Smart & Cheap Japan Travel

A Case of OCD or Pure Genius?

May 30, 2010
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Just recently I published a post on the Japanese smoking and gambling epidemics. As I mentioned, almost 40% of men and 12% of women in Japan smoke today. Japanese laws now ban smoking in train stations, office buildings (except in designated rooms) and even on some streets, thus refining the constantly sought-after harmony in Japanese society between the smokers and non-smokers. Recent developments, however, could potentially facilitate cigarette smoking everywhere and anywhere, without ruffling anyone’s feathers. Impossible? Think again.

Just when I was ready to announce that the ultra-light 1mg-nicotine cigarettes and the “Kagi-tabacco” or “Snuff” (cigarettes in powder form for inhaling without smoking) were the pinnacle of Japanese ingenuity, Japan Tobacco (JT) announces the release of smoke-free, fire-less cigarettes.

These are shaped like regular cigarettes, but contain replaceable, specially designed cartridges of tobacco leaves and other flavoring ingredients. One cartridge lasts somewhere between half a day to an entire day, and the mouthpiece is reusable – This is perhaps more of a groundbreaking environmental invention than a technological breakthrough. Think of all the cigarette buds thrown away and the amount of CO2 released every single day with conventional smoking!

Since a part of cigarette addiction could be attributed to the habit of actually holding a cigarette, this new product allows people to get that satisfaction without the negative externalities imposed on others. Cigarettes are also a social accessory; going out for a smoke with a co-worker during a hectic day at the office is a crucial social interaction, providing a sense of comradeship and solidarity in Japanese culture. And when taking off early is frowned upon at the office, why not pass the time with hourly delicious, healthy cigarette breaks?

The “Zero-Style Mints” are currently sold for a budget price of 400 Yen including four cartridges, or 300 Yen with two cartridges. Assuming heavy smokers go through a pack of regular cigarettes a day (or two days at most), the new smoke-free, fire-less product seems to be much more economical. Could this be the turning point for Japan’s stagnant economy? Or would this exacerbate the aging of the Japanese population as people inhale less smoke into their lungs? Personally, I just don’t want to come home from a bar smelling like an ash tray anymore.

For Those Cold Winter Nights – Oden

May 28, 2010
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In today’s world of dreary sandwiches, and canned and frozen food, conventional Japanese cuisine has come up as a blessing to people. Refined and elegant, the Japanese gastronomy is considered as one of the best all over the world. Japanese food items have evolved greatly over the past centuries owing to several political as well as social changes. Whereas much of conventional Japanese cuisine was influenced  by the Chinese and Korean cultures in ancient times, Japanese cookery transformed with time, bringing in new flavors and tastes. One of the more traditional foods, “Oden” is a perfect, healthy fusion of the simplicity and distinct tastes of Japanese cooking.

Oden is eaten mostly during winter season in Japan. It is a special type of Japanese stew which incorporates boiled eggs, yam cake, daikon radish, fish cakes, and more. The ingredients are cooked in a kelp-based stock for many hours. Oden is all about the various ingredients soaking for long hours in the soup, making each and every one of them juicer than the next, extracting hot soup that gradually warms your body with every bite you take on those cold nights.

At home, Oden is often prepared in a central big pan on a table, making it yet another ideal dish to merrily eat around the table with friends or family. Once prepared, Oden is usually served with “Karashi,” essentially Japanese hot mustard. Some even include a bit of Karashi on every bite. There are other Oden-specific sauces that the Japanese use as well.

Though it is quite easy to prepare Oden, the soup base and boiling time can make a significant impact on the outcome. There are many specialty Oden vendor shops and Oden restaurants in Japan where you can enjoy this traditional dish during your Japan travel, including 24-7 convenient stores like Family Mart. Because of different habits, various parts of Japan may have their unique styles of preparing Oden, so go ahead and experiment with different soup elements.

The Eternal Battle: Shabu-Shabu vs. Yakiniku

May 24, 2010

Popularly known as the ‘Land of Rising Sun’, Japan is a vibrant country that offers infinite options for eager holidaymakers and adventurous travelers. As I have always claimed, the most important aspect of Japanese travel is its huge culinary variety. Many scrumptious dishes of this country are popular across the world for their amazing flavor and serving style, but since most people are familiar with and/or have tried only sushi (and perhaps the dishes I’ve described in earlier posts), I would like to announce a fresh culinary battle: Shabu-Shabu vs. Yakiniku. These two Japanese food items are guaranteed to leave you mesmerized till the next time you travel in Japan (yes, there will most definitely be a next time).

Shabu-Shabu, literally translating to “swish-swish,” is an item where thinner, usually higher quality slices of meat are “swished” momentarily inside large pots containing steaming water, or seaweed (“combu”), or salt based soup. They are instantly cooked, after which they are dipped into one of many sauces, “tare,” to choose from – vinegar, sesame, salt, and more. As usual, a bowl of hot white rice cooked to perfection is always there, held in the palm of your free hand – or in my case gulped down immediately and waiting for seconds. Besides the meat, Shabu-Shabu restaurants offer seafood and vegetables as well to cook inside the pots. When done eating, if still hungry and/or drunk, it is a Japanese custom to add rice or noodles to the now rich tasting soup to finish off the meal – and fight off the following day’s hangover.

Japanese Shabu-Shabu Shabushabu 3

Japanese Shabu-Shabu

Japanese Shabu-Shabu Shabushabu 2

Japanese Shabu-Shabu

Japanese Shabu-Shabu Shabushabu Sauces Tare

Japanese Shabu-Shabu: The Sauces (Tare)

Yakiniku is another popular Japanese way of preparing bite sized meat and veggies on griddles. It is actually a Korean-style barbecue, thus more widely known. With Yakiniku, translating to “fried meat,” small pieces of meat (not as thin as Shabu-Shabu), mainly beef and pork, together with raw vegetables are cooked on a grill platter throughout the period of meal, few pieces at a time. Then, these mouth-watering chunks of meat are plunged in the sauce/tare, which is made of soy sauce mixed with fruit juice, garlic, sugar and sake. Once prepared, Yakiniku is served with….yep, rice, as well as with Korean side dishes like Yukhoe and Kimchi. This luscious Japanese dish goes oh too well with beer – be careful.

Japanese Yakiniku BBQ Barbeque 1

Japanese Yakiniku

Japanese Yakiniku BBQ Barbeque 2

Japanese Yakiniku

Japanese Yakiniku BBQ Barbeque 3

Japanese Yakiniku

Due to the increasing popularity of these two culinary items of Japan, sometimes it seems like there is a sort of competition going on between the two, but perhaps I could be making that up to dramatize things. That being said, they do compete for the same niche of party or celebration meals, as both are relatively expensive (Shabu-Shabu more than Yakiniku). Interestingly, some people prefer Shabu-Shabu for lunch, while leaving Yakiniku for dinner. I would say that Yakiniku and Japanese restaurants serving it are more tourist-friendly, and many relate more to the stronger taste of fried BBQ meat. On the other hand, you would have to look much harder than your local Korea-town for an authentic Shabu-Shabu experience.

So, what will it be?

National Japanese Pastimes: Pachinko and Smoking

May 19, 2010
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According to the website, 38.9% of men and 11.9% of women in Japan smoke today. Although the percentage of smoking amongst Japanese men has dropped from its 83.7% peak in the 80’s, Japan still remains one of the heavy-smoking industrialized countries. The numbers for women are even more alarming, as they have not dropped at all in the long-term. In fact, I have personally observed that while there may not be more Japanese females who smoke, they certainly smoke much more, now that it is significantly less taboo for them to do so in Japanese society (and perhaps because they now occupy similar stressful job positions as men).

The continuous drop in smokers probably has to do partially with strict enforcement of laws prohibiting smoking in office buildings (except designated smoking rooms), train stations, and other public areas – including entire streets! Yes, you could find yourself walking down an ordinary, quiet street during your travels in Japan and be asked to turn off the cigarette in case you tried to light up. I’ve never seen anything like it in any other place.

Although I firmly believe that the way to combat smoking is in creating alternative positive incentives, images and role models (mostly sports-related) instead of taxing and banning, the almost ridiculous price of cigarettes in Japan could be playing a significant role in the Japanese smoking epidemic – especially teen smoking. Despite recent tax surges, a pack today goes for around $4, which in the Japanese economy is still very affordable, and allows easy access to almost anyone.

That being said, every Japanese cigarette vending machine offers a vast selection of smokes, in terms of nicotine content. If we accept the conclusion of studies that negatively correlate the addictiveness of cigarettes with the amount of nicotine in them, it’s fantastic that you can find 1mg cigarettes as opposed to only the regular 4-6mg and up. (The addictiveness depends, according to these studies, on genetics as well, meaning 1mg could be just as addictive for some.)

Cigarettes may be harmful physically, but many Japanese lose their souls to gambling. Certain polls ( show that 60% of the Japanese have tried Pachinko in the past, and 12% still play regularly (18% in other polls). Pachinko is a legal gambling game, in which you insert small metal balls into a vertical pinball-like machine, where they jump around until they fall at the bottom. (See Pachinko Photograph.) Pachi-Slot is a cross between Pachinko and slot machines – 8% of the population in Japan is currently addicted. The image of people glued to their plastic chairs, hours on end, inside huge Pachinko parlors with endless rows of these machines, deafening cacophony, and suffocating cigarette smoke, is something to be witnessed by every Japan traveler. There are over 12,000 of these places throughout Japan!

Stress is a part of the Japanese way of life just as Starbucks is for New Yorkers (though it could be that the Japanese are catching up on that one). They work long hours and have strict etiquette and societal norms, but take pride in their way of doing things. Some steam, of course, must be blown off. Whether cigarette smoking and Pachinko are national pastimes and simply part of who the Japanese people are, or instead harmful and unwanted epidemics, are for you to decide.

Japanese Pachinko

Japanese Pachinko

Okonomiyaki – The Japanese Pancake That Has It All

May 13, 2010
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An attractive, prosperous and busy city, Hiroshima is the home to a plethora of sightseeing destinations and so attracts thousands of travelers from all over the world. Your visit to Hiroshima, Japan is incomplete without enjoying several of its regional food specialties. Okonomiyaki, literally meaning “fry what you like,” is the most flavorsome item of Japan, specifically in Western parts of the country. Though it is not easy to describe how it exactly looks like, you can view it as something sandwiched between pancake and pizza.

The pancake mix is based on spring onion, flour, cabbage (the secret ingredient), and egg, but the best thing is that you are free to add anything that you like – hence the name. Most often, you will find squid and pork Okonomiyaki in Japanese restaurants, but a few also offer special toppings like rice cake, cheese, shrimp and beef, or all of the above. It’s definitely a low-budget food so go ahead and pig out.

Japanese Okonomiyaki Mix

Japanese Okonomiyaki Mix

You can prepare this extremely luscious item in two ways – Hiroshima style and Osaka style. While the more mainstream Osaka style fries the mixture and toppings all together inside the pan, in Hiroshima the constituents are not mixed up, but rather cooked separately and only then combined. In Hiroshima, each and every constituent is first piled in order and then noodles are placed in between.

Japanese Okonomiyaki Bacon

Japanese Okonomiyaki with Bacon

Sauce has its own importance in the food item. The sauce color is dark brown and the taste is crisp, which many add on the Okonomiyaki together with mayonnaise. When the dish is all ready, an egg is sometimes cracked on a griddle and it gets rolled over the top of the Okonomiyaki. To add more to the taste, it is recommended to sprinkle dried bonito flakes and nori (seaweed) at the end. Noodles make an important ingredient of the dish, and so are included usually as well.

Japanese Okonomiyaki with Sauce

Japanese Okonomiyaki with Sauce

Most interestingly, Okonomiyaki is more of a cultural thing than a Japanese culinary treat. Since Okonomiyaki cooking is entirely free-style and involves a central pan into which anybody can throw practically any topping, “Okonomiyaki Parties” are quite popular. These normally include a good amount of alcohol, Okonomiyaki till you pop, and some Japanese entertainment:

Japanese Okonomiyaki Entertainment Usavich

This was our entertainment at the Okonomiyaki Party - Check out

When traveling in Japan, make sure you never decline an invitation to an Okonomiyaki party, or at least order one of these Japanese pancakes at a restaurant (the cheap price without doubt underestimates their heavenly taste). Or, just hop on a Shinkansen bullet train and have some of the famous Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki. There’s actually an entirely multiple-story building dedicated to it, packed with small, budget-friendly Okonomiyaki shops.

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    Born in Tokyo. Lived, worked, and traveled in Japan for over a decade combined. Author of the book, "All-You-Can Japan: Getting the Most Bang for Your Yen" -

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