Thursday, February 26, 2009

Essential food for the Japanese

What is a popular Japanese food that Japanese people love to eat when they are a bit hungry or when they need a quick lunch? Sushi? Soba? No! Rice balls! Rice balls are a must have food for the Japanese and it definitely wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that there are no Japanese living in Japan that have never eaten a rice ball in their lifetime.

The first rice balls in Japan were found to be eaten during the Yayoi period (500 BC to 300 AD). They were made by mixing water and rice but made the same way: making it into a ball with your hands. The form of the rice balls we have now first appeared as a wartime food. They were first eaten only by warriors. However, they became more popular among farmers as a quick meal and were also served when welcoming guests. The word Onigiri (rice balls) comes from the word Nigiru (to hold) in Japanese.

Various rice balls
Rice balls are definitely one of the most popular items that are sold in Japanese convenience stores. As you walk into the obento (lunch box and take-outs) area, the first thing you will see is a whole shelf full of rice balls. The prices start from JPY100, and there are so many that it is difficult to choose the one you want to eat. Here are 10 most popular rice ball fillings at Seven-Eleven.

01. Shake (salmon)
02. Tarako (red roe)
03. Tuna and mayonnaise
04. Mentaiko (cod ovum)
05. Konbu (kelp) 6. Ume (pickled plum)
07. Katsuo/Okaka (dried bonito)
08. Takikomi Gohan (mixed rice)
09. Yaki Onigiri (toasted rice balls)
10. Tenmusu (tempura)

Other interesting fillings are, Natto (fermented beans), Kimchi (Kimchee), Cheese and bacon, Shirasu (dried young sardines), Ikura (salmon roe), Takana (Japanese pepper leaf), Miso-chashu (fermented soybean paste with roast pork) etc.

You may have heard some of them for the first time and they may sound unique or rather strange. However, go for it! You can find a lot more flavors anywhere in Japan! There are even stores in Japan that specialize in rice balls. In such stores there are nearly 40 different varieties of filled rice balls. Trying as many rice balls as you can is always recommended. I hope you find your favorite rice ball!


Ask a Japanese person "What is the most famous historical building in Kyoto?" and most people would definitely answer "Kinkaku-ji!"

People know Kinkaku-ji as the famous shrine known for its walls covered completely in beaten gold. The golden building is actually called Rokuonji. There are the pond, surrounding trees, and the waterfall behind the shrine creating a beautiful view with the golden shrine. As you may have guessed, the area was designated as a World Heritage site in 1994.

Kinkaku-ji was presented to Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1937 by the Saionji family. While in power, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu used to do all of his political work here. However, in 1950, a shocking event occurred! Known as the Great Fire of Kinkaku-ji, a 21 year-old ascetic monk deliberately set fire to the national treasure. As a result, the whole shrine and several other national treasures, such as a wooden statue of Yoshimitsu and six other cultural assets, were burnt down. The Kinkaku-ji that we know today was rebuilt five years later in 1955. Sadly, while it is no longer listed as a national treasure, it is still valued as a cultural asset to Japan.

Only the second and third floors of Rokuonji are covered in gold, and a golden phoenix stands tall on the roof of the building. Although you can only look at the shrine from a distance, it is a pleasure to see the building standing in the middle of a beautiful pond with its reflections shining in the water. To enter, admission is JPY400 (adults) and JPY300 (for middle school and elementary school students). Never leave Kyoto without visiting Kinkaku-ji - this historical site is definitely worth seeing!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Monkeys in the Hot Springs

What image do you get when you think of monkeys? Jungles? Rainforests? In Japan, there is a way you can enjoy their company in a completely different way. See them take a nice warm bath in the hot springs!

In Nagano there is a park named Jigokudani Yaen Koen (Jigokudani Monkey Park). Opened in 1964, the park is a facility made especially for tourists to enjoy watching the Japanese Monkeys bathe. This place first became popular as a place where people would feed the wild monkeys who lived here. Usually, monkeys do not like getting themselves wet; but the monkeys in this area started taking baths after watching a human take one. Now there are hot springs made exclusively for monkeys and they have become one of the most entertaining spectacles to see - attracting nearly 100,000 people every year. In the hot springs, some monkeys groom each other while others just like to sit still and do absolutely nothing at all. Whatever they do, they all look happy and relaxed. Watching them is a heartwarming and pleasing sight.

Nowhere else can you have the chance to see monkeys enjoying a warm bath! Although there are several rules that you must follow when visiting the sight, (i.e. do not feed them, do not touch them, do not talk to them, etc.) you will never forget this wonderful experience. Admission to Jigokudani Yaen Koen costs JPY 500 for adults and JPY 250 for children.


Sorry to the boys, but in Japan, there is a day where people feast just for the girls! Called Hina Matsuri, it is held on March 3rd every year. It is also known as Momo no Sekku (the seasonal festival of peaches) and has been celebrated for centuries.

It was during the early Edo period (1603-1867) that the Hina Matsuri custom began. The emperor at the time played with a Hina doll (a girl doll) to entertain his daughter. Later, a general named Tokugawa Iemitsu gave his daughter a Hina doll as a birthday present. Since then, the custom of giving a Hina doll to every girl born was started. Now the custom of giving girls a Hina doll no longer survives. However, Hina Matsuri is still a special day for all girls in Japan.

On Hina Matsuri, many families in Japan celebrate the day by eating Chirashi-zushi. Chirashi-zushi is vinegared rice topped with tasty foods such as eggs, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, burdocks, and shrimp. Another way of celebrating, and the most popular one, is to set up a Hina ningyo (Hina doll). It usually has seven stairs and its beauty is outstanding. Here is how you set up each step.

(Top to Bottom)
1st step: Hina-sama and Odairi-sama. Odairi-sama is Hina's husband. He is usually placed on the left, and the Hina sits on the right. A paper lantern called a Bonbori is placed on each end and a peach tree is placed between the two dolls.

2nd step: Sannin Kanjo (The three court ladies). The two court ladies on the outside are standing and holding a sake bottle. The one in the center is sitting with a Shimadai (drinking cup).

3rd step: Goninbayashi (The five court musicians). Five men sit evenly spaced, each holding an instrument in their hands.

4th step: Two Ministers, rice cakes and a tray. Two Ministers are placed on each end and the rice cakes and the trays are placed between them.

5th step: Three servants and two trees. A mandarin orange tree and a cherry blossom tree are placed on each end. The three servants in the middle each have different expressions. One is crying, the other is laughing, and the last one sits with an angry face.

6th Step: Tools. Tools such as a wardrobe, an incense container, and a book holder.

7th step: Ox wagon, multitired box and a carriage. Each is placed evenly on the lowest step.

Usually, the Hina ningyo is made of seven steps. However, because some houses are not big enough to place this, some Hina ningyos are made of fewer steps. Although Hina ningyo are somewhat expensive, some are handmade and cost over JPY100,000, its beauty is always a pleasure to enjoy. Why don't you look for a Hina ningyo of your own and wait for the spring to come?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lights, Camera, Action in Tokyo!

Many film creators around the world love the city Tokyo, with its face as an ancient historical place filled with temples and its face as the center of pop culture with the sky rocketing buildings. Because of this dual character, many movies have been filmed here in Tokyo, Japan.

When you think about it, there are too many films to be named. So I'm going to introduce a few films that were filmed recently and are my favorite.

Wasabi (2001)
A French film filmed by Gerard Krawczyk was starred in one of the famous actor in France, Jean Reno and famous actress in Japan, Ryoko Hirosue. The story centers on the yakuza (Japanese mafia) culture in Japan and the film is mainly taken place in Tokyo. Where Yumi (Ryoko) argues with Hubert (Jean) is taken place in Akihabara, the arcade where they play is located in Shibuya.

Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003)
The fourth film made by the Japan loving film creator Quentin Tarantino was filmed in Tokyo as well. The famous fighting scene in the restaurant between Uma Therman and Chiaki Kuriyama was not shot in Tokyo but the place was based as a restaurant in Nishi-Azabu, Tokyo called 'Gonpachi'.

Lost in Translation (2003)
Most of this film, filmed by Sofia Coppola starred by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson took place in Tokyo. After its distribution in 2003, many travel agencies in Japan made a tour package where you can visit most of the place where the film was shot and to stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo (shinjuku) where Bill Murray stayed. Other places taken place in this film was karaoke bar in Shibuya, bars of Nakameguro, and Park Tower Shinjuku.

Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
In this film by Justin Lin, part of the exciting car action scene was filmed in Shinjuku and Meguro. Although the main setting was Shibuya in this film, it was never actually filmed in Shibuya. It was mostly filmed in Los Angeles with the visuals of Shibuya added to the film later.

There are many more movies set in Tokyo yet to be introduced, and many that are still unknown to people. Next time when you stop by at any of these places, why don`t you take your time to snap a picture ? or maybe you can find more locations by watching these films over and over again.

Now enjoy Tokyo more!

Obama for Obama !

"Yes we can" said the man when he came out to change America. He swung his powerful speeches at the podium in many places and won through to the last podium in front of Abraham Lincoln at Washington last week. He is Barack Obama, the first African-American U.S. president. And in Japan, there is a small city in Fukui prefecture where they supported him ? the city's name is Obama.

It all started when a local reporter told a story that Obama - then Senator Obama - joked about how he was asked at customs in Japan if he was from Obama city in Fukui prefecture. Whether this story is true or not, it reached the ears of the people in Obama city and they wrote a thank you letter to Obama saying that they were pleased about how Obama advertised their city globally and sent the now U.S. President a pair of chopsticks made in Obama.

Since then, this small city has supported Obama by making 'Obama goods' and by starting a local group called 'Obama for Obama'. Finally, on March 4th, 2008, their love for Obama was recognized by CNN and they were broadcast throughout America. Ever since then, their city has been recognized in many papers and magazines across the world. Furthermore, on January 14th, 2009 ? a week before his inauguration ? Chaz Guest, known as one of Obama's close friends, visited the city and gave them his drawing of Obama as a gift.

As so, Obama city is now known to many around the world. Not only is it known for its support of Barack Obama, but also as a port city with a 1300 year history, delicious seafood, blowfish, and the nuclear power plants located in the Wakasa Bay.

If you ever visit Osaka, I'd recommend you to go to Obama, Fukui. From Osaka, it is just a hop away on the bus! Take the Fukui Tetsudo Kosoku Bus to Obama station. Buy the Obama goods and support Barack Obama from Japan. But if you cannot reach Obama city, they also sell their goods online. So check those out too! :)
Great discount on top hotel deals in Tokyo, Kyoto and more! No booking fees at -

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Valentine's Day & White Day in Japan

Valentine's Day in Japan is quite unique. Unlike Valentine's Day in the United States, where men give gifts to women, women give gifts to men! It's completely the opposite! The custom of Valentine's Day in Japan started in the 1950's. Department stores began a Valentine's Day sale selling heart-shaped chocolates with signs which said "To men from women". Since then, numerous chocolate producing companies began selling more and more chocolates made especially as gifts for Valentine's Day.

It is not surprising to find an empty rack of chocolate bars at supermarkets on the days before Valentine's Day. That, of course, means that the day before Valentine's Day is a very busy day for women in Japan. There are two types of chocolates that Japanese girls and women give as a gift on Valentine's Day. One is "Giri-Choco" which means "Chocolate out of courtesy". This type of chocolate is given to men you treat as a friend. Usually, cookies or small chocolates are distributed to your usual friends, colleagues, bosses, etc.

The other type of chocolate is the important kind. It is called "Honmei-Choco" and is a chocolate gift given especially to the one you truly love. Women usually make chocolate cakes or an assortment of truffles and wrap them in beautifully decorated boxes. With the handmade "Honmei-Choco", some women show their appreciation for the ones they love, and some girls take their big step to tell their crush their true feelings! Valentine's Day can definitely be said to be one of the most exciting days for men, but a very nervous day for women in Japan! Ladies, it's almost the big day! Good luck!

White Day
White Day (March 14th) is a day that was created in Japan. It is a day to appreciate the women who gave their love (chocolates!) to you on Valentine's Day. There are numerous stories that explain the origin of White Day, but the truth is still unknown.

On this day, men show their thanks by giving gifts of cookies and candies they have bought to the women who gave them gifts on Valentine's Day. Unlike the United States, it is not as popular to give them roses. However, if I were a girl, it is always exciting to receive gifts from well-meaning men. Now, this custom has been popularized among Asian countries such as Korea and Taiwan; and they are enjoying White Day as well. Gentlemen, your secret admirer may be preparing for your gift now, so don't forget to show your appreciation on White Day!


Akihabara, also known as Akiba, is a district located in the central area of Tokyo. It is also known for its stores for electronics, manga, anime, and otaku goods.

The district is filled with Duty free shops and major electronic stores such as the Apple Store, Yodobashi Camera, and electronic shops for customers who don't have any knowledge of electronics. There are also stores which sell junk materials and secondhand computers and electronics for people who have the knowledge and skills to rebuild these electronics into something else.

Akihabara is well known for its electronics, but over the past few years it has gained popularities in other places and cultures aside from electronics. Now there are stores like Ani-tora that sell only old manga and anime figurines. For fans of these anime, a special type of cafe was started in Akihabara, known as a cos-play café.

One type of cos-play cafe is the maid-kissa or maid café. It is a cafe where girls serve you dressed up like the French maid of an anime or manga. Many enjoy the feeling they get as if they were in an anime world.

Akihabara has been growing to produce more places of interest for tourists over recent years, and has been acknowledged by many as a place to go in Japan. Stop by if you have problem with your computer or just want to experience the anime world!

Nijo-jo castle

Nijo-jo is the one of most famous castles located in Kyoto. This castle was built by the founder of the Edo shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu, at the beginning of the 17th century. At the time, building a castle, or having large landholdings were a symbol of power; and Nijo was the symbol of Tokugawa Ieyasu's power.This outstanding building in the center of Kyoto was built to celebrate the Tokugawa victory at Sekigahara (Battle fought over power between Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi Held in 1600) and to remind everyone who was in charge, and who had the power.

The palace was built in 1603 and later expanded by Tokugawa Iemitsu, Ieyasu's grandson. Renowned for its architecture, the castle's floors chirp when walked upon. The chirps from the floorboards are described as sounding like a Japanese nightingale, and therefore called nightingale floors. This was perhaps one of the best forms of security alarm that one could have had during those days. Iemitsu also added a five story tower to Nijo castle in the inner moat called Honmaru. However, because of a huge fire in the 18th century, part of the tower was burnt down.

Just by looking at these pictures, I believe that anyone can see the castle's magnificence. Now, imagine just going there; it's such a breathtaking sight. Nijo Castle is pure history.

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