Fortune Cookies

The fortune cookie is the standard offering that concludes most Chinese restaurant meals in the U.S. I never thought of it as being any more authentically Chinese than faux-Chinese dishes like Chop Suey.

I remember a funny experience 30 years ago that hammered home the “American-Chinese” custom of the fortune cookie. I was studying abroad in the former East Germany. Hungry for international food (which was nearly impossible to find), a short visit to West Berlin afforded me the opportunity to visit a Chinese restaurant. The food was good, but at the end there was no fortune cookie. I asked if there were any fortune cookies and was met with silent confusion. Imagine trying to describe a fortune cookie to someone who has never seen or eaten one, and doing so in a foreign language…

“Well, it’s a cookie that is folded…that contains a piece of paper…um…that tells you your future…” You can probably picture the blank stare I received from the befuddled waitress.

Yesterday, almost three decades later, listening to Episode 182 of the 99% Invisible podcast, I learned about the surprising origin of the Chinese fortune cookie: Japan!

In “A Sweet Surprise Awaits You“, I learned that fortune cookies originated in Kyoto, Japan. Bakers today still make them by hand near the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine. The cookies are called tsujiura sembei (辻占煎餅 – “fortune rice cracker”), or suzu sembei (鈴煎餅 “bell rice cracker,” since they are shaped like the bells you might see in a shrine or temple).

Here are Japanese fortune cookie. Note the person hand-folding them in the upper left corner.

Here is a Japanese woodblock from 1878 showing a baker making fortune cookies

So how did they become associated with Chinese restaurant meals in the US? During the early 1900s, Chinese restaurants had to create dishes that appealed to American palates, and quite a few Chinese restaurants were owned and operated by Japanese people. This was decades before anyone in the US outside of Japanese circles knew about sushi. The fortune cookie was likely introduced into the Chinese restaurant offerings by Japanese people.

During WWII, 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast were driven from their homes and businesses into concentration camps. During that four-year period, whatever weak connection between the fortune cookie and its Japanese origin was completely lost. Chinese-Americans invented machines to manufacture the cookies (previously folded by hand), and wrote, printed, and cut thousands of fortunes printed in English.

According to the podcast, fortune cookies have spread around the world (I wonder if I might find them in Germany now?). Ironically, one country from which they are still conspicuously absent: China.



I made a short visit to Nagasaki a couple of weeks ago as one stop on a two-week cruise I made with my mother. Here are my notes.

I was happy to see Nagasaki. It had been nearly 1.5 years since last I set foot in Japan. That and the fact that I’d never visited Nagasaki made me all the more eager. Also, visiting Hiroshima had had such a deep impact on me, I anticipated another meaningful experience in Nagasaki.

Nagasaki (長崎), whose name means “Long Cape,” has a rich cultural history. It was an early trading port with the Portuguese and Chinese, and has a colorful and sometimes dark history involving Jesuit and Catholic missionaries, Christianity, and evangelism (some of which was dramatized in a 2016 film, “Silence”). Nagasaki is also the setting of Puccini’s popular opera, “Madame Butterfly.” At one time, this city was the single port open to the world from an otherwise completely closed society.

When the Meiji Restoration finally opened all Japan to outside trade and diplomatic relations in the second half of the 19th century, Nagasaki became a center for heavy industry, particularly ship building. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was one of the major builders of the Imperial Japanese Navy during WWII, which is one reason Nagasaki was placed on the list of potential targets for an atomic bomb attack. Rebuilt after the war, the city still builds ships, and was the birthplace of several of cruise ships for the company I traveled with.

Upon arrival, I couldn’t help but notice a few things that were unique about our experience here compared to other Asian ports. There was the usual long queue of people waiting for passport control and customs. But instead of standing in the morning sun, we enjoyed the shade of long, covered breezeways. We were processed quickly and courteously, such was the thoughtfulness of our Japanese hosts. Also, when we left port, a group of well-wishers stood on the dock and bade us goodbye.

Goodbye, Nagasaki!

My first destination was the Glover Garden and Glover Residence. Thomas Blake Glover was a Scottish merchant, and his house is an interesting mixture of Western and Japanese design and construction. Flowers, a koi pond, and statues of Puccini and Miura Tamaki (a famous Japanese opera singer who performed in “Madama Butterfly”) decorate the grounds.

Glover Garden koi pond and view of harbor in the distance

We were lucky to see some flowering cherry Sakura as well. The residence and garden are located on a hill overlooking the harbor. It was not distant from the harbor, but we had to climb steps and steep narrow streets to reach our destination.

My primary goal was to visit the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. It is about 6km north of Glover House, and, given the steepness of the hill we had climbed and the limited time we had in Nagasaki, we chose to get there by taxi. The ride took about 20 minutes and cost about 1200 yen (approx. US$12).

We entered the museum and rented audio tour devices. Similar to the audio tour guides in Hiroshima, the commentary was delivered by a native English speaker in a neutral, dispassionate tone. Such lack of modulation only made the horrific facts and figures all the more stark and gut-wrenching for the listener.

In the entrance to the museum stands a broken clock, its hands frozen at 11:02, the moment on August 9, 1945, when the second atomic bomb, nicknamed, “Fat Man,” was dropped. At the time, the population of Nagasaki was about 263,000. Between 35,000 and 40,000 people were killed instantly, and 20 neighborhoods within a 1km radius were destroyed.

The subsequent fires and winds destroyed 80% of the homes within a 2km radius. Although “Fat Boy” was more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped three days earlier on Hiroshima, Nagasaki’s uneven terrain limited the damage.

The first room was dark and filled with the rubble of collapsed concrete stairs, toppled pillars, and blackened stones. At the far end stands a replica of the destroyed Urukami Cathedral. Blackened statues of Mary and Christ stand on either side of an arch. The cathedral was only 500m away from the hypocenter and was completely destroyed. The statues in the museum are replicas, because the originals now stand at the UN headquarters in New York City.

Replica of “Fat Boy”
Bottles melted by the intense heat

There was a full-scale model of “Fat Boy.” As with the bomb that fell on Hiroshima, only a fraction (1kg out of 6.4kg) of the plutonium it contained achieved nuclear fission. The rest was scattered in the blast as radioactive debris. One can only imagine how much more efficient modern weapons must be and the corresponding devastating power they are capable of.

There were blackened stones, melted bottles, and other artifacts, but three items hit me the strongest. The first was the lunchbox of a 14-year-old girl. Satoko Tsutsumi was 700 meters from the hypocenter, and her lunchbox is all that was found. In it is the blackened, carbonized rice for her lunch. The only reason they knew it was hers was from the name and number on the box. I believe no other remains were found. I cannot help but wonder: Were her parents killed instantly, as well, or did they survive only to witness and experience the horror of her disappearance?

The second was a silhouette of a lookout and his ladder on a wall. 4.4 kilometers from the hypocenter, the tarpaper burned away from the wall, but the ghostly image of this man and his ladder remained. This image haunted me, reminding me of the horrors I had seen in Hiroshima, and also of an ghastly scene from Ray Bradbury’s short story, “There will come soft rains,” in which the image of family members, in the midst of their carefree day, have been burned into the wall by an atomic blast.

The third was a rosary owned by Midori Nagai. Her husband, Takashi Nagai, a Catholic physician, searched the ruins of their home, 500 meters from the hypocenter. He found only her ashes and this rosary. He described his experience in _The Bells of Nagasaki_. The bells are those of Urukami Cathedral, of which wrote:

These are the bells that did not ring for weeks or months after the disaster. May there never be a time when they do not ring! May they ring out this message of peace until the morning of the day on which the world ends.

He wrote prayers for peace, and paid to have 1,000 cherry trees planted (a few which survive today). His service earned him the affectionate title “saint of Urakami.”

As the museum tour ends, one is returned back to where it began. Thousand-crane offerings folded by children from around the country and the world are hung from strings or arranged into elaborate mosaics to beseech the world for peace and for the end of nuclear weapons.

Returning to the ship by taxi, I was struck by the contrast between the beautiful, sunny day, and the blooming flowers and cherry blossoms, versus the dark, sorrowful scenes I’d witnessed in the museum.

When we distance ourselves from the humanity of others, using facts and figures, stereotypes, caricatures, and assumptions, it is easier, I think, to accept and support war and the terrible methods and tools we have to wage it. When we learn the stories, imagine the suffering if we had been in a similar situation, and think of the countless innocent civilians and children inevitably killed in war, then, I think, we cannot accept without question the “need” for war and the “need” for these horrific weapons.


Race in Japan

It has been over a year since my last entry. I am moved to post for two reasons. First, I’m about to embark on a cruise to several Asian cities, including Nagasaki; and second, I saw an article about race and Japan that saddened but did not surprise me.

Thus far, the vast majority of my entries have been very complimentary of Japan and its culture. Indeed, there are so many laudable facets about Japan and its society from which we and other cultures could learn. I believe the only negative entry I’ve written thus far had to do with pollution.


As I think may be true for countries and individuals, one’s strengths can also be one’s challenges. The US has a highly diverse population compared to that of many other countries. Our diversity is a great strength, but it is also the soil out of which seeds of discontent may feed racism.

Other nations that have fairly homogenous populations may experience much less racist friction and outright violence, but the racism is still often present, though expressed in different, subtle ways, and often left unspoken or unchallenged in the absence of advocates for broader understanding and diversity.

Japan is one of the most homogenous societies in the world. Legal foreign citizens comprise only 1.6% of Japan’s population. The largest populations of legal non-Japanese residents are from China (.52%), and S. Korea (.42%). The next largest groups, from the Philippines and Brazil, respectively, each represent less than .2%.

Given tiny foreign populations and a restrictive immigration policy, as well as a strong cultural sense of group and national identity, it should not be surprising that someone different might be regarded with curiosity or suspicion.

Chatting with schoolchildren

During my three trips to Japan, my height and appearance may have drawn stares, especially in smaller towns. I have heard stories about redheads in Japan being pointed at and people wanting to touch their hair. During my trips, I cannot recall seeing a single black person.

My year in Germany in the late 80s includes tainted memories as well. I rarely saw black people then; and the casual, off-hand comments and jokes I heard people voice about blacks often made my blood run cold.

A black writer who is married to a Japanese woman and raising a biracial child describes what it is like to live as a visual anomaly in such a homogenous society.

I will soon visit the city on which the second atomic bomb was dropped. Feelings of “otherness” and racism are significant factors in major conflicts and wars. In the 60 years that have elapsed since the two atomic bombs were dropped, Japan has been a major voice for peace and understanding in the world.

Nagasaki is also the birthplace of Ariana Mamiko Miyamoto, who was crowned Miss Universe Japan 2015 and represented Japan at the Miss Universe 2015 pageant where she made it to the Top 10.

Since she had an African-American father, her crowning elicited controversy, and as a child she was shunned. Her dark skin and curly hair was too “other” for children and many adults to accept with equanimity. But when another biracial friend committed suicide, Miyamoto decided to dedicate her life to combating racial prejudice.

My visit to Nagasaki will be brief. But like my visit to Hiroshima in 2015, I anticipate strong feelings relating to identity, race, peace, and compassion. Race is an area in which Japan and Japanese society, which I appreciate and respect so much, may yet have a lot to learn from other countries.

Nabana no Sato Illumination Park

Summary: Visiting the Nabano no Sato to see the brilliant display of nighttime lights, enjoy a wonderful meal, and the natural hot springs.

Our cousins in Nagoya took us on a day trip to Yatomi, about 30 kilometers southwest of Nagoya. Here we visited my aunt’s grave, met a distant cousin and toured his rice and produce warehouse, and enjoyed some tea.

Then our cousins drove us to Nabana no Sato  in Kuwana, just a couple of kilometers from Yatomi on an island in the Kiso river. There was some vague talk about flowers, and nighttime illumination. The area was known to my mother, who remembered her own parents talking about the hot springs in the area. I had hoped there might be a public bath (onsen). As was often the case, we just went along, eager to see whatever it was our hosts wanted to show us.

We arrived around 4:30 p.m. when the light was already fading. On the drive to this place we saw a large amusement park with roller coasters and rides, all shut down and closed for the winter. That is part of the Nagashima Resort, a sprawling complex of amusement rides, water slides, flower parks, outlet malls, and more. The Nabana no Sato flower park is just one part of this overall resort.

Along the walk to the entrance, the trees and bushes were covered with twinkling lights. We purchased our tickets and entered the park as the natural light gave way. Although there were some lights on, most of the park we could readily see was not. We were told to wait until 5:10pm, which was when the lights were to come on. That was just a few minutes’ wait.


And it was worth the wait. The bell tolled, and voila, thousands and millions of lights came on, to illuminate the flowers, plants, and trees as far as one could see.

Here is a video of the moment of illumination.

At first we mostly saw the tiny LED lights come on. In the distance, we could see trees in their autumn foliage illuminated by spotlights from below. We strolled through the park and marveled at the colorful display. Over the park sound system, Christmas music played. This was a little jarring to me because it was still only early November, and I had to chuckle a bit at the irony of hearing “Silent Night” broadcast over acres of park.


There were two long illuminated tunnels. The first was all white lights and about 100 meters long. People walked through, smiling and taking pictures of each other as they were mesmerized by the spectacle.

A second illuminated tunnel was lit by autumn-colored lights. These changed colors between red, gold, green, and orange. Walking through that tunnel was a little unsettling. When the whole tunnel would shift colors, I felt a slight vertigo.

Here’s a video of the autumn tunnel.

Examining the walls of lights closely, I saw the tiny individual LEDs were not changing color, but in each cluster of lights, there was a red, gold, green, and orange light. I concluded that my eyes and body were fooled into thinking my surroundings were moving whenever the lights changed, similar to the odd feeling one sometimes has in a stationary train or bus when a vehicle next to you pulls away and fools you into thinking you are moving backward.


At one spot there was a large panoramic wall of LEDs formed into a tight matrix. Synchronized with music, the wall presented changing visions of waterfalls in a lush jungle, southwest desert sunsets, penguins on an ice floe, and a nighttime scene illuminated by moonlight.

Here is a video of the panorama light show. Note that these are not projections, but actual images generated by a tight, coordinated matrix of multicolored LEDs.


In another area there were beautiful fall trees of gold, red, and orange, illuminated from below and reflecting mirror-like in pools of water beneath them.

A round, elevated observation deck towered over the park. From a distance, it looked like a small version of the Seattle Space Needle, but supported by a slanted pillar. It turned out to be a cantilever arm: As we walked through the park, we saw it rise slowly into the sky, then lower itself to the ground. I wanted to wait in line to take the ride up and see the view, but the weather was cold and our party a bit tired and hungry, so we passed that up.




We stepped into a restaurant in the park and were happy for the warmth and the rest after so much walking. Dishes of noodles and tempura accompanied by wonderful tea warmed our stomachs.

Afterward, we walked over to the Sato no Yu natural hot spring baths. We separated by gender, disrobed, and showered, then enjoyed the many different pools, most of them outdoors. The water was plenty hot, and it soothed our muscles after the long day of sightseeing and walking.

After getting home, I found that illumination parks during winter have become popular in Japan and such displays have been established in many areas. I don’t know for sure, but Nabana no Sato may be the largest. It reportedly features more than 8 million LEDs. The Nabana no Sato illumination park is open from mid-October to early May. It is only 40 minutes by bus and 20 minutes by JR rail from Nagoya. I highly recommend a visit if you can make it.

My Cousin, Katsumi-san

Summary: Visiting my eldest cousin, his tragic and dramatic life story, and giving thanks for the many bonds between his family and mine.

Aunt Masako-san

I have written a little bit about my eldest aunt, Masako-san, who died in World War II during the firebombing of Nagoya, and whose gravestone, erected by my grandfather, I sought out last year and revisited again this year. She died with her two infant children.

But her first child, a son, still lives. He is the eldest of all my first cousins, and I am the youngest. The fact he survived the war and lives today is a story that could easily be made into a novel or drama, and I feel very fortunate and blessed to have met him and his family.

Here is his story, much of which is contained in a chapter of my mother’s book Made in Japan and Settled in Oregon. My eldest aunt, Masako, was born in Hood River, Oregon, where my grandparents were growing fruit. When she was an infant, my grandparents brought her to Japan.

My grandfather’s mother said, “A girl will be of no use to you on a farm. Leave her here in Japan so she can get a proper Japanese education.” No doubt it broke my grandparents’ hearts to leave their daughter (and oldest child), but in that day and in that culture, one did what one’s parents ordered without question. So Masako remained in Japan.

Aunt Masako-san

She grew up, despite my grandfather’s requests that she be returned to the U.S. The alleged response to his requests was: “You can’t send a young woman alone across the ocean!” So Masako never left Japan. She married, and then the war broke out. Her husband was in the army and sent to Manchuria, which was basically a death sentence. And she was pregnant.

She gave birth to a boy, which greatly distressed her in-laws, who did not want her to receive her husband’s inheritance. So one day, they came to her home and asked Masako-san where her uncle was. She answered that he was working out in the rice paddies.

“Go fetch him,” they said, and Masako left to do so. While she was away, her relations by marriage took her infant son, fled, and adopted him out to a family on the north coast of Honshu. Heartbroken and ashamed, my aunt moved from the small town to Nagoya, remarried, had two children, and was killed trying to rescue her babies when a U.S. firebomb fell on her house. After the war, my grandfather traveled to Japan to erect a gravestone for her, which I visited the last two trips I made to Japan.

Her orphan son, Katsumi-san, survived the war and lives today in Inuyama. He did not learn he was adopted until he turned 18. My mother was the first person in our family to meet him. In 1957, she received a Fulbright scholarship to teach in Japan, and that was when they met each other.

He is only 6 years younger than my mom, since he is the first child of the oldest of the eight children my grandparents bore, and Mom is the youngest of the eight. Mom was also the first to meet his fiancée. Their first child, a daughter, is named after my mother.

I first met my cousin and his family 19 years ago when his daughter, Mitsuko-san, got married. I am grateful to have met them all on each trip I have made to Japan. We visited Katsumi-san briefly last year, and this year spent more time with him and his wife, touring Inuyama, visiting the Sugihara Museum  and singing karaoke.

Katsumi and his wife, Tatsumi, flanked by their American cousins

Our family history contains some rich and dramatic stories, and I am grateful to have gotten to know and meet some of the relatives who played a role in these stories. I hope you sit down and talk with your relatives, record and video these interviews, and learn the stories of your family. You will be grateful, I assure you.

Karaoke in Japan

Summary: In two days we experienced two vastly different karaoke sessions in the country of its origin.

As a karaoke aficionado, I was keen to sing in Japan, the country that gave birth to the worldwide craze. Karaoke (カラオケ) comes from kara, meaning “empty” and okesutora meaning “orchestra” (an empty orchestra; i.e., one lacking a singer).

My oldest brother had sung karaoke with our cousin many years ago in what he described was a tiny bar with only a couple choices in English. I was eager to do the same, and cautiously confident that now, a decade or more after his experience, I would be afforded more song choices from which to choose.

When we arrived at my cousin’s home in Inuyama, I mentioned my desire to sing karaoke with my cousin, but he showed limited interest. He hadn’t sung in many years and it wasn’t looking like he’d be up for it. Oh well, I thought, there will be other cities and opportunities during this trip.

During our first full day in Inuyama, we went for a long walk leading up to Inuyama Castle. The narrow street was lined with shops that sold food, artwork, items for tourists, etc. We kept thinking it was a pedestrian promenade, but every so often a car or small truck would drive up, forcing us to step to the side into the narrow shoulders in front of the shops.

We decided to take a rest and have a snack. Our hosts ushered us into what looked like a closed restaurant and lounge. The door was unlocked, the room was completely empty, and dimly lit. We felt odd going in, but our hosts marched right in and sat down.

In the corner we noticed a bunch of hi-fi equipment, video monitors, and microphones. We were in a karaoke lounge: deserted, unattended, but still up for business. At the base of the equipment console were three or four hand-held wireless devices to search for and queue up songs.

Of course everything was in Japanese, and our host struggled a moment to get to a screen where we could enter artist names, but once there, we found countless old, classic, and current songs. After selecting a song, we’d drop a JPY100 coin into the slot on the karaoke machine, and the song would play with the words displayed on the video monitors.

My cousin got up and sang a Japanese ballad to kick things off. My Mom, my brother, and I took turns singing to a room that was empty except for our party of seven. The English language songs we sang all had the words displayed both in English and in phonetic Japanese katakana.

My brother sings “American Pie.” Note the katakana above each English word providing Japanese phonetic cues

We left having had a good time, but I still marveled at all that expensive equipment in an unlocked, unwatched room.

The next day, after a full day of sightseeing (including our trip to the Sugihara Museum), my Mom and our Japanese cousins were tired, but my brother, my American cousins, and I were still up for a little more adventure, so we set out after dinner, around 8 p.m., to find a bar.

The dark, deserted streets of Inuyama made it seem like it was after 11 p.m. After walking for a good while, my brother spotted a lighted sign and illuminated doorway. There was nothing to indicate the nature of the business, but I cracked the door and could see a bar inside, so we entered.

_DSC0484.jpgThe place was empty apart from the couple working behind the bar. I suspect many of the townsfolk had not gotten off work yet, so we were the “early” crowd. In my basic Japanese, I explained that we were all Americans visiting our Japanese cousins and showed them pictures of our homes and some of our travels. A couple of us ordered beers, and one ordered a cocktail.

The bartender scurried off, perhaps to consult a bar recipe book, collected the necessary ingredients, and mixed the drink. After a while, a local showed up who spoke a fair amount of English, and after conversing a bit, he suggested we sing karaoke. Wireless song search controllers were produced, and after a short, while we found the English commands and were searching for songs.

Making a new friend in Inyama

Our new Japanese friend sang a song in English, and again we took turns, eliciting encouragement during and congratulations after each song we performed. One additional element was featured after every song — one we hadn’t seen the day before (and which I hadn’t ever seen in the US).


A grid of red squares appeared on the video monitor. While we watched, the quality of our singing was rated from 0 to 100%. It appeared that the software judged the singer on intonation and rhythm (something I have seen with some Xbox and Playstation sing-along programs in the US). The higher the percentage, the more of the red squares were removed, to reveal … a pin-up picture of a girl in a bikini. Neither the female bartender nor some of patrons who arrived later found anything untoward about this post-song reward, and after a few nervous laughs, we gamely played along.

So my goal to sing karaoke in Japan was achieved, twice, albeit in two very different scenarios.


Trip to a Paper Towel Factory

Summary: We were confused when our hosts enthusiastically told us they were taking us to a paper towel factory. It turned out to be pretty interesting, and we had fun designing our own towels. We still left with unanswered questions.

“We are taking you to a paper towel factory!” our hosts enthusiastically told us through my Mom’s translation. We were perplexed. True, none of us had toured a paper towel factory before, but the level of enthusiasm seemed out of proportion to the wonder and fascination we’d expect to have. But we went along gamely, open to seeing what the fuss was all about.

We arrived at a nondescript building on a drizzly grey day in Hamamatsu. A medium-sized room was set up with about a dozen chairs and a table in front with several buckets, and a couple of heating elements with pots on them. Around the room hung mesh-like fabrics, dyed various colors. The smell of vinegar wafted through the room.

A gentleman with rubber gloves explained in Japanese about how the “washi towels” were invented. A young cousin translated for us. Basically, washcloths woven in a manner similar to fishing nets have been developed, but instead of using standard cotton or other natural or synthetic textile fibers, he found a way to create them out of paper fibers.

The patented method creates a soft, woven fiber washcloth that doesn’t dissolve in water. They are durable, able to be used many times over a year before they break down. They also are purportedly good for people with sensitive skin.

We were all given a piece of raw cloth, and as with tie-dying, we twisted and wrapped ours with rubber bands, then had the gentleman or lady dip them in various dyes to render our own unique design.

After we were done, we were invited into the mill to see the weaving machines whirring away, weaving meters and meters of new washi fabric.

Regarding the term “washi,” we were confused at first by the name “washi towel.” Was it a version of “washing towel,” or could it have referred to “washi” as in a kind of paper?

Subsequent research has determined it is the latter. “Washi” comes from “Wa” (Japanese) and “Shi” paper, and refers to paper made in a traditional way out of anything from tree bark to bamboo, hemp, rice, or wheat.

We tried to ask several times why one might choose to make washcloths from paper, and each time we received a litany of the virtues of these cloths (durable, soft, generates a good lather, can be used without soap, etc.), but we never got an answer as to why paper versus natural or synthetic fibers.

Regardless of the reasons, we able to bring home our own tie-dyed washcloths and enjoyed learning about the innovation of durable paper fabric (that doesn’t dissolve in water) and seeing it made.

Washi Towel Factory Website (in Japanese)

Website in English describing the factory and showing more pictures.