American Holidays in Japan

With Valentine’s Day coming soon, it always makes me wish I were living in Japan again, where the guys don’t have to worry about what romantic thing we need to do for our significant others—because the girls make the first move on Valentine’s Day. In Japan, the girls buy the chocolate for the men. And we don’t have to reciprocate until a month later on “White Day”. Confused? Don’t be—it’s actually kind of…uh, sweet. Valentine’s Day gives the girls a chance to show their crushes how they really feel, when they may normally be too embarrassed to do so. In addition to buying chocolate for their true loves, however, the girls are unfortunately on the hook for buying for their bosses or colleagues—the “obligation chocolate”. And the obligation-giving continues on March 14th for the men, when they’re expected to repay the Valentine’s Day gifts with chocolate gifts of their own, on White Day. Oh, those evil candy manufacturers, who started this ingenious holiday! Even though “White Day” is strictly a commercial money maker, I love the Japanese Valentine’s Day tradition of the girls taking the initiative!

The Japanese love to adopt our national holidays—they’re not always celebrated in the same way, but they do a pretty good job. And it’s always in good fun.

What’s Christmas like in Japan?

There’s no way Christmas would have the same religious significance in Japan the way it does here. It’s estimated only 1% of the population is actually Christian. But Christmas is a joyous time, and Japanese people love gift giving, so it seems pretty natural. The main symbolic gesture has always been the traditional “Christmas Cake”, usually topped with all the decorations, like plastic Santas, trees, reindeer and ornaments. And happily, that rude association with unmarried women being past their expiration date (25, as in December 25) and being called “Christmas Cakes”, is no longer taken seriously. Especially when more women are in the workforce and the marrying age is probably closer to 29.

Another phenomenon is the KFC® Christmas, a brilliant marketing angle invented years ago by a Japanese executive at Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan. He simply started promoting his chicken in Christmas themed barrels, getting his inspiration from the traditional holiday turkey dinners in the U.S. The idea that “Christmas is for Kentucky” caught on, and now standing in long lines to pick up KFC® has become synonymous with the season. Who woulda thought it? The Colonel is the most famous personality during Christmastime. And well deserved, that Japanese executive eventually became the CEO of KFC® Japan.

Halloween is picking up steam

Indeed, this very American holiday becomes bigger every year in Japan, and much like its popularity as an adult holiday here, Halloween in Japan is an excuse to dress up and be someone else. It makes sense that it would catch on in Japan, where cosplay first started. So when they start making costumes, they go all out. It also helps when all the major theme parks like Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan get on the bandwagon and start to feature the holiday in a big way. It used to be a scattering of American ex-pats dressing up and going to bars and nightclubs to be gawked at by curious onlookers—but no more; the dressing up part has been completely adopted by Japanese pop culture. The only thing missing is trick or treat—that part of the tradition doesn’t look like it’s going to assimilated anytime soon.

And what would Halloween be without controversy? Apparently at Universal Studios Japan last year, their new attraction, called “Tatari: Curse of the Living Doll”, drew letters of protest from the Japanese Doll Association, for using dolls that were donated to the park by a shrine. The association wasn’t keen on how the dolls were being represented as objects of terror, even though it was in the spirit of Halloween. Guess what? Dolls are creepy enough sometimes. These little ones are pretty scary with the right makeup!

Japan has pretty much made these holidays their own. Americans might say they’re copycats, and they certainly started that way, but after all these years the celebrations have evolved into something distinctly Japanese.

Images: Valentine art, Christmas cake, KFC, Halloween costumes, Tatari doll

A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan – Kyoto’s Famous Yudofu

yudofu

We’re food lovers at heart here at Zojirushi. Our love of Japanese food comes from our love of Japan, a country that has a rich food culture and many beautiful places to visit. We’re excited to start our new series this month, “A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan,” where each month we’ll feature a different region of Japan and introduce its famous foods, history, culture and unique spots to visit. We’ve curated regional recipes you can cook with our products and hope you try them out at home!

We begin by featuring the ancient city of Kyoto and its iconic dish, yudofu.

Kyoto was founded in the 6th century because of its favorable geography. Central to the prefecture is the Tanba Mountain Range, with the low-lying basins full of fertile land. The city is located in the Kansai Region of Japan, located on the island of Honshu. As Kyoto grew, it became the seat of Japanese imperial power, around the 8th century. Kyoto flourished as a center of politics, culture, art, religion, economy and haute cuisine until the 18th century, when the capital of Japan was transferred to Edo, or present-day Tokyo. Kyoto was heavily influenced by the Japanese aristocracy, Buddhist clergy and military leaders of various shogunates.

Their influences can be still seen in the modern city of over a million and a half people. The main business district is still near Kyoto Gosho, or the old Imperial Palace. The Gion District, home to apprentice geisha called “maiko” and the unique lattice architecture Kyoto is famous for, bustles as a tourist and shopping center. In the eastern Higashiyama District, tea ceremonies, noh performances, artistic activities like ikebana and traditional Japanese garden culture thrive. The Fushimi District is famous for its sake brew houses, because of the high-quality mountain spring water sourced from the Momoyama Hills. Shrines abound in Kyoto, from the famous Fushimi-inari-taisha Shrine to the hidden temples where cherry blossoms flourish. You might even see a samurai movie being filmed! And along with the shrines are three of the most famous matsuri, or festivals, in Japan–the Aoi Matsuri in early summer, the Gion Matsuri in mid-summer and the Jidai Matsuri in autumn. Kyoto glows with light and sound, music and food during these festivals!

In the heart of the Japanese winter, the residents of Kyoto enjoy yudofu, a meal made by boiling fresh tofu and green onions in a kombu broth, table-side in classic nabe or hot pot style. Yudofu was originally eaten by Buddhist priests who were not allowed to eat meat or fish, and tofu was a precious source of protein for them. The warmth of the broth, the sweetness of the tofu and the savoriness of the green onions are perfect for keeping the cold at bay.

Warm yudofu is eaten with a variety of sauces. Dashi, or broth, infused soy sauce and ponzu sauce are popular accompaniments, and it is often sprinkled with scallions, mitsuba, a fresh Japanese herb or shichimi togarashi, a powdered seasoning made with seven chili peppers. Fresh tofu is best for making yudofu, but store-bought regular tofu can also be used, as long as its texture is between silken and firm.

The humble yudofu is seasonal, made with local ingredients and fresh water, exemplifying the warmth and culture of this famous city. We love making yudofu in our Gourmet d’Expert® Electric Skillet (EP-RAC50), and hope you will, too.

Share your Kyoto stories with us, and let us know how your yudofu turns out!

Product Inspirations – Travel Mug (SM-YAE48)

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Japanese Bentos – Onigiri

Classically Built Onigiri

Happy 2017, Zojirushi fans! We kick off the new year with a new series about bento, or the Japanese lunch box. Japanese bentos are not only nutritious but creative and beautiful! We’re going to spend some time learning about the special foods and dishes that are found in bento boxes. Stick with us, and you’ll be making your own complete bento in no time!

We begin with one of Japanese cuisine’s beloved comfort foods, onigiri.

Onigiri, also known as omusubi, is a portable, filling convenience food that is nutritious and fun! The purest form of onigiri is made from high-quality cooked white rice that is shaped into either a ball, triangle or cylinder while it’s still hot. During the shaping process, the cook will coat their damp hands with salt to coat the rice with the seasoning.

onigiribento

Onigiri bento

Onigiri is said to have come into existence after uruchimai, or everyday short-grain white rice, came to be widely used in the 11th to 12th centuries. It became popular as a convenience food before modern refrigeration, as the addition of salt or a sour ingredient helped to preserve the cooked rice and enable people to take food with them when they left home.

Onigiri is a popular bento item because it keeps well, is highly portable and can be formed into lovely shapes. It can be found in elaborately festive bentos as well as in homemade bentos, and unlike sushi or inari, which are made using rice seasoned with vinegar, onigiri can simply be made with white rice and just a touch of salt.

So how many types of onigiri are there?

So many! From the traditional triangular, spherical and cylindrical shapes to adorably cute, molded shapes of popular characters in manga and anime, onigiri takes many forms. Onigiri is often wrapped in thin sheets of dried nori seaweed.  It also can be sprinkled with sesame seeds or furikake such as ground shiso leaf. When grilled over an open flame on a wire rack, yaki-onigiri, or grilled onigiri, can be basted with a glaze like miso butter. Mixing up the type of rice used in onigiri is also a popular way to make it. Short-grain japonica white rice is traditionally used, but brown rice and rice mixed with barley, wild rice, green peas and other grains also make delicious variations. New forms of onigiri, called onigirazu, are like little rice sandwiches wrapped in seaweed.

kyaraben

Kyaraben, or character bento

Making onigiri is like many Japanese activities… deceptively simple. Start with freshly cooked rice that has cooled to the point where it can be handled, not gotten cold. Moisten hands with water and rub a pinch of salt into hands. Scoop about ½ cup of rice into hands, and mold the rice into the desired shape. If using a mold, then press the rice into the mold. And you now have the most basic onigiri!

Try making our Rice Sprinkles Onigiri, which uses a wonderful vegetable furikake, as well as our Yaki-Onigiri, which results in a crispy outside and soft and savory inside. You’ll love them both!

Stay tuned for our next Japanese Bentos post in which we will be discussing about the different types of fillings for onigiri!

Also, don’t forget to share your favorite onigiri recipe with us in the comments!

 

Have a Mochi New Year!

mainI can actually remember visiting my grandfather during New Year’s when I lived in Japan, and watching him make mochi the old fashioned way—by pounding the heck out of it. He was a strawberry farmer in rural Hiroshima, so maybe he did a lot of things the old fashioned way. But sometimes tradition beats technology every time, and even though you can buy mochi anywhere these days, you can’t celebrate the New Year without it if you’re Japanese.

Mochi is for good luck, a long life and is the symbol of an auspicious new beginning to a fresh calendar year. Yikes! With 2016 trashed, we need all the help we can get this year—yoroshiku onegai shimasu, mochi! The stack of mochi you see above is called kagami mochi, which you’ll find adorning most households during the New Year. Usually two flattened mochi cakes topped with a mandarin orange, this is an offering to the Gods to bring good fortune and protection to the household. The orange is supposed to be of a variety called daidai, a bitter orange that, once its tree bears fruit, doesn’t drop for 2 or 3 years; hence representing long life. Sometimes the decoration is trimmed with dried sea kelp (konbu), dried persimmons, folded ornamental paper and set on a wooden stand, like you see below. The display is usually set up at the family altar in the house, a Buddhist shrine that honors the deceased.kagami

Mochi appears in so many ways during New Year’s—one of my favorites was my mother’s ozoni, a hot soup made of clear dashi stock, sometimes with miso depending on the regional recipe, and all kinds of possible ingredients including Chinese cabbage, carrots, spinach, fishcakes, etc., but always, always with mochi. The best ozoni IMHO, is the one on the morning of January 1st. You’ve had the one on New Year’s Eve when it’s just been cooked, then the following morning all the mochi is soft and gooey and the soup is thick and tasty! On a cold winter morning, it doesn’t get any better!ozoni

There are variations of simple grilled mochi cakes called yakimochi, where lightly charred pieces are dipped in soy sauce, or topped with grated daikon radish and soy sauce, or boiled and dusted with kinako, a sweet roasted soybean flour. The best part of grilling mochi? Watching it heat up until it magically expands, swells, and breaks open with a puff of steam as the insides burst out in a bubble. That’s when it’s done! Check out this excellent video by the ladies of Japanese Cooking 101 as they explain how to yakimochi.yakimochi

And there’s dessert! The warming, sweet soup of oshiruko, a red bean and mochi dish, is a New Year treat that is a favorite of the girls and anybody with a very sweet tooth. The red bean paste (anko) can be either koshi-an (completely smooth) or tsubu-an (partially mashed) and the mochi is often toasted or grilled before adding it to the oshiruko soup. It’s a very simple, comfort food that is easily made these days just by diluting canned red bean paste in hot water. Mochi is what makes it a New Year!oshiruko

One thing about Japanese culture—it’s always been about the old and the new. Pop culture co-exists everyday alongside traditions that are literally centuries old. But the New Year seems to be the one time of year where everyone, young and old alike, gets together to celebrate what it really means to be Japanese. For your entertainment, if you haven’t seen this video yet, is the world’s fastest mochi pounding man ever.bigstory

photo credits: Matcha Magazine, Rakuten Travel, Japanese Cooking 101, Xin Li’s Journal, The Great Big Story