Fat in Japan

So, here’s the thing. I was never fat in Japan. Each time I disembark from the hikōki after landing in Japan, it is like my karada says, “Oh, we’re in Japan. Let’s immediately lose ten pounds or more.”

It might be a body memory thing due to my first trip to Japan where I became ill with natsubate and ended up in the hospital unable to eat. And then there were all the unfamiliar foods that took awhile to like. (Luckily I did know how to use ohashi, so that wasn’t the issue.)

I do hate to exercise and only once in Japan did I join a class for that purpose. It was a jazz exercise class. We’d go out to lunch afterwards and virtuously eat sarada. And feel really really hungry. So, that didn’t last.

But what did last was the lifestyle. Here are some examples:

  1. In Japan I had a washing machine, but no kansōki. That meant hanging the clothes out to dry as opposed to shifting them into a dryer.
  2. The futon we slept on also had to be regularly carted over to the window and hung out in the sun to air. They also had to be beaten with a futontataki and flipped over and beaten again. This as opposed to either making a bed or … not.
  3. I didn’t have a kuruma in Japan. This covers a LOT, including grocery shopping by bicycle and looping the bags over the handlebars to cycle home. It also covers taking my kids on the jitensha to cart them anywhere we were going and daily trips to daycare.
  4. In Tokyo there were the subways that could be way down deep underground. Esukareetaa? Who had the time and they weren’t a given.
  5. Sightseeing. Obviously Japan is charming and hilltop temples and shrines especially so. If the old grannies were climbing, so were we.
This is the tool we used to beat the futon. And when you lived in an apartment building you wanted to be sure to get your futon outside early in the morning to appear more virtuous than your neighbors.

So even though I never watched what I ate, I was always slimmer in Japan. However, it is the curse of the gaijin woman to never feel that way next to the lithe Japanese women. But that’s a whole other story.

  • hikōki 飛行機 – airplane
  • karada 体 – body
  • natsubate 夏バテ – A special word used to describe suffering in the summer due to the oppressive heat. When you get natsubate you don’t feel like eating and you can quickly succumb to the heat. Natsu means summer and the bate comes from the verb bateru which means to be exhausted.
  • ohashi お箸 – chopsticks
  • sarada サラダ – salad
  • kansōki 乾燥機 – clothes dryer
  • futon 布団 – not a sofa. REAL Traditional Japanese futon are mats that you sleep on. You put them down at night on a tatami surface and then fold them up in the daytime.
  • futontataki 布団叩き – the tool that you use to beat the futon when you are airing them out. You can see puffs of dust arise when you do this. Necessary? Not sure. Traditional? Hell, yes.
  • kuruma 車 – automobile
  • jitensha 自転車 – bicycle
  • Esukareetaa – エスカレーター – escalator
  • gaijin 外人 – foreigner. This is the short form of gaikokujin. Some foreigners take offense at being called this and would prefer the longer and more polite form. Your mileage may vary.

Pink Blues

I have a confession to make. My facebook feed is filled with beautiful and glorious photos of cherry blossoms. Quite early this year thanks to climate change. But quite honestly, I have never been a great fan of sakura. I know, I know. It’s practically a harenchi to say something like that.

My favorite blossoms are the plum blossoms that normally bloom in nigatsu in Kyoto. They have a slight fragrance that is simply wonderful. And their shape is more pleasing to me. In my own neighborhood here in Massachusetts, I’m surrounded by apple trees. They traditionally bloom around Mother’s Day and are lovely.

When I lived in Tokyo, I lived along one of the nicer greenways that featured a line of sakura. And, yes, they were pretty when they bloomed, but when they fell to the ground they were slippery in the rain and just looked ugly. Though there are many shades of pink, to me most sakura simply look washed out and unattractive.

Then there are all the yopparai on the trains as they return from partying beneath the blossoms.

And the sakura seem to herald the beginning of arerugi season.

Flowers I like:

Those are the ones that come to mind this morning!

  • sakura – 桜 – cherry blossoms
  • harenchi – 破廉恥 – a disgrace
  • nigatsu – 二月 February
  • yopparai – 酔っ払い – drunkard
  • arerugī – アレルギー allergy. This is a hard one to say!
  • kakitsubata – 杜若 – iris
  • jinchōge – 沈丁花 – winter daphne. They smell like SweetTarts!
  • ajisai – 紫陽花 – hydrangea. They are an in-your-face type of flower, but the colors….!
  • fuji – 藤 -wisteria. So elegant!

The Baby on the Bus

The one thing you have to get used to if you live in a Japanese city is the hordes of people. That’s no different from any city in America, but you tend to feel it more in Nihon because it is likely that you use public transportation more than your own kuruma. There are a few reasons for this.

First of all, Japan does public transportation really well. Densha and buses are dependable, clean, and benri. Of course they are faster than driving in most cases and you don’t have to work to find a parking place. I don’t know if it is true, but I have heard that to buy a car in Japan you have to prove you have somewhere to park it. I never had a car in Japan and never felt I needed one. A bicycle and public transportation covered all of my needs.

The best way to travel with a child in Japan!

But when you have kodomo, you have different issues. Try taking a baby on a train. If you’re lucky, they are lulled to sleep. But if you are unlucky, they are going to bawl their eyes out in distress. And then all eyes turn to see what’s going on. Here’s what happens next:

It becomes a project and everyone gets involved. The obāsan sitting next to you jangles a key ring to distract the baby and if the baby reaches for it, she’ll let the baby grab it and hold it. The slightly older mother across the aisle will open her bag and reach into it for a small omocha and offer that up. The grandmother sitting two seats down pulls out some plain cookies and offers the baby those. The teenage boys standing up near you make funny faces to amuse the baby. And the older men do bero bero bah — the Japanese version of peekaboo or any antic done to amuse a baby.

Everyone’s been there. Right?

Recently I read in the news that people sitting in the airline’s first class think that babies should not be allowed to sit there. They pay extra for the luxury and listening to a crying baby disturbs them. Sekkaku okane o dashita noni! You can just imagine the indigence.

You can also imagine what I think of that. They are missing a chance to make a connection and be of help. Too bad for them.

Once I’d experienced the treatment of a baby on a bus in Japan, I began to carry small toys in my own bag and look for opportunities to give them to mothers with a fussy child. When I took a flight a few years ago, a mother with a toddler sat down next to me in the middle seat. I offered to hold the little girl while she settled herself. I am a nervous flyer and having a toddler on my lap diverted my fuan. She ended up having fun looking out the mado and then eventually fell asleep on my lap. I told the mom that I was a grandmother and this was a joy for me. We all had a very good flight!

  • Nihon – 日本 Japan
  • kuruma – 車 car, automobile
  • Densha – 電車 train
  • benri – 便利 convenient
  • kodomo – 子供 child
  • obāsan – おばあさん grandmother
  • omocha – おもちゃ toy. Be careful not to confuse with matcha! And yes, somehow toy takes the honorific ‘o’
  • Sekkaku okane o dashita noni -せっかくお金を出したのに Literally, “Even though I went to great pains to pay for this.” Sekkaku is a good word to know. You could say, “Sekkaku benkyō shimashita noni, I flunked the test. Get it? (Even though I went to great pains to study, I flunked the test.” It’s a good word for when you want to bitch about something.
  • bero bero bah – ベロベロバー Used like peekaboo with a baby. You say it and then make a funny face perhaps.
  • fuan – 不安 uneasiness, worry
  • mado – 窓 window

On this last day in May

The weather in Kyoto

Thanks to the internet, I know what the weather in Kyoto is like today. I can also follow blogs, friends on Facebook, and websites in both English and Japanese to see photos of how nice and green it has become in Kyoto. And the weather has been jumping back and forth between natsu and haru in the last few weeks causing confusion to those who need to deal with it.

In America, we often think of Memorial Day as the beginning of natsu. There used to be rituals that matched the kisetsu. Not so much anymore. In Japan, I think it is still important. Things will come out of the closet. The senpūki, of course. Perhaps a katoributa if one is fond of the old ways. The zabuton may be switched out for one of rush. Even in the kitchen, there may be different plats and bowls used. Glass is nice in the summer. The illusion of coolness is just as important as real cooling which these days is provided by competent AC.

The fūrin will also come out of the closet. And one must be careful with pronunciation here. A fūrin is a wind chime, but furin is adultery. Oops.

And of course there is the gamut of summer food which merits its own post. We see some of it in Hawaii but here in New England I’m lucky if I see any of it at all. Yesterday, my grandchildren in California were eating green tea ice cream with mochi. The world is indeed getting smaller.

  • natsu – 夏 summer
  • haru – 春 spring
  • kisetsu – 季節 season
  • senpūki – 扇風機 electric fan. There are other words used for handheld fans depending on the type. I may get into that later.
  • katoributa – 蚊取り豚 a ceramic pig that holds mosquito coils
  • zabuton – 座布団 floor cushion
  • fūrin – 風鈴 wind chime
  • furin – 不倫 adultery

Dictionary Love

I have the 1976 edition.

During my first years in Japan, my dictionaries were my constant companions. I had a few of them. There was the Nelson, for reading kanji. I used it so much that I had many of the bushu numbers memorized. To this day I can tell you that 140 is kusakanmuri.

Then there was the Green Goddess which is what we called the huge and heavy dark green Kenkyusha dictionary.

But it was that small J-E dictionary that I lived with, traveled with, and depended on daily. In my first couple of years in Japan I used it so much that it got very worn out and the cover was torn. It warped and started to unravel. It didn’t matter because the pages were so very thin that using the dictionary and wearing it out made it easier to use as the pages lost their pristine stickiness.

My sensei friend eyed my dictionary each time I pulled it out. One day he asked if he could have it. I had some mixed feelings about that. He was a professor of English. He wanted my dictionary to goad his students into studying more. Japanese college students were notorious for using college as four years of play after passing rigorous exams to enter college and after having learned as much in high school that an American would learn in the first couple of years in college. I knew he’d hold my dictionary up in class and tell his students that they should study until their dictionary looked as worn as mine. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of guilt-tripping a bunch of college students.

I was attached to my dictionary. But I also liked the guy. So, I told him that he could have my dictionary if he’d buy me a replacement. So off we went to a honya-san.

The new dictionary is no longer new….

I missed the old one, but adjusted to my new blue one, though the pages didn’t turn as quickly. I still have that blue dictionary. Even forty years later it isn’t as worn as my first dictionary because by that time I didn’t need a dictionary as much as before. But, I still smile when I pick up my blue dictionary. Physical things are always so much more precious when there’s a nice omoide attached!

  • kanji – 漢字 Chinese characters, also used by the Japanese and Korean peoples.
  • bushu – 部首 radical. Not that kind of radical, though. It indicates a part of the kanji that you use to find it in a dictionary.
  • kusakanmuri – 草冠 the radical for “grass.” Almost any flower is going to have it used.
  • Kenkyūsha – 研究社 a publishing house in Japan. They publish the huge J-E and E-J dictionaries that translators favor.
  • sensei – 先生 teacher
  • honya san – 本屋さん bookstore
  • omoide – 思い出 memory or memories. A word that is used very often in Japan as omoide are considered very precious.

Recipe Day

Japanese katei ryōri can be as easy or as difficult as you choose to make it. Cooking Japanese food outside of Japan means either substituting for many items, or limiting what you cook. And, if like me, you don’t live near one of the big Japanese markets, you’re out of luck, though I do have a small Japanese grocer an hour or so down the highway, so it’s not all bad. And in the summer there’s a Japanese farmer who sells at my local Japanese farmer’s market. Rakkī !

Today I have aspara. Coincidentally it is aspara season in Japan as well. How do I know this? Because I’m a long time reader of Japanese cooking magazines like Orenji Pēji and Retasu Kurabu. And there are always seasonal themes.

These magazines give you a good picture of what’s popular each month

The easiest thing I’m going to do with aspara is to grill it in the air fryer with shio/kosho and maybe a bit of remon. The second easiest is to grill it and then put katsuobushi on top with a little shōyu. Katsubushi keeps in the pantry and can be used in so many ways. The next easiest thing I’m going to do with grilled asparagus is to cut it prettily into inch-long pieces and pour a mixture of 1 tablespoon of dashi and 1/2 tablespoon of shōyu + 1/2 a teaspoon of mirin over it. And garnish with some ground sesame.


There are plenty of Japanese cooking sites out there that can do recipes better than I can. And if you have shōyu, sake, mirin, satō and rice vinegar, you’re pretty much set!

  • katei ryōri – 家庭料理 home cooking
  • Rakkī – ラッキー Lucky!!
  • aspara – アスパラ asparagus
  • Orenji Pēji – オレンジぺーじ Orange Page. The name of a popular women’s magazine that comes out twice a month. It’s fairly cheap and geared towards housewives and mothers.
  • Retasu Kurabu – レタスクラブ Lettuce Club. The name of a popular women’s magazine that comes out twice a month. It’s fairly cheap and geared towards housewives and mothers.
  • shio/kosho – 塩・胡椒 salt/pepper
  • remon – レモン lemon
  • katsuobushi – 鰹節 bonito flakes. Used in so many dishes and also to make dashi.
  • shōyu – 醤油 soy sauce. You need to memorize this term if you haven’t already. It’s a must know!
  • dashi – だし a Japanese broth used for miso soup and other cooking. You can buy instant or make your own.
  • mirin – みりん Is there English for mirin? I don’t think there is. It’s a kind of sweet sake used for cooking.
  • satō – 砂糖 sugar

I think it’s alive!

That’s what I thought the first time I saw the katsuobushi dancing!

The first time I ever saw and ate katsuobushi was the first time that I had okonomiyaki. This is a Japanese food that has recently appeared in America and is gaining some popularity. I guess you call it a savory pancake. Back in the day, some called it a Japanese pizza. It comes in all sorts of unGodly combinations now, but in the 1970s there were really only four kinds: pork, beef, shrimp, and squid or octopus. You’d sit at a table with a griddle in the middle and your waiter would bring you a bowl of ingredients with a tamago cracked over it. You had to mix it well before pouring it on to the griddle. Then you had to patiently wait until the right time to flip it. That was the hard part and required some bīru… because you’d be getting hot from the griddle no matter what the season.

When I went back to Kyoto in 2016, much had changed but this shop where I first ate okonomiyaki in 1976 was still there! Kind of amazing, really!

After you flipped it, you’d paint it with sauce, flecks of green seaweed and then the katsubushi which would immediately begin to dance. So, you know it is fish and surely it isn’t alive, but why the heck is it DANCING! It’s odd. The seaweed and sauce are content to just “be” but the katsuobushi dances for a while before settling down. It’s a little bukimi if you aren’t used to it.

It’s something to do with the heat. The daintily shaved flakes of bonito just can’t help themselves. Sprinkle them over any hot food and they will be dancing away, much to the amusement of children.

Since they keep well in the pantry, they are an essential and staple food in any Japanese household. Most people buy them in packs, but people used to shave them themselves, or get them freshly shaved from a vendor. If you ever can get them freshly shaved it is a real treat!

  • katsuobushi – 鰹節 bonito flakes. Used in so many dishes and also to make dashi.
  • okonomiyaki – お好み焼き a savory pancake that you cook on a grill. Osaka and Hiroshima are both famous for their versions.
  • tamago – たまご egg
  • bīru – ビール beer. If you don’t draw out that i sound you’ll be saying building instead of beer!
  • bukimi – 不気味 eerie, weird

Fake Summer

Here in Massachusetts, fake summer is upon us for a mere two days. Temperature in the nineties, but then we will return (hopefully) to the so-called futsū May otenki—though in our world futsū has ceased to exist.

There’s a Japanese word called “gokko.” It’s a suffix that you can add and it means to pretend something. The other morning I put together a typical Japanese mōningu setto for myself and did kissaten-gokko. If I can’t go to Japan right now, I can pretend I am in Japan. It’s a custom in my family.

My best imitation of a Japanese coffee shop breakfast

For example, when my kids were younger and we were living in the USA, we’d sometimes get a bootleg copy of the New Year’s Eve song program called Kohaku Uta Gassen. We’d gather in front of the tv at the kotatsu I brought back from Japan with Japanese snacks and a Japanese meal and do ōmisoka gokko. To do it properly, we’d need mikan of course….

After all, what’s a kotatsu without mikan?

Today, perhaps, I’ll go out and get my hatsu aisu kōhi and do natsu gokko. Because, come tomorrow we’ll be back in spring and since this is New England, even another frost is not out of the question!

  • futsū – 普通 normal, average, expected
  • otenki – お天気 weather
  • gokko – ごっこ pretend. A suffix used to indicate playing at something
  • mōningu setto – モーニングセット morning set. Often a special set served with coffee, toast and an egg and perhaps a small salad. There are infinite variations on this. It’s an economical choice as well.
  • kissaten – 喫茶店 coffee shop. but now refers to an old style coffee shop as opposed to a cafe. Us old folks like this style much better. Hipsters do not. Yet.
  • Kōhaku Uta Gassen – 紅白歌合戦 A big song contest that has been broadcast by NHK tv since 1953 on New Year’s Eve. It pits the men (white team) against the women (red team) and has huge viewership. It goes until almost midnight and then the scene solemnly switches to the chiming of temple bells all over Japan as the new year is welcomed.
  • kotatsu – 炬燵 a low table that is used as a heating device. More about that later.
  • ōmisoka – 大晦日 New Year’s Eve
  • mikan – みかん Japanese tangerines
  • hatsu – 初 first or beginning. Used to modify so many things. There’s hatsukoi 初恋, or first love and hatsumimi 初耳 or “first I’ve heard” which is literally first ear.
  • aisu kōhi – アイスコーヒー iced coffee
  • natsu – 夏 summer

Nakayoshi – Part 2

[As I typed the title for this post I had a sudden memory connected with “Part 2.” One of the most popular singers of the Showa Era was Yamaguchi Momoe. And she had a hit song called “Playback – Part 2.” Suddenly I’m compelled to see if there was ever a Part 1. Time to consult Ms. Google. Hah! There really was a Part 1. And now I know. Google it yourself if you’re interested.]

So, back to nakayoshi. Having consulted with my family therapist daughter, she allowed for the possibility that reminding children that they are nakayoshi might be a healthier way to stop a kenka.

Gratuitous photo of my nakayoshi kitties

Sometimes the very structure of a language can aid or hinder communication. There’s this:

When our family moved back to the USA my daughter had very little English speaking ability. We were in a large apartment complex and one day she saw a little girl around her age riding a sanrinsha. She wanted to see if she could borrow it. She asked me, “Mama, how do I say ‘kashite‘ in English?”


So simple in Nihongo, but all I could think of in Eigo was the unwieldy “Can I borrow your tricycle?” My daughter just stared at me. Too much English for her sansai self and she gave up right away.

Sweatshirts were torēnā in our house until the kids realized that other American kids didn’t use this term. They’d learned it in Japanese because the Japanese learned it from the Australians or the British? I’m not sure.

One day, when my daughter was in kindergarten in New Jersey, she came to me very excited.

“Mommy, guess what?! The word for orange juice is the same in Japanese and Korean!! orēnji jūsu!”

Gotta love the kids!

  • Yamaguchi Momoe – 山口百恵 one of the most popular singers who retired when she got married. All of Japan wept on that day.
  • nakayoshi – 仲良し good friends
  • kenka – 喧嘩 quarrel or fight
  • sanrinsha – 三輪車 tricycle
  • kashite – 貸して the imperative form of the verb ‘kasu’ which means ‘to lend.’ A casual way of asking. An adult might add a please to it.
  • Nihongo – 日本語 Japanese language
  • Eigo – 英語 English language
  • sansai – 三才 three years old
  • torēnā – トレーナー what we Americans call a sweat shirt
  • orenji jūsu – オレンジ ジュース orange juice

Nakayoshi – Part 1

Japanese honyakusha often talk about the untranslatable words and phrases. We all have our own thoughts on this and there are many that are commonly discussed. We struggle with giving a literal translation (sometimes misleading), a footnote (can get long-winded and cumbersome)—or an explanation when we first use the word in a given text. Because Nihongo has so many ways to write a given word it is very nuanced. And sometimes a word just gets adopted into English. Kawaii is one example. It means cute, but it evokes so much more than that in Japanese modern bunka.

A sign in a store in Kyoto that I photographed for just this reason

I have two new neko. They get along great and because one of them is a koneko there is a lot of mock fighting going on. He’s a strong kitten and sometimes the older one gets knocked around, perhaps a bit too much. This morning I found myself watching the roughhousing and saying to them “Nakayoshi, nakayoshi.” Since I learned my mothering skills in Japan, this phrase came out of my mouth naturally. It literally means “good friends.” But it also works as an admonishment to “stop fighting” to small children who are quarreling.

Sophie bopping Sammy on the head

I thought more about it and sent a text to my busy family therapist musume. I wanted to ask her opinion about this way of stopping a quarrel. It seems to me that it would be therapeutically better to stop a fight by reminding the kodomo that they are “good friends” rather than saying to stop doing something. Or am I going too deep here?

There is a lot about childrearing in Japan that I like. In my mind I’ve combined the best of American and Japanese practices. Not sure my kids would agree, but this is certainly one of the advantages of being bicultural. In Part II I will let you know what my daughter thinks. It is benri that she also understands Japanese and the nuances!

  • honyakusha – 翻訳者 translator. Honyaku usually refers to written translation and sha is a suffix for person. There is another word for interpreters.
  • Nihongo – 日本語 Japanese language. If you’ve been reading my blog religiously, you should already have this one down!
  • Kawaii – 可愛い If you use one word to translate it, it is “cute.” But it is simply so much more and has unique parameters which is probably why it has been exported from Japan as is in many cases.
  • bunka – 文化 culture
  • neko – 猫 cat(s)
  • koneko猫 kitten. Note that this is a combination of cat and the prefix for child. Now then, if you know that inu means dog, you can guess how to say puppy!
  • Nakayoshi, nakayoshi – 仲良し、仲良し Used like this toward children, it is meant as a reminder that you are good friends and to thus, stop quarreling. A nice way to admonish, I think!
  • musume – 娘 daughter or young woman
  • kodomo供 child
  • benri – 便利 convenient