Throwback Time

Time flies! It’s already been over a year since I came back from my one-year stay in Japan. I’ve grown pretty nostalgic these days, thinking back to all the good stuff, and maybe forgetting a little bit about the things I liked less. I am planning to go back soon to do fieldwork for my research, but in the meantime I have saved some eye candy for you from my last trip, showing you what exactly I can’t wait to go back to. Now, let’s begin our stroll down memory lane.

The nature

Many people who have travelled to Japan will tell you that excursions outside the vibrant cities are certainly worth the trip. Especially for this journey, my family brought a nice camera – spot my brother in action among the sunflowers. As you can also see from the pictures below, we travelled around Japan during summertime. Being totally surrounded by nature was overwhelming, in particular because we Belgians aren’t really used to that much green (and the weather was also extremely hot for our standards).

The Japanese island is for 70% mountainous and for over 60% covered with forests, which results in sparse low-leveled, but densely populated areas popping up in between vast woods, rivers and mountain ranges. Lots of nature to explore, in other words. Below you see some of the “99 island” (Kujukushima 九十九島), a bamboo forest, a view of Kyushu’s countryside and colorful koi fish.

But even in metropolis centres, you can find quiet, green spots among the many touristic attractions. Below are two pictures from Kobe (the ropeway up to Rokko Mountain and the Nunobiki waterfalls) and two from Kyoto, displaying a magnificent temple garden and a proud heron in the garden of Nijo castle.

The culture

Well, isn’t this my favorite part about Japan! Living in Kobe, I was situated close to the cultural and historical heart of Japan. You probably know that I am more into (let’s call it) the ‘traditional’ stuff. Hence, the tourist in me is more drawn towards castles, temples, medieval art and so on. That doesn’t mean I don’t value modern cultural phenomena – on the contrary, I think they’re fascinating research material! Since this post is trying to be as visual as possible, the pictures below can seem a little cliché in that sense, since they depict mostly ‘the classics’. For the reason that I’m into ‘traditional’ stuff, I actually never visited Tokyo during my round trip (oh, the shame). Of course I would recommend it to everyone, but personally I do not really feel attracted to the hyper-modern, current capital of Japan (the previous ones I love, though – Nara, Kyoto, you name it). But one day, I’ll go to Tokyo, for sure! *pinky swear*

Besides the extraordinary craftsmanship, I love the abundance of colors, yet at the same time serenity of temples and palaces. Kyoto was great (how many temples can you visit in one day?) and as a Buddhist geek, I thoroughly enjoyed all the religious references in Japanese culture such as the many Buddha statues. During our journey, we often stumbled across unplanned festivals and other celebrations, for example the Gozan fire festival. On the other pictures, you can see the beautiful white Himeji castle and the ‘floating’ torii of the Itsukushima shrine on Miyajima island.

Typical for smaller Japanese towns is that they specialize in a certain product which then attracts a lot of shopping tourists. That is the case, for example, in Uji, a town close to Kyoto and  famous for its matcha – but also known for its prominence in The Tale of Genji and its stunning Byodo-in temple. Another example is Arita, famed for its ceramics and pottery. Also, when nature and culture come together, great stuff happens. Like, deer in Nara. Or the Korakuen garden in Okayama.

Japanese architecture, traditional or modern, keeps fascinating people. Take for example the huge main temple in Nara (with my parents posing in front of it), the innovative water architecture of Osaka city station, the golden pavilion in Kyoto or the modern office constructions you see everywhere in big cities.

And last but not least, let’s talk arts. Japan is known worldwide for its origami, ikebana, kimono designs and performing arts such as puppet theater, kabuki and noh. These arts are constantly developing and modernizing, yet maintain their ‘traditional’ character. In Hiroshima, we saw ‘1000 folded cranes’ and a Kagura performance. On Shikoku, I was so lucky to watch puppet theater (they were so kind to pose with us for a picture), and kimonos were a common sight in Kyoto.

The Food

Apart from culture and history, food is also a big interest of mine. The Japanese cuisine is very different from the Belgian one, and this also influenced my taste palette and culinary preferences. I have been a vegetarian for some time now, so there are lots of Japanese dishes out there that I never tried – I had to make an exception for the unavoidable dashi (fish stock), though. Yet, I was often surprised about the availability of vegetarian dishes, and the willingness of the chefs to adapt to the (vegetarian) customer’s needs. Japanese people eat a lot of vegetables, tofu is everywhere and I enjoyed some great vegetarian meals, like the ones below. On one or two occasions, I had a fancy vegetarian set meal, and the Buddhist, vegetarian food on mount Koya was also a pleasant experience.

Okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake with a filling of choice, proved to be the perfect alternative for pizza. Back in Belgium, I also had to get used to the idea that there is no concept such as izakaya here: places where you can drink alcohol and order lots of food at the same time. You could say I mostly went to izakaya together with friends or colleagues to drink, but I always ended up stuffing my face with delicious foods. Not that I didn’t drink at all – sake was love at first sight.

Sushi is, of course, always a good choice. Try kaiten-zushi (conveyer belt sushi) for a lot of fun and a full stomach! If I didn’t have time to prepare a lunch box on a busy school day, I used to buy onigiri (rice triangles) or inarizushi (seasoned rice in a marinated tofu skin) at the supermarket. Other standard meals I often ordered in restaurants include udon noodles with tofu or don (rice) dishes with egg. From time to time, I treated myself to some curry: I like the Japanese ones with vegetables as well as the curry set menus at Indian restaurants.

An example of how my taste buds adapted to Japanese flavors, is the fact that I started prefering Japanese sweets over western, much sweeter and sugary desserts. There have been many days lately that I crave mochi! Also, matcha is a gift from the gods – I love all kinds of desserts stuffed with it (don’t the phoenix matcha pancakes from Uji look amazing?). Another favorite snack of mine is red bean paste, especially in manju, like the ones from Miyajima shaped like leaves on the left. I also cannot express enough how tasty mitarashi dango are (am I the only who feels like this?): Japanese rice dumplings with sweet soy sauce. Yummy!

The people

Japanese people and me went along pretty well! I always felt at ease because they would try to make me feel welcome as much as possible, be considerate and show me the utmost respect. It was a reassurance that the Japanese would never make fun of me or embarrass me – at least not in my face. Most conversations are pretty predictable (no sarcastic remarks or surprises from people you don’t know very well) which also helps you to follow and respond better by anticipating the rest of the conversation. One thing that is not supposed to be annoying but actually is when you live there for a while, is the complimenting: hearing time and time again how good your Japanese is and how baffled they are by your knowledge about Japan (“Even I as a Japanese didn’t know that!” – but then again I am the one majoring in Japanese studies and not you, and I am not an expert in Belgian history either, is what I would have liked to reply), can get a little tiring.

They often say that Japanese people do not have a sense of humor, but I don’t think that’s true. Of course, the slapstick on Japanese television doesn’t crack me up either, but contextual jokes and puns were as funny in Japan as anywhere else. Another pro is that politeness is prioritized over personality – being rude doesn’t make you cool. And with people you want to befriend, you can discover a whole new personality behind this polite “façade” (tatemae). I believe I’m not a very warm person and a little distant myself when I don’t know another person very well, so I could relate.

In general, Japanese people were kind and always willing to help me. I experienced this while studying and researching at uni, as well as in the Shorinji martial arts club I was a member of. From my first day in Japan, I received a lot of help and friendship from the Japanese at my faculty. The professors, unlike in Belgium sometimes, were supportive and respectful towards their students. During shorinji training as well, I  was never left on my own. The more experienced “fighters” taught the newbies, and I learnt a lot from practicing together. Because I was mainly focused on my research, I wasn’t the most social one in the group but I had a lot of fun in my free time.

I could go on and list up many other experiences I had during my stay there, but I think it’s best to go back to Japan and make more memories! In the meantime, I will write a couple of new blog posts with a more academic content. Feel free to share your memories in the comment section below!

Haiku with a Cup of Tea

haikuwithacupoftea nippakutext.jpg

First of all, I must admit that I am not a huge haiku fan: I love reading poetry, but I prefer long poems, just like I usually read thick books. That being said, from time to time I enjoy browsing through some haiku collections. Last year I received the Dutch translation of Classic Haiku, a compilation of some of the most famous haiku categorized by master. Among these names, my favorite haiku writer is definitely Kobayashi Yatarō (1763-1828), known by his pen name Issa 一茶. Issa literally means “one (cup of) tea” and refers to the serenity of the Japanese tea tradition 茶道 (sadō) but also to the emptiness of life, as can be observed in the disappearing froth on a cup of matcha tea. Throughout this post, I will visually serve you five haiku by Issa and five types of Japanese tea. Enjoy!

genmaicha utsukushiya nippaku 1

Issa wrote more than 20,000 haiku. His style is characterized by a simplicity and childish admiration for the outside world. “Lower” creatures such as flies, frogs, snails etc. are often the topic of his poems, in contrast to more traditional kigo 季語 (seasonal words) other famous haiku masters employ. Issa introduces the sentimentality and banality of everyday life into his poetry.

jasminetea muddy claws nippaku

Issa was not exactly a lucky man. When his mother died, he was forced by his “evil stepmother” to leave the house, his first two wives and all of his children died, and when he at last managed to secure a part of his family’s property, his house burnt down. Shortly after that, he died in the storehouse next to the house that had survived the fire. Despite his misery, Issa succeeds in capturing the beauty of nature with empathy for every living being. He also often mixes in personal feeling. Therefore, his poetry is considered to be more “humane”.

matcha dragonfly nippaku

Issa’s poetry is often humorous, and in many cases verging on satire. He uses a colloquial tone, plain language and sometimes local dialects. This results in very down-to-earth poetry that is accessible to all kinds of readers.

sencha karasu tilling field nippaku

Similar to Bashō a century before, Issa was the wandering type of poet. After having studied the art of haiku under Nirokuan Chikua in Edo, he became a Buddhist priest and travelled around Japan for about ten years. Apparently, Issa looked like a beggar, was extremely poor and lived off the earnings of others. His situation is reflected in  humorous self-portraits and haiku mocking his own condition. He wrote from the perspective of people at the bottom of society and created a new poetic style that differed greatly from previous haiku masters.

milky oolong milkyway nippaku

Facts for Fun

  • On hot days in Japan, everybody drinks chilled tea and I loved to check out new kinds of tea during my time spent there. My favorite cold tea is jūrokucha 十六茶, a mix of sixteen different teas (the more the better!), followed by hōjicha ほうじ茶 (roasted green tea) and iced barley tea (mugicha 麦茶). The last one is offered for free in many shops. [List of Japanese teas here.] When it is hot in Belgium, I usually make lots of Oolong tea and put it in the fridge. So refreshing!


  • Lowenstein, Tom, John Cleare, and Susanne Castermans-Nelleke. Klassieke haiku’s: de mooiste Japanse poëzie van Bashō, Buson, Issa, Shiki en hun navolgers. Kerkdriel: Librero, 2015.
  • Ueda, Makoto, and Issa Kobayashi. Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa. Brill’s Japanese Studies Library, v. 20. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2004.
  • Database Issa poetry [in Japanese]
  • Haikuguy [in English]
  • All translations and pictures are mine. For the translations of the Japanese haiku I chose to stick to the 5-7-5 rule.

Part of my tea collection: matcha, genmaicha, jasmine tea, Chinese milky oolong tea and sencha.

Food in Japan: Home Cooking and Eating Out (Veggie)

Food is an important part of culture all around the world, and “the Japanese are among the most enthusiastic and passionate of any race”. Every town has its local specialty, on every corner you can buy Japanese snacks or drinks. The traditional Japanese cuisine is based on white rice, fish, miso soup, sea weed and vegetables. Red meat was not eaten till the Meiji Revolution (1868), when Japan opened up its borders to western countries and the taboo on the consumption of “four-legged creatures” was abolished. Also, the traditional diet consisted barely of dairy products. Seasoning (soy sauce, mirin, vinegar, pepper, wasabi…) is indispensable. As a result, Japanese cuisine contains a lot of salt but is relatively healthy compared to Western (greasy) food.

Traditional Japanese meal (和食) –

This post is entirely devoted to my eating habits here as a student in Japan. Except for one big meat incident on my second day in Kobe, I managed to remain vegetarian (no meat, no fish). And it is actually easier than I expected. However, I have to admit I make an exception for dashi  出汁, fish stock, used as the basis in miso and noodle soup. There are restaurants with absolutely no vegetarian options, but most of the time there is at least one dish, or you can ask to leave the meat/fish out. This far, people have made so much effort when I request something veggie, that I have never fallen short on food.

I try to make a bentō 弁当(lunch box) as much as possible. When I do not feel like cooking, I enjoy Japanese or not so Japanese food at the countless restaurants here. Below, you will find a bunch of photos from both home cooking as well as restaurant food. Enjoy! Warning: do not read this if you are hungry.

Home Cooking (家庭料理 katei ryōri)

I usually cook with the same ingredients I used in Belgium like tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber (really small in Japan), in combination with Japanese ingredients like daikon, tsukemono (pickles) and Japanese mushrooms (shiitake, enokitake). I am not really good at cooking and I am on a student budget, so I like to keep things simple.


Rice – tōfu, umeboshi (dried plums), soy sprouts fried in soy sauce,  – salad: cucumber, Japanese pickles, lettuce, dressing.


A bit unclear and does not seem so tasty but actually is! Soba noodles with egg, daikon (Japanese radish) and broccoli


Miso soup with great burdock – rice, fried soy sprouts, egg – tomato, lettuce, daikon


When I crave for a Belgian sandwich (“belegd broodje”). Brown bread is nowhere to be found in Japan. Funny thing: cheese is wrapped per slice!

Bentō 弁当

Bentō is a packed lunch you can make yourself or buy at the supermarket. I bought every item of my bentō set on the picture below at the 100 yen-shop. Most bentōs are made with leftovers from dinner and put in the fridge. Because it is pretty time-consuming, making it in the morning has become quite impossible for me. Some people have a special small bag to bring their bentō to school or to work, but I usually wrap it in a colored piece of cloth. I also bought a two-layered bentō box that you can tightly close (a bit more expensive, but certainly worth the purchase).



The cute bentō stuff section in a regular shop.


Lettuce, fried tōfu, cucumber, mame (soybeans), egg and I think there are some shiitake hidden in there as well.


Cold pasta is also great for lunch. I use this sesame dressing a lot, it is delicious.


This is how I make onigiri. I use plastic triangle-shaped molds so my lunch does not get crushed  by school books. I sprinkle a vegetable and sesame seed mix on the rice and cover the sides with nori (seaweed). Sometimes I add a umiboshi.


My two-layered lunch box: first layer is rice with steamed vegetables, second layer is a salad. Between them is a compartment with chop sticks and a cold pack for during summer.

Eating Out (外食 gaishoku)


I guess you could not really call this eating out: kitsune udon (thick wheat noodles with fried tōfu and spring onion on top) from the university cafeteria.


Vegetarian curry rice with extra eggplant.


Okonomiyaki – Japanese pancake/pizza. I ordered one with mochi (sticky rice) and cheese. The chef was so kind to leave out the katsuobushi (bonito flakes) for me.


A Japanese set meal (定食 teishoku). Usually this means white rice, pickles, sometimes tōfu and a main dish, like nikomi udon this time: udon with fried tōfu and (without for me) meat.


At an izakaya 居酒屋, a Japanese “pub” with friends. Next to a “all-you-can-drink” 飲み放題 (nomihōdai) we enjoyed many dishes, starting with seasoned vegetables and pickles.


A speciality of Akashi: takoyaki (octopus dumplings) dipped in dashi. Because I got dumplings without octopus it tasted a bit like typically Belgian deep-fried dough balls (“oliebollen”).


Italian food is popular in Japan too. I have eaten some great pastas before and the pizza is, well, okay. Among Japanese restaurants, the cheapest place to get food is at a “family restaurant”. Prices are ridiculously low, and you mostly get free drinks. Of course the food is no haute cuisine but if you choose wisely, you can score some tasty things.


Indian food is great in Japan. I ordered a vegetarian set meal with a salad, naan, vegetable yoghurt, rice, tomato soup, some deep-fried thing stuffed with chickpeas (forgot the name), and two types of curry (one with various kinds of vegetables, the other with beans). I honestly ate too much that day.

There is a great vegetarian/vegan diner in Sannomiya, Kobe: Modernark Pharm Cafe.


wrap sandwiches, tofu burger, soup and pickles.


Curry rice with honey yoghurt, pickles and tofu burger.

Sweets (菓子 kashi)

You can find the same cookies and sweets they sell in western countries here as well (洋菓子 yōgashi) – although the chocolate doesn’t come close to Belgian chocolate, of course.


The Dōshima roll with fruit from famous shop Mon Chou Chou in Osaka.

Popcorn comes in various colors and flavors.

Popcorn comes in various colors and flavors.

I personally prefer traditional Japanese sweets (和菓子 wagashi), mostly made from mochi (sticky rice cake) and other natural ingredients, like anko (red bean paste). I would love to share some of my own photos, but unfortunately I forgot to take pictures before stuffing my face with them.


I simply cannot resist mitarashi dango: mochi dumpling with sweet soy sauce.


Daifukumochi (rice cake stuffed with sweet bean jam or matcha) has a soft texture and is delicious as 4 o’clock snack. It is not too sweet and very filling.


Less traditional is melon pan. This sweet bread has, except for its pastel color, nothing in common with melon. There are versions with extra butter or chocolate chunks.

Dorayaki - Doraemon's favorite snack - is bread filled with sweet bean paste.

Dorayaki – Doraemon’s favorite snack – is bread filled with sweet bean paste.

Matcha parfait with ice, cream, nuts, cookies, cornflakes, mochi and almonds

Matcha parfait with ice, cream, nuts, cookies, cornflakes, mochi and almonds

Gyōza, Jiaozi and Mandu

Schermafbeelding 2014-07-15 om 15.23.09Japanese food, except for sushi places (that are often not really Japanese) and one or two top class restaurants, is rarely being served in Belgium. A pity, because the Japanese cuisine is very rich and healthy. The basic component of a Japanese meal is a bowl of rice, served with side dishes like vegetables and fish. Meat only became common after the modernisation in 1868. 

For present-day Japanese, rice, soy sauce and fresh seafood are the ultimate symbols of ‘Japaneseness’, symbols more powerful than the cherry blossom or the national flag in that they satisfy visceral cravings.

Today, many non-traditional dishes are on the daily menu. Some of these popular dishes aren’t even Japanese, but imported and adapted to the Japanese taste. I’m talking about curry rice (recipe in this previous post), ramen and nikuman (or butaman in Kansai) etc. Among these, gyōza is one of my favorites. Gyōza are dough dumplings, usually filled with cabbage and minced pork, optionally in combination with sesame oil and garlic. The dumplings are steamed, boiled or fried and often served as a side dish. Gyōza are usually eaten dipped in soy sauce. gyoza-japaneseThe word gyōza 餃子 was derived from the pronunciation of the same word in Chinese Shandong dialect, jiaozi. After all, it is originally a Chinese dish. The difference between the Chinese and Japanese snack is that jiaozi have more variety in fillings, strong-flavored seasoning and thicker dumpling wrappers than gyōza. The Chinese dish became popular in Japan after the invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

More than a million Japanese who resided in Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria and other Chinese territories under Japan’s domination, not to mention hundreds of thousands of soldiers who fought on the continent, acquired a taste for foreign food and played a critical role in its popularization in post-war Japan. (…) Returnees from Manchuria found themselves jobless in the midst of devastation and food shortages, and many embarked in the making and selling of gyōza to their hungry customers.

In Korea as well, dumplings (mandu 만두 in Korean) are pretty popular. The filling is mostly the same as Japanese gyōza, although Korean people tend to serve it in combination with kimchi or, like in this picture, as a side dish with rice cakes (tteok ) and vegetables. 


– Cwiertka, Katarzyna Joanna. Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity, 2006.

– S. for teaching me how to make gyōza and L.B.R. for preparing those delicious Korean dishes, thank you!

Fancy Fugu

Not only as one of the most expensive dishes, but as one of the deadliest as well, fugu sashimi 河豚刺身 is renowned around the world. The Japanese has the following proverb to express their love for this delicacy:

fugu wa kuitashi inochi was oshishi

Literally translated as: “I want to eat fugu, but my life is dear”. Its English equivalent is “Honey is sweet, but the bee stings”.

Fugu 河豚 is Japanese for “puffer fish”, a species that contains the poisonous tetrodotoxin in its organs. Fugu is caught mainly in the Pacific Ocean, and is highly popular during winter, because the fish becomes fatter to endure the cold ocean water. The largest market for fugu in Japan is Shimonoseki, a city in the southwestern tip of Honshū. How it is prepared you  can see in the following BBC documentary.

After two or three years of apprenticeship, chefs are allowed to serve this dish. Not many pass the final test. Once in the possession of a certification, fugu chefs have to carefully remove 11 parts of the fish. And with carefully, I mean that one wrong cut can poison their clients. It is a matter of life and death.

One gram of tetrodotoxin can kill 500 people, and once consumed, there is no known antidote to save you from asphyxiation, paralysis and death (6.8%). Every year, between 20 and 40 people in Japan are suffering from fugu intoxication. But it must be said that only in exceptional cases poisoning happens in a restaurant. Most incidents involve fishermen who eat their fancy catch.

One famous case is the death of kabuki legend Bandō Mitsugorō VIII. He ordered no less than 4 portions of fugu liver to prove that he was safe for the poisoned stuff. But when he returned to his hotel room, he died after hours of paralysis and convulsions.

A recent case is the suspension of a chef at a two-Michelin star restaurant, who served fugu liver to a client. The client specifically asked for it. Sometimes Japanese obedience is a bit too much… The client survived, though.

Homer enjoys his poisoned dish.

Homer enjoys his poisoned dish.

Facts for Fun

– To safeguard his health, the Japanese Emperor is not allowed to eat fugu.


The Gap Travel Guide

Japan Actually

Japan ActuallyLast weekend on the campus of my university, the benefit event “Japan Actually” was held. With the raised funds, children who lost their parents due to the tsunami of 2011, will be invited over to Belgium, giving them a chance to rebuild their future.

The message board.

The message board.

I volunteered for this event, and it was really a lot of fun. We organized activities to promote the Japanese culture. Customers could enjoy Japanese food and drinks, listening to and watching Japanese performances, playing Japanese games, participating in workshops on calligraphy and origami, and so on. Blessed by the God of Heavenly Weather, it became a great success, with entries for over 700 people.

The Kendo club in action:

Kendo-preparationKendo performance

There were Japanese games and you could try a yukata 浴衣 on.

sisteryukataThe origami teacher and her followers were quite productive. There was a workshop calligraphy (shodō 書道), were you could have your name written in characters and afterwards try to write them yourself.

calligraphyWe served three kinds of food: Tonjiru 豚汁, Curry カレーライス and Okonomiyaki お好み焼き. Some people would wonder why there’s no sushi on the menu list, because that’s the most known Japanese dish. We wanted to promote the Japanese eating culture by serving daily like, easy to prepare, dishes. And sushi, in fact, is not a daily dish. Customers were given the recipes too, so they could try to make them at home. Hereby I share this valuable piece of information with you, dear reader:



  • tonjiru100g pork
  • half a gobo (burdock root)
  • half a carrot
  • quarter of a small daikon (Japanese white radish)
  • quarter of a bundle leak
  • half of a pack tofu
  • quarter of a piece konnyaku
  • 200g soy bean sprouts
  • 600ml water
  • 2 tablespoons of miso
  • 2 tablespoons of sesame oil


  1. Cut the ingredients in thin slices/pieces.
  2. Pour the sesame oil in a cooking pot, turn on the heat to medium and bake the meat. Once the color changes, you add daikon, carrot, gobo and konnyaku. To remove the smell, you can boil the konnyaku in water first.
  3. Add the water. Turn up the heat to high and skim the scum when it starts to boil. Then, turn it to low for 5-10 minutes until the ingredients get weak.
  4. Add the rest of the ingredients.
  5. If all ingredients are well cooked, add one spoon of miso. Adjust following your taste with another spoon of miso.
  6. Add sesame oil, and ready!

Facts for Fun

-Tonjiru is the name for the dish in Eastern Japan. In Western Japan and on Hokkaidō it’s called Butajiru 豚汁 (buta means “pork”). According to an enquire launched in 2004, 72% of the Japanese goes for Tonjiru, while 25% calls the dish Butajiru (seems like 3% never heard of the dish before?).

-The custom to use pork began in the Meiji period. What the origin of Tonjiru is, is not quite clear.



  • Kareraisu300-500g beef (carbonade)
  • 5 potatoes
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 onion
  • 100-120g Japanese curry roux
  • 600ml water
  • some salad oil
  • 2-3 tablespoons of milk
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • a pinch of salt and pepper
  • optionally: soy sauce


First of all: this is only for the curry itself. It is most likely to be served with rice, udon or bread, which is not included in the recipe.

  1. Cut the vegetables at bite size, and the meat in thin slices. Boil the potatoes before adding them to the curry.
  2. Pour the salad oil in a cooking pot, add 1 tablespoon of sugar and turn up the heat to high. Stir-fry the beef.
  3. Add the onion, potatoes and carrots.
  4. When fried well, add pepper, salt and the water. Skim the scum when it boils.
  5. Turn off the heat. Add the curry and mix it.
  6. Add the milk. Season to your liking with sugar, salt, pepper or soy sauce. Enjoy your meal!

Facts for Fun

– Curry is one of the most popular dishes today in Japan. Funny, because curry isn’t Japanese at all. It was introduced by the British, who got it from their colony India, during the Meiji period. Remember the post about hybridity? It’s the same here: the Japanese made western inspired food their national dish by adjusting the ingredients to their own taste.

– There’s variation in the meat: in Kansai beef is preferred, while in Kantō pork is common. Chicken is a possibility too. And that leads us to another important point: Japan is one of the most difficult countries to be vegetarian. During the event, some people who had bought food tickets, came to change it into an only entrance ticket because all dishes included meat. But later more on this topic.


The sake sold well too.


-The photos were taken by friends and family. Thank you!

-Delicious sites: Japanese cooking (English, video tutorials) and Cooking forest (Japanese, recipes).

Japan’s Wrapping Culture

For our bachelor paper next year, we had to come up with a decent subject and research question this week. In fact, I already had been thinking a while on writing a post about ‘wrapping culture’. The subject proved to be more profound than I thought, so I decided to turn it into my field of research for next year. This post deals with the general content, while the listed items will be elaborated in further posts.


Japanese sweet1My interest in the topic has grown step by step.  My first encounter with wrapped objects happened last year. I had been asked by a Japanese friend to tour around some people in the picturesque city of Ghent (in which I somehow succeeded, mixing up broken Japanese and English) and received a furoshiki 風呂敷 as thanking present. Not only the furoshiki, a beautifully patterned piece of cloth to wrap things up, but the packaging on itself caught my intention. The present was wrapped carefully in nice paper with a ribbon and a sticker on it and put in a plastic bag with the shop logo. In Belgium, you wrap presents too (or ask the shop tenant to do it for you), but you definitely leave the bag at home. Ribbons are optionally, while stickers are hardly used. We also don’t put the object first in boxes, only a wrapping paper will do.

furoshiki-wrappingcultureTake for example Japanese food. We see a Japanese meal, each substance put in a separate bowl. Sushi in his jacket of seaweed. Biscuits double wrapped. Lunch packed in lacquered boxes (bentō 弁当). Japanese sweets, wrapped per each, inside the package another kind of wrapping. How beautifully this is done, shows the importance Japanese attach to presentation.

(…) If the means of presentation is elegant enough, the nature or even value of the medium of exchange may almost pale into insignificance. (Joy Hendry, 1993)

washiThe attention people pay to gift wrapping can be demonstrated by the famous gift-giving giri 義理, a social duty and obligation. The presentation of the present is so far as meaningful that the wrapping should indicate what’s inside. Business presents, for example, are often not even opened. People save it to pass it to the next business partner. There are standard envelopes for money gifts. Just giving a plain envelope would be considered as inappropriate.


picture by kErosEnE

picture by kErosEnE

So, I had the impression that Japanese people like to wrap. Further experiences have only strengthened this impression. Not only presents, people too are wrapped in presentation. Take for example the uniform. Throughout Japanese history, rigid dress code was brought into vogue. The outer appearance of attire displays rather someone’s function than his or her personality. For every job there’s a uniform. The school girl has her sailor uniform, the businessman cannot afford to wear something else than a suit, white shirt and tie. The human wrapping by excellence is the kimono 着物. Torso and legs are tightly surrounded by cloth, with the bow (obi 帯) as a finishing touch.

picture by Pitke

picture by Pitke

But, what is the effect on the environment? How much plastic would be saved if shop keepers didn’t put everything in three bags? How much less  air conditioning would be needed would be if people worked in T-shirt during summer?

wrapped apples


Then, I realised that ‘wrapping’ goes beyond material things. Japanese tend to wrap up their language and behaviour. Not only the perceptible use of honorific and humble speech, where plain words are embellished to express respect or modesty, but also the more hidden indirect form of communication. Japan is known for its “silent culture”, where a smile is used to hide shame or ignorance, “defending the face”. The face functions as the wrapping paper, covering up true intentions and feelings safely inside the Japanese mind.

Misunderstandings about each others culture sometimes bother negotiations between the West and the East. We like to get straight to the point and strictly separate our personal and professional ties, while Easterners prefer to create a favourable and friendly environment in which the negotiations can run smoothly. I visualise this by imagining  a present of which the wrapping layers are carefully ripped off one by one.

The Japanese have a genuine mistrust of verbal skills, thinking that these tend to show superficiality in contrast to inner, less articulate feelings that are communicated by innuendo or by non verbal means. (Reisschauer, 1977)

This indirect style communication is mainly present in cultures most influenced by Confucianism, i.e. China, Korea and Japan. Confucianism put the emphasis on social relationships in contrast with the Western individualism. We like to express ourselves clearly, we unwrap our thoughts in front of the other. Situations in which we use a lot of words, are often replaced by a slight bow and smile in Japan. I often have the impression that, for example in Japanese movies, fewer words are used.

My goal is not to judge about wrapping culture. I only want to research how various cultural differences could be traced back to the concept of wrapping. I hope I have caught your attention with this introduction, so please look forward to my following posts on this topic!


Once in a while one should write a silly post. This one is about apples and how my absurd brain connects them with Japan. Enjoy this tasty stream of consciousness.

Soyokaze-ringo no utaThe first song we heard in Japanese Culture class was ringo no uta (リンゴの唄 “song of the apple”). This song was the first hit after World War II in Japan. Featuring the song in the movie Soyokaze, composer and producer Tadashi Manjōme tried to change the dark feelings of war legacy into a happy and cheerful mentality. The first attempt to release ringo no uta failed because of censorship by the military government. The music was too soft and didn’t contribute to the fighting spirit of the people.

Fuji apples are most popular.

Fuji apples are most popular.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. I obediently follow this rule and have an apple for breakfast every day. A Japanese girl told me how she was astonished by the fact that those Europeans eat A WHOLE apple each. It seemed she received one as dessert during the flight to Belgium and was quite puzzled what to do with that enormous thing. In Japan, they share it with the family. Fruit is indeed expensive. For one apple you count down ¥130 (=€1 or $1.35), while in Belgium you pay €2.42 for one kilo, that is €0.48 (= $0.63) per each. Japanese apples are carefully wrapped and sold by the piece. We buy them per kilo.


Steve Jobs would have liked that wallpaper.

I’m not the only one who loves apples, Steve Jobs apparently loved them too. I read this very interesting article How Apple is more Japanese than Japan. The author draws resemblances between company structure, design (although those are not the main focus of the article), Japan’s wrapping culture (I will write a lot about that later) and the personality of Steve Jobs himself. If we may believe Nobuyuki Hayashi’s article, Steve Jobs was born American by accident instead of Japanese.

And here I am, writing blogs on my MacBook with ringo no uta playing while eating an apple. You can expect some serious talk next time.

The Land of Chocolate and Beer

What do Japanese think of Belgium? Curious about the answer on this question, we went to Bruges, a small but cosy place aka tourist attraction and asked some Japanese on holiday the following questions:

1. What is Belgium known for?

No one failed in giving the answer “chocolate” right away the moment they were asked. I also learned that the Belgian shop “Godiva” has a branch in Japan too and is pretty famous. In Bruges, half of the shops sell chocolate to tourists. It’s true, we Belgians take the chocolate for granted and see it as daily sweets, while it is something for special occasions in other countries. Valentine’s Day for example. If you have no idea how chocolate-minded Japanese spend this day, click here.

Belgium chocolateThe answer “chocolate” was quickly followed by “waffles”. There are different kinds (like Liège waffle and Brussels waffle), and you can even get one with chocolate on it. Most of the waffle shops sell waffles in winter and ice-cream in summer.

Beer gained a third place. And that’s a fact. There are more than 600 varieties of Belgian beer, brewed by approximately 178 breweries.

Belgian food in general is popular. A couple assured us that the mussels with french fries they had the evening before were very good. Our meals are indeed rather heavy, part of our ‘burgundian lifestyle’.

Surprisingly, French fries was only called once. Probably the name is part of the problem. If I have to think of a something typically Belgian, I would immediately say French fries. Apart from the fact that it’s not very healthy, we eat it very often. That’s because there are a lot of specialised snackbar-like “frituren” who stay open till very late and because it’s delicious of course. Somehow we can’t get tired of our fries.

After all the food, the Japanese tourists mentioned the attractions and buildings. Apparently Manneken Pis (shōbenkozō 小便小僧) is known from here to Tokyo (they have a replica in Hamamatsuchō Station). I am ashamed to admit that I have never seen it myself before… The city of Antwerp evokes a lot of memories: many Japanese have seen the anime “The dog of Flanders” (furandāsu no inu フランダースの犬). No wonder some people still think the city looks the same as in the good old days with Nello and Patrasche.

Except for 4 smart girls who remembered Magritte, no one could tell us the name of a famous Belgian person. I think if Belgians were asked about famous Japanese, they would come up with Haruki Murakami or perhaps Yoko Ono.

2. What did you expect before coming to Belgium? Did it meet your expectations?


All matching answers: “Belgium is small and cute (kawaii 可愛い). There are lots of beautiful, old buildings and lots of sweets and good food.” They didn’t seem to regret their trip, as it fully met their expectations.

3. Has something struck you as surprising or odd? Compared to Japan, did something unexpected happen?

“There was chocolate shaped as a dog.”
“There are two languages on the signboards (Dutch and French), who are cute too, by the way.”
“There are horses riding through the city!”
“Brussels is a filthy place.”
“People are friendly, tall and beautiful.”
“There are no ticket gates at the train station. You can ride for free.”
“The streets have cobblestones.”
“There are many individual stores and less chain stores.”

4. Up till now, what did you like most about Belgium?

“The chocolate shaped as a dog.”
“The horse carriage in Bruges.”
“The food.”
“Friendly people.”
“Bruges and other beautiful towns.”
“My friend who invited me over.”

Facts for Fun

– to get hungry: Godiva

Tuna Economics

Few days ago I came across this quote:

[…] Japan’s Kansai region consumers are much more “price elastic” to tuna sashimi than Tokyo region consumers […]

First of all, what is price elasticity?
formulapriceelasticity Or, in how far a change in price of a product does affect the consumer’s demand of that same product. If the demand’s increase or decrease is more than proportional (Ed > 1%), the product is price elastic. If less than proportional (Ed < 1 %), we get a price inelastic product.

In case of a price change of tuna, consumers in Osaka seem to react more strongly by buying more or less tuna than consumers in Tokyo. Why is that?

Bigeye_tuna_dishI had a hard time finding some information on this topic. It seemed that tuna is enjoyed all over the country (Japanese eat 80% of the caught quantity world-wide), but it is true that tuna consumption in the east and south is considerably higher than in the west. The variation lies in the tuna species. Different regions prefer different species, due to location and cultural preferences. The author of the quote probably meant “bigeye tuna” as fish demanded by Tokyo, and “yellowfin tuna” preferred by Osaka. The biggest deal of tuna is caught in the Pacific ocean, but to my surprise, Japan also does some fishing in the Atlantic and Indian ocean. As a result, merchants in Tokyo have easier access to all kinds of tuna (The Kanto region stands for 180% of the national average). On the West coast, mackerel and white-flesh fish are very popular.

For traditional sashimi (刺身) three kinds of tuna are used: bluefin, yellow fin and tuna. Tuna_sashimiRegional preferences include colour and fat, that’s to say, red and fat fish in Tokyo and pink-coloured and less oily species in Osaka. But, preferences started to change gradually since the ’80. Next to that, tuna consumption has generally dropped by approximately 10%, in parallel with a declining number of sushi restaurants. The reason is obvious: overfishing, fortified by a lax of quota’s.

I think we can conclude that tuna, or more specifically, big eye tuna has become more price elastic in Tokyo. This is normal, because traditional preferences change continuously in times where nationwide distribution is an easy matter. Although this post may seem a bit technical and complex, I think that it is still interesting to see how cultural preferences have influence on the economy.

Facts for Fun

– There are some funny differences in food culture. In Osaka for example, it is absolutely not done to dip your meat in the sauce container, as it is shared with the other diners. In Tokyo, everyone has his own container.

– On January 7, a 222kg bluefin tuna was sold for the highest price ever of 155 million yen at the Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo. That’s three times the record of last year.


– the quote and image of formula

-Tuna sites: Facts and Details, FAO, Globefish

– pictures from Wiki Commons