Now why on earth would I say that? And to be clear, the rule only applies if you live in Kyoto and if you’re a true down-to-the-bone Kyotoite. And I wonder if today’s wakamono even know about this.
If you go to Nishiki Market now, you’ll see kyūri being sold on a stick as a snack. How refreshing and nice for a hot day, right? Even in jūichigatsu, my daughter enjoyed her cucumber greatly.
The problem with the cucumber, it seems, is the katachi that you see when you slice it. Apparently it resembles the crest of Yasaka Shrine. So, just as one might fast on Yom Kippur, or give up something for Lent, the people of Kyoto give up cucumbers for the month of July so that Gion Festival will come off successfully. Or, at least that’s one theory.
On another note, one hot summer in August I was visiting my in-laws and my giri no okāsan and I were preparing lunch. An old uncle came into the daidokoro and got alarmed to see the sōmen.
“Hosonagai no wa dame desu…” he said. His wife was very thin and ailing and giving her a very thin noodle would be bad luck.
One more. When I had my daughter in 1984 we were told at the hospital to eat white food to bring in our milk. But there’s a basis for this. The ideal white food would be omochi. Back in the day when food was scarce, mochi was a good way to get some nutrition, i.e. karorī. In fact, that’s why to this day, a bowl of udon with mochi in it is called Chikara Udon!
wakamono – 若者 young people
kyūri – きゅうり cucumber
jūichigatsu – 十一月 November
katachi – 形 shape, appearance
giri no okāsan – 義理のお母さん mother-in-law
daidokoro – 台所 kitchen
Hosonagai no wa dame desu – 細長いのは駄目です。”No long and thin foods, please.” My uncle considered this to be bad luck because the noodles could easily break, as could his wife’s health.
omochi – お餅 We know what this is, right?
karorī – カロリー calories or calorie
Chikara Udon -力うどん a type of udon that usually has a piece or two or mochi in it.
In America as well as Japan someone might idly ask you, “So, what are you cooking for dinner tonight?” I often ask this of my own musume, curious to know what she’s feeding my beloved mago and also curious to know what local foods she might be eating. In Japan, my neighbors often answered with “Reizōko to sōdan shimasu.”
I get the meaning, but it still makes me smile. You could translate that literally as “I will have a consultation with my refrigerator.” This is especially meaningful at the end of the month before a gekkyū rolls in. And it also is a good way to ensure that you don’t end up with rotting vegetables or oniku past its prime.
I think there are two ways to grocery shop. In America, where people shop less frequently than in Japan, my friends often make up a menu plan for the week and then buy based on what is needed to prepare these dishes. I’ve tried doing that, but I cannot. I also can’t shop just once a week, or heaven forbid, once every two weeks.
When I was living in Japan most people shopped for food daily or once every couple of days. Many women my age still do it that way. Food shops are conveniently located near train stations so you could come home from work or school and buy what you needed for yūhan on the way home. My homestay mother went to the same local shōtengai daily to shop. Why? Why daily?
One reason is that Japanese homes are small and thus storage, be it reizōko or pantry is very limited. Think of the kind of refrigerator that you might find in a dorm room. Now they sell bigger ones, but they are still narrow and are simply taller. But I believe many women are still shopping daily or three times or more a week. This is because you want to see what is shinsen, what is in season, what is on sale and what simply looks good. In theory one should always be eating with the seasons and that is reflected in both food and tableware. It’s a lovely way to cook and eat. There’s not a Japanese alive who couldn’t tell you what month bamboo is in season and what fish is eaten in the autumn. The closest we have to any of this would be a pumpkin spice latte. (I cringe.)
It’s the end of the month today and I did indeed consult with my refrigerator. Plenty of carrots, so I pulled some chikuwa from the freezer and made a stir-fry with soy sauce and sugar. What else? Oh, this is embarrassing. But I had some sad looking broccoli and a lot of celery. A knob of ginger appeared and I always have miso.
So I cut the celery into small pieces, zapped the broccoli, and sautéd both vegetables with the ginger in sesame oil, adding miso and mirin to make a sauce. Not bad! But I now have two very rich dishes so I’ll add rice (already cooking in my suihanki) and daikon pickles—and cut up some fruit to eat along with it. Oshimai!
There’s enough left over for tomorrow at which point I’ll cook up a dashimaki to go along with it.
And…it would not be at all out of character to see me thanking my refrigerator for this gochisō!
musume – 娘 daughter
mago – 孫 grandchild
reizōko – 冷蔵庫 refrigerator
to – と particle and or with
sōdan shimasu – 相談します to consult or to confer with, adding shimasu makes it a verb
gekkyū – 月給 monthly salary
oniku – お肉 meat
yūhan -夕飯 dinner. You can also call dinner bangohan. Maybe this is like supper and dinner?
shōtengai – 商店街 shopping street
shinsen – 新鮮 fresh
chikuwa – 竹輪. a tube shaped fish paste product. It’s cheap and easily found in Japan. And it tastes better than it sounds. Unfortunately, in America I can only get a frozen version.
suihanki – 炊飯器 rice cooker
Oshimai – お仕舞い Finished! Done! You could also use it to say “I call time.”
dashimaki – だし巻き a Japanese rolled omelette made with dashi.
gochisō -ごちそう a feast. Used to praise food not just for a real feast.
I’m a big fan of SMS and the internet. The ability to make connections, quickly find jōhō and verify old memories is invaluable to me. Thank you, world, for inventing such a great tool. I use it daily.
There’s a little resutoran near the Heian Shrine in Kyoto. Let’s call it S Restaurant. It’s an old style eatery that serves a setto breakfast and a wide variety of ippin ryōri during the day. You never know what you might find, be it a dish of Japanese poteto sarada, kitsune soba, hamburger with catsup spaghetti or ebi furai. It’s that type of restaurant that puts dishes out on a table or shelf and you can choose what you want on top of what you order. Nothing “extra” here. Plain old good food, but nothing gourmet, mind you.
S Restaurant does not have a website. It doesn’t have a facebook page or Instagram. It does have a denwa bango, but they don’t take reservations. It’s a neighborhood kind of place despite being near one of the top sightseeing spots.
You can’t pay with a credit card or your phone or any other way other than genkin. There’s no parking lot. Children are welcome, though. But it is what is known as a taishū shokudo. There used to be many of these in Kyoto, very similar to the cheap dives that catered to students—students who are now frequenting cafes and Starbucks.
So, how are you going to find S Restaurant? First off, you won’t find anything written in English about it (I checked). If you don’t speak or read Japanese and you walk by it, trust me, there’s no welcome sign for you. You have to do the work; learn the language.
Thanks to the internet, now anybody can become a Japan tsū. If you can’t read Japanese, presto… use Google translate and years of Japanese study become unnecessary. We live in the era of short cuts, instant gratification and instant expertise.
In 2016 I was astonished to see the multilingual signage in Kyoto. No more wondering about the history of a jinja or a street name’s pronunciation. Easy peasy. A wonderful boon to tourists. But for serious students of Japanese perhaps it might make them lazy since everything is done for them. I hope I’m wrong. Surely they are still huddled under their kotatsu memorizing kanji for hours upon hours. No?
So, I still think it is worth taking the time and making the effort to learn the language if you really want to know Japan. Or as they say, it’s not the destination, but the journey to get there. But hey, I’m just a grumpy old lady! Meanwhile, S Restaurant continues much the way it always has, hopefully never to be found in an article entitled “Top Ten Quaint Eateries of Kyoto.”
jōhō – 情報 information
resutoran – レストラン restaurant
setto – セット set, as in set menu
ippin ryōri - 一品料理 à la carte items
poteto sarada – ポテトサラダ potato salad (the Japanese version of the Western version of it)
kitsune soba – 狐そば a kind of soba dish with seasoned deep-fried tofu. One of the cheapest items on a menu.
ebi furai – エビフライ fried shrimp
denwa bango – 電話番号 telephone number. Literally telephone + number
genkin – 現金 cash
taishū shokudo - 大衆食堂 literally a “restaurant for the masses.” It describes the type of eatery that is simple, cheap, filling, unpretentious, and with no surprises. They seem to be few and far between these days.
tsū – 通 an expert or connoisseur. Often used as a suffix to indicate a subject one has expertise in.
jinja – 神社 Shinto shrine
kotatsu – 炬燵 a low table combined with a special futon that is used as a heating device
In the early 1980s I was working for a kaisha that provided English learning materials and lessons for Japanese speakers. I was teaching classes but I was also responsible for writing an original lesson for each weekly class. In order to do this, I’d work in their small jimusho in Ebisu alongside the department responsible for this. I hear that Ebisu is now known as a trendy area, but back then it was kind of a nothing-burger. There were five of us who worked there. Or rather they worked there full time and I came in twice a week.
They were a fun bunch of people. They all spoke some eigo having studied abroad at a time when it is less common than it is now. They were all interested in getting to know gaikokujin but were very relaxed about it. Gender roles were not especially important in that office and the men were fine with serving ocha along with the women. Our desks were arranged in a way that made conversation easy. And best of all was our osanji.
This was not a new concept to me. In fact, coincidentally, growing up, in my own home we called our snack “the three o’clock.” Note that sanji means three o’clock and in this case it takes the honofific ‘o.’ And it was serious business in that office.
Sometime between 2:30 and 3:00 PM someone, possibly our kachō, would say, “Osanji ni shimasho ka?” or “Kyō no osanji wa?” And then someone else would mention that we had cookies that a guest had brought the day before or that we had mikan someone had brought from home. But most of the time someone would head next door to the department store basement to buy some treats. Cake was a favorite of course.
When it was my turn I’d agonize over the many choices, how much I should spend, whether I was taking too long to decide, and if a variety or the same for everyone was a better idea. And then I’d make my request and get a beautifully wrapped box to take back to the jimusho.
The osanji is really a lovely idea. We’d all put down are work and talk about the news, our lives, the season, or anything else. It helped us bond, I guess you’d say. And it helped set the rhythm of our day as well.
kaisha – 会社 company, business
jimusho – 事務所 office (in a company or other place of work)
eigo – 英語 English (language)
gaikokujin – 外国人 foreigner, non-Japanese
ocha – お茶 tea, or more specifically Japanese tea
osanji – お三時 the honorable three o’clock, i.e. snack time
kachō – 課長 department head of a company
Osanji ni shimasho ka – お三時にしましょうか。 ”Shall we take a break and have a snack?”
Kyō no osanji wa? – 今日のおさん時は？”What are we having for a snack today?”
It’s both easy and muzukashii to celebrate American Thanksgiving in Japan. The easy part is finding a day for it. As it happens, there is a Japanese national holiday called Labor Thanksgiving that falls in November. So finding a day to cook and celebrate is easy. A nice coincidence!
Almost forty years ago I was living in Tokyo and regularly celebrated Thanksgiving with two other kazoku. Though we all lived in Tokyo, we were located far from each other at different ends. The three of us women were all Amerikajin and our husbands were Japanese. They had little in common but were resigned to American celebrations with us and the kodomotachi.
The year I hosted it required some amount of maneuvering. Japanese homes didn’t come with ovens, but we’d recently bought a very small one. How would a turkey even fit into it? That is, if I could even find a shichimenchō. It wasn’t a food that was eaten in Japan back then at all. So, I’d have to get on the train and go to the market that catered to the rich expat community. There were a couple, but Meidi-ya was where I thought I had the best chance.
So, I took a ruler and measured the inside of my ōbun. Then I stuck the ruler in my bag. Yes, I was going to have to measure any turkey I found! Stealthily of course. It would be a little embarrassing in front of the expat shoppers who all had American-style housing with big ovens, I imagined. So, there I was looking at turkeys, glancing around, and slipping the ruler out of my bag. Done! I had a nice five pound turkey.
But wait! How did I even know if it was a turkey? Maybe it was really a chicken. I’d never seen a five pound turkey in America. Did they have turkeys that small? At any rate, I bought it, cooked it, and it was a success.
The Japanese husbands politely ate their meal each year. After one such dinner, when we were walking back to the train station one of the Japanese husbands turned to the other and said, “Do you want to stop for ramen?” I guess it just didn’t feel like enough for them, though we all felt stuffed. And my own mother would put soy sauce on the table for my husband at the Thanksgiving meal, knowing that the entire meal was not his favorite.
My very first Thanksgiving in Japan was when I was in the Associated Kyoto Program (AKP) in the autumn of 1976. Our director had secured an invitation from the American Consulate in Kobe (Now relocated to Osaka) to join them for their celebration. Nobody said anything about how we should dress and most of us were in our jeans, flannel shirts and hiking boots. We took the train to Kobe and it started to rain. By the time we arrived at the Consulate, we were soaking wet… and still dressed in our jeans and flannel shirts. You might imagine the state of our hiking boots!
We entered the ballroom (I swear that is what it looked like!) like a swarm of maggots. The other guests were in evening gowns and fancy dress. They were older established types and people of status. We were in elite company.
More importantly to us was the incredible spread of food. Most of us made a beeline to the buffet tables. It was a little surprising to see sushi at Thanksgiving but it was an array of food the likes of which you’ve never seen before. (Sorry, but that is how T–P would describe it and he’d be right for once in his life.)
I got a little curious about OUR impact on these fancy folks. I went on Facebook to the alum group for AKP and asked. Had any other years gone to the consulate for Thanksgiving? The answer was no. I guess the Consulate didn’t invite our program back ever again. Can’t really blame them….
muzukashii – 難しい difficult
kazoku – 家族 family
Amerikajin – アメリカ人 American (person or persons)
kodomotachi – 子供達 children, i.e. more than one
shichimenchō – 七面鳥 turkey
ōbun – オーブン oven. There is no V sound in Japanese so it usually converts to a B sound.
I was ecstatic when a Mr. Donut came to Kyoto and it was in easy bike-riding distance to my geshuku. With all that good Japanese food and pastry, you might wonder why I’d be so ureshii. Well, (as they say in Fiddler on the Roof) let me tell you.
At a certain point in your stay in Japan, you get cravings for tabemono from home. It might be a craving for a food that you genuinely miss, but sometimes it is for something really silly or minor. Certainly there were no donuts in Kyoto back then that were American style. You could find small soy milk donuts at the Nishiki Market, but I could not relate.
It wasn’t like I had really patronized donut chains in the US, but in my last year of daigaku, I lived in a house with one of my professors, and each Sunday morning he’d go out and pick up a copy of the Sunday New York Times and a box full of donuts. So, who wouldn’t indulge given that combination?!
My children want to correct me when I say Mr. Donut. First off, they are so used to Dunkin Donuts that they doubted it existed. But I remember when I lived in the Boston area and you’d see both chains.
Back to Kyoto. One of the great miryoku of Mr. Donut on the corner of Kawaramachi and Imadegawa street (university student territory for sure) was a bottomless cup of coffee. Refills! That didn’t exist in Japan at the time, though it was normal in America. Sure, it wasn’t the best coffee, but sometimes with coffee quantity is what really matters. The donuts were fresh and oishii. My favorites then were the French cruller and the cinnamon donuts. When I have a certain repetitive dream of donuts (blush) it always involves cinnamon donuts. And finally, it was open at all hours. If I am remembering correctly, it might have been a 24 hour operation. That meant that when I had jet lag and was up at 2 AM, I could have breakfast there.
When I moved to Tokyo my donut habit continued. Sweet potato donuts! Mr. Donut was getting into the local scene and Japanese flavors began to show up. I was a fan and so were my kids. In fact we talk about the sweet potato donuts to this day. When I look at today’s choices in Japan, though, I think they are very overdone and way too sweet. But, that is just me.
If you travel to Japan, don’t be shy about trying out a chain restaurant from the States. There will be surprises for sure!
geshuku – 下宿 lodgings
ureshii – 嬉しい happy
tabemono – 食べ物 food
Nishiki Market – 錦場 Google it, if you don’t know it. It’s a famous food shopping street in downtown Kyoto. It might be more famous for being crowded than for food at this point, but admittedly, you have to visit it.
Who me? Was I a kahogo mom? My daughter and I were touring the after-school care center she’d be attending. She was in first grade and I was a working mother. The local government ran these gakudō kurabu so that kids didn’t have to be home alone after school got out. They accomodated first through third graders. Any child older than that was on their own. And this Gakudō Club made sure they were ready to be on their own by then.
They were just getting ready to have oyatsu and invited us to sit down with them. We were served glasses of cold tea by a second grade boy. Some of the girls were peeling the ringo that we’d eat. Yes, you read that right. In Japan apples always get peeled and a knife is used to do it, hopefully in one strip as you’d go round and round. And there in front of our eyes CHILDREN were using knives.
“Oh, doesn’t Shana know how to use a knife to peel an apple?” asked one worker.
“She’s SIX,” I wanted to respond indignantly. Instead I just murmured something about different customs. We’d just moved back to Japan after three years in America.
My daughter was wide-eyed at that one. And she could see these kids were really takumashii.
After we had our snack it was time for chores. Another surprise. The kids went in to clean the bathrooms!
The head of the center explained to me that these kids had two working parents so they needed to learn life skills so that they could help around the house. There was no coddling here of either children or parents. They were raising self-sufficient kids. Everything they did was based on learning a skill. So different from after-school care in America where kids were more apt to get extras such as art lessons or drama.
The children would go home at 6 PM. Parents did not pick up their kids. Some parents still wouldn’t be home, but the kids all had house keys. The kids walked home, often in the dark. They’d walk in groups, dropping each kid at their home and cheerfully saying goodbye. As luck, or no luck would have it, my daughter lived the furthest from the center and would be walking the last three blocks by herself. Gulp.
The second furthest away was another first grade onna no ko. Her mother was divorced so it was just the two of them. And her mother worked late, so sometimes she’d come back with my daughter. One evening she announced that she’d cook bangohan for the four of us (my son was two years old at the time). A six year old was offering to cook dinner for us… Okay.
And she did. Eggs, I think, and maybe a salad. She managed the whole thing on her own without my help. Very sugoi! My own daughter was amazed.
Now, what can we learn from this? I tried hard not to coddle my children and they both did their own laundry from the time they were in first grade or so. When my son went off to daigaku he was shocked that there were students that had never done sentaku before and didn’t know how to use a washing machine.
And this is just another reason why I am so deeply grateful that I got to raise my kids in two different cultures!
kahogo – 過保護 overprotective
gakudō kurabu – 学童クラブ after school care for kids with working parents
oyatsu – おやつ a snack, used mostly for children. Adults might take a midafternoon break and call it “osanji” or a “3 o’clock.”
If you want to know the deep dark mysteries of Japanese bunka and all of the intrinsic intrigue of the Orient, just look to a piece of tōsuto.
No… I’m just joking. But I do have another toast story to tell.
When I worked as a honyakusha in Tokyo I had a myriad of small jobs to do, some more interesting than others and some more fukuzatsu than others. There were the instructions for building a bridge in Malaysia. That was a terribly mismatched ask. What do I know or understand about engineering? I had no business working on that translation. Then there was the hon I translated called Dead Speak of War which was a book of wartime photos of… you guessed it… dead bodies. I was to translate the captions. They were pretty simple captions like “Dead man under a tree” etc. But they said they weren’t going to give me the photos… just the text. This was a huge problem because the Japanese language has no plurals. I needed the shashin so I could know if it was one body or more. It may have been “Dead men under a tree” for all I knew. Atama ga itai!
In comparison, the job for Nikko Hotels seemed relatively kantan. I was to translate memos between the head office in Tokyo and the newly opened branch of Nikko Hotel in New York City that was owned by Japan Airlines. Memos… how hard could that be? And indeed it was one of my easier jobs until…. tōsuto.
A translator is supposed to be invisible. The translator’s job is to faithfully transmit the contents of a document just as it is. Now, a literary translator has some latitude. They can even use footnotes… judiciously of course. But a business translator has no business doing any interpreting of the content. The facts, ma’am just the facts. And this is how I got caught squirming in the Great Toast Debate.
It started with a complaint. Japanese kankōkyaku in New York City said that the toast at the hotel was burnt. Consistently, burnt. Headquarters sent a memo ordering the kitchen staff in New York to stop burning the toast. New York replied that the toast most certainly wasn’t burnt. But monku kept coming from the Japanese tourists. The toast was burnt on BOTH sides, they claimed. Headquarters sent yet another request to the kitchen staff. New York was annoyed. And, adamant that the toast was properly toasted. (And delicious.) They were not receiving a single complaint from any American patrons of the hotel. They rested their case.
Tokyo was not happy. They demanded to know exactly how the toast was being toasted and why they were toasting it so it was crisp on BOTH sides. New York was baffled. Because… because…. IT IS TOAST!
The thing is, I could have solved this in a second. The New York staff had no idea what Japanese expectations of toast were. And Tokyo had no idea what American expectations of toast were. (And there was no Google around back then.) But I was a young translator and did not think I had any options. I tentatively wrote a note of explanation and included it with one of my translations. There was no response.
So, I’m finding it amusing that Americans are now discovering Japanese “milk bread” and the joys of Japanese toast.
I will now spare you a Toast – Part 3 about how my American (a New Yorker) mother learned that she could order toast in Japan easily by putting an “o” at the end of the word—and then proceeded to put “o’s” at the end of every English word any time she felt a need to communicate while in Japan….
bunka – 文化 culture
tōsuto – トースト toast
honyakusha – 翻訳者 translator
fukuzatsu – 複雑 complicated, complex
hon – 本 book
shashin – 写真 photograph
Atama ga itai! – 頭が痛い Literally, “my head hurts.” Also used for “What a headache!”
Why is it that there are some memories that stay so vividly in our mind, though there is nothing particularly notable about them?
I wonder if it is the combination of elements that are forming the memory? I think of a day in the autumn in Kyoto, when I walked down from my apāto in Midorogaike and into a kissaten that was one of the few nearby at that time. I didn’t go there very often, perhaps because it was not the cheapest place I knew. But they had the most oishiishinamon tōsuto on that very thick Japanese pan, crisped to perfection and then with butter and an even layer of cinnamon sugar.
When I think of the perfect cinnamon toast this place comes to mind… and I regularly ordered cinnamon toast at coffee shops all over Kyoto.
Grumpy Grandma Note Follows
(Unfortunately--in my opinion--simple toast is hard to find now! There seems to be a tendency to dollop it with whipped cream, anko, sequins (okay, just kidding) etc. I had to go into an old-style coffee shop--i.e. not a cafe--to find what I wanted during my trip back in 2016.)
As I slowly savored my toast in that Midorogaike coffee shop and gazed aimlessly out the mado and around the room, the BGM changed to Barbra Streisand singing, “Woman in Love” and it created the perfect moment for me.
But why? I do not remember if I was in love with anyone that day or even if I had a crush. But the moment is inscribed in my memory forever it seems.
apāto -アパート apartment
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.
I’m so grateful that Japanese satsumaimo have appeared on the scene in America. My Whole Foods has them and my local Japanese farmer has them as well. If you haven’t seen them, the most notable feature is that the inside is a pale kiiro rather than orange. If you scratch the surface of a satsumaimo you can see the color inside and assure yourself that you have the Japanese variety.
Satsumaimo sings in the season. Literally. One of the more nostalgic sounds of autumn and upcoming fuyu comes from the trucks roaming city and suburb streets selling roasted satsumaimo. In the winter you buy it as you walk home from the train station, firstly to warm your te as you walk and secondly to eat. Roasted satsumaimo are the best.
And then there are the daigaku imo that you see being sold in tiny shops that may or may not sell other sweets. I’ve never liked them, but I know they are pieces of sweet potato deep fried and dipped in sugar or honey. Why daigaku, which means university?
It turns out that they were first sold near universities in Tokyo or areas where university students lived. Students back then were notoriously poor and couldn’t afford much. So this was an affordable and filling snack for them. These days students seem much wealthier, but everyone still likes satsumaimo.
One of my children’s favorite books featured satsumaimo and a farting contest. Because if you eat a lot of them, you get pretty gassy. In this book the children eat as many as they can and then use their onara to rise into the sky.
Last week I was in Cambridge and had access to an Asian pastry shop. And yes, the only thing I wanted was sweet potato pastry. Note the black sesame seeds that you also see on the daigaku imo. They just seem to go together with satsumaimo. Tengoku!
satsumaimo – サツマイモ sweet potato. Literally a potato from Satsuma
kiiro – 黄色 yellow
fuyu – 冬 winter
te – 手 hand or hands
daigaku imo – 大学芋 sweet potatoes deep fried with either sugar or honey. A favorite treat of students
onara – おなら fart
Tengoku – 天国 Heaven. Used in this case much as “heavenly!”