Spending New Year in Japan is a great way of understanding the traditions associated with 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.
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 traditionally a family time in Japan and many families 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.
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.
Traditional New Year Food
New year is a time for feasting and there are some dishes that are particularly associated with celebrations. Much of the food in osechi-ryōri 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. They 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 another 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 often presented 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.
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.
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.
Practicalities to Visiting the Museum
If you want to visit the 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.)
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
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:
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 splendid day at the sumo 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).
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.
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.
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 the sumo 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.
And what better way to round off a wonderful day’s entertainment 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.
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.
Dashi is a Japanese soup stock which is really easy to make and very delicious indeed. It is a fundamental component of many Japanese dishes, such as miso soup, surinagashi and noodle dishes such as ramen and udon. It’s a very simple stock but provides a huge amount of flavour and definitely puts the “mmm” into umami, the fifth flavour. You can buy instant powdered dashi and just add water but if you can find the ingredients in your local Asian supermarket it’s really not much effort to make. The process is very simple and much quicker than traditional stock making in European cuisines, which generally require ingredients such as meat, vegetables and herbs to be boiled for several hours.
Dashi usually only uses a couple of ingredients. The dashi we made used konbu (kelp – a seaweed) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes, which are skipjack tuna flakes that have been simmered and smoked, then dried in the sun to ferment and finally shaved to wafer thin slices). Katsuobushi, like many fermented fish products (think nam pla – fish sauce from Thailand), smells somewhat stinky and rather unpleasant when you open the packet, but somehow it adds a magical quality to the finished stock. Other dashi ingredients could include dried shiitake mushrooms or dried anchovies.
3 sheets of kombu kelp seaweed
40g bonito flakes
5 dehydrated shiitake mushrooms (for vegetarian or vegan version)
1 litre of water
Make the dashi: Put kombu and bonito flakes (or shiitake mushrooms) into a saucepan of water.
Bring to a simmer. Skim off any froth.
After 15 minutes, turn off the heat. You should have a clear broth
Sieve the solids from the broth.
Keep the solid ingredients. You can dry these out and use them again to make a secondary dashi.
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….And Why It’s Often Okay to Go Off-Menu When Travelling
Many years ago we were excitedly choosing all sorts of delicacies at the breakfast buffet at our hotel in Yerevan, Armenia, when another guest glanced at our plates, shrivelled their noses in a very patronising manner and exclaimed, “Ugh! Salad? For breakfast?”
It’s widely considered to be most important meal of the day but so many people seem to be set in their ways when it comes to eating a hearty breakfast. So much that hotels all over the world seem to offer pretty much the same fare. Western visitors are often offered fried food such as bacon, sausage and eggs with bread-based accompaniments and Eastern visitors are usually offered rice or noodle dishes. All these dishes are generally familiar to the tourist and often don’t reflect the traditional breakfasts of the country they are visiting.
Maybe it’s because people don’t feel so adventurous first thing in the morning, and that’s fair enough, but they may be missing out. Thing is, we’re British and can have bacon and eggs any time we like. (Although, to be honest, we haven’t cooked a fry-up for years as it’s quite a lot of effort.) We’d much rather eat a typical breakfast using local ingredients from the country that we are visiting.
It’s quite common for hotels to ask their guests to pre-order breakfast. It makes sense, they know what they need to order in beforehand and this can help minimise food waste. There is usually a form with tick boxes and you can choose from a variety of typical breakfast offerings. But if you do want to eat like a local, we’ve learned that many hotel restaurants are happy to cook you a regional breakfast. We’ve discovered that very often it’s absolutely okay to go off menu.
It all started in Uganda when we breakfasted at a lodge with a local guide. We were eating standard fare but our curiosity was piqued when something entirely different was brought out for him. On asking, we learned that it was a rolex – a chapati with a layer of omelette on top, then rolled into a spiral cylinder, perfect for munching on. So the next day we asked the lodge staff if it would be possible for us to have a rolex for brekkie and they were happy to oblige. It’s great – tasty and filling – a good start to the day.
In Nepal we were given a standard pre-order form to complete (eggs, bacon, sausage, toast…) to pre-order breakfast for the following morning. We politely asked whether it was possible to have a local breakfast instead. We didn’t specify any dish – just asked for local food. They were delighted. The following morning we were served a marsala omelette accompanied by a joyous curry and roti with home-made yoghurt. It was delicious.
Gallo pinto is a typical breakfast in Costa Rica. It’s so popular it is often eaten for lunch and dinner as well. Which is just as well because it tastes great and is also really healthy. It comprises rice and beans and is usually accompanied by a fried egg at breakfast. Other accompaniments to start the morning include sausage, fried potatoes and some salad.
A dosa for breakfast in South India is an absolute joy. This is a pancake traditionally made from rice and dal (lentils) which are ground to form a batter and then fermented. The batter is cooked on a hot plate to form a large pancake and served with chutney – coriander, coconut and tomato are particularly popular.
In Vietnam breakfast usually took a buffet form but often there were chefs on-hand to cook some food to order. We were always offered Pho – a tangle of noodles, freshly cooked and served in a yummy broth, topped with meat and vegetables. You pick up a side plate and add herbs, chilli, limes and other delicious items so that you can create your own personalised taste sensation. The liquid of the broth also ensured that we were thoroughly hydrated for the day ahead.
In Japan, breakfast often comprises grilled fish, vegetables and pickles, maybe with tofu, dumpling and an omelette.
These are accompanied with a bowl of rice, into which you could crack a raw egg mixed with shoyu (soy sauce) – the egg sort of cooks in the heat of the rice – or that famous smelly fermented soybean concoction, natto, maybe with some sliced negi (similar to spring onion). Just grab a slice of nori (dried seaweed), place it over the rice, then using a pincer movement with your chopsticks grab a portion of rice with the nori. Scrumptious. (It’s worth noting that if you are at a breakfast buffet in Japan the eggs on offer may well be raw – be careful when cracking them.)
And, of course, whenever we are staying away from home in the UK, we’ll always have an honest-to-goodness fry-up. Sausage, bacon, egg (usually fried, poached or scrambled), black pudding, mushroom, tomato, beans and sometime a hash brown are the usual components.
We recently discovered that the best possible place for a full English breakfast that we’ve ever eaten is actually in our home town. While many top breakfast establishments boast locally sourced food (which is, of course, delicious), The Gourmet Food Kitchen in Fargo Village, Coventry go one step further and actually cure their own bacon and make their own sausages and black pudding. And that’s just the start: The hash brown (never the most fabulous component of breakfasts) is a home-made bubble and squeak, a glorious blend of fried potato and cabbage. The beans have never seen a tin – they are home-made baked beans in a rich tomato sauce. Chef Tony even makes his own rich, tangy and utterly delicious brown sauce to accompany the feast.
Developing a Business Plan:
Japan has a reputation for being an expensive country to visit. And while it is possible to spend a lot of money on wonderful accommodation (as it is pretty much anywhere), there are plenty of cheaper hotels in Japan.
Business hotels are a great way of finding cheap accommodation in Japan, especially in cities. Many are located close to railway stations, so you don’t have to drag your luggage too far if you are travelling by public transport (easily the best way to tour around Japan, especially if you have a Japan Rail Pass ). They are primarily designed for salarymen on business trips but are great for tourists too. There are loads of affordable hotels right in the centre of Tokyo; business hotels in other cities can be significantly cheaper.
You can reserve accommodation via the usual hotel booking sites but these days most hotels have an English language website where you can book direct. It’s worth noting that some hotels don’t release dates until quite close to the time of stay (between one and three months) so if you are super-organised and want to ensure you have your accommodation booked early the booking sites still offer a pretty good deal – and a guarantee that you can stay there. Indeed, some may offer free cancellation up to a few days before your stay so you could book up early and change your plans if you need to.
What To Expect
Business hotel rooms are small. There’s no escaping that fact. Think of all the estate agent euphemisms about describing tiny spaces: “small but perfectly formed”, “compact and bijou”, “cosy”… We’ve stayed in some rooms where you could barely swing a kitten, let alone a cat. Sometimes the hotels themselves are tiny. You might walk into a compact lobby that has just a front desk and an elevator to the floors above. But, the thing is, you’re in Japan! Why would you want to spend time in your hotel when there are amazing vibrant neon cities or charming towns to explore?
If the room is small then the bathroom is minuscule. It’s a pre-fabricated plastic shell. But everything you need is in there. Bath/shower, basin and… the toilet.
Japanese toilets are an experience in themselves. When you discover that your toilet has a control panel you know that your bathroom experience is going to be… interesting. Don’t worry, it’s fine, you can get away with answering the call of nature then simply pressing a button (look out for the kanji 大 (big) or 小 (small) to get the required level of flush) but if you’re feeling more adventurous bidet options are very common, so be prepared for a jet of warm water if you select the right option. Of course, the instructions may be in Japanese, in which case you might be taking pot luck. This kanji means stop: 止. Some toilets are sophisticated enough to have seat warmers or even make a sound of tinkling water to disguise those undesirable body sounds emitted while using the loo.
The bathroom will also contain a basket of useful toiletries which are free for your use. These include a toothbrush/toothpaste set, razor and shaving foam, a comb and other little items. So you really don’t have to worry if you forgot to pack your toothbrush!
Indeed Japanese business hotels manage to pack a huge amount of facilities into such a compact space. And they genuinely supply everything you need.
Most rooms will have a fridge. They are small but great for storing a beer or sake (or two) and, also, you might want to pick up a breakfast bento at the local konbini convenience store.
Most business hotels will supply disposable slippers (using outdoor shoes inside is usually a no-no in Japan) and sometimes there will be a yukata (light cotton kimono) for relaxing in.
There’s always a TV as well as a kettle and cups along with sachets of tea so that you can enjoy a hot beverage, if you can work out how to use the kettle (fill with water and press the buttons bearing in mind that one will probably dispense very hot water, if indeed you’ve managed to heat it).
One problem we have found is that it can be tricky to store your luggage. Some beds have enough space to push your luggage underneath and this works particularly well if you have squishable soft bags. Big, hard cases are not ideal, but there is a solution if you don’t need to have all your luggage with you all the time. You can forward luggage to another hotel via Takkyubin (described here) which is an amazingly efficient and great value service. We often found that keeping one ‘big bag’ (we always ensure that we have a mix of our clothes/undies for each of us in both bags rather than packing a separate bag per person – just in case luggage gets lost on the flight out) and forwarding the other onto another hotel means that you only need to worry about storing one bag in the room.
It’s not common for Japanese business hotels to offer a substantial breakfast and many won’t offer food at all. Some may have a small café area where you can pick up a tea or coffee, others may offer a basic breakfast – such as rice balls (onigiri) and a cup of green tea. There will almost certainly be vending machines so that you can purchase food (snacks or cup noodles) and drinks (soft drinks, canned coffee or beer). And you usually won’t be far from a convenience store (konbini) where you can buy pretty much anything you might need! We often pick up a bento (boxed meal) for breakfast – at a few hundred yen they are cheap and filling and can be stored in the room’s fridge. There’s usually a great variety to choose from.
Japanese business hotels are undoubtedly great value but it is also nice to experience other types of accommodation. Ryokan are traditional inns which often offer a suite of rooms with a tatami (reed) mat floor, futon and amazing breakfasts and dinners – it’s a real experience although, of course, they are usually more expensive.
Minshuku are Japanese B&Bs – usually family run, they also offer Japanese style accommodation. They are fun, friendly and often cheaper than ryokan. It is also possible to visit family homes in some areas. AirBnB has been increasingly popular as a choice of accommodation in Japan too. There are also cheap dorm rooms for backpackers and the famous capsule hotels, whereby you can sleep inside a tube for the night, all mod-cons provided, albeit within an incredibly compact space. It’s worth noting that the budget accommodation options are often sex-segregated. When we travel around Japan we tend to choose business hotels for the majority of our stays, in order to keep the budget low, and then treat ourselves to a few nights’ splurge at a ryokan.
One of the great things about travelling around Japan is getting to sample the regional variations in the food. We had visited a miso/soy sauce factory in the western city of Kanazawa but, on our way, we had taken a detour to visit the snow monkeys at Yudanaka and also had the opportunity to visit the nearby town of Obuse in Nagano prefecture.
Obuse is a pretty little town with some interesting museums – notably an exhibition space dedicated to artist and printmaker Hokusai who was famous for his ukiyo-e (floating world) pictures from the Edo period. His best known work is probably The Great Wave off Kanakawa, one of the 36 views of Mount Fuji series. When we visited, they had on an exhibition which contrasted the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji with the One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji series.
We were pleased to discover that the town also had a shop dedicated to miso.
The delightful owners were very happy for us to sample their wares and it was great to be able to compare flavours of the different types on offer. We bought some packets of miso to take home with us.
We had long wanted to experiment with making miso but, while it’s easy to get hold of soy beans, obtaining rice koji is more difficult in the UK. We were able to buy some inoculated koji in Japan and have later discovered a number of suppliers in the UK and EU from whom koji can be obtained. We used pre-inoculated koji. If you are really hardcore, you can obtain the spores, then steam the rice and let the mould grow on it to create your own koji.
That is for another time though. We started with the simple approach using koji that we had bought in Kanazawa…
The best book in the world for learning how to make Japanese preserves, pickles and ferments is Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s Preserving the Japanese Way: Traditions of Salting, Fermenting, and Pickling for the Modern Kitchen. We have tried and tested loads of recipes from this book and can wholeheartedly recommend it. We followed the miso recipe.
Organic soy beans were soaked overnight and then boiled for a couple of hours until soft.
One thing we realised that we needed to obtain – a bit too late at this stage – was a proper blender. The soy beans were mashed by any means necessary – in the end a combination of a potato masher and hand blender produced the best results from all the available gadgets in the kitchen but the beans were still a bit chunky – we didn’t achieve a really smooth paste. But that was okay, miso doesn’t have to be totally smooth. In fact, chunky miso has a very pleasant nutty texture. But a blender was duly ordered for future use.
After the beans had cooled we mixed in the rice koji and salt – giving everything a really good squash together. It’s a very hands-on approach. (Make sure hands are clean, of course, a good way to do this is to spray them with white vinegar.)
Then you get a big container, in this instance we found some food-grade plastic tubs, which we cleaned thoroughly and wiped with (cheap) vodka, grab a ball of mixture and throw it into the container. You need to have a good aim. The point of the throwing is that the mix splats together and doesn’t allow air bubbles. It’s really important that the mix is compact. If your splatting ability isn’t as accurate as it could be, make sure you really pack the miso together afterwards – a good squish with your fists will help.
When the mixture is thoroughly squashed and compacted, sprinkle salt over the surface of the mixture, find some heavy weights and crush the miso to push it all together.
Then it’s simply a matter of time. Miso production in Japan is usually started in spring when temperatures are low. We started in April. The hot, humid summer is essential for the maturation of the miso and this is quite difficult to replicate in the UK, which has summers that can best be described as variable. However, we are lucky enough to have a greenhouse in our garden so our miso spent several days at a temperature that tried to emulate Japan’s summer heat although it didn’t get close to its oppressive humidity. It worked though – after the summer, on opening the lid we could definitely get that distinctive miso aroma. We knew we were on the right track.
We waited a few more months – until late October – and finally plucked up the courage to scrape the scary-looking surface of the miso and dive in.
An initial taste revealed it to be really delicious – salty and savoury with a heady aroma. We do a lot of food preservation via a lacto-fermentation process and are generally a bit scared of mould which is considered to be a Bad Thing. If food goes mouldy, it is dangerous and should be chucked. With the miso, the covering of the weight did develop some mould so we were cautious. But it hadn’t affected the food, so all was well.
It turned out that we had managed to ferment about 3kg worth! That will keep us going for a while. We carefully washed some old plastic tubs from takeaway food – these are brilliant for storage – decanted the miso from the tub and put it into the fridge for future use. As a fermented food, it should have a very good shelf life.
The first thing we made with the miso was soup – the traditional accompaniment to many Japanese meals. Our miso was so delicious that it was possible to make a nice drink by simply pouring boiling water onto the paste, mixing and devouring, but that was too crude an approach.
The very best miso soup starts with a dashi, which is a soup stock. There are several types of dashi. You can get instant powdered dashi and just add water but it’s really easy to make your own using ingredients that are generally easy to find from Asian supermarkets. The process is very simple and much quicker than traditional stock making in European cuisines, which generally require ingredients such as meat, vegetables and spices to be boiled for several hours. And it’s definitely worth the not very considerable effort.
Dashi usually only uses a couple of ingredients. The dashi we made used kombu (kelp – a seaweed) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes, which are skipjack tuna flakes that have been simmered and smoked, then dried in the sun to ferment and finally shaved to wafer thin slices). Katsuobushi, like many fermented fish products (think Thai nam pla – fish sauce), smells somewhat stinky and rather unpleasant when you open the packet, but somehow it adds a magical quality to the finished stock. Other dashi ingredients could include dried shiitake mushrooms or dried anchovies. Dashi definitely puts the “mmm” into umami.
We simmered kombu and bonito for 20 minutes, skimming off any froth from the surface of the broth. Then we sieved the broth and kept the solid materials. A bit like olive oil, this was the primary dashi, but it’s possible to resuse the dried base ingredients to make another dashi.
When the dashi is ready add a tablespoon of miso paste and bring to the simmer.
Miso soup usually has some additional ingredients such as negi (like spring onions), tofu, mushrooms or wakame seaweed.
You can find our detailed recipe for making miso soup here.
And here is a link to the highly recommended Preserving The Japanese Way book.
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