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

Laughing Devils: a Japanese saying about the comedy of prediction

There’s a Japanese proverb I’m particularly fond of that states how foolish it is to try and predict the future. It goes: “Rainen no koto ieba, oni ga warau”, meaning if you talk about next year the ogre or devil (ogres or devils) will laugh.

Depending on where you live in Japan, there are different versions of this saying. One even brings that future closer. “Asu no koto ieba oni ga warau”— if you talk about tomorrow the ogre/devil will laugh. Then there is the one that states it isn’t a laughing devil you’ll get but a snickering mouse.

However you say it, I think the Japanese saying about having demons laughing at your folly when trying to guess the future is a little bit more ominous version of “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”.

Photo: Thersa Matsuura Read the rest

Clear Beer

In Japan, Suntory has come out with a new beverage called All-Free All-Time, a clear, non-alcoholic drink that is purported to taste just like real beer.

The bottles and commercials are pushing this as a drink to enjoy over lunch, at your office, during a meeting, or after you workout.

I tried a swig. A nice hearty stout, it is not.

Photo: Thersa Matsuura Read the rest

Mini Matchbook Memos

Do you ever want to take a quick little note with real pen and paper, but hate carrying around big, medium, or even small-sized memo pads? Well, Mamimu Memo has got the stationary item for you.

They make tiny, matchbook-sized memo pads that look just like real retro matchbooks. Not only adorable, but the detail is impressive as well. A closer look at the gritty surface you would normally use to strike a match, finds it is instead just quaintly colored edges. The real sweetness of these undersized memo pads is the nostalgic designs. Mamimu Memo boasts Japan Classic, World Classic, American Vintage, and European Vintage patterns. Even though they were 180 yen a piece, I couldn’t buy just one.

Photos: Thersa Matsuura Read the rest

"Addictive Hormones" is a delicious treat from Japan

Let’s pretend we’re buddies. I’m visiting you from Japan and brought with me all kinds of fun and interesting snacks. There’s one in particular I want to introduce you to. I ask you to hold out your hand and close your eyes. We’re buddies, remember? You trust me. I then proceed to fill your palm with hard, brown and beige, oddly-sized pieces of something that isn’t exactly beef jerky.

You open your eyes, examine the curious snack, sniff it, then pop one into your mouth.

While you chew, I show you the package. A cute cartoonish pig is wearing an apron while standing in front of a BBQ with some nondescript meat cooking on the grill. If you’re okay with gamey, beef jerky textured, off-tasting meat, you’re quite happy with the gift. If you’re like me, however, and would rather not do unidentifiable dried flesh snacks, you’re starting to reach for your water bottle.

Before you can even ask, I tell you you’ve just feasted on Yamituski Horumon, Addictive Hormones. This little package is one of the recommended snack foods currently touted in 7-11s across Japan.

You raise an eyebrow. Hormones? I explain to you that it’s good to know if you’re ever traveling in Japan and see a restaurant or menu boasting horumon (hormones), it means they’re serving various animal innards.

Here’s very short list of some of the yummies you might encounter: Harami = diaphragm Himo or hoso = (string, thin) small intestine (sometimes a pig’s appendix) Mino = first stomach of a cow’s four stomachs, a bit tough, not much fat Hachi no su (bee hive, because that’s what it looks like) = this is cow stomach number two and thought to be the most delicious of the four Kobukuro (child bag) = uterus (almost always pork, beef uterus is too tough, they say)  Chichi kabu = nipple Teppo (rifle or gun) = rectum

I immediately try to ease your mind by telling you what you’ve just eaten — the Yamitsuki Horumon treat — is none of the above, actually, it’s only dried heart and tripe that have been dipped in a delicious salty sauce. Read the rest

Shaking Like a Samurai - Musha Burui

One of my favorite things about learning Japanese and living here for over half my life is discovering all the words and phrases that have no exact equivalent in English. It’s an incredible feeling when you learn to describe an emotion, situation, or predicament that you never even realized you hadn’t previously been able to articulate.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Japanese words kintsugi (repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with gold) and tsundoku (the act of piling up reading material, but not quite getting around to reading it) made the rounds. It dawned on me that maybe other people like discovering these little treasures, as well.

Today I give you one of my favorite Japanese phrases: mushaburui.

This one’s an oldie but a goodie. Let me explain: Musha in Japanese means warrior or samurai. While the character for burui is a different pronunciation of furu, to shiver, quiver, or shake. Thus, I give you the “shivering samurai”. But what it means is even better than that.

When I was first taught this phrase, I was told to imagine the evening before a large battle. A samurai warrior is quietly making his preparations. He’s nervous, frightened, excited. Yet, despite this mix of emotions, there is a calmness and resignation at facing what might be a great victory or his inevitable death. He doesn’t know why, but as he reaches for his sword he’s trembling.

It is an older Japanese term used to describe a feeling I think we’ve all had at sometime in our lives. Read the rest

Super, super, super-size me: a 2142 calorie meal

Have you ever woken up one morning and bemoaned how much time you waste everyday preparing and eating meals? You have to rifle through your refrigerator to dig up ingredients, prepare them in some mildly pleasing and palatable way, before finally consuming them. Even if you’re the type of person who prefers eating out, there’s the choosing a restaurant, deciding what to order, paying, and, again, actually sitting down to eat the meal. This isn’t even addressing the time spent trying not to think about what insidious strain of salmonella or E. coli might be lurking under that leaf of Romaine lettuce. Time. Money. Dangerous vegetables.

Well, in Japan the company Peyoung might have an answer to your prayers. Especially if your prayers included: How do I get an entire day's worth of calories into one sitting?

A little while ago I was stopped dead in my tracks at my local 7-11 when I saw this package (above). Let me read that for you. It says Cho-Cho-Cho Omori Gigamax Yakisoba (Super, Super, Super Large Serving Gigamax Cup Fried Noodles). You'll notice the 2,142 calories is written nice and boldly, too. Below that is a friendly request to limit your consumption of this yummy and enormous meal to only once a day, because you could possibly exceed your daily calorie intake, and that would be bad.

But isn't that the dream? One delicious meal, prepared in a mere three minutes, and all those pesky calories garnered in one fell swoop? Read the rest