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Japanese Christmas – Fun Facts about the Holiday

December 16, 2009

Merry Christmas…in Japan? You know they say in Japan, “Happy Christmas!” Like other things that Japan absorbs into their culture, Christmas also has its own unique twist in the country. The things that might be familiar to New Yorkers are the various Christmas lights and decorations, Santa in malls, millions of shoppers, and specials at Starbucks. But there are also many unique things about Christmas in Japan.

First of all, before talking about the unique fun things about a Japanese Christmas, I’d like to touch briefly on religion in Japan. Most New Yorkers when I mention Christmas in Japan ask the question, “Are they Christian?” To answer simply, there are some Japanese who identify themselves as Christians, but actually most Japanese don’t identify themselves as a “religion” at all. It’s actually more commonplace to view their Buddhist and Shinto heritage as a way of life and custom than what we’d call in America “religion.” This mindset probably adds to the ability of Japan to take on Christmas and make a holiday all its own.

One of the most interesting things about Christmas and the New Year in Japan is the tradition of celebrating both holidays. Christmas is actually a time to get together with friends and have parties, while the New Year is a time to get together with family, and visit the local place of worship. In America as you might know it’s actually the opposite, families are generally together on Christmas where as New Year’s is the time to have parties and meetup with friends.

As you might be able to guess a second part of Christmas that’s different in Japan is the food. I was speaking to a Japanese friend the other night who described his first Christmas in New York City as one of confusion. He went to all the local grocery stores and malls near him, but could not find the typical food you eat on Christmas. Nope, not Turkey. Christmas Cake! Japan has their own unique Christmas Cakes that are sold everywhere, and are actually quite light and delicious.

The third and last interesting comparison about Japanese Christmas is the ever lasting symbol of Christmas, the Christmas Tree. The Japanese do have Christmas trees, they’re actually quite ubiquitous throughout malls, stations, and other public places (some are in homes, but probably much fewer than America). Can you guess which type of trees though they are? If you know Japan and its lack of resources, you might guess that 90% of trees are fake trees in Japan, simply due to the cost of having a “Christmas Tree Farm” in a densely populated and majority urban country.

Hope you enjoyed reading about Japanese Christmas, please add your comments about experiences or questions you might have about the traditions. Happy and Merry Christmas!


American Fast Food In Japan

December 15, 2009

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for junk food. Since living in New York, my consumption of fast food has gone up dramatically, despite the wide array of quality food here. Now I’m not advocating that you visit McDonald’s or any of these other restaurants while in Japan, but sometimes you just gotta eat. Here is a list of some of the major differences you’ll find between your US fast food place and that same burger joint in Japan.

McDonald’s – マクドナルド

One of the most obvious differences between American and Japanese fast food is the size of the portions. Burgers tend to be much smaller, and though you can still order a quarter-pounder or Big Mac in Japan, they aren’t first and foremost on the menu.

Pictured on the left here is my favorite type of fast food burger in Japan – the teriyaki burger (here, the Teriyaki Mac Burger – てりやきマックバーガー). The sweet sauce works well with the meat, though I could do without the huge blob of mayonnaise on top. Japanese mayonnaise, made with apple cider or rice vinegar instead of distilled vinegar, will become a common theme in this post. It’s an extremely popular condiment in Japan, appearing on everything from salad (as a dressing all by itself) to french fries to pizza. On the right is the Filet-o-Shrimp (えびフィレオ), which is shrimp formed into a breaded patty, then fried.

Here we have a concept similar to the McSalad Shaker, but in chicken nugget form. It’s called Shaka-Shaka Chicken (シャカシャカチキン), and the idea is you pour the flavoring packet into a bag with the large nugget, shake, and then eat. Flavors include lemon (pictured here), black pepper, and cheese.

McDonald’s in Japan used to have the Mega Mac, which was a Big Mac with 4 patties. Also included in the promotion was the Mega Tamago (3 patties, 1 fried egg) and the Mega Tomato (3 patties, 1 large tomato slice). Though popular, they don’t seem to be on the menu at the moment. In addition to fries, you can also order a side of sweet corn or a bacon and potato pie (which sounds pretty tasty, actually). I also got a kick out of a little listing at the very bottom of the menu that says, “Smile: Free of charge.” While reading the menu in Japanese in Kyoto, I muttered that out loud to myself, and the cashier flashed me a HUGE smile as a demonstration. Somehow I can’t imagine that happening in NYC.

Burger King – バーガーキング

Burger King in Japan honestly seems pretty similar to the US version, though they do have a Teriyaki Whopper. Well, and there’s also the alcohol prominently advertised on their website.

Fries, onion rings, or chicken fingers with a Heineken for 500 yen? Well, okay then! You can also substitute any soft drink included with a meal with a Heineken for 150 yen. I know that beer at fast food places isn’t a big deal in most of the world, but it’s still pretty unusual for America (well, except for Chipotle and their Coronas).

MOS Burger – モスバーガー

Ah, and here is my favorite fast food burger place in Japan, though it isn’t American in the slightest. MOS Burger has slightly smaller portions and is more expensive, but the higher-quality ingredients make their food taste much better. Not only do they have teriyaki burgers, but you can also get them topped with sauteed vegetables, mushrooms, and melted cheese. Their milkshakes are also really good, though some of their more unusual items are the MOS Rice Burgers.

Pictured here is the MOS Rice Seafood Burger (海鮮かきあげ) which has a thick, taco-like shell made from a grilled rice patty. The filling is a mixture of shrimp, squid, scallops, onions, carrots, and edamame.

And this here is Melon Soda, which can be found at any fast food restaurant in Japan, including MOS Burger. It is bright green, insanely sweet, and 100% delicious.

Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) – ケンタッキーフライドチキン

KFC is the place to be in Japan on Christmas. No, seriously. Christmas has few if any religious connotations in Japan, and it’s often a time to celebrate with your friends rather than family. For one reason or another, perhaps because of the Colonel’s resemblance to Santa, a bucket of fried chicken has become the preferred holiday meal for families nation-wide. In fact, you probably need to make reservations to eat there. In front of every Japanese KFC is a life-sized statue of the Colonel which is frequently dressed up depending on the season, including Christmas.  Menu items are fairly similar to the US version, though there is also a selection of fried fish such as the new Pink Salmon Sandwich.

Pizza Hut – ピザハット

Well, I could frankly have a post just on Japanese pizza alone. Common toppings include mayo (in place of tomato sauce), corn, shrimp, squid, and even seaweed. At Pizza Hut in Japan, crusts stuffed with cheese are still all the rage, though they’ve upped the ante by making crusts out of hot dogs. Seen above is a particularly crazy one with hamburgers as toppings, and a half hot dog, half cheese-stuffed roll crust.

Subway – サブウェイ

Subway in Japan has some of the familiar sandwiches, but also some interesting ones like shrimp and avocado, and hot dog subs. Sandwich toppings also include basil mayonnaise and a kind of wasabi dressing. I see no evidence of 500 yen footlongs on their website, though.

Travel Japanese 2 – Basic Verb Structure and How to say “Do you understand English?”

December 14, 2009

To enhance your trip to Japan its important to learn some key phrases before you go. At Hills Learning we refer to these phrases as “Travel” phrases, and this set of Japanese as “Travel Japanese.” The first article in regards to travel Japanese taught our readers the golden word, “Sumimasen,” or excuse me. This article will focus on how to ask people “Do you understand”, a key phrase to learn when traveling to Japan.

The vocabulary used for this portion of travel Japanese is:

English – eigo – EI GO – (EI as in Hey, and GO)
Japanese – nihongo – NI HON GO (NI as in Knee, HON as in HONE, and GO)
The verb “to understand” is wakarimasu – WA KA RI MA SU (WA as in water, KA as in LA with a short A sound, RI as in reek, MA with a short A and SU as in sue)

Let’s start with saying in Japanese “Do you understand…” and “I don’t understand.” To ask a question in Japanese, you simply add “ka” to any verb listed above. So, for Wakarimasu you’ll add ka, “Wakarimasuka? (Do you understand?) Japanese also uses particles, for the verb to understand or wakarimasu, it uses “GA” in front of the verb to indicate the subject of the sentence. So the whole phrase is:


Insert English into it and you’ll get EIGO GA WAKARIMASUKA? (Do you understand English?) Remember, the sentence form goes: subject – particle (in this case GA) – verb. Japanese is an altaic language, or in other words the verb comes at the end, instead of in front, like English.

To answer this question, as you can see from the above example the “SU” changed to “SEN”. If you were to say, EIGO GA WAKARIMASU, that means “I understand English.” The “SEN” is the negative form of the verb, so if you were to say “EIGO GA WAKARIMASEN” it means “I don’t understand English.”

This phrase is very useful for travelers trying to communicate with Japanese people. Travelers might hear from the Japanese “EIGO GA WAKARIMASEN” when they try to speak with someone. They can also replace the “EIGO” with “NIHONGO”, and travelers can state: “NIHONGO GA WAKARIMASEN” (I don’t understand Japanese)

If you’re to ask someone in Japan “Do they understand English?” in Japanese, they’re most likely to answer “a little bit” or CHOTTO. This is a common response, not that the Japanese haven’t studied English (almost everyone has at least 10 years of English), but that they don’t really feel comfortable speaking it. In a country with 95% Japanese, it’s quite possible you’re the first “foreigner” or non-Japanese they’ve spoken to. If by chance someone responds “Yes, I understand English”, then you know they can speak the language. There’s no middle line in Japan, they either say they can speak and speak or they don’t.

Japanese News and Culture Blog Roundup: 12/03/09-12/09/09

December 10, 2009

Japan Probe

12/06/09: Update: American teens arrested
As mentioned in this post, Japanese police were seeking the arrest of four American teenagers for the attempted murder of a young Japanese woman in what appears to be a stupid prank gone horribly wrong. All of the teens are the children of US military stationed in Japan. Though the military at first refused to cooperate with the Japanese authorities, they have now handed the suspects over. Expect to see more updates as they come in, especially since this was a big domestic story that hit the main page of and other news outlets.

12/03/09: Christmas illuminations at Tobu World Square
A post featuring some detailed videos about Tobu World Square and their annual lighting of 42 UNESCO World Heritage Sights painstakingly created in 1:25 miniature (complete with 140,000 mini hand-painted people!). New York landmarks featured include the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the World Trade Center towers, which were preserved after the 2001 attacks as a symbol of peace.


12/08/09: The TV Show
A clever Japanese music video animated by Sugimoto Kousuke and set to the music of Takayuki Manabe. Colorful, stylish, and great fun to watch!

Pink Tentacle

12/09/09: Video: Marine creature robots by kyg-lab
A self-taught robot maker, who is also a marine scientist, has hand-crafted some pretty amazing aquatic robots. Made from recycled items, the robots are remarkably detailed and operate with eerily life-like motion. Pictured here is his 5-foot, 105-pound “masterpiece”: a coelacanth robot. Pretty amazing if you watch the videos in the link!

Tokyo Times

12/09/09: Abandoned volcano museum #2: Colour
More Japanese haikyo (abandoned buildings), this time at Mt. Asama on the border of Gunma and Nagano prefectures in Honshu. The volcano is still active, but the museum has sadly been abandoned since 1993. I think the author puts it best: “The highlights of haikyo/urban exploration seem to vary depending on the person, meaning that for some it’s purely for the pleasure of exploration and the buildings themselves, whereas others are far more interested in the detritus and the details left behind. And for me at least, it’s definitely the latter that is key — little pieces of information that give hints about the lives of the people who once worked, or better still lived, there. Items that offer the briefest snippet of the past — a moment captured in time almost.”

F*cked Gaijin

12/08/09: Mother of Manga
A post about an article in the LA Times about the origins of manga and anime in kamishibai, and kind of “street theater using painted illustrations” popular in Japan in the 1930s. An interesting read for fans of Japanese comics and animation!

12/07/09: Evangelion Material Used In JLPT Level One
What the…? Really? The most recent administration of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) Level 1 apparently featured a listening question straight from the Evangelion anime. Helpful if you’ve seen the show, of course, but baffling if you haven’t! Reportedly, quite a few test takers couldn’t hold in their giggles. Level 1 is the highest of the 4 levels of the JLPT, and is obviously pretty tricky.

Travel Japanese – Learn the basics of Japanese to enhance your traveling experience

December 9, 2009

When traveling to Japan, it’s important to learn some basic phrases to help you get around in the country. Although Japan is highly developed, with an extremely efficient train system and electronics and gadgets that rival any other country, English is not widely spoken. Furthermore Japan is a very homogeneous country, with upwards of around 95 to 96% of the population with Japanese as their native language. For all these reasons and more it helps to learn the basics of Japanese, what we call “Travel Japanese”, before you go.

The golden word that everyone needs to know who travels to Japan is “excuse me.” In Japanese, the word is sumimasen. In Japanese, every two letters forms a syllable, with some exceptions. For more in depth discussion of pronunciation, please see our Hiragana page:

To help you with pronunciation of Japanese without formal Hiragana alphabet training, you’ll have to first break it up into syllables: (SU – MI – MA – SEN). Then, the words sound like SUE – ME – MA (as in mama) – SEN (as in sentence). Make sure when pronouncing Japanese you make it all one sound, and flat.

This word is used in multiple situations:

– In the subway, when someone’s in your way and you’re trying to get by, say SUMIMASEN

– In the restaurant, when you’re trying to get your waiter’s attention, you can literally raise your voice (like psst camarero in Spanish) and say SUMIMASEN

– When you’re walking on the street and you’ve bumped into someone, you can say “SUMIMASEN”

– When no one’s stopping to help you on the street and you’re lost, to get someone’s attention you can say “SUMIMASEN”

As you can see, SUMIMASEN is the golden word of travel Japanese. If you learn how to use it appropriately it will enhance your travel experience by bringing a smile to the strangers you meet, and get you out of any sticky situations where you feel like you might have offended someone.

When traveling to Japan, it will enhance your experience to know some key phrases. SUMIMASEN is the golden world of travel Japanese, and any guidebook or textbook that doesn’t teach you this phrase is not teaching you Japanese properly. Language acquisition is not complete without acquiring some cultural knowledge, and as you’ve seen by learning your first key phrase in Japanese the most important word is “excuse me.” To communicate effectively in Japan you must be polite!

Ryouri o tsukurimashou! Miso Soup with Tofu and Mushrooms

December 8, 2009

(For more information on where these recipes came from and more Japanese cooking vocabulary, check out my previous posts for Yellowtail Teriyaki, Cashew Chicken, Roast Chinjao, Tonkatsu, and Sweet Potatoes!)

The last recipe featured a dish you could make with ingredients found in any American grocery store, but this one would probably require a trip to a Japanese grocery store or other specialty Asian market. But it might be worth it to make your own homemade, nutritious miso soup! The Nintendo DS game this was translated from had a few varieties of miso soup, but this seemed like one of the most classic. Enjoy!

豆腐となめこのもそ汁 – Miso Soup with Tofu and Mushrooms

Yield: 4 servings


English Japanese
120 g momen tofu (coarse-grained tofu) (4.23 oz) 木綿どうふ 120g
100 g nameko mushrooms (3.53 oz) なめこ 100g
1 bunch scallions 細ねぎ 1本
4 cups dashi-jiru (bonito and kelp stock, sold in pouches in Japanese food stores) だし汁 4カップ
2 and 2/3 Tbsp shinshu miso (yellow miso paste) 信州みそ 大さじ2と2/3



Mince the scallions finely, then set aside. Drain the tofu, then cut into 1.5 cm cubes.

Boil some water in a small saucepan, then add the nameko mushrooms. Allow them to steam for only a short time (the Japanese recipe says “until moistened with steam”), then quickly drain the water in a collander. Divide the mushrooms among four soup bowls and set aside.

In a large pot, add 4 cups dashi-jiru and the cubed tofu, then turn on the heat and boil until the tofu cubes begin to float and bob on the surface. Add the shinshu miso, then lower the heat to a simmer. Add the scallions, then remove from heat.

Pour the dashi and tofu soup over the mushrooms in each bowl, then serve.


Japanese Romaji Meaning
なめこ nameko Japanese nameko mushrooms. Can be found in specialty Asian grocery stores.
細ねぎ hosonegi Scallions (literally “thin onions”). I’ve also seen this translated as “thin leeks.” The images on the recipe show mostly the green parts being used.
もそ汁 miso-shiru Miso soup
だし汁 dashi-jiru Concentrated kelp and bonito stock that can be bought as a powder, or as a paste in a pouch in Japanese grocery stores. The recipe is referring to 4 cups of the broth made from this mix.
信州みそ shinshu miso Shinshu miso paste, also known as yellow miso paste. It is light brown in color and salty, and is usually sold in small plastic tubs.
ふっとうする futtou suru To boil
沸く waku To boil; grow hot
さっと satto Suddenly; quickly
湯通しする yudooshi suru To moisten with steam
浮く uku To float; rise to the surface

Futenma Military Base: Prime Minister Hatoyama Calls for a meeting with Barack Obama

December 7, 2009

It has been nearly 65 years since the end of World War II, but old alliances and agreements remain in place. One is the bilateral security treaty between Japan and the United States, which currently states that America’s military base, Futenma, will be moved sometime early next year to another spot in Okinawa. While the U.S. expects this to happen, Japanese politicians look like they’re trying to get something otherwise.

As to exactly what Japan’s stance is towards the United States and the relocation of Futenma military base it has not yet been formally announced. Prime Minister Hatoyama made a statement last night requesting that he meet with Barack Obama. Each newspaper had a slightly different take on the situation, and what could possibly be said at a meeting between the Japanese Prime Minister and Barack Obama.

Asahi “The Government’s Policy for Futenma will be communicated to America before the COP meeting” The Asahi, along with the Yomiuri and the Nikkei, reported on the general comments made by the prime minister. He addressed that he would like to meet directly with Barack Obama before the COP meeting on climate change to talk about Futenma. “If I could meet with the president at COP I’d be grateful. Obviously before this I’d have to explain our government’s stance, and I’d also like the opportunity of getting understanding from America.”

While the Asahi reported on the less decisive comments made by the Prime Minister, they also highlighted some stronger opinions. “Now is the time to finally say to America our stance on the issue.” “It’s not that simple as you know, we have an alliance with America, and the expectations of the people of Okinawa are elsewhere.”

NikkeiFutenma: before COP a policy will be announced” The Nikkei also reported that the Prime Minister would like to talk with President Barack Obama, and would like American understanding for Japanese sentiment in Okinawa.

However the language used by the Nikkei was softer than the Asahi’s, and less decisive. “I would like to bring to life a policy that would decrease the weight of the Okinawan people.” The Nikkei left out the fact that America’s alliance and the Okinawa people’s thoughts are two different things.

Yomiru “The policy for Futenma will need to be decided before the COP15 summit” The Yomiuri, while mentioning the general comments made by the prime minister along with the Nikkei and Asahi, focused on comments made by others within the DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan).

The Chief Cabinet Secretary claimed “The issue in Okinawa is trying to reduce the danger and noise produced by an American base.” And lastly Ozawa-san, the Chief Secretary of the Party, said “with every new ruling party comes a new way of doing things, and a new way of forming alliances.”