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Japanese News and Culture Blog Roundup: 12/24/09-12/30/09

December 30, 2009

Because of the holidays, there weren’t a whole lot of new posts on the blogs this week, but here’s what I could find. Also, this will be my last post on the Hills Learning blog, but it’s been a pleasure writing entries these past few months. I hope you’ve found our posts informative and entertaining. Jon and the rest of the Hills Learning crew will still be posting here, and some new and exciting changes are underway, so stay tuned. Thank you, and good luck with your language studies!

Pink Tentacle

12/28/09: Pink Tentacle greatest hits – 2009
A summary of some of Pink Tentacles most popular blog posts over the past year, including a few I had missed the first time around. Highlights include Monster mummies of Japan, Pregnant dolls from Edo-period Japan, and the hilariously bizarre All-purpose tanuki testicles.

12/28/09: WIT Life #65: 福袋
An explanation of fukubukuro (福袋), or New Year’s “lucky bags” you can purchase at department stores in Japan. Each bag sells for a relatively low price, but the contents are usually a mystery. Will you get lucky, or be stuck with a dud?

Japan Probe

12/26/09: The Pixar-Ghibli connection
A post discussing how Studio Ghibli anime movies like Spirited Away ( and My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ) have influenced and inspired the animators at Pixar in America.

Blue Lotus

Recipe: Pretzels with Mascarpone Honey Dip
This post features a tasty-sounding and easy to make pretzel dip found in a men’s magazine in Japan. Or you can also get the scoop on 180 yen sneakers? Yikes. I can’t imagine those would hold up for long.

Konbini – Convenience Stores in Japan

December 29, 2009

Oh, how I love the konbini (コンビニ: it’s short for “convenience store” in English). Whether it’s Lawson, 7 Eleven, AM/PM, or Family Mart, they’re a reliable place in Japan for late night snacks, booze, and even a full meal. Plus you can also pay your bills there! Items are packed just so, and potentially embarasing hygiene items are double and even triple-bagged using opaque brown paper so that no one will be the wiser. I now present to you a brief rundown of some of my favorite konbini foods. There are tons more, but these are some of the first things that popped into my head.

Nikuman (肉まん)
Often translated as “pork buns” in English, these are kept warm in a special heated box, usually located by the register. Other varieties include pizza-man (filled with marinara sauce and cheese), anman (filled with red bean paste), and karee-man (curry pork buns).
Onigiri (おにぎり)
Rice balls stuffed with a variety of items and wrapped in crispy nori seaweed. Fillings include fish, umeboshi (sour pickled plums), fish eggs, miso, and more. My personal favorite is the tuna filling mixed with mayonnaise. The triangular ones are usually packaged in a double layer of plastic so as to keep the nori fresh and dry until just before eating.
Purin (プリン)
Very similar to packaged Spanish flan, this thick yellow custard comes packed with a caramel-flavored brown layer at the bottom. They’re sometimes topped with whipped cream.
Milk tea (ミルク ティー)
Well, it’s just as the name implies. Sweet tea mixed with milk, and usually served chilled. I’m partial to the Royal Milk Tea variety (why is it called “royal?” I don’t know. Maybe because it’s English tea?).
Calpis (カルピス)
This unfortunately named drink is marketed as “Calpico” in the US, though I’ve never actually seen it sold anywhere except in Asian markets. It’s a kind of yogurt soda drink, but the taste is hard to describe. I also remember it fondly since I won a contest the company was holding last time I was in Japan. The prize was just a pair of t-shirts spouting nonsensical German (which roughly translated to “I am the eternal Milky Way”), but as it’s one of the few contests I’ve ever won, Calpis gets an “A” in my book.
Korokke (コロッケ)
A Japanese version of the French croquette, these are served warm or chilled, and stuffed with a diverse array of meats and vegetables. My favorites include mashed potato and curry korokke, and they’re usually served with worcestershire or tonkatsu sauce.
Cup Noodle (カップヌードル)
Basically just instant ramen in a styrofoam cup, but the huge number of flavors in Japan keeps boredom from setting in. My favorite is the Curry Noodle by far, with hunks of meat and spicy yellow curry broth.
Chuuhai (チューハイ)
A super-sweet canned drink with alcohol contents ranging from 5-8%. The liquor used is shouchuu (焼酎), which is made from barley, sweet potatoes, or rice. There are tons of flavors from the original lemon to lime, grapefruit, pineapple, kiwi, peach, and more. Since there’s no English on the can labeling it as alcohol, I’ve seen several hapless foreigners accidentally drink this, thinking that it’s regular soda. Last time I was in Japan, prices were around 100-150 yen per can ($1-2).
Jagariko (じゃがりこ)
Little hollow, crispy potato straws flavored like consumme, pizza, butter, nori, cheese, and more. My favorite though is the “salad” flavor, which tastes nothing like salad. Though that is probably a good thing.

Japanese News and Culture Blog Roundup: 12/17/09-12/23/09

December 24, 2009

12/23/09: WIT Life #64: Kit Kat comparisons
Japan has a huge selection of seasonal goods, with new candies and drinks hanging around for a only a few weeks, then disappearing as suddenly as they arrived. One such candy is Kit Kats, with many unusual flavors being released each year. Read this post for reviews of ginger ale, azuki (red bean), Uji maccha (green tea), jasmine, and yuzu (grapefruit) Kit Kats.

12/21/09: WIT Life #63: The Lonely People
A post about a recent talk given in New York about loneliness in contemporary Japan. Issues “include karo-jisatsu (suicide by overwork), sekkusu-resu (sexless marriage), kateinai-rikon (in-house divorce) and hikikomori (complete social withdrawal).” An article in the New York Times noted that sometimes those suffering from depression simply have no one to talk to about their problems, and turn to suicide as the answer.

Tokyo Times

12/17/09: Japanese Special Attack Units training centre haikyo
A haunting photo essay of a visit to the abandoned Japanese Navy Torpedo Boat Training School in Kawatana, which dates to WWII. “Special Attack Units” in Japan referred to all manner of suicide soldiers, including Kamikaze (“Divine Wind”) pilots, Shinyo (“Sea Quake”) speed boats, Fukuryu (“Crouching Dragon”) divers, and Kaiten (“Change the World”) torpedoes. The last three were all trained at Kawatana in the late days of the war in a desperate effort to defend Japan from a potentially devastating invasion.

Japanese Pod 101

12/18/09: Learn Japanese Kanji – Everyday Kanji (Japanese Vending Machines)
Ah, the ubiquitous Japanese vending machine. From hot coffee to tea, cigarettes to beer, and flowers to fresh eggs (yes, seriously), there are plenty of vending machines for whatever your desire. Need batteries late at night? There’s a machine for that. Need instant ramen? You can grab that, too. Check out this helpful kanji tutorial to learn what you need to know to get your item NOW.

Japan Probe

12/21/09: Can tongue surgery improve English-speaking ability?
Really? Some parents in South Korea apparently think that their children have difficulty pronouncing English because their tongues are “too short,” so a surgery is offered called a lingual frenectomy. The post points out that the clinical claims of the surgery are dubious at best, and that the length of one’s tongue has nothing to do with what languages you can and cannot pronounce (well, unless your tongue is missing or cut terribly short). A later post talks about another surgery in South Korea that will alter the lines on your palms with lasers to make them more “auspicious.” Bizarre.

F*cked Gaijin

12/23/09: Joint History Review Can’t Agree on Nanjing
The Japan-China Joint History Research Committee, composed of scholars from both countries, cannot agree on the Nanjing Incident in terms of the number of victims, or even reasons for the Second Sino-Japanese War. Unsurprising, but it doesn’t make for a very useful report.

12/17/09: New gazillion-yen Ibaraki Airport has only 1 flight a day
Coverage of an article in the Yomiuri about the new Ibaraki Airport that will have no domestic flights, and only one international round-trip flight to Seoul per day. Why was this airport even built? It has been unable to lure domestic airlines, and has become a huge expense for the prefecture. Though knowing the Japanese government, that construction money had to be spent somewhere, even if it was for a useless project. Well, at least it’s not another dam?

Murder in Japan: Suspect charged in the killing of Lindsay Hawker

December 23, 2009

It was a dreadful night on March 24, 2007. Lindsay Hawker was an English teacher at Nova, a well known language school in Japan. She had met Tatsuya Ichihashi by chance in a café a few days earlier, and that night had agreed to go up to his room. The next day she was found dead in his apartment.

The evidence was overwhelming against Tatsuya Ichihashi. Lindsay’s body had been found in a bathtub on the balcony filled with sand and other materials, which Ichiro had been purchasing from the local hardware store. The taxi cab driver had been told to wait for Lindsay to come back down from Ichiro’s apartment, but she never returned. He also fled the scene once police officers arrived.

Ichiro had evaded arrest until late November 2009 when police finally caught up with him in Osaka. Today the newspapers reported the official “charges” being brought by the court against Tatsuya Ichihashi.

Asahi “The Chiba District Attorney charges Hayashi with Rape Killing” On December 23rd the district attorney’s office in Chiba prefecture charged Tatsuya Ichihashi (originally brought up abandoning a corpse charges) with rape killing. The decision was based on the fact that Hayashi had an intent to kill when he raped Lindsay on the evening of March 24, 2007.

The Chiba Court claims that Ichihashi bound her hands together, hit her many times in the face, and killed her by suffocation. Ichihashi has yet to enter a plea, according to the Asahi.

Nikkei “Hayashi is charged again, this time with Rape Killing. The court is to include a Citizen Jury System” The clear difference between the Nikkei and the Asahi’s account of the incident is the Nikkei commented on the trial being decided by Japan’s “Citizen Jury System.” This would be a ground breaking case, as the Japanese jury system was just introduced this past year.

The Nikkei also mentioned Ichihashi’s defense, claiming “Lindsay cried out very loudly. I put my arms around her from behind to hug her, not to kill her.”

Osechi – New Year’s Food in Japan

December 22, 2009

Special dishes known as osechi-ryouri (御節料理 or お節料理) are served on New Year’s in Japan. Large stackable boxes known as juubako (重箱) hold the food, and the dishes can stay good for several days since osechi are traditionally eaten through January 3rd. Cooking was finished by New Year’s Eve since long ago it was forbidden to cook during the first three days of the new year. These days, many people purchase osechi in stores since the cooking process is long and difficult, and waiting lists for some of the most popular or well-made kinds begin in October. Each osechi dish has a special meaning for the new year, whether it be for long life or a good harvest. More information can be found here.

Common Osechi:

Konbumaki (昆布巻)
Rolled kelp seaweed, often stuffed with salmon and tied with strips of kanpyou (干瓢 – dried shavings of the calabash gourd).
Kuro-mame (黒豆)
Black beans simmered in a sweet sauce of sugar, soy sauce, and salt. Mame also means “health” in Japanese, so these represent a wish for good health in the coming year.
Datemaki (伊達巻 or 伊達巻き)
A kind of rolled, sweet omelet containing white hanpen (半片) fish paste or mashed shrimp.
Kurikinton (栗きんとん)
Mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts, often formed back into a chestnut shape.
Kinpira gobou (金平牛蒡)
Burdock root braised with sugar, sake, soy sauce, and mirin. It is often served with carrots and sesame seeds.
Tazukuri (田作り)
Candied dry-roasted sardines which you eat whole (head and all). The kanji in Japanese literally means “rice paddy maker” since tazukuri were used historically to fertilize rice fields. The symbolism is of an abundant harvest.
Namasu (膾)
Raw vegetables and sometimes seafood slightly pickled in rice vinegar. Often features daikon radish and carrot.
Nimono (煮物)
Simmered vegetables that often include gobou (burdock root), taro, renkon (lotus root), carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and pea pods.
Kazunoko (数の子)
Herring roe.  It clumps naturally, giving it its long shape. Kazunoko literally means “many children,” and it symbolizes fertility and family prosperity.
Ebi-no-saka mushi (えびのさかむし)
Sake steamed shrimp, served whole. You eat everything – head, legs, and all.  In this photo, it is being served with edamame.
Kamaboko (蒲鉾)
Processed fish cakes made from varieties of whitefish and additives like MSG. Spiral-shaped loaves are often called “naruto” after the Japanese city which has a well-known whirlpool. The white fish paste is called surimi (擂り身), and is also present in fake crab in the US. Red/pink and white cakes are often layered or arranged in a pattern on New Year’s. The half-circle shape is similar to that of the rising sun, and the food has a celebratory, festive meaning.
Tai-no-shioyaki (鯛の塩焼き)
Sea bream grilled with salt, and served whole. I’ve seen people eat the head, though it’s not required. But the fins and tail are fair game. The word tai (sea bream) is associated with the Japanese word medetai, indicating an auspicious event and present in the phrase omedetai gozaimasu (congratulations).
Daidai (橙)
A Japanese bitter orange. Daidai written in a different kanji is 代々, meaning “from generation to generation.” It symbolizes a wish for children in the new year.
Zouni (雑煮)
A soup made with mochi rice cakes either in a clear broth (mostly in eastern Japan, with rectangular mochi) or miso broth (in western Japan, with round mochi). Sometimes taro or tofu is used instead of mochi, usually in areas where rice isn’t abundant. Other ingredients include meatballs (often chicken or fish), komatsuna (コマツナ) or spinach greens, mitsuba (similar to parsley), kamaboko, carrot, and yuzu citrus peel (similar to grapefruit).
Toshi-koshi soba (年越し蕎麦)
“Year-crossing soba.” A traditional dish, but also a practical one in kitchens where special foods have been cooking for days. Soba is an easy meal during the hectic holidays, but it is considered unlucky by many to leave any toshi-koshi soba uneaten.

Japanese Christmas Show: Bringing a Japan Christmas to Holiday Shoppers – 12/20/09

December 21, 2009

It was just another day at the Harmon Cove Outlet Center in Secaucus, NJ, on the weekend before Christmas. There had been the typical Christmas events previously at the mall, such as Santa coming to sit with kids, and a magic show. Most stores and shoppers were just getting prepared to have one more day of weekend shopping before the big holiday on Friday of this week. But once they entered the mall they were surprised to find a new kind of show, with a different language and culture that didn’t seem quite so familiar, the Japanese Christmas Show!

The Japanese Christmas show used entertainment to attract the holiday masses. Performers who attracted crowds were acts such as the Amazing Amy, who used Yoga and her love of Anime to create a unique show called “Yoganime.” Crowds watched as Amy twisted and turned her body in ways that were quite painful to watch. Then cute holiday performers grabbed kids attention, such as Reni the Cosplay Singer, who sang some original songs along with some very familiar holiday tunes. The girl group “Promise” performed a cute and amazing set, considering how most members were not above 13 years old and had memorized 4 songs all in Japanese.

But it wasn’t just entertainment that grabbed the show but also the educational component. Hills Learning (, a language school in New York City, sponsored all the activities done throughout the day (bingo, raffles, and rock paper scissors). The activities of course were not done without having the audience learn some Japanese in the process. The numbers 1-5 were taught to both children and adults alike, and they used their new found knowledge to play Bingo in Japanese! (A – shi (4 in English), M – san (3 in English) were typical combinations that were being called out by the Japanese cosplay singer Reni. The show also ended with a Rock, Paper, Scissors game, in Japanese style, which brought all the audience members together to battle it out for Japanese t-shirts.

All in all, an interesting event for shoppers at the Harmon Cove Outlet Center. Although possibly in time the names Hills Learning or Reni might fade from shoppers minds, what hopefully was accomplished was producing an interest in what’s new and different. Hills Learning uses multiple avenues to reach potential audiences who might be interested in learning a new language, other events can be found at The demographic at the Japanese Christmas Show was generally hispanic or chinese, both cultures that understand the importance of bilingual education, and appreciating other cultures beyond your own. We hopefully piqued some interest for the Japanese language and culture, and also gave shoppers a fun experience in the process!

Japanese News and Culture Blog Roundup: 12/10/09-12/16/09

December 17, 2009

Japan Probe

12/16/09: Japanese women want scarred, disease-riddled, brutal men of history?
An article was published in the Times on Saturday theorizing that since historical and samurai dramas are becoming more popular in Japan, then Japanese women must want “scarred, disease-riddled, brutal warriors whose kind died out centuries ago.” The author of the blog post takes exception to this statement, instead concluding that many female fans of these dramas are drawn not to the real historical figures, but to their idealized (and much more attractive) versions as portrayed in popular dramas and anime. I think the assertiveness of these figures is probably attractive to the women, but I highly doubt the bloody swordfighting and disfigured faces come into the equation. The video game version of brutal warrior Masamune Date is on the top, historical Masamune is on the bottom.
12/13/09: Japan books – 2009 Holiday season reading list
Looking for some new and interesting books to read about Japan? This list is a good place to start. One that always makes me smile is Solaryman, which is a collection of photographs of salarymen cutting loose and jumping high, turning the working father-figure into a flying hero.
12/11/09: Road to Hajj – Japan
Coverage of an English Al Jazeera report on ethnic Japanese Muslim communities in the Tokyo area who will be traveling to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. There are only two travel agencies in Japan sanctioned by the Saudi government to allow pilgrims to travel for the Hajj.

Pink Tentacle

12/14/09: Time-lapse video of Mt Fuji, Miyajima, Iwate
A cool, 4-minute video of well-known landmarks in Japan photographed by Samuel Cockedey. Tiny people skitter about, and the clouds roll slowly by for a very soothing image of the country.

F*cked Gaijin

12/16/09: Wacky Japan Is OK To Talk About
Author Lisa Katayama (who wrote the infamous otaku pillow story that appeared in the New York Times in July) has posted an article on Boing Boing about how stories about “crazy Japan” are at heart just harmless fun that people take far too seriously. But like one commenter noted, there’s a difference between understanding a culture and merely being “entertained” by it. When most Americans associate Japan with either geisha and sumo, or perverted videos and obsessive cuteness, I think that there’s a problem.

12/16/09: New Mamoru Oshii Film Opens This Week
Are you a fan of Ghost in the Shell? Well director Mamoru Oshii has a new movie coming out this weekend called “Assault Girls” (click for the trailer). I wonder if it will ever be released in the US?

12/14/09: Fat Prisoners Put On Diet
Does putting prisoners on a mandatory, low-calorie diet constitute cruel and unusual punishment? The prisoners at Osaka Prison in Sakai certainly think so, and their lawyers are on the case. This reminds me of the controversy surrounding Lincoln University’s fitness class requirement for graduation in Pennsylvania.

12/12/09: Gaijin Head Of Dying Kyushu Village
Coverage of an article in the Wall Street Journal about American Jeffrey Irish who lives in the tiny farming town of Tsuchikure, Japan. He has been nominated to be the village chief, and is attempting to bring important services and possible newcomers to a dwindling town of less than 30 people. However, when a young couple seemed interested in renting a house in the picturesque area, the locals balked, saying that newcomers “could upset the delicate harmony of the close-knit community.” Irish, who has lived in Tsuchikure since 1998, is left to wonder what to do in a village that wants to simply “disappear gracefully and on their terms.”