Senko hanabi: Japanese sparklers light the summer nights

Summer in Japan isn't summer in Japan unless there are fireworks—and lots of them. Cities and towns, temples and ports; somewhere near you, on one of these hot and outrageously humid summer nights, there will be a fireworks show. It will be loud, and it will be incredible.

The quiet side of summer pyrotechnics, though, is called senko hanabi. Senko in Japanese meaning an incense stick, and hanabi (literally flower fire) is the word for fireworks. The senko hanabi is one cool little dude with a lot of meaning and charm packed into a very short and very serene ten seconds.

First, one of these delicate sparklers looks like a roughly 20 centimeter long, tightly twisted, rainbow-colored piece of tissue paper, with one end not so tightly twisted. That’s the top. There’s no stick inside, so the way to burn one is to pinch the top, holding the senko hanabi vertical, while you light the bottom. After a second or two, a molten bubble will form. Here’s where you have to have a steady hand. If you’re not careful, that tiny shimmering ball of fire will drop off and the show is over. If, however, you can hold it very still, you will be able to enjoy the serene, mesmerizing, indeed almost hypnotizing beauty of a Japanese senko hanabi.

This beauty is divided into five stages that go like this:

1. Bud. The fire bubble looks like the bud of a flower. 2. Peony. When the first burst of sparkles appear, breaking the surface of the tiny molten ball, the shape is said to look like a peony. Read the rest

Lactic acid bacteria chocolate, another delicious treat from Japan

It’s not like I need another reason to eat chocolate. But if I were looking for one, I think the South Korean company Lotte might have found it. Probiotic chocolate. Or more specifically, Lactic acid bacteria - (lactobacillales) fortified chocolate.

In Japanese it’s called nyuusankin, and I’ve seen the characters written on all kinds of foods throughout the years. But it was just recently, while poking around the impulse item shelf of my local supermarket waiting to check out, I spotted this box. Of course, I bought it with very little internal debate, even less guilt. I mean, chocolate, right? Healthy chocolate.

I went home and searched around online to see what I could find out about Sweets Days Nyusankin Chocola Almond. It only gets better folks. These little chocolate covered almond nuggets of goodness also contain polyphenols and fiber.

Lotte, you don’t have to try so hard, you had me at lactic acid bacteria.

Photo: Thersa Matsuura Read the rest

"U.S.A." music video, by Da Pump, is all the rage in Japan

Why? Read the rest

Chaos Soup: Japanese tomato smoothie with cream cheese

Kirin Sekai no Kitchen has recently started selling a product they call Melting Chaos Soup. It's sold beside the bottled water and teas. Now, I'm not a fan of tomato soup or juice, but I liked the label so picked one up. I noticed the small pictures of tomatoes, cheese, and what I thought was basil running around the bottle. But it wasn’t until I got home and read it and then really looked that I noticed the basil wasn’t basil, it was mint, and there was one item I missed. Peaches.

Yes. Melting Chaos Soup boasts a brand new genre in drinks. It says it’s like a smoothie soup that changes flavor from moment to moment. Shake well, open and give it a sniff, then bottoms up. It’s a mix of tomato (55%) and peach juice (12%), cream cheese, and mint.

After opening and tentatively smelling, it actually took me a few minutes to get up the nerve to take the first swig. It really did smell exactly as promised, like tomato mixed with peach juice then throw in a hint of mint. I did finally take a sip, and then another. Another. I'm not sure if chaos would be how I’d describe the taste, although it did changed from moment to moment. The surprising thing was I didn’t hate it. I kind of liked it. If I could change one thing, though, it might be they add more cream cheese.

Photo: Thersa Matsuura Read the rest

Bee spit is the special sauce in this Japanese Voice Care Candy

Are you one of those people who use your voice a lot? Work, home, a side hustle like a podcast perhaps? If you are, then I've got the candy for you. While searching for chocolate one day, I ran across these Voice Care Throat Lozenges (by the Japanese company Kanro). The Japanese is fine, but I love the English tagline: "Let's Sing in Your Best Voice!".

Now I'm like you and just guessed these are like any other cough drop or hard candy. The package tries to tell you differently though. The front boasts that the candies were developed jointly with the Tokyo College of Music (Ongaku Daigaku), and it sounds like they spent a lot of time trying to develop a product that really does do wonders for your throat. The back notes they are for people who “talk a lot, sing a lot, people who want a clean throat or just want to feel refreshed.”

Along with various unidentified herbs (the ingredients only mention "herb extract" along with orange, apple, and olive leaf essence), propolis seems to be the special sauce of Voice Care Candy. Propolis, if you don’t know, is sometimes called bee glue, think bee spit mixed with beeswax. It is used by bees to seal small gaps in the hive. Traditionally, it was also used as a medicine to treat cold sores, genital herpes, and mouth pain after surgery, not that there was much evidence showing that it worked for any of those things. Read the rest

Warabi Mochi: a gooey Japanese summer dessert, now in chocolate mint

There’s a gelatinous, slightly chewy, delicious-when-served-chilled dessert in Japan called warabi mochi. It is made from starch, water, and sugar. Simple. The usual way it's served is generously covered in soybean flour and then squirted with some brown sugar syrup.

It's interesting to note that the original starch used for making warabi mochi was derived from the bracken plant (a fern-looking thing). However, that method proves a bit time consuming in these days of immediate gratification as it takes 10 kilos (22 lbs) of bracken root to extract a mere 70 grams (2.4 ounces) of starch. These days, other similarly textured starches are being used instead. Think sweet potato starch and tapioca.

Now, warabi mochi is often considered a summer treat because it's light and served cold, perfect for hot days when you don't have much of an appetite. You know something else that has become a summer treat in Japan? Chocolate mint everything. It's like you can't find anything chocolate mint flavored until August first and then the chocomint floodgates are opened. I guess it was inevitable that East should meet West and some genius at 7-11 would dream up a chocolate mint warabi mochi dessert. This sounds like a bad idea, but I bought one anyway. I found tucked inside the jelly-like warabi mochi exterior mint whipped cream and loads of chocolate chips. It turns out chocolate mint warabi mochi is amazingly good and it might be only reason I'm sad to see this typhoon-riddled, flood-plagued, heatwave-infested summer end. Read the rest

Five dead after air conditioners break down in Japanese hospital

Five octogenarian patients died after air conditioning units at the Fujikake Y&M Daiichi Hospital in Gifu City failed. While some patients were moved to the cooler second floor, others were left in the hot floors for a week.

Four of those who remained died between August 26 and 27, with the fifth dying on August 28. The recorded temperature in Gifu on the 26th was 36.2°C (97°F). The hospital reported they were using fans to cool the patients and that the deaths were from chronic illnesses. An investigation is being conducted on the suspicion of professional negligence.

Japan is suffering from a heatwave with the some of the highest temperatures on record. The heat killed 133 people in the month of July alone and sent thousands to hospital.

Read the rest

Review: Blendy Black Lemon Coffee from Japan

In Japan when I see the name Blendy, I imagine coffee. Usually I think instant coffee, or some kind of stick thats contents can be stirred into hot water to make a cup of joe in various flavors. Normal flavors like latte, espresso, or farm latte (there really is a farm latte.)

Farm latte aside, when I think Blendy, I usually don’t think about anything too outside the box.

That changed when the other day a new product caught my eye. Black Lemon Coffee. The catch copy reads: “Ice coffee with a new sensation”. Indeed. Before trying it, I read around the hashtags on Twitter, and it looks like the new bottled beverage has a lot of converts, with some fans saying it’s a cross between coffee and herbal tea, others exclaiming it’s their new summer obsession.

Then I tried it. Me? I’m afraid I’m a nope. The taste of Blendy’s Black Limone coffee was exactly how I’d imagined a cup of cold sweet coffee would taste if someone snuck up and squirted lemon in it. Give me coffee or give me tea. Please, don’t give me lemon in my coffee.

Photo: Rich Pav Read the rest

Moon Viewing Burger: a McDonald's meal you can only get in Japan

Every fall in Japan, McDonald's releases a Moon Viewing Burger (Tsukimi Burger). Basically, it's a burger with a perfectly round fried egg in the middle somewhere.

This year added to the regular lineup is a new Golden Tsukimi Burger. Not only do you get a golden bun (that smells like butter!), but also a thick slice of golden-colored cheese. Read the rest

Have you ever heard of the superstition "Don't Pee on the Worm"?

One of the most baffling superstitions I've ever heard while living in Japan came from my mother-in-law. One day we were walking on a trail with my kindergarten-aged son when we looked down to see there was an earthworm crossing our path. We stopped, but before I could find a stick to nudge him out of the way, my mother-in-law screamed, grabbed my son, and yelled, "Don't pee on it!".

I didn't know where to start. I think I started by explaining that her grandson doesn't usually make a habit out of dropping trou and piddling on every bug he happens to come across. But, also, was the looming question, why? I mean aside from the fact it's not a cool thing to do to such a tiny creature. Why? So I asked. She went on to lecture me about how little boys like peeing on worms (It's what she said, really.) and how if they do, their little boy parts will swell up and start itching terribly. It's an awful thing, she told me.

Oookay. Keep in mind, this was pre-Internet, so there was no way for me to whip out (heh) my phone and check. I decided it was probably a silly old wives' tale made to keep rambunctious little boys from doing mischievous things. I even heard it a couple times after that fateful day, from different people. But still there was no insight into why this idea even started in the first place. Then one day, many years later, I was watching a Japanese TV show doing a bit about superstitions and this one came up. Read the rest

Zombear: adorable undead mascot for blue curry

Bears live in Japan, especially Hokkaido. So it’s no surprise that people hunt and eat them from time to time. It’s also no shock that one of these animals might end up in a pot of curry. Bear curry isn’t so entirely surprising. But what is surprising, though, is this new thing I found from Hokkaido, Japan. Zombie Bear Curry. No, wait, that’s Zombear. The curry that makes no promises about possibly being tasty in any way.

It says right there on the front of the package in big red font: Decrease Your Appetite! Under that it tells you it’s blue soup curry with the top right-hand corner proclaiming Blue! And guro uma which is a play on words. Guro meaning grotesque/gross and uma short for umai: delicious. Deliciously gross? Still the photo looks good, right? Don’t get your hopes up. The little splotch above the price tag lets you know there are non of those yummy looking ingredients in this bag. It’s just (blue) soup. There aren't even any bears in here. In even finer print: the photo on the box is a serving suggestion.

So I tried it and it tastes pretty good, actually.

I then did a little research and learned that Zombear has his own website and Twitter account Zombear also has a backstory. He weighs 29 kilos and is 29.9 centimeters tall. His favorite food is fresh salmon. He’s a big stuffed teddy bear who has been wandering the streets of Hokkaido for 70 years looking for the boy that owns him. Read the rest

Cats in Hats, as found in Japanese capsule vending machines

No matter how old you are it’s always fun to pause and check out what's being sold in Japanese capsule vending machines (called Gotcha Gotcha in Japan). You know the ones where you insert a couple coins, twist the knob, and out pops a crappy toy in a clear capsule. Only in Japan they aren’t crappy toys. They might not be particularly useful, but the items are often so strange, so intriguing, or so incredibly well-crafted you can’t help coughing up a couple bucks to see what you get.

This is what happened to me when I saw the Cat Hats: Aquarium-themed cat hats.

Here's the hashtag where all the cats in aquarium-themed hats reside.

Photos: Thersa Matsuura Read the rest

Enjoy this shrimp-flavored popcorn for breakfast

Popcorn didn’t always used to be a thing in Japan. As a matter of fact, when I arrived in 1990 (and for many years afterward) it was one of my please-send-me items for anyone willing to mail me a care package. A couple of years ago, though, something happened and now popcorn is accepted and more or less embraced by the Japanese snack culture. I still don’t come across the loose, pop-it-yourself-at-home kernels variety and I hardly ever see microwave popcorn, but pre-popped and already flavored bags, those are out there.

Frito Lay Japan has a popular snack called Mike Popcorn, and it has some of interesting but not entirely surprising flavors. There’s butter soy sauce, sweetened soy sauce, and salted seaweed. All quite delicately flavored and delicious in their own way.

Then I ran across shrimp popcorn. I love shrimp and I love popcorn. What could possibly go wrong? The answer is nothing. This savory shrimp-flavored popcorn was divine. It even made me go to the Mike Popcorn website to see what else they had. But I stopped before I got into the different flavors, because I was intrigued with how they're marketing popcorn in Japan.

It seems to touted as a healthy snack. They're pushing the "one bag has two-heads of lettuce worth of fiber" bit. I mean, not to disrespect iceberg lettuce and all, but we all know it’s mostly water. You want fiber, let's talk cabbages. Another cute -- and very Japanese -- idea is the list of different popcorn recipes that are recommended on the site. Read the rest

"Very Scary Story Gum" from Japan

Japanese summers are hot and humid and because (at least where I live) there is no central air conditioning, it can get pretty miserable. Japanese culture has many clever ways to beat the heat during these sweltering months, but one of my favorites is the tradition of telling and listening to scary stories. I've heard many different reasons why this is done, but the one that might work best is that when you hear a truly frightening tale—one that sends goosebumps prickling your skin—you feel suddenly colder.

I don't know about you, but it's still frighteningly sweltering where I am, so let me introduce you to “Very Scary Story Gum” (Chou Kowai Hanashi Gum), by Top Seika. Now these have been around for awhile, but every summer they get a slightly new package and brand new stories. Every package includes a small slab of non-delicious gum, a folded horror story (white print on black paper) and a fuda or talisman card.

The stories range from haunted stuffed animals to haunted intersections and more. I think I like the talisman cards best. They're a nice touch and seem collectable (I only wish they were printed on two sides). One of mine tells me I'll be twice as scared and the other promises that if I carry it around I won't be harassed by ghosts.

I also discovered a nice touch when reading the package. There is a warning on the back stating that if you are the kind of person who doesn’t really like very scary stories then you should open and read this with a friend or under adult supervision. Read the rest

Japanese toilet paper you didn't know you needed

While walking the aisles of the supermarket this evening, a friend spotted some green tea-scented toilet paper, with lovely embossed tea leaves, too.

Photo: Richard Pavonarius Read the rest

Don't Press My Whorl: a hairy superstition in Japan

Here’s a word I learned in English today: hair whorl. Wikipedia defines it as “…a patch of hair growing in a circular direction around a visible center point. Hair whorls occur in most hairy animals, on the body as well as on the head.”

It’s curious that I’ve known the word in Japanese for a very long time now, but I had to look it up in English. The reason I know it in Japanese is because people actually say the word. Friends actually talk about their children’s hair whorls in casual conversation. Also, it’s used in a common idiom and in an curious superstition.

Let’s start off with how to say hair whorl in Japanese. It’s a cute word: tsumuji. I think it has a nicer ring than hair whorl.

Next, the idiom you sometimes hear people use is tsumuji wo mageru, or you could call someone tsumuji magari. Literally, bending or twisting one’s hair whorl. If someone does this, it means they’re being contrary, unreasonable, or unaccommodating. “My little brother is a tsumuji magari. He disagrees with everything I say.” Something like that.

The superstition, on the other hand, is one you'll hear Japanese children giggling about. That is, you should never press on your friend’s hair whorl. Why? Well, the jury is out on which of the following will happen, but neither sound good. It’s said if you push on a person’s hair whorl, they’ll either go bald or come down with a bad case of diarrhea. Read the rest

AI robots to help teach English in Japan

Next year around 250 million yen will be spent to insert AI robots into 500 classrooms across Japan in an effort to improve children's English skills. An unnamed official in charge of international education gave the example of having the robots check students' pronunciation, something Japanese teachers have trouble doing. Read the rest

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