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The highs and lows of Omiyage

Japanese love giving omiyage when they go somewhere for a visit. In some situations you are socially obligated to bring something back with you, especially if you are “inconveniencing” someone else without your presence. One such situation is taking “nenkyuu”, or paid-leave, to go travel or vacation someplace. Often the members of the staff room will expect to also partake in your adventure by indulging in something tasty that you have graciously brought back with you. Omiyage often includes anything from chocolates or normal snacks you would get but the packaging happens to have the local characters face on it. But this isn’t the only time omiyage is appropriate. Other reasons you could receive omiyage is for celebration(less likely), or regret (most likely).  Because omiyage is so ingrained in Japanese culture, you can buy it almost anywhere, even at rural (yet large enough to have a store that sells something) out-in-nowhere train stations where you wouldn’t expect to see a box of nicely individually wrapped confectionery. I always knew where my co-workers had gone during their obon or New Year’s vacations because the packaging would conveniently have the name of the place written on it. It was especially nice when the teachers I worked with went outside of japan, because it was guaranteed the snacks would be different from the usual chocolate or “senbei” rice crackers.  I think the strangest thing brought back was some reindeer jerky from Finland. I honestly can't say what the best thing brought back was, because well, I generally like most things sweet or salty or savory or food, I like food. That being said, a few of my favorite things that I can easily recall are some wafer crackers with a sort of thin creamy filling. I've seen them different places, often reflecting the region. For example, Tochigi which is famous for strawberries has a strawberry filling. Another I remember well is from Ashikaga (ironically also in Tochigi. I’m guessing you gotta go to Tochigi for the snacks). The look of it is unimpressive. But oh the taste. It’s sweet but not too sweet with a crispy outside and soft inside. Having just one will certainly make you want another...until you realize just one little rectangular prism of goodness will set you back 120en. They aren’t even the size of a mouthful really. But they are great to get as a gift. So, you know, if you happen to come to Ashikaga for the wine festival in November, or the fireworks in August, or the flower park during spring or Christmas, check around the stations. You are bound to spot them. But nicely packaged food isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Sure you get to try lots of different things, but that also means you have to smile and thank someone politely...even if you don't like the item. Every year, the PTA would provide omiyage for the staff after the sports day or other such activity where the teacher must have been “inconvenienced” and needed to celebrate for a job well done. This is what I was told anyway the first year I got a pile of sweets on my desk. They were all the same basic omiyage, “anko” or sweet bean paste. In small amounts, or when I am really craving something super sweet, anko can be good. But four large dumplings are just too much. They are also encased in an overly sweet wafer of cakey casing that sticks to your teeth. It’s kind of like eating a heavy chalky sugar paste that sometimes also has a random chestnut stuck in it just to add to the chalky grit. Really not the best gift to get. And their expiration dates always seem too soon. I don't like wasting food, but I can say a few of these went in the trash. These must be a regional specialty because on another occasion I received a whole box of these same sweets.  This time as a “sorry I inconvenienced you by hitting you with my car” gift. Super sweet right? I think I might have eaten the whole box for dinner out of sore and because my body hurt too much to cook. But that's a story for a different blog.  You can check the first part out here.  But these weren't the worst omiyage I've ever eaten. No that title belongs to a box of delicious looking mochi balls (smooshed up gluttonous rice cakes) that I bought myself for my colleagues. To be honest I just wanted to try them myself.  Bad decision. But they looked so good. Powder covered chocolate flavored sticky rice balls on concurrent to eat sticks! How could I go wrong? Well let me give you a back story as to where I got these first. On a whim, a friend of mine invited me to climb Mount Fuji with her and her family.  Because it was on just a whim, and I didn't really do much research or think too much about the trip, I was highly unprepared to say the least. Dangerously so. And. It made for a very hungry lady when she finally made it to the bottom (5th station, so not actually the bottom) of the mountain.   But you remember that friend and her family? Well, me not being a nice friend had left her behind thinking we could just meet up the next day before our bus ride. There aren't that many places near the bus stop, so it wouldn't be hard. That was my thought anyway. So hungry tired me went in look for omiyage while I waited around for the friend to show. Let's just say I had ample time to make my decision and I finally settled on this.  Looks good right? That's why I got it. I wanted to try it before bringing it back to my office of teachers ready to share my harrowing story of climbing Fuji.  Turns out I didn't want to share this with them. It was bad. Really really bad. And I had just done enough physical exertion that should have made anything seem edible.  Not these. That white powder coating is not sugar like I had thought, but in fact cornstarch, straight unflavored cornstarch. The texture of the mochi was also off, not sticky and soft but had a gelatinous putty like feel to it.  And that chocolate taste it promised, I'm still looking for it years later. Whoever made these either never tried them, or was too cheap to care and change the recipe. They are the worst and please never submit your co-workers to these monstrosity of omiyage. unless you don't get along with them, then by all means make a trip out to Mount Fuji and stock up.

Baby's First Food: Japan Versus the West!

Baby food in Japan is quite different to what I am familiar with in Ireland. I was at home when my eldest (DS) had his first food and for the first few weeks of the spoon. I had just come back from Ireland with supplies to use in Japan for when my 2nd eldest (DD1) started on food. My third and fourth children were the only ones to have Japanese baby food for their first few weeks. I introduced my three daughters to the spoon at 5 and a half months in line with Japanese guidelines to wait until at least 5 months old. DS had the spoon at 17 weeks in line with Irish guidelines to wait until they are at least 4 months old. The World Health Organisation recommends waiting until they are 6 months old. Irish Baby Rice and Baby Food  Japanese baby rice  At home, baby rice is one of the first foods introduced. Rice is not readily available in Ireland and very few people have rice cookers, so rice for babies is usually bought. In Japan, you can get rice for babies in the store too. Or you can make your own. We tried and tested both. The baby rice you buy here though does not have as much fortification as the baby rice back home. I use Milupa rice cereal when in Europe and it has 33% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of Iron, 29% RDA of Calcium and 64% RDA of Vitamin C. It also has Vitamins A, D3, E, K1, B1, B2, B6 and B12, as well as zinc, niacin, folic acid, biotin and pantothenic acid. I use Wakodo baby rice in Japan. It does not provide information on the percentages of RDA present and only lists ingredients rather than nutritional content other than the presence of protein, sodium and vitamin E. Does it just not list the nutritional information or does it just not have any extra nutrition? Your guess is as good as mine, as I cannot find any information online to support either theory! 5 mg sachets of rice and soup like powder sachets What I like about the baby rice in Japan is that it comes in sachets of 5 mg, which is convenient and helps keep the rice fresh. In Ireland the rice comes in a cereal box and aluminium packet of 125 grams and you spoon out the necessary quantity and try to seal the pack after each use to keep it fresh. Convenient pot for making baby rice in the microwave  A lot of people in Japan make their own baby rice from regular rice. We did this often. There are various ways you can do it. One of the easiest ways is to stand a bowl of raw rice with the recommended amount of water in the regular rice bowl of the rice cooker. You can also boil cooked rice until it's mushy. Or you can microwave cooked rice, which is what we did. For small babies just starting out the recommendation is to use 200 ml of water to 50 grams of cooked rice and cook it on strong for 4 minutes, then on weak for 12 minutes, then let is stand with the lid still on for a further 5 minutes. We have two handy bowls specifically for microwaving baby rice which we use, pictured above. The first one has the instructions on the front which is useful, but I preferred the smaller bowl as it had the water marker so I could easily add 200 ml of water without having to use a measuring jug. Bowl and bamboo stick masher aka mortar and pestle Other foods introduced in the early weeks seems to vary by country. In Ireland, banana is a popular first food for babies. The one and only baby food book I have in English, Super Baby Food by Ruth Yaron, an American author and nutritionist, recommends avocado. Meanwhile here in Japan carrot is the 2nd most popular first food after rice. In Japan, people also use a lot of soup like powder sachets for extra nutrition (Third picture from the top with coloured sachets). You just add water and stir and you can add to rice for flavour. In Japan, it seems new foods are introduced more quickly than at home. Quite quickly a baby goes from just rice to a variation of fruits and vegetables ground and liquefied to make them easier to digest. I use a mortar and pestle to mash food, pictured above. I think in the initial few weeks of the spoon, the store-bought fortified baby foods at home are a lot more nutritious to here. However, fairly quickly babies in Japan get more variation and nutrition from regular fresh food added to baby rice by about the 4th week of solids. There are lots of foods readily available that can easily be added to baby rice to improve its nutritional content, such as hijiki (please see note below), tofu, sesame seed, dried whitefish or katukuchi anchovy as well as a wide selection of green and coloured vegetables and seasonal fruit. I'd just like to add on a personal note, given the situation of what happened in Fukushima six years ago, we have reduced the amount of Hijiki we use in our diet. Hijiki like all seaweed, but at a greater rate, absorbs not only the nutrition from the seabed, but the toxins as well. This is very well explained on the "World's Healthiest Foods" site; Radiation Protection and Diet. We are also being very careful with all seafood we purchase.

INSTANT oshiruko (rice cake in red beans soup)

Oshiruko is the traditional new year food where you have a nice slice of a grilled mochi inside a bowl of hot steamy sweet red bean soup. If you don't want the hassle, there is in fact an instant version of this traditional food available at supermarkets. All you need is hot water and patience of about 1 minute.These were sold as a pack of 3, costing around 200yen total.Open it, and the inside looks like fish feed and stylophone.You pour the hot water into the little bowl, and this is how it looks like after a full minute of waiting.Give it a good stir, and you will find the melted mochi inside the red bean soup.The taste is decent but the soup was rather watery. The rice cake was very (and too) soft. Overall, it was disappointed considereing how much I like oshiruko. For a quick sweet red-bean snack that required little to no prep, this choice isn't the worst, but yea, it just doesn't come close to the real thing.

Bring on the Hanami

Flowers are some of my favorite things on this planet. Along with food and good friends, ninety percent of the photos on my computer are comprised of these three simple things. And then a large chunk of these are all date stamped between the end of March and the beginning of April, hanami season. That time of year when the weather starts to shift from super cold and bitter winter winds to that light and gently warm breeze of spring. The days suddenly begin to stretch out and dusk becomes just late enough that you can finally enjoy yourself after work. It's this time of year when everyone begins to peek their heads out of their kotatsu and finally stretch their legs after the winter hibernation. After being holed up for a few months, it's finally time to see friends again, invite people out for drinks.  What better place than under the cherry trees. Now, in my experience there are two kinds of hanami. The more personal private one, where a couple of friends or just a couple  dating will get together and have bento and a drink or two. The romantic feel of the petals floating around while you share an intimate time enjoying each other's company.  Then there is the second larger style, where everyone gets together, brings food and or drinks to share, and each person seems to invite someone. The more the merrier right? More friends, more food, more booze.  So what happens if you get invited to a hanami and no one gives you the deets about what to bring and for how many? Well you can do the smart thing and just ask, or you can be more like me and just wing it.  A good and easy go to would be just about any snack food. No one will judge if you show up with just a bag of (insert favorite deep fried crunchy salty and or sweet item from a nearby convenience store) and an onigiri of your desired variety. This is just incase others were expecting you to bring your bento and you can just play it off as not being too terribly hungry. I've seen beer and a stick of chicken for lunch. This brings me to the next thing to be sure to bring. . If you don’t drink then just ignore this bit, but alcohol, particularly beer and chuhi(fizzy cocktails in a can) are the standard hanami fare. You will even find non-alcoholic beer being had by the non drinkers so that they can fit into the true hanami vibe. Or you know, just bring a bottle of water to cut the calories you are probably going to partake in with that bag of (delicious full fat, savory sweet and most likely too small to fill your tummy snack) and onigiri. Seriously, no one is judging. Except this guy. He thinks it’s blasphemy if your cup isn't full, even if you’ve never met before and are two picnic blanket parties over. He flagged a few of us down and invited us to a few rounds of beer and some mumble-y conversation. Very good fun! It wasn’t the first or only time that I’ve been invited to join other groups enjoying the blossoms. Just don’t forget to bring that bag to share with these guys and gals too. But maybe you are more of a foodie. You’d like to make something to bring and impress your friends and the locals you are bound to meet. Well, Japan loves its food, whether it's celebrities eating food, making food or just walking around a town explaining where all the food is, you will see it on almost every Japanese TV channel. So during hanami season, everything becomes picnic based. The recipes they show can almost always be used in bento for the small group hanami or made in larger quantities to be shared with the many friends and new acquaintances at the bigger parties.  Remember the above mentioned friendly drunk guy, this was his hanami spread. And of course it was shared just like the beer. . Often the ingredients are simple, but presentation has the most impact. No matter your cooking skills, if you put it in a pretty box that matches the season, and you have napkins to go with it, everyone will think you put so much effort into preparing such a wonderful meal, even if you just went to Daiso or some other local 100 yen shop. At the end of the day though, it's not what you bring, but enjoying the company you are with, and the natural beauty that Japan’s spring brings for such a short time each year. So stay out until the moon comes up, or much later, but do enjoy at least one hanami this year.

Eating out with fun – Character Cafés in Japan

Japan is a country with many crazy things. And Japanese people often turn totally crazy when it comes up to different characters. Thinking of companies as San-X and Sanrio which are making tonnes of money with their characters like Hello Kitty, Rilakkuma and Co. Many people collect merchandise and want to have everything of their favorite characters. But also another idea in the money industry came up: why don’t we make special food with characters? For sure, character cafés also became a big hit, especially when they are only opened for a limited time. I am a big fan of themed cafés and love to visit them. Unfortunately they are often kind of expensive. However, sometimes the bigger problem, especially with time-limited character cafés, is to get inside. At some cafés you have to line up for hours, get time-tickets on the same day for a later time, or have to make a reservation already some weeks before going there. Today I will introduce you to some of the cafés that already finished, cafés that are running right now and cafés that will come in the future. The past character cafés In the past I visited a lot character cafés. One of my favorites was the Pikachu to Pokemon Ongakutai Cafe (ピカチュウとポケモンおんがくたいカフェ) which was opened for a short time in summer 2015 in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. We visited it on a Saturday and the actual waiting time was 4 hours – and yes, I expected it! But don’t worry, we didn’t needed to line up for 4 hours. We got a time ticket and could go shopping or do anything else until our time was coming. They offered three main dishes, three desserts, two small dishes and four drinks – all designed in Pokemon style. Prices ranged between ¥ 500 and ¥ 1,580. We had a Melon Soda, a Pikachu Parfait, a Pokeball Pizza and a Banana Cake Omelette. Everything was really delicious and the staff members also entertained us by dancing to a Pokemon song.  Another character café I recently visited was the Korilakkuma Café(コリラックマカフェ)in Harajuku, which was opened from December 2016 to the middle of February 2017. For this café you needed to make an online reservation which already made you pay a fee of ¥ 648 for each person. However, we got a small gift while our visit then. So, I book seats for January, in the middle of November. Especially at such limited-cafés weekends and holidays are booked out very quickly. The café was designed beautifully and filled with plush toys. We had two character drinks, two main dishes and one sweet dessert. Everything was very delicious and I enjoyed my stay there very much. The current character cafés Some cafés are opened for a long time. One of these is the Hello Kitty Café I visited at Himeji. A café with super cute design and a few different dishes. Definitely worth a stop by while visiting the famous Himeji Castle. There is another Café de Miki with Hello Kitty in Tokyo, too. You can find it at Odaiba. A more traditional one is the Hello Kitty Tea House (はろうきてぃ茶寮) in Kyoto. Here you can find maccha drinks, different main dishes and traditional sweets. Also the atmosphere is very special for a café within Kyoto’s famous tourist areas.  A time-limited character café which just opened this month is the Gudetama Café (カフェ ぐでたま×デザート王国) in Yokohama. In combination with a sweets buffet restaurant you can choose one of size Gudetama dishes, one Gudetama drink and furthermore have an all-you-can-drink-and-eat possibility with pasta, potatoes, salad and sweets. It costs ¥ 1990 for adults for one hour. However, the collaboration will only last until May 7th. One more long-time character café is the PomPomPurin Café in Harajuku, which is situated at Takeshita Street and was opened in 2014. You can also take a look inside the café auréole d’ange in Osaka which is cooperating with Rilakkuma since September 2016 which has changing seasonal dishes. The upcoming cafés For sure, there is no end to character cafés. Especially if they are time-limited there is always space for a new one in the future. So not much time will pass until a new Pokemon, Rilakkuma, Hello Kitty café will be opened.   One I am looking forward to go is the Detective Conan Café which will be in Harajuku from March 30th to May 31th 2017, because I couldn't visit it in 2016. This time it is situated at the same place as the Korilakkuma Café and has the same reservation system. Already now all weekends and Golden Week holidays are completely booked out. There will be even more Detective Conan Cafés all over Japan. That’s it! I hope you enjoyed my article. How about you – have you ever visited  ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------If you are interested, here are the links to all the cafés:- Café de Miki with Hello Kitty // Hello Kitty Tea House Kyoto- Korilakkuma Cafe // auréole d'ange in Osaka- Gudetama Café (Osaka and limited time cafe information)- PomPomPurin Café- Detective Conan Café

5 Annoying Things About Japan

Overall, Japan is a fantastic place to live and work, but as you pass through the honeymoon phase of culture shock, some small things begin to niggle away at you. Yes, that's right, this is the 'Frustration Phase' of Culture Shock.So as a response to this, I decided to make a video about some of the annoying things about Japan for a foreigner.

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