Matsuri & More

FoodJapanese SnacksLife in Japan

Umaibo – The Delicious Stick

Umaibo - Delicious StickUmaibo - Delicious Stick

うまい棒
Umaibō
“Delicious Stick”

I’m not into kid snacks and sweets. In America, sweets for children are usually too sweet and dyed in unnaturally bright colors that make me question its cancer-causing potential. Meanwhile, savory snacks are too salty and usually too starchy. Through my teen years, I often picked puff corn snacks as my go-to junk food. After a lengthy discussion with a friend on Japanese junk food, I was told to visit a dagashi shop (Japanese candy shop) and try Umaibō.

Given my nature, I’m not a person who goes blindly into dagashi shop. Research must be done!

History of a Delicious Stick

Umaibō literally translates to “delicious stick.” What kind of stick is delicious? A cylinder of puffed corn which kinda looks like a short stick when you hold it. To be honest, it’s more of a tube since its hollow through the center, but according to the packaging, it makes the snack more “サクサク” (sakusaku) or crispy. I also suspect that the tube design also creates a stronger product which prevents it from being crushed during transportation and probably improves the final texture by allowing it to be cooked evenly from the inside.

Umaibo was first produced by the Risca Corporation and distributed by Yaokin Co. in 1979, making it a snack that’s almost as old as I am! At the time, Umaibō sold for the cheap price of 10 yen per stick. Much to the delight of Japanese children and their parents, that price hasn’t changed for the last 41 years. But according to Japan Wikipedia, the weight of Umaibō was ever so slightly reduced over the decades as much as 3 to 5 grams less than the original 1979 product due to the rise in the cost of raw materials.

Umaibo – Cheese Flavor

Umaibō Mascots – Are They From Outer Space?

The mascots of Umaibō really stand out, far more than American advertising characters. Each character seems to have their own persona complete with birthdays and hobbies – at least according to the official website.

Umaemon (うまえもん) – The main mascot of Umaibō is a round-headed gaping-mouthed character usually dressed in a costume. According to the Umaibo website, his hobby is cosplaying which explains why each Umaibo wrapper features him in some kind of costume. Umaemon is totally different from Doraemon (blue color, red nose) because he is grey in color and lacks whiskers.

Umami-chan (うまみちゃん) – This anime girl sporting a half-Umaibō hat first showed up in 2017. She’s the long-lost 17-year-old sister of Umaemon and uses an Umaibō for a microphone. As far as I can tell she shows up on the cover of large bags with 30 Umaibō inside and is typically bought by adults at Don Quijote stores. She has her own website, theme song, is found on Instagram, and posts on her Twitter account. Yes, she knows she doesn’t look like her brother and often points that fact out.

Umicheal (ウマイケル “Umaikeru”) – Umami’s pet cat debuted in 2018. Umicheal looks like a cat with a face that looks just like Umaemon. According to his bio, he’s a spy from space sent to investigate Umaemon and Umami because he suspects that they are aliens. Yeah. Space spy cat.

Naked Umaibo

Umaibō Flavors

Let’s get back to the snack. As far as I can tell there are 15 to 16 different “regular” flavors of Umaibō that can be found in stores in Japan. There are also regional flavors as well, meaning they can only be found in certain areas of Japan. And then there are “limited release” flavors, which only run for a single season sometimes never to be seen again.

No, I haven’t tried all the Umaibō flavors. But I might try one or two as I see them. I will reserve eating all the flavors in one go to the younger Japanophiles. Getting high blood pressure from all the salt isn’t worth it. But just for giggles, I’ll list all the flavors of Umaibō here:

Umaibō Regular Flavors

  • Mentai – cod roe pickled in chili peppers
  • Corn potage – creamy corn soup
  • Cheese
  • Pizza
  • Teriyaki Burger
  • Salami – One of the original flavors
  • Easy salad
  • Chicken curry
  • Tonkatsu sauce – Another original flavor
  • Shrimp and mayonnaise
  • Takoyaki
  • Chocolate
  • Beef tongue
  • Natto
  • Sugar rusk
  • Premium Mentaiko
  • Premium Mozzarella & Camembert
  • Premium Japanese style steak with wasabi sauce

Umaibō Regional Flavors

  • Kirtan Snack (Akita Prefecture only)
  • Monjayaki grilled taste (Tokyo only) – Monjayaki is a pan-fried batter similar to okonomiyaki, but with different liquid ingredients
  • Honey Kabayaki Sauce (Shizuoka Prefecture only) – a soy grill sauce used on grilled eel
  • Okonomiyaki (Kansai only)
  • Hot pepper noodles (Kyushu / Western Yamaguchi Prefecture only)
  • Delicious Beef tongue salty (Tohoku only)
  • Sugar cane (Okinawa only)
  • Cinnamon apple pie (Tokyo only)
Eating a chonky Umaibō sometimes is messy with crumbs

Eating a Umaibō

To date, I’ve only tried Umaibō twice: Corn potage and cheese flavors. Both were savory. So the corn potage tasting like sweet corn, while the cheese tasted kind of like Cheetos, but a bit sweet. The texture of an Umaibo is certainly crispy but also dry. Eating too much in one mouthful sometimes uncomfortably desiccates the mouth.

Upon opening the package, I found a rather chonky corn puff – about 2 cm in diameter and 10 cm long. Biting into this super crispy awkward snack was certainly tasty, but also messy since it produced a lot of crumbs. Its hardly finger food yet alone easy eating for kids.

I also discovered instructions on how to prepare an Umaibō for “beautiful eating.” I presume so that kids and dainty ladies can eat the snack without too much of a mess. Here are the translated instructions:

  1. First, place the Umaibō on the table.
  2. Place your hand flat over the package (middle finger aligned with the Umaibō).
  3. Press down as you would give a heart massage and stop when you hear the Umaibō break inside.
  4. Open the wrapper, and you have a Umaibō split lengthwise in four!

Here’s the original illustration posted by Mr. Watanabe:

Sig’s tasting commentary

Sig here. So, Anne asked me to try some of these out. I had cheese, Salami, and Tonkatsu. The cornmeal is fried so that it is very light and airy, and quite crispy and stiff. It crackles and then melts quickly in your mouth. The flavor is pretty much all on the outside of the stick in the form of a salty powder.

The flavors do a good job of evoking what it claims to taste like, though always salty and a little sweet. The consistently light texture of the snack is nice but feels a little insubstantial. I’m not a big fan but these would be a great thing to offer at a party for people to try.

Grab some of these things to try out: Our Amazon affiliate link for a variety Umaibo pack.

A Fun Japanese Snack

Overall, I find Umaibō adorable and the variety of flavors interesting. I kind of want to try them, but I also worry about my health. If you’ve tried the other flavors let me know what you think of them!

FoodLife in JapanMatsuri & More

Amanatto – the Edo Period Treat!

Amanatto SetAmanatto - Sugar Coated Beans

甘納豆
Amanatto
Sugar Coated Beans

I first discovered Amanatto while wandering around Tsukiji Outer Market. A woman with a bright smile held up a bowl of dark-colored beans up to me and said: “Try!” I plucked one from the bowl expecting a kind of savory bar snack.  I was surprised when a sweet sugared flavor blossomed in my mouth. The soft chewiness confused me, especially as the texture turned slightly grainy. “It’s sweet beans,” she explained. I was so amused by this candy that I bought a small bag to bring home.

Tasty sugar-coated bean treat

The Edo Period Treat

Originally called amananattō (甘名納糖), this confectionery was first cooked up by Hosoda Yasubei, during the 1860s at his Tokyo wagashi store, Eitaro Confectionery.  Eitaro still exists today and you can visit one of several shops found in Tokyo. I highly suggest stopping by the one at Nihonbashi near Tokyo Station. You can buy all sorts of wagashi treats in addition to amanattō and marvel at a store that’s been there for roughly 200 years in the same spot!

Yasubei used azuki beans (red mung beans), cowpeas (black-eyed peas), and soramame (fava beans) to make the first amanattō. Today, amanattō is particularly popular in Japan. Although I’m told its especially associated with older generations and is regularly served during teatime.

Hokkaido’s Red Bean Rice

As a side note, throughout Japan, there is a rice dish called sekihan, where sweet sticky rice is steamed with adzuki beans. Usually, sekihan is a dish associated with celebration and is made during weddings and birthdays. Here in Hokkaido, instead of just pain adzuki beans, they’ll use amanattō instead – the result is an even sweeter rice dish.

A Simple Candy

Typically its served with green tea but is perfectly fine by itself. I have yet to cook with it Hokkaido style with steamed rice, but maybe you can try it and tell me what you think.

You can find bags amanattō in grocery stores or as boxed omiyage (souvenirs) in train stations here in Japan. I’ve seen them sold online at Amazon.co.jp, but not Amazon proper. If you can’t find it and would like to try it yourself, I’ve included a recipe below. Enjoy!

Amanatto Mix

Amanattō Recipe

Ingredients for bean preparation

  • 1 lb beans such as red mung beans, black beans, fava beans, or navy beans
  • water, to soak and cook beans
  • ½ teaspoon of baking soda

Ingredients for sugar coating the beans

  • 3 cups of water
  • 4 ½ cups of fine granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups superfine sugar

Prepare Your Beans

Rinse beans, picking out any stones, broken beans, or odd-shaped beans. Soak overnight in ample water.

After soaking, drain beans and rinse with plenty of cold water. Pick through again to get rid of any cracked, halved and beans with no skin.

Put beans in a pot with plenty of cold water – about an inch or two above the beans – and a good pinch of baking soda. The baking soda will help to maintain the color of the beans.

Simmer beans gently for 1 hour until beans are just cooked through. Be careful not to boil the beans or overcook them. The beans should tender and hold their shape, not mushy nor falling apart

Drain beans and rinse gently in cold water. Carefully sort through the cooked beans, discarding any that are out of the skin, or where the skin has cracked open. Keep in mind that this will decrease the number of beans by as much as a third depending on how carefully you cooked the beans. Save discarded beans to make a bean soup or bean salad.

Sugar Coating the Beans

Prepare sugar syrup by combining the 3 cups of cold water, granulated sugar, and salt. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the syrup is starting to thicken a bit.

Carefully add the beans to the syrup mixture and continue simmering for 1 1/2 hours. Try to stir gently and as little as possible – the goal is not to break any beans.

Turn off the heat and allow beans to cool for 10 minutes. Drain.

Put the superfine sugar into a bowl. In batches, toss the beans into the sugar and then lay them out onto a cookie sheet in a single layer.

When all the sugar-coated beans are on the cookie sheet, put the cookie sheet in an oven preheated to 175 degrees F for 5 minutes.

Remove the cookie sheet and toss the beans, returning them to the oven for an additional 5 minutes. Turn off the oven and leave the beans in the oven for 5 minutes.

Cool completely before serving or storing in an airtight container. Stored amanattō can last for about 3 to 4 days in the fridge.

KyotoMatsuri & MoreParks & GardensTourist SpotsViewing Spots

Kinkaku-ji – The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji Golden PavilionKinkaku-ji in Kyoto

金閣寺
Kinkaku-ji
Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Official Name:
鹿苑寺
Rokuon-ji
Deer Garden Temple

  • Website: https://www.shokoku-ji.jp/en/kinkakuji/
  • Address: 1 Kinkakujicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, 603-8361, Japan
  • Nearest Stations: Kita-Oji Station, Kitanohakubaicho Station
  • Nearest Bus Stop: Kinkakuji-michi
  • Bus Routes: Kyoto City Bus Routes #205 or #101
  • Entrance Fee: ¥400
  • Hours: 9:00-17:00

I’ve been told countless times, that a visit to Kinkaku-ji is a requisite when in Kyoto. Before visiting, I thought it was hype: something said to just snag the typical tourist. I did my research as I always do before a trip by reading over its current information and its history. Interestingly enough, I even found a fictionalized account written in the first-person perspective of the man who burned Kinkaku-ji into a charred husk in 1950. (Give The Temple of the Golden Pavilion a read if you’re interested in true-crime novels.)

I’m happy to report, that I was pleasantly surprised by the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. I expected thick crowds and an overpriced venue with overrated souvenirs.  Instead, I found a beautiful Zen garden with iconic Japanese structures. The entry fee was the low price of ¥400 ($3.80 USD) per person. Plus, showing up a few minutes before the gates open at 9:00 AM proved to be a good idea — the tourist crowds that I was apprehensive about were nearly non-existent.

 Shariden Kinkaku – 舎利殿 金閣 – “Golden Reliquary Hall” that gives Kinkaku-ji its name
Shariden Kinkaku – 舎利殿 金閣 – “Golden Reliquary Hall”

Kinkaku-ji History

Although the Golden Pavilion is over 600 years old, the land upon it has ties to religious traditions over 800 years. There are records and remains to date back to the Heian period (794 -1185 CE) indicating a temple complex with tombs, burials and cremation sites.

In the Kamakura period (1185–1333 CE), the wealthy aristocrat Saionji clan built a luxurious villa and named it Kitayama-dai (North Mountain Residence?). Although no documents remain of its design and construction, there are personal accounts boasting of a magnificent clan temple upon a land designed for “Taoist Immortals” along with an amusing “a forty-five-foot waterfall and a beautiful pond as blue as lapis lazuli.” Sadly, by the end of the Kamakura period, the Saionji Clan fell out of wealth and the villa into disrepair.

The land caught the eye of shōgun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga, who bought and then converted the villa into his palatial retirement residence in 1397 CE. Yoshimitsu designed the Golden Pavilion as a relic’s hall and the garden as “a paradise on earth.” Much of the garden’s design uses various elements of Ming Dynastic aesthetics. He planned to coat the outer surface of the Shariden Kinkaku with gold leaf, but only managed to coat the ceiling of the third floor before dying. Yoshimitsu requested that the residence be converted into a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple upon his death and following his internment in 1408 CE, the complex was officially renamed to Rokuon-ji. Today Yoshimitsu is considered the founder of Kinkaku-ji.

Much of what you see at Kinkaku-ji today isn’t of the original construction. The Golden Pavilion barely survived a war and fire in the 1470s but was burned a husk in 1950. The buildings and gardens have been faithfully rebuilt and restored over time. The latest restoration being in 2003 with extensive work done on the interior of the Golden Pavilion and roof.

View of the Golden Pavilion across Kyoko-Ike Pond in Kinkaku-ji
View of the Golden Pavilion across Kyoko-Ike Pond in Kinkaku-ji

How to Visit Kinkaku-ji

Go Early, Go Midweek – Kinkaku-ji is a very popular tourist spot, I expected crowds when I set out even on a weekday morning. I felt rather lucky when I showed up a few minutes before 9:00 AM and there were only five people going in by the time the gate opened. But by around 11:00 AM the tour buses had dropped off more than four dozen tourists.

Stay in the Area – If you can I would suggest spending a night or two at a ryokan or hostel within walking distance. There are plenty of other things to do in addition to the Golden Pavilion. One of my few regrets while staying Kyoto was not taking my time to enjoy all the temples, gardens, and other cultural spots in Kita Ward.

Autumn Leaves – My first pick for which season to visit is when the leaves turn to fantastic hues red and gold. The season starts in mid-October and tends to peak in mid-November. November tends to be dryer than October, which is the tail end of the typhoons season.

Winter Snow Temples – Around January to February snow covers the temples, creating just a wonderful almost mystical landscape. Sadly, snow in Kyoto has been scarce in the last few years, and when it does the snow tends to melt quickly.

Spring Cherry Blossoms – From March to April is when Kyoto is splashed with the soft pinks and billowy whites of cherry blossoms. Its also jammed packed with tourists both domestic and international, such that driving or taking a taxi into any site let alone Kinkaku-ji is near impossible. Book your hotel months in advance area and rent a bike or walk.

View of  Shariden Kinkaku from the back garden of Kinkaku-ji
View of Shariden Kinkaku from the back garden of Kinkaku-ji

Highlights of Kinkaku-ji

Shariden Kinkaku – 舎利殿 金閣 – “Golden Reliquary Hall”

I’ll say this now: no one can visit inside this building, but you can marvel at the exterior. I personally think that the best spot is from across Kyoko-ike Pond, where the Golden Pavilion reflects off the water. The second spot is near it through the pines. Frankly, it’s a fantastic edifice to behold. Gold leaf gilds the third and second floors, contrasted to the cypress shingles of the roof. A brilliant bronze phoenix called Hō-ō, brings its benevolence as it descends from the heavens to its apex. The first story seems simple in comparison, due to the older architectural style known as shinden-zukuri, which was popular in 10th century Japan.

Rikushū-no-Matsu – 陸舟の松 – “Land Pine”

This pine is over 600 years old and is said to have been transplanted from a bonsai tree that Yoshimitsu himself trained.  If you look from a certain angle the tree is in the shape of a sailing boat with its bow pointing to the west. Most visitors overlook this tree without a second thought. As for myself, it gave me a bit of a tickle that Rikushū-no-Matsu is roughly two and a half times older than the United States is as a country.

Fudo-do – 不動堂 – “Fudo-do Hall”

This is the only building in Kinkaku-ji that looks like a temple. The original 1225 temple burnt down in the 1400s, but later rebuilt in the late 1500s. Technically it is the oldest existing building on the grounds of Kinkaku-ji, even older than the Golden Pavilion which was burnt down in the 1950s and later rebuilt in the 1980s. Fudo-do is an active temple and regularly holds service for holidays and festivals.

Anmin-taku – 安民沢 – “Peaceful Resting Marsh”

In the middle of this pond in the back of the garden, is a small island. A top the mound rests a five-ringed stone pagoda known as Hakuja-zuka, or White Snake Mound, and houses the Saionji family spirit deity. The island is a perfect birding spot and often hosts several waterfowl such as grey herons, spotted billed ducks, and great egrets.

Hakuja-zuka and a resting grey heron in one of two ponds in Kinkaku-ji.
Hakuja-zuka and a resting grey heron in one of two ponds in Kinkaku-ji.

More to See in Kyoto’s Temple District

Despite the hordes of tourists, Kinkaku-ji is assuredly worth the visit. Especially, if you take your time and include it in a multi-stop visit to the numerous temples and shrines in the Kinukake-no-michi area. Other locations I suggest visiting are Ryoan-ji, Ninna-ji, Myoshin-ji, Toji-in, Hirano Shrine, and Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. All of which are easily enjoyed either on foot or by bike.  

FoodGaijin Survival GuideJapanese SnacksLife in JapanMatsuri & More

Eating Gobo

Burdock

牛蒡
ごぼう
Gobō

Also known as Great Burdock. U-eong in Korean. Niúbàng in Chinese. And Arctium lappa in Latin.

When living in a new country for the first time you notice all sorts of things. For me, it’s the small details while on regular everyday outings. That’s what happened when I encountered a strange root at the local grocery store in the produce section. Language books and online courses don’t explain the small nuances of everyday life in Japan, let alone the name or use of a vegetable root.

During my first encounter, I was kind of surprised to see dirty yard-long sticks for sale in the right next to sweet potatoes and onions. But, after a quick inspection and a little help from Google translate, I discovered that it was a burdock root, also known as gobuo or gobō in Japanese.

Gobo for sale. Yum.

Tea, Herb & Weed

I’ve seen burdock tea in the US, but it’s hard to find and usually in small tea bags. In Japan, there’s a lot more burdock tea on the grocery shelves and I’ve even seen it bottled.

I also know about burdock as a medicinal herb. Burdock is often found in teas or dry powders packed in tiny pills sold at vitamin and herbal health stores and of course online. Used in western folk herbalism and Chinese medicine for thousands of years, this root supposedly cures a litany of aliments such as reducing inflammation, lowering blood sugar, and preventing infections.  

As a past gardener and plant hobbyist, I am also familiar with the common burdock (Arctium minus – a relative of the Japanese version Arctium lappa). Common burdock is a tenaciously invasive weed. Sprouting from unkempt back yards, abandoned lots, and in between cracks of sidewalks all over the USA. This plant from the thistle family is more of a nuisance since its seed burs cling eagerly to clothing.

I can’t recall ever seeing cleaned burdock root sold fresh at the grocery store in the states. I might have seen it at an Asian food market, not realizing what it was.

From left to right: Dried burdock root, bottled burdock tea, burdock burs.

War Crimes?

I once heard a story about how American POWs in World War II were being “forced to eat tree roots” for testimony in a war-crime trial. I did some background research and one document did confirm it, but it was noted as a miss translation for Gobō rather than an actual crime of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Nattō was also mentioned as “rotten beans” in the report – having tried nattō I can completely understand why!

Fresh Great burdock roots.

The Vegetable

Since eating gobō, I’m happy to report its hardly a punishment, but rather a tasty and healthy root vegetable.

I learned that burdock is as common as carrots in Japan. The most common way to cook burdock in Japan is Kinpira Gobō (recipe below). Kinpira is a Japanese cooking style where you stir fry and simmer usually with sugar and soy sauce, maybe some other seasonings as desired. With burdock, carrots and other vegetables are also added. This traditional dish is commonly found in supermarket bento boxes. I can honestly say that it’s far more appetizing when julienned rather than the “dirty stick” raw form.

The taste of burdock reminds me of artichokes (also apart of the thistle family) and the texture is similar to parsnips. It’s crispy and a bit sweet especially when cooked. There a hint of bitterness, and sometimes it can have a harsh muddy taste but only if you don’t pre-soak the roots for about ten minutes before cooking.

The burdock roots are a bit bothersome to cook from scratch since they tend to oxidize to a brown color quickly if you don’t submerge them in water with a teaspoon of vinegar immediately after cutting. I have seen pre-cut packages of burdock, usually in the frozen foods section.

Burdock sold in Japanese Grocery Stores.

Worth Trying

If you want to try a new vegetable, I think gobō is worthwhile. Packed with fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants it is defiantly good for you, but then again the same is true for all vegetables.

Kinpira Gobo

Kinpira Gobo

¼ pound carrot (about 1 medium), peeled, top and bottom trimmed
¼ pound burdock (1 root), peeled, top and bottom trimmed
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon mirin (sweet rice wine)
2 tablespoons of dashi or water
1 teaspoon of vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
pinch of toasted sesame seeds

Julienne the carrot and burdock into long matchstick pieces, about 1-2 mm × 1–2 mm × 4 cm.

Fully submerge the burdock in cold water with 1 teaspoon vinegar, mix and let soak for 5 to 10 minutes. Drain well before cooking.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat, add the sesame oil, and when it begins to smoke, add the vegetables. Cook, stirring frequently until the vegetables begin to wilt, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the mirin and dashi/water and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds or so, then add the soy sauce. Cook, stirring, for 2 minutes more, then stir in the sugar.

Continue cooking, stirring frequently and reducing the heat if the vegetables threaten to color. Continue cooking until vegetables are tender with a slight bite and just begin to stick to the skillet, 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on top.

Burdock flowers
FoodLife in Japan

Mitsuya Melted Peach Soda

MitsuyaMeltedPeach

Snack Attack #2

三ツ矢 とろけるもも
Mitsuya Melted Peach

Package Style: PET bottle, 500 ml
Price:  ¥100 to 140

  • Taste:  4/5
  • Smell:  4/5
  • Texture: 3/5
  • Value: 2/5

Mitsuya was a famous beverage producer here in Japan, brewing cider since 1884. Today it’s a brand name owned and made by Asahi Soft Drinks. They have all sorts of flavors in addition to cider, but all drinks regardless of flavor are carbonated.

Each season the Mitsuya brand puts out the special flavor, this winter its Melted Peach. Not sure what “melted” means in this context, but I imagine it has to do with the fact there are bits of peach pulp in the soda.

Both the smell and flavor is like a peach on steroids, but without being sugary. Honestly, I find that peachiness better than a real peach, only because I’ve chosen too many bad peaches. 

The texture of the peach pulp is subtle and overpowered by the carbonation. Like most Mitsuya drinks, the CO2 is on overdrive such that I suggest that you slowly sip and let the bubbles fizz away in the mouth. Drinking it too fast would just waste the flavors in addition to giving you excessive burps.

Overall, it’s a fun and refreshing fizzy drink that kind of reminds me of a Bellini minus the Champaign.

Mitsuya Melted Peach Ingredients: Sugars (fructose-glucose liquid sugar (domestic production), sugar), thigh juice / carbonic acid, acidulants, flavors, vitamin C, thickener (xanthan)

Thick peach puree with pulp!

Currently, you can buy Mitsuya Melted Peach on Amazon.co.jp

Matsuri & MoreNew Year

Kadomatsu: Three Friends of Winter

KadomatsuTwins

門松
Kadomatsu
“Gate Pine”

Japan loves its New Year’s decorations. It’s reminiscent of western Christmas decorations, something to bring verdant cheer to grey winters.

Just after Christmas, the New Year’s decorations known as kadomatsu “門松 – Gate Pine” are placed in front of homes, department stores, and businesses. It’s an evergreen ikebana arrangement that reminds me of Yule Tide Garlands. Kadomatsu can be spotted nearly everywhere up until January 13th.

A large and fancy Kadomatsu

松竹梅
Shochikubai
“Pine, Bamboo, and Plum”

Shochikubai originated from China, where it’s commonly known as 岁寒三友 (Suihan Sanyou) or “Three Friends of Winter.” Koreans and Vietnamese also share a similar New Year art motif. But in Japan, it’s specifically known as Kadomatsu. Hawaii also loves its kadomatsu given its communities of Japanese descent.

These three symbols represent longevity (pine), prosperity (bamboo), and steadfastness (plum). Not only are they found as decorations on doorways, but I’ve seen them on greeting cards and embossed into winter confections.

Various sizes of Kadomatsu at a Hawaii florist shop

Kadomatsu come in all sizes, but the basics are the same: three stalks of bamboo cut on the diagonal at various heights standing vertically. Pine branches are arranged around the bamboo and then twigs of plum blossoms are inserted. Sometimes they are bound together using a straw or rope. Kadomatsu are always found in pairs, on either side of the entryway and embody the male and female genders.

Originally, kadomatsu were placed to honor and receive the toshigami (deity), who will then bring a bountiful harvest. Today, they are symbols of good luck, wishing a bountiful year to the residents and the users of the building.

A kind friend sent us a cute New Year’s Postcard greeting with kadomatsu! It’s so adorable!

Sagichō
左義長

When the holidays are done, the decorations in America are tucked away in boxes to be saved for next year. Here in Japan, Kadomatsu and other decorations are burned on a special holiday season called “Little New Year’s” also known as Koshogatsu.

On the night of January 14th and the morning of January 15th, kadomatsu, other New Year’s decorations, and old lucky talismans are ritualistically burned in a Shinto ritual called Sagichō (not to be confused with the famous Omihachiman Sagicho Fire Festival near Kyoto). The festival also has many other regional specific names including tondo, dondo-yaki, saitōyaki, bokkengyō, and sankurōyaki.

A pile of kadomatsu, daruma dolls, and other talismans before the burning.

Regardless of its name, they all have one thing in common: The building, stacking and burning the New Year’s door ornaments and charms of luck, usually at a location near the village border or in a field. It’s mostly a family event with an intricate spiritual significance. The burning of the charms represents breaking up with the past and showing a desire to turn forward toward progress. Sometimes a short ritual is performed beforehand, but they always roast mochi or rice cakes over the fire for everyone to enjoy.

A pyre for Dondo-yaki

FoodJapanese Snacks

Shinshu Apple Kit Kat Minis

AppleKitKat-small
Snack Attack Series

信州りんごキットカット ミニ
Shinshu Apple Kit Kat Minis

Package Style: Regional souvenir box, 12 kit kat minis
Price:  ¥900

  • Taste:  4/5
  • Smell:  5/5
  • Texture: 4/5
  • Value: 3/5

When I first picked up the box at the local confectionery store, I notice the bright red apples and then “信州” or Shinshu.  Where is Shinshu? My Japan geography is sorely lacking. I later learn that Shinshū, also known as Shinano Province, is the traditional name for Nagano Prefecture on the island of Honshu.

Upon opening the box, Sig immediately exclaims, “Certainly smells like apples!”  And boy does it ever! Although the fragrance of sweet apple is intense like a perfume, I find it very pleasant, and we found ourselves anticipating the flavor. Shinshū apples, also known as Shinano apples, from Nagano are famous for their juicy and crispness, making it refreshing eating, and even better baking, apple. Let me just say, if you can go Shinshū apple picking, do it – you will be rewarded with some of the best apples that Japan has to offer.

Japan loves its individually wrapped snacks, and Shinshu Apple Kit Kat Minis are no exception. I’m almost disappointed to only find a dozen. As with most things Kit Kat I want more, maybe it’s a good thing that we’ll only get six each between us, and that box costs roughly nine to ten dollars per box! *Sigh* Oh the difficulty of practicing moderation and self-control!

Opening one of the mini wrappers, I am delighted to find milk chocolate instead of white chocolate. I often find white chocolate very sweet, near treacly in flavor. Biting into it, I get that chocolate-covered wafer bar confection I expected, but while the odor of apple wafts into my mouth and my nose. The flavor of the creamy milk chocolate and the apple is well-balanced and absolutely delicious. 

Shinshu Apple Kit Kat Mini Ingredients: sugar, whole milk powder, vegetable oil, cacao mass, flour, lactose, cocoa butter, apple juice powder, cocoa powder, yeast, emulsifier, fragrance, baking soda, yeast food, acidulant, (some of the raw materials include soy)

Currently you can buy Shinshu Apple Kit Kat Minis on Amazon.co.jp

FoodLocal FavoritesMatsuri & MoreNew Year

The Rooster Festival – Tori No Ichi

ToriNoIchi-KumadeVendors

酉の市
Tori No Ichi

When we lived in Tokyo, we really wanted to experience a matsuri or festival — Tori No Ichi ended up being our first.  So on a brisk November afternoon, we set out to the Otori Shrine in Asakusa area within Taito Ward of Tokyo.

When we reached the Tori-no-ichi Fair, a lively and loud shoulder-to-shoulder crowd greets us. The grounds are packed with colorful stalls selling festive “good luck rakes.” Food stands, billowing with steam, assault us with savory and sweet odors. Wandering and slightly confused we couldn’t help but wonder: “What is it all for?”

Making a Wish at Tori No Ichi

What is Tor-No-Ichi?

Torinoichi, Tori No Ichi, and Tori-no-Ichi.

Regardless of how its spelled in English, its true name is 酉の市 and in short, “Tori No Ichi” means “Market of the Rooster” or “Rooster Fair.”

– “Tori” means “The Rooster.” It also means “bird,”  but this specific kanji stems from the Chinese character for the tenth zodiac sign.

– “No” means “of”

– “Ichi” means “market” or “fair.”

Every November on the Day of the Rooster (according to the old Japanese calendar system), over 30 Otori Shrines throughout Japan hold a Tori No Ichi.  Just like the Chinese zodiac animals, Rooster days happen every 12 days, so a Rooster Market usually twice or three times so long as it falls within the month of November.

One of Many Kumade Stalls

The Ritual

Hours before midnight, crowds line up the main gate hundreds long and 4 to 5 people wide consisting of families or business groups. When the clock ticks over, the shrine announces the opening with a loud drum.  Inside the shrine, priests say prayers and opening rights, all of which is quick and takes no more than 15 minutes. As monks ring the bell, additional priests clade in white pray over the crowd for good luck and good health. All of this is mostly going unseen by the vast crowds outside, only to be witnessed by attendants inside and glimpsed by those just beyond the shrine thresholds.

Just outside the shrine itself is obscured by a wall of lit paper lanterns, each inscribed with the names and businesses of those who donated to the shrine. The air is so thick with incense supposedly warding off any bad spirits and misfortune. The deep rumbling of drums seems to cut through the din of crowds, announcing the start of Tori No Ichi.

Numerous Lanterns Obscure the Shrine

Lengthy lines of people pass under the tori gate, while two shrine officiants wave a purifying Ōnusa (a kind of wand with paper streamers) over them. When worshipers reach the front of the shrine, they throw their coins in the collection box, ring the bell, and then pray for good fortune. They then move off to the side either to buy additional fortunes or look for a “kumade” or rake to buy.

Kumade – Rake Talismans of Good Luck

After making our offering at the shrine, we move off to ogle at decorative rakes or kumade. The kiosks come big and small, each packed to the brim with rakes of all sizes and of various degrees of ornateness.

Business owners big and small especially make it a point to attend Tori No Ichi every year to help their businesses “rake in” wealth and good fortune. At a large shrine, such as the Otori Shrine in Asakusa, there are over 150 kumade vendors, each offering their special designs on a lucky bamboo rakes

Kumade brimming with Good Luck Decorations

A kumade talisman is made of a base bamboo rake, very much like the kind you use to sweep the leaves off lawns. Many are decorated with a chubby-cheeked female mask, which is in the likeness of Otafuku, the Goddess of Mirth. Other decorative good luck charms and symbols of wealth include:

Maneki Neko – Beckoning Cat, usually a gold-colored with the left paw raised and a gold coin in the right. This is in the hope to bring in more customers while wishing for wealth and prosperity.

Daruma Doll – A hollow, round, Japanese traditional doll modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen tradition of Buddhism. Daruma is a talisman seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck.

Sho Chiku Bai or “Three Friends of Winter” – Pine, bamboo, and plum blossom. These three symbols represent steadfast longevity (pine), vigorous perseverance (bamboo), and resilience (plum).

Tai or “Sea Bream” – Tai (鯛) is the same phonetics as the Tai as used in “omedetai” which means congratulations, or happy.

Crane and Turtle – Both animals are considered symbols of longevity. There is a Japanese saying, “‘tsuru sen-nen, kami man-nen”, which means “the crane lives 1,000 years, the turtle 10,000”

Shichi Fukujin or “Seven Lucky Gods” – many anime fans will recognize who the seven lucky gods, but in Japan, they important figures in Buddhism often invoked for good luck and fortune.

Kazari Goma with Reverse “Horse” Character – A large decorative wooden plaque in the shape of a shogi piece. If found on a rake, the kazari goma will have the kanji Hidari Uma (The Left Facing Horse). So instead of reading “Uma” for “horse” it would be said as “Ma-u” which means dance. Traditionally, a dance was performed for celebrations, and thus it became synonymous with good luck.

Watching a sale of a rake for the first time is a treat in itself. The buyer and seller engage in a passionate mock haggle battle over a selected rake, going back and forth until a price is settled. After the show is done, the buyer pays the original price. She then refuses any change given by the seller, all while saying “This is a gift for you.”

Buyers who follow this traditional faux haggling ceremony will be treated by a three-fold clapping chant by the rake vendor owner and staff over the rake itself – as if pouring good luck into it by sheer will. This chant and rhythmic clapping can be heard in threes everywhere in the kumade vendor area:

“ヨッ!ソーレソーレソーレッ!”
“Yooo! Sore! Sore! Sore!”

Congratulations! Once the clapping chant is complete, the buyer takes the luck infused and often oversized amulet to their business to put on display.

The Spirited Luck-Infusing Kumade Chant

History of the Festival of the Rooster

Three hundred years ago, when Tokyo was known as Edo, the first Tori No Ichi was held in a hamlet called Hanamata-mura, which is now known as Hanahata-chō, Adachi-ku, Tokyo by. Farmers and Ujiko (worshipers) would gather and hold a thanksgiving festival to the local diety, Ōtori Daimyōjin. Families would offer roosters or other kinds of live birds to the shrine, then hold a market to sell their goods and produce. Worshipers would then set the birds free the next day in front of Asakusa’s Kannondō temple, now known as Senso-ji temple.

Secondary shrine for prayer

Yatai – The Food Stalls

As per tradition, shrines that celebrate Tori No Ichi would offer space to merchants and allow them to hold a market. Today that takes place in the form of Yatai or “food stalls.”  It just wouldn’t be a Matsuri or “festival” without food stalls, and a large festival like Asakusa’s Tori No Ichi will have hundreds of Yatai.

Sig Eating Meat on a Stick
Sig Eating Meat on a Stick from a Yatai

There are tons of Matsuri foods and it merits its own blog post of its own, but three treats are worth mentioning here because they are specific to the Tori No Ichi festival.

Kashira no Imo (頭の芋) – Literally means “head of taro” and is usually steamed. Worshipers ate its corm in the hope that they would become a leader or “head” of a prosperous business.

Kogane Mochi (黄金もち) – “Golden Rice Cake” usually made with Japanese millet, which gives it a gold color. This Edo period sweet was said to help bring in wealth but has gone out of style since then. Today they sell Kiri-Zansho (切山椒) in its place.

Kiri-Zansho (切山椒) – “Cut Pepper Rice Candy” A chewy rice candy made from a mixture of sugar, powdered Japanese Sansho pepper, and rice flour. According to the ladies at the stand, eating Japanese Sansho Pepper will help prevent catching a cold. The recipe is below.

An Old Tokyo Festival Worth Celebrating

Even though the first Tori No Ichi of the November is considered auspicious, it is always held a second time, and sometimes a third, later in the month. Regardless of when you go, this festival is a fantastic way to dive deep into Japanese culture, while wishing for good luck and maybe a rake of fortune to bring home!

Kiri-Zansho (切山椒) Recipe

  • 600g Glutinous short-grain Japanese rice flour
  • 250g Unrefined dark brown sugar
  • 250g Light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Japanese Sansho Fine-Ground Pepper
  • ½ teaspoon Salt
  • 3 cups Water

Hardware

  • Steamer
  • Sautee pan
  • Mixing Bowl
  • Mixing Spoon
  • Directions

Directions

1. Over medium heat, mix salt, sugar, and pepper in a pan in water until sugar is fully dissolved. When the sugar has melted into a dark syrup turn off the heat, let it cool down until it’s safe to touch.

2. Add the glutinous rice flour to the sugar syrup and knead well. The mixture will become stiff, but still pliable.

3. Flatten the flour-sugar ball to about 1 to 2 cm thick and such that it fits into the steamer. Place into a paper-lined steamer and steam for about 15 minutes.

4. Remove from steamer and let cool. Then sprinkle with potato starch and cut it into strips. Make sure to coat strips in starch such that the candies don’t stick to each other. The candy should be soft, but a bit firmer than mochi.

Kiri-Zansho or Cut Pepper Mochi Rice Candy

23 WardsBunkyoParks & GardensViewing Spots

Rikugien Garden

Rikugien-Fall-NightRikugien Fall Illumination

六義園
Rikugi-en

  • Address: 6 Chome-16-3 Honkomagome, Bunkyo City, Tokyo 113-0021
  • Nearest Station: Komagome Station
  • Website: https://www.tokyo-park.or.jp/teien/en/rikugien/
  • Hours: 9:00 – 16:00
  • Price: ¥300

Rikugien is one of those places where art mimics art. When the noble samurai Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu founded this garden some 300 plus years ago, he was inspired by classical Waka poetry and sought to give it shape within earth, stone, water, and plant. In fact, the word Rikugi refers to the “Six Forms of Waka Poetry” while en means garden. If you’re lucky to find a full English translation of Kokin Wakashu (古今和歌集) perhaps you gain some insight into Yanagisawa’s own ascetics – seeing as he was inspired by this literature published by an Emperor some 800 years before the Edo period samurai himself!

Today Rikugien is open to the public and is one of Tokyo’s highly renowned gardens in addition to being designated as a “special place of scenic beauty” by the Japanese government.

When to Go

Spring – Weeping Cherry Blossom Viewing

From mid-March to early April, Rikugien lights up its prodigious weeping cherry tree (also known as the Shidarezakura) for an annual illumination viewing. The Shidarezakura is truly a massive tree and measures at 15m high and 20m wide. During the day, the tree looks like a soft pink cloud, while at night the lights create an illusion of cascading blossoms.

Rikugien Cherry Blossom Illumination
Rikugien Cherry Blossom Illumination at Night

Summer – Hydrangeas

Japan has a very long history with the Ajisai (紫陽花) or Hydrangea. It was first cultivated in Japan. There is even a tea called ama-cha (甘茶 “sweet tea”) made from the Hydrangea serrata, a specific breed whose leaves contain an ingredient which develops a sweet taste. A legend has it that on the day Buddha was born, nine dragons poured Amrita over him. So every April 8th, during the Buddha’s birthday ceremony, monks will substitute ama-cha for Amrita and pour the tea over a statue of Buddha.

Sitting next to Rikugien’s hydrangea trellis while enjoying a cup of ama-cha is the perfect way to enjoy the verdant green of high summer. Followed by a stop at the tea house to enjoy wagashi in the shape of hydrangea,

Hydrangeas
Hydrangeas symbolize Gratitude in Japanese culture

Autumn – Fall Foliage Illuminations

From mid-November to December, Rikugien holds its annual Autumn Evening Illumination. As the lights turn on at sunset, the central pond sparkles with the vibrant colors of fall as the water reflects the image of the trees and their foliage. Taking a stroll through the garden circuit will guide you through over 400 maple trees and all their glorious hues of vivid red, deep orange, or flashy yellow.

Rikugien Fall Illumination
Rikugien Fall Illumination

Rikugien Highlights

Tsutsuji-chaya – This Meiji era tea house was built using azalea wood. It avoided damage during World War II and is a style rarely seen today. This is one of the best spots to sit and enjoy the fall foliage of Rikugien.

Togetsukyo – Not to be mistaken for the one in Kyoto, this bridge was created from two large slabs of rock linking a man-made island in the middle of the lake. It was named after the Waka Poem: “Shadow of the moon moving at night and cry of a crane in the mash of reed in the sore of Waka, makes me feel so lonely.”

Takimi-chaya – Takimi means “waterfall viewing” and next to this small tea house, you can enjoy the sounds of cascading water.

Horaijima – In Japanese and Chinese legends “Horaijima” is an island inhabited by immortals and represents a kind of paradise. Its often a feature found in Japanese gardens and is intended to be watched and pondered from a distance. So, find a bench near the pond shore and meditate upon this particular Horaijima.

Fukiage Chaya – Inside the gardens is a tea house that serves tea and sweet wagashi in shapes that reflect the season. In summer, the matcha will be iced and the wagashi in the shape of a hydrangea. In fall, the wagashi will be a maple leaf, while in spring they will offer a sakura shaped confection

Matcha and Wagashi
Matcha and Fall Wagashi

A Garden for Meditation & Art

During the few times I visited Rikugien, it was crowded with people. I have a feeling that if I had a moment of solitude, it would have been easier to enjoy the gardens and to meditate on the original creator’s intention behind each vista and vignette. I also wish I had access to the poems associated with Rikugien. Regardless of these minor regrets, I felt that Rikugien represents a single facet of Japanese art and literature – all in a single perfectly groomed floriferous edifice – and that alone makes it worth visiting.

Shidarezakura
Shidarezakura – the Willow Cherry Tree
23 WardsChuoParks & Gardens

Hamarikyu Gardens

Hamarikyu GardensHamarikyu Gardens

浜離宮恩賜庭園
Hama-rikyū Onshi Teien

  • Address: 1-1 Hamarikyūteien, Chuo City, Tōkyō-to 104-0046
  • Nearest Stations: Shiodome Station, Tsukijishijo Station
  • Hours: 9:00 to 17:00
  • Price: ¥300

Between skyscrapers and the mouth of Sumida River lies an Edo period estate now turned into a public garden. For 365 plus years, the Hamarikyu Gardens has seen many visitors, from noble daimyos and powerful shoguns to the modern-day office workers and curious tourists.

This coastal garden intentionally draws water from the sea to fill its moats and ponds. Before the modern highways and skyrises, canals connected this feudal estate with Edo Castle. During the Meiji Era,  Hamarikyu served as a detached garden for the imperial family.

Although many of the original buildings were destroyed during World War II, the garden was restored and replicas rebuilt just for the public to enjoy.

When to Go

Spring Flowers

March 20th marks the first day of spring. For Hamarikyu Gardens, this is the time when about 300,000 rapeseed (canola) blossoms carpet the flower fields in hues of gold. Then in early April, the garden is painted in dreamy soft shades of pink thanks to the hundred or so cherry trees.

Rapeseed (canola) blossoms

Summer Arts

In August, the Hamarikyu Oedo Cultural Arts Festival celebrates high summer with traditional Edo-era art right next to pop-culture exhibits. What better way to fully appreciate Tokyo then to dance the traditional summer Bon Odori dance to beats spun by a modern DJ.

Matcha and seasonal Wagashi

Autumn Colors & Tea

In September, the Hamarikyu flower fields that were once colored yellow by the spring blossoms of the canola plant, are now dressed in the pink, white, and purple of cosmos flowers.

In October, the garden becomes a host of the Tokyo Grand Tea Party, a celebration of the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony on a large scale. Participants can attend tea ceremonies held in buildings at the Hamarikyu Gardens and Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, and open-air ceremonies held under the autumn sky.

In November is when Tokyo’s autumn color really begins to show, and Hamarikyu Gardens is no exception.  Though it may not be the best that Tokyo has to offer, it still offers a serene landscape for everyone to enjoy.

Cosmos at Hamarikyu

Winter Lights & New Year’s Falcons

The top of the garden’s hill Shinhi-no-Kuchiyama offers a unique view of Tokyo Bay and Rainbow Bridge. As the sun sets early in the winter, you may be able to see the bridge’s special winter rainbow illumination (Dec to Jan). Also, Nearby Caretta Shiodome holds an annual Winter Illuminations from November through February.

On January 2nd and 3rd, Hamarikyu annually hosts a New year’s celebration.  Weather permitting, falcon demonstrations are held right on the falconry field that once belonging to the Tokugawa shogun. In other parts of the park, Edo period food and drink is available right alongside traditional New Year’s games.

Falcon Demonstration at Hamarikyu

Hamarikyu Garden Highlights

Nakajima no Ochaya – On an island in the middle of the pond is Nakajima Teahouse. Here you can sip a cup of matcha and nibble a traditional Japanese sweet for ¥500. But drinking in the scenery as shoguns and imperials have done for centuries before you is nearly priceless.

Nakajima no Ochaya

Audio Self-Tour or Group Tour – the gardens offer both audio tours and group tours both free of charge. This is a great way to learn more about the park. They offer audio tours in English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

300-year-old Pine Tree – This pine was planted by Ienobu Tokugawa, the 6th shogun to commemorate the garden as the detached residence of the Tokugawa. Give pause when you realized that this tree is nearly 60 years older than the United States is as a country.

Peony Garden – Over 60 types of Peonies can be found in Hamarikyu. From Mid-April to Mid-May, you can enjoy a plethora of color in the form of big lacy blooms.

One of many Peonies to enjoy at the garden

Shioiri-no-ike – This seawater pond is the last of its kind in Tokyo, the other historic ponds were consumed by skyrises and highways. Fed by Tokyo Bay, it draws water from the sea through a sluice gate. Look carefully and you may be able to spot some seawater fish such as mullet, sea bass, gobies, and eels

Waterbus Landing – Taking the morning Tokyo Waterbus is a fantastic way to start out a tour of Hamarikyu Garden. The Sumida River Line runs from Asakusa to Hamarikyu and takes 35 minutes for ¥1040. There are usually 1-2 boats per hour – be sure to check which boat goes were since there are several routes. The dock at Hamarikyu is located within the garden’s paid grounds, and admission to the garden is included in the price of the boat ticket.  

Note that the boat from Asakusa to Hamarikyu Garden is one way only and there is no direct return service. You would have to take the boat to Hinode Pier, then transfer to Odaiba and take the Asakusa-Odaiba Direct Line back to Asakusa.

Hotaluna – Tokyo Waterbus

Quintessential Tokyo

Hamarikyu Gardens is an ideal representative of nearly four centuries worth Japanese garden culture and history. If you’re here on a layover or a weeklong vacation, this garden is certainly my top pick of places to first visit once landing in Tokyo.



Try some Cherry blossom viewing at Hamarikyu in the Spring
View of Hamarikyu from Shiodome Building