Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The fear of marshmallows - a traditional Japanese Rakugo in English

Late one evening around a campfire, a group of boys were trying to frighten each other by telling scary stories. One boy was talking about a snake that can open its mouth wide enough to fit a small child inside. Another told a story that had so many ghosts and ghouls and goblins that he couldn't remember which one was which by the time he finished it. While a third boy even scared himself by talking about drop bears, mysterious animals that wait up trees until someone or something wanders by before dropping down onto the face of its victim doing all sorts of harm that is too scary to even write about it.

They all then turned to one of the kids and said “Nedward, what are you scared of?”
“I really can’t believe you guys are scared of these baby stories, because I’m not scared of anything”, he said boastfully.
“What are you talking about?” they said.
“There must be at least one thing?”
“Nope. Nothing”
Another kid said, “I don’t believe you, you’re hiding something. There must be something”.
“Well”, Nedward said cautiously, “there is one thing, but I’m not going to tell you, because you’ll all laugh”.
“We won’t laugh, we promise, we won’t laugh”, they all said in unison eager to find out his fear.
“Do you swear?” asked Nedward.
“Yes, yes, we all swear, on our mothers' graves. What is it?”
“Well, ok. I’ll tell you, but you can’t say a thing, ok?
“Ok, ok, just tell us already”
“Marshmallows”, Nedward announced. “I’m scared of marshmallows”.

A few of them looked at each other. One snickered. Another giggled.
“You guys promised you wouldn’t laugh”.
“Really? Marshmallows? How could you be scared of them, when they are so sweet and round and delicious?”
“Well I am. Even if they get close to me, I just freak out and can’t control myself. It’s the sight of them more than anything else”.

Immediately one of the other boys, whose mother had packed him a huge bag of marshmallows, hatched a plan to prank Nedward. With the help of another boy, they quietly and secretly went and got a plate out of the camp kitchen and emptied the bag. There were so many that they wouldn’t all fit, so they had to carefully stack them one on top of each other and made the biggest pink and white pyramid of marshmallows you have ever seen.

They crept up behind Nedward, so that everyone else could see what they were doing, except Nedward, and then suddenly, they thrust the marshmallow mountain in front of him. Just as expected Nedward started to scream:

“Ahhh! Marshmallows! Help, Help!” He was screaming and screeching almost as loudly as the others were laughing, before his shrieks became muffled. Nedward was shovelling the marshmallows into his mouth, whole handfuls at a time.

“Nedward, What are you doing?” they cried. “We thought you were scared of them?
"I am. I am" he said in between mouthfuls.
"Then why are you eating them?”
“As long as I can’t see them, I think I’ll be ok”, he replied before shoving a few more in.

Within minutes Nedward had eaten the whole plate of marshmallows. He had calmed down quite a bit, before he turned to the boy who placed the pyramid in front of him and said with a small glint in his eyes, “Your Mum didn’t pack any lemonade did she – because I’m scared of that as well”.

Based on traditional Japanese Rakugo storytelling
Publisher: Daily - 10:53 PM

Sunday, August 7, 2016

What does Japan do with disused phone booths?

There are many reasons why I love Japan. However one of the reasons I love Japan is the way in which my eyes are constantly opened and amazed at how they take ordinary objects and make them new.

This is a fantastic adaptation of something that everyone knows about, but doesn't quite know what to do with in this day and age of smart phones.

What should a country do with old disused phone booths? Why turn them into golffish aquariums of course.

Once again, a round of applause for the Japanese.

Publisher: Daily - 8:20 PM

Sunday, July 31, 2016

What is the best Ramen in Takadanobaba, Tokyo? Watanabe Ramen

Lovingly called Baba by the locals, Takadanobaba has justifiably gained a reputation as one of Tokyo’s best and fiercest Ramen battlegrounds. The suburb boasts several of the well-known chains such as Ippudo and Ramen Jiro along with a host of other good places. But tucked away down a back alley, with an entrance you could easily miss, is one clear winner – Watanabe Ramen.

Despite the song “Walk on by” playing on my entrance (something I had done several times trying to find the place), I sat down to try out a bowl and was richly rewarded, by not only the refined atmosphere of the store (8 seats around a small counter and one chef), but also by the thick, rich and intense tonkotsu-gyokai (pork bone and fish) soup.

The 1980s classic “Let’s get physical” by Olivia Newton John was playing at the time my bowl of Ramen came. The words “let me hear your body talk” seemed particularly appropriate, and after a few full flavoursome mouthfuls of the broth, I was certainly listening. The soup was not for the faint hearted, as it felt and tasted like several bowls of Ramen flavour had been packed into one – the faint gyokai (fish) flavour becoming more and more noticeable as the meal continued. The pre-heated ingredients on the noodle gauze was a nice touch, as were the thick rectangular cut almost brick-like menma (seasoned bamboo shoots), and the onsen egg was perfectly boiled yet deliciously runny on the inside.

The chef wore a traditional “No Ramen. No Life” t-shirt and a sign encouraged @WatanabeJuan on Twitter. Perhaps this is the chef. Perhaps it is the official account. Whoever. Whatever. Watanabe Ramen was a real standout and definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in Baba.

Do you agree? Disagree? Have you been there? Let me know by leaving a comment.

Opening Hours: 11:00am - 20:00pm
Address in English: 2-1-4 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo-to 169-0075
Address in Japanese: 〒169-0075 東京都新宿区高田馬場2-1-4

Publisher: Daily - 10:17 PM

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What is the big bit on the end of wooden chopsticks for?

I learnt to eat with chopsticks a long time ago. I have eaten a lot of meals with chopsticks. I have slurped down some fantastic ramen noodles with them, I have shovelled in huge amounts of rice, and I have picked up some delicious sushi with the humble hashi.

But it was not until today that I realised, or was taught, what the large random big bit on the end of wooden chopsticks was for.

So here it is - set your face to stun.

That's right. Not just there to hold them together. Not there to get rid of splinters from the rest of the stick. Not even there for decoration as truth be told it doesn't look that great. It is actually a little rest for the chopsticks. And also to prevent the table getting dirty from your chopsticks and your chopsticks getting dirty from the table.

I don't often use this phrase but it is totally appropriate - Mind Blown!

Publisher: Daily - 10:08 PM

Thursday, February 4, 2016

What happens in Japan on Valentine’s Day? (バレンタインデイ) And why?

Every year around the world florists, chocolatiers, and soft cuddly toy manufacturers make millions of dollars on the one single day – Valentine’s Day. Men or women can give presents or cards in secret or in public – except in Japan.


Because in Japan, Valentine’s Day is almost exclusively an opportunity for women to express their love to men. While in the rest of the world, both men and women celebrate Valentine’s Day by giving flowers, and other anatomically incorrect heart shaped gifts, Japan reserves the fourteenth of February for women, that is for women buying the gifts.

How this role-reversal happened is not exactly clear, but some blame a deliberate translation error by the man who introduced the idea to Japan. But not to fear, as the Japanese also uniquely celebrate White Day (Howaito Dē, ホワイトデー), a somewhat unusual reverse Valentine’s Day on March 14th. Perhaps you’ve never heard of White Day, and only ended up here on a ‘fluffy teddy bear’ google search gone wrong. That’s ok, we all make mistakes, but if you want to read more about the origin and customs of White day in Japan feel free to read a parallel article on White Day here.

However, this post is going to focus on the way in which the Japanese celebrate Valentine’s Day. So here goes.

Apart from the major difference already mentioned, namely it is the women who give the presents to men, another difference is that giving presents on Valentine’s Day is not solely for romantic purposes. You can buy different types of chocolate for different people. Of course there is the honmei-choko (本命チョコ, “favourite chocolate”, or “chocolate of love”), which is romantic and usually handmade given by the female to her ‘favourite’. But there is also the giri-choko (義理チョコ, “obligatory chocolate” or “courtesy chocolate”), which is usually store bought and not that expensive, given to people you have to, such as bosses, co-workers, or male friends. And there is even the tomo-choko (友チョコ, ‘friend chocolate’), a more recent, but successful addition to the chocolate giving scene in Japan, given by women to their female friends.

The latter is perhaps in response to the rise of Japanese singles who have no interest in engaging in a relationship with the opposite sex (which according to this article, “nearly half of all singles in Japan have no interest in dating” and “a significant portion of Japanese simply [have] no interest in sex. They might even have an aversion to it”).

Notwithstanding the claims above, and the fact that there is even a Valentine's Day protest group in Japan called Kakuhido, which roughly translates as the Revolutionary Alliance of Men that Women find unattractive (read more about it from this article "Valentine's Day: single Japanese men protest 'chocolate-giving arms race"), Valentine’s Day is still a big deal in Japan. You can often see large displays of heart shape chocolate in department stores and supermarkets from mid-January, and days before Valetine’s day stores get packed with a huge range of chocolate and the various tools required for honmei-choco, along with record crowds of women to buy the chocolate.

But perhaps more amazing about Valentine's Day in Japan, is that despite the fact that only half the population are buying and making the chocolate, chocolate companies in Japan sell more than half their annual sales during the week before Valentine’s Day.

Have you ever experienced the madness and magnificence of Valentine’s Day in Japan? Are you ready for it this year?

Why not leave a comment below.

Publisher: Daily - 5:00 AM

Monday, January 11, 2016

Why does this remote Japanese train station stay open for just one passenger?

Japan is famous for many things: Extraordinary Trains; Aging population; Great service. But in case you missed it, here is a wonderful little story that includes all three of them.

About three years ago, the Hokkaido Railway Co. was set to close one station, Kami-Shirataki on Japan’s northern island – a common enough situation given that more than 20 railway lines on Hokkaido have shut down in the last few years due to its remote location, the ending of freight trains to certain areas and the rapid decline in the region’s population.

However the company decided to keep this particular station open despite the fact that it was almost entirely unused.


The company learned that there remained a single student who still used the service for her travel to and from high school, namely the 7:04am train departing from the station and the 5:08pm train arriving at the station. The company even adjusted the timetable to fit in with the student’s school schedule and for years now the trains have stopped at the station just for her. But it will soon end. Not for any other reason than she graduates on 26 March 2016.

So in case you have ever wondered how far a Japanese train service would go for just one passenger, now you know.

Now that’s service.

Publisher: Daily - 10:05 PM

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What is the best Museum to visit in Tokyo? Edo-Tokyo Museum

If you visit only one Museum in Tokyo then shame on you. But if your bucket list is so long, or your stay is so short that you have to reduce the entire 1452 museums in Tokyo to just one then make sure you visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum.


Apart from entering the Museum by crossing a life size re-creation of the Nihonbashi bridge (the zero metre point of Edo city), it shows the entire history of Tokyo from 1603, the first Shogun period of Tokugawa Ieyasu, to the present day. There are other reconstructed miniatures, great display cabinets, good signage in English, a very reasonable 600 yen entrance fee, and wait for it, free English guides.

I'm not talking about headsets, or a booklet from which you can make your own way around the place, but a person who will actually take you around the Museum.

I went there by myself on an afternoon off and saw a sign that said "Free English guide". The first word was enough to get my attention and after a brief enquiry I was told that Nakamura-san was available. As I was struggling to ask in Japanese what time it would start, up popped Nakamura-san and in perfect English said that if I was ready, he was ready. During the tour apart from learning about Tokyo's history I also learnt that Nakamura-san, a retired electrical engineer, was also an Edokku himself (a person born and raised in Tokyo). He volunteered every Friday at the Museum primarily to shares his passion for Tokyo / Edo history.

Nakamura-san was worth the 600 yen himself, if not a lot more, and the only point where anything went wrong had nothing to do with Nakamura-san's enthusiasm, energy, or English skills, but due completely to my own ignorance of Japanese theatre. While gazing upon an incredible and complete 1/30th model of a Japanese Lord's palace (Daimyo Matsudaira's residence), Nakamura-san and I had the following conversation:

Nakamura-san: And can you see that little area over there (pointing to particular part of the model). This is where they held Noh theatre.
Me: Why not?
N: Do you mean Noh theatre?
M: Yes.
N: Well, it was.
Me: Was what?
N: Noh theatre was held there.
Me: Ok, so why was no theatre held there.
N: Because the daimyo (Lord) built it that way and this is the place where it was held.
Me: The place where what was held?
N: Noh theatre.
Me: Well, why wasn't there any theatre held there?
N: They did hold theatre there.
Me: What?
N: Noh theatre
Me: Ok, well what did they use it for?
N: What?
Me: The building?
N: Noh theatre.

To show the competence of Nakamura-san's grasp of English, he then realised my utter ignorance and asked me:

Nakamura-san: Have you ever heard of a type of Japanese theatre called Noh spelt n-o-h?
I said: No
He said, Yes, Noh
I said: No, I mean No I haven't heard of Noh theatre.
He said: Oh.

And then in true Japanese style, he politely and kindly gave me an explanation of firstly the word Noh, followed by a description for dummies of the history of Noh theatre, (and its distinction from Kabuki). We briefly laughed about our confusion with the word and the topic and then for the remainder of the one and a half hours I spent with him, (perhaps like not wanting to relive a conversation with the village idiot) we never mentioned our conversation again.

So, are you interested in Tokyo's geography, history, culture, arts, music, architecture, technology, journalism, samurai, shoguns, or even Noh?

Then you must visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Opening hours: 9:30am to 5:30pm (closed Monday)
Address in English: 1 Chome-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida, Tokyo 130-0015, Japan
Address in Japanese:〒130-0015 東京都墨田区横網 Website: https://www.edo-tokyo-museum.or.jp/en/

Publisher: Daily - 1:57 PM

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Cats in Kimonos

Cats are popular in Japan. I don’t mean a little bit popular, but a lot. There are even Cat cafes, where you pay for a coffee and get to stroke a cat. My favourite was one in Ikebukuro, a suburb of Tokyo, which had cats, coffee and a clever name combining the word for cat in Japanese, neko, and the name of the suburb – Nekobukuro.

Kimonos (traditional Japanese robes) are also popular in Japan. There are the cheap ones which are actually called Yukata and you can get them a dime a dozen (well not really), but they are much cheaper than the genuine Kimonos which can set you back anywhere from 10,000 yen to millions of yen.

So what has Japan’s contribution to the Internet been lately? You guessed it – cats in kimonos.

I now present you 10 of the best. Please enjoy.

Publisher: Daily - 5:00 AM

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What's the difference between sushi and sashimi?

You want the short answer?

Combine any edible thing with a special type of cooked cooled vinegared rice and you have sushi. Take away the 'sushi-rice' and you have Sashimi.

Simple huh?

While there are a few extra details, such as sashimi is always meat and always raw, and the rice is mostly a variety called awase-zu, this definition will generally hold true. But the complicating factor is that the range, the variety and the types of sushi vary significantly.

The two most common are:

O-Nigiri - a slice of raw (or cooked) fish (or meat) (and/or vegetable) on top (or inside) of an oblong (or square or triangle) ball (or other) shape of rice.

Maki - a strip of fish and/or vegetable rolled inside a piece of nori (seaweed) using a bamboo mat. This is most commonly known as a 'sushi roll'. You can also get 'temaki', a cone shape instead of a cylinder, or 'uramaki', an inside-out roll with the sushi rice as the outside layer.

Not to mention, Inari, a pouch of fried tofu filled with sushi rice, or Chirashi sushi, a bowl of sushi rice with the fish and other ingredients scattered throughout.

I love sushi, (perhaps not as much as Ramen), and I have tasted every type mentioned above. I have had the good, the bad and the unbelievable.

So what's my favourite?

In my humble opinion, if you have a good piece of fresh smooth well-cut fish, full of flavour, you can ditch the rice. In those circumstances, I will always say Sashimi wa, mo hitotsu kudasai, if not mo futatsu kudasai.

And just for fun, check out this fun and famous onigiri children's song. It doesn't help working out the difference between sushi, sashimi and o-nigiri, but is just plain cute.

Please note, O-nigiri is simply a polite way to say nigiri, and sushi often becomes 'zushi' when following a prefix, eg. maki-zushi, inari-zushi
Publisher: Daily - 5:00 AM