Friday, June 24, 2022

Japanese Dolls World of Ningyo

Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyo

Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyo.
Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyo

Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyo

by Alan Scott Pate


ISBN: 978-0804849777
Hardback, 272 pp

Dolls, models - usually small - of humans and used by children for play but also used in magic and religious ritual, seem to be fairly universal and are found all over the world and date back millennia. Collecting dolls is also a widespread phenomenon not limited to any geographic area or specific time, and it is about the collecting of Japanese dolls that this book begins.

With short chapters on such things as the first Western collectors of ningyo, looking behind the scenes of a Meiji-era Japanese Doll Shop, etc. and the book ends with hints and tips for those who may be thinking about starting to collect Japanese dolls, including a list of dealers around the world who specialize in them, but the greatest part of the book focuses on the dolls themselves.

Page from the book showing text and photos
Copyright Tuttle

Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyo covers eighteen different styles of dolls across seven broad categories, and while there are plenty of other types of Japanese dolls, most with regional variations, it covers most of the types of doll you are likely to come across. There are the obvious types such as the dolls found on display at Hina Matsuri, but also several types of mass-produced ceramic dolls and the extremely simple Kokeshi wooden dolls. Interestingly bunraku puppets are also included as are two types of karakuri ningyo, mechanical dolls.

For me, the most intriguing are the iki-ningyo, known as "living dolls" which exhibit a realism that cannot be surpassed and are truly miniature sculptures. For each style of doll we are given the origins of the style and its historical development, but more importantly perhaps, the context for the dolls, how they fit into the broader culture, the whys of their purpose etc.

More meaning is found in the costumes, the poses, the humans that the dolls are modeled on, leading us to a greater appreciation of any dolls we may come across. However, the best reason for buying this book are the photos, 400 of them, almost all full color, some whole page, and all very detailed. This is most definitely a coffee table book that will draw you in after flipping a few pages. For anyone thinking about collecting Japanese dolls, this book is a gold mine, but anyone interested in Japanese art and culture will find plenty to expand their knowledge.

Japanese doll.
Copyright Tuttle

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Monday, June 20, 2022

Japanese Crafts In Kyoto

Japanese Craft Stores in Kyoto 京都

Japanese crafts are often regarded as formal and for special occasions only. But this is not true. Just as many handicrafts are simple, inexpensive, and created for everyday life. And even simple, daily-life things are skillfully and patiently created by Kyoto craftsmen, who pride themselves on making beautiful things that last for a long, long time. Here are some arts and crafts from Kyoto's most famous stores.

Lacquerware Soup Bowls.

Lacquerware Soup Bowls

New black or dark red lacquer tableware is expensive. But Kyoto's Uruwashi-ya offers you a great solution: used lacquerware. Used or antique lacquerware is very reasonable. However, you should inquire about how it will hold up in dry climates because lacquer is ideally suited to high humidity environments. On the south side of Marutamachi, east of Fuyacho. Open 11 am - 6 pm, closed on Tuesdays. Tel: 075 212 0043.

Brushes & Brooms

Need a handmade brush or broom to clean the house or your garden? Then you've come to the right place. Naito Shoten, an early 19th-century handmade brush and broom shop, has everything you could possibly hope for. Everything from large to small, including brushes for long glasses, pot cleaners, and mats (from ¥400). On the north side of Sanjo, just west of the Kamogawa River. Open daily 9.30 am -7 pm. Tel: 075 221 3018.

Kakimoto, Kyoto.

Japanese Washi Paper Table Decorations

Warm to the touch and naturally colored, Japanese handmade paper or washi can easily be adapted to serve as a table cloth, coasters, and for all kinds of other table decorations. And best of all: washi is so strong that it can be used over and over. For a great selection of washi, go to Kamijikakimoto, on the east side of Teramachi, about 100 meters north of Nijo. Tel: 075 211 3481. (

Japanese Crafts In Kyoto.

Japanese Bamboo Takehei 竹平

In operation for over 100 years, and now in its 4th generation, Takehei Shoten is known by many as Japan's bamboo specialist.

Within their vast warehouse, they stock about 100 different kinds of specialty bamboo, ranging from the standard to the very exotic. The age-old expertise that Takehei has built up over 100 years is sought out by bamboo artisans, architects, traditional musicians, designers, and antique dealers from all over the country.

Takehei also exports bamboo materials overseas (mainly to antique dealers, interior decorators, landscaping specialists, and architects). As the fastest growing plant in the world (1.2 meters in 12 hours), bamboo is a remarkable material that remains the preference for many of Japan's traditional designs and utensils.

Their curved window frames (for a Japanese home or tea ceremony room) are just one of Takehei's many unique products. (There are only a handful of artisans left in Japan that can make frames of this high quality and intricacy.)

Takehei is located on the west side of Omiya, north of Gojo. Open from 9 am to 6 pm, except on Sundays and public holidays.

403 Omiya-gojo, Shimogyo-ku
Kyoto 600-8377
Tel: 075 841 3803

Kanzashi Hair Ornaments 幾岡屋.

Kanzashi Hair Ornaments 幾岡屋

Ikuokaya has been doing business in the world-famous Gion district for more than 150 years. They specialize in kanzashi hair ornaments, fans, bags, and accessories.

Stepping into the shop, one enters the world of accessories that add to the exotic charm of the geiko: splendid, colorful kanzashi (hairpins), exquisitely designed handkerchiefs, little richly patterned silk bags with drawstrings, sandalwood combs. Many of the patterns and designs express the seasonal elements for which Japan is so well known: flowers, bushes, and important symbols like the moon, pine trees, cranes, and rabbits.

Ikuokaya is located on the south side of Shijo, east of Hanamikoji. Open 11 am-7 pm (closed Thursdays). Tel: 075 561 8087. Gion-Shijo Station is the nearest station.

577-2 Gionmachi Minamigawa

Asahi-do Ceramics, Kiyomizu, Kyoto.

Asahi-do Ceramics 朝日堂

Asahido is one of the most famous of Kyoto's Kiyomizu yaki pottery stores. It has been a landmark for generations of visitors to Kiyomizu Temple since its establishment in 1870.

From everyday tableware to one-of-a-kind tea ceremony bowls by well-known ceramic artists, Asahido has something for every taste and budget.

The relaxing atmosphere of the traditional Japanese interior offers a welcome break from sightseeing, and the colorful items are displayed under warm, soft lighting. It almost seems more like a ceramics museum than a store. There is also a tea room and gallery space, which exhibits selected ceramic art.

Asahido's exquisite merchandise has won it an international clientele, and it has also been privileged to supply items to the Japanese Imperial Household. However, the wide range of items is sure to provide anyone with many excellent and affordable souvenir ideas. Asahido goods can also be bought at other places around Kyoto: in the Kyoto Tokyu Hotel, the Kyoto ANA Hotel, and Arashiyama Syoryuen in Arashiyama.

Also try Asahido Toan, located just a few shops down the street from the main Asahido store for a range of Japanese crafts.

Asahido Toan offers a range of authentic Japanese traditional crafts, including woodblock prints, bamboo items, incense, as well as Kiyomizu yaki pottery. Open daily from 9 am to 6 pm. Packing and delivery service available. Located on Kiyomizuzaka, in front of Kiyomizu Temple. All major credit cards are accepted.

1-280, Kiyomizu
Kyoto 605-0862
Tel: 075 531 2181

Access: Take the Kyoto city bus #206 from Kyoto Station to Gojozaka bus stop, then a 10-minute walk.

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Friday, June 17, 2022

Japanese Kokeshi Dolls Book Review

Book Review: Japanese Kokeshi Dolls: The Woodcraft and Culture of Japan's Iconic Wooden Dolls

ISBN: 978-4-8053-1554-5
By Manami Okazaki
Tuttle Publishing, 2021
168 pp, hardback

Book Review: Japanese Kokeshi Dolls: The Woodcraft and Culture of Japan's Iconic Wooden Dolls.
Japanese Kokeshi Dolls: The Woodcraft and Culture of Japan's Iconic Wooden Dolls

Covering every aspect of kokeshi dolls that you can imagine, and probably some that you can't, Manami Okazaki's book is as educational as it is beautiful.

Kokeshi have exploded from their origins in hot springs towns in the Tohoku (Northeast) region of Japan sometime in the 1800s.  You can now get kokeshi that are cat-themed, ninja-themed, ice cream-themed, Astro Boy-themed, hat-themed, mushroom-themed,  and 1960s psychedelic-themed. That's just for starters. Have you ever wanted a doll with mompe pants? These days, that's no problem.

There are perhaps 300 full-color pictures of kokeshi that are new and old, big and small, cute and scary, and traditional and, er, less than traditional. There are also pictures of some of the famous artisans who make them. Most of the pictures of kokeshi are of very high quality and will pique the interest of the reader.

The book opens with a short explanation of what exactly kokeshi are, what kinds of wood they are made from, a brief history of the dolls, and a description of the craft of making the dolls. Next up is a section on the 12 recognized traditional styles of kokeshi, followed by a section on what are called modern kokeshi.

Traditional kokeshi, which are still almost exclusively made in the Tohoku region, adhere to historic models, while contemporary kokeshi "have no formal rules, and are completely free from the constraints of tradition."

The contemporary kokeshi can be incredibly ornate and thought-provoking. Readers may especially be attracted to the works of Sendai's Noboru Wagatsuma. Admittedly, his work can be a bit out there, with Roswell alien and cheeseburger kokeshi among his more interesting efforts.

Example page from the book.
Example page from the book © Tuttle Publishing

The book also covers other interesting artisans and their histories. These pages often include websites, email addresses and even phone numbers to call if you are a serious buyer.

The last 25 pages are two-to-four-page sections on traveling to the prefectures - pretty much all in Tohoku - where most kokeshi makers can still be found, and also where you can go to buy kokeshi if you are in Tokyo, Australia, Europe, the Middle East or America.

Japanophiles who know the traditional Shinto belief that dolls have souls may be aware of the annual doll blessing and burning ceremony in Tokyo. You can't just throw away dolls, they must be blessed and then burned by a priest in an atmospheric ritual. This is also true of kokeshi, and their ceremony is held annually at a shrine in Miyagi Prefecture.

The quality of the pictures and content of this square-shaped book are easily good enough to display on your coffee table. The book may also nudge you into purchasing a kokeshi or two, even if you hadn't planned on it.

Review by Marshall Hughes

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Examples of contemporary kokeshi dolls.
Contemporary kokeshi dolls © Tuttle Publishing

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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Calpis Soft Drink

Calpis カルピス

by Johannes Schonherr

Calpis bottles in a Japanese supermarket.
Calpis bottles in a Japanese supermarket

Calpis is a classic Japanese soft drink sold as a concentrate and based on fermented milk, first introduced in 1919. It has a slightly acidic flavor, similar to plain yoghurt.

Though Calpis is often just mixed with water or milk for quick consumption, the variety of its uses is endless. It can be mixed with any kind of fruit syrup or fruit juice, it can enhance the taste of ice cream or served as part of a cocktail.

Some people consider Calpis to be a refreshing summer drink, others drink it throughout the whole year, some appreciate its healthy properties, others just enjoy the taste. In any case, Calpis is one of Japan's most popular soft drinks.

Searching for the original Calpis concentrate in a Japanese supermarket can be a bit confusing at first. In the chilled drink section you always find a variety of ready-to-drink Calpis sodas. Looking for the concentrate, you have to go to the non-chilled section which is usually not that far away but definitely on a different set of shelves.

Calpis advertisement in the Yomiuri Shimbun, March 1920.
Calpis advertisement in the Yomiuri Shimbun, March 1920

History of the Drink

The history of the drink started in the year 1904 when Japanese businessman Kaiun Mishima (1878-1974) travelled to Inner Mongolia. He encountered there a drink named airag (in other parts of central Asia known as kumis) made from mare milk fermented with lactobacilli.

Weakened from the exhausting travel, he recovered very quickly after consuming the drink a few times. He also liked the drink's acidic flavor and he concluded, rightly, that airag played a great part in enabling the people of Inner Mongolia to stay healthy in the harsh climate of the region.

Mishima returned to Japan with the mission to create a similar drink, a drink that "can contribute to people's lives", as he said.

Since in Japan mare milk was hard to come by, he focused on cow's milk. After studying lactobacilli and the related fermentation processes for more than a decade, Mishima's newly established company introduced Calpis to Japan for the first time on July 7 1919.

Calpis ready to drink.
Calpis ready to drink

Calpis Bottle Design

July 7 is in Japan the much celebrated day of Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival. Two lovers in heaven, punished by the gods and thus separated by the Milky Way, are allowed to meet only that one night in the year.

The original bottle design of Calpis already featured the stars of the Milky Way in the form of multiple dots on a black background. Today, the bottles are white but still show lots of polka dots. The connection of Calpis to Tanabata stays on.

Popularity of Calpis

The drink was an instant success after its inauguration. As a concentrate, it didn't require refrigeration and thus could easily be stored even during the hot summer days. Consumers quickly got inventive and came up with all sorts of recipes on how to use the drink.

Mishima saw his company blooming until he died at age 96 in 1974. Perhaps his frequent consumption of Calpis had an impact on his lifespan?

In the 1980s, ready-to-drink chilled Calpis soft drinks started to appear on Japanese supermarket shelves in plastic bottles. Much research had gone into them to appeal to the tastes of as many as people as possible.

Still, that development came as a big surprise to many. "We always had our private family recipe on how to make the best Calpis drink," many wondered, "Now, the mix in the plastic bottles is how Calpis is supposed to taste like?"

Some thought that the ready-to-drink sodas were superior, other stayed on with their family traditions.

In 2012, brewery giant Asahi Group Holdings acquired Calpis.

Variety of Calpis Products

Today, the original Calpis concentrate is still available in every Japanese supermarket while the variety of the chilled Calpis sodas is almost endless. By now, Calpis candies and other sweets are also available.

An inscription on the top of the standard 470ml bottle of Calpis concentrate states that using one fifth of Calpis for a 150ml glass, you get 15 drinks out of one bottle of Calpis. It doesn't say what to mix the drink with but one might assume that it means either water (carbonated or not), milk or soya milk. Some people might argue and say that they get either much more or much less out of a bottle. It's all a matter of personal preferences.

The inscription below the logo translates to Peace to the Body, meaning that the drink is both relaxing and healthy. A remark reflecting Kaiun Mishima's original intentions.

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Buy Calpis from GoodsFromJapan

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Monday, May 30, 2022

常滑はトイレの町だった-Tokoname Aichi Prefecture

Old Toilets in Japan, Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture






Recycled clay pipes in the garden.
Recycled clay pipes in the garden

















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Monday, May 23, 2022

Sayama Japanese Green Tea

Hand-Picked Sayama Tea 手摘み狭山茶

by Johannes Schonherr

Hand Picked Sayama Tea 手摘み狭山茶.
Shincha advertising at a Sayama Tea store in Tokorozawa, Saitama

In the Sayama tea area northwest of Tokyo, the harvest of the Shincha (新茶), the first tea leaves of the year, takes place in late April / early May. Among tea lovers, this is a highly anticipated harvest since those first leaves are especially tasty and aromatic.

Sayama Shincha is a Sencha tea, which means it is a tea sold in the form of processed, steamed leaves - unlike Matcha which is sold as a powder. About three-quarters of all Japanese green teas are Sencha teas.

Yamaka-en Sayama Tea field, Tokorozawa.
Yamaka-en Sayama Tea field, Tokorozawa

Japanese Teas

The premium quality is picked by hand by a group of experienced harvest helpers who can decide within fractions of a second which leaves to take, steadily filling their baskets with the highest quality leaves.

Sayama is one of Japan's northern-most tea areas. Winters can be freezing. Tea plants need to be of varieties that can withstand such conditions. Yabukita, a plant originally from Shizuoka that proved to be able to adapt to the more northern climate, turned out to be the first choice for the hand-picked Sayama Shincha.

To withstand the cold of winter, the Sayama tea plants grow thicker leaves resulting in a profound flavor and a rich taste.

An old local minyo folk song, often sung during the harvest in old times, takes the comparisons to the other traditional Japanese tea growing areas lightly: the tea from Uji (near Kyoto), it says, is all about the scent, the tea from Shizuoka is all about the color but Sayama Tea is all about the taste.

Kyoto-Uji is certainly Japan's most famous tea area while Shizuoka produces the bulk of Japanese Green Tea. Sayama, producing tea since the times of the Kamakura Shogunate in the 1300s is up among them as one of the top three traditional Japanese tea production areas.

Yamaka-en Sayama Tea field ready for hand picking, Tokorozawa.
Yamaka-en Sayama Tea field ready for hand picking, Tokorozawa

The Harvest

To get a real feel of the tea, there is nothing better than actually joining the harvest. Take a Seibu Shinjuku Line train to Tokorozawa or Iruma City, walk around the tea fields in April and inquire at the adjoining farms if they need a harvest helper. In most cases, the answer will most likely be a happy "yes."

Yamaka-en tea harvest by hand, Tokorozawa.
Yamaka-en tea harvest by hand, Tokorozawa

Yamaka Kasuya Tea Farm

At the Yamaka Kasuya family farm in Kita Iwaoka, Tokorozawa that is definitely the case. Their teas are known under the name Yamaka-en (Yamaka Garden).

Give them your phone number and you will receive a call back once the actual harvest days have been decided.

Arrive at the tea field in the morning. You might be a little surprised at the shape of the plants you are directed to. Those are not the neatly trimmed rows of tea plants you see so often in advertising. Those neatly trimmed rows are for machine harvesting. The hand-picking tea also grows in neat rows but the branches stretch out in a much more natural manner.

Wrapped-up shades hang over the tea field. Those have shielded the plants from intense sunlight during the growing period in spring, preventing the ultra-violet rays from damaging the taste of the nascent young leaves.

You receive a basket and are told which leaves to take - only the set of the freshest three leaves right on top. The classical set of tea leaves is often seen in print.

You work the bushes, clipping leaf set after leave set with your fingers. A typical group of harvesters consists of about 20 to 30 people. Many of them are elderly folks being part of other tea-growing families living nearby.

Unfortunately, they don't sing any minyo folk songs during work anymore. But there is constant chatter. The days of the harvest bring many folks together who don't see each other for the rest of the year. There is constant talk about whose children married whom, who had children, who died, and so on. For those folks, a tea harvest is a social event.

A perfect set of tea leaves.
A perfect set of tea leaves

Tea Tradition

Frequently, the town hall sends young employees to the harvest as well, to let them experience the importance of the tea tradition in their town.

Since the plants are about 160 cm high, it's all rather easy work. You don't have to be afraid of back pains. If you like to squat on the ground for a while and take the leaves from there, it's perfectly okay.

At the end of the working day, usually at 4 pm, you receive an envelope with your salary of the day in cash.

Don't expect to finance your next trip around the world that way. Rather invest the cash in some really good tea by going to the farm shop to buy some top-notch tea about a week later.

By then, the son of the house, running a small tea processing plant right on the premises, will have turned the tea leaves you harvested into high quality Shincha for sale only at the tiny family tea shop on the family premises.

Hand picked tea leaves in a basket.
Hand picked tea leaves in a basket


The tea available there is the one you picked by hand. It says Gomeicha (御銘茶) on the outer wrapping though nobody ever uses that word in a conversation. Gomeicha simply means "our best tea", "our flagship" or "signature tea" or something along those lines, indicating that it is the absolute top quality tea produced at the farm.

As with most Japanese green teas, prepare this tea with water heated up to about 70°C (158°F) for optimal taste. For a second brew, use the same temperature, for the third, however, use boiling water.

The Yamaka-en Gomeicha received an award for best Green Tea from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishery in 2016, 2018, and 2021.

Yamaka-en Gomeicha tea outer wrapping.
Yamaka-en Gomeicha tea outer wrapping

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Yamaka-en Gomeicha tea package.
Yamaka-en Gomeicha tea package


Thursday, May 05, 2022

Koinobori & Children's Day Japan

Koinobori & Children's Day 鯉のぼり

Jake Davies

Towards the end of April, large groups of koinobori carp streamers start appearing in readiness for Children's Day on May 5th.
Towards the end of April, large groups of koinobori carp streamers start appearing in readiness for Children's Day on May 5th

May 5th in Japan is Kodomo no Hi, Children's Day when the Japanese celebrate their children, and the most visible sign of the approach of Children's Day is the appearance from mid-April onward of the colorful windsocks known as Carp Streamers or Koinobori.

Suspended across a river is one of the more dramatic locations to see koinobori.
Suspended across a river is one of the more dramatic locations to see koinobori

Children's Day in Japan

Children's Day is the last of four National Holidays that fall at the end of April and early May that collectively are known as Golden Week, and with many companies giving their employees 7 to 10 days off, Golden Week has become the second biggest holiday and vacation time in Japan after the New Year holidays.

Children's Day, the last of the Golden Week National Holiday days was not established until 1948. Prior to that it was known as Tango no sekku, commonly called Boy's Day, and it was in that form that the association with koinobori began.

Colorful koinobori carp streamers celebrate Children's Day.
Colorful koinobori carp streamers celebrate Children's Day

Chinese Influence

Ancient Japan adopted the calendrical and numerological system from China, In this system specific dates were laden with symbolic meaning, and the 5th day of the 5th month was a seasonal court festival, along with the 1st day of the 1st month, Oshogatsu, New Year, 3rd day of the 3rd month, Hina Matsuri, the Doll Festival, 7th day of the 7th month, Tanabata, and the 9th day of the 9th month, Kiku Matsuri.

These festivals originated in rites of protection against evil, and among the common people these days took on their own meanings, with notably Hina Matsuri being celebrated as Girl's Day, and Tango no sekku as Boy's Day, and it was in this form that May 5th became associated with koinobori.

On May 5th families would celebrate their male children, putting up displays of Kintaro dolls, based on a legendary Heian Period samurai, Sakata no Kintoki, as well as Kabuto, samurai helmets and sometimes whole miniature suits of samurai armor. In the Edo Period banners bearing the image of carp were added to the displays.

Japanese koi kept in the canals of Tsuwano Castle town where they were used for an emergency food source.
Japanese koi kept in the canals of Tsuwano Castle town where they were used as an emergency food source


The carp is native to the waterways of Japan and was a prized source of food. In the former castle town of Tsuwano in Shimane, the drainage canals of the town were stocked with carp for use as an emergency food in case of siege, and today visitors can still see them.

Most people however, will think of the ornamental,  multi-colored, koi that are a relatively recent development but which are now a common feature not just of traditional Japanese gardens but garden ponds throughout the world.


In Japan the koi has come to represent strength, courage, endurance, perseverance, and health, and these attributes gave been derived from a well known, ancient Chinese tale of a golden carp that swam upstream of the Yellow River, eventually swimming up a waterfall and being reincarnated as a dragon.

The qualities attributed to the koi were those most valued by the samurai and wished for for their sons.

One theory how the koi became associated with Boy's Day was that when the Shogun had a son, the news was announced by raising carp flags.

Koinobori flying at a mountain park.
Koinobori flying at a mountain park

Displaying koinobori

The traditional way of displaying the koinobori was at the top of a tall bamboo pole. At the top would be the largest, black-coloured koinobori representing the father of the family fukinagashi (吹き流し).

Followed by a red koinobori for the eldest son of the family, followed by decreasingly sized ones in blue, green, purple, and orange, for any younger sons.

When Boy's Day switched to Children's Day the symbolism changed somewhat with the second, red, Koinobori coming to represent the mother, and often pink being used instead of red.

The other colors came to represent both sons and daughters. In fact, more and more these traditional meanings have been discarded and some families simply fly koi representing just the children of the family who are still at home.

The traditional method of displaying koinobori, now found mostly only in the countryside, is atop a tall bamboo pole.
The traditional method of displaying koinobori, now found mostly only in the countryside, is atop a tall bamboo pole

Nowadays the most common way to see koinobori is not in the single displays put up by families, but in large public and civic situations.

A very popular site is strung across a river, where when the wind blows it most looks like carp swimming against the current. Other popular spots include parks, strung between buildings, and increasingly at shopping malls and retail parks.

Dozens of large koinobori across the Gonokawa River in Shimane.
Dozens of large koinobori across the Gonokawa River in Shimane

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Friday, April 29, 2022

お豆腐レストラン Kitchen Soyaー茨城、つくば

Kitchen Soya, Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture

コロナ禍でも絶対になくなってほしくない店というのがある。うちの近所のカフェがまさにそう。Kitchen Soya。カフェといったけど、本格的なお豆腐料理のレストランだ。

Kitchen Soya
Kitchen Soya, Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture

Kitchen Soya.
Kitchen Soya

The exterior of Kitchen Soya in Tsukuba




お豆腐レストラン Kitchen Soyaー茨城、つくば.

お豆腐レストラン Kitchen Soyaー茨城、つくば
The woody interior



Tofu Katsu.





どうですか、行ってみたくなるでしょう? いい店にはドラマがあるんです。




Thursday, April 21, 2022

Masu Wooden Sake Cups

Masu 升

Japanese sake served in a masu.
Japanese sake served in a masu

by Johannes Schonherr

Ordering a cup of cold nihonshu (sake) in any traditional Japanese izakaya pub, you will usually be served 1go of sake (180 ml) either poured into a wooden masu box or, more likely, an overflowing glass of sake placed inside a masu box, adding up to about the same amount.

In either case, it is a very particular and very Japanese experience.

Drinking sake from the wooden masu box is generally called 升酒 (masuzake), involving a glass more specifically called もっきり (mokkiri) style.

All this applies however only to cold sake - hot sake is never served this way.

Drinking Rules

This being Japan, there are of course various traditional rules going with the drinking style.

According to the expert chibasake website, when drinking directly from the masu, you are supposed to use only one hand holding the box. The four fingers other than the thumb go to the bottom of the box, supporting your movements. Place the thumb on the rim of the box for balance.

It may be easy to drink from a corner of the box but this is considered bad manners and thus an absolute no-no. Sip from a flat side of the masu - without making any noises doing so.

When it comes to sipping the last drops in the masu, though, skip the rule. Drink them from the corner or don't drink them at all. Trying to drink them from the side will get sake spilled on your shirt.

When drinking mokkiri style, with a glass placed into the masu, the glass will be filled to the point of overflowing. So, lift the glass a bit, tilt it and pour the excess sake into the masu. This way, you can drink from the glass without spilling any sake.

It is also perfectly acceptable to bring your mouth to the glass in the masu resting on the table and take a sip or two without touching the glass until you feel it will be safe to lift the glass without spilling.

Once you have finished the glass, feel free to pour the sake left in the masu into the glass or drink it directly from the masu the way described above.

You can watch here an English subtitled video detailing mokkiri serving and drinking ways, going a bit into the history of the style and including some interesting thoughts. Like, when a couple enjoys a sake together, the man should drink from the masu and the woman should drink from the glass - lipstick traces are hard to remove from a masu box.

If you use the masu to drink sake at home, you might want to put a pinch of salt onto a corner of the box and try licking it while drinking. This is said to greatly enhance the taste of the sake. You may also use your finger for licking the salt.

Sake served mokkiri style.
Sake served mokkiri style

History of Masu

Masu are square, open wooden boxes that were traditionally used to measure amounts of rice. Standardized nationwide by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1669, the smallest masu were to measure 1go of rice (ca. 180 ml).

Larger masu always measured in multiplications of go: 1sho = 10go (1.8 liters), 1to = 100go (18 liters), and so on. 1koku of rice (1000go = 180 liters) were considered to be the amount needed to sufficiently feed a working man or soldier for one year with three servings per day. The wealth of daimyo (regional rulers) in the Edo era was assessed by the number of koku of rice they could generate per year in their domain. Samurai were paid in koku of rice or their equivalent in money.

With the introduction of the metric system in Japan in 1886, those traditional Japanese measurements were largely abandoned. Sake however is still frequently sold according to the old measurements. Small bottles are often 1go (180 ml), family bottles are 4go (720 ml), large bottles used for ceremonies and at restaurants are 1sho (1.8 liters), good for 10 servings.

The masu boxes also survived the change to the metric system. Being beautifully crafted from fragrant cedar or cypress wood, the boxes were adapted for many new purposes. Storing things in them was one of them.

Masu boxes in the sake corner of a Japanese supermarket.
Masu boxes in the sake corner of a Japanese supermarket

Masu Today

The masu most popular today is the 1go box. Already in Edo times, they had become a serving box for sake. When served mokkiri style, the bar owner showed his generosity by serving the sake cup placed inside it overflowing.

This tradition has become deeply ingrained in Japanese culture - that is what you witness when being served a masu cup of sake in an izakaya bar.

Taking Care of the Masu

Masu are made of raw cedar or cypress wood, they, therefore, need some care to stay in good condition.

According to the experts at chibasake, wash the masu only with water, and don't use chemical detergents as they will destroy the scent of the wood. Do not leave the masu in the water for an extended period of time.

If you have to remove stains, rub the spots using baking soda or salt.

Never clean it in a dishwasher as that will dry the wood and make it vulnerable to moisture - which might result in mold.

After washing the box, wipe it with a cloth and let it air dry in a well-ventilated place. Make sure to always store the masu in a dry place away from direct sunlight.

Buy masu from GoodsFromJapan.

Buy Masu from GoodsFromJapan

Drinking sake from a masu is a very unique experience. Still, you can try it in your home or with friends wherever you live. GoodsFromJapan works with traditional masu manufacturer Maruni in Gifu Prefecture, producing high-quality masu not only of the 1go sake drinking variety but also masu of many different shapes and sizes for many purposes. All are made of precious fragrant Japanese cedar or cypress wood.

Please feel free to contact us if you are interested in more detailed information on the variety of Maruni masu boxes available beyond the 1go sake drinking box.

Buy masu for your home or business from GoodsFromJapan

Printing and branding on the masu with your company logo or Japanese characters are also possible. Please contact us for further details.


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