We visited Osaka (pronounced O-saka rather than o-SAR-ka) on our very first trip to Japan many years ago. We had already spent time exploring Tokyo, Hakone and Kamakura and it was following an afternoon and evening in Osaka, exploring the neon arcades and playing video games, taking silly photos in the print club booths, riding the Hep 5 big wheel and singing our socks off in a karaoke bar (where you get a private booth rather than have to sing in front of complete strangers), that we realised that we had fallen in love with Japan. The following day we visited the Dotonbori area in the Namba district and discovered Osaka’s restaurants. We decided that Osaka was our favourite place in the world.
We’ve returned to Osaka many times over the years and we always make a beeline for Dotonbori. We’ve often stayed in business hotels close by. It’s a short walk away from the JR Namba Station Exit 14 (Yamatoji line), which is especially useful if you are using your JR Pass. Be aware that Namba is a big station. If you are arriving on the shinkansen (bullet train) you can get there from Shin-Osaka using the subway Midosuji line to Shinsaibashi Exit 4-B. (N.B. you can’t use your JR Pass on the subway.)
Osaka is known for being one of Japan’s centres of commerce, indeed there’s a phrase that many salarymen use as a greeting: ‘mokari makka’ which means ‘are you making money?’ The residents of Osaka speak Kansai Ben, the dialect of the region. It’s quite different to the Japanese we’ve learned in classes. For example, Osaka residents will say, ‘okini’ as thanks instead of ‘arigato’; although arigato will absolutely be understood you may well receive a big smile if you use ‘okini.’
Dotonbori means ‘Doton Canal’ and the history of the area goes back several hundred years to 1612 when Yasui Doton, a local merchant, started constructing a canal system in the area to link the Kizugawa river to the Umezu river. However, he was killed in 1615 during the Siege of Osaka and his cousins completed the canal project, naming it after Doton. Following completion, the area thrived, trade increased due to the better transportation along the canal and Dotonburi became an entertainment district, with theatres, teahouses and restaurants. It’s a fantastic place to visit, especially for foodies!
The district is defined by street between the Dotonboribashi Bridge to Nipponbashi Bridge. Probably the most iconic image of the area is that of the Glico running man – and it’s essential to see him at night, brightly lit in neon. Glico is a sweet manufacturer established in 1922 and famous across Japan. They are probably best know for those delicious Pocky coated biscuit sticks.
Dotonbori is one street, but actually the surrounding streets are also full of excellent bars and restaurants. We’ve had some of our best nights out in Osaka by wandering into random bars in the area. Locals and tourists alike are very friendly and we’ve often just started chatting with people. There was one particularly memorable night when a pair of airline pilots decided to buy Jagermeister bombs (a Jagermeister shot inside a glass of Red Bull) for the denizens of the entire bar which resulted in a highly caffeinated boozy evening and us sleeping in so late that we missed much of a planned excursion to Kobe the following day!
Osaka Restaurants Japan
The word ‘kuidaore’ means to go bankrupt by extravagant spending on food and Dotonbori would be a place where you could have a really good attempt at achieving this as it is chock full of excellent restaurants.
One thing to remember when visiting cities in Japan is to look up! In the UK most shops and restaurants are located at ground level but Japan is a country with high rise buildings. Very often shops and restaurants will be located on multiple levels within the same building. You will often see boards outside the building advertising various emporia: F1, F2 etc to go up, B1, B2 etc to go down. (N.B. floor levels in Japan match the American model where the ground floor is called the first floor, unlike in the UK where the ‘ground floor’ is at street level and the next floor up is the ‘first floor’.)
Essential Osaka Restaurants Japan
Takoyaki – The Best Street Food
Takoyaki is quintessential Osaka street food. It comprises spherical octopus pieces in a batter which are cooked en masse in a griddle.
The takoyaki maker expertly and deftly turns each octopus ball by hand so that they are cooked evenly.
Served with mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce (which is similar to brown sauce) and bonito flakes (skipjack tuna flakes shaved to wafer thin slices – which are rich in umami and are often used to make Japanese dashi stock), which undulate gently in the heat of the takoyaki. You just have to wait a little while before scoffing because they will be extremely hot as soon as they come out of the griddle.
Okonomiyaki – As You Like It
Okonomiyaki, which translates as ‘as you like it’, is often described as a cross between a pancake and a pizza. It’s a cabbage based batter (but don’t let that put you off – it’s really delicious) with multiple fillings and toppings. Some establishments have a chef prepare the okonomiyaki, others will let you sit at the griddle and you can cook it yourself.
The basic batter mixture is prepared and cooked on the griddle.
Then you have a choice of toppings – meat and prawns are popular choices and veggie options, such as kimchi are also available.
The okonomiyaki will be garnished with a variety of yummy things, including mayo, okonomiyaki sauce (similar to takoyaki sauce/brown sauce), flakes of nori seaweed and those delightful undulating bonito flakes. Chilli sauce may also be available. The chef will embellish your okonomiyaki in the most delightful way. And of course, when the chef asks you what garnish you would like, the correct answer is EVERYTHING!
Fugu – Dare You Try Puffer Fish?
Fugu is the fish that has a formidable reputation – it’s the puffer fish, parts of which are deadly poison particularly the liver, the ovaries, eyes, and skin. The toxin basically paralyses you and you asphyxiate while still conscious. Not very nice at all.
But fugu is also a prized delicacy. The non-poisonous bits are fine to eat but absolutely can only be prepared by a licenced chef who has trained for several years. You can eat fugu all over Japan but it was at Zubora-ya, with its highly distinctive sign comprising a giant pufferfish lantern outside the restaurant, that we first tasted this fearsome fish.
We thoroughly enjoyed a set menu at Zubora-ya – sushi and sashimi is the conventional way to enjoy fugu. It has a mild flavour and a firm texture that is something like a cross between squid and monkfish. It was delicious. And we survived!
Sadly, Zubora-ya had to close during the pandemic and has not reopened.
Kani – Crab Heaven
Kani Doraku is another distinctive restaurant which has a model of a giant crab waving its pincers on the outside wall, beckoning you inside (well, that’s our interpretation!).
We have eaten here several times and always had a hugely enjoyable meal. Again, it’s a multi-storey building and, depending on how busy it is you may eat within the restaurant or be taken to a private room with tatami mat flooring and a telephone. The telephone was a bit daunting first time around but we picked up the phone and said, ‘kite kudasai,’ (please come here) and someone came along to take our order – which largely involved pointing at a picture menu. Even though it’s a large restaurant it’s very popular these days so it’s worth booking. There are actually multiple restaurants of this chain along Dotonbori, so check out the others if the first one you try is full. (The most popular is closest to the Glico Man.) The set menus aren’t cheap but they are good value and the food is utterly delicious.
We’ve enjoyed crab sushi and sashimi, crab chawan mushi (steamed egg custard), crab tempura and crab gratin with a clear soup and matcha ice cream for dessert. Utterly delicious.
Osaka Restaurants Japan – Other Dotonbori Establishments
There are loads of other restaurants along Dotonbori and the surrounding area. Kuidaore was an enormous eight storey restaurant founded in 1949. It was recognisable by its iconic Kuidaore Taro Clown, a vaguely creepy mechanical drumming puppet at the entrance. Sadly it closed some years ago but the building was populated by different shops and restaurants in what’s now known as the Nakaza Cui-daore Building.
If you like ramen noodles (and who doesn’t?) there are three Kinryu restaurants along the street. Kinryu translates as ‘golden dragon’ and the restaurants can easily be found by their distinctive dragons on the hoardings above the shopfront.
And even the standard restaurants on Dotonbori, those without the amazing neon signs, are worth checking out. One of the great things about dining in Osaka – and indeed throughout Japan – is that you don’t need to speak or read Japanese. Many restaurants will have an English, Chinese or Korean menu and those that don’t will often have a picture menu or, better, realistic models of the food in the window, usually with prices. You can take a photo of your desired dish or even take your food server outside and point to the dish you want.
The models of the food are surprisingly realistic and many are made in Osaka. We managed to find a shop that sold them but they are hideously expensive, so we treated ourselves to a couple of sushi fridge magnets as a souvenir.
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Fried chicken is one of life’s great pleasures. And Japanese fried chicken karaage is no exception. In Japan, it is a tradition to eat fried chicken from KFC on Christmas Day before the traditional new year celebrations commence. However, we feel that JFC offers far superior fried chicken.
Always use chicken thigh meat. It has so much more flavour than breast meat and is guaranteed to be juicier and more succulent.
Making karaage isn’t difficult but it also isn’t a quick process. However the results are definitely worth taking the time to make the dish. The chicken absolutely needs to be marinated – this adds so much flavour. The word karaage refers to the cooking technique, that is frying the food in oil. You don’t need equipment such as a deep fat fryer – a frying pan will be just fine.
Recipe for Japanese fried chicken karaage:
800g boneless chicken thigh (skin-on is fine), each thigh cut into 4 pieces
For the marinade
4 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs mirin (if you can’t get this, add a little more sake/wine and a tsp of sugar)
1 tbs cooking sake (or white wine if you can’t get that)
1 inch of ginger (finely grated)
1-2 cloves of garlic (finely grated) depending on how garlicky you like your food
For the coating
Potato starch. If you can’t get this, fine rice flour or even cornflour will be fine. (Icing sugar would not!) We didn’t have quite enough potato starch so mixed in a little rice flour. About a cup’s worth (275ml) – as much as you need to coat all the chicken.
For the cooking
Vegetable oil (enough to get about 1 cm depth of oil in your pan)
Place the chicken thigh pieces in a bowl and add the soy sauce, mirin, sake, ginger and garlic. Mix well and leave to marinate for at least an hour.
Pour the oil into a frying pan until it’s about 1 cm deep. Heat up. The oil will be hot enough when you put a little flour into it and it sizzles.
When the chicken has had a chance to acquire those lovely flavours pour the potato starch into a bowl.
Take each piece of chicken, dip both sides in the flour, shake any excess off, and then carefully place in the oil.
Repeat for further pieces of chicken. Do not overfill the pan – this is a process whereby the chicken should be cooked in batches. We tend to use a clock method – put a piece of chicken at the top, then go round the pan putting further pieces in in a clockwise direction so we know which piece was put in first. Cook the chicken for 5-7 minutes, turning occasionally, until the pieces are golden brown.
Then remove from the oil and place on kitchen paper to soak up excess oil. You can transfer the chicken from the first batches into a heatproof bowl in the oven set on a low heat to keep them warm.
Start the next batch and repeat until all the chicken has been cooked.
Serve with Japanese mayo. It’s not at all healthy but it’s oh, so decadent and delicious! If you’re feeling more health conscious, shredded cabbage is a popular accompaniment.
Karaage chicken is also yummy cold the following day. It often features in bento boxes.
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The Island That Inspired The Setting of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke
Anyone who is familiar with the delightful animations of Japan’s Studio Ghibli will that know that its founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, created very distinctive locations for the settings of their films. Princess Mononoke was one of the first Ghibli films really to break into public consciousness, albeit largely with animation fans, in western countries in 1998 (the smash hit Oscar winning Spirited Away in 2001 ensured that the studio’s fame was assured). Princess Mononoke’s setting was inspired by the island of Yakushima, located around 60km from the southernmost point of Kyushu, Japan’s third largest island, which is part of the Osumi chain of islands. The island is almost perfectly round and mountainous. It’s also very beautiful indeed. And even if you aren’t familiar with the films of Studio Ghibli there are all sorts of things to do if you visit Yakushima.
GETTING TO YAKUSHIMA
Being big fans of Studio Ghibli and, having visited the fabulous Studio Ghibli museum on previous visits to Japan, we decided that we definitely wanted to visit Yakushima for a couple of days. On this trip we had decided explore Kyushu. We flew into Osaka and then caught the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagasaki and then across to the southern city of Kagoshima. Kagoshima is a lovely laid-back city set in the shadow of the active volcano Sakurajima, which regularly emits rumblings of ash and smoke. It’s possible to visit the volcano by crossing the picturesque bay on a ferry.
In Kagoshima we chose a business hotel that was close to the port. The staff were happy to look after our luggage for a couple of days, so we just packed a small bag, which meant that we could travel light. The excellent YesYakushima company helped us to visit Yakushima – they booked ferry tickets, car hire and accommodation for us. (This isn’t an affiliate link but we’ll happily recommend their free booking service which was absolutely excellent.) We were happy to explore for the island for ourselves but YesYakushima do offer guided tours if desired.
We caught the mid-morning Toppy/Rocket hydro-foil from Kagoshima port. It’s a picturesque journey as you sail across the bay. There are other options, such as a car ferry, but this was the quickest means of transport and it took around 2.5 hours.
Our boat stopped off at Tanegashima island before arriving at Yakushima. (Some boats go direct, so check the timetable.) When we arrived at Anbo port our hire car was waiting for us, so we picked it up and were on our way. Driving was mainly very easy but if you don’t fancy getting behind the wheel buses are available.
VISIT YAKUSHIMA – STAYING ON THE ISLAND
We treated ourselves to a stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Usually when we plan our trips to Japan we use a combination of cheap business hotels and then splash out on a few nights at a ryokan or two, which is more expensive but definitely worth the extra cost. The traditional inns usually have tatami (reed mat) flooring and you sleep on a futon, which is usually laid out for you while you eat dinner. We stayed at Tashiro Bekkan at Miyanoura.
The ryokan had a large tatami room, private bathroom and balcony with a view across the crystal clear Miyanoura river.
We chose to stay on a half-board basis, so ate the most exquisite food which included local ingredients such as seafood, mountain vegetables and, of course, kuro buta (black/Berkshire pork), a speciality of the region. The staff were delightful and we managed to have a few conversations with them in bad Japanese (our Japanese was bad, theirs was fine!)
The ryokan was also able to offer us a bento lunch box – we simply placed an order the night before – and then picked it up before we went hiking the following morning.
HIKING IN THE SHIRATANI UNSUIKYO PARK
This park was the inspiration for the forest in Princess Mononoke and it is very clear to see how the artist Oga Kazuo used the stunningly beautiful landscape for the setting of the animation. It has ancient cedar trees and mossy paths as well as streams and waterfalls running through it. There are multiple trails from the car park and the walking is generally easy, although you need to take care of large tree roots that have grown across the path.
VISIT YAKUSHIMA – CIRCUMNAVIGATE THE ISLAND
On our final day we decided to circumnavigate the island in the car before heading back to the hydrofoil. It’s largely a very easy drive but on the Seibu Rindo Forest path on the western part of the island the road narrows through the forest and becomes single track in some places, so you have to take care. We narrowly avoided a minor collision with a coach coming the other way.
From Miyanoura we drove north, stopping at the Shitoko Banyan Tree Park. Banyan trees are a complete contrast to the cedars of Shiratani Unsuikyo. These trees grow by dropping roots from the branches which eventually reach the ground and embed themselves in the soil creating additional roots to support the tree. They can also form around other types of tree and can eventually kill them as they choke the existing root system.
Isso Beach and Isso lighthouse on the peninsular.
Swimming is only possible on the beach in the summer months when lifeguards are available. Also, turtles nest here during May and June, so care must be taken so as not to disturb them.
Then it’s a beautiful drive through the Seibu Rindo Forest. The road can be narrow and very winding as it wends its way through the mountain forest.
There’s an excellent chance of seeing Yakushika (native deer) and Yakuzaru (the Yakushima macaque) – and indeed we did.
Yakushima has a number of waterfalls to explore. The falls are usually well signposted from the main road and there is usually a car park close by.
At 88m high, Ohko no Taki waterfall in the south west corner of Yakushima is one of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls. Sadly we didn’t have time to hike to the falls but even from a distance, it’s an impressive drop.
There are a number of outdoor onsen (hot springs) by the coast, which are worth a visit. Some of these are tidal, so are only accessible at low tide. There are a couple of neighbouring villages on the south cosast, Yudomari and Hirauchi, accessible by single track roads off the main circular route on Yakushima. It’s important to note that tattoos are something of a taboo in Japan as they are associated with gangsters, so is it worth covering any with sticking plaster. We enjoyed a warm footbath whilst looking out across the sea. (There are other onsen resorts at some hotels on the island if hot spring bathing is your thing.)
There’s an honesty box for payment (N.B. the price has increased to 200 yen since we visited).
Sempiro-no-taki is another impressive waterfall which falls across an extensive granite gorge.
Toroki falls are just downriver from Sempiro and can be seen after walking a short distance from the road. You can see the vermillion bridge in the background.
Then it was time to head north towards Anbo port. There was a convenient petrol station right by the turn off to the port’s car park so we filled up the car and experienced the best in Japanese service – a full tank of fuel, windscreen cleaned and, best of all, the attendants running out to the road to stop the traffic so that we could exit the petrol station. Then it was a hop onto the boat to return to Kagoshima.
Yakushima is a destination that is off the beaten track but it is a beautiful island with plenty of walking, terrific food and delightful people. It’s a bit of a journey to get there but if you manage to visit you will not be disappointed.
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Did you know that a lot of the time the fiery, nose-wince-inducing, slightly-eye-watering wasabi that you eat with your sushi doesn’t actually contain much wasabi? The wasabi powders and pastes that you buy in the shops or which are used in many restaurants are usually a combination of mustard, horseradish, green food colouring and just a hint of wasabi, probably from the stem or leaves. Eating fresh wasabi is a completely different experience.
GROWING FRESH WASABI
Wasabi as a plant is similar to horseradish in that both belong to the Brassica family (which is quite a broad family as it also contains vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli and kale) and both have a fiery pungency but they are different species and offer very different flavours.
Horseradish is really easy to grow in the UK. It’s like a weed and grows rapidly in the wild. We regularly see horseradish growing by the roadside or in parks. (We would like to forage for it but although we could pick the leaves it’s against the law to dig up roots on land you don’t own.) It’s the long white root that provides the flavour. Wasabia Japonica’s flavour comes from its rhizome, which is kind of like a swollen stem.
Traditionally wasabi grows next to crystal clear gravelly mountain streams in rural Japan (a delightfully romantic image) but it is actually possible to grow wasabi in the UK (although our garden is significantly less romantic than a beautiful mountain stream). Water grown wasabi is known as sawa- or mizu-wasabi, soil grown is known as hatake-wasabi.
Our soil grown wasabi needs a little love. It likes relatively cool conditions and much prefers the shade to the sunshine. We once had to move our wasabi into a sunny spot temporarily and it wilted like the Wicked Witch of the West. (It recovered 24 hours later when it was back in the shade.) It also needs to be well watered, although it doesn’t like to sit in water. A cool, rainy British summer is ideal. We grow it in pots close to the north facing wall of our house. It takes a while for the rhizome to grow – you need to be patient for a couple of years – but the result is worth it. The cat was very impressed with our attempts.
EATING FRESH WASABI
The first time we ate fresh wasabi, it was a revelation. It did have that amazing familiar pungency but it also has a sweetness that you don’t expect. One of the advantages of growing wasabi is that the other parts of the plant are all edible: the lovely heart shaped leaves can be used as a garnish (and eaten), the stems chopped up like herbs and even the delicate flowers, which are especially good in a tempura. The other parts are much more mild and, while they impart flavour, don’t have the pungency of the rhizome.
HOW TO PREPARE FRESH WASABI
Wasabi rhizomes can grow up to 100g in size, although some can be bigger. You would have to have a big sushi party to get through that amount but it is possible to store it.
The pungency of the wasabi fades somewhat when it is exposed to air, so it is best to grate it just before serving. There are various graters you can buy. Traditionally, a shark skin grater is used, although it is usually made from a type of ray. Purists prefer this, claiming that this is the one that ensures that the wasabi has the best creamy consistency and brings out the best flavour. But you can also get other types, including a metallic grater or, our preference, a ceramic grater.
Using a vegetable peeler, we just scrape off a small amount of the rhizome’s outer layer, up to the length we wish to grate, then grate the wasabi in a circular motion.
One useful little implement is a bamboo brush which you can use to gather up the grated wasabi. The stiff bristles are much more efficient at negotiating the grater’s bumps than our fingers. Gather the grated wasabi up into a nice little ball and serve. It’s worth grating slightly less than you think you will need – you can always grate more.
A fresh rhizome will store well in the fridge for a couple of weeks. We tend to keep it wrapped in damp kitchen paper and grate as much as we need. If we don’t get through an entire rhizome in that time, it tends to go a bit black, so the best thing to do is freeze it. The whole rhizome doesn’t freeze well but grated wasabi freezes brilliantly.
We tend to grate into portions and then store inside little plastic tubs – the sort you get sauces/dips in with a takeaway meal. Then we seal – in order to minimise exposure to the air and pop into the freezer. Take them out when you need them. The portions thaw in no time at all. Alternatively, you can wrap the grated wasabi into parcels of clingfilm.
HOW TO EAT WITH SUSHI
Wasabi and sushi go together like fish & chips, salt & pepper and gin & tonic. Wasabi was originally used with sushi in the Edo period in Japan and was thought not only to help mask any smells from the fish it was also considered to have properties that help prevent the growth of bacteria.
The best way to eat wasabi with sushi is to mix it with a small amount of soy sauce in a little dish. Never dip the rice part into the dish – the rice will soak up the soy sauce and all you’ll get is a mouthful of nose-wincing salt, losing the delicate flavour of the fish. Instead, turn the sushi upside down and dip the fish side into the sauce. (It’s absolutely fine to eat sushi with your fingers.) If you are having an omakase meal, where the chef prepares the sushi for you, it is likely that they will add exactly the correct amount of sauce and wasabi, so you won’t need to worry.
We love making chirashizushi – a bowl of seasoned rice with a layer of seafood atop – which we serve with our own fresh wasabi and garnished with the lovely heart-shaped wasabi leaves.
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Visiting in Tokyo in December is a great way of understanding Japanese New Year traditions, one of the country’s most important celebrations.
While Christmas Day is a normal working day in Japan (albeit one where it has become a custom to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken of all things – there’s a really interesting programme on the BBC World Service about this tradition), many businesses tend to close down for the new year period, usually from around the 28th December to the 4th January. Certainly most will be closed on the 1st to the 3rd January but some businesses may close for longer in order that proprietors and employees can spend time with their families. This means that if you are sightseeing, some ryokan may not be receiving guests and some museums and attractions will be closed.
We were in Japan around new year 2019-2020, our last trip before the world changed so dramatically.
See the Lights in Shibuya
Shibuya is a vibrant, bustling district in Tokyo which has loads of shops and restaurants. Its most famous features are found close to the station.
Its road crossing is possibly one of the best known in the world as it has featured in numerous films and adverts.
Apparently its nickname is ‘scramble’ because at its busiest time over 2,500 people can cross the road in the two minutes that the pedestrian lights allow.
As new year approaches, the crossing is the place to join the celebrations if you want a party. We visited in the afternoon as preparations were underway and also got to see some of the lights in the surrounding area.
The statue of Hachiko is a famous Shibuya landmark. Hachiko was an Akito dog owned by a professor in the 1920s. The professor used to go to work and each day his dog would wait for him to return at the station in the evening. The professor died in 1925 but Hachiko would still wait for him every evening for a decade until his own death. It’s a very moving story of canine loyalty and a statue was erected to the dog outside the station in 1934. Of course, he is dressed for the occasion at this time of year.
Japanese New Year Traditions –Noodles in Shinjuku
One of the traditional things to do on New Year’s Eve is to eat Toshikoshi Soba – year-end noodles. The principle is that long noodles equate to a long life, so they represent longevity and good luck. This is a popular tradition and soba shops are likely to be busy on New Year’s Eve. We had a wonderful meal with a dear friend at lunchtime at the food hall in Takashimaya Times Square, the vast department store just south of Shinjuku station, which has a variety of wonderful restaurants located on the top two floors. We chose the soba restaurant there. We had to queue for around 40 minutes which wasn’t a problem – it had such a nice atmosphere.
Once seated you are not rushed to finish your meal, even though there will be people waiting outside. If you want to dine on noodles in the evening your wait may be much longer – we saw very long queues in Shinjuku later that night.
We ordered the set menu which came with tempura and other treats. It wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t bank-breakingly expensive and the entire meal was simply divine.
The noodles are presented on a traditional platter and appear to arrive in the most enormous mound but, on closer inspection, actually have been cleverly placed on a conical tray.
Soba are buckwheat noodles that can be served hot or cold – on a winter’s day, hot was definitely the best way to enjoy them.
You are provided with a broth which you can season to your liking and then you dip the noodles in the broth. It is polite to slurp in Japan! (Which, when you’ve been brought up not to slurp your soup, is surprisingly difficult!)
As we were finishing the restaurant staff came around with a small teapot filled with a hot, white opaque broth. This was sobayu, the water that that the noodles had been boiled in. We mixed it with our leftover sauce, added any further condiments and drank it – it’s a very satisfying way to finish off the meal.
Back To The Hotel to Watch TV
New year is a family time and one particular Japanese new year tradition is that people stay home to see the new year in together. Kōhaku Uta Gassen is the NHK (the national broadcaster) TV channel’s new year show which has been running since the 1950s. It is a national custom to watch Kōhaku on New Year’s Eve. The format of the show is that popular singers, musicians and bands are invited to join and each are assigned to one of two teams – red and white. They each perform throughout the evening and the audience and judges decide which team was the best. Quite often western performers will take part as well. At the end of the show, just before midnight, everyone sings Hotaru no Hikari, a song similar to Auld Lang Syne. We spent some time in the early evening at our business hotel to catch some of the songs before heading out to see in the new year.
Japanese New Year Traditions – Seeing in the New Year
There are several choices depending on how you are feeling. Shibuya is the place to go for a party atmosphere. The famous road crossing is usually filled with people waiting to see the new year in (pre-Covid) and the atmosphere is guaranteed to be lively. Other possible places include Tokyo Tower, which has a countdown to the New Year, and Tokyo Disney and Disney Sea which have fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve. There will also be celebratory countdown events in hotels and izakaya across the city.
We chose to visit the Meiji Jingū. It’s one of Japan’s most important shrines, a Shinto shrine, just a couple of stops from Shinjuku, where we were staying. Meiji Jingū is a lovely place to visit at any time. It is set in a large, forested park which is very pleasant to wander through and is a completely serene contrast to the hustle and bustle of neon urban Tokyo. There are several JR stops that you can use to reach the shrine. We disembarked at Harajuku, the district where the cool kids hang out, and followed the crowds heading towards the shrine. We arrived at around 11:30 pm and were by no means the first people there. It’s a pleasant stroll from the beautiful wooden Torii at the entrance.
You need to bear in mind that it’s a one-way system as you walk through. You will see traditional lanterns and rows of sake barrels along the way.
Then we stopped at the barrier which had TV screens showing pictures of the crowd as it assembled and the shrine itself. We weren’t too far from the front but were still some way from the shrine. Even though the area was very crowded, everything was typically well-organised and there was a quiet buzz of excitement.
As the new year dawned 108 bells rang out. This is actually a Buddhist (Japan’s other main religion) custom, the number represents 108 temptations and the bell ringing is to reject 108 worldly desires. The bell is actually rung 107 times on the last day of the old year and just once after midnight. The bell rings aren’t uniform in length – some of the bells are rung in quicker succession than others.
We were reasonably close to the front at the Meiji shrine but it still took us around 45 minutes to reach the Naien, the inner area, which contains the shrine buildings. Marshalls were present wielding signs in both Japanese and English and beckoned visitors either to approach, or to ‘wait a short while, please’ before coming forward. This means that smaller groups of visitors were able to visit the shrine and offer prayers without it becoming over-crowded. It was an excellent system, especially as everyone co-operated beautifully.
When it was our turn, it wasn’t really possible to undertake the full Hatsumōde but we threw our coins, bowed, clapped and made our wishes and prayers for the new year. The Meiji shrine is the most famous shrine to visit and apparently attracts over three million visitors in the first three days of each year. A lot of people don’t quite make it to the very front of the queue.
Outside the main temple area there are stalls with refreshments and it’s possible to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere. We then walked back to Yoyogi station, where we knew the platforms were likely to be less crowded than Harajuku, and we hopped onto a very full, but joyous, train on the Yamanote line, just one stop back to Shinjuku. As we arrived back at our hotel, a barrel of sake had been opened in the lobby and we were invited to partake of a cup. We greeted the hotel staff, ‘Akemashita, omedetou gozaimasu!’ – meaning: the new year has dawned, congratulations!
Hatsumōde – Visiting a Temple
Another Japanese new year tradition is visiting a temple within the first three days of the year. Although we had been amongst the first to undertake Hatsumōde at the Meiji shrine the night before, we met up with our friend in Kichijoji. (Also, because we were out at the shrine to see in the new year, we hadn’t found out whether the red or the white team had won Kōhaku, so she was able to update us with this important information.)
Hatsumōde is considered to be a very important part of welcoming the new year and there will be queues at temples. We met quite early and had to queue for around 30 minutes. It was all very organised and the atmosphere lively.
There is a certain ritual that one undertakes when visiting a Shinto shrine. It is absolutely fine for anyone from any religion, or none, to visit a shrine and make an offering. First of all, it is important to purify oneself before entering the shrine. This is called ‘temizu’.
Approach the chozuya, which is a small pavilion which contains a purification font filled with water. There are multiple ladles laid next to the basin. Holding the ladle in your right hand, pour water over your left. Change hands and repeat. Change hands and then pour a little water into your left hand and take it into your mouth. You aren’t supposed to swallow the water but to spit it delicately into the drain.
Then walk up to the shrine itself and make an offering by throwing a coin. The monetary value isn’t important but 5 yen and 50 yen coins are considered to be lucky. Go-en (5 yen) sounds like ‘goen’ which means ‘good luck’ in Japanese.
Then you should bow deeply, from the waist, twice, then clap your hands twice, to show reverence to the kami-sama (the god; kami can also be interpreted as a spirit). Keep your hands together for a silent prayer.
We were delighted to be invited to our friend’s family home to enjoy osechi-ryōri, traditional new year foods.
New Year Food
New year is a time for feasting and there are some dishes that are particularly associated with celebrations. Osechi-ryōri comprises lots of little dishes beautifully presented. Much of the food is prepared in advance so that the whole family can eat together rather than spending loads of time in the kitchen.
The quintessential new year food is mochi. These are rice balls made by pounding steamed sticky rice with a big mallet in a large wooden container to achieve a stretchy and slightly sticky consistency. This is then formed into little rice dumplings. They have an unusual texture – very soft and delightfully squidgy. New year mochi is called kagami mochi and comprises two mochi balls one set on top of the other, with a tangerine on top.
Mochi may be flavoured and/or filled with all sorts of ingredients. Matcha green tea, milk flavouring and azuki bean paste are popular fillings. Sometimes the mochi will have a sesame coating.
Matcha mochi with azuki bean filling is delicious:
Kazunoko is a popular new year dish. It is marinated seasoned herring roe. The roe is yellow in colour and comprises hundreds of eggs all bound together. The texture is surprisingly crunchy and the flavour slightly salty. It is usually marinated overnight in ingredients such as dashi (Japanese stock), soy sauce and sake. We were lucky to enjoy home-made kazunoko marinated in sake lees and it was delicious. The multiple eggs in the roe are symbolic of a large family. The kuzunoko can be served on its own or with other delicious ingredients, in this case, with prawns and a scallop on top of cucumber.
Kobumaki is a piece of kelp seaweed. It will have been simmered for a while to soften and is one of the Japanese new year traditions is to present it in the shape of a bow. An alternative serving is a roll of kombu tied with a strip of dried daikon (a white radish); this is called hoshi daikon. Further variations include wrapping the kombu around a piece of meat or fish. The word ‘kombu’ also means ‘joy’ in celebration of a joyous day.
Sushi is not usually part of osechi-ryōri but it is a celebratory food and is often eaten on special occasions. It would be unusual for Japanese families to make their own sushi – they would leave it to the experts and buy some in.
Japanese New Year Tradition – Retail Therapy
Another Japanese new year tradition is Fukubukuro. When the shops reopen many will offer lucky bags – sealed bags or boxes – containing random merchandise. The value of the goods inside are greater than the price you would normally pay and sometimes you may – by sheer luck – end up with some very cool products. We met up with a dear friend in Nakano Broadway the following day and found a Lucky Box stall. At just 300 Yen we didn’t have high expectations but it was fun seeing what was in the box.
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A Place of Awe and Wonder
The animations of Studio Ghibli, by founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and their protegees, are amongst the very best in the world. If you haven’t seen a Ghibli film we can’t emphasise enough quite how magical they are. For fans of anime (Japanese animation) and films in general, the Studio Ghibli Museum is top of the list of places to see when visiting Tokyo.
A teenage witch, her hair ruffled by the wind, rides her mother’s broom through the open skies. A giant robot unleashes molten destruction on the soldiers who have awakened him from centuries of slumber. A city worker recalls her childhood growing up in the 1960s. The skies above Kōbe are filled with buzzing agents of death, raining down fire upon a terrified population. A burgeoning writer seeks inspiration from a quaint antiques shop. A travelling warrior becomes infatuated with a feral wolf-child in a land scarred by war. A group of young people discover love and loss during their turbulent high-school years. A girl’s parents are turned into slobbering pigs. A father turns superhero, if only for a moment, when he stands up to a local biker gang. Two elated girls soar through the air inside a grinning cat bus, its headlight eyes tracing yellow streaks in the sky above the forest.
Gods and monsters. Love and loss. Jubilation and despair. The horrors of war. Childhood wonder. The passion of life. Welcome to the heart-soaring, euphoric, whimsical, terrifying, compassionate and, above all else, emotional world of Studio Ghibli. The remarkable films of Studio Ghibli show, without a shadow of a doubt, that cinema can be art. Often the terms ‘art’ and ‘cinema’ result in products that distance audiences, but Ghibli makes films that touch the soul, that can enrapture and delight everyone from toddlers to pensioners. Studio Ghibli Kamera Book.
It’s not possible to visit the studio itself. That’s just basically an office building. But Miyazaki and Takahata commissioned a museum dedicated to the art and technology of the animated form in 2001 and it is one of the most delightful museums we’ve ever visited.
Visiting the Studio Ghibli Museum – Getting Tickets
If you’re planning on visiting the Studio Ghibli museum you can’t just turn up. The museum is so popular that you have to pre-book your tickets and also arrive at a specified time. The process for getting tickets is a bit convoluted especially if you don’t live in Japan or have contacts there. So (deep breath)…
If you are Japan you can buy tickets at Lawson konbini (convenience stores). The tickets go on sale from 10:00am (Japan time) on the 10th of each month for the following month. So really you have to be in Japan for several weeks to stand a chance of getting any for yourself and they WILL sell quickly.
If you can’t get tickets via the link there are other options. A number of travel agencies can get tourist tickets which you can purchase directly from them in your home country. The Ghibli Museum – Ticket System (jtbgmt.com) describes how to get tickets, you need to click on the link to select your country of origin.
Other travel agencies often have staff in Japan who may be able to go to Lawson to get tickets on your behalf. But book early! We’ve used services such as these in the past and it has worked very well. However, over the years, demand has increased and many travel agencies may also want you to buy other services, for example, they may request that you purchase your Japan Rail Pass from them, or book a couple of nights’ accommodation in Tokyo. This is frustrating, especially if you have already made your plans or can purchase these items more cheaply elsewhere. For example, we always search for the best deal for our JR Passes and usually stay in Japanese Business Hotels which are cheap and comfortable (if small), especially in Tokyo because, frankly, when you’re in Tokyo you don’t really care too much about your accommodation as there’s so much fun to be had in the city.
The tickets state a specified date and time of entry and, as a result, you will need to arrive on time. The face value of the tickets is an extremely reasonable ¥1000 for those over 19 years of age, with lower costs for children. But there is likely to be a handling fee if you purchase your ticket from an agent.
On Arrival At The Ghibli Museum
The museum is located in Mitaka, on the Chūō Line. There are direct trains from central Tokyo and you can use your Japan Rail Pass if you have one. It’s a short walk from the JR station. There is, however, a bus service which, for around ¥300 return, will take you directly to the museum. It’s easy to spot the bus stop.
On arrival, walking along Kichijoji Avenue, which is adjacent to Inokashira Park, at the entrance of the delightfully colourful building you are greeted by a giant Totoro, which is the best possible welcome anyone could want, before you walk around the building to the real entrance.
On arrival you exchange your voucher for a real ticket which has a film strip from a Ghibli animation inside. There is no time limit on your visit and the policy of limiting admissions means that the museum never feels crowded. You can wander freely through the building but you are requested not to take photos. This is actually a really good idea – it ensures that you enjoy the experience rather than try to record everything that you see. It also means that there are no (or at least minimal) spoilers from zillions of photos of the museum on the internet. If you wish, you can buy a book or a set of postcards of the museum from the shop – so that you have a memento.
Miyazaki’s principle for designing the museum was ‘Let’s lose our way, together’. It’s a brilliant philosophy. There is no set route around the building and there are all sorts of spiral staircases, internal bridges and nooks and crannies to explore – some at a low level, suited to children… or adult sized children who are prepared to crouch and wiggle into small spaces. Just go wherever your curiosity takes you.
The first room after the entrance contains a Ghibli-inspired history of cinema technology. Periodically the lights are dimmed and a flashing Totoro zoetrope starts up – it’s a magical display as characters from the film rotate around a central point illustrating about how animation can create the illusion of movement. (Be aware that this is a stroboscope effect if you are sensitive to flashing lights.) Amongst the other exhibits in the room is a delightful display of the Laputa robot surrounded by doves. It truly is a room of wonders.
Upstairs there are further rooms to explore. Some of these have permanent exhibitions – such as the life-sized cat bus (from My Neighbour Totoro). Adults be aware that you are only allowed to play inside cat bus if you are under eight years of age, something that we feel is most unfair. There are a couple of rooms which represents an animation studio so that you can understand the technicalities and process of animation from start to finish.
The studio also has a number of temporary exhibitions which often showcase the work of animators from around the world. Isao Takahata, in particular, did a lot to promote the work of film-makers from around the world. We have enjoyed exhibitions showing the works of Pixar studios (themselves huge Ghibli fans) and Michel Ocelot’s remarkable animations.
Don’t forget to follow the steps to the roof – there you will find the gentle giant robot and mysterious control cube from Laputa, Castle in the Sky. (It’s okay to take photos outside the museum’s main building.)
Visiting the Studio Ghibli Museum – Exclusive Ghibli Films!
One of the biggest attractions about the museum is the opportunity to attend the screening of a short Ghibli film. You cannot see these anywhere else in the world and they are not available on DVD or on streaming services, they are totally exclusive to the museum. The films are around 20 minutes in length and there is a board outside the Saturn Theatre on the ground floor, indicating screening times. It’s worth getting to the waiting area a bit earlier than the start time to make sure you can get into the screening you wish to attend. (If you miss a screening there is plenty to keep you occupied until the next one.) We have been lucky to have visited the museum five times and have never seen the same film twice. You can buy picture books of the films as a memento.
Shop Till You Drop
When you’re visiting the Studio Ghibli museum you’ll be delighted to discover that there is a bookshop where you can buy books and DVDs related to the films
And there’s also a souvenir shop where all sorts of gorgeous and tempting merchandise can be purchased. If you are a fan of the films, pack an extra suitcase for all the goodies. Over the years we have accumulated a lot of souvenirs.
The bags are from the film Porco Rosso and are a souvenir in themselves.
It’s worth noting that Ghibli merchandise is also available throughout Japan. We managed to buy the biggest Totoro soft toy that we felt we could get onto a plane without having to buy an extra seat – bought at the very end of a long trip (which had involved lots of travelling on the shinkansen and it really wouldn’t have been practical to transport him all over Japan, gorgeous as he is) at a department store in Tokyo just before we headed out for the airport. And yes, we did get lots of funny looks from security guards at the airport, but Totoro has pride of place in our living room.
The design of the museum is so intricate and detailed, even outside the main building.
There is a café, The Straw Hat Cafe (featuring Mei’s hat from My Neighbour Totoro), adjacent to the museum which sells ice-cream, drinks and snacks.
It’s become something of a tradition for us to enjoy a hot-dog and a cold beer – yes, you can even enjoy a bottle of Nausicaä beer! – at the end of the exploration.
The Ghibli museum is emphatically one of the most wonderful places we have visited. It’s a triumph of imagination and design and is genuinely a place of wonders. Even if the process of obtaining tickets is somewhat convoluted, we can’t recommend this museum highly enough. We’d go again in an instant.
If you are interested in the films of Studio Ghibli – and they are all amazing – here are some links:
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Please note that this post contains affiliate links. If you click the link and decide to make a purchase we will earn a small commission, at no cost to you, which helps towards running this site.
Kabocha is a type of squash, often called a Japanese pumpkin. It is small-medium in size (around 25-30cm diameter). Its flesh is bright orange which contrasts beautifully with its dark green skin. They are also pretty easy to grow. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that home-grown vegetables are always more delicious than shop bought ones.
This year we grew three of the beauties in our little garden and the very first thing we wanted to make once harvested, was ‘korroke’, a Japanese version of croquettes (the word is spelled in katakana, the phonetic alphabet used for words of international origin). It’s the sort of dish that you would find in a Japanese izakaya (a bar that sells alcohol and tasty snacks/small dishes). They are simple to make and utterly scrumptious. Here’s our recipe for Kabocha Korroke – Pumpkin Croquettes:
1 kabocha pumpkin. If you can’t get a kabocha, other squash can be used. Pumpkin might be a bit too squishy but something like a butternut squash would work well.
1 egg (vegans can use corn starch mixed with warm water in an approximate ratio of 1:3)
50g (approx) Plain flour
50g (approx) Panko breadcrumbs
Pinch of salt
Oil for frying/spray oil for baking
Tonkatsu sauce to eat with (Brown sauce will work well if you can’t get tonkatsu)
Cut the pumpkin in half and then into slices. Remove the seeds (we kept loads of seeds and dried them so that we can sow them next year).
Arrange the slices into a steaming bowl. We tend to use the Asian style bamboo baskets as they stack very nicely and can just sit on top of a saucepan of boiling/simmering water.
Steam for around 15 minutes or until the pumpkin is soft – a knife should easily sink into the flesh. (If you don’t have a steamer you can bake the pumpkin slices in the oven for around 40 minutes.)
Although the skin of the kabocha is edible, for the purposes of the korroke it is best to remove it. (You can treat yourself to pumpkin skin snacks – once they have cooled down a bit – while you continue the preparation.)
Add a pinch of salt and mash the pumpkin using a potato masher. It is possible to add other flavourings at this stage if you wish. Some recipes add sautéed onions, others lashings of butter, yet others include shichimi (Japanese seven spice mix). We just seasoned with the salt, which brings out the natural flavour of the kabocha, in this instance.
Form into patties.
Panko are Japanese breadcrumbs. They are crispy and super dry, usually made from white bread. You can buy panko in most supermarkets these days but ordinary breadcrumbs will be fine if you can’t find them. Set out three bowls. One for flour, one for an egg, lightly beaten, and one for the panko.
Dip each patty in the flour, then the egg, then the panko. This process can get a little messy (especially if you are a clumsy cook). Do not attempt to take photos using your phone if you have sticky fingers.
There are several options for cooking. Bear in mind that the pumpkin is already cooked so the korroke don’t need long. We’ve recently invested in an air fryer so thought we would use that. Just spray the patties with oil and cook at 190C for 4 minutes on each side. You can also bake them in the oven for about 8 minutes. Or you can fry them the old-fashioned way in vegetable oil for a couple of minutes on each side or until the panko are golden.
Then it’s time to scoff! Korroke are often served with tonkatsu sauce. This is a sweet and tangy sauce that perfectly complements the pumpkin. If you can’t find tonkatsu, brown sauce (the type you eat with a cooked breakfast) is a good substitution. Other accompaniments can include mayo or a soy based dipping sauce. Best served with a nice, cold beer. Or two.
Some years ago we were staying in the delightful mountain town of Takayama in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, just for a couple of nights. Usually our budget limitations mean that we stay in cheap business hotels, but we always try for a couple of nights in traditional Japanese style accommodation. Our beautiful ryokan had a suite of tatami mat rooms, inside which we lounged around in yukata (cotton kimono), used the o-furo (bath, fed by hot springs in this instance) and were served the most exquisite food. It’s a gorgeous place to stay.
Directly opposite, on the other side of the road to this oasis of calm and refinement, however, we discovered the madness that was Horror House: Crazy Killer.
We’d grown up with ghost trains at funfairs in the UK and, to be honest, they are a bit rubbish. You sit in a rickety cart and are wheeled around a short track inside a tiny shack and various unconvincing props occasionally swing out at you with the aim of making you jump. Japanese horror houses are far superior: they are like a ghost train but without the train and comprise multiple rooms which you walk around. The difference is that there is usually an actor or two inside, ready to jump out at you, all with the aim of scaring the bejesus out of anyone who enters. We had been inside Japanese horror houses before, so we kinda knew what to expect from Crazy Killer.
Some years previously we visited the Toei Studios Movie Theme Park, home of samurai soap operas and big monsters, in Kyoto, which made for a great afternoon’s entertainment, especially as we adore Japanese cinema. There are all sorts of activities, from exploring the movie sets to viewing the history of the studio, as well as meeting kaiju (monsters) and enjoying a spectacular ninja show.
The studio has a horror house, inside which were a number of rooms to explore. Several denizens, dressed in various scary costumes lurked within, all ready to chase us around the room or jump out at us. The most disturbing of these was actually a lone actor, dressed in ghostly attire, who was just sitting in a corner of the room, whimpering.
Takayama’s Horror House: Crazy Killer had just one. Crazy Killer, that is. Once we paid our modest fee and entered the attraction, the building contained the usual blend of gruesome exhibits and shock tactics such as doors slamming loudly behind you, or a claustrophobic room where a light switches on and you jump at your own reflection in a mirror.
And, of course, Crazy Killer was lurking there. He first revealed himself when we passed by an array of gory severed heads which were clearly models – until we reached the last one, whereupon Crazy Killer leapt out, making us jump, and we immediately scarpered, simultaneously screaming and laughing. Crazy Killer retreated back into his dastardly domain and we tentatively continued our way around, largely in the dark, all nervous energy and adrenaline, waiting for the next time he was ready to jump out at us. Which he did on several occasions. When we finally saw the exit we could hear that he was close behind us and advancing rapidly… so we ran!
We laughed our way around and when we emerged, unscathed, at the exit, the proprietor asked us if we’d like to go in to have our photo taken with the killer. Of course we did! So she radioed him and we met up inside, whereupon he handed us a plastic machete and a severed head. Great! Apparently most visitors pose demurely alongside Crazy Killer.
The proprietor explained that it was okay, we were from England. Crazy Killer was delighted to meet us. So we all had a nice chat about the British royal family in our best Japanese (which was quite a challenge) and then we went back to the ryokan for a night of decadence and a delicious dinner.
The recent news that Yokozuna Hakuho, the record-breaking sumo wrestler, is finally planning to retire after a stellar career, prompted us to look back on a day in Tokyo, back in 2007 when Hakuho had just been promoted to the highest rank in the sport. Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan and is steeped in tradition. Indeed the origins of sumo are thousands of years old and it is thought to have originated in the Yayoi period in Japan (300 BCE-300 CE). It was a wonderful day out to watch the sumo in Tokyo.
The rules are very simple: Two rikishi (wrestlers) face each other in a ring known as a dohyo, which is 4.55m in diameter. When mutual consent is given to begin, signified by each wrestler touching his fists to the floor, the bout commences. A rikishi loses when he is either forced out of the ring or touches the floor with any part of his body other than his feet. The wrestlers wear just a mawashi (belt), which can be grasped and used to push, throw or lift their opponent out of the ring or onto the floor. Some rikishi don’t use the mawashi and tend to have a push and thrust approach to taking on their opponent.
There are very few techniques that are banned, but fist punches, poking the opponent in a vulnerable area or pulling the opponent’s top knot, which is part of the chonmage (the hairstyle), are all considered to be unacceptable and any rikishi that uses these moves will automatically lose the match. A gyoji (referee), wearing robes based on medieval imperial court attire, oversees proceedings, encouraging the rikishi to spar and deciding which has won the bout. Sometimes the outcome is extremely close so additional judges sit around each edge of the dohyo in order to assess which wrestler first exited the ring or touched the floor.
The first characteristic that most people notice about sumo wrestlers is their weight, which can be substantial. Sumo wrestlers put on weight because it is more difficult to force a heavy opponent from the ring. But they are extremely fit, flexible and agile. There are no weight categories in the sport so a 100kg wrestler could easily face an opponent twice his weight. This is also what makes sumo so exciting – weight isn’t necessarily an advantage as the smaller rikishi may be more nimble and can employ moves that outsmart their opponents.
The bout itself is often, but not always, short in duration, although there is no time limit. It is always preceded by a series of rituals that have origins both in Japan’s Shinto religion and ancient warfare. The rikishi throw salt into the ring to purify it. Other practices include wrestlers raising a leg and stamping on the ground to scare away enemies and also clapping their hands. Once ready, they take their mark and squat in a position known as shikari, facing their opponent, ready to thrust forward when the bout begins. It’s often an explosive start as two large men crash into each other and it’s hugely exciting.
Watch The Sumo in Tokyo – Tournament Schedule
Grand Sumo Basho, or tournaments, are held six times every year. Three are held in Toyko at the Ryogoku Kokugikan (January, May, September) and then there is one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). (These schedules have changed a bit during the last couple of years due to Covid.) Each tournament lasts 15 days. The most popular days to attend are weekends and the final days of the basho as the excitement mounts to see who will win the Emperor’s cup. We were honoured to be invited to the sumo by a family friend. It made for the most splendid entertainment. The tournament schedule and ticketing information can be found at the Japan Sumo Association website.
The Ryogoku Kokugikan dohyo in Tokyo is located just a two minute walk from the JR Sobu Line Ryogoku Station West Exit (useful if you have a JR pass), or five minutes walk from the Toei Ryogoku Station A3 exit on the Toei Subway Oedo Line. The Ryogoku Kokugikan is easy to find and outside you will see the brightly coloured flags bearing the rikishi names lining the route to the entrance.
There are various tiers of ticket available and the most popular seats do sell out quickly. Ringside tamari seats are the most expensive. They are the closest you can get to the action and sometimes audience members can be a little too close if an energetic bout results in a wrestler falling on top of them!
Box seats are designed for either four or six people and you have to buy all the seats within the box. This suits a group of people viewing together. They have a tatami mat base and cushions. The boxes closest to the dohyo are more expensive and they become progressively cheaper the further back they are located. The box seats are very popular.
Arena seats are located on the upper floor in a standard tiered seating arrangement, further away from the action but they offer a good view at a much cheaper price. For the die-hard fan who cannot pre-order tickets, jiyu seki, (free-seating tickets), located right at the top of the building just below the rafters, can be purchased each day at the Kokugikan from 8am. These will go quickly though and if you want some, you may well need to start queuing very early in the morning.
The tickets are valid for the entire day and bouts start from around 8:30am. Sumo is divided into a number of divisions and the lowest ranked wrestlers will spar earliest in the morning. As the day progresses and the higher ranked rikishi start making an appearance the stadium will slowly fill up. By the time the Makunouchi (the highest division) commences the Kokugikan will be full and the atmosphere incredibly lively as the audience members support their favourite rikishi. You can buy banners, t-shirts and other souvenirs at the concession stands.
Watching The Sumo In Tokyo – Make A Day Of It
On arrival at the Kokugikan main entrance, if you have tickets, you will be guided to your seat. It is possible to pre-arrange a bento and drinks. (Alcohol is allowed.) The stadium even has its own kitchen in the basement. There, they make yakitori chicken, which is often eaten as part of the bento meal. There is a reason that chicken is on the menu – it is a bird that stands on two feet, something that the rikishi most definitely want to emulate. It’s also absolutely fine to bring your own food and drink if you wish.
Then it’s a case of sitting back and watching the action, whilst enjoying delicious food, a cup of green tea and, later on, a few beers as well.
You will often see the banners from sponsors of a particular rikishi parade around the dohyo before the bout. These organisations put up prize money for their sponsored wrestler. If he wins, he receives cash in an envelope offered by the gyoji but if he loses, his opponent wins the prize. The higher ranked and more popular the wrestler the greater the number of envelopes. If a lower ranked rikishi beats an ozeki (second highest rank) or Yokozuna, he wins a magnificent wadge of cash.
One of the wonderful things about when you watch the sumo in Tokyo is that you can wander around the arena between bouts and will often see rikishi in their yukata (light cotton kimono). More often than not, they are happy to pose for photos.
When it’s time for the Makunouchi bouts, the top tier rikishi will enter the dohyo wearing their keshō-mawashi, which are beautifully decorated ceremonial silk aprons, and form a circle. They perform a number of symbolic movements together before they leave and prepare for their bouts.
The Yokozuna, accompanied by two top division wrestler ‘assistants’ then enters the dohyo, wearing a tsuna (ceremonial rope, the word Yokozuna literally means ‘horizontal rope’) around his waist, to perform the ring entering ceremony. There are two types and the Yokozuna will choose which one he will perform soon after his promotion.
The highest ranked wrestlers fight the final bouts and the crowd become increasingly excited. When the very last bout has been fought, there is a closing bow-swirling ceremony – another ritual steeped with symbolic meaning.
Sumo Chanko Nabe Restaurant
And what better way to round off a wonderful day’s entertainment watching the sumo than going out for dinner at a local restaurant? Of course the only meal we could have was chanko nabe – sumo stew. This is the meal that sumo wrestlers eat at their stables in large quantities after their training sessions. (They go to sleep after eating chanko nabe and this helps them gain weight.) It’s filling and nutritious and, importantly, delicious. It’s a great sharing dish – a hot pot that sits in the middle of the table and everyone helps themselves. It comprises meat and vegetables, sometimes with seafood and tofu, that simmers in a dashi broth (a recipe for dashi can be found here). Sometimes sake or mirin is added to the broth to add flavour. There is no specific recipe which means that loads of scrumptious variations are possible. Unsurprisingly, there are a cluster of chanko nabe restaurants in the Ryogoku area.
If you are visiting Tokyo at a time when there is no basho running, it is possible to watch sumo wrestlers training in their stables. There is no cost to this but you’ll have to get up early as they usually train between 7:30 and 10am. The Arashio beya stable has an English language guide to watching the morning practice: Watching Keiko: Morning Sumo Practice. You generally don’t get to enter the stable itself but can watch through a large window.
And if you can’t get to Japan at all it is possible to watch sumo basho on TV. Japan’s national broadcaster NHK World present the highlights from each day over the entire fortnight. The first and final day’s events are also shown live.
If you are likely to be in Tokyo at the time of a basho we highly recommend trying to obtain tickets for the sumo. It really is the most lovely way to spend a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon watching this unique and fascinating sport.
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Here at Very Tasty World we have a passion for pasta and, as our regular ramen reviews emphasise, there is a joy in the variety of internationally available variants of noodle niceness that you can enjoy at home with just a kettle, a bowl and a pair of chopsticks. Of course, ramen restaurants are also available, if you are lucky enough to be able to reach one, so you don’t even have to trouble yourself to turn on the kettle.
But what if you want more?: To learn more and to taste more? What if you want to understand the history of ramen, instant or traditional, and to try various examples with different flavours from around the country for which ramen is best known? There is only one place to go, a foodie theme park where you can learn the history and, importantly, taste many different types of ramen in all their broth infused glory. The Shinyokohama Raumen Museum (The English site is here – please be clear of the spelling with the additional ‘u’, which is correct in Japanese, otherwise you might have search engine issues) is that place, a multi-storey building dedicated to everything that is ramen. We naturally felt obliged to travel there and research our culinary favourites. We were not alone in this desire to get to know ramen because Brittany Murphy’s character Abby does exactly the same thing when she visits in the film The Ramen Girl.
The museum is located in Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan, which is easily accessible from Tokyo. If you have a Japan Rail Pass you can use the shinkansen (bullet train) to arrive at Shin Yokohama, which is the closest station, but there are plenty of other train services available too.
History of Ramen
The ground floor is the museum’s main area of knowledge, displaying a range of information about the history of ramen from traditional to instant. The displays include chronological timelines and also show the progression of instant noodle technology. So you can observe the pots, the packets and even a noodle unravelling.
But the proof of the pasta is in the eating. So you need to head downstairs in order to fulfil your craving. Pro tip – if you are planning to visit, make sure you do so on an empty stomach – don’t have too much for breakfast in the morning..
Sunset Shopping Street
The eating area, Sunset Shopping Street, is a recreation of a town in 1958, the year that instant ramen was invented. The whole environment has a sundowner setting with cloudy dark blue sky and street lighting which all adds to the ambience.
There are a number of restaurants where you can sample regional ramen, from miso ramen to salty soy sauce and rich, creamy tonkotsu where the broth is made by boiling pork bones for hours. The only problem is deciding which shop (or shops) to choose from, even though you know its ramen you want, the choices are far more complex than the expected ‘what flavour broth or meat/fish/vegetable combo,’ but the bigger ‘what region?’ question because each venue represents a different region of Japan’s quintessential local concoctions. Regional variations are prevalent in lots of Japanese foods such as udon (thick noodles) and okonomiyaki, so each ramen shop offering different options and all declaring their own as the very best, presents something of a conundrum to the casual noodle-slurper. We did see a number of visitors share a bowl of ramen before moving onto the next shop in order to taste as many different variations as possible. However, since our visit, the museum is clear that all adult visitors to each shop should purchase a bowl of ramen. This seems absolutely reasonable as it’s not fair to the restaurant owner to have table space taken up with multiple visitors sitting around a single bowl of noodles. Still, it’s a very pleasant choice to have to make. And these days you can order different sized portions, so if your appetite is big enough you may be able to sample many different types of smaller bowls. The street also has a traditional sweet shop, just in case you are still hungry!
Oh, and there’s even a classic kaiju (monster) poster on one of the fake hoardings – what more could you want?
This really is an essential tourist trip for ravenous lovers of ramen. Great fun for foodies in terms of understanding history of the world’s most popular instant food and also getting to eat yummy ramen.