Take the Udon Tour

Take the Udon TourIt’s wintertime in Japan, so why not treat yourself to an “udon tsooa” (udon tour)! Udon, the thick, chewy Japanese noodles made from wheat flour, are a favorite winter food and it is not uncommon for the Japanese people to make a day of eating udon. These self guided tours are really just hopping from restaurant to restaurant eating bowl after bowl of udon.

The best place to go for an udon tour is on the island of Shikoku, the place in Japan for “sanuki udon” found only in Kagawa prefecture. Kagawa is said to have over 700 udon restaurants. Many small towns have clusters of noodle restaurants where you can walk from restaurant to restaurant. Go to any tourist area such as Kotorhira, the location of one of Japan’s most popular shrines, or to an onsen town, where hot springs abound, and you are bound to find many udon restaurants.

You don’t need to worry about spending too much money eating in udon restaurants, as a bowl of noodles in Shikoku is 350 to 400 yen. The noodles are served in earthenware bowls and you can choose from a few different udon types. A good one to start with is kake udon, which is the basic, simple udon, which you can then add ingredients to later such as tempura. Some udon shops may offer just two or three kinds of udon while others may offer even more options. One chain of restaurants offers a basic bowl of udon for 100 yen, and then each ingredient you add to it costs 100 yen. Top off your bowl of udon with condiments found on the table such as ginger, slices of green onion, or sesame.

While you will find the same basic offerings at each udon restaurant, each place makes udon with it’s own specially flavored broth. This is what keeps people hopping around from restaurant to restaurant, to discover new subtly different flavors. Many people make a day of eating udon, thus the name “udon tsooa” and eat up to 5 or more bowls over the course of a couple hours.

Japanese people think nothing of lining up outside their favorite udon restaurant to wait for a table, so if you want to find a good place, just look for the lines of people waiting to get in!

Udon-Wikipedia

Sanuki Udon

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Japan and the Chinese Calendar

Japan and the Chinese calendarAkemashite omedetou gozaimasu! Happy New Year! And welcome to the year of the rat. If you were born in 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, you were born in the year of the rat on the Chinese calendar. The Japanese also use the Chinese animal zodiac, so right now in Japan, people are preparing for the year of the rat. What kind of a year will it be?

Rats are known for being very industrious and hard-working, so rat people tend to be successful. In addition, rat years are seen to predict successful years for the economy so we should see a rise in stocks.

Most businesses will have a rat displayed somewhere in their company or shop and many people will have a scroll hanging in their displaying a rat drawing. If you are travelling in Japan this year, you will find lots of rat souvenirs to commemorate your trip. Rats will be on everything from key chains to stationary letterheads.

The word for rat in Japanese is “nezumi,” which is the same word for mouse. To Japanese, a mouse and a rat are the same, just different in size. As a result, in English “the year of the mouse” is also correct.

At the New Year, many most Japanese people will send out New Year’s cards (see photo) which contain greetings for the year. These are sent to family, friends, and business relations. The cards this year will surely feature a rat or mouse on them and you may find that Mickey Mouse to be a very popular characters on this year’s cards.

When speaking with Japanese people, it is very important to know which animal year you were born in, as they believe your personality is determined by that animal. Also, it is easy to guess someone’s age if they know which animal you are since the animal cycle starts over every 12 years.

Animal signs are a great topic of conversation when around Japanese people. You’ll be sure to learn a lot of things you didn’t know about the other’s personality.

Find out your animal sign on the Chinese zodiac at:http://chinese.astrology.com/profiles.html

Find out more personality traits of those born in the year of the rat at: http://www.c-c-c.org/chineseculture/zodiac/Rat.html

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Christmas Illuminations

Christmas IlluminationsChristmas is celebrated in Japan with pretty decorations and sparkling lights. And lots of them. Large displays of lights, called “Illuminations” are found throughout Japan in small cities as well as the larger ones. The larger cities bring in well-known designers from around the world to create original displays. Don’t pass up these displays if you are traveling Japan during the Christmas holidays.

Local displays

Most small cities have a rather extensive show of lights on the main boulevard. In the Western Japan city of Okayama (population 600,000) for example, the annual “Okayama Fantasy” features light displays up and down Momotaro-dori, the central road leading from Okayama train station to Okayama Castle. And I’m not talking strings of little twinkly lights; these are very large displays reflecting a modern techno-Christmas atmosphere. For example, an abstract “Christmas tree” could also be a candy gum drop, depending on the angle you view it from. Small cities will start their light displays in November and some may leave them up through the end of January.

In December in Hakata (Fukuoka), Kyushu, see the “Dancing Water Show” at Sun Plaza Stage, complete with snow and reindeer (pictured). The Christmas tree display, called “Chandelier of the forest,” is an environmentally friendly display that uses LED Christmas lights.

Sapporo White Illumination Nov 17 – Feb 12th

For 27 years Sapporo has offered this illumination of winter snow in front of Sapporo station and also in Odori Park.http://www.sweb.co.jp/kanko/white/ (Japanese only)

Tokyo (December, through Christmas Day)

Tokyo offers illuminations in Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi Hills, Marunouchi, Ebisu, and Odaiba. In the Ginza district, Christmas trees line the street and most stores have a Christmas display in their window.http://www.roppongihills.com/en/monthly_event/2007_12.html

Kobe “Luminarie”, From Dec. 6

This is perhaps the biggest illumination in all of Japan, and is very well-known. Kobe Luminarie was started in commemoration of the Kobe earthquake in 1995. The earthquake was in January, but to get the most out of the Christmas influence, the event is held in December every year. http://www.kobe-luminarie.jp/

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Japanese Christmas

Japanese ChristmasThe most common question I get about Japan during December is: Do the Japanese celebrate Christmas? The answer is “Yes and no.” The Japanese, who love anything sparkly with lights, could not resist importing Christmas. But since Japan is a Buddhist country and Christmas has no religious meaning to them, they imported only the fun parts. Almost everyone has a small, desktop plastic Christmas tree in their house which they often put in an out-of-the-way place such as on top of the refrigerator. The stores all have Christmas trees and Christmas decorations. Some cities, such as Hakodate in Hokkaido will have a larger Christmas tree on display in the city center (pictured).

Santa definitely comes to children’s’ houses, but through their bedroom window, and he leaves the present (yes, just one!) underneath the child’s pillow. So if you are used to getting lots of gifts at Christmas, you might want to avoid Japan at Christmas time!

Christmas in Japan has also developed into a romantic holiday for couples, a sort of Valentine’s Day in December. So on Christmas Eve, couples will go to a nice restaurant for dinner and may exchange Christmas gifts. But be warned, “Christmas Dinner,” which every restaurant will advertise, does not mean traditional Christmas food such as turkey, stuffing, ham, etc as you might eat at home with your family. Christmas Dinner merely means dinner at Christmas time.

Christmas Day is not a holiday in Japan, and westerners who live and work here will be expected to work on Christmas.

The Japanese have another unusual Christmas tradition: eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. This is the biggest day of the year for KFC in Japan, as everyone orders buckets of chicken to eat at home with the family on Christmas. Christmas cakes are also popular. Not fruitcakes, but round, two-layered, store-bought cakes with chocolate or white icing and Santas gracing the top. From this tradition comes a rather unflattering saying in Japanese about older women: “She’s Christmas Cake.” This means the girl is older than 25, and is no longer of desirable marrying age, as the 25th day of December is the expiration date for Christmas cake. This expression is dated, however, and not often heard anymore.

The most similar Japanese holiday to Christmas is New Year’s. New Year’s is a serious holiday in Japan in which all family members get together from far and wide and eat traditional New Year’s foods that are only eaten at this time of year. There are also traditional New Year’s decorations. There are no big New Year’s parties nor count downs like we have in the West.

In short, Christmas in Japan is more like New Year’s is to us, just a fun holiday.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Hands-on Japan

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREWhen you think of Japan , many different images may arise: sushi, anime, manga, Zen, etc. When you visit Japan, however, don’t just see these things, experience them! Over the past decade, Japan has become much more hands-on, offering visitors a much truer Japanese experience. You can now learn Zazen meditation at a Zen temple in Kyoto, as well as learn the secrets to Japanese flower arrangement, tea ceremony and calligraphy writing. And, you can do them in their natural environment. Learn the Japanese arts not in a school, but in a temple in Kyoto that is part of the Myoshinji Zen Temple complex among one of Kyoto’s World Heritage Sites.

Why buy Japanese souvenirs in a gift shop, when you can make them yourself? Learn Japanese crafts such as woodworking, indigo dying and traditional weaving in an artist’s retreat in the mountains of rural Okayama Prefecture. The “Arts and Crafts Village” is set in an old wooden school house is the perfect place to spend a few days experiencing Japanese craft-making straight from the Japanese masters themselves.

Experience Japanese anime and manga first-hand from Akibanana’s otaku guides. Patrick Galbarith, a professional otaku gives walking tours of Tokyo’s Akihabara district, including the Tokyo Anime Center, French maid cafes and vintage stores selling blow-up dolls.

If you love Japanese food, you might be interested in learning how to cook Japanese food and even how to shop for the ingredients in the markets. Elizabeth Andoh, author and local Japanese food expert gives tours and classes. Make up your own tour and decide the date, how many hours and what you’d like to learn. Email Elizabeth Andoh for more information at andoh@tasteofculture.com

Links

Myoshinji Temple Complex

This walled-in complex is the home of the Rinzai Zen Buddhist sect and encompasses approximately 38 temples within, many of which offer temple accommodation and courses.

Zen meditation, Ikebana, tea ceremony and calligraphy courses:

1. Torin-in Temple in Myoshinji complex

Experience Zen vegetarian cuisine: every Tuesday and Friday, or more in-depth courses on Buddhist vegetarian cuisine June 15th to July 5th; and January 12th to 31st.

2. Taizo-in Temple in Myoshinji complex

Offers a one-day “Living in Zen” course for 7,000 yen that includes Zen meditation, flower arrangement, calligraphy and tea ceremony.

Arts and Crafts Village” in rural Okayama Prefecture.

Taste of Culture” Culinary School with courses and tours in Tokyo and Osaka.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Fall is for Eating

Fall is for EatingThe Japanese are often said to be in tune with the seasons. But even more so, I’d say they’re in tune with the season’s food. Autumn is called the season for eating, since so many foods come into season then. If you are traveling in Japan in autumn, don’t miss the autumn delicacies! But you’ll need to know what they are so that you don’t miss out:

Crabs (kani)

Crabs are available throughout the year in Japan, but autumn is considered the best season for them, when they are at their most flavorful. Crab specials abound in specialty crab restaurants as well as in traditional Japanese restaurants. Try any place in Hokkaido, or on the Japan Sea coast in Honshu, and eat crabs as big as a dinner plate!

Matsutake

Mushrooms are also available any time of the year throughout Japan, but Matsutake mushrooms are a harbinger of autumn. The price of matsutake mushrooms is very high this year, but that somehow only serves to make them more exclusive. Hint: There are many varieties of mushrooms in Japan and they are all called by their specific names. Only westerners refer to them all as mushrooms! Matsutake are matsutake, not mushrooms.

Sweet Potato (satsumaimo)

Sweet potato is a very seasonal vegetable in Japan that only makes an appearance in autumn. Vendors sell yaki imo (charcoaled sweet potato on a stick) on the street from their trucks. If you see a yaki imo vendor, be sure to partake in this seasonal eating activity.

Chestnuts (kuri)

Boiled and roasted chestnuts can be found hot and ready to eat even in train stations in autumn. They are also served in a special rice dish called kuri gohan,  and in an amazing variety of sweets, which are referred to as marron, as in marron pie, marron cake,  etc.

Pacific saury or mackerel pike (sanma)

This grilled fish is served with salt and grated radish. You’ll usually be served the entire fish, along with its intestines. You’re in Japan in autumn—the season for eating. Go for it!

When you’re finished with your meal, clean your pallet with another autumn favorite: Nashi pears.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Finding Local Festivals in Japan

If you’d like to see a festival but want to stay away from the crowds, check out Japan’s hundreds of smaller local town matsuri or festivals. Almost every town has its own spring, summer or fall festival to celebrate harvests or the local Shinto gods. The best thing about these festivals is that you can actually participate in them rather than just taking pictures from the sidelines. The fun-loving local people are friendly and will probably welcome you into their community festival to help carry the mikoshi, (portable shrine-see photo) or to try your hand at one of the festival dances. It’s a great chance to get involved with the local culture!

The question is, how do you find these festivals that no one knows about?

Luckily, these days every prefecture has a website highlighting the prefecture’s history, the local commerce, the economy and lots of other information on the population living there. The website will also show all the events in the town that year, including sight-seeing spots and local festivals.

If you will be traveling around Japan, merely do a search on the internet of the prefectures you will be traveling in to see if there will be any festivals on or near the dates you will be passing through. There is a formula for finding these prefectural websites. Once you understand how the web addresses are set up, you can find any prefecture’s website in Japan by following the same formula.

Let’s say you’ll be passing through Okayama Prefecture. The formula to find the Okayama Prefecture website is:

http://www.pref.okayama.jp

The first part of the address after www is pref meaning prefecture. After that is the name of the prefecture, in this case Okayama, followed by jp meaning Japan. Don’t forget to put a dot after each new piece of information. Most prefectural websites use this formula.

Try it yourself. Type in http://www.pref.nameofprefecture.jp and see what you come up with. Since the jp  at the end of the address means it is a Japanese address, you are likely to come up with a page in kanji. But click on the word English somewhere in the top of the menu to get to the English version of the website. Simple!

If you want to go beyond the prefectural level to the smaller town websites within that prefecture, try a different formula. Let’s say you are going to Hamada city in Shimane Prefecture. Try the following formula (but be warned that this doesn’t always work):

http://www.city.hamada.shimane.jp

The first part of the address after www is  city. After that is the name of the city, in this case Hamada, followed by prefecture name, in this case Shimane, and jp. Don’t forget to put a dot after each new piece of information. If you can’t find an English link from here, try adding slash / or english to the end of the address as in: http://www.city.hamada.shimane.jp/en/

Be warned, however, that this city/town formula doesn’t always work. If not, you’ll have to do a search on the internet. To find the English page of a city or town, search the city or town name, plus the words  international center or  international exchange association. Many towns have an international organization that caters to foreigners living in that area, and they will have a website in English with all the information on local events.

Have fun matsuri planning for your next trip to Japan!

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Autumn Festivals in Japan

Autumn Festivals in JapanIt may not be cherry blossom season, nor summer when all the Bon festivals are on, but Autumn brings with it i’s own special event: the Aki Matsuri, or Autumn festival. Autumn festivals are held throughout Japan, most celebrated to either pray for a good harvest or to celebrate the local Shinto gods.

In October, the weather is cool and it’s the perfect time to be outside all day long. Which is good, because most of these festivals start at 8:00 am, along with a toast of sake to the gods. It’s a great way to start the day! And it’s a great day to see the Japanese at their best having fun. Photo opportunities abound.

Here are some of the biggest and Autumn festivals in Japan:

Oct. 4-6 Nihonmatsu Chochin Matsuri (Lantern Festival)

One of the three largest lantern festivals in Japan (the others being Akita and Aichi), this festival is held in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima prefecture. Seven floats with 350 lanterns each are paraded through the town at nighttime ending at Nihonmatsu Shrine. The procession is accompanied by festival music.

Takayama Autumn Festival Oct. 9-10

Takayama in Gifu prefecture is always a popular site for tourists, and the Autumn festival is an exciting time to visit. It starts with a ceremony at Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine. After the ceremony, a procession of 11 festival floats, or mikoshi, are pulled through town. The floats are lit with paper lanterns at night. On Sunday is a marionette performance for the gods. The main mikoshi hosting the main God, is makes visits to all the houses in town. Accompanied by traditional Shinto music.

Nada Kenka Matsuri Oct. 14-15

Held in Shirahama-cho in the city of Himeji in Hyogo prefecture, this festival is a loud and raucous one! Large shrines over 4 tons each carried by up to 50 men, fight and clash against each other in a show of bravery to please the Hachiman god, seen by many as the God of War. This festival is so harsh, sometimes participants get injured or killed.

Kyoto Jidai Matsuri (festival of ages) Oct. 22

To celebrate the founding of the Kyoto capital of Japan on this date in 794, the Kyoto Jidai Matsuri has been celebrated ever since. Over 2,000 people wearing costumes of the nobility as well as commoners of the time, take part in this procession which moves from Heian-jingu shrine to the Imperial Palace and back at the end of the day.

If you’d rather stay away from the big crowds, and if you’d like to participate yourself in one of these festivals rather than just observing, then you’ll be interested in the smaller local town festivals, which can be found all over Japan.

Stay tuned for the next article on friendly local Autumn festivals.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Moon Viewing in Japan

Moon Viewing in JapanIf you are in Japan Sept. 23rd-25th then you are in for a real treat. Perhaps in your home country the Autumn Equinox passes by barely noticed. But in Japan, this day in September with equal lengths of day and night, is cause for celebration. The Autumn Equinox is a national holiday and in parks all over Japan people will gather for moon viewing, an activity called “o-tsukimi.� In the Heian period (794-1192), courtesans would write poetry under the moon, but nowadays most people stake out a patch of grass, spread out a cloth and eat sweets and drink tea or sake while watching the moon. Where I live, this is the only day of the year the botanical park is open at night and people are allowed to sit on the grass. A very special occasion indeed.

Moon-viewing is not limited to the spring and autumn equinoxes although these are the most popular times of year for organized moon-viewing events. The autumnal equinox (Harvest Moon) probably originated as a time to pray for a bountiful harvest. But the spring and autumn equinoxes (both national holidays) are also related to Buddhist tradition. O-higan refers to the 7 days surrounding each equinox, and are a time when Japanese people visit the graves of their relatives. This differs from O-bon (the festival of the dead) in August, a traditional time for family members to return to their ancestral homes to honor the dead, mainly because at O-bon the spirits also return to the ancestral home for the reunion. During O-higan, the family merely visits the graves, leaving flowers and beautifying the area around the grave.

Wherever you happen to be in Japan at this time, there are surely going to be moon-viewing events or those celebrating the Autumn Equinox. Traditional Japanese events such as tea ceremonies, ikebana exhibits and Shakuhachi, or other live performances, abound. So grab a piece of grass, get some snacks and sake, and pray it doesn’t rain!

The “Tsukimi” Festival in Sakai, Osaka has been celebrated for over 300 years.

The pond at Daikakuji Temple in Kyoto is one of the most famous spots for moon-viewing in Japan. There are moon-viewing parties here on the night of the Harvest Moon.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Camping In Japan

Ever considered camping in Japan? It’s a cheap, fun way to travel around and an easy way to meet Japanese people. Not only that, but you get to meet Japanese insects up close and personal. Don’t wrinkle your nose! The Japanese love their insects. Everything from the sound of cicadas and crickets to the sighting of a giant stag beetle are prized occurrences in Japan. So get out there and get to know your smaller neighbors!

Campsites in Japan vary from primitive to deluxe campsites with all the amenities. If you’re traveling around Japan, be ready for anything, because you may not always be able to find a campsite with all the comforts. But due to the numerous public baths and hot springs in Japan, you’ll never be far away from a nice, hot bath.

Fall is an ideal time to camp as it is the season for Autumn festivals all around Japan. These festivals celebrate everything from Autumn vegetable planting to worshipping local Shinto Gods. Festivals are community events, so even visitors can usually join in the fun, helping to carry the “mikoshi” (portable shrine) and taking part in drinking the local sake. Choose a festival, then look for a campground near it, and you’ll have a fun, hands-on vacation.

If you are not concerned about finding a campsite, in certain parts of Japan such as Shikoku, it is legal to set up your tent anywhere on public land (parks, etc). Hint: If no park is available, find places near train stations or even bus stops as they are most likely to have toilets and running water. Even if you know it is legal to camp somewhere, it is always polite to ask anyway.

If you are a seasoned camper, consider bringing your own tent to Japan. Japan offers all kinds of camping gear, but they tend to sell mostly larger size tents for 6-8 people, which can be heavy to carry around when you only need a tent for two. Everything else can be bought at the large camping stores in the cities.

Typically, there will be a charge of 1,000 yen per tent, and a surcharge per person. Amenities may be extra.

Remember to take your Guide to Insects.

Links:

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com