Nippon and Nihon is what the Japanese call their country, which means “Land of the Rising Sun.” The sun has huge significance to the Japanese. Legend attributes the creation of Japan to the sun goddess from whom the emperors were descended. The first was Jimmu, who ascended the throne in 660 BC. This is considered to be the founding of Japan and is celebrated as National Foundation Day on February 11, each year. Japan boasts the longest reigning monarchy in the world.
The first contact with the West happened around 1542, when a Portuguese ship veered off course and arrived in Japanese waters. Spanish, Dutch and English traders followed however, the Shoguns (Japanese warlords) prohibited all trade with foreign countries for fear of Christianity taking hold in Japan. Shinto and Buddhism are the two main religions in Japan, Shinto is traced back to the beginning of Japanese culture and Buddhism was introduced to Japan through Korea, around the sixth century.
Japan is an archipelago of 6852 islands, located in the Pacific Ocean in East Asia. Japan’s four largest Islands are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku which makes up about 97 percent of Japan’s land area. Japan’s neighbors are China, North and South Korea, Russia and Taiwan, however none of them share a land border. Japan is known as “the ring of fire”, because of her many volcanoes. Earthquakes are common and on occasion, they have created catastrophic tsunamis; the most recent was in March 2011, which followed a 9.0 earthquake which caused massive devastation. Japan’s terrain is 70 percent mountainous, so most of the population resides in areas near the coast. Japan’s most iconic volcano and highest peak is Fujisan, or Mount Fuji. This mountain has been worshiped as a sacred place for centuries and has had an immeasurable impact on Japanese culture; an icon recognized across the globe.
Japan is the tenth largest country in the world by population, yet the economy ranks number three, behind the United States, (US) and China. Tokyo (the capital city) is the largest metropolitan area in the world, with over 38 million people and one of the lowest crime rates of any major city. Trains and subways are the most common mode of transportation in Tokyo. Because of the crowds during rush hour, train workers called “oshiya”, are stationed to push people into the train to make room for everyone. This is especially true in winter time, when people are wearing bulky coats. Westerners may oft times feel their personal space is being violated. However, the Japanese are used to pushing and shoving to get around this crowded city and it should not be taken personally. The Japanese people are actually known to be very considerate. For example, if they have even the slightest sniffle they would wear a mask to ensure no one around them would get their germs. And in the midst of a crowded subway station, if one were to drop something from their bag, it is not uncommon for a stranger to pick it up and follow the person for blocks to return it.
Tokyo, the capital of Japan, is home to the Tsukiji Market, the largest fish market in the world, where more fish and seafood are sold than anywhere else on the planet. It employs some 60,000 workers and is a popular tourist destination. The market opens at 3 am and auctions, especially for the big fish, begin about 5:30 am. The most expensive tuna ever sold came from there and went for $735,000 US dollars. Tokyo is also famous for its high-end shopping (especially in Ginza), robust tourism and nightlife. Bars in Tokyo are very popular and many sell their customers a full size bottle of alcohol with setups for mixers. At the end of the evening, if the guests have not finished the bottle, it will be labeled with their name and saved for them until next time. Geisha girls (a role once played by men) which means artist or entertainer, can also be found in Japanese nightlife. They are dressed in traditional kimonos, their hair in a bun with flowers and chop sticks and their face, painted white with makeup to soften their skin tone. They often play the shamisen, a three stringed banjo like instrument, (notable for the classic Japanese sound), they dance, sing and provide conversation. There is controversy as to whether Geishas were considered prostitutes, as Japanese men would often stray from their wives to seek the company of a Geisha. This was not necessarily considered a breach of the marriage. Today they primarily provide a source of entertainment to tourists.
Japan has many UNESCO World heritage sites, highlighting shrines, temples and castles. The Horyuji Temple is the world’s oldest surviving wooden structure and is the oldest temple in the country. The city of Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan for more than 1000 years. It is home to thousands of classical Buddhist temples, gardens, Imperial palaces, Shinto Shrines and traditional Japanese structures. Kyoto is considered to be where the fading Geisha tradition is the strongest today.
Leading up to World War II, Japan was not happy with restrictions imposed on her by the US, especially the curtailment of oil supplies, upon which Japan was dependent. When negotiations failed, Japan decided to make a surprise attack on the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The surprise bombing, on December 7, 1941, preceded any declaration of war by Japan and killed more than 2800 Americans, destroying naval ships, fighter planes and infrastructure. (Only 55 Japanese were killed during the invasion and but one person captured.) It was a pivotal point in history, which brought the US into World War II. The US declared war against Japan the next day. Four days after Pearl Harbor, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States and World War II became a reality.
The World War ended in 1945, shortly after the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered. (Kyoto was originally considered a target by the US but was removed and replaced with Nagasaki.) The casualties were enormous, killing nearly 250,000 people, mostly civilians and leaving thousands more to suffer the devastating effects of radiation exposure. The Hiroshima Genbaku Dome, also a UNESCO world heritage site, was one of only a very few structures that survived the blast. The role of the bombings in Japan’s surrender and the United States’ justification for dropping them, has been, and will continue to be, an ethical topic of debate. After the war, Japan recovered to become a prominent economic power and an ally of the US and remains so today.
The population of Japan is 98 percent Japanese and there is almost no immigration. The language they speak is Japanese and since World War II, English has been taught as a secondary language. They have four different writing systems; romaji, katakana, hiragana, and kanji. They have just shy of a 100 percent literacy rate. Scholastic studies are taken very seriously in Japan in order to excel on the college entrance exam. Once in college, study is far less intense and one can be assured of securing a job in the workforce upon graduation. Japanese employees are very loyal to their employers and job hopping is a rarity.
The Japanese people are known for their amazing hospitality and politeness. Bowing is how people greet in Japan and there is a whole complex etiquette to it. How deep the bow is made and how long it lasts, is taken very seriously and has implications about the social pecking order. Typically, a small nod of the head is casual and informal. However, bowing is also used to thank, apologize and ask for a favor. In intimate settings, you may witness displays of bowing where each party strives to get lower and pay even more respect to the other person. This reverent exchange may involve hissing and end up with the bowers kneeling deeply, and their heads touching the ground. As you might imagine, the Western handshake took some getting used to for the Japanese business man.
There are many rules of etiquette in Japan. When entering a home, traditional Japanese restaurant or temple, one is expected to remove their shoes in the area called the “genkan.” You typically would then step up, after your shoes are removed and wear only your socks. Slip-ons are very common in Japan, as shoes may be removed multiple times in a day. Slippers can be worn anywhere indoors except when entering the room with the tatami floor (a mat used for eating). In that case, only socks or bare feet are permitted. Punctuality is another expectation and you should actually arrive a few minutes early to be considered polite. One is also expected to bring a gift for the host, the more expensive, the more honorable. Casaba melons often fit the bill and can cost from $35 to $100+ per melon.
The tea ceremony plays an important role in Japanese life and culture; a ritual that is cherished on special occasions and holidays. A ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha, or powdered green tea, is performed with reverence and grace. This formal tea event, called a chaji, can last up to four hours and include a full-course meal. It is typically performed in a Japanese tea house, built solely for this purpose. Another traditional ritual is the Japanese bath, called “sento”. There are public bathhouses all over Japan. Usually segregated by gender, they are as much a place to socialize as to cleanse. A Japanese bath, whether public or in the home, relies on a person soaping and cleansing before entering the bath. The bath is just for soaking and temperatures may range from scalding to chilling. In a public bathhouse, tattoos are often verboten and full nudity is expected. At home, the bath is filled to the brim and runs over into a floor drain as a person gets into the bath. The same bath water is used for all family members.
Japanese cuisine is world renowned. The first foreign influence likely came from China, around 300 B.C., when the Japanese learned to cultivate rice. Chopsticks, soy sauce and tofu also came from China. In the 700s, Buddhism led to a ban on eating meat. The national dish, sushi (raw fish with rice) became popular as a result of the ban. The Dutch introduced corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes and the Portuguese introduced tempura or batter frying. Beef returned to the table after a ban of nearly 1000 years and today, Japan is famous for the world’s best beef, known as Kobe beef. Green tea is the national drink and served with every meal. Sake, a fermented, rice wine, served warm, is a popular adult beverage as well as beer or “biru”, and other spirits.
The Japanese have dishes that are uniquely theirs, such as sushi and sashimi, which both rely on freshly caught fish. The Japanese eat about 150 lbs. of fish per person, annually. Their healthful diet likely accounts for being at the top of the world’s longevity list. Rice and noodles are the two primary staples of the diet. Rice is either boiled or steamed and served at every meal. Noodles come in many varieties but soba, udon and ramen are the most loved. Dishes in a single pot (nabemeno) are also popular throughout the country. Shabu-Shabu, is a thinly sliced beef with vegetables, cooked in a broth and then dipped in flavorful sauces. Sukiyaki, made of chicken or beef, along with vegetables and tofu is also very wide spread. Soy Sauce, miso and tofu are ubiquitous. Other common ingredients in Japanese cuisine are bamboo shoots, ginger, sesame seed, daikon radish, wasabi, and seaweed. The Japanese are known for using the absolute freshest ingredients which are bought at the market to be served that day.
One of the most impressive aspects of Japanese cuisine is the culinary presentation. Extreme care and skill is required to arrange a Japanese plate, creating a visual masterpiece to match its flavor. Sushi chefs train for years to master their craft. Sashimi may take the shape of a delicate rose and sushi may be decorated with spirals of thinly cut carrots, edible flowers and imaginative cucumber shapes. Fugu (blowfish) is considered a true delicacy and fugu chefs train intensively for about 11 years. They must eat their own fish in order to pass the training and be certified to prepare it for the public. The result from a wrong cut is instant death, as the fish contains a lethal neurotoxin. Preparation and presentation is serious business in Japan.
So let’s eat Japanese style:
Shabu-Shabu (Hot Pot)
We set our mat on the floor and decorated with cherry blossoms, considered the national flower of Japan, as the cherry tree has held lessons for Japanese culture dating back centuries. The significance of the cherry blossom represents the fragility and beauty of life. It serves as a visual reminder of how precious and precarious life can be. We also decorated with Buddha as well as some very special, Japanese dolls, dressed in their traditional kimonos that were given to me by my sister who spent six months in Japan many years ago.
Before we started, we wiped our hands with a hot towel, called an “oshibori” in Japanese. Then we poured warm sake from the flask into our small ceramic cups and said a toast, “Kampai” (Cheers). It is customary that you do not pour your own drink; you pour for others and they pour for you and when they do, you should hold your glass up for them to receive.
The first course was the traditional miso soup, a fermented soybean paste that is mixed in a dashi or seaweed and bonito flake broth, with tofu and scallions; a light and wonderful way to ready the palate for what is to come. Before indulging we said, “Itadakimasu” or “Let’s eat”.
Next, was a sashimi platter of raw salmon and tuna, served on our beautiful Japanese dishware. This was served with shoyu (soy sauce) and wasabi (green horseradish), along with daikon (white radish) and pickled ginger. I have loved sushi and sashimi ever since my sister returned from Japan back in the late 70s. It was long before sushi was trendy in the US and we had to go to one small place in Santa Ana, California to find it at that time. That is where my love affair began with Japanese cuisine. Of course later on, sushi bars became a craze and one could be found on nearly every corner. When sashimi is fresh, it literally melts in your mouth, there is absolutely no fishy taste at all. I know many shy away from it because it is raw. I can only say, I am so sorry for what you are missing. By the way, my all-favorite sashimi is halibut, which is served thinly sliced with a ponzu sauce. I could not obtain it for my own sushi platter but the salmon and tuna were delicious. If you decide to make this or the rainbow roll, use only sashimi grade fish.
Next was the soft shell crab, hand roll. Sushi comes in a few different forms. One is a piece of fish on top of a small ball of vinegared rice, usually with a bit of wasabi in between the fish and the rice. This style is called nigirizushi. Next, is a roll, called makizushi, where the ingredients are rolled up in a piece of nori (seaweed) and then cut into pieces. Lastly, is a handroll, called temaki, which is like a small ice cream cone shape. Temaki, or the handroll, is the easiest of them all to make. You may recall I mentioned that sushi chefs require years of training. Well, don’t expect to be an expert overnight but have some fun and try it anyway. This handroll is not raw fish, it is fried, soft shell crab with cucumber, carrot and rice wrapped in seaweed. What makes the roll so delicious is the sauce, made with Japanese mayonnaise and sirachi (aka rooster sauce).
Up next was the rainbow roll. This is makizushi style sushi and takes a bit of practice. I managed to do an inside-out roll with rice on the outside of the roll and the fish on top. I alternated the salmon and tuna with avocado slices. Inside the roll was crab, and cucumber. The roll was then cut into bite size pieces and drizzled with a sweet, soy based eel sauce; simply fantastic.
For the main course we enjoyed the traditional shabu-shabu. This is a fun dish to serve and super easy since basically your guests cook their own food in the broth that is boiling table side. Very thin slices of meat along with an array of vegetables are prepared, along with udon noodles. The meat and vegetables are added to the broth then removed when cooked and dipped into an assortment of delicious sauces. We enjoyed three different ones: a hot chili sauce, a citrusy ponzu sauce and an amazing miso-sesame sauce. The noodles are usually eaten last to soak up what is left of the dashi broth. By the way, the louder you slurp your noodles the better. It is a way to show appreciation for the food and it is customary in Japan to slurp noodles and soups. An ice cold Sapporo beer went perfectly with the shabu-shabu. Kirin beer is another of my Japanese favorites.
For dessert, we simply placed pieces of orange and kiwi alongside green tea ice cream. It was a light and delightful way to end our Japanese feast.
Now we are off to sing Karaoke; a favorite pastime of the Japanese. When we come back, we will chill out and watch “The Last Samurai”, one of my favorite films starring Tom Cruise, which gives a peak into Japanese culture and history.
Until next time,