Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Staying Poka-Poka in the Japanese Winter: The Wonder of Hand Warmers

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Traditional hot-water bottle
Tokyo experienced its first proper snow last week, but it didn't stick and was pretty much gone by the next day. Nevertheless, it's been pretty cold though nothing  compared to Hokkaido which is experiencing a record cold spell with temperatures dropping below minus 20 (the cold front even spread to Hawaii where it was responsible for an unheard of snow fall in the low lying areas!). At least people in Hokkaido enjoy central heating though - the rest of Japan lacks this luxury. In the absence of central heating, Japanese typically heat only the living room in winter; this can make a trip to the toilet extremely chilly! For heating, as discussed before, kerosene/paraffin remains common and a kotatsu low-heated table highly recommended. At night, as in the UK, Japanese will often sleep with a hot water bottle in the winter - in Japan this is called a yutanpo (湯たんぽ) and is traditionally made from galvanised steel or hard plastic (pictured), though recently the Western style soft rubber type has become more common.

But venturing outside usually means walking: Japan, at least in the populated areas, is a public transport not a car based society and Japanese have been shown to be one of the most active people in terms of daily steps taken (something also linked to low levels of obesity). Now this means a lot of time spent in those cold spaces between home, station, and workplace - which is where the fabulous disposable hand-warmer comes in. Usually written in katakana as カイロ (kairo), these thin pocket heaters are commonly used not only during commuting and shopping but also in various outdoor activities such as skiing and hiking. Depending on the size, once in contact with the air they can last anywhere from 7 to (incredibly) over 18 hours at relatively high temperatures as the table below shows:
Table showing different types of and stats for kairo or hand warmers produced by the Co-op (生協)
As the table indicates, there are two basic kinds of kairo: sticky (haru=貼る)and non-sticky (haranai=貼らない) which are written prominently on the front of the packet (pictured). The former can be stuck over inner-clothing, like T-shirts and vests, or inside jackets while the latter are more for pockets and holding directly. As the table also shows there are special kinds of sticky kairo especially for socks (pictured). These packets will often contain the onomatopoeic word for pleasantly warm or comfortably hot, pokapoka or hokahoka, though the latter is more closely associated with steaming or piping hot food (indeed, Hokka-Hokka Tei is the name of a popular take-out bento chain).

Like the yutanpo traditional hot-water bottle above, kairo were originally metal vessels with hot stones, sand, or charcoal inside: see here for a little history and some nice pictures. Finally, this wouldn't be Japan is there wasn't a long list of chūi (warnings) about how to use kairo safely. These include not putting them directly on the skin, sleeping with them, or attaching them to pets! You have been warned...

Friday, 8 February 2019

Yakiniku Grilled Meat - The Second Most Popular Washoku

When you mention Japan one of the first things most people think of is the food; indeed, washoku (Japanese food) is one of the top draws for the skyrocketing numbers of foreign tourists visiting Japan, something which was given a boost by its addition to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013. The latest Michelin Guide sees Tokyo as the city with the most - 230 - Michelin-starred restaurants (Paris, in contrast has only 113). In a nod to its popularity, this blog has covered a broad range of Japanese foods, from expensive wagyu (Japanese beef) - by far the most popular post to date with over 3,500 hits - to the humble rice-ball (onigiri) which rather amazingly gets its first mention in this year's Michelin Guide! Other foods covered include sweet potatoes, instant noodles, donburi, takoyaki (octopus balls), seven-herb rice-porridge, oden, sashimi, curry rice, grilled eel, bentō lunchboxes, sushi (twice!), gyūdon beef bowls - and too many others to mention. I hadn't realised that food has come to be such a dominant feature of "everyday life in Japan"!

While sushi remains the most popular food for Japanese, non-Japanese might be surprised that the second most popular food for natives - at least according to one NHK poll - is yakiniku (焼肉) or grilled meat (see here for the top 50 in mouth-watering pictures!). Yakiniku restaurants typically have a grill built into the table and you order thinly-sliced bite-sized pieces of unmarinated raw meat and vegetables and then cook it yourself. Menus contain a huge variety of different cuts and kinds of meat, offal, and various different vegetables (such as onions, green peppers, pumpkin, and shiitake mushrooms) which you can order little by little as you cook and eat. Although it is a fun communal eating experience, it is interesting to note that despite the image of Japan as groupist, the yakiniku experience is a very individual personalised one where you can cook the meat as you like and then choose from various sauces (tare) and condiments.

Although the term yakiniku was initially used to describe Western style barbecue, since the Showa period it has been heavily associated with and inspired by Korean cuisine such as bulgogi and indeed many yakiniku restaurants in Japan are Korean run (for a post explaining the history of Japan's Korean community see here). Recently we headed to our local yakiniku restaurant - with the Korean name Kochikaru (pictured) - to celebrate a birthday. Being a Korean restaurant, we were also able to order delicious kimchi (spicy cabbage) as well as bibimba (a Korean rice dish).

Yakiniku can be eaten at home, but is more commonly eaten out (known as gaishoku=外食), perhaps because of the smell and mess. Yakiniku restaurants are on the casual end of the restaurant spectrum but, unless you go for one of the "all-you-can-eat" time-limited places, they are not cheap - hence yakinuku is often reserved for a special occasion or celebration. One of the interesting features about yakiniku is that despite the cost you cook it yourself! This is actually fairly common in Japan, particularly for sukiyaki and other hotpot (nabe) style dishes but also (sometimes) for okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes). Te-maki (hand-rolled) sushi is another do-it-yourself example of Japanese cuisine, though this is usually eaten at home especially on Girl's Day (March 3rd). There is even a cook-it-yourself ramen place in Osaka! For some Westerners, the cook it yourself set-up can seem a little odd: this was captured nicely in the film Lost in Translation when the two main characters visit this shabu-shabu restaurant and Bill Murray humourously asks Scarlett Johansson, "What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?"