Unusually Exciting Ramen

Though Kyoto may be known for a thick, rich local variety of ramen, it’s also home to a small shop called Menbaka Ichidai that specializes in a style of ramen that is rarely found nowadays, generally known as negi ramen, or “green onion ramen.”

And yet, somehow, I feel like the name does not tell the full story.

This particular ramen shop has opted instead to rebrand it as “fire ramen,” perhaps because it is flavored with green onion-flavored oil that, just before serving, is heated and lit on fire, then poured into the bowls just before serving.

I don’t know if I would necessarily go back there a second time for this particular dish (it was pretty good, but fairly out of the way for me), but I’m certainly glad I at least visited once.

Off the Beaten Path: Yokai Street and Halloween in Japan

In the past three or four years, it has been almost impossible to not notice Halloween making a rapid transition in Japan from “not really a thing at all” to “very much a thing,” though in practice it’s hard to say how much of the modern traditions of, say, American Halloween have been adopted.1

That old traditional favorite, blood glasses

What is most interesting about Halloween in Japan, arguably, is not the fact that Japan has more than its own share of ghost stories and other eeriness, but the fact that so little of it seems to wind up overlapping with Halloween — summer is the season of ghost stories in Japan, or at least that seems to be the stereotype.

In their defense, these ghost breads are positively adorable.

In Kyoto, however, there is a little shopping street, only about 400 meters long, that has benefited perhaps more than most from Japan’s newfound interest in autumnal spookiness. Drawing on local folklore from a thousand years ago,2 this little street rebranded itself as “Yokai Street,” named after the yokai monsters from Japanese folklore, in the hopes of drawing visitors to stir up business and revitalize the local shops. One of the main signs you’ll see of this is little figures of traditional creatures from folklore out front of the shops, often made from whatever the shop sells, or sometimes just folklore-based variants on common things like the “watch for children” sign.

Watch for cyclops children at play


The local temple also holds semi-regular Mononoke-ichi art and craft markets, where visitors can buy coasters, sculptures, socks, art books, and more, all of it with a monsters-from-Japanese-folklore theme, or at least, say, eyeballs or white foxes. Depending on the season, you might also be able to get yourself a special bowl of shaved ice.

Current tally: 2 sad, 1 happy

One of the biggest events for this street, though, is a revival every several months of an old tradition based on the same legend: the Hyakki-yakō, or, essentially, “night of a hundred monsters.”3 As night falls, people crowd this street for a parade of monsters and ghouls, organized as a revival of the sorts of costumed parades once held in this part of Kyoto, many centuries ago.

Lanterns and fursuits!

Tengu guy wearing legitimate tall and narrow geta sandals! (not pictured

More foxes, or maybe cats? I am not good at animals.

Fox mask done in makeup, with cool weird contact lenses!

The “HAPPY HALLOWEEN” banners decorating the shops on the next street over last weekend may have been more conventionally Halloween-themed, but Yokai Street certainly felt much more in the spirit of the holiday. Perhaps that’s why they scheduled the parade for October.

For more information on Kyoto’s Hyakki-yakō and Mononoke-ichi events, check out their web site (in Japanese only). Their next event, as of this writing, is schedule for the second half of December: they’ll actually be visiting Tokyo to hold a Mononoke-ichi market there!

  1. Trick-or-Treating still seems decidedly exotic, but on the other hand, Halloween decorations can be seen popping up everywhere. The decorations have been generically “Christmas” or “Valentine’s Day” enough that it has led my wife and me to occasionally jokingly refer to them as “Merry Halloween” decorations. Lots of orange and black around, though, in any case. 
  2. During the Heian era (794–1185), at least in this part of Kyoto, it was said that old household tools and items thrown out while cleaning your home would hold grudges for being disposed of so coldly, so the tools decided to become monsters of various sorts to take their revenge on those who threw them out. As a result of this belief (or legend), there were nighttime parades held in this area centuries ago where people would dress up like these monsters. 
  3. Interestingly, this phrase is also used in a non-literal sense to refer to a state of utter chaos. 

I Really Like Osaka.

Osaka is easily one of my favorite places in Japan — up until early in the 20th century, it was actually the largest city in Japan (and the bombings it experienced during World War II certainly didn’t help it). What’s perhaps more interesting than its size, though, was its traditional clout: back during the feudal era, the merchant town of Naniwa (its name at the time) was enough of an economic powerhouse that, to no small extent, the city just ignored the shogunate government in Edo (now Tokyo).

Because of its history as a city built on and around business, rather than, say, politics and governance (Edo/Tokyo or Kyoto) or culture (Kanazawa), Osaka developed a reputation for… well, for everything that a city with lots of money and nobody to really answer to would develop a reputation for. In particular, Osaka became a center for both food and entertainment, in addition to commerce.

Even today, Osaka’s place in modern Japanese culture leans heavily toward the entertainment industry. The National Bunraku Theatre, dedicated to bunraku puppetry, is located in Osaka, rather than Tokyo as one might expect of a “national” anything.

Of course, more than highbrow entertainment, Osaka is closely associated with lowbrow popular entertainment. It’s widely regarded as that place you go if you’re an aspiring comedian, and rumor has it that people will even cultivate an Osaka accent as a way to make their way into the comedy world.1 This focus on comedy and showmanship has become a fundamental part of Osaka’s character — I’ve said on numerous occasions, half-jokingly, that while your stereotypical Tokyo resident might want nothing more than to drift, ghostlike and unnoticed, from public transit to their office and back every day for forty years, then retire to the country, the stereotypical Osaka resident doesn’t so much believe as simply knows that they will one day be on TV, so it’s crucial to keep in practice every single day.

This can be seen in parts of casual Osaka culture like nori-tsukkomi, which is essentially an extension of straight man/funny man comedy duo dynamics, where, for example, someone might ask for a bottle opener to open a bottle of beer, in response to which someone might hand them, say, a wrench, and say “here you go.” The proper response to something like this in Osaka is to play along for a moment, pretending to use the wrench (or whatever) as a “bottle opener,” after which point the norm is to react in an exaggeratedly exasperated way to the fact that no, of course it’s not a bottle opener.2

One fun thing about this deep cultural emphasis on comedy is its effect on local marketing:

The tooth is basically shouting

A billboard for a dental clinic. The headline at the top reads, in a thick Osaka accent, “Do you want to get your teeth drilled, or don’t you?” The message below the picture says, “If you don’t want to get your teeth drilled, then take precautions [to prevent cavities]!”

The Osaka police also have some really great marketing as well:

“Even if you can’t transform, you can still be an ally of justice.”

“Ideal job candidate.” (The copy underneath the picture reads, “For people who want to preserve their sense of justice.”)

  1. Interestingly, so far as I’m aware, this particular phenomenon isn’t necessarily limited to Japan: I seem to recall having heard a long time ago of a comedian being given advice by a mentor, who told them to, among other things, work to develop at least a hint of a southern US accent. 
  2. This comes directly from a fantastic episode of the TV show Himitsu no Kenmin Show, a show about unique local differences in various regions of Japan that the locals are often unaware aren’t universal. The example given happened with a hidden camera at a restaurant (and actually kept going), where the waiter would bring out a bottle of beer without an opener, and bring out silly things when customers asked for an opener. Osaka has such a uniquely straightforward and showmanship-oriented culture that Kenmin Show has a segment on it practically every week, with the occasional comparison to how people in Tokyo would react to something like responding to a waitress’s “Have you decided what you’d like?” with “Your phone number” (the answer: with a terrified stony silence descending around the entire table, instead of a laugh and/or a clearly fake response like 110, Japan’s emergency number), or how casually people in Osaka ask about one another’s salary or rent (“It’s like asking someone, ‘Did you watch Kenmin Show last night? What’s your rent?’ Same feeling.”). 

Seasonal Flavor Trends in Japan

Japan has a pretty well deserved reputation for novel and unusual seasonal beverages, more or less entirely due to Pepsi’s string of annual really weird flavors several years back.* While Pepsi has largely calmed down with their more exotic flavors — they don’t even sell Pepsi Twist anymore — it’s hardly unfair to suggest that the unique seasonal drink market has collapsed. If anything, it’s stronger than ever.

*Like Pepsi Ice Cucumber or Pepsi Azuki or Pepsi Dry (the non-sweet cola!) or Pepsi Shiso, the last couple of which I actually genuinely miss more than you will ever be able to understand. At least there’s now cola-flavored Wilkinson seltzer, which essentially fills that “non-sweet cola” hole in my life.

The interesting thing to note is that the market seems to be heavily trend-based, and the road from Point A to Point B is rarely truly straightforward. While 2015 and, to an extent, 2016 were decidedly The Year of the Mojito (with lime-and-mint-flavored just about everything), 2017 has been a bit of a wild ride.

The first half of the year was seemingly The Year Japan Discovered Cilantro (or coriander, or pakchi). Cilantro-flavored products popped up left and right — cilantro-flavored popcorn, cilantro-flavored potato chips, cilantro-flavored chocolates.

Honestly, they didn't taste much like cilantro at all.

More recently, though, as we’ve moved into summer, another trend entirely has shown up. It began, innocently enough, with mint lemonade, itself perhaps a remnant of The Year of the Mojito. Not half bad, to be honest — if I were a lemonade-making man, I’d absolutely consider adding mint next time.


However, things took a turn shortly after I came across this. Spiced lemonade, flavored with peppermint, spearmint, ginger, black pepper, and lemon balm. This was also very good, to be honest. A bit reminiscent of the way that freshly ground black pepper works extremely well in hot cocoa.

It was stocked at room temperature at the store, and it is NOT VERY GOOD warm like that.

Then, of course, there is this, which you have no doubt been expecting for several paragraphs:

I haven't actually tried this one myself, but I hear it's actually pretty good.

Cilantro lemonade. At convenience stores, it even had a little tag around the neck that read, essentially, “They go surprisingly well together!”

The Secret Ramen District of Kyoto

Kyoto usually brings to mind history and elegant culture, and for good reason. However, Kyoto also has more colleges per capita than any other city in Japan, giving it a second, very different personality.

One particularly good example of these dual personalities is food. While Kyoto has many exceptional kaiseki restaurants, there are also many restaurants for college students, and that means ramen. In fact, on Higashioji-dori, between Ichijoji and Shugakuin stations in northeast Kyoto, there are currently fifteen ramen shops, with no fewer than five more a fairly short distance away.

Perhaps most surprisingly, especially given Kyoto’s reputation for delicate, subtle, refined cuisine, what most of Japan thinks of as thick, rich ramen (like Hakata-style tonkotsu soup, made from pork bones) is considered “average,” or even relatively light, in Kyoto. For ramen, and seemingly ramen alone, Kyoto craves nothing more than something rich, thick, and flavorful.

Kyoto prefers a type of soup called marudori paitan (a type of chicken soup made by cooking chickens, meat and all, at a rolling boil, instead of the usual clear chicken stock made by simmering carcasses without the meat, making sure to prevent it from coming to a boil), and in extreme cases the soup is thick enough to nearly be a sauce — the noodles sit on top of the soup, instead of sinking into it, necessitating stirring.

In fact, the original Tenka Ippin (a relatively famous chain, known for their rich chicken soup) is located in this part of Kyoto, and in recognition of local and nationwide ramen preferences, their thickest and richest ramen soup is only available at their original shop in Ichijoji.

If you find yourself in Kyoto and you’re a fan of ramen with rich, thick soups, it’s worth making a trip to this area to try some out! My personal favorite is Akihide (the last one in the video), but when there’s this much competition, you’ll find that everyone is great, just as a matter of keeping up with the surroundings.

Loanwords: Not as Safe as You’d Expect!

One big surprise, when working with multiple languages, is that loanwords often have different meanings from the original language. This is natural, of course, as languages change and evolve over time, but it’s always a bit of a surprise to run across.

For example, English has a few loanwords from Japanese that are now almost unrecognizable: “tycoon” in English refers to a rich and influential businessperson, but it comes from 大君 (taikun), an old term used to refer to a sovereign (akin to “his majesty”). Likewise, the word “honcho” — usually “head honcho” — is used in casual American English to mean “the person in charge,” brought back after the soldiers in the postwar occupation learned the word 班長 (hanchō, “group leader”).

Of course, many English words have different meanings in Japanese. オリジナル (“original”) in Japanese is more or less exclusively used in the sense of “originality,” or “new and unique,” as opposed to its usual English meaning of “the first.” On the other hand, グッズ (“goods”) is closer in nuance to “merchandise” in Japanese, generally being used to refer to, say, licensed character merchandise (“character goods” in Japanese) or sporting goods (スポーツグッズ). Despite being a perfectly fine phrase in Japanese, referring to “original goods” in English is going to raise some eyebrows — something like “commemorative items” or some form of “merchandise” would be much closer in meaning to the Japanese, depending on the context.

These are good examples of how many loanwords change: often, a loanword has a narrower meaning than the word in the original language.* “Sauce” in English can mean any type of sauce, such as dipping sauces or béchamel sauce or barbecue sauce, but the loanword ソース in Japanese by itself usually refers something more along the lines of Worcestershire sauce specifically. On the other hand, English does the same thing: the word “salsa” was taken from Spanish, where it simply means “sauce.” As a result, the Japanese word サルサソース (“salsa sauce”) effectively means “sauce sauce”!

*Once in a while, interestingly, the opposite happens. For example, the English word “juice” has been adopted by Japanese as a loanword and, over time, has come to also encompass basically all other cold, sweet, non-alcoholic drinks, such as, say, cola.

Off the Beaten Path: Tsuki-usagi no Sato (Kaga, Ishikawa)

It is perhaps one of Japan’s best kept secrets that there is a great deal of the country that isn’t effectively part of the greater Tokyo area (or its analogue to the west, the Kansai region). While roughly half of Japan’s population (over 65 million people) does live within these two regions, there’s plenty of Japan left to explore.

The Hokuriku region, running along the Sea of Japan coast north of Kyoto, is interesting to look at for a number of reasons. Not least of these is the fact that, like much of North America, the prevalence of cars as a primary means of transport leads to unique and unusual destinations, often located at least somewhat off of the major routes, that are nonetheless usually worth at least one visit.

In this case, I’d like to talk about Tsuki-usagi no Sato,* a friendly rest stop in Kaga, Ishikawa with a restaurant or two, a gift shop full of rabbit-themed goods and local specialties, a quite good gelato shop, a charming central plaza with a number of fun statues of animals and legendary creatures, and a surprising number of rabbits simply walking around or relaxing.

Continue reading “Off the Beaten Path: Tsuki-usagi no Sato (Kaga, Ishikawa)”

A Short Introduction

Hello world!

Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m Greg, one of the in-house translation specialists at Expressions. As you might be able to guess, I do translation into English.

I’ve lived in Japan since 2008, in a broad variety of locations that run the gamut from rural to urban, and have developed quite an interest in the sorts of things and places that don’t ordinarily tend to be covered in travel shows and other tourism-oriented places.

Also food. I care perhaps a little too much about food, which is good for me, because so does Japan.

I hope to share some of my favorite parts of everyday Japan with the world, and draw more attention to the sorts of things that aren’t necessarily especially exotic, but are still kind of nice overall. I hope you’ll look forward to it!