Japanese Foods:


Regarding eating umeboshi, I never tried it. I see it here sometimes. I knew that it was healthful. I understood that it has an astringent taste. I thought it would make my face pucker up. I’m normally adventuresome. I always thought that umeboshi, takuan (a kind of pickle with a strong aroma,) fermented bean paste, and sashimi ((raw fish and a delicacy) were acquired tastes. What is the name of the fermented bean paste, “natto?”

I remember being invited to our innkeeper’s home in Takayama (also known as little Kyoto) where we dined on sukiyaki and drank Sapporo beer, my favorite. For my fellow Americans, taka means bamboo and yama, mountain.

Sukiyaki is a shared dish of table-top cooking in which you first cook the meat and veggies in a center pot with simmering broth, then you dip the cooked meat and veggies that you pick out (using chopsticks) into your very own small dish of beaten raw egg (done with your chopsticks) before eating them. I would take a bite, then drink some beer and repeat this procedure. I did not want to offend our host. He invited us to his home to reciprocate the hospitality Americans had shown him when he visited the USA. I eat sashimi (raw fish,) the same way.

My husband Sam loves sashimi. Previously, Maru asked me what my favorite Japanese foods are. I told her I like tonkatsu (a deep-fried, breaded pork cutlet) served with a special sauce on the side and served on a bed of finely shredded lettuce. The pork is breaded with Panko, fine breadcrumbs, not like the kind we have in our grocery stores. I believe Panko is also used with tempura that I also like very much especially the vegetables and shrimp used in tempura. I am also fond of Japanese cucumbers in any form. They are the long slender ones with dark green skins and are burpless. The carrots on Okinawa were short and wide, but the sweetest I have ever eaten. That’s also where I ate my first purple potato.

I have come to appreciate Japanese rice and make it very well using my rice cooker. The secret is a rice cooker; many washings and I let it stand for thirty minutes in the same water in which it will be cooked. We often have it. I’m very fond of gyozo (steam/fried dumplings filled with meat and veggies.) I told Maru the first and only time I ever made them, I made my own wrappers, not knowing that gyozo wrappers were available in the frozen food section of oriental markets. My feet and legs ached from standing so long to roll out those little circles. My husband and stepson loved them. The Japanese word for delicious is oishii.


I am familiar with umeboshi. Maru very kindly brought me a package of umeboshi for my health. As you may recall, Maru said these are apricots that are soaked in a clear astringent-tasting liquid. The Japanese eat one along with rice, as part of their breakfast. I did not want to try it for breakfast, but Maru wanted me to, so I did. I only took about a quarter of one and my face involuntarily puckered up. My reaction caused Maru much laughter.

Later, when Joanne visited my home, I offered her a little bit of one. She took a rather large piece that I cut in half for her while Maru was out of the room. When Maru returned, Joanne ate it and her face puckered up also. Again, this caused Maru much laughter. I thought I would not have to try any more for a while, but Maru said that she wanted me to try it again because I would not have such an extreme reaction on the second attempt. So, I ate some, and Maru was right. It was better the second time. I consider it an acquired taste.


Maru gave me several packages of soba, buckwheat noodles, that are very popular. I was wondering how I was going to prepare it given that the instructions are in Japanese. On a favorite radio program, The Splendid Table (web site is splendidtable.org,) I learned that there are places called soba temples (because soba is prized so highly) and how to prepare soba. They said it was more expensive than other noodles, too.

I like buckwheat in all forms. While I have eaten soba, I have not prepared it. Today, I learned how. For al dente, you boil the soba for a total of six minutes. First, bring water to a rolling boil, add soba, and then add some cold water to stop the rolling boil. Begin the six minutes here. Let water with soba come to a rolling boil again, and then add some cold water to stop the rolling boil. After six minutes is up, drain and serve noodles al dente with a dipping sauce on the side.

The dipping sauce is made of equal parts of Dashi (bonito, a type of fish, broth), mirin (a rather sweet rice wine vinegar) and shoyu (soy sauce). The last two ingredients are widely available in most grocery stores. Dashi may also be available.

Koi Noburii

Koi noburii are large brightly colored banners shaped like carp that are flown on poles over houses with sons. The carp fill with wind and “swim” in the wind. They are the most obvious difference between the Girls’ Day (Hina Matsuri) celebration on March 3 and the Boys’ Day (Tango No Sekku) celebration on May 5th. These streamers are what most people associate with Boys Day – the carp symbolizing their perseverance in their attempts to swim upstream whatever the odds. The symbolism is applicable to both genders. We have flown koi noburii nearly every year just because they are so colorful. The Texas winds have been hard on the carp, so a friend who is visiting Okinawa is bringing us back a replacement set.


Briefly, Setsubun, the bean throwing, is celebrated on February 3rd or 4th. It is a good luck ceremony that marks the last day of winter. Kunio Ekiguchi and Ruth S. McCreery state: It is always obvious when setsubun is near, for on grocery store shelves devil masks begin to appear, paired, strangely enough with bags of dried soybeans. Don’t expect some American trick or treat though, the beans are for throwing, to cast out the demons of illness and misfortune.

Families perform the traditional ceremony of setsubun on the last evening of winter. The soybeans are parched and placed in a small wooden box of a type traditionally used for measuring volume. The head of the household then scatters the beans inside and outside the home to the chant of Oni wa soto! Fukuwa uchi, or “Out with the demons! In with good luck!” Each family member eats the number of beans equal to his age. The association of setsubun bean tossing is now almost automatic, although the word itself refers merely to the division between the seasons, there being four such days throughout the year. As turning points, all are dangerous days, but only the day when winter turns to spring is now marked by a special protective ceremony.

The reason for this is simple. Under the lunar calendar, this day was much closer to New Year’s Day than it is now, and so the ceremonies associated with it were part of the important work of purification that each family had to perform to welcome the toshigami, the god of the new year, to spend the first three days of the new year with the family. During those three days, businesses and government offices are all closed; the world turns from the everyday and profane to the exalted and sacred.

The word toshi, which now means “year,” originally meant “rice.” Thus the god of the year is the god of rice – appropriately enough in a culture based on rice agriculture. The toshigami brings strength and good fortune, but if preparations are not properly made, he will not come, and the year will not be renewed. By New Year’s Eve, the house and its inhabitants are clean, physically and spiritually, and a rope has been hung above the entrance to denote the purity within and separate it from the pollution of the world outside. Decorative pine boughs, the kadomatsu, at the entrance serve as a temporary resting site for the toshigami when he arrives.

Joanne, remember the picture of the kadomatsu with the large poles of green bamboo split on the diagonal rising from the pine boughs that were encased in containers of vertical strips of rope bound together by another rope wrapped horizontally and tied into decorative loops. They are impressive. Inside, a new toshigami altar has been installed, trimmed with white, elaborately cut paper. Rice cakes have been made, the holiday food prepared, and all debts and obligations cleared up.

In Setsubun, the demons depicted in the masks are called oni. Their faces are usually red and horned, like Satan’s, but they look more wild and ferocious than evil. They are nevertheless powerful and violent, with complex natures that sometimes permit them to do good. While they can bring bountiful harvests and good fortune, they can also bring destruction and pain. Perhaps this duality suggests our own duality. Perhaps those casting out demons on the eve of the new spring are symbolically cleansing themselves of their own evil side, to start the year again in peace and love.


I saw an article by David Hendricks in the business section of San Antonio’s Express-news entitled “Toyota has a lot to teach us.” As our Japanese learning partners may know, Toyota Motor Co. selected San Antonio as a site for one of its new plants. It will be a boon to the local economy. Per the article, in Japanese, Kai means change, and Zen translates as good, or “for the better.” Thus, kaizen becomes “continual improvement,” a 20-year-old trademarked approach to management that Toyota has famously championed. Kaizen pioneer Masaaki Imai of Japan, author of two kaizen books with another on the way, gave a lecture to the Japan-America Society of San Antonio. Imai contends that half of everyone’s job is to maintain performance level. The other half is to seek improvement.

He urged managers not to sit at their desks waiting for reports since all reports are fabricated because you weren’t there, but someone else was. Thus, he recommends going to gemba (key scene is shop floor). Imai stated that the duty of management when “at gemba” is to eliminate “muda” (a kaizen term for whatever does not add value). For that reason, inventories are a no-no. He says that this is counterintuitive for business executives who take comfort in ample inventories.

Imai went on to say that the key is to base production on customer orders instead of sales forecasts which Imai said are always wrong. You may be wondering why I included this piece. It is because I had to help implement Total Quality Management (TQM), which has some similarities to kaizen, in the U.S. Marine Corps. Dr. W. Edward Deming was considered the father of post-war Japanese industrial revival and he brought TQM to the U.S. He died in 1993.