We in the West are familiar with several standard Japanese dishes. Sushi, tempura, and noodle restaurants are popular and easily found in many U.S. cities. Here are some other foods I enjoyed on my trip.

Okonomiyaki お好み焼き


I had never had this before. In appearance they resemble latkes (potato pancakes), but less oily. In fact, they are made from shredded cabbage dipped in a batter and fried. I was told by my hosts that you can put anything you want in them. In our case, they added thinly sliced ham or prosciutto. After it was fried and placed on the plate, bottles of mayonnaise and a tangy brown barbecue sauce were squeezed over them.

Fish, fish, fish!

I have never eaten more fish than I did in Japan. We had it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner … and some meals offered more than one kind of fish. I remember one that had five separate kinds of seafood! Of course, much of it came as raw sashimi, but dried and cooked fish also figured prominently.

Dried fish, and sashimi
Beautiful morsel of smoked fish (center)
Fish for breakfast? Yes, thank you!
Sashimi for make-your-own sushi rolls

Mountain Miso

One of our favorite dishes was served to us at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn). We liked it so much our hostess served it to us twice! A reddish-brown miso, seemingly filled with small chopped items like onions or something, was served on a large, brown, dry leaf. A tiny hibachi with a red-hot charcoal topped with a small wire grate was set up, and the leaf placed atop the hibachi. After a few minutes the miso would start to bubble and emit steam. The diner would then take some miso, some steamed rice, and wrap it with a strip of nori (dry seaweed) and consume. It took some practice and dexterity to get this down with chopsticks, but we loved the miso. Not sure what it’s called, but the rough translation was “mountain miso.” If anyone knows its proper name and whether it can be obtained in the U.S., I am all ears! Here is the wrapper from one package we bought in Japan:20150517_155440

Open hibachi with red coal
Miso on leaf heating on hibachi


One interesting restaurant we were taken to was a French crepe restaurant. The crepes were unlike any I’ve had before, though. They were made of buckwheat and were savory. Mine was like having a small egg omelet wrapped in a buckwheat crepe. It was very good.


Petite Dishes, Petite Portions

Westerners are accustomed to maybe one large plate and a separate small plate or salad bowl. The meal might consist of a meat, starch, and a vegetable. Japanese meals consistently offered a multitude of small dishes, with many small things to try. Pickles (daikon), dried, raw, and cooked seafood, salad, soup, and rice, all served in diminutive and attractive dishes, were the norm. Dessert often consisted of fresh fruit.

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Tempura Leaf

One beautiful and delicate dish we were served were shiso leaves cooked tempura style. They were very delicate and I recall my mother telling me their name means something like “leaves under snow.” These particular leaves were picked from my host’s garden and cooked. They were delightful! I have read that it is also common to fry maple leaves tempura style, but I did not see those.


Quality vs. Quantity and Price

In the U.S., restaurants with low prices and large portions are often celebrated. Food and dining in Japan are judged more on quality than either quantity or price. Whereas in the U.S. we may gulp down food while walking or driving, you never see that in Japan. You do see people enjoy a bento lunch on the Shinkansen, but that is about it. One blogger writes about how Japanese “respect the food.”

Quality of the food and the meal is prized above all else, and the Japanese are willing to pay for it. Some supermarkets will discount food significantly later in the day. This is called otsutomehin. I did not learn about this until after I returned to the U.S., but when I return I wish to look more into this.

English Signs in Japan

Japan loves to use English in its business names, signs, advertising, on T-shirts, and more. The great difficulty in learning and mastering English as a second language unsurprisingly leads to some unusual and funny signs for the native English speaker. Whole websites are devoted to the use (and misuse) of English in foreign countries. In fact, one of my favorite Japanese English signs I saw 19 years ago I submitted to such a website. It can still be viewed here.
Here are some of my favorite Japanese English signs from this trip:

Upscale hair salon in Nagoya
Grocery Store in Nagoya
Nagoya restaurant next to the Ferris wheel
This appears to be a men’s clothing store
What possessed them to choose this name? _DSC1958
This is a popular second-hand store chain. I saw these all over, as well as their sister stores, “Book Off.”_DSC0863 (2)

Pollution Seen and Unseen

So far, my blog entries have revealed the great respect and admiration I hold for Japan and Japanese culture. This post tempers that view with a dose of reality. All is not perfect in Japan.

_DSC1670I wrote previously about how clean Japan is. There are millions of people living in Japan’s largest cities, though, and no matter how good they are about properly disposing of litter, great masses of people so densely situated cannot hide the environmental impact they make.

World Tower Comparison
Yokohama tower elevator speedometer (750meters/min)

Every city has one or more large Ferris wheels and usually at least one tall building or tower that has an observation deck from which to view the area from above. I viewed Yokohama from the Yokohama Landmark Tower which stands 296.3 meters (972 feet) high. In Tokyo I waited in a very long line to ascend the new Tokyo Skytree. It was completed in 2010. At 634 meters (2,080 feet), it is the tallest structure in Japan and the tallest tower in the world (the tallest building, as of this writing, is the 828-meter Burj Khalifa in Dubai; I leave it to the reader to figure out the difference between a tower and a building).

Yokohama Landmark Tower
Tokyo Skytree

Three things impressed me about both towers: 1) the speed and smoothness of the elevators (the Yokohama lift reached a speed of 750m/minute or 28mph), 2) the amazing view of the respective cities, and 3) the haze of air pollution. Cars and trucks on the street were new, and one didn’t see visible exhaust pouring from any of the vehicles, but the sheer number of vehicles adds up and the resulting haze is unmistakable.

Tokyo skyline

The entire month I was in Japan I suffered from a constant running nose. I thought it might have been the pollen from all the blooming flowers, but the allergies did not let up when there were none in bloom. Maybe it was cedar tree pollen. Or maybe it was aggravated by air pollution.

Yokohama skyline

No one drinks water from the tap, and to my palate — spoiled by the excellent tap water we enjoy in the Pacific Northwest — water from Japanese water fountains tasted pretty bad. Bottled water is sold and consumed everywhere, along with bottled and canned soft drinks and alcoholic drinks. I did see water filters in a few homes. Fortunately, Japan does seem to do a good job conserving and recycling water, as I have written here, here, and here. I did not see a single empty bottle or can littering the ground or rolling around on a sidewalk or street the entire month I was there.

I found “The O.N.E” in Japan


bentoThe Japanese are known for the beautiful packaging and gorgeous gift paper in which everything is precisely wrapped and presented. Every store has boxed goodies already gift-wrapped and intended as omiage (gifts and offerings). The bento lunches we bought and consumed on the train looked like beautiful, thin, wooden box trays, but in fact were made of some kind of plastic foam. I had to imagine the amount of waste these discarded lunch containers generated.

Although I did see more recycling receptacles than trash bins, I did not get the sense they were as diligently used as they are in Germany. So where does all this trash go? You don’t see it, and I don’t know, but I fear Japan generates a lot of waste in the form of packaging and discarded gift wrap. Could they be contributing to the Great Pacific garbage patch? Are they burning a lot of trash or burying it? Given the extreme limits on space and land, I cannot imagine they use landfills, at least within Japan.

So I did a little research. It appears that Japan does take recycling pretty seriously, and the sorting of trash can be dizzyingly complex. On the other hand, even though the trash may be meticulously sorted, a lot of it is being burned, not recycled.

To Japan’s credit, they have developed more efficient and less polluting ways of incineration, and Japan incinerates the same percentage of its waste as the U.S. puts into landfills: 69%. Incineration may be better than landfill in some ways, but the U.S. and Japan certainly could learn from many European countries, some of which recycle 50-70% of their waste and derive energy from the remainder.

Children of Keishoji

One powerful aspect of Japanese culture is that they never forget. I, who never knew my grandparents, received enormous respect, honor, gratitude, and generosity from friends and family in Japan because of things my grandfather did 60 years ago. One powerful example of this is a story of the children of Keishoji.

The younger sister who raised the 10 children. She died in 2008.

Keishoji is the name of a Buddhist temple in the small coastal village of Iwata. The Buddhist priest there was one of my grandfather’s nephews. The priest and his wife had eight children, but she died tragically in childbirth in 1945 while bearing the eighth child. She was only 37 years old. Her youngest sister married the priest and raised the eight children as her own. She also brought one child she had adopted, and together with the priest bore a final daughter. So in 1948, the younger sister was only 29 years old and raising ten children.

After the war, Japan was destitute. Food and clothing were scarce. My grandfather sent care packages to various relatives around the country. (I heard from three separate families who remembered the packages he sent.) He always insisted on sending extra-large packages to Keishoji. “They have ten children to feed, and the temple has no land of its own,” he would say. By this he meant the temple could not grow its own food. It was dependent upon offerings from the townsfolk. But if the townsfolk were starving, what would they have to give the temple? So grandfather would ship over a sack of flour, a sack of rice, or hand-me-down clothes (he had raised eight children of his own, after all, though the oldest had been left with relatives to grow up in Japan).

Those ten children at the temple grew up, raised families, and never forgot. My parents would visit Keishoji every five or ten years when they’d travel to Japan. Every visit was the same. The children of Keishoji, now in their 70s and 80s, would cry. They would cry because they had not starved, and because they had been the only children in school who had real clothes. So desperate were post-war conditions in Japan that many schoolchildren wore clothes made of old rice sacks and coffee bags. The children of Keishoji were the only ones wearing proper clothing.

The new bell my grandfather commissioned

Everything metal in Japan had been collected and melted down for the war effort. Even the bell from Keishoji temple had been taken. My grandfather commissioned a new bell to be made, and it was delivered and hangs there today. One can find the kanji inscribed on it with my grandfather’s name.

I met four of the original ten children on this 2015 trip. I met the husband of a fifth who is still alive, but unfortunately too ill to visit. I also met children and grandchildren of these family members. To them, my grandfather appeared a wealthy and successful man in the U.S. who was generous to them in their time of great need. In fact, within the context of his adopted land, grandfather was a poor, uneducated immigrant farmer who only shipped to Japan what he could.

Today, Keishoji is thriving. Although the main temple looked familiar to me, the living space was completely changed from my visit 19 years ago. New floors, cabinets, and appliances were a testament to a stable and growing temple.

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I am humbled when I ask myself what I have done in my life that will be remembered in five or ten years, good or ill? What, if anything, will be remembered (let alone held in honor) in 50 years or after I have passed away?

Fashion in Japan

About a week into our trip, one of my cousins asked me what I thought about women’s style in Japan. I didn’t have a good answer because I hadn’t thought about it that much and had not been in Japan very long. After a month in Japan and nearly a month back in the U.S., I have finally formulated an answer.

A few things struck me immediately. First, the number of dresses and skirts I saw was very high. Here at home, I would say more than 95% of women and girls wear jeans or trousers; only girls in the early elementary grades and younger and women dressed for a special occasion wear dresses and skirts. In Japan, skirts and dresses seemed to be worn closer to 50% or more of the time. School uniforms, which are worn in all grades from elementary through high school, always require girls to wear skirts. Secondly, I saw almost no short hair on women. I saw one Japanese woman the entire month I was there who had hair shorter than a bob.

hair_make_moreSpeaking of hair, there are hair salons everywhere. They often have the words “Hair Make” in their business names. At first, this sounds pretty odd to native English speakers, but if you realize we often refer to a “hair do,” “hair make” doesn’t seem like quite the stretch. But English business names in Japan can be quite funny to the native English speaker. One of my many, many funny and awkward Japanese English signs I photographed is of a hair salon named “Hair Make More.”

Men and women dress for office work mostly in black and charcoal suits. Boarding and exiting the subways and seated in restaurants, the salarymen and career women are easy to spot by their consistently dark and conservative attire. College students and young adults will sometimes dress more casually or with a bit more color, but nothing approaching the variety I see at home. It is rather like stepping back into the U.S. in the 1950s.

One thing you do not see are short sleeves. To us travelers, the weather in April was already warm and muggy and I was in a constant state of perspiration. My mother, a spry and sprightly woman in her 80s, and I both wore short sleeves (or sleeves rolled up) and we were constantly asked, “aren’t you cold?” My mom even carried a light sweater with her at all times to prevent one of our hosts from buying her a new sweater in order to keep warm. Although homes do not have central heating, instead relying on under-carpet heating pads, space heaters, and the ofuro for warming up, we were never cold except when we traveled to higher elevations.

English speakers will inevitably spot T-shirts and sweatshirts being worn and sold in stores with awkward and even nonsensical English emblazoned across them. I have no doubt that T-shirts and tattoos worn here in the U.S. with kanji and Chinese characters don’t always state what the unsuspecting wearer believes, either.influence_genetic sweetShower witching I_love_Afro

Speaking of tattoos, they are frowned upon in Japan. I saw more than one public bath sign that prohibited people with tattoos from entering, and I understand individuals who have visible tattoos suffer employment discrimination. The reason for this is that tattoos are still directly associated with organized crime in Japan. When Japanese people see tattoos, they think of yakuza, the powerful and sometimes violent members of Japanese organized crime in Japan and abroad.

Menswear is also more muted and conservative than I am used to at home. I saw no bright colors or unique articles of clothing worn by men. I also encountered no men wearing earrings in Japan. One of my hosts near the end of our trip mentioned she thought it looked good to see a man wearing earrings (I wear studs), and it was at that time I realized I had seen no one else who had them during the trip.

Soaking in the Ofuro

_DSC8415The ofuro is integral to Japanese culture. Unlike baths in the west, the ofuro is not used for washing, but to warm and relax oneself.

Ofuro are short and deep, maybe three feet long or so, and about 2 feet deep. Every house and hotel room has one. In homes, it shares a room with a shower separate from the toilet. One uses the shower to wash oneself thoroughly before entering the tub. The water in the ofuro is left in the tub for subsequent bathers, so keeping it free of soap, hair, or any other contaminants is essential. Even after the last person has used the ofuro, the bath water may be retained for washing clothes the following day.

_DSC8526The small shower/ofuro room is a wet room. Water may be splashed all over it while people shower, and the ofuro may overflow without a problem. This is why Japanese visitors to the US, particularly students, have to be instructed to close the shower door or curtain with care and to be careful not to let the bath overflow.

The ofuro can be hot. The most common temperature setting I saw was 42 degrees C (107 degrees F). Every evening, wherever we were staying, our hosts would ask us, “Do you want ofuro tonight?” and we almost always answered, “Yes!” Typically, our hosts would push a button on a remote control in the kitchen, and the ofuro would be filled automatically to the right depth and heated to the preset temperature. Nice!

This faucet has just two knobs. Raise the lever for shower head, push it down for the faucet.

The first time I came to Japan 19 years ago, the shower in the ofuro perplexed me. After figuring out the unfamiliar knobs (one sets the hot/cold mix and is seldom turned thereafter, one turns on the water, and a third switches between the faucet and the shower head), I had to figure out how to use the shower head. As in the US, it is usually on a hose with an adjustable height. But I could never get it high enough for myself. At over 6 feet tall, I understood things would always be on the short side for me. But even at top height, the shower head never was more than maybe four feet off the floor: too low for even my diminutive hosts. It wasn’t until I attended a public bath that I figured it out: you’re supposed to sit down when you shower.

20150407_184125You will usually see a washbowl and a little stool in the ofuro. Seat yourself on the stool and either use the shower or scoop water out of the tub to rinse and wash yourself. Once you’re thoroughly clean, enter the tub and just relax. No clothes should ever be worn in the tub, and don’t let your towel or washcloth penetrate the water. Some people will place the cloth on the edge of the bath as a headrest. Others may place it on top of their heads while bathing.

Large tiled ofuro with wooden framing at our ryokan (traditional Japanese inn)

In the old days, ofuro were made of wood and heated by a wood fire. Most of the ofuro I saw were made of plastic or stainless steel. Large public baths (Sentoo) and hot springs (Onsen) I visited were tiled.

My mother remembers having to maintain the fire for the family ofuro as a grade-school girl. She did this while at the same time cooking dinner (also on a wood stove!) for her large family. It was a challenging balancing act. If the fire wasn’t hot enough, the ofuro would be too cold. If it was too hot, a lot of cold water had to be added to cool it down. This raised the water level in the tub, and caused a lot of water to overflow when people got in. Too often, someone would complain either about the ofuro not being perfect or the food not being cooked just right. Can you imagine even an adult trying to accomplish these two tasks simultaneously today?

The experience of the ofuro very much reminds me of a Finnish sauna. Neither is considered a luxury, but rather a necessity even in a small apartment. Both are relaxing, stimulate the circulation, and really make you feel clean and warm. If space (and money) were no object, I would want one of each in my home.

Additional Links:

Japanese Bathing Etiquette (for ryokans and guest houses)

Bath Etiquette

Voices and Images from the Past

My mother was the youngest of eight, and I am the youngest of three. We both are the youngest members of our respective generations. My grandfather, who would be 135 today, died when I was one year old, and my grandmother died a year before I was born.

Never having known my grandparents, I was therefore eager on this trip to find out more about them and their families. Everywhere we went, I asked people for pictures and recollections of my grandparents and other family members.

One family we visited opened a long-neglected drawer and uncovered a treasure trove! There was a faded copy of my grandparents’ wedding portrait … which had never been seen by my mother or anyone in the US. My grandparents were married in 1911, which meant this picture was 104 years old! All the clothing must have been rented for the portrait, since they would not have owned anything like what we see in the picture.

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Another photo surfaced of my grandfather before he was married. We believe this was taken in the US, so that places the date of this picture between 1904 and 1911.

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Here’s a picture of what was probably the first family car. My grandparents are in it, along with three of my uncles and my second aunt (the eldest aunt, though born in the US, grew up and perished in Japan as detailed in a previous post). Still more children were yet to be born, including my mother. In later years when my grandfather wanted to buy a car, he would bring the whole family to the auto dealership. Whichever car they could all fit in was the one he bought.

Also located was a letter written in 1952 by my grandfather to a family at a Buddhist temple. It is amazing for several reasons. First, he addressed it to “Rev. Y. Yamanka.” Grandfather didn’t know the correct title for a Buddhist priest, so he put “Rev.” — short for “Reverend” — which is the wrong religion.

Second, he addressed it simply to “Yokohama, Japan.” He included no post code, ward, prefecture, or anything beyond Yokohama — which was the wrong city. All of us, American and Japanese alike, scratched our heads over how the letter was able to reach its intended recipient. We do not know how long it took.

The letter itself is handwritten in kanji. This is also surprising, since my grandfather had only a 6th grade education and was 72 years old at the time he wrote the letter. Grandfather writes about 5 grandchildren (my cousins), my mother winning a scholarship and traveling around the country, and two uncles graduating and going to work for the government. He closes by saying travel is opening up between Japan and America, and he suggests that his relatives in Japan (many who were still poor and struggling in a post-WWII economy) might come to America and make a good life there.

My grandparents were married more than 50 years. They raised eight children (seven of whom my grandfather delivered at home), were stripped of their civil liberties and incarcerated for nearly three years in internment camps, and had five sons serve in the US armed forces. Although I never got to know my grandparents personally, I am humbled by their perseverance in the face of adversity, their good deeds which are still remembered more than 60 years later, and the legacy that lives on in a family that spans the Pacific.