My New Years Gift of Sweets

I spent my vacation over New Years traveling around Central Japan and the Kansai region. New Year's Eve was in Kyoto, and in addition to a little sightseeing a picked up a few traditional things.

My gift for the office was a box of yatsuhashi, which most likely Kyoto's most iconic food. It's a lightly sweet snack that is essentially a souvenir sweet these days. It comes in two forms and several flavors.
The baked version is mostly found in curved long triangles, similar to a stick of gum curved into a long semi-circle. 
In its raw form, it's a soft, flexible dough. Many prefer the raw, unbaked yatsuhashi, which is usually cut into squares about 4" in size and folded into a triangle with a small bit of red bean paste filling inside. 

The "basic" flavor is cinnamon, and unlike most snacks in Japan, the cinnamon can be quite pronounced. But baked yatsuhashi is also found in matcha (green tea), and raw yatsuhashi is found in at least half a dozen non-traditional flavors, like strawberry, chocolate, and yuzu (a sweet lemon-like fruit). Chocolate might be my favorite, although the other flavors are pretty good too, and the traditional cinnamon is certainly good as well!
 A gift to myself (as a sampler for the blog, naturally!) was the box you see above. The shopping street leading to Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto is full of, well, shops, mostly selling souvenirs and traditional goods. After picking up some yatsuhashi, I wandered into a different store that had a shelf of small jellies and some boxes to pack them in. I grabbed a nine-pack box (there are larger sizes, too) and picked out a selection of gorgeous sweets.
You can see my non-harmonious arrangement above. One of these wasn't really a jelly (top-left) but was okay-tasting; the rest were mild but sweet. They're really beautiful, though! The sweets go by the name of wagashi, and are generally served with tea. As with most Japanese sweets, the base is usually mochi and/or anko, or fruit jellies. I believe the form above is namagashi, a "wet" type made fresh without preservatives.

Japan has an obsession with fruit flavors with dessert, and the fruits themselves are usually fairly expensive still too. Grapes, apples, and strawberries aren't just snacks here. Gummy candies are all over the place with fruit flavors - fine by me, because I love them! These are much milder, but I think they would go great with a cup of tea on this cold winter night!

Meet Gaaya-Chan, Koshigaya's Duck Leek Pot Mascot!

I went out several times today. The "recycle" shop, followed by a supermarket and a small card shop, then another supermarket, before hopping a train one stop to go to yet another supermarket and pick up some dinner. That last stop was at Koshigaya Station. I'd seen the shop selling local goods a few times, but I've never been around when it was open.

This time, it was. I browsed around inside briefly; they sell daruma dolls and a few other handicrafts, a few variations of rice crackers, and some clothing. I almost bought a hat that said "Born in Koshigaya" but decided against it.
I did get this iron-on patch of Gaaya (Gaya-chan, ガーヤちゃん), the Koshigaya mascot. He is a duck with leeks in a pot. He's not really being cooked, despite his sad appearance on this patch. The pot is actually more like a pair of pants, and the leeks serve as a sort of tail. I think. This is the first time I've seen the mascot, and I had to have a little souvenir of the town I've called home for three years running now.
As I mentioned earlier, the store has senbei. I think every town has a "local" senbei, and nearby Soka City is well-known for its senbei. Senbei is a rice cracker, usually seasoned with soy sauce. 

Other things I saw in the store related to Koshigaya's local trades include wooden boxes, daruma and other dolls, and a couple different drinks. Additionally, Koshigaya has a small agricultural market and is known for its leeks and chestnuts. The duck comes into play because there is a former hunting ground in northern Koshigaya which is now a park of sorts. Or it might still be a hunting ground.

The store, called the Koshigaya Bussan Exhibition Hall (越谷市物産展示場), is open 10:00-19:00, closed Mondays or the next day if Monday is a holiday. There is a large case of local goods on display, and smaller items are available for purchase around the rest of the shop.

From Koshigaya Station's ticket gates, turn right, then go left to follow the train tracks north. The entrance is at the end of the small shopping center, past McDonalds.

"Supaida-Man! Let's go!" - Japanese Spider-Man is AWESOME.

Just take a look for yourselves:
It's got everything you could ask for in a Japanese superhero TV show! A man who transforms into his spandex costume! Faceless bad guys in spandex! Villains in spandex! Motorcycles and machine guns! And giant robots!

Apparently, this is the first superhero-uses-robots show, before even the Super Sentai (Power Rangers) series began. And Spider-Man even fights aliens in Japan!

Marvel's website states there are 41 episodes in all, but it looks like only episodes 1 and 7 are available on their website. Check them out while you can, and hopefully more will be released soon!

Too Beautiful to Eat!

Im still trying to get myself organized after returning from my New Year's vacation trip, and hopefully I'll be back to a semi-regular posting schedule after the weekend.

But I wanted to share this beautiful box of sweets given to me by one of my students. I have such wonderful students, not only because of their generosity, but I can't always share details because of privacy concerns. 

Anyway, this is a box of six amazing looking sweets! It came in a great box that I'll try to keep too!

Happy New Year! Let's eat!

I'm in Osaka right now, probably walking around town. But thanks to the ability to schedule posts, I can make this post go live at midnight California time!

So, Happy New Year!
 Traditionally, Japanese people don't cook for the first several days of the new year (called oshogatsu). Instead, they prepare osechi for the family, a collection of boxed meals which are served cold. These tend to involve seafood and rice. Osechi sets can be purchased from supermarkets and other stores instead of preparing massive amounts of food, and for those who still follow the tradition it generally only lasts for one day.

My older students are more interested in following the osechi tradition, while younger students, especially the children, don't like it. I think only one of my school-aged students that I asked actually likes osechi meals.

Historically, osechi included only vegetables, but seafood and more recently even western food has been included. They're stored (and sold) in distinctive boxes that resemble bento boxes.

Osechi-ryori are the traditional Japanese foods served in osechi during the new year, and they all have significance. Even the arrangement is important. Soba noodles are an important part of the first osechi meal, too.
Japan is an ever-changing nation, always fighting between tradition and progress. Recently, there have been more osechi boxes offering western foods, but the real unique osechi are themed. I saw a military-themed osechi a few days ago; the top layer had a very traditional collection of food, but military ration packets were found beneath for the other few days. And the image above features members of J-Pop idol group AKB48, plugging their very own osechi boxes. It looks like the food in these is pretty standard, though I'm sure that box makes a nice souvenir for crazed fans.

You can't buy osechi in restaurants, and unless you're in Japan over New Years it will be very hard to try. And it's not cheap, as boxes start around 10,000 yen (about $100), designed to feed a few people for a few days. Prices can reach $10,000 for the luxury ones made by celebrity chefs, though - and they usually sell out! Given the high cost, I doubt I'll get a chance to try osechi any time soon.

2014 in Review and a Look at 2015

I did a post like this at the end of 2013. Let's see how things have changed in the past year.

My third year in Japan was certainly less exciting than the prior two.

I took two international trips, visiting three different countries: Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore. I had a fantastic time at all three places, especially focusing on local food in addition to checking out the sights. In Korea I got to go to six baseball games at six different stadiums in a week. Singapore's cuisine stands out as the best, though all three places have great dishes. And Hong Kong Disneyland was my first international Disney park; yes, I still haven't made it to Tokyo Disneyland or Disney Sea.

My summer was spent on the island of Shikoku, on my most active trip yet. I hiked a few mountains and spent most of the time outdoors. I even randomly came across a baseball museum while sightseeing near Okayama!

But other than my major vacations, I mostly fell into a weekly routine. Take the train to Akihabara, walk around for a little while and have a kebab don. Then, scoot over to Kanda, Takadanobaba, and finally Ikebukuro for a snack with a friend. I love to walk around Akiba, but I didn't take any day or overnight trips that I had planned on taking. I did get to Nagoya for a weekend.

I got on a bunch of new roller coasters this year, both in Japan and in the other countries I visited. I only saw one baseball game here in Japan, though.

I had hoped to be in the US for New Years, but the cards weren't in my favor.

Blogging was a strong point for me this year. I didn't get something posted every day like I had hoped, but I wrote 282 posts in 2014!

I didn't follow through with either of my 2014 resolutions. I think I might weigh a little bit more than I did one year ago. And I studied a lot of Japanese but I didn't attempt the JLPT test.

So what's going on in 2015?

I'm going to book a ticket as soon as possible to go back to the States at some point. I'm looking at June as a possibility, though it would be nice to spend the holidays with my family - if prices work out I might go around Christmas/New Years instead.

The other two or three long vacations will keep me in Japan. I'm looking at western Japan and/or Kyushu for Golden Week and Tohoku and/or Sapporo for summer vacation.

I would like to continue experiencing things in Japan. There are plenty of dishes to sample and several places to try traditional crafts. We'll have a new foreign teacher at our school soon who might be interested in doing some of this with me.

And I'll carry over my two resolutions from last year: lose some weight and pass the JLPT N5 exam.

Any thoughts?