe (Senka) consisting of superior performers that can join performances of any of the other 5 troupes.
Takarazuka troupes perform primarily at 2 main stages in Hyogo and Tokyo. Each troupe has a Top Star for “otoko yaku”, or male lead performances, and a Top Musume for accompanying female leads.
Current Top Star for the Flower troupe, Rio Asumi.
Current Top Musume for the Flower troupe, Ayase Senna.
The Takarazuka Revue perform everything from Broadway musicals and classic Japanese theater, to film, comic, and anime adaptations. They also perform original productions. Some of their most famous performances include Les Miserables, The Rose of Versailles, Gone with the Wind, and Romeo & Juliet.They perform almost 1,500 times per year, and sometimes perform overseas.
Takarazuka has an average yearly viewership of 2.5 million people. They are extremely popular for their beautiful costumes, unique performances of various adaptations, and most notably, the actors who take on male roles. The “otoko yaku” have a feverish following, and many female fans often develop feelings for them, especially for the Top Stars.
The Top Stars and Top Musume are the pride of Takarazuka, as well as its backbone; without the Top Stars and Top Musume, “Takarazuka is nothing”. The subversion of traditional gender roles is also something that makes Takarazuka extremely popular, particularly in a society whose gender roles are still rigidly defined. Whatever an individual’s reasons for loving Takarazuka, it is worth going to see at least once.
If you want to learn more about Takarazuka or order tickets, please visit http://kageki.hankyu.co.jp/english/index.html
If you cook a lot like me, chances are your burnable garbage is always full of fruit and veg peels, fat scraps from meat, and various other “raw” garbage (生ごみ). If you’re American, you probably have a fruit stash in your kitchen.This also means that you probably end up getting a number of fruit flies that will annoy you to no end.
In my case, they always decide to fly in front of my face when I’m trying to concentrate on video games. It’s enough to drive anyone to madness. Luckily, there’s a cheap and easy way to deal with them.
#notsponsored Kobae ga Hoihoi is the answer to your fruit fly problems.
Kobae ga Hoihoi contains a dinotefuran gelatin that kills fruit flies on contact by disrupting their nervous system. Dinotefuran is an insecticide that is often used in veterinary medicine as a tick preventative for dogs and flea preventative for cats.
Still, if you accidentally touch the gelatin or the liquid on the plastic seal, make sure to wash your hands.
It’s pretty self-explanatory, but let’s go over it anyways.
When you open up the box, you will have two parts.
A slotted, pointy lid and a bottom portion that looks like a Jell-O cup. Don’t eat it!
Peel off the plastic. Line up the triangular notches on the lid and bottom, and place the lid on.
It’s hard to see, but there is a little triangle there. Once the lid is on with the triangles aligned (align them BEFORE putting it on), twist the lid to the left until it stops.
Done! Now just put this wherever you need it, like near your garbage can, for example. Just don’t keep it where you do food prep. I put it on my breakfast bar (that I don’t use), but I’m thinking of putting it on top of my garbage cabinet.
Now we wait.
Best of luck with your fruit fly problem. For more tips on dealing with bugs, from mosquitoes to cockroaches, check out our website at:
Have a great week, everyone!
Summer has begun. It’s hot, humid, and borderline miserable already. Nighttime is still bearable, but soon, that reprieve of cool darkness will be torn away from us, and in its place will be nothing but muggy, stagnant hellscape. Air conditioners are a godsend, but there’s always that dreaded moment we have to go back outside and get soaked with sweat all over again just by existing.
Look. It’s no India, where thousands of people die from extreme temperatures. But it is still bad and people do die. People have already died of heat stroke in Japan, and summer isn’t even in full swing. And thanks to global warming, it’s only getting worse, year by year. Let’s take a look at the average summer temperatures last year. To see the entire chart, click the link below to be redirected to the Japan Meteorological Agency.
The numbers selected above are as follows:
Purple: Average temperature, average high, and average low (left to right, respectively) for July, August, and September (up to down) of 2016.
Orange: Hottest recorded temperature for July, August, and September (up to down).
Blue: Average humidity for July, August, and September (up to down).
Last July, the average high was 29.7 degrees Celsius (85.5F), with the highest recorded temperature that month being 36.7C (98F). That alone is pretty hot, but the 80% average humidity that goes with it is oppressive. Then, looking at August things get worse.
The average temperature last August was 27.1C (89F), with the highest recorded temperature that month being 37.7C (100F). The humidity got a little better at 78% but with the temperature increase, it actually feels worse. Things appear to get cooler in September, but the humidity spiked up to 86%. Going outside in August and September feels like stepping into hot soup.
This is not only horrendously uncomfortable, particularly if you have to wear a suit or a bra, (that bra goes from being a minor annoyance to a tight, wet, vice grip around your rib cage), or both, it can also be very dangerous.
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are two very real dangers when you live in Japan. According to the Fire and Disaster Prevention Agency, last year (2016) from June thru September, 47,624 people were taken to the hospital by ambulance for symptoms of heat stroke. Of those, 58 died.
Of the 7 years described in the chart, last year was on the low end with deaths, but 58 people either didn’t get to the hospital in time or their symptoms were too severe when an ambulance was finally called.
It’s important to recognize the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and to take the appropriate measures so that you don’t become a statistic.
- heavy sweating
- rapid pulse
- cool, moist skin with goose bumps when in the heat
- muscle cramps
If you or someone you know is experiencing or appears to be experiencing these symptoms, help the person get into a cool area and hydrate. It is important to remember to hydrate with not only water, but sports drinks that contain electrolytes, like Pocari Sweat or Aquarius.
Do NOT consume sugary drinks, juices, or alcohol. Misting the body with cool water may help, or removing unnecessary clothing.
- altered mental state or behavior
- nausea and vomiting
- flushed skin
- rapid breathing
- racing heart rate
- dry skin, no longer sweating
If you or someone you know is experiencing or appears to be experiencing these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention. There is no shame in calling an ambulance (dial 119 in Japan!), and it is better to be safe than sorry. Heat stroke is nothing to smirk at, and can be deadly as it can cause organ failure.
Here is a helpful PDF that you can easily print or download from the Fire and Disaster Prevention Agency about heat emergencies and emergencies in general.
There are a number of ways that you can avoid getting too hot.
1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
Make sure you have at least a bottle of water (disposable, reusable, whatever, just have water). When you start to feel tired or dizzy, make sure you also drink a sports drink to replenish your salt levels so your body can regulate its temperature. Sweating causes you to lose salt over time, and the more depleted it gets, the harder it is for your body to keep from overheating. Grab a Pocari Sweat, Aquarius, Green Dakara, or other sports drink.
If you don’t want to get another plastic bottle, you can make your own at home to pour into your reusable bottle. You can buy a powdered version of Aquarius to put into plain water, or you can make an electrolyte drink from scratch.
Electrolyte drink recipe:
2 tsp ~ 2 tbsp granulated sugar
(you can add any amount between the two, but should generally not exceed 2 tbsp as sugary drinks can make an overheating situation worse)
¼ tsp salt
juice of ½ lemon (or 1.5 tsp of bottled lemon juice)
Mix well. Give it a good shake now and again until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Drink whenever you need it. (you can add any amount of sugar between 2 tsp and 2 tbsp, but should generally not exceed 2 tbsp as sugary drinks can make an overheating situation worse)
2. Keep body cooling wet sheets with you
Gatsby and Bioré make a line of mentholated body wipes that moisten your skin and leave a cool feeling behind. The removal of sweat, evaporation of the cloth liquid, and lingering minty feel can help you cool down. Few, if any brands marketed for women offer these kinds of mentholated body sheets, so ladies, feel free to grab some of the men’s ones.
If it comes down to smelling like a dude or being so hot I potentially overheat, I’ll take the dude smell any day. We’ve got a list of the most popular cooling products on our site. You can check it out here (scroll to section 3):
3. Use a parasol
Parasols are a popular way to keep the sun off you and have portable shade everywhere you go. This can help keep you from overheating. Some parasols can be used in rain or shine, but make sure you check the label before you pop it open in a downpour. Parasols with a darker interior fabric will also keep UV rays that bounce up off the ground from bouncing back of a light fabric and onto you, so check the colour of the interior fabric as well.
A note from Ken:
Generally Japanese men don’t use parasols. It is very hot so I think Japanese men should use parasols too, because it is not only for staying cool but preventing men from having skin cancer. We need to break the stereotype that only women can use parasols so we can be comfortable, too!
Also, this is a hat I found online but I have never seen. If you see someone wearing this hat in the street , you have had a special experience.
4. Give yourself a break
With summer comes lots of outdoor activities, many of which can last all day long. In these situations, it’s important to give your body a break from constantly trying to regulate its temperature. Find a shaded area and sit down or pop into a convenience store for a bit. Your body will thank you.
For information on popular sunscreens in Japan, check out our site at:
Some of the sunscreens are also mentholated, which can help you feel cool, as well.
Stay safe and have fun, everyone!
Japanese cuisine is known for featuring a number of delicious fried foods. From tempura to tonkatsu (breaded and fried pork cutlets) to karaage (breaded and fried chicken chunks), fried foods are a plenty around these parts. Maybe you’ve even wanted to try frying some of these delicious dishes yourself.
But a pervasive problem remains: with Japan’s strict garbage laws, how in the world do you dispose of cooking oil? One thing should be obvious, however. And that is that you should NEVER EVER dump cooking oil down the drain. So, what should you do?
Most cities will advise you in the garbage disposal manual that you should soak up cooking oil with newspaper or some other kind of paper (paper towels, etc.). However, many of you will not have a physical newspaper subscription, and using all those paper towels to soak up 100s of ml of oil is not only a waste of perfectly good paper towels, it’s downright expensive, depending on how much oil you have to get rid of.
Luckily, living in Japan means you have access to a number of amazing products that don’t exist in many, or any, other places.
One such wonder product is something called 固めるテンプル (katameru tenpuru).
In this particular box is 5 sticks of oil-hardening granules. The granules are 100% fatty acids from tang sesame seeds, so you don’t have to worry that you’re putting anything toxic in your cookware (still, don’t eat it).
Step 1: Turn off the burner, open 1 stick, and pour the contents into the hot oil. Stir it until it’s combined.
Step 2: Drop the empty paper tube into the oil. You can check the hardening by tugging gently on the tube later.
Step 3: Wait. The oil will harden as it cools, so take a load off. Go play the remastered Crash Bandicoot trilogy. (It’s sooooo good.)
Step 4: Make sure the oil is totally congealed.
Step 5: Use a spatula to scoop the hardened disc up out of the pan and into the garbage. If you have a big pan like mine, you can also break it up into smaller pieces before throwing it out. The oil is totally hard at this point, so don’t worry about making a mess.
Note: The edges may crumble a bit, but once you get the spatula underneath the disc, it should peel right up.
This should go in your 燃えるゴミ (burnable garbage). Now you have a nice cold pan that you can wash up easily.
1 stick of 固めるテンプル can harden up to 600ml of oil, so for standard frying, one stick should do it for most situations. A 10-stick box costs ￥300- ￥400, so they’re cost effective and save you the headache of dealing with oil. So don’t let the oil headache stop you from trying out different fry recipes at home.
If you’ve never been here before, chances are you’ve seen something on the internet about the crazy toilets in Japan. If you do live here, your first few experiences with high-tech toilets were probably a mixture of pure joy and confusion. After all, what could a toilet possibly need electricity and button panels for? Let’s go over the wonder that is the Washlet.
A lot of public and home bathrooms in Japan have high-tech toilets with bidet units in them, among other functions. This kind of toilet/bidet combo is called a “Washlet”, which is a portmanteau of “wash” and “toilet”. You are not alone if you’ve ever been bewildered by them, searching endlessly for a flush mechanism and sometimes, embarrassingly, not finding one.
Sometimes there is a control unit on the wall with lots of buttons. Sometimes the control unit is on an arm attached to the side of the toilet. The functions are all more or less the same, no matter where the control unit is. Let’s go over these functions.
Whether the toilet you’re using has a wall-mounted control unit or a control arm, the symbols and vocabulary will be pretty universal. Here is an example of a standard control panel. First we’ll go over the bidet functions:
The top row of buttons controls the jet nozzle and dryer (not all Washlets have a dryer).
The red button is to stop the water jet.
The next button (number 2), is a standard jet of water for rear washing.
The next (number 3) is a gentle jet of water for rear washing.
Number 4 is a gentle jet of water for front washing (advertised for feminine use).
The last, number 5, is for the dryer. Here is a vocabulary chart for reference.
|3.||やわらか||yawaraka||gentle rear wash|
How about the control panel below?
The illustrations depicting Washlet functions are different from the image above, but the functions are exactly the same.
In addition to the above basic functions, there are also buttons for water strength and temperature, and seat temperature. Let’s take a look at those now.
The buttons in the red circle are for water strength. The left button is to reduce the water strength, and the right button increases it. To increase or decrease the water strength, simply press the appropriate button until the indicator light for the strength you want is lit up.
The buttons in the green circle are for seat temperature, water temperature, dry temperature, and nozzle cleaning. This gauge functions a little bit differently. If you want to adjust the seat temperature, for example, simply press the left button. The indicator light will light up to where it is currently set.
Simply press the button to move the indicator light to a different temperature, and stop pressing when the temperature you want is lit. As a general rule, lower temperature will be on the left and higher temperature will be on the right.
Here is a vocabulary chart for reference. Feel free to download or print it.
There are a number of flushing mechanisms you will encounter. Sometimes, the flush button is on the wall-mounted control unit. Let’s take a look.
Sometimes there are up to 3 flush buttons. The first one on the left is the strongest flush. This is typically used only when you make a bowel movement. The middle button is a small flush. The button on the right is a low-flow flush. Do not use this flush after a bowel movement or if you used a lot of toilet paper (e.g. during menstruation).
Here is a vocabulary chart for reference. Feel free to download or print it.
The most common types of flushing mechanisms you will encounter are likely to be wall-mounted. These are typically large round silver buttons or black sensors. To use the sensors, simply hold your hand over it until the toilet begins flushing.
If you’re new to Japan or have just never known what the deal was with Japanese toilets, hopefully this was helpful to you. May you do your business in a stress-free fashion from now on!
So you’ve decided to venture into Japanese cooking to assimilate, eat healthier, or just to save money. You go to the grocery store to buy yourself the perfect bottle of the holy grail of Japanese cuisine: soy sauce. Only, upon entering the aisle with the nectar of the gods, you are greeted with this, or worse:
So, what’s the deal with all the sauce?
If you need to buy low sodium soy sauce for dietary or health needs, or simply want a less strong soy sauce, you can easily find the low sodium variety at your grocery store. Depending on the brand, there are two ways this information might be conveyed. In general, low sodium soy sauce is either called うすくち (usukuchi) or 減塩（げんえん) (genen). They will look something like this:
Normal, plain old soy sauce is pretty straightforward and usually just says しょうゆ on the bottle. Here’s an example:
You can also find more expensive soy sauce marked 特選 （とくせん) (tokusen), meaning “Choice”, or “Deluxe”. Soy sauces marked with this are made of soy beans that have undergone rigorous inspection for the highest quality beans. They will look something like this:
You should note, however, that the deluxe soy sauce by your grocery store’s generic brand may be cheaper than a famous brand’s regular soy sauce, so don’t go by price alone, make sure you check the description on the bottle.
Most soy sauces in Japan contain wheat. You can locate it on the ingredients label by looking for this:
小麦 (こむぎ) Komugi
Luckily, if you cannot eat wheat for any reason, there is a brand of soy sauce available that does NOT contain wheat.
This particular one is called 小麦を使わない （こむぎをつかわない）Komugi wo Tsukawanai.
While there are further types of soy sauce, they generally get more expensive and unless you are a serious cook or are really knowledgeable about the flavour and depth of different kinds, you probably don’t need to worry too much about them. For everyday cooking, one of the above three types should suffice.
For a recipe using soy sauce that even beginners can do, check out our video below on Ginger Pork, or check out the recipe on our website at
If you’ve lived in Japan for any length of time, you probably know at least a little about Japan’s gift-giving culture. Most people are familiar with Omiyage, even if they haven’t necessarily mastered it. Gift-giving runs deep in Japanese culture, so it should come as no surprise that there are multiple types of gift-giving and rules for each type. The one we’re going to talk about today is called Ochugen.
Ochugen is the result of generational mixing of Taoism and Buddhism, resulting in a short summer season in which gifts are given to show appreciation for the hard work and kindness you received during the first half of the year. This tradition is repeated at the end of the year during another short season called Oseibo, to show your gratitude for the whole year.
So, what do you give, and who do you give it to?
Just like other aspects of Japanese gift-giving, there are rules regarding who gives what to whom. Basically, Ochugen is practiced by people over 40. Here are the people who typically give and receive:
1. Management gives to Upper Management
2. Adult children who have moved out and have their own families/life give to their parents
3. Parents give to their children’s parents-in-law (e.g. my mother gives to my mother-in-law)
Of course, there are other situations and relations in which some people may participate in Ochugen, but the majority will fall into the above 3 categories. An important thing to note, however, is that Ochugen gifts are usually NOT often given face to face, but rather mailed to the recipient.
Gifts for Ochugen can be purchased at any grocery store, department store, and even online at places like Rakuten and Amazon. Items marked for Ochugen will have a red and white 5-strand ribbon design on the front and will say 御中元 (Ochugen).
It is typically food, but is not required to be. Popular gifts are: melon, watermelon, other fruits, ice cream, chocolate, cookies, noodles, and beverages (coffee, cider, beer, etc.). When you purchase them, they are shipped directly to the person you are giving to, so you don’t have to deal with cold delivery or worry about bringing it to someone.
So, what do you do in return?
In Japanese culture, Okaeshi (returning the favour) is common in gift-giving. You’re in luck, however. If you happen to be one of the lucky people who receives Ochugen, you do NOT have to give a return gift; particularly if you are a senior exec at your work place.
Ochugen is given based on a person’s relative status, and always from Lower (目下 meshita) to Superior (目上 meue) (i.e. managers to execs, adult kids to their parents), or on equal status (i.e. parents to parents-in-law). While Okaeshi may be appreciated along equal status Ochugen-giving, a senior exec returning a gift from management will make said manager feel guilty.
If anything is done at all, a thank you note is sometimes given to the Ochugen givers. However, nothing is required. This is one of the few times in Japan’s gift-giving culture where returning the favour is absolutely not required.
Whether or not you fall into one of the Ochugen giving or receiving categories from above, I think we can all agree it’s always good to learn new things about another culture in order to understand it on a deeper level.
Even if you’re not very familiar with Japan, it can be safely assumed most of us know that Japanese culture is steeped in tradition. With Obon (a 4-day period of remembrance most Japanese people observe in August) coming up in just 2 short months, this is the perfect time to learn a little bit about the traditions and customs of your coworkers and friends, and to understand the death culture of Japan. One of the basics you need to know is Obutsudan. So, what is it?
An Obutsudan is a type of small memorial shrine kept in the home. While it used to be something only the very wealthy had as a way to maintain their Buddhist practices at home, it gradually spread to all classes, and turned into a sort of replacement grave for loved ones so that they could be visited at any time.
The top is very decorative and features a small Buddha and is often decorated further with pictures of the deceased, and sometimes flowers. Mortuary plaques, called Ihai (位牌), are also placed in the top portion near the Buddha.
The front of the Ihai (left) features the death date and the Buddhist name of the deceased (given by a Buddhist monk). The back (right) is the real name and age at the time of death.
Incense is lit for praying at the Obutsudan, and left to burn out after praying is finished. The bottom doors, or sometimes drawers, often contain supplies for the Obutsudan, like decorative lamps and incense.
So, when and why do people pray at an Obutsudan?
Outside of the Obon season, Obutsudan are used on the death day of the deceased (in large homes that can handle a family reunion), on specific anniversaries as per the tenets of Buddhism (the 1st, 2nd, 6th, 12th, 16th, 22nd, 26th, and 32nd death day anniversaries).
On these days, there is a large family reunion event called Houji 法事. If the house with the Obutsudan for the family member being honoured is too small to host a Houji, it can be conducted at the cemetery where the person’s ashes are interred, or at the temple that owns the cemetery.
Obutsudan are also used whenever family members miss the deceased or when they have been thinking about the person a lot. When other family members or friends of the deceased visit, they may sometimes bring fruits or other items the person enjoyed in life. The visitor places the items on the Obutsudan, lights the incense, and says a short prayer. After the prayer is finished, the incense is left to burn out on its own. Interestingly, the use of incense in an Obutsudan is for nourishment for the deceased, purifying yourself, and connecting to the person you are praying for.
Obutsudan is an important part of Japanese culture and tradition, and a way that Japanese people not only deal with death, but stay close to those they’ve lost. What do you think about Obutsudan? Do you think other cultures should adopt this tradition?
Have you ever stayed at a Japanese temple? You may have thought that such a thing was impossible until now. There are special spaces in temples where people can stay called “Shukubo”. Traditionally, they are where the monks stay, and where they pray for purity.
However, many temples allow regular people and tourists to stay, as well. Some Shukubo are in the temple itself, and some are in other buildings close by.
Some temples allow Shukubo any time of the year, and you can stay for as long as you’d like (for a fee), but most people stay for 1-3 days.
Depending on the temple and their facilities, the programs they offer will vary slightly.These programs are very popular because you can do them in temples to feel the Japanese Buddhist spirit in Japan. It is a good way to get in touch with yourself as a human being, and have an experience you otherwise wouldn’t. Please note that not every place offers the same programs, so if you are interested in trying any of these, check with the temple beforehand.
Here are some common programs you can participate in:
Shakyou is the hand-copying Buddhist texts. As you read and copy down the text, you internalize the core concepts of Buddhism. This is often done before a major life event as a prayer for success.
Zazen is seated meditation for the purpose of reflection, to learn about yourself as a person and human being, and to rid yourself of your demons. Many people do this to not only learn about themselves, but to improve themselves, and help relieve the stresses of their lives.
The monks will make you sit in the lotus position, so it may be difficult to maintain your posture but it will be a good lesson in body-awareness and discipline. When you do Zazen, monks will hit your shoulder with a large stick when they think you aren’t focusing on your meditation enough.
When you participate in Shukubo, only vegetarian food is served. Though even Buddhists eat meat in their daily lives, during cleansing rituals like Shukubo, meat should not be eaten to preserve the purity and sanctity of your training.
No part of Shukubo should trace back to the death of a living thing. The meal will usually not be very filling, but will help you achieve a sense of cleanliness in your soul to deepen your Shukubo experience.
A monk preaches about the core concepts of Buddhism and gives advice to improve your life. They emphasize the importance of life, being kind and patient, and the importance and impact of karma.
Dokyou is the chanting of Buddhist texts with a monk. The rhythm of the chanting helps you remember the passages and internalize their meanings.
Takigyou is prayer and meditation under a waterfall. This is another example of Shukubo being a physical and spiritual experience; overcoming physical discomfort to deepen your meditative state. This program is limited to temples that are near waterfalls, however, so takigyou is much rarer than other Shukubo programs.
It could be interesting to experience the Japanese Buddhist spirit when you travel to Japan. If you are interested in trying Shukubo, here are some famous temples that offer Shukubo programs in English:
1. Fukuchiin (Wakayama prefecture)
English URL: https://www.fukuchiin.com/
This temple has an open air bath and hot spring, which is very rare.
2. Shunkoin (Kyoto prefecture)
English URL: http://shunkoin.com/
English blog: http://shunkoinzentemple.blogspot.com/
This temple’s Jushoku monk (head monk) speaks English and provides a lot of information.
3. Ekoin (Wakayama prefecture)
English URL: http://www.ekoin.jp/en/index.html
Not every room has an en suite bathroom, so please check before you make a reservation.
4. Muryokoin (Wakayama prefecture)
English URL: https://www.muryokoin.org/int/
Some monks speak English.
There are many more Shukubo in Japan than the ones listed above.
If you think a full mind and body Buddhist experience is something you’d like to try, visit the links above or research temples in your area to find the Shukubo that fits you.
Lastly, Koyasan is one of the most famous Buddhist places in Japan. They also have Shukubo available, but if you just want to visit and experience this amazing place, you can learn more at the link below.
English URL: http://eng.shukubo.net/index.html
If Buddhism isn’t your bag, but you’d like to get involved in a different religious community, visit Life Abroad to find a religious community of your choice near you.
Nutrition labels are confusing in any language. They all try to understate the ingredients, amounts of salt, sugar, and fat, and just generally do their best to make you think a food product is healthier than it actually is. This is made even more difficult in a foreign language. So let’s unwrap the mystery that is Japanese nutrition labels.
First, let’s take a look at a simple label.
Upon first glance it may look like this whole product is only 46 calories. However, if you note the 100ml 当たり above the nutrition information, this changes things. 100ml 当たり means “per 100 ml serving”. This does NOT mean that this entire product is 100 ml. To find out the total volume or weight of a food product, you need to look elsewhere on the packaging.
This can usually be found in the section that vaguely lists the ingredients. In the case of this drink, the full bottle contains 460 ml. So, this dramatically changes the calorie content. This whole bottle is far more than 46 calories. If you do the math, it comes to 211 calories for the whole bottle.
This is the trickiest part of every nutrition label in Japan, so don’t confuse the serving size with the total volume or weight of the product, as they are different more often than not.
But what if the label you’re looking at doesn’t have milliliters or grams, or the weight is hard to understand? Let’s look at an example.
This is the nutrition label for sandwich cookies. The first thing you will probably notice is the seemingly random 83.7 g serving size. Well, let’s break that whole thing down.
The important part here is actually the bit before the 83.7 g. 1パック9枚当たり (skipping the weight) means “serving size: 1 sleeve of 9 cookies”. So the 438 calories you see isn’t quite as high as it seems. Doing the math, these cookies come to 49 calories each.
Let’s see yet another example.
As with the sandwich cookies, this nutrition label for sweet cakes has a confusing 19 grams listed as the serving size. Again, if we look before that to the part that says １個 当たり, this means that the serving size is actually 1 cake.
Another interesting point with this label is the fats and carbohydrates are actually broken down into types, including the sugar content. This is atypical, but it is good to have a reference for what they look like in case you run into one. In the case of these cakes, the total carbohydrate content is 10.0 grams, and the sugar content is 9.9 grams. Which leads us to…
Let’s look at that first nutrition label again.
This product is a regular, non-diet soda. You may notice a distinct lack of sugar content. In Japan, sugar content is rarely disclosed on the nutrition label. Usually, the only thing you have to go by is the carbohydrate content, which is unhelpful if you have, say, a sweet pastry that is presumably high in grain flour and sugar. In those cases, it is impossible to tell how much of the carbohydrate content comes from sugar and how much comes from flour.
Additionally, you will rarely find nutrition labels that are as exhaustive in detail as labels found in, for example, the United States. Cholesterol content is notoriously lacking from Japanese nutrition labels, as is a breakdown of fat types (e.g. mono- and polyunsaturated fats). This isn’t to say they absolutely don’t exist, but your odds of finding one are slim. When it comes to these important nutrients, it is up to you to educate yourself on what types of foods contain them and avoid or add them to your diet accordingly.
If you want to study nutrition label vocabulary, I’ve put together a little chart for you to help you read just about any nutrition label. If it’s too small to read here as is, feel free to download it!
Anyone who lives in Japan can tell you, fruit is much more expensive here than in other western countries. One reason is that Japanese markets prefer to sell fruit and veg grown domestically, and due to the small amount of arable land in Japan, output is low, and cost is high. So where, in your home country, you may be used to being able to buy just about any fruit or veg in almost any season, produce is very much seasonal fare in Japan.
So how can we satisfy our sweet tooth in a healthy way when the fruit we want is out of season? Well, the best way is to acclimate yourself to the seasonal nature of Japan’s fruit market, enjoy the seasonal fruit while you can, and move on to the next one when the next season rolls around. So, let’s take a look at the fruit seasons in Japan.
Japanese strawberries are known for being sweet and beautiful to look at. They are often used on cakes, inside Ichigo Daifuku, or strawberry mochi, dipped in Ichigo Milk (a condensed milk topping), or just eaten plain. If you live near a strawberry farm, you can also go strawberry picking with your friends, family, or even on a date.
Cherries are a minor crop and these cherries are only grown in Yamagata Prefecture. They are known for they’re lighter colour skin and flesh. They are very sweet, and as with all Japanese produce, very pleasing to look at. Cherries are typically eaten by themselves or as a yogurt topping.
Japanese plums are one of the most versatile fruits in Japanese cuisine. It is most widely known for the sour Umeboshi, or pickled plum. It is also used to make plum wine, plum “vinegar”, plum juice, traditional plum sweets, and the blossoms are even used to garnish various dishes. If you’re a home brewer or wine or beer, why not try your hand at plum wine this year?
Japanese melons are known for their handle-like stems and sweet light-green flesh. The taste is somewhere between a cantaloupe and a honeydew, and they can be very expensive depending on what area and what farm they come from.
“Designer” melons can run into the thousands of dollars, but you’re not likely to see them at your local grocery store. Eat them plain, cut them up for fruit salad, or cube it into yogurt. It’s a delicious, refreshing treat on a hot summer day!
Japanese peaches are marked by their pale, variegated flesh and supple pink skin. They are very sweet and juicy without being stringy. They are often used in tarts, sorbets, as a yogurt topping, or eaten plain. Japanese people usually peel them before eating, but the skin is full of flavour and vitamins, so bon appetit!
These grapes are very large, growing up to the size of a small plum. While you can eat the skin and the seeds with no ill effect, they are quite bitter, so most people peel and seed them. You can eat them straight, freeze them for a sweet treat or to chill your wine without watering it down.
Blueberries in Japan are fairly standard. They can be used in a variety of ways, from yogurt topping, to making jams, jellies, and pie filling, as a cake topping, or you can freeze them for a cool summer treat.
Fuji apples are just about the only apple you can get in Japan. They are large, crisp, sweet, and juicy. You can buy them outside of this season year-round because of their long-shelf life and resilience during refrigeration.
You can eat them straight, make apple pie, cut them up into yogurt, and if you’re lucky enough to have peanut butter or even caramel topping or nutella, you can have a decadent, healthy-ish shack! You can also get candied fuji apples at any festival for a cultural treat.
Nashi, or Asian pears, are much different from the funny-shaped western variety. The flesh is crisp, juicy, and refreshingly sweet. They are not soft, grainy, or, well, pear-tasting. They are most often eaten straight or put in pear tarts and other delicacies at cake shops.
Mandarin oranges, or mikan, are a very popular fall/winter fruit in Japan. They peel easily and are sugary sweet. Most people eat them as you would any orange, but you can also get candied mikan at festivals. You can buy them by the bag or box, and are cheaper than other fruits.
Yuzu is another versatile fruit. The taste is similar to grapefruit with a hint of orange, but surprisingly, the fruit itself is not often eaten. Mostly the rind is used in sweet and savory cuisine. It is candied for use in daifuku (sweet mochi balls with red bean paste inside), ice cream, and even chocolate.
The rind is also used in savory dishes. For example, it is often added as a topping to savory custard (chawanmushi), made into furikake (rice seasoning), or to make sour and spicy sauce and vinegar.
Aside from the culinary uses of yuzu, Japanese people also put yuzu into their baths on the winter solstice to help rid their bodies of exhaustion and rejuvenate themselves. Western people may find it strange to put fruit in the bath, but this December, why don’t you give it a try?
Japanese persimmons are firm and sweet, and they get sweeter with age and ripening. If you eat an unripe persimmon, you will know it immediately from the chalky, strange coating it leaves on your tongue, making it feel course and dry. As long as your persimmon is ripe, this will not happen; you will just have a delicious treat. Japanese persimmons come in two main varieties: seeded and seedless.
If your persimmon is seeded, you will know as soon as you cut into it, as they are quite large and inedible. While some people say you can eat the skin of a persimmon, Japanese persimmon skins are quite tough, so they are always peeled before eating.
With all this fruit, no season will be boring. Take advantage of the fruit seasons to expand your palate and enjoy truly first-rate produce. Japanese farmers take pride in the quality of their produce, and they do their best to make sure consumers have only the best. It may be pricey, but it’s worth every last yen.
When you live in a foreign country, life can be tough, especially if you live in one where your own culture and the culture around you are completely different. So how can we make the lows not quite so low? Let’s discuss.
When you live in a foreign country, life can be tough, especially if you live in one where your own culture and the culture around you are completely different. So how can we make the lows not quite so low? Let’s discuss.
You probably get a fair amount of exercise during the week, walking around the office, teaching lessons, perhaps. There’s also the treks to and from stations, so chances are you’re fairly active. But even then, if you completely check out over the weekend, you’re going to have whiplash come Monday, and this can start a downward swing. Take a walk, follow along with a workout video, or even just straighten up your apartment.
Exercise, even gentle exercise, increases feelings of well-being and accomplishment, and reduces feelings of sadness and depression.The more active you are, the healthier you’ll be and the less bad the low swings of culture shock will be for you.
Having a bad week, or even month, and you just can’t seem to stop hating everything around you? The way people act in public, the language you still can’t read no matter how much you study, the excessive cuteness around every single corner. It can be a lot, and it can be hard to deal with. In these slumps, you need to have someone you can talk to about it.
If you’re like me, you probably tend to think that no one wants to listen to your whining, but people in your life love and care about you and will listen if you ask. Have a sit down with a drink or some cake, something you enjoy, and hash it out. Get it all off your chest. You’ll feel better for it.
Sometimes you get in a low you just can’t shake, and all you can think of is jumping ship and going back to people you get, that get you, too. We tend to get a bit romantic in these phases, imaging the grass on that other side is not only greener, but made of emeralds.
Take some time to think about a few things: Why did I come here? Why did I fall in love with this place to begin with? What can I do to rekindle that love within myself? You can find it, even in the darkest of places.You came here for a reason, and if it’s worth the struggle, it’s worth reminding yourself just that.
Those of us living abroad on a visa have an important decision to make every year if we work on a contract-basis. Do we stay another year? Do we return to our home countries? Do we move our adventure to another country altogether?
The answers to those questions depends on a number of factors, and no one can make your decision for you. However, there are some important things you should ask yourself to aid in your decision.
People who live abroad, or even permanent expats, face challenges in daily life that they wouldn’t otherwise face. If you live in a country whose native language is not your own, illiteracy may be a daily challenge. Inability to communicate is potentially another. Those two things alone can be difficult to deal with and even more difficult to overcome, and for some people it is too much.
Culture shock is another factor. Whether we love our second home or not, culture shock is a part of life. Some days we love everything about the country we live in, some days we hate everything about it, from the social expectations to the way people dress.
Everyone experiences culture shock differently and to varying degrees. So you need to ask yourself: do you find yourself hating your host country more than you find yourself loving it? If so, it may be time to think about saying goodbye.
Every major decision in life comes with pros and cons. When making your decision to stay in your host country or leave it, it is vital to make a list of the pros and cons of your choice. If the positives of leaving outweigh the negatives, maybe start thinking of leaving.
If the negatives outweigh the positives, staying may be the answer. Just be sure that your decision leaves you safe and secure, and that you have a support network you can turn to for help and guidance.
A large number of us are abroad teaching language. Do you want to continue working in education? If not, it may be best to forgo continuing to gain experience in a field you’re not interested in, and start job hunting or make preparations to leave.
This can go for any field. If you work in any kind of temporary environment with little to no upward mobility or pay increases, continuing to build up experience in that field will do you no favours.
However, if you quite enjoy your field and don’t mind staying where you are, it is perfectly fine to stay. You need to decide which is best for you and your future, and keep your goals in mind.
This is probably the most difficult aspect of deciding whether to stay abroad or return home. Every family has a different dynamic, and for some people, being away from their family is painfully difficult; for others, less so.
As adults, we have to live with the fact that we see our families less and less as we create our own lives, and being abroad lessens that time even more. So you need to ask yourself if that lost time is worth what being abroad does for you. Maybe your situation abroad saved your life, and going back to your home country would be your end. Maybe you miss your family so much it hurts and you can’t imagine being away from them for any longer.
Most of us move away at some point in our lives, whether to another state, province, prefecture, or country. As much as we don’t like to think of it, at some point in our lives we will have to live without our families permanently.
The choice you have to make is whether the time before we lose them is more important, or the time after, where we have to live without them and still have proper lives. Go home and be with the family or stay put and build your career so you can have the life your parents wanted for you? It’s not an easy choice, and only you can make it.
Living abroad is challenging, fun, inspiring, and sometimes very very difficult. No one can tell us what choice to make when it comes to staying or leaving. Hopefully answering those four questions can help you organize your thoughts and make your decision more carefully and thoughtfully. Whatever you decide, I wish you all the best.